How Society Pays When Women's Work Is Unpaid

Claire Cain Miller in the NYT:

In countries around the world, the ways in which men and women spend their time are unbalanced. Men spend more time working for money. Women do the bulk of the unpaid work — cooking, cleaning and child care.

This unpaid work is essential for households and societies to function. But it is also valued less than paid work, and when it is women’s responsibility, it prevents them from doing other things.

“This is one of those root inequalities that exist all over in society and we just don’t talk about it very much,” Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Gates Foundation, said in an interview. She said she was inspired by her own observations when traveling to other countries as well as by time-use data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “If we don’t bring it forward, we basically won’t unlock the potential of women.”

We’re starting to explore ways to quantify (objectively) the time spent gathering fuel in rural India. There are some opportunities to put a wage potential to the time savings, too. India has a National Rural Employment Guarantee that provides a daily wage for up to 100 days per year.

Interesting to see this issue in the NYT, but a lot of the details of the difficult work of women was left out — fuel gathering, water collection, cooking, laundry, animal husbandry, fieldwork, dealing with husbands and mother-in-laws. Note: these are mentioned in Bill and Melinda’s blog post.

The Return of London's Fog

London’s fogs may be about to make a comeback. Christine Corton, in the NYT:

In January, researchers at King’s College London announced that pollution levels on Oxford Street, in central London, had exceeded limits set for the entire year in just the first four days of 2015. Similarly alarming numbers have been recorded for other streets in the city — and yet the mayor, Boris Johnson, has delayed implementation of stricter air-quality measures until 2020.

What’s happening in London is being played out in cities worldwide, as efforts to curtail the onslaught of air pollution are stymied by short-term vested interests, with potentially disastrous results.

I just experienced a particular, particulate version of this hell first-hand in Delhi. For the last few days of my trip, a dense, thick haze - clearly not an innocuous fog - permeated the city and surrounding environs. On one trip back to our flat, all of my fellow taxi passengers complained of burning eyes and sore throats.

The closest PM monitor during that drive back — actually quite far from us — read over 250 µg/m3. That’s around 10x higher than a ‘bad’ day in the US. Moreover, we guessed that the levels we were experiencing were closer to 350 µg/m3. As a point of reference, the maximum mean hourly PM2.5 concentration in London since 2008 was approximately 30 µg/m3.

Corton points to a behavioral component to the historic London Fog episodes — a parallel I find particularly interesting:

There was a cultural component, too. The British were wedded to their open fires. Closed stoves, popular throughout much of Europe, especially in Germany, were shunned by Londoners. During World War I, Britons were exhorted, in the words of the famous song, to “keep the home fires burning.” Politicians were simply not willing to risk unpopularity by forcing Londoners to stop using coal and go over to gas or electric heating instead. In Britain today, in an echo of these earlier concerns, the government is cutting subsidies for onshore wind and solar farms, anxious not to offend voters in rural areas where such facilities would be built.

It took a disaster to force London to change direction. In 1952, a “great killer fog” lasted five days and killed an estimated 4,000 people. In a Britain trying to turn a corner after the death and destruction of the Blitz, this was unacceptable. A Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, forcing Londoners to burn smokeless fuel or switch to gas or electricity, power sources that had become much cheaper as these industries expanded.

Let’s hope that policy levers and momentum — not a disaster — can help transition away from solid fuels in India and beyond.

Susanna Hertrich's Risk Perception Art

Susanna Hertrich:

A reflection on common fears in societies where anxieties have become a lifestyle choice (2010 - ongoing).

Regarding the piece above:

Public dread and actual deaths caused by most common sources of energy. Based on a longterm study by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

via @darbyjack

India is building millions of toilets, but that's the easy part

Rama Lakshmi, in the Washington Post, on the push for many, many more toilets throughout India:

Modi has made toilet-building and sanitation a rallying cry since October. He has enlisted large companies to help. In the past year, his government has built more than 5.8 million toilets — up from 4.9 million the previous year. But reports show that many of them are unused or that they are being used to store grain, clothes or to tether goats, thwarting Modi’s sanitation revolution.

“Even as we accelerate toilet construction now, much more needs to be done to persuade people to use them,” said Chaudhary Birender Singh, India’s minister for rural development, sanitation and drinking water. “For long, we assumed that if the toilets are built, people will automatically use it. But we have to diligently monitor the use over a period of time and reward them with cash incentives to the village councils at every stage. Only then will it become a daily habit.”

This all sounds really familiar.

Ye Olde Smog Meringue

image from

Nicola Twilley, writing at

After running around New York City in order to source our precursor ingredients (a huge thanks to Kent Kirshenbaum, chemistry professor at NYU and co-founder of the Experimental Cuising Collective), we spent Thursday afternoon and evening in the kitchens of Baz Bagel (excellent bagels, amazing ramp cream cheese, and truly lovely people) assembling the cart, mixing different chemical precursors, and then “baking” them under UV light to form a London peasouper, a 1950s Los Angeles photochemical smog, and a present-day air-quality event in Atlanta.

We chose these three places and times to showcase three of the classic “types” that atmospheric scientists use to characterize smogs: 1950s London was a sulfur- and particulate-heavy fog, whereas 1950s Los Angeles was a photochemical smog created by the reactions between sunlight, NOx, and partially combusted hydrocarbons. Present-day Beijing often experiences London-style atmospheric conditions, whereas Mexico City’s smog is in the Angeleno style.

Meanwhile, at its worst, Atlanta’s atmosphere is similar in composition to that of Los Angeles, but with the addition of biogenic emissions. An estimated ten percent of emissions in Atlanta are from a class of chemicals known as terpenes, from organic sources such as pine trees and decaying green matter. We had also hoped to create a Central Valley smog as well, but time got the better of us.

Each city’s different precursor emissions and weather conditions produce a different kind of smog, with distinct chemical characteristics—and a unique flavour.

Pictures of Lake Tahoe during the drought

August 2014:

Late May 2015:

We’re lucky enough to live near Lake Tahoe and all the surrounding glory — and fortunate enough to make it up there every now and then. Our most recent jaunt was a nice one with a great hike, good food, and all around fun times.

It was clear while roaming around town that the Lake Tahoe was very, very low. Docks had ladders and secondary structures to allow access to vessels. The walkable area extended much further than before. This was all amplified when we stood at the edge of the lake — now a few dozen meters further out than in August of 2014 — at one of our favorite public access points.

Field Notes - Measuring Village Air Pollution in Bajada Pahari

Twenty minutes from INCLEN’s SOMAARTH field headquarters lays Bajada Pahari1, a sleepy, picturesque village of ~120 households. The road to Bajada Pahari twists through bustling little villages, becoming more and more narrow until what remains is suited more for bullock carts, tractors, goats, and shepherds than personal vehicles. As the settlements dwindle, large open croplands — of tall sugarcane, bright yellow mustard, and various green sabjiyom2 — dominate the field of view. Enormous metal structures for high voltage powerlines stand erect yet untethered: no cables connect them. Below, and all around, the landscape is dotted with small, oblong discs of gobara3 used for fertilizer and as fuel.

Bajada Pahari is trapezoidal in shape, buttressed to its north by a small hill, upon which sits an old, abandoned watchtower4 and a small informal shrine to Shiva marked by narrow, red flags. Immediately behind the ridge, a green pool sparkles in the hazy winter daylight. Stray dogs roam a nearby shallow dig - perhaps an old quarry. Looking away from the village, pasturelands extend for as far as the eye can see. Barely visible brick kilns spew grayish black emissions. From the hilltop, the only audible sounds are chirping birds and rustling leaves, punctuated occasionally by a wailing child, a barking dog, a puttering engine.

We arrived in Bajada Pahari mid-morning and went first to the home of the Sarpanch, the head village elder5. At his residence, on the edge of town, a large gate opens first into a foyer full of mechanical farm tools — a tractor, a manual chopper — and a few simple cots and then leads into an outdoor space with trees, cows, chairs, and chulas. The Sarpanch arrived shortly thereafter, on a motorcycle bearing his title. After initial pleasantries and introductions, we discussed the village, which won an award for progress on sanitation and cleanliness, and our air pollution project.

Village air pollution is a hard concept to grok. For most, the pervasive images conjured by the word ‘rural’ are clean and pure, especially compared to places like Delhi, Mumbai, and Beijing. The sources of air pollutant emissions are no doubt different — quaint cookstoves, open fires, brick kilns, and small village industries look innocuous when compared to massive smokestacks and endless diesel vehicles visible in large Indian cities6. Tens to hundreds of these little village sources, simultaneously used over a small geography, probably adversely impacts air quality. Think of each one as a small contributor to a larger village smokestack.

The sarpanch is (unsurprisingly) thoughtful, measured, and interested. Mayur explains what we’d like to do, and why, succinctly and in simple language - a difficult feat he has perfected in his years with INCLEN. We talk about why we’re interested in understanding air pollution in a rural village (unmeasured, significant, and likely related to simple combustion of wood and dung) and why we think it’s important (trying to convince government to monitor and regulate the entire airshed, not just in urban areas). We show him some of our toys — including a miniature quadcopter, similar to the larger one we’ll use to measure some meteorological parameters and PM2.5. He laughs at the copter and approves of our plans. He decides we should discuss further with others on the village council.

We walk down the street, past a few cows lounging next to an abandoned biogas plant. At the intersection of two of the town’s biggest roads, a group of men and empty plastic chairs await us. Our discussion with them is similar to the previous one with the sarpanch. A few sarcastically questioned if we are asking them to stop cooking entirely. Others suggested their households, as proxies for the village, would be enthusiastic to move to LPG if the hassle of acquiring fuel wasn’t so great. They noted that there were no home deliveries and that it was difficult to coordinate pickup and dropoff of the cumbersome cylinders. One man, in particular, railed against the notion that food cooked on LPG was any different than that cooked over an open fire; he opined that it wasn’t the fuel that made the food, but the cook. His example was of village boys, who move to a city and eat food cooked on LPG by a stranger; they blame the poor taste on the fuel. He blamed the cook — or, more accurately, the fact that this food wasn’t the food they grew up eating, that they were accustomed to. A pretty neat (and new) insight. Not atypically, we spoke with only men about tasks they weren’t directly involved with.

We learned a little about electricity in the village, as well. It is reliable and consistent — rare for these areas. It arrived first in 1978. Many households have multiple electric appliances, including a washing machine, metal rods used to heat water, fans, and small electric stoves known as ‘heaters’. Our final task in the village involved locating a site to place an ambient air pollution and meteorological monitor, along with associated solar panels. We found a nice rooftop location, in the center of town, adjacent to a beautiful, decaying old farmhouse.

1 Alternate spellings include Bajda Pahadi, Bajda Pahari, Bajada Pahadi, and various other permutations. Depending on the spelling, the town’s name takes different meanings. My favorite is “lazy hill,” which sums it up succinctly. Bajada also has a Spanish meaning, which is curiously on point: “a broad alluvial slope extending from the base of a mountain range into a basin” or, more simply, “descent, slope.”

2 Vegetables

3 Dried bovine dung

4 The history of the tower is a little ambiguous; some of the village boys said it was an old British outpost, while others claimed it is a much older Mughal structure.

5 The sarpanch serves as a link between the local and regional governments and the community. There’s some push to pass along certain judicial and legislation-related powers to Sarpanches.

6 The situation is complicated by a national emphasis on cities as thriving centers of vitality, modernity, and growth. The concerns of rural villages don’t align with those of the metropolis - as such, their ranking in the national conscious and in the media is low. This despite ~80% of the population living in rural areas.

A case for "Making the Clean Available"

Kirk’s recent thoughts on how to address household air pollution crystallized in a piece published this week in Energy Policy.

It’s a very clear framing of a complex problem, split into to two related thoughts: (1) We can make the ‘available’ (biomass) clean, by improving combustion efficiency and driving down emissions and/or (2) we can make the clean (gas and electric cooking) available. Number (1) above requires proof that we can make a stove that performs well in the field, not just in the lab, and will be used by consumers. To be seen. The second approach, though, looks to pull policy levers to make proven clean technologies available. A parallel is drawn to other health interventions, like vaccines:

The health sector does not rely on NGOs and local community groups to develop vaccines and anti-retroviral drugs, but works to develop the best and most effective possible interventions using modern technology. Then, by negotiating price reductions, royalty flexibility, and pre- purchase agreements, it works to bring down the price. In parallel, it works to put into place the local supply chains to bring these effective interventions to poor populations, which has important roles for NGOs and community groups. It however does not promote different vaccines for the poor and the rich— health is for all.

BBC's Your life on earth

Put in a few facts about yourself — birthdate, gender and heights — and get an assortment of facts about how the world has changed since your arrival.

Some of mine:

  • Population has increased by ~2.8 billion; life expectancy is 8 years longer than when I was born
  • BBC projects Oil and Coal will run out by the time I’m 80. They estimate gas supplies will continue beyond my life, but not my children’s.

If you were born 4 years ago:

  • Population has increased ~327 million — 10 million more than the US!
  • While you’re on average (in the US) 3.3 ft tall, a coastal redwood would have grown ~5ft.

Kind of fun. I’d be interested to know a bit more about their data projections. They do offer a little bit of information, at least, about where the data came from.

via kottke

Introducing HAPIT

I’ve lead recent efforts to create a web-based tool to estimate the impacts of household air pollution interventions (like stoves, gas dissemination, etc) using methods based on what’s known about household air pollution and its contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. The project began as an Excel-based spreadsheet before moving to the web leveraging Shiny, R, and a fair amount of javascript. From the site:

HAPIT estimates and compares health benefits attributable to stove and/or fuel programs that reduce exposure to household air pollution (HAP) resulting from solid fuel use in traditional stoves in developing countries. HAPIT allows users to customize two scenarios based on locally gathered information relevant to their intervention, which is the recommended approach. This will normally require preliminary field work at the dissemination site to demonstrate pollution exposures before and after the intervention in a representative sample of households. If no local information is available, however, HAPIT contains conservative default values for four broad classes of household energy interventions based on the available literature — liquid fuels, chimney stoves, rocket stoves, and advanced combustion stoves. As each country’s health and HAP situation is different, HAPIT currently contains the background data necessary to conduct the analysis in 55 countries — those with more than 50% of households using solid fuels for cooking and China, which has a lower percentage of households using solid fuels for cooking, but a high number in absolute terms. See the drop down list on the left and the Info tab for more details.

HAPIT also estimates program cost-effectiveness in US dollars per averted DALY (disability-adjusted life year) based on the World Health Organization’s CHOICE methodology (see Info tab for more detail). It takes a financial accounting approach in that it 1) does not take into account the household costs such as fuel and health expenses or time spent cooking or acquiring fuel and 2) assumes that programs are covering the cost of fuel-based interventions (such as annual LPG costs per household). For custom scenarios, users can adjust the per-household maintenance or fuel cost based on the characteristics of their programs. All program costs should be entered in current US dollars.

There are a number of nice features of HAPIT, but one I’m particularly fond of is the customized, session-based pdf generated by clicking “Download Report.” HAPIT’s a work in progress and will continue to evolve in the coming months.

NYT: "Emissions From India Will Increase"

India’s new Minister of Environment and Forests, in the New York Times:

The minister, Prakash Javadekar, said in an interview that his government’s first priority was to alleviate poverty and improve the nation’s economy, which he said would necessarily involve an increase in emissions through new coal-powered electricity and transportation. He placed responsibility for what scientists call a coming climate crisis on the United States, the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, and dismissed the idea that India would make cuts to carbon emissions.

“What cuts?” Mr. Javadekar said. “That’s for more developed countries. The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away.” Mr. Javadekar was referring to an argument frequently made by developing economies — that developed economies, chiefly the United States, which spent the last century building their economies while pumping warming emissions into the atmosphere — bear the greatest responsibility for cutting pollution.

Not great news. Vox has interesting coverage of this story, as well; the bottom of their story has a great collection of links.

Water, Salt, and Sugar

Nice, brief origin story of Oral Rehydration Salts and their deployment in Bangladesh. In particular, I enjoyed the parts describing the challenges of translating the science into practice in the field. Many of the lessons are relevant to our work in household energy and health.

  1. Use competent, well-trained field workers — and figure out clever ways to incentivize good, thorough work.

So how did BRAC tackle this daunting challenge? A three-month field trial in 1979 tested whether mothers recalled BRAC field workers’ instructions on how to prepare O.R.S. This was no easy task considering that poor, illiterate households did not have measuring spoons or cups.

BRAC’s verbal guidelines included the dangerous symptoms of diarrhea, when to administer O.R.S. and how to make it with a three-finger pinch of salt, a handful of sugar and a half liter of water. In another critical step, monitors returned to villages days or weeks after the initial instruction to quiz the mothers. Health workers were paid according to how many questions their subjects answered correctly, thus incentivizing quality instruction and not just the number of lessons. The trial found that verbally trained illiterate and semi-literate rural mothers could make properly formulated O.R.S. that passed laboratory tests.

  1. Ensure that field workers believe in and, when appropriate, use the items and practices they are promoting.

[Mr. Fazle Abed, BRAC’s founder and chairperson] identified other early hurdles that slowed the adoption of O.R.S. by mothers. After inquiring about slow adoption in some villages, he found that only a fraction of health workers believed in O.R.S. themselves; they didn’t even use it to treat their own diarrhea. To dispel doubts among trainers, BRAC brought them from the field to research labs in Dhaka to scientifically show how O.R.S. worked. Health workers were then advised to convince distrustful villagers by sipping O.R.S. during household training sessions.

  1. Don’t ignore the men, who have disproportionate sway over household decisions in many parts of the world.

After this breakthrough, adoption of ORS increased but then plateaued. Again, Mr. Abed tried to find the root of the problem. He enlisted anthropology students in Dhaka to interview people about why they weren’t using O.R.S. They found that men were alienated from the discussions between female health workers and mothers and so withheld support for O.R.S. In villages, “we had to take men into confidences so we told them exactly how O.R.S. worked,” Mr. Abed recalled. When men were included in discussions, adoption of O.R.S. increased significantly.

Obviously not a perfect analogy. ORS is curative — a response to ill-health — and requires a change in treatment behavior. Arguably the need for ORS decreases in a world with adequate access to clean water and sanitation — but absent that panacea, removing barriers to affordable, easy treatment is essential. The shift we seek to encourage, towards clean cooking, is meatier — it requires big changes to routine behavior. The lessons above still hold, though. We need field workers who believe in the interventions (and, conversely, interventions worthy of their belief), we need to compensate them well, and we need buy-in from whole communities.

Kirk R. Smith in Science: In Praise of Power

Professor Kirk R. Smith in an editorial in Science:

Along with advanced biomass combustion, biogas, liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas, and other clean fuels, electric cooking needs to be directly incorporated into modernization plans for the world’s poorest people.

For those worried about CO2 emissions from power plants, consider that modest efficiency measures that reduce 3% of electric power consumption in rich countries (which are also largely supplied by coal) would “free” enough electricity to supply half of all biomass households with induction stoves. New supplies of electricity would produce far less than a 1% increase in global CO2 emissions.* It is not the cooking of the poor that threatens the climate.

Switching from solid to clean forms of energy can bring more health benefits than nearly any other modernization, including clean water and sanitation.† It is too early to tell whether induction cooking can be successfully promoted in biomass-using rural areas, but not too early to predict that electric cooking appliances will be attractive to people as electricity becomes more reliable. Although in one sense the most mundane of energy issues, given that billions do not use modern fuels in their households and suffer great impacts on health, welfare, and the local environment as a result, finding solutions for providing electricity has important implications for global health and sustainable development.

Citizen Science: Long Island Weather Observer

NY Times story about Richard Hendrickson:

Twice a day, every day, he has recorded the temperature, precipitation and wind from the same area of Bridgehampton. He has been at it through 14 presidencies, 13 New York governorships and 14 mayoralties in that city 96 miles away. The Weather Service says he has taken more than 150,000 individual readings.

His is the longest continuous streak in the history of the Weather Service, which has 8,700 such volunteers nationwide, including 55 in the New York area. The agency says he is the first to serve for more than eight decades. And to answer the obvious question, yes, he has been known to take the occasional vacation. In his 20s, he went to New Zealand — “as far away as you can get,” he said. His mother filled in at the weather station.

Mr. Hendrickson’s daily diary, kept since Jan. 1, 1931, records weather data and family matters. The Weather Service recognized Mr. Hendrickson last month with an award named for him. He said he did not realize until after a ceremony in Upton that he was getting the Richard G. Hendrickson Award, and he sounded embarrassed that the meteorologists had made such a fuss. He did not mention that notables like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington had kept weather records or that Thomas Jefferson had done so from 1776 to 1816 — less than half as long as he has.

Incredible. He started when he was 17. He’s 101 now. 101.

Hard to imagine today, when we expect these things to occur on their own, without intervention. I like this better. Routine thoughtfulness.

The Archdruid Report & Climate Clarity

John Michael Greer, communicating articulately about perturbations to complex systems (read: climate) at The Archdruid Report:

The next time you fill a bathtub, once you’ve turned off the tap, wait until the water is still. Slip your hand into the water, slowly and gently, so that you make as little disturbance in the water as possible. Then move your hand through the water about as fast as a snail moves, and watch and feel how the water adapts to the movement, flowing gently around your hand. .

Once you’ve gotten a clear sense of that, gradually increase the speed with which your hand is moving. After you pass a certain threshold of speed, the movements of the water will take the form of visible waves—a bow wave in front of your hand, a wake behind it in which water rises and falls rhythmically, and wave patterns extending out to the edges of the tub. The faster you move your hand, the larger the waves become, and the more visible the interference patterns as they collide with one another.

Keep on increasing the speed of your hand. You’ll pass a second threshold, and the rhythm of the waves will disintegrate into turbulence: the water will churn, splash, and spray around your hand, and chaotic surges of water will lurch up and down the sides of the tub. If you keep it up, you can get a fair fraction of the bathwater on your bathroom floor, but this isn’t required for the experiment! Once you’ve got a good sense of the difference between the turbulence above the second threshold and the oscillations below it, take your hand out of the water, and watch what happens: the turbulence subsides into wave patterns, the waves shrink, and finally—after some minutes—you have still water again.

This same sequence of responses can be traced in every complex system, governing its response to every kind of disturbance in its surroundings…

… Once things begin to oscillate, veering outside usual conditions in both directions, that’s a sign that the limits to resilience are coming into sight, with the possibility of chaotic variability in the planetary climate as a whole waiting not far beyond that. We can fine-tune the warning signals a good deal by remembering that every system is made up of subsystems, and those of sub-subsystems, and as a general rule of thumb, the smaller the system, the more readily it moves from local adjustment to oscillation to turbulence in response to rising levels of disturbance.

Small site changes

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, will only display posts from the environmental health and science categories; all other posts (including the more fun ones) will be accessible from

For those who appreciate the more whimsical and fun posts, you can visit moving forward or click the “View All Posts” link in the sidebar.

Gates Notes: Two Videos That Illuminate Energy Poverty

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.

Paulson on Climate Change and the Price of Inaction

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.

We maaaaaaa-aade it! Fox News goes after cookstove research.

“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.”

The Petroleum Product That Can Save Millions Of Lives Each Year

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.

Nature: Deadly Dinners

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?”

Nature chimes in on clean cookstoves

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.


Climate Change: If you see something, say something

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.

Bill Murray's Ask Me Anything on Reddit

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.


Council on Foreign Relations: Vaccine Preventable Disease Map

It’s been a long time, blog. Blame India and Nepal. Both of which are seemingly under-represented in the below map. View the map in your full browser window here; I had to yank the embedded code because it was causing all kinds of issues.

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.

Venus, Mars, the Earth and Moon from Saturn

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.

Some more graphs of Beijing's Air Pollution

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.

Using RAW to visualize Global Burden of Disease Data

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).

Air Pollution ? Household air pollution from solid fuels 14,430,417Dietary/Physical ? Dietary risks 14,139,801Dietary risks ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 12,251,100Undernutrition ? Iron deficiency 10,145,794Undernutrition ? Childhood underweight 10,112,321Physiological ? High blood pressure 9,598,107Iron deficiency ? Nutritional deficiencies 9,245,200High blood pressure ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 9,236,250Childhood underweight ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 7,993,580Air Pollution ? Ambient particulate matter pollution 6,963,544Physiological ? High fasting plasma glucose 6,839,755Tobacco ? Tobacco smoking 6,456,925Undernutrition ? Suboptimal breastfeeding 5,430,200Suboptimal breastfeeding ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 5,430,200Household air pollution from solid fuels ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 4,939,660Sexual abuse ? Intimate partner violence 4,907,625Dietary/Physical ? Physical inactivity and low physical activity 4,684,952Household air pollution from solid fuels ? Chronic respiratory diseases 4,629,250Household air pollution from solid fuels ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 4,242,530Ambient particulate matter pollution ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 4,051,780High fasting plasma glucose ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 3,758,890Physical inactivity and low physical activity ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 3,212,120Intimate partner violence ? Self-harm and interpersonal violence 3,066,340Alcohol & Drugs ? Alcohol use 3,020,381Tobacco smoking ? Chronic respiratory diseases 2,767,440WatSan ? Unimproved sanitation 2,691,430Unimproved sanitation ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 2,691,430High fasting plasma glucose ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 2,527,440Physiological ? High body-mass index 2,517,676Occupational risks ? Occupational risks 2,341,920Physiological ? High total cholesterol 2,308,860High total cholesterol ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 2,308,860Childhood underweight ? Nutritional deficiencies 2,096,190Tobacco smoking ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 1,914,150Ambient particulate matter pollution ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 1,721,660Intimate partner violence ? Mental and behavioral disorders 1,577,950Other Env ? Lead exposure 1,397,538Sexual abuse ? Childhood sexual abuse 1,374,294Lead exposure ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 1,345,890Tobacco smoking ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 1,282,190Alcohol & Drugs ? Drug use 1,210,892High body-mass index ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 1,197,470Undernutrition ? Vitamin A deficiency 1,185,772Vitamin A deficiency ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 1,178,350Undernutrition ? Zinc deficiency 1,126,100Zinc deficiency ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 1,126,100Dietary risks ? Neoplasms 1,101,710Ambient particulate matter pollution ? Chronic respiratory diseases 1,099,640Occupational risks ? Chronic respiratory diseases 1,008,390Physical inactivity and low physical activity ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 990,530Drug use ? Mental and behavioral disorders 986,262Iron deficiency ? Maternal disorders 900,594High body-mass index ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 896,822Occupational risks ? Musculoskeletal disorders 775,941Alcohol use ? Mental and behavioral disorders 718,838Childhood sexual abuse ? Mental and behavioral disorders 716,375Dietary risks ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 707,042Childhood sexual abuse ? Self-harm and interpersonal violence 657,919Alcohol use ? Cirrhosis of the liver 617,146WatSan ? Unimproved water source 604,815Unimproved water source ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 604,815Alcohol use ? Cardiovascular and circulatory diseases 576,253High fasting plasma glucose ? HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis 553,425Air Pollution ? Ambient ozone pollution 548,650Ambient ozone pollution ? Chronic respiratory diseases 548,650Physical inactivity and low physical activity ? Neoplasms 482,302Household air pollution from solid fuels ? Other non-communicable diseases 443,135Tobacco smoking ? Neoplasms 418,225High blood pressure ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 361,857Physiological ? Low bone mineral density 301,652Low bone mineral density ? Unintentional injuries other than transport injuries 301,652High body-mass index ? Musculoskeletal disorders 268,266Occupational risks ? Unintentional injuries other than transport injuries 265,035Intimate partner violence ? Maternal disorders 263,335Alcohol use ? HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis 225,666Occupational risks ? Other non-communicable diseases 205,120Alcohol use ? Unintentional injuries other than transport injuries 199,629Drug use ? Self-harm and interpersonal violence 176,098Household air pollution from solid fuels ? Neoplasms 175,842Alcohol use ? Neoplasms 168,593Alcohol use ? Transport injuries 166,825High body-mass index ? Neoplasms 155,118Alcohol use ? Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 144,849Alcohol use ? Self-harm and interpersonal violence 134,200Ambient particulate matter pollution ? Neoplasms 90,464Dietary risks ? Musculoskeletal disorders 79,949Occupational risks ? Transport injuries 68,973Tobacco smoking ? HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis 53,020Lead exposure ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 48,752Other Env ? Residential radon 46,637Residential radon ? Neoplasms 46,637Drug use ? HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis 41,603Alcohol use ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 34,055Alcohol use ? Neurological disorders 30,366Childhood underweight ? Neglected tropical diseases and malaria 22,551Tobacco smoking ? Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 21,900Occupational risks ? Neoplasms 18,461Vitamin A deficiency ? Nutritional deficiencies 7,422Drug use ? Cirrhosis of the liver 4,606Alcohol use ? Digestive diseases (except cirrhosis) 3,961Lead exposure ? Mental and behavioral disorders 2,896Drug use ? Other communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disorders 1,687Drug use ? Neoplasms 635Alcohol & Drugs 4,231,273Alcohol & DrugsAlcohol use 3,020,381Alcohol useDrug use 1,210,892Drug useAir Pollution 21,942,611Air PollutionAmbient ozone pollution 548,650Ambient ozone pollutionAmbient particulate matter pollution 6,963,544Ambient particulate matter pollutionHousehold air pollution from solid fuels 14,430,417Household air pollution from solid fuelsSexual abuse 6,281,919Sexual abuseChildhood sexual abuse 1,374,294Childhood sexual abuseIntimate partner violence 4,907,625Intimate partner violenceUndernutrition 28,000,186UndernutritionChildhood underweight 10,112,321Childhood underweightIron deficiency 10,145,794Iron deficiencySuboptimal breastfeeding 5,430,200Suboptimal breastfeedingVitamin A deficiency 1,185,772Vitamin A deficiencyZinc deficiency 1,126,100Zinc deficiencyDietary/Physical 18,824,753Dietary/PhysicalDietary risks 14,139,801Dietary risksPhysical inactivity and low physical activity 4,684,952Physical inactivity and low physical activityPhysiological 21,566,050PhysiologicalHigh blood pressure 9,598,107High blood pressureHigh body-mass index 2,517,676High body-mass indexHigh fasting plasma glucose 6,839,755High fasting plasma glucoseHigh total cholesterol 2,308,860High total cholesterolLow bone mineral density 301,652Low bone mineral densityOther Env 1,444,175Other EnvLead exposure 1,397,538Lead exposureResidential radon 46,637Residential radonOccupational risks 2,341,920Occupational risksOccupational risks 2,341,920Occupational risksTobacco 6,456,925TobaccoTobacco smoking 6,456,925Tobacco smokingWatSan 3,296,245WatSanUnimproved sanitation 2,691,430Unimproved sanitationUnimproved water source 604,815Unimproved water sourceCardiovascular and circulatory diseases 43,560,973Cardiovascular and circulatory diseasesCirrhosis of the liver 621,752Cirrhosis of the liverDiabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseases 6,819,848Diabetes, urogenital, blood, and endocrine diseasesDiarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseases 26,415,704Diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, meningitis, and other common infectious diseasesDigestive diseases (except cirrhosis) 3,961Digestive diseases (except cirrhosis)HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis 873,714HIV/AIDS and tuberculosisMental and behavioral disorders 4,002,321Mental and behavioral disordersNeoplasms 2,657,986NeoplasmsNeurological disorders 30,366Neurological disordersSelf-harm and interpersonal violence 4,034,557Self-harm and interpersonal violenceTransport injuries 235,798Transport injuriesUnintentional injuries other than transport injuries 766,316Unintentional injuries other than transport injuriesChronic respiratory diseases 10,053,370Chronic respiratory diseasesNeglected tropical diseases and malaria 22,551Neglected tropical diseases and malariaNutritional deficiencies 11,348,812Nutritional deficienciesMusculoskeletal disorders 1,124,156Musculoskeletal disordersOther communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disorders 1,687Other communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disordersOther non-communicable diseases 648,255Other non-communicable diseasesMaternal disorders 1,163,929Maternal disorders

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.

Shiny Server on WebFaction

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 ''
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 ''
tar -xzf R-3.0.2.tar.gz
cd R-3.0.2
./configure --prefix $HOME
make install

Step 4: Make a temp/tmp/temporary director.

cd $HOME
mkdir tmp
chmod 777 tmp
export TMPDIR

Step 5: Download Shiny from source and install using NPM.

git clone
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.

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

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.

Living on Earth: Bridging Faith and Reason

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.

Laboratory and Field Evaluation of the Particle and Temperature Sensor (PATS+) System: A Portable, Robust, and Low-cost Platform for Monitoring Combustion-related Household Air Pollution

Pillarisetti A, Holstius D, Johnson M, Allen T, Canuz E, Charron D, Pennise D, Seto E, Smith KR. Laboratory and Field Evaluation of the Particle and Temperature Sensor (PATS+) System: A Portable, Robust, and Low-cost Platform for Monitoring Combustion-related Household Air Pollution . American Association for Aerosol Research, 32nd Annual Conference. Portland, Oregon: October 2, 2013.

Incredible Photos of Mars

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:

Batch Download IHME's Global Burden of Disease Data

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.

Update (April 2015): Updated to allow users to specify download location, making it work better ‘out of the box’; users can specify whether to download as CSV or RDS (or both); fixed some other minor bugs; fixed a major change in the URL structure.

Lisa Jackson on the Moth

Lisa Jackson, former EPA Administrator, tells an audience at the Moth about how she transitioned into Environmental Engineering. Great story.

Earth Island Journal's Conversation with Naomi Klein

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.

Rim Fire images from NASA & the KPCC Fire Tracker

Devastating. KPCC has an interesting, interactive tool for monitoring California’s wildfires. A bit is embedded below, but the whole thing is worth a look.

NASA’s posted a number of photos of the fire from space. A smattering are embedded below.

In some of the photos, you can see the plume from the Rim Fire and the plume from the American Fire in Tahoe National Forest.

Reno’s been adversely affected by the plume from the Rim Fire, reporting unhealthy on their AQI (can’t find any numbers, at the moment); NASA projects that the plume is impacting AQ in 4 states.

Good luck to the firefighters and rangers working to control the blaze. Our thoughts are with them and others in the surrounding communities.

EIA: World petroleum use sets record high in 2012 despite declines in North America and Europe

U.S. Energy Information Administration:

The world’s consumption of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil, and other petroleum products reached a record high of 88.9 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2012, as declining consumption in North America and Europe was more than outpaced by growth in Asia and other regions (see animated map). A previous article examined regional trends in petroleum consumption between 1980 and 2010; today’s article extends that analysis through 2012.

Some other specific points of interest:

Between 2008 and 2012, Asia’s consumption increased by 4.4 million bbl/d. The rapidly industrializing economies of China and India fueled much of Asia’s demand increase, growing 2.8 million bbl/d and 800,000 bbl/d, respectively. If China’s use of petroleum continues to grow as projected, it is expected to replace the United States as the world’s largest net oil importer this fall.

Petroleum use in Europe has declined in every year since 2006. Part of this decline was related to a reduction in overall energy intensity and government policies that encourage energy efficiency. Europe’s weak economic performance has also affected its petroleum use, with declines of 780,000 bbl/d in 2009 and 570,000 bbl/d in 2012 occurring at a time of slow growth and/or recessions in many European countries.

John Nelson's A Breathing Earth

John Nelson, writing about the creation of these images:

Having spent much of my life living near the center of that mitten-shaped peninsula in North America, I have had a consistent seasonal metronome through which I track the years of my life. When I stitch together what can be an impersonal snapshot of an entire planet, all of the sudden I see a thing with a heartbeat. I can track one location throughout a year to compare the annual push and pull of snow and plant life there, while in my periphery I see the oscillating wave of life advancing and retreating, advancing and retreating. And I’m reassured by it.

Of course there are the global characteristics of climate and the nature of land to heat and cool more rapidly than water. The effects of warm currents feeding a surprisingly mild climate in the British Isles. The snowy head start of winter in high elevations like the Himalayas, Rockies, and Caucuses, that spread downward to join the later snowiness of lower elevations. The continental wave of growing grasses in African plains.

But, overall, to me it looks like breathing.

Past EPA Administrators: The US "must move now on substantive steps to curb climate change, at home and internationally."

Writing in an NYT Editorial, four previous EPA administrators make a strong case for climate action now.

Climate change puts all our progress and our successes at risk. If we could articulate one framework for successful governance, perhaps it should be this: When confronted by a problem, deal with it. Look at the facts, cut through the extraneous, devise a workable solution and get it done.

We can have both a strong economy and a livable climate. All parties know that we need both. The rest of the discussion is either detail, which we can resolve, or purposeful delay, which we should not tolerate.

Mr. Obama’s plan is just a start. More will be required. But we must continue efforts to reduce the climate-altering pollutants that threaten our planet. The only uncertainty about our warming world is how bad the changes will get, and how soon. What is most clear is that there is no time to waste.

The writers are former administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency: William D. Ruckelshaus, from its founding in 1970 to 1973, and again from 1983 to 1985; Lee M. Thomas, from 1985 to 1989; William K. Reilly, from 1989 to 1993; and Christine Todd Whitman, from 2001 to 2003.

EIA: World energy consumption will increase 56% by 2040

EIA’s recently released International Energy Outlook 2013 (IEO2013) projects that world energy consumption will grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040, from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) to 820 quadrillion Btu. Most of this growth will come from non-OECD (non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, where demand is driven by strong economic growth.

Renewable energy and nuclear power are the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, each increasing 2.5% per year. However, fossil fuels continue to supply nearly 80% of world energy use through 2040. Natural gas is the fastest-growing fossil fuel, as global supplies of tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane increase.

The industrial sector continues to account for the largest share of delivered energy consumption and is projected to consume more than half of global delivered energy in 2040. Based on current policies and regulations governing fossil fuel use, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise to 45 billion metric tons in 2040, a 46% increase from 2010. Economic growth in developing nations, fueled by a continued reliance on fossil fuels, accounts for most of the emissions increases.

NASA: The Day the Earth Smiled

That’s something, isn’t it?

In this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn’s rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame. It is only one footprint in a mosaic of 33 footprints covering the entire Saturn ring system (including Saturn itself). At each footprint, images were taken in different spectral filters for a total of 323 images: some were taken for scientific purposes and some to produce a natural color mosaic. This is the only wide-angle footprint that has the Earth-moon system in it.

"Warp drive. Like on 'Star Trek.'"

Harold G. White, a physicist and advanced propulsion engineer at NASA, beckoned toward a table full of equipment there on a recent afternoon: a laser, a camera, some small mirrors, a ring made of ceramic capacitors and a few other objects.

He and other NASA engineers have been designing and redesigning these instruments, with the goal of using them to slightly warp the trajectory of a photon, changing the distance it travels in a certain area, and then observing the change with a device called an interferometer. So sensitive is their measuring equipment that it was picking up myriad earthly vibrations, including people walking nearby. So they recently moved into this lab, which floats atop a system of underground pneumatic piers, freeing it from seismic disturbances.

The team is trying to determine whether faster-than-light travel — warp drive — might someday be possible.

Warp drive. Like on “Star Trek.”

This is a fun one. They’ve also got a nice statement from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

“Routine travel among the stars is impossible without new discoveries regarding the fabric of space and time, or capability to manipulate it for our needs,” he said, adding, “By my read, the idea of a functioning warp drive remains far-fetched, but the real take-away is that people are thinking about it — reminding us all that the urge to explore continues to run deep in our species.”

Nicola Twilley's The Coldscape

Nicola Twilley, writing at Cabinet Magazine:

More than three-quarters of the food consumed in the United States today is processed, packaged, shipped, stored, and sold under artificial refrigeration. The shiny, humming stainless steel box in your kitchen is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak—a tiny fragment of the vast global network of temperature-controlled storage and distribution warehouses cumulatively capable of hosting uncounted billions of cubic feet of chilled flesh, fish, or fruit. Add to that an equally vast and immeasurable volume of thermally controlled space in the form of shipping containers, wine cellars, floating fish factories, international seed banks, meat-aging lockers, and livestock semen storage, and it becomes clear that the evolving architecture of coldspace is as ubiquitous as it is varied, as essential as it is overlooked.

Fascinating read. Good summary and follow up by Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic. The Center for Land Use Interpretation has an exhibit with Twilley called “PERISHABLE: AN EXPLORATION OF THE REFRIGERATED LANDSCAPE OF AMERICA” featuring many of the places Twilley has visited and including a pretty neat interactive app of some of the key cold-storage sites throughout the US.

And, from January of 2013, listen to a Here and Now story with Twilley about this work.

Report of the US-China Climate Change Working Group

From the report:

We have prepared this Report mindful of the overwhelming scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change and its worsening impacts, as well as the urgent need to intensify global efforts to combat climate change. Rising temperatures are predicted to lead to sea level rise that could affect tens of millions of people around the world, as well as more frequent and intense heat waves, intensified urban smog, and droughts and floods in our most productive agricultural regions. Global climate change represents a grave threat to the economic livelihood and security of all nations, but it also represents a significant opportunity for sustainable development that will benefit both current and future generations. We believe that ambitious domestic action by China and the United States is more critical than ever. China has given high priority to building an “Ecological Civilization” by striving for green, circular and low-carbon development. It has adopted proactive policies and measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The United States is implementing robust policies to promote renewable energy, enhance energy efficiency, and reduce emissions from transportation, buildings, and the power sector. Both countries recognize the need to work together to continue and build on these important efforts.

Five key areas of collaboration were outlined.

  1. Emission reductions from heavy-duty and other vehicles.
  2. Smart Grids
  3. Carbon capture, utilization, and storage.
  4. Collecting and managing greenhouse gas emissions data.
  5. Energy efficiency in buildings and industry.

There’s an explicit acknowledgement of coal as a bad actor here, but nothing explicated about moving from dirty to clean fuels for generation of electricity. Some mentions of co-benefits, as well.

'Don't Be Evil' my ass: Google hosts fundraises for climate denier

From the Guardian:

The Lunch, at the company's Washington office, will benefit the Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, who has made a career of dismissing climate change as a "hoax" on the Senate floor.

Proceeds of the 11 July lunch, priced at $250 to $2,500, will also go to the national Republican Senatorial Committee.

It's the second show of support from Google for the anti-climate cause in recent weeks.

Last month, the Washington Post reported that the internet company had donated $50,000 for a fundraising dinner for the ultra-conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute – topping the contributions even of the Koch oil billionaires.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has launched multiple law suits aimed at trying to discredit the science behind climate change – accusing scientists of fraud. None have so far succeeded.

The CEI also specialises in filing open records requests, demanding universities turn over email correspondence of climate scientists with journalists.

Facebook also contributed $25,000 to the CEI dinner last month.

Google responded:

... a company spokesperson noted that Google maintained data centres in Oklahoma. The spokesperson then sent an email saying: "We regularly host fundraisers for candidates, on both sides of the aisle, but that doesn't mean we endorse all of their positions. And while we disagree on climate change policy, we share an interest with Senator Inhofe in the employees and data center we have in Oklahoma."

NYTimes: "A single word tucked into a presidential speech...

Justin Gillis, writing in the NYT about Obama's choice to use the word divest:

He knows that if he is to get serious climate policies on the books before his term ends in 2017, he needs a mass political movement pushing for stronger action. No broad movement has materialized in the United States; and its student activists are the closest thing so far, which may be why Mr. Obama gazes fondly in their direction.

“I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends,” he said plaintively at Georgetown. “What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands.”

Let's hope the movement towards divestment grows.

EPA's thoughts on Keystone XL

Obama, yesterday:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

The EPA, reviewing the State Department’s environmental impact assessment of the Keyspan proposal:

As recognized by the DSEIS (Department of State’s draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement), oil sands crude is significantly more GHG intensive than other crudes, and therefore has potentially large climate impacts. The DSEIS reports that lifecycle GHG emissions from oil sands crude could be 81% greater than emissions from the average crude reformed in the U.S. in 2005 on a well-to-tank basis, and 17% greater on a well-to-wheels basis. This difference may be even greater depending on the assumptions made. The incremental emissions from oil sands crude transported by the Project would therefore be 18.7 million metric tons C02-e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year when compared to an equal amount of U.S. average crudes, based on the Project’s full capacity of 830,000 barrels of oil sands crude per day. To place this difference in context, we recommend using monetized estimates of the social cost of the GHG emissions from a barrel of oil sands crude compared to average U.S. crude. If GHG intensity of oil sands crude is not reduced, over a 50 year period the additional C02-e from oil sands crude transported by the pipeline could be as much as 935 million metric tons.

The whole report is interesting, though laden with acronyms. The EPA decided that there’s insufficient information to make a clear decision at this point, tossing the ball back into State’s court. They specifically focus on a central conclusion of the DSEIS report — that the tar sands oil will find a way to market whether or not the pipeline is built. EPA doesn’t contest that point directly, but requires more sophisticated and modern modeling of the impacts of these alternates routes of getting the oil to the US. This makes sense — if the oil will be pulled from the ground and travel to and through the US, then all possible routes and methods of transport must be equally evaluated.

That said, the current analysis of Keystone indicates it could “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Obama: "...that bright blue ball rising over the moon's surface, containing everything we hold dear -- the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity -- that's what's at stake."

President Obama, yesterday at Georgetown, at the end of his speech calling for action and outlining new policies on climate change:

Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

I understand the politics will be tough. The challenge we must accept will not reward us with a clear moment of victory. There’s no gathering army to defeat. There’s no peace treaty to sign. When President Kennedy said we’d go to the moon within the decade, we knew we’d build a spaceship and we’d meet the goal. Our progress here will be measured differently — in crises averted, in a planet preserved. But can we imagine a more worthy goal? For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.

“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear — the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity — that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we’ll succeed.

Mother Jones’s nice outline of the key points of the speech follows:

Here are the key components of the plan aimed at reducing US emissions:

  • Directs the EPA to issue draft emission rules for existing power plants by June 2014, to be finalized by June 2015.

  • Asks the EPA to “work expeditiously” on finalizing rules for new power plants that the agency issued in March 2012 (though does not appear to include a due date for that).

  • Pledges that the federal government will draw 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

  • Sets a goal of permitting an additional 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020.

  • Sets a goal of putting 100 megawatts of renewable energy on federally subsidized housing by 2020.

  • Creates a new, $8 billion loan guarantee program for advanced fossil fuel projects at the Department of Energy (think clean coal, etc.).

  • Directs the EPA and the Department of Transportation to work on fuel economy standard for heavy-duty trucks, buses, and vans for after 2018 (following up on the 2014-18 rules they rolled out in 2011).

  • Sets a goal of cutting at least 3 billion tons of carbon pollution by 2030 through improvements in energy efficiency standards.

  • Calls for an end to US funding for fossil fuel energy projects overseas unless they include carbon capture technology.

Delicatessen with love: Global grammas + their favorite foods

Arianna Rinaldo, introducing Gabriele Galimberti’s photo gallery of grandmothers and their prized recipes:

Appealing to their natural cooking care and their inevitable pride in their best recipe, common factors to all grandmothers in the world, Gabriele persuaded them to do their best in the kitchen. This means moose stake in Alaska and caterpillars in Malawi, delicious, but ferociously hot, ten-spice-curry in India and sharks soup in the Philippines. He has come back with a cookery book of detailed recipes that mix love, photography and travel amongst the many exotic ingredients. Indeed, each for each grandmother he has produced a portrait of the cook, and easy to follow recipe and an image of the extraordinary and at times mouthwatering final dish.

His photos and text are great. I’ve had a similar idea floating around for a short video series of how people cook in households around the world — with a specific focus on how they cook AND what the meal looks like. My colleagues and I tend to focus on the fuel, the stove, and the practices of cooking in rural households — but often don’t pay as much attention to the nourishing final product. The meals carry such cultural and local significance (not to mention deliciousness) — a fact that Galimberti highlights magnificently.

via kottke

The 'Social Cost Of Carbon' Is Almost Double What The Government Previously Thought

Think Progress has a nice summary of the report out of the Obama administration updating the social cost of carbon (SCC). From the report’s executive summary:

The SCC estimates using the updated versions of the models are higher than those reported in the 2010 TSD. By way of comparison, the four 2020 SCC estimates reported in the 2010 TSD were $7, $26, $42 and $81 (2007$). The corresponding four updated SCC estimates for 2020 are $12, $43, $65, and $129 (2007$). The model updates that are relevant to the SCC estimates include: an explicit representation of sea level rise damages in the DICE and PAGE models; updated adaptation assumptions, revisions to ensure damages are constrained by GDP, updated regional scaling of damages, and a revised treatment of potentially abrupt shifts in climate damages in the PAGE model; an updated carbon cycle in the DICE model; and updated damage functions for sea level rise impacts, the agricultural sector, and reduced space heating requirements, as well as changes to the transient response of temperature to the buildup of GHG concentrations and the inclusion of indirect effects of methane emissions in the FUND model. The SCC estimates vary by year, and the following table summarizes the revised SCC estimates from 2010 through 2050.

After reviewing the full document, the changes update the science to the state of current understanding. As such, the projections offered within are more current (and based on more evolved science) than previously SCC estimates. The conclusions from the report are significant, but seem to overplay the US’s actions and role to date:

However, the climate change problem is highly unusual in at least two respects. First, it involves a global externality: emissions of most greenhouse gases contribute to damages around the world even when they are emitted in the United States. Consequently, to address the global nature of the problem, the SCC must incorporate the full (global) damages caused by GHG emissions. Second, climate change presents a problem that the United States alone cannot solve. Even if the United States were to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero, that step would be far from enough to avoid substantial climate change. Other countries would also need to take action to reduce emissions if significant changes in the global climate are to be avoided. Emphasizing the need for a global solution to a global problem, the United States has been actively involved in seeking international agreements to reduce emissions and in encouraging other nations, including emerging major economies, to take significant steps to reduce emissions.

This is a step in the right direction, but dodges real leadership.

Stories To Mark 60 Years Since First Summit Of Everest

slayers among men.

From SFGate:

Nepal celebrated the 60th anniversary of the conquest of Mount Everest on Wednesday by honoring climbers who followed in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Among them was Italian Reinhold Messner, the first climber to scale Everest without using bottled oxygen and the first person to climb all of the world’s 14 highest peaks.

“I am here in Nepal again for filming … not any more for climbing,” Messner said, adding he did reach the base camp of Mount Kanchenjunga during his visit. “I am full of energy and full of enthusiasm for this country.”

Nepalese officials offered flower garlands and scarfs to the climbers who took part in the ceremony. They were taken around Katmandu on horse-drawn carriages followed by hundreds of people who marched holding banners to mark the anniversary.

Hillary and Norgay reached the summit of Everest on May 29, 1953. Since then thousands of people have reached the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) peak.

and from NPR:

On this, the 60th anniversary of the first successful summit of the world’s tallest mountain, there’s plenty of news about Mount Everest. Here are six stories [NPR] found interesting.

Tesla pays back US government early

NYTimes Dealbook:

Tesla, the maker of electric cars, paid off a $465 million loan on Wednesday that the Energy Department made in 2010. The repayment is a lift to the Obama administration, whose clean-energy loan programs faced criticism after the collapse of Solyndra, the solar panel maker. The company, using money it raised last week in the markets, is repaying the government nine years before its loan was due.

“Today’s repayment is the latest indication that the Energy Department’s portfolio of more than 30 loans is delivering big results for the American economy while costing far less than anticipated,” Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, said in a statement.

Less coverage than hoped for across the big media outlets.

The Ranbaxy Boondoggle

Cover-ups. A corporate culture not only lacking ethics but endorsing and encouraging amoral behavior. Unfettered greed. And excellent reporting by Katherine Eban at Fortune on Ranbaxy’s atrocious behavior. I remember not long ago reading about how much of a boon Ranbaxy could be for PEPFAR and for getting good medicines to those most in need.

Shameful behavior and a slow and unacceptable response from the US FDA. Kudos to the employees and auditors who brought the abuses to light.

The two men strolled into the hall to order tea from white-uniformed waiters. As they returned, Kumar said, “We are in big trouble,” and motioned for Thakur to be quiet. Back in his office, Kumar handed him a letter from the World Health Organization. It summarized the results of an inspection that WHO had done at Vimta Laboratories, an Indian company that Ranbaxy hired to administer clinical tests of its AIDS medicine. The inspection had focused on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs that Ranbaxy was selling to the South African government to save the lives of its AIDS-ravaged population.

As Thakur read, his jaw dropped. The WHO had uncovered what seemed to the two men to be astonishing fraud. The Vimta tests appeared to be fabricated. Test results from separate patients, which normally would have differed from one another, were identical, as if xeroxed.

Thakur listened intently. Kumar had not even gotten to the really bad news. On the plane back to India, his traveling companion, another Ranbaxy executive, confided that the problem was not limited to Vimta or to those ARV drugs.

“What do you mean?” asked Thakur, barely able to grasp what Kumar was saying.

The problem, said Kumar, went deeper. He directed Thakur to put aside his other responsibilities and go through the company’s portfolio — ultimately, every drug, every market, every production line — and uncover the truth about Ranbaxy’s testing practices and where the company’s liabilities lay.

Soderbergh on Cinema and parallels with doing science

Steven Soderbergh recently gave a “State of the Cinema” talk at the San Francisco International Film Festival (embedded above, transcript here). If you’re interested in film, cinema, and the arts, it’s worth a read. Soderbergh is an excellent, intelligent storyteller.

The passages below stood out — mainly because I think his description of art, and of cinema, parallel creative scientific thinking nicely. We face some of the same problems of “entrenched ideology” — the scientific enterprise can be slow to respond to alternative viewpoints. Second, there’s a similar and interesting distinction between science and “Science” that resembles the distinction he draws between cinema and movies.

Art is also about problem solving, and it’s obvious from the news, we have a little bit of a problem with problem solving. In my experience, the main obstacle to problem solving is an entrenched ideology. The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that that never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model.

Now we finally arrive at the subject of this rant, which is the state of cinema. First of all, is there a difference between cinema and movies? Yeah. If I were on Team America, I’d say “Fuck yeah!” The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.

via daring fireball

Surprising science: a mere taste of beer triggers joy

From Surprising Science, a blog at

Scientists have long known that part of the reason alcohol induces pleasure is that intoxication leads to the release of dopamine, which is associated with the use of other drugs (as well as sleep and sex) and acts as a reward for the brain. But new research suggests that, for some people, intoxication isn’t necessary: Simply the taste of beer alone can provoke a release of the neurotransmitter within minutes.

A group of researchers led by David Kareken of Indiana University came to the finding, published today in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, by giving tiny amounts of beer to 49 adult men and tracking changes in their brain chemistry with a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, which measures levels of various molecules in the brain. They chose participants with varying levels of typical alcohol consumption—from heavy drinkers to near-teetotalers—and even tested them with the beer they reported that they drank most frequently. Because they used an automated system to spray just 15 milliliters (about half an ounce) of beer on each participant’s tongue over the course of 15 minutes, they could be sure that any changes in brain chemistry wouldn’t be due to intoxication.

Paste Reveals "Top of the Hops" Winner

I was a little harsh of some of the selections along the way, but the exercise is fun. The winner is the Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA, which Paste describes as “simply the best IPA in America.” Not sure I agree, but it is a damn fine beer.

Sixty-four IPAs began Paste’s Top of the Hops IPA Challenge, but there can only be one winner. After blind-tasting 60 pairs of American India Pale Ales through four rounds, four beers still had a shot at the Championship.

All 64 beers met our initial criteria—an IPA from an American brewery that was available year-round and maxed out at 7.5% ABV (meaning no Imperial or Double IPAs). Each round had seven judges, including Paste’s beer-loving staff, musicians we invited in to participate and Atlanta-area beer experts like CNN beer writer Nate Berrong, Kraig Torres of Hop City and Eddie Holley of Ale Yeah!, two of Atlanta’s best craft beer stores.

It’s been a fun project, especially in these final rounds where all four beers were simply exquisite.

Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China

As Kirk pointed out in an email this morning, the NYT missed half of the problem. He wrote:

Remarkable narrow vision to fail even to mention that household air pollution has about an equal impact in the country. Even though the GBD study shows both on the same graphs, journalists and policy makers see one, but not the other. These is also an estimated 0.2 million overlap, what we call secondhand cookfire smoke, which is the portion of outdoor air due to cooking fuels in the country. If you account that to household air pollution, than the total impact of household air pollution is greater than that from outdoor air pollution due to all other sources combined (1.2 million premature deaths compared to 1.0 million).

Our work has been showing — in India and in China — that outdoor air pollution isn’t just an urban problem; it is simply measured most commonly (and thus identified most easily) in urban areas. We’re working to quantify that contribution and to make the case that cleaning up households can help clean up ambient air — in urban and rural areas.

Beautiful new service from the creators of Dark Sky. A number of cool things about it, including its beautiful visualizations and use of data from around the globe. Particularly, the developers note:

We’ve gathered hour-by-hour observations from tens of thousands of ground stations world-wide, in some places going back a hundred years. We expose it as a sort of “time machine” that lets you explore the past weather at any given location. We’ve also used the data to develop statistical forecasts for any day in the future. For example, say you have an outdoor family reunion in 6 months: with the time machine, you can see what the likely temperature and precipitation will be at the exact day and hour.

Their API sounds good, too, though I haven’t taken the plunge on that yet.

Now that we’ve developed a general-purpose weather API, we’re trying to compete with the other weather APIs available around the Internet. We’ve found those APIs to be difficult and clunky to use, so we’ve tried to make our API as streamlined as possible: you can sign up for a developer account without needing a credit card, and start making requests right away—you can worry about payment information when your app is ready. Additionally, we’ve lowered our prices so that we’re competitive with the other data providers out there.

Via DF

NYTimes: How beer gave us civilization

…[T]hese same lifesaving social instincts didn’t readily lend themselves to exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation — the other human drives that make for a vibrant civilization.

To free up those, we needed something that would suppress the rigid social codes that kept our clans safe and alive. We needed something that, on occasion, would let us break free from our biological herd imperative — or at least let us suppress our angst when we did.

We needed beer.

Read the whole article here.

via Vargo

NYT Public Editor's Journal: For Times Environmental Reporting, Intentions May Be Good but the Signs Are Not

Margaret Sullivan, the fifth public editor appointed by The New York Times, on the recent closings of the Environment Desk and the Times’ Green Blog:

Here’s my take: I’m not convinced that The Times’s environmental coverage will be as strong without the team and the blog. Something real has been lost on a topic of huge and growing importance.

Especially given The Times’s declared interest in attracting international readers and younger readers, I hope that Times editors — very soon — will look for new ways to show readers that environmental news hasn’t been abandoned, but in fact is of utmost importance. So far, in 2013, they are not sending that message.

Understatement of 2013, thus far.

NYT, WaPo cut back environment coverage, since we're not worried about that anymore

On Friday afternoon, The New York Times discontinued the Green blog, the paper’s one-stop shop for environment-related news. Then on Monday, the Washington Post announced it was pulling its star climate reporter, Juliet Eilperin, off of the beat and putting her on an “online strike force” covering the White House.

All of this can only mean one of two things: 1) The environment is fine, or 2) imminent global catastrophe is not as interesting as photo essays of matching, over-upholstered apartments in Manhattan.

R + Global Burden of Disease / Comparative Risk Assessment Data: A tutorial (version 0.1)

R can be scary for those new to it, but it is exceptionally useful for a number of things, including managing, importing, and merging text files; resaving them; and performing statistical analyses to your heart’s content. It is your friend, albeit one that you must learn to love slowly and painfully.

This brief tutorial does not serve as an introduction to R. Instead, it focuses on reading in a large, complex data set with ~1 million rows and 50+ columns. It was created to help facilitate some analysis in a GBD course at Berkeley. It will help you figure out how to do some basic manipulation and subsetting and export these subsetted data into a comma-separated text file (“csv”) for analysis in your favorite spreadsheet program. It is a work in progress and will be updated over time.

Visualizing US Gun Killings in 2010

An impressive visualization created by Periscopic using public data. They calculated counterfactual stories for each of the individuals killed by gun violence, offering an alternate likely cause of death had they not been killed. Their description of their methods:

Our data comes from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which include voluntarily-reported data from police precincts across the country. In 2007, according to the FBI, law enforcement agencies active in the UCR Program represented more than 285 million US inhabitants—94.6% of the total population. This special dataset is at the raw, or incident, level—containing details of each person who was killed, including their age, gender, race, relationship to killer, and more.

For the gray lines, we calculated alternate stories for the people killed with guns using data from the World Health Organization. To calculate an alternate story, we first performed an age prediction weighted according to the age distribution of US deaths. Using this age, we then predicted a likely cause of death at that age. We do not adjust for life-expectancy differences between demographic groups, as we have not yet found data to that extent. We used data from 2005, the most recent year available.

Traditional cooking and household energy use in the Library of Congress online archives

In the past few weeks, a lot of people have been mining the LoC photo databases for images of public works posters, images of cities early in their development, etc. The archive is outstanding and a lot of the pictures, negatives, schematics, and drawings are available online in multiple resolutions.

I ran some searches for household energy, hearths, cooking fire, cooking stoves, etc and found a number of fascinating results. Many of the pictures from the US were not available online yet - in particular, two libraries of “cooking technologies” from the 1920s and 1930s weren’t around. I’m working on getting access to those through some data request channels. A few that were accessible are below. The majority are from Sikkim and were taken by Alice Kandell between 1965 and 1971. The large one above is supposedly from Jerusalem and was taken between 1900-1920. The seventh one below is from 1908 in Paterna, Spain.

Clearly a wealth of interesting historical information in the archives. Looking forward to further explorations.

Climate Change in Obama's 2013 State of the Union

Strong words from President Obama on climate change during his 2013 State of the Union Address

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it’s too late.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year - so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.

Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we. Let’s take their advice and free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we’ve put up with for far too long. I’m also issuing a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.

Wind industry installs almost 5,300 MW of capacity in December

Today in Energy:

Approximately 40% of the total 2012 wind capacity additions (12,620 MW) came online in December, just before the scheduled expiration of the wind production tax credit (PTC). During December 2012, 59 new wind projects totaling 5,253 MW began commercial operation, the largest-ever single-month capacity increase for U.S. wind energy. About 50% of the total December wind capacity additions were installed in three states: Texas (1,120MW), Oklahoma (794 MW), and California (730 MW)…

Wind generators provided the largest share of additions to total U.S. electric generation capacity in 2012, just as it did in 2008 and 2009. The 2012 addition of 12,620 MW is the highest annual wind capacity installment ever reported to EIA. Wind capacity additions accounted for more than 45% of total 2012 capacity additions and exceeded capacity additions from any other fuel source, including natural gas (which led capacity additions in 2000-07, 2010, and 2011).

EPA Releases its "Climate Change Adaptation Plan"

We live in a world in which the climate is changing. Changes in climate have occurred since the formation of the planet. But humans are now influencing Earth’s climate and causing it to change in unprecedented ways.

It is in this rapidly changing world that EPA is working to fulfill its mission to protect human health and the environment. Many of the outcomes EPA is working to attain (e.g., clean air, safe drinking water) are sensitive to changes in weather and climate. Until now, EPA has been able to assume that climate is relatively stable and future climate will mirror past climate. However, with climate changing more rapidly than society has experienced in the past, the past is no longer a good predictor of the future. Climate change is posing new challenges to EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission.

David Miller: Global Justice and Climate Change: How Should Responsibilities Be Distributed?

Earlier today, I was looking for a Tanner lecture about climate change. I didn’t find the one I was looking for — but came across an equally intriguing one. I’ve just started working through it, but recommend it. The written version offers Miller’s take on a philosopher’s role in the climate change conversation. Early on, he offers a compelling take:

My aim here is not to answer all of the philosophical questions about climate change. I am simply going to assume, in particular, that if we continue to pump greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane especially) into the atmosphere at the rate we are now doing, we will inflict serious harm on many human beings, harm that we have a basic ethical obligation to avoid. It is known that the damaging effects of global warming will be quite unevenly distributed across societies. The broad picture is that it will hit hardest those societies that are currently poor and already most vulnerable to natural disasters such as drought and flood. This is partly a matter of simple geography, and partly a result of the fact that these societies have fewer resources with which to combat the effects of global warming—for example, by erecting defenses against rising sea levels. The effects on human beings in those societies will be severe—they will starve as food production dwindles, fall prey to waterborne diseases, and so forth. If we do nothing to prevent this from happening, we can properly be charged with violating their human rights—not directly, as happens when we intend death and injury by waging war, but indirectly by virtue of failing to act when we had the opportunity to do so.

EPA: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Large Facilities

A cool tool for visualizing large GHG emitters in the US.

Through EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, facilities that emit 25,000 metric tons or more per year of GHGs are required to annually report their GHG emissions to EPA. The facilities are known as direct emitters. The data reported by direct emitters provides a “bottom-up” accounting of the major sources of GHG emissions associated with stationary fuel combustion and industrial processes. Well over half of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are accounted for in this facility level data set, including nearly complete coverage of major emitting sectors such as power plants and refineries.

Divestment in San Francisco

From a press release:

This Tuesday, February 5, San Francisco District 11 Supervisor John Avalos will introduce a resolution urging the Retirement Board of the San Francisco Employee’s Retirement System (SFERS) to divest from the 200 corporations that hold the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves.

“San Francisco has aggressive goals to address climate change,” said Supervisor John Avalos. “It’s important that we apply these same values when we decide how to invest our funds, so we can limit our financial contributions to fossil fuels and instead promote renewable alternatives.”

If the resolution is approved by the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco would become the second city in the nation to pursue fossil fuel divestment. This December, the Mayor of Seattle pledged to keep city funds out of the fossil fuel industry and urged the city’s pension funds to consider divestment. Avalos is also introducing a resolution today to push SFERS to divest from arms manufacturers.

Air Quality in Delhi

From India Ink at the NYT:

But in New Delhi on Thursday, air pollution levels far exceeded those in Beijing, only without any government acknowledgement or action. It is not the first time pollution in India’s capital has outpaced that in China.

The level of tiny particulates known as PM 2.5, which lodge deep in the lungs and can enter the bloodstream, was over 400 micrograms per cubic meter in various neighborhoods in and around Delhi Thursday, according to a real-time air quality monitor. That compared to Beijing’s most-recent air quality reading of 172 micrograms per cubic meter. (The “Air Quality online” link to the left of the Delhi website gives you real-time monitoring of Delhi’s pollution levels.)

At the University of Delhi’s northern campus at 12:30 p.m., the reading for PM 2.5 was 402 micrograms per cubic meter; in the eastern suburb of Noida it was 411; at the Indira Gandhi International airport it was 421.

Having spent winters in Delhi, I can attest to the intensity of the air pollution. Part of the problem, like in other large cities, relates to winter meteorology; another significant component is the location of industry and power production in close proximity to urban population centers.

I’m working on culling the data from the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences air pollution monitors; check back soon.

In Focus: China's Toxic Sky

The Atlantic has an amazing collection of photographs of Beijing’s sky during these last few weeks of intense PM pollution. Particularly striking are the before-and-after shots, which on their site allow you to fade between polluted and less polluted days. One is adapted below, but check them all out.

Since the beginning of this year, the levels of air pollution in Beijing have been dangerously high, with thick clouds of smog chasing people indoors, disrupting air travel, and affecting the health of millions. The past two weeks have been especially bad — at one point the pollution level measured 40 times recommended safety levels. Authorities are taking short-term measures to combat the current crisis, shutting down some factories and limiting government auto usage. However, long-term solutions seem distant, as China’s use of coal continues to rise, and the government remains slow to acknowledge and address the problems.

The focus, of course, has been on Beijing, but astute observers note that it is hardly the most polluted city in the country. As a result of the widespread pollution - which has been getting remarkable coverage in the mainstream media - Chinese activists, educators, and policymakers are speaking out.

Professor Qu Geping, China’s first environmental protection chief, in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post:

“I would not call the past 40 years’ efforts of environmental protection a total failure,” he said. “But I have to admit that governments have done far from enough to rein in the wild pursuit of economic growth … and failed to avoid some of the worst pollution scenarios we, as policymakers, had predicted.”

After three decades of worsening industrial pollution resulting from rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, China has accumulated huge environmental debts that will have to be paid back, Qu said.

He said recently he regretted that some of the very forward-looking strategies - emphasising a more balanced and co-ordinated approach to development and conservation, that were worked out as early as 1983 - were never put into serious practice when China was still at an early stage of industrialisation.

Pan Shiyi, “one of China’s highest profile antipollution warriors” and a real estate mogul, asked Chinese bloggers and social media users to vote on whether or not China should enact national clean air legislation. According to the WSJ’s China Real Time Report,

In less than 10 hours of voting, nearly 32,000 microbloggers have said they agree with real estate mogul Pan Shiyi’s call for China to implement a clean air law. Fewer than 250 said they were opposed, while just over 120 said they weren’t sure.

As of a few minutes ago, 46,353 people had participated in the poll. A drop in the ocean, but a start.

Finally, according to the Times, the Beijing government is taking steps to curb emissions in the capital. The state run news agency reports that 180,000 old vehicles will be removed from the road; the heating systems of 44,000 old, single story homes and coal-burning boilers downtown will be replaced with clean energy; and 40% of Beijing will be forest covered in the next five years.

The city also plans to reduce coal consumption by 1.4 million tonnes and volatile organic compounds emissions by 8,000 tonnes, in addition to closing some 450 heavily polluting plants, according to municipal authorities.

Reasonable measures, but not ones that will occur rapidly. And, as mentioned, this doesn’t help much with the other, equally or more heavily polluted cities throughout the country.

In 2011, China consumed nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined

From EIA’s interesting today in energy series:

Figure based on available EIA data

Coal consumption in China grew more than 9% in 2011, continuing its upward trend for the 12th consecutive year, according to newly released international data. China’s coal use grew by 325 million tons in 2011, accounting for 87% of the 374 million ton global increase in coal use. Of the 2.9 billion tons of global coal demand growth since 2000, China accounted for 2.3 billion tons (82%). China now accounts for 47% of global coal consumption—almost as much as the entire rest of the world combined.

Robust coal demand growth in China is the result of a more than 200% increase in Chinese electric generation since 2000, fueled primarily by coal. China’s coal demand growth averaged 9% per year from 2000 to 2010, more than double the global growth rate of 4% and significantly higher than global growth excluding China, which averaged only 1%.

Your Warming World


New Scientist has released a web app that asks you to think about climate change in a more selfish manner — for yourself or your community. It loads a world map and you can click where you live and get a quick glimpse of how temperatures have changed — for you.

The graphs and maps all show changes relative to average temperatures for the three decades from 1951 to 1980, the earliest period for which there was sufficiently good coverage for comparison. This gives a consistent view of climate change across the globe. To put these numbers in context, the NASA team estimates that the global average temperature for the 1951-1980 baseline period was about 14 °C.

The analysis uses land-based temperature measurements from some 6000 monitoring stations in the Global Historical Climatology Network, plus records from Antarctic stations recorded by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. Temperatures at the ocean surface come from a measurements made by ships from 1880 to 1981, plus satellite measurements from 1982 onwards.

It’s a neat, somewhat egocentric approach. I’m not sure if it really engages a broad audience — but it points towards the kinds of interactivity that may be able to reach skeptical members of the public.

Nicholas Stern: 'I got it wrong on climate change - it's far, far worse'

Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott at The Guardian:

In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are “on track for something like four “. Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, “I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise.”

He said some countries, including China, had now started to grasp the seriousness of the risks, but governments should now act forcefully to shift their economies towards less energy-intensive, more environmentally sustainable technologies.

“This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential.”

David Roberts: The 14 fossil-fuel projects poised to seriously damage the climate

David Roberts, writing at Grist:

If we want a reasonable hope of hitting our 2 degree target, we have to leave about 80 percent of the known fossil fuels in the ground.

That is indeed terrifying math, but it may become slightly less so as it becomes more specific and concrete. (It is always helpful to break a large task into component parts.) Toward that end, today saw some fascinating new work from the research consultancy Ecofys. Commissioned by Greenpeace, it attempts to rank the most dangerous fossil-fuel projects currently being planned.

The metric is simple: how many additional tons of CO2 the project will emit by 2020. (See the report for more on methodology.) Here’s how they rank:

China’s Western provinces / Coal mining expansion / 1,400

Australia / Coal export expansion / 760

Arctic / Drilling for oil and gas / 520

Indonesia / Coal export expansion / 460

United States / Coal export expansion / 420

Canada / Tar sands oil / 420

Iraq / Oil drilling / 420

Gulf of Mexico / Deepwater oil drilling / 350

Brazil / Deepwater oil drilling (pre-salt) / 330

Kazakhstan / Oil drilling / 290

United States / Shale gas / 280

Africa / Gas drilling / 260

Caspian Sea / Gas drilling / 240

Venezuela / Tar sands oil / 190

A simple pie chart here is useful — of the 14 projects, the majority of the problem involves coal, though others aren’t far behind. Note that the the compression here is a bit tricky — coal includes export expansion, for instance. Nonetheless, the point stands — our dirtiest fuel, from a climate and health perspective, appears to be on a trajectory to create more substantial problems for the global environment.

Climate change and sustainable energy in President Obama's second inaugural address

President Obama, during his second inaugural address (emphasis added):

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet…”

Why we shouldn't compare Beijing in 2013 to mid-20th century London, Pittsburgh, and Chicago

This week, amidst all the kerfuffle over Beijing’s smog, both Andrew Revkin at the NYT and Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic looked back to historical periods of extreme pollution in the US and the UK as proof that cleaning up the air in large, rapidly developing cities can happen — will happen — given long enough time frames. Madrigal points to Chicago and Pittsburgh, noting

The fundamental struggle of any kind of pollution control is trying to get the polluters to internalize the costs of their pollution. Because if they don’t, the rest of us have to pay more. We — i.e. all of society — subsidize their businesses through increased health care costs, declining values of certain kinds of housing, toxic land or water or air. And the only reason they get away with it is that tracing the line of causality back to them — even when the air looks as disgusting as it does in these photographs — is just that difficult. They hide their roles in the complexity of the system.

So, next time you see one of the photos of Beijing’s pollution and say, “Geez! The Chinese should do something about this!” Just know that it took American activists over a century to win the precise same battle, and that they’re losing a similar one over climate change right this minute.

Similarly, Revkin first looks back to the 1950s London smog episodes and then looks forward, offering potential solutions.

…Much of what we in the West see as shockingly aberrant in today’s industrializing countries and fast-growing cities was our norm a short two generations ago. The same is true for rivers. As I wrote last year, while Nairobi has foaming floods of pollution now, the Hudson, which is now swimmable, had shores sticky with adhesive and shimmering with automotive paint a few decades ago. Prosperity leads to rising public environmental concern and the wherewithal for governments to change rules and practices.

Last year, I asked this question: “Can China Follow U.S. Shift from Coal to Gas?” The country has vast reserves of shale gas but lacks expertise and experience in hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, the innovative mix of technologies that is poised to transform America’s energy prospects (if drilling is done with communities and the environment in mind). A prompt shift from coal to natural gas in China — which would have to involve substantial collaboration with the United States — could potentially be a big near-term step toward stopping growth in greenhouse-gas emissions, and of course clearing the air in crowded, coal-dependent cities.

A few things stand out. While it’s perhaps fair to argue that pollution controls will come on a long enough time frame, it’s a bit problematic to compare 1940s - 1960s Chicago and Pittsburgh to emerging market mega-cities. Beijing’s population is approximately 20 million. Delhi and its surrounding National Capital Region, which suffer from similar bouts of intense ambient air pollution, have an estimated population of a bit over 22 million. In 1940, the population of Pittsburgh was ~700,000; Chicago was home to ~ 3.4 million. London was quite a bit larger during the smog episodes, with a population of ~9 million, but still much smaller than current-day mega-cities. The magnitude of the pollution in these cities — coupled with the sheer number of people residing within them — leads to extremely large, health-damaging population level exposures.

As Revkin points out, there’s a path forward that could lead to more rapid improvements in environmental quality and have a number of political and health-related cobenefits — collaboration between developed and developing markets to improve the quality of energy production. While I’m not 100% onboard with fracking, Revkin’s general point emphasizing cooperation should hold. We, the West, have repeatedly been through the pathway of industrialization -> environmental degradation -> outrage, illness, death -> <- regulatory struggles -> technological innovation -> cleaner environments. We’ve emerged from it in two or three generations with vastly improved environmental conditions, though we must now face the looming specter of climate change. It is in our own selfish interests — indeed, in everyone’s interest — to facilitate cleaner energy production and industrialization globally. The pollutants affecting millions in China and India have long-lasting global impacts that affect us all. Developing and developed countries acting in concert to reduce emissions results in a win-win.

Some caveats. I’m in no way implying that Revkin and Madrigal haven’t thought through these issues. They have - repeatedly and far more eloquently than I - throughout their writings. Second, I fully acknowledge that development occurs on vastly different timeframes and scales in each emerging market. The pace of development today is breathtaking — change occurs at a pummeling pace, enabled by our past technological innovations that now have a global reach. One hopes, given our global interconnectedness and inter-dependency, that we could avoid repeating some of these catastrophes. We’ve been through this repeatedly. We know the cost of environmental degradation in terms of human life, ecosystem quality, and money. And, to an extent, we know how to clean up our industrial processes. We have a fundamental obligation to share this knowledge, to make it heard, and to use our significant global clout to bring it to bear.

NASA/NOAA: Smog in China, as seen from space



Smog is a common part of life across much of eastern China; however the past week has seen extremely high air pollution counts, some exceeding 750 micrograms per cubic meter of particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter. In the U.S., the EPA classifies any PM2.5 concentration above 100 as “unsafe,” as these tiny particles are able to penetrate deep into airways causing many health risks. This image of eastern China was taken on January 13, 2013 by the NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Clouds can be seen as bright white areas, whereas the smog and other pollutants appear as a dull gray blanket over the region.

The great Beijing 'fog': dispatches from around the web

Dashiell Bennett, at The Atlantic Wire:

Chinese officials have shut down factories and ordered cars off the roads to try and save their capital city after spending three straight days under a cloud of toxic smog. Visibility has been as low as 100 yards in some parts of the city, as an increase in winter coal burning, combined with low wind conditions pushed the nation’s already crushing pollution problems to dangerous levels.

To put the current crisis in perspective, the World Health Organization considers an acceptable level of airborne particulates to be 25 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). On Saturday, readings in Beijing reached 993 ug/m3. The head of cardiology at Peking University People’s Hospital said “The number of people coming into our emergency room suffering heart attacks has roughly doubled since Friday.”

James Fallows at the Atlantic, highlighting excerpts from an English-language version of an editorial in Global Times, a state-run newspaper:

It’s worth reading the English version of a notable editorial in Global Times, a government-controlled and often hard-line paper. In days of yore, the Chinese press would downplay pollution reports — calling it “fog,” saying that foreigners were meddling in Chinese affairs by even monitoring the most dangerous pollutants, etc. In context, this editorial is filled with quite eye-opening lines, which I have helpfully highlighted:

“The public should understand the importance of development as well as the critical need to safeguard the bottom line of the environmental pollution. The choice between development and environment protection should be made by genuinely democratic methods…

“The government cannot always think about how to intervene to ‘guide public opinion.’ It should publish the facts and interests involved, and let the public itself produce a balance based on the foundation of diversification.

“The government is not the only responsible party for environmental pollution. As long as the government changes its previous method of covering up the problems and instead publishes the facts, society will know who should be blamed.”

Additional interesting coverage at Live From Beijing, with reasonable explanations of what all the numbers mean.

Finally, a set of photos at WSJ’s China Real Time Report and a summary of the Chinese media response to the ongoing “airpocalypse.”

NYT dissolves environment desk

I heard about this via and found it pretty shocking. Most of the response on the internet has been somewhat bimodal, with positions of meh and dismay.

Grist offers a somewhat more balanced response.

…While the environment desk itself is fairly new, the Times has been a bulwark of robust climate coverage for decades. While it’s not clear if the reassigned environment desk reporters will still maintain a focus on the environment in their reporting, other areas of the paper will gain new reporters with a deep knowledge of and concern about environmental issues. The Times will still continue to turn out good climate coverage.

Part of the (justifiable!) hand-wringing over the move stems from the poor reporting of climate issues elsewhere. Earlier this week, a study revealed that the number of newspapers that maintain a weekly “Science” section dropped from 95 in 1989 to 14 currently. (The Times is one of the 14.) Television news continues to give climate coverage short shrift, especially in the context of policy and politics. With public opinion suggesting that Americans link the threat of global warming with information about its effects, it’s understandably disconcerting to think that one of the most vocal outlets on the subject is changing its approach.

There’s one thing that is certain. As the months and years pass, every other bureau of the New York Times will have to deal with the effects of a changing climate: business, international, health, even sports. Having reporters close at hand who are well-versed in the subject will be an asset to the paper. The problem is less with how the Times staffs its environment coverage and far more with how few other outlets knowledgeably cover the environment at all.

While I tend to agree with Grist’s take on the issue, a couple things stand out. First, we won’t really know how this will impact the paper’s coverage of environmental issues and climate change for weeks or months.

Second, and importantly, much of the uproar has surrounded potential impacts on coverage of climate change. The Times has been a stalwart source of information on other environmental news, as well — including political positions and opinions on the environment, global environmental change, environmental health,the relationship between industry and the environment, and the like. While climate change is perhaps the most pressing of our ongoing environmental concerns, it is certainly not the only one.

I worry that some the Times’ nuanced coverage of other environmental issues may suffer from this move. Moving knowledgeable reporters to other desks in the news department could help bring an environmental perspective to more stories. But it may also lead to weaker coverage of the environment — one can imagine environmental voices getting drowned out by other concerns and editorial decisions. Time will tell.

Public Health School Deans: "Ban Intelligence Involvement in Public Health Campaigns."

The deans of the top schools of public health around the US speak out against covert action under the guise of health-promoting campaigns:

In the first years of the Peace Corps, its director, Sargent Shriver, discovered that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was infiltrating his efforts and programs for covert purposes. Mr. Shriver forcefully expressed the unacceptability of this to the President. His action, and the repeated vigilance and actions of future directors, has preserved the Peace Corps as a vehicle of service for our country’s most idealistic citizens. It also protects our Peace Corps volunteers from unwarranted suspicion, and provides opportunities for the Peace Corps to operate in areas of great need that otherwise would be closed off to them.

In September, as a result of a CIA sham vaccination campaign used to hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, Save the Children was forced by the Government of Pakistan (GoP) to withdraw all foreign national staff. This action was apparently the result of CIA having used the cover of a fictional vaccination campaign to gather information about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. In fact, Save the Children never employed the Pakistani physician serving the CIA, yet in the eyes of the GoP he was associated with the organization. This past month, seven or more United Nations health workers who were vaccinating Pakistani children against polio were gunned down in unforgivable acts of terrorism. While political and security agendas may by necessity induce collateral damage, we as a society set boundaries on these damages, and we believe this sham vaccination campaign exceeded those boundaries.

This is important. Support global health and sign the petition.

The Bakken Oil Shale Field

Nice, keen catch from Dr. Drang:

Look north and slightly east of Denver. See that big, somewhat diffuse patch of light? Here’s a zoomed-in view of that area with a few cities labeled to help you get your bearings.

Even if you didn’t know that this lit-up patch was in a generally empty area, covering western North Dakota and parts of eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan, you could guess that it’s not a population center; despite its size, there’s no bright center to it.

The lights are from the oil shale fields spread out over the Williston Basin. It’s one thing to read about the boom in oil shale, it’s quite another to see such graphic evidence.

As a point of reference, here’s EIA map of 2011 oil shale plays in N. America.

The Imported Landscapes of Petur Thomsen

Petur Thomsen, an Icelandic photographer, has been documenting “man’s attempts to dominate nature” and “man’s transformation of nature into environment.”

One set of photographs - his “Imported Landscape” series — is particularly striking. It examines the impact of the Karahnjukar Hydroelectric Project in eastern Iceland.

The project consists of three dams, one of them being the highest in Europe, and a hydroelectric power plant. The dams block among others the big glacial river Jokula a Dal, creating the 57km2 artificial lake Halslon.

The power plant is primarily being constructed to supply electricity to a new Aluminum smelter built by Alcoa of USA in the fjord of Reyoarfjorour on the east coast of Iceland.

The artificial lake and the constructions have spoiled the biggest wild nature in Europe. Making the Karahnjukar project, not only the biggest project in Icelandic history, but also the most controversial one. There have been a lot of debates about this project. Environmentalists are fighting for the preservation of the wild nature while those supporting the project talk about the need to use the energy the nature has to offer.

The best way for me to participate in the debate was to follow the land in its transformation.

Environmental degradation in the name of energy production — even ‘clean’ energy production — is nothing new. Thomsen’s take starkly frames the respective powers of man and nature as antagonists. For me, he conveys perfectly our conflicting senses of nostalgia/loss and awe/control. His photos embody contrasting, awkward meanings of power — electricity, energy, dominion, destruction, beauty.

Via The Fox is Black.

It's been 27 years...

We’ve made massive progress since these days. Phones fit in a pocket, the internet connects billions of people, and shoulder pads are history. Isn’t it finally time to change the course of our climate, too?

A few weeks ago, I posted a link to a NOAA report that it had been 333 months with an above-average global temperature. Looks like that report stirred up some interested and advocacy. 27 years:

“27 years” is a creative project that illustrates the warming of the planet. It is inspired by NOAA’s State of the Climate Global Analysis, released in December 2012.

The analysis shows that November marked the 333rd consecutive month with an above-average global temperature. That means the world has not experienced a cooler-than-average or average temperature month in 27 years. In other words, it’s a clear sign that the world is quickly warming up.

Neat stuff — funny, hip, and pointed.

Eat estrogenic plants and become more aggressive, have more sex, and stop grooming.

UC Berkeley News Center:

Eating certain veggies not only supplies key nutrients, it may also influence hormone levels and behaviors such as aggression and sexual activity, says a new study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, that could shed light on the role of diet in human evolution.

The research is the first to observe the connection between plant-based estrogenic compounds, or phytoestrogens, and behavior in wild primates — in this case, a group of red colobus monkeys in Uganda.

The more the male red colobus monkeys dined on the leaves of Millettia dura, a tropical tree containing estrogen-like compounds, the higher their levels of estradiol and cortisol. They also found that with the altered hormone levels came more acts of aggression and sex, and less time spent grooming — an important behavior for social bonding in primates.

Don’t get too excited and plan a weekend tofu binge.

The study authors cautioned against overinterpreting the power of phytoestrogens in altering behavior, however. They emphasized that estrogenic plant consumption is just one of multiple factors influencing primate hormone levels and behavior. Notably, the primates’ own endogenous hormone levels were the stronger predictor of certain behaviors, while phytoestrogens played a secondary role.

If you're 27 or younger, you've never experienced a colder-than-average month

From NOAA’s State of the Climate (as reported by Grist) October 2012:

The average temperature across land and ocean surfaces during October was 14.63°C (58.23°F). This is 0.63°C (1.13°F) above the 20th century average and ties with 2008 as the fifth warmest October on record. The record warmest October occurred in 2003 and the record coldest October occurred in 1912. This is the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature. The last below-average month was February 1985. The last October with a below-average temperature was 1976. The Northern Hemisphere ranked as the seventh warmest October on record, while the Southern Hemisphere ranked as second warmest, behind 1997.

Read more at NOAA.

What makes us happy? The Grant Study & Dr. George Vaillant posted a link to the an excellent piece by David Brooks entitled “The Heart Grows Smarter” at the NYT opinion pages. Brooks describes the Grant Study, a longitudinal evaluation of mental and physical health status. It tracked 268 Harvard students for upwards of 50 years, beginning in the 40s and following the participants through war, marriage, divorce, failure, success, and death. Brooks draws some pleasant and hopeful conclusions from the study:

The men of the Grant Study frequently became more emotionally attuned as they aged, more adept at recognizing and expressing emotion. Part of the explanation is biological. People, especially men, become more aware of their emotions as they get older.

Part of this is probably historical. Over the past half-century or so, American culture has become more attuned to the power of relationships. Masculinity has changed, at least a bit.

The so-called Flynn Effect describes the rise in measured I.Q. scores over the decades. Perhaps we could invent something called the Grant Effect, on the improvement of mass emotional intelligence over the decades. This gradual change might be one of the greatest contributors to progress and well-being that we’ve experienced in our lifetimes.

Partly because of Brooks’s writing on the topic, and partly because of the topic (longitudinal cohort studies are super interesting… and super difficult to pull off), I spent a few minutes using google to find out more. One of the most accessible pieces that popped up about the study was Joshua Wolf Shenk’s beautiful and long 2009 essay from The Atlantic (interestingly, Brooks wrote about Shenk’s essay in a separate NYT op-ed piece from 2009).

Shenk’s piece is stunning. He reveals, for instance, that JFK was part of the Grant study — and that his files from the study are sealed until at least 2040. Other participants went on to be in a Presidential cabinet, or run for Senate, or become the editor for the Washington Post, or to write best-selling novels. But the really fascinating stuff arose from Shenk’s juxtaposition of stories of the study participants and descriptions of the study’s brilliant, quirky lead investigator, Dr. George Vaillant.

The study started by collecting every bit of anthropometric data imaginable on the study subjects, including

everything from major organ function, to the measure of lactic acid after five minutes on a treadmill, to the size of the “lip seam” and the hanging length of the scrotum. Using a new test called the electroencephalograph, the study measured the electrical activity in the brain, and sought to deduce character from the squiggles. During a home visit, a social worker took not only a boy’s history—when he stopped wetting his bed, how he learned about sex—but also extensive medical and social histories on his parents and extended family. The boys interpreted Rorschach inkblots, submitted handwriting samples for analysis, and talked extensively with psychiatrists.

Vaillant continued some of the physical measures — and savvily added new ones along the way to help keep the study relevant to potential funders. His real interest, though, lay in the underlying psychology of the participants.

His central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty.

Most psychology preoccupies itself with mapping the heavens of health in sharp contrast to the underworld of illness. “Social anxiety disorder” is distinguished from shyness. Depression is defined as errors in cognition. Vaillant’s work, in contrast, creates a refreshing conversation about health and illness as weather patterns in a common space. “Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”

This perspective is shaped by a long-term view. Whereas clinicians focus on treating a problem at any given time, Vaillant is more like a biographer, looking to make sense of a whole life—or, to take an even broader view, like an anthropologist or naturalist looking to capture an era. The good news, he argues, is that diseases—and people, too—have a “natural history.” After all, many of the “psychotic” adaptations are common in toddlers, and the “immature” adaptations are essential in later childhood, and they often fade with maturity. As adolescents, the Grant Study men were twice as likely to use immature defenses as mature ones, but in middle life they were four times as likely to use mature defenses—and the progress continued into old age. When they were between 50 and 75, Vaillant found, altruism and humor grew more prevalent, while all the immature defenses grew more rare.

This means that a glimpse of any one moment in a life can be deeply misleading. A man at 20 who appears the model of altruism may turn out to be a kind of emotional prodigy—or he may be ducking the kind of engagement with reality that his peers are both moving toward and defending against. And, on the other extreme, a man at 20 who appears impossibly wounded may turn out to be gestating toward maturity.

Vaillant’s other main interest is the power of relationships. “It is social aptitude,” he writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Grab a cup of your favorite liquid and prepare to tune out for a half hour as you read the whole article.

Stormpocalypse 2012: East Coast Version

NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of the massive Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 28 at 1615 UTC (12:02 p.m. EDT). The line of clouds from the Gulf of Mexico north are associated with the cold front that Sandy is merging with. Sandy’s western cloud edge is already over the Mid-Atlantic and northeastern U.S.

NYC’s public transit hubs are closed in preparation for super-Hurricane Sandy. MTA has quite a few photos posted to their flickr account of emptied subways and workers preparing for the storm. An odd sight.

The pay wall at the NYT has been breached by the potential floodwaters. has set up a “crisis” center for Hurricane Sandy. It worked until sometime on Oct 31. Then, it switched to the embed below. has interesting (and typically amusing) coverage of all things NYC right now. He links to’s wind map, which paints a near real-time picture of wind speeds across the US. The northeast portion of that windmap should be pretty terrifying for the next few days.

Stay safe, NYC.

Stop-motion Video of Space Shuttle Endeavor

From Matthew Givot, who posted the video on his Vimeo account:

A very special thanks to the City of Inglewood, Chief of Police Mark Fronterotta, Lieutenant James Madia, Sergeant Dirk Dewachter, and to the Men and Women of the Inglewood Police Department. None of this would have been possible without them.

This project was only made possible by the help of a truly amazing and talented timelapse team which included; Joe Capra, Chris Pritchard, Brian Hawkins, Andrew Walker, Ryan Killackey and myself.

This truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity that we are so happy and honored to have been be a part of.

The endeavor started on Thursday night and went on until Sunday night, with very little sleep to no sleep. The only thing that kept us going was pure love of the art and adrenaline. One thing that stood out the most for me, while I was shooting, was the people of Los Angeles. It was so powerful to see the excitement on peoples faces and the pride of their home town. No matter how many times I would see the Shuttle it would never get old.

This has been an amazing experience that I will never forget. My hope is that this film will show you the amount of dedicated people and teamwork that it took to get the Endeavour to its new home. Enjoy.

The Internet, a series of tubes.

Google’s data center doors flung open earlier this week. And, somehow, it looks remarkably like Ted Stevens’ often-teased quotation about the internet being nothing but “a series of tubes.”

click here to see many more photos from Google’s data centers

Obviously, that’s not the whole of it. The tubes, the languages, the infrastructure all come together, a weird amalgamation of technologies that gives rise to our internet, a sum that transcends the somewhat mundane parts. Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, said the following in an interview with Terry Gross:

The Internet is absolutely made of tubes. What else could it be made of? It’s many other things — these protocols and languages and machines and a whole set of fantastically complex layers and layers of computing power that feeds the Internet every day. But if you think of the world in physical terms, and you’re trying to be as reductive as possible and try to understand what this is, there’s no way around it — these are tubes. And from the very first moment, from the basement of a building in Milwaukee to Facebook’s high-tech, brand-new data center, and along the ceiling and the walls, are these steel conduits. But I know a tube when I see one.

A couple of days ago, Wired published a piece by Steven Levy about Google’s data centers. Levy was one of the first non-essential Google staff to visit the center, and his report is pretty astonishing. Google’s built a lot of their own infrastructure in an attempt to meet two important standards — speed and energy efficiency.

All of these innovations helped Google achieve unprecedented energy savings. The standard measurement of data center efficiency is called power usage effectiveness, or PUE. A perfect number is 1.0, meaning all the power drawn by the facility is put to use. Experts considered 2.0—indicating half the power is wasted—to be a reasonable number for a data center. Google was getting an unprecedented 1.2.

For years Google didn’t share what it was up to. “Our core advantage really was a massive computer network, more massive than probably anyone else’s in the world,” says Jim Reese, who helped set up the company’s servers. “We realized that it might not be in our best interest to let our competitors know.”

Make no mistake, though: The green that motivates Google involves presidential portraiture. “Of course we love to save energy,” Hölzle says. “But take something like Gmail. We would lose a fair amount of money on Gmail if we did our data centers and servers the conventional way. Because of our efficiency, we can make the cost small enough that we can give it away for free.”

thanks to Charlotte K. for sharing Levy’s article + the photos

Guess which state has the most medal winners from the Great American Beer Festival?

Subtitle: Mapping the 2012 GABF Winners Using R

The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) announced its winners on October 13. Lots of amazing beers from all over the US. They have a nifty search feature which lets you (1) find beers from specific states, (2) search by year of competition, (3) search by award - gold, silver, or bronze, and (4) search by keyword.

Like a true beer-loving nerd, I was curious to see which state won the most awards and to look at the geographic distribution of winners. I also needed to learn how to make simple maps using R for some work related stuff. The confluence of curiosity and need got me giddy… and set me to work. Turns out that making simple maps in R is… simple.

More on the details of the process in a few days (along with a table outlining the above data). In the meantime, revel in the beer mecca that is California.

Nature, Nurture, Medication, Arrogance

A pretty terrifying article from the NYT about prescriptions of psychotropics - regardless of ADHD diagnosis - in school age children. I couldn’t read the article in any light but one of utter disbelief; I’m not sure if that’s me imposing my bias on it or if its actual paints the practice as problematic.

Some excerpts below, but read the whole thing.

Although A.D.H.D is the diagnosis Dr. Anderson makes, he calls the disorder “made up” and “an excuse” to prescribe the pills to treat what he considers the children’s true ill — poor academic performance in inadequate schools.

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies these medications as Schedule II Controlled Substances because they are particularly addictive. Long-term effects of extended use are not well understood, said many medical experts. Some of them worry that children can become dependent on the medication well into adulthood, long after any A.D.H.D. symptoms can dissipate.

According to guidelines published last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics, physicians should use one of several behavior rating scales, some of which feature dozens of categories, to make sure that a child not only fits criteria for A.D.H.D., but also has no related condition like dyslexia or oppositional defiant disorder, in which intense anger is directed toward authority figures. However, a 2010 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders suggested that at least 20 percent of doctors said they did not follow this protocol when making their A.D.H.D. diagnoses, with many of them following personal instinct.

You can argue either way about this — that helping struggling students perform is a good thing; that riddling younger kids with drugs that we know are addictive AND for which we don’t know the long-term side effects of is insane. I tend toward two seemingly sensical principles here — 1) the precautionary principle, something largely eschewed in this country and 2) finding better ways to engage students in school beyond medication. Medication is appropriate when the prescription is made with a valid medical diagnosis. In some of the cases described, however, the diagnosis is flimsy, the ethics questionable, and the end-result hardly what we want, as a society, for our youth. I can’t help but think there must be another way.

"If we would know life, we must cherish it" - Barry Commoner (1917 - 2012)

Barry Commoner, public intellectual, scientist, hero, died September 30th at 95. Historian Michael Egan summarized his accolades nicely in a 2007 interview with Science Blogs:

Over his career, Commoner worked on nuclear fallout, pesticides, water contamination, air pollution, toxic metals, the petrochemical industry, population, energy and nuclear power, urban waste disposal, dioxin, recycling, and all manner of other environmental issues. To Commoner, these were not individual problems but rather parts of the same problem: American production choices were flawed. We developed synthetic chemicals because they were cheap without thinking about their health and environmental consequences. As a result, big petrochemical companies got rich by externalizing the real costs of their products. We pick up the tab for the dirty skies and waters, not the polluters. Commoner pointed this out and worked with a number of community and labor groups on community and occupational health problems. I think he understood-much earlier than most-that environmental problems were really social problems and needed to be recognized as such.

Commoner codified a simple philosophy at the end of his book The Closing Circle .

  • Everything Is Connected to Everything Else.

  • Everything Must Go Somewhere.

  • Nature Knows Best.

  • There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.

Four simple ideas (that aren’t so simple) and that, as a scientific and intellectual ethos, require thought, thoughtfulness, and a willingness of science to reach across the aisle into public realms biased by emotion. That the four tenets can’t be reduced and simplified enhances the power of their message.

Egan, again, this time in a piece called “Commoner in Context”:

My instinct is that we will hear the same references over and over again in the coming days and weeks: Commoner introduced the Four Laws of Ecology, he ran for President in 1980, and he was called (by TIME magazine in 1970) “the Paul Revere of Ecology.” All true, but I should like to stress a much more fundamental point: Commoner invented the science information movement, a method of communicating technical information so that the public could better participate in complex social, political, and environmental debate. Commoner was a staunch believer in the public making the right decisions if armed with the necessary scientific information. Indeed, the better tagline followed “the Paul Revere of Ecology” on TIME read: “the scientist with a classroom of millions.” That’s really important. And I would argue that the science information movement has played a far more significant role in twentieth-century history that I think we fully appreciate.

Tributes across the web NYTimes - Barry Commoner Dies at 95 NYTimes - Barry Commoner, Last Word (video) History for a Sustainable Future - Commoner in Context The Nation - Remembering Barry Commoner

space shuttles, magic, wonder

Today, for all its myriad frustrations, saw a lifelong dream fulfilled.

I saw a real space shuttle, in flight, albeit atop an enormous, gargantuan flying machine.

We had a research group meeting in the morning. All of us who work with Dr. Smith gathered, discussed our progress and plans, and caught up with him on happenings from around the world (enlightening and humbling).

At the beginning, perhaps ten minutes in, Amanda noticed - through a window near the top of our building - that dozens of folks were standing on the roof of an adjacent building, keenly and obviously looking at something. “It must be the shuttle,” she remarked.

The shuttle?

Then Amod saw it - he spotted it! - and the whole room, ages 22-65, ran to the windows, eyes wide open.

The jet escorting the shuttle looked like a sparrow next to an albatross. The huge, lumbering plane floated through the sky. Perched atop it was Endeavor, glistening during her final trip. At one point, the plane passed directly in front of sun, casting a massive shadow on the ground.

Silence, interspersed with the restrained oohs and aahs of wonder.

Wonder amongst a group of people trained to control their outbursts. Wonder amongst a bunch of scientists, realizing a shared dream.

The last flight of Endeavor, and we saw it.

Operation Teapot: The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages (March 1956)

In 1956, amidst concerns of domestic nuclear fallout, the FDA and Federal Civil Defense Administration undertook a study and released a report covering the exposure of commercially packaged beverages — including soft drinks and beer — to nuclear explosion.

Mind blown. This is real. Packaged drinks, like beer and soda in cans and bottles, were placed at varying distances from a nuclear detonation. Following the mushroom cloud, their fitness for consumption and taste were evaluated.

Typical of sci-yunce, they evaluated a number of metal can types and glass bottles (all closed). The cans were either 12 or 16 ounces; glass bottles ranged from 6-28 ounces. Various combinations of bottles and cans were placed between 0.2 and 1 mile from ground zero. They were either buried, placed on the ground, or embedded loosely in earth.

So what happened?

Most of the bottles and cans lived through the blast overpressures. Most of the container failures were caused by “flying missiles” of debris, severe crushing due to structural collapse, and falling from shelves.

The ones closest to ground zero were marginally radioactive. Of course, marginal radioactivity is concerning, but the scientists state

Even the most [radioactive] beverages were well within the permissible limits for emergency use and could be consumed upon recovery…

The induced activity of the beverage container, whether metal or glass, did not carry over to the contents… Radioactivity of contents did not vary directly with radioactivity of the container. The beverages themselves showed mild induced [radioactivity]… Beer by reason of its higher natural salt content exhibiting a somewhat higher activity than soft drinks.

My favorite part, though, is when they evaluate the taste of the beverages.

Representative samples of the various exposed packaged beers, as well as unexposed control samples in both cans and bottles, were submitted to five qualified laboratories for carefully controlled taste testing. The cumulative opinions on the various beers indicated a range from “commercial quality” on through “aged” to “definitely off.” All agreed, however, that the beer could unquestionable be used as an emergency source of potable beverages.”

This story and study came to light by way of a blog post by Robert Krulwich that referenced a blog post entitled Beer and the Apocalypse by Alex Wellerstein. In that post, Wellerstein linked to the full report.

Wellerstein summed it up well, “For me, the takeaway here is that the next time you find yourself stocking up on beer, remember, it’s not just for the long weekend — it might be for the end of days.”

It's getting hot in here: Shifting Distribution of Northern Hemisphere Summer Temperature Anomalies, 1951-2011

From Goddard Space Flight Center:

This bell curve graph shows how the distribution of Northern Hemisphere summer temperature anomalies has shifted toward an increase in hot summers. The seasonal mean temperature for the entire base period of 1951-1980 is plotted at the top of the bell curve. Decreasing in frequency to the right are what are defined as “hot” anomalies (between 1 and 2 standard deviations from the norm), “very hot” anomalies (between 2 and 3 standard deviations) and “extremely hot” anomalies (greater than 3 standard deviations). The anomalies fall off to the left in mirror-image categories of “cold, “very cold” and “extremely cold.” The range between the .43 and -.43 standard deviation marks represent “normal” temperatures.

As the graph moves forward in time, the bell curve shifts to the right, representing an increase in the frequency of the various hot anomalies. It also gets wider and shorter, representing a wider range of temperature extremes. As the graph moves beyond 1980, the temperatures are still compared to the seasonal mean of the 1951-1980 base period, so that as it reaches the 21st century, there is a far greater frequency of temperatures that once fell 3 standard deviations beyond the mean.

There’s another telling animation showing extreme heat events across the Northern Hemisphere. This one, like the above, was created by Goddard using Hansen’s data. It is available here.

Air Quality in London During the Olympics

Earlier this week, a few British newspapers ran stories about the implications of poor air quality in London and the impact it may have on athlete’s performance. The articles were a bit scant on details, but hinted at dangers for vulnerable populations and an increased risk of exercise-induced asthma during certain times of the day, especially for athletes. They cited London Air, a site that is tracking a number of important pollutants at sites throughout London.

They’ve got a remarkable amount of relatively easily accessible data on their site, and a special subsection catered towards visitors to London for the 2012 games. They’ve also created (in collaboration with the Environmental Health group at King’s College) free location-aware smartphone apps for Android and iOS that are impressive, easy to use, and comprehensive.

Click here to see a map of PM10 concentrations around London and visit their site for more information.

The AP story has been picked up by the Washington Post.

Rains in China + Changes in Air Quality in Beijing

Not so long ago, I created a little javascript to pull data from the US Embassy’s Twitter air quality feed from China, parse it, and plot the data. It’s worth revisiting now, since Beijing air has literally been washed by the huge amount of rain (and subsequent road closures and power outages) the population experienced last week.

From the NYT

The heaviest rainfall in six decades caused widespread havoc in this capital over the weekend, killing at least 37 people and forcing the evacuation of 50,000 others from waterlogged neighborhoods and villages, according to the state news media.

And from BBC:

State news agency Xinhua said 460mm (18.1 in) fell in Beijing’s Fangshan district, with the capital as a whole averaging 170mm.

About 1.9m people had been affected by the downpour, and flood and economic losses had been estimated at 10bn yuan ($1.5bn, £960m), Pan Anjun, deputy chief of Beijing flood control headquarters, was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

By Sunday evening, more than 65,000 people had to be evacuated. Beijing officials said 37 people had died, 25 of them from drowning.

Outside the capital, 17 people were reportedly missing in northwestern Shaanxi province and eight people dead in southwestern Sichuan province due to heavy rains, said another Xinhua report.

Here’s the real-time data, again — only useful for a few more days. Note the sudden drop in PM2.5 and the slow creep back up. More rain expected this week. Hopefully all colleagues and friends in China are keeping safe, dry, and out of the streets.

China's Air Quality Dilemma

Fascinating commentary in JAMA (related primarily to this article). The article and the commentary focus on the extraordinary pollution mitigation and control strategies undertaken by the Chinese government in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics.

To ensure acceptable air quality during the Olympics (held from August 8-24) and the Paralympics (held from September 6-16), the Chinese government launched a series of aggressive measures to reduce pollutant emissions. To reduce industrial emissions, the operations of combustion facilities were restricted in smelters, cement plants, power plants, nonattainment boilers, and construction and petro-chemical industries. To reduce traffic emissions, certain vehicles and trucks were banned, 70% of government-owned vehicles were kept off the streets, and other vehicles could travel through the city only on alternating days.

The pollutant reductions are striking and substantial — reductions in mean concentrations of sulfur dioxide (-60%), carbon monoxide (-48%), nitrogen dioxide (-43%), elemental carbon (-36%), fine particulate matter (PM2.5, -27%), ozone (-22%), and sulfate (-13%), were reported. (Of note, even during the cleanest days in Beijing, mean concentrations exceeded the worst days in LA).

The study by Rich et al in JAMA (linked above) presents compelling evidence of changes in biomarkers due to the decreased pollution that point towards the vast potential for improved health with air quality regulation. The nitty-gritty scientific details are interesting, but more salient, I believe, are the policy ramifications. The reductions in ambient air pollution under the pressure of the IOC and widespread, international attention prove that change is possible, though at a potentially steep economic cost.

China’s dilemma, like many countries with emerging industries, is how to reconcile rapid economic growth with environmental protection. In recent decades, China has achieved industrialization and urbanization. However, China has been much less successful in maintaining the quality of urban air. Several factors challenge the implementation of air pollution controls in China: heavy reliance on coal as a main heating system, especially in subsidized housing; lack of political incentives for trading slower growth for less pollution; economic factors: most Chinese factories and power plants run on extremely thin margins and fines for polluting are generally lower than the cost of controlling emissions; and economic transformation of the landscape, from ubiquitous construction sites to the rapid expansion of the nation’s vehicle fleet. If air pollution in China and other Asian nations cannot be controlled, it could spread to other continents. A recent study by Lin et al provides compelling evidence that Asian emissions may account for as much as 20% of ground-level pollution in the United States. Clean air is a shared global resource. It is in the common interest to maintain air quality for the promotion of global health.

Drink Coffee*, Reduce Heart Failure

The health benefits of coffee [joe, java, brown sludge, nectar of the gods, liquid happiness] have been widely unproven in the peer-reviewed scientific testing. Studies have flip-flopped on the impact of coffee consumption on various health endpoints more than Mitt on… everything.

A recent systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), found that moderate coffee consumption — of around 2 US cups per day (between 295 - 590 mL) — was health protective and decreased the risk of heart failure by 11%. This flies in the face of the current statement on coffee by AHA, based on a single study, which states that coffee may increase the risk of heart failure. The previous study failed to control for potential characteristics of the evaluated population that may also contribute to heart failure.

The systematic review looked across the medical literature beginning in 1966 and found 5 valid studies that followed a cohort of people over time. These studies, when combined, included 6522 heart failure events among 140,220 participants. Four of the studies were conducted in Sweden; one was conducted in Finland. The relationship between coffee consumption and heart failure did not vary by sex, history of myocardial infarction, or diabetes.

There are some shortcomings to the study, of course. The 5 studies included in the analysis relied on self-reported coffee consumption. The type of coffee consumed — that is, the strength of the coffee, whether it was caffeinated or blasphemous decaffeinated, and the brewing method — were not noted in the original studies.

All that said, the review convincingly argues that moderate coffee intake is healthful and heart-protective.

I’m off to sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world with mug o’joe in hand.

* in moderation

200 Years of the New England Journal of Medicine

The New England Journal of Medicine - among the most preeminent medical journals - is 200 years old this year. In recognition of that two century milestone, they’ve put together a number of special (and accessible) articles available here.

In “The Burden of Disease and the Changing Task of Medicine,” authors David Jones, Scott Podolsky, and Jeremy Greene outline shifting patterns of disease and their effect on the role of medicine in society.


The article contains numerous anecdotes, some unbelievable, about diseases and disease states that were common 100 years ago. Some sound familiar; others, not so much. I find the article particularly interesting when it starts to delve into how we define and prioritize diseases, and how that ties into inequities in well-being:

A population’s disease status can also be gauged by lists of common diagnoses at clinics or hospitals, but no single measure definitively characterizes a population’s burden of disease. Choosing among metrics is as much about values and priorities as about science, and it directly affects health policy. Whereas advocates of clinical and research funding for cardiovascular disease might use mortality data to support their claims, mental health advocates can cite morbidity measures in seeking greater resources. Data on causes of childhood mortality would justify certain priorities; analyses of health care spending would justify others. An ideal, sophisticated health policy would integrate all measures to form a holistic map of the burden of disease, but in practice competing interests use different representations of disease burden to recommend particular policies.

And, later in the article:

The persistence of health inequalities challenges our scientific knowledge and political will. Can we explain them and alleviate them? Genetic variations don’t explain why mortality rates double as you cross Boston Harbor from Back Bay to Charlestown or walk up Fifth Avenue from midtown Manhattan into Harlem. Nor do they explain why Asian-American women in Bergen County, New Jersey, live 50% longer than Native American men in South Dakota. Although we know something about the relationships among poverty, stress, allostatic load, and the hypothalamic - pituitary - adrenal axis, doctors and epidemiologists need more precise models that sketch in the steps between social exposure, disease, and death. … Disparities in health and disease are outcomes that are contingent on the ways society structures the lives and risks of individuals.

In many respects, our medical systems are best suited to diseases of the past, not those of the present or future. We must continue to adapt health systems and health policy as the burden of disease evolves. But we must also do more. Diseases can never be reduced to molecular pathways, mere technical problems requiring treatments or cures. Disease is a complex domain of human experience, involving explanation, expectation, and meaning. Doctors must acknowledge this complexity and formulate theories, practices, and systems that fully address the breadth and subtlety of disease.

The article hints at the relationship between public health, health policy, and medicine, but doesn’t delve fully into how those relationships have evolved over the 200 year history of the Journal. It would be interesting to learn more along that vein - how medicine has informed policy and influenced public health measures, etc. Overall, though, an interesting, enlightening read.

Cookstoves & the shadow of the past

There’s been a lot of “controversy” in the development sphere over the value of cookstove projects, stemming largely from one large trial in one country using one (arguably not) improved stove. The abstract nicely sums up their point:

We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions). The difference between the laboratory and this study’s field findings appears to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves. Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and use ultimately declined further over time. More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

Cheers to JPAL for bringing in researchers from diverse backgrounds to think about and work on household air pollution and cookstoves. The field moves forward when alternative perspectives force us to think in new ways.

The rub, though, is that many of us in the field are acutely aware of the explicit requirement that any intervention be fully vetted with the community before being deployed. This isn’t the first time the development world has been interested in cookstoves; past large-scale interventions have had mixed success in part due to precisely what’s outlined in the article. Fully vetting devices in the community to make sure they are culturally appropriate, usable, clean, and efficient is a known requirement.

There’s always a chance an intervention will still fail, but due diligence dictates prolonged and complete community engagement. Because a product is available on the local market and has claims of “proven” laboratory performance means little. The laboratory provides a first step to grade stoves — but the field is where final decisions should be made. And the value of an ‘improved’ label is heavily diluted - we’re barraged by dozens of these products regularly. We derive value from meaningful, beneficial, and unobtrusive interaction with and use of appliances. Devices that fail to provide those traits fail to be used. This is definitely true here and seemingly true everywhere.

Two fundamental conclusions from the recent brouhaha stand out. First, the astonishing hype surrounding this article fits within the larger patterns we see in the news machine. A single article, statement, or editorial snowballs and catalyzes a lot of discussion (in the popular media for a news cycle, and in academia for an eternity). Not a bad thing in and of itself, but problematic when the media ignores the history of available knowledge and treats the news as something profoundly new and unequivocally true. Second, the coverage helps focus and hone the message of those working in the field — never a bad thing. It reminds us of past learnings and helps light a path forward.

In a blog post from June 18 on National Geographic, Radha Muthiah (the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves) and the authors of the above article write,

This research, and the work of others, suggests that the first goal must be to develop cookstoves that people would actually want to acquire, use, and maintain—in addition to ones that meet clear guidelines and standards for cleanliness, efficiency, and safety. To ensure that scarce development resources are spent wisely, all promising cookstove designs must be tested in real world settings to assess their long-run benefits on health and greenhouse gas emission prior to large scale adoption of clean cookstoves. Moreover, additional research should continue in order to provide greater insight into what types of social marketing can improve the general acceptance of the stoves.

No argument there.

Nothing lasts forever... not even Giant Turtle Love.

The world’s oldest animal marriage looks set to have turtley ended after an incredible 115 years when the two Giant Turtles at an Austrian zoo refused to share their cage anymore.

How’d the zookeepers know? (Also, great Salmon in the sky, TURTLEY? barf.)

Zoo staff realised the pair had fallen out after Bibi attacked her partner - biting off a chunk of his shell - and then carrying out several further attacks until he was moved to another enclosure.

Although they have no teeth Giant Turtles have a horn rimmed mouth and powerful jaws that are a potent weapon when they want to cause damage. Each of the 100 kilo animals has the ability to kill the other if they wanted.

Zoo staff have told the experts that nothing has changed in the pair’s routine - but Bibi in particular wanted to have the cage to herself and be a single.


Astronaut Don Pettit's Photos from Space

“My star trail images are made by taking a time exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes. However, with modern digital cameras, 30 seconds is about the longest exposure possible, due to electronic detector noise effectively snowing out the image. To achieve the longer exposures I do what many amateur astronomers do. I take multiple 30-second exposures, then ‘stack’ them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure.”

Fascinating and striking. Also, Don Pettit seems like the coolest imaginable dude. Megan Garber reported in the Atlantic that

Pettit has found a totally worthwhile way to pass the time not spent berthing space capsules, installing scientific equipment, being a bold explorer into the final frontier, etc. Pettit has been orchestrating space-based science demonstrations, broadcasting them to earth via YouTube in a series he calls Science off the Sphere.

Pettit is clearly incredibly excited about these demonstrations — and his enthusiasm makes for buoyant viewing, even in zero gravity. A couple weeks ago, the astronaut, chemical engineer, and Eagle Scout took zero-gravitied water droplets and used sound waves to manipulate them. It was beautiful and powerful and weird. Yesterday, though, Pettit outdid himself — by stripping down to a seemingly self-cut muscle T, taking a vacuum cleaner hose, and using said hose to create a makeshift, spaceborn didgeridoo.

None of that is a typo.

Alan Alda's Flame Challenge

When actor, scholar, and activist Alan Alda was eleven, he asked a teacher a question that had been plaguing him. “What’s a flame? What’s going on in there?”

The teacher paused, as Alda recollects, and replaced one unknown with another, commenting, “It’s oxidation.” Alda notes that as an encounter with the failure of scientific communication.

Unbeknownst to me, Alda has pursued science communication pretty actively over the last few years, between interviews on Scientific American Frontiers and work at SUNY Stony Brook. He wrote recently,

I began to think that clarity in communicating science is at the very heart of science itself. And I wondered if written and oral communication skills could be taught systematically throughout the entire length of a student’s science education. The State University of New York at Stony Brook picked up on this idea, founding the Center for Communicating Science. I became part of the teaching faculty, and we began experimenting. We are now teaching communication courses for credit to graduate students in the sciences. Students learn to distill their message and write without jargon. They also experience an innovative course in improvisation, which teaches them to communicate with a live audience with the ease and familiarity of an animated conversation. The intention, of course, is not to turn scientists into actors but to allow them to be more authentically themselves in public inter- actions. Most of all, we discourage any form of “dumbing down” the science. The goal is to achieve clarity and vividness.

He also returned to that original question about flames and opened a competition. The winner is embedded below — pretty outstanding little video created by Ben Ames, an American PhD student studying quantum optics.

A Unified Theory of... Muppets

The same thing is true of Muppet Theory, a little-known, poorly understood philosophy that holds that every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet. Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running.

Tim Kreider on Ray Bradbury

…it is worth pausing, on the occasion of Ray Bradbury’s death, to notice how uncannily accurate was his vision of the numb, cruel future we now inhabit.

Mr. Bradbury’s most famous novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” features wall-size television screens that are the centerpieces of “parlors” where people spend their evenings watching interactive soaps and vicious slapstick, live police chases and true-crime dramatizations that invite viewers to help catch the criminals. People wear “seashell” transistor radios that fit into their ears. Note the perversion of quaint terms like “parlor” and “seashell,” harking back to bygone days and vanished places, where people might visit with their neighbors or listen for the sound of the sea in a chambered nautilus.

Mr. Bradbury didn’t just extrapolate the evolution of gadgetry; he foresaw how it would stunt and deform our psyches. “It’s easy to say the wrong thing on telephones; the telephone changes your meaning on you,” says the protagonist of the prophetic short story “The Murderer.” “First thing you know, you’ve made an enemy.”

Anyone who’s had his intended tone flattened out or irony deleted by e-mail and had to explain himself knows what he means. The character complains that he’s relentlessly pestered with calls from friends and employers, salesmen and pollsters, people calling simply because they can. Mr. Bradbury’s vision of “tired commuters with their wrist radios, talking to their wives, saying, ‘Now I’m at Forty-third, now I’m at Forty-fourth, here I am at Forty-ninth, now turning at Sixty-first” has gone from science-fiction satire to dreary realism.

“It was all so enchanting at first,” muses our protagonist. “They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.”

WSJ: GZA + Science: Rapper Finds Muse in the Stars

So, so dope.

On an early May afternoon in the offices of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, a model of Saturn caught the eye of a 45-year-old high-school dropout, and a lyric was born.

“I thought, this is probably the longest spinning record in the world,” said GZA, the hip-hop artist and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, referring to the ring system surrounding the planet. About a week later, the words crystallized and he offered them over a vegetarian lunch on the Upper West Side.

“God put the needle on the disc of Saturn / The record he played revealed blueprints and patterns,” he rapped in his signature rhythmic baritone, offering a taste from his forthcoming album, “Dark Matter,” an exploration of the cosmos filtered through the mind of a rapper known among his peers as “the Genius.”

Informed by meetings with top physicists and cosmologists at MIT and Cornell University, “Dark Matter” is intended to be the first in a series of albums that GZA—born Gary Grice in Brooklyn in 1966—will put out in the next few years, several of which are designed to get a wide audience hooked on science.

“Dark Matter” is scheduled for a fall release. Another album will focus on the life aquatic, a subject he’s fleshing out with visits to the labs of marine biologists and researchers, as well as meetings with the likes of Philippe Cousteau.

“After ‘Dark Matter,’ he said, “we’ll be back on earth, but in the ocean.”

Still, he believes that “Dark Matter” will tap into the innate curiosity of listeners—even those with no outward interest in science.

“I don’t think people have ever really been in touch with science,” he said. “They’re drawn to it, but they don’t know why they’re drawn to it. For example, you may be blown away by the structure of something, like a soccer ball or a geodesic dome, with its hexagonal shapes. Or how you can take a strand of hair and can get someone’s whole drug history. They’re different forms of science, but it’s still science.”

He plans to package “Dark Matter” with a short illustrated book that may also include the album’s lyrics and a glossary, “like an epic textbook,” he said.

NYT Magazine: 32 Innovations that Will Change Your Tomorrow

Mixed feeling about this article — entirely Western-focused. Looks bad in the context of solving bigger global problem through innovation. In NYTs defense, though, they do title the article with “your tomorrow” which points toward their base, who probably aren’t as concerned with water, sanitation, household energy, and other blights of the bottom billion.

All that aside, this bit is really nice and broadly applicable.

We tend to rewrite the histories of technological innovation, making myths about a guy who had a great idea that changed the world. In reality, though, innovation isn’t the goal; it’s everything that gets you there. It’s bad financial decisions and blueprints for machines that weren’t built until decades later. It’s the important leaps forward that synthesize lots of ideas, and it’s the belly-up failures that teach us what not to do.

When we ignore how innovation actually works, we make it hard to see what’s happening right in front of us today. If you don’t know that the incandescent light was a failure before it was a success, it’s easy to write off some modern energy innovations — like solar panels — because they haven’t hit the big time fast enough.

Worse, the fairy-tale view of history implies that innovation has an end. It doesn’t. What we want and what we need keeps changing. The incandescent light was a 19th-century failure and a 20th- century success. Now it’s a failure again, edged out by new technologies, like LEDs, that were, themselves, failures for many years.

That’s what this issue is about: all the little failures, trivialities and not-quite-solved mysteries that make the successes possible. This is what innovation looks like. It’s messy, and it’s awesome.


Business Insider: Tar Sands: A View from Above

Another look at the Athabascan tar sands operation, this time from above. The scale of the undertaking — both logistically and literally — is mind-bogglingly immense. From the air, the trucks look like micro-machines playing in the mud. Micro-machines, though, don’t have tires 17 ft tall; they don’t claim to be able to roll over full-sized Ford and Chevy trucks with little effort; they aren’t bucketwheels, the “largest crawling machine in existence”; they don’t cost 40-6000 USD each. They don’t obliterate their surroundings so completely that you can see the whole blighted region on Google Maps (embedded below - zoom in, scroll around).

Two things stand out. First, the whole thing is on the scale of a hellish scene from a Michael Bay Transformers movie — the machines; the muted colors, occasionally splotched with a frightening vibrance; the flames; the mud-spattered faces; the destruction. A disaster, in every possible sense of the word.

Second, and more seriously, the impact here is tremendous. There’s the immediate environmental impact, which is severe. Then there’s the fact that the tar sands contain two times the carbon dioxide emitted by humanity’s cumulative fossil fuel use. The long-term implications of accessing and using this resource, while continuing to exploit our current stores of coal, natural gas, and oil, is nothing short of apocalyptic.

James Hansen, the pre-eminent climate scientist, put it nicely in a recent NYT Editorial.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.

See more pictures from Business Insider’s trip at Flickr. Check out my first post on the Athabascan Tar Sands.

Burn: An Energy Journal

It is the fundamental issue of our time: Energy; where we get it; how we use it; what happens then. It powers our homes and our economy; it creates troubled alliances and disturbing divisions; it empowers and impoverishes; it enables almost all that we do and now threatens all that we have become.

The Peabody-award winning SoundVision Productions presents BURN: An Energy Journal, a broadcast and digital project hosted by one of public radio's most trusted journalists and master storytellers, Alex Chadwick. Alex will explore our energy future through the intimate stories of visionaries of research, maverick inventors, industry insiders and concerned citizens. These personal stories will help explain how and why we face an energy crisis, the dilemma of the continuing demand for energy, the realities and consequences of a mostly carbon-based industry and infrastructure, and some possible alternatives and personal/global solutions to an energy and climate future in the coming decades. BURN will follow the quest for Energy answers and the stirring public initiative required to transition to this new energy world.

I'm listening to the first episode now about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and what it means for nuclear power in the future. Really well put together and reported. And timely. Highly recommended. Listen here.

Interactive, motion-filled US Windmap

A pretty stunning visualization of wind direction and speed over the continental US. Data is pulled from the National Digital Forecast Database every hour, so the visualization is almost in real-time. And, impressively, they're using HTML5 to draw the map and wind animation.

Beautiful + impressive.

Superconductivity in FeTe1-xSx induced by alcohol

Cue never-ending jokes.

A Japanese scientist who "likes alcohol very much" has discovered that soaking samples of material in hot party drinks for 24 hours turns them into superconductors at ambient temperature.

Dr. Yoshihiko Takano of the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) in Tsukuba, Japan, made the discovery after a party, soaking samples of a potential superconductor in hot alcoholic drinks before testing them next day for superconductivity. The commercial alcoholic beverages, especially wine, were much more effective than either water or pure alcohol.

We found that hot commercial alcohol drinks are much effective to induce superconductivity in FeTe0.8S0.2 compared to water, ethanol and water-ethanol mixture. Both the highest zero resistivity temperature of 7.8 K and superconducting volume fraction of 62.4 % are observed for the FeTe0.8S0.2 sample heated in red wine. Any elements in alcohol drinks, other than water and ethanol, would play an important role to induce superconductivity.

athabascan tar sands = "energy insanity"

Classes started today. Began my return to academia in what I'm told was true doctoral student fashion -- I missed my first class because I was on a conference call about a potential project :). It was completely worth it. Its fun to glean and interact [even minimally, at this point] with brilliant, engaged folks.

I made it to the second class, in a big theater filled to the brim with an eclectic smattering of students - undergrads, masters, doctoral, the works, from every discipline across the board. The class is out of the Energy & Resources Group and is titled "Energy and Society." Its going to be awesome and cover a breadth of topics pretty quickly.

We concluded today's lecture with a brief discussion of fossil fuel stores, much of which was enlightening to me. I knew about some of the general environmental issues surrounding tar sands and the rampant destruction producing crude from tar sands entails; I had little clue about the complete energy inefficiency of the process. The prof noted that if we include shale and oil/tar sands in our peak oil calculations, the notion that we've hit 50% capacity becomes moot -- we've hit something like 2.5% capacity. That said, he mentioned that if we assume sweet crude to require environmental/energy inputs equal to 1, tar sands is 30 or 40% higher. The process for refining tar sands [which i'll revisit as I learn more] goes something like the following:

Dig a deep-ass pit. Around 100m down, you'll hit tar sands, or as the Canadians like to call it, oil sands. Mix with water and separate the oil. There's a lot of sulfur in tar sands, and we don't like sulfur. So we take CH4, strip the carbon off, and bubble this hydrogen through the tar sand slurry. This'll form H2S. Precipitate the elemental sulfur in an ice bath, release the hydrogen into the atmosphere. You waste natural gas, you throw hydrogen away, and you get all of this goodness:

Sulfur Stockpile

Apparently there's a glut of sulfur in the market, so that just sits there in all its inimitable yellowness. Piles upon piles of sulfur cakes.

This process above is over-simplified, but that doesn't change the fact that its completely f-ing insane. The size of the Athabascan tar sands hellhole is equivalent to Saudi Arabia's oil field before it was pilfered. The government of Alberta thinks it can push production beyond 3 million barrels per day. Hard to imagine a world in which we're not reliant on oil when we keep finding ways to extract it.

Yu Z-X, Li S-H, Evans J, Pillarisetti A, Li H, Li X-J. Mutant huntingtin causes context-dependent neurodegeneration in mice with Huntington's disease. J. Neurosci. 2003 Mar.15; 23(6):2193-202.

Yu Z-X, Li S-H, Evans J, Pillarisetti A, Li H, Li X-J. Mutant huntingtin causes context-dependent neurodegeneration in mice with Huntington’s disease. J. Neurosci. 2003 Mar.15; 23(6):2193-202.

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