Tinsel Wing

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Starlings and nested songs

Noam Chomsky pegged "recursive grammar" as the unique feature of human speech. We can recognize speech patterns that are defined by nested structures ("The cat that the sitter that the service that I called hired fed died," or "What did you bring a book I didn't even want to be read out of to up for?"), in which the final piece of the pattern may be arbitrarily far from the initial piece.

Now it seems we aren't alone. Starlings can be trained to recognize and produce recursive song patterns. They get it, when they are rewarded for an arbitrarily long string of rattle calls followed by an equal number of warble calls. It's a skill that's been tested and found lacking in tamarin monkeys, but starlings are up to it.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

A long long trail to Iranian A-bombs

When they tell you Iran could have nukes any minute now, reply that they can't get 'em for years, probably not until "into the next decade". Who says? Bush's own Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, that's who. The transcript of his National Press Club briefing is also, at least for now, on Negroponte'sDNI site.

Bush is listening. Use big words.

[On edit: The title phrase did not originate with me. If you're looking for bumper stickers and other paraphernalia, try this site. But y'all come back, hear?]

You may have heard about the suit Electronic Frontier Foundation brought against AT&T, claiming that they're running all their Internet traffic in selected cities through the NSA.
The class-action suit, which seeks an end to the collaboration it alleges, is based in part on the testimony of Mark Klein, a retired technician for the company who says Internet data passing through an AT&T switching center in San Francisco is being diverted to a secret room. There, Mr. Klein says, the security agency has installed powerful computers to eavesdrop without warrants on the digital data and forward the information to an undisclosed place.

Now the Feds are trying to quash the suit (U.S. Steps Into Wiretap Suit Against AT&T), by invoking the State Secrets Privilege. They're saying EFF mustn't be allowed to introduce its evidence that the NSA is in gross violation of the law, because then the gummint would have to deny it, and saying out loud whether or not the NSA stands in massive breach of the fourth amendment would be giving Osama TMI.

Glenn Greenwald provides his usual astute analysis of the State Secrets Privilege, its history and its abuse potential, in "Building the Secrecy Wall Higher and Higher". (Fair warning: it's long.)

A mathematical farmer's market

Every few weeks since '92 or so, first on Usenet, now on the Web, John Baez of U Cal Riverside has published This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics. He slogs through the original research papers so you don't have to, and then he explains the good parts. I've just added it to my link list.

Why do I call it a "farmer's market"? Because it's always fresh and tasty, it comes from many fields and vineyards, and he gives it his own local flavor. The intended audience is fools like me: with an undergrad degree in math or physics, and a desire to deceive ourselves into thinking that we're keeping up. If it's to do with string theory or quantum gravity, he's on it.His gifts for exposition, and for fun, are enormous.

This week he takes up the quincuncial mapping of the sphere (see figure) and its connection to rational tangles. His homepage has links to other good stuff.

Friday, April 28, 2006

A problem from hell

(With not very abject apologies to Samantha Power.) There's a march in DC this Sunday, to press the government to get international troops in to stop the genocide in Darfur.

This shouldn't be, and I think is not, a partisan issue at all. When Clinton failed to step into Rwanda, it was not just a shame for the Democratic party, but for America. And as near as I can tell, the Bush administration is in the throes of the same kind of non-partisan lassitude, born not of ideology but of inertia.

If you can be there, great. If not, MoveOn is sponsoring a virtual march. You can click on through and sign their petition.

Britannica helps you rate your democracy

The King of Zembla blog pointed the way to this 9 minute Encyclopedia Britannica classroom film from the 50s. (Video and sound, DSL highly recommended.) Not appearing today in any civics classroom near you, but you can try out this simple democracy / despotism scale at home on the country of your choice, say countries with initials like U.S.A. or I.r.a.q.

Black holes are green

The idea's been around for a long time. Misner Thorne and Wheeler's classic 1973 text Gravitation explained in Chapter 33 how to use a black hole to convert your garbage into electricity with astounding efficiency. They had a neato diagram of the ringworld civilization, the BH, and the trajectory of the garbage rocket.

A NASA press release Monday tells us we've proved it's happening out there. The X-ray observatory Chandra was able to measure the efficiency of a black hole engine, which uses infalling gas as fuel to power a process that scoops out humongous cavities in the black hole's surrounding material. (Here's a larger photo.) Equivalent efficiency in a car engine would give you an EPA rating of a billion miles per gallon.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Cape Wind has an Alanis moment

Isn't it ironic?

Ted Kennedy drops the ball, doing perhaps the only truly sleazy thing he's ever done as a Senator. And it backfires. Even when the guy does bad, he can't help doing good.

Cape Wind is the country's first truly major wind power project, to be based offshore in Nantucket Sound. On completion, it'll furnish electricity for 3/4 of Cape Cod, and enable the Bay State to meet its modestly ambitious renewable energy goals for the next decade. It's met intense opposition from wealthy beachfront homeowners on the Cape, and Kennedy has been leading the NIMBY pack, with Republican governor Mitt Romney nipping at his heels, trying to vie for the pack's alpha male spot.

Nevertheless, after years of wrangling, and resolution of initial fears about environmental effects on birds and fish, Cape Wind was on its way to approval. Then came the sleaze. Two Alaskan reps, Young and Stevens, slipped an amendment into the must-pass Coast Guard spending authorization bill, which would give the governor of a state final veto power over any offshore wind plans in the state's coastal waters, regardless of how many reviews and hoops it had jumped through. Kennedy gave the end-run his blessing, and started lining up Democratic support for the amendment in the Senate.

Then came the gas prices.

Today the Boston Globe reports that New Mexico GOP senators Bingaman and Domenici have started rounding up support for Cape Wind in the upper house. Now, where energy is concerned, these are two bad actors. They are behind the worse of the two fake global warming bills I blogged about two days ago. But the gas prices are putting the heat on them to start looking green. An electorate rapidly arming itself with pitchforks seems likely to demand from them outrageous acts of disloyalty to the oily hand that feeds them, like maybe a repeal of last summer's $14.1 billion tax break.

Suddenly, the perfect solution drops into their hands: not only can they substitute free wind for a windfall tax, not only can they pose as environmental heroes - they can poke a sharp stick in Ted Kennedy's eye at the same time! It's like dangling a wabbit in front of Elmer Fudd, or a new war in front of George Junior. How could they resist?

So the House bill is suddenly sidelined for several weeks, and Greenpeace gets to enjoy the company of some strange new bedfellows.

Update: Commenter Over the Left Shoulder is right: I hadn't been that familar with Bingaman, but he is (D-NM), not (R-NM). And he's ordinarily a pretty good eco-actor. I see his ratings from League of Conservation Voters have run in the 70 and 80 percent range, and he helped vote down the latest ANWR drilling proposal. Still, EMK's handprints on the Cape Wind killer amendment will make it easier for Domenici to round up GOP votes against it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Did I mention the Black Iron Prison?

Tucked away into an intelligence bill just introduced into the House, Section 423 of H.R. 5020, is a provision authorizing the CIA and the NSA to make arrests, "for any felony cognizable under the laws of the United States, if such personnel have probable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing that felony offense."

Not one, but two, secret police forces will soon be law. Once they've set up the KGB, will they bother to tell us when they're setting up Lubyanka?

A tip of the nicteis wing to the Federation of American Scientists for the catch.

A real global warming bill - and two fakes

Senators McCain (R-AZ) and Lieberman (D-CT) aren't my favorite lawmakers. But I have to give them big chops for foresight and persistence on this one.

After proposing a global warming bill which failed less spectacularly than you'd think (it got 47 votes in 2003), they're back with the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act of 2005 (S. 1151). (The link isn't to the act itself, but to a meaty summary of its contents by Pew Research.) It would mandate a cap-and-trade system on carbon dioxide emissions which would require a return to 2000 levels within 10 years. Revenues from the system would be plowed into new technology.

Since the public is really beginning to wake up, the energy industry recognizes that there is some risk of real action. Therefore, two alternate bills have been introduced by friends of the fiends who are administering a hotfoot to our children. The first, from Dianne Feinstein, slims down McCain-Lieberman to an ineffectual shadow of its former self. The second, from Bingaman and Domenici, would call itself an anti-global-warming bill, but would actually be designed to accelerate the production of CO2.

An excellent Salon article compares the three bills.

McCain-Lieberman may suffer from weak green support, because it includes some pilot nuclear plants among its new technology provisions. But it is the real deal, worth fighting for. The Bingaman obscenity has, of course, the inside track and the full support of the Republican leadership, both in committee and in the full chamber.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Sands of temps perdu

Face it. When it's all added up at the end, we're not going to be able to point to that much time well spent. So the goal must be to maximize the sum of time spent well and time wasted well.

It's your call whether this contributes to that sum. Just be warned that if you click here, the sands of time will slip away faster than you planned.

In which nicteis exposes himself

Since the creation of this blog more or less fell upon me out of the blue, it's taken me a little while to finish considering whether I wanted to be anonymous, or permit my real life self to associate with the likes of nicteis and Pickle Lips Now.

My conclusion: there's no point in anonymity. It's too easily breached, it would inhibit nicteis from puffing stuff that "I" have done. And the place is unlikely to draw the attention of anyone but (1) friends I've directed here or, in the worst case, (2) the keepers of the Black Iron Prison, who have their own sinister methods of extracting information anyway.

So I'll say this once, and not worry about whether it comes up again. IRL I'm Royce (last name and only known web photo, concealed among assorted colleagues, to be found on Stargirl's page.) MWM, two kids, one grandkid and one on the way. An unrepentant liberal since '62 or so; an unrepentant though intermittently penitent born again Christian since '72; ancient majors in math and philosophy. Currently employed as a computer geek at MIT, where I have the privilege of working alongside dedicated real live astrophysicist and engineer types who are
  • Smarter than I am and
  • Like MIT, not responsible for any opinions expressed herein.
What demographics have I left uncovered? Oh, yeah - classwise, I've looked at life from both sides now, having spent at least ten years in both the bottom and the top income quintiles.

On the Internets, I've posted extensively on Usenet under my own name, mainly on Bible groups (the central obsessions were exposing Christian Identity proselytizers, arguing for gay rights, against five point Calvinism, and for a radical re-examination of atonement); here and there under my Salon moniker of pt bridgeport; and under my own name as a top 1000 Amazon reviewer.

Should I ever get around to creating a personal home page, or a personal blog, I'll link it once here. Otherwise, that's about enough about me.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal...

...or tolerate those who do." West Point Graduates Against the War is a new organization of West Pointers who have concluded that the academy's honor code forbids them to tolerate the lies on which the Iraq war was founded.

Their web pages speak with passion and moral authority, laid over a substructure of solid research.

Scotty's parting words

What Scott McLellan said to Dubya as he formally stepped down from his post as presidential spokesliar: "I have given it my all, sir, and I've given you my all."

What my significant other heard, when the remark was aired on NPR's weekly sound bite review: "I have given it my ulcer..."

What we all wish he'd said: "I've given it all she's got, sir. My engines canna take it any more."

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Secrecy's Double Shield

The ACLU put on a great local seminar in my town on the NSA domestic spying. A heavily bearded chap meandered through the assembly, passing out copies of the "loosechange" DVD, which has become the primary means of disseminating the MIHOP (i.e., the Bush administration "Made It Happen On Purpose") theory of the events of 9/11.

More and more folks, some of them quite bright, seem caught up in this particular family of conspiracy theories. The Wachowski brothers outed themselves in a memorable scene in V for Vendetta, Sean Penn has got into the act, and two of my own siblings have been convinced MIHOP buffs for some while. I haven't ventured yet to pop the DVD into my player. I'm not eager to slide down the rabbit hole. Having spent far too much time monitoring the discourse of neo-Nazis and "Christian" Identity enthusiasts, I'm all too aware of how the self-reinforcing, self-justifying walls of a really juicy conspiracy theory can close in around a person.

But there's a simple reason why we are awash in whispers. The Bush administration has scattered the seed of secrecy as wide and deep as it knows how. It is their firm belief that the less the electorate knows about what its government is doing, the more smoothly their own business can be done. At the same time, they lack the skill, or perhaps the interest, to create detailed cover narratives for their deeds. They'd rather rely on a handful of focus group tested slogans. Human nature abhors a narrative vacuum. So from those scattered seeds, a lush botanical garden of stories has sprouted: speculations, justifications, and conspiracy theories. "Here's what George Bush is doing to protect us/ to destroy us."

But how to account for the secrecy overkill? How to account for the mindless, reflex classification of everything in sight, the Geheimnis freshly stamped on documents long since made public, the instructions to deny all FOIA requests if any pretext can be found to deny them?

The overkill sets two layers of shielding around high crimes and misdemeanors. The first layer: when every inch of the White House lawn is covered by heavy rocks, it takes a deal more work to locate and uncover the two or three dozen under which the Easter eggs of deep corruption are to be found. And the press, fortunately, is lazy.

The second layer: maximize the secrets and you maximize the conspiracy theories. Force opponents to guess what jiggery-pokery you're up to, and most of the guesses will be wrong. You can wait for three or four Bush-hating theories to grow around some covert policy, pick one of the ones that happens to be wrong, and let loose just enough information to debunk it. Thereby all the other "conspiracy theories", including the correct one, are discredited. Politicians and media alike grow wary of pursuing them, and concentrate on local highway projects or missing blondes respectively.

It has worked pretty well. There is, however, a downside for the burrowers in the dark. Once one of the conspiracy theories about secret X is verified, all the theories about secrets A, B, C, Y and Z gain credence, even the ones that posit corruption even worse than the real dog's breakfast you were trying to hide. As the truth about manipulated Iraq intelligence grows clearer, the public more disenchanted, and the media bolder, the day may come when the conventional wisdom will not rule even MIHOP entirely out of court.

Where to find the first ten million victims

NPR's Living on Earth and Salon are producing a joint web-radio series on "Early Signs" of global climate change. (You can get past Salon's prescription barrier by clicking through ads.) This week's issue concerns the impact on Bangladesh, where crop failure from change in rain patterns, and destruction of village drinking water supplies by rising salt water, are already becoming pressing problems. It will also be the front line for rising oceans. Even the most modest ocean level changes that models predict by century's end will displace tens of millions of people.

"These things are the beginning of sorrows." Matthew 25:8

Friday, April 21, 2006

Casey Jones, better watch your speed

The next misbegotten war is barreling down the track at us, full speed. The Iraq invasion will be to the Iran attack as foolish is to certifiable. Unfortunately, engineer Bush is pushing the throttle wide open.

Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly cites detailed chapter and verse showing how right Scott Ritter is in his claim that the Bush administration is running full tilt away from actual diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program. For starters, he quotes Flynt Leverett, a former aide to Condoleeza Rice:

In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran's power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A conversation I had shortly after leaving the government with a senior conservative Iranian official strongly suggested that this was the case. Unfortunately, the administration's response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.

Much more at the link.

Harry Reid, God bless him, has called on the Administration to enter into direct talks with Iran. It's time for citizens to add our own voices. Loud enough to drown out the engineer's jolly "Toot! Toot!"

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ritter: It's the oil economy, stupid

Scott Ritter read Iraq right when everyone else, left right and center, was reading it wrong. Now he's given a long interview to San Diego city beat. He explains how we can tell that "diplomacy" over Iran (and omigorsh, they've pressed none other than Ghorbanifar, the emperor of arms deal sleaze, into service to watch over the negotiations) is going to fail, and is designed to fail.

The flaming Barad-Durian eye of the administration has not turned toward Iran because of its nuclear program. If they'd been serious about weaning Teheran off nukes, they could have responded to any of several overtures in the last several years. No, the neocons want Iran to have a nuclear program, because it gives them the excuse to pursue their real goal: regime change.

33% and descending

The good news is that the latest job approval number for Bush is 33%. The better news is that the source is Fox. That sinks him 3 points below the previous low water mark established in the wake of Katrina.

If he gets caught on the way down, feel free to give him a tug with your mouse. It's therapeutic.

Monday, April 17, 2006

C'mon, boys. Let's head them rustlers off at the pass.

Patriotism is not dead. Raw Story reports that Reps. Kucinich (D-OH)and DeFazio (D-OR) now stand up to be counted, in two letters to President Bush.

Kucinich, in part:

Recently, it has been reported that U.S. troops are conducting military operations in Iran. If true, it appears that you have already made the decision to commit U.S. military forces to a unilateral conflict with Iran, even before direct or indirect negotiations with the government of Iran had been attempted, without UN support and without authorization from the U.S. Congress.

The presence of U.S. troops in Iran constitutes a hostile act against that country. At a time when diplomacy is urgently needed, it escalates an international crisis. It undermines any attempt to negotiate with the government of Iran. And it will undermine U.S. diplomatic efforts at the U.N...

...Any military deployment to Iran would constitute an urgent matter of national significance. I urge you to report immediately to Congress on all activities involving American forces in Iran. I look forward to a prompt response.

DeFazio, in part:

...Your Administration has argued that this "Commander-in-Chief" clause grants the President wide latitude to engage U.S. military forces abroad without prior authorization from Congress. You further argue that previous unilateral actions by presidents of both political parties add credence to your interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

Contrary to your Administration's broad reading, nothing in the history of the "Commander-in-Chief" clause suggests that the authors of the provision intended it to grant the Executive Branch the authority to engage U.S. forces in military action whenever and wherever it sees fit without any prior authorization from Congress. The founders of our country intended this power to allow the President to repel sudden attacks and immediate threats, not to unilaterally launch, without congressional approval, large-scale preventive military actions against foreign threats that are likely years away from materializing. With respect to Iran, according to the most definitive U.S. intelligence report, Iran is likely a decade away from developing a nuclear weapon. ..

Wilson redivivus

President Bush's champions are fond of nattering on about how "Wilsonian" he is. That was always laughable. Wilson tried to establish the League of Nations; Bush tries to eliminate the United Nations. Wilson presided over expansion of the franchise, and institution of a progressive income tax; Bush presides over voter suppression campaigns and shoving taxes onto the middle class. And so on.

But Wilson's most famous folly was his tagging WW I as "the war to end all wars." Now, Bush is contemplating first use of nuclear weapons, in order to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. So in his most disastrous folly, he is likely to be an (updated) Wilsonian after all, remembered chiefly for launching "the nuclear war to end all nuclear wars."

It worked so well the first time.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Milkglass earrings

Poetry magazine is mostly behind a subscription wall, but each month it makes some teasers accessible to the public. In March, the issue's best poem was among the teasers:
by Katherine Larson

For Max Rojas

Once a month
when the moon loses everything,
Don Max takes a chair
to the edge of the sea.
Black sand beach & green-backed heron.
The moon
casts off her milkglass earrings.
I am nothing, she says, but black & white.
Max feels for his pipe in his pocket.
Takes it, knocks it against his palm.
I am old! She cries. I get gooseflesh
in the dark. Don Max is looking for his tobacco.
Don Max has found a match.
You don’t know how hard it is
to come back from nothing.
Don Max smiles & lights up.
I keep making the same mistakes, she says.
I think you should leave me, she says.
Through smoke, she watches Don Max
fold a strip of seaweed into a grasshopper.
Leave me for your own good! She demands.
Don Max has set the grasshopper in the sand.
Besides, I am too beautiful.
She speaks it as though it makes her sad.
I’ll find other lovers. I will
forget you.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Latest from the Proliferator-In-Chief

For all its incompetence, the Bush administration has achieved a remarkable consistency in one thing: all its policies tend to maximize the quantity of nuclear weapons running around loose in the world, and to minimize the world's ability to control them. (The same is true for chemical and biological weapons, but that's another story.) Whether it's
  • the initial slashing of funds for Nunn-Lugar, the US program which dismantles retired Soviet nuclear weaponry; or
  • the refusal to raise that funding past its old levels; or
  • the go-ahead-I-dare-you attitude Bush initially took toward North Korea's nuclear program; or
  • the trashing of the nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, renegotiating it so that no nukes would actually have to be retired until the very end of the treaty period; or
  • the blessing given to India's nuclear program; or
  • the official policy asserting that we will engage in first use of nuclear weapons if we like, even against non-nuclear powers; or
  • Rumsfeld's push to get atomic weaponry launched into orbit; or
  • the so far failed effort to get Congress to approve the use of tactical nukes as bunker busters or
  • attacking Iraq, a country which the White House knew had no nuclear program, thus serving notice on any hostile state without WMDs that it will be accused of harboring WMDs and attacked unless it actually has them, so it had better hurry up and procure them ASAP
- and I've probably forgotten a few - all salient decisions have encouraged countries to proliferate. And all (like the refusal to fully inspect port cargo, as Democrats have proposed in every Congressional year) encourage terrorists to revel in the manifold sources of nuclear weapons, and in the ease of transporting them to American targets.

Now the LA Times reports that Bush plans to start manufacturing 250 new nuclear bombs a year. A clear signal continues to go forth into all the world: Hey, all you little countries out there, wondering whether or not to crank up your uranium centrifuges: Uncle Sam's words say to do as we say, not as we do; but Uncle Sam's doings say to do as we do, not as we say for you to do.

It's only one more faggot on an already raging bonfire. But I would breathe easier if the President could try to be a little less consistent.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Why not? It worked for restaurants

Pastors everywhere, look sharp. You never know who may be sitting in your pew...

The Mystery Worshipper site appears to be for real. Despite the 'ship of fools' in the URL, not even for snark. Unfortunately their coverage is bound to be thin, but they've beaten Consumer Reports to a potentially huge market. Maybe they should make a wiki out of it.

Random thought on the Hammer

You can only do the hokey-pokey so long before you have to do the pokey.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Self portrait

This is Nyctea scandiaca, as captured on the Illinois raptor center site. Always wise and noble, in this photo for some reason he appears uncharacteristically sheepish. Perhaps he has just learned that his reputation is about to be sullied by the present site.

Hammer's down

Through that notoriously wild-eyed liberal, the Hammer's dear friend Chris Matthews, Tom DeLay yesterday leaked the announcement that today he would announce his withdrawal from the 22nd district race.

After performing pirouettes like every other actual liberal in the country, a dance even more of pure relief for our corruption-battered nation than of schadenfruede, I confess I started to feel a little ashamed. Was this any way to hold up the banner of my alternate persona, Pickle Lips Now? Surely this glass is nine tenths empty somehow?

Well, no. The glass is three fourths full. Pickle Lips is going to have to content himself with the following worry: will DeLay set a bad example? What if Katherine Harris (R-FL) and Kent Conrad (Grifter-ND) should be moved to stop, consider their real chances, and withdraw in time for the GOP to field replacements? But even PLN has to concede that both possibilities are remote.

Mercury falling

From Massachusetts, some cheerful news, reported in the April 3 Boston Globe: Mercury down 32% in fish near Mass. incinerators.

The Bay State passed regs in 1998 shutting down incinerators that didn't properly scrub mercury from their smoke. Perch are a signature species because they accumulate mercury more effectively than other fish. For perch in waters near the incinerators, mercury levels have declined 32% in seven years, half the way to edible levels. Elsewhere in the commonwealth, levels have declined by 12%. The expectation had been that it would take as long for the metal to clear out of biosystems as it took to build up, but it turns out the stuff flushes out far faster than anyone had hoped.

The new measurements prove two things: first, that we do have effective means for cleaning up mercury. The battle is very winnable. And second, because of the sharp variation between sites close to incinerators and the sites far away, we have learned that mercury does indeed accumulate in "hot spots". That's some heavy ammo against the Bush EPA's plans to control mercury using emissions trading alone. (Emissions trading works well with pollutants that are widely dispersed, because every locale gets the benefit of cleanup at any other locale. When the pollutant doesn't travel, the dirtiest spots can remain as dirty as ever.)

The Bush EPA, of course, has reacted with a resounding call for further study. Astoundingly, it also asserts that if we have proof that mercury accumulates locally around hot spots, that argues in favor of emissions trading. Why? Because the dirtiest spots will get the biggest payment when they clean up and sell their emissions, so they'll have the biggest incentive to clean up. Set aside the fact that this line of argument is unaffected one way or another by the presence of hot spots. Has it not occurred to these clowns that you can't calculate incentives by asking about income, without asking about expenses? That the dirtiest spots are also the most expensive to clean? These are the folks who brought you a "Clear Skies Act" whose purpose was to clear the skies of breathable air. They would never be disingenous, would they?

*NOAA on the 2005 bleaching event

I shouldn't have been so paranoid. The NOAA site never went away; my googling skills must have slipped badly for a bit. The page is here, with chart and multiple maps. A more comprehensive report is promised once the quantitative data is tallied.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Requiem for a canary

The day this blog began, the AP carried an extensive story titled "Caribbean coral suffers record death":

A one-two punch of bleaching from record hot water followed by disease has killed ancient and delicate coral in the biggest loss of reefs scientists have ever seen in Caribbean waters.

Researchers from around the globe are scrambling to figure out the extent of the loss. Early conservative estimates from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands find that about one-third of the coral in official monitoring sites has recently died.

The official reef monitoring sites are sufficiently widespread to justify confidence that at least one third of the coral in the Caribbean has died in just the past year. This is, quite simply, the most important news story of the decade. It was relegated to the inside pages of the few newspapers that carried it, and to the Science News ghetto of the major news media web pages.
What did it take to bring the Caribbean to this pass? A total of fourteen degree-days in which ocean temperatures exceeded the mean monthly maximum. (I learned this from a superb detail-laden map and discussion on the NOAA coral reef website; they seem to have been pulled since yesterday. In fact, today I could find no mention of the story at all on their pages.*) That was a statistically unusual excursion; but when temperatures warm another degree C, and even if not another gallon of gasoline were ever burned again, they are certain to warm that far, such excursions will not be unusual.

The simple fact is this: coral reefs in the Caribbean are doomed. One third of them died this year; the rest are as good as dead. (Most species of coral may well survive, of course, thanks to genetic variation and robustness of particular individuals; but it will be thousands of years before reefs like those of Jacques Cousteau's day re-appear.) Since reefs are to the oceans what the Amazon rainforest is to the land - the mother lode of biological diversity - the next two decades will see numerous extinctions. Since reefs shelter many kinds of young organisms from predators until they come of age, the next two decades will see population crashes in a lot of species that do survive. And that in turn will threaten the existence of top level predators, the sorts of fish we humans love to eat.

We have effectively killed a small ocean. The deed is done, the mortal blow has been struck. The time when we could have taken effective action to prevent it was ten or fifteen years ago, and all we can do now is stand around the ICU murmuring condolences until it flatlines. Larger oceans hang in the balance. Is it already too late for them as well? Perhaps it isn't. But it certainly is, unless all of us begin to change our way of living immediately.

By itself, the news is devastating, a catastrophe a little slower but far more severe than Pearl Harbor, or 9/11, or Katrina. But it carries a lesson: when the bills for ignoring global warming finally fall due, they may arrive with breathtaking swiftness. Climate systems, ocean systems, and biological systems all partake of nonlinear dynamics. That is to say, they are subject to equations in which a small change may lead to a small result; but the next small change can lead to sweeping consequences. There are no guarantees that outputs will remain proportional to inputs.

The news from the reefs is the second major story in two months to indicate that "climate change" is entering a nonlinear phase. In mid-February, we learned that the Greenland ice sheets are accelerating, flowing and melting into the North Atlantic at twice the speed they had clocked just a decade ago. See Real Climate (which I am adding to Tinsel Wing's permanent link list) for the best in continuing discussion of global warming from actual climatologists.

We all live in this coal mine, and we have no means of leaving it. The canary just died. It's a long, long way to the sweet air of the surface.

Brothers and sisters, let's dig.