Monthly Archives: July 2011

Google Inc IS a different kind of thing

In the old days, canals, roads, train tracks, etc. were almost all privately owned in many countries. Some airports too, but not many. Now, most of these elements of our infrastructure are publicly owned or so regulated that they may as well be. Same with utilities.

I wrote a while ago about how Amazon Dot Com is a public good that should not be privately controlled. A lot of people got mad at me and pointed out how wrong I was, but that is because they did not understand that the vast majority of on line commerce is actually run by Amazon even though you don’t know that while you are doing it. Imagine that Sears not only was sears, bur also owned all other appliance manufacturers, as well as Walmarts, Coscos, and Kmarts, but you didn’t know that. If I then said “Sears is about the only place you buy stuff from” you would have to understand that i mean “Sears and all that they own.”

In the case of Google, it is somewhat different. Google probably owns and/or operates stuff that does not have their name on it, but aside from that, it is quite possible to run your entire computer life off of Google and nothing else. Google is on the verge of becoming more insidious than Microsoft, but they are actually dong a pretty good job at it.

But the latest maneneo with pseudonymous has shown us that a benevolent dictator is still a dictator and must be destroyed. As a society we have to do what we’ve done before: Publicly take over and run that which was private but that has become infrastructure. And while we are at it we need to decommission all cable companies. I mean, seriously … how is that not a monopoly?


“We can know nothing about the origin of life”


Sometimes people say this because it seems reasonable to them … what, with life originating so long ago and so much geological mushing-around happening since then. But sometimes people say this, and sound quite innocent saying it, because they want to throw the average person off track and make them think that Evolutionary Biology has this big gap — at the beginning — in which any-old kind of story can fit, including a supernatural or religious story, or even just a spiritual Jungian story, or anything but a story about molecules interacting.

So, the purpose of this blog post is to be handy, to point to, to produce a link to, in answer to that question. Every time somebody says “We can know nothing about the origin of life bla bla bla” you respond with a link to this post. In the meantime, if you think there is something missing in this post that should be conveyed to anyone making that argument, please add it to the comments.

Here’s the code to copy and past to link to this post:

<a href=””>”We can know nothing about the origin of life”</a>

Below are two lists. The first list is a set of blog posts by a variety of science bloggers about the origin of life. The second list is the bibliography my installation of Mendeley (reference management software) spit out at me when I asked it to find all the references to “Origin of Life” on my hard drive or nearby localities. This includes only a subset (about 5%) of my PDF files and none of my paper files (of which there are about 5,000) of which, in turn, probably only 1 or 2% address this issue, as it is not my field.

So, the reference list is provisional and just to get your stared, but also serves the purpose of demonstrating how there is quite a bit of work on the topic.

At present, we know something about the origin of life. I think we could know a lot more, and I think we will eventually. The assertion that we can’t because it isn’t happening now and happened a long time ago is wrong for several reasons: 1) Are you sure it is not happening now?; 2) It could be replicated in the lab; 3) It might be happening somewhere else, or evidence of it could be found on another celestial object; and 4) Yes, indeed, it turns out that we actually can reconstruct things through inference from ancient data, modeling, and experiment that happened in the past, and do so scientifically. If you hear someone telling you that you can’t, that this is not science, that it violates the scientific method, then you are hearing the words of a person who either knows nothing about science or is telling you a lie, because science can and does address the past.

So, without further ado, the lists:

Continue reading “We can know nothing about the origin of life”

Darwinian Thinking From The Birds

…Louis Agassiz, the most famous scientist of his time, eclipsing Darwin in his stature and influence (up to a point) addressed this diversity across the landscape in one way. Darwin addressed it in another way. Today, most people don’t even know what Agassiz said, even though it is a perfectly rational model if you are a creationist, and something like half of all Americans are. But, his ideas would be considered absurd even by modern Young Earth Creationists (YECs). Darwin’s view, in contrast, is not absurd, but it is complicated….

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Climate Change Update

Relying heavily on the excellent resource known as Dr. Jeff Master’s Wunderblog and a few other sources, I’ve compiled a quick list of a few of the highlights of weather events related to global warming in the news these days, in preparation for this weekend’s radio show “The Science of Global Warming: Science V Denialsim” on Atheists Talk #126, with Kevin Zelnio and John Abraham.

Here goes:
Continue reading Climate Change Update

On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance

ResearchBlogging.orgAccording to a newly published paper in the journal “Remote Sensing” the Earth’s atmosphere releases into space more heat than climate scientists had previously estimated in a way that effectively removes concern about fossil CO2 being released into the atmosphere.
Continue reading On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth’s Radiant Energy Balance

Japan Nuclear Disaster Update 32: “Biggest Industrial Catastrophe in History”

In the old days this was easy. The power plants were melting down but no one knew what was going on inside them; Water was being poured in and cooking off as steam, and every now and then the way they were getting the water in or the way they were powering the pumps would change, or one of the containment buildings would blow up, or whatever. If you’ve been reading the last few Fukushima Updates, however, you’ll know that things related to the crippled nuclear power plant have gotten more, not less complicated, which at first is counter-intuitive, but on reflection, expected. After all, engineers have more access to the inside of the plants now, though that is still limited. Pumping water into a big concrete box that blows up now and then is not as complicated as assembling a functiniong cooling system from parts that have been mauled by floods and earthquakes and that are highly radioactive. And the secondary but very important ramifications of an out of control set of multiple meltdowns at a large nuclear power plant are developing around the world as entire countries swear off nuclear power while at the same time major, influential industry entities revert to pretending that this is pretty much what we expected and everything is fine. The patterns and problems associated with contamination are starting to emerge and sink in; The fact that the industry expected this sort of meltdown to occur has been revealed.

One of the interested developments for the coverage period for this update was the declaration that Step 1 of the road map plan to bring the crisis to an end was completed. This involved stable cooling of the reactors and eliminating risks of hydrogen explosions. It is probably true that this has been accomplished, however things could change; Cooling systems are in place and hydrogen is no longer burning off, as it were. However even since this declaration there were interruptions in the cooling system. There have also been technical problems with the decontamination units that are supposed to clean the water that is being cycled through the cooling systems. At one point power went out for 5 hours stopping all cooling operations for some of the reactors and storage pools. We might be optimistic and call the situation stable but not trustworthy.

Also interesting is the attempt to redefine the meaning of the planned “Step 2.” This is “cold shutdown” of the reactors, to be completed within six months, which is actually a thing defined by standards. A cold shutdown has two major features: The reactors have to be below a certain temperature internally, and the radioactive stuff in the reactors has to be contained. The second of these two is of course impossible in at least two of the reactors, possibly three, because they melted down and the radioactive stuff will never be contained by any standard that the industry may have specified at any time in the past. The outcome of a “china syndrome” like event is that you get a bit of landscape that is really more like a new geological formation than an ex-power plant. And it will do what it does. The Japanese authorities seem to be interested in redefining both the temperature of “cool” and the meaning of “containment.” The current plan is to build an underground shield running 30 meters deep to contain the radioactive material and contaminated water. Below that is a geological layer that at this time does not absorb water. It is not clear how this feature would be built or how it would be made earthquake resistant. For the time being, engineers and plant managers are seriously considering plugging the holes in the reactors, though there is no known way to do this. Meanwhile, the IAEA has visited the site and tells us that everything is fine.

One of the most prominent features of contamination after a nuclear disaster like Chernobyl or Fukushima is the way radioactive material can become concentrated as it moves up the food chain. Therefore, authorities would naturally be prepared to focus on dairy products and animal meat, as these are well up the food chain from, for instance, grass or hay (or what seems to be called “straw” made from rice stalks, in Japan). But, ooops, they forgot about this problem and officials of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry allowed quite a bit of beef into the market from cattle that had been eating contaminated feed.

The problem is that while steps were taken to avoid having cattle feed on contaminated grass and certain stored feed, the memos regarding safe levels of contamination in feed never got to the rice farmers who provide this “straw” material. And of course, that stuff was contaminated. The beef did get into the market and some of it was even eaten by nursery school children. At first it was reported that almost a dozen cattle had eaten radioactive feed and then were sent to market. Then more such cattle were discovered. It now seems that the number is probably close to 1,400 over 3,000 cattle shipped.

Also, it appears that straw grown very far from the plant is contaminated, but is still being used as feed. And, some of the beef may have been sold abroad. Other plant products and eggs are also contaminated.

Some time over the next few years the process of removing the spent fuel rods will be initiated. This includes the rods that are inside the reactors. Removing rods so badly damaged from reactors so badly damaged in buildings so badly damaged has never been done before, according to engineers involved in the planning. (This implies that the removal of nuclear material from Chernobyl was easier.) The process is expected to take several decades.

Evacuations continue and evacuation zones continue to be expanded as contamination is discovered or spreads. People are still resigning or getting charged or investigated or otherwise sternly looked at, plant construction plans are being scrapped. Gangsters. There are gangsters benefiting from the cleanup projects. Whistle-blowers are blowing their whistles but the climate for them is just as dangerous as ever; Policies are being scrutinized or changed, except in the US where recommendations have been hastily cobbed together and are now being duly ignored. We have yet to see a good analysis of the effects of these political and economic shifts on global warming. Earthquakes continue to occur in Japan. Contamination of workers is an increasing concern at Fukushima.

Another plant in Japan, Genkai, may have a faulty reactor pressure vessel. You will recall from earlier updates that this is the plant that the industry pushed the local mayor to restart using methods that were not entirely ethical. Other plants have other problems.

One of the most interesting and possibly most important items to come up over the last few days is a simulation created by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization of a meltdown and “china syndrome” event at the type of reactor at Fukushima. The simulation was created before this disaster and appears to be what actual did happen. See below.

Japan has passed a law outlawing this blog post. Don’t expect to be reading this if you are in Japan, or if you do … watch out.

Continue reading Japan Nuclear Disaster Update 32: “Biggest Industrial Catastrophe in History”