Monthly Archives: April 2014

Government Responsibility in Addressing Weather Disasters

The US National Weather Service does a pretty good job at predicting weather, but there are problems. In fact, we are behind compared to other nations, and parts of our infrastructure is deteriorating. Paul Douglas has been telling people for some time that we need to pay attention to our aging satellite system, and here Kate Sheppard talks about the slow but steady development of legislation to advance our storm prediction abilities:

Michael Mann Receives NCSE Friend of the Planet Award

The National Center for Science Education, the nation’s leading organization in support of science education, has awarded Professor Michael Mann the coveted Friend of the Planet award.

From the NCSE

Climate change deniers have faced a similarly impressive foe: Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State. More than almost anyone else, Mann has been the public face of climate science. The author of more than 160 peer-reviewed papers, Mann has appeared before countless Congressional committees, battled climate change deniers in court, and written breakthrough books (such as The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars). Along the way, Mann co-authored the report that won the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. NCSE’s Friend of the Planet award will join a crowded trophy case.

Congratulations Michael!

Here’s a few videos:

Koch Brothers And Utilities Try To Ruin Solar Energy

Solar energy is one of the best and most easily implemented options to reduce our use of fossil Carbon based fuels. Never mind that the sun is only up and strong for part of the day, and is often covered by clouds. If you put a few square meters of solar panels on the roof of a residential or commercial building, you get clean and free (after the investment into the system) electricity thereafter. Clearly, this is an underutilized technology. In recent years there has been a precipitous drop in the cost of implementing solar energy, so it is now economically kinda dumb to not put solar panels on your roof. Worked out over the long term, a properly done implementation of solar can save a home owner hundreds of dollars a year after accounting for the cost of the equipment, installation, maintenance, and permitting fees. And, since part of your energy is coming from non-Carbon based sources, by implementing solar you also save money on those Survivalist Training Courses you might otherwise have to buy for your grandchildren if you expect your progeny to continue to exist in the not-too-distant future.

But every dollar that you save by using solar energy is a sum of money not earned by utilities and the owners of the energy production system, which generally translates into Your Power Company + The Koch Brothers.

So, naturally, the Koch Brothers and various energy utilities have been investing money to make sure that solar is not worth it. One way to reduce the viability of solar to the home owner or small business is to reduce or eliminate the payments that utilities make back to the owner of the solar energy system in the purchase of excess energy produced during those bright sunny days when your solar panels are at home doing their job while you are off at work doing your job.

A Sunday Review editorial published over the weekend in the New York Times discusses this strategy. The Koch Brothers and others have, over the last few months, ramped up their spending to reduce or eliminate renewable energy incentives. Since for the most part utilities are regulated state by state, this is being done at the state level. At present, owing to grassroots organizing combined with a bit of rare common sense in state legislatures, most states require utilities to pay for energy fed back into the system by homeowners with small power plants. But, there are moves to reduce these paybacks or to charge homeowners a surcharge so the utilities actually make money on your electricity, to the extent that for many homeowners, installing solar may not be worth it. This is a kick in the groin for homeowners and small businesses who have already installed systems with certain expectation of cost and benefit, and it is a kick in the groin for the planet, and our future, because the shift to solar for some of our energy will be slowed down by these nefarious changes in regulation.

According to the NYT,

Oklahoma lawmakers recently approved such a surcharge at the behest of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative group that often dictates bills to Republican statehouses and receives financing from the utility industry and fossil-fuel producers, including the Kochs. As The Los Angeles Times reported recently, the Kochs and ALEC have made similar efforts in other states, though they were beaten back by solar advocates in Kansas and the surtax was reduced to $5 a month in Arizona.

But the Big Carbon advocates aren’t giving up. The same group is trying to repeal or freeze Ohio’s requirement that 12.5 percent of the state’s electric power come from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2025. Twenty-nine states have established similar standards that call for 10 percent or more in renewable power. These states can now anticipate well-financed campaigns to eliminate these targets or scale them back.

In some contexts, the utilities and their lobbyists are making the simple, straight forward, and correct, argument that wanton installation and use of domestic solar will hurt their profits. But we all know that the number one problem with our energy system at present is that it is driven by profits of the few at the cost (often through externalities, such as everybody dies etc. etc.) all others. Energy utilities should be viable, not profitable, and everyone knows and agrees with that. (Except the energy utilities.) And, of course, the Wealthiest People In The World need to keep their Mega Yachts well appointed, so that’s a consideration that most common people take into account … and ignore, resent, and get mad about.

So, as the NYT points out, Koch and friends have an alternative strategy to gain the hearts, minds, and monies of the American people.

Solar expansion, they claim, will actually hurt consumers. The Arizona Public Service Company, the state’s largest utility, funneled large sums through a Koch operative to a nonprofit group that ran an ad claiming net metering would hurt older people on fixed incomes by raising electric rates. The ad tried to link the requirement to President Obama. Another Koch ad likens the renewable-energy requirement to health care reform, the ultimate insult in that world. “Like Obamacare, it’s another government mandate we can’t afford,” the narrator says.

Here’s the ad that blames Obama for wanting to harm old people:

Thanks, Obama!

Here’s the ad that links Solar Energy and Obama Care to Solar Energy:

Do you find this annoying? Of course you do. But there is something you can do about it.

Since this battle is being fought at the state level in the US, if you are a US citizen and voter, just contact your state reps and tell them that you do not appreciate what the Koch Brothers and various utilities are doing. Send them a link to the NYT editorial …

… and tell them that you support home owners and businesses that want to use solar and that you don’t want to see any hint of legislation to interfere with that effort. Not sure who your state representatives are (or is, in some states, you have only one)? CLICK HERE to find out.

You might decide to not do this for one of two reasons, and in both cases you are wrong so please consider. Incorrect reason 1) “I live in a state that has already implemented good laws and regulations and I see no evidence that the Koch Brothers and Kin are coming after us, so why bother?” The reason this is wrong is that they are coming after your stat, you just don’t know it yet. Your letter, phone call, or email to your reps are a form of inoculation, imperfect, but potentially effective, against this. Incorrect reason 2) “My particular legislators are cool. They won’t vote in favor of any such Koch Sponsored Legislation (KSL).” That is wrong because your legislators are embedded in a complex system of give and take. It’s called “Politics.” They need a record of having been contacted by numerous constituents about this. That only happens if you contact them. So just do it.

Shawn Otto, in his book “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,” reports that he once asked a legislator (at the federal level) what constituted a “groundswell” of support for a particular issue. I don’t recall the exact number, but Shawn was told something to the effect and of the magnitude of “a dozen or so” letters from constituents. Note, I said letters, not emails. A letter looks like this:


It’s a tremendous amount of work. You have to print it out, find an envelope somewhere, get a “stamp” which costs several cents, and put the object in one of these:


… but it is worth it. Every one of those is probably worth hundreds of emails, because emails can be automated. But just to be sure, you can send the same text as an email and as a “letter” and while you are at it, send a tweet or two. When you send a tweet to your representatives, be sure that the tweet does not begin with the @ sign because if it does, it will not be generally viewable to others who follow your Twitter account. Put a “.” or something (not a space) first, then others will see what you are up to and perhaps join in. (See this for how to use Twitter more effectively.)

OK, that’s all for now. Imma go tweet my reps. See you later.

Clean Energy Tipping Point

Investment in and development of clean energy seems to be undergoing a transition, and this is reflected in a number of items that came across my desk this morning. Without attempting any serious analysis, here’s a brief summary.

Clean Energy investments have fallen over the last couple of years, leading some to assert that the transition to non fossil sources of energy is in trouble. But there is an excellent argument that the exact opposite is true. What has really happened is that the cost of implementing new clean energy projects has dropped dramatically, so the cost of investment has dropped dramatically. Therefore, the absolute cost of investment can drop while the effective level of investment … in terms of units of energy … goes up.

From an article in World Resources Institute’s blog, by Letha Tawney, Bharath Jairaj and Xuege (Cathy) Lu:

The recent fall in clean tech investments is partly driven by the fact that renewable energy has become much cheaper in the past few years. You can buy more energy output for less cash than you could have two or four years ago. At the 2014 Future of Energy Summit earlier this month, Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), said that roughly 80 percent of the reduced investment in clean energy over the last two years is due to these price reductions. Solar module prices, for example, have declined by about 80 percent since 2008. Increased competition among wind energy suppliers has also reduced prices. Research from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) finds that wind energy prices could drop from 10-30 percent further in the medium to long-term.

Meanwhile, from Scientific American’s ClimateWire, we learn that Solar Power Grows 200 Percent in Only 4 Years.

Driven by an explosion in photovoltaics, the U.S. solar sector has emerged “from a relatively small contributor to the nation’s total electric capacity into a one of comparative significance,” the Energy Information Administration reported this week in its latest Electricity Monthly Update.

Since 2010, EIA said, U.S. solar capacity increased 418 percent from 2,326 megawatts, accounting for 0.2 percent of total U.S. electric generation, to today’s 12,057 MW, or 1.13 percent of U.S. generation.

Over half of this capacity increase has occured in home and businesses involved in utility net metering programs whereby excess production is sold to the utility at reasonable rates. A good deal of this has occurred in California (38% of the US total).

It would make sense for Libertarian-leaning individuals, such as those who make up the Tea Party, to be on board with this sort of thing because it fits with their philosophy so well. One wonders, then, why the right wing is so opposed to even recognizing the importance of climate change, let alone doing something about it. But it turns out that the logic of home grown energy has not been entirely lost on that sector of society. According to an item in Slate by Josh Voorhees,

Last week…klahoma lawmakers quietly voted to reverse a nearly four-decade-old law that had barred utility companies from charging customers who install solar panels on their homes more than those who don’t. The bill… would have effectively cleared the way for utilities in the Sooner State to force homeowners who install solar panels to pay for both the electricity they buy from the grid and for a portion of the electricity they sell back to it.

The vote marked a rare victory for power companies in their quest to stymie the growth of the rooftop solar industry. It also represented a sharp departure from the wave of well-publicized, big-dollar federal and state efforts currently aimed at making solar energy cost competitive with more traditional energy sources like coal and natural gas…

Then, on Tuesday, to the surprise of pretty much everyone involved, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Mary Fallin, issued an executive order largely undercutting the provision, dealing an unexpected defeat to major utilities and their deep-pocketed backers—a group that includes the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful national membership group for conservative state lawmakers.

So, there you go.

10 Or 20 Things To Do After Installing Ubuntu 14.04 Trusty Tahr


NEW: Very first look at Ubuntu Linux 15.04 Vivid Vervet Beta Mate Flavor

See: Books on Linux and Ubuntu

NOTE: This may not be the blog post you are looking for. If you have installed Ubuntu 14.10 and want to tweak that, GO HERE.

Continue on for 14.04.

Ubuntu 14.04 Trusty Tahr has just been released, and I’m sure you are about to install it. I’ve put together a few ideas for what to do after installation in order to make it work better for you. You’ll find that below. First, a bit of ranty background.


Originally, Ubuntu was a great thing. Years ago I used a Unix like system for various things and got comfortable with what we now call the “command line.” Then I used DOS, and that was still a command line operating system (but with different commands) and that was pretty good for the late 20th century. Then Windows came out and I switched to that, and later used both Windows and Mac operating systems to do my work. Eventually, I wanted to get away from those proprietary operating systems and try out Linux, which by then was a Unix like system that had windowing capabilities but also a powerful command line interface.

So, I got a spare computer and installed Fedora. Couldn’t get it to work. I tried SUSE and a couple of other systems, but there was a problem with each one of them. In order to get past the installation and configuration — to the extent that the computer would do silly things like print, or hook up to a network — I needed to already know all the stuff that I was confident I would eventually learn, once I got the system set up. It was a Catch 22 situation.

At one point I came across a new version of Linux called Ubuntu, and the fact that it was from South Africa interested me because I was at the time doing quit a bit of work in South Africa, so that was cool. But the Ubuntu servers were always overloaded and I could never download it. I think I tried one other version of Linux after that, and then decided to give up on Linux because that didn’t work for me either.

But just before I gave up, I tried downloading Ubuntu one more time. And it downloaded. And I installed it and the installation was seamless, and everything worked. And I saw it. And it was good.

Although I messed around with a few other versions of Linux, just for fun, I mainly kept installing various versions of Ubuntu, playing around with all of the know desktops but always coming back to gnome. I became reasonably good (but not high level) at working with Linux on the desktop, spent some effort promoting the operating system, and in short order I stopped using Windows (unless forced to do so) but still using a Mac now and then. I currently use a mac desktop for most things, a Linux laptop as my laptop, and a Linux server for specialized tasks. Every now and then Huxley asks me “Daddy, why do you have nine computers?” and I say “Huxley, I only have six computers, those extra monitors are hooked more than one to a computer in some cases.” And he responds “You don’t need nine computers, daddy.” Kids these days…

Check out our new science podcast, Ikonokast.

Anyway, then Unity came along and for this reason and other reasons Ubuntu became more annoying rather than less annoying with each release. For example, there are applications that now only work with Unity. This may be less true now than it was two months ago, last time I checked, but the Evernote clone for Linux, Everpad, would not give me menus in a non-Unity environment because it was designed to be broken when run in anything other than Ubuntu with Unity. That sort of thing is very annoying. If you want to have some alternative non Ubuntu-approved desktops AND Unity working on one computer, you have to cheat and mess around and trick the computer in to letting you do it. It is no longer safe to install Ubuntu as your basic operating system then configure the computer “exactly how you want it” (a mantra for Linux users) by swapping around desktops and other functionality. Also, Ubuntu took Nautilus, which had evolved to be one of the best file managers around, and removed some of its great features and made it one of the dumbest file managers around. And, the Unity Dashboard eventually became like that big gift shop at most museums these days … all exits lead through the gift shop.

One of the most annoying things about Unity is the disappearing menus that are no longer located on the application title bar. Both being not where I want them and invisible is incredibly annoying. All disappearing menus are stupid and anti-productive and anyone who does not realize that is a sheep. Baa..

And another thing. The simple act of creating an application launcher for your launching bar/thingie became difficult with Ubuntu. This meant that two or three of my most commonly used applications could not be launched the way I wanted them to be launched by using a simple tweak. It turns out that getting desktop launchers to work isn’t that hard, but dammit, why did I have to learn a whole new procedure that is five times more complicated than the old procedure, giving me nothing new, just because Mark Shutleworth never thought of launching emacs with a standard blank file to make his life easier? WHY???

But then Ubuntu Long Term Release 14.04. If you read about this release on the Internet, you’ll notice that people often say “nothing big in this new release, pretty much the same as the old release” but that is not true. One of the big differences is that you can now configure Unity to use normal menus. That is big. Also, somewhere along the way Ubuntu One came (I never got it to work for me either functionally or adaptively) so I couldn’t care less, but it is now gone so that is one annoying thing that has disappeared. Plus, by now, methods of removing other annoying features of Unity have developed nicely.

The irony of all this is that when you install Ubuntu 14.04 with Unity and you want it to be a sane operating system, there is a long list of things you may want to do to. I’ve culled suggestions from a number of helpful web sites (all listed below) and put them in a reasonable order. If you want to do these things, you might consider running through the list and adding all the repositories at once, then doing a sudo apt-get install update command, rather than doing the latter after every one of the former, to save time. I’ve not fully tested everything here. I.e., I’ve installed Skype but I’ve not tested it. Also, I did these things on a system that was already tweaked so several of these things were already done, but I did them again anyway. That mostly resulted in “you’ve already installed that software, dummy” notices, but at least nothing broke.

I opted or command line suggestions for most of these items, though a few send you to the system preferences, etc.

So here’s what I did, and what you may want to do. I guarantee nothing. Good luck.

Make available some important repositories that are probably turned off

Use the dash to open Software and Updates

Go to other software and check cannonical parters and probably everything else that looks important, unless it is something Ubuntu turned off that you had previously included. I don’t know what to do about those repositories. You may be asked to approve reloading the cash, or you can do this, or both:

sudo apt-get update

While you are in Software and Updates, check for additional drivers

Check in software and updates for additional drivers, under the “additional drivers” tab. Do something smart with what you find there. I did nothing but you may want to. Be careful.

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade

Install multimedia codecs

sudo apt-get install ubuntu-restricted-extras

Install several useful software items:

VLC media player:

sudo apt-get install vlc

Install rar. I don’t know what this is but a lot of people seem to recommend it

sudo apt-get install rar

gimp image manipulation program

sudo apt-get install gimp

gnome tweak tool and unity tweek tool

sudo apt-get install gnome-tweak-tool

sudo apt-get install unity-tweak-tool

Install pidgin if you want.

I didn’t but a lot of people like it.

sudo apt-get install pidgin

Install skype

Install Skype if you want. This is a huge installation and will take a few minutes.

sudo sh -c ‘echo “deb quantal partner” >> /etc/apt/sources.list’
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install skype

Install Java

sudo apt-get install icedtea–7-plugin openjdk–7-jre

Install extra applets

I’ve not entirely figured out the applets yet. They go on the menu bar, called the panel, along the top of Unity’s screen. There are few recommended tweaks and so far I’ve liked them. For some of these, you run it from command line and it becomes part of the panel. For others, you have to run it from the Dash. For some, when you run the app from the command line the program that puts it on the panel keeps running, so when you exit the terminal or terminate the program, the applet disappears. For some the applet ends up on the panel, for some there is an opening application that shows up and requires configuration then the applet goes in the panel, for others the applet is ready to go next time you log in but won’t show up until then. In other words, there is no standard for how applets are created or installed. I refer to the rant at the top of the page. Ubuntu. A “South African Language Word for ‘WTF’”

sudo apt-get install diodon diodon-plugins

Calendar indicator

This is actually one of the coolest applets. My own calendar is relatively sparse; for many days there is nothing at all, but everything on my calendar is very important, of course. The best way to view a sparse calendar is using the “agenda” method, where days that have nothing on them don’t even show up and everything is a list. This calendar indicator does that. The problem is, it does not stick itself to the panel unless you select “autostart” in the preferences after you’ve started it up from DASH.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:atareao/atareao
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install calendar-indicator

Install a weather indicator

This is an excellent indicator for weather.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:atareao/atareao
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install my-weather-indicator

Install Copy (instead of Dropbox)

Copy is a less expensive alternative to Dropbox. You should give it a try.

Install dropbox and the app indicator

I’ve not gotten the app indicator to work, but this is the recommended procedure. I’m probably missing something. Truth be told, I’m not sure if dropbox is working on my laptop at all at the moment. Let me know how it goes with you.

sudo apt-get install dropbox

then you might have to do this to get an indicator;

sudo apt-get install libappindicator1

But if you are like me that won’t work. In fact, while Dropbox seems to work on Ububuntu 14.04 unity, autostart does not work; I’m prompted for my system password to start Dropbox on login. For now I think I’ll wait to try to figure out how to get the icon going until this all gets resolved, presumably in one fell swoop. But, again, see rant above: how does Ubuntu fell about itself, killing off Ubuntu One at the same time it makes Dropbox harder to use. Do we users not count? Jeesh.

Anyway, if you want to verify that Dropbox is working, go to the command line and type in

dropbox -h

and you’ll get a list of commands that will allow you to play around with it, including

dropbox status

which will tell you if it is running.

Install classic menu indicator

This is a pretty important applet. With this applet in place you might even consider setting the Unity launcher bar on autohide! It is the standard debian style menu. I recommend going into preferences and changing the icon to the standard (Ubuntu) icon so you know what the heck it is a few days after installing it.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:diesch/testing
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install classicmenu-indicator

Remove keyboard indicator

The keyboard langauge is indicated on your panel. Why? If this annoys you you can remove it.

System Settings-> Text Entry and uncheck the Show current input source in the menu bar.

Fix screen brightness controls

On some computers, including mine apparently, Ubuntu broke the ability to change the brightness of the screen. It can be fixed. I’ve not tried it, but you can check out this web page for instructions on how to do that. Good luck.

Add a nifty system load indicator

sudo apt-get install indicator-multiload

Fix the obnoxious stuff on the Unity Dash

You don’t want Ubuntu telling you to buy stuff at Amazon and all that other dumbass stuff it does? This and other annoyances can be fixed.

Go to Settings, security and privacy, and then turn that stuff off. You should turn off “include online seach results” and you may want to turn off the thingie that shows your recently open documents. All this clutters up the dashboard, but if you want this information there, by all means leave it.

Get rid of the shopping suggestions with this code at the console:

gsettings set com.canonical.Unity.Lenses disabled-scopes “[‘more_suggestions-amazon.scope’, ‘more_suggestions-u1ms.scope’, ‘more_suggestions-populartracks.scope’, ‘music-musicstore.scope’, ‘more_suggestions-ebay.scope’, ‘more_suggestions-ubuntushop.scope’, ‘more_suggestions-skimlinks.scope’]”

Disable online searches from dash with
wget -q -O – | bash

Fix overheating and extend battery life

There is a good chance Ubuntu is not handling your fan, battery, etc. optimally but there is a nifty utility that probably will. Do this:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:linrunner/tlp
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install tlp tlp-rdw
sudo tlp start

Install Dolphin

Just go to Synaptic package manager or Ubuntu software center and install Dolphin file manager. Other folks are suggesting sunfish, but I don’t recommend it. At the moment, Dolphin is the only file manager I’d recommend for Ubuntu. I’m still waiting for a good file manager to come out.

Install Compiz settings manager

sudo apt-get install
sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager

Then, after you’ve installed it, DON’T TOUCH IT.

Disable the boneheaded overlay scrollbars

What is more annoying than disappearing menus? Disappearing scroll bars that are located at a specific position that YOU CAN’T KNOW WHAT IT IS BECAUSE YOU CAN’T SEE IT. Get rid of that.

gsettings set com.canonical.desktop.interface scrollbar-mode normal

Put the username back on the the panel

Why Ubuntu thinks you need to know what keyboard is running but not which user is behind the keyboard is an enigma wrapped in a riddle.

gsettings set com.canonical.indicator.session show-real-name-on-panel true

Install Adobe Flash plugin

sudo apt-get install flashplugin-installer

The, spend the next hour trying to get that to work consistently.

Install some Codecs and Enable DVD Playback:

sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-plugins-ugly libxine1-ffmpeg gxine mencoder libdvdread4 totem-mozilla icedax tagtool easytag id3tool lame nautilus-script-audio-convert libmad0 mpg321 libavcodec-extra

sudo /usr/share/doc/libdvdread4/

Add workspaces

Type “appearances” at the dash (or get there from system settings), click behavior, show workspaces. A violation of the Prime Directive (have no widgets on the launcher because we broke that) will happen and a widget will appear on the launcher that shows you what workspace you are in and gives you a workspace switcher.

Integrate Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Configure social media with “online accounts” from the dashboard

Make some customized launcers

Use these instructions to set up launcher icon thingies in your unity launcher for apps that require special conditions not already installed. For example, I have emacs open with a file from the desktop called “blank.txt” which is sometimes blank and sometimes just contains the last stuff I wrote into that file.

That is all.

Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.

Atlantic Hurricanes and El Niño

I have a little “science by spreadsheet” project for you, concerning the relationship between El Niño and Atlantic hurricanes.

The chance of an El Niño event happening this year seems to go up every few days, with most, perhaps all, climate models suggesting that El Niño will form this Summer or Fall. Climate experts tell us that there are typically fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic during El Niño years. So, I was interested to see how many fewer. Also, there appears to be a different kind of El Niño that happens sometimes, perhaps more often these days as an effect of global warming, which is variously referred to as Modoki or Central Pacific El Niño. The definition of this type of event, and even whether or not it is real, is not well established, but it has been said that the effect of this version of El Niño on Atlantic hurricanes is different.

The data used for this analysis covers the period from 1950 to 2012, simply because that is the range of years for which El Niño and hurricane data are readily available for copy/paste into the spreadsheet. Aside from numbers of hurricanes, we’ll look at the Accumulated Cyclone Energy index (ACE). This is a value calculated from the storms that occur, using measures of wind speed over the life of the storm. Since tropical storms and hurricanes vary in ways not captured by simply counting them, or even by counting them by standard categories (one through five), this measure is a better reflection of overall major storminess in the region. The following figure shows the relationship between ACE and frequency of hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin. Please keep in mind that the clear relationship between these numbers is a given: ACE is calculated, essentially, from Number of Hurricanes together with a measure of hurricane strength, so the same variable (number of hurricanes) is on both axes of the graph. The purpose of this graph is to give an idea of the variation of hurricane frequency around the measurement of overall energy in the system, so this really mainly shows how complex the manifestation of hurricanes in a given season is.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 8.40.47 AM

Now let’s look at the relationship between the number of named Atlantic tropical storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes, in El Niño, no-El Niño, and CP El Niño years, as well as the ACE.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 8.25.41 AM

Without bothering with any statistical tests or other mumbo-jumbo (this is Science by Spreadsheet, after all) we can see that the number of named storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes, as well as the ACE index, are all higher in years that do not have an El Niño. But, it is also apparent (again, no statistical tests) that the difference is not huge. In other words, if you live in a hurricane susceptible area, and you are thinking that you’re not going to have a problem with hurricanes this year because there will probably be an El Niño, think again. There are still going to be hurricanes. Also of interest is that CP El Niño years, of which there are only a few, are like regular El Niño years though maybe the reduced number of major hurricanes is a real phenomenon. (Also note, in these data most of the “CP El Niño” years are also El Niño years, but not all, in case you were trying to add up the values of N.)

Another way of looking at the same data is to ask what percentage of named storms develop into hurricanes, or major hurricanes, under these different ENSO conditions. Here are the percentages:

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 8.35.27 AM

So, just over half of the named storms develop into hurricanes in an average year, regardless of El Niño, and about a quarter into major hurricanes. CP El Ninño years seem to show, as we saw above, less development of major hurricanes. But, the total number of these years is small, so this may mean nothing.

Remember last year’s Atlantic hurricanes? No, nobody else does either. It was an anemic year for Atlantic hurricanes. This is attributed to the giant plume of Saharan dust that attenuated tropical storm development in the basin that year. It might be reasonable to say that the number and intensity of hurricanes per year is highly variable for a lot of reasons, and factors such as Saharan dust may have very large impacts on hurricane formation. In other words, the variation introduced into the system by El Niño may be important but not overwhelming.

In order to look at the overlap between El Niño and non El Niño years, I made this frequency histogram:

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 9.34.30 AM

(Note that this frequency histogram uses intervals of 3 years; the one year on “30” is a year with 28 storms, falling into the interval 27.1 to 20. Science by spreadsheet has its limitations.)

There is a certain amount of overlap. Extremely active Atlantic hurricane seasons seem to only occur in non-El Niño years, over on the right side of the graph, but the distributions of named storm frequency is not separate and distinct. Another way of looking at this is to note that the range of number of named storms per year for non El Niño years is 4-20, while the range of number of named storms for El Niño years is 6-18.

Sea surface temperatures influence Atlantic hurricane formation. Here’s a graph from someone else’s spreadsheet showing this relationship:

"A graph showing the correlation between the and the number of major hurricanes which form in the Atlantic basin. Moving averages for AMO are by the years' average indexes, 5 years before and 5 years after, not the provided 121-month smoothing."
“A graph showing the correlation between the and the number of major hurricanes which form in the Atlantic basin. Moving averages for AMO are by the years’ average indexes, 5 years before and 5 years after, not the provided 121-month smoothing.”

Clearly, a large proportion of hurricane frequency is explained by variations in sea surface temperature. Clearly, Saharan dust explains some of the variation. El Niño also explains some of the variation, but it is only part of the story.

AMO-Hurricane graph
El Ninño year data
Tropical storm data
CP El Ninño data

Calculating The Carbon Cost Of … well, anything.

There is currently a twitter argument happening, along with a bit of a blogging swarm, over a chimera of a remark made by John Stossle and Bjorn Lomborg. They made the claim that a million electric cars would have no benefit with resect to Carbon emissions. The crux of the argument is that there is a Carbon cost to manufacturing and running electric cars. When we manufacture anything, we emit Carbon, and when we make electricity to run the cars, we emit Carbon, etc. etc.

Lomborg is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. But here I want to focus on one aspect of why he is wrong that applies generally to this sort of topic.

My point is very simple, really. We can take any green and clean technology, such as making Ethanol from corn (to replace gasoline produced from fossil fuels), or building windmills, or running electric cars on juice produced in coal plants, and so on, and count the fossil Carbon released by the process against the savings of Carbon by the process. But that is wrong. The reason it is wrong is that we need to keep the Carbon in the ground. If there is fossil Carbon being released by a coal plant that is running, ultimately, electric cars (or buses or trains) than there is a savings for the simple reason that running vehicles with electricity is a) more inherently efficient than using countless tiny explosions of fossil fuel, and b) almost always uses a mix of non-fossil-carbon energy sources such as wind power, hydro, nuclear, and solar. But that is not the point. The point is that ultimately we have to change the energy source from coal and natural gas to other sources. When we see a variable in the Carbon savings for a given technology that involves releasing fossil carbon, we have to hunt down that source and change it to non-fossil energy production. We need to build the electric cars in plants that are run on non-fossil energy, and use materials that are obtained, shipped, and processed with non-fossil energy, and run the vehicles on electricity made with non-fossil sources.

And increasingly, this is happening. If you have a plug in EV car now, there is an increasing number of places where you can plug the thing in and get non-fossil fuel juice to charge it up. This of course is developing too slowly. Every park and ride lot, the big giant parking lot at the mall, and your garage, should all have solar cells on the roof to provide at least some of the energy used to charge cars that plug in for some juice. Individual home owners should opt, where possible, to buy wind generated energy over fossil fuel generated energy. And so on.

The argument that “you can’t do this thing to avoid using fossil fuels because the thing uses fossil fuels” is countered by the argument that “if you are using fossil fuels than you need to find a way to not use fossil fuels.” The entire argument that the use of fossil fuels is involved in the non-use of fossil fuels is real, but temporary, and is really nothing other than an argument to not use fossil fuels in ALL areas we are currently using them, eventually.

The Most Important Earth Day

It is possible that this is the most important Earth Day. Earth Day is part of the process of broadening environmental awareness and causing positive change in how we treat our planet. We are at a juncture where we must make major changes in what we do or our Grandchildren, to the extent that they can take time away from the daunting task of survival in a post-Civilization world, will curse us.

I wrote a massive multpart blog post about Earth Day a four years ago, and here I’m giving you a slightly modified version of it, covering just a few aspects of the thing, and telling a couple of personal stories. There are politics, explosions, and folk singers. So put on your Love Beads and your Tie-Dyed MuuMuu and enjoy. Or not enjoy. This is not really for your enjoyment.

The First Earth Day

The First Earth Day. More Black and White than Green.
The First Earth Day. More Black and White than Green.
The first Earth Day was a red letter day in the long, hard struggle to make being good to the environment … to the Earth … normal instead of a fringe idea held only by quirky college professors and stoned-out hippies. This year, the first significant health care insurance reform bill was passed and it will be a red letter event in a long, hard struggle to make universal quality heath coverage and care normal instead a fringe idea held only by Kenyan born socialist Negro from Chicago. Or whatever the teabaggers are calling it now. So today, at the beginning of a true change in how we do things, we can look back and reflect on another, similar (yet different) change in the way we do things.

If you listen to the right wing republican rhetoric just long enough to hear the topic shift a couple of times, the environmental movement will inevitably be brought up, in bitter tones. If you are below a certain age, you may hear this and wonder about it sometimes. Well, for years, the right wing fought environmental regulation tooth and nail. They fought it at the local and state level, they fought the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), they fought environmentally friendly activities by all other government agencies. And they lost. Not a first. At first, they marginalized environmental conservation, demonized it as socialism and communism, explained how the apocalypse would come if we started to regulate industry. At first they held their ground. But eventually, they lost.

Recently placed billboard of the anti-science Heartland Institute.
Recently placed billboard of the anti-science Heartland Institute.
And they came to the debate armed and dangerous. The exact tactics of anti-environmentalists of the day were not the same as the teapartiers of today, but one got a very similar feeling. When a major national park was dedicated in northern Minnesota back in those days, a family of Yahoos living next door, who had opposed the park simply on the grounds that all gummit activities were evil, chainsawed a dozen or so thousand year old virgin white pines that were on their land and visible in the background of the dedication ceremony. So the dedication ceremony itself was carried out to the sound of a Bachmanesque fugue of chain saws and falling trees … trees that would have otherwise never been cut down, that would have stayed standing for hundreds of more years were it not for this Libertarian spite. Freedom trees. Dead freedom trees.

The right wing has never forgiven the progressives and liberals for the EPA and the massive shift this country underwent with the environmental movement.

And guess what. Progressive liberals old enough to remember have generally not forgiven the right wing for making the transition we all knew had to happen take 20 years instead of five.

And, of course, the transition is still needed, and is still underway. What we did then was important and under appreciated today: The air and the water are significantly cleaner now than they were in 1970. Had industry not been regulated, with increasing demands on manufacturing, things would have only gotten worse, and today, while things are better in the US and many other Western countries, we know that a significant amount of this extra demand is being met with dirty third world industry.

My first Earth Day was the first Earth Day. I remember those days well. I was a child warrior for the environment. I remember being disgusted with the river we lived near, which was always covered with dead fish and an oily slick, turgid, smelly, occasionally on fire. Well, OK, it never really caught fire, but it could have. I remember being disgusted with the smoke belching out of the large apartment buildings we lived next to. I remember watching SUNY Albany Professor Robert Reinow, on Sunrise Semester, showing photos and films of Gary Indiana and seeing the haze outside and realizing, because the meteorology was good enough to know this, that some of the cause of my mother’s complaint about gray whites and dull colors if she hung her laundry out to dry came from the Rust Belt, between 500 and 1,500 miles away and upwind.

It all seemed so hopeless, yet there were things that could be done.

Pete Seeger joins the Nature Conservation Club (NCC)

The flames were so hot that we could feel it on our faces over 300 feet away as we stood near the corner of Delaware and Whitehall avenues. At first we gawked at the burning factory from about 100 feet away, but a large explosion caused us all to turn and run. But not too far. While watching from some 200 feet away, the police came by and pushed us back to the 300 foot mark just before several explosions in a row came along. The stuff that came down on us out of the sky was cooled enough to not burn, and some of the bits were recognizable as small fragments of brightly colored billiard balls.

Albany Billiard Ball Factory
Albany Billiard Ball Factory
It turns out that billiard balls are highly explosive, as are many of the materials used to make them. We’re talking modern, synthetic billiard balls, not the ones made of ivory. I believe the synthetic billiard ball was first manufactured by the Albany Billiard Ball factory (though not the exact one that we were watching in the state of total immolation) back in 1868 or so, much to the relief of elephants everywhere. Early versions of the billiard balls were highly explosive and occasionally blew up during an actual game of billiards. One such event apparently started one of the famous gun fights out west back in cowboy days. I’m not sure when the factory was moved to Delaware Avenue, but there it was, as I was a kid, around the time that the first Earth Day was declared, burning.

Out Delaware Avenue a few blocks, the relatively urban neighborhood I grew up in suddenly stopped and gave way to forest and farmland. The boundary of the city was the Normanskill, a creek who’s valley is one of the many claimed to be the Vale of Tawasentha. We used to go down to that creek to play, cutting off the newly built Delaware Avenue and taking the old “Yellow Brick Road” (yes, a road made of yellow brick exactly like in the movie), past the Old Witches house (yes, well, sort of, she was the Avon lady but her house looked kinda scary and we were insensitive kids) to the old Whipple Wrought Iron Bridge on one path, and the brick bridge on the other, and eventually back up to grade at the ice cream shop in the next town over. And along that road was where the Albany Billiard Ball Factory dumped their industrial waste. So we would scour the ditch along the road below the waste dump looking for fragments of billiard balls, hoping to find fragments with the numbers on them, hoping to eventually collect a complete set (which no one ever seemed to manage).

And now, standing some 300 feet back from the factory, fragments of the billiard balls were falling on our heads. But only a few, and none with numbers, and they were mostly burned. And, when the police noticed certain bits and pieces of the landscape around us starting to steam with the cooking heat, realizing that we were all standing in a gas station’s parking lot, we were eventually shoo’ed too far away to make standing around watching worth it. So we went over the the school yard and sat on the swings listening to the occasional distant explosion and the more frequent siren of this or that emergency vehicle.

That same summer or the one after (forgive my memory) the sloop came to town. The Clearwater was a replica of an old Hudson River sloop. Built to original spec, it was too tall to pass under one of the Albany bridges unless the crew ran back and forth across the deck in perfect timing to cause the tip of the mast to bow lower than the base of the bridge’s i-beams, as the captain churned the boat forward at just the right speed. At low tide. Which was funny to watch.

Pete Seeger aboard the Clearwater.
Pete Seeger aboard the Clearwater.
Anyway, there was a big party because the Clearwater, built by hippies, staffed by hippies, funded by hippies, was going to sail up and down the Hudson River brining awareness of the plight of that river and many other’s like it until the river was cleaned up.

So at the big party, I had an inspiration. I got some paper and some crayons and I made membership cards with tear-off receipts for an organization I invented right then and there on the spot. I called it “NCC” for “Nature Conservation Club.” And as soon as I invented the club, I went looking for its first member. And it could only be one person: Pete Seeger, the folk singer who was a friend of Woody Guthrie and mentor to Woody’s son, Arlo. The man who wrote “Where have all the flowers gone” and “If I had a hammer” and “Turn, turn turn” and that one about the guy who was stuck on the train but his wife made him lunch every day. He was there at the party, of course, along with Arlo. I found Mr. Seeger, politely explained my goals to clean up the planet and stuff, and asked him to be the first member of my organization, the “Nature Conservation Club.”

He agreed instantly, signed on, and …. well, the rest is history.1

The Clearwater sailed up and down that river again and again despite severe opposition from the Right Wing. Who fought the Clearwater and who fought every effort to stop the cleanup.

It took years, but the Clearwater did its job and you can now catch a live striper in the Hudson after decades of that being impossible. You will still likely get cancer if you eat too many of them, but that’s a start.

Arlo Guthrie Falls Through The Ice Because Of Global Warming

So, it seems that Arlo Guthrie was hauling firewood or something with his tractor out at his place in western Mass, and he took the usual shortcut across the pond. The pond was too deep for the tractor to drive in unless, of course, it was frozen, as it always was in mid January. And, as Arlo drove his tractor across the pond, in mid January, the ice gave way bit by bit, in stages, and his tractor went in. Somewhat comically, or so he tells it.

Arlo Guthrie singing about the tractor.  Well, not really, but he could have sung about the tractor.
Arlo Guthrie singing about the tractor. Well, not really, but he could have sung about the tractor.
Arlo blamed that event on anthropogenic global warming.

So, a couple of years after that happened, when I asked him to write an article for the “Global Warming Special Edition” of a monthly newspaper I was editing, that was the story he contributed.

In the same issue, I wrote a lengthy story about global warming, explaining why we thought global warming was happening, making the then-confused (in the public’s mind) distinction between the “ozone hole” and global warming, and so on. That would have been back around 1991 or so, and I swear to you, there is almost nothing in that article, written for the general public, that I would need to change to day to keep it accurate.

 Svante Arrhenius figured out the effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 1896, for crying out loud.
Svante Arrhenius figured out the effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 1896, for crying out loud.
Yes, ladies and gentleman, Arlo and me, and most climate scientists actually, knew about global warming back then, and even today, 20 years later, we are having a hard time convincing our friends in the right wing.

Because they’re morons or because they are paid off by industry. Take your pick. Either way, they’ve got a lame excuse.

You’d think they were getting paid enough by the health care industry to finally let the environment alone for a while.

Earth Day is I Told You So Day for a lot of us.

Plank’s Constant

In the US, political parties have what is called a “platform” which is a list of assertions … “we want this” and “we want that” sort of assertions. The “platform” is made up, quaintly, of “planks” with each plank being about one issue. Like for my local Democratic Farm Labor party unit, one of our Planks a few years ago was to get the damn road fixed over at Devil’s Triangle, a particularly bad intersection down on Route 169. That’s a local plank, but if we go to a party event, and a gubernatorial candidate is answering questions, she or he is expected to know what the heck is being talked about if someone brings up “Devil’s Triangle.”

“… No, no, it’s not in the Caribbean. It’s in Maple Grove …. At the lights, on 169 …. you know, that place with all the traffic…”

You often hear that party platforms are not important, but nothing can be farther from the truth. Once an issue gets plank status, that issue is on the table and can be brought to the floor even if you are not a chair. In other words, any Joe Sixpack or Sally Minivan can bring a plank issue up at a committee meeting, public meeting, whatever, without looking like a dork or a crazy person by saying “I’d like to refer to an item in the state convention’s platform… bla bla bla”

This is because the planks are given credibility by the process. They are suggested and voted on at caucus meetings, and then passed on to committees, and eventually combined and winnowed down, and voted on again, and so on and so forth (it’s complicated) so that many hands have touched them, similar ideas have been combined, and the ideas have been refined.

That’s the Minnesota version. Every state has its process, some more accessible by the average citizen, some less so.

People make fun of it, but it's a thing.
People make fun of it, but it’s a thing.
I have three reasons for talking about planks and platforms and such on Earth Day.

1) Parties have platforms. Independent candidates do not, and some parties like the Independence Party don’t either because they don’t believe in them. But platforms are good. Party politics is potent. If you have believed the oft repeated rhetoric and think parties are bad or dead or old hat or ineffective, then you’ve been convinced to get out of the way and let others do the policy building for you. Don’t be chump. Decisions are made by those who show up. At your party’s platform meetings!

2) Which simply leads to the conclusion that you must think globally and act locally. On this Earth Day, please spend some time finding out what you need to do to become involved locally with your party. Local planks become district plans which become state planks and some of those planks go to Washington DC. No kidding. If enough people in your state organize (and this can be done with 20 people or so if they know what they are doing) they can get a plank to the national convention that says “No genetically modified crops ever, for any reason.” Or “Fund homeopathy as well as you fund regular medicine.”

3) Which leads me to my third and final point: When it comes to woo, there is a significant parallel between the environmental movement and health care. Well, to be exact, there is a lot of woo in both places, and it exists in these political discussions that happen locally and that make a difference. But you can manage that problem. If you are a supporter of science, you need to become a locally active politically operative person.

Get involved in the plank building process, and build meaningful planks that will persist. Also, support candidates for office that make Climate Change either THE number one issue for their campaign, or equal to one or two other number one issues, and who are serious about it. We don’t have much time, and we have to keep the Carbon in the ground, and it is up to you to do this.

For the Earth.

1Obscure, lost history of no consequence, but history nonetheless.

Eagles Adopt Unhatched Offspring Of Dinner

Here in Minnesota we do things a little different sometimes. Let me splain. First, a little background.

Bird parental investment is intense, or at least it can be. You all know the stories. A bunch of carp are regularly fed in a pond, so they learn to come to the edge of the water when they detect a presence there, and stick their big round mouths out of the water to beg for bits of bread. A mother or father bird has just started to feed the little hatchlings, who beg for food with their gaping maws. A windstorm. A weakened branch. Some bad luck. The bough breaks and the nest, with baby and all, comes down. The rats and cats feast.

The next day the disoriented parent bird happens by the pond and triggers the mouth-gaping begging of the carp. The bird is cued into action and finds a morsel of food for the fish, and the fish respond with more gaping, and the parent bird responds with more feeding. This goes on for a while until the hormones wear off and the bird goes on to other things.

A pair of bald eagles are nesting with a web cam in Minnesota. One of them killed a duck and brought it back to the nest. In case you were wondering, raptor style birds eat a lot of other birds, so that is not especially odd. Anyway, they ate the duck but the duck was about to lay an egg, which was inside her. The egg fell out. Normally, a hungry eagle would have just eaten the egg along with the rest of the duck, but in this case, the nesting, would be parental eagles, chose to nurture it instead. They moved the egg into the center of the next and are trying to hatch it.

What could possibly go wrong?

You should be able to find the Eagle Cam, or should I say, Eagle and Duck Cam, here.

Hat tip: Jaf.