Monthly Archives: September 2017

An Interesting New Graphic Showing Climate Change

This graphic, by Boggis Makes Videos and put on YouTube just a few days ago, breaks all the rules of how to make effective, understandable graphs for the general public. However, if you follow all those rules, it is difficult or impossible to get certain message across. Therefore, this graphic is necessary if a bit difficult. I would like you to watch the graphic several times with a prompt before each watching so that you fully appreciate it. This will only take you six or seven minutes, I’m sure you weren’t doing anything else important. Continue reading An Interesting New Graphic Showing Climate Change

The Trump White House Rhetoric seems to say: Give up on Puerto Rico

The White House calls the disaster in Puerto Rico a “good news story,” implying that the federal government is doing a great job there.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump put out a tweet today that seems to imply that the US needs to consider whether or not it wants to help Puerto Rico, which, by the way, is actually part of the United States.

Here is the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, responding to some of this:

Hat tip: Media Matters for America

An interesting new graphic showing climate change

This graphic, by Boggis Makes Videos and put on YouTube just a few days ago, breaks all the rules of how to make effective, understandable graphs for the general public. However, if you follow all those rules, it is difficult or impossible to get certain message across. Therefore, this graphic is necessary if a bit difficult. I would like you to watch the graphic several times with a prompt before each watching so that you fully appreciate it. This will only take you six or seven minutes, I’m sure you weren’t doing anything else important.

Pass 1: How to read the graph

This graph’s basic data are temperature anomaly, not temperature, but difference in observed temperature averaged out over a month, using a baseline of 1961-1990. Global warming was already underway for this period, but it still works as a baseline. Anyway notice the scale shown at the beginning of the presentation.

The Graph shows the temperature anomaly across latitude, using a circle meant to represent the earth, so the north pole is on top, the south pole on the bottom, the equator half way between, etc.

The height of the graph’s bars, as well as their color, show the anomaly, but the beginning of the graphic shows you how far out, in standard deviations, the values are.

The Graphic display starts at 1900. The values are shown for each month, but they are 12 month moving average values, otherwise this graphic would give you a seizure.

So watch the first 20 seconds or so as many times as you need to, to fully understand these details.

Pass 2: It is getting warmer and weirder

On the first pass, just note that as the earth gets warmer, at sea and on land (see the two graphics at the bottom). Notice that the variation from year to year as well as the increase in temperature really takes off in the 1980s. Notice that the surface warmth values increase dramtically starting in the 1990s. Notice that things get really wild over just the last ten years or less.

Pass 3: Ends and middles

On your third pass, and this may take a few passes, notice the difference between the equatorial, temperate, and polar regions, as well as the difference between the two poles.

Consider that the increased warming in arctic regions compared to other regions affects many aspects of our weather.

Consider that the increases in temperate and tropical regions means that over some periods of time an increasingly lager area of the earth becomes uninhabitable without air conditioning.

Notice that the northern and southern hemisphere don’t have the same exact pattern.

What else did you see?

Wait, don’t buy an Echo yet!

I had mentioned before that we are enjoying our Amazon Echo, one of those robots that listens and then responds with a certain degree of intelligence.

We don’t use the Echo for very many things, but that is partly because we are not in the habit. For example, if I’m sitting in a certain chair in the library, reading, I have to stand up and turn around and kind of bend over in a certain direction to see the clock on the wall. Or, I can say, “Alexa, what time is it?” and the Echo Dot tells me. But, I almost never think of asking Alexa. But over time I’m sure I’ll get in the habit, and after that, stop moving around as much. Which will ultimately lead to atrophy about the time the robots take over, which I assume is their plan.

I use Alexa’s shopping list, we ask it questions one might as Google Assistant (but Google Assistant is much more likely so far to come up with the answer). Alexa has a large number of useful information and entertainment services, which we are using more and more, such as getting a news update, the weather, and so on.

In any event, I recommend giving Alexa a try, and if you happen to have an Internet Of Things devices, then you simply have to pepper your home with dots and stop moving entirely.

But, the reason you don’t want to just go out and buy an Echo or related device at this moment is because Amazon just came out with a new line of them. Here is some basic information to help you get oriented. Then, if you pick the second generation Echo as your first Alexa device, go for it, otherwise, I might wait until the other devices are out for a few weeks to see how people like them.

If you want to cut to the chase, CLICK HERE to see a page at with the details, including a product grid to help you pick out which robot you want to have as your new overlord.

The Echo Dot (2nd Generation) is your basic entry level device. It has an adequate speaker but not really good enough for music, but it also has an output you can hook to your own speakers. Your first device should be this inexpensive dot. Then, later, if you want to upgrade to a fancier device, you can still use this one as a second device say, in your garage or bathroom or somewhere.

The Second Generation Echo is essentially the Echo Dot sitting on top of a high quality speaker, and runs about twice the cost of the Echo dot.

The new Echo Plus includes a hub from which to run your smart home devices, has a somewhat better sound system than the Echo 2nd gen, and is slightly larger. This will cost you fifty another fifty bucks, so now we are up to $150, but since it includes the hub it is probably worth it.

The new Echo Spot is Echo Dot size but with a screen, small at 2.5″, but possibly useful. This is not cheaap ($129). The sound quality sis probably better than the traditional Dot. It does not have the hub.

The top of the line is the Echo Show. This has top speakers, a 7 inchs screen, and blue-tooth only audio output (all the others have plug in audio output).

All these devices can control smart home items, and allow free audio calls between people with Echos across North America. They all stream music, etc. using the services that you may or may not have such as Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, etc.

I’m not sure that I personally grok the combination of devices. Maybe I want a hub that is separate and inexpensive. Maybe I want a screen that is 7 inches or so to wall mount but it is only an output screen, but it can sit near my front door and tell me the weather, something about traffic, and if the garage door is open. I’ll have to think about it.

For now I’ll stick with my dot, and keep playing around with home made devices and robots until I see how it goes.

The big question for YOU is which device to get if this is your first one. I would recommend the Echo Dot then see how it goes, just to be conservative.

However, make sure you get a second generation Echo Dot, or Echo.

Also, Amazon is currently running a promotion where you can get the Echo Dot plus a Fire TV stick (which is roughly like a Roku, I believe) for about 90 bucks, which is cheap.. And, you can browse around for certified refurbished devices which will save you typically ten or twenty percent. Not a huge savings but they are certified.

The Great Pacific Invasion

When the big tsunami hit Japan in 2011, many objects were washed out to sea. This flotsam provided for a giant “rafting event.” A rafting event is when animals, plants, etc. float across an otherwise uncrossable body of water and end up alive on the other side. With this particular event, I don’t think very many terrestrial life forms crossed the Pacific, but a lot of littoral — shore dwelling and near shore — animals and plants did.

Even though the Pacific ocean is one big puddle and you would think that any organism anywhere in it could just go to any other part of the ocean, like in the movie Finding Nemo, that simply isn’t true, and many organisms, most, don’t migrate at all and don’t disperse that far.

This video gives an overview of the dispersal of Japanese marine life forms across the pacific.

One might assume that this sort of rafting event happens all the time, or at least, every century or so when there is a tsunami. Partly true. But the flotsam that flotsamized the Pacific this time around included a lot of stuff that did not, could not, rot, and had generally more chance of making it all the way before floating.

And, of course, this is all being studied by scientists because it is an amazing opportunity. From the abstract of a paper just out:

The 2011 East Japan earthquake generated a massive tsunami that launched an extraordinary transoceanic biological rafting event with no known historical precedent. We document 289 living Japanese coastal marine species from 16 phyla transported over 6 years on objects that traveled thousands of kilometers across the Pacific Ocean to the shores of North America and Hawai‘i. Most of this dispersal occurred on nonbiodegradable objects, resulting in the longest documented transoceanic survival and dispersal of coastal species by rafting. Expanding shoreline infrastructure has increased global sources of plastic materials available for biotic colonization and also interacts with climate change–induced storms of increasing severity to eject debris into the oceans. In turn, increased ocean rafting may intensify species invasions.

Carlton, James, et. al 2017. Tsunami-driven rafting: Transoceanic species dispersal and implications for marine biogeography. Science 357:6358(1402-2406)

People who voted for Jill Stein were tricked, and we are all paying for it

Or so it seems.

Donald Trump won the 2016 election with 306 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232 votes. That is a spread of 74 votes.

Clinton was likely to win in several states in which she lost, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, maybe Ohio, etc. In three states that could have gone either way, Jill Stein’s vote count was larger than the difference between Clinton and Trump. In Michigan, Trump won by 10,704 votes, Stein got 51,463 votes. In Pennsylvania, Trump won by 46,765 votes, Stein got 49,678 votes. In Wisconsin, Trump won by 22,177 votes, Stein got 31,006 votes.

If every Jill Stein vote would have been a Clinton Vote, it is likely that Clinton would have had 49 electoral votes more than she did have.

That alone would have put Clinton in the white house.

We now know that Russian hackers worked hard on getting people to vote for Stein. They spread around the idea that it was “safe” to vote for a third party candidate in states where the outcome was obvious anyway.

I told people this many times. I said, again and again, the logic that you can vote “safely” in a general election for a third party candidate in certain states is flawed for several reasons. One of those reasons, I said, is that you might only think the state is safe, and perhaps it is not.

Using Stein, who is known to have hobnobbed with Putin (which may or may not be relevant here), and I’m sure a few other trick here and there, the Russians may have given their guy Trump the three electoral college wins that put him in the White House.

We’ve learned this as part of the recent expose of Facebook’s blind cooperation with the Russians in the 2016 election. (Or maybe not all blind? We just don’t know yet. How hard might it have been for the Russians to play Zuckerberg?) We are about to find out if Twitter played a similar role.

It is valid, as well as lazy, to argue that, “but but it was other things too you can’t say this etc.” but the truth is that Stein hardly even ran in most states, got overall less than 1% of the vote.

So yes, it is possible to erase the Stein votes in three key states, and manage for Clinton to still lose in those states, but highly unlikely. It is very likely that the Stein vote was a significant contributor to what ultimately happened.

Putin would not be able to control US elections if two things were true. 1) Americans actually showed up to vote and 2) The percentage of gullible special snowflake ignorant voters was about half of what it apparently is.

Watch this:

Puerto Rico Disaster Implications: Migrations, Politics, Cholera

Two or three thoughts about the current crisis.

When there is a major climate disaster in the US, people move. Since the US is big and has large gaps in population, it looks different than when a disaster happens in some other places. Five million (or more) Syrians leaving the Levant left a major mark across the globe. A half million leaving the Katrina hit zone was barely noticed on a global, or even national, scale, not just because it was one tenth the amount, but because of our size and space as well.

Something close to half the 400K or so displaced by Katrina (over half of them from NOLA) have returned to the vicinity they formerly lived in, and only a third to the same original location. The others are all over the place, distributed with a rapidly decreasing distance decay function. So these displacements, in the US, tend to be very long term and can thus affect demography and politics far afield.

An exodus from Puerto Rico will likely have a different decay function than seen for Katrina because it is, and apparently few people know this, an Island! But anyway, it is likely that there will be an exodus from Puerto Rico and it is starting to look like it will be sufficient to make Florida less Purple and more Blue, and specifically, more anti-Trump.

Note that in the past, New York was the most likely destination for a person from Puerto Rico to move, which is funny given Trump’s statements about all his Puerto Rican friends. For those not from that region, Puerto Ricans have long been hated by white supremacists in the greater NY metro area. But I digress. Anyway, over recent years, Florida has become a growing center of the US Mainland Puerto Rican community.

For context: There are about 3.5 million people living in Puerto Rico who identify as Puerto Rican, and about 5.3 million self identified Puerto Ricans in the lower 48. Currently there is somewhat under one million in Florida, somewhat over in NY, but Puerto Ricans are everywhere in the US, with the fewest in the upper plains and the most in the greater NY area (as far out as Penn) and Florida.

We are concerned that cholera will spread in Puerto Rico. You may remember the ca 2011 epidemic that mainly struck Haiti (see chart above). There was another ten years earlier. There is some interesting research out there linking cholera to climate change. The pathogen, Vibrio cholerae, lives in coastal waters where it has a keystone commensal relationship with copepods and other microinvertebrates. We think of cholera as a highly contagious pathogen among humans, but it starts from its natural reservoirs in water. In some areas of South Asia, cholera was significantly attenuated by the discovery that simply passing well water through common cotton cloth filtered out the disease enough to make a difference, at least in some contexts.

For historical context, there was a huge cholera epidemic in the Caribbean in the 19th century, and I understand this event, which killed something like 30,000 in Puerto Rico alone, is still a traumatic memory in the region. From a 2011 summary of the historic epidemic, written I suspect in response to the re-emergence of the problem about six years ago:

The Caribbean region experienced cholera in 3 major waves… The 3 periods of cholera in the Caribbean that we have identified are 1833–1834 (with, according to Kiple [6], possible lingering cholera in outlying areas until late 1837 or early 1838) in Cuba; 1850–1856 in Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Nevis, Trinidad, the Bahamas, St. Vincent, Granada, Anguilla, St. John, Tortola, the Turks and Caicos, the Grenadines (Carriacou and Petite Martinique), and possibly Antigua; and 1865–1872 in Guadeloupe, Cuba, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic, Dominica, Martinique, and Marie Galante.

It is thought that Cholera is more likely to be abundant and to spread into human populations with warmer waters, and possibly the range over which cholera is a lingering constant threat in coastal waters is likely increasing. Also, increased air temperatures and rainfall can increase growth or spread of cholera in the wild. This is a relationship first identified in the 1990s, and that has been demonstrated through several studies. The next few weeks and months in Puerto Rico are an accidental and potentially horrific experimental laboratory to test the science that has been percolating along over the last 20 years.

States Can Lead the Way on Climate Change

True that. In the US, energy policy and regulation happens much more at the state level than the federal level, and our federal government went belly up last January anyway. Some states will not lead, they will go backwards, but others will lead, and show the way.

So, here I want to highlight this new item in Scientific American by Rebecca Otto.

States Can Lead the Way on Climate Change
The Trump administration’s threats to abandon Obama’s Clean Power Plan and exit the Paris accords don’t necessarily mean all is lost

The word “corporation” does not appear in our Constitution or Bill of Rights. But as Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse notes in his book Captured, corporations had already grown so powerful by 1816 that Thomas Jefferson urged Americans to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Today the conflict between the unfettered greed of unregulated capitalism and the right of the people to regulate industry with self-governance has reached extreme proportions. Corporations now have more power than many nations and feel justified in manipulating democracy to improve their bottom lines instead of the common good.
Nowhere is this problem more pronounced than…

Then where? THEN WHERE??? Go read the original piece!

Reading the Special Election Tea Leaves

There are special elections all the time, mostly at the state level. The news is full of the Moore vs. Strange race, which isn’t just strange because Strange is in it. You all know about that. But what you may not know about is the interesting victory, also yesterday, of Kari Lerner in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire politics are above-average complex at the state level, so I won’t dwell on context. But this is a New Hampshire state house race in a district normally held by Republicans. Lerner is a centrist Democrat. She won 39 votes, and a third party candidate, a Libertarian, won by 41. So, one could say that the right wing won by one vote but split the ticket. Nonetheless, a Republican house seat flipped Democratic.

The pattern has been similar in races at the state and national level across the country. There is some number, which I suspect is predicted by some other number, by which Democrats do better, even if they don’t win. So, for example, in a district where Republicans usually win 66-34, and where Trump got 65% of the vote, the special election will still have the Republican winning but in a close race, like 52-48. In the case of this New Hampshire district, Trump did get 65% of the vote, so it is pretty deep red, and the race came out virtually even (with the Democrat happening to win).

At some point we will have to start to dissect this dynamic and predict the color of states and federal districts over the next two years. Yess, my precious spreadsheet, we wills do thisss…..

But first I think we need more data.

Discovering The Mammoth: The Evolution Of Modern Scientific Thinking

It wasn’t a mammoth, it was a mastodon. But it was still a big hairy elephant featured at the climax-end of the main exhibit hall in the New York State museum. And it was an exhibit to end all exhibits. The New York State Museum, during its heyday, was world class, and the hall of evolution, which seemed old enough to have involved Darwin himself as a consultant, featured the reconstructed skeleton as well as a fur-covered version, of the creature discovered in a kettle only a few miles away. That exhibit, along with a dozen other spectacular exhibits that to my knowledge have not been equaled elsewhere or since, are the reason I became a scientist, and probably helped direct me towards the study of prehistory and archaeology.

It is because of that background to my own thinking that I paid a lot of attention over the years to elephants and elephant evolution. I got to help excavate an African four-tusker one year even though I had to push off my other responsibilities to do so. I’ve studied the pseudo archaeological traces left behind by wild forest elephants in the Congo, and now and then, ate one, which may seem strange but I was living among the Pygmy elephant hunters at the time so it seemed like the thing to do.

Several years ago, I came across John McKay. First, his blog, then I met him in person. He had been writing about Pleistocene megafauna but focusing on mammoths. Over our many years of friendship, I watched as he steadily worked on a book putting together his findings, and finally, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science has been completed and is out and in print now!

I liken the discovery of the Mammoth by western science to the mostly lost to history but critical coral reef debate involving Darwin. Both events shaped how we do science today and at the same time revealed mind-changing features of the natural world. I didn’t know until interviewing John on Ikonokast (check out the podcast!) that he had originally become interested in Mammoth by a somewhat indirect route because of the extinct animal’s role in, let us say, alt-theories about the Earth and its history. But regardless of how John became interested, he discovered a complex and almost inexplicable relationship between what people were thinking, the way they arrived at those thoughts, and reality which led to a centuries-long struggle to understand something that to us, today, is fairly simple but to 19th century scholars was outrageous.

Religion and cultural belief prohibited thinking about extinctions or the evolution of one species into another, while at the same time, these bodies of thought and knowledge provided explanations for ancient mammal remains that were, to our minds today, seemingly unbelievable. It was the process of going from being totally wrong and basing conclusions on a combination of bad information and unsupportable logic, to the state of understanding that mammoths are a different species of elephant that once existed where we find their remains, but that went extinct because of major changes in their habitats and possibly other causes.

And that is only part of the central story John brings to the reader in the engagingly written and carefully researched Discovering the Mammoth.

I tend to divide science books into two categories: those written by writers about science, and those written by scientists. Both categories have their duds and their great books, though the former category almost always lacks a certain depth and breath but often in a way the typical interested reader can’t see. Meanwhile, books in the latter category can easily go off the rails or assume too much, and be a burden to read. John McKay’s book is written by an expert on the field (this book is in lieu of his PhD thesis) who had previously spent years developing his craft of explaining scientific things, so it is well done in that regard. But there is another reason the typical reader of this blog will grok McKay’s Mammoths. John’s passion other than dead woolly elephants is falsehoods. This is an interest we share. John McKay is a Snope of science, especially in certain areas, but better. Unlike Snopes, which is content to find enough chinks in the armor of some myth or another to snarkily discard it, McKay often recognizes the ways in which a falsehood informs, and contains non-trivial truth, while various truths can misinform while at the same time containing insidious or at least interesting falsehoods. It is his thinking about the way people get things wrong, combined with scholarly training in various areas of literature and history, that uniquely allow him to tell this particular important story about the the evolution of modern scientific thought.

I highly recommend Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science. Also, consider it as a holiday gift for your favorite smart person, so they can get even smarter.