All posts by Greg Laden

Cranky Uncle Gets Crankier: Climate Change in the Classroom and on the Smart Phone!

A while back I reviewed Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change by Dr. John “Skeptical Science” Cook.

Since then a lot has been happening on the Cranky Uncle front, and I thought I should catch you up.

John, in cooperation with Facebook and Yale Climate Connection, has created the Facebook Climate Science Information Center. It is HERE. There is an article about this effort HERE.

There is a Cranky Uncle game for your smart phone, which you can get HERE.

Teachers can use the Cranky Uncle game in their classroom (K12 through College) by filling out THIS HERE form.

Also, related, there is a new version of The Conspiracy Handbook by Lewandowsky and Cook, which you can get HERE.

John Cook, author of Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change: How to Understand and Respond to Climate Science Deniers, is a George Mason University expert in climate communication working with Facebook, said research shows that simply saying information is wrong is not enough. “You also have to explain why or how it is wrong. That is important from a psychological point of view,” Cook said of the new “myth-busting” section of the climate portal.

Can law keep up with runaway technology?

Can the law keep up with technology?

Joshua Fairfield asks that question in his new book* Runaway Technology: Can Law Keep Up?, expected out on March 1st.

This is a well written and engaging academic treatment of the problem, looking at technologies as diverse as genetically engineered organisms, deep fakes, and the basic problem of robots taking over the world. Virtual reality is increasingly real (in a material as well as legal sense). Fairfield includes a well deserved (but in my mind too narrow) critique of science, and underscores how limitations in thinking about scientific process and technological advances complexifies the legal problems science and technology create.

Ultimately, he argues in favor of a new kind of law, and he situates law itself as part of the science and technology the law is trying to keep up with. This is also an examination of language and culture, and how technology and law are both embedded in, shaped by, and constraining of, basic humanity. You will find some interesting philosophy in these pages.

This is not escapist literature, and it is not a book by a good writer about a thing the writer found interesting. This is an expert treatment by an expert in a critically important area. This book will be assigned in law classes.

The answer addressed in Runaway Technology to the question “can the law keep up?” is really not so much “yes” or “no,” but rather, it will, but can society and democracy keep up the co-evolution of law, science, and technology, and do so in a way that protects society and democracy.

I’m sure most readers of this blog will want to read this book.

The Complex Problem of Microplastic Particle Pollution

The importance of microplastic particles in the ecosystem, both as they might effect ecological systems and human health, is the subject of great deal of new research, and is one of more rapidly developing areas of of knowledge related to environmental concern. Once thought of as mainly a problem in the oceans (related to the now famous “Pacific Garbage Patch“) it is now understood that microplastic particles are also common in the terrestrial ecosystem and the part of the food chain we eat.

Microplastic fluxes and associated ecosystem feedbacks: Deposition and accumulation of microplastics can affect soil properties, with consequences for process rates and net primary production (NPP), causing feedbacks to the atmosphere, including greenhouse gases (GHGs). So far, nanoplastic has unknown consequences for this system. Fig 1 from “Microplastics in Terrestrial Ecosystems” Rillig and Lehmann 2020. Science. GRAPHIC: A. KITTERMAN/SCIENCE FROM M. C. RILLIG AND A. LEHMANN

Sources of microplastic particles include wearing down of tires, the use of synthetic textiles, road paint, the coatings and pain used on boats, and personal care products (roughly in that order) as well as “city dust,” a ‘generic name given to a group of nine sources” including the soles of footwear, synthetic cooking utensils, building paint, cleaning supplies, etc, all with small individual contributions but collectively about 24% of the microplastic particle pollution observed in the ocean. (See this.)

Estimated contribution of various sources to the microplastic particle pollution observed in the oceans. Source: Primary microplastics in the oceans, IUCN (see link in text).

The effects of microplastic particles may be more related to size and shape of the particles, rather than toxicity. (But all these factors matter.) Microplastic particles are mostly made of carbon. Normally carbon gets spread around the environment as part of the photosynthetic segment of the carbon cycle. Microplastic particles now exist in what has become known of as the “plastic cycle.” (See this and this.) Since the nature of microplastic routed carbon is different than “natural” carbon, direct and indirect effects on ecology can occur. Soil structure can be affected (including the spaces where air or water may be trapped in soil). Microplastics in soil can benefit plants, because soil density is lowered, so root growth is easier. However, where microplastics make up a large proporation of fill, plant growth is reduced (see this).

Note that the carbon in microplastic particles is fossil carbon, which prior to the manufacture of the plastic was mostly trapped in petroleum or coal, which in turn is mostly out of the short and medium term carbon cycle. Moving carbon from the long term cycle (which involves processes like continents being subjected into the mantle of the Earth, to be belched out later from volcanoes or added to spreading sea floors) into the short and medium term cycle (such as the cycle affected by human activity to cause global warming) may be important.

Microplastic particle contamination has been associated with changes in the immune system, the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria (in part because bacterial microfilms that cover microplastic particles may favor, or at least contain, resistant forms), and microplastic particles have been found all over the place. Microplastic particles can be a vector moving chemicals between parts of the ecosystem.

Conceptual model of the plastic pollution cycle and the interactions between biogeochemistry, trophic transfer, and human health and exposure. Note that arrows and artwork are not to scale and are for descriptive purposes only. Expanded, adapted, and redrawn, in part, from Rochman et al. (2019) with permission. Fig 1 in Environ. Sci. Technol. 2019, 53, 13, 7177-7179

See “Microplastic in terrestrial ecosystems” for a fuller review of the effects of microplastic particles in soils and other parts of the ecosystem. It is pretty complex.

We may tend to think of microplastic particles as being a problem because we use plastic containers, which can break down into micro particles. That is true. For example, using polypropylene bottles in the preparation of infant formula releases microplastic particles into the formula itself. But a lot of microplastic particles are introduced directly into the environment because we make and use those small sized particles in a range of applications including agriculture and cosmetics. As a rule where the material being used is less solid, the degree to which it is soluble and thus the ease with which it enters the environment increases. This could allow regulations to be focuses more stridently and more quickly on areas of plastic use and production that have the most effect.

The universe of polymer species from primary microplastics to functional polymers, where solidity decreases, and solubility increases from polymer pellets to dispersion aids. Fig one in “Microplastic regulation should be more precise to incentivize both innovation and environmental safety” Nature October 21 2020.

Microplastic particles can be taken in to cells by a process called “internalization” or “endocytosis” (synonyms) (see abstract below). There is evidence that “fresh” microplastic particles are not easily taken in but once exposed to the environment for a while, the surface of the microplastic particles changes, allowing internalization to happen more easily. The effects of the microplastic on the inside of the cell is understudied, but could in some cases be a problem. Microplastics may decrease cellular activity and increase reactive oxygen species, which in turn has potentially serious health effects.

Is this hopeless? Possibly. Can we stop using plastics? Maybe. Can the environment sequester microplastic particles (and thus carbon) naturally? Sometimes and maybe. Developing nations contribute hugely to plastic pollution due to a lack of solid waste infrastructure. Developed nations like the US have a great plastic waste infrastructure, but use so many plastics that the contribution from these countries is still huge (see this). We shed microplastic particles through many activities from feeding one’s baby to driving to the store to buy more forumla.

The fact that microplastic particles are something we ingest, breath in, our that our cells engulf is not itself a novelty. The gas and liquids we exist among are normally full of particles. Many of these particles are polymers, like plastic, but natural (pollen, skin cells, etc.). The problem with microplastic particles isn’t so much that they exist, but that they exist and are subtly, or sometimes dramatically, different than what is normally there, and what we thus normally adapt to. Also, microplastic particles may create a different distribution than what would normally occur (like the frequency in baby formula?). The challenge is to figure out where microplastic particles matter most, and then figure out ways of addressing those problems first and fast. This will also involve figuring out if the best solutions (which is a function of how well the solution works and how likely it is to get it to happen) is a change in specific policies or regulations, or changes in individual behavior. And, of course, we must be cognizant that changes to avoid or reduce microplastic particles do not result in some other negative effect.

This is just a rough, preliminary look at microplastic particles. I tried to include a wide selection of links to recent works, but I’m afraid many may be behind paywalls. But, you should be able to find a lot more by CLICKING HERE.

Additional Info and Resources:
Machado, Et Al. 2018. Impacts of microplastics on the soil biophysical environment. Environ. Sci Technol 52(17)

Abstract: oils are essential components of terrestrial ecosystems that experience strong pollution pressure. Microplastic contamination of soils is being increasingly documented, with potential consequences for soil biodiversity and function. Notwithstanding, data on effects of such contaminants on fundamental properties potentially impacting soil biota are lacking. The present study explores the potential of microplastics to disturb vital relationships between soil and water, as well as its consequences for soil structure and microbial function. During a 5-weeks garden experiment we exposed a loamy sand soil to environmentally relevant nominal concentrations (up to 2%) of four common microplastic types (polyacrylic fibers, polyamide beads, polyester fibers, and polyethylene fragments). Then, we measured bulk density, water holding capacity, hydraulic conductivity, soil aggregation, and microbial activity. Microplastics affected the bulk density, water holding capacity, and the functional relationship between the microbial activity and water stable aggregates. The effects are underestimated if idiosyncrasies of particle type and concentrations are neglected, suggesting that purely qualitative environmental microplastic data might be of limited value for the assessment of effects in soil. If extended to other soils and plastic types, the processes unravelled here suggest that microplastics are relevant long-term anthropogenic stressors and drivers of global change in terrestrial ecosystems.

Ramsperger et al. 2020 “Environmental exposure enhances the internalization of microplastic particles into cells” Science Advances 6(50)
Abstract: Microplastic particles ubiquitously found in the environment are ingested by a huge variety of organisms. Subsequently, microplastic particles can translocate from the gastrointestinal tract into the tissues likely by cellular internalization. The reason for cellular internalization is unknown, since this has only been shown for specifically surface-functionalized particles. We show that environmentally exposed microplastic particles were internalized significantly more often than pristine microplastic particles into macrophages. We identified biomolecules forming an eco-corona on the surface of microplastic particles, suggesting that environmental exposure promotes the cellular internalization of microplastics. Our findings further indicate that cellular internalization is a key route by which microplastic particles translocate into tissues, where they may cause toxicological effects that have implications for the environment and human health.

Rilling and Lehman. 2020. Microplastic in terrestrial ecosystem. Science.

C.S. Lewis Book Cheap

You already own this but in case you want a Kindle version so you can search the text or whatever, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is now 3 bucks, which is slightly less than half the usual price. This is book one, no wait, book two, no wait, book one, of the Chronicles of Narnia series. Book One, in my opinion. Fight me if you want.

While we’re on the subject of books you already own in meatspace but not yet on Kindle, Bratchett’s Equal Rites: A Novel of Discworld is two bucks, way less than half price. Go for it!

What is Treason, Exactly? (And has it been committed by anyone you know recently?)

What is treason, exactly?

I recently asked on major social networking platforms, “Did Donald Trump Commit Treason,” and got two well argued and often detailed answers: “Yes!” and “No!”

Then, I read On Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law by Carlton F.W. Larson.* I discovered that both positions are wrong. And right.

Ultimately, it can not be argued that Donald Trump violated the treason clause of the US Constitution in his dealings with Russia, even if the worst that has been suggested is true. (Larson’s book came out before 1/6, so it is silent on the events of that day.) When people in the US use the term “treason” in a sentence like “Trump committed treason, lock him up!” they are (inadvertently, most of the time) referring to the Treason Clause in Article II, Section 3, of the US Constitution, which says:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

First, I’d like to point out the use of the plural in referring to “The United States.” This is how the United States were/was referred to prior to the US Civil War. After the war, it would have been “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against it.” But I digress.

Some of this is obvious, some of it not, but I learned from Larson’s book that treason must involve giving aid to an enemy of the US, in the sense that we are in a state of war. However, we have been and are now at war with multiple entities with no formal declaration of war, and haven’t been since World War II. Why war has not been declared since then is a bit mysterious, but I hear it is because it would make the US a war criminal country, since it is against convention of international law to go to war against anyone. But again I digress.

The point is, if someone adhered to (helped) the Hanoi government during the US period of involvement in the Viet Nam war, that act would be considered aiding a country at war with us, because everybody understand that a war is a war even if Congress has not declared it.

But, there are enemies, to which Larson and other legal experts apply the highly technical legal term “frienemies,” that are countries with whom we are not getting along at all, but avoid using the “w” word because we would all die in nuclear holocaust. Such as Russia. Trump did not commit treason in his dealings with Russia not because there is no declared war with Russia, but because we don’t want to openly admit we are in some sense at war with Russia. A treason charge against Trump for aiding Russia by the US Attorney General would be tantamount to declaring war against Russia, and then, we would all die in the nuclear holocaust.

If you think that Trump still could be considered to have committed treason against the United States by aiding Russia, then you would be absolutely correct. Maybe. But if you think that the US can or should charge Trump with treason based on his dealings with Russia, then you would be absolutely wrong, but NOT because we are not technically at war with Russia (see above) but because we won’t admit to being in a state of hostility against Russia. (By the way, if you want body counts, you can have body counts. Many have died in the cold war, Russia had seen to the killings of US soldiers, putting Trump in place as US President to disrupt our country has resulted in countless excess Covid-19 deaths, and so on and so forth).

In my personal opinion, the so-called “insurrection” was treasonous, even in the narrowly defined Constitutional sense. Why? It was an attempt to put an unelected dictator at the head of government, using a violent attack on a major US governmental facility. But with whom are we at war you ask? Well, the group of terrorists who carried out that attack. According to the legal arguments discussed in Larson’s book, the major terrorist groups such as ISIS and the US are functionally at war. A person who aids ISIS can be considered committing treason, if certain other things are in place.

But wait, hold on. If these insurrectionists are “at war” with the US, then they are not really committing treason, they are in essence soldiers. They can’t even be charged with criminal activity and would have to be treated as prisoners of war. That would require their immediate release because hostilities are over. But, what about those who aided them but were not with them? What about those guys??? Treason would apply.

But what does the Civil War say about this? The southern soldiers and generals who were captured during the war were treated as prisoners of war, yet the North never considered the southern states as separate. The northern legal attitude towards the south, in the eyes of Europe was (ideally) “this is not a war between belligerents so don’t aid or recognize the south.” Yet southerners were treated as soldiers. This contradiction was sometimes the focus of much attention at the time, and sometimes ignored. It never, however, went way. So, when the war ended, why weren’t the generals and soldiers and such charged with treason? Because it wasn’t really a war? No. Mainly because of the terms of surrender supplied by General Grant, and the political approach preferred by Lincoln. But what about Jefferson Davis? Why was he not charged with Treason? For that, I’ll let you read the book.

Clearly, little is clear. And, to me, one of the most interesting things about Carlton Larson’s treatment of treason is the degree to which relevant legal arguments are made, to help define treason, in settings where there was never a successful (or in some cases, even unsuccessful) prosecution. One would think that treason law would emerge as a combination of what the US Constitution says and what high court decisions include. Well, there is some of that. But a large amount of the legal conversation, opinions that help us to understand treason law in the US at the Federal level, come from decisions made, in some cases to NOT pursue a case, by US attorneys or other prosecutors, and by lower court judges wrestling with the problem.

In some cases, a treason charge was not made, or failed in court, because of the “two witness” rule or for some other technicality. But, the legally framed conversation that happened among the participants still informs us of what treason might or might not be. Not mentioned above is the idea that the treasonous person must be a citizen of the United States. Turns out, that is not strictly true. Why? Read the book. This part is really fascinating. Generally speaking, the most common outcome of a possible consideration of treason, in US history, has been to not make that charge because it is so difficult. The second most common outcome, possibly (I did not keep count) is to fail in court for similar reasons.

And, I should note, that Larson affirms that very few US Federal treason cases have been brought, and among those that were, few have succeed, because the requirements of the provision are intentionally hard to meet.

I discovered an interesting Reality vs. Wikipedia rip in the chronosynclastic continuum. According to treason expert Larson, only one person in the US has ever been put to death on a Federal treason charge, and he was not a US citizen, and did not commit treason, it was not really in the US but in a recently acquired territory, and perhaps he was not even tried in what would ultimately be considered a legal court. Nonetheless, he was hung by the neck until dead after being convicted of treason. Larson notes that nearly all discussions of treason don’t mention him, and I checked Wikipedia: Hipolito Salazar is not mentioned. However, there is a second person that Larson is mum about who was executed for Treason in the US under apparent Federal authority: William Mumford. Wikipedia says he is the only person so executed, and gives details. I suspect Mumford doesn’t count because he was tried and convicted under Martial Law by a military tribunal, which would be different than being charged with Treason under US jurisdiction and Article II, Section 3, Clause 1. If so, I say, “stand there in your wrongness and be wrong, Wikipedia!” One can argue forever as to whether Mumford was legitimately convicted of this or that law. The statement was made that he was charged and hereby convinced of Treason and he was then executed, right or wrong. But if the law that applied was not Articla II, Section 3, Clause 1, then he does not count, while Salazar does count.

In On Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law Carlton F.W. Larson, a widely recognized expert on Treason law, describes and analyses every case of treason, or almost case of treason, or case of almost treason, in the US (and several cases outside that purview). The history of treason law, also covered in detail, is full of interesting (and sometimes necessary) contradictions. The origin and history of the Constitutional article itself is fascinating.

So the other day, a neighbors house was entered by hooligans, things stolen, and when the neighbors returned (they were out) they found that lots of their stuff had been trashed. Right there in broad daylight. Do you think that the perpetrators should be charged with robbery? If you have a degree in Facebook Law, you will probably swoop in on that statement and say, “why, no, it is not robbery, burglary! They can’t be charged with robbery. Burglary!” But you would be wrong in some states. What you call burglary by you is, in some states, called “housebreaking” if it happens during the day, and this happened during the day. Gotcha.

Treason is a little like that. The concept is centuries old. Most or all US states have treason laws and they vary. As noted above, the definition of Treason is not easy, since it relies on citizenship and a state of war, and also, an understanding of what “helping” the enemy was. All three of these things are tricky concepts.

I think that if you read this book, and you see someone say “so and so should be charged with treason” your immediate response will no longer be (if it was before) either “right, obviously!” or “no, that would be insurrection!”

Donald Trump committed treason in his dealings with Russia, according to me (but Larson says no) but he can’t be charged with Treason because we are not at a sufficient state of war with Russia. Both yes and no are valid answers to the question posed above, in my opinion. Not only is the answer “yes and no” more correct as a response to the question, it is a heck of a lot more interesting, if you bother to find out why. And to do so, read On Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law.

While you are waiting for the book to arrive, have a look at: Treason, the Death Penalty, and American Identity also by Carlton F.W. Larson.

Democracy In Chains Cheap

Ironic? Maybe, because we know democracy should not be for sale, and never, on sale. Whatever. I’m here to tell you* that Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America” is on Kindle right now for cheap, at least in the US, where Democracy and books about it are always on sale!

In an unrelated development, this may be of interest to you as well: Chancing It: The Laws of Chance and How They Can Work for You by Robert Matthews with a forward by Larry Gonick is also cheap* on Kinddle at this moment. This is yet another book about how people with calculators are smart compared to you. But, it has a foreword by Larry Gonick!

Maybe don’t use the term “Greater Minnesota”

In Minnesota we have an epic “rural-urban” divide. Most epic about it is the degree to which it is oversimplified. Our “rural” area is incredibly diverse. A big chunk of it consists of a gazillion acres of corn, and among the corn, the farmsteads and small villages that serve the corn. A somewhat larger area consists of a the very large wet spot left behind by the receding glaciers, also known as the “lakes region” but that is more marsh than lake, and within which we find a gazillion “cabins” ranging in size and fanciness from actual cabin to small castle. I would include in this zone the large state and national parks and preserves and other lands, and good portions of Native American lands. A somewhat smaller area is the mining zone which some call “the range” (but there are many “ranges” and even rangers are usually not in agreement on the exact geography, and by the way, this is not a mountain range … no mountains at all.) Continue reading Maybe don’t use the term “Greater Minnesota”

Poul Anderson totally stole my idea!

Here was my idea. I call it “The Wedge.” See, there’s this wedge of, well, effect, emanating from the cluster of black hoes near the center of the galaxy, and sweeping around like a lighthouse beam, with one rotation every several thousand years (details to be worked out). While The Wedge is shining on your plant, things work one way. When it passes, things go back to normal. Our solar system has been within the Wedge Zone for thousand of years (except may be it flicked off now and then, say, during Egyptian times, or whatever). Never mind the details. Continue reading Poul Anderson totally stole my idea!