Friday, August 31, 2012

14 October 2011 – The eyes have it


About two weeks ago, the European Space Agency’s Envisat this week completed its 50,000th orbit of Earth since its launch in 2003.  The satellite, which is the size of a truck, is the most sophisticated Earth environment monitoring satellite currently circling the planet.  You can read about it here.

One of the instrument packages carried by the satellite uses precise radar measurements to monitor sea level (avoiding the problems of isostatic lift and subsidence that plague ground-based depth gauges) in order to build a database to verify the impact of climate change on average global sea levels.  That human-produced CO2 is causing sea levels to increase is a common assumption both in the climate science community and in government organizations that accept and reiterate that community’s pronouncements and prognostications.  As just a few examples:

·         “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.” (IPCC 4th Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers, page 2)

·         “…temperatures and sea level will continue to rise regardless of global efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.” (From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate, page 22)

·         “ has been suggested that environmental changes, particularly the rising sea level, could eventually result in the migration of wildlife, insects, and fish stocks that have sustained the population in the region for generations.” (Arctic Integrating Concept, page 11)

·         “...climate change will have severe consequences, including melting polar ice, rising sea levelsRising sea levels and melting glaciers are expected to increase the possibility of land loss…” (Future Security Environment: Part 1 - Current and Emerging Trends, page 36)

Thanks to Envisat, we have a little more data to validate these sorts of assertions.  This is what the data look like when you graph them:
Between Envisat’s launch in 2003 and a few years ago, sea level rose on average about half a millimetre a year.  That equates to 50 mm, or 5 cm, per century.  To put that in context, according to conventional depth measurement gauges, the rate of sea level rise since the mid-1800s has been approximately 20 cm per century.  So the rate for the last decade or so has been one quarter the average rate for the last century or so.  This demonstrates that although atmospheric CO2 concentrations have continued to climb, the rate of sea level rise has been slowing. 
In case that’s not obvious from the above chart, let me break it into two charts for you, with the corresponding linear trendlines.  The first shows sea level change from 2003-2009...
...and the second, from 2009-2011:

This is the opposite of what the climate models and the IPCC said would happen.  The IPCC predicted both an acceleration in the rate of sea level increase, and an overall increase in average sea level of 18-56 cm by 2100 due to melting ice alone; and a further increase in sea level over the period 2000-2015 of 40 to 140 cm due to thermal expansion alone (see the SPM, table SPM.6, page 20).  Observed data, by contrast, show that the rate of sea level rise is decelerating instead of accelerating; and that average sea levels are in fact declining.

That latter point is key.  For the last two years, despite continually increasing anthropogenic CO2 emissions and steadily rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the average global sea level has been plummeting at a rate of 7.5 mm per year.  The word “plummeting” is justified because the rate of sea level decrease is at present about 75 cm per century.  This is roughly 15 times greater than the rate of sea level increase over the past decade.  As of right now, the average sea level is lower than it was when Envisat was launched nearly a decade ago.  In other words, over the past decade, sea levels have fallen rather than rising as the IPCC models predicted they would.

Is this a new trend?  Is it evidence that climatic behaviour is cyclical, as sceptics argue, instead of linear, as the IPCC would have us believe?  Is it, in point of fact, empirical refutation of the model-based assumption that sea level will inexorably rise in response to “CO2 forcing”?  Could be.  One thing is certain, though: it’s observed data, and it’s diametrically opposed to the assumptions and outputs of climate models and the pronouncements of the IPCC.  And unlike the model assumptions and outputs, you can check the satellite data for yourself.  It’s all right here; all you need is cursory familiarity with MS Excel:]

Incidentally, seeing as how the IPCC said that sea level rise was inevitable as a result of melting land ice (glaciers and what-not; as Archimedes kindly demonstrated, floating sea ice can’t affect sea level whether it melts or not), and the proponents of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming still claim that land ice is melting at a ferocious rate, one has to ask: if sea level is demonstrably declining and there’s no accumulation of snow or land ice...then where’s the water going?  Just wondering.
Is this issue relevant to strategic analysis?  Well, take another look at the above-cited assumptions and the documents they come from.  Governments are conducting policy and force planning and development activities on the basis of assumptions, repeated over and over again in key strategic-level documents, that are in fact contradicted by observed evidence.  All of those documents were published before the current precipitous decline in sea level – but the slow-down in sea-level rise was already evident before they came out.  As the last few years demonstrate, contrarian evidence is important, and even if you’re confident in your data, you have to keep going back to them.  Observation is a continuous process, and when the facts change, we need to figure out why - and if necessary, change our arguments.
It all boils down to whether we understand and accept that argumentum ad verecundiam is not an argument at all, but a fallacy of reasoning.  Arguments from authority carry no weight; science obliges us to check the data for ourselves. 
Or as Groucho Marx might have put it, who are you gonna believe: the gold-plated experts and their unimpeachable, infallible computer models...or your lyin’ eyes?



P.S.  Groucho Marx also said, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”  Hard to argue with that.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

7 October 2011 – Rise in Retractions


Today’s topic, in my humble opinion, ought to be relevant to all scientists.  In a new article, Nature magazine draws attention to a recent upsurge in retractions of scientific papers - a proportional change that vastly outstrips the increase in scientific publications.  There’s no need for extensive commentary on my part; the following figure from the article speaks for itself.

Now THAT’s a “hockey stick graph”.  And unlike the one from MBH98 that showed up in the IPCC TAR, this one is based on actual data.

What I find fascinating in this chart is not just that 44% of all retractions are for scientific misconduct (vice only 28% due to honest error), but the fact that fully one-third of all retractions are for plagiarism - and that more than half of these are for self-plagiarism, i.e., scientists deliberately publishing the same work, with only minimal cosmetic changes, over and over again in different fora. 

One would think that plagiarism would be the easiest sort of misconduct to avoid - after all, it boils down to “cite your sources”, and in the case of self-plagiarism, don’t.  In the age of the internet, where conducting textual comparisons is simple, automated, and de rigeur, plagiarism ought to be the easiest sort of misconduct to detect.  But for some reason it’s still a problem - the biggest problem - in scientific publications.  According to the authors of the Nature piece, the rise in retractions is probably due in large part to the increasing prevalence of software for detection of plagiarism - which suggests that it’s always been a problem, but we’re only now getting better at noticing it.  So in a way, the recent spike in retractions is good news.

Anyway, for anyone interested in looking at this phenomenon in greater detail, the article can be found here: []. 



Saturday, August 25, 2012

And now at Kobo

After some delay, my books are now available at:
Before long they should be up at Blio as well.
Don't forget, you can find links to all of the publishers at redirect page.
And thanks for reading!


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

4 October 2011 – Organizational leitmotifs


Sometimes in my zeal to denounce the prophets who purport to be able to tell us what sorts of political developments or technologies (“disruptive” or otherwise) we are destined to see in coming years, I go a little too far.  There have, after all, been those who, from much greater historical distances than we are accustomed to dealing with, have proven able to predict the manner in which societal and organizational trends seemed likely, even destined, to evolve.  I speak not of Nostradamus or Maimonides or Jeremiah or their ilk, but rather of a pair who, through lyric and music, foretold the fundaments of organizational trends a hundred and more years hence: Sir William Schwenk Gilbert, and Sir Arthur Sullivan. 

Gilbert and Sullivan to the masses, or G&S for short.

Over 25 years, this pair produced a collaborative opus consisting of 14 operettas in the opera buffa style, many of which contributed tunes and turns of phrase to posterity.  The song “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here”, for example, is lifted directly from the chorus of “With cat-like tread” from The Pirates of Penzance; while the term “grand poobah” originated with the character Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything-Else from The Mikado.  While generally taken as light-hearted comedy, Gilbert’s mastery of Victorian turns of phrase and Sullivan’s glorious compositions have kept their body of work alive for more than a century.  It also probably didn’t hurt that they’re easier for high school drama troupes to perform than, say, Das Rheingold.  And no one has ever had to say of their masterworks, as Wilde did of Wagner, that their operas are “better than they sound”; in my humble opinion, they are exactly as good as they sound.

One of the things that make Gilbert and Sullivan so timeless is their propensity for prodding certain sectors of British society.  Reviewers often make the mistake of accusing the pair of nursing a vendetta for the upper crust, but this is a base calumny and misinterprets their true intent.  Both were, especially as a result of their joint work, rather well off themselves.  Sullivan had little interest in society’s foibles (other than to partake of them), while Gilbert - a much more complicated fellow than he is usually portrayed - was more interested in pricking the bubbles of self-importance that seemed to proliferate amid the wealth and splendour of fin-de-si├Ęcle Victorian society.  He selected his targets with great precision and skewered them with a glorious combination of audacity and wit. 

Cleaving solely to their best-known works, the objects of his barbs were as follows:

Trial by Jury (1875) - the judiciary

The Sorcerer (1877) - shady businessmen

HMS Pinafore (1878) - the Royal Navy

The Pirates of Penzance (1879) - the Police

Patience (1881) - the Aesthetic movement

Iolanthe (1882) - the House of Lords

Princess Ida (1884) - feminism and chauvinism

The Mikado (1885) - bureaucracy

Ruddigore (1887) - the fascination with the supernatural

The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) - no one (this was Gilbert’s only non-satirical libretto)

The Gondoliers (1889) - the monarchy and republicanism

Gilbert and Sullivan produced two more collaborative pieces - Utopia, Ltd (1893), and The Grand Duke (1895) - but the energy had gone out of their partnership and neither work did as well as their predecessors.  Of the eleven operas listed above, only The Yeoman of the Guard explicitly did largely away with the satirical, comical side of their best work, and had a serious as opposed to happy (or nonsensical) ending.

What’s interesting about the remaining ten pieces is how reviewers tend to pigeonhole them - as I have deliberately done - into attempts to lampoon this or that element of Victorian society.  That’s taking too broad a brush to Gilbert’s prose.  In Trial, for example, Gilbert was not lampooning “the judiciary” so much as he was describing the hypocrisy of it.  The eponymous trial of the piece, after all, is a complaint of breach of promise by a young lady, Angelina, jilted by her lover Edwin, and it begins with the judge’s autobiographical piece, “When I, good friends, was called to the bar”, in which he describes how he made his career as a barrister by wooing “a rich attorney’s elderly, ugly daughter”.  The song wraps up with the memorable lines:

At length I became as rich as the Gurneys; an incubus then I thought her

So I threw over that rich attorney’s elderly, ugly daughter.

The rich attorney my character high tried vainly to disparage -

Chorus: No!

Judge (gleefully): Yes! And now, if you please, I’m ready to try this breach of promise of marriage!

You see, it’s not “the judiciary” that Sullivan is mocking; it’s the corruption of the institution of the judiciary by individuals who exploit its foibles to rise high in its ranks.

The same theme runs through all of their satirical plays.  In Pinafore, Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty, has a similar introductory song in which he describes how he became Britain’s chief sailor by working as a clerk in an attorney’s office, cleaning the windows, sweeping the floor, and polishing the handle on the big front door: “I polished up the handle so carefully / That now I am the ruler of the Queen’s Nay-Vee!”  His song, like the Judge’s from Trial, concludes with some helpful advice for would-be bureaucrats:

So landsmen all, whomever you may be / If you want to rise to the top of the tree

If your soul isn’t fettered to an office stool / Be careful to be guided by this Golden Rule:

Stick close to your desks, and never go to sea / And you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Nay-Vee!

Those who aver that Gilbert was poking fun at the RN won’t find much evidence for their position in the play; the individual sailors are all caricatures, exemplifying the best (and in only one case, that of the traitorous Dick Deadeye, the worst) of the “jolly jack tar” of popular legend.  It is Sir Joseph, the bureaucrat who knows nothing of ships and the sea, who attracts Gilbert’s especial scorn.  Porter spends most of the play trying to cure the swabbies of their lamentable tendency toward profanity; and it is only when the Captain, upon learning that his daughter has fallen in love with “the low’liest tar who plies the water”, utters a thoroughly understandable “Damn!” (euphemized as “Damme”, and pronounced “Damn-me!”, for purposes of assuaging both Victorian sensibilities and the demands of lyrical scansion), that Sir Joseph displays his temper and banishes the Captain to his stateroom.  Basically, Porter is a thoroughly useless political appointee who rose to his position through processes that had nothing to do with developing the skills necessary to his duties, and who - absent those skills - focuses on the least important aspects of his position.  Gilbert isn’t mocking the sailors of the RN, in short; he’s mocking, once again, the manner in which their leaders are chosen, expressing surprise and derision in equal measure at an organization that allows itself to be managed by people who make a virtue out of knowing nothing about what their subordinates do.

Contempt for the artful posturings of high position is a theme that runs through all of their work.  In Pirates, the same sort of character - the genial old duffer promoted far beyond his capabilities - is exemplified by Major-General Stanley, who sings the well-known song, “I am the very model of a Modern Major-General”, in which he boasts of his mastery of every conceivable topic (“I quote in elegiacs on the crimes of Heliogabolus / In conics, I can floor peculiarities parabolous!”), but in the last verse laments that the only lacunae in his vast repertoire of knowledge are in matters military:

In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin” / When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,

When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at / And when I know precisely what is meant by commisariat;

When I can tell what progress has been made in modern gunnery / When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery,

In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy

(Searches for a rhyme)

You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat-a-gee!

There he is again; the quintessential high-ranked bureaucrat who knows all sorts of trivia but is ignorant of what he needs to know to actually do his job. 

The trend continues.  In Patience we have the Dragoons (and their three officers: Colonel Calverly, Major Murgatroyd, and Lieutenant the Duke of Dunstable) whose entire chorus is dedicated to describing how utterly fascinating they look in uniform.  The Colonel spends a lengthy song (“If you want a receipt”) listing the qualities of the “remarkable persons of history” that go into producing “that popular mystery, known to the world as a Heavy Dragoon”), of which “The pluck of Lord Nelson on board of the Victory / Genius of Bismarck devising a plan” are only one part; and it’s not ‘till near the end that he includes “The genius strategic of Caesar or Hannibal / Skill of Sir Garnett in thrashing a cannibal”.  Military qualifications are an afterthought in his recitation, no more important than “The style of the Bishop of Soder and Mann.” 

Even the protagonist (if you can call him that) of the play, Reginald Bunthorne, the “melancholy literary man” whose affected aesthetic transfiguration has captivated the hearts of the female chorus, is merely playing a role; he pretends to be a poet in order to fascinate the ladies:  “This air severe / is but a mere / veneer; This cynic smile / is but a wile / of guile”.  The only female in the cast not taken in by his complicated elocutions is the eponymous female lead, the milkmaid Patience, who is too simple and straightforward to understand the complexities of Bunthorne’s voluminous prose.  After one of the exalted one’s readings, the reaction of the ladies is a typical effusion of praise for something that none of them can understand:

Angela: How purely fragrant!

Saphir: How earnestly precious!

Patience: Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.

Saphir: Nonsense, yes, perhaps -- but oh, what precious nonsense!

Patience spends most of the play baffled by Bunthorne’s nonsense, which nonsense the other ladies lap up with a smile.  Bunthorne the fraud, meanwhile, spends most of the play basking happily in the praise of his willing acolytes - at least until a rival who makes even less sense shows up and lures them all away from him.  It is impossible to listen to their interplay without thinking of the management consultant who commands huge sums for drowning gullible listeners in periodic deluges of drivel, while they applaud wildly and beg (and pay) for more.

In describing and delighting in the frailties of the uncredentialed self-important caste, though, the preceding works all pale in comparison to Iolanthe, which takes on the task of lampooning the House of Lords (and whence, I might add, comes the official regimental march of the military college professorial cadre, whose lyrics begin with the line “Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!”).  In the Lord Chancellor we find another individual who rose to high station through a combination of legal studies and political preferment, who finds himself charged with supervising “pretty young wards in chancery”, and who is therefore conflicted because he’s “not so old, and not so plain / And quite prepared to marry again.”  The true duffers of the piece, though, are the two Lords, Tolloller and Mountararat, who manage to go through the play without a single thought in their heads other than what’s put there by others, and who seem to be most contented by that arrangement:

Lord Chancellor: I feel the force of your remarks, but I am here in two capacities, and they clash, my Lords, they clash!

Lord Tolloller:  This is what it is to have two capacities.  Let us be thankful that we are persons of no capacity whatever.

The Lord Chancellor, having fallen enamoured of his ward Phyllis, sees no incongruity in pleading his suit to himself, and describes in great detail how earnestly he did so, and how sternly he demanded proof of his own bona fides. 

Lord Chancellor: Victory! Victory! Success has crowned my efforts, and I may consider myself engaged to Phyllis! At first I wouldn’t hear of it – it was out of the question. But I took heart. I pointed out to myself that I was no stranger to myself; that, in point of fact, I had been personally acquainted with myself for some years. This had its effect. I admitted that I had watched my professional advancement with considerable interest, and I handsomely added that I yielded to no one in admiration for my private and professional virtues. This was a great point gained. I then endeavoured to work upon my feelings. Conceive my joy when I distinctly perceived a tear glistening in my own eye! Eventually, after a severe struggle with myself, I reluctantly – most reluctantly – consented.

The Lord Chancellor virtually defines the ability of the amoral individual to bend the rules according to his own interests, and to argue any potentially beneficial position, no matter how inherently nonsensical it might be.  It also demonstrates how the term “conflict of interest” can be conveniently overlooked by someone sufficiently motivated to do so.

The Mikado too is rife with the sort of unearned sinecures that Gilbert so loved to twit.  Ko-ko, an ex-tailor condemned to death for flirting, obtained his post as Lord High Executioner through an act of deductive reasoning on the part of the citizens of the town of Titipu.  Commanded by the Mikado to start executing criminals, the townsfolk reasoned that if they made a condemned criminal the town’s executioner, he could not execute anyone else until he had first beheaded himself.  The town’s remaining officials, refusing to serve under an ex-tailor, resigned in a body, leaving all of their offices (and the attendant salaries) to be appropriated by Pooh-Bah, who de facto became “First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief Justice, Commander-in-Chief, Lord High Admiral, Master of the Buck Hounds, Groom of the Back Stairs, Archbishop of Titipu, and Lord Mayor, both acting and elect” - in other words, the Lord High Everything-Else.  When these august officials are informed that the Mikado intends to begin mass executions if they don’t start beheading people, they launch a scheme to deceive the emperor which, naturally, unravels in a spectacular fashion.

Pooh-Bah is the Gilbertian exemplar of the underhanded bureaucrat, willing to sell anything to anyone.  Lamenting the fact that one of his ancient lineage has become a “salaried minion” and must accept the “insult” of regular pay, he describes in detail how far he’ll stoop to make a buck; and immediately upon learning of Nanki-Poo’s infatuation with the delightful Yum-Yum, he offers to sell the lad information about the object of his affections:

POOH-BAH: But I don’t stop at that. I go and dine with middle-class people on reasonable terms. I dance at cheap suburban parties for a moderate fee. I accept refreshment at any hands, however lowly. I also retail state secrets at a very low rate. For instance, any further information about Yum-Yum would come under the heading of a state secret.

(NANKI-POO takes the hint and gives him money.)

POOH-BAH (Aside): Another insult, and I think a light one.

His self-absorption is underscored in the second act when, in the course of recounting the (fraudulent) execution of Nanki-Poo to the Mikado, Pooh-Bah describes the behaviour of the minstrel’s severed head in terms designed to highlight his own immense importance:

POOH-BAH: Now though you’d have said that head was dead / (For its owner dead was he),

It stood on its neck with a smile well bred, / And bowed three times to me

It was none of your impudent off-hand nods, / But as humble as could be

For it clearly knew the deference due / To a man of pedigree!

And it’s oh, I trow, this deathly bow / Was a touching sight to see;

Though trunkless, yet it couldn’t forget / The deference due to me!

It takes a special species of twisted genius to make someone else’s execution all about one’s-self.

Ruddigore gives us Dick Dauntless, “a man-o-war’s man”, who manages to describe as heroically merciful the act of retreat by a British revenue sloop from a more powerful French frigate.  Dauntless explains that “To fight a French fal-lal is like hitting at a gal; ‘tis a lubberly thing for to do”:

DAUNTLESS:  So we up with our helm, and we scuds before the breeze / As we gives a compassionatin’ cheer;

Froggy answers with a shout as he sees us go about / Which was grateful of the poor mongseer, d’ye see?

Which was grateful of the poor mongseer!

And I’ll wager in their joy, they did kissed each others’ cheeks / Which is what them furriners do,

And blessed their lucky stars we were hardy British tars / Who had pity on a poor parly-voo, d’ye see?

Who had pity on a poor parly-voo!

It’s not about the facts…d’ye see?  It’s about the narrative; it’s about spinning a defeat as a victory, about describing a lack of accomplishment as accomplishment, about turning abject failure into flawless success with brilliant prose (and, in Dick’s case, a fancy hornpipe). 

It’s a theme we return to in The Gondoliers, which features the Duke of Plaza-Toro, a Spanish don who made a name for himself as a myrmidon of repute, and who seems to have figured out the key to enjoying a long and successful career as a military leader:

In enterprise of martial kind, when there was any fighting

He led his regiment from behind, he found it less exciting

But when away his regiment ran, his place was at the fore, oh!

That celebrated, cultivated, under-rated nobleman, the Duke of Plaza-Toro!

When to evade destruction’s hand, to hide they all proceeded,

No soldier in that gallant band did half as well as he did!

He lay concealed throughout the war, and so preserved his gore, oh!

That very knowing, over-flowing, easy-going paladin, the Duke of Plaza-Toro!
(That image, BTW, is from the 1984 production of The Gondoliers by the Stratford Festival, which IMHO is the best one ever produced or recorded)
It doesn’t get much better than that - until the two gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, are found by the Don Alhambra del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor, and informed that one of them is the rightful King of Barataria but that no one knows which, as one of them is the son of the old king, spirited away shortly after birth to escape the claws of revolutionaries.  The brothers decide to take up and share the throne pending resolution of the mystery, but (to the Grand Inquisitor’s chagrin) to reorganize the kingdom on republican principles, in which “all departments rank equally, and everyone is at the head of his department”, leading to a duet:

MARCO: For everyone who feels inclined, some post we undertake to find / Congenial with his frame of mind, and all shall equal be!

GIUSEPPE: The Chancellor in his peruke, the Earl, the Marquis and the Duke / The groom, the butler, and the cook, they all shall equal be!

MARCO: The aristocrat who banks with Coutts, the aristocrat who hunts and shoots / The aristocrat who cleans our boots, they all shall equal be!

GIUSEPPE: The noble lord who rules the state, the noble lord who cleans the plate

MARCO: The noble lord who scrubs the grate, they all shall equal be!

GIUSEPPE: The Lord High Bishop orthodox, the Lord High Coachman on the box

MARCO: The Lord High Vagabond in the stocks, they all shall equal be!

The result, of course, is a court in which everyone is a courtier, and the only work done is done by the two kings themselves, who (in another song) describe how they must perform every duty from “rising early in the morning” to light the fire, to standing sentry “at the palace private entry”, and finally serving their own dinners before retiring to their attic “with the satisfying feeling that their duty has been done”.  When the Grand Inquisitor visits to inspect their arrangement, he has to gently remind them that things work a certain way for a reason, and gives them an example of what happened to a king “in the wonder-working days of old” who “wished all men as rich as he (and he was rich as rich could be) / So to the top of every tree, promoted everybody”:

DON AL.: Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats, and Bishops in their shovel-hats / Were plentiful as tabby cats - in point of fact, too many

Ambassadors cropped up like hay, Prime Ministers (and such as they) / Grew like asparagus in May, and Dukes were three-a-penny

On every side, Field Marshalls gleamed, small bill were Lords-Lieutenant deemed / With Admirals the oceans teemed, all ‘round his wide dominions.

And party leaders you might meet, in twos and threes in every street / Debating with no little heat their various opinions!


The end is easily foretold - when every blessed thing you hold / Is made of silver or of gold, you long for simple pewter

When you have nothing else to wear but cloth of gold or satins rare / For cloth of gold you cease to care; up goes the price of shoddy.

In short whomever you may be, to this conclusion you’ll agree / When everyone is somebody, then no-one’s anybody!

There is so much wisdom in this one song that it’s hard to overstate the value of the lessons Gilbert is trying to impart.  One is that picking winners and losers is a fool’s errand for a king (or, one might venture to suggest, a President); and another is, as it was put nearly as eloquently in “The Incredibles”, saying that “everyone’s special” is the same as saying “no-one is”.  This sort of example puts the lie to the whole redistributionist argument so beloved of a certain class of demagogues - for example, the hoodie-wearing ne’er-do-wells cluttering up streets and bridges in New York and elsewhere this past week.  Someone has to scrub the grate, and it doesn’t make the job any easier if you call him an “aristocrat” while he’s doing it.

There’s a lot more that could be said about Gilbert and Sullivan, and how their works seem as applicable to the modern-day foibles of organizations as it was tailor-made to prick the pomposities of Victorian England.  Their best operas are timeless, probably because a lot of the same pomposities are on display today.  The prevalence of hypocrites who manipulate systems for their own ends; of bureaucrats who derive their power from preferment rather than ability; of mandarins who, blithely unconscious of inherent conflicts of interest deriving from “two capacities”, are able to argue themselves into anything that might benefit them; of willing dupes who recognize an argument as nonsense, but are nonetheless happy to applaud it anyway because it’s trendy nonsense; of self-important fools who arrogate to themselves all manner of power simply for its own sake, and who make certain that everything, one way or another, is always about them; of cowards who lead from behind, and yet who construct a “narrative” diametrically opposed to factual evidence to make their actions seem heroic; and above all, of ideologues who believe that they can change the meaning of words by fiat, and who think that reality is whatever they say it is.

These plagues, it seems, are timeless.  Sir William and Sir Arthur knew them, and for twenty-five years they pilloried and abominated them in one of the most effulgent bodies of satirical work ever to grace the English language.  They are, to borrow a Wagnerian concept, the leitmotifs of modern organization; recurrent themes that, although they change slightly from time to time, continue to resound throughout the score to indicate the presence or fate of a particular character. The persistent popularity of the G&S operas today probably owes something to the fact that the targets of their derision are still with us, seemingly just as prevalent as they were in the closing decades of the gaslight century.  The tunes of the past echo in the organizations of the present.

Do I have any recommendations to offer?  Sure!  Anyone with a yen for more G&S should get their hands on the film Topsy-Turvy, an absolutely brilliant period piece about Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaboration on The Mikado that features a truly spectacular performance by Jim Broadbent as Gilbert (and a hilariously fey interpretation of the tenor Durward Lely by none other than Kevin McKidd, Rome’s Lucius Vorenus.  Andy Serkis - Gollum - is in it too, but good luck picking him out).



P.S. Next week: a critical analysis of the internal logic of the 25 hours of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas as seen through the lens of complexity theory.

P.P.S. Just kidding.  But if you want a brief (22 minute) explanation of what happens in the 25 hours of Das Ringe der Niebelungen, you should listen to Anna Russell's magnificent 1953 summary of the four operas of Wagner's masterwork.

Monday, August 20, 2012

29 September 2011 – Climate Science Credibility


You may recall that, a couple of weeks back, I penned a panegyric on peer review based on the questionable practices of internal friendly review of scientific papers within the climate science community.  One of the examples I cited was the timeline for a warmist’s critique of a sceptical paper (R.W. Spencer and W.D. Braswell, “On the misdiagnosis of surface temperature feedbacks from variations in Earth’s radiant energy balance”, Remote Sensing, 2011, 3, 1603-1613).  The paper was received on 24 May 2011 and accepted for publication on 15 July, a lapse of only 7 weeks, a remarkably short turn-around time for a peer-reviewed journal.  The critique, however - Andrew E. Dessler, “Cloud variations and the Earth’s energy budget”, Geophys. Res. Lett., (2011) doi:10.1029/2011GL049236 - was received on 11 August and accepted on 29 August, a mere 18 days later, an illustration of the benefits of sympathetic viewpoints, if not intimate relationships, within the climate clique.

Well, the week before last the warmists managed to blow even THAT record out of the water.  The Spencer and Braswell paper has attracted another critique, this time from arch-warmist Kevin Trenberth (whose contribution to the Climategate emails included the lament that it was a travesty that climate scientists like himself “couldn’t account for the lack of warming”).  Entitled “Issues in establishing climate sensitivity in recent studies”, Trenberth’s comment - which at 6 pages is more than half as long as the Spencer-Braswell paper itself - was published on 16 September in GRL, after having been received and accepted on the same day (8 September; Note A).

Received and accepted on the same day.  Wow.  A turn-around time for the peer review of less than 24 hours.  That’s fast work.  Clearly certain parties enjoy privileged treatment in the peer review and publication process.

The question of peer review in federal science programmes came up again this week when the Office of the Inspector General of the US Environmental Protection Agency released a report highly critical of the EPA’s review process for the endangerment finding on greenhouse gases released in 2009.  The endangerment finding is the basis for the EPA’s proposed regulatory regime for greenhouse gases, which according to some estimates will cost American taxpayers between $300B and $400B a year in increased energy costs, and which according to the EPA will require an additional 230,000 employees and $21B to implement.  Whether these new regulations will ever be enforced is an open question, of course; earlier this month, Obama quashed an EPA move to tighten ozone regulation that would have forced the closure of dozens if not hundreds of coal-fired generating stations.  Although I can't imagine why he'd do that; I mean, wasn't a policy of bankrupting coal-fired electricity generators one of the key planks in Obama's campaign platform?

You can find the OIG report here, for your reading pleasure.

The key criticisms in the Inspector General’s report were that the EPA downplayed the endangerment finding as not being a “highly influential scientific assessment” despite the fact that it is expected to entail historically unprecedented compliance costs; did not adhere to internal processes (including guidelines for peer review) to ensure data quality; failed to address conflict of interest concerns with respect to peer reviewers; failed to rotate peer reviewers; failed to ensure adequate information access to peer review results; did not ensure a sufficiently transparent peer review process; did not produce supporting documentation to show the EPA made its determination on the validity of outside scientific information before disseminating that information; did not maintain documentation showing the chain of comments and responses between the EPA and peer reviewers; and did not independently assess alternative scientific viewpoints.  Instead, the EPA relied on the IPCC’s annual reports, and argued that “there was no evidence to show that alternative perspectives were not incorporated into the IPCC process”, as stellar an example of bureaucratic equivocation (and grammatically inscrutable double negatives) as I’ve ever seen.

Even without these obvious failings, the review process itself is questionable.  According to the EPA, the Technical Support Document (TSD) underlying the endangerment finding was peer reviewed by 12 “federal climate change experts”.  The OIG report criticized this process simply because one of the experts was also an EPA employee, breaching conflict of interest guidelines.  My problem, though, is that both that individual and the other 11 were all “federal climate change experts” who all worked for federal agencies, i.e. they were by definition scientists whose continued employment and research funding depends on perpetuation of the AGW thesis.  This is kind of like claiming that a papal bull was peer reviewed because the College of Cardinals looked it over and gave it a collective thumbs-up.  Seriously, if it’s a conflict of interest for an EPA employee to conduct the peer review, then how is it NOT a conflict of interest for other federal employees in exactly the same circumstances to review it?

The EPA excused the all-government review by arguing that “the TSD did not require an external peer review because the scientific assessments it relied upon had already been rigorously reviewed.”  In other words, in crafting an endangerment finding likely to result in the creation of a quarter of a million federal jobs (generally understood to not be a good thing in a time of skyrocketing deficits) and likely to cost the American taxpayer close to half a trillion dollars, the EPA’s scientific review process consisted of “we can trust the IPCC because they did an AWESOME job and their science is totally peer-reviewed”.

Look, there are two big problems here.  The first, obviously, is that the government of the most scientifically advanced country on Earth has outsourced its responsibility to conduct good science on a matter of supreme importance to the national interest to a highly politicized, international quasi-scientific body that has exactly zero responsibility or accountability to the US taxpayer.  By any measure, that’s gross negligence.  The second problem is that due to political pressure to enact the Obama Administration’s anti-fossil fuel, pro-"green power" agenda, the time-tested, reasonable and responsible procedures designed to ensure the best possible science were run over roughshod.  In a way, Americans should be thankful for their current financial woes; had it not been for the collapsing US economy and Obama’s imploding poll numbers, he might have been able to get away with dumping half a trillion in new, pointless taxes on the US economy. 

Did I say “pointless”?  Yeah, I did.  Don’t take my word for it, though; let’s consider what Obama’s EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, said in testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on 7 July 2009:

“U.S. action alone will not impact world CO2 levels.” (Note B)

$400,000,000,000 and 230,000 new EPA carbon dioxide-sniffing bureaucrats is a pretty high price to pay for “no impact on world CO2 levels”.  What, then, is the purpose of the endangerment finding and the consequent regulatory process?  Other than perhaps to ensure that Obama keeps his campaign promise to bankrupt coal-fired electricity producers?  Reconciling the cognitive dissonance in this equation must take a special sort of mind, because it’s beyond me.

Friends, I don’t mean to suggest that sound, transparent, impartial peer review is the answer to all of the world’s ills.  I certainly don’t mean to suggest that it can stop an ideologically-motivated political juggernaut like Obama’s apparent determination to comprehensively kneecap the US energy sector.  But what it CAN do is deny the zealots the ability to claim that their position is grounded in sound science.  The manner in which (and the extent to which) the EPA had to do violence to the peer review process in order to push its endangerment finding demonstrates that even the most outrageously unscientific nonsense can easily “move forward” when the peer review process is deliberately and systematically subverted by bureaucrats working to ensure that one viewpoint - the politically preferred viewpoint - is heard, and that all contrarian viewpoints are ruthlessly suppressed.

Scientists everywhere need to be constantly on the alert for attempts to undermine the methodology that underwrites our integrity - and, as the EPA case demonstrates, it’s especially relevant for scientists who work in federal science organizations.  Eternal vigilance is the price of scientific credibility; it's as simple as that.




Sunday, August 19, 2012

Gas vs. Wind - blighting the landscape

As I was reading a post by Anthony Watts this morning, one of the points he made resonated with a particularly ringing ka-boing.  It was this one:

...erecting thousands of expensive and sometimes operating windmills that blight the landscape...

Imagine the howling if somebody wanted thousands of natural gas well derricks on the same plot of land in California, yet they would produce far more energy and help far more people, at a lower cost.

 In support of this statement, Anthony posted a pair of pictures:

Wind Turbines at Tehacapi, California

Natural Gas Wells, Jonah Gas Field, Wyoming

Which of these two approaches to generating energy is a greater "blight" upon the landscape (and which one kills more birds)?  And the most important question...which one produces more energy?

That latter question is pretty easy to answer, by the way.  All you have to do is visit the US Energy Information Administration.  Here's the breakdown for all energy produced in the US in 2010 (in quadrillion BTUs or "quads"):

So basically, natural gas - one of the lowest "profile" energy exploitation technologies - accounted for 24 times as much primary energy production in the US as the massive fields of rusting bird-shredders erected with enormous government subsidization over the past 30+ years.

It gets even more impressive when you consider that the Jonah Field in Wyoming actually represents a fairly intrusive form of natural gas exploitation compared to what's actually possible in terms of keeping your gas fields out of sight and out of mind.  Over the past 30 years, more than 9,000 gas wells have been drilled at Canadian Forces Base Suffield in Alberta, about two hours east of Calgary
and an hour west of Medicine Hat.

A lot of those wells look like this:

(Source: Cenovus Energy)

Compared to the rather larger wellheads at the Jonah site, that's a pretty unobtrusive piece of equipment.  But a lot more of the wellheads at Suffield are invisible, because they're underground, with the wellheads covered by reinforced iron grates - and all of the collection pipelines are buried too, running to pumping stations along the perimeter of the base. 

Why?  Because this is what normally goes on at Suffield:

The British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) routinely conducts annual live-fire training for thousands of British military personnel.  This means artillery fire, missiles, small arms, tanks and tank short, all sorts of things that are very, very bad for exposed oil and natural gas infrastructure.  So all of the infrastructure in the military training area has been buried.

The result?  A base that at 2690 square kilometers is bigger than Luxembourg, but that looks like natural scrub prairie (and I mean that - I've been to Suffield and I've seen "The Tree"), not a massive oil and gas exploitation field.  Yes, there are some derricks visible; and yes, the compressor stations along the base's boundaries are visible (it's hard to bury a compressor station, after all).  But the landscape itself is largely undisturbed (except of course by Challenger main battle tanks and what-not).  And it's teeming with wildlife - including rattlesnakes, elk, antelope, and the extremely funky burrowing owls.

"You there, with the're next."

You have to wonder how well they'd do if their habitat was surrounded by spinning 80-metre turbine blades.  According to Save the Eagles, Spanish wind farms kill 6 to 18 million birds a year.  You don't hear about that from the CBC - they only care when one-thousandth as many ducks end up in the tailings ponds at Syncrude.

I suppose if you're a bird, the best thing that can be said about wind turbines is that at least they spend most of their time not spinning.  Of course, sometimes they do spin, as a buzzard vulture found out to its sorrow.

But hey, at least they're safe, and they never catch fire or anything.

And at least the turbines are worth it, right?  Or are they?

There is 1511 MW of installed wind power capacity in Ontario.  As I sit here right now, at 0633 hrs Sunday morning, all of that capacity put together is producing a grand total of 107 MW.  That's a capacity factor of 7%.  I'm sure glad we're paying $8B to get us some more of THAT.

Meanwhile, Ontario's total nuclear power generating capacity of 11,446 MW had 10,418 MW on line (91% online) and was producing 10,367 MW, or 90.5% of nameplate capacity.

But what we really need is more wind turbines!



Saturday, August 18, 2012

Apocalypse not: climate change, and other overblown moral panics

An outstanding essay by Matt Ridley in Wired:

Predictions of global famine and the end of oil in the 1970s proved just as wrong as end-of-the-world forecasts from millennialist priests. Yet there is no sign that experts are becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises. If anything, the rhetoric has ramped up in recent years. Echoing the Mayan calendar folk, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight at the start of 2012, commenting: “The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere.”

Over the five decades since the success of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the four decades since the success of the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth in 1972, prophecies of doom on a colossal scale have become routine. Indeed, we seem to crave ever-more-frightening predictions—we are now, in writer Gary Alexander’s word, apocaholic. The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.

So far all of these specters have turned out to be exaggerated. True, we have encountered obstacles, public-health emergencies, and even mass tragedies. But the promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life as We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize. To see the full depth of our apocaholism, and to understand why we keep getting it so wrong, we need to consult the past 50 years of history.

Hey, there's the "H-word"! (History, I mean).  It's amazing how a little understanding of history puts apocalyptic predictions into context, no?  These people have always been with us, from the chiliasts who expected Armageddon to arrive with the turn of the 10th Century to the flagellants of the Middle Ages to the Kool-Aid drinkers of the Jonestown cult to the doomsday millenialists who predicted the apocalypse under the thinly-veiled guise of "Y2K".

Remember Y2K? No you don't.  No one does.  We have collectively forgotten the global panic about the impending end of the world, the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars spent in anticipatory prevention of a non-problem (and the subsequent collapse of the dot-coms, which was exacerbated by the fact that everyone went on an upgrade orgy for 2-3 years prior, vastly expanding the computer industry...and then plunged it into famine because nobody needed new equipment for the next couple of years).  But Y2k was going to be the biggest crisis of the modern information age.  It was going to plunge the world back into the Stone Age - just like an electromagnetic pulse attack today (or, less improbably, a massive, Carrington Event-style solar mass ejection) would allegedly wreck all of our iPads and send us back to the 1950s.

(It never ceases to make me giggle when folks posit that Iran is going to disarm the US by launching an H-bomb that they don't have from a converted Scud that they haven't built to conduct an EMP attack against the US.  The first thing that America hardened against EMP was its nuclear entire strategic command and control chain.  If Iran were ever stupid enough to detonate a nuclear warhead anywhere near CONUS, I guarantee you that the 12th Imam, when he eventually shows up, will not be impressed to find that Qom, Teheran, and the rest of the country have been redecorated in Trinitite Green).

Every new prediction of doomsday should be met with a demand for evidence, and with solid skepticism fuelled by the knowledge that every single prior prediction of impending apocalypse has been wrongEvery last one.  We have an extremely bad track record when it comes to integrating all of the multifarious trends and forces that influence the world we live in and what we have made of it.  Humans are very, very bad at risk assessment. 

Plus, as the whole of the climate change debate demonstrates, folks with rice bowls to protect have a tendency to lie a lot, which simply enables the cowards who are in a position to speak the truth to hold their peace in order to protect their juicy sinecures.  Humans are poor prophets, and the fact that so many of us are also either imbeciles, self-interested scoundrels, cringing poltroons or outright madmen means that every new claim of inevitable doom must be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

If people would apply only the minimal standard of skepticism to the so-called scientists preaching impending armageddon that they apply to telemarketers or used-car salesmen, I would be less worried about our collective future. Why can't we do just that much, hmm? I mean, we found the Higgs Boson, increased natural gas reserves to over 200 years, and hover-craned a one-ton robot onto Mars, all in the same summer.  We're smart...right?

Wrong.  As Ridley points out, our history of being stampeded by doomsayers demonstrates the validity of the Agent K Conjecture:

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.

Sadly, the shoe fits.  The question you need to ask yourself is, what's the solution?  Is it more ignorance? More deference to authority? More trust in the media that have played a key role in driving these periodic panics? More faith in whatever "scientific consensus" supports the latest predictions of onrushing catastrophe? More unquestioning belief in the prognostications and pronunciations of self-interested experts?

Or more education, more demands for evidence...and more skepticism?