Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Are you Being Served?

This week Calgary was buried in snow causing major transportation problems. The drifts in some areas were chest deep for several days as they waited for city crews to clean them. It was lucky that no emergency services were required in those areas since neither ambulance nor fire trucks would have been able to penetrate the massive drifts.

Most interesting to me was the news that private citizens can not hire someone to clean the public street for them. I heard one resident who owned a bobcat wishing they could clean their cul de sac but couldn't because they didn't want to be fined. In Calgary it is against the law to hire a private firm to clean your street.

Upon first blush this seems like a senseless and dangerous law. It is explained that the reason is to avoid liability issues if private equipment breaks a power pole or knocks off a fire hydrant. Most people begrudgingly accept this rationale as I did, though only for a minute.

Have we become so indentured to our institutions that we imagine that its difficult to hold a person responsible, but an institution can be? A real person with real wealth can't be held accountable for their actions but the city, which has no wealth of its own is considered a better risk? We mistakenly imagine that the city does have wealth but it does not. Its citizens do but the city does not. We give to the city the rights and obligations of a wealthy and responsible person but it is neither of these things. It seems that the law has flipped the natural order of things much to the dilution of human dignity.

When people prefer to give responsibility to an institution over a person, they can hardly complain when they wake up some day and realize that their institutions no longer serve them.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

My Science Project

One of the hallmarks of science is the ability of others to repeat experiments. Not to create consensus for it's own sake or for force of argument, but rather to ensure that experiments are done correctly. With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look at temperature data recorded in my neighborhood, that is used in calculating global temperature means.

Example 1, Banff Station
51.2 N 115.6 W 403711220000 rural area 1888 - 2009
(I went to this exact spot)
Here is the official temperature data. Under NASA GISS protocols, this station is considered a rural station because it contains less than 10,000 people. Technically correct when the station began recording, Banff was a sleepy village visited by intrepid train travelers. Over the course of the century, the ski hills opened, the Trans-Canada highway opened and the town began to attract year-round visitors. The international airport in Calgary opened and funneled international tourists into the town as well. What started as horseback traffic at the turn of the century grew into 5 million visitors a year.

I don't know what the heat signature is from 5 million people. I can only imagine that 25 Saskatoons, in a small valley like Banff, generates heat. Whether it's hotel air conditioners or thousands and thousands of RVs generating and reflecting heat, or millions of automobiles racing around on new 4-lane superhighways and interchanges, the heat signature around the recorder is totally different than it was at the turn of the century. Is it possible to factor these changes out? There may be generalized computer models whose accuracy is determined by how well we understand all the variables. Since this knowledge is still imperfect, the models are highly suspect. Certainly no one has made even an attempt to "correct" the data for this particular micro-climate at this particular recording station (and currently, this may not even be possible.) It seems to me that there are enough questions regarding changing the environment of the data recorder to rule out constructing a temperature trend from this data. Despite the obvious problems, this station forms part of the global temperature data.

Example 2 Calgary INTL station
51.1 N 114.0 W 403718770000 593,000 1881 - 1990

If you look at this data, you will see an increase that begins around 1970. Savy Calgary residents can easily tell from this graph when the OPEC crisis happened! Thats when oil prices soared and Calgary's urban development boomed. A picture is worth a thousand words so below is a before and after of Calgary in 1969 and later in the year 2000.

Pictured above is Calgary in 1969 before massive city expansion.

Pictured above is Calgary in 2000. Note the heat sink now called the downtown core that has enveloped the Calgary Tower. For a top down view see the picture below. I've coloured in the city expansion in the last 40 years in blue. Notice how not only did the core become a massive heat sink, but the location of the data recorder became completely surrounded by development. I placed the location of the data recorder myself but with the coordinates given and Google Earth, you can easily do it yourself.

With what you have seen, it seems pretty obvious that separating increased heat from the local environment is very difficult indeed. Clearly the post 1970 temperature increase in the Calgary data is an effect of urban development. But how much? Some non- zero amount that is closer to 100 percent than zero percent.

As in the first example, it seems hard to believe, but this data is part of the data set that is used to declare that the global temperature is increasing.

I use these examples not because they are the two bad apples of climate data, but because they are the climate recorders who's local environments I can verify for myself. In fact there are many really bad data recording stations out there whose data has been compromised by local building regardless of whether they are considered urban or rural stations. For a collection of really bad stations and further links to a project to visit all the weather stations to investigate local conditions that may affect climate data, see here.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Balance of Terror: The Logic of Obama's War

In the original Star Trek episode "Balance of Terror," the Enterprise is deciding whether it is in their best interest to attack an invading Romulan ship. Their decision means potentially engaging the Federation in an intergalactic war, or retreating which would show weakness which Spock claims would precipitate the same result since weakness would be seen and exploited.

Kirk: Are you saying we should fight to prevent a fight?

Spock: ...If the Romulans have retained this martial philosophy then attack becomes imperative.

Bones: War is never imperative.

Spock: It is for them Doctor.

As Obama sends 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and exaggerates the mission creep started by Bush, I found myself thinking of this episode. It's a wonderful twist created by the writers to have Spock voice the logic of war. Kirk's question of fighting to prevent a fight couldn't shatter that logic any more effectively. In the episode, Kirk is eventually convinced by Spock's logic and fights and beats the Romulans and the Federation somehow escapes a long and protracted war.

Obama continues Bush's logic of fighting to prevent a fight. From Obama's speech:
"This danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region."

Inside the logic of war, I suppose this makes sense. Step outside and this logic collapses. The terrorists behind 9/11 were Saudis who learned to fly in Florida with Saudi money. The presence or absence of failed states was irrelevant as far as preventing 9/11 goes. It's true that terror cells operate in the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but failed states are not a necessary condition for terrorism. Terror cells operate in the most so-called civilized states in the world including the United States. While some would argue that America is a failed state, there is no debate that it produces its fair share of Unabombers and DC snipers and Timothy McVieghs. The IRA killed 1,800 people in the UK but didn't need a broken third world state to do it from.

So if Afghanistan is just one of many worldwide failed states, and if terrorists don't really need failed states to operate from anyway, fighting to prevent a fight starts to look not just unethical, but illogical. There's no such thing as fighting to prevent a fight. That's like killing your neighbor's child to prevent it from being killed. I guess if you've won the Nobel Peace Prize, killing your neighbor's child is just collateral damage.

Only in the logic of war could this seem just.