Tuesday, October 14, 2014

#ChallengeCorruption


This summer a remarkable thing happened. In just a 30-day period, the ALS Association received more than $100 million in donations in connection with the Ice Bucket Challenge. More important than the money however, was the millions of people that learned more about this terrible disease.

Yet there is an even more devastating disease in America, and its name is corruption. As beneficial as the #ALSIceBucketChallenge was, it only mitigated some of the damage done by a Congress  that votes to cut research towards curing all diseases. All the while using a perfectly legal system of corruption to exchange campaign funds for billions in crony spending, tax loopholes, and other special interest welfare.

We need to challenge this corruption before it poisons the lifeblood of our Republic any further and we need to do now. Here is how:
  1. Visit mayday.us and make one small donation to the citizen-funded SuperPAC dedicated to ending all SuperPACs
  2. Take a bill equal to what you contributed and write #ChallengeCorruption with https://mayday.us below it (you can also print it using this template  and yes it is legal!)
  3. Take a picture or video like the one above and explain why you are challenging corruption
  4. Post it online or email it with the tag #ChallengeCorruption
  5. Call upon at least three others to respond within twenty-four hours
That's it. It really is that simple. This is a problem only the people can solve, so join in, and lets take our democracy back!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The art of empty rhetoric

Op-eds on scientific issues are perhaps the single biggest disgrace to the world of journalism. Science is not open to opinion. There is certainly freedom to interpret the bounds of uncertainty given a particular analysis, but this is by no means equivalent to the rhetoric used in a typical op-ed. Climate change continues to be the most classic case of what happens when the two worlds of science and opinion collide.

I've already written too many posts on this as it stands, but everytime I see a major news source publish propaganda like this Op-Ed by James Taylor, my frustration is ignited anew. In it, James repeats the latest popular refrain that global average temperatures haven't changed since 1995 while CO2 continues to climb. Never mind that there is already a fantastic website where you can pick any time interval you like to draw a trendline using real climate data and show any range of warming, flat, or even cooling trend you fancy, it is the climate system as a whole that really matters.

Ever since the hockey stick controversy, climate change deniers have narrowly focused on changing this single narrative, while ignoring the massive changes underway across the whole system of our planet. Permanent ice loss, CO2 acidification of the oceans, permafrost melt, and vegetative migration are just a few of the systemic changes taking place right now, and each on its own poses huge risks for catastrophic impacts on both our environment and our economy.

Given that global average surface temperatures have not changed much in recent years, is it possible that something else in the great system of the earth is giving us a temporary reprieve?  Perhaps we are just melting the ice in the cooler? Sure we have a pretty big cooler and all, but what happens when that ice supply disappears? How much energy has it been offsetting?

So for fun, here's a back of the envelope calculation of what happens when you melt 4,260 metric gigatons of ice between Greenland and Antarctica from 1992 to 2011. Given the enthalpy of fusion alone (so disregarding any warming of sub-zero ice), it takes 333.55 kJ for 1 kg of ice to melt. This means that 1.4×1021 Joules have been absorbed over a period that is just a few years longer than our period of supposedly flat temperature change. To put this in perspective, this is like shutting the sun off for the entire planet for 139 minutes. To put that further in perspective, given that March is the equinox and looking at the average daily temperature change (with equal parts sun and night) in a relatively clear sky, mid-latitude region like Fort Worth, TX, we see a mean of about .56 degree Celsius change per hour. So, if all of this adds up, just part of the ice that has been melting in our global cooler has helped offset roughly 1.3° C in change over the last nineteen years. For those so inclined, here is a spreadsheet walking through the conversion.

Now it's highly unlikely that permanent ice loss alone has prevented 1.3° C in warming. Most early reviewers of this post suggested that relative to the total energy at play in the earth's heat exchange with the sun and space, even such massive numbers as 1.4 zettaJoules may disappear in the wash. Yet another recent article examining deep ocean temperatures suggests that heat-sinks like the deep ocean and permanent ice loss are likely having an impact on balancing surface temperatures in the midst of accelerating warming. With some additional back of the envelope calculations on the volume of seawater, I'm sure we could hit magnitudes on par with the total energy cycle of the earth. 

A temperature change of 1.3° C might not seem like much, but in reality we are trying to prevent a further 1.5° C change, after which the risks for catastrophic impacts to our planet and economy begin to skyrocket. Are these deniers really so short sighted that they are willing to bet it all just so we can continue using a finite resource that will ultimately run out anyway?  Don't we need innovation right now? Are we really going to let ourselves be paralyzed from action just because a powerful industry mongers the threat of a rise in short term energy costs when it is just as likely to bring energy costs down in the long term? Are we really going to let ourselves be held hostage by a single industry, again?

Instead of using this temporary and perfectly explainable reprieve to try and deny the entire system of climate change, we should be making the most of this opportunity to try and avoid the worst of the risks. For more on  the trade-offs of delaying action and the impacts on risk, check out this simple model where you can explore different strategies for yourself.

For a truly in-depth look at how the earth as a whole is changing watch the following NOVA series in its entirety. It's not only a great testament to the scale and complexity of our planet, but also to mankind's ability to measure and understand it. It this level of innovation that an organization like NASA delivers that we so desperately need. If we can build an Apollo program back in the 60's when technology was really just in its infancy, how many Apollo scale programs could we do right now to take on all the of the problems in front of us? We have the tools. All we lack, is the courage and the strength to break free from this collective state of apathy we find ourselves in today.


Watch Earth from Space on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Disruptive Technology

A recent series started by Chunka Mui on Google's driverless car is looking to be somewhat a vindication of a few previous posts I made including Hang On, Get Ready, and Go and Riding the Exponential.  In the first story of the series Chunka lays out the case for why a driverless car is far more than just some science fiction novelty. With sweeping impacts like reducing accidents, wasted time and energy, and the total number of cars all by 90%, the driverless car is certain to be just as disruptive as the original automobile. Cost savings on this scale may seem unbelievable at first blush, but Chunka does a great job of breaking down the numbers in some "back of the envelope" estimates.

The second story, The Ripple Effects, is where it starts to get even more interesting. The impacts of broad adoption of the driverless car could turn many industries on their head if they aren't prepared. From car manufactures to emergency rooms, insurers to ambulance chasers, huge revenue streams would dry up within years. Yet, one industry's loss is another one's gain. By freeing up all this capital locked up in mitigating risk and compensating inefficiency we could not only improve the quality of life for individuals, we could create whole new trillion dollar markets.

Sounds great, right? Well reading the comments yields some interesting insights into how people perceive change on these scales. While most are generally intrigued, many have significant reservations with some downright trolling to say that such an endeavour is hopeless. I was impressed to see Chunka responding to each argument with calm clarity when I felt like asking; how can you be so blind?!

It's true that I'm an eternal optimist, yet at the same time when I look at mankind's remarkable history this optimism isn't just some baseless belief. I'm not sure when we became so impatient with progress. Perhaps it's because some things turned out to be much more complex than we expected. We have yet to find a cure for cancer, robots have yet to take care of our every need, and we still find many massive problems growing only worse with no clear way forward. Does that mean they'll never happen and that we should simply give up?

I've argued that these setbacks and delays should only motivate us further, because we now have the tools for taking on problems of every scale. From exploring the most fundamental of particles to looking across the entire universe back to moments just after all of creation, mankind is capable of many seemingly "impossible" things. To say that we will never have driverless cars is just as short sighted as those that said we'd sail off the edge of the earth if we sent our ships too far or that we'd never get man to the moon.

I suppose we've always had our naysayers throughout history. I just thought that as progress marched on at its ever faster clip that we'd get over the pessimism and realize our true collective potential. Perhaps time will still tell. I just hope there are enough optimists to keep us going until then.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Grokking the Hyperloop

I've made no secret of my "man-crush" on Elon Musk. As a former mechanical engineer, I view his engineering track record as nothing short of astonishing. From developing the best car in world to the first entirely non-government space rockets, Elon has set the bar for aspiring engineers. His latest brainstorm is on a new mode of transportation, which he refers to as the "hyperloop". There has been a lot of speculation about what the idea is, but most have settled on some form of train in a tube. I have my own pet theory though that I just had to publish before Elon sets us straight.

My thinking is a fairly natural extension of the electric car. I've already been advocating that to solve transportation issues we need to seriously consider redesigning how highways operate. I've had significant doubts regarding the viability of public transportation in a country like the United States. Public transportation is certainly the best solution for dense urban environments, but it quickly falls down as density declines. With hundreds of billions on the line for high speed trains, I can't help wonder if there is a better, more technology advanced solution.

I've modeled traffic some in the past and can now clearly show how with a mixed global and local optimization solution we could eliminate traffic on highways, ensuring the maximum throughput safely at all times. Taking these ideas a little further we approach my thoughts on the hyperloop. One of the main issues with electric cars is highway driving. It's both the place of least efficient driving and longest duration. What if to address the range issue with electric cars we just brought power to highways? While we're at it, why don't we get rid of rolling friction and deliver that power through rails? Similar to how those trucks used to service railroads can drop down wheels for travel on rails, we could have cars that deploy wheels on these new powered highway tracks. You could still have all the braking and accelerating benefits of rubber tires since you can just drop down and use them anytime they are needed.

Taking this one step further for long direct routes, these rail highways could be enclosed in a tube where the air is forced along at the global travel speed. Now we've eliminated both air drag and the rolling friction. This would allow electric cars to travel at much higher speeds all the while maintaining the efficiency of mass transportation. Now slap solar panels on top of the hyperloop and you have a completely self sufficient, rapid mode of transportation. I do have concerns with getting to the speeds Elon is after (faster than a jet), but I do think the overall simplicity and convenience would be time savings enough. Below is a crude sketch of my concept idea. Now we'll just have to see what Elon comes up with.




Thursday, August 30, 2012

Greatest hits

I've been a reminiscing a bit tonight. I didn't do so good in keeping up with this blog, but with nobody really reading it, there didn't seem to be much point. Yet it still captures a good part of the journey that I've been on for the last eight years plus.

This weekend I hope to finally turn the switch on an idea that has essentially taken a decade to evolve. What started out as a mission to help create the global mind has now become a mission to create a viable third political party in the United States. I honestly don't know anymore if I'm just crazy or if this really is actually a brilliant idea. None of my friends have been (so far) ready to call me crazy, but there has also been a fare share of skepticism.

These questions have only helped further refine what the Foundation Party is all about, but at the same time it makes me wonder if this will ever really take off in the way that my mind seems to imagine it to. All I know is that I simply can't wait any longer. As I look back at all that I've thought through and all that has happened and needs to happen the world, I've finally reached the point where I'm ready to go all in.

It's a gamble for sure. I'm now a father times two and with a wife raising our children I can ill afford screwing things up royally. At the same time, I think I'll simply lose it if I don't at least give this all a shot.

So here it goes. Here goes a revolution. Let it fail or let it succeed, just let me find some kind of path for doing what it is that I truly feel that I'm meant to do. I once read a Quaker story about how if a feeling is just fleeting, it is nothing more than an impulse. Yet if there is something persistent, something that simply won't go away, but rather grows ever stronger. It is divine. Not in any strictly biblical sense, but rather something part of the wonder and awe in the universe. That is ultimately how I feel about the Foundation Party.

It's not longer just a concept, but rather an obsession. Something that is both so real in my mind and yet so unreal in the real world. Does that make it impossible? Perhaps, but I guess I'm tired of the question. In a few more weeks I think I'll have my answer.

Wish me luck. And if you actually get what I'm talking about, please, please help me.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What is the climate fight really about?

A couple of recent news stories on climate change highlight the growing influence of opinion over reason at time when the depth of scientific knowledge grows ever faster. The first story covered the completion of a huge study of global temperatures and CO2 levels over the last 20,000 years. I've actually looked at the 420K years of data from Antarctica in some detail  and know just how clear a correlation exists between temperature and CO2.

The big remaining question has been: which is causing which and how significant is the impact? What's amazing about this new global study is how clear the rise in CO2 precedes the rise in temperature (see charts below), basically providing irrefutable evidence of the direction and significance of causation. Not only that, they are able to show how a rise of around 30ppm kicked off a whole feedback loop of climate change and CO2 releases that brought an end to the last ice-age. Over the entire 20,000 year period CO2 levels rose just over 100ppm. To put this into perspective, mankind has raised CO2 levels 100ppm in just 100 years! I don't think it takes a scientist to find this alarming especially since these levels are also 30% higher and increasing 200 times faster than at any time in the last 650,000 years. While I don't think it should be necessary to conjure up doomsday scenarios resulting from such changes, I think it is pretty naive to dismiss catastrophic consequences for what we are doing to change the atmospheric composition.

Source: BBC News

So, why is Antarctica different? According to another story on the paper its temperatures rose more quickly due to a change in ocean currents that used to carry heat away from the region.  For years skeptics have tried to use the inconclusive correlations found in the Antarctic ice cores to claim that the CO2 effects are grossly overstated, but this new study really, truly should put an end to that argument...right?

Apparently not. The second article is a story from just a few days later about a letter sent by 49 former NASA folks, several with high profile titles, criticizing the agency for its "stance" on global warming. It seems crazy to me that 49 people, that are not climate scientists are somehow representative of the other 23,000 current employees, much less former employees. This 0.2% of NASA is simply part of the 3% of all scientists that choose to ignore evidence like that of the first article. How is this balanced reporting?

As a scientist, I take it kind of personally that this get's any attention at all. It's been frustrating to watch how such a small number of people have eroded what should have been settled years ago. As a result, instead of moving on to what we actually do about CO2 and climate change, we've gone back to basically arguing whether the earth is flat or round. What is more is that I don't even understand why they are fighting it so fiercely. Why should we ignore so much evidence when there are so many other positives for having a carbon neutral economy and zero negatives? Energy independence, less pollution, no more oil spills, no more trapped or killed coal miners, and a whole new wave of innovation and technology are just a few examples from our potential future that this 3% is leading a charge against. Why?

I think the real fear these folks have is about the upfront cost and their own uncertainty about how changing the status quo would play out. Even though we don't really know what the total upfront cost will be, the reality is that it is not a cost, but rather an investment. The only fear then should be that it will take much longer to recoup the investment and reap the rewards. As the father of a son, with another on the way, I'm far less concerned with when the investment is paid back as I am with being certain that there is a better future for them.

Those that know me are already aware how strongly I feel about the way to handle problems as a society. I'm afraid that we've become too hypersensitive to "everyone has the right to their own opinion" and "we must allow for balanced reporting". These aren't opinions, these are facts and it isn't balanced when 3% is put on the same level as 97%.  I don't feel like I should have to apologize or yield on an issue that I know to be scientifically correct and yet that is just what has been happening in policy debates today. We've given ourselves over to a world based on opinions instead of one based on reality.

Climate change is only one of many realities we are ignoring. Sustainability on every level of society is at a risk and I think most people feel this and as a result, feel less optimistic about the future. Yet again, in reality, we have all the skills and tools in front of us to fix our problems. All it takes is a little courage and vision to bring it about.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

You say you want a revolution

The year of two thousand and eleven is off to an interesting start. First Tunisia and then Egypt with other countries in Africa and the Middle East seeking to force change. A computer impressively won back to back games of Jeopardy and President Obama determined that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. It hasn't even been two months!

It's pretty much impossible to see from the ground floor of a revolution, but I wonder if history will look back on this time as one. The real question though is, what will all this change, revolutionary or not, mean? It's a question that seems to be ignored in large part almost as much as the question of what we want our future to look like.

It's pretty clear the social network and technology we are building has become an important catalyst for change yet it also feels a bit like a loose fire hose that can do damage just as easily as it can prevent it. Figuring out how to operate this new vast machine will likely be the greatest challenge facing our generation.

It seems that we have built or are in the process of building all the tools we need. Now is the time to figure out what it is we want to create. In other posts as I've marveled at the exponential that we are riding and tried to visualize one possible future, but I'm increasingly concerned by the lack of discussion and vision. Without direction I fear that the vacuum will be filled not by those with the best ideas, but rather those with the greatest motivation. Now doesn't seem like the time to be on the sidelines, it might just be time for a revolution.