Jan 312010

This is becoming more than a little annoying, to be honest. First, there were the Climategate e-mails. Then, the claim about Himalayan glaciers. Now the latest: according to the Daily Telegraph, claims made in the IPCC report about vanishing ice in the Andes and the Swiss Alps were based in part on a popular magazine, in part on the dissertation of a Swiss student who interviewed mountain guides.

And this is supposed to be the foundation for a multi-trillion dollar shift in the world economy in the coming years?

To be clear about it: I am not a “climate change denier”, disgusting as I find this term implying some kind of analogy between genuine scientific skepticism and things like Holocaust denial. Questions raised by Climategate notwithstanding, I do believe the data, and the data show that there was warming in the past several decades. However, the IPCC report was supposed to go much further, and provide answers to some very clear questions. Namely 1) is there a long-term warming trend? 2) is it due to CO2? and 3) is it bad for you?

These are not easy questions to answer. The long-term warming trend that might exist is hidden behind noise: large year-to-year fluctuations, the 11-year solar cycle, other longer-term cycles. The data may perhaps be equally well fitted by a model that proposes a long-term cooling, but medium-term fluctuations which caused the current warming cycle. Here’s where the second question comes in: the model should not be a mathematical mind game but firmly rooted in physics. Do we know the physics well enough? Knowing the cause is also important if we wish to reverse the effects… if we misunderstand the physics, all our efforts to reduce CO2 emissions will be in vain, while we ignore the real causes. And even assuming that the physics is clear and the models are reliable… why is warming such a problem? Sure, ocean levels will rise a little and some cities may have to move in the coming century… on the other hand, for instance, how about vast stretches of tundra that become fertile and can be used to fed the planet’s growing population?

The IPCC gave us firm conclusions. Yes, there is a long-term warming trend. Yes, it is due to anthropogenic CO2 (hence it can be reversed by reducing CO2 emissions). And yes, all things considered, it is very bad for us. But… If the IPCC’s conclusions on these questions are based on sloppy research, why on Earth should I believe them? Is it something like Pascal’s wager, because we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by betting on the IPCC being right? I’m sorry but I don’t buy that just as I’m not buying Pascal’s original argument either… I’d rather end up in Hell as a virtuous pagan than as a hypocrite.

 Posted by at 2:12 pm
Jan 242010

This is becoming almost traditional: just before I embark on a trip, my otherwise ultra-reliable server crashes while performing some routine operation.

Back when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth and the Internet was still an exotic novelty for most people, my wife and I spent an unforgettable few weeks driving around the United States.

My server has been in existence for more than two years by then. No Web site yet… that came later that year. (Actually, I already had a rudimentary version up and running courtesy of my Internet service provider, but I digress.) The server was “connected” to the Internet via dial-up; it dialed regularly (once an hour; my wife and I still remember the little touch-tone “song” that we heard many times a day) to exchange e-mail, and it dialed automatically if I tried to visit a Web site, for instance. Otherwise, the modem line was open for dial-in… and I planned to dial into the server regularly while traveling.

Except that on the morning of our planned departure, the server crashed. Not a minor crash either… its hard drive died. Fortunately, not an instant death, and I was able to obtain a replacement drive and rescue all data.

Though it was still a genuine, no-kidding, bona fide kernel panic, today’s crash was a little less dramatic. I was merely testing streaming video from the server, as I always find it useful to be able to watch an Ottawa newscast in the evening when I am out of town. Instead of streaming the darn video, the video capture driver (which I’ve been using, completely incident free, for many years) crashed, taking the server down. Most unsettling!

 Posted by at 6:16 pm
Jan 222010

Here’s a nice tennis ball, photographed from both sides:

It’s a big one, mind you, almost a thousand miles across. It’s Saturn’s moon Iapetus, famous because one side of it is significantly brighter than the other. The explanation, however, is more mundane than that offered in the book version of Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; the most recent hypothesis is that the discoloration is due to the thermal migration of ice.

 Posted by at 7:44 pm
Jan 212010

Just when you thought Climategate was bad enough already, here’s another little tidbit.

Back in 1999, New Scientist published an interview with Indian climate scientist Syed Hasnain about melting glaciers in the Himalayas. In this interview, Hasnain speculated that “all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline”.

Fast forward to 2007 and the (in)famous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which states that “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” The source? A 2005 report by the World Wildlife Fund, which, in turn, quotes the New Scientist: “The New Scientist magazine carried the article ‘Flooded Out – Retreating glaciers spell disaster for valley communities’ in their 5 June 1999 issue. It quoted Professor Syed Hasnain, then Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice’s (ICSI) Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, who said most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region ‘will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming’. The article also predicted that freshwater flow in rivers across South Asia will ‘eventually diminish, resulting in widespread water shortages’.”

So, it appears that a popular science magazine was the primary source for such a dramatic statement. The assertion that Himalayan glaciers might disappear by 2035 was never published in a peer reviewed journal. Worse yet, note how the statement became inflated over time: whereas the original article spoke of “all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas”, the WWF translated this into “most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region”, and by the time this gloomy prediction got into the IPCC’s report, it read simply, “”Glaciers in the Himalaya”.

Now New Scientist is taking them to task, leaving many to wonder: is this really representative of the quality of the science on which dire global warming predictions are based?

For the record, while glaciers in the Himalayas may suffer from global warming, they’re not (yet) in danger of disappearing anytime soon. Certainly not by 2035.

 Posted by at 3:53 am
Jan 172010

I wondered recently about Google not (yet) being evil.

If recent news are to be believed, Google decided to play hardball with the Chinese government. Good for them! I hope Google prevails, but even if they don’t, I think they should be applauded for having the guts.

Now here’s the $0.02 question (or, in the case of Google, more likely the multibillion dollar question): how long before Google’s CEO gets fired for failing to maximize shareholder value?

 Posted by at 3:43 am
Jan 172010

My laptop (the one I don’t want customs inspectors to be poking around on) runs Windows 7 (just upgraded from Vista). However, on it I also run a replica of my main Linux server, in a virtual machine.

After the upgrade, VMware Server, which wasn’t playing very nicely under Windows Vista either, started to give me serious trouble. The VM was due for an upgrade anyway, as its virtual hard drive was much too small. So I decided to… well, before upgrading the VM, I decided to check if there is perhaps a better option than VMware.

I first tried the obvious: Microsoft’s Virtual PC, which is a standard add-on to Windows 7 Ultimate. Nope… it didn’t play nicely at all, not with a Linux VM. So what else is out there? This is how I happened upon Sun’s VirtualBox, a (mostly) open source virtual machine solution.

I installed VirtualBox on a 64-bit Windows 7 test machine. Worked fine! Then I installed a complete Slackware 13.0 setup. Still good. I then did a full backup of my server to this VM. This also worked, though there was a minor snag: in the morning after the backup, I noticed that the host OS was completely locked up and needed a hard reset. Was it related to VirtualBox? Perhaps.

I then transferred the VM to another 64-bit Windows 7 machine and there, too, it worked well. So now it was time to move it to my 32-bit Windows 7 laptop. As Murphy’s Law dictates, that’s where I had the most trouble. For some reason (leftover nastiness after the VMware uninstall?) VirtualBox only sees network interfaces if it is run as Administrator. I also needed to enable multiprocessor support in the VM in order to eliminate a nasty (especially on a laptop!) problem of the VM consuming too much CPU, even when idle. Oh yes, and there was a crash, too.

Right now, all seems to be well though, and the VM works reliably, much better in fact than VMware. So maybe I have found the right solution. I’ll find out soon, when I’ll be doing a little bit of travel with this laptop in my suitcase.

 Posted by at 3:40 am
Jan 122010

I just finished a neat little paper with John Moffat. Jordan-Brans-Dicke theory is a generalization of relativity theory, in which the gravitational constant becomes variable, and the resulting (scalar) field has kinetic energy. First described by Pascual Jordan in his 1952 book Schwerkraft und Weltall, it was perhaps the first serious, “modern” modification of Einstein’s gravity. Yet it is rejected in the solar system, because it predicts an observable parameter that is grossly out of whack with observation. Then again… in the original form, the scalar field arises as a result of changes in spacetime curvature, only indirectly responding to the presence of matter. If we add matter as a direct source, the picture changes. Even more interesting, if matter and curvature kind of cancel each other out, we get a (still variable, still dynamical) scalar field that’s just like a field in vacuum, and agreement with solar system observations is restored.

Incidentally, Pascual Jordan was one of the greatest 20th century German physicists. Unfortunately he was also an ardent Nazi, member of the NSDAP and an SA volunteer. This may have been the reason why he never received the Nobel prize. Goes to prove that politics and science are really not a very good mix.

 Posted by at 4:04 am
Jan 072010

No, I’m not referring to the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight carrying that hapless Nigerian youth with the not-so-exploding underwear. I’m talking about another flight, this one from Slovakia to Ireland, on which a passenger carried some 90 grams of high explosive… courtesy of the Slovak government, whose agents were using real explosives, hidden in real passengers’ luggage, to train dogs, but then forgot to take the explosive out.

And it’s these people who ask us to give up all expectations of privacy, because ostensibly they are here to “protect” us.

 Posted by at 9:09 pm
Jan 012010

This is the year when the Soviet spaceship Alexei Leonov was supposed to fly to Jupiter, investigating the failure of the spaceship Discovery and the death of her crew nine years earlier. At least in one respect, Clarke’s vision will come true: after the Space Shuttle’s planned retirement later this year, the United States will be left without a manned launch capability, and American astronauts will be ferried to the International Space Station (alas, a mere few hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface, not a billion kilometers from here like Jupiter) on board Russian spacecraft. Not exactly an inspiring thought, except perhaps to some Russians.

 Posted by at 6:21 am