Feb 272010

Apparently, the earthquake in Chile was the 5th largest on record in the whole world since 1990. I guess I know three out of the other four: Chile in 1960, Alaska in 1964, and Indonesia in 2004. Ah, there’s the fourth (thanks, Wikipedia): Kamchatka in 1952.

Chile is supposedly well prepared. But how can you be well prepared when the earthquake destroys basic infrastructure?

 Posted by at 7:38 pm
Feb 222010

It was a rare night-time landing, but Endeavour is safely back home. The sight of an open flame from that venting on top, only visible at night, is positively weird: combined with the sound effects, it’s as if it was an overheated steam locomotive, not a space plane huffing and puffing on that runway.

Four more Shuttle flights to go, one of them by Endeavour. After that, for the first time since the 1960s, the United States will have no manned space flight capability. Hopefully not for long.

 Posted by at 3:30 am
Feb 182010

Imagine… a person leaves behind a politically charged manifesto, and then flies an airplane into a crowded office building with the intent of killing himself along with many other people. A terrorist?

Not according to the United States government, who promptly assured us that the incident that occurred today in Austin, Texas, is not terrorism-related.

So what exactly defines terrorism? Does the perpetrator have to be, in addition to a politically motivated suicidal murderer, also brown-skinned and of the Muslim persuasion?

 Posted by at 10:23 pm
Feb 182010

What a remarkably boring weather forecast:

I wonder if I am allowed to extrapolate from this trend and conclude that the temperature will remain -1 degrees Centigrade, like, forever.

 Posted by at 4:11 am
Feb 172010

While it may not feel like it if you live in the US or Western Europe, this has been a very warm January, the fourth warmest on record:

It was certainly warmer than usual (and a lot dryer than usual!) up here in Ottawa. Not that I am complaining.

Some proponents of anthropogenic global warming will point at this result as proof that global warming is “scientific fact”. The plot tells a more nuanced story. In the short term (last 8 years or so) there’s no warming trend at all, if anything there has been slight cooling. Prior to that, there was a roughly 30-year warming period. One other warming period that is very similar in nature occurred in the early half of the 20th century. In between, there was some cooling, just not enough to offset the earlier gains, hence the more recent warming period started with an already higher temperature, and we see an overall warming trend across the 130-year span of this plot.

But is that really a long term trend? Or is it just another periodicity that we simply cannot discern because the data set it too short in duration? This is the question that those “proxy” temperature estimates from tree rings, ice cores and whatnot are supposed to answer. How reliable are those? How representative? That is a key question, which may determine, for instance, if the infamous medieval warm period was comparable to the current warming or not.

 Posted by at 8:55 pm
Feb 172010

I’ve been reading about a 60-year old show trial, the so-called Standard case (link in Hungarian), held in Communist Hungary, and decided to search for contemporary English-language articles. In the process, I came across something delightful: A 1953 issue of the Ottawa Evening Citizen. Its front-page headline: An incredible “Red offer” to free an imprisoned British businessman in exchange for a female Communist terrorist awaiting the gallows in Malaya.

The British businessman was eventually released a year later. I have no idea what happened to the Malayan woman. As to the other accused in the Standard case, several were executed, others received heavy prison terms… after the 1956 revolution, they were all released, but not rehabilitated until 1990, when Hungary’s Supreme Court declared the convictions null and void, as “no crime was committed”.

Meanwhile, I learned for instance, that in 1953 Ottawa, the daily newspaper listed two television stations: one in Montreal, one in Syracuse, N.Y., both of them broadcasting only in the afternoon and evening hours.

 Posted by at 4:42 am
Feb 162010

According to a Radio Free Europe journalist, even today, many of Afghanistan’s small intellectual elite still speak Russian, a legacy of one of the few good things brought to Afghanistan by the Soviet invasion, the education of many Afghans in Soviet institutes of higher learning. What will our legacy be in Afghanistan 20 years into the future, I wonder?

 Posted by at 4:47 pm
Feb 152010

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a nifty Web site called panopticlick: it shows you just how unique your browser is. Even browser configurations that I thought were surely non-unique (such as a vanilla Internet Explorer setup on a Windows XP virtual machine or the off-the-shelf Mozilla Firefox that is installed on my Linux server but almost never used) turned out to have unique signatures, for which plugins, most notably Flash, are largely to blame. And you thought the [insert name of favorite most-hated intelligence agency here] needed cookies or some other tricks to track your every move!

 Posted by at 1:59 pm
Feb 152010

Someone just called my attention to this BBC interview with Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which has been at the center of the Climategate e-mails.

It has been suggested that Jones admitted that there has been no global warming since 1995, or that he made an amazing retreat. So I was curious as to what he actually said. Here are a few tidbits, hopefully not taken out of context:

Q. Do you agree that according to the global temperature record used by the IPCC, the rates of global warming from 1860-1880, 1910-1940 and 1975-1998 were identical?

A. […T]he warming rates for all 4 periods [NB: Jones counted 1975-1998 and 1975-2009 as two separate periods] are similar and not statistically significantly different from each other.

Q. Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming?

A. Yes, but only just. [… The] trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level.

Q. Do you agree that from January 2002 to the present there has been statistically significant global cooling?

A. No. […] The trend this time is negative (-0.12C per decade), but this trend is not statistically significant.

Q. There is a debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was global or not.

A. There is much debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period was global in extent or not. The MWP is most clearly expressed in parts of North America, the North Atlantic and Europe and parts of Asia. For it to be global in extent the MWP would need to be seen clearly in more records from the tropical regions and the Southern Hemisphere. There are very few palaeoclimatic records for these latter two regions.

Of course, if the MWP was shown to be global in extent and as warm or warmer than today (based on an equivalent coverage over the NH and SH) then obviously the late-20th century warmth would not be unprecedented. On the other hand, if the MWP was global, but was less warm that today, then current warmth would be unprecedented.

Q. If you agree that there were similar periods of warming since 1850 to the current period, and that the MWP is under debate, what factors convince you that recent warming has been largely man-made?

A. The fact that we can’t explain the warming from the 1950s by solar and volcanic forcing […].

Q. When scientists say “the debate on climate change is over”, what exactly do they mean […] ?

A. […] I don’t believe the vast majority of climate scientists think this.

Meanwhile, another error in the IPCC report has been uncovered, this one about the size of the Dutch countryside that is under sea level (26%, not 55%). An inconsequential error by itself, but apparently, it was enough for Robert Watson, former IPCC chief, to call for an investigation of this apparent bias, namely that all the errors uncovered so far exaggerate the presumed magnitude and effect of the warming.

So who can we believe? I don’t want to join the climate skeptics (at the very least, not without getting a hefty retainer from an oil company first!) but obviously, the choir hasn’t been completely honest with us either. What does the raw data say? Well, according to the UK Met Office, there has been warming in the last 160 years:

However, if I accept the short-term trend as just that, short-term, what we’re left with is a long-term warming of about 1 degree over 160 years… which is about 0.06 degrees per decade, about half the decadal figure during the last (1975-2002) warming period, a period that is by no means unique, according to Jones.

So… what am I to think?

 Posted by at 2:44 am
Feb 142010

A few months ago, a paper came to my attention; one written by a Hungarian climate scientist who supposedly resigned from his NASA job because he felt he was being muted by the climate science establishment. The paper was eventually published in a rather obscure journal, the quarterly journal of the Hungarian Meteorological Service. This paper has since been touted by its proponents as proof that the established climate models are bogus and that global warming is a hoax; on the other hand, it has been maligned by its critics, who declared it as junk science.

One notable point in Miskolczi’s paper is an unorthodox use of the virial theorem, and the funny thing is, while what he is doing is rather problematic, his critics fare no better; I’ve not seen anyone offer a technically correct analysis as to when the virial theorem might be applicable to describe a planetary atmosphere. (As a matter of fact, it is, but that doesn’t necessarily vindicate Miskolczi’s analysis.)

Miskolczi’s key result is that the atmosphere is in equilibrium in the sense that the greenhouse effect is already maximal; and so long as an effectively infinite reservoir of a potent greenhouse gas (water vapor) is available, this balance cannot be destroyed by changing the amount of CO2 in the air. However, this result may very well be a consequence of some trivial algebra that follows from some of Miskolczi’s more debatable assumptions.

In his paper, Miskolczi presents a model of the atmosphere graphically:

Without going into excessive detail (which can be found in Miskolczi’s paper), one can easily write down several equations from this diagram alone. First, Miskolczi asserts that P = P0 = 0, so that branch can be ignored altogether. We then have:

AA + K + F = ED + EU,
ST + EU = OLR,
F0 = OLR (the system is in equilibrium),
F0F + ED = SG + K,
SG = ST + AA.

To these equations, Miskolczi adds the following:

SG = σTs4 (Stefan-Boltzmann law describing a thermal blackbody surface at temperature Ts),
AA = ED (a much debated application of Kirchoff’s law by Miskolczi, his Eq. 4),
2EU = SG (Miskolczi’s application of the virial theorem),
SGF0 + EDEU = OLR (Miskolczi’s energy conservation formula, Eq. 7).

Now the thing is, at this point we actually have 9 equations in the 9 unknowns AA, K, F, ED, EU, ST, SG, F0 and Ts. Although the equations turn out to be not completely independent, only K remains undetermined; in particular, Ts is uniquely determined as

Ts = (3OLR / 2σ)1/4.

Now OLR = F0 = 238 W is known from observation, as it can be calculated from the solar constant and the Earth’s albedo. According to Miskolczi’s algebra, then, the only surface temperature consistent with this is Ts = 281.7 K or about 8.5 degrees Centigrade. This value is uniquely determined without knowing anything about the composition of the atmosphere other than its albedo.

If only climate science were this simple.

 Posted by at 4:27 pm
Feb 142010

Something I heard a few days ago on The Big Bang Theory:

“Where in this swamp of unbalanced formulas squatteth the toad of truth?”

What can I say… I know the feeling rather well.

 Posted by at 4:08 am
Feb 102010

Here’s a nice billboard from snowy Wyoming:

Maybe someone who has the money will erect another billboard with the only appropriate answer that I can think of… NOPE!

 Posted by at 1:45 pm
Feb 102010

About ten years ago, my gall bladder was removed. (To anyone who never had gall bladder cramps: you don’t want to know.) I knew that no surgery is trivial, and that even famous people, like Russian rocket designer Korolyov, may have been killed by botched gall bladder surgery, but hey, we live in modern times, and laparoscopic surgery isn’t quite the same as it used to be in the old days when they cut your abdominal cavity open with a machete. Indeed, six hours (!) after I was rolled into the operating room, I was sitting in my own chair at home, and I haven’t had a complaint since.

Congressman John Murtha, a leading opponent of the war in Iraq, had the same surgery a few days ago. Unfortunately, he was returned to the hospital two days later, and was pronounced dead not long thereafter… apparently a result of botched surgery, as they may have cut one of his intestines, resulting in a deadly infection.

I’m glad I didn’t know such things can happen back when I was going under the knife! Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

 Posted by at 1:41 pm
Feb 082010

His official biography says that he has a degree in Economics and Political Science, that he is a pilot, obtained a Master of Defence Studies degree, and was promoted to colonel just last year. Oh, and he and his wife love golf. Now this distinguished career soldier can add another item to his resume: two-count suspected sex murderer.

I don’t usually get too worked up about stories of violent crime, but even I was shocked when I learned that the suspect in the recent disappearance and death of a Belleville woman whose body was just found by police is, in fact, a high ranking military officer, a colonel, the commander of the Canadian Forces base in Trenton.


 Posted by at 7:55 pm
Feb 082010

The newsroom and possibly, significant portions of the archives of CTV Ottawa turned into smoke last night. Newsrooms can be rebuilt, equipment can be repurchased, no lives were lost, but the archives may be irreplaceable.

What’s up with all these big fires here in Ottawa this winter?

 Posted by at 5:15 am
Feb 072010

I’ve never even heard of this movie, Children of Men, until yesterday, when by chance I caught its trailer on the Space channel, announcing its broadcast tonight.

I’m watching it now, just about two thirds of the way through, and I think I already know why it earned the respectable spot of #184 among the top 250 movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

All I can say is… wow.

 Posted by at 3:35 am
Feb 052010

What a grand thing, this contraption called the Internet.

I was talking to my wife about the Olympics. (No, we aren’t fans.) I mentioned that in 2016, the games will be held in Rio. They’ll be dangling their breasts, she commented, sarcastically alluding to that Simpsons episode in which the family ends up in Rio. To the music of Villalobos, I added. (We both love the music of Villalobos.)

Then it occurred to me… last week, on my way to Waterloo, I heard a remarkable piece of music listening to the CBC in the car. All I remembered that it was from some Mexican composer. In the pre-Internet, pre-Google, pre-Wikipedia (not to mention pre-Youtube) days, that’d have been the end of the story: I’d not have been able to remember anything else.

But we live in the Internet/Google/Wikipedia/Youtube era. Within two minutes, we were listening to the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra playing Danzon n°2 by Arturo Márquez, as a matter of fact the very same performance I believe that I heard on the CBC:

You gotta love this Internet thing.

 Posted by at 4:42 am
Feb 042010

Steven Weinberg has an opinion piece on the Wall Street Journal Web site, where he expresses confidence that Obama’s NASA budget is the right one. Instead of wasting money on a manned space program that is self serving (i.e., other than putting men in space, it accomplishes nothing) more money will be available for doing real science, he thinks.

He has a point… but, well, but there is a but. Science is an important goal of the space program, but it’s not the only goal. As a matter of fact, if you ask me as a taxpayer why I think it’s a good idea to spend some tax dollars on the space program, scientific research is just one of the reasons I’d mention, and not even necessarily the first reason. People should travel in space because our future is in space. The steps we’re taking today may be baby steps, but they’re still important steps… even if a future with colonies on Mars, manned exploration of the outer planets and their moons, or perhaps travel beyond the solar system is decades, if not centuries away.

Having said that… the Constellation program, effectively repeating the accomplishments of Apollo with slightly upgraded hardware, may not have been the smart thing to do even if it had been funded right, which it wasn’t. Another footstep on the Moon is not the same as sustainable manned deep space exploration. If I recall, one of the Augustine commission’s suggestions was a deep space program without a specific landing objective; one that focuses on developing capabilities more than achieving spectacular “footstep-and-flag” milestones, “landing” only on asteroids, if at all, focusing instead on long-duration flights in deep space. If this is the space program Obama’s administration is about to establish, who knows? Perhaps he’s putting the space program on the track that it should have been put on decades ago. (Then again, perhaps I’m just an incurable optimist.)

As a footnote of sorts, I find it noteworthy that, more than 50 years after Sputnik, there is still only one nation on Earth with a comprehensive deep space research program: the United States. Much of the Soviet space program died an undeserved and premature death after the collapse of the Soviet Union; as to China, India, Japan, the EU and other nations, their efforts are commendable but that still leaves them in the “also ran” category.

 Posted by at 1:46 am