Category Archives: Science

I Crashed An International Symposium on Global Warming and All I Got Was This Stupid Hole in the Ground

I’m not going to go into detail lest I endanger the job of the concierge who let me slip in the door (or, rather, fell for the line I fed him), but I really did. I slipped through the doors of the conference center and hung out for a day with a host of brilliant minds as they tackled what they see as the sticky problem of global warming.1

I learned a number of interesting and important things:

  1. Nothing makes you feel stupid faster than hanging around a bunch of brilliant people.
  2. Nothing makes you realize how much in life you haven’t accomplished by hanging around a bunch of hyperdriven Type A personalities.
  3. A high IQ does not always mean a well-designed PowerPoint presentation.
  4. Or for that matter, a scintillating manner of public speaking. Or even something above a soporific monotone.
  5. Persons who have inadequate English As A Second Langauge skills become riveting speakers in the light of items 3 and 4. And most importantly,
  6. Hang out with brilliant people long enough and you begin to question their brilliance – if not their sanity.

The reason I am questioning their sanity right now is because I learned what their solution to the problem is. They are going to take the infamous greenhouse gas carbon dioxide out of the air, mostly at the source of production (such as a refinery or coal fired power plant), inject it into naturally occurring saline water, and then…

Are you sitting down?

They shoot this fizzy slush down into the ground where it can’t escape.2 Then it will turn into harmless minerals like the stuff we put on our roads in the winter… over geological time.3

I took a couple of things away from this symposium after learning that news.

First, does this strike anyone as sounding ridiculous? Or am I the only one? The most brilliant minds in the world got together and decide to save the world by taking the scary stuff and burying it in a hole in the ground.

Hmmm. Sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about that time in third grade when you buried those Math tests you got an “F” on and then the family dog dug them up and you spent the entire summer washing your dad’s car. I’m talking about how CO2 now has the same status as nuclear waste. The ironic thing is that nuclear power is now starting to look pretty good by comparison to the eyes of these brilliant minds.

Now for irony squared: while burying nuclear waste (which also is rendered safe over geological time) is an unacceptable solution to many, they have no problem with burying CO2.

Second, why the big panic about all this Carbon stuff anyway? This stuff is called fossil fuel, right? Meaning it came from fossils, which were once living things. Living things made of carbon. Where did they get the carbon from? According to the laws of conservation of matter and energy, it just didn’t show up in their bodies. It had to have come from somewhere.

Yeah, that’s right. The carbon we’re worried about putting into the air was already there at one time in the past.

Third. Since all of this carbon is there, isn’t it kind of dumb to put it back in the ground for millions of years? Shouldn’t we figure out how to recycle it back into more fossil fuels and get the price of gas back down to $0.26 a gallon?

Fourth. I’m sure the people of the year 1,000,048 will be really, really grateful for all of the calcium carbonate we will have left them. I think their comments will translate into something that sounds like this: “What were they thinking?”

Finally, isn’t it the epitome of arrogance to think that we can save the world by taxing ourselves into oblivion to suck out insubstantial amounts of a gas that is produced by nature in mind-boggling amounts? And that nature has done a great job taking care of in equally mind-boggling proportions?

Okay, let me wipe the foam off of my lips. It’s time to do a little speculation. See, this symposium also stoked some coal into the furnace of my writer’s imagination,4 and I began to foresee future events if all of this stick-it-in-a-hole-in-the-ground nonsense comes to pass:

  1. A future megadisaster brought about by seismic and/or volcanic activity which in turn triggers a climatological catastrophe – called by survivors “The Great Cosmic Burp.”
  2. A really heavy tax on soda pop and beer.
  3. Alka Selter? Illegal.
  4. A 40% increase in our utility bills. No, wait. That’s the reality of this program.
  5. A Brazil-like world where our automobiles carry huge tanks on their roofs that are collectors for Carbon Dioxide, which have to be taken to special garages to be bled off so the stuff can be buried. Whatever you do, please don’t tell Al Gore about this one.
  6. And speaking of, I also foresee a time when people have rebelled against all of this nonsense. The lasting legacy of this time of ecological madness we’re spinning into will be what future psychologists will call “Al Gore’s Syndrome” – wherin someone becomes so embittered by a catastrophic loss (let’s say, oh… the loss of a presidential election) that the sufferer goes to Machiavellian lengths to prove their continued relevance.
  7. Once everyone is taxed into poverty to do this, they decide to tackle the natural production of Carbon Dioxide. They put huge domes over volcanoes and Yellowstone Park, with giant tubes leading up into the sky where the evil stuff bleeds out into space. But wait, Carbon Dio is heavier than air, so we’ll need giant fans to draw it all out before these places turn into Venus. So before long everybody’s tax rate is 110%. When everybody runs out of money, then someone gets the bright idea to file a class action lawsuit against God.
  8. With the Earth finally restored to pristine greenness, cluttered only by the mud huts we now live in because we can’t afford anything else, we now turn our eyes to hunting down all of those automobiles and factories on Mars. A massive armada of (wind powered) space craft are built so we can go explore and save Mars! After all, it’s warming up at the same rate that we are, and, well… it sure ain’t doing it by itself. There must be some form of intelligent life there that is destroying the planet.

Scary stuff? If it is, keep in mind, it’s only fiction.

For now.

  1. It’s only sticky if you believe that we’re causing the problem. I for one don’t buy for a minute that we are.
  2. By the way, potentially toxic gasses do not “escape.” They “migrate.” The brightest minds in the world taught me that, too.
  3. Translation: bazillions of years.
  4. How’s that for a green metaphor?

Fear of Lemons and Other Tales of Unnecessary Risk Avoidance

First, watch this video, if you dare:

Now here’s my take:

This is all very interesting… but I’m not going to stop with the lemon slices because frankly, if this is true, my body could use the disease causing bacteria.

Seriously. The immune systems of astronauts crash after so many days in space. It’s because the shuttle/space station/whatever is a closed ecosystem. There are no new bugs coming in so the immune system has nothing to do – and so it shuts down. This is such a serious problem that it could have detrimental effects on, say, a manned Mars mission – not so much from the threat of “Martian bacteria” (I personally don’t think anything is there) as the danger of coming home to a germ-filled planet with no immune system.

Now you might laugh and say “just wait until you’re in the hospital with e coli,” and I suppose you’d have a point. But here’s my point: the last and only time I was hospitalized was when I was ten and had my tonsils taken out. I’ve been doing this lemon thing since junior high, long before it was fashionable. And you should also know that, not only do I squeeze lemons and dump them into my drinks – I’ve also been known to pull the slices out and eat them, peel and all.

In this era of over-prescribed antibiotics, disinfectant sprays, anti-bacterial soaps, and bottles of Purel in every pocket, we’re collectively dumbing down our immune systems and setting the stage for a nasty, resistant superbug. So I’ll take my chances with the lemon slices. I figure if they are as bad as all that, I’ll have an advantage when that superbug does show up.

Besides, my body can also use the extra Vitamin C.

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

After probably 10 years of having a Palm PDA in my pocket, I’m quitting.

It’s not so much any kind of idealism, or some kind of neo-ludditeism. I don’t think that the Palms available now have the integrity of product that they had when I first got one.

The first Palm I owned was a IIIx. A nice little unit that was easy on AAA batteries unless I overused the backlight. It lasted three years, until I dropped on the last night of a long camping trek that took our family through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois. The face cracked. I bought a used one on eBay and fixed it myself, but it wasn’t the same after that.

So I bought a IIIc, which was a color unit. This one had a rechargeable battery, so no more feeding AAA’s. It ran about five years and then started showing symptoms of impending doom. I was proactive and bought a newer Palm, but the IIIc wouldn’t die, so I gave it to my wife so she could try out Palmdom. It ran for another year or so before completely giving out.

The replacement, which I bought around 2005, was a Zire 72. Had a camera in it that I didn’t care about, and a feature that played mp3’s that was useful but superfluous since I had an iPod Shuffle. But it did have a nice screen, and a voice memo feature that I used a lot less than I thought I would. It lived less than two years before giving me trouble and dying.

So earlier this year, I decided to take a step backwards. For $99 I bought a vanilla Z22 that was a starter model, a step or two back on the evolutionary scale from where I had been. Less resolution on the screen, bare bones features, but all the stuff I depended on the Palm for – calendar, address book, memos, Bible. I had gotten one for my wife to replace the IIIc, and it seemed to work fine.

Mine worked for less than a year. Last Friday it decided not to turn on in spite of being freshly charged. Attempts were made over the weekend to charge and revive it, but it was dead, Jim.

I did a little quick arithmetic and concluded I’d gone through two Palms in as many years after having had two models that gave me nine. Well, they’ve changed hands at least once; maybe Palm isn’t the company it used to be.

So I dug out my old DayTimer binder, printed out my remaining 07 date book and contacts into pre-formatted pages, cut them, punched them, and presto. I am low tech once again. Thirty bucks a year on refills is cheaper than $99 or more a year on new Palms.

However, there is a bigger issue. This thing has gotten me to thinking about my brain. I had heard someone talking on the news or somewhere (and this is symptom one – I can’t remember where), and they were blaming modern technology for what they saw as the softening of our brains. Calculators perform mathematical functions for us (instead of… slide rules? An abacus? Fingers? Stones in a pouch?). Pocket phones remember phone numbers. PDA’s and Google and Yahoo have calendars and alarms. It’s no longer incumbent upon us to remember anything.

As opposed to long ago, when oral tradition was everything, where tricks like adding rhymes and then meter helped the storytellers remember the story, the birth of both poetry and song. And even 100 (well, say 150) years ago, when folks would memorize and recite poetry for each other in one another’s parlors. Or even as recently as when I was in the third grade and had to memorize one poem a month (I still remember the opening lines of the one about the Village Smithy, written by, I think, Longfellow).

Now what do we have occasion to remember? I’m saddened to think that I can name all of the members of Yes from their start up to about 1988 or so, but I still can’t remember my son’s cell phone number.

Or to put it another way. At my work, there are 7 fax numbers that I use once a month. Each month I look at my list and write them down,, then punch them into our fax machine, so that’s two exposures. I have been working directly with the client that uses these numbers for seven years. So that gives us 12 x 2 x 7, which means I’ve run every number through my brain 168 times during that time. How many do you suppose I know? Only one, and that was a number I already had memorized from when I worked for the company that owned the number. And I know the last four digits of another number because it’s 1350, the frequency of their AM radio station. Other than that? Pffft.

How critical is it that I know all of these numbers? In the long run, probably not that. I suppose I never learned them because I never had to. They’re on a sheet on a bulletin board that overlooks my desk. I don’t know the regular phone numbers, either, though I use more often. On my phone, each has a four-digit speed dial code. And I don’t know those codes because, you guessed it, they are all on that chart, too.

Basically I never memorized this stuff because I never had to.

Well, maybe I ought to start exercising my brain a little more. Apparently, a lot of other people feel the same way, judging from the rising popularity of brain-building games like Nintendo’s Brain Age for the DS and Big Brain Academy for the Wii (where the worst I do is on the memory games). And now I’m similarly inclined because I recently realized that, while I can spout all of those Yes-ites and what instrument they played, and probably which albums they were on, I’m pathetic when it comes to doing more practical things like quoting Bible verses (usually I paraphrase and say, “This is from the Joe Standard Version”).

(Although maybe I never memorized verses because I never felt the need since I try to read frequently – and, of course, part of my Palm software included two translations of The Bible.)

So what am I going to do about all of this? I’m not sure. I’m still getting over being ticked off with myself for letting my brain get so lazy. I suppose I can work on memorizing Bible verses again. Maybe I should memorize a poem a month like back in third grade. Although it might be enough if I memorized some of my own songs (if I could just play them with any confidence at all, knowing the words might do me good someday).

I suppose the best place to start would be to memorize my son’s cell phone number.

If I come up with a plan, I’ll let you know. I’ll even do progress reports. Unless I forget.

Meantime, in Universe Prime 307A, Where the Cleveland Indians Defeated the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the Playoffs…

Here are some recent links to things I found interesting of late, which may or may not be connected. It just depends on which Universe you live in.

Reasons the Indians Lost. I’m not much of a sports fan, professional sports even less so. I do like LaCrosse, which combines all the best parts of hockey, soccer, and basketball. I like baseball, but find the number of games in the pro season endless and intimidating. If pro baseball had a season like pro football, I would probably be a big fan. As it is, I tend to like baseball teams with short seasons, like the Hoover Sweepers.

Hence, I don’t watch pro baseball unless a team of interest makes it into the playoffs – which the Cleveland Indians did recently. Of course, they maintained the tradition of breaking the hearts of their Northeast Ohio fans, but not before giving us some thrilling moments.

In an attempt to make sense of their recent loss to the Boston Red Sox, Rob Treynor, a friend from Last.fm, has written an essay on the reasons the Indians lost. It makes about as much sense as anything else does.

Opening the Doors on Parallel Universes. I have a basic problem with Alternate Universe theory. Suppose we find a way to travel between them. It’s going to take a bit of doing to find one of the many infinite universes where Adolf Hitler never existed (and don’t forget, without him, women might still be homebound housewives, and I for one would not exist at all – so in one of those parallel worlds, you’re not reading this right now).

The reason for my theory is that, with 6.6 billion people making untold decisions each day, the result is untold Parallel Universes virtually identical to this one, with the exception of one event that is insignificant. For example, you hop to the universe next door, it looks identical – except I didn’t go to Starbucks this morning – I ate oatmeal at my desk instead.

Boy, what an exciting universe that must be.

And when you get done with the insignificant Joe Clifford Faust universes, you have to deal with all of the others. Like the one where your neighbor mowed his lawn a day early. Then the one where your neighbor mows his lawn on Tuesdays instead of Thursdays.

Then you get to the one where your buddy in the bowling league rolled a 217 instead of a 216. Then the universe where Stephen King used @!!* instead of &*@! on page 329 of his new novel. Now work your way across the world and end up with that last guy in China and the day he decided not to pedal hard on his commute to work, and got there on time instead of a couple of minutes early.

All of those universes virtually identical to this one – so identical you can’t tell the difference. It would take an enormous amount of work to find something that is really different.

And don’t give me that song and dance about the Butterfly Effect. Yeah, that’s a cool theory, but let’s face it… with millions of butterflies taking wing every day, it’s rather unlikely that every single one of them is going to affect some world-wracking change.

Anyway, here’s a recent rather unimpressive article about how mathematics have allegedly proven the existence of infinite Parallel Universes, which in turn led to a long thread of Digg comments that is one of the most entertaining and creative things I’ve read on the web in a long time.

Meantime, if any of you travelers find the universe where pro baseball has a 15 game season, let me know.

This is How it All Starts

Okay, so I’m at the fair last week, and somewhere along the line, either in the Men’s room or one of the Port-O-Lets, I notice the writing on the dispenser of hand sanitizer that now appears everywhere. It says, kills 99.99% of all household germs!. And I’m thinking, yeah, but it’s that other .01% you have to worry about, because they might grow up into something nasty.

That’s what gave birth to the short piece that you’ll be reading this Monday.

But of course, my brain didn’t stop working there.

See, I took something obvious, something that is worrying a lot of biologists, namely, that our psychological dependence on things like germ-killing sprays and alcohol based hand sanitizers instead of old fashioned soap might be making our immune systems lazy, and worse yet, breeding up a generation of supergerms who scoff at things like alcohol and penicillin. I just wrote it up for Monday in such a way that it has a dark, funny ending.

But really, that’s not an idea. It’s a concept. I call it a notion. Good for a 100 word story, but not strong enough to support a 100,000 word novel.

In order to do that, it needs to meet some other notions to really become viable.

Which of course, it did.

I’ve recently been wondering how much of the world’s population would have to be killed off in some kind of pandemic before our current infrastructure of internets (sic), power plants, and canned food would collapse. I’ve been wondering about loss of population percentages against a scale of technology, and what knowledge would be lost and need to be relearned in the event of something catastrophic like that.

Lost technology is something else that has caught my eye over the last couple of decades. Ever since I heard that, if for some reason we had to mount an Apollo-like mission into outer space, we could no longer do it. A lot of the Apollo-era engineers and scientists have retired or died, and we’ve spent twenty years on a “new” technology that is now wearing out.

All of this stuff, the hand sanitizer, the population numbers, and the lost technology, it was all drinking in the same bar when another of my notions walked in. Not really a notion, but a literary observation.

It’s about gunpowder.

Obviously taking a cue from history, there’s been a lot of writing in fiction that reflects the power of the invention of gunpowder. When it comes into play, it changes everything, at least in the hands of people who want to stuff it in tubes with a piece of lead on top of it, and not in the hands of folks who want to make pretty colors in the sky.

Basically, in literature, gunpowder marks a line – the beginning of an era that is reliant on science instead of mysticism. An age of enlightenment, a coming out of the dark. An age when we no longer believed in magic.

Or even, in certain pieces of fiction, a time when actual magic begins to fade from the scene as people flock to the concreteness of science. In other words, magic stops working because people stop believing in it.

This is an idea that has fascinated me for a long time, and gunpowder is such a perfect turning point. I can see why other writers have picked up this particular ball. But me? I could never suspend my disbelief to get through any fantasy piece outside of The Hobbit, which I read for a high school class. I seriously enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films, but that’s because the disbelief was already suspended for me with CGI creatures and effects.

So as much as I admired it, the whole magic v. gunpowder theme was a theme that I would pretty much leave alone.

Except now all of these notions are at the same table in the bar, and they’re laughing and drinking together and…

Are you there yet?

My subconscious said they belonged together. And pretty soon it bubbled up into my consciousness, which said, it starts at a county fair, with lots of people, food, and animals. A guy uses hand sanitizer, but it isn’t enough. Pretty soon, what he’s caught from somewhere has killed off so much of the world’s population that our technology infrastructure has collapsed, and a new dark age is beginning.

And that’s when… little by little… magic… starts… coming… back.

Now that is a sandbox I could play in.

It still needs a lot of work. I need characters and a time frame. Would it be a trilogy? Maybe just a single book, and by the end magic is not yet in full swing, but has shown up just enough to give a glimmer of hope.

Now I don’t know if I’ll actually ever do anything with this. It depends on if this group of notions that is now an idea keeps nagging me, keeps coming back to this same bar, and then some other friends show up…

But I bring this to you today just so you can see that this is how it happens. This is how writers take little things, like a dispenser in the Port-O-Let at the county fair and spin it until it has created an entire new universe worth exploring.

So the next time you see a writer stating out of a window, be assure that he is not simply enrapt with the squirrel skittering across the lawn – although he might be.

The long odds are, he’s probably thinking about gunpowder. And the .01% of germs that the bottle of hand sanitizer missed.

Listening:
If you see something that looks like a star
And it’s shooting up out of the ground
And your head is spinning from a loud guitar
And you just can’t escape from the sound
Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you
We were children once, playing with toys

(via iTunes shuffle play)

Some Inconvenient Facts

“The man is an embarrassment to US science and its many fine practitioners, a lot of whom know (but feel unable to state publicly) that his propaganda crusade is mostly based on junk science.”

That’s Professor Bob Carter of the Marine Geophysical Laboratory at James Cook University in Australia, talking about Al Gore and his crusade against gullible global warming. Carter should know of which he speaks… he actually studies the climate for a living.

And Carter isn’t alone. Many other scientists who actually study climate, the Arctic, the Antarctic, and other relevant sciences are crying foul over Gore’s “documentary,” An Inconvenient Truththis article neatly summarizes their deconstruction of Gore’s “facts.”

The hero of the piece is Carter, who pulls no punches in giving his opinion of the ex-veep’s crusade:

“Gore’s circumstantial arguments are so weak that they are pathetic. It is simply incredible that they, and his film, are commanding public attention.”

Listening:
Up comes a coaster fast and silent in the night
Over my shoulder all you can see are the pilot lights
No money in our jackets and our jeans are torn
Your hands are cold but your lips are warm

(via iPod Shuffle)