Archive for June, 2005

The hockey stick controversy

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

No, it’s not about the NHL lockout. It’s about a February article in the journal, Geophysical Research Letters, that questions what has become the traditional graph of the rise in global temperature: the hockey stick. The hockey stick refers to the shape of the temperature line, which is approximately unchanging (straight) from 1000 to 1900AD and then spikes from 1990 to 2000. The spike is particularly severe in the 1990s. The hockey stick came from a computer model created by a team led by Michael Mann and appeared in 1998 in a Nature article authored by Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes.

(this image is from the IPCC 3rd assessment report, chapter 2 and describes “Millennial Northern Hemisphere (NH) temperature reconstruction (blue) and instrumental data (red) from AD 1000 to 1999, adapted from Mann et al. (1999). Smoother version of NH series (black), linear trend from AD 1000 to 1850 (purple-dashed) and two standard error limits (grey shaded) are shown.”)

To calculate modern temperature, the authors used instrument readings. To calculate historical temperatures, Mann et al. could not use instruments: there were no thermometers in 1200AD. Instead they relied on data from tree rings, ice cores, corals, as well as historical accounts of temperature.

According to a report in the BBC, it was the assumptions in how this “proxy” data was modelled that posed the problem. The authors Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick in Geophysical Research Letters asserted that the statistical treatment of the tree ring data favoured a hockey stick shape for the temperature curve. The strong bias essentially “flipped the entire analysis”.

(For a detailed explanation of the technique and the controversy, see this post.)

BTW, the controversy has a Canadian connection. Stephen McIntyre is from a company called Northwest Exploration in Toronto and Ross McKitrick hails from the Department of Economics, University of Guelph.

In a subsequent post, I’ll go over the recent political controversy surrounding this computer modelling conflict. For the moment, it shows how model results can hinge on a single data set, whether primary or secondary (“proxy”), and on a single assumption. This isn’t to say that assumptions are bad–they are a necessary component of any model. In this instance the statistical technique chosen is well-respected (couldn’t interpret remote sensing data without it) and extensively backed-up by the literature. And it demonstrates that conflict is a healthy part of scientific advancement. The challenge is whether the scientists in the community are entrenched in a position or open to questioning the assumptions.

Updated post with graph directly from the IPCC report.

Politics and computer models: the nuclear edition

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

An assumption underlying policy-driven computer models is that improving model sophistication–more robust statistical techniques or more accurate data–will lead to better policy. Empirically, that assumption is repudiated over and over again but it doesn’t seem to impact most developers of these models.

This is never so evident than in site selection models. Site selection models are traditionally geographic information system (GIS)-based analyses that compare overlapping geographic features to determine the most appropriate location for a facility. Example geographic features are slope, location vis-a-viz a flood zone, adjaceny to like facilities, and existing land use zoning. The facility could be a plaza, a subdivision or, in the most contentious instances, a hazardous waste disposal site. Of all the hazardous waste, the most contentious and most dangerous tends to be nuclear waste. Consequently, you’d want to get that one right and optimize placement of the waste facility. Therefore, siting should be guided by data such as stability of geological formations and should limit the amount of political interference.

Comes a New Scientist article (subscription required, although here’s a report on the sites chosen by Nirex and an article on the political calculations from Scotland’s Sunday Herald) on the sites chosen in the UK to dispose of nuclear waste generated in the UK. New Scientist was one of the organizations that submitted a request for the information about the siting process under UK’s new Freedom of Information Act.

The articles report that, despite the sophistication of the computer siting models, they were systematically ignored when sites were actually chosen. Nirex chose the sites. Nirex is a public private partnership set up by the nuclear industry and UK government to monitor radioactive waste. Unsurprisingly Nirex succumbed to political and personal calcuations, such as political instability in Northern Ireland, which ruled out the entire region and personal threats to Nirex staff, which ruled out all of Wales. Sites ultimately chosen for test bores? Places that already had nuclear power plants because they exhibited a “measure of local support for nuclear activities.” Correlation with stability of geological formations? Zero.

What is surprising is the naivete about politics. Even the New Scientist magazine falls for the assumption, in its article last week entitled, Politics left UK nuclear waste plans in disarray. Of course, politics will significantly impact nuclear waste siting, to the extent of derailing a ‘rational’ process. No one wants them and do what they can to avoid them. Nicholas Chrisman wrote a journal article on the use of GIS to site nuclear facilities in the US. Number of facilities actually built? Zero. What you need is to build political calculations into the process with enhancements like spatial decision support systems. It’s not necessarily pretty. Negotiating with the public or local officials is lengthy and contradictory but then that’s the nature of democracy. It’s not easily quantifiable. How do you equitably measure one community’s opposition compared to another’s? However, if you want one of these sites to ever be built then politics has to be acknowledged as an essential part of the science.

(Whether or not we should be generating the nuclear waste is another matter entirely.)

freeway blogging

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

Question: is freeway blogging an example of virtual activism or physical activism? Obviously it’s both but freeway blogging provides an excellent example of (a) how virtual and physical activism are not mutually exclusive and (b) how it might be difficult to determine the effects of one compared to the other.

spatial data access and the haves

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

When I originally heard about this court case, I thought it only concerned the aerials of people’s houses. (Greenwich, CT is one of the richest towns in the US so it’s no surprise that its citizens are a mite upset). Apparently it’s about the spatial digital data as well. And I thought that the citizens of Greenwich were trying to prevent access to the photos. But apparently, it’s citizens trying to gain access to the digital data, maps and aerials. Anyway, here are the results of the court case.

City must release electronic GIS mapping data

Also available at GISCafe.

Publicly releasing electronically formatted government maps has not been shown to pose a public safety risk or violate a trade secret, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

June 16, 2005

Electronically formatted maps, which allow journalists to plot geographically referenced statistical data in studying the adequacy of government programs and performance, must be released in electronic form to open records requesters in Connecticut, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday.

The maps, created from Geographic Information System data and showing city landmarks, including the location of “security-sensitive” sites such as schools, public utilities, and bridges, must be open because officials in Greenwich, Conn., did not show that their release will violate a trade secret or threaten public safety, the high court ruled.

Greenwich citizen Stephen Whitaker requested electronic access to the city’s GIS maps in December 2001 under the state open records law.

The town refused to give Whitaker electronic access to its GIS system, arguing that the records qualified for public safety and trade secret exemptions to the state’s public records law. Whitaker sued and obtained rulings in favor of release from the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission in 2002 and the Connecticut Superior Court in 2004. Greenwich appealed to the Connecticut Appellate Court, but the Supreme Court stepped in and transferred the case onto its own docket before the intermediate appellate court could rule.

Justice Christine S. Vertefeuille, writing for the court, rejected the argument that the trade secret exemption could apply to the electronic GIS maps. All of the information contained in the maps is available piecemeal from other town departments, so there is nothing secret about them, she wrote. [emphasis added]

Vertefeuille found the town’s asserted public safety exemption equally unconvincing. Although witnesses — among them the Greenwich police chief — had testified that public safety would be jeopardized if the GIS data were released, little concrete evidence of that was presented. “Generalized claims of a possible safety risk” are not enough to satisfy the government’s burden of proof on an exemption claim, Vertefeuille wrote.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in November urging the high court to order the GIS data’s release. In addition to its legal arguments, the brief highlighted the issue’s relevance to the news media by compiling stories that would not have been written without electronic mapping.

Greenwich has 10 days to ask all seven supreme court justices to reconsider the decision, which was decided by a five-member panel.

(Director, Dep’t of Information Technology of the Town of Greenwich v. Freedom of Information Communication; Access Counsel: Clifton A. Leonhardt, Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission; Hartford, Conn.)

I added the emphasis above because that is the primary argument used to gain access to spatial data. It doesn’t seem to stop the counter argument of local governments that the digitization of data changes the very nature of the data and fails to compensate for the effort needed to create digital data. These–the value added character and the sweat of the brow–are the essence of arguments made for Canadian copyright of spatial data.

Here’s another article on the same court case. Notice this, more local, story is less enthusiastic. Also notice that the profit motive and the freedom of information motive are drowned out by the protection from terrorism motive. The security concerns mentioned by residents are exclusively connected to the privacy concerns of the wealthy. (Think we’ll see a similar lawsuit around the security concerns of the have-nots? I think not.)

Court Rules Public Has Right to GIS Information in Greenwich

June 16, 2005

In a case watched closely by Westport and other towns upgrading technology, the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that the public has a right to see aerial photos and other records of Greenwich despite concerns about privacy, crime and terrorism.

The high court ruled unanimously Wednesday that Greenwich must release its computer database of aerial photographs and maps known as a geographic information system. The court said the town failed to show the records are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act because of security concerns.

“Such generalized claims of a possible safety risk do not satisfy the plaintiff’s burden of proving the applicability of an exemption from disclosure under the act,” the high court said.

Attorneys involved in the case said the ruling sets a precedent.

“This is the first appellate level decision on the issue of security and access to government geographic information systems in the country that we’re aware of,” said Mitchell Pearlman, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

Greenwich officials have said that the uncontrolled release of detailed information on infrastructure, public safety facilities, schools and celebrities’ homes in electronic form could lead to breaches in security and privacy. The town has been reluctant to disclose the records to the public since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Westport’s Representative Town Meeting earlier this month approved spending $420,000 on a Web-based Geographic Information System. During the debate on the appropriation at the RTM and Board of Finance, several residents expressed security concerns related to making the information easily available to the public.

opt out of the nuclear option

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

Is it possible that the mythical power of cold fusion could be the source of carbon-free energy we’ve always dreamed of? Today, France was selected for the ITER site, an experimental fusion reactor. This is one step short of a real deal, dubbed the DEMO, but since the EU is paying half the bill, and since France already has more nuclear reactors than mostly anybody else out there, perhaps this will give rise to new interest in fusion. Nature, reporting here. The BBC reports as well, while sporting a fun, interactive fusion graphic slideshow.

Environmentalists, as often is the case when being cited in articles, appear as luddite pariahs. Ironically, this could be the very best thing to happen to climate change environmentalism. It doesn’t hurt to have precautions, but it does hurt your reputation if that’s all you can offer. Here, they are worried about an earthquake faultline residing under the proposed location for this facility.

Greenpeace offers its fireback, saying that the astronomical expense could purchase 10,000 megawatts windfarms. The unprofessionalism really comes out in this quote:

“Governments should not waste our money on a dangerous toy which will never deliver any useful energy. Instead, they should invest in renewable energy which is abundantly available, not in 2080 but today.”

Jan Vande Putte, quoted by BBC

My intuition tells me that environmentalists are not well received in the scientific community, though this insight comes largely from what media tribulations I’ve come across.

climate crash course

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

If you have some ideas in politics, or economics, or engineering or who knows what, and have a scant idea of how they relate to the climate, you can read this Climate 101 introduction to all-things climate. It’s a healthy dose, 12 minutes at best.

Flash activism

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

Little did I know that online messages or advertisements like Store Wars are examples of what is called “Flash activism”. Flash activism comes from the software, Flash, which allows you to create animations. Flash is cartoonish in appearance, and represents a trade off in simplicity of animation quality for extreme speed in animation development.

Here is an introduction to flash activism by the major player in the field, Free Range Graphics. The site contains a dozen examples of their best work.

To view the best in flash and short film activism, see the Fourth annual Media That Matters Film Festival.

Home grown radar

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

This just in from slashdot (actually, it was a couple of days ago but I didn’t post it as the site was “slashdotted”), how to convert an old tube radar PPI display into a state of the art mini-ITX based PC driven weather radar. According to the site, a PPI or Plan Position Indicator is “a round TV like tube that displays a circular sweeping point & vector format rather than a raster format like square TV tubes”. The hobbyist was inspired by an April Fools joke and decided to drive a traditional radar monitor off a PC using a lot of scrounged hardware and some personal radar software.

To top it off, the device is Wi-Fi.


Monday, June 27th, 2005

To the organization, Association for Progressive Communications (APC):

APC is an international network of civil society organisations dedicated to empowering and supporting groups and individuals working for peace, human rights, development and protection of the environment, through the strategic use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), including the Internet.

if you’re not part of the solution…

Monday, June 27th, 2005

There are some things that money can’t buy. And for everything else, there’s a market for it. There are fundamental problem with relying on markets for salvation from environmental indifference. While my aged uncle, among many others, insists that nothing moves likes like the markets, and never before has environmental interest been so “on fire.”

This, other tell me as well, is true. In environmentalism-versus-time graphs, things are on a hockey stick.

But, not to get side-tracked, the point: while the markets may encourage interest, it does not breed interest. When the stimulus for interest is woven into the business economy, it comes across as little of a person-by-person change of heart. This is why when something achieves a ‘less attractive’ or ‘sub-optimal’ ‘bottom line’ (or, my favorite, ‘triple bottom line: society, economy, environment’), the thing is dismissed. As with many other areas of market economics, what’s fashionable is what”s sold. Perhaps there is a lot of gray area between Aldo Leopold and Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and simply devoting your disposable income to Mountain Equipment Coo, organic, vacuum-sealed trail mix and fair trade coffee.

As eloquently as Green Biz can say it, Sustainability Reporting is Not Sustainable.The fanciful fanfare is not a substantive benchmarking process, and even the top dog, GRI, whose name is everywhere and whose manifesto on reporting is a standard, is not powerful in its own right or prevalent enough ini the reporting world to drive markets home.

Who will decide if the market is the problem or the solution?

new look for blog

Sunday, June 26th, 2005

We’re updating the blog at the moment. Watch for new features such as blogging bios.

Wooden computers

Saturday, June 25th, 2005

Swedx has been building computer peripherals since 1995. Now it sells tvs, monitors, computer speakers, keyboards and mice encased in timber obtained from Chinese and other forests.

The company markets to people who wants something different from the normal plastic housings and are concerned about the environmental degradation caused by computer waste.

Swedx’s monitors range in size from 17 inches to 19 inches. Keyboards go for around $80CN. Optical, USB and wireless mice, made from a single block of wood, retail for about $50CN. A 17 inch monitor-TV with keyboard-mouse combo retails for about $1,500. A 26 inch LCD-TV is about $2,500CN. In North America, you can buy them from plasmaearth and webopolis.

While you’re at it, check out another type of wooden computer.

Also check out Sustainable Style magazine and website, whose motto is look fabulous, live well, do good.

march for the climate

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Join a Virtual March! This message comes a day after the McCain-Lieberman bill was defeated, and the least-stringent (read: most-toothless) bill was the only one of the three passed. In an echo back to the Death of Environmentalism, Fred Krupp of Environmental Defence hailed the vote as a success, a “historic day on Capitol Hill”, shrugging off the McCain-Leiberman defeat like a good-natured little leage coach.

See and Environmental Defense for more, and, at for time or effort, you can march on The Hill.

winds change direction

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Offshore Wind: The Future Has Arrived. Are We Ready? As the Lone Ranger’s traveling companion used to say, “What do you mean ‘we’, kemosabe?”

In London, Shell has pushed forth a plan to greatly reduce the need for non-renewable energy by building an enourmous wind farm of the waterfront. For the most part, it would not even be visible from the London terrain. Yet the oppostion abounds. These projects are certainly expensive, but the market payoff is uncontested. The short-term is what keeps sinking proposal after proposal, in any number of countries.

Other problems have ‘hit the fan’. The environmental brigades have cited that turbine fans will slaughter birds by the flock-full. In London, just like in Martha’s Vineyard, they have been extremely vocal, and have some conservation-law ammunition behind them. There have been a slurry of articles restating their claims, espcially here.

Then, of course, are the property owners and beach folk in the coastal areas of Massachusetts who are appalled by the prospect of a marred vista. Such is the life of the rich and hypocritical.

However, back to Shell, one troupe of activists cycling cross-country to promot climate change awareness lanced them through and through for the most hypocracy of all. These cyclists were ofere $20,000 as an award, but at the ceremony, the representative biker girl revealed a t-shirt with a red circle-and-line through the Shell logo, rejecting an award from a company that’s giving them a cause to kick and scream and bike cross-country in the first place.

Kyoto goes here, and here, and here and here and…

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

From an old NY Times article, a trend in defiance that has lost its place in the Public Eye: Mayors against George W. Bush. Make sure to click the graphic “Who Needs Kyoto”.

News from the IWC

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

At the International Whaling Commission meeting in South Korea, Japan lost a crucial vote to expand its own whaling. For years, Japan has characterized its whaling, not as commercial activity, but as scientific research (“we’re not doing this to supply our markets and restaurants with whale meat but investigating whale physiology”). This year, Japan wanted to expand ‘research’ whaling as a way to “promote whale sustainability.” I don’t know whether this is the epitome of irony or merely outrageous. Apparently, most of the IWC members agreed with the latter.

changing climate, changing minds

Monday, June 20th, 2005

A few months after the “Death of Environmentalism” was declared, one glimmer of somebody paying attention was caught: perhaps global warming is indeed causing hurricanes and tsunamis. Previously, scientists downplayed global warming as cause for surge in hurricanes, and Killer Tsunami’s ‘Global Warming’ Link Branded ‘Rubbish (note the quote marks on the so-called ‘global warming’). Some have gone so far as to chalk it up as morally reprehensible, being in “grave contravention of well-known facts”.

Now, some reversal are emerging, though they are being scrutinized and branded with all sorts of critiques.

Hurricanes will likely increase with global warming – as said by NCAR and Prof. Stewart in ENVR 200. Tsunami linkages are fairly well-argued. For more underlying causes, read some simple introductory material on chaos theory and pushing systems steadily.

Another jab back at the Death of Environmentalsim – it claimed Al Gore has lost his edge… well, he’s back, and better than ever. Al Gore ‘08!

Still, At MIT, everything is coming up roses, because they’ve deisgned ideal tsunami housing. This does not, I repeat, does not help fight the argument of environmentalism slipping into a stritly economic-engineering study trying to cut every corner, a “technical approach” that has dipped environmentalism into the workings of the regular global economy.

computer, build me a cure

Saturday, June 18th, 2005

In the fight against cancer, computing is a handy tool for drawing conclusions about various treatments. Of the various emerging areas of computing application, two are particularly ‘engaging’.

Using laser-scanning confocal microscopy, cross-sections of animal (that is, mouse or gerbil) tissue can be vacuumed of non-blood-vessel matter, leaving behind a 3D matrix of the blood network surrounding fat cells… by playing with the blood supply, one can destroy fat cells, and this principle extends to cancer cells quite nicely. Pretty 2D picture of a 3D model. Working as a technician at Harvard, I got to contort and rotate these models that the UNIX workstation spat out all day, one after another… but the mathematical analysis of the space between blood vessels and the growing/ shrinking of vessels was left to the machine.

And, more with nanotech, of course – computer models of special nanoparticles are constructed, which direct the spiting-out of the physical molecules, and testing ensues in the blood stream. The objective is to beat the speed of cancer cells, infiltrating their cell walls. A colorful model and a short write-up.

Blogs in the classroom

Saturday, June 18th, 2005

Stanford had a course blog the year before we did. Here’s an interesting set of exchanges on the Iraq War and the use of the Internet.

Editing can get you to the G8 conference

Saturday, June 18th, 2005

Apparently the US has been caught editing again with the G8 position on climate change.