The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Commuting home to work

I'm splitting my time between Chicago and Raleigh lately, and it looks like I'll continue to do so for quite a while. This causes one minor inconvenience: my car doesn't fit in the overhead compartment on a CRJ. (For that matter, an anorexic gerbil won't fit in the overhead compartment on one of those things, but that's another issue.)

Chicago, however, is a major city with an extensive public transportation system (no snickering from natives, please). Chicago also has Zipcars, a by-the-hour car-rental cooperative, with six cars stationed less than four blocks from my house. Four blocks—800 m—seems to suburbanites like a very long walk to get a car, but actually, I'm lucky if I get to park my own car that close most days. So this is an improvement.

iGo, which costs a little less and works in partnership with the CTA, is another option. Unfortunately they don't have any cars within 1500 m of my house. Walking around the block to get the Zipcar suddenly seems more attractive. Walking eight blocks to get a car is less so.

Zipcars also has the advantage of national reach. Given how often I travel (especially to San Francisco), this has tremendous appeal.

Now if only Chicago had a puppy-rental service for those times when I miss Parker...

World's strangest airports

These are kind of cool:

Winston Churchill Avenue, Gibraltar's busiest road, cuts directly across the runway. Railroad-style crossing gates hold cars back every time a plane lands or departs. "There's essentially a mountain on one side of the island and a town on the other," Schreckengast says. "The runway goes from side to side on the island because it's the only flat space there, so it's the best they can do. It's a fairly safe operation as far as keeping people away," he says, "It just happens to be the best place to land, so sometimes it's a road and sometimes it's a runway."

Number 8, St. Maarten's Princess Juliana, is one of my favorites.

Gut feelings

You really have them:

Technically known as the enteric nervous system, the second brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut, or alimentary canal, which measures about nine meters end to end from the esophagus to the anus. The second brain contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system, [says Michael Gershon, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center].

... "The system is way too complicated to have evolved only to make sure things move out of your colon," says Emeran Mayer, professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.). For example, scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. "Some of that info is decidedly unpleasant," Gershon says.

There are some intriguing corollaries to this:

Scientists are learning that the serotonin made by the enteric nervous system might also play a role in more surprising diseases: In a new Nature Medicine study published online February 7, a drug that inhibited the release of serotonin from the gut counteracted the bone-deteriorating disease osteoporosis in postmenopausal rodents. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) "It was totally unexpected that the gut would regulate bone mass to the extent that one could use this regulation to cure—at least in rodents—osteoporosis," says Gerard Karsenty, lead author of the study and chair of the Department of Genetics and Development at Columbia University Medical Center.

... Serotonin seeping from the second brain might even play some part in autism, the developmental disorder often first noticed in early childhood. Gershon has discovered that the same genes involved in synapse formation between neurons in the brain are involved in the alimentary synapse formation. "If these genes are affected in autism," he says, "it could explain why so many kids with autism have GI motor abnormalities" in addition to elevated levels of gut-produced serotonin in their blood.

Scientific American also investigates whether untreated vision problems lead to age-related dementia. Very interesting.

Corporate news

My corporation, whose name appears on contracts as "Punzun Ltd., an Illinois corporation doing business as Inner Drive Technology," turns 10 today.

No, really.

The name Punzun Ltd. (a trademark, by the way) dates back to 21 March 1985, when I dreamed it up while drifting off in Mr. Collins' Algebra class. It is, in fact, the only thing I remember from that class, for which I apologize to Mr. Collins.

How stimulating

What if the stimulus package signed into law a year ago today had actually worked?

Let’s say this bill had started spending money within a matter of weeks and had rapidly helped the economy. Let’s also imagine it was large enough to have had a huge impact on jobs — employing something like two million people who would otherwise be unemployed right now.

If that had happened, what would the economy look like today?

Well, it would look almost exactly as it does now. Because those nice descriptions of the stimulus that I just gave aren’t hypothetical. They are descriptions of the actual bill.

In other words, Keynes got it right. And so did Obama.

Piling on

Two more items about anthropogenic climate change. First, from NPR this morning

Most don't see a contradiction between a warming world and lots of snow. That includes Kevin Trenberth, a prominent climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

"The fact that the oceans are warmer now than they were, say, 30 years ago means there's about on average 4 percent more water vapor lurking around over the oceans than there was, say, in the 1970s," he says.

Warmer water means more water vapor rises up into the air, and what goes up must come down.

"So one of the consequences of a warming ocean near a coastline like the East Coast and Washington, D.C., for instance, is that you can get dumped on with more snow partly as a consequence of global warming," he says.

More esoterically, Alex Knapp challenges the Drudge Report's misinterpretations of the "Climategate" data:

The scientist in question is Professor Phil Jones, who is the head of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Suffice to say, this has made quite a hubbub around the blogosphere. The article is based on an interview that Jones gave to the BBC. Of course, delving into the article itself, it’s clear that Professor Jones did not say that there is no global warming since 1995. He says that there is no ’statistically significant’ global warming since 1995. Which still sounds bad.

Unless, of course, you actually read the interview.

Commentary about the right

I received three items from the Internets today bringing various threads about the right into perspective. First, a note about Joe the Plumber's frustration with the McCain campaign:

"I don't owe him sh*t," Wurzelbacher said. "He really screwed my life up, is how I look at it."

"McCain was trying to use me," he said. "I happened to be the face of middle Americans. It was a ploy."

Readers will note that one of my long-time criticisms of the right is their pandering to people who want to avoid responsibility. Joe Wurzelbacher, being employed to further that end, and presumably being a conscious adult, has decided not to take responsibility for his part in the campaign. Is this irony, is it a nuanced political gambit, or is it just sad?

On the same theme, David McCandless published a great visualization of the arguments for and against anthropogenic climate change. I still can't grasp why people deny the evidence, but then again, I don't understand how people believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago or how people believe that telling teenagers not to have sex reduces teen pregnancy. Since these groups are nearly orthogonal perhaps the common thread is a refusal to accept evidence regardless of the source, kind of like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.

There's a serious difference between challenging evidence and refusing to accept evidence. Scientists challenge evidence all the time, though possibly not as much as they should. Still, when you have a pile of evidence in support of a hypothesis (e.g., differentiation of species by natural selection), and no evidence supporting any other explanation, at some point a rational person will accept the hypothesis as fact.

Now, the error bars around the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change are broader than climatologists want; to wit, the consensus is that scientists are 90-95% confident that the facts support the hypothesis. For the hypothesis to win promotion to "theory" (a scientific term of art that translates to "universally acknowledged fact" in plain English), there needs to be a consensus on 95-98% confidence. Note also that this means statistical confidence, another term of art that sounds like it means something a lot less important than it really means. A 90% confidence interval doesn't mean people cause 90% of climate change, or that climate change is 90% probable. It means, more or less, that scientists are 90% confident that the activities of humans are the explanation for the planet as a whole warming up 3 to 9°C over the next 200 years. No one is suggesting people are the only cause, and no one is suggesting that a 3° change in the planet's average temperature will cause snow to stop falling on Alaska.

In other words, the rules for calling something a "scientific fact" (i.e., "theory") are very, very strict, so the massive pile of data in support of global warming—and the rapidly diminishing data set supporting alternative explanations and predictions—doesn't yet cut it.

This isn't a squishy guess about the effects of some untested political idea, this is hard science. So while I accept, to some extent, tinkering with government policies based on guesses and ideology (for example, I believe in socializing infrastructure and health-care costs, while other people believe in private roads and for-profit hospitals), I have a very hard time understanding political opposition to the idea that people are changing the planet's climate. We may disagree on what to do about it, but how can people rationally disagree that it's happening? Even the policy argument in favor of doing something to reduce climate-changing pollution seems unassailable: if the science is wrong and we reduce emissions, wow, we've spent a couple percent of GDP on making the air cleaner. But if the science is right, and we fail to reduce emissions, tens of millions will die. You want beachfront property in Florida? A century from now you can buy it in Orlando. Hungry? Let's hope that rain still falls on places with adequate soil—without washing it away in massive floods.

So what's the objection? Why do people argue so vehemently against the facts?

I think the Miami Herald's Leonard Pitts is right about the choice facing us in this country, of which climate change denial is only one small part:

So no, this is not a clash of ideologies, but a clash between intelligence and its opposite. And I am tired of being asked to pretend stupid is a virtue. That's why I'd welcome the moment of truth [Sarah Palin's] campaign would bring. It would force us to decide once and for all whether we are permanently committed to the path of ignorance, of birthers, truthers and tea party incoherence you represent, or whether we will at last turn back from the cliff toward which we race.

If the latter, wonderful, God bless America. If the former, well, some of us can finally quit hoping the nation will return to its senses and plan accordingly. Either way, we need to know, and [her] candidacy would tell us. If you love this country, Mrs. Palin, you can do it no greater service.

We shall see. We shall see.

Why the euro isn't the dollar

Paul Krugman has a good explanation today why the problems of Spain and Greece come from the ways Europe and the U.S. are different:

[T]here’s not much that Spain’s government can do to make things better. The nation’s core economic problem is that costs and prices have gotten out of line with those in the rest of Europe. If Spain still had its old currency, the peseta, it could remedy that problem quickly through devaluation — by, say, reducing the value of a peseta by 20 percent against other European currencies. But Spain no longer has its own money, which means that it can regain competitiveness only through a slow, grinding process of deflation.

Now, if Spain were an American state rather than a European country, things wouldn’t be so bad. For one thing, costs and prices wouldn’t have gotten so far out of line: Florida, which among other things was freely able to attract workers from other states and keep labor costs down, never experienced anything like Spain’s relative inflation. For another, Spain would be receiving a lot of automatic support in the crisis: Florida’s housing boom has gone bust, but Washington keeps sending the Social Security and Medicare checks.