Monday, January 30, 2012

Climatologists: Scientists or "Scientits"?

What's the difference between a meteorologist and a climatologist?  You're forgiven if you don't have a clue, but meteorologists study the atmosphere and use this to forecast short term weather conditions while climatologists study frequency and trends in weather patterns to prophesize on future, longer term weather conditions. Now you know.

I've been quite pleased with the weather this winter in our neck of the woods. There's been very little snow and I was out in my T-shirt yet again today. The meteorologist tells me that tomorrow will be balmy again and he's usually bang-on with his forecast. I've been less than pleased, however, with the climatologists' forecasts that were made about our winter several months ago.  Recall that this was supposed to be the "winter from hell" (ya, I know, but I actually did read that), or the "winter of our youth", which I'd interpreted to mean that I might actually have to upgrade to a snow blower and some decent winter boots.  I had visions of waking to the roar of the 5am snowplow swinging through our neighbourhood, stranding us in our driveways with the windrow.

Of course, none of this has come to pass.  At least, not in North America, so what went wrong? Are climatologists simply the boobs of the scientific community (the "brown reading group", if you will)? Or is all their reliance upon La Nina models, arctic air masses, Madden-Julian Oscillation, and other sciencey-sounding phrases that are now part of everyday vernacular flawed?

I'd like to believe that they're not all twits; some likely graduated top of the class. I'm not as convinced, however, that the tools and models climatologists use to determine weather trends over long periods of time can be relied upon with confidence. Predicting what winter has in store for us 3 months before it arrives and not even coming close is one thing, but these are the same wizards who have the world in a tizzy over what we have coming in the next 100 years.

The global warming debate seems to be cooling (excuse the pun), but I, for one, was never convinced that the models presented as fact could be taken seriously. How can trend data be relied upon when the measurements taken 200 years ago were made with instruments that weren't much more than stones tethered to long sticks and could certainly not be considered accurate? Do we trust any records of measurement that were made in the 1800's? And when we start stretching the data back even further, building arguments stemming from near-Biblical measurements, it becomes even more dubious.

Enter Climategate 2.0. Just when the balance of power in the climate change debate was tipping against the deniers, a fresh batch of 5 000 emails among scientists central to the assertion that humans are causing a global warming crisis were anonymously leaked to the public, giving new hope to the healthy skeptics. The three themes emerging from the emails were (1) important data that may counter global warming trends were being concealed, (2) the debate is more political than scientific, and (3) many of the scientists frankly acknowledge that the science is weak and reliant upon intentionally manipulated facts and data. Who's shocked?

Remember the hole in the ozone?  We were all supposed to be singed beyond recognition by now, if the experts were to be believed.  And what about acid rain? Most of our buildings, bridges, statues and anything else made of stone should have dissolved by now, no? Keep in mind these forecasts from our past the next time some eco-fascist tries to ram that "New York under water" bunk down your throat.

It took us 10 000 years to accurately predict tomorrow's weather today. No one should assume that the science involved in predicting the weather 100 years hence can be relied upon with similar confidence.

Now is the winter of our malcontent.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Did You Unplug The Toaster?

Before leaving the house on vacation when we were kids, my dad would typically bark orders to us to ensure that all the tasks on some checklist he must have kept in his head were completed before our usual pre-dawn departure.

While mom would finish the last minute packing, dad would go "gas up" the car and check the oil and tire pressure.  My sisters and I were left to complete seemingly inane duties from dad's list.

While I no longer recall all the little jobs, I do remember that walking around the house unplugging anything electrical was part of my responsibility. Only the largest of appliances were left untouched. Everything else was fair game, so lamps, clock radios, televisions, stereos, and all small kitchen gadgets made the list.

Even at my young age, I recall thinking that dad's insistence that everything be unplugged was some kind of 1940's era precaution which he must have inherited from his parents that would certainly no longer be necessary in the seventies. Or maybe the tasks were just time filler to keep us kids out of mom's hair or from killing each other in our pre-vacation frenzy, I'd think.

In the first hour on the road, we would be subjected to a litany of questions concerning the items on dad's list:
       "Did you lock the screen door at the back"?
       "Did you remind the neighbours to pick up the mail"?
       "Did you water the plants"?
       "Did you unplug the toaster"?

Not an uncommon phenomenon

It's been a long while since I've thought of dad's list, but the memories all came flooding back to me recently when a friend told me how he spent his Christmas vacation.  He and his family were spending the holidays visiting relatives a couple of time zones away when they received a call telling them they needed to come home immediately. Their house had been significantly damaged in a fire and if hadn't been for a quick thinking neighbour, they likely would've lost everything. Most of the physical damage was contained to the kitchen, but smoke had destroyed a great deal more. The cause? The new toaster in the kitchen had spontaneously ignited. Apparently, the investigating fire official said it's not that uncommon.

Who knew?  Well, I guess dad did.  We can never be too safe or too quick to dismiss the wisdom of our parents.

Monday, January 16, 2012

For Whom The Cell Tolls

Remember the greatest lie ever told? No, not that one. I'm referring to, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

Our society is littered with examples of government padding their coffers under the guise of looking out for our best interests.

Smoking is a clear example. While governments pretend to dissuade the Joe Cools from continuing to indulge in the habit by pushing an anti-tobacco agenda, the fact of the matter is they are heavily addicted to the proceeds derived from this market. Gambling and lotteries? Ditto!

Add the banning of personal electronic devices while driving to the growing list of government "do good" attempts that fall well short of the purported goals. All jurisdictions that have implemented such bans have not experienced a significant decrease in traffic accidents or fatalities under the ban. And why would they? All we've created is a new breed of drivers who continue to text, email, surf, and update their Facebook statuses on smart phones that are hidden from view. Which scenario is safer: driver "A" who texts on a device that is perched atop the steering wheel, somewhat cognizant of the surroundings in his periphery, or driver "B" who attempts the same with the device on his lap? Don't get me wrong; both are accidents waiting to happen, but when laws are created to prevent people from texting while driving when we know they are going to text anyway on devices below their windshield's field of view, we do nothing to make our roads safer.

Don't kid yourself!

Governments know this, so why bother with the laws in the first place? Well, for the same reason that I can purchase cigarettes at my local convenience store while buying my lottery tickets. Governments are keen on collecting the revenue generated from enforcing these bans ($500 a pop in my jurisdiction) and are loath to give it up.

So ask not who benefits from this ban. It is clearly not you and I. Bureaucrats need to tone down their Mr. Nice Guy routines.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Makes You Think, Doesn't It?

The human genome project (HGP) was a scientific initiative designed to determine the sequence of chemical base pairs which make up human DNA and identify and map the 20 – 25 thousand genes that represent all of a human’s hereditary information.

It was an enormous undertaking officially started in 1990 and expected to take 15 years to complete. The scientific community rejoiced in 2003 when they announced with much jubilation that the project had been completed 2 years ahead of schedule. The estimate cost was 3 billion dollars.

Later this week, California based Life Technologies will announce the release of a benchtop sequencer designed to do what the HGP took 13 years to accomplish. The time? About a day. The cost? About $1000.

Seemingly unfathomable leaps in technological progress by mankind are not uncommon, but will never cease to amaze me. Perhaps what does, though, is that new advances in technology are being introduced at greater and greater speeds.

It took radio broadcasters 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million, television 13 years, and the Internet just 4 years. The most powerful computer a quarter century ago would easily be dwarfed by the $1000 laptop I'm using to write this piece.

What's on the horizon and beyond continues to titillate the mind. Innovations that have yet to be dreamed up will change our world and reshape humanity.

May you live in interesting times.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Mockin' New Year's Eve

Happy New Year. Or here's to hoping, anyway.

We opted to do the same thing this December 31st as last...very little. Remember when you were young and might not have had all your New Year's Eve plans in tight order by mid-December? You'd be considered a loser, so to save face you'd pay $100 for a ticket to get into some club that on any other night you would not be caught dead in. You'd dress up fancy-schmancy and the band would nearly deafen you with covers likely not played since the previous New Year's Eve and would probably not be heard again for another 365 days. The food was only slightly better than that of an army chow line, but hey, it was New Year's Eve, so who'd complain? That "complimentary" glass of champagne at midnight could not have come soon enough. Fun times.

I guess what made those evenings tolerable or even, dare I say, desirable were the people. When you're together with those whom you want to be around, life's a "can't miss". The people may change, but the idea does not and I assume that's why my wife and I are now content with enjoying December 31st with our kids. We are completely cognizant of the fact that a few years hence, our children will want to have nothing to do with mom and dad on New Year's Eve, so we'll enjoy it while we can.

New Year's Eve has always been caught between trying to be something like a party for the youth (and young at heart) and something meaningful for the grown-ups. Why else would ABC insist upon having Ryan Seacrest roll out world's oldest teenager Dick Clark year after year? I'm fully aware that Dick invented the Times Square New Year's Rockin' Eve concept and deserves honor for it, but post-stroke Dick just makes his audience uncomfortable and feeling awkward. And if I wanted uncomfortable and awkward on the last evening of the year, I'd dress up for the $100 hole-in-the-wall nightclub experience all over again. That'll be quite enough of that, ABC.

"Should old acquaintance be forgot.."?  Dick, your Nosferatu impression is scaring the children!

In hindsight, I would have been more gratified had the television remained off all evening. Up until then, I was doing well at Monopoly and cleaned up in Popomatic Trouble. The chess loss at the hands of my son will be hard to live down, but c'est la vie. But think what we would have missed had the TV stayed off. Justin Bieber looking more like the 70's Mattel Ken doll. The over-celebrated Lady Gaga, who could only get more ridiculous if she came out on stage and disemboweled herself. On NBC, Cee Lo Green's rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" was not only the worst performance of the song ever, he changed the words to include all religions, which is sort of the polar opposite to the ballad's intended meaning. Dreams die hard, I guess. And why did the networks keep breaking away from the national telecast from Times Square to local coverage of some hokey talent-starved nonsense akin to a primary school Christmas concert? I suppose we are all so giddy on December 31st that we are expected to fall for anything.

The New Year is a time to reflect and consider the changes we want to make in our lives to better ourselves, our relationships, and the world we live in. When I reflect, I often think of the final words of "Desiderata", which I first read upon the shithouse wall at a friend's cottage some 20 years ago and have since committed to memory. "And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy."