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Time-wasting Nerd Fun

I haven’t got much done these last few days. I’ve been too busy watching the Nasa TV live feed from the Hubble servicing mission.

Click on image for full size

Hubble attached to the shuttle bay with the Earth in the background

The problems they have on a mission like this are so wonderfully groan-in-sympathy familiar: stuck bolts. Like working on old plumbing, with the same issues. They’re too professional to say it, but if I was in the control room there’d be a lot of, “Watch out! Don’t strip that thing. Omigod. You stripped it.” And so on.

Yesterday, Mike Massimino had to get at a failed power card inside the telescope. It wasn’t designed for removal, so the access plate was held down with over a hundred screws of a bunch of different sizes, which was itself behind a great big steel bar of a handhold on the surface of the telescope. The steel bar had a stuck bolt. It would not come off.

They have mockups on the ground of the same setup. Some smart tech figured out you could break the whole thing off. They showed video. The thing snapped with a bang like a rifle and shot across the room.

I love the language they use in the astronaut business. When they were going back and forth about this maneuver with Massimino on the telescope — a maneuver that could shred his suit and the telescope if it went wrong — ground Control said, “We’re a bit concerned about the stored energy in the handhold.”

One of the striking things, watching the astronauts work, is how slowly everything goes. They move slowly, slowly, slowly, like fish in glycerin. They can barely bend their hands to grasp tools because of all the pressure keeping them alive inside their suits. But when I was watching Massimino on that one space walk, everything seemed way speeded up. At first I thought they were running file footage at double speed. Then I learned he’s from New York.

And now, folks, sorry, but I have things to do. Got to watch them putting the new thermal insulation “blankets” around all that great new equipment they’ve successfully put in. As Jack Horkheimer says, “Keep looking up!” There’ll be great new Hubble pics coming out of this.

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My life in their claws

I feel like a mouse in a room full of cats. In the struggle for health care reform, will Big 0’s need for popularity or his need for Big Medicine’s money win out?
cat watching mouse across a chess board
A few weeks ago, I would have bet on number two. Never forget that this is the (expletive deleted) whose idea of the right way to gut Illinois’ attempt at State-assisted health care was to say

“We radically changed [the health care bill] in response to concerns that were raised by the insurance industry.” (Obama, 2004/05/19)

But (will wonders never cease?) the Dimmicrats seem to have understood that they have to get something accomplished this term or people might start to wonder why the Repugs were to blame for everything. Even Big 0 is on board for using the “nuclear option” to stop filibusters on health care reform. So they’re going to reform.

This is giving me that uncomfortable Hope(tm) feeling. They never did specify what they were hoping for. Turned out to be rather different from what I was hoping for. Now they’re going to reform health care from a Kafkaesque trap to . . . to what? They’re not saying.

But the fact that the health insurance moguls have suddenly started participating gives me a bad feeling. Next thing you know, health care will be radically reformed in response to their concerns. I can’t bring myself to share Krugman’s kind words, although I hope he’s right that industry interest in controlling costs is “some of the best policy news I’ve heard in a long time.”

I fear the worst, though. Our only leverage against it is threatening to throw the Congresscritters out of their jobs. Which brings me to the point of this post. (You knew I’d get somewhere eventually, right? Right?) Call, email, fax the relevant Critters daily. Hourly, if you have the stomach for it.

Katiebird has corralled a wealth of information in one place. Her posts and others at The Confluence have really helped me know when and what to do for maximum effect. (Keep it up, Katie! and Stateofdisbelief! and everybody!) The single payer day of action was a real W00T! moment. Now that the industry has decided to “help,” constant threats to Congress are our only hope(not tm).

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Condemned to Repeat?

Ecological disaster bad enough to destroy people has happened before. The only difference was the limited technology of the times, and therefore the limited scope of the dying.

Sean Gallagher has a striking report, a series of pictures each worth thousands of words.

Parched hills of Yinpan. Soil erosion has uncovered a few skulls in the foreground.  Photo by Sean Gallagher.

That was then. Two thousand years ago, Yinpan in Central Asia was a major stop on the Silk Road. The water table changed. People couldn’t or didn’t adapt, until the water –and the people — disappeared over a thousand years ago. Soil erosion still uncovers traces of them, but the water never came back.

This is now.

Brownout sky from blowing dust, a sickly tree being shredded in the wind, and rock-strewn waterless ground.  Photo by Sean Gallagher.

A dust storm raised from the desertified former farm land in China. Life stops. If you have to go outside, you wear a dust mask and choke. The dust is fine as talc and gets everywhere. It’s in your toothbrush, your clothes, your dishes. It clogs your car, it ruins machinery, it gums up your mp3 player. It costs money. It shortens lifespans. The dust travels for hundreds of miles, blanketing Beijing during dry seasons, and sometimes even making murk in the skies of the Western U.S.

The earliest signature of anthropogenic global warming was polar and nighttime warming. We got that, but we’re not polar bears so it wasn’t important. One of the next symptoms is higher temperatures in the middle of large continents. That’s where most of the world’s grain grows. Places like Kansas won’t just be hot in the summer. They’ll be hot enough for old people and babies to die. Plants will wither in the heat no matter how much they’re watered. And it won’t take long before there’s nothing to water them with. If people can’t or won’t adapt, the water table will sink lower and lower. The surface will get drier and drier. There will be dust storms.

Then there’s the future. Photo #1 will describe the future as well as the past.

And you know what’s the worst of it? It doesn’t have to be that way. It Does Not Have To Be That Way. This isn’t the sun going nova on us and frying all life on earth no matter what we do. This isn’t beyond our control. Yet. All we’d have to do is little things, lots and lots of little things, all together, all the time. Nothing heroic, unfortunately. Just wimpy stuff like cooperation and keeping promises.

Sometimes, when the alternative is photo #1, people can do the most amazing things. Even work together.

Here’s just one example of a small unheroic thing that could be part of the solution. I saw this in the news recently.

yellow pontoon-looking thing with the wave power generation unit between the two floats
1) A new, small-scale way of making electricity from wave power. It’s more or less a buoy that bobs up and down, has some gizmos to harvest the energy of the bobbing, and some failsafes in case of storms. It’s easier to maintain and less sinkable than huge megawatt projects, and units can be chained together to yield more power.

2) When a weak electric current is applied to metal scaffolding in seawater, limestone precipitates out of the water onto the metal where it builds up for a while, until the encrustation is thick enough to insulate the current. But — there are two important buts — some limestone forms and the scaffold is colonized by corals if it’s an area where they can grow. It’s not clear yet whether the current helps the corals to grow, but since something to grow on is their limiting factor, some scaffolds mean more corals than no scaffolds. (More here and here.)

Why does that matter, aside from the fact that corals are gorgeous? They’re basically blocks of limestone with a film of life on the surface. And that matters because limestone is calcium carbonate. CaCO3. A molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2) goes into every molecule of calcium carbonate.

Imagine fleets of those pontoon wave power things, towing their webs of scaffolding. Besides generating some energy and helping corals to grow, carbon dioxide would be taken out of circulation, one tiny invisible bit at a time. Imagine millions of wave power pontoons, doing this. And when the weight of all those corals and barnacles and whatnot made the thing sink, we’d float out another one. And another one, and another one.

Same as with all the other things we have to do to reverse global warming, it would cost some money and we’d have to keep doing it, all together, all the time. That’s all.

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Button Up. Your Sexism is Showing.

So now it’s Sotomayor. According to Jeffrey Rosen, who spoke to some law clerk, she’s not fit to be a judge on the Supreme Court because she has opinions, she expresses those opinions, she expresses those opinions forcefully and at length.

(Shows you how much I know about the law. I thought that was practically the description of the Supremes.)

Greenwald does one of his usual masterful takedowns, and adds a very interesting update at the end:

Jeffrey Rosen’s brother-in-law is Neal Katyal, the current Deputy Solicitor General in the Obama administration. If Sotomayor’s prospects are torpedoed, that could clear the way for one of the other leading candidates to be named to the Court: current Solicitor General Elena Kagan. The selection of Kagan (rather than Sotomayor) would almost certainly result in Rosen’s brother-in-law (Katyal) becoming Solicitor General. Additionally, Katyal himself was once a clerk for a Second Circuit judge, obviously raising the question of whether he was one of the anonymous sources for his brother-in-law’s hit piece disparaging Sotomayor’s intellect and character.

One can question whether this Rosen/Katyal relationship should have been disclosed by TNR (on balance, it was probably unnecessary), but at the very least, these are illustrative of the types of problems that inevitably arise when anonymous sources are used so casually in a political culture rife with incestuous relationships and conflicts of interest.

However, what’s a boring potential conflict of interest? Let’s talk about Sotomayor. She talks! She’s forceful! How awful!

And apparently that’s been enough to get the “keepers of conventional wisdom” (to use Greenwald’s words) riled up about the potential horrors of affirmative action. “Good God. You can’t waste such a vital job on some politically correct nonsense. The only criterion should be the best, um, person for the job. Why should a woman get it?”

As I said, button up. Your sexism is showing.

There isn’t one shred of evidence that women have inferior mental capacity to men. (Insofar as there is evidence, it’s actually on the other side. On average girls show earlier verbalization in infancy, better school grades, and higher test scores until, for some reason — possibly they talk too much and they’re too loud — they hit the job world and start getting paid less and promoted less.) So, in a reality-based context it’s safe to assume that women are at least the equals of men in ability. And yet the overwhelming preponderance of powerful positions are filled by men.

Yes, there’s affirmative action. And, yes, it does lead to less competent people being given jobs that are beyond them. It’s time to end that. We should find the best person for the job. Why should it be given to a man?

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Krugman on target AGAIN

He’s lucky he’s got tenure. With his track record, he’d be drummed out of economics otherwise. I mean, this is the field which, in all seriousness, avers that we’ll never run out of oil. And they’re right. If oil costs $10,000 a gallon, people will go to any lengths to extract or make another few drops of the stuff. It’s the law of supply and demand. The fact that it has zero practical application at those levels doesn’t enter into it. For economists. So I’m sure a group that believes in fairy stories — the Rational Economic Man is another good one — would get rid of Krugman in a second if they could, him and his big flat feet clumping around insisting on reality.

What brought this on? Another brilliant op-ed An Affordable Salvation and the earlier post on his blog: Anti-green economics.

Clearly, opposition to doing something about climate change has fallen back to a new position: claims that attempting to limit greenhouse gas emissions would be incredibly costly. Yet the most careful studies, like the big MIT study of Congressional proposals, find only modest costs.

I have to jump in to boggle a bit. Let’s even pretend to grant that measures against global warming are “incredibly costly.” That only matters if the alternative is less costly. However, any study that looks at the price of doing nothing concludes that the expense is enormous, bigger than doing something by an order of magnitude. Case in point is the Stern 2006 review of the economics of climate change. (Wikipedia has a simple summary.) His estimate is that 1% of global GDP is the cost of averting “the worst effects” of climate change. The cost of doing nothing is likely to be around 20% of GDP. As time goes by, both estimates grow bigger, and the probable cost of doing nothing grows bigger faster. So, the obvious choice is to . . . do nothing? Hello?

Krugman goes on to demolish the economic argument against government regulations to help save the planet, but my favorite part is this:

Opponents of a policy change generally believe that market economies are wonderful things, able to adapt to just about anything — anything, that is, except a government policy that puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Limits on the world supply of oil, land, water — no problem. Limits on the amount of CO2 we can emit — total disaster.

Funny how that is.

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