July 28, 2005

Privileged Planet?

Primate Brow Flash has written a review of the movie The Privileged Planet. The movie presents the idea that this planet was created just so intelligent life could emerge. And who knows, on this point the creationists and intelligent design people could be right. (How do you define 'create'? You can say that a mountain was created by the forces of geology, wind, water and time...) The problem of course is that if this planet were not able to support intelligent life then of course we wouldn't be here to ask circular questions. Two of the arguments in the movie (which I haven't seen) are that it can't just be coincidence that, as seen from earth, the diameters of the sun and the moon are the same allowing us to view the sun's corona, and, that the atmosphere is transparent to sunlight (which is at wavelengths that match the sensitivity curve of our eyes).

Another one of these arguments that I like a lot has to do with water. Water is absolutely essential for life on earth, and it has some special properties. Water is one of the very few substances known that becomes less dense when it freezes. The good part about ice floating is that it insulates the liquid water below, keeping it from also freezing. This property is important because it has prevented the earth from becoming a huge iceball many times through geological history. Parts of the planet have been and are covered by ice caps, but as far as we know the whole planet has never frozen. Also water has a large heat of vaporization/condensation, allowing it to transport a lot of energy through the atmosphere within a narrow temperature range (water vapor-clouds-rain), keeping the temperature stable and warming the poles. These properties give our planet a remarkably stable temperature which is not only good but also necessary for life. And we are mostly water, and depend on the hydrogen bond for the shape and function of proteins, mechanical properties of skin, shape of eye and so on. So, does the prevalence of water prove that God made it up special and put it here for us? Ask a Buddhist and they would probably say 'mu'. Ask an animist and they would say that water is a spirit. Ask a creationist and they would say that's for dang sure. Ask a physical chemist and they would say, its true, water certainly has some remarkable properties and life as we know it would not be possible without it.

July 27, 2005


You've probably heard warnings about eating too much fish because of mercury. In Minnesota, for children under 15 and women who would like to have kids the recommendations are as follows--Sunfish: once a week. Pike: once a month. Shark: do not eat. The contamination is more severe farther north. Further, mercury is concentrated by the food chain. It builds up in fat, and so predators like pike or tuna tend to have higher levels than caribou. These two factors (location, diet) put Arctic people at great risk. Measurements of mercury levels in the blood of Inuits living on Greenland show levels above those known to produce neurological damage.

I never used to know where the mercury was coming from. Turns out there are three main anthropogenic sources:

1. Fossil fuel combustion, especially coal
2. The extraction of metals from ore, especially non-ferrous ('not like iron') metals.
3. Waste treatment, for example batteries, thermometers and tooth fillings.
x. There are also natural sources, like the land surface, ocean surface and volcanoes, and mercury emitted previously can be re-emitted by surfaces. The best current estimate is that natural emissions are 88 % of anthropogenic.

(Its true, if you're like me, you are constantly being exposed to mercury vapor from amalgam tooth fillings. The concentrations go up when you drink hot liquids. Its probably not necessary to have your fillings replaced with plastic though as the vapor is in the form of elemental mercury which is not as toxic as methyl mercury or inorganic mercuric oxides or halides.)

Of the countries bordering the Arctic region (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, US), the US emits the most mercury overall, and the most per capita. In 1999 the US emitted 109 metric tons of mercury, much more than our closest rival Russia at 39 metric tons and far beyond Canada at 8. The US is even outdoing mother nature-- the natural emission of mercury from volcanoes is estimated at 94.6 metric tons per year. The US annual emissions amount to 370 mg of mercury apiece. In the per capita rankings, Russia, Canada and Denmark tie for second place at about 200 mg per person per year. Beyond the 'Arctic' countries, Asia is responsible for about half of the annual global emission of mercury of ca. 2200 tons.

Two of my students are doing research on the atmospheric chemistry and transport of mercury, from the point of emission in populated regions to deposition in the Arctic environment. One of them will be visiting the US EPA later this year before going to Alaska to make field measurements of atmospheric mercury concentrations.

On this day in 1967

On this day in 1967, in the wake of urban rioting, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to assess the causes of the violence. The same day, black militant H. Rap Brown said violence was ''as American as cherry pie.''

He's right of course, riots and race riots have a long history in the US. We were living in LA during the Rodney King rioting. We stayed inside for two days and watched the city erupt on TV. The air smelled of smoke and there was gunfire nearby. The climate changed after that, in grocery stores or parks, its hard to describe.

What the world needs is a way to channel the undeniable anger and frustration that exists into momentum to build something better!

July 25, 2005

Why did hurricane season start a month early this year?

A climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research says that while there is no proof that global warming has caused an increase in the number of Atlantic hurricanes, 'a warming Earth is definitely making the hurricanes wetter, more powerful and hence more dangerous.' 'According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Atlantic spawned an average of 8.6 tropical storms, 5 hurricanes and 1.5 major hurricanes each year between 1970 and 1994. But from 1995 to 2004, the averages zoomed to 13.6, 7.8 and 3.8 respectively. And last year a record four hurricanes hit Florida. '

Hurricanes get their power from sea surface temperatures and atmospheric moisture. Take a look at this map to see how warm it is in the gulf of Mexico.

In another article, a top hurricane forecaster predicts that the increased hurricane activity of the last five years will continue for about two decades.

July 22, 2005

Comrade Bickford

So one time the band of brothers in Troop 246, Wasioja district, Gamehaven council, Boy Scouts of America, decided to bring in the new year (1987?) by going camping in the Bounday Waters Canoe Area. As it turned out it was cold, damn cold, refreshingly fresh, -38 F in Biwabik and probably less where we were due to the well known urban heat island effect. So cold that the diesel fuel in Tom Partridge's Volvo gelled. We packed our gear onto sleds, strapped on snowshoes and made our way over the lake to the campsite. I have never eaten so much food in so little time as I did on that trip (or the trip the year after-- for some reason I ended up going again.). One treat was bread fried in bacon fat, another the chili that we made in Dave Bickford's kitchen back in Owatonna. Tried ice fishing. Found the remains of a moose killed by a pack of timber wolves, who could be heard howling each night around bedtime.

Dave Bickford figures prominently in my memories of those trips. One afternoon we went sledding and Bick decides that he is going to go down the hill head first, lying on his back. Away he goes down the slope and BANG! smack into a tree. I couldn't help laughing, it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Poor Bick!! Luckily we had a veterinarian along, Doc Gute, who was able to treat his headache and bring comrade Bickford back to civilization.

Another time though we almost lost Bick. We had just parked the cars and were goofing around until we could get the sleds loaded up. We found a hole in the ground-- just a pile of rocks with an opening, and then straight down, darkness, nothing. I think somebody threw a pine cone down the hole and we didn't hear anything. Of course we decided to send in an expidition to investigate. I remember saying something like 'You know, 1/4 inch hemp rope is a lot stronger than most people think. When its new it has a breaking strength of 1000 pounds.' And so we tied this tiny old rope around Dave's waist and he shimmied into the hole, and there was absolutely nothing to hang on to. I don't think I have ever been so scared as when I was holding on to that rope and Dave was in the free air in a big hole, legs kicking, hanging on for dear life and begging us to pull him out.

July 20, 2005

Yo ho ho and a bottle of high level radioactive liquid

A while back I picked up about a dozen National Geographic magazines from a shop downtown. They aren't old, but older than me at least. Seeing the adds for Hamilton watches, Goodyear tires, Kodak cameras, Sinclair oil and Morton salt is a cheap and effective form of time travel.

The August 1962 issue has a remarkable article on the N. S. Savannah, the world's first nuclear-powered merchant ship. The other articles are fine enough: East from Bali by Seagoing Jeep, The Old Boston Post Roads, and a nice article on Cape Cod including a visit with the President and his family. ('Skipper John F. Kennedy tends the tiller as his 25-foot knockabout Victura cleaves the chop off Hyannis Port. The President's wife Jacqueline, his brother Edward and assorted small fry make up the crew.') But back to the ship, this oceangoing monument to modernity. The technical achievements are impressive. The ship could steam around the globe 14 times without refuelling. A standard ship would require five times its weight in fuel to do the same-- but the N. S. Savannah ('N. S.' meaning Nuclear Ship) only required 110 pounds of uranium 235.

The pictures accompanying the article are amazing, showing everything from pellets of uranium oxide fuel to the reactor and control rods. There is also a picture of the 'SCRAM' button that shuts down the reactor in less than a second; 'Operators push this switch only in an emergency.' From the article, 'Even the burned-out residue of the Savannah's fuel will be worth its weight in gold, in the form of valuable radioisotopes.' 'The Savannah carries color television, air conditioning, a dance floor, beauty salon, novelty shop, and library. All this, plus a sootless, exhaustless, practically vibrationless peace, such as has not been known since steamships ousted sail...'

According to the 33-year old chief of construction John Robb, 'The most important job of the Savannah is to break down political, legal, and psychological barriers to the use of nuclear energy. We want her to show the world that the atom can be put to work at sea like any other source of power.' Accordingly they set out to make the world's safest nuclear reactor, built to withstand 'bouncing about in storms at sea.' In addition, the ship was built to withstand the 'maximum credible accident' without leaking radioactive material. The maximum credible accident was defined as the most powerful ship afloat running into the reactor hold at full speed. The reactor is sealed off in a massive steel containment vessel surrounded by layers of polyethylene and lead. This chamber is built to contain the pressure and radioactivity of a nuclear power plant gone bad. Outside of the containment vessel is a 'collision mat' built of layers of steel and redwood, surrounded by concrete.

One problem mentioned in the article was in obtaining insurance against the possibility of other ships and perhaps whole docks being put out of action by a nuclear accident. 'As of June 1962, although many foreign nations were negotiating to permit the nuclear merchantman into their ports, only Greece had formally agreed to allow her to come.'

The N. S. Savannah was built with a 129-foot sister ship, the Atomic Servant. This ship carries waste processing equipment to deal with high- and low-level radioactive liquids and a pit for storing spent fuel elements.

The Savannah was built at a cost of 18.6 million dollars (plus another 28.3 million for the nuclear plant and fuel) by the Atomic Energy Commission. The ship could run for three days on a teaspoon of fuel. According to the captain, you would absorb more radiation sitting in the sun on the deck than you would from the reactor itself.

July 19, 2005

Adam and Eve and the Will to Power

'I am no man. I am dynamite.'
-Friedrich Nietzsche

'When I was a girl I wanted to be a schoolteacher and have breasts like mountain tops. I did not succeed at either.'
-Margot Wallström, Vice President of the European Commission and Sweden's EU Commissioner. See her blog here.

July 18, 2005

Boomer's Bills

I am reading 'The Coming Generational Storm' by Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns. The book uses 'generational accounting' to make some sobering points concerning the economic crisis current policies are creating for our children and grandchildren. Some of the main points so far:

Life expectancies are up, birth rates are down and the world is getting older, fast. Right now, worldwide, children (age less than 15) outnumber older people (age greater than 65) by three to one, and the best estimate is that by 2050 this ratio will decrease to one to one. At this point the number of older persons will outnumber the number of children for the first time in human history. The ratios are higher in the developed world-- it is estimated that in Europe in 2050 there will be 2.6 older people for every child. In a single century (1950 to 2050) Japan will have gone from a ratio of 4.6 children per older person to 3.4 old people per child. This demographic change is going to put severe strains on household and national economies.

Older people vote, kids don't, and these numbers show up in what the government does with its money. In 1995 federal spending per child under 18 was $1,693, and per adult age 65 or over, $15,636.

The former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, N. Gregory Mankiw says, 'the [Social Security] benefits now scheduled for future generations under current law are not sustainable given the projected path of payroll tax revenue....They are empty promises.'

July 17, 2005


The strangest things can happen when you surf-- I was reading the Wikipedia definitions of Generation X (born 1964 to 1976) and the baby boom (1946 to 1964), and read that in Canada, boomers were organizing support for Pierre Trudeau, who on May 7, 1977 did a pirouette behind the back of Queen Elizabeth II.

Here are other things that happened in 1977:

January 6, EMI sacks the Sex Pistols
January 19, snow falls in Miami Florida, the farthest south a snowfall has ever occurred in the US
January 20, Gerald Ford is succeeded by Jimmy Carter
January 21, Jimmy Carter pardons Vietnam draft dodgers
February 11, a 44 lb 9 oz lobster is caught off the coast of Nova Scotia

July 14, 2005

Summer Games

A while back I wrote a post about the strange Norwegian winter sport of tree jumping. The winner of the game is the skiier who manages to land highest in a tree and hang on. But Norwegian winter sports don't hold a candle to Finnish summer sports-- a sampling:

Swamp soccer-- world championship this weekend, 6000 participants

Wife-carrying (prizes include the weight of the wife in beer).
Some of the rules:
The track has two dry obstacles and a water obstacle, about one meter deep
The wife to be carried may be your own, the neighbour's or you may have found her farther afield; she must, however, be over 17 years of age
The minimum weight of the wife to be carried is 49 kilos. If it is less than 49 kilos, the wife will be burdened with such a heavy rucksack that the total weight to be carried is 49 kilos.
All the participants must have fun
If a contestant drops his wife that couple will be fined 15 seconds per drop

Mobile phone casting (the winner threw his phone 82.55 meters!)


July 13, 2005

Peak oil

Right now the world has excess oil production capacity. A lot of people are worried about what will happen when we reach the point at which all wells are pumping at capacity. This happened in Texas in about 1970, and the US went abroad for oil (remember the oil crisis?). Next time, there will be no 'abroad' to go to. Some great energy statistics are available from the British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy. For example the data in this report can be used to calculate the following:
Iraq’s oil reserve is 112.5 thousand million barrels (2002), the USA rate of consumption in 2002 was 19708 thousand barrels per day, meaning that Iraq is good for 5708 days or about 15 years.

July 11, 2005

The Tree of Life

Speaking of 'this ball of feverish algae and germs' (see post below) I just want to say that I find 'The Tree of Life' fascinating. It is a map biologists are making showing the family tree of life on earth-- from mammals and vertebrates to grasses, blue-green algae and slime molds.

I will go down with the ship

I used to go camping a lot and part of the fun was coming
back to civilization all roughed up-- smelling of wood
smoke, bandaged, sun and windburned, hopefully with a
few fish scales dried onto the skin. I remember wanting
milk when I would come back from the wilderness. What
did I want this time when coming back to civilization? I
wanted to read blogs to see what my friends are up to, and
to blog.

We weren't in the wilderness really, that's not the place for
families with small kids. But we were in a cabin by a lake.
Fredrik caught two fish (none for me) and they tased great.
We went swimming 2-3-4 times a day. Saw lots of animals
including a family of foxes, merganzers, Canadian geese,
loons, woodpeckers.

Here's today's link to a great essay-- a sampling:

We will all go down on one ship or another because we
have no idea how we came to be on this ball of feverish
algae and germs that endlessly circles the star we call Sol.
We have no idea why Sol exists in a spiral arm of the galaxy
we call the Milky Way. And we don't know enough to even
phrase the questions in meaningful ways.

So you will go down with your ship. You will ride your ship of
belief until it disappears beneath the waves. For a time
there will be ripples on the surface of the water, your legacy
and memory, but those ripples will eventually spread and
disappear. After that it will be as if you never existed.
And this ship will not be some fancy ocean liner with a
famous name like "Christianity" or "agnosticism" or
"Buddhism" or "Generic American Political and Social
God-ism." No, your ship will be the small vessel that you are
creating with your own hands, and those of a few sailing
buddies who are a part of your convoy.

July 10, 2005

A very good day

It was 1984, I was 17 years old and working for the summer at Crow Wing Scout Reservation. A new group of scouts would arrive each Sunday for six weeks straight, and stay until Saturday morning. Saturday was our day off. For a few hours in the afternoon you could go into town to do laundry, maybe buy a pizza. One day I remember someone had a car and we drove to Park Rapids. I bought a National Lampoon magazine at the drug store. We went to the laundromat. It was warm and we spent some time jumping off the railroad bridge into the river which had enough current that you had to get going swimming in order to make it to the bank. That night we went to the drive in theater before going back to the camp.

July 01, 2005

Culture clash

I'm on vacation, we're staying with my wife's parents outside Stockholm. Get to read the 'big city' paper Svenska Dagbladet. Today there was an article in the business section about the cultural differences in the different Nordic countries, from the point of view of a manager of a bank with divisions in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. According to this article, a typical example of inter-nordic culture clash occured when he presented a new uniform protocol for customer contacts, to be used by all the divisions. The different division representatives grumbled and one said, 'Is that a Swedish decision??' The boss said, 'I was not prepared and didn't understant what was going on, it was the idea that 'Big Brother Sweden isn't going to come here and tell us what to do!''

He also says, 'If we the leadership group reach a decision, the Finn goes home right away and puts it into action, the Swede goes home and tells everybody what a nice meeting we've had, the Dane goes home and does something completely different than what we decided and the Norwegian goes home and neither says or does anything.'

The Swedish boss says that the Danes are not as scared of conflict as the Swedes are, and like to discuss and negotiate everything.

Stinky Beaver Tail

An old friend from High School stopped by earlier this week. It was great to have a chance to relive the good old days of Dungeons and Dragons, hunting pheasants, ducks, squirrels and pigeons and climbing water towers because we liked the view. These days EH is living in Alaska and is in charge of social services for an area the size of Ohio with a population of 7000. His Inuit girlfriend also came to visit. She lives most of the year in a village of 60 that is only accessable by river-- preferrably by snow machine in the winter when it is frozen. Apparently the last few winters have been warmer than usual meaning that it has been harder to get in and out of her village. The main problems there are isolation and drinking. The other effect of global warming (which has its greatest effect in polar regions) is that it has made the whale hunt much harder. The whales like to feed at the edge of the ice, and now they have to paddle their sea kayaks twice as far on whale hunts because of the receding ice cap. This is a dangerous trip and several members of her tribe have been killed. The mayor always declares a holiday whenever they bring a whale back. EH and Alecia were full of stories from Alaska-- boat motors breaking 3 days from the nearest building, hunting bears and making sausage, and strange ways of preserving food by allowing it to rot. Apparently you dig a hole and throw in the meat, cover it and wait a few weeks and end up with e.g. 'stinky salmon', 'stinky moose' or 'stinky beaver tail.'


I like the Real Live Preacher blog so much that I just have to plug it again.
If you are close to someone who has gone through depression.
There is an authenticity to the Christian message in his writing.

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