Hottest month, ever, in the USA

I recently returned from a cold, rainy vacation to Souther Germany, now I'm roasting in the CA sun, which is actaully not on the charts for records. It's just hot here in Northern CA. Other parts of the country are roasting and in drought.

Check out the charts Grist has assembled.  



Welcome to 3991 C.E. aka hell

I love this Reddit post: Lycerious has been playing Sid Meier's Civilization II for 10 years (not everyday) and has ended up in a nightmarish, apocalyptic world of perpetual nuclear and conventional war, global warming with oceans covering most of the land, only three mega empires left, and the remaining land is devastated and cannot support agriculture or urban civilization.


I was forced to do away with democracy roughly a thousand years ago because it was endangering my empire.

You've heard of the 100 year war? Try the 1700 year war. The three remaining nations have been locked in an eternal death struggle for almost 2000 years. Peace seems to be impossible. Every time a cease fire is signed, the Vikings will surprise attack me or the Americans the very next turn, often with nuclear weapons.

As a result, big cities are a thing of the distant past. Roughly 90% of the worlds population (at it's peak 2000 years ago) has died either from nuclear annihilation or famine caused by the global warming that has left absolutely zero arable land to farm. Engineers (late game worker units) are always busy continuously building roads so that new armies can reach the front lines. Roads that are destroyed the very next turn when the enemy goes. So there isn't any time to clear swamps or clean up the nuclear fallout. 

Climate Change, a Killer of an Ancient Civilization

Albeit, this was not human induced climate change, but nonetheless, evidence points to the collapse of the urbanized Indus civilization (Harappans) due to changes in the climate. Charles Choi reports, 

Eventually, over the course of centuries, Harappans apparently fled along an escape route to the east toward the Ganges basin, where monsoon rains remained reliable.

This change would have spelled disaster for the cities of the Indus, which were built on the large surpluses seen during the earlier, wetter era. The dispersal of the population to the east would have meant there was no longer a concentrated workforce to support urbanism.

Jarred Diamond uses these as cautionary tales for our own civilization(s), but I'm not convinced of the similarities and the fruitfulness of the comparison between global society now and the relatively isolated civilizations of millennia ago. However, one thing humans never seem to remember is that nothing is stable, and that the current condition, whether political, economic, or socio-natural, is ever changing. We tend to think the way it is for us, is the way it will be forever. Not so.

The Anthropocene is older than you think

Interesting article about how early humans may have caused species decline in large mammalian carnivores in Africa 2 million years ago. If true, and coupled with research on pre-industrial and pre-agricultural or small scale agrarian societies and their effects on local and regional biomes, it suggests that humans began shaping new ecological relations long before industrialization began in the past two hundred years. For sure, the rate and scale of change accelerated in the past two hundred years, but the trajectory of human history is one of changing the environment for our advantage. The idea of pristine nature for which we can return continues to lose credibility.

Take That Honeywell

Nest Labs officially responds to Honeywell's patent infringement lawsuit:

Nest's new legal council Richard Lutton Jr. says,

As reported in prior litigations, Honeywell has a pattern of trying to stifle new market entrants with unfounded legal action. Instead of filing lawsuits, Honeywell should use its wealth and resources to bring innovative products to market. Nest will defend itself vigorously in court and we’ll keep our company’s focus where it should be – on developing and delivering great products for our customers.

Nest CEO Tony Fadell says, "Honeywell is worse than a patent troll," because instead of trying to get money out of Nest, Honeywell is trying to kill the competition [via The Verge].  

Trouble on the rails

The problem with train travel in the US is largely the rail network. I traveled from Central California to San Diego this week and the train had to stop and wait repeatedly. The trip took entirely too long. We had to wait for other Amtrak trains, MetroLink trains, and freight trains. We were stopped for up to 20-30 minutes at times, and were once stopped about 100 yards from a major station as we waited for a freight to pass.

If train travel is ever going to be competitive, efficient, or convenient the issue of track space and track right of way needs to be addressed. Imagine if while on a plane the captain said, "Ok folks, we've got to land at the next airport because the airway is being used by another plane. We'll be down and up off the ground as soon as we can." Amtrak has a disadvantage because it doesn't control its network, and its network is not prioritized like airspace or freeway networks by state and federal government.

Our rail network is not built or optimized for passenger rail, but rather for freight. Faster trains and cheaper fares won't make up for the notion and reality that you don't arrive on time and that it takes longer than it should to get from city 1 to city 2. Europe doesn't have this problem.

That said, there really are some nice benefits of train travel: little to no lines to wait in (show up minutes before departure), no security checks, more eco-friendly, can be cheaper, and I think it's more relaxing than flying.

Jungle Land

Interesting read about the state of the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans seven years after Katrina. Good quotes from geographer Richard Campanella

Reminds me of "Men go and come, but earth abides" quoted at the beginning of George R. Stewart's classic eco-fiction novel Earth Abides

However, the everybody for themselves, laissez faire, rebuilding has led to a new uneven development in NOLA. Enviros might like that parts of the city are "returning to nature," what ever that means, but let's remember these were neighborhoods, these were space where people lived their lives, and owned homes. Unplanned shrinkage benefits the wealthy, white residents of the city. 


Solar Rising

According to new reports by the solar industry (ok, that's problematic) the solar industry had a record year in 2011. Lori Zimmer, posting on Inhabit, writes, 

The study, released by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association showed that the solar industry pulled in $8.4 billion last year. Installation of photovoltaic panels continues to grow, with solar projects totaling 1,855 megawatts in 2011 alone, compared to just 887 megawatts the year before. These projects ranked the United States as the fourth largest solar market in the world, a jump that just a few years ago did not seem possible.

Why Open Science Failed After the Gulf Oil Spill

Great article by John Timmer over at Ars Technica on scientific uncertainty during an intensely political and costly crises.

One quibble, I don't think we can easily assume "Scientists, in general, just wanted the actual number" of oil being release into the Gulf, whereas all the other interests were political/economic. One can think of the intense and controversial period after Katrina in the engineering field, as engineers embedded in different institutions had conflicting results. The production of knowledge is always entangled with political, cultural, and economic relations. Scientist are not outside those relations.  

Do We Need to Talk About Climate Change, In Order to Talk About Energy?

I am looking forward to reading  provocative sounding new book Before the Lights Go Out. Koerth-Baker's short answer to the question above: no we do not; we do not have to agree on the "whys" in order to reach the same solutions. We'll see. The book comes out in April.

Not time to cut

Richard Harris at NPR reports that Congress might be planning to cut subsidies to the wind industry. 37,000 jobs could be lost and a nascent industry set back. 

When the tax credit last expired in 2003, wind farms took a big hit. But in those days, the wind turbines were largely imported. Now, the domestic manufacturing industry is growing rapidly. And that changes the politics.

and Gamesa VP says,

As the technology improves, wind becomes cheaper. Rosenberg says his company only needs four more years of tax credits, and it will be ready to compete without further federal help.

Heritage Foundation wants them ended,

We're $15 trillion in debt," says Nick Loris at The Heritage Foundation. "We have a robust energy market. And electricity demand and the demand to transport our vehicles back and forth is always going to be there. And I think that profit motive is incentive enough.

We're in debt, yes. But it is not time to cut clean energy subsidies. We need to find more ways to scale these projects and roll out new ones. At the moment, subsidies for producers and consumers help this goal. 

If you can't compete, sue

Via Matt Macari at The Verge, Honeywell International sues Nest Labs over the Nest Learning Thermostat, claiming patent infringements. Honeywell lists a number of patents it contends Nest violates. To me, they read like very very basic concepts related to UI and usability features, nothing extraordinary. How can other companies compete when they could be prohibited from using these features? Here is a sample:

U.S. Patent No. 7,634,504 - this patent was filed in 2006 (issued 2009) and covers displaying grammatically complete sentences while programming a thermostat.

U.S. Patent No. 7,142,948 - this patent was filed in 2004 (issued 2006) and covers a thermostat figuring out and displaying how long it will take to get to a specific setting, like temperature. The Nest definitely has this feature; it's a main selling point of the device.

U.S. Patent No. 6,975,958 - this patent was filed in 2003 (issued 2005) and covers a method of controlling an environmental control system from a remote to adjust the settings of the system.

Read the whole story over at The Verge.

Predatory Pythons Shift Everglades Ecology

Between fifteen and thirty years ago humans let loose pythons in the Everglades, now the pythons are changing the ecology of the Everglades by killing off the mammals. Other species can wreak havoc on biomes, but in this case it still goes back to those who let the pythons into the system decades ago. Well done.

The snakes, many of which measure 10 to 16 feet, are called Burmese pythons. But make no mistake: Virtually all of the roughly 30,000 living in southern Florida were born in the Everglades. Ecologists now report that populations of mammals have begun plummeting throughout the pythons’ expanding range. And the timing of these mammal losses matches the geographic spread of the snakes, which federal officials believe were initially released into the wild by snake fanciers, probably 15 to 30 years ago.

The next question is: what kind of super predator are we going to release to kill the pythons?

The Next Big Thing

Mathew L. Wald, NY Times:

If solar energy is eventually going to matter — that is, generate a significant portion of the nation’s electricity — the industry must overcome a major stumbling block, experts say: finding a way to store it for use when the sun isn’t shining (italics added).

Very true.