Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I don't know if it is the summertime doldrums or something else, but lately when I start to think about something to write about, I hit a brick wall. Nothing seems to charge me up enough to put the fingers on the keyboard and churn out a post. So, I am beginning to wonder if I will keep going with this project that started as basically a dare (see the last paragraph) from Annie. When you really think about it, that is kind of a silly reason for writing a blog.

In any case, I am struggling with whether to continue to search for things to write about or to discontinue writing MPU until I get re-motivated by something. The struggle is not because I have a large audience. (An average of 50 or so people drop by on a daily basis. That's not very many.) It stems from the fact that if I stop writing on a regular basis, it is likely that I will never get back to it.

SOOOO, that's where I am. I will keep my eyes open for something to get me revved up, but it may be a couple of weeks. I suggest that if you want to know when I put something new up, use the "Subscribe" button below my "Favorite Sites". If you have never used a feed reader, the Google reader is pretty awesome. Let me know in the comments if you need an invitation for a Google account.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Why? Why? Why?

Ok. I have a question. Why do things break at the most inconvenient times? Here are some examples from the last month or so:

  • My brother-in-law and his family had arrived Friday afternoon to visit us. I was leaving for a trip to Denver on Saturday afternoon. So, that is the time that the damper motor that controls the AC in the guest room decides to strip a gear.
    • We had to shift our plans for the guest sleeping arrangements.
  • On July 2nd, our neighbor knocks on the door to let us know that he had to turn off our sprinkler valve because it was flooding the street. Of course, we were headed out of town for the weekend.
    • The sprinkler repair company couldn't get it fixed until the Monday after the Independence Day break because everyone had scheduled vacation that week.
  • On the Friday morning before my brother and his family arrived, the same damper motor breaks AGAIN! (Or maybe it was never fixed right the first time. Regardless, we had a hot house and people coming to stay with us.)
    • We had a great experience getting this fixed (see below) after dealing with the crappy home warranty company. BTW, avoid 2-10 Home Warranty Company like the plague. They're supposed to be "one of the better ones", but they certainly weren't very helpful with our problem. They gave Kristy a ton of trouble, but she won. She always wins.
  • Today, before heading to Albuquerque in the morning, I came home from dinner and gathering stuff at the office to find water flooding the street. Again.
    • Hopefully, the sprinkler will be fixed this time. Apparently the glue they used the first time didn't hold. Yeah, you heard that right. Glue.
There are FOUR examples of this inopportune timing for breakdowns. I have others from our time in College Station and Albuquerque. Not that it really matters, but what are the theories out there for WHY this happens? I know I can count on Josh for a theory, but I am hoping for other contributors.

Here is the good story that I promised you earlier. When the AC zone system broke down, I called my friend Brian who owns Da Vinci Construction in Northwest Arkansas. He does fabulous work, and we trust him to help us with these types of things. He suggested that we use his HVAC "hook-up" to look at it. Hutcherson Plumbing & Air (specifically Eric Heckathorn) came over and fixed our problem on his way home from work. He had already worked a full day, but he spent another hour working at my house. THANK YOU, ERIC (and Hutcherson Plumbing & Air)! If you ever need help with HVAC (or plumbing), give them a call. They were great!

So, Josh, I am anxiously awaiting THE theory.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Stupid Human Assumption

Early this week, I experienced another "poke the monkey" episode (see the comment section). This time, my loyal commenter, Josh, sent me a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article that links global warming with increased incidence of kidney stones (here is press coverage that attempts to explain the journal article). In a previous post (Wanted: Fact Checker), I talked about the seeming lack of rigor in the peer review process at PNAS. I don't think peer review was the problem in this case, but the article does have some serious issues.

The first serious issue that I have with the journal article is well covered at Steve McIntyre's Climate Audit website. Here is the kernal of importance from Steve's site:

  • "... it turns out that the current kidney stone dataset is not so good for a variety of reasons. These include undiagnosed, asymptomatic stones, lack of correct documentation of recurring events, or those who just plain don’t go to the hospital. In fact, there could be up to a 35% error in the baseline prevalence of kidney stone disease! See, reconstructing climate records is nothing compared to ascertaining a census of those suffering of kidney stones."
Apparently, we really don't know how many people suffer from kidney stones very well. Since we don't this number now, how will we be able to determine whether a future increase in kidney stone incidence is due to medical science improvements in kidney stone diagnosis or to increased temperature caused by global warming.

The other real issue I have with this sort of study is that it makes the classic assumption of "stupid humans". I don't follow kidney stone medical literature, but from what I can gather, a mean annual temperature above a certain degree (I think it is 13 degrees C) is correlated with increased risk of kidney stones. Basically, where it's hot, there is higher percentage of the population that is diagnosed with kidney stones.

The authors of the study assumed the worst case among the climate scenarios published by the IPCC (SRESa1b) and placed the GCM modeled temperature increases on top of today's instrumented temperature record to get mean temperatures in the future. I have no problem with this except for my well-known objections to GCMs that I will lay aside for now. What we end up with is a greatly expanded "Kidney Stone Belt" in the southern and southwestern U.S.

Where does the "stupid human assumption" come into play? In the press account, we find out the best way to prevent kidney stones is to simply drink more water. The authors implicitly assume that humans will not change their behavior in response to climate shifts. Does that make sense to you? I know if I started hearing about 30% rises in kidney stones among my neighbors, I would start drinking more water. Actually, the response of an individual to this sort of increased risk is "so easy even a caveman could do it."

Finally, an interesting tidbit that came out on Climate Audit: "The SE United States has actually undergone slight cooling over the past century." Isn't that a kick in the pants to the authors? It is cooling in the present Kidney Stone Belt.

Now, if there were just someway to tell me if the authors of this study are looking for more funding of kidney stone research... Ahhh, there it is. "The related cost of the predicted increase in kidney stones would be $900 million to $1.3 billion as the kidney stone belt expands northward and westward from warming, the researchers said."

As my buddy Chip would say, "What ARE the odds!?!"

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What Can Replace Petroleum?

I saw this article about 4 weeks ago, so I apologize if you have seen this already. Since I first read this article, I have been too busy doing other things (like this) to write about it. It is also a little bit perkier than the stuff I normally write about. The article appeared in the Times Online and discusses the fact that some researchers in Silicon Valley have engineered bacteria that excrete substances very similar to petroleum.

Apparently, a company called LS9 has been asking a very intriguing question. They have been asking, "If you removed all constraints, what would the ideal biofuel be?" Interestingly enough, they came up with petroleum as the answer to that question. So, some genetic engineers, biochemists, synthetic biologists, metabolic engineers, bioinformatic specialists, and chemical engineers got together with venture capitalists to make petroleum derived from biological organisms. The initial results seem to suggest that they have done it, but we will find out for sure over the next couple of years.

This is the silver lining to $4/gallon gasoline and $140/barrel oil. High energy costs leads bright and daring people to come up with innovative ideas like this. The initial projections based on pilot production is that with optimum feedstock (like sugar cane), the company projects that it can break even if the price for the end product (bio-petroleum) is approximately $50/barrel. The equations are more difficult when the initial feedstock is something less the optimal, but there is a tremendous amount cheap (or waste) biomass available.

As you might expect, there are questions about the scale up to commercial production. Others (like Walt) might wonder when the greedy oil companies are going to get together and buy the patents and company to make this apparent solution disappear like they did with the water car and the spaceship from Roswell. The basic question I have for the LS9 people is whether the bacteria can be modified to efficiently use cellulose based materials as the feedstock.

In any case, I think the answer to the question of what will replace petroleum in the future is ...(drumroll please) ... PETROLEUM. I guess we will need that 12 step program for oil addiction recovery just a little bit longer. WHOOP!


As a side note, I have added to my list of 101 Things About Me.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ho Hum, Physicist Claims End Is Near, Again!

OK. These days I am struggling through the day to get my work done with a nagging ailment (see Item 7, Number 3 here). So, finding new material for posts on subjects that I am used to writing about has becoming very secondary when I get a free moment. Luckily, I have friends like Cable and Brett (guest blogger extraordinaire) to, as Kristy says, "Poke the monkey."

A couple of days ago, I arrived at work to an email from Brett asking me what I thought about this article. If you don't feel like going through the effort of clicking the link, here is the summary. The international physics community (along with many governments) has gotten together to build the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the border between France and Switzerland. Some people including physicist and lawyer (that's a real combination) Walter E. Wagner have filed a lawsuit in Hawaii (somehow this group thinks that the state of Hawaii has jurisdiction over an international accelerator located in Europe). The lawsuit seeks to prevent the facility start up because there is "a significant risk that ... operation of the Collider may have unintended consequences which could ultimately result in the destruction of our planet (emphasis added)." I quote the lawsuit because I couldn't make this stuff up if I wanted to do so.

This would be extremely funny if it was the first time Wagner and his group tried to stop an accelerator from starting up. The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory faced an essentially identical lawsuit back in the late 1990's. RHIC overcame that legal challenge and has been operating (or destroying the world depending on your perspective, I guess) since mid-2000.

Perhaps physicists bring this on themselves by being somewhat flippant in the face of grave questions or before world changing experiments. For example, Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) tells us that to lighten the mood shortly before the first ever test of a nuclear weapon (Trinity test at White Sands Missile Range), Enrico Fermi offered to take bets from other physicists on whether or not the fission implosion weapon would ignite the atmosphere. He also allowed the side bet as to whether this ignition would just destroy New Mexico or the whole world. None of the physicists really believed that this would happen (a few weeks before Edward Teller had done the calculations anyway), but the soldiers were not so sure of the outcome after listening to the wagers being proferred.

Anyway, my first reaction to these claims of world destruction by physicists is to chuckle whether the prediction is made by giants like Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller or by Lilliputians like Walter Wagner, James Hansen, or Gavin Schmidt. That's what the giants would want while the others will never understand why I am laughing at them.


By the way, gout is a real b&*^%. Avoid it like the plague if at all possible. I have had trouble walking the last few days because of the pain in my foot.

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