March 2011

I live in the future

Growing up, my mother seemed to worry about everything. What we ate, how we exercised, school grades, future employability, crossing the street. Trees creaking in a storm, us climbing trees and rocks, my father's driving, the least speck of dust in the house, all seemed to her signs of impending disaster. Perhaps it was in reaction that I acquired such a worry-free attitude about life in general, and in particular about the future. To me just about every step to the future seems a wonderful bright beacon to a better purer world, where human beings are fully valued for what they can really contribute, where drudgery is gone, abuse of other humans and the natural world are a thing of the past, all are enlightened and wise...

Now, I don't consider myself a techno-utopian like Ray Kurzweil. I've critiqued his hyper-optimism elsewhere - if Kurzweil is doubly-exponentially optimistic about the future, I'd limit myself to a single exponential, or even (as I think we eventually must) a power law. But I still think overall the future has to be, on net, more positive than negative. Maybe it's just in my nature.

Andy Revkin has a nice interview with optimistic "World-Changer" Alex Steffen, whose latest book "Worldchanging 2.0" (an expanded edition of the first version, of which I have a quite inspirational copy) was just released. As I've noted here before, Steffen's optimistic view of the future is one I largely share, despite much evidence that our present world has some very serious troubles, now and ahead of us.

Mathematical analysis of Roy Spencer's climate model

BYU geologist Barry Bickmore recently reviewed Roy Spencer's recent book, "The Great Global Warming Blunder", finding a number of true "blunders" by the author. In particular he found some very peculiar properties of the simplified physical model that Spencer made a central feature of the book, finding that Spencer's curve-fitting allow infinitely more solutions than the one Spencer somehow settled on, and a number of related issues.

I tangled with Spencer over an earlier model like this which he was promoting more than 3 years ago. What he didn't seem to realize about that first model was that it was essentially trivial, a linear two-box model with two time constants (a subject I explored in detail here a while back). I tried explaining this, but he seems not to have gotten my point that such a model inherently contains no interesting internal dynamics, just relaxation on some (in this case two) time scales. Which seems to go completely against the point I thought he was trying to make, that some sort of internal variability was responsible for decadal climate change.

So it was something of a surprise to me that Spencer based his "Great Blunder" book on an even more simplified version of this model, with just 1 effective time constant. He even tried to get a paper published using this essentially trivial model of Earth's climate. As Bickmore outlined in his part 1, the basic equation Spencer uses is:

(1) dT/dt = (Forcing(t) – Feedback(t))/Cp

where T is the temperature at a given time t, Forcing is a term representing the input of energy into the climate system (there is a standard definition for this in terms of radiation at the "top of the atmosphere") and Feedback is a term that itself depends on temperature as

(2) Feedback(t) = α (T(t) - Te)

with α a linear feedback parameter and Te an equilibrium temperature in the absence of forcing (Bickmore and apparently Spencer don't actually use absolute temperature T and equilibrium value Te, but rather write the equations in terms of the difference Δ T = T - Te, which amounts to the same thing, but obscures an important point we'll return to later).

The final term Cp is the total heat capacity involved. Each of forcing, feedback and heat capacity is potentially a global average, but would normally be expressed as a quantity per unit area, for example per square meter. Since the bulk of Earth's surface heat capacity that would respond to energy flux changes on a time-scale of a few years is embodied in the oceans (about 70% of the surface), Cp should be defined essentially as 0.7 times the heat capacity of water per cubic meter, multiplied by the relevant ocean depth in meters (h):

(3) Cp = 0.7*4.19*10^6 J/(m^3 K) * h = c * h

where c = 2.9 MJ/(m^3 K) (Spencer and Bickmore seem to have forgotten the factor of 0.7, so use a slightly larger value for c, which means their h values are probably smaller than the actual ocean depth such a heat capacity would be associated with).

Roy Spencer's six trillion degree warming

In some followup discussion with Barry Bickmore (by email) and Kevin C (at Skeptical Science) it became clear we were missing something in the analysis of Roy Spencer's climate model. Specifically, Bickmore's Figure 10:

differed significantly from Spencer's 20th century fit even though he was ostensibly using the same parameters. If you look at the year 1900 in particular, Bickmore's Figure 10 has a temperature anomaly slightly above zero, while Spencer's is pegged at -0.6 C. Bickmore did use a slightly different PDO index than Spencer for his 1000-year graph (figure 10) - but more importantly, he took Spencer's -0.6 C temperature as the starting point in the year 993 AD, rather than as a constraint on temperature in the year 1900, as it actually was in Spencer's analysis. It turns out that to actually match Spencer's 20th century temperature fit the starting temperature in 993 AD needs to be extraordinarily, far beyond impossibly, low. We'll get to the details shortly.

NY Times John Broder can't tell which side is which on climate

Eli Rabett railed on journalists recently, and particularly (the bulk of) science journalists, for practicing "churnalism" - just writing stuff that's almost copy-paste, without even thinking about it, without seeming to put any effort in. Another part of the problem is what Jay Rosen has termed the view from nowhere - the attempt by the establishment press to appear neutral and claim objectivity, when in fact what they are doing is a form of unrecognized ideology in itself (that "both sides are equal", and all that follows).

John Broder has occasionally written some excellent pieces on the interaction between science and politics for the New York Times (though I've just been browsing their archives and haven't found a good example from the last year. Hmm. A large number of the ones I thought good turned out to have required corrections after initial publication. Oops.). In this latest piece however, he provides the perfect exemplification of both Rabett and Rosen's complaints. This has got to be one of the laziest, most egregious false-balance stories I have ever come across in the national press. The central point of Broder's piece is that "both sides" claim to be standing for science. Broder bases this on his claim that:

Democrats rounded up five eminent academic climatologists who defended the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and that human activities like the burning of fossil fuels are largely responsible. [...]
Republicans countered with two scientific witnesses who said that while there was strong evidence of a rise in global surface temperatures, the reasons were murky and any response could have adverse unintended effects.

I watched most of the hearing yesterday, and I was very surprised at Broder's claim that 5 of the witnesses were called by Democrats, and only 2 by Republicans. The Republican congressmen, in questioning, almost universally queried 3, not 2 of the witnesses, looking for favorable responses (some of them also tried to get responses on very loaded questions from Richard Somerville, called by the Democrats). Why would Broder think that only 2 of the witnesses were called by Republicans, when in fact 3 were? As Joe Romm pointed out in this piece, John Christy and Roger Pielke Sr. have been called upon to testify by Republicans before, so those two weren't exactly a surprise. The DDT-advocate was a bit of a surprise, but clearly there for the Republican "side".

The Death of Shame

Is a sense of shame, embarrassment, fear at being discovered central to what makes us fully human? The old story in Genesis suggests so - (from the King James translation):

And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. [...] And the serpent said [...] in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. [...] And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. [...] And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

The first emotion of the couple awakened by knowledge of good and evil was not joy, but shame. To be human is to err, to make mistakes. To do things that are truly embarrassing. It's part of who we are. But it is not just the mistake-making, it's recognizing those mistakes. To actually be embarrassed, to feel shame, to be afraid of the consequences of what we've done. If we routinely do stupid things but don't even recognize that we've done anything wrong, we're living a paradise of ignorance, a pre-fall state of unconscious bliss.

It's become clear to me this is the state which US political and media culture is aiming for. A return to the Garden of Eden, where nobody can do anything wrong, and it is impossible for any public figure to ever feel shame. Where the media has no ability and feels no responsibility to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil - except on those rare occasions where the bad guys are foreigners and everybody on our side can agree.

There are still occasional exceptions. Elliot Spitzer, briefly. You have to give the guy credit for disappearing from public view for a while after that business - and he was our governor too, a really powerful figure. He really, sincerely looked ashamed and embarrassed at the exposure of his sinful behavior. John Edwards is a worse story - and I and a lot of other people feel embarrassed about that one, I was a big supporter of the guy before his mess became public. But at least Edwards quit his campaign and really did look highly ashamed about his own behavior.

There have been a couple of minor congressmen resigning recently for stuff of that nature, but it seems to be pretty few and far between. Why is David Vitter still in the US Senate? John Ensign? Why did that Idaho senator and S. Carolina governor hang on until their terms ended? Yeah, yeah, Bill Clinton too. Though at least you could sort of feel his pain at times.

And those are just the sex scandals. When it comes to the more serious wrongdoing with respect to their actions in office, there seems to be no sense of shame at all, ever. John Murtha completely unrepentant. Charlie Rangel. Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay and friends. Ted Stevens in Alaska. The many scandals of the Bush administration (and Reagan before). Did any of those folks every admit that anything they did was wrong? Did you notice how governor Walker of Wisconsin reacted when the recent prank Koch call became public?

I am sure that reality shows and celebrity obsessions are a contributing factor in our culture of shamelessness. Perhaps that form of popular entertainment is a real source of harm, but I am far more concerned about the harm done by the lack of recognition of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, among our political and media classes. It almost seems brazenness in the face of what to regular people would be highly embarrassing is an asset for politicians.

My evidence that we have now reached the pinnacle of shamelessness in US politics is this markup hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, held on Tuesday March 15th. The subject of the hearing was House Resolution 910, titled the "Energy Tax Prevention Act". The committee, chaired by Fred Upton, makes the claim that their work to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases will reduce gasoline prices.

Politifact examined Upton's claim on this and found it to be False. But at least the claim that regulations cause prices to rise and therefore is a little like a future "tax" (despite not involving taxes at all) has some rationale. So the bill title, while distorting the truth, isn't perhaps a completely implausible and blatant lie.

And one can understand that representatives might vote against something that on its face sounds like a good idea for legitimate reasons, or conversely for something that otherwise sounds like a terrible idea. Though the vote in committee on the final bill was pretty clearly against the facts of the matter, as this editorial in Nature put it:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the US Congress has entered the intellectual wilderness, a sad state of affairs in a country that has led the world in many scientific arenas for so long. Global warming is a thorny problem, and disagreement about how to deal with it is understandable. It is not always clear how to interpret data or address legitimate questions. Nor is the scientific process, or any given scientist, perfect. But to deny that there is reason to be concerned, given the decades of work by countless scientists, is irresponsible.

Worse than the title and distorted spin from the committee chair are the actual words uttered by some of our duly elected representatives during that hearing. This is not just an intellectual wilderness, this is a moral wilderness where completely provably false statements are just accepted, treated as legitimate points of view, where nobody needs to apologize for being wrong, ever.

Bugs in the system

Back when I was a young graduate student our system administrator was a bit of a gamer. We used UNIX: a Digital Equipment VAX running some BSD version, and later SUN workstations - and I pause for a moment in memory of those worthy but now defunct corporations. UNIX at the time came with a bunch of standard command-line-oriented games (and graphical ones later on the SUN's) - which of course the sysadmin was free to delete, but ours didn't. He even installed a new game - Empire (a multi-player "Civilization"-like game) - and started a few games hosted on our computers, soliciting players from around the internet.

For a few months Empire, rather than physics, became my passion. It ran on a schedule such that every 4 hours or 6 hours the clock ticked and you could make more moves of your military units, move commodities from one city to another, or make new plans for your cities. And of course all your opponents did the same. Being there right at the clock tick allowed you to attack first, if that was in the cards, or prepare necessary defenses for an expected attack. And missing a clock tick (for something as useless as sleep, for instance) meant losing tempo in the game; your military units might just sit there rather than move, one of your cities might start to starve, or food or other elements might be wasted because there was no room to store more.

Realizing this wasn't personally sustainable, I delved into the C programming language which seemed to be the standard for UNIX (but up to then I'd hardly used - I'd done some Fortran and assembly programming before). After a few days work I had an automated player program that I could schedule to run shortly after each clock tick to take care of the basics - moving commodities around and moving some of my units along pre-arranged paths that I could update once or twice a day.

This gave me a slight advantage over those players who weren't waking up every 4 or 6 hours at night to update their games, and my game started to do quite well. But not well enough for me; I started to notice some anomalies in the way certain things behaved in the game. If I used ground transport to move a fighter plane from one city to another, the mobility level in the city I moved it from dropped far more than I expected. And if I moved two aircraft from two different cities, both dropped to the same level. There was some bug in the game software, and I needed to track it down.

So I started reading through the source code of the game. This really got me up to speed on programming with the C language - the code had extensive use of pointers and there were arrays of pointers to functions and multiple layers of indirection that had to be traced to figure things out. When I finally got down to the code regarding moving aircraft, I discovered what was going on. The bug was that it was using the mobility of the central capital city as the starting value before subtracting the mobility cost of moving the plane, rather than the mobility of the actual source city. I quickly realized I could exploit the bug - if I kept my capital city mobility high, I could make use of the bug to quickly raise the mobility available in any city by bringing in a fighter plane and moving it around. This gave a huge advantage in the game - mobility was the key factor that limited how much you could do with each tick of the clock.

While perusing the source code I found some other things that looked like bugs too, and verified them in the game. One of the issues was handling of negative numbers. If you loaded a negative quantity of a commodity onto a ship in a harbor city, the code was set up to treat that the same as unloading a positive quantity from the ship to the city. However, while for positive loading the code checked that the city had sufficient quantity of the commodity, for negative loading (unloading) it didn't do that check for the ship. Loading large negative quantities of gold onto a ship gave you a way to create unlimited quantities of gold (or any other commodity the same way).

Finding these bugs that could give such a huge advantage in the game gave me some moral qualms, and I consulted our sysadmin, who was running the game, about what I should do. He asserted that my only responsibility was to file bug reports and suggested fixes with the game developers, and then he'd update the game software when they fixed the problems. As long as the bug was reported, it was perfectly legal (according to standard game rules) to exploit them... So I did...

My obvious and mysterious advantages in the game didn't sit well with the other players, a few of whom knew who I was. I soon found my nation under attack from a united alliance of all the others. With my bag of tricks I was still able to largely prevail, until the nuclear weapons came out...

Not long after this (November 1988) I was working on one of our Sun machines when suddenly everything mysteriously slowed down - the computers were being attacked by the first "internet worm". It turned out I was very close to the epicenter of this event, and one of my colleagues was a good friend of Robert Morris, the student who launched the attack which exploited vulnerabilities in some standard UNIX system services. The era of computer viruses and worms was upon us. Morris was taking advantages of bugs in major computer systems just as I had exploited bugs in the Empire software to gain advantage in that game.

Bugs with destructive power in themselves or available for exploitation by the unscrupulous are almost inevitable consequences of our efforts at automation and removing humans from low-level oversight and decision-making in any system. Even in systems where humans ostensibly make the decisions, if human actions are governed by rigid rules (whether or not they function well under ordinary circumstances) or are taken with incomplete understanding of what they are doing, the extent to which such a system becomes a "machine" with predictable responses almost inevitably invites a quest for "bugs" to exploit for personal advantage. Infamous hacker Kevin Mitnick found social engineering (tricking people into giving him their passwords) at least as effective as anything else in breaking in to computers.

The problem extends far beyond the domain of computer systems. Economic, media, legal and political systems have become highly complex "machines" in modern times, governed by rigid rules and understood by few of those who depend on them. Vital decisions are often made by poorly paid bureaucrats (on regulation enforcement, say) or low-status workers (those mortgage "robo-signers", for instance). The process can be mystifying to the outsider, but to somebody who works to understand it, "bugs" in the system open up enormous (what most would regard as immoral, but often perfectly legal) opportunities for great riches or power.

The 2007-2008 financial crisis is very much a case in point, at least as I understand from my recent reading of Michael Lewis' account, "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine". A number of people became enormously wealthy while bankrupting their own companies, their customers, or large swathes of the general public. The ways in which they managed this was through exploitation of a handful of real "bugs" in US and international systems of finance. Some of these bugs have been addressed; some I'm less confident will be, exhibiting further bugs in our political and media systems.