Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ice in the Arctic

Finally, scientists look for actual data from the Arctic:

[Comments from Jane Eert, science coordinator of the Three Oceans Project, a federal study of Canada's Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.]

For years, scientists trying to figure out what is happening to Arctic ice have relied on measurements recorded by pings from U.S. navy nuclear submarines cruising stealthily under the ice cap from Alaska to the North Pole, during the Cold War, says Eert, 49.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, and relations between Washington and Moscow warmed, the U.S. military was less worried about potential enemies knowing where its subs had been and declassified the ice data. It seemed to show the ice was thinning dramatically.

"Nobody really quite noticed the submarines were running across the outside edges of the Canadian archipelago," the islands scattered across Canada's Far North, "where for all we know, the ice was getting thicker," Eert says.

"The ice doesn't stay constantly thick over the whole area. It moves around. So if you take measurements only in one spot, and make global conclusions from that, you might be going wrong."

A physical oceanographer, Eert leads the scientific team aboard The Louis. It's her 10th voyage on the ship since 1999. Between 10 and 15 per cent of the Arctic Ocean is what Eert calls a data hole. It will take years' more research to fill it in with solid information, she adds.

After years of reports that vast areas of Arctic ice are melting as the seawater below, and air above, warm up, scientists have discovered that dramatic changes in the past three years are the result of shifting winds, perhaps caused by climate change.

Enormous amounts of ice have "been exported from the Arctic," driven by winds that are shifting as the climate changes, which pushed the ice into ocean currents that delivered it to the North Atlantic, Eert says.

"The multi-year ice in the polar pack didn't melt in the Arctic Ocean,'' she says. "It moved out and what's left in the Arctic is thinner than it was."

That doesn't mean some Arctic ice isn't disappearing altogether, just that the process is not as simple as some reports suggest, Eert says.

Old ice that has shifted south from Greenland may have a counter-effect on the climate, which is just one of the many pieces of a very complex jigsaw puzzle that scientists are trying to piece together as they attempt to predict the effects of global warming.

"The guys who are running the long-term climate models have a tough problem," Eert says. "They're looking at really long time scales, and as result they can't look at a lot of details for each year.

"In order to get the results before you die, you have to fudge some things. And what they fudge is the small-scale stuff. But it turns out that probably the small-scale stuff is important and fudging it gives you wrong answers."

This all comes well into an article that starts out focussing on plankton. The fourth paragraph says "if global warming makes things go bad for these organisms, the pain will run all the way up the food chain to humans." Inevitably, these tiny creatures are referred to as "canaries in a mine."

Paragraphs 20 and 21:

So far, scientists haven't seen any plankton species go extinct, Nelson said from Barrow, Alaska, after a separate, two-week research voyage. But they are closely watching Pacific Ocean plankton found in the Arctic to see if they begin reproducing as sea temperatures rise.

"If a Pacific species was established in the Arctic, this would really be news," he says. "But we have not detected this yet. What could happen in this scenario is that, if the invader out-competes the native species, this could lead to fundamental changes in ecosystem function."

So the doom and gloom get top billing. Then Eert comes along: "Vast areas of the Arctic are still scientific black holes, where researchers have yet to gather hard data." The paragraphs I have quoted say that scientists are studying "the effects of global warming," but on a close reading of all these paragraphs, it is clear that real scientists are trying to figure out whether the Arctic provides any actual evidence of global warming whatsoever. Any at all. Eert makes it pretty clear she hasn't seen any yet, and the plankton people haven't seen any problem with the plankton.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Health Care Reform

I honestly don't know how to advise Americans as they struggle with health care insurance reform, which has somehow been combined, by the Obama Administration, with health care reform.

We lived in the U.S. for six years. While there, our daughter was born with severe disabilities, most of which did not really require hospital care specifically after her first year. But she did require home care, specialized respiratory and feeding equipment, and support from specialists. As a rule, we were either impressed or dazzled at the quality of care she received. I had insurance through my college teaching jobs, and every year or two years there would be some suspense: what is the plan going to be this time? Are our doctors in the network? What is the penalty for going out of the network? (For a while the neurologist agreed to accept the out-of-network fees, instead of his usual fees).

We were generally treated like valued customers--people wanted our business. One respiratory supply company became big and impersonal--the phone was answered by someone who really didn't know the products. Voila: the respiratory therapists--the real brains of the company--formed their own company, and they would come out with a van to make sure everything was as it should be. Specialists and others indicated that they took a special interest in our daughter, and in us. We probably hit the golden age of homecare nursing. Reagan (of all people) had tried to ensure that children could get nursing at home if the only alternative was much more expensive care in hospital. Some federal funding was available through Medicaid, but whether you really got the service depended on what state you lived in. We were lucky to be in Minnesota. After we left, we learned that the hospital supplying us with nurses had been forced to cut back on service--so things may have gone downhill if we had stayed.

In New Brunswick there were fewer services, and the province wouldn't issue us the upgraded health card we needed until we had been there a year. Fortunately, we had been given, yes given, a bunch of respiratory supplies as we left the U.S. Still, the providers we encountered in the Maritimes of Canada were very good.

In Southern Ontario, we had some odd experiences. All family doctors complain that they're not paid enough. On the one occasion when Katie was hospitalized locally, our family doc took the trouble to say he would no longer be seeing her--apparently there was no way for him to be paid enough for routine visits to such a complicated case. We've had other family docs who have gone out of the business. In that same hospital stay, all the nurses on the ward acted as though they were pissed off at us for even bringing our daughter there. Should we have taken her to Sick Kids in Toronto? Possibly, but it was still a bizarre response from a group of nurses. It had a Stepford Wives feel--obviously nurses coming on shift, who had never met us, had been briefed by the time they saw Katie and us--and they were already scowling at us. Very weird. This was the hospital now known as Southlake.

So I end up with the conventional view: it is great to have good insurance in the U.S., but nerve-wracking to have to pay for it, deal with limitations and restrictions, etc. (Some Americans advised: apply for a job without stating there are any medical issues in your family; submit bills, they might just get paid; if you get caught and get fired, start again). In catastrophic cases, which our daughter was not, you can go through the lifetime maximum of insurance coverage--and then what? But with good insurance, you can get excellent care, with the feeling that you can be in contact with some of the top specialists in the world.

In Canada, specialists who are probably just as good are around somewhere, but you are more likely to be dealing with crabby, discontented people. Some caregivers show little respect for patients, perhaps because patients don't really pay. (Aristotle says common areas aren't those that everyone cares for; they are those that no one cares for). We dread going to the ER, but one colleague says his family had an excellent experience at the hospital, including the ER, in Peterborough--a little ways from Toronto, like Newmarket where I live, but maybe not quite a suburb?

Outcomes, Canada vs. the U.S.? Not very different. No doubt some people suffer or even die while waiting in Canada, but that can happen anywhere. Americans with insurance are tested a lot more, but the actual benefits of testing are questionable. For every one person who 1) has something treatable and 2)gets it properly treated thanks to the testing, there are probably six to 10 who get false negatives or false positives, and either let symptoms go untreated or get unnecessary treatments which themselves are potentially harmful. It's very American to put so much faith in tests. Of course if you are that one person who benefits, the whole system seems great to you.

In the Western world, advances are now of a kind that are expensive, and benefit few people. (Ht Kaus, and see Reynolds on his own family). Who will pay for these things? The harsh fact, and harsh question, are usually obscured by means of bullshit, now taken up by Obama, to the effect that there is a lot of money to be saved by way of exercise and weight loss, or by money-saving changes in pills and procedures. There might be some savings, in a way that is never admitted, in that those who lose weight die younger. The running magazines all think running will both improve your health and help you live longer. We'll see.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Obama's Policies Based on Science?

On global warming: I think not. New indications, in a refereed journal, that recent temperature changes are linked to ocean currents, and are not likely to have been affected by man-made factors.

On marijuana: there could be a number of reasons to support the continued treatment of marijuana as a criminal matter, despite expectations that Obama would favour some degree of liberalization; but Obama's Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has said something definitely false:

"Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit," Kerlikowske said in downtown Fresno while discussing Operation SOS—Save Our Sierra—a multiagency effort to eradicate marijuana in eastern Fresno County.

On health care: Obama seems to have a naive view that there are massive savings to be had by switching to generic drugs from brand name, and cutting back on surgeries such as tonsillectomies when they are not needed. This no doubt goes with the faith in prevention, anti-obesity programs, and funding fun activities for kids as a way of achieving significant savings in health care costs.

From Kaus:

From AP yesterday:
"We have to do what businesses and families do. We've got to cut out the things we don't need to pay for the things we do," Obama said at a town-hall style meeting Thursday in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. The meeting followed a prime-time news conference the night before in which Obama sought to rally public support for his health plan. [E.A.]
From Boston Globe, earlier this month:
WASHINGTON - Sweeping healthcare legislation working its way through Congress is more than an effort to provide insurance to millions of Americans without coverage. Tucked within is a provision that could provide billions of dollars for walking paths, streetlights, jungle gyms, and even farmers' markets. ... "These are not public works grants; they are community transformation grants,'' said Anthony Coley, a spokesman for Kennedy, chairman of the Senate health committee whose healthcare bill includes the projects.

This fits rather neatly with Sandy Szwarc's recent post about the UK: the same National Health System that is cutting back on neonatology care, and no doubt causing the death of infants who would otherwise live, is spending a fortune on sports, camping trips and exercise and other activities for children as part of an anti-obesity campaign.

The Edinburgh Evening News reported another government program is spending “apparently £23 billion [$37.99 billion U.S. dollars]” to offer free holidays, called an “outdoor education,” to Scotland’s children to get them moving and build character. It plans “to send every 11-year-old on a five-day adventure break, kayaking, climbing and abseiling among other things… [and] free swimming for all children, at least two hours of PE a week and more outdoor activities, most of which are meant to tackle childhood obesity levels.”

The Scotsman reports that the money NHS Lothian spends each year on weight loss and anti-obesity interventions grows. “In Scotland there has been a massive rise in the number of free medicines being requested to fight obesity – 25 times higher than a decade ago and up six percent alone in 2007.”

Calling it a “record government investment,” the government has also invested £56million [about $92.5 million U.S. dollars] over the next three years to encourage children to eat “healthily,” the news said.

It doesn't seem unreasonable to fear that an expanded government health care plan would be tempted to re-allocate resources this way--not based on science, but a kind of vulgarized science, chasing fads: obesity always unhealthy (not true) so it's especially bad for kids (questionable), and there is an obesity epidemic, including among kids (questionable); dealing with this epidemic is legitimate health-care spending, even if the dollars are effectively taken from people actually needing expensive hospital care. Health care as delivered by social workers, fear-mongering in their own way.

The West, led to a certain extent by the United States, has developed health therapies that actually work, but the cost of them keeps going up. (MRIs and CT scans have never replaced x-rays, so even if the price comes down a bit, there is still more costly testing available than there used to be). Americans are by no means guaranteed access to the best care, but if they have insurance, this certainly increases their chances, and quite a few of them live within a few hundred miles of one of the top teaching medical centres in the world. They fear losing insurance, and losing access to care, but they also fear losing the apparent magic of new technologies, expensive though they may be. Is it better to spend on cutting-edge care for the few than "basic" care for the many? Does Obama want to weaken Medicare, for the elderly, and extend Medicaid, for the poor, to more people? Is the Obama administration more or less openly thinking about cutting back on expensive health care for boomers, now that they are getting old? [July 26: updated with link to Dick Morris, ht Kaus].

Kaus also links to Peggy Noonan: maybe the attempt to introduce government funding for abortions will turn off even moderate pro-lifers; and maybe the obvious desire to use the government to push around smokers, the overweight, and those who don't exercise, will turn off liberals who want universal health care. Maybe it's worse than that.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Oil Reserves

Another bugbear of mine.

New oil reserves in the U.S.: Sites in North Dakota, extending to Montana, Saskatchewan, Manitoba:

The Bakken:

Three Forks:

Meanwhile Titan, one of the moons of Jupiter, has lakes or seas of methane--the main ingredient of natural gas--on the surface. For the methane to have lasted since the formation of the moon, it must be replenished by sources below the surface--all of this presumably having nothing to do with fossils. Earth may have deep deposits of hydrocarbons going back to the Big Bang, in which case there may be no shortage in any meaningful sense.

Whether that is true or not: in recent decades it has been concluded that earth has far more meteorite craters than had previously been thought: hundreds or thousands, as opposed to dozens as was thought previously. Such sites are promising for oil and gas exploration, which has hardly begun. (The Gulf of Mexico reserves turn out to be part of a meteorite crater). Craters are normally hidden, and must be detected by satellite photos, combined with examining specific rocks and other features.

Because of the way craters deform rock, Isachsen explains, they can be reservoirs of oil or natural gas. If the neighboring geology is right for forming hydrocarbons, the resulting oil or natural gas will seep through the fractured rock and collect beneath the crater. Perhaps a commercial outfit could be persuaded to take core samples down several thousand feet, to the crater floor.

Onward to Sudbury, Ontario--this time, searching for oil and gas!

Let's Check Some Scares

A piece very much in line with what I've been saying.

How many times are we going to believe that a terrible epidemic affecting millions of people is on its way?

If the 50s was the era when people were too hopeful about everything, including their boomer kids (except for the Red Scare), then we now seem to be living in a time when people can be scared about everything, including their (safe) tap water and (safe) outside air.

On water, see Lewis Black.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Not Me

But: Another runner at the Acura 10 miler today. I finished in about one hour, 22 minutes, a shade over 5 minutes per km. What pleases me most is that I achieved a negative split--faster in the second half than the first.

In the background: the masts of sailboats, and then the Toronto skyline. We ran out on a spit of land into Lake Ontario--the Leslie Street Spit. Running out (before I picked up the pace) we could see open water to our left, sailboats and city to our right.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Scaring the Demos with Computer Models

I found this via the blogroll on Junkfood Science. It is from John Brignell's blog, Number Watch.

Since 1982: a series of scares, beginning with something that can truly be deadly, but affects very few people, somehow turned into a global scare. Scientific-sounding projections are employed: "There were mysterious multipliers, in which one case became millions, as with the early scare of salmonella in eggs (in fact, subsequent extensive surveys failed to produce any cases at all)."

Many of us who were involved in the early days of environmentalism, because of the disgusting and dangerous state of our post-war air and rivers, and had good reason to be satisfied with the progress that had been made, became distressed when the movement was suddenly hijacked by a new force. It seemed to be motivated by a hatred of industry and economic progress. Instead of relying on actual measurements of pollution, it began to extrapolate by means of theories and models. It developed the threat of the New Ice Age. Industrial pollution would block out the sun and plunge the world into an appalling frozen future. In Britain it was irrelevantly defeated by the searing summer of 1976, an isolate statistic that could have no bearing on climate and, though it caused ridicule, was nevertheless a portent of things to come. We innocently assumed that they would withdraw, but they simply did an about turn. Almost without pausing for breath, they converted the threat of an ice age to one of catastrophic global warming. Digging up old papers by the likes of Arrhenius and Callendar, and without a trace of embarrassment, they switched from accusing industry from freezing us to death to claiming that it would roast us. At the time most of us in science treated it all as a joke that no one could possibly take seriously. How wrong we were! We simply could not see that profound changes were taking place in society, that even science and its methods would come under a devastating threat.

Examples highlighted in the book under review: AIDS, asbestos, various disease and food scares, and "the Mother of all Scares," global warming. One interesting note is that Brignell insists on highlighting the role of Margaret Thatcher in this last big scare:

If there is one area in which your reviewer takes a view that is divergent from that of these authors, it is in the role that Britain played in the Mother of all Scares. Sir Crispin Tickell and Margaret Thatcher just get a passing mention. Tickell, a history graduate and diplomat, closely involved with the European Commission and later permanent representative to the United Nations, author of Climatic Change and World Affairs, 1977, was a close advisor to Thatcher, who, with the unique authority of being a political leader and a science graduate, under the influence of Tickell launched Global Warming into the world political domain. If there is a “Typhoid Mary” that spread the contagion of global warming around the world it can only be Tickell; he was closely involved with the very international institutions that promoted it. Thatcher was at war with the Miners’ union and the oil sheiks and was determined to press the case for nuclear power. As so often happened, her tactical manoeuvres defeated her strategic aims. She fostered the creation of a movement that opposed everything she stood for. Revisionists deny that she was all that enthusiastic in the promotion of global warming. Take it from one who sat it the front row at a major speech she made, this is not so; or, failing that, take it from her then loyal lieutenant, Nigel Lawson. She established the Hadley Centre, designed to manufacture evidence for global warming, at the expense of funds diverted with great damage from real science, and subverted the Royal Society by putting money on the table for the same purpose. The Hadley Centre became a main engine for the UN IPCC, which imposed the global warming religion on the world.

Thatcher is of course known as, er, a conservative. I guess the global warmers can say if they want to "even the conservative Margaret Thatcher."

In about 1988 I was teaching at a Lutheran college in Minnesota. We had a guest lecture by the state epidemiologist for Minnesota. There was some joshing about the fact that his bachelor's degree was from a different Lutheran college, to some extent a rival. His presentation was about how AIDS was certain to make major inroads into the heterosexual population, and then the whole population of the U.S. would be effected: exponential growth rates, the model shows, etc. His slides included maps of the U.S. such as you see in the White House Situation Room in movies: next year a few states, in five years half the states, in ten years all the states, or something like that. What Brignell is getting at is that nothing like that ever happened. There was never much real-world data to indicate that it would. AIDS in Canada and the U.S. has remained largely confined to the original high-risk groups: gays who are promiscuous, including those who partook of the old bathhouse scene; drug users who share needles; and some Haitians who suffer from a kind of Third World variant of the disease. One dentist somehow gave AIDS to his patients. One person who moved from Africa to Ontario seems to have given AIDS to virtually all of his sex partners; since he continued to do so after he was diagnosed, he has been convicted of first-degree murder.

For the record, I don't necessarily agree that the new environmentalism is motivated by a hatred of industry and economic progress. As I've said before, there is a kind of baby Marx that says capitalism will kill us somehow unless governments and/or the UN intervene--all we have to do is identify the specific way this will happen; and baby Rousseau that says non-human nature is good, human nature is evil. (Rousseau sometimes says human beings were happier in a more "primitive" time when they lived in accord with nature, and this would include having some trees and salamanders that had not been destroyed for "progress"; but it was human happiness he cared about, not trees and salamanders in themselves).

Scare the Demos

Harvey Mansfield had a great piece years ago about liberals and democrats. As I recall, the idea is that we are enough of a democracy that the "liberals"--elites of various kinds--need to win over the "democrats" or the demos to carry out their agendas. Probably Mansfield's greatest insight was that the liberals have become divided: those who make a lot of money are somewhat distinct (allowing for some overlap)from those who have a lot of education. Defenders of capitalism are more on the "right"; defenders of big government, social workers and teachers are more on the "left"; so they compete for the support of the ordinary people. The obvious way to do that is to sow distrust: those other people are (horrors!) elitists! They are protecting only their own interests, and they are indifferent to your interests, if not actively hostile to them! In fact, they may be conspiring to hurt you!

The capitalists may be poisoning you with supermarket food, or destroying the environment! The social workers may be conspiring to take away most of your income in taxes, and tell you what to do from minute to minute! You'll have no freedom left!

Unfortunately, while this can be fun and games, I think we are seeing it degenerate into a nasty orgy of what might be called a ritual, rather than a game, called "Scare the Demos."

Outbreaks of rare but nasty bugs or food now seem to routinely cause an over-reaction. Everyone trots out their agendas. Epidemiologists, who might almost be expected to be out of business with so many mass outbreaks a thing of the past, keep predicting, based on computer models, that the new one is going to be the big one. The left says we always knew capitalism was going to kill us somehow, agribusiness is very bad. The capitalist right says we need more agribusiness: how about irradiating all our food? How about more biotechnology?

Big companies now fear even small outbreaks, since the fear can be spread by the media, all over the world. To prevent that, they are dictating to their suppliers, sometimes going beyond any prevailing government regulations in an attempt to eliminate risk. If any animal waste might spread the nasty kind of e-coli (although it almost never does so) then let's prevent any animals at all from touching any crop. But: this violates certain environmental approaches to growing crops, and on the whole these radical practices may make outbreaks more likely, not less. They are not really based on science, but on a vulgar misunderstanding of science spread by frightened and self-interested people.

For me this has wider implications. Even with the Thatcher and Reagan 80s, the move or drift toward bigger government and social democracy seems clear. Conservatives of various kinds tend to have their own favourite government programs, but they also tend toward a kind of panic that government is growing too big. What to do? Since the growth of government is often motivated by fear--what if I get sick? old? both?; who's protecting me against risk?--the right needs to come up with somewhat different fears. Bush was a bit of a nightmare for many conservatives in that he promised massive new spending programs on health care and education, and basically delivered. What to do? Fortunately for a certain kind of conservative or neo-conservative, 9/11 reminded people of the reality of foreign enemies, trained to deadly purpose. The enemy in question was not a government or an army, but rather a rag-tag band of fanatics, but the focus was quickly turned to governments and "failed states," and Iraq was invaded. Orange alerts continued until the November 2004 presidential election, and then stopped.

The left couldn't help but be impressed. Obama campaigned on hope rather than fear, but in office he is mainly about fear: global warming, existing government health care programs going bankrupt (so we need a new, more expensive one), just don't let those bad people get back into office.

Didn't Swift lend his considerable talents to encouraging fear of modern science, especially scientific agriculture? Yes, but he did so in the service of true conservativism: small-town or rural life, and resistance to war. Probably no standing army. The neo-cons are a different breed. Also: Swift was often if not always joking.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cold Update

Cold in Toronto.

Much of Alberta and Saskatchewan "cool" as well as dry: "Even in areas where soil moisture has been average, hay crops have been hurt by frost and cool temperatures this spring so yields will be down significantly, MacPherson said." (The drought is fairly normal--when explorer John Palliser passed through, he identified much of this territory as too dry to support crops).

Frost in July in PEI--for the first time ever recorded.

Chicago: Coolest July 8 in 118 years.

Victoria, in Australia, the coldest it's been in 10 years.

"Very cold" in southern Africa.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

More on Chubby People

Matt Yglesias deals with part of the "news" about obesity: obese people don't necessarily suffer from shortened lives because of their obesity. Actually, the Washington Post (apparently his main source) doesn't get even this quite right: no one lives longer than the obese; most of the obese are well above the life expectancy of the non-obese, and only the most severely obese are "down" to the mortality of the non-obese. The Post says "better treatments are keeping them alive nearly as long" as the non-obese. As far as anyone can tell, it is obesity itself that is keeping them alive--either as long as the non-obese, or longer, not "nearly" as long.

As Yglesias and his sources struggle with the thought that the obese have long lives, they naturally start to think: ah, but they must be miserable lives due to their obesity--it would be a health benefit them to lose weight.

..but they’re much sicker for longer, requiring such costly interventions as knee replacements and diabetes care and dialysis. Medicare spends anywhere from $1,400 to $6,000 more annually on health care for an obese senior than for the non-obese, Levi said.

Sandy Swarc summarizes the most reliable research: higher body mass index (BMI) generally correlates not only with longer life, but with better health. There are only two health risks that even correlate with high BMI:

The only statistically significant inverse correlations to the men’s BMIs were with diabetes and hypertension — but they didn’t affect the men’s mortality rates, perhaps because, as we’ve seen, heavier people with both conditions have lower health complications compared to slender people with those conditions. Other popular myths weren’t supported in this study, which also won’t surprise regular readers who’ve followed the research. The men who gained weight as they aged and those who lost weight to achieve a normal weight had identical rates of developing diabetes, and the same cholesterol levels and blood pressures, as they aged.

Men who stay thin into old age may be more likely to avoid diabetes and high blood pressure--perhaps the only health advantages for this body type. Men who lose weight develop these conditions at the same rate as those who stay chubby--and to repeat, on mortality and all other known health indicatos, the obese are the best off of all.

This is important because it contributes to thinking about health policy. Yglesias says:

This is basically good news, since the sort of measures that could create more opportunities for healthy diet and exercise habits are themselves relatively cheap compared to the delivery of health care services. But it’s long been a bit unclear as to whether or not cost-effective measures along those lines would actually pay for themselves in terms of reduced medical costs down the road. Insofar as that does seem to be the case, it further strengthens the argument that we can afford to build a healthier society. I don’t actually think it makes a ton of sense to argue that we should promote wellness in order to save money. Rather, we should promote wellness in order to produce healthier, longer-lived, happier people. But if such measures are cost-negative, that strengthens the case for taking the necessary steps.

Even though he favours single-payer health care, he doesn't want to take the Swiftian step of saying we should do whatever saves the most money--that might lead to some ghoulish suggestions. But he is impressed that getting people to lose weight might save money in addition to the benefits for the individual. The best research, however, suggests that the health benefits of losing weight are difficult to detect. People who have lost weight are likely to die sooner--which will save money. If weight-loss programs are only one part of general "wellness" and "prevention" programs, including testing for diseases among a mainly health population, this is likely to get extremely expensive. It is simply wishful thinking to say that if people ate more fruits and vegetables, there would be savings to the health care system. If people actually live longer, they are likely to be more expensive overall. Even if they don't, there are huge expenses involved. For some reason defenders of Obama's plan are determined to show that they can save money.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Canadian Strangelove

Since this is two generals (one Canadian, one American), and there is a torpedo involved, they have to be re-enacting the ending of Dr. Strangelove. Otherwise, since they are at the Calgary Stampede, they could just be practising their bronco riding.

This probably says something about Canada-U.S. relations, but I can't think for the life of me what it might be.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Blue Jays (gulp)

Fourth place in a tough division--closer to last place than first.

They had a remarkably good run when their two most famous and highly-paid hitters--Rios and Wells--were slumping. Today Rios is 9th in Batting Average, Wells is 11th; in On Base Percentage, Rios is 7th, Wells 10th; in Slugging, Rios is 6th, Wells is 8th. For Home Runs, the Jays have Hill at 19, Lind at 16, and then everybody else. Rios is tied for 3rd at 9, Wells at 7. By the end of the season, the Jays may have one hitter who makes 30 HRs, and it won't be Wells or Rios, and then a couple at 20 or so.

In pitching, there is Halladay and Romero as starters, a somewhat shaky Tallet as third starter, Downs as a closer, and then everyone else. Downs is injured, and he can really only close if there are eight good innings of pitching first.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Climate and the Media

The Globe and Mail reports that the Canadian prairies are probably in for some severe drought--lasting more than a year. First they say this is cyclical--the North Saskatchewan River was dry in the 1790s.

“When you look at a thousand-year record, we've been pretty lucky since the West was settled,” said Dave Sauchyn, a University of Regina geography professor and research co-ordinator for the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative. “We've had quite a favourable climate, largely avoiding the extremely dry conditions we've seen in the past.”

Dr. Sauchyn put together the thousand-year record of prairie water levels using tree rings. Judging by the rings, the prairie climate could easily plunge into an extended drought similar to that of the 1790s, when the North Saskatchewan River went dry.

Referring to a timeframe of only a few hundred years, extreme drought is not the exception here, it is more like the rule. If it comes about now, there will be no need to refer to unique phenomena of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as a sharp increase in man-made CO2, to explain it. Maybe the North Saskatchewan goes dry every two hundred years or so, in which case it is overdue. But wait:

Then, of course, the scientist who is being quoted is asked about global warming--if it means anything, a phenomenon that came about uniquely in the twentieth century.

Climate models suggest that history may soon repeat. The region has experienced the two driest seasons on record – the last one coming in 2001-2002 at a $5.8-billion hit to the national economy – all inside the past 10 years.

“We can't possibly say with any certainty that this is a sign of global warming, but it's entirely consistent with global climate model projections,” said Dr. Sauchyn. “All this means is it's highly probable we haven't seen the worst of it yet.”

Ah yes, the driest on record--but meaningful records only go back 150 years at most, most of them less than that. So the good old 1790s disappear--they're not on the record--and today's drought suddenly seems like something unprecedented, that could lead to even worse things in the future. Is there any mechanism that we know of that could turn a mere drought, itself fairly common, into a true long-lasting disaster? Of course there is: a computer model from IPCC.

I should add: Dr. Sauchyn indicates that the twentieth century was neither unusually hot, nor unusually dry, in the twentieth century--the time when everyone agrees man-made CO2 spiked sharply upward. Instead it was unusually rainy and fertile--not catastrophically rainy, not a disaster ... oh never mind.

Recently, there was coverage in the Star of the heat and drought in India. Here the order of paragraphs was more consistent with propaganda about global warming. The emphasis was on the uniqueness of what was happening, as if it were unprecedented. Then:

Sanjay Kaul, president of People's Action, a conglomerate of resident welfare associations, says it's no surprise Delhi is so ill-equipped to deal with the hot temperatures.

While the city is accustomed to ovenlike weather – past heat waves were so bad, there were reports of birds dropping dead from trees – the influx of migrants has been too much for the city to handle.

"It's shameful," he says. "The government can go out to all the slums and make sure these people are able to vote for them, but they aren't able to make sure they have water? We have spent millions of dollars to hold the Commonwealth Games next year, an 11-day event, but over the past decade we have not built a single new electricity plant in Delhi?"

Finally, a bit more detail:

Yesterday, rain arrived in parts of Delhi, but Kaul says it's not enough.

"We just can't keep going year to year telling people to wait for the monsoon," he says. "For centuries, this city's builders knew enough to construct with high ceilings and courtyards, building to the east, away from the afternoon sun.

"But now, we have a city where government lets builders build floor upon floor and cut down the little green cover we have left. It's not going to get better."

So there may be nothing new or unprecedented about the heat or drought, in themselves, at all. What is clearly new is the sheer increase of population in one city, poor building practices that do not fit the local climate, and the destruction of green cover that formerly provided shade. And of course, Mr. Kaur favours building more electricity plants--dare I say, even if they burn fossil fuels?--not fewer.