Archive for February, 2010

Enforced ignorance

February 14, 2010

Fifteen, twenty years ago I was placed on a jury in a medical malpractice case. This disturbed me as I knew almost nothing of medicine, how was I to judge? I resolved to do some research in the library (this was before google) and gain some background information.

— Only to be told this would be illegal.

To this day I find that a shocking position. If I’m ignorant I can’t make an informed decision.

The judge told us not to worry about that; experts in the field would tell us all we needed to know. One expert for each side, of course, each, presumably, contradicting the other. Well how were we to judge the experts? Oh, just believe the one who seemed most credible.

Again, I found this appalling. Humans are far better at telling lies than we are at detecting those lies.

I was naif; it was the first time I was picked on a jury. I entered the trial assuming that one side would try to tell the truth while the other sought to obscure things. I was shocked that both sides seemed to trying to mislead me.

And this is the foundation of our judicial system. Ignorance and deceit.

When I was in school I was taught that education was necessary so that I could be an effective voter. And it makes sense to me that if I don’t know what’s going on I can’t make informed decisions. Somehow I haven’t heard this claim recently. We’ve made lots of attempts to reform education, but I no longer hear that education is essential for a functioning democracy; the claims are more along the lines of education being needed to make a useful worker.

Perhaps it is impossible for me to know enough to judge many issues. For anyone.

How can I guess what might be an effective policy with Iran? I certainly don’t know enough, nor could I find out. How can I guess what effects increasing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will have? I don’t have the skills needed to write climate models.

It isn’t illegal for me to research the issues, but I know I can only scratch the surface (and I tend to think I’m smart).

It is probably possible, by dint of huge effort, to learn enough in a lifetime to judge one tiny issue. Out of how many hundreds or thousands?

But how can I trust an expert who isn’t me? It will always be possible to dig up another expert who will contradict him (or her).

It looks to me as though an essential pillar of democracy is no longer feasible. I cannot know enough to make effective decisions. Nor do I believe than someone I elect can know enough.

Can we govern ourselves effectively in the face of complexity?

The next day Utah announced plans to do away with 12th grade.

It wasn’t hailing when I started…

February 9, 2010

It wasn’t even raining. In fact, for a brief moment the sun shone under the clouds and there was a golden glow to the world. The sky looked blue to the east, and I convinced myself all would be well. But the rain comes from the west. And before long it was raining. At least it wasn’t raining hard.

I was going up Rattlesnake, then taking the connector and proceeding up to Camino Cielo, and then down Gibraltar Rd. I didn’t know how long things would take… I hoped to get to the mercury mine, but that just showed how poorly I knew the back-country. Mike told me 16 miles total, and the 8 mile turn-around was long before the mine.

I know it can be bad for the trail to run on it in the rain (or right after the rain). I’m usually telling everyone else that. And here I was running on a trail in the rain. For a time I tried coming up with an excuse for myself. But I couldn’t. So I continued to run on a trail in the rain even though I knew I shouldn’t.

Stream crossings can be quite exciting when the creeks are in flood. And I didn’t really feel the need for that excitement so I took the route on the right bank rather than the standard trail; this alternate route has only one crossing instead of three the other way.

I’m not sure when I last did a trail run in the rain, and at first it was rather fun. Suddenly there were little streamlets where before there was nothing and every dry gully had a noisy stream running down it. The skies were lowering, the light was dim, and it felt that the trees were hugging me into their little world, just me and the trees.

Then the rain seemed to ease back a bit. I came out into the meadow and saw the clouds covering the mountains, and very soon I was inside the clouds and it was all foggy.

I think there is something glorious about running in the fog. Nothing is really visible, but you know it is there. Safe in a foggy cocoon. I couldn’t see the trail ahead, but I just kept going…

It was so foggy I could not see the dry falls (only they were wet today); they were hidden in the mist as I went by. The trail turns and (for a bit) follows the creek bed that feeds the falls and that was fairly impressive in its own right.

Then on and up to Camino Cielo, where I had my first GU, and down the other side on Gibraltar Rd. It was quite windy, here in the pass, and the rain had picked up again. I started to get cold.

My watch told me I hadn’t been running up very fast. Difficult terrain? More difficult because of the rain? Tired? Anyway I was a bit disappointed and I tried to pick up the pace on this nice downhill fire road.

I really was cold. My gloves were completely soaked and my hands were numb. I gave up on getting to the mercury mine and started fantacizing about hot baths.

When I reached 8 miles I stopped. I took off my gloves, hoping my hands would warm up if they weren’t in little pockets of cold water. I tried to eat a GU. It proved extremely difficult to open, my hands were all weak and could not tear it. Eventually I tore it with my teeth.

Then back up. Hoping I would warm up with the uphill running.

Didn’t seem to work.

I got to the top again, it was raining fairly hard now, and I managed to get lost in the large expanse where the ATVs have destroyed the vegetation. I was also trying to avoid the large puddles which had accumulated in the last couple of hours. I wandered around for a bit, climbing hills I shouldn’t have, before, eventually, I stumbled on the real trail again.

At 11 o’clock it began to hail hard. Hailstones were about 1mm in diameter, but the wind was blowing fiercely. After a bit I noticed that the hail was starting to stick — from a distance it looked as though the hills were covered in a light layer of snow. No wonder I felt cold.

After 15 minutes (or so) of hail it let up again. The trail was covered with ice for a while, but even after it started to melt there I would see little patches of ice, all the way down to the dry falls.

The fog had lifted, and this time when I came beside the falls I got a good view of them.

I was still cold, and my hands didn’t work. I had not dressed for hail. I considered eating more GU. I knew I should. It might warm me up a bit. But I could not face the struggle.

I hadn’t drunk much water either, but that didn’t worry me. I was probably breathing in as much rain as I was sweating.

It did stop raining. And as I headed down the connector the sun even poked its nose out for a bit.

When I got to my bike I found my hands were so weak they couldn’t press hard enough to undo the clasp on my backpack (key was in the backpack, had to remove the pack to get the key). It seemed I spent 5 minutes wrestling with the clasp. It’s a simple clasp, you just push on both sides and it pops open. But my fingers would not push.

Finally it opened.

Then I started struggling with the key. It would fall out of my hands before I got it to the lock. Or I’d push it in the lock and it would pop out. I tried warming my hands on my legs, but that wasn’t very effective. Finally I got it in the lock,

and I turned it,

and it stopped. Almost all the way to open, but not quite. I kept struggling and finally, finally the lock opened.

By this point I was worried that I would not be able to operate the breaks and I’d be forced to walk home, pushing the bike. Luckily the breaks needed a different set of muscles and I could use them safely.

But I couldn’t shift. I rode the 6 miles home in my lowest gear.


February 8, 2010

The advert on the back of the bus said: “Reduce your carbon footprint by 5924lbs — commute by bus.”

I was on a bike.

It seemed to me, that if I were to commute by bus, I would increase my carbon footprint, not decrease it.

Half a mile later there was another bus with a slightly different ad: “Reduce your carbon footprint by 4690lbs — commute by bus.”

I’m given two extremely precise, but quite different figures for doing the same thing. What credibility does this ad campaign have? Do they expect people to be so idiotic they won’t notice the discrepancy? I could forgive them if both buses read “… by 2~3 tons” — wrong in my case, but perhaps applicable to the average commuter in SB.


I’d like to see the basis for these figures and, of course, some explanation for why they are so different.


Remember Kyoto? Well back then the US promised that in 2012 we would have reduced emissions by 7% below 1990 levels. Instead they are currently about 15% higher. Lies.

The Copenhagen “accord” says that the we must keep the global temperatures from rising more than 2°C. Yet the cuts on offer will (probably) let temperatures rise by 3°C. Lies.

At Copenhagen the US promised that in 2020 we would have reduced carbon emissions by 17% below 2005 levels (or, using the old benchmark, to 4% below 1990 levels).

(Note that after 13 years we are promising to do less than before).

Just how we intend to do this is unclear to me. The only thing I have seen recently is that in the state of the Union address Obama promised: Nuclear power, offshore drilling (um, that sounds like a way to increase our carbon footprint), biofuels (I have not heard of any research which shows that these actually do decrease carbon emissions) and clean coal (Sounds like an oxymoron).

Nuclear power has all kinds of problems, but it might help decrease carbon emissions. But even in that best of all possible worlds where there are no worries of using fissionables there remains the question: How long does it take to build a nuclear power plant? Can we build enough quickly to have any significant effect by 2020?

Offshore drilling is not going to decrease carbon emissions and it is reprehensible for Obama to claim that it is.

Even if effective, biofuels have the major disadvantage that they have increased global food prices, which leads to famine and increases global instability. Like nuclear power this is a dangerous tool.

Clean coal. Um. Yeah. If you want to get energy out of coal you must oxidize it, and CO2 will be the cleanest result. Perhaps they mean a more efficient process. I guess that means fuel cells. People have been making with fuel cells since 1839 and they still aren’t mainstream. Research into them is probably reasonable, but expecting results in time to be useful by 2020 sounds unlikely.

No mention whatsoever of renewable technologies. Things that work now and don’t have huge disadvantages.

I don’t think we will make a 17% reduction in 10 years. I think it’s just another lie.

These things matter. Our children’s lives are at stake, my life might be. Please don’t lie to me.


February 7, 2010

I woke up Wednesday morning with a pain in my right knee.

I don’t know where it came from, I don’t remember anything like that on Tuesday.

I immediately assumed I should stop running, and just do low impact things (like biking and aqua-jogging). Even biking hurt the knee. So did aqua-jogging.

This seemed very bad. I’d just (mostly) gotten over my last problem, had run one reasonable race, had signed up for a marathon, and then boom. I couldn’t do anything.

Biking hurt a lot. I decided to give it up.

To my surprise, using the elliptical was OK.

I tried walking, and found it didn’t hurt.

I ran across the street at stop-lights, and that didn’t hurt either.

Friday I walked 13 miles — my commuting, which I normally do by bike.

Saturday I ran a tempo workout and that didn’t hurt (and walked to pottery class, 6miles round trip).


I have just reread Three Men in a Boat, and recalled that when J., thinking he is dying, goes to visit his medical friend, the friend prescribes:

1lb beefsteak
1pint bitter beer
1 ten-mile walk every morning
1 bed at 11pm sharp every night

And to J. this seems quite reasonable advice.

A 10 mile walk every morning, to keep fit.

Now-a-days that seems such a lot.

But back in 1889 people walked. J. thinks nothing of walking 4 miles into town to visit friends and then 4 back at the end of the evening.


I have, from Copenhagen, a piece of paper.

February 1, 2010

Or a blank pdf document anyway.

Yesterday the world was supposed to have given substance to that accord, by signing up with (non-binding) agreements on carbon reductions.

I couldn’t find any information yesterday, but today there is some. Supposedly 51 nations (out of 192) have signed up, including the US, China, the 27 countries of the EU, Australia, Indonesia, Canada, Japan and India. So that is something.

I can’t find what these nations have committed to; the presumption being that it will be what they said before Copenhagen.

On the down side, the BASIC countries (Brasil, South Africa, India, China) were only willing to sign up after being reassured by the secretary-general of the UN that the accord did not mean anything.

The accord is non-binding. No one but the EU paid attention to Kyoto, which was binding. Am I to believe that anything significant will come of this paper?

Remember no one has made any significant commitments beyond what they had at Copenhagen. And some commitments have been reduced (the EU went in to Copenhagen saying they would reduce by 30% if other countries joined in. Other countries did not, and their offer has fallen to 20% — better than anyone else though). Estimates at the time said the cuts on offer would lead to at best a 3°C rise. Now a 3°C rise will have some pretty horrific consequences:

After a 3C global temperature rise, global warming may run out of control and efforts to mitigate it may be in vain. Millions of square kilometres of Amazon rainforest could burn down, releasing carbon from the wood, leaves and soil and thus making the warming even worse, perhaps by another 1.5C. In southern Africa, Australia and the western US, deserts take over. Billions of people are forced to move from their traditional agricultural lands, in search of scarcer food and water. Around 30-50% less water is available in Africa and around the Mediterranean. In the UK, summers of droughts are followed by winter floods. Sea levels rise to engulf small islands and low-lying areas such as Florida, New York and London. The Gulf Stream, which warms the UK all year round, will decline and changes in weather patterns will lead to higher sea levels at the Atlantic coasts.

Copenhagen was a media circus. It even reached the eyes of the US press. Yesterday seems to have been very quiet. But yesterday was the day when numbers were committed to. Yesterday mattered. Why the silence? This is probably most worrying of all. We don’t care.

We won’t do anything.

2 Feb The count of nations who submitted a response is up to 55 now, supposedly representing 78% of carbon emissions. The UN itself admits that the proposed cuts are not enough to reach 2°C but offers no guess as to what the increase might be.

“That is the bottom line, but you can look at it negatively and positively,” Pasztor (top climate adviser to the UN) said. “The negative part is that it’s not good enough. The positive side is that for the first time, we have a goal, a clear goal that we’re all working toward … Before we would just talk.”

I don’t understand this quote. Before we had the Kyoto treaty. Which actually had a goal and some teeth in it. Now we have non-binding commitments. I don’t see the positive side myself.

I get very angry when people try to spin something which will lead to disaster in a positive light. I think it is  an extremely dangerous thing to do. It reduces the urgency, it gives people a warm fuzzy feeling, they come away thinking everything is alright.

It isn’t.