It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A grumble

A random grumble about coupled models found during the cleanup. This may provide some insight into one of the key failure points of my checkered career as a scientist.


It's the clocking when you couple systems that makes for messes like these. Even if co-designed, the component models necessarily have different time steps.

Not only is it a kluge to make the ice the main(), as far as I understand nobody has investigated the dynamic implications of various coupling strategies. 

I am very confident that somebody smarter than me can figure out a predictor-corrector (a sort of huge Runge-Kutta step) scheme for the coupler strategy. Whether it is worth the bother is unclear to me. Perhaps the extant coupling is good enough. 

But to be honest, if anybody has done any serious math defending the proposal that ANY of the various ad hoc coupling strategies of climate models (or perhaps of multiphysics models in general) does no significant damage to the coupled system dynamics, I haven't seen it. Maybe it's obvious to some. Or maybe it's hard, but someone has worked through it. Or maybe it's just a crude hack that needs a major rethinking.

I really wanted to approach this experimentally, as my math isn't subtle enough to answer the question to my own satisfaction. But I put too much faith in a piece of DoE middleware, not for the first time, and fell flat on my face.

Wow! Just Wonderful Wow!

Re-upping this from 2011.


This infographic which ran on The Economist has been getting a lot of attention, and it's worthy of the attention, too.

Of course, almost everything on this time scale is a hockey stick. Some people find this a bit alarming. Others think it is cause for celebration.

Here's a particularly classic example of Not Getting It,
Wow! Just wonderful wow!

Lest we forget, amidst the daily/weekly/monthy/yearly ups and downs of the market, the market is an historically off-the-charts (almost literally) innovation machine.

Be happy that you live when you do and, if you live in the first world, where you do.
Now of course, the curmudgeonly likes of you and me don't join in the celebration. We immediately think, I guess this sort of person has never learned about The Exponential, as explained by Prof. Bartlett.

But these guys don't even have that excuse, as revealed in the comments:
I’m wondering about this…(just daydreaming)…The derivative is e^x. One might think that the derivative will always be e^x. History – and the future – always looks the most impressive to those alive/making it.
No, dude, that isn't how exponentials behave in real-world applications, see... Eventually constraints that weren't applicable in the early exponential growth phase appear and... Well, it gets complicated after that.

Anyway the reactions to this graph show that people are struck by different things. Others are struck by the triumphant march of civilization. I am struck by how little all this growth nets us.

I am struck that here we are, in the Great Recession or the Lesser Depression or whatever the hell it is. Yet the size of our economic activity exceeds that of any year in history prior to 2008. It substantially exceeds that of the rip-roaring 1990s and the Morning-In-America 1980s and utterly dwarfs the productivity of the postwar boom of the 1950s.

If production is wealth, we are in the richest period ever. We could afford to go to the moon in the 1960s. But now we are in "austerity" measures. We are forcing Greece to sell itself off to bankers. We are firing all our schoolteachers.

What exactly is this thing that has grown, then? And why should we be so happy about it?

Clearly, the thing that has grown is worse than worthless unless it keeps growing, since when it stops growing, we can't afford to educate our children. And of course, as it gets bigger and bigger, it gets harder and harder to sustain the growth. So that being the case, what glorious achievement does the graph really show? It's not only clear to me what is ominous about this graph. It's actually unclear to me what is so inspiring about it.

It's terrifying that this is a thing that has to grow exponentially all the time or else we have to immediately act on an emergency basis to shut down our civilization, cutting back on parks and cultural events, removing medical coverage from great swaths of the public, firing our schoolteachers. I don't find a thing like that something to celebrate.

Somebody, tell me again, what is all this endless increase in activity yielding us?

Some big picture stuff from a few years back (2014)

Sorting Out Old Material.

Found this fragment, introductory to a talk. Probably nothing new to you. But this is roughly how I start out talks to the general public.


I have no clear memory of first becoming concerned about climate change. 

As a young science buff, the idea that that temperature of the earth depends crucially on the concentrations of a few trace gases, especially water vapor and CO2, was presented to me as uncontroversial, established fact by sources I trusted, notably Isaac Asimov, long before it made the news. The idea that this would present a problem in my own lifetime was not presented as controversial in the 1960s and I don't remember having any doubt about it as a young reader.

LBJ mentioned it in an address to congress in 1965, before my ninth birthday. Johnson's panel of science advisors told him

"By the year 2000 there will be about 25 percent more CO2 in the atmosphere than at present. This will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur."

In fact, this general picture was first known in the scientific literature by 1898.

I became professionally involved in climate in 1989. It interested me for two reasons. First, the climate system itself is a fascinating, intricate complexity with some rather beautiful mathematics associated with efforts to understand it. Second, it is a crucial example of how democracy is going to be challenged in the increasingly complex, increasingly tightly coupled world of the future. 

Some non-obvious ideas had to be absorbed into the governing strategy by way of a democratic process. How would we cope?

So far, that question remains unanswered.


Let me make sure you understand a four key points. These are points about which I am essentially certain, and which the public doesn't seem to understand, and which I think any sane discussion of our quandary has to start with. 

1) It's already happening

2) It's cumulative

3) You ain't seen nothin' yet

4) Uncertainty is not our friend


1) It's already happening

This is the main thrust of the third National Climate Assessment and the associated publicity push that put climate in the news this week. There's nothing particularly new in the report from a scientific point of view, but it's daunting. Everywhere you go, wildlife is stressed, infrastructure has taken some hits, agriculture is rapidly changing. We had our 2011 drought and fire season; New York City had its storm surge from Sandy; Nashville and Boulder and just recently Pensacola had unprecedented 24-hour rainfalls, and so on.
2) It's cumulative

The changes we are seeing are predominantly because of human changes to the natural environment, and of these, the most important is release of CO2 into the atmosphere. ANd CO2 is the most troubling for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it's cumulative, CO2 is the product of ordinary combustion; we "light fire" to things and they release energy and turn into, basically, ash and steam and CO2. The steam rains out pretty quickly, but the CO2 stays in the air and the oceans for a very long time - thousands of years to make a dent in it, hundreds of thousands to fade away entirely. 

This means that to stop climate disruption, that is the human-forced unnaturally rapid climate change, we can't just cut back on CO2 emissions. They basically have to stop altogether. 

3) You ain't seen nothin' yet

The second reason its' troubling is that the system doesn't respond immediately. The air temperature changes more or less immediately (warmer near the surface, colder in the stratosphere, as the atmosphere acts like a better blanket) but it also responds to the ocean temperature and the ice temperature, and those change very slowly. So at any time we've only seen the effects of the CO2 we put out some years ago. Further, the economic commitment, our power plants, our roads, our vehicles, can't be turned around overnight. So by the time climate change is actually visible, you are already committed to a pretty severe 

4) Uncertainty is not our friend

The doubts you hear so much about nowadays were not expressed decades ago, even though our scientific basis was much sketchier. The explanation has to be that decision points were further in the future. But the form of those doubts follows an old pattern of industry faced with inconvenient evidence - the casting of doubt. If there is doubt that cigarettes kill, or leaded gas kills, then surely it is unfair to penalize existing industries until the case is made, goes the argument. And to be fair, false accusations can be and occasionally are hurled at industry for a number of reasons. But the argument that we aren't sure in this case is irrational. We can't calibrate exactly how bad it's going to get by when, even if we could predict exactly how humans would act regarding climate-relevant behaviours. There are a number of climate-science uncertainties, and the purveyors of confusion are happy to dwell on them. But almost every one of these cuts both ways. The problem could be smaller and slower than we expect, but it could also be harsher and faster than we expect. So now the problem is actuarial. You protect yourself against the plausible disasters. You don't tell your child to cross the street in the middle of the block because chances are 99% that she'll get across in one piece! You worry about that hundredth time! Your child is precious to you, of course, but the world is precious to her! If you are uncertain and in any real sense "conservative", you will not use the uncertainty to justify foolhardy risks.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dead or Canadian?



I'm fine, and I'm in Canada!

I've always been a Canadian citizen, but have lived in the US most of my adult life.

I've been relatively silent (except sporadically on Twitter) of late. I've been wrapped up in liquidating assets in Texas, finding a place to live in Canada, working on my wife Irene's immigration process, packing up, and moving in.

As a young man, I, like many ambitious Canadians, wanted to be where the action is. I joined the brain drain, gravitating mostly to Chicago, first on student visas, then on an expert visa status, then with a green card. Except for four years in the 1980s, I've been living in the US since 1972.

In recent years, the comparison between the countries reversed. Partly it might be the tastes of an older person, and partly it could be the relatively more severe stresses in American society, but visits to Canada increasingly revealed a calmer, saner, and more attractive environment.

We decided to move last October, so it wasn't Trump that tipped the scales, but we might have procrastinated. We said to each other "well, if Trump wins we'll go immediately", but it was more of a joke than anything.

We toured Ontario that month, looking for an a place that was attractive, had urban amenities, closeness to nature, and good bicycling opportunities. Ottawa won by a wide margin. Notwithstanding Canadian winter, there's a solid argument for Ottawa as the best city in the western hemisphere.

(Image could be me except I always have a helmet on, from CBC.)

Moving from Austin has been an assault on the ears, I'll admit. People who have the temerity to sing on stage in public here would be laughed out of karaoke bars in Austin.

Mitigating the music losses, I can stream and My old favourite low wattage Chicago radio station, WHPK, is also streaming now! Please, lawyers, leave this lifeline alone!

The food is better than I remembered, and the plant-based dining options are especially good. Regarding Texas foodstuffs I have some trouble finding chiles and tomatillos but masa is easy to find, and we've found a taqueria that will sell us their excellent tortillas. Some of the vegan-targeted stuff on the shelf is unfamiliar and needs adjusting to. No mock chicken Better Than Bouillon, alas! There is a tofu-based meat substitute that puts Beyond Meat stuff to shame, which was an interesting and pleasant surprise. Falafel joints on every corner, and innumerable Indian buffets though I should avoid all that butter. A weekly farmer's market nearby, and of course, Byward Market in easy bicycle range.

Key benefits, in addition to the amazing bicycle path network, include remarkable visual arts communities, with one of the best art museums in the world very nearby. Also you can always play "guess the flag" when you happen across an embassy.


I have picked up my writing, thanks for asking. The book I was planning, a popular book on severe events in a changing climate, is back on the docket.

And I'll be blogging here.

I have plans to rework the content on Planet3.0 which I'll let you know about as they firm up. I'll leave the old articles up with their old URLs; I think that's what websites should do.


We have a few contacts in town, but not as many as we'd like, so if you know someone in or near Ottawa, I'd be happy to hear from them.

If I have any readers in Canada (other than the ones I'm already in contact with) I'd love to hear from you. Help me plan a book tour!


Sorry for my abrupt fizzling out. This move was a big step and took a lot out of me.

I do intend to fizzle back in. Thanks to those who inquired.


The title "Dead or Canadian?" was a quiz that was run on a US game show called Remote Control. The contestant was given the name of a modestly famous person, usually a show business celebrity, who was either Canadian or deceased. The contestant won points by guessing correctly.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Free speech, Mercy, and Justice.

The old Jewish Kabbalist view of God has two balanced parts, Mercy and Justice.

Too much free speech is too much mercy. Justice requires that there be some way of delimiting good, valid, truthful speech from disrespectful, sick, or dishonest speech.

Censorship is a blunt tool. Social disapproval is as well. But perhaps they are better than nothing. We now lack any means whatever to separate the true from the false. Without a way for the good stuff to rise above the bad stuff, well, look around you.