Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

Handbook in Denialism

04 May

It would not surprise me if the denialists would deny the existence of the new book by Haydn Washington and John Cook ( ‘Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand‘. Somehow, I don’t think they will read it – but they are not target group of this book either. Anyway, denialism is, according to the book, a common human trait – we should all know somebody who deny one thing thing or another.

Furthermore, denial is not the same as being skeptical, either, and Washington and Cook argue it is quite the opposite. Hence, the term “skeptics” for these deniers can be described as Orwellian “doublespeak”“newspeak”.

Denial is apparently caused by our lizard brainstem. What coincidence then, when talking about fossil fuels from plants from the era of huge long dead lizards (the fossil fuels are not made of the dinosaurs), that denying evidence for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is linked to that lizard part of the brain. So, what about using the labels ‘reptiles’ or ‘dinos’? Washington and Cook opt for ‘deniers’, and so will I hereafter.

‘Climate Change Denial’ is a useful book and resource for those with an open mind – for instance journalists. It reads easy and provides a fairly concise picture of the situation many of climate scientists have to live with.

The book makes many good points, but I’d like to add some of my own thoughts. Many of the deniers dress up in a scientific cloak, but if the criteria of science is Replicability (‘R’), Objectivity (‘O’), and Transparency (‘T’) (remember ‘ROT’), then any rotten argument should easily be discarded. If there is any substance to the counter claims, then there should be no problem replicating these with objective methods, and similar data (science is only interesting if the results are universal). I have tried to get some denialists to show me their method and data, but end up being told that I’m stupid.

One problem is that there is no good public stage for evaluating claims by applying ROT – Internet is just too vast and disorganized, in addition to being limited to people active on the Internet. But books as this are one contribution to examining the claims.

”Climate Change Denial’ discusses the most common set of denial arguments. When Washington and Cook address the precautionary principle, they provide some examples. They could equally have mentioned that the precautionary principle is used very selectively and inconsistently – such as WMD in Iraq.

I think the discussion about the scientific method, consensus, and basic climate science may be useful for many readers. The book explains that consensus arises when there is a most convincing explanation for the conditions we see – this is often twisted and put on its head, and denialists think that the explanation follows the consensus, exposing ignorance about fundamental aspects of science.

One of my own favorite criticisms of the deniers is their use of dogmatic reference to various texts (described as “cherry picked” in the book) and repeat this claim over and over again. Although repeating it doesn’t make it more true, it’s a cunning way to drive in their message in people’s mind – just like cramming or training. This behavior also shows that there is no dialogue, as any counter argument is almost with out exception neglected. This in addition to making completely illogical connections.

The discussion about the climate science is fairly brief, but I think that the book would have been even more convincing by citing more broadly, rather than keeping referring to a handful of central people. It would be good to show the vast volume of work done in climate science supporting the concept of AGW, as some names (and the IPCC) are getting a bit worn over time through having their work (only) seemingly tarnished by the denialist camp.

The discussion about feedbacks provides a useful list of amplifying or dampening mechanisms playing a role for an AGW, but I missed three dampening feedbacks. Furthermore, ‘negative’ feedbacks in various systems work may be either through reducing the effect of an initial forcing (the black body feedback, lapse rate feedback), or by keeping the state near an optimal state (oscillator, ‘Gaia’-hypothesis, thermostat-type).

For either case of negative feedback, I think it would be a challenge to explain how a planet could sustain a GHE if you consider one with no atmosphere and gradually add a greenhouse gas. This way of analysing the situation is a bit similar to some approaches for solving physics problems, such as estimating the velocity of satellites around the earth by assuming that it’s initially very (infinitely) far away and assuming that loss in potential energy equals gain in kinetic energy. Similarly, if the earth starts with as little atmosphere as the moon, and that it gradually gets thicker and more extensive, how sensitive would the surface temperature be to the gas concentrations if the sensitivity was very low? Or does the fact that earth’s surface is about 30C warmer than if it had no atmosphere mean a more substantial sensitivity – even when the forcing is proportional to the logarithm of the CO2 concentrations? And what about Venus’ hot surface?

Some feedbacks are non-linear, and some act with a time delay (in many systems, that often gives rise to spontaneous fluctuations). I found it surprising that the book discussed a runaway greenhouse effect, but this concept is hardly being discussed – as far as I know – in the research community. Again, I think the book draws on a small number of scientists.

Washington and Cook refer to two studies demonstrating the different view of AGW in the climate research community and the general public. Whereas 97.5% of the (active) climate research community thinks AGW is a real problem (Doran and Zimmerman, 2009), only 58% (Gallup, 2009) of the general society shares this view. This is a really serious situation of great concern. They also list a number of reasons why this may be so. I think they do have a point, but I also think that there are other reasons too. In fact, I wonder if this is not what one would expect, given the circumstances? This question is relevant for their discussion of the ‘deficit model‘. The question is whether the society’s knowledge about AGW is really the major hirdle – which Washington and Cook argue that may not be so, but rather due to our denial.

On the other hand, the amount of effort and work dedicated into communicating our knowledge about our climate has been really tiny! Most scientists are mainly doing other things. Communication has perhaps not been sufficiently valued and not been regarded as an important job. Such activities have in the past not been well coordinated and may have suffered from lack of collaboration, as many scientists often compete with one another for the same funding. In other words, too little resources, too little collaboration, and lack of training (The IPCC report do not reach the masses, but seem to be written by scientist for scientists).

The present situation also suggests that the denial campaign have been hugely successful – due to a well-funded propaganda campaign according to Oreskes and Conway. Communication is probably more important than we think – just consider the fuzz around “Climategate”, Wikileaks, Al Jazeera, and the effect of social media in recent days in North Africa.

Although not said explicitly in the book, science must become more ‘domesticated’ in order to make progress. ‘Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand‘ is a step in this direction. Science should be something that everybody feel an ownership to and that is relevant for everybody, not just the elite (this is discussed in more detail by Chris Mooney). The deniers campaign may have been successful at increasing the gap between science and the society even further.

There is also the fact that way too little has been done regarding mitigation and adaptation, and too few people work with these issues. So when top politicians travel around to international climate summits, but provide little funding for work on mitigation and adaptation – that really is double communication. Washington and Cook call it ‘governmental denial’. I see some irony in this – at a recent conference (Carbononiums), the Norwegian minister of environment denied that the AGW-deniers matter, as well as that any influential politician denies AGW.

The last part of the book discusses economy, philosophy, politics, and solutions to the climate problem. I think that this part compliments a similar discussion in Paul Epstein and Dan Ferber’s recent book ‘Changing Planet, Changing Health‘, as I don’t think their list is completely exhaustive. Their message about philosophy seems to be that post-modernism has been widely misunderstood, and I gather that too many journalists have got too strong a dose of post-modernism in their journalism education (balance aspect).

What is really needed, I guess, is that they keep in mind ROT and try to examine the evidence for the different views. Basically, do some work rather than just reporting the disagreement in a superficial fashion. I’d urge journalists to act more like detectives and examine the logic of the claims- what is really behind the argument? I can’t imagine post-modern detectives and lawyers.

The book also discusses overpopulation and geo-engineering – for more detailed discussion on the latter, I’d recommend Flemmings recent book ‘Fixing the sky’. Regarding overpopulation, Washington and Cook refer to Paul Ehrlich’s book form 1968 ‘The Population Bomb’, and states that the impact from overpopulation is the product of population × affluence × technology. The validity and usefulness of this equation is debatable.

The last chapters in Washington and Cook book provide a more subjective and compassionate discussion about climate change – which I think also is important. They argue about the urgency in fixing the world’s climate and environmental problem, and suggest a number of solutions, and touch upon the materialistic values (a bit like TheStoryofStuff), and discuss the need to reset our values (perhaps a bit like “Yes Men fix the world“). Their views are sure to cause provocation in some quarters. Nevertheless, I think that these chapters provide a nice complementation to some of the discussion provided in Epstein and Ferber’s book, who also discuss things like wedges, smart power nets, etc.

None of these books discuss possible ‘multiplicative effects’, where several factors proportionally increase the effect. For instance, if more effective cars only use 70% of fuel, the portion of fossil sources for energy use is adjusted down to 80%, smart planning and collaboration results in 4 people in each car (say 30%), and a ‘smart’ organization of the working week means less commuting (80%; TGIT), then combined effect of this can in theory give a reduction by 0.7 x 0.8 x 0.3 x 0.8 = 0.13. Likewise, a combination of increased efficiency at both ends of energy production and consumption can in principle result in an enhanced mitigating effect. Washington and Cook argue that we really need to get on with this work, as the AGW problem is an urgent problem: The longer we wait – the worse the situation.


Review: Beautiful Visualization – Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts

09 Mar

I finally got a chance to take a closer look at O'Reilly's most recent edition to their "Beautiful" series, Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts, and it's a good one. In case you're not familiar, each book in the series is a collection of essays from people who work in the field. Essays range in topic, but they usually focus on a single project and discuss the steps it took to make said project. To be clear, Beautiful Visualization isn't a how-to book, although you can learn a lot from the writings.

First Impressions

When I first received Beautiful Visualization in the mail and opened up the package, it was smaller than I expected. Height and width are the same as the previous Beautiful Data, but it's about a third smaller in depth. However, I realized that's just because they use a different kind of paper (without feeling cheap) and it actually has about twenty more pages than Beautiful Data, coming in at just under 400. All of the images are in full color and big enough so that you can make out the details.

The Authors

There are 20 chapters, or essays rather, by 24 authors. The lineup will tip you off on what you're in for, and many of the names will sound familiar, as they've been mentioned on FD on more than several occasions. There were a few names on the list that I didn't recognize, but it's clear that everyone enjoys what they do, and more importantly, enjoy playing with data.

Noah Illinsky, who edited the book with Julie Steele, sets the stage with the first chapter on what is meant by beautiful visualization. Then the rest of the essays get into specific projects and datasets.

For example, Jer Thorp, who was the data artist in residence at the New York Times over the summer, goes into how he made use of the New York Times API.

Aaron Koblin, whose work below we all know I am sure, dives into Flight Patterns and how he got into exploring 24 hours worth of flight data.

Robert Kosara explains the process of parallel sets.

Moritz Stefaner explored submissions to the prix ars electronica over several decades.

Maximilian Schich uses data matrices to uncover patterns in heterogenous data.

Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas also describe History Flow, their visualization to show Wikipedia edits, Jessica Hagy briefly covers her index cards, and several others go into detail about how they did things.

Learning About Process

While visualization can get very technical, the authors do a good job of keeping things abstract enough so that you know what they're talking about even if you're not particularly experienced in the field. They provide enough detail though that it's still interesting for others.

A lot of people who are interested in visualization think that's it's a matter of learning a bunch of tools, but there's a lot more to it than that. You're also learning about data, and learning what questions to ask, and if you don't know what questions to ask, you just end up with visualization that doesn't really mean anything. Design also plays a role in in conveying the message you want. So it's great that there's a resource that can help you get into the experts' heads.

If anything, it's just fun to read about the process of how a graphic or tool gets made. For example, Jonathan Feinberg, who designed the ever popular Wordle, explains what went into the work. Some people like to knock it, but he knows plenty well that the stylized word clouds aren't the best way to visualize data or extract information, or whatever.

Bottom Line

I'll tell you what this book isn't. It's not a how-to book. It's not a showcase book with screenshots of a bunch of out-of-context projects. Rather, Beautiful Visualization tells you how some well-known visualizations were made. I do wish there was at least one essay from a pure statistician like Di Cook, but other than that, the author group is a good one. All in all, it's a good read with interesting subject matter. Thumbs up.

[Amazon Link]


View Updates for Any Website Right on Your Desktop with Snippage

19 Feb

Snippage is a tool that, up until recently, I’ve never really had a use for. I recently decided to give it a try because I was frustrated and had no other options. Unfortunately, I’ll have to let you in on the whole story to understand (just skip the next paragraph if you’d rather not…).

I am an online student at Full Sail University and our email system does not allow POP or IMAP access. So, that means that I cannot access my school email from any other client, just Full Sail’s website. It also means that I have no way of receiving alerts or notifications for new messages in my inbox. A few days last week I was expecting some important emails and I really needed an easier way of knowing when a new message had arrived (rather than having to check my inbox every 10-15 minutes). It wasn’t until this whole issue evolved that I remembered coming across Snippage last year.

Snippage Snip Box

What Is It?

Snippage is an Adobe AIR application that lets you “make desktop widgets out of any site.” In other words, it’s a browser that lets you snip a piece of a website and refresh it every so often as if receiving automatic updates.

How Does It Work?

You must first navigate to the website you want to snip (within the Snippage browser). You can then move around and resize the snip box so that it only contains the section of the website that you want to monitor. Click on the “scissors” icon and Snippage with cut down the site to the size of your snip box.

Snippage Options


Once you have your “widget” you can now customize it (there are only 2 options located in the top right corner of the snip).

Links: You can choose to open links in a new window or new snip. Click on the circle (pictured to the right) once or twice depending on your preference.

Refresh Time: You can choose to have your snip automatically refresh every 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, 3 hours or never. Click on the refresh symbol (pictured to the right) until you get the option you want.

The Issue

I use Snippage on both my PC and Mac and have only really had one issue (which I was able to fix on my PC, but not Mac). It’s not a huge issue, but still an issue. The problem is that the snip/widget will not stay on top of all other windows.

I’ve found that “Always on Top” for Windows works great for keeping my snip on top of all the other windows I may have open. For my Mac I’ve tried using Afloat, but it just doesn’t seem to work with Snippage. Maybe there is another windows management app for Mac that will, but I haven’t tried any others yet.

Besides that small issue, as you can see problem solved with having to check my Full Sail email about 50 times a day. I can simply take a quick look at my snip to see if any new messages have arrived in my inbox. Snippage may not be much (it’s actually still in early development), but it does help to boost my productivity and helps to keep me sane! What more can you ask for?

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The Granddaddy of Amazon Customer-reviewed Products

10 Jan

We’ve had fun with facetious Amazon customer reviews for a number of odd products, like the TSA Security Checkpoint toy, the Three Wolf Moon Shirt, and the Table That Attaches to Your Steering Wheel (which has the world’s greatest customer images). But the granddaddy of all customer-reviewed Amazon products is Tuscan Whole Milk, which we featured back in 2006.

One should not be intimidated by Tuscan Whole Milk. Nor should one prejudge, despite the fact that Tuscan is non-vintage and comes in such large containers. Do not be fooled: this is not a jug milk. I always find it important to taste milk using high-quality stemware — this is milk deserving of something better than a Flintstones plastic tumbler. One should pour just a small dollop and swirl it in the glass — note the coating and look for clots or discoloration. And the color — it should be opaque, and very, very white. Now, immerse your nose in the glass and take a whiff. Tuscan transports you instantly to scenic hill towns in central Italy (is that Montepulciano I detect?) — there is the loamy clay, the green grass of summer days, the towering cypress.

Of course, the attraction was the novelty of a mail-order vendor selling fresh milk -which they don’t do anymore, but the product is available from “other sellers”, starting at $48.09. And now there are 1,240 reviews! Don’t miss the eight-stanza poem one reviewer left, along with five stars. Link -Thanks, Joe Kooman!


Nike Amp+ Review – I don’t get it.

28 Jan

nike_amp_1.jpgThis thing looks kind of dopey. Not sure if it gets my vote yet.

The Nike Amp iPod control watch is unusual for many reasons. To start with, it only displays hours and minutes. No seconds, no date, no alarm, no stopwatch. And to see the time, you actually have to press a button to illuminate the LED display.

But the Amp isnt designed to be an all-around running or fitness watch. Its specifically designed for runners who already have the Nike iPod kit. Similar to the Timex iControl we recently reviewed, the Nike Amp is a remote control for your iPod Nano, however unlike the Timex, the Nike Amp uses the existing Nike iPod gadget that plugs into your iPod, so youre actually adding the iPod remote control to the Nike iPod system.

Review of the Nike Amp+ iPod Control Watch – Watch Reviews, Information, and News

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