Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reporting from the Summer ESIP meeting in Knoxville, Tn.

Tom Wilbanks has just finished talking about the changing CO2 scenario picture. His talk concluded that we are now looking at higher-end scenarios (up to 1200 ppm CO2) that will take the planet into a climate environment that is very risk filled. So the high-end scenarios that the IPCC were most concerned about are now the middle range expectations for the near future. The mitigation efforts have failed to gain sufficient international impetus to maintain the hope for a limited climate change response to human activities. The focus is shifting to adaptation.

Eileen Shea from NOAA is now talking about the new NOAA Climate Service. The job for NOAA is to enable individuals to take responsible actions at all levels, from local responses to national policy. NOAA will need to be a central partner in the proposed National Climate Service, which is a multi-agency effort. Check out the NOAA strategic plan on the web:

NOAA is looking to build more agency-wide climate capabilities so that all of the parts of NOAA are prepared to work together toward a more climate literate public. NOAA is looking for people who can walk between science and decision making. This is a move away from a pure-science effort.

NOAA has an interest and a responsibility to support mitigation efforts and to model how climate change might lead to extreme weather events. This fall, NOAA will be formally submitting a package to Congress to authorize the Climate Service.

The NOAA Climate Services Portal is at
They are looking for user feedback.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Google is moving ahead with their gigabit internet decision

A thousand communities await their decision, but you have to believe that Google's real intention here was to put a clear light on the lack of world-class broadband in American cities.
Check out their website: Google Fiber to the Home

Here in Santa Barbara, we never got to the point of hi-jinks and cyber-begging, but you have to believe that the local mix of internet mavens and Hollywood stars might prove a highly visible target for Google's effort. Once you get Brad Pitt, Al Gore, and Oprah up on gigabit internet, you can forget about the mayor of Outerbumfrak buzz cutting her hair and tattooing "I love Google" on her bleeding scalp.

So Google, if you are indeed still pondering where to put your gigabit internet, ponder this: Santa Barbara will put you on the map like no other small town in the US. Of course, it's already a Google Map, but you know what we mean.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Certainly enough ignorance to go around

Another week, and a week of reading through another flurry of aggravated blogs and blog comments on topics environmental, political, and other. One of the common strategies in these postings is to accuse someone of ignorance. "That ignorant so-and-so can't seem to understand ________." Calling someone ignorant is an increasingly easy, and unfortunately increasingly non-trivial attack these days. A Google search for "ignorant" culls up more than 30 million hits. Of course, a similar search for "expert" results in more than a hundred million hits.

Just as knowledge can and might well be considered to have a wide variety of types, so too does ignorance. The top of this list, up in the rarified climes of professional expertise, is the increasing ignorance of scientists in the face of an increasing deluge of scientific information (publications) and data resources. Even those in tiny specialties have seen the content load of new science double every few years. Some decades ago when I was a graduate student at Penn, I shared a house with three medical students. After their required specialty rotations each of them decided that pathology might be the only real occupation for their future. "We actually know so little about the human body," they lamented, "It might be safer to study them after they're dead." Let me call this type of ignorance "professional-ignorance." While scientists do their best to keep up and keep pace with the information load, they are all a little guilty of this. In their defense, they are the folks who face the actual precipice of the unknown--the edge of knowledge; and they are tasked to expand this knowledge envelope for us all. Their work defines the boundary between ignorance and knowability. However, "professional ignorance" is not the ignorance I'm usually reading about in the blogosphere,  even though science-bashing is back in vogue.

The next type of ignorance we find is what I would call "educated-ignorance." There are far too few hours in a day or even a year to stay on top of all of the many possible topics of interest to any one individual. If even the experts have a hard time in their own fields, what sort of chance does anybody else have? Educated-ignorance is pretty much my life. I've spent several years learning how to learn various subjects, but I'm more or less (sometimes, I hope much less) ignorant about any of these, as I swim the mighty currents of an omnipresent information overload. Educated-ignorance is reflexive enough to understand its shortcomings. It is the knowledge virus of the information age. Fortunately, its victims are also savvy enough in just-in-time learning to turn a temporary lack of understanding into a more robust purview on any one selected topic. The educated-ignorant individual is appropriately suspicious of the entire notion of certainty. For even as she can, with some effort, cure her ignorance of, say, the impact of volcanic dust on jet engines, or the mysteries of credit default swaps, she knows that, in the weeks ahead, her lack of attention to these topics will increase her ignorance of them.  Calling someone who understands educated-ignorance "ignorant" has no real effect. They are prone to agree with you.

The remaining realm of ignorance is where its invective is based. It is used mostly by people who have selected a few cherished sources of information (perhaps a radio talk-show host or a famous blog). The insult is directed at everyone who have either chosen other sources of information or who have disagreements with the writer's sources. The writer is usually certain that the messages his sources have revealed are so evident and so rational that anyone who listened to them would have to agree with them, and so would agree with him. This certainty is the launchpad for any number of claims of ignorance in others. It also reveals a more focused form of ignorance in the writer. As Eric Hoffer noted, "We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand." Let's call this "infallible-ignorance." The infallibly ignorant has gathered all of her knowledge eggs into a tiny basket, and defends this with an unbridled ferocity. Here we find the bellowing of the demagogue, and the bluster of the true believer. The infallibly ignorant may have an under-developed skill in researching beyond the sources they trust, and can never understand the depth of their own ignorance.  They can change, of course. Most of us were like this at some point in high-school or college; clinging to the right to bullshit our way through life. Most people do move on, but the infallibly ignorant just dig in. 

While there is certainly enough ignorance in the world for each of us to have our share, we can try our best to avoid the folly of infallible-ignorance, and to discover and overcome the limits of our knowledge at least for another day.

Image: calm, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) image from manuel_72's photostream

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hello again to books, and a sad farewell to book stores

I've spent, over my adult life, probably the equivalent of an entire year browsing in book stores. This is after I made enough money not to hang out in libraries. My wife has a broad range of browsing destinations, but she always knew where to find me... at the nearest book store. For twenty years we've budgeted at least fifty dollars a month for books. Book store gift certificates have long been welcome birthday and holiday gifts, and eagerly spent. I've been a member of the Seminary Coop book store in Chicago for many years: they sent me dozens of books seamail (remember that?) when we lived in Kyoto, Japan. I'm a great fan of Kramers Books in DC, and will spend a good part of any day in Portland, OR at Powells World of Books. I write books.

Suddenly, this week. I feel like a bookstore quisling; like I'm in foreign territory out for no good. And there is one simple reason for this: my iPad.  I have several eBook readers on my new iPad, and a few dozen titles, and I'm thinking I might never buy another block of celulose again. I'm reading at least as much as before, only my transactions are all online. I went browsing today downtown, and found a few titles I might have purchased on the spot. Except now, the only spot that matters is the one on the Amazon, or Apple, or other ebook seller site.  Oh, I'll certainly succumb to that great new photography or occasional architecture book, simply because the print resolution is satisfying. But when I wander into my local book store, my wallet mostly stays firmly in my pocket.

This scares me, since I figure if I'm not buying books, given my history and love for the product, then who will? Or should I simply step up a bit to look at the big picture, and figure that book stores are the modern equivalent of telegraph offices or stagecoach corrals. My son is in grad school, reading more books than he ever figured he might, but his son or daughter might need to be told of the days when reading materials were sold in stores as books. My latest novel has been much more successful as an eBook than a paperback. And my next novel might not ever see an ink and paper incarnation. A moment of sadness is a small indulgence here. My wife will still know where to find me: at the nearest coffee shop with wifi, downloading another book.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Gigabit technology and University research

While the UC Santa Barbara already shares one of the fastest internet connections on the planet, students and others who live away from campus find that their ability to connect to academic resources from home can seriously impact their ability to work. Google's gigabit internet fiber to the home would reconnect these scholars and students to the resources that are now only available physically on campus. This would also allow University alumni and others who want to access resources from camus in homes around Santa Barbara.

Photo Credit: CC licensed by MarcelGermain

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What can we do with gigabit internet? What can't we do!

Google's enticing offer to build out test sites for gigabit internet (fiber to the home) opens the door to the next level of computer networking. The difference between the internet (WAN) and the local network (LAN) disappears, and we are all as connected as the devices in the same building. In one move, this fact demolishes that threshold between downloading content and using content. The download delay disappears and the game, the videoconference, the movie we need is just HERE.

Usability experts have long known that the key to psychological comfort in an interface is the feeling of control. Push a button and something happens NOW. Want to see that HD video preview? Push a button and watch it. Want to send a file to a colleague, push a button and it's there. Of course, the need for speed will also push our expectations. In a couple years we will be hungering for that 4k video feed. Of course, that's the glory of fiber optics--change out the hardware on both ends and a gigabit connection can become a 16 gigabit connection.

Bring it on Google! Santa Barbara is ready for you!
photo credit: CC licensed by sirwiseowl

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Earth Science Meeting in DC #4

Jake Weltzin from the USGS is talking about using phenology to study climate change effects. Phenology is the study of the variations that occur seasonally in plants and animals. When leaves turn color in that fall, that's a phenological event. The timing of these events offers scientists great clues for climate change. In a recent study 62% of species are showing predictable changes in response to climate warming. This means their springtime changes are occurring earlier. For some species, such as migratory species, this can be a deadly trend. The USGS Phenology effort is looking for student scientists and others to help perform a hundred thousand observations. This is a great opportunity for science students to get involved.