Monday, January 28, 2008

Loose Things

If you happen to see either of the above around your neighborhood let someone know. According to The New Scientist the American spy satellite USA-193 is scheduled to come down sometime in the next month...somewhere. Scheduled is probably not the word since this thing went out of control shortly after launch in 2006. We are assured that the reconnaissance satellite will probably burn up but you never know.
The other thing might be a loose nuke last seen in a shed outside an unidentified Russian businessman's dacha according to Sergei Tretyakov, a Russian defector, in his new book,"Comrade J :The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America at the End of the Cold War".

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Canada and Torture

Americans were disturbed to hear that Canada declared them to be a country where torture could be expected for those unfortunate enough to fall into their barbaric country's hands. As explained by Andy Worthington:

"In an attempt to prime diplomats about how to spot the signs of torture when they visit Canadians in foreign jails, the Canadian government's Foreign Affairs Department instigated a "torture awareness workshop," which also informed the diplomats of where they could expect to find what CTV in Canada described as "countries and places with greater risks of torture."

The list, in a training manual issued by the Foreign Affairs Department, included traditional offenders – Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Syria – but also included some torturers that are not generally mentioned in polite Western company: Israel and the United States. Specific mention was made of Guantánamo Bay, where, to drive the point home, the manual noted specific "U.S. interrogation techniques," including "forced nudity, isolation, and sleep deprivation."

The resulting embarrassment to the current Conservative Canadian government can't hide the fact that this situation does have a factual basis. Canadians only have to reflect on the case of Maher Arar to know what could happen to someone who falls into the wrong hands. Mr. Arar, if one does not know, was a Canadian citizen subjected to American "special rendition" and torture after being detained at JFK and sent to Syria. More details can be seen here.

The Toronto Star sums up the popular sentiment in Canada in the following:

"Jan 22, 2008 04:30 AM

U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins found it "offensive." Israeli Ambassador Alan Baker was "shocked." And Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier quickly pushed the panic button when he found Canada's diplomats are being trained to keep an eye open to torture not only by pariah states like Iran and Syria, but also by close allies.

That vigilance won Canada credit from Amnesty International, which praised us for being alert to rights abuses.

But the howls of outrage from Washington and Jerusalem at finding themselves on the foreign affairs watchlist next to "axis of evil" Iran sent Bernier lunging for the delete key faster than you can say "welcome to Gitmo." It was all a big, regrettable mistake, he said.

In future, Canada's "Torture Awareness Workshop Reference Materials" will be carefully purged of references to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, and of any other mention of the U.S. or Israel that might give offence. On balance, that's probably just as well. The checklist was not a brilliant idea. Only nine countries were named. Far more dabble in torture. Diplomats shouldn't need a list to be watchful.

But Bernier's scramble to say sorry for "the embarrassment caused" raises the question of who really deserves that fulsome apology.

The U.S., which only recently outlawed waterboarding? Israel, which reserves the right to use "moderate physical pressure" during interrogations? Prime Minister Stephen Harper's risk-averse government, for being caught with its pinstripes down? Or Canadians, who were mortified by this bungling and abject backflip?"

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Southern Melt

Recent data shows that melting of the West Antarctic Ice shelf is now proceeding at faster than predicted rates. The significance of this may be obvious to those watching global climate change but for climate change deniers undermines (literally) a premise that global warming does not affect the South Pole. Specifically the minimal temperature change at the Southern latitudes is not reflected in air temperature change. Now significant data suggests that ocean warming is melting Antarctic ice from below:

"In an e-mail, Dr. Rignot attributed the shrinkage in the ice sheet to an upwelling of warm waters along the Antarctic coast, which is causing some glaciers to flow more rapidly into the ocean.

He suspects the trend is due to global warming, and isn't part of a normal natural fluctuation.

"I see that as the main driver for the change in ice mass. And this means that we are not in a natural cycle, but in something that is related to global warming or global climate change, whichever you want to call it," he said.

The study said the continent had a net loss of about 196 billion tonnes of ice in 2006, an amount that is equal to more than a third of the water in Lake Erie, up from 112 billion tonnes in 1996.

The figures were calculated by deducting the amount of ice losses on the continent from the amount of snow that computer models indicate it receives.

The figures were based on satellite data on ice thickness and the speeds at which glaciers are flowing into the ocean.

Dr. Rignot said the Antarctic ice loss in 2006 raised sea levels about half a millimetre, putting it on par with the contribution to sea level rise from the recently observed melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

Within scientific circles, there is little doubt that Greenland's ice is melting, but there has been more uncertainty over the fate of the larger stores of ice on Antarctica.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN-sponsored scientific body that compiles information on global warming, said last year that studies on the subject have been all over the map.

Some have suggested the ice cap was expanding by 50 billion tonnes a year from 1993 to 2003, while others projected losses over the same period of up to 200 billion tonnes.

It said the wide range of estimates reflected such factors as the small number of ice measurements made on the continent and disagreements among scientists on what techniques best estimate trends there.

Some experts have even speculated that global warming might lead to increases in ice accumulation in Antarctic's interior due to more snowfall.

However, many experts say that this effect is unlikely to offset Antarctica's contribution to sea level rise because of the rapid melting of coastal glaciers.

"The concept that global warming will increase precipitation in Antarctica and mitigate sea level rise is a lullaby," Dr. Rignot said.

"Our [study] shows that the main driver for the mass balance is the rate of glacier flow to the sea, not the precipitation rate because other studies already showed recently that the precipitation rate has not changed significantly."

Another member of the research team, Curt Davis, director of the Centre for Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said the new study is the "most comprehensive" to date on the status of Antarctica's ice, and has zeroed in on exactly where the losses are occurring.

It found that the biggest losses are in West Antarctica, around the Amundsen Sea, and in the Antarctic Peninsula, the continent's distinctive long arm of land that points like a finger up at South America.

One encouraging finding from the study is that the largest ice sheet, the one covering East Antarctica, has remained relatively stable, showing a small net gain in size."

Meanwhile America fiddles while the world melts. I don't see any evidence that American voters are being presented with anyone with serious energy or climate concerns.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Armed Robots To Iraq

Every war is a proving ground for the next war and the conflict in Iraq is no exception. For several years now unarmed robots have been used for surveillance and deactivating IEDs. Now however In These Times reports that armed versions are set to be deployed. These mobile devices will be configured to carry various machine guns and rifles. While the present generation of robots are essentially remote controlled devices in the future robots carrying out armed activities independently are in the works.
Noel Sharkey in The Guardian noted some of the obvious and uncomfortable implications inherent in these developments:

"This is dangerous new territory for warfare, yet there are no new ethical codes or guidelines in place. I have worked in artificial intelligence for decades, and the idea of a robot making decisions about human termination is terrifying. Policymakers seem to have an understanding of AI that lies in the realms of science fiction and myth. A recent US navy document suggests that the critical issue is for autonomous systems to be able to identify the legality of targets. Then their answer to the ethical problems is simply, "Let men target men" and "Let machines target other machines". In reality, a robot could not pinpoint a weapon without pinpointing the person using it or even discriminate between weapons and non-weapons. I can imagine a little girl being zapped because she points her ice cream at a robot to share. Or a robot could be tricked into killing innocent civilians."

Isaac Asimov foresaw these questions sixty years ago when he developed his "Rules of Robotics", the first of which was "A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Loose Nukes

Nuclear No reports that the Russian government intercepted 120 attempts to smuggle out radioactive material. Interestingly there were over 700 attempts (known) to smuggle radioactive stuff into the country. As the Telegraph puts it:

"The disclosure is likely to fuel concern about how many illegal exports were not halted. It will also lead to new fears that Moscow has failed to stop material becoming available on the black market that could be used by terrorists to make radioactive "dirty" bombs."

Monday, January 07, 2008

Big Melt Reality

Carbon Equity has released a commentary on the report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Essentially the reality of global warming is exceeding projections as witnessed by last summer's unprecedented Arctic Sea ice loss. The graph above is notable for showing that the Arctic Sea ice melt is now occurring almost 40-100 years ahead of predictions.This graph is one of the most disturbing things I've seen in some time if only due to the real vs. "worst case scenario" aspect.The actual satellite data is worse than any of the predictions. The report goes on to make a number of salient points including the following:

"• Climate change impacts are happening at lower temperature increases and more quickly than projected.
• The Arctic's floating sea ice is headed towards rapid summer disintegration as early as 2013, a century ahead of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections.
• The rapid loss of Arctic sea ice will speed up the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet, and a rise in sea levels by even as much as 5 metres by the turn of this century is possible.
• The Antarctic ice shelf reacts far more sensitively to warming temperatures than previously believed.
• Temperatures are now within ≈1°C of the maximum temperature of the past million years.
• The IPCC suffers from a scientific reticence and in many key areas the IPCC process has been so deficient as to be an unreliable and dangerously misleading basis for policy-making."

We in the U.S. are unfortunately dealing with a large group of fact impervious people while we as a nation contribute to degradation of the planet in huge ways. Time may have already run out while Americans slowly conclude that climate change is real. The world is in dire need of leadership capable of making collective decisions on behalf of the future. Where this leadership might come from remains to be seen.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Bush as Rasputin ?

I thought the analogy of Bush as Rasputin seemed a little far-fetched until I came across the following in "Lost Splendor", the memoirs of Felix Youssoupoff:

"He was just an uncultured, cynical, avid, and unscrupulous peasant who had reached the pinnacle of power owing to a chain of circumstances....But who were the people who so skillfully exploited and directed him from a distance, without his being aware of it? It is improbable that Rasputin (Bush) knew the real intentions of his masters, or even their true identity; he rarely remembered the names of the people he saw, and was in the habit of giving each one a fancy nickname."

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Methane, Mud, and Global Warming

If you missed the never-ending "mud volcano" of Java, possibly brought on by drilling for natural gas, you may want to pay attention to Japan's plan for drilling for undersea methane to relieve it's chronic petroleum dependency. According to Bloomberg:

"Billions of tons of methane hydrate, frozen chunks of chemical-laced water buried in sediment some 3,000 feet under the Pacific Ocean floor, may help Japan win energy independence from the Middle East and Indonesia. Japanese engineers have found enough ``flammable ice'' to meet its gas use demands for 14 years. The trick is extracting it without damaging the environment.

Japan is joining the U.S. and Canada in test drilling for methane even as scientists express concerns about any uncontrolled release of the frozen chemical. Some researchers blame the greenhouse gas for triggering a global firestorm that helped wipe out the dinosaurs."

The article goes on to detail scientific concern that uncontrolled methane release may accelerate global warming far beyond what we've seen with CO2 alone.

``A mass release of methane into the sea and the atmosphere is a risk for global warming,'' he says. ``Massive landslides at the ocean floor must be avoided when drilling at the Nankai Trough.''

Undersea Landslides

Undersea landsides triggered by volcanoes that occurred more than fifty million years ago resulted in the release of methane hydrate, contributing to global warming that lasted tens of thousands of years, says Matsumoto."

Science Daily gives more info on the possible consequences:

"Analogous to the Earth's current situation, greenhouse warming 55 million years ago was caused by a relatively rapid increase of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. This phase, known as the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), was studied using sediments that accumulated 55 million years ago on the ocean floor in what is now New Jersey.

The new study shows that a large proportion of the greenhouse gases was released as a result of a chain-reaction of events. Probably due to intense volcanic activity, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere became higher and the ensuing greenhouse effect warmed the Earth. As a result, submarine methane hydrates (ice-like structures in which massive amounts of methane are stored) melted and released large amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

This further amplified the magnitude of global warming, which comprised about 6o C in total. The study is the first to show such a chain reaction during rapid warming in a 'greenhouse world'.

The new research confirms that global warming can stimulate mechanisms that release massive amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere. Current and future warming will likely see similar effects, such as methane hydrate dissociation, adding additional greenhouse gases to those resulting from fossil fuel burning."

All of which tends to make me very nervous given the combination of short-term gain, lack of knowledge, and the pressures the peak oil world. Poke something enough and it will poke back.