Sunday, January 25, 2009

Finkelstein's Fallacies

Normal Finkelstein, a controversial 'expert' on the Israeli-Palestine conflicts recently gave a lecture at UBC. I avoided these lectures because I didn't believe such a lecture would be balanced or unbiased, and I'm disappointed that I was correct.

Some quotes highlighted by a generally favourable Ubyssey article were such (my comments are below the quotes):
"How can it be a war when the ratio of death was 100 to 1?" he asked the crowd. Instead, he decided to refer to it as a massacre, bloodbath or a slaughter
Quite frankly, because that's how many wars and battles occur when one side is vastly superior to the other. The first Gulf War for example had a 100 to 1 death ratio. The battle on Okinawa had a 10 to 1 death ratio.
"Israel is a Spartan-like society consumed by blood loss. Killing Arabs is a sure crowd pleaser. Killing Arabs is a way to garner votes."
There's so much wrong with this statement that I can't even start. This is simply an example of Finkelstein's blind and irrational hatred of Israel and underlines the fact that nothing he says can be taken seriously.
"Israel broke the ceasefire by killing Hamas soldiers on the flimsy excuse that they were digging a tunnel."
First of all, the ceasefire was over and Hamas was firing hundreds of rockets and shells into Israel and promised to fire more and expand their attacks deeper into Israeli territory. In response, the Israelis allowed more aid to be sent to Gaza and even delivered a televised 'last minute warning' to warn Hamas to stop their attacks. (Which they didn't)

And as for the 'flimsy' excuse that Hamas was digging a tunnel, first of all Egypt has closed their border with Gaza and Israel's border is guarded by a wall and turrets. If you're digging a tunnel under either border to smuggle goods or people, then one should expect trouble.
"The [Israel Defence Force] has no mercy for children in Gaza nursery schools."
Of course, because the IDF intentionally fired on nursery schools in order to kill schoolchildren. Right? Even he doesn't believe this nonsense.
"No one intended to kill children ..."
Unlike Hamas and other Palestinian groups which actually targets children in their suicide bombings.
He stated that Israeli press "gives prostitutes a bad name, but there is no press more shameful than the Canadian press. I read the editorials in the Globe and Mail and my inards churn."
Okay, so the Globe and Mail writes an editorial you don't like and suddenly every Canadian newspaper are shamefully biased. Wonderful logic, no wonder he was refused tenure.
He also said, "The Nazis were the best thing that happened to Germany. That defeat broke the back of German racism and German Militarianism."
Of course before Finkelstein ends he comes up with a Nazi comparison. Isn't there a rule that the first person to invoke the Nazis loses the argument?
He concluded his main speech by saying , "That's the facts. If we just learn to wield truth and justice, that despite all the money that the other side has, that [we could win]."
Yeah, well.. as I've just outlined, Finkelstein has neither truth nor justice on his side. He has hatred and anger though.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Is Solar Energy a Bright Idea?

There's plenty of talk about the environmental benefits of solar power. Some politicians love it because it makes them seem more environmentally friendly, but what are the pros and the cons of solar power? Is it affordable and is it practical?

The pros are obvious, the sun is a perfectly renewable source of energy, it produces no pollution directly although indirectly there is pollution through the production. Some of the drawbacks are obvious, it only really works when the sun is shining so to provide constant power all the time would require a storage system or more conventional power sources to balance things out. The storage requirements are such that some scientists feel that it is impractical to view solar as a true replacement for conventional power sources.[1]

So what else is holding solar back? The low energy conversion efficiency and the cost.

A higher energy conversion efficiency would mean that we can use fewer panels to achieve the same power output. As a sample calculation, consider a 1 square meter solar panel that has a conversion efficiency of about 20%. The sun delivers 1000W/square meter at peak value so ideally the solar panel could provide 1kW of power when the sun is shining brightest, but in reality it can only provide 0.2kW. In a place like San Diego, there are roughly 5 hours of peak sunshine per day. Which means it would then provide 1kWh per day.[2]

Supposing that we replace the entire 2001 US power supply of 3386 billion kWh with solar power. That means each day there would be a requirement on average of roughly 10 billion kWh. This means that if we assume that 1 square meter of solar panels generates roughly 1kWh per day then there would be a requirement of 10 billion square meters to generate the required power. This is 10 000 square km, roughly the size of Connecticut, which actually, is only 0.1% of the US total land area.

And what about the cost? As you can see from the table, solar power can cost over 5 times the cost of a conventional power source and over 3 times the cost of nuclear power.[3]

Which brings me back to the question I pose in my title. Solar energy as it currently stands can reduce the dependence of nations on fossil fuels but is not a feasible option to replace fossil fuels altogether. In its favour, it is a relatively clean source of energy. Against it, the high cost of solar energy would destabilize the US (and by extension - world) economy, increasing energy costs by more than 4 times. The technology to 'smooth' the supply of electricity out to provide a consistent supply of energy does not exist yet and the conversion efficiency ratings of solar cells are still insufficient still to reduce the land requirements to a sufficiently reasonable level.

But this should not discourage us. There is no cure-all, there is no silver bullet. Even if solar energy only reduces the total energy requirements from other traditional sources by 1%, it means we are 1% closer to breaking our oil addiction than we were without it. But we must look realistically at other options to move further.

[1] G. W. Crabtree and N.S. Lewis, "Solar Energy Conversion" Physics Today, 37-42, March 2007.

[2] T. W. Murphy Jr, "Home Photovoltaic Systems for Physicists" Physics Today, 42-47, July 2008.

[3] L. R. Glicksman, "Energy Efficiency in the Built Environment" Physics Today, 35-40, July 2008.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Rules of Debate

It is always important at the beginning of any fight to establish the ground-rules that will apply. No kicking, scratching, punching below the belt, etc... Similarly in a debate it is important to establish early on what will and will not be available to debate.

For example, it is common practice to disallow Wikipedia as a source of information because of the numerous factual errors and the ability that people have to alter the information at will. But what about other sources of information?

Is The New York Times a reliable source of information? The Toronto Sun?

Generally it is the practice to allow as much leeway as possible in a debate so to as not unnecessarily restrict the information available. It is too easy for someone who does not agree with something to simply attack the source as being unreliable instead of attacking the argument itself. In discussing the events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests some Chinese nationalists will commonly refuse to accept 'western media' sources as evidence of the crimes, even if the media sources were actually there, accusing them of bias against China.

This sort of thinking restricts the debate in such a way that the truth is impossible to get at and the debate becomes excessively one-sided.

This brings me to scientific debate. Suppose there is an argument concerning a particular piece of science, for example, cold fusion. What should be available for the two sides to debate over? Some might say that only peer-reviewed material should be allowed. Others might say that anything goes.

Quite frankly, I don't belong to the group of people who say that 'if it made it through peer-review it must be true!'. There have been numerous cases where scientific inaccuracies have been published in prominent peer-reviewed journals, or cases where contradictory claims have all been published. (The key with those links is that some predict that moderate drinking has no effect on breast cancer rates or increased risks depending on who you speak to) So just because something is published doesn't make it fact. Moreover, the reverse is also true, just because something isn't published in a peer-reviewed paper doesn't automatically make it untrue.

If one is to have a proper scientific debate there can be no sacred cows. Any scientific analysis should be open and available to debate with. If one limits the debate to only peer-reviewed materials it excludes important information sources like government reports, company reports, internal documents from research labs, or expert opinions and summaries. None of which are peer-reviewed but all of which can provide important insight and information to add towards a scientific discussion, especially when such sources of information are properly referenced.

The only time red flags should start flying is when someone is referencing someone who did not properly reference their claims. For example, someone saying 'studies show that alcohol reduces the risk of breast cancer in women' and not referencing it at all, or referencing someone else who doesn't reference their claim should raise a red flag.

Naturally scientific debate also involves a great amount of time. Claims are checked and compared against the references proposed. References are checked for support and contrary articles are looked for. The debate is restarted and more claims are made and must be checked again.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

For the Want of a Paperclip

I'm usually loathe to share personal details online but I'm going to do this just this once.

The experiment that I was conducting the other day was progressing along when I realized that a problem had developed that would require immediate attention. Opening up my experiment, I made a goal of having the problem fixed and the whole thing put back together within 4-5 hours in order to minimize the time the experiment would have to sit idle.

Within 4 hours I had, after a few delays, assembled and addressed the necessary issues. Putting the assembly back together I went through a series of steps which I have virtually memorized, having done it many times. Nearing completion, one step involves me tightening by hand a stainless steel 'pin' that is a millimeter or two in diameter to fix a stainless steel rod in place. Using a set of pliers I tightened it more and more until... SNAP!.. the pin broke off in the rod.

The pin, was custom made for this experiment, and so were the metal rods. There were no spares constructed. Under normal circumstances I would take this part to the machine shop and ask them to drill and tap two new holes and build a pin based off the samples I have. But the head of the machine shop is ill and so new work can't be assigned until he returns.

So in the meantime I sit around with my experiment idle fiddling around with computer models of a new addition to the experiment that is still in the planning stages, but largely unproductive.

Now, there is a point to all this rambling. The point is that my situation is hardly unique, many researchers face similar delays on the path to attaining results. I've heard of janitors accidentally destroying glassware that is part of experiments, spiders being electrocuted and causing shorts inside electronics, and lasers being destroyed by water after a fire three floors above.

Research goals are usually just that. Goals. Predicting research breakthroughs is a tricky business, which makes it difficult however for politicians who pass bills funding research. Politicians want to see the political payoff in terms of radical new technology like pollution-free cars or cheaper solar technology during their terms, not 10 years from now when someone else can take the credit.

Politicians need to look beyond their own political instincts in funding research and must recognize that properly supporting science research is an investment in the future. And voters should realize that just because advance X occurred during President Y's term of office does not mean that he deserves the credit for it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Climate Change Consternation

People who know me will know that I'm skeptical about the climate change religion that has spread across society. Its not that I don't believe that pumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air won't affect the environment, its just that I don't believe that scientists today truly understand our weather patterns.

Where I grew up meteorologists could not predict the weather tomorrow with any degree of accuracy, let alone that of next weekend. Now some people say "but we're looking at long term trends - those are easier to predict". Of course not.

Do you think scientists seriously believe that the climate change models that they have available today are accurate depictions of what is really going on? To quote from an article in the November 2008 issue Physics Today by Roger A. Pielke Sr:
Although four years is a relatively short period of analysis, the absence of heating of the magnitude reported by Hansen and his collaborators and the 2007 IPCC report should raise issues with respect to our level of understanding of the climate system, since the global climate model projections used by the IPCC predict more or less monotonic accumulation of heat in the Earth system.
Does that mean that he doesn't believe in climate change (or is a 'climate change denier' as hysterics would say)? Not at all, but I'll let him speak for himself:
Human actions that influence the climate system include the radiative forcing from added atmospheric CO2 but also include the biogeochemical influence of CO2, and a variety of atmospheric aerosol forcings, nitrogen deposition onto land and the oceans, and land-cover changes. Each of these factors influence long-term weather statistics as well as other aspects of the climate.
His main complaint is thusly:
The IPCC assessment process focused mainly on the effects of CO2 and devoted less attention to the effect of the other human climate forcings in altering the global climate system.
To sum it up, climate change is more complicated that we are making it out to be and it involves more than just carbon dioxide. So a solution that say, tears up the rainforests in order to produce ethanol might be a bad thing.

But if I believe as I said, that pumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air can't be a good thing, then why wouldn't I be a big proponent of Kyoto and oppose Canada joining it?

For one thing, if carbon dioxide is the cause of global warming, most scientists think we're too late anyways. Which makes sense to some extent, even if we were to stop putting out carbon dioxide now, we'd still see the effect lingering for decades to come as the Earth comes to a balance again.

As an aside, what I find really interesting about the previous article that I quoted was that a majority of scientists polled believe that some form of massive geoengineering should be studied as a solution. Are we that crazy? We're talking about screwing with the most complicated system known! A system that we don't fully understand! As a kid did you ever smash apart a watch only to realize that you don't have a clue how to put it back together?

Secondly, Kyoto isn't necessarily about reducing emissions. Countries that produce too much, simply buy their way out with carbon credits. From this article:

To offset these increases in emissions Japan has bought credits from China through the clean development mechanism – an instrument set up by the Kyoto protocol – yet China's emissions have continued to increase rapidly.
This was, by the way, one of my primary disagreements with the carbon tax as well. Rich people would still be able to afford to pollute, they'd just pay a little more for it. Poor people meanwhile would be made reliant on government credits just to get by.

So Kyoto isn't the answer. But what is then? Honestly? I don't know.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Gaza Crisis' Nuclear Potential

As the crisis continues, some reporters were noting that Hamas' new rockets have the potential to reach Israel's super-secret nuclear facility that is in Dimona.

Firstly, a secret nuclear facility that everyone knows about is an oxymoron.

More importantly, would it be possible for a Grad or Katyusha rocket to hit the nuclear facility and cause a nuclear meltdown. The answer as far as I can tell is no.

A couple things to remember is that the natural construction of a nuclear facility involves some form of radiation shielding (usually concrete) that would prevent a direct hit from causing serious damage. As an analogy, particle accelerators are usually built deep underground or are covered by large concrete blocks to prevent radiation from harming researchers. These would also protect the source from any missile strikes.

If somehow the missile were to strike an unprotected area it would not likely matter anyways, any nuclear facility has numerous redundancies and backups in case there is a failure in one. The reason Chernobyl occurred in the first place was because some researchers deliberately shut off all the backup and safety systems in order to perform a test (I somehow doubt that sort of experiment would clear the ethics board these days).

From a strategic standpoint it does not make much sense either, the ultimate goal of striking a nuclear facility would be to either destroy it or to cause some sort of nuclear disaster. Since destroying it is pretty much out of the question with the type of weapons available to Hamas that leaves only the other.

Even if somehow an unguided missile managed to strike some crucial part of the nuclear facility that paralyzed numerous backup systems and cause a nuclear accident the accident would be occurring dangerously close to Gaza and the West Bank, which would both be undoubtedly affected.

Is Hamas crazy enough to destroy their own people along with Israel? If you assume that Hamas as an organization with both pragmatists and idealists, then yes you might find some religious extremists who believe that god will protect them from the radiation poisoning and hence be willing to risk it. But finding religious extremists who are that far out there would be tough I think and few enough to be overwhelmed by the pragmatists who know better.