Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Oklahoma’s plague of earthquakes, thanks in part to Scott Pruitt

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Who is now dedicating himself to destroying the EPA. Take a look at the 1-minute video. The Oklahoma government stoutly denied that fracking had anything at all to do with earthquakes in Oklahoma, until it got so bad that even they thought some action should be taken. The video is shocking.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 July 2017 at 8:36 pm

One Year, One Facility, 1.7 Million Pounds of Hazardous Waste Burned in Open Air

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Lylla Younes and Abrahm Lustgarten have an interactive graphic in ProPublica that shows, just for one location, the hazardous wastes that are burned in the open. Their introduction:

At least 61 active burn and denotation sites currently operate in the U.S. Most are run directly by the Department of Defense or its contractors, and do not publicly report what they burn. ProPublica obtained the delivery manifests for the only burn site that is commercially licensed and allowed to accept explosives from off-site, run by a company called Clean Harbors in Colfax, Louisiana.

In 2015, the site received more than 1.7 million pounds of hazardous explosives waste from across the country — from the U.S. military as well as from commercial users like Disney, which sends unexploded fireworks to the facility to be destroyed. Here’s what the facility burned or detonated that year. Related story.

You can filter the list by (for example), lead, or arsenic, or others.

Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2017 at 2:37 pm

Open Burns, Ill Winds: The Pentagon’s handling of munitions and their waste has poisoned millions of acres

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Abrahm Lustgarten reports in ProPublica:

RADFORD, VIRGINIA — Shortly after dawn most weekdays, a warning siren rips across the flat, swift water of the New River running alongside the Radford Army Ammunition Plant. Red lights warning away boaters and fishermen flash from the plant, the nation’s largest supplier of propellant for artillery and the source of explosives for almost every American bullet fired overseas.

Along the southern Virginia riverbank, piles of discarded contents from bullets, chemical makings from bombs, and raw explosives — all used or left over from the manufacture and testing of weapons ingredients at Radford — are doused with fuel and lit on fire, igniting infernos that can be seen more than a half a mile away. The burning waste is rich in lead, mercury, chromium and compounds like nitroglycerin and perchlorate, all known health hazards. The residue from the burning piles rises in a spindle of hazardous smoke, twists into the wind and, depending on the weather, sweeps toward the tens of thousands of residents in the surrounding towns.

Nearby, Belview Elementary School has been ranked by researchers as facing some of the most dangerous air-quality hazards in the country. The rate of thyroid diseases in three of the surrounding counties is among the highest in the state, provoking town residents to worry that emissions from the Radford plant could be to blame. Government authorities have never studied whether Radford’s air pollution could be making people sick, but some of their hypothetical models estimate that the local population faces health risks exponentially greater than people in the rest of the region.

More than three decades ago, Congress banned American industries and localities from disposing of hazardous waste in these sorts of “open burns,’’ concluding that such uncontrolled processes created potentially unacceptable health and environmental hazards. Companies that had openly burned waste for generations were required to install incinerators with smokestacks and filters and to adhere to strict limits on what was released into the air. Lawmakers granted the Pentagon and its contractors a temporary reprieve from those rules to give engineers time to address the unique aspects of destroying explosive military waste.

That exemption has remained in place ever since, even as other Western countries have figured out how to destroy aging armaments without toxic emissions. While American officials are mired in a bitter debate about how much pollution from open burns is safe, those countries have pioneered new approaches. Germany, for example, destroyed hundreds of millions of pounds of aging weapons from the Cold War without relying on open burns to do it.

In the United States, outdoor burning and detonation is still the military’s leading method for dealing with munitions and the associated hazardous waste. It has remained so despite a U.S. Senate resolution a quarter of a century ago that ordered the Department of Defense to halt the practice “as soon as possible.” It has continued in the face of a growing consensus among Pentagon officials and scientists that similar burn pits at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan sickened soldiers.

Federal records identify nearly 200 sites that have been or are still being used to open-burn hazardous explosives across the country. Some blow up aging stockpile bombs in open fields. Others burn bullets, weapons parts and — in the case of Radford — raw explosives in bonfire-like piles. The facilities operate under special government permits that are supposed to keep the process safe, limiting the release of toxins to levels well below what the government thinks can make people sick. Yet officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, which governs the process under federal law, acknowledge that the permits provide scant protection.

Consider Radford’s permit, which expired nearly two years ago. Even before then, government records show, the plant repeatedly violated the terms of its open burn allowance and its other environmental permits. In a typical year, the plant can spew many thousands of pounds of heavy metals and carcinogens — legally — into the atmosphere. But Radford has, at times, sent even more pollution into the air than it is allowed. It has failed to report some of its pollution to federal agencies, as required. And it has misled the public about the chemicals it burns. Yet every day the plant is allowed to ignite as much as 8,000 pounds of hazardous debris.

“It smells like plastic burning, but it’s so much more intense,” said Darlene Nester, describing the acrid odor from the burns when it reaches her at home, about a mile and a half away. Her granddaughter is in second grade at Belview. “You think about all the kids.” . . .

Continue reading.

And definitely look at the graphic that shows where the military burns toxic wastes in the open air, in a kind of war against the American people (and its own troops). Is the military really that ignorant?

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2017 at 8:54 am

One year in the life of a tree

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And Jason Kottke has some interesting remarks on wolf trees.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 July 2017 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Environment, Video

Why Canada Is Able to Do Things Better

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Jonathan Kay writes in the Atlantic:

When I was a young kid growing up in Montreal, our annual family trips to my grandparents’ Florida condo in the 1970s and ‘80s offered glimpses of a better life. Not just Bubbie and Zadie’s miniature, sun-bronzed world of Del Boca Vista, but the whole sprawling infrastructural colossus of Cold War America itself, with its famed interstate highway system and suburban sprawl. Many Canadians then saw themselves as America’s poor cousins, and our inferiority complex asserted itself the moment we got off the plane.

Decades later, the United States presents visitors from the north with a different impression. There hasn’t been a new major airport constructed in the United States since 1995. And the existing stock of terminals is badly in need of upgrades. Much of the surrounding road and rail infrastructure is in even worse shape (the trip from LaGuardia Airport to midtown Manhattan being particularly appalling). Washington, D.C.’s semi-functional subway system feels like a World’s Fair exhibit that someone forgot to close down. Detroit’s 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge—which carries close to $200 billion worth of goods across the Canada-U.S. border annually—has been operating beyond its engineering capacity for years. In 2015, the Canadian government announced it would be paying virtually the entire bill for a new bridge (including, amazingly, the U.S. customs plaza on the Detroit side), after Michigan’s government pled poverty. “We are unable to build bridges, we’re unable to build airports, our inner city school kids are not graduating,” is how JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon summarized the state of things during an earnings conference call last week. “It’s almost embarrassing being an American citizen.”Since the election of Donald Trump, there’s been no shortage of theories as to why America’s social contract no longer seems to work—why the United States feels so divided and dysfunctional. Some have focused on how hyper-partisanship has dismantled traditional checks and balances on public decision-making, how Barack Obama’s rise to power exacerbated the racist tendencies of embittered reactionaries, and how former churchgoers have embraced the secular politics of race and nationalism.

All of this rings true. But during my travels up and down the American East Coast in recent years, I’ve come to focus on a more mundane explanation: The United States is falling apart because—unlike Canada and other wealthy countries—the American public sector simply doesn’t have the funds required to keep the nation stitched together. A country where impoverished citizens rely on crowdfunding to finance medical operations isn’t a country that can protect the health of its citizens. A country that can’t ensure the daily operation of Penn Station isn’t a country that can prevent transportation gridlock. A country that contracts out the operations of prisons to the lowest private bidder isn’t a country that can rehabilitate its criminals.The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), a group of 35 wealthy countries, ranks its members by overall tax burden—that is, total tax revenues at every level of government, added together and then expressed as a percentage of GDP—and in latest year for which data is available, 2014, the United States came in fourth to last. Its tax burden was 25.9 percent—substantially less than the OECD average, 34.2 percent. If the United States followed that mean OECD rate, there would be about an extra $1.5 trillion annually for governments to spend on better schools, safer roads, better-trained police, and more accessible health care. . .

Continue reading.

The GOP does not believe in investing in the US. For example, for the US as a country to be competitive and productive, it’s vital to ensure that its citizens are (a) healthy, and (b) educated. Thus if the country took its own interests to heart, there would be universal healthcare, and well-funded at that, including treatments and hospitals for the mentally ill (rather than simply having the police shoot them, or putting them in prison), nursing homes for the incapacitated and elderly, and investments in seeing that more medical professions (doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, pharmacists) are trained—and not allowing any forced shortages to arise as might happen if some specialty set informal limits the supply of new doctors in the specialty. I don’t think this is happening—some specialties just don’t have that many people in them. So the government should institute programs, subsidies, new medical school, so that the supply of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and so on could be increased to serve the greater demand resulting from a broader national effort to achieve the goal of a healthy citizenry.

And having an educated citizenry requires paying teachers a lot more to increase the talent supply, and funding of most effective teaching practices, with a constant search for better teaching practices, and building a database of documents and on-line videos to make available nationally courses for teachers and would-be teachers on what those best practices are. This might take the form of watching a video recorded live of a master teacher teaching one class session, then that video with commentary, the master teaching stopping the action at certain points to explain what’s happening: why s/he made the choices and said the words s/he did, how it might be done better, and so on, then back to the next teaching moment.

In other words, apply ingenuity and resources to ensure that our nation’s teachers are great at their jobs. That will make those future generations more capable.

And obviously the nation is better for everyone—you might say it would improve the general welfare—if the infrastructure were well-maintained and kept in good shape. And those jobs would be most welcome, but obviously money is required.

What I’m talking about, I suddenly realize, is artificial selection in meme evolution, exactly as we used artificial selection in lifeforms in order to domesticate plants and animals (and ourselves, in the sense that tribes rid themselves of uncooperative members). The goals (healthy citizenry, educated citizenry, good infrastructure) are sufficiently broad that many memes can be selected to drive toward those goals, just a not littering became a thing when Lady Bird Johnson took on the campaign to beautify America. Very quickly, littering was socially unacceptable and by and large people stopped littering. (This was helped by very young children being able to understand what littering is and that it’s bad, so not littering became a basic value adopted in childhood.)

And in fact the GOP will never approve of taxing the public to the point where all these benefits could be delivered to the public, because the goal of the GOP is to enable a select few to become wealthy by looting the country: skimping on healthcare, skimping on education, skipping on infrastructure, and thus being able to keep much of that money for themselves through the eternal demand for more tax cuts.

The US could do it right, but I think it is unlikely at this point. Still, perhaps the public will awaken to the fact that the wealthy are shortchanging them:

The US is not, though Donald Trump continually says it is, the most heavily taxed national on earth. Quite the contrary: U.S. taxes are quite low—and we’re getting what we pay for. Chart above is from this page.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2017 at 9:06 pm

Interesting Thoughts on How to Bribe Everyone Into Fighting Climate Change

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Kevin Drum has a post worth reading—in particular how a world that does not run on fossil fuels would be more stable economically.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 July 2017 at 12:48 pm

Most of what you think you know about human reasoning is wrong. Here’s why.

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Henry Farrell has an interesting interview in the Washington Post:

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber are the authors of “The Enigma of Reason,” a new book from Harvard University Press. Their arguments about human reasoning have potentially profound implications for how we understand the ways human beings think and argue, and for the social sciences. I interviewed Mercier about the book.

HF: So, many people think of reasoning as a faculty for achieving better knowledge and making better decisions. You disagree. Why is the standard account of reasoning implausible?

HM: By and large, reasoning doesn’t fulfill this function very well. In many experiments — and countless real-life examples — reasoning does not drive people towards better knowledge or decisions. If people start out with the wrong intuitive idea, and then start reasoning, it rarely does them any good. They’re stuck on their initial wrong idea.

What makes reasoning fail is even more damning. Reasoning fails because it has a so-called ‘myside bias.’ This is what psychologists often call confirmation bias — that people mostly reason to find arguments that whatever they were already thinking is a good idea. Given this bias, it’s not surprising that people typically get stuck on their initial idea.

More or less everybody takes the existence of the myside bias for granted. Few readers will be surprised that it exists. And yet it should be deeply puzzling. Objectively, a reasoning mechanism that aims at sounder knowledge and better decisions should focus on reasons why we might be wrong and reasons why other options than our initial hunch might be correct. Such a mechanism should also critically evaluate whether the reasons supporting our initial hunch are strong. But reasoning does the opposite. It mostly looks for reasons that support our initial hunches and deems even weak, superficial reasons to be sufficient.

So we have a complete mismatch between, on the one hand, what reasoning does and how it works and, on the other hand, what it is supposed to do and how it is supposed to work.

HF: So why did the capacity to reason evolve among human beings?

HM: We suggest that the capacity to reason evolved because it serves two main functions:

The first is to help people solve disagreements. Compared to other primates, humans cooperate a lot, and they evolved abilities to communicate in order to make cooperation more efficient. However, communication is a risky business: There’s always a risk that one might be lied to, manipulated or cheated. Hence, we carefully evaluate what people tell us. Indeed, we even tend to be overly cautious, rejecting messages that don’t fit well with our preconceptions.

Reasoning would have evolved in part to help us overcome these limitations and to make communication more powerful. Thanks to reasoning, we can try to convince others of things they would never have accepted purely on trust. And those who receive the arguments benefit by being given a much better way of deciding whether they should change their mind or not.

The second function is related but still distinct: It is to exchange justifications. Another consequence of human cooperativeness is that we care a lot about whether other people are competent and moral: We constantly evaluate others to see who would make the best cooperators. Unfortunately, evaluating others is tricky, since it can be very difficult to understand why people do the things they do. If you see your colleague George being rude with a waiter, do you infer that he’s generally rude, or that the waiter somehow deserved his treatment? In this situation, you have an interest in assessing George accurately and George has an interest in being seen positively. If George can’t explain his behavior, it will be very difficult for you to know how to interpret it, and you might be inclined to be uncharitable. But if George can give you a good reason to explain his rudeness, then you’re both better off: You judge him more accurately, and he maintains his reputation.

If we couldn’t attempt to justify our behavior to others and convince them when they disagree with us, our social lives would be immensely poorer and more complicated.

HF: So, if reasoning is mostly about finding arguments for whatever we were thinking in the first place, how can it be useful?

HM: Because this is only one aspect of reasoning: the production of reasons and arguments. Reasoning has another aspect, which comes into play when we evaluate other people’s arguments. When we do this, we are, on the whole, both objective and demanding. We are demanding in that we require the arguments to be strong before changing our minds — this makes obvious sense. But we are also objective: If we encounter a good argument that challenges our beliefs, we will take it into account. In most cases, we will change our mind — even if only by a little.

This might come as a surprise to those who have heard of phenomena like the “backfire effect,” under which people react to contrary arguments by becoming even more entrenched in their views. In fact, backfire effects seem to be extremely rare. In most cases, people change their minds — sometimes a little bit, sometimes completely — when exposed to challenging but strong arguments.

When we consider these two aspects of reasoning together, it is obvious why it is useful. Reasoning allows people who disagree to exchange arguments with each other, so they are in a better position to figure out who’s right. Thanks to reasoning, both those who offer arguments (and, hence, are more likely to get their message across) — and those who receive arguments (and, hence, are more likely to change their mind for the better) — stand to win. Without reasoning, disagreements would be immensely harder to resolve.

HF: Despite reason’s flaws, your book argues that it “in the right interactive context, works.” How can group interaction harness reason for beneficial ends? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 July 2017 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

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