Category: Science & technology

Ban Bag Bust

A few years ago, a bunch of liberal cities began to ban plastic bags. They claimed would help save the Earth, cutting down on landfill use and eliminating a harm to wildlife. I was very skeptical for a variety of reasons.

Well, this is my shocked face:

In Austin, for example, a post-ban survey found that single-use plastic bags accounted for only 0.03 percent of the total litter collected in the city in 2015. Assuming the pre-ban rate was closer to the 0.12 percent in nearby Fort Worth, that marks a roughly 75 percent reduction of single-use plastic bags in Austin’s landfills.

But, as the Austin assessment pointedly notes, reducing the use of a product that’s harmful to the environment is no guarantee of a positive environmental outcome. Among the main environmental benefits of Austin’s ban was supposed to be a reduction in the amount of energy and raw materials used to manufacture the bags. To that end, the city encouraged residents to instead use reusable bags. Those bags have larger carbon footprints, due to the greater energy required to produce their stronger plastics, but the city figured the overall impact would be lower, as consumers got acquainted with the new, more durable product.

What the city didn’t foresee is that residents would start treating reusable bags like single-use bags. The volume of reusable plastic bags now turning up at the city’s recycling centers has become “nearly equivalent to the amount of all of the single use bags removed from the recycling stream as a result of the ordinance implemented in 2013,” according to the assessment. And those lightly used bags are landfill-bound, because recycling isn’t any more cost-effective for reusable plastic bags than the single-use variety.

Some of these issues could be addressed through the increased use of reusable canvas bags. But canvas is even more carbon intensive to produce than plastic; studies suggest consumers would need to use a single canvas bag around 130 times before they start achieving any net environmental benefit as compared with a single-use plastic bag. And, for some consumers, the higher price for canvas bags may be prohibitive, in any case.

That’s actually understating the case. Canvas bags have to be cleaned regularly. I previously noted a rise in ER admissions in cities that banned plastic bags because people were eating contaminated food:

This is something the environmentalists have never understood. People don’t do “bad” environmental things because they hate cute little fishies; they do it because it’s the least bad option facing them. So environmentalists, for example, ban styrofoam cups in favor of paper cups and then are shocked when it turns out paper cups cost more energy to produce and create more waste. They go on about food miles and then are blindsided when it turns out that flying in your lamb from New Zealand is better for the environment than growing it locally.

People dispose of grocery bags for a reason: to get rid of the dirt, bacteria, blood, etc. that comes off of raw food. This problem can be overcome by washing reusable bags. But … that cuts into the supposed environmental benefit. If you wash it every time, it would taken hundreds of uses before a reusable bag would match the environmental impact of a plastic bag.

Actually, is likely that canvas bags will never consume less energy than a plastic bag. This is of a piece with a larger effort in the environmental movement that is emphasizing recycling and composting, which are extremely expensive in terms of energy. By my math, that’s trading a problem we don’t have (a lack of landfill space) for a problem we do (global warming).

But the plastic bag ban was never about the environment, really. It was what one person called “brick in the toilet” environmentalism. It was about doing something even if that something has no tangible benefit. It was about making the public sacrifice some convenience because sacrificing convenience seems moral. Who cares if it works as long as you get everyone marching along to the government’s drum?

One of the things I’ve said for years about the environmentalist movement is that they need to decide what they want: style or substance. Do they actually want to improve the environment or do they want to look they’re improving it? We see, over and over again, environmentalists advocating policies that feel good but do harm: opposing nuclear power, “food miles”, “earth hours”, banning plastic bags. I think it’s clear that they’ve made their choice. If we are going to save the Earth, the ideas for doing it are going to have to come out of the conservative and libertarian movements.

Science Sunday: The Anti-GMO Crackpots

This week’s science blog is an excuse to point you at Will Saletan’s thorough article exposing the deceptions used by the forces opposed to genetically modified foods. After a year of reporting, he has unveiled a long post thick with links to studies by scientists and claims by anti-GMO activists. It is very very damning. The anti-GMO crowd make the Intelligent Designers look like Marie Curie:

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.

Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.

Saletan focuses on three examples of anti-GMO nutbaggery. The first the is the ringspot virus-resistant papaya, engineered to save the papaya industry in Hawaii. Environmentalist groups unleashed every trick in the book: claiming it was unsafe to consume a viral protein that people were consuming anyway; claiming it was bankrupting farmers (because of their opposition); claiming it had not been proven safe. All of these were lies and distortions, pushed by people with an agenda.

Next is crops containing Bt — a protein that kills predatory insects. Anti-GMO activists insist that plants contain Bt are poison … when they aren’t claiming they are ineffective. They do this while pushing Bt-containing sprays as safe and sustainable and attributing harms from Bt sprays to Bt-engineered crops.

Finally, he gets to the golden rice, which we’ve mentioned before. The golden rice could save the eyesight of hundreds of thousands of children. Anti-GMO activists opposed it because it didn’t have enough vitamin A. Then opposed because it had too much.

That summary doesn’t do justice to what’s going on. All along the way, the anti-GMO forces have been … well, lying. They distort studies, they misquote studies, they ignore studies that contradict their opinion. They denounce things as dangerous when they come from genetic engineering but proclaim them safe when they come from other means.

Now you might say, “Hey, what’s the harm in labeling GMO foods?” Here’s the harm:

GMO labels don’t clarify what’s in your food. They don’t address the underlying ingredients—pesticides, toxins, proteins—that supposedly make GMOs harmful. They stigmatize food that’s perfectly safe, and they deflect scrutiny from non-GMO products that have the same disparaged ingredients.

In other words, that safe organic banana might actually have more pesticide, more bacteria and more “toxins” than the supposedly dangerous GMO product. Putting a scarlet letter on GMO products isn’t “informing the public”. It’s trying to scare them into supporting an agenda.

This isn’t a trivial matter. Right now, we are seeing the spread of the UG-99 wheat rust. This rust has the potential to wreck the world’s wheat production, causing mass starvation and economic chaos. We desperately need to engineer strains of wheat that can resist the rust. But if the anti-GMO forces get their way, we’ll only be able to use the slow and less certain process of traditional breeding. Millions could die as a result.

(Saletan, like everyone who defends GMO’s, is being accused of being paid off by Monsanto. Monsanto had a clever reply to this.)

Saletan doesn’t ignore legitimate issues with GMO crops, such as the arms race they are creating in weed control. But those are solvable problems. Solvable problems that are not getting enough attention because the green luddites have us focused on the wrong things.

GMO crops are safe. This is the conclusion of every scientific study that has been done. There are issues around GMO’s that need some work. Let’s concentrate on that.

New Horizons is Alive and Well

The last time we did a flyby of a planet, I was in high school. It was 1989 — Bush the Elder was President — and we had a TV on in my physics class showing us a live feed from NASA of the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune. I was enthralled … everyone was. Here was a world we had only glimpsed through a telescope and now it was so close you could touch it.

(I could say something about that inspired me to enter astronomy but that would be a lie. I liked astronomy but it never occurred to me to do it for a living until my junior year of college.)

I felt some of that excitement last night as we awaited the signal from New Horizons that would indicate a successful flyby. And today we have some stunning images coming down. Here is Charon, Pluto’s moon, that was a dot even for the Hubble Space Telescope:


You can read some of the details of the picture over at Bad Astronomy.

It’s impossible for me to express how much I love this … all of it. I love the fiddly engineering and amazing work that go into planning a mission. I love the facilities down at Goddard where they do every test imaginable on the hardware of upcoming missions. I love watching the rockets leap from the pad on a pillar of fire. I love the seemingly impossible task of sending a probe over a nine-year three-billion-mile mission and having it still work. I love the technical jargon as the Mission Operations Center monitors the spacecraft (a lot of which I now understand, having worked for a NASA mission). I love the excitement space aficionados and even hardened astronomers feel as the images come down and reveal a distant and mysterious world. It is all exciting and wonderful and thrilling and inspiring.

Here’a closeup of that heart-shaped region of Pluto.


Pluto has vast mountains of ice, canyons miles deep, a surface that was repaved within the last hundred million years by some process we can only guess at right now. In a few hours, New Horizons gathered data that will keep scientists busy for years and may change our understanding of the Kuiper Belt.

I’ve said this before about our space program: this is the way to waste taxpayer money. You want to talk to me about American exceptionalism? This is American exceptionalism. America is defined by many things but our exploration of space has to be our country’s greatest achievement. We’ve sent probes to every planet; we’ve put men on the moon; we’ve glimpsed the fires of creation through space telescopes. No other nation can match us. Russia sorta could for a while (and right now, they’re embarrassingly the only means of getting astronauts into space). Europe sorta can in their European way. India and China are trying to get things going. But when you really break it down, we are the country of space. We are the explorers. We are the pioneers. And this a commitment we should be devoting more resources to, not less.

Last year, the Houston Chronicle ran a great series about the foundering of our space policy. The big problem I see is that no President has been really committed to it. They come up with their pet projects — a mission to Mars, an asteroid capture, a return to the Moon — and that gets vaguely funded only to have another pet project to take its place when the presidency changes hands. What we need is a more realistic long-term strategy, something NASA can commit to for the next twenty years or more. NASA’s focus should be astrophysics, identifying potentially dangerous asteroids, continuing to explore the Solar System with unmanned probes and, most importantly, trying to devise cheaper ways of getting people and cargo into space. The last part is the only way human exploration of space will ever be feasible.

This should go hand-in-hand with supporting private space programs and commercial exploitation of space. What I’d really like to see is a bunch of billionaires get together, pool their funds, and set a course for the next few decades of private space flight, with NASA committed to supporting them.

But that’s tomorrow. Today, enjoy the amazing pictures of a distant world coming down from New Horizons. And thank your stars that you’re part of a species smart enough to think of this and a country rich enough and daring enough to pull it off.

(Post Scriptum: I said this on Twitter, but will mention it here. I sometimes get asked what I think about Pluto no longer being a planet. My opinion is this: call it what you want.

I understand why the change was made. If Pluto is a planet, that means Eris, Haumea, Ceres and Makemake have to be planets, to be consistent. And it means that, in a few decades, we might have identified hundreds of planets. Pluto is very different from the other planets and much more like the vast sea of Kuiper Belt objects that probably lurks out there. This doesn’t take away from Clyde Tombaugh’s achievement. On the contrary, he discovered something even more amazing than Planet X.

But … I really don’t think it would have killed us to just call Pluto a planet for historical reasons. Consistency is, after all, the hobgoblin of small minds. And Pluto doesn’t care what you call it.)

My electricity bill is again going to go up due to stupidity

On the last day of June, the SCOTUS struck down the ludicrous mercury regulations the EPA put together and did so because the whole think stunk and provided no information about the cost. Obama, to show them he is the emperor, issued more ridiculously stupid and horribly costly renewable energy fantasy promises. This fucking guy lives in his own stupid reality. At a time where technical people like
Bill Gates explain why everything points to current renewable energy not being viable, Obama doubles down on the stupid. And Gates is not alone to make that argument: Google, a lefty company if ever anything, agreed with him that current renewable energy technology doesn’t cut it. I have made this point myself. Solar, which was too costly and simply too unreliable and inefficient when Jimmy Carter promised to make us use only that in the late 70s has not come much further in the 4 decades since. Wind is an even bigger joke. The cost vs. return for these technologies not only make them prohibitive, but they are ludicrous and stand in the way of viable technologies (like nuclear).

My electrical bill has all but doubled since Obama took office. My consumption has almost been halved. I am almost paying four times as much as I used to per kWh since Obama put his idiotic ideas into motion, and the only people to make like bandits are those connected to the Obama administration that not only receive massive tax payer subsidized funding and breaks, but benefit from stupid shit like this promise by Obama that forces people being squeezed dry but without the knowledge to know they are being hoodwinked, into giving them even more of their money.

Heck, I now even have some new tax that cock gobbler Maloy socked on those of us not sucking at the government’s teat that takes more of my money to help those unable to pay their bill do so. I bet you none of these people I am now “helping” are trying to either reduce their consumption or dependency on this abusive industry that has so enriched collectivists that pretend they are fighting a noble fight against world destroying evil brown energy. Worse yet, unless I do what one of the government approved scams that line the pocket of supporters of these ludicrous and inefficient technologies peddle, I must not only remain on their grid, but accept the ass fucking they send my way every month, and thank them for it too. At this point I am sure I can come up with alternatives that don’t enrich these evil fucks and cost me less. But they will throw my ass in jail for daring to fight their monopoly.

Why are we letting these people run the show, huh? Greece is showing us where this always ends. And China is going to one up them and really fuck up things. There is not enough “Other people’s money” to let the leftists do what they want. No, not make things better, but fleece the productive while throwing scraps to the unproductive for their envious support. The left loves to pretend that the robber barons are in the party they oppose, but reality doesn’t bear that out. I can’t wait for Iran to get the bomb and start WWIII already. Nothing will end the stupidity of liberalism short of a global cataclysm that finally forces mankind to abandon socialism and the other beliefs the left holds dear. We need a mega dose of harsh reality to cure humanity of this mental disorder.

Science Sunday: New Horizons Back Online

Well, that was a bit nervous-making:

NASA’s New Horizons mission is returning to normal science operations after a July 4 anomaly and remains on track for its July 14 flyby of Pluto.

The investigation into the anomaly that caused New Horizons to enter “safe mode” on July 4 has concluded that no hardware or software fault occurred on the spacecraft. The underlying cause of the incident was a hard-to-detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare for the close flyby. No similar operations are planned for the remainder of the Pluto encounter.

I was bit worried when I heard New Horizons had gone into safe mode, but not terribly. Spacecraft almost always have a “safe mode” they can go into in case of an unexpected error. It’s basically a standby that keeps all the instruments and hardware from potentially being damaged while the ground teams figure out what has happened. In this case, it seems like the software didn’t quite time right (which happens; spacecrafts is complicated). So we’re back in business.

Safe modes are a bit nerve-wracking. But they’re not as nerve-wracking as silence. Thankfully, we appear to be back on track for a great flyby.

Science Sunday: SpaceX Explodes


An unmanned rocket by Elon Musk’s SpaceX on a resupply mission to the International Space Station exploded Sunday just minutes after launch.

It wasn’t clear what caused the rocket, named Dragon, to fail. SpaceX will conduct an investigation overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.

It was the third resupply mission to fail in recent months. The three astronauts on the space station have about four months worth of supplies, according to NASA.

This is the first big failure for SpaceX, which has had a good track record so far (they’ve had a few failed launches of experimental craft as well). You can follow Phil Plait here who speculates that it was a fuel tank rupture.

I’m a big fan of private space flight and disappointed that Congress is trying to curtail it a bit. The potential savings is good but the potential for breakthrough technology is very large. Hopefully, this won’t be too big a setback.

Science SunMonday: Volcanic Venus

The more we learn about our solar system, the more interesting it gets:

Could there be volcanoes erupting on Venus?

Scientists think the answer is yes based on the latest data from European Space Agency’s Venus Express, which completed an eight-year mission of Earth’s neighboring planet last year.

Using a near-infrared channel of the spacecraft’s Venus Monitoring Camera (VMC) to map thermal emission from the surface, an international team spotted localized changes in surface brightness between images taken only a few days apart.

“We have now seen several events where a spot on the surface suddenly gets much hotter, and then cools down again,” said Eugene Shalygin from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, lead author of the paper reporting the results in Geophysical Research Letters.

“These four hotspots are located in what are known from radar imagery to be tectonic rift zones, but this is the first time we have detected that they are hot and changing in temperature from day to day. It is the most tantalizing evidence yet for active volcanism.”

We’ve had hints of this for a long time now: changes in the sulphur content of Venus’ atmosphere, heat signatures of potential volcanos, what appear to be warm lava flows. But this is the clearest evidence yet. This follows on recent evidence of a cryovolcano on Enceladus. We are also seeing some interesting features as probes close in on Ceres and Pluto.

Science Sunday: Philae Revives

Great news from ESA:

Rosetta’s lander Philae has woken up after seven months in hibernation on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The signals were received at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt at 22:28 CEST on 13 June. More than 300 data packets have been analysed by the teams at the Lander Control Center at the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

“Philae is doing very well: It has an operating temperature of -35ºC and has 24 Watts available,” explains DLR Philae Project Manager Dr. Stephan Ulamec. “The lander is ready for operations.”

For 85 seconds Philae “spoke” with its team on ground, via Rosetta, in the first contact since going into hibernation in November.

When analysing the status data it became clear that Philae also must have been awake earlier: “We have also received historical data – so far, however, the lander had not been able to contact us earlier.”

Now the scientists are waiting for the next contact. There are still more than 8000 data packets in Philae’s mass memory which will give the DLR team information on what happened to the lander in the past few days on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Philae shut down on 15 November 2014 at 1:15 CET after being in operation on the comet for about 60 hours. Since 12 March 2015 the communication unit on orbiter Rosetta was turned on to listen out for the lander.

You may remember Philae as the spacecraft that descended to the comet and landed on the surface. The thought was that it landed at an angle in a crater and it’s solar panels were not well-illuminated. It did some experiments before running out of power but there was always hope that, as it got closer to the sun, the increased sunlight would be enough to revive it.

It looks, tentatively, like that’s happening. If so, it’s gravy on the lovely roast that has been Rosetta’s mission. We’ve already gotten tons of awesome data and breath-taking images. Now we’re might get even more.

Welcome back, Philae.

Science Sunday: Chocolate Caper

A few weeks ago, the internet lit up with stories that eating chocolate could help you lose weight. This week, the other shoe dropped: the story was bullshit:

I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

The important thing to note here is that they did not fake their results. What they did was use an analysis method that is used by a lot of junk science studies in the arena of health:

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.

Think of the measurements as lottery tickets. Each one has a small chance of paying off in the form of a “significant” result that we can spin a story around and sell to the media. The more tickets you buy, the more likely you are to win. We didn’t know exactly what would pan out—the headline could have been that chocolate improves sleep or lowers blood pressure—but we knew our chances of getting at least one “statistically significant” result were pretty good.

Whenever you hear that phrase, it means that some result has a small p value. The letter p seems to have totemic power, but it’s just a way to gauge the signal-to-noise ratio in the data. The conventional cutoff for being “significant” is 0.05, which means that there is just a 5 percent chance that your result is a random fluctuation. The more lottery tickets, the better your chances of getting a false positive. So how many tickets do you need to buy?

P(winning) = 1 – (1 – p)n

With our 18 measurements, we had a 60% chance of getting some“significant” result with p < 0.05. (The measurements weren’t independent, so it could be even higher.) The game was stacked in our favor.

It’s called p-hacking—fiddling with your experimental design and data to push p under 0.05—and it’s a big problem. Most scientists are honest and do it unconsciously. They get negative results, convince themselves they goofed, and repeat the experiment until it “works.” Or they drop “outlier” data points.

You can see this p-hacking illustrated by XKCD here. A similar hack is sometimes referred to as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. The idea is that if you run 100 tests, you will very likely find that one of those tests shows a signal that has a 1% chance of being a coincidence. In fact, as Nate Silver pointed out in his book, if you don’t find that about one in a hundred tests produces a spurious 99% result, you’re doing your statistics wrong.

One of the most infamous was a study in the early 90’s showing that high-tension power lines caused leukemia. Their results was statistically significant. But they tested 800 medical conditions. They were bound to come up with something just by chance.

That’s not to say statistics are useless. It’s to say that they have a context. When you’re testing one specific hypothesis, such as testing if vaccines cause autism, then they are useful. But they can be very deceptive when used in this scattershot approach.

Another illustration is DNA testing. Police in many areas have been doing blind DNA searches of databases to identify suspects in cold cases. When they find their suspect, they claim that the likelihood of a false match is literally one in a million. But these databases have hundreds of thousands of names in them. If you had a specific suspect and other reasons to suspect him, that one in a million stat would mean something. But in a blind search, your odds of finding a match by sheer coincidence is more like one in three.

Bohannon uses the lottery illustration and it’s a perfect one. The odds of any particular person winning the lottery are something like one in tens of millions. But someone is going to beat those odds. Someone always does.

Science — particularly when it comes to health — is littered with these sort of studies: blind searches that find something that then get touted in the media. Vox illustrates it here (point #2). There are statistically significant studies showing both that milk causes and prevents cancer. When you take them all into account, the net risk is basically zero. Of course Vox is in a bit of a glass house, having frequently touted such studies when convenient.