Global Warming's Terrifying New Math [Rolling Stone; July 19, 2012]
If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.
[…] Meanwhile the tide of numbers continues. The week after the Rio conference limped to its conclusion, Arctic sea ice hit the lowest level ever recorded for that date. Last month, on a single weekend, Tropical Storm Debby dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Florida – the earliest the season's fourth-named cyclone has ever arrived. At the same time, the largest fire in New Mexico history burned on, and the most destructive fire in Colorado's annals claimed 346 homes in Colorado Springs – breaking a record set the week before in Fort Collins. This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year's harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving… in the dust.
US drought could trigger repeat of global food crisis, experts warn [Guardian; July 23, 2012]
America’s drought threatens a recurrence of the 2008 global food crisis, when soaring prices set off riots and unrest to parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, food experts warn.
Corn prices reached an all-time high on Friday, as the drought expanded across America, trading at $8.24 a bushel on the Chicago exchange. Soybeans were also trading at record levels.
The US department of agriculture meanwhile predicted there would be less corn coming onto global markets over the next year, because of a sharp drop in US exports.
It's past time to tell the truth about the state of the world's coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks. They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation. There will be remnants here and there, but the global coral reef ecosystem — with its storehouse of biodiversity and fisheries supporting millions of the world's poor — will cease to be. […]
I had plans to fly down to Florida to see the very last space-shuttle launch, the one in the bottom right corner, and meet with my best friend from the internet, someone I had never met in spite of a decade of regular correspondence. We were going to watch the ship launch, then road-trip across the American South to New Orleans, stopping along the way to see things like Florida’s Real Live Mermaids and an exotic animal conservatory. It fell through, as many things do – his work schedule changed, the launch was delayed – so the plan changed and I flew to meet him in New York instead. The last star-ship sailed into the sky without us. Now the friendship is dead and so is the shuttle program. We missed out on both history and love and I’m still not sure, a year later, which was the greater tragedy.
I’ve signed up to try an experimental VR rig at the SFU Surrey iSpace Lab as part of a study investigating spatial perception in virtual environments. How cool is that? It comes with a motion sickness warning, so I’m pretty stoked, even though the machine they strap you into looks clunky as only old/new technology can. My appointment is today at 4 pm.
Locals can sign up to be a participant at this Reddit thread, though this week is booking fast. The entire study apparently takes just under 90 minutes. Compensation is $15. The only caveats are you that have to be 19 or older and that the head-mounted display doesn’t work well with glasses, so you either need normal vision or contact lenses.
alt-text: i hear smashing glass in my head, ever time i laugh
I awoke a little panicked, aware of a certain dreadful absence of pinging alarm, not quite damning my day job, but coming close to it. The entire morning thing seemed insurmountable. It had been a long, unexpected evening, the sort I am generally familiar with, but never actually had, so all I wanted to do was sleep in. Drinks in a bar, an invitation up, my cue to pass out chastely on half of a hotel bed, that’s how it goes, how it suits my blood. But he was impossibly sweet and it seemed, after an indeterminate sleepy amount of cuddling, that my desire to cling to the familiar had evaporated somewhere, possibly seared from existence by his fiercely protective intellect, and the only path available was towards a new choice.
We went to the Aquarium after dinner later that night, (foreign dishes in a basement, the beginning of my stories, the tragic litany, the darker side of a thousand and one nights), me to crash the party, him with legitimacy, both with an equally sound purpose. Mine was to sneak in, the better to get me into even more later. We split up right away, once it was assured I had successfully bluffed past security, and that was that, I was on my own, a mercenary butterfly released into the opening party of the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
It’s startlingly easy to make fast friends at the beginning of conferences. There are always a few people who’ve been attending since the dawn of time, but the majority of the crowd are strangers thrown together or people who’ve only known each-other tangentially or on-line, so the ground is primed for the sort of introduction that doesn’t generally fly in public, where you simply walk up like a little kid to a friendly looking face and say, “hi!”.
I almost immediately fell in a lovely women, Shauna, a fellow burner from Berkeley I knew I would like, then together, after taking pictures with the sharks, we found Elizabeth, there for CNN, best characterized by her amazing smile, as permanent as the moon. We chatted about the fish and science and wondered about the whale, elusive and grand, sequestered in an area of the aquarium that the conference hadn’t rented. Occasionally I drifted away, encountering new conversations and faces, making mental notes for later, attaching myself here and there, but made sure to keep swinging back to touch base, so as the night progressed, as I fluttered, I forged a little group with which to found a conspiracy.
Eventually we made a feint at sneaking past security to see the whale, but we’d gained mass, our core blossoming as we went into an unwieldy six or seven, too many to slyly saunter into an area we weren’t supposed to go. Then, sadly, after some magic with the otters and the dolphins, it was time to leave, the staff ushering us past the sleeping octopus and the shimmering glass cube of tiny blue fish that look like living streaks of light to a queue in the the parking lot for the hired buses that were shuttling everyone back downtown. I lost my partner in the crush, perhaps because I lingered too long, loitering in a hope to find him, yet I found surprisingly good company in his wake – Alan, Estrella, and Marc, who I first met inside as part of the attempt on the beluga tank. They wanted to walk, but didn’t know the way, so I put aside my concerns regarding my misplaced self as less important than the possibility of an entire lost group and appointed myself their guide.
The walk home was beautiful, if long. Mostly I fell in step with Marc, who I pressed for details about the Ig Nobels and traded stories of odd employment paths, but got on well with Alan, too, who possesses a Patient Zero level of infectious cheer. By the time everyone peeled off for their separate hotels, we’d discussed several adventures, planned a couple more, and all traded business cards, a habit I was to pick up even more as the conference went on. (The trick is to remember later which card goes to which face).
My fellow turned out to be table camping with the rest of his crew at the hotel bar, which I walked through on a whim, hoping to stumble across where he might be, my lack of cell phone again a strangely crippling artifact of the shockingly recent past. I joined them, of course, and was immediately taken with RJ, a clever young man from Waterloo University who was sitting at my end of the table. I spent the rest of the evening pulling ideas from him, chatting about clean energy and the internet, until the table finally dissolved, leaving me and mine to drift upstairs into the sweet oblivion that promises endless wonder but only ever delivers tomorrow.
Woke up in a massive hotel bed in the sky, fluffy and white and perfect, after an evening of late night hot-tubbing and room service, with a cell phone next to me connected to London. On the table in the main room is a small black robot that walks and dances, next to a package of Dita Von Teese brand bottled Perrier brought in from Paris. The laptop’s spring loaded keys light up blue and it runs facial recognition password software which loads quickly but doesn’t like the lighting.
Today is the booze run, checking and fixing the stickers, booking the arcade machines, planning for the Whistler cabins, setting up the staff room, and programming our phones to talk to the white plastic surveillance bunny, so we can instruct it to say ridiculous things. (We’re all addicted to the creepy bunny. It watches you masturbate). Tomorrow the conference starts all proper like and then the real fun begins.
Sally Adee, a science writer lucky enough to try a DARPA experiment that uses targeted electrical stimulation of the brain during training exercises to induce flow state for a New Scientist article, has some really fascinating things to say about what it was like:
The experience wasn’t simply about the easy pleasure of undeserved expertise. When the nice neuroscientists put the electrodes on me, the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut the fuck up.
The experiment I underwent was accelerated marksmanship training on a simulation the military uses. I spent a few hours learning how to shoot a modified M4 close-range assault rifle, first without tDCS and then with. Without it I was terrible, and when you’re terrible at something, all you can do is obsess about how terrible you are. And how much you want to stop doing the thing you are terrible at.
Then this happened:
The 20 minutes I spent hitting targets while electricity coursed through my brain were far from transcendent. I only remember feeling like I had just had an excellent cup of coffee, but without the caffeine jitters. I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it.
It was only when they turned off the current that I grasped what had just happened. Relieved of the minefield of self-doubt that constitutes my basic personality, I was a hell of a shot. And I can’t tell you how stunning it was to suddenly understand just how much of a drag that inner cacophony is on my ability to navigate life and basic tasks. […]
Me without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head; I’ve experienced something close to it during 2-hour Iyengar yoga classes, but the fragile peace in my head would be shattered almost the second I set foot outside the calm of the studio. I had certainly never experienced instant zen in the frustrating middle of something I was terrible at. There were no unpleasant side effects. The bewitching silence of the tDCS lasted, gradually diminishing over a period of about three days. The inevitable reintroduction of self-doubt and inattention to my mind bore heartbreaking similarities to the plot of Flowers for Algernon.
I hope you can sympathize with me when I tell you that the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes. I also started to have a lot of questions. Who was I apart from the angry little bitter gnomes that populate my mind and drive me to failure because I’m too scared to try? And where did those voices come from? Some of them are personal history, like the caustically dismissive 7th grade science teacher who advised me to become a waitress. Some of them are societal, like the hateful ladymag voices that bully me every time I look in a mirror. Invisible narrative informs all my waking decisions in ways I can’t even keep track of.
What would a world look like in which we all wore little tDCS headbands that would keep us in a primed, confident state free of all doubts and fears? Wouldn’t you wear the shit out of that cap? I certainly would. I’d wear one at all times and have two in my backpack ready in case something happened to the first one.