Friday, January 25, 2008


When I was a little girl I remember loving to watch the Miss America pageant. In fact, the opening scene in Little Miss Sunshine, where Olive is watching the pageant and rehearsing the signature wave is a disturbingly nostalgic moment for me to watch. I, too, wanted to win a pageant and be a Beauty Queen when I was a little girl. But much like Olive, I didn't have what it took, even if I'd had the support of a druggie grandfather and absent-minded parents. By the time I was a pre-teen I'd figured out that I would never be tall enough or beautiful enough to be a beauty queen and turned my efforts to other pursuits.

That said, I still like to watch sometimes. It's fun to see beautiful women competing to see who is the most beautiful (whatever that really means). I really wish I had TV this season, though, to watch the TLC's Miss America: Reality check. I'm glad the pageant organizers aren't taking it too seriously. Of course, there are some who aren't happy about the satire, like Lois Elaine Smith-Zoll.

"I want them to be professional ladies," said Lois Elaine Smith-Zoll, a 70-year-old pageant volunteer from Vancouver, Washington, with 41 years of judging behind her. "They are mocking the old system. This young woman is going to represent our country, we want to be proud of her."

I can understand the desire to want the contestants to be ladies, and I am definitely glad that they take the position of role-model seriously. Really, though, if you want these young women to remain relevant to the tweens and teens of today, you're going to have to make them hip and cool, and a little more edgy. Decorum is great, but the young women of today need someone they'd like to hang out with, not just admire from a distance.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

I'm just going to come out and say this: as depressing as global warming is, I'm not that worried about it. Sure, corals are screwed, though some hardier species will probably survive and replace those we loose; significant, heavily populated portions of the world will probably be made unliveable through flooding or intensification of droughts, including low-lying areas of Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian countries through flooding and the Southwestern US through drought; and it's likely that some amount of upheaval will accompany the changes in climate that are coming. We're going to see a couple of degrees of warming even if we stop emitting CO2 right now--completely--which may be enough to trigger some of the smaller, less-severe problems global warming poses (particularly the spread of disease). If we choose to try and mitigate global warming by throwing tons of sulfur dioxide aerosols into the stratosphere (where acid rain fallout is less of a concern) we'll have to shoot the equivalent of hundreds of buses worth of sulfur dioxide at least 10 km into the atmosphere and all along the equator, or we'll risk all the warming we would have seen happening even faster than it's happening now. CO2 capture is thermodynamically possible, but will require huge amounts of energy to implement, decreasing the efficiency of all power plants that employ it.

And yet, I'm not worried. The cynical side of me says that's because if I really cared, it would be debilitating.

This article by Jared Diamond points out that the level of consumption of resources is a huge problem, and one that we could at least mitigate if we were to cooperate more effectively in using resources in a sustainable manner and in conservation efforts. This sort of thinking gives me hope that we can find solutions to looming environmental problems, if we can be reasonable and think critically and hard about what we really value as a society. I suspect the same thing is true when it comes go CO2 emissions and global warming. We really are at some point going to have to confront the environmental problems our American lifestyle generates; the question is whether we will do it willingly and clean up our act before we are forced to, or whether we will wait until we have no choice and suffer the hardships that will certainly result. I hope as a society we're smart enough to choose the former option rather than the latter.

Global Cooling

'Cause I'm sick of typing this every time someone brings up global cooling, here's the standard response:

Global cooling–Byproduct of sulfur emissions and incomplete understanding of Milankovitch cycles. Sulfur dioxide creates aerosols that reflect solar radiation back out to space, thus cooling the atmosphere. Starting in the 40’s, global temperatures dropped because of the presence of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere, mostly from burning high-sulfur coal in power plants without scrubbers. Scientists were also coming to accept and find evidence of Milankovitch cycles in climate about the same time, and it was noted that the Holocene (which we are in now) is a few thousand years longer than previous interglacial periods. Understanding the the climate is largely controlled by solar insolation, thinking that at least based on the previous length of interglacials we must be heading into a glacial period soon, and noticing the downtick in global temperatures, some people came to the conclusion we would soon find ourselves in a glacial period. Better simulations of orbital dynamics have subsequently shown the Holocene has lasted longer because of a fortunate confluence of orbital parameters, and has shown that the Holocene, even without Anthropogenic greenhouse gases, would last a few thousand years more. Concerns over acid rain led to controls on sulfur emissions, which then decreased the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere, which is why we now see the impact of CO2 in the instrumental record.

Incidentally, if you don’t think we puny humans can really influence the atmosphere, here’s a good exampe of us actually doing so.