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A Few Updates February 23, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, climate, football, science.
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I was going to write about composting toilets today. Or the startling wave of pseudo-defections from the democratic congressional ranks. Or the jobs bill. Or the Eagles’ release of Brian Westbrook. OK, I will write a little bit about that. But there have been a few developments in the topics I wrote about recently, and so I thought I would hit those.

First, Akio Toyoda is going before US congress tomorrow to explain/apologize for his company’s actions in the wake of the discovery of safety defects in several car models. Ten days ago I wondered if congress could subpoena the head of a foreign firm to appear before it. Now, it seems that they can. I still don’t understand how this works. While Toyota may have foreign headquarters, it is a multi-national that does most of its business in the US. Is that sufficient? Is this subpoena illegal but Toyoda is showing up as a public relations move because refusing would be tantamount to admitting wrongdoing? Anyways, ten days ago I also doubted that there is a smoking gun internal memo that demonstrates that Toyota acted in a willfully criminal way. Now, it appears there is a memo. Dug up by none other than the completely un-interested Detroit Free Press. Presumably, the memo states that Toyota “saved $100 million in 2007 by getting the government to OK replacing floor mats in 55,000 vehicles as a solution to sudden acceleration complaints.” Is this a smoking gun? Is it even a gun? First, which government green-lighted this? The US government? Second, what was the alternative? Doing nothing? If the rest of the memo demonstrates that Toyota couldn’t figure out what was really wrong and the best explanation it could come up with was a sticky floormat, then this memo is benign. Of course, if the rest of the memo shows that Toyota did know that something else was wrong and pulled a bait-and-switch in an attempt to spare itself a costly and embarrassing recall … Anyways, congress has subpoenaed (sp?) this memo. I guess we will know more tomorrow. Expect more commentary. Also, I feared/predicted additional recalls over every little perceived problem with Toyota vehicles, dangerous or not a la Intel’s 1994 recall over the Pentium fdiv bug.  Now it appears that Toyota is mulling a recall on Corolla over power-steering issues.

Second, the IPCC in particular, climate science in general, and I fear science in uber-general is taking a beating this past week over mistakes in the most recent IPCC report. The most significant conflagaration regards a claim in the report that the Himalayan glaciers that currently feed four of the largest river systems in the world and are home to one quarter of the world’s population will disappear in 2035. The real projection is 2350. Don’t get me wrong. There is a real difference between 2035 and 2350, both in terms of implications for the China and the Indian sub-continent and for reverse-implications on climate trends in general. But this difference does not mean that environmental prospects for China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are good in an absolute sense, it does not invalidate all 3,000 pages of the report, and it does not mean that climate scientists are either incompetent or sensationalist alarmists. Regarding the Himalayas, most IPCC climate event projections have turned out to have been conservative because of unknown and unmodeled positive feedback loops. As climate science has advanced and as climate has advanced (yipes) most of the “discoveries” have been of accelerant type effects that increase warming, not of damping effects. I won’t live long enough to see the Himalayan glaciers disappear one way or the other but it wouldn’t surprise me if the estimate is revised significantly downward in the next report. Even if the estimates are not revised, by 2035 the Himalayan glaciers would lose 10% of their mass, the Ganghes, Yangtze, Indus, and Brahmaputra would lose 10% of their capacity while the population of their deltas would grow by some unknown percent. Regarding the rest of the report, I haven’t really read it but I will put it on my queue. But most importantly, regarding the competence and morals of the climate science community. I am a scientist of sorts and I will not pretend that scientists do not seek fame (some do) and are free of self-serving agenda (some have). But I also will not pretend that scientists don’t make mistakes (all do). It’s not that I can’t count the number of mistakes in scientific articles I have authored, it’s that I don’t want to for fear that there may actually be mistakes beyond the ones I know about already. The nature of science is uncertainty and new discovery. Mistakes and wrong hypotheses are inevitable. In fact, they are significantly more common than breakthrough discoveries and theories. IPCC is a large body and while some members undoubtedly seek fame and others undoubtedly have personal interest in climate change alarmism (either to spur funding for their own research programs or to spur business for their solar panel company), IPCC as a body does not. This is a mistake. And not even a scientific mistake. It’s a typo. People, scientists and scientific writers and copy editors make mistakes.

Third, three cheers for the Intel stimulus package.

Finally, Brian Westbrook. The Eagles released him today after eight years of service, 64 touchdowns, two pro-bowls, and a 2007 season for the ages. Of course, there was also the matter of multiple knee and foot operations, two concussions, numerous missed games including the 2003 NFC championship tilt against Carolina that the Eagles lost at home 14-3, $7.25 million due on March 5th, a significantly younger, healthier and cheaper model in house, and the magic number 30. Such is the NFL. Absolutely brutal. Brian, it’s been a treat watching you. I won’t forget the punt return against the Giants in 2002 (2003?). Or the two touchdowns against them in 2008. Or the screen pass in the Tampa Bay game. I know that you haven’t made as much money as you wanted to make and probably deserved to make. But do yourself a favor and retire. Don’t put yourself through more foot surgeries. Don’t let two concussions become three. Or six. Don’t let the NFL take more from you than it already has.

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