Thursday, July 29, 2010

Misplaced priorities in Higher Ed, The beat goes on.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's athletic program is running an $8 million deficits and students have been charged a fee to support the program. So of course the basketball team is taking a $160,000 trip to Italy. The program claims that the money has been privately donated. Now call me crazy but wouldn't it make more sense to apply those donations to the deficit? IMHO most of these alumni donors/boosters were people who coasted through college partying and rushing and never learned a thing of value - of course they don't care about the academic mission of colleges and universities.

If faculty members nationwide really had any balls or backbone (and the tenured ensconced ones dropped the "I got mine" attitude) there would a massive strike across campuses to force administrations to focus the money where it belongs.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More on Penn. Shale Gas

The EPA hearing in Canonsburg last Thursday drew a packed house, with many vocal opponents in attendance. However, the EPA has stated that the meeting was not about drilling policy, but instead to take questions about their impending study of ground and surface water contamination. Nevertheless, opponents and supporters have already drawn their battle lines. Some opponents, including the Pittsburgh City Council and members of the New York State legislature have called for a drilling moratorium until the EPA completes its study. Considering the economics involved, a probable increase in natural gas demand and the lobbying power of the natural gas industry I wouldn't hold my breath on that happening.

Meanwhile, Republican candidate for Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Corbett, was challenged by an environmental group to return a $3000 campaign donation from Anadarko Petroleum of Texas. Corbett has refused and claims to be interested in how Anadarko and others conduct there business. Its unclear if he was saying that accepting money from  Anadarko would help him keep an eye on them, which would be strange logic indeed. Anadarko owns part of the well leaking into the GOM and is a major driller for gas in Pennsylvania. They won a no bid contract to drill on PA public land from the current Rendell administration .

The battle over shale gas is just beginning. Natural gas produces less emissions than other fossil fuels, an infrastructure is in place, more homes use gas for heating, many power plants in New England have converted to NG, fertilizers are made from gas, and the shale gas is a domestic product. But it still produces CO2, may help prolong a wasteful exurban culture that should be allowed to die, hydrofracking can have enormous environmental costs* and in the end there may not be as much there as the salesmen say there is.

BTW, The Pennsylvania State Geological Survey has made available on-line a nice little presentation on the Marcellus Play for those looking for more background.

*Although I don't think the problems are alleged ones getting all the attention. The hydrofracking process usually occurs well below groundwater aquifers and natural gas can naturally seep into water supply. But contamination can occur through cheaply cased wells and improperly disposed waste. Plus every drill site is a small scale industrial/construction operation and is disruptive because of that.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday Strange

Once again, trying to only comment on the really serious and pressing matters in weekend posting:

Sad case of police brutality, someone is gonna need some sensitivity training.

The Teabaggers will probably open a Russian branch soon, only cuz' they know this is how Stalin started, no other reason.

When doing business in Bethlehem, one should always consult the bible.

Ya can't open enough breweries to make Delaware stop sucking...just kidding, Delaware is a fine place...if you're a strip mall.

Really can't add anything to this, the story says it all. But just imagine what it looked like, an episode of the old Batman?

Poor German fries, George Costanza could relate.

And of course Chupacabra news! They're on the move, having been sighted in Oklahoma and they may be moving into Colorado. Look out paranoid hicks and exurbanites, they'll soon be in YOUR town!!!!!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Frackin' Gas

I've been thinking of doing a long post on the natural gas being recovered from the Marcellus Play, a shale gas deposit in NY and Pennsylvania, as it is an issue related to our impending energy problems.  The Pennsylvania Geological Survey has a nice summary available on-line if you need some background. Part of what makes the shale gas controversial is the process of hydraulic-fracturing or hydrofraking. The Wikipedia site for hydraulic fracturing is well-detailed if you want more detail.

There are two things in the news today have led me to broach the subject:

A packed hearing was held by the EPA recently in Canonsberg, PA, as reported in the NY Times over the potential impacts. I will try to find out more. The tension between the groups relates to the economics and real costs, something that deserved to be examined in detail in another post.

Welders apparently sparked an explosion at a well NE of Pittsburgh. Although not part of the big issues surrounding gas shale, the incident shows that gas recovery has dangers just as coal mining and oil drilling do.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Palin, Payments and Profits

Sarah Palin's speech at CSU Stanislaus in June was controversial not just for the speaker, but because the cash-strapped school shelled out $75,000 in speakers fees and tried to keep the financial details away from scrutiny.
This past week all the gory details were released. Overall the CSU Stanislaus Foundation states ~$257K was spent on the speaker's fees, accommodations and security. Spent by who? Was it out of the foundation's pocket or the University's? The Foundation took in around $473K which after expenses nets $207,000. According to the university, $80,00 of the net proceeds are to go to "student scholarships", but no firm details are provided. This contradicts information provided by the CSUS President and reported here that claims all 207K went to scholarships. What's the deal with that? Furthermore, despite a lot of statements that the foundation is private, their incorporation indicates that they are an auxiliary arm of the University.

But lets' forget Palin for the time being, the speaker doesn't matter. What matters is the way money is brought into universities, how the spoils are divided and how much accountability there is.
OK, first of all, despite some claims, public money may have been used (the details are still vague). If so, the University should get  it back from the foundation, but when? How much of the proceeds actually go to students and how much to administrative overhead? Finally, what is the point of enabling more students to attend when the content of their education will be gutted?
Foundations, alumni groups, athletics and the universities themselves are supposed to be non-profit. But this just means they don't pay dividends or divvy up a surplus. But when you have evergrowing overhead expenses for salaries and benefits for excessive (and expensive) administrators, and you cut money from the educational/research mission to pay those expenses, you are acting like a for-profit entity. Add in the fact that much fundraising (including athletics) exists now to support the fundraisers, and we have an unsustainable situation developing in higher education. Colleges and universities may end up as nothing more than overpriced sports-entertainment-resort complexes with the occasional dumbed down high-school level class to attend.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Icy hot

Since moving to Penn -Delmarva region, I've noticed the paucity of snow most winters. This past winter, of course, we were wracked by multiple storms, prompting many to proclaim that this short-term regional weather disproved long-term global warming. At the same time however, the Arctic sea region was warmer than the long-term average:

Come April, things started cooking 'round here, with a few brief cooler periods.We can see how things started warm more than average at temperate as well as polar latitudes during the March through May period:

As I noted a few weeks ago, it was the hottest June on record for Philadephia and today it was reported by the National Climatic Data Center that the 2010 Jan-Jun period was the warmest on record. The last few weeks it has been very warm and dry, but the past few days why have doused with many heavy showers - during a short walk yesterday I was soaked by a warm torrential downpour.
What does this all mean? Well climate is what ya expect, weather is what ya get. There has been an El Nino  event over the past year and a negative Arctic Oscillation, which tend to cause changes in precipitation and temperature patterns. But if this pattern becomes the expected, then we have a shift in climate.  We see the long-term T increase and could see gradual changes in precipitation, temperature variation and storm tracks. But again if the pattern present now becomes the new normal, then we could be witnessing some abrupt changes. Or if we no longer see consistent patterns year to year, then maybe we have climate instability. We can only wait and see what happens.
Back to the Arctic. In the midst of Snowmeggdon in February, a rapid sea ice melt was forecast and now seems to be a reality.  And this as well.

Things could get "interesting". If abrupt change is underway or begins, how long before the public at large get it?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Being away for a few days, I missed ranting about some important events in the world. But I can't pass up this little tidbit of breaking Chupacabra news. Yep,the fearsome goatsuckers are back (and about time I say). Probably crossing the border with the evil illegals. I link to the video so you can enjoy all the asinine comments people are spewing.
Looks like a dog to me, but who ever heard of dogs killing anything ? Its not in their nature, right? And there are no wild or feral dogs, right? No, the simplest explanation is an unknown being that could be supernatural or alien and is seen mainly by people who are abducted by UFOs and have their cattle mutilated by black UN helicopters.

Then again, maybe I'm part of the conspiracy, BAH HA HA HA!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pepsigeddon over, but damage is done

ScienceBlogs has removed Food Frontiers. Although some striking bloggers have returned, the damage has been done.

The management at SEED and the defenders of FF seem to lack the ability to see the problem, as shown in the leaked e-mail from SEED management. The claim that industry needs a seat at the table like those of academic and institutional scientists is a false equivalency. There are no blogs there bought by the University of Wisconsin or Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, with posts from scientists written as parts of their official duties. Now if a Pepsico R&D person was invited to write a blog independently, I don't see a problem. Even then we still wouldn't expect to see a completely transparent view of anything going within Pepsico, because they would be legally bound not to reveal propriety information.

In the end I fear for the long-term credibility of ScienceBlogs, but we'll see.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Pepsi blog raising bloodpressures over at Scienceblogs

Imagine a newspaper that invites writers to print columns by scientists and sciencewriters on whatever subject they choose. Now the paper does run advertising, but has traditionally given the writers complete freedom on the subject material in their columns. Then one day the paper starts to run a column that is not simply surrounded by advertising, or even sponsored by a corporation, but instead is actually written by the corporation's staff. This is the situation that has developed over at Scienceblogs. Pepsico has been invited to start a new blog called Food Frontiers, written by their R and D staff and edited by the Scienceblog editors. Note that this is not simple a blog on food sponsored by Pepsico, which could be considered philanthropic, but one that many would assume had content basically approved by Pepsico. The company does state it is an extension of their already existing Food Frontiers blog. This setup is analogous to the NY Times starting an energy column, and having it written not by independent journalists, but by Exxon-Mobil's R and D staff. Now such a column may have very good content about how petroleum forms, how it is found, recovered and processed etc. But would we expect the company to allow an honest assessment of petroleum resources to be published? Maybe, maybe not.

Some Sciencebloggers have already left.  Others, such has Respectful Insolence have rationally pointed out the conflict of interest this raises and how the whole matter affects the ability of blogging scientists to call out quacks, denialists and assorted wed whack-a-loons. While others have taken a wait and see approach, the blogger over at ERV has accused those who have a problem with Food Frontiers of being food elitists. Someone there maybe smoking ground-up copies of Ayn Rand or something, but you don't need to be some marxist or miltant hippie vegan to have a problem with FF. I myself have contributed to Pepsico's profits through the years (although I tend towards Coke nowadays) and have setup a corporate entity of my own for a for profit business, yet I can clearly see the problem here. Pepsico already has their own blog and a hugely successful marketing program and does not need an advertising platform mimicking an independently written blog. I love the Red Sox, but I wouldn't like it if they took the content of their own website and started to post it along with all the other sports blogs on ESPN.

I am also getting heartily sick and tired of people acting like big-business is under unprecedented attack, that any regulation is identical to fascism, that corporate entities are "persons" in the same sense as living human beings, that any penny of tax on the wealthy is the same as slavery and so on. I wonder about people who feel the need to overact react in such a way and blindly defend powerful companies who don't need their help to begin with.  The various levels and branches of government, business interests, activists, churches, universities, unions and individual all are integral parts of society, but too much unchecked and unquestioned power concentrated in any one of them unbalances democracy and erodes it. Large corporations don't need anymore help, and realizing that is not an attack on our individual freedoms and democracy.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The 2nd and 4th of July

The Continental Congress passed a Resolution declaring the independence of the 13 colonies on July 2, 1776, 234 years ago today.This is why John Adams said, "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore"
However, the formal declaration was not approved until the 4th, which of course is the day we celebrate. So Johnny was two days off.

Anyway, in these times when a minority of reactionaries twist, color and outright lie about what the American Revolutionary leaders thought (as if they all agreed in lockstep) I want to quote the man from my home town again, John Adams, from his Thoughts on Government:

"We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best."
emphasis added

"Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant."

June was hot in Philly

After the record-breaking snow in February things sure heated up fast 'round here. The weather that is, not the Phillies - d'oh! April got cooking and now the past month is reported to be Philadekphia's hottest June on record, according the Inquirer. One interesting tidbit to ponder:
"The temperature hit 90 or better 15 times, tying a record, but oddly, not a single high temperature record was broken in June. The problem was, it just wasn't cool." This month may be just be an aberration, but it does provide an example of what we could expect with warming, not necessarily record heat, but just warmer overall.