Only one way to sum up today …

June 28, 2011

… in the words of Mike Gundy ….


Note:  I was a man prior to today.

By sheer coincidence, I am in Denver today preparing to watch the White Sox play the Rockies.  I have always wanted to come out and watch them play in this beautiful part of the country, but since they only play each other once every 4 years or so, and alternate between Chicago and Denver, this was the next time … and it happened to be over my birthday.

The oddest phone call I got today was from one of my former scholastic bowl players … Greg … he just passed the test to be on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, and will be learning soon if he is to be a contestant.  I hope he makes it!

I have spent the last few days with my aunt, uncle, cousin (yes Al, THAT cousin), and her adorable daughter (I did mention, adorable).  Among other things, I got introduced to the world of geocacheing, and think I might be interested enough to get into it (I think doing it surrounded by the beauty of Colorado is a heck of a lot better than the urban wasteland of Chicago, but there is still a lot of potential … I am interested in giving it a whirl.

Rod guilty on 17 of 20 counts

June 28, 2011

Our second consecutive former governor seems to be in line to spend time in a government sponsored hotel.

One of the counts that the jury was deadlocked on involved an attempts to shakedown one Rahm Emmanuel, currently Mayor/Overlord of Chicago.

Perhaps George Ryan and Blago can share a cell somewhere?

Home again

June 23, 2011

I just got home after spending three days in far southern Illinois at a workshop on the Illinois oil and natural gas industry.

While this is not the normal topic taught in physics, we are spending more and more time in my lower level class talking about alternative energy and the problems with petroleum depletion.  Thus, I thought that this would be a workshop I might get something out of.  I am still figuring out how to incorporate all of the information into the class, but I did learn a great deal.

1.  I was completely unaware that during WWII, Illinois was the #1 or #2 producer of petroleum in the United States.  Illinois trailed only Russia and Venezuela in petroleum production at the time.  If oil won the war, Illinois was a big part of that.  Illinois is a shadow of itself today ….15th in the nation.

2.  The petroleum that does come out of the ground in Illinois is light sweet crude, which I learned means that the petroleum is lower in density and has a higher concentration of the lower mass alkanes that are useful for fuels.  In addition, light crude tends to flow through the rocks easier.  Sweet crude is low sulfur, which means it takes less money to clean it up for use as a fuel.

3.  Most of the oil in the more porous rock is gone.  The next phase in oil development is to attack the shales where the oil is contained, but doesn’t flow as easily.  It is a more expensive extraction process, and oil companies typically won’t do this until the price of oil is high enough.  Right now, it isn’t.  when it gets over $100/barrel, it will.

4.  There is some belief that, including the shales, Illinois has about as much oil left in the ground as it has taken out in about 75 years.

5.  One of the biggest things I learned is that the big oil companies (Texaco, Chevron, BP, Exxon, etc) long ago left Illinois.  All of the remaining oil extraction is handled by small companies that typically employ less than 10 people.  Some are old family operations.  They gave me a taste of just how expensive and how much of a gamble it is to hunt and extract oil.  I would describe it as:

Its like playing poker as a team against the house.  The company uses its own money, and employs card counters (geologists).  Rather than opening with a small blind, the player places a massive amount of money on the table, and then pays the dealer a small sum of money for the next card, and promises a fraction of the profit if there is a win.  As this happens with each card, the geologists are constantly giving advice on whether you keep playing or cut your losses and stop.

On top of all this, many companies don’t have the money to even get into the game, so they often have to line up investors to give them money with a promise of a fraction of the profits, if the game pays off.

Risk is a part of life, but there’s no way I could get involved at the risk levels these folks pay at.  One of the moderators for the conference was an oil company president who is a third generation owner, and described how, while he was an oil exec, he often times had to have two side jobs just to make sure he could manage payments on his house and save for his kids’ education back when oil prices were really low.

If anything, it gave me an appreciation for these small companies that you never hear about, and while you think these folks take treasure baths once a day, they in fact have to work very hard to keep their businesses afloat in a very, very uncertain world.  It gave me a renewed appreciation for entrepreneurship.

We also learned a little about petroleum and natural gas geology, the legal aspects of land ownership (amazing how a homeowner or a farmer can own the land, but have no rights to the oil or coal under the ground, and they have no legal way to block access to this under their own land … the attorney who gave the lecture on this was pretty interesting).  Part of the workshop involved visiting a drilling site, a refinery, and a pumping field.

Two days started at 7 am, the other started at 6:30 am … two days went until 6 at night, the third day ended at noon.  It was a packed couple of days, I’m dead tired, but  it was an educational experience!

A new monkey in the wrench of global warming

June 17, 2011

Any climate specialist worth their weight will tell you the following:

1.  Climate is an exceptionally chaotic thing to study.  For those with some basic physics and know that there is some relationship between the distance you travel, the time you travel, and the average speed you travel (which can be modeled nicely in a neat little equation:  s = d/t).  Climate is the exact opposite of that.  Climate models are far from ever nice or neat.  Even the most elegant ones aren’t very elegant in comparison to simple phenomena.

2.  When it comes to the whole “What is causing global warming?” (and it is happening) …. is it gas guzzling cars or solar activity, or some combination mixed with other things, the best answer is “yes”.  Many global warming denialists often say there is little evidence that human factors are influencing the temperature of the planet.  This is along the same lines of “there is no evidence denying the existence of leprechauns” … the absence of evidence means nothing …. besides, there is at least some evidence that human influence is playing a role.  The exact mixture is what may remain unknown.

The role of global warming is going to potentially be big in the next century.  Some low lying land has the possibility of being inundated more easily by a rising sea level, but the more immediate issue is going to be the greater potential for damage from hurricanes, tropical storms, and those rarer tsunamis.  Parts of the world where water is scarce will see it a lot more scarce (fortunately this isn’t anywhere unstable like the Middle East … oops, it is!).  On top of that, there is some evidence that the Western United States is coming out of an unprecedented wet era, and that it is starting to return to its more natural drier conditions …. that has a big impact on agriculture and the expanding population out west.

But back to the main point.  The real cause of global warming is that big start;  the sun.  The sun is on one level a giant nuclear fusion reactor, but even that is an oversimplification.  It is more like a really complex nuclear fusion reactor.  Like pre-menopausal women, the sun goes through cycles.  Like some women who get unexpectedly pregnant, those cycles aren’t the most regular of cycles!

Sunspots have been observed on the sun as long as we have been able to observe the sun (roughly 400 years or so).  Sunspots are dark spots that appear on the surface of the sun and act roughly like poles on a magnet.  While these spots themselves are cooler than the surrounding plasma that makes up the sun, its disruption of the flow of said plasma actually has the effect of making the sun give off more energy.

The number of sunspots that appear on the sun are not regular.  They exist in a roughly 11 year cycle.  At the start of the cycle, the number of spots goes up very quickly, and then for the rest of the 11 years, the number of spots decreases slowly.  But like I said, these cycles aren’t all the same.  The twentieth century saw a general increase in the number of sunspots in each cycle …. up until about the mid-1960s (global warming denialists rejoice!) … but since then, the number of sunspots in each cycle has seen a decrease (global warming denialists, denied!).

However, there is some evidence that we haven’t seen anything yet!  Some scientists believe that we may in fact be heading into a second Maunder Minimum.


Back about 1640 or so … the early days of telescopy, observers started to notice that the number of sunspots was getting downright low!  And between 1645 and 1720, the number of sunspots got really, really low ….. like there were hardly any at all.  During the first 30 years of the Maunder Minimum, there were a grand total of about 4 dozen sunspots found.  Over an average 30 year span, that number is closer to 30 or 40 thousand!  It was obvious something was happening.  The same thing sort of happened in the early 1800s … it wasn’t as bad, but sunspots were seen at a much lower rate.

So what?  So the sun will have fewer blemishes because it has been staying out of the s … never mind!

Remember how I noted that the American West has spent most of the twentieth century recovering from record moisture and fertility?  That was because of the weather on Earth for about 200 years between the 16th and 18th century … the global temperatures dropped fairly noticeably … so much so that historians, agriculturalists, and climatologist call that era of history “The Little Ice Age”.

Now, it really could be coincidence (it could be), but the Maunder Minimum was practically smack dab in the middle of that time.

Here is the good news:  if we are heading into some kind of minimum of sunspot activity, we could see some reduction in the effects of global warming …. that doesn’t mean we should give up trying to repair the environment …. that means we should than our lucky stars that mother nature is allowing us to purchase the one thing we normally can’t buy:  time.

Here’s the not so good news.  The Maunder Minimum happened in the middle of that cooling.  That means, the Little Ice Age had already started by the time the Maunder Minimum started.  Since we are clearly not in the middle of any global cooling event, we may not be seeing too much of an effect on the environment at all.

The fact is, even though science has been around in some good form for about 450-500 years, the technology to see a lot of things has only been around for maybe 50-100 years … that means a lot of things that are affecting the Earth are only be ing measured and charted for the first time.  I know that this makes a lot of the public lose faith in what science can do.  But people gotta understand that as important as understanding the Earth’s climate is:  it is going to take time, and it is going to take a lot of good thinkers.  People need to know to take anything in the press, especially things related to science with a grain of salt.  Give the scientists the time they need to do their job.


edit:  shame on me for not giving credit where credit is due … while I had seen this come across my desk during our daily lunch discussions at work just before the school year ended, and I had meant to blog on it, I was reminded of this by my good friend, Tom.  His blog has a number of always very cool things to think about (not the least of which are the pictures of two really, really cute kids).

As Canadian as Molson … rioting!

June 15, 2011

An American news crew from Seattle had to go on the run to avoid being attacked by a rioting mob that was setting cars on fire.

Syria?  Bahrain?  Vancouver!

Did the Canadian government stop giving out money?  Was someone with a sliver turned away at a hospital?

No, their dirty hockey team managed to get embarrassed in a Game 7 to lose the Stanley Cup to a team representing the heart of American independence, Boston.

When the Bears lost the Super Bowl, was there rioting … NO (yeah, yeah, it was too cold).

When the Cubs get eliminated from the World Series, do the blue bloods riot?  NO … though truthfully many of them are too drunk to realize that the Cubs have in fact been eliminated.

But a team that has no history of winning the Stanley Cup finally runs out of dirty tricks, and the town considered sportsmanlike enough to host an Olympics is now rampaging through the streets as if their emir just stripped the right to vote.

And the Canadians think we are out of line!  At least when we fight for bad reasons its because someone knocked over our buildings and killed thousands of people, not because Roberto Luongo let four in the net!

The hosers gotta start getting it together!

Film review – X Men: First Class

June 12, 2011

If you are one of those people who has waited even longer than I have to see this movie, don’t read on!

I always found it a bit amazing that with the popularity of the X-Men, it took so long to try and film them.  Now, it seems, they can’t stop.  The first three films weren’t bad, though the Wolverine film wasn’t so good.  It looks like they are back on track.

This film opens exactly where the first one did … same footage of Eric Lensher seeing his parents going off to the concentration camp, and in his attempt to pursue, his magnetic powers manifest themselves for the first time.  We then get to see what happened next: a young Nazi scientist asks him to repeat the trick.  When he can’t, he bring in his mother, and threatens to shoot her if he won’t … when he still can’t, he shoots her, and then young Eric lets his powers fly.

Meanwhile on a palatial estate in New York, young Charles Frances Xavier is awoken by a noise in the kitchen … he finds his mother there, and quickly realizes that it is not his mother, but an intruder who quickly reveals her self to be a very young Mystique.  Charles is thrilled to have finally found another mutant, and brings Mystique into the family as a new sister.

Fast forward to the 1960s.

Eric now has much greater control of his powers, and has one thing on his mind:  find the Nazi doctor who killed his mother.  Charles Xavier is meanwhile bedding babes at Oxford while working on his PhD, and not being the best of brothers to Mystique who lacks Xavier’s intellectual gifts, and is starting to resent that she has to hide in public while he doesn’t have to.

Meanwhile, the CIA is investigating an Army general who appears to be collaborating with the Russians.  It turns out he is collaborating with this Nazi doctor (who turns out to be a mutant), and some of his mutant friends.  He has the goal of starting a nuclear war in order to wipe out most of the human population, while inducing mutations in the rest … ironic that Eric also has a bad feeling about humanity, and is in constant conflict within himself over this and Xavier’s more humanistic approach to things.

Eric and Xavier finally meet and go to work for the CIA, recruiting their own army of mutants (though one old face rudely refuses to join them … at least for now).  This sets up the final battle as the Nazi doctor nicely arranges for the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the X-Men must save the day, but not, of course, before splintering.

It’s a solid film.  There is some action, but surprisingly little.  It is an origin story, but very different from similar films (like Spider-Man, Thor, or The Fantastic Four).  Rather, this film frames a genuinely intellectual conflict:  if mutants represent a next step in evolution, how wrong can it be to wipe out Homo sapiens, in much the way that Homo sapiens wiped out their predecessors?  If there is every indication that humanity will never accept those who are different, then don’t the different ones have an obligation to defend themselves?  While these are the deeper questions, one of the very best points of the X-Men is always about those who are different, and the need for them to be comfortable with who they are, and that there shouldn’t be a need to conform to a societal expectation (especially in terms of appearance).  This last point is summed up by the relationship between Mystique and Hank McCoy (aka “The Beast”), who cannot accept himself, and Eric, who helps Mystique to accept who she is, and thus gains a control over her.

There are nice effects, but nothing that couldn’t wait for a good DVD.  The majority of the film is set in the 1960s, and I thought that the production staff did a nice job of making things “feel” like the 1960s.

Perhaps nothing more felt like the 1960s than the film’s Nazi doctor villain played by non other than …. Kevin Bacon?  When I first  saw this, I had my doubts if he could pull it off (its one thing to have to play a villain, but another thing entirely to play one against all of the internal drama in the film which deals with the “good guys” being unable to quite get along).  However, Bacon pulls it off quite well.

There is some very mild sensuality and one f-bomb uttered by a certain cigar chomping mutant telling Xavier to go away … the violence is pretty stylized, so while the younger crowd might have a problem with it, I don’t think the pre-teens would be scarred for life.

Are we seeing the death of NATO?

June 11, 2011;_ylt=Akfk5scuiPlZcPScsOoBgp2hOrgF;_ylu=X3oDMTNkbHQyY29sBGFzc2V0A2FwLzIwMTEwNjEwL2V1X2dhdGVzX25hdG9fZG9vbWVkBGNjb2RlA3JkbmJldG9wNTAwcG9vbARjcG9zAzEEcG9zAzEEc2VjA3luX3RvcF9zdG9yaWVzBHNsawNnYXRlc25hdG9hbGw-

Secretary of Defense Gates, in a more-or-less final statement aimed at the European allies before he steps down, basically said that the end of NATO could be coming soon as the U.S. government gets sick and tired of European nations cherry picking what they do and do not choose to get involved with, even when their own national interests are at stake, especially when Europe is reducing its already minimal defense spending.

It has been the ongoing statement underlying foreign policy for years:  the United States bailed out Europe in WWII (not an absolute truth, though arguments can be made), and throughout the Cold War, the United States stood like the lone warrior on the wall defending Western European democracies from the red menace (again, not completely true, but one wonders given what happened after WWII, what might have come to pass if not for a strong U.S. stance in Europe?)

The irony, for an anti-socialist nation like the U.S, is that their presence in Europe allowed Europe to take money from defense and spend it on the building up of the nanny states that exist to varying degrees today.  Europe is somewhat resentful of having lived in the American shadow, though it is ironic:  if the U.S. had pulled out of Europe completely after WWII, Western Europe would have almost certainly needed to divert vast sums of money for defense, and the modern socialist states would likely not have turned out as they had.

So, now we have a Europe that is unwilling to fight for practically anything no matter how right (Libya, Afghanistan) or wrong (Iraq).  The U.S. has now put out a high level statement basically saying that they are sick and tired of footing the bill in terms of cash and lives lost.  While the UK has jumped on board with the American statement, nations like Germany are hemming and hawing about it.

So what happens if NATO does go away?

Look for a new system that is basically NATO, sans the U.S. (a European collective defense organization).  Look for that organization to be geared toward one purpose, at least at first:  the repulsion of a Soviet invasion, which may or may not see increased likelihood in the next 25-50 years as resource depletion accelerates.  The U.S, which has already begun removing military resources from Europe will see the problem of having lost strategic locations from which to act as jumping-off points, especially for activities in the Middle East.

But this leads to an even darker proposition:  Europe’s overall economy is starting to darken, and may see even bigger problems looming between the choices of cutting off the nanny state money to their populace, or raising taxes even more, which undoubtedly will hurt the business/employment aspects of the continent … not to mention a need to increase defense spending with all of the American military gone, and more importantly America’s required presence if something bad happens.

What if something should come to pass that puts Europe and the U.S. at odds?  Europe has nuclear weapons, but almost certainly no gumption to allow their use.  Their militaries are well trained, but in many cases do not have any prolonged combat experience.  The United States does not suffer from this, and has gained more and more experience in dealing with different enemies in different terrains.

While today this is nothing more than a tiff, what happens in the coming decades as resource depletion pushes the U.S. and Europe more and more into competition with each other, to the point where the militaries might be needed?

Would Europe turn to another big kid on the block to save them?  Could we see a day when Russia is hired by the European community as their protector against the United States?  How does China and North Korea react when a Russian military with European cash is suddenly on the border, instead of just the Russian military?

Strange things to contemplate, indeed?