Greg Easterbrook’s article “Global Warming: Who Loses—and Who Wins?” from the April 2007 Atlantic Monthly discusses geopolitical issues that may arise as world-wide temperatures continue to increase. One statement in particular caught my eye:

For centuries, Europeans drove the indigenous peoples of what is now Canada farther and farther north. In 1993, Canada agreed to grant a degree of independence to the primarily Inuit population of Nunavut, and this large, cold region in the country’s northeast has been mainly self-governing since 1999. The Inuit believe they are ensconced in the one place in this hemisphere that the descendants of Europe will never, ever want. This could turn out to be wrong.

It seems in fact that this is already the case, and has been for time. (See this excellent overview.)

In 2006, the Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation announced plans for a huge iron mine along the Mary River in the northern reaches of Baffin Island. Transporting all of the ore would require the creation of a railroad, a first for the huge island, and the development of a massive new seaport at either Milne Inlet or Steensby Inlet. (See map). The seaports would need to be kept open using ice breakers for much of the year as the ice is often over 2 meters thick. The northern route would take these massive ships right past the new Sirmilik National Park.

The ore of is of such high quality that it can be shipped without any further processing, so the mine wouldn’t be as environmentally damaging as one of this size could be—at least at first.

If this mine comes online, the closest settlement, Pond Inlet, will be in for massive changes. Now that the Inuit are in control of Nunavut, they will at least be in the position to benefit directly from these changes. Still I can’t help feel ambivalence and concern about such a heavy footprint on such sacred ground.

» Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2007 | Permanent Link

Deterministic but Unpredictable

A friend and I were discussing Douglas Hofstader’s new book “I Am a Strange Loop”, specifically his comments on Free Will. He tries to dismiss the entire philosophical exercise and focus more on the notion of “choice”, but it seems clear that at a deeper level he ultimately sides with pure determinism. This appears to be the emerging consensus of the scientific community as shown in this poll of “professional evolutionary scientists.” (Overall Hofstader’s book was a bit disappointing and somewhat derivative of his earlier work.)

At a spiritual level, it can be unnerving to think that all of one’s actions are, in essence, predetermined and could in principal be predicted if the initial conditions were known with enough accuracy. Henri Poincaré’s work on the famous 3-body problem though demonstrated over a hundred years ago that it is impossible to ever approach such a calculation—things may be deterministic but they are unpredictable.


Two other books that I recently read, Ivar Ekeland’s book “Mathematics and the Unexpected” and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s snarky “The Black Swan” both deal in their own way with implications of unpredictability and discuss Poincaré’s work. Coincidentally both books highlight this difficulty by referencing the same detail from a 1978 paper by Professor Michael Berry called “Regular and Irregular Motion” which analyzed Poincaré’s insights in great detail.


On page 95 of that paper, Berry calculates that, given a billiard table, after only 9 collisions, in order to make a accurate prediction of the final state, the gravitational effects of the people in the room would need to be taken into account. After 56 collisions, the effects of a single electron at the edge of the visible universe would be required!

» Posted: Saturday, June 16, 2007 | Comments (6) | Permanent Link

Unconventional Climate Wisdom

Two recent articles in American Scientist give evidence that the conventional wisdom behind certain weather-related phenomena is wrong.

The first relates to the shrinking of Mount Kilimanjaro’s glaciers. This article points out that while global warming is real, it plays at most only a minor role in the shrinking of the glaciers. The real culprit seems to be the overall drying out of the atmosphere in the surrounding area, which has been happening since at least the 1880s.

The observations … point to a combination of factors other than warming air—chiefly a drying of the surrounding air that reduced accumulation and increased ablation—as responsible for the decline of the ice on Kilimanjaro since the first observations in the 1880s.

If human-induced global warming has played any role in the shrinkage of Kilimanjaro’s ice, it could only have joined the game quite late, after the result was already clearly decided, acting at most as an accessory, influencing the outcome indirectly.

The other, and to my mind, more startling article shows convincingly that the Gulf Stream is not responsible for Europe’s “unexpectedly” mild climate given its northerly latitude.

Ocean Temperature Map

As can be seen in the map, the same mild conditions are present on the west coast of North America. This is the case even though the Kuroshio Current, the Pacific analog to the Gulf Stream, turns relatively much further south. The tempering effect is shown to be a result of easterly wind flows across the oceans themselves, unrelated to the supposed warmth of the actual currents.

Because sea-surface temperatures vary less through the seasonal cycle than do land-surface temperatures, any place where the wind blows from off the ocean will have relatively mild winters and cool summers. Both the British Isles and the Pacific Northwest enjoy such “maritime” climates.

Since reading this article, I’ve seen the myth repeated at least a half a dozen times in various places. It’s such a part of conventional wisdom that it gets repeated without challenge.

» Posted: Wednesday, June 6, 2007 | Comments (2) | Permanent Link

Nominal Christianity in Early America?

In light of all the recent books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christoper Hitchens, et al, on the nature of religion and in some cases its particular manifestation in America, I found this tidbit from Sean Wilentz’s “The Rise of American Democracy” quite interesting:

Although the figures are sketchy, it appears that as few as one in ten Americans were active church members in the unsettled aftermath of the American Revolution. The evangelizing that ensued proceeded, at first, in fits and starts, but gathered tremendous momentum after 1825. By the 1840s, the preponderance of Americans - as many as eight in ten - were churched, chiefly as evangelizing Methodists of Baptists (in the South) or as so-called New school revivalist Presbyterians or Congregationalists (in the North.) What was, in 1787, a nation of nominal Christians - its public culture shaped more by Enlightenment rationalism than Protestant piety - had turned, by the mid-1840s, into the most devoted evangelical Protestant nation on earth. (p. 267)

This is a highly recommended book chronicling the evolution of democracy and the rise political parties in the U.S. from the end of the Revolutionary period up to the Civil War. Wilentz’s technique of using footnotes only at the end of large blocks of text makes it difficult to track down exactly where he obtained the figures mentioned in the paragraph above.

» Posted: Wednesday, June 6, 2007 | Comments (1) | Permanent Link

Compact Amazon Wishlists

Amazon Web Services

I tend to use the wishlist feature at Amazon mostly to keep a record of books I’m interested in but aren’t necessarily ready to buy at the moment. I like to print a copy of the list to keep in my wallet for when I happen to be in a bookstore, but even the compact version of the printed wishlist tends to be too bulky.

To make a nicer layout, I put together an interface to Amazon Web Services that produces a cleanly formatted, super-compact version of a wishlist that contains only the main title of the book (without the subtitle, i.e., everything after the ubiquitous colon), the author’s name and Amazon’s current price.

Source Code

The stylesheet source and details behind its functionality are here.

View Public Wishlists by Email Address

Enter the email address known by Amazon to select the public wishlists for that user. Lists from US, UK and Canadian sites are returned.

Email Address:

This will return a page showing the wishlists on different sites, as well as links for producing the compact list (and PDF index cards.) When the list is actually printed out, only the wishlist itself is printed, not any of the site masthead, etc. View using “Print Preview” to see what the actual output would be. This can be easily trimmed with scissors and stored away for easy retrieval.

The link to the compact list can be bookmarked as it reloads the wishlist directly from Amazon each time, so it automatically stays up to date.

As an example, my public “Books” wishlist is here.

There are a few other tools I’ve been playing with here.

» Posted: Friday, June 1, 2007 | Comments (7) | Permanent Link