September 30, 2014

#Climatechange roundup: Australia, Greenland, Aral Sea

Consensus about human-caused climate change continues to grow. Five groups of researchers, all collaborative efforts themselves, look at Australia's 2013 heat wave and all pin its ferocity on climate change, specifically its global warming portion.
“When we look at the heat across the whole of Australia and the whole 12 months of 2013, we can say that this was virtually impossible without climate change,” said David Karoly, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne who led some of the research.
Wingnuts still not listening, to be sure.

Next anthropogenic climate change is on the ground, not in the atmosphere. A number of years ago, due to irrigation diversions from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers in what was then Soviet Centra Asia, the Aral Sea, famed in antiquity, broke up into smaller parts. Now, the biggest of those, by surface area at least, has dried up and gone away.

The climate change here is regional, nt global, but it's bad enough. The loss of a major body of water is making all four seasons more extreme. Let's not forgot that this is a land of other extremes, like Islamic extremism, despite the majority of the Turkic peoples of this area opting for more moderate, traditional, nativist-influenced Islam.

Finally, Greenland's ice sheet is not entirely anchored on bedrock and thus could slide into the ocean sooner than previously expected. And, if it disappears faster than expected, we're definitely in a new ballgame.

Meanwhile, hacks and semi-hacks writing at places as disparate at the Wall Street Journal and ESPN's 538, continue to minimize much of our causing this, including minimizing natural-gas leakage from fracking wells, pumps and piles.

September 29, 2014

Why does Jim Caple and #ESPN hate the #Cardinals?

ESPN seems to get more and more fact-free all the time.

Sorry, Jim, but you're "off base" about
MLB stadium funding. / ESPN image
(The most recent example before this week was ombudsman Robert Lipsyte claiming the reason the Big Red One suspended Bill Simmons was for his calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar without proof, when in actuality, Keith Olbermann had done the same a couple of days earlier. Actually, Simmons got suspended because he dared ESPN to suspend him.)

The most recent example? Baseball columnist Jim Caple (who gave me less reason to read him this year when he discontinued Off Base, his old game box score trivia columns) has a new one up about reasons to like and dislike each of this year's MLB playoff contestants.

About the Cards, under cons?
With so many postseason appearances in recent years, the Cardinals are becoming the new Yankees. Actually, they're worse than the Yankees because their shortstop isn't Derek Jeter -- it's PED cheat Jhonny Peralta. Rewarding Peralta with a $52 million contract so soon after he was busted in the Biogenesis scandal is intolerable for a team that so proudly "does things the right way." And don't get me started on the Rally Squirrel.

First, beyond the slam on Peralta, did Jeets ever speak out about Andy Pettitte or Roger Clemens using PEDs? Erm, NO!

Second, he then says this about the Giants, under pros:
Like the Cardinals, the Giants build their teams the right way, using a lot of homegrown talent. Unlike the Cardinals (and every other team), they also built their stadium the right way, by paying for it themselves.
Uhh, wrong again, at least partially! 

The Cards did the majority (albeit not all) of their stadium funding themselves:
Public financing: $45 million long-term loan from St. Louis County. 
Private financing: $90.1 million from the Cardinals, $9.2 million in interest earned on the construction fund, and $200.5 million in bonds to be paid over a 22-year period ($15.9 million per year) by the team. Anheuser-Busch agreed to a 20 year naming rights deal (through the 2025 season) which will help offset construction costs.
That wasn't hard to find at all!

Nor was it hard to find, via info at the same website on the AT&T Park, that Caple was wrong about the Giants, too:
Private financing: $170 million loan from Chase Manhattan Bank, $70 million from the sale of charter seat licenses, $102 million from the sale of naming rights, sponsorships and other sources, and $15 million in tax increment financing by the city's redevelopment agency.
Now, that website, and Caple, may call that "private," I as a newspaper editor, and most John and Jane Citizen folks, would call it "public" as its based on local tax dollars.

That's why Wikipedia also calls tax increment financing "public." Here's the specifics of how a TIF works:
TIF is a method to use future gains in taxes to subsidize current improvements, which are projected to create the conditions for gains above the routine yearly increases which often occur without the improvements. To provide the needed subsidy, the urban renewal district, or TIF district, is essentially always drawn around 100s or 1000s of acres of additional real estate (beyond the project site) to provide the needed borrowing capacity for the project or projects. The borrowing capacity is established by committing all of normal yearly future real estate tax increases from every parcel in the TIF district (for 20–25 years, or more) along with the anticipated new tax revenue eventually coming from the project or projects themselves. If the projects are public improvements paying no real estate taxes all of the repayment will come from the adjacent properties within the TIF district. Although questioned, it is often presumed that even public improvements trigger gains in taxes above what occurs, or would have occurred in the district without the investment.
See the number of times "tax" or "taxes" occurs in that? That's clearly "public," as in governmental, funding. And, since the TIF includes an area broader than the actual planned development area, it's a transfer of tax funds from one entity to another.

In other words, Caple is some mix of liar, idiot and West Coast "homer." He even admits that he grew up "a passionate Giants fan." Show him some love on Twitter!

Texas Comptroller tells Lege to start favoring oil and gas more

If wind power's not going to get special tax breaks, and never has gotten road repair subsidies or similar, isn't that really Comptroller Susan Combs' actual message, what I put in the header, and not her strident screech that wind power needs to be cut off from the state tax teat?

I'm not alone in saying that, either:
Jeff Clark, executive director of The Wind Coalition, said Combs’ report is unbalanced, misinformed and repeats the “flawed talking points pushed by the anti-renewables lobby.” 
“Texas’ wind energy industry has now invested more than $26 billion in 56 counties across Texas and provides 10 percent of the state’s electricity supply cleanly, reliably, cheaply, and without using water,” Clark said. 
Furthermore, he said, the wind power installed in Texas will avoid 23,103,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, the equivalent of taking 4,075,000 cars off the road. 
Clark also notes that the state continues to heavily subsidize the oil and gas industry at the same time.
And, that's far more than allegedly "clean" fracked natural gas will do, those green energy figures.

Clark also isn't alone. Note this:
Environmentalists criticized the report, saying it took a blinkered approach to energy policy. 
It understates the subsidies given to natural gas, nuclear and coal plants, said Tom Smith, head of the Austin office of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, and “ignores totally the costs of hidden environmental damages caused by these types of plants — such as the wastes from coal mining, fracking or nuclear power generation.” 
Russel Smith, head of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association, said he had no comment on the Combs report, but in June he told the Statesman that rolling back support for wind power “ignores the obvious — that all energy sources have and continue to receive governmental support.”
Per comments in this piece by State Sen. Troy Fraser, the real issues is that the O&G industry has long, and historically well-developed, lobbying tentacles.

Plus, we haven't even talked about solar power, an area where Texas, despite its semi-tropical location, large amounts of sun (especially in West Texas, where higher altitude also helps) and other advantages, lags sadly behind other states.

As for Combs? As Texas Public Citizen showed three years ago, Combs has a long history of fighting renewable energy, speaking of O&G tentacles.

September 28, 2014

Community newspapers, wake up and plan for worst case 2025 now!

Community newspapers, a somewhat vague term but one that starts with small-circulation six-day dailies and goes downward in size from there, face somewhat different concerns in today's world of financial perils than do their larger siblings. This is even more true for the non-daily segment of the community newspaper world.

Non-daily newspapers don't have to worry about people going online to find AP news, because that's never been in their papers. They don't have to worry too much about slashed national advertising money. (They do have to worry about that to a degree, though; retailers and fast-food chains have cut their pass-through money for advertising and marketing to local franchises, and Valassis, the nation's No. 1 publisher of insert advertising, has increased its downward pressure on community newspapers after cutting a sweetheart deal with the United States Postal Service.)

That said, that parenthetical comment shows that community newspapers aren't worry-free. And, given that they can look at their bigger seven-day dailies, they have no excuse to be complacent.

For example, the L.A. and Tampa Bay daily newspaper worlds have hit new levels of crisis, as I blogged earlier this week.

That said, back to the community newspaper world, both the daily and non-daily sides.

First, "programmatic advertising," in which major national ad brokers use computer algorithms to find the cheapest slotting they can for their clients, is likely going to partially trickle down to those five- and six-day community daily newspapers.

And, digital ad revenue will fail to make up for print ad declines. Print ads will decline less at community newspapers, to be true, but digital advertising won't pick up much. With no wire stories, local websites just don't get that much traffic. See here for more on ad issues in general.

And, Valassis, and other major inserters, like Red Plum, will continue to apply downward pressure.

Second, circulation revenue will likely continue to slip. There's a couple of reasons for that. At the daily wing of community newspapers, days that are thinnest on community news will continue to fall in single-copy sales. More six-day dailies will thus look at moving to five-day editions. If they don't provide a slight break on subscriptions with that, they'll lose yet more folks. A fair amount of five-day dailies will look at going tri-weekly (with a mini-wire service feed) or even semi-weekly. That will save money, yes, but subscriptions will have to be adjusted at the same time. (Personal experience: CNHI tried going from five-day daily to semiweekly at the first newspaper where I worked, without crediting current subscribers or extending their subscriptions. By the time the mass of subscriptions cancellations told them what a mistake they had made, they wound up deciding to close the paper.)

Circulation revenue will slip for two other reasons. One, for community papers that have put up paywalls, there's not only no more low-hanging fruit, there's no more fruit, period. Unlike a New York Times, you can't price out mini-subscriptions for just op-eds, or just the books review, or whatever. See here for more on digital subscription issues in general; same link as above.

Also, while old white folks are the most regular newspaper readers, they're also the ones nearest death! Most of the obits in community newspapers are lost subscribers.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service is only going to get worse. Even at the NAA, I don't see anybody picking up the Washington lobbying cudgels for my ideal solution of going back to the pre-1971 United States Post Office, either. By 2025, half of the remaining regional service centers may well be closed. And, the kids of the old white subscribers, especially if the parents are dead, the kids that have moved away, will drop their subscriptions. They'll only do a digital one if it's digital-only, and discounted.

That leads to a related issue. Even if you have a paywall, saying the digital comes free with print, as a sneaky way of saying you don't offer digital-only subscriptions, won't fly forever, either.

And, Facebook in particular and social media in general will not be your salvation! If anything, it will be even less the salvation of community newspapers than it has been for major ones. Community gossip, rumor, and occasional fact are easy to get spread digitally with somebody's "community" Facebook page.

Hence, my header.

Community newspaper owners need to brainstorm what they think could be their worst scenario in 2025 — then start planning for that to happen in 2020. And then, of course, figure out how they can prevent, or at least mitigate that.

The worst case? Per that link above, newsprint prices have held pretty low. Picture them taking a major jump. Picture electricity prices for presses taking a hike as the shale gas "boom" turns out to be pretty much of a bubble by 2025. And, the Postal Service is 3x teh suck of today.

Dear community newspapers: Are you really preparing now to be really digital-first newspapers? I kind of doubt it. Even more, are you preparing for the outside possibility that your best realistic financial move 10-12 years from now might be digital-only? I totally doubt that.

September 27, 2014

The poor get poorer in Texas public schools

The Waco Trib has a good article about how school districts, faced with diminished federal and state funds (are you listening, Greg Abbott? of course not), more and more school districts are searching high and low for grant money to supplement the lost funds elsewhere.

Only one problem.

As the article notes, many poorer and/or smaller school districts can't afford a full-time grantwriter.

Many districts created educational foundations several years ago, but those were done in part to adjust for flat or declining state dollars back then. To expect an education foundation to ramp up even more, or one starting from scratch to meet not just a couple of years worth, but a decade's worth, of revenue issues, is too much.

And yet, voters in "red" communities and school districts who aren't as rich as Dallas-area's Highland Park, or even as the Waco area Midway, will still pull the "R" lever unthinkingly on Nov. 4.

Well, folks, if you're voting to perpetuate your own problems, you deserve the problems you're perpetuating.

At the same time, school districts are whoring themselves out too much for technology, like the iPads mentioned near the bottom. That money you raise?

Spend it on better teachers. Spend it on better, and greener, playgrounds. Spend it on a school community garden. All of that will help your kids more than iPads.

Michael Shermer, meet Barbara Ehrenreich: two self-flunked not-so-#skeptics

Mr. & Mrs. Michael Shermer; not a ghost of a chance?
I've already blogged about Ehrenreich and her new book on alleged teenage mystical experience, starting with a long book review and then adding blogging thoughts about the psychological struggles I see lying behind both the teen and the modern Ehrenreich.

Well, now, Michael Shermer, at a minimum, leaves himself open to the criticism and interpretation of seeming to have dived even deeper into the ex-skeptic pool, but all based on recent adult experience.

He married the loverly Jennifer Graf (more related to this further down) just a few months ago. Shermer notes that she was raised by her mother, and describes her late grandfather, Walter, as "the closest father figure she had growing up, but he died when she was 16."

Anyway, Ms. Graf is a native of Germany. Before their marriage, they had her possessions shipped over here to the States.

Among them was one item of sentimental value once owned by her grandfather, an old radio.

Shermer gives the details:
His 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio arrived safely, so I set out to bring it back to life after decades of muteness. I put in new batteries and opened it up to see if there were any loose connections to solder. I even tried “percussive maintenance,” said to work on such devices—smacking it sharply against a hard surface. Silence. We gave up and put it at the back of a desk drawer in our bedroom.
OK, so Shermer admits he's not a professional electronics repairman, while also letting us know that he could have hit the radio hard enough to jiggle something loose.

Moving on ...

We're at their at-home wedding and reception, when this:
Being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away. She whispered that she wanted to say something to me alone, so we excused ourselves to the back of the house where we could hear music playing in the bedroom. We don't have a music system there, so we searched for laptops and iPhones and even opened the back door to check if the neighbors were playing music. We followed the sound to the printer on the desk, wondering—absurdly—if this combined printer/scanner/fax machine also included a radio. Nope.

At that moment Jennifer shot me a look I haven't seen since the supernatural thriller The Exorcist startled audiences. “That can't be what I think it is, can it?” she said. She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather's transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I'm not alone.”
First, we have a clearly emotional situation for both, which he later admits. And, doubly so for her.

However, he seems to "recover" with this observation:
What does this mean? Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation. ... In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.
All would be fine and dandy if he ended there.

Next, he tells us:
Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.
Seemingly, he wants to believe. Not just wanted to believe, then, past tense, but wants, present tense, a couple of months later. Note the "had it happened to someone else" caveat from the previous pull quote. And, add to it that, even with others, he "might suggest a chance electrical anomaly." Not "would suggest," but "might suggest."

And, we're still not quite done.

But, he doesn't.

First, though, I want to go to the first sentence from the paragraph where the last pull quote came from, which says:
Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena.
Sounds great, right? Also sounds like a typical "pitch," with the pitchman establishing his alleged bona fides before making the sale.

Now, let's go to his last sentence:
And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.
Boy, is that laden with loopholes, both stated and unstated.

First, true scientific investigation would have taken the radio to a repairman. Note that Shermer said he HAD changed batteries, so a normal power source for the radio was in place. Change in humidity or other things could have caused a connection to be made. A transistor radio would then have played for what? About a day, that's what, until the batteries died.

Indeed, he didn't even have to start by taking the radio to a repairman. A scientific investigation, or a semi-scientific skeptical investigation, would have started with carefully, carefully removing the old, dead batteries from the radio -- carefully so as not to jar again whatever loose wiring, or loose crud that can build up on batteries and connections -- Shermer presumably jarred loose with banging the radio in the first place. Then, replace the batteries with fresh ones! If it plays, voila! Solution and answer.

Second, both a true skeptic and a true scientist wouldn't operate off "sample size = 1." That's even more so when a true skeptic or a true scientist recognize that when that "1 = yourself," you don't have single-blinding, let alone double-blinding.

Third, a true skeptic, and a true philosopher, would recognize the logical fallacy or fallacies being committed. I could argue that they include shifting the burden of proof, appeal to authority, the regression fallacy (since he claims the event's importance is what it is, without looking at its cause), and the bull's-eye fallacy, also called the sharpshooter fallacy (relates to that "sample size =  1).

Fourth, you can't tell me that the phrase "the doors of perception" isn't a deliberate play toward Aldous Huxley's book of that name. Fifth, the phrase "marvel in the mysterious" also tells me Shermer wants to believe.

Thus, I have to agree with the current top commenter on the story page; the last paragraph is an embarrassment.  Next thing, Michael Shermer will join Barbara Ehrenreich in writing a book about his teenaged mystical experiences. And, per that note, and feedback I've gotten, if I'm misinterpreting this piece, I'm not alone; I may be taking my interpretation up a step from that commenter, but we're in the same neighborhood.

Barbara Drescher, maybe it's time you write about your new boss as part of blogging about why smart people do (or believe) stupid things. Beyond her, I wonder what Jim Lippard, Daniel Loxton and others at Insight think about this. I know I'm not alone in my interpretation. Besides the scornful first commenter on the piece, another person, on the place on Facebook where I saw this shared, invokes Marcello Truzzi, who fell out of the modern skeptical movement precisely because he wanted to treat the study of paranormal phenomena with too much use of intellectual kid gloves.

Does Shermer actually "believe"? I don't think so. But, the eagerness of his degree of "wanting to believe" is, in itself, highly anti-skeptical and strong enough to leave him open to the charge that he does appear to actually believe, at a minimum.

And, if Shermer didn't want to leave himself open to critique like this, at a minimum, he didn't have to write the piece he actually did write, since he had a couple of months of reflection time since the wedding. At a maximum, he didn't have to write anything.

Also, is Scientific American now embarrassed by this? No Tweet and no Facebook post about it, though it does a lot of other stuff on both its social media.


Sidebar: Now that he's married, that puts up another (theoretically) obstacle to his (alleged) pantsitis, which I discuss in moderate depth in this post about the James Randi Educational Foundation's problems with finances, alleged sexism, and apparent founder's syndrome, and with a more narrow focus, this piece about Shermer's alleged sexual behavior problems.

Also, per that "pantsitis" issue, which I discuss in those two blog posts linked two paragraphs up, that picture of the Mr. and Mrs., while not quite cradle robbing, seems to indicate a full decade of age difference, at least. If there's fire behind the smoke of sex-related allegations against him, the picture's a partial explainer.

So, arguably the three biggest leaders in movement skepticism today are an ill-healthed octegenarian with founder's syndrome (Randi), a mystic pseudoskeptic with a pants problem (Shermer), and a libertarian-leaning lawyer with his own baggage (Ron Lindsay of Center for Inquiry). Seriously, who would want to be involved with that until the Augean stables are cleansed?