A Modern Fairy Tale

The Git wrote much of the following some ten years ago and thought it worth updating and republishing.

Part 1

One of the Just-So Stories that scientists love to tell is the old favourite about Galileo’s persecution by the Inquisition. As scientists tell it, Galileo (the enlightened man of science) stands accused of holding the heretical belief that the Earth moves around the sun facing the entrenched dogma of Church and Bible. It is a story we have read so often that it’s difficult not to believe in it.

Unfortunately, very, very few historians agree. The problem with historians is that they have the exasperating habit of reading what was written at the time, not just what other historians have written in the past. Galileo may have been guilty of heresy, but on the other hand, he may not. The fathers of the Church at the time certainly didn’t agree on this. Galileo had many detractors, but he also had many supporters, including his friend Urban VIII, the Pope at the time of Galileo’s trial and the chief theologian, and head of the Inquisition, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino (sometimes spelt Bellarmine).

To put his life in perspective, we must bear in mind what Galileo was guilty of:

  • Many of Galileo’s scientific theories were completely wrong
  • Galileo frequently claimed to have proofs where no proof existed
  • Galileo remained blissfully unaware of Johannes Kepler’s interpretation of planetary motion even though he owned Kepler’s book about the subject — Kepler had sent it to his friend
  • Galileo needlessly made many enemies. Many of those enemies had actually been friends, but Galileo seemed to relish making enemies.

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The Git’s Garden

The Git has been developing a system of gardening based on selected aspects of the French-Intensive and Biodynamic gardening (Biointensive) methods for 33 years. His garden consists of raised beds 1 metre (39″)wide and 8 metres (26′) long. The soil is heavily composted, about 25 mm (1″) being added per year. The high level of fertility engendered allows much closer planting than is usual, without sacrificing yield per plant. The high humus levels also reduce watering needs, due to water retention by the organic matter. As the beds are raised about 100–150 mm (4–6″), drainage Is never a problem.

The footpaths between the beds are 450 mm (18″) wide and allow cultivation and weeding to take place without walking on the beds. Much of the cultivation required in conventional gardening and farming is repairing damage due to soil compaction caused by trampling the soil between the rows of plants. In The Git’s garden, plants are grown in closely spaced blocks rather than rows. While this noticeably increases the yield per unit area of large plants, such as brassicas, the yields of many crops, carrots, potatoes and lettuce for example, are dramatically greater.

Originally, the beds were free-form. The footpaths were kept clean with a GR wheel-hoe purchased from Gundaroo Tiller. Over the years, The Git has experimented with various ways of treating the footpaths, and in his retirement uses the following strategy. The free-form beds suffered from “bird erosion” as the blackbirds moved soil from the edges of the beds into the footpaths while seeking earthworms. Placing 150 mm wide boards down the edges of the beds has reduced this erosion considerably and a significant gain in yields of closely planted vegetables such as carrots since the plants near the edge are no longer uprooted. The footpaths are mulched first with plastic weed-mat and then covered with a thick layer of sawdust as that is available for the cost of transport locally. Cardboard instead of plastic weed-mat is attractive from the point of view of recycling waste material, but has two distinct disadvantages. It decomposes quickly and in wet weather, is treacherously slippery underfoot.

The increase in yield per unit area reduces the amount of time required for many garden operations, such as cultivating, weeding, watering and composting, since a smaller garden is required to satisfy a family’s needs. The advantages of the system are so great that many commercial vegetable growers have adapted it to a mechanised system. The tractor tyres are confined to running in the between bed ‘footpaths’ and the grower benefits from the reduced amount of expensive cultivation, as well as the higher yields. The downside for the commercial grower is the lack of purpose-built equipment using the same spacing between wheels even 30 years after tram-tracking as it is called was introduced. It still requires customising seeders, harvesters and cultivators, by no means a trivial thing to do with expensive machinery.


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On GMO and Organic Crops

Having been told for the umpteenth time that GMO crops outyield conventional hybrids by 30% The Git went looking for independent studies to either confirm or disconfirm the claim. Such studies are extremely rare; not surprising when you understand that Monsanto et alia “own” the genes in the seeds they sell you. If you upset them, you might see your seed supply cut off. Monsanto can be vicious as the Percy Schmeiser story revealed. Schmeiser’s neighbour grew Roundup Ready (RR) canola, that is canola resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), the bees cross-pollinated Schmeiser’s crop and the neighbour’s, thus Schmeiser was found to be illegally in possession of Monsanto’s property (the genes in his crop). He was successfully sued by Monsanto despite having never benefited from the RR genes in the seed he saved since he never sprayed the crop with herbicide.

Schmeiser’s experience played a pivotal role in Tasmania’s farmers’ insistence that the government put in place a moratorium on GMO crops. Tasmania’s major markets demand GMO-free produce. GMO-contamination would eliminate those markets and necessitate finding new markets, a far from trivial exercise. For example, Tasmanian fruit-grower Tim Reid spent six years to establish permission for exporting a single variety of apple (Fuji) to Japan despite Tasmania’s excellent reputation overseas for not just being “clean and green”, but also mercifully free of many pests and diseases rampant overseas. And of course we can sell GMO-free into markets that would happily accept GMO produce. There are no markets demanding GMO to be found.

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On Being a Denialist Part 7

Taking things with a grain of salt

One of The Git’s friends is very much enamoured of Thermageddon, but refuses to discuss the issue on the grounds that The Git knows far more about climate than he does. He has however made alarmist claims where his expertise exceeds The Git’s. To boot, he is a marine biologist, and that’s an area of biology that The Git had not studied at all closely until quite recently. The specific claim made by alarmist marine biologists is, to quote the Wiki-bloody-pedia, “there is evidence of ongoing ocean acidification caused by carbon [dioxide] emissions”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (and several other authoritative dictionaries), acidification means to make acidic. Chemists, marine or otherwise, measure acidity and alkalinity on what is called the pH scale where 7 is neutral, greater than 7 is basic (alkaline) and less than 7 is acidic.

Contrary to alarmist marine biologists’ claims that the oceans are becoming increasingly acidic, the oceans are decidedly alkaline varying between ~pH 8 and pH 9. So, where does this claim that anthropogenic carbon [dioxide] emissions have made the oceans acidic (the pH to fall below pH7) come from?

According to Mark Z. Jacobson, whose paper Studying ocean acidification with conservative, stable numerical schemes for non equilibrium air-ocean exchange and ocean equilibrium chemistry appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research, “surface ocean pH is estimated to have dropped from near 8.25 to near 8.14 between 1751 and 2004, it is forecasted to decrease to near 7.85 in 2100 under the SRES A1B emission scenario, for a factor of 2.5 increase in H+ in 2100 relative to 1751.” Note the dates and the accuracy of the pH to two decimal places. Also note that the pH values are not less than 7; the oceans are basic!

The measurement of relative acidity and alkalinity using pH was introduced by Danish chemist Søren Peder Lauritz Sørensen at the Carlsberg Laboratory in 1909. The scale was later revised to the modern pH in 1924 to accommodate definitions and measurements in terms of electrochemical cells. Thus the pH of anything as variable as seawater prior to 1909 cannot be known by definition!

It gets worse. Measuring the pH of strongly ionic solutions such as seawater is difficult and techniques to deal with accurate estimates of seawater pH weren’t developed until the 1980s and 1990s. There are three main methods in use and the results they give do not agree with each other; they vary by as much as the purported pH change. The introduction of a reasonably inexpensive and sufficiently accurate technique using the Honeywell DuraFET pH sensor was only developed over the last ~15 years. So, the claimed decrease in ocean pH over more than 250 years is based at best on 30 years of actual data; more likely 15 years.

The alarmist marine biologists making these claims are trading on the general public’s ignorance of the well-accepted definition of what is acidic and what is alkaline (basic). They are also trading on ignorance within the general scientific community of the difficulties involved in measuring seawater pH.

Because of a variety of problems inherent in electrometric pH measurements, including electrode drift, electromagnetic interference and problems with the reference electrode, the precision of these pH measurements is relatively poor. On average, we obtain a precision of +0.02 pH units on replicate samples. The accuracy of our pH measurements are difficult to evaluate directly because we have no seawater standard for pH measurements. The accuracy is therefore dependent primarily on the accuracy of the seawater buffers that are used for electrode calibration. In order to improve the precision of our time-series pH measurement data, we are currently evaluating the spectrophotometric methods for pH measurements described by Byrne et al. (198_). Although these measurements are currently being made on a regular basis, the methodological details are not finalized and are not described here. [Emphasis The Git’s]

The pH change over 250 years is claimed to be 0.11. The following diagram shows the pH changes on a daily and seasonal basis in what RA Horne’s Marine Chemistry (1969) calls a “shallow Texas bay”.  In summertime, the pH is ~8.2 at 6 am and 8.9 at 6 pm, a not much less range than is claimed for the 250 year period. Similarly, the pH at 6 pm in winter is 8.4 or lower by 0.5 than in summertime.

diurnal and seasonal pH

There is a multitude of problems facing the would-be measurer of seawater pH. If you measure the pH of the sample in the dark, the result is different than if the lights are turned on. Filtering the seawater to remove living and dead organic matter alters the pH as does changing the temperature. Pure water is pH 7.0 at 25°C and 6.55 at 50°C. Seawater pH falls rapidly with increasing depth near the surface. Taking these factors into account as well as the varied techniques in use, it would appear to be an impossible task to gather sufficient real-world data to make an estimate of pH change over decades, let alone the centuries of the claimed change. There would appear to be no standardised method for reconciling the differences inherent in measuring seawater pH. It seems to be computer models substituting for real data (again).

Putting all that aside, the real interest here is the purported effect of pH change on marine organisms.

Effects of Ocean Acidification on Marine Species & Ecosystems

Emphasis in the quotes are The Git’s

Oceana [sic] acidification may cause many negative effects on a variety of marine species and ecosystems, which would have rippling consequences throughout the entire ocean. One of the most devastating impacts of rising ocean acidity could be the collapse of food webs.

Marine animals  interact in complex food webs that may be disrupted by ocean acidification due to losses in key species that will have trouble creating calcium carbonate shells in acidified waters. Some species of calcifying plankton that are threatened by ocean acidification form the base of marine food chains and are important sources of prey to many larger organisms.

Note the repeated use of the weasel-words in this scare-literature: may, could, are expected as well as the continual use of the word acid to refer to seawater that is nowhere acidic, but everywhere alkaline. Experiments conducted to demonstrate shell-loss appear to use hydrochloric acid (HCl) to decrease the pH of seawater, rather than the demon carbon [dioxide]. While HCl reliably alters seawater pH, carbon [dioxide] participates in a process known as buffering when it dissociates into carbonate and bicarbonate ions in seawater. Buffered solutions resist pH change.

Here, Jennifer Marohasy shows a couple of photographs of “active underwater fumaroles pumping out virtually pure CO2. The sea grass is extraordinarily lush and healthy and there is very healthy coral reef a few metres away.”

Some marine biologists have claimed that these photographs are deceptive in that they show organisms already adapted to the high levels of CO2 around these fumaroles. While this is true, and the adult organisms are sessile, their juvenile stages are not. They are free-swimming and thus also adapted to the conditions in the wider ocean. Clearly they are quite capable of coping with a wide range of conditions, something that would come as no surprise to anyone even vaguely acquainted with Earth’s wide range of temperatures and CO2 levels over past millennia.

Quoting again from Effects of Ocean Acidification on Marine Species & Ecosystems:

Tiny swimming sea snails called pteropods are considered the ‘potato chips of the sea’ as they serve as a critical part of the arctic marine food web, ultimately feeding whales and other top predators. Pteropod shells are expected to dissolve in acidity levels predicted by the end of this century and may not be able to survive. Population crashes or changes in the distribution of pteropods would have serious implications for some of the most abundant marine ecosystems.

Other important calcifying species have been witnessed to have troubles in acidified waters.

Sea urchins are important grazers and can help to protect coral reefs from encroaching algae. Young sea urchins have been observed to grow slower and have thinner, smaller, misshapen protective shells when raised in acidified conditions, like those expected to exist by the year 2100.  Slower growth rates and deformed shells may leave urchins more vulnerable to predators and decrease their ability to survive. Furthermore, under acidified conditions the sperm of some sea urchins swim more slowly, this reduces their chances of finding and fertilizing an egg, forming an embryo and developing into sea urchin larvae.

Dr J Floor Anthoni writes:

As far as measuring the effect of raised CO2 levels on marine animals, the situation is complicated because CO2 rapidly becomes toxic, with symptoms of depression of physiological functions, depressed metabolic rate + activity + growth, followed by a collapse in circulation. Remember that free CO2 amounts to only 1% of the total CO2 ‘bonded’ to the water and that it takes some time for equilibrium with the other CO2 species to happen. It is thus too easy to overdose the free CO2 by increasing the CO2 in the air above. In other words, it is nearly impossible to mimic the natural situation truthfully in an experiment. [Emphasis in the original]

All of this reminds me of a made-up scare by marine biologists back in the 1970s. Supposedly, the Crown of Thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) was going to completely devastate the Great Barrier Reef within a decade or so. Forty years on, no such devastation has occurred, although limited areas of the reef have seen coral denuded by them. It turns out that marine biologists who actually dive in the corraline waters observe the beneficial effects of the Crown of Thorns starfish on coral. Coral reefs in tropical waters are severely damaged by intense cyclones (called hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere) and the Crown of Thorns starfish perform their good works during the recovery phase. Not all corals grow at the same rate and without the starfish, the faster growing branching corals would predominate over the slower growing corals. The starfish, by preferential feeding on the branching corals enable the slower growing corals to thrive.

Quoting again from Effects of Ocean Acidification on Marine Species & Ecosystems:

Squid are the fastest invertebrates in the oceans and require high levels of oxygen for their high-energy swimming. Increasingly acidic oceans interfere with the acidity of a squid’s blood and consequently the amount of oxygen that it can carry. Squid are important prey for many marine mammals, including beaked and sperm whales. Squid fisheries are also the most lucrative fishery in California accounting for 25 million dollars in revenues in 2008.

This is perhaps the weirdest claim of the lot. Animal blood, like seawater, is highly buffered and individuals’ blood pH has no relationship to the pH of the local environment. Rather it is under the control of the respiratory system. While it’s certainly important for animals to maintain optimum blood pH, no animal, marine or terrestrial that The Git knows of exposes its blood to pH influences external to its skin. The Git knows of women who wash their hair in vinegar (an acid) and those who wash their hair with soap (an alkali). Neither, to the best of his knowledge, suffer from acidosis, or alkalosis as a consequence.

When pressed for explanation for the falsehood that the oceans are acidic, those responsible respond that acidification means lowering pH. Actually, there is no authoritative source for this claim. When pressed for a source, the Thermageddonists as usual cannot quote an authoritative reference. When The Git was studying chemistry in 1969, shifting pH towards the neutral point (7) was called neutralisation, never was it called acidification.


ASUS Let me down… again!

The Git has long been a fan of ASUS products starting in the 90s when he discovered the company manufactured reliable, well-documented motherboards. He currently owns two desktop PCs with ASUS MoBos and a Zenbook that travels with him almost everywhere. The deterioration in The Git’s admiration for ASUS began when he purchased a motherboard to replace the aging Gigabyte MoBo in the home theatre PC.

The replacement board had a non-standard connector for the front panel USB sockets and audio jacks. One can purchase an add-on connector to the motherboard for front-panel USB and audio, but that connects to a panel intended to sit in the 3.5 inch drive bay. A drive bay that doesn’t exist in the Silverstone HTPC case! Further, the PCI slots were of a new and much shorter type, so the TV tuner card needed to be replaced by a USB stick tuner. Ditto for the WiFi connection. The front panel USB socket problem was solved by plugging two USB cables (one USB 2 and one USB 3) into sockets at the back and brought around the side of the PC. The USB 3 cable is a tad short and attempting to purchase a longer one from Dick Smith, The Git discovered “there’s insufficient demand for USB 3 for us to stock them any more.” WTF!

The latest problem arose when the fan on the MSI video card died. Have you ever attempted to purchase a replacement fan for a video card? Instead of four holes, this one has but three. While the problem was fixed with an Antec fan of somewhat larger depth and diameter and the judicious application of hot glue, The Git decided to purchase himself a Christmas present in the form of a new video card. After much research and reviewing, he decided upon an ASUS Radeon R7 250 with 1 GB of DDR5 RAM and a “dustproof fan”. The card appeared to offer all that The Git needed: an extra turn of speed, capability to provide a resolution of 2560 by 1440 pixels on the Dell U2711 27″ display and the modest cost of $117.30, somewhat less than he had paid for the MSI card a couple of years ago.

When the card, the driver and utilities installed, the display was a meagre 1920 by 1080. Nothing The Git tried could persuade the video card to drive the display at any higher resolution. The ASUS website The Git originally accessed states quite clearly that the card is capable of 2560 by 1600. Accessing the “same” information via ASUS.com.au the spec now reads “DVI Max Resolution : 1920×1200“. What The Git had failed to notice during his research was that DVI was limited to 1920 by 1080 and that the higher resolution was “Digital”. The penny dropped; the higher resolution was only supported on the HDMI socket. The odd thing here is that the HTPC has a TV for a display and that is connected via a DVI cable and an adapter to convert DVI to the HDMI requirement at the TV end. Acquiring an HDMI cable this close to Christmas was only possible by asking The Gitling to bring one with him when he came on Christmas Eve to enjoy the festive season with us.

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NBN Even More Final Comment

After several frustrating weeks of fraudband, The Git finally has real broadband. Download speeds on EscapeNet vary between 0.5 Mb/s and sometimes exceed 5 Mb/s, but never for very long. More worryingly, the speed fluctuates to such an extent that streaming video that worked passably on ADSL has been virtually unwatchable. However, several particpants in a thread at Whirlpool Forums suggested that The Git try another Internet service provider.

Internode (founded by Simon Hackett) have a monthly plan and The Git signed up for two months for the princely sum of $228.90, later amended to $198.90 after being told that was the original quote. Much to The Git’s relief, Internode connections are consistently higher than 11 Mb/s and streaming video has become watchable once more.

EscapeNet initially said they would charge an exit fee for termination of the 24 month contract, but have since had second thoughts. They claim that the erratic behaviour The Git has experienced is not due to a shortage of backhaul, and that the problem lies somewhere within NBN Co’s operations. The Git is assisting EscapeNet in persuading NBN Co that there is a problem; apparently it affects only EscapeNet’s Fixed Wireless clients and only a small number of them.

So there is a purpose to the extra Ethernet ports on the NBN Network Termination Device! Presumably, if Internode’s service goes pear-shaped, The Git will have the delight of being able to be connected even more than two different ISPs!

On Being a Denialist Part 6

One of The Git’s favouritest commenters at Watts Up With That? is Dr Robert G Brown, a Professor at Duke University. His comments are well-written and very enlightening. One such recently made has been promoted by Anthony Watts to a head post.

Is the climate computable?

phlogiston: I do realise that over the Antarctic land mass albedo from surface snow is anomalously higher than that from cloud, since the snow presents such a pure white surface. However this is probably not the case for sea ice whose surface is more irregular and cracked with patches of dark sea in between. The trouble is that water vapor is literally a two-edged sword. As vapor, it is the strongest greenhouse gas in the atmosphere by (IIRC) around an order of magnitude, so increasing water vapor can and does measurably increase the GHE — a lot, when considering dry air versus saturated air. In arid deserts, temperatures skyrocket during the day and plummet at night because of the absence of a water vapor driven GHE — CO_2 alone isn’t nearly enough to keep upward facing surfaces from rapidly losing their heat due to radiation. In very humid tropical climates, the nights are consistently warm because of the GHE. However, water vapor is also the mediating agent for two major cooling mechanisms. One is the bulk transport of latent heat — sunlight and LWIR hit the sea surface and cause rapid evaporation of surface molecules of water. Wind blows over the ocean surface, stripping off water molecules as it goes. This evaporated water has a huge heat content relative to liquid water — the latent heat of vaporization. As the warm water vapor is carried aloft by convection, it carries the heat along with it. It also cools as it rides the adiabatic lapse rate upward, and further cools by radiating its heat content away (some of which returns to the Earth as GHE back radiation). Eventually the partial pressure of water vapor in the moist air becomes saturated relative to the temperature and the dew point is reached, making it comparatively probable that the water vapor will recondense into water. In order to do so, though, several things have to be “just right”. The water vapor has to be able to lose the latent heat of vaporization that it picked up at the water surface when it evaporated. The future water droplets have to be able to nucleate — which is a lot more likely to occur when there are ionic aerosols in the atmosphere as water (a polar molecule) is attracted to bare charge of either sign. More here.

Thought for the Day

The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself. – Bertrand Russell