Faith-based reasoning

An administration official who censored and excised scientific reports on climate change has been defending himself before of a House committee this week.

A House committee released documents Monday that showed hundreds of instances in which a White House official who was previously an oil industry lobbyist edited government climate reports to play up uncertainty of a human role in global warming or play down evidence of such a role.

Mr. Cooney [was] chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Before joining the White House, he was the “climate team leader” for the American Petroleum Institute, the main industry lobby.

He was hired by Exxon Mobil after resigning in 2005 following reports on the editing in The New York Times. The White House said his resignation was not related to the disclosures.

Mr. Cooney said his past work opposing restrictions on heat-trapping gases for the oil industry had had no bearing on his actions once he joined the White House. “When I came to the White House,” he testified, “my sole loyalties were to the president and his administration.”

With this president and administration, isn’t that the same as loyalty to the oil industry?

Mr. Cooney, who has no scientific background, said he had based his editing and recommendations on what he had seen in good faith as the “most authoritative and current views of the state of scientific knowledge.”

The hearing also produced the first sworn statements from George C. Deutsch III, who moved in 2005 from the Bush re-election campaign to public affairs jobs at NASA. There he warned career press officers to exert more control over James E. Hansen, the top climate expert at the space agency.

Mr. Deutsch resigned last year after it was disclosed that he had never graduated from Texas A&M University, as his résumé on file at NASA said. He has since completed work for the degree, he said Monday.

Why aren’t you happy?

A couple of economists have studied happiness levels Europe and the U.S. Specifically, they surveyed relative happiness versus age. They find that the same people report that they are pretty happy in early adulthood, but that happiness generally falls afterwards, reaching its lowest levels by age 45, before then increasing in old age. This trend is as strong as the effect of wealth on happiness.

In the United States, the steady decline in happiness from age 16 to age 45 has an effect that’s larger than a 50 percent reduction in income. And, equivalently, the 15-year upswing in happiness that follows age 45 is stronger than the upswing that tracks doubling of income.

The studies also found that Americans have steadily become less happy during this century. Baby boom men born in the 1960s are less happy than those born in the 1920s. (Presumably after correcting for age). The effect is as much as being 10 times poorer.

Tour time

California hosted the Tour of California during the last week of February. And like a small town kid when the carny comes to town, I had to play hooky to go see the elephant. I caught up with the riders on Stage 3, a 95 mile ride from Stockton to San Jose. Fortunately for me, the toughest Category 1 climb of the tour was just a few miles away on Sierra Road in San Jose.

Using the live web coverage to estimate their arrival time, I left work and drove to the tour route. In spite of the crowds, it was easy to park right next to Piedmont Road, and to hike a half mile up Sierra Road to the first tough climb. I could tell I was at a good spot when I noticed a bunch of costumed characters waiting for the riders. And that’s not just the local bike teams. One guy in an afro wig, superhero suit and cape has shown up on the toughest climb of each stage.

Sierra Road fans

We all waited impatiently for the tour to show up. People were speculating about who would be leading the pack. Local boy Levi Leipheimer was the favorite, but people were also routing for Jens Voight from CSC.

Finally, an army of tour cars and motorcycles announced the arrival of the cyclists. A small lead group made a determined bid to stay ahead of the peloton, but the main group, including race leader Leipheimer, was only a few seconds behind.

Sierra Road leaders Sierra Road peloton

It really was amazing to see some of the world’s best cyclists up close like this. Where else could you stand a few feet away from elite athletes struggling through such a challenging event?

The tour is a strange mix of the sophisticated and the ordinary. There’s hundreds (thousands?) of people working for the tour, but most of the course is manned by volunteers. Millions of spectators came out to watch and cheer, but nobody charged admission. The team cars carry millions of dollars of high-tech bicycles and equipment, the squads are well funded, well drilled, and well equipped, but ultimately, the race comes down to a couple of men, on a fairly standard bikes, fighting the course, the weather, and each other.

I had time to walk back down the hill and catch the riders as they looped back along Piedmont Road. Eventually, the five strongest riders beat the peloton up the mountain and formed a break-away group: Levi Leipheimer, Jens Voight, Chris Horner, Robert Gesink and Paolo Bettini. Leipheimer, Voight and Horner fought their way to the finish line next to San Jose’s city hall.

Piedmont Road leaders Peloton finish

A friend of mine waited for them at the finish and took some great photos. Voight won the stage, but Leipheimer retained the yellow jersey as race leader. After a brief awards ceremony, the riders posed for photos and interviews. Off the bike, they all seemed quiet, unassuming, and except for Big Jens, rather short.

Stage 3 winners Levi Leipheimer

But the riders weren’t the only stars. Floyd Landis was in downtown San Jose, smiling and signing autographs. He has been following the tour, and giving speeches in each of the stage towns. Apparently he needs to raise more money for his defence against charges of doping in the 2006 Tour de France. (It’s incredible that they still haven’t officially declared a winner of the 2006 Tour).

Floyd Landis

Whatever the outcome of that trial, I hope that professional cycling can clean up its act, and eliminate drug use among elite riders. The years of charges and controversy have almost ruined the sport, just as it is becoming popular in the U.S.

No big secret

A friend of mine has been promoting The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. Oprah gave it a lot of airplay. But to me it sounds like self-help treacle. Apparently a lot of people in the blogosphere have been dumping on the bandwagon as well.

According to Prof. John Stackhouse, The Secret is nothing new:

In some cultures, yes, this sort of teaching was kept secret–literally, ‘esoteric.’ Only initiates could find out that the world was not, in fact, the material stuff we all naturally think it is, but is in fact essentially spirit or–in a term more acceptable to those in the age of quantum mechanics–’energy.’ Seeing the spiritual essence of things was the great knowledge–in Greek, the gnosis–that let one free oneself from material encumbrances to enjoy a higher life. Thus The Secret is simply the newest packaging for gnosticism, a religious impulse that courses through a variety of religions around the world and that has been making a comeback in our own time.

The UK based The Times heaps on more scorn in What’s the big secret? Apparently, The Secret to losing weight, for instance, is to visualize slimness, and never look at fat people. This brings blaming the victim to a whole new level.

“If you see people who are overweight,” instructs Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, “do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it.” Byrne herself — once porky, miserable and broke — is now very slim and very rich, thanks to following her own precepts and persuading several million Americans to follow them by buying her book. She, too, once thought that eating made her fat but realised: “Food is not responsible for putting on weight. It is your thought that food is responsible . . . that has food put on weight.” Of course! Silly, silly us: it’s not wine and pizza that piles on the pounds but wrong thinking.

Psychologist Oliver James:

The Secret is a toxic stew of psychobabble leftovers served up with lavish quotations from 29 “gurus” from psychology, religion, mysticism and marketing. There is a heavy reliance on quick-fix, already simplistic methods from self-help manuals, made even easier for the simple-minded or deluded. Wisdom vies with cleverness, banal truth runs alongside barefaced delusion; a pottage of self-contradictory homilies for the credulous and childish.
As a book and marketing exercise, The Secret is self-reflexive: write a book quoting other people who have written books about how, if you write a book or advise others about becoming rich, you will do so. It’s like pyramid selling, hocuspocus.

Therapist Phillip Hodson:

“People are hungry for the illusion of control in a world which seems out of control, plagued with threats of bird flu and terrorism and stockmarket crashes. But self-help omnipotence is a false god: if you think everything is an act of will then you are in the firing line — there are very few opt-outs.”

Graphene dreams

Researchers have developed a transistor from graphene membrane, a “new class of carbon allotrope”. And no, I don’t know what that means either. But it sure sounds promising:

Researchers at the University of Manchester, working with a group at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, claim to have created transistors that are just one atom-thick and less than 50 atoms wide from a new class of material.

The substance, dubbed graphene, is described as a two-dimensional material that exhibits exceptionally high crystal and electronic quality, and the researchers claim has numerous potential applications in condensed matter physics and electronics.

The resulting transistor is way smaller than silicon transistors, requires less charge to control, and could be much faster. There’s only one small hitch.

They caution there is still some way to go to create a working chip from graphene single-electron transistors, with etching being a particular area for future work.

Professor Geim indicated graphene based circuits would not come of age before 2025 and till then silicon based devices would predominate.

Tilera gets funding

MIT LCS Professor Anant Agarwal started Tilera, located in Massachusetts and just down the street in Silicon Valley, to develop “programmable ASICs and associated compilers”. They seem to still be in stealth mode, since their web site is content-free. But Private Equity Week says they’ve raised a tidy sum in Series B funding: Multiprocessor startup reportedly raises $20 million.

Tilera (Santa Clara, Calif.) was founded by Anant Agarwal, professor of engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Agarwal serves as chief technology officer at Tilera. The company is run by Bessemer operating partner Devesh Garg, who serves as chief executive officer.