Adding It Up

Not so very long ago, processing large amounts of data was a tedious business, riddled with human error, machine failings and limited reach.

These days, information availability can feel like a tsunami. There’s so much of it, all the time, all around. It’s become easier than ever to share information and images, sometimes involuntarily.

The sheer abundance of facts available all the time can mask what’s missing, namely, synthesis and understanding of the facts at hand.

The constant flow of information can also mask that we don’t really have all the information necessary to assess specific environments or track changes.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

The rise of citizen science projects has sought to harness both the ability to share information and the need for more facts on the ground.

A positive example of this is the Capture the Coast project getting underway in the United Kingdom. Financed by lottery funds to the tune of £1.7 million ($2.7 million), several universities and non-governmental organizations are collaborating to train 3000 volunteers to gather data on species up and down the UK coastline.

This data will be collected and analyzed by the various institutions to better track and understand climate change.

A somewhat less positive example of data sharing can be found in Wyoming, which recently passed a law that makes it illegal to gather and transmit data from open land (including photos or sample results) to the state or federal government.

The first page of Wyoming bill WY SF0012, passed in March 2015.

The first page of Wyoming bill WY SF0012, passed in March 2015.

In effect, this means that you can be arrested if you are a concerned citizen or scientist who is documenting a particular issue. And the issue at hand here is mainly the documentation of high levels of E. coli bacteria in streams due to poor ranching habits and bad herd management.

But once a law like this has been passed, it can be applied to anyone who is collecting data that could make someone else uncomfortable.

According to this Slate article, while other states have similar laws that protect the powerful agricultural industries from a concerned citizenry, Wyoming’s law is the first to actually criminalize taking a photo on public land.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

Rather than embrace collaboration that connects and supports a better understanding of the environment, these moves seem to be an attempt to turn back time, to go back to an era when information could be stashed in a filing cabinet somewhere in the basement, or simply shredded.

But these days, it’s like trying to hold back the tide. Will this kind of obstructionism slow understanding that points the way to better solutions? Probably. There might be gaps here and there, but the data will still flow.

It’s a shame that some people would rather service the gears and methods of outdated structures and habits.

It doesn’t add up now, and it never will.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

The Whale in the Water

The Dutch painting here, by Hendrick van Anthonissen, has led a double life.

In its original form, it showed an object of fascination: a freshly stranded whale at during the mid-17th century. There was a widespread public interest in these large creatures around this time, which saw an expanding Dutch whaling industry and widespread use of whale blubber as an oil source.

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641) Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

View of Scheveningen Sands (1641)
Artist: Hendrick van Anthonissen via The History Blog

Sometime during the 19th century, the painting was transformed into a quiet beach scene, the dead animal/fuel source painted over, perhaps because the painting’s owner didn’t like the whale but liked the beach, or because whales had lost some of their allure as an exotic beast and source of energy, and had been reduced to just another material resource for everything from buggy whips to corset stays. And oil.

The whale-less version. Source: The History Blog

The whale-less version.
Source: The History Blog

Whale oil was once our favorite oil for lighting the dark nights. This was long before we used other kinds of oil to power our modern world.

Lately, there have been so many articles recently about hydraulic fracturing – fracking – for gas and shale oil.

One says the debate over fracking is over – because the fracking side won.

Another says the UK government wants to grant land access to fracking companies (i.e. oil and gas companies) to exploit land 300 m (985 ft) beneath the surface, and suggests a payment of £20,000 per well to those living on the surface. Here’s one that announces a 96% reduction in the estimate of oil and gas reserves that could be exploited in California, even as optimistic California oil companies and politicians ignore the study and continue to position themselves for a new oil rush.

And here’s an article that says even North Dakota, an epicenter of fracking enthusiasm, is considering some limitations when it comes to issuing drilling permits in historical sites, parks or areas of particular beauty.

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming. Photo: Linda Baker

Drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, Wyoming..
If this were a painting, it would be easy enough to imagine wanting to view the landscape minus the rig.
Photo: Linda Baker

Lost in this entire discussion, for the moment, is whether the pursuit of and massive investment in oil and gas is a reasonable course of action when compared to the same kind of investment in renewable energy sources.

Sure, natural gas emits less CO2 – but a recent U.S. Department of Energy report indicates that the reduced carbon dioxide emissions for the so-called ‘cleaner’ fossil-fuel are outweighed by much higher emissions of other, more harmful greenhouse gases such as methane over the life cycle of liquefied natural gas.

Whoever varnished over the whale in the van Anthonissen painting decided it was no longer an appetizing sight, and preferred to have groups of passers-by gazing out at a calm sea untroubled by an unsightly cetacean, symbol of a major source of wealth, oil, employment and commerce.

I see the discussion over the use of fossil fuels disappearing in the same way as the whale in the water – simply varnished over in favor of a more pleasant view: That of easy energy, jobs, tax income and wealth from fossil fuels, without any unsightly environmental or human costs.