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Humboldt Biography: Climate Change Alarmism Not New


I have finished reading Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. If you’re more familiar with Humboldt’s work than his life, there is a lot of material that will be new to you. Here are some examples:

despite their privileged upbringing, Alexander and his older brother, Wilhelm, had an unhappy childhood. Their beloved father died suddenly when Alexander was nine and their mother never showed her sons much affection. Where their father had been charming and friendly, their mother was formal, cold and emotionally distant. Instead of maternal warmth, she provided the best education then available in Prussia, arranging for the two boys to be privately tutored by a string of Enlightenment thinkers who instilled in them a love of truth, liberty and knowledge.

It was particularly difficult for Alexander who was taught the same lessons as his precocious brother, despite being two years younger. The result was that he believed himself to be less talented. When Wilhelm excelled in Latin and Greek, Alexander felt incompetent and slow. He struggled so much, Alexander later told a friend, that his tutors ‘were doubtful whether even ordinary powers of intelligence would ever be developed in him’.

During the summers their mother often stayed behind in Tegel, leaving the two young brothers with their tutors at the family’s house in Berlin

Humboldt was friends with Goethe and apparently social conventions were not unbreakable, at least for society’s headline figures:

In 1788, six years before Humboldt’s first visit, Goethe had shocked Weimar society one more time when he had taken the uneducated Christiane Vulpius as his lover. Christiane, who worked as a seamstress in Weimar, gave birth to their son August less than two years later. Ignoring convention and malicious gossip, Christiane and August lived with Goethe.

Wulf credits Humboldt with the idea of studying the environment as a whole and with concern for the effect of human actions on climate:

When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel. After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about harmful human-induced climate change. Deforestation there had made the land barren, water levels of the lake were falling and with the disappearance of brushwood torrential rains had washed away the soils on the surrounding mountain slopes. Humboldt was the first to explain the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion. He warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on ‘future generations

It was here, at Lake Valencia, that Humboldt developed his idea of human-induced climate change.

“When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, with an imprudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of the rivers, remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall on the heights. The sward and moss disappearing with the brush-wood from the sides of the mountains, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded in their course: and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loosened soil, and form those sudden inundations, that devastate the country”

As a former mining inspector, Humboldt had a unique insight into the environmental and economic consequences of the exploitation of nature’s riches. He questioned Mexico’s dependence on cash crops and mining, for example, because it bound the country to fluctuating international market prices. ‘The only capital,’ he said, that ‘increases with time, consists in the produce of agriculture [note that the Industrial Revolution was raging all around Humboldt, thus illustrating how much easier it is to understand a period from the perspective of a historian!]

Humboldt was to some extent the Edward Tufte of his day:

They also discussed Humboldt’s invention of isotherms, the lines that we see on weather maps today and which connect different geographical points around the globe that are experiencing the same temperatures.

Until Humboldt’s isotherms, meteorological data had been collected in long tables of temperatures – endless lists of different geographical places and their climatic conditions which gave precise temperatures but were difficult to compare. Humboldt’s graphic visualization of the same data was as innovative as it was simple. Instead of confusing tables, one look at his isotherm map revealed a new world of patterns that hugged the earth in wavy belts. Humboldt believed that this was the foundation of what he called ‘vergleichende Klimatologie’ – comparative climatology. He was right, for today’s scientists still use them to understand and depict climate change and global warming. Isotherms enabled Humboldt, and those who followed, to look at patterns globally. Lyell utilized the concept to investigate geological changes in relation to climatic changes.

About half of the book is devoted to the effect of Humboldt’s work on other scientists and writers. It turned out that a lot of these folks believed the collapse of Planet Earth’s environment was imminent:

Man had long forgotten that the earth was not given to him for ‘consumption’. The produce of the earth was squandered, [George Perkins] Marsh argued, with wild cattle killed for their hides, ostriches for their feathers, elephants for their tusks and whales for their oil. Humans were responsible for the extinction of animals and plants, Marsh wrote in Man and Nature, while the unrestrained use of water was just another example of ruthless greed.2 Irrigation diminished great rivers, he said, and turned soils saline and infertile. Marsh’s vision of the future was bleak. If nothing changed, he believed, the planet would be reduced to a condition of ‘shattered surface, of climatic excess … perhaps even extinction of the [human] species’. He saw the American landscape magnified through what he had observed during his travels – from the overgrazed hills along the Bosporus near Constantinople to the barren mountain slopes in Greece. Great rivers, untamed woods and fertile meadows had disappeared. Europe’s land had been farmed into ‘a desolation almost as complete as that of the moon’. The Roman Empire had fallen, Marsh concluded, because the Romans had destroyed their forests and thereby the very soil that fed them. The Old World had to be the New World’s cautionary tale. At a time when the 1862 Homestead Act3 gave those who headed out to the American West 160 acres of land each for not much more than a filing fee, millions of acres of public lands were placed in private hands, waiting to be ‘improved’ by axe and plough. ‘Let us be wise,’ Marsh urged, and learn from the mistakes of ‘our older brethren!’ The consequences of man’s action were unforeseeable. ‘We can never know how wide a circle of disturbance we produce in the harmonies of nature when we throw the smallest pebble in the ocean of organic life,’ Marsh wrote. What he did know was that the moment ‘homo sapiens Europae’ had arrived in America, the damage had migrated from east to west. Others had come to similar conclusions. In the United States, James Madison had been the first to take up some of Humboldt’s ideas. Madison had met Humboldt in 1804, in Washington, DC, and later read many of his books. He had applied Humboldt’s observations from South America to the United States. In a widely circulated speech to the Agricultural Society in Albemarle, Virginia, in May 1818, a year after his retirement from the presidency, Madison had repeated Humboldt’s warnings about deforestation and highlighted the catastrophic effects of large-scale tobacco cultivation on Virginia’s once fertile soil. This speech carried the nucleus of American environmentalism. Nature, Madison had said, was not subservient to the use of man. Madison had called upon his fellow citizens to protect the environment but his warnings had been largely ignored.

Humboldt was the great apostle,’ Marsh had declared when he began Man and Nature. Throughout the book he referred to Humboldt but expanded his ideas. Where Humboldt’s warnings had been dispersed across his books – little nuggets of insight here and there but often lost in the broader context – Marsh now wove it all into one forceful argument. Page after page, Marsh talked about the evils of deforestation. He explained how forests protected the soil and natural springs. Once the forest was gone, the soil lay bare against winds, sun and rain. The earth would no longer be a sponge but a dust heap. As the soil was washed off, all goodness disappeared and ‘thus the earth is rendered no longer fit for the habitation of man’, Marsh concluded. It made for gloomy reading. The damage caused by just two or three generations was as disastrous, he said, as the eruption of a volcano or an earthquake. ‘We are,’ he warned prophetically, ‘breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling.’ Marsh was telling Americans that they had to act now, before it was too late. ‘Prompt measures’ had to be taken because ‘the most serious fears are entertained’. Forests needed to be set aside and replanted. Some should be preserved as places of recreation, inspiration and habitat for flora and fauna – as an ‘inalienable property’ for all citizens. Other areas needed to be replanted and managed for a sustainable use of timber. ‘We have now felled forest enough,’ Marsh wrote.

So obsessed was [John] Muir that he even highlighted the pages that referred to Humboldt in his Darwin and Thoreau books. One topic that particularly fascinated Muir – as it had George Perkins Marsh – was Humboldt’s comments on deforestation and the ecological function of forests. As he observed the world around him, Muir realized that something had to be done. The country was changing. Every year Americans claimed an additional 15 million acres for fields. With the advent of steam-powered reapers, grain binder machines and combine harvesters that cut, threshed and cleaned grains mechanically, agriculture had become industrialized. The world seemed to spin faster and faster.

Oddly enough, it was the digging up of fossil fuels that interrupted the trend of complete planetary deforestation. Certainly these folks couldn’t have imagined the current levels of human population, energy consumption, and forestation. On the other hand, maybe they got the broad idea right but were wrong about the timing and final mechanism!


It took two hours for ambulances to reach victims in Paris


“The Long Night” is a disturbing New Yorker article on the Paris attacks. Here’s one of the worst parts:

A few medical workers came to the scene almost immediately. Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon, which also came under fire, are down the street from l’Hôpital Saint-Louis, one of Paris’s largest hospitals. But because of the number and severity of the attacks, and a confusion about whether the killers might still be at large, it took nearly two hours for ambulances to begin evacuating people. [emphasis added]

Diamond Aircraft DA62 at NBAA 2015


I sat in the Diamond DA62 at NBAA. There is plenty of space for a long-legged pilot, even in the “very back” seats that are designed for children (not enough headroom back there, however, for a 6′ tall person). The twin diesel engines sip fuel and are supposedly remarkably quiet. The plane can climb to 20,000′ and cruise at nearly 200 knots. It can be de-iced and air-conditioned. It should share the wonderful handling characteristics of other Diamond products.

The bad news is that the airplane, fully pimped out, costs $1.3 million. There apparently isn’t a large enough market for piston aircraft anymore to spread out engineering and other fixed costs. At $700,000 this would be a formidable competitor to the Cirrus SR22. But at $1.3 million one is forced to ask “Why not a ragged-out Piper Meridian with a PT6 engine that will never quit? Then we can climb to 30,000′ in pressurized comfort. We can buy an older Meridian for $700,000 and have $600,000 left over to pay for the higher operating costs compared to the Diamond.” If you wanted to spend all $1.3 million on an airplane, that buys a 12-15-year-old TBM 700, larger and longer-range than the Meridian.

In a shrinking market with crazy high regulatory compliance costs it is hard to see how any new design can compete with the legacy aircraft.

Diamond DA62

Diamond DA62

Civil wars last longer these days


This short New Yorker article by Steve Coll is worth reading for, among other things, some interesting statistics:

In 2004, James D. Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford, published a study, “Why Do Some Civil Wars Last So Much Longer Than Others?,” in which he and a colleague analyzed scores of civil wars fought between 1945 and 1999. … two discouraging findings stand out. In 1945, many civil wars were concluded after about two years. By 1999, they lasted, on average, about sixteen years. And conflicts in which a guerrilla group could finance itself—by selling contraband drug crops, or by smuggling oil—might go on for thirty or forty years. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been around since 1964, sustained in no small part by American cocaine consumption.

The good news is that we are stronger than most insurgents; the bad news is that it doesn’t matter:

From the American intervention in Somalia, in 1992, through the French intervention in Mali, in 2013, industrialized countries have been able to deploy ground forces to take guerrilla-held territory in about sixty days or less. The problem is that if they don’t then leave, to be replaced by more locally credible yet militarily able forces, they invite frustration, and risk unsustainable casualties and political if not military defeat. This has been true even when the guerrilla forces were weak: the Taliban possesses neither planes nor significant anti-aircraft missiles, yet it has fought the United States to a stalemate, and the advantage is now shifting in its favor.

Lithium-ion battery that won’t set your airplane on fire


Would you like to carry lead in your airplane or helicopter? Probably not. How about acid? Also, a bad idea, right? Why then would you want a lead-acid battery? The answer to date has been “because every other kind of battery has tended to overheat and set the aircraft on fire.” NiCd batteries were all the rage in the 1970s and the superior energy density resulted in aircraft manufacturers engineering in temperature sensors and cockpit warning lights specific to these batteries. Ultimately they proved impractical for operators, though, and most were ripped out in favor of the older inferior technology of lead-acid.

Boeing was a pioneer in using lithium-ion batteries with the 787 and we all know how that worked out. At NBAA 2015, True Blue Power was all over the show with their newly formulated lithium-ion battery that supposedly won’t overheat anywhere near as fast as batteries with the older chemistry. The battery is stuffed full of fancy electronics to regulate and monitor what is going on within the cells, but you will still need some kind of cockpit indicator light. A battery with roughly 45 amp-hours at 24V will cost about $13,000 compared to $2,500 for the lead-acid equivalent (or $200 for a car battery with 90 amp-hours at 12V?). Supposedly the cost over time will be similar due to reduced expenses associated with annual capacity checks (for a higher-end aircraft the batteries must be removed every year and tested by a mechanic).

If “the third time is the charm” proves to be the case with advanced battery technology, True Blue Power will be adding about 5 percent to the payload of a typical light aircraft.

Thanksgiving thoughts


I want to thank Planet Earth today, for supporting us all a lot better than anyone could have predicted.

I’ll save the maudlin private thank-yous to individuals for Facebook!

Example of legal fees in employment litigation


Atlantic magazine has an article on a professor to whom the University of Illinois revoked a job offer back in August 2014. A linked-to piece says that the employer spent roughly $850,000 in legal fees  and paid $275,000 in legal fees to the plaintiff (plus $600,000 in damages). Unlike in the Ellen Pao case, the lawyers didn’t have to sift through years of work-related documents because the plaintiff had never started work.

Thus, even if the employer had beaten the rap it would have been out at least $2-3 million by the time a trial rolled around.


  • a detailed report from a committee, which includes an offer of tenure and an $85,000 salary for nine months of work. [How does this compare to the revenue from a one-night sexual encounter in Chicago? The tenured faculty salary is $59,922/year after taxes (ADP), an amount that could be obtained through the Illinois child support system by suing a co-parent earning $299,610 after tax or by suing two co-parents each of whom earned $149,805 after tax.]

Icon A5 update from NBAA 2015


The Icon A5 seaplane that I wrote about in 2010 was on display at NBAA in Las Vegas. The price has gone up but at $250,000 it still costs less than an annual inspection on a more typical NBAA show aircraft. They had cut the price of a deposit from $5,000 to $1,000 as a “show special” (press release) and, for an aircraft ordered today, were promising delivery in 2019.

Icon is going to be selling more amphibious seaplanes to inexperienced pilots than any manufacturer in the history of aviation. Amphibious seaplanes are often fatally crashed when pilots land in the water with the wheels down (“dig in and flip”). Modern GPS units and software are smart enough to warn a pilot approaching terrain or an obstacle, making an exception for “lined up to approach a runway in the database.” Icon hasn’t shown any interest in tweaking this software to the point that it could warn the pilot about approaching a body of water with the wheels down.

It still looks like a nice toy, but a heavy two-seater with a 100 hp engine needs a fairly long water runway. This won’t be like an Aviat Husky on floats, getting off the water in a claimed 6 seconds from a floating start.

Icon was silent regarding the number of these planes that have actually been delivered.


How could high speed rail be secured in the U.S.?


$28 million of our tax dollars are being ladled out for Maryland to study the extent to which American government workers can import and operate the latest Japanese maglev train (Washington Post). Of course it would be nice for lobbyists to zip from New York to Washington in one hour, but I’m wondering if what works in Japan can work in the U.S.

During my last visit to Japan, a couple of years after 9/11, there was still hardly any security screening for passengers on domestic flights, not any care taken to keep car or truck bombs away from regional airports. The security risks within that society simply didn’t merit the expenditures of time and money that we spend.

Let’s look at our current technology for 300 mph travel: the Airbus, Boeing, or Embraer. We have airports that are fairly easy to secure with a fence and then vehicles that protect themselves by climbing thousands of feet above potential attackers. A high-speed rail system, on the other hand, would seem to be as challenging to protect as a border. As a practical matter what could be done to keep explosives, projectiles, and other threats away from hundreds of mile of track on which a 300 mph vehicle rides? And are we up to the challenge? If not, should we be spending a lot of money on a technology that is not practical to implement in the society that we actually have?

Smartest Kids in the World Review


In order to make it easier to find the various portions of my review of The Smartest Kids in the World, which is important reading for anyone who doesn’t live in Finland, I’m posting this index to what I wrote about/excerpted from this book:


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