Saturday, November 17, 2012

Is wind-farm bat kill an urban myth?

Who knows why I got interested? I don’t read James Delingpole, because frankly the guy’s a dill. On the spectrum of “dills who are climate deniers”, his name appears near the “you’re a dill for even wondering what this dill says” end of the scale.

But for some reason I did, and therefore for some reason I came across his obsession about bats being killed by their “lungs imploding” because of air pressure around wind farms.

OK, at first glance, the Mythbusters would start at “plausible”. Barotrauma – the scientific term, which you use if you’re not apparently writing for an audience of idiots who’ll switch off even if you provide the definition in the third par – can happen even to mammals as big as humans, if (for example) we break the rules when diving.

Delingpole avoids the scientific term, either because (a) his science would fit in a matchbox without removing the matches, or (b) he’s a cynical dead shit who’s trying to snow-job readers who don’t do science. Take your pick

Bats are smaller than people, wind farms generate pressure differences, QED bats flying through wind turbine turbulence could die from barotrauma. Or, in the condescending “I know more than you but let’s use small words For the Dummies” tone of Delingpole, their “lungs implode”.

I wish I didn’t obsess about such things, I really do, but after a bit of a trawl through the scholarship, on a Saturday night why-do-I-do-this: it’s probably not true.

The whole “wind turbines kill bats through barotrauma” thing seems to arise from just one paper – this one:

Now, there are some problems with the paper that seems to form the entire scholarly basis for Deligpole’s obsession about barotrauma killing bats around wind farms.

The first is entirely my own work: the number of bats the author says was killed in a single night (188 victims): because by the time the research reached Scientific American, the timeline had stretched to “between July and September”.


That’s significantly more dead bats than any other research identified. For example, this article in Europe said bats are being killed at “unprecedented rates” when the number – without a timeframe in the abstract, and I don’t get paid for this blog, so I didn’t buy the article – yielded a sample of 39 dead bats.

Yes, species, geography and season will impact the numbers, but going from 188 bats in one night, to 188 bats over some months, to 39 dead bats over any unspecified time-frame being “unprecedented” – that should give rise to questions, at least.

Here’s another contradictory number: - which says wind farms in the area of the study kill 20 bats each year.

Now to the substance of the issue.

From – as far as I can find – one paper originating the idea of barotrauma, from which all else have followed, Delingpole has formed an urban mythology that wind farms make bats implode.


This study - - gives barotrauma as a very minor cause of death, comparing dead bats around turbines to dead bats in cities. It also notes that freezing specimens will give misleading results, because frozen cells (for example in the lungs) look a lot like pre-mortem barotrauma.

Bats die because, like birds, they fly into large structures (their sonar, after all, is attuned not to a skyscraper, but to hunting insects).

The foundation of “bat barotrauma” comes from one, single, and as far as I can tell, un-replicated study.

But we all know about cherry-picking the science, don’t we?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Don’t let me spoil your Christmas

I know I’m not alone in thinking this, but because I’m an arsehole, I’ll be the one to say it instead of grabbing a rivet-gun and a fixed grin and setting one to my face with the other (“Why so serious?”).

From last month until sometime in January, this country will start demanding that I make Christmas lists, plan Christmas menus, book Christmas holiday destinations, and buy more stuff.

Of course, the last three words, “buy more stuff” are the point. Anyone saying I'm a spoiler will do so on the basis of my spend, my product recommendations (none), or my attitude to parties.

So on behalf of all the people too polite to say it, I implore anyone who reads:

Think of those for whom the Christmas present will be a loved one who lives long enough after Christmas (and maybe, if fate decrees, past New Year) so that the twinned holiday is not spoiled for those that bury them.

Think of those who fear that their cancer might not give them Christmas lunch with the family, because they were in ICU after some emergency or other. On that score, think of those whose Christmas will be devoted to keeping someone alive on behalf of their family…

Think of those whose resources are exhausted by care: lucky to live in Australia, where chronic disease doesn’t turn into six-figure debt, care is still expensive. So think of those that won’t have “present money” left in the family budget, because they know the awful blow of January 1 (when they have to pay full-rate for prescriptions) is just around the corner.

Think of those that fall outside: who lack the disease or circumstances to come to the attention of a “famous” charity. For whom there are no pink ribbons or Movembers, neither Christmas soup kitchens nor wish-trees, the ones the bikies don’t ride for to cleanse their image of a year of gunplay and meth labs, who won’t get attention from attention-seeking shits called “celebrities” who arrive with cameras but no help.

Think of those whose Christmas will be one of apologies and comb-overs, patch-ups and promises, whose children knew stoicism before they knew Santa Clause.

Think of those for whom December 25 means work, because unlike you they’re not in the “knowledge sector”, don’t get six-figure salaries, and can’t eat on New Year if they don’t work on Christmas.

It won’t spoil your Christmas to think of them now. If you keep it until December, you may suffer a pang amid the wrapping paper. And we wouldn't want that, would we?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pro tip: don’t live Tweet product launches

Hello, you may consider this my resignation from a bunch of casual acquaintanceships that probably should matter more but don’t, and from a bunch of publishers I don’t work for (excepting News and Fairfax, both of which would rather eat soap than pay me for anything) (suits me fine).

Some people might decide not to speak to me after this. My personal record among journalists is someone who is now an editor, who declined even polite greetings for about 10 years after I made fun of him in a 1997 press conference.

As I write this a bunch of technology journalists are live-tweeting a product promotion. I won’t mention the product, because that would be to buy into the idea that one of the world’s largest companies needs my help to sell products.

It’s a phone; phones already outnumber humans in Australia. That means very few people actually “need” a new one, if that word is given any reasonable definition.

Carriers need people to want new phones, it’s true. But I recognise no obligation as a journalist to join in the great game of making people think they need something they don’t need. Ditto the journalist’s relationship with a vendor, which should be one of caution bordering on trepidation (from the vendor’s point of view at least).

And as for Tweeting about b-list celebrities’ presence at the launch of a phone … Jesus T Christ and his Travelling Flea Circus.

The tech press aspires to Seriousness. It’s something that makes them sweetly vulnerable: roll out the chance to be pleasant to a CEO, and nine out of ten IT journalists get that kind of shimmery-in-the-belly thing that’s like being in love.

It’s a fucking phone, people. The reason the celebrity is there is that the product is as boring as bat shit, and the reason they’re not A-list celebrities is that the product isn’t from Apple (imagine: princess whats-her-name of Denmark in a nightclubby Apple product launch. The hypegasm would last for years).

Two worsts arise out of this.

One: someone’s going to go over the live Tweets from the product launch while reading the stories tomorrow. Is that going to be a good look? What if the “someone” happens to be the ABC’s Media Watch? (The tech press lives in constant terror of the day MW pays it serious attention).

Two: the same will apply to the product reviews. Someone who’s visited the launch party dressed as a premature orgasm will have zero credibility as a product reviewer (I have sworn off product reviews forever: the experience at twelve months never, never, never matches what you can accomplish in a few days reviewing the product).

I can’t tell you how it ended. Except for the few who think their immortal prose on Twitter is so irresistible that they won’t hashtag their posts (and therefore evade the mute), I gave up on the whole servile display of “ohh, shiny!”

But we had journalists here who consider themselves “serious”, and who will occasionally act it – happy to turn up, for example, at a lawsuit’s directions hearing even though nothing’s going to happen – re-drafting their public image as utterly enthralled by the combination of a bit of plastic in a rectangle and another bit of plastic on legs.