Sunday, December 31, 2006


Well, hey, the war in Iraq may not be going so well, but the Bush administration war on science is doing just fine. While most of our attention has been focussed on Bush's battles against climate science and stem cell research, the Bushies have quietly won one major battle against geology. Steve Benen, filling in for Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly, has the story, apparently getting his information from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

"In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is 'no comment.'"

You can, of course, get some ages from books on sale in the Park Service bookstore, including this one:

"[A]ccording to a biblical time scale, [the Canyon] can't possibly be more than about a few thousand years old."


Three thousand American soldiers have now been killed in George Bush's war, in addition to 250 or so coalition troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Meanwhile, while Bush and and his crack-brained crew are distracted, a dozen or more real world problems are festering.

Richard Clarke has a partial list in the Washington Post article linked above. He mentions global warming, the continued existence of al Quaeda, the growing power and pugnacity of Russia, the spread of nuclear weapons, war in Africa, and contining problems with Pakistan.

He doesn't mention the increasingly unstable position of the US economy, or the serious challenges to our internatinal competiveness, but it hardly matters. Bush remains the most stubborn and foolish of stubborn fools, completely committed to his follies. A Democratically controlled Congress can do some damage control, if Republicans in Congress cooperate, but probably not a lot.

Whoever wins the White House in 2008 seems certain to inherit a greatly diminished country with a boatload of terrible problems.

Meanwhile, Europe is more threatened and seemingly even less alert to the danger. Putin has Europe by the throat with his control of gas and Russian oil, and Putin is known to consider the roll-back of the Soviet empire as "the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century." If (or when) he decides to re-annex the Baltics or a bit more of Eastern Europe, who will there be to resist? The mini-countries involved? The European Union which is largely unarmed? Bush has largely exhausted the American military.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Another Stupid Gall Bladder Trick

I have posted a couple of times before on how my gall bladder keeps managing to pretend to cause me illness. When I started getting rather severe pains under my right central ribs (Friday before Christmas), my first thought was now what? I looked around for bruises - nope. Since I had only a modest fever, and really really didn't want to wind up in an emergency room two days before Christmas, I decided to tough it out if I could. Early Tuesday morning I showed up at the walk-in clinic, the doc checked me out, thought it might be a kidney stone, and sent me in for a CT scan.

When the scan was read, my old gallstone (and lots of pain)were still there, so she set up an appointment with a surgeon for the following afternoon. Early the next morning I noticed a few more pains, and two or three little pimples over the main pain locations. I actually had a pretty good clue what these meant, took them to the doctor, and she agreed.

Chicken pox, a generally mild disease that most children get, or used to get, is caused by a virus called Herpes zoster (or varicella zoster). H. zoster has the nasty habit of hiding in nerve cells near the spine for many decades after the original disease has run its course. If your immune system is weakened, perhaps by age or stress, the virus can proliferate and propagate along the nerve and its branches all the way to the skin. The resulting infection of the nerve often produces intense pain. When the infection reaches the skin, ugly red blisters erupt along the portion of the skin innervated by the affected nerve - in my case, a stripe from just above the right side of my belly button to my right lower back.

The tricky part is that since the infection starts at your spine, and works its way out, intense pain is common before the superficial manifestation. When the affected nerve root is the right T-9 (from the 9th thoracic vertebra) the pattern of pain occasionally results in an unnecessary gall bladder surgery.

The reason I happened to recognize this when I had the first eruptions is that I know a whole cluster of people who have recently had the disease - shingles. The thing is, you can't get shingles from somebody with shingles - if you haven't had chicken pox, you can get that, a disease mainly of the skin, but shingles comes from the inside.

There is now a vaccine for shingles, and based on my experience, I recommend it - shingles can hurt like hell, and in some cases, can be dangerous. There are also anti-viral drugs which reputedly shorten the course of the disease, and I'm hoping mine kick in soon.

New Look for 2007

I thought I would adopt a new template for the new year. Nothing fancy, of course, but it looks more readable to me. Comments, questions, and complaints are welcome. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost my haloscan comments. I would appreciate any advice on how they might be restored.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Your Year in Climate Goings On

Luboš Motl has a link to Real Climate's 2006 Year in Review, which they describe as:

A lighthearted look at the climate science goings-on over the last year:

I found their review pretty interesting, but Lumo also decided to post his own rejoinder, a sort of amateur climate skeptic's view of the year's events. I thought I might do a bit of deconstruction on Lumo's version, since it embodies many of the fallacies of the climate skeptic community.
The worst temperature news for the alarmists:

2006 is coldest in the last five years (preliminary)

It's also one of the warmest of the past 150 years. There is every reason to expect year to year fluctuations in temperature. If, on the other hand, we were to see what Lumo says would convince him of the reality of the CO2 effect - a five standard deviation five year temperature increase, we would know that the predictions of the climate models are nonsense (or that some other forcing had intervened).

The worst hurricane news for the catastrophic global warming theorists:

The number of hurricanes dropped by 70% from 2005

This is irrelevant even to the speculative idea that global warming causes more intense tropical storms - globally. The Atlantic is just one basin in which tropical cyclones appear. Globally this year has had more than it's share of intense tropical cyclones. Note too that nobody is claiming that global warming produces more tropical cyclones - it seems to cause more intense tropical storms.

This is a typical tactic of the dishonest critic. Set up a strawman and show that it fails and then pretend that this refutes some actual claim about the effects of anthropogenic climate warming.

Skipping over a few more that seem totally irrelevant to me even if true. (See Lumo's post for the details)
The most inconvenient news from the United Nations:

IPCC will downgrade global warming and sea level rise projections by 25-50 percent

This will be good news, if it proves out when the IPCC is released. What's happening here is a tightening of estimates based on new research results - exactly what climate science is supposed to be doing.

The event that has divided the ecofanatics most visibly:

The Stern report

Well, OK, the Stern report is controversial - mainly but not only because of its economic assumptions.

Skipping a bit more:
The worst news for the proponents of the idea that the current warming was unprecedented:

The report of the National Academy of Sciences

No serious climate scientist claims that the current warming is unprecedented - but it does seem to be unprecedented for the last few thousand years.
The insight of elementary school biology that is most inaccessible to the environmental believers and the best as well as the most irritating slogan of the year:

Carbon dioxide. They call it pollution. We call it life.

What a lame-oh slogan! CO2 is an inorganic compound (not life) that happens to be essential for most photosynthesis. It is also poisonous in large amounts, occasionally wiping out a vulnerable village. I wouldn't consider it pollution in the normal sense, but pouring it into the atmosphere at current rates seems like a pretty bad idea because it does cause global warming.
The most inconvenient number about the attribution of the greenhouse effect:

Farm animals emit 1/5 of greenhouse gases

The second most inconvenient number about the attribution:

Hydropower could be the #1 source of the greenhouse effect

CO2 is not the only hazardous greenhouse gas. Methane, the purported culprit in these scenarios, which is also potent, is relatively short lived in the atmosphere. It does get converted to CO2 though. These points, if true, only show that there are a lot of potentially hazardous human activities going on.
The worst new pre-historical insight for climate fearmongers:

Megafauna not killed by climate change

This is not exactly a *new* insight. It has been obvious for at least a few decades that much more direct human action was the proximate cause of recent megafaunal extinctions - in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and many smaller islands.

Ok, I'm tired of this game. There are a few more examples of strawmen and irrelevancies but they will be left as an exercise for the reader.

Low-Tech Lynching

Just because you got lynched doesn't mean you weren't guilty. That, no doubt, will be the verdict of history to Saddam Hussein. He ruled Iraq with exceptional ferocity, employing murderous tactics and ample use of torture. These circumstances serve to add a tragicomic aspect to George Bush's plans to execute Saddam soon. The farsical trial, with verdict timed to coincide with the US elections, the execution as setup for the State of the Union address, all speak of history as theatre as produced and directed by that most inept impressario, George Bush.

Josh Marshall takes a closer look. After the obligatory disclaimers, Josh cuts to the chase:

...Convention dictates that we precede any discussion of this execution with the obligatory nod to Saddam's treachery, bloodthirsty rule and tyranny. But enough of the cowardly chatter. This thing is a sham, of a piece with the whole corrupt, disastrous sham that the war and occupation has been. Bush administration officials are the ones who leak the news about the time of the execution. One key reason we know Saddam's about to be executed is that he's about to be transferred from US to Iraqi custody, which tells you a lot. And, of course, the verdict in his trial gets timed to coincide with the US elections.

This whole endeavor, from the very start, has been about taking tawdry, cheap acts and dressing them up in a papier-mache grandeur -- phony victory celebrations, ersatz democratization, reconstruction headed up by toadies, con artists and grifters. And this is no different. Hanging Saddam is easy. It's a job, for once, that these folks can actually see through to completion. So this execution, ironically and pathetically, becomes a stand-in for the failures, incompetence and general betrayal of country on every other front that President Bush has brought us.

Try to dress this up as an Iraqi trial and it doesn't come close to cutting it -- the Iraqis only take possession of him for the final act, sort of like the Church always left execution itself to the 'secular arm'. Try pretending it's a war crimes trial but it's just more of the pretend mumbojumbo that makes this out to be World War IX or whatever number it is they're up to now.

The result is likely to be of a piece with the rest of Bush's works: Saddam will likely be promoted from Monster to Martyr, and his name become a rallying cry. His very real crimes will be shuffled under the equally real crimes of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and all their enablers.

Science Ed

As I have no doubt mentioned before, I spent some time on a citizens advisory panel for grade 6-12 science textbooks and related materials. The overwhelming impression the experience made on me was that they were all, quite uniformly, awful. It wasn't their failures with the content that bothered me, though there were many such, but the way they managed to make the subject so excruciatingly boring.

Fast forward to the present: My wife has me read a bit from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. He told the story of the producers of a television show for preschoolers and how they made some fundamental but probably previously unnoticed discoveries about preschooler's learning. Everyone with children, or who has worked with small children, has probably had the noticed their fascination with repetition. Often they want the exact same story read to them every night, or want to see the same movie about 200 times - which fact, by the way, accounts for why I have seen the movie Ghostbusters a zillion times.

The first discovery the producers made was that their shows were more watched if they showed the exact same show five times in one week than if they showed five new episodes per week. The more important discovery was figuring out why.

It turns out that three and four year olds are quite dedicated detectives. Living in a world where almost everything is new and strange, they need to process the tale more than once to extract the various levels of meaning. Once they learned this lesson the producers learned how to structure their episodes as mystery stories for four-year olds, with clues presented in pretested order to engage the four year olds at their level. I think that Gladwell's main point was that attention to the details played a critical role here, and it's a good one.

I was more interested in the mystery story format, though. The fascination of science for me has always been about the detective story - the patient accumulation of clues, those aha moments when one sees that seeming unconnected facts are manifestations of a deeper pattern. In his review of one of Jo Rowling's books, Steven King noted that her books were mystery stories, and that a large element of their appeal is based on that. It's precisely that element that was missing from all those awful science textbooks I reviewed. In each case, vast teams of authors had labored to produce a somewhat coherent body of facts in language a twelve year old could read, but that nobody would want to. The result was dull, boring, and devoid of the wonder and mystery that the subjects natively have.

Humans are natural detectives, scientists and explorers. Jared Diamond tells of his travels in New Guinea with native peoples to regions strange to them, of their eagerness to learn everything about any new plant or animal they encountered, and their systematic investigations of the same.

It's no secret that the US does a lousy job of teaching science to its children. Maybe one of the reasons is just a very poor choice of teaching methods. Science isn't just a dry collection of facts. Science textbooks, especially those aimed at elementary and secondary students, need to engage the student. Textbooks need to be tested on students before being widely adopted, and education needs to stop being a fashion industry and start being scientific in its approach.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Right Wing Slimeball

I notice that my title is annoyingly unspecific. Other modifiers that come to mind are equally indiscriminant: hypocrite and pompous ass fit just too many of our public figures on the right. How about coward? That's what Bill Bennett (slimeball, pompous ass, and hypocrite, former Drug Czar, and Secretary of anti-education) called Gerald Ford. Bill, like his fellow RWS hypocrites Rush L and Dick C, is himself a long-time chickenhawk - a guy who never saw a war he didn't like or one he was willing to risk his own sorry ass in.

The part I don't understand is the deformity of heart and soul that allows conservatives, or so-called conservatives, to admire these SOBs and make them rich.

(link courtesy of Josh Marshall)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

RIP Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford has died. He was one of the better Republican Presidents, maybe in the top four*. He was Nixon's hand picked VP after the disgraced Agnew left office to face charges, and became President after Nixon resigned after impeachment and facing certain conviction.

Two things kept him from re-election: his principled but highly unpopular decision to pardon Nixon, and his odd statement seemingly denying Soviet domination of the Eastern European members of the Soviet bloc during a debate.

*Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, are the two outstanding Republican Presidents.

Gangster Rulz

There is always something appealing about the outlaw - the person unconstrained by law or morality. We envy that impunity with which they can act out without seeming fear of consequence.

There is an element of that in the American (and not just American) Right wing's frequent flirtations with fascist dictatorship. Hitler and Musollini had their American sympathizers, among them Joseph P. Kennedy and Charles Lindberg. The Walker and Bush dynasties, working with Averell Harriman and Percy Rockefeller made big bucks banking for Hitler (see, for example, American Dynasty, by Kevin Phillips). Long after World War II, William Buckley was deploying his mannered preciosity, and the National Review's to support Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and American racism.

The Chilean dictator Auguste Pinochet is a more recent entry to the rogues gallery of thugs that wingnut's love. His claim to wingnut affection is based on two actions: He overthrew a democratically elected, Marxist oriented President (Salvador Allende) and turned the "Chicago Boys," a group of conservative economists, loose on his economy. It's claimed that their work had "been a spectacular success" - with apologies to Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Others have a less charitable judgement, based on the fact that Pinochet destroyed one of the most established democracies in South America, instituted a reign of terror in which he murdered thousands of his fellow citizens, tortured tens of thousands, and looted the country to line his own pockets.

What about the claim for the success of the "Chicago boys?" Luboš Motl has a mixed review of Pinochet which buys into the idea of Chilean economic success built upon the coup. While there is little doubt that some of the market reforms were useful, they were exaggerated (the key mineral industries like copper, which Allende nationalized were not privatized), and the "Chicago boys" made key mistakes, causing a serious recession, and Chile's economy didn't really take off until after democracy was restored. Chile was not an especially poor country before Allende (1970), but by 1973 the combined effects of Allende's economics and a determined campaign of economic sabotage by Nixon and his CIA had produced a lot of economic disorganization and severe inflation, which served as an excuse for Pinochet's coup.

If you look at the gapminder 1975-2000 data cited by Motl, note the far more spectacular progress of it's demographically nearest neighbor, Korea. Note also how much much of Chile's progress came in the post Pinochet (1988 + ) era.

A far more dramatic example of the benefits of state mandated desocialization, combined with rigid control on population, is provided by China. I don't see Chicago claiming all the glory there.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Sins of the Son

I would have thought that finding new faults in George W Bush would by now be a somewhat tiresome game of whack-a-mole. There seems to be no depth of incompetence or mendacity that he has not plumbed. Nonetheless, Bruce Reed, writing in Slate, has some interesting turns of phrase and yet another crime to lay at Bush's feet.

Like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," George W. Bush seems doomed to wake up every morning in the same Maureen Dowd column about a father's shadow he can darken but not escape.

Of course these columns are not much threat to a man who neither reads nor thinks. My guess is that the 1/3 or so of Americans who still believe in him mostly fit the same category.

One less often mentioned bad deed:
In perhaps the most telling rejection of Clintonism, Bush dismantled the COPS program, which had helped communities put more police on the beat and helped cut violent crime by a third nationwide. Not having enough troops turned out to be a losing strategy here at home, too. This week, the FBI announced the sharpest increase in violent crime since 1991.

Under Clinton, the nation's police forces produced the longest sustained drop in crime on record. Now many cities are becoming murder capitals again. In 2006, robbery went up 9.7% -- the fastest rise in at least the past quarter century.

Relatively speaking, of course, that's a pretty minor misdeed for the President of torture and war, the President who walked blindly into 9/11 and the Hurricane Katrina disaster and presided over one of the most corrupt American governments ever.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Casualties of Warm?

Among the first peoples to suffer the impacts of the current global warming are the inhabitants of low lying islands. Warming raises sea level in two ways: by melting glaciers, and probably of more current importance, by thermal expansion of the oceans. The Independent is reporting the disappearance of a whole island with a former population of 10,000 people.

Rising seas, caused by global warming, have for the first time washed an inhabited island off the face of the Earth. The obliteration of Lohachara island, in India's part of the Sundarbans where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, marks the moment when one of the most apocalyptic predictions of environmentalists and climate scientists has started coming true.

As the seas continue to swell, they will swallow whole island nations, from the Maldives to the Marshall Islands, inundate vast areas of countries from Bangladesh to Egypt, and submerge parts of scores of coastal cities.

Eight years ago, as exclusively reported in The Independent on Sunday, the first uninhabited islands - in the Pacific atoll nation of Kiribati - vanished beneath the waves. The people of low-lying islands in Vanuatu, also in the Pacific, have been evacuated as a precaution, but the land still juts above the sea. The disappearance of Lohachara, once home to 10,000 people, is unprecedented.

Now it is true that global sea levels are rising. After 3000 years of near stasis, sea levels have risen about 20 cm in the last hundred years. Was that eight inches, or the half inch or so since 1992, really responsible for the submerging of a whole island?

It seems inherently implausible. Still, small changes can tip a vulnerable island to the point where wave action destroys it, but I would want to know the detailed geology before I accepted this explanation. Big chunks of the Louisiana coast have disappeared in the last few decades, not because of rising sea levels, but because of decline in the amount of sediment coming down the now dammed Missisipi. Islands in the ocean, at least those not protected by coral reefs, are inherently transitory. Not so many million years hence, the 14,000 foot mountains of Hawaii will have sunk into the sea.

I would be interested to hear a more expert opinion.

UPDATE: Another story gives a more up close and personal look at the deluge, which apparently happened about twenty-two years ago:
“I went to Lohachara island when I was 12 — in search of land,” Bhandari, now 55, said. “I and my wife had five bighas of land that we tilled.

“The sea had been eating away our island with every passing day. And then, one day, it engulfed everything that had remained untouched till then — our home, fields, the cattle… everything.”

Perhaps farming the island played a role in its destruction.

Christmas Wishes

Luboš Motl has some nice Christmas music (Czech, I think) up.

He also has this rather bizarre attack on Scott Aaronson. To be sure, Scott had a couple of impolite things to say about Motl in the targetted piece:

Of course, when your de facto spokesman is the self-parodying Luboš Motl — who often manages to excoriate feminists, climatologists, and loop quantum gravity theorists in the very same sentence — it’s hard not to seem reasonable by comparison.
Unfair? Compare the following from Profesor Motl's post:
Corruption has become the holy standard and some fields completely depend on it. Feminist career scholars who belong to the diversity industry financially depend on their pseudoscience about the absence of differences between the sexes much like a large fraction of the climate scientists' funding depends on spreading unsubstantiated fears and much like the loop quantum gravity research depends on spreading myths about the existence of "alternatives" to string theory even though these "alternatives" are nothing else than artifacts of confused, superficial, and sloppy thinking.
That, folks, is irony - of the apparently unintentional and hence best kind. Note that although I included an extra sentence for background, the triple play is indeed contained in one sentence.

Luboš bases his attack on an obviously intentionally ironic paragraph of Aaronson's post. He also seems pretty incensed that the Stanford physics faculty not only invited Aaronson to speak (and paid his way), but also failed to burn him at the stake in the course of his colloquium - and even talked politely to him.

So Santa, could you just bring Luboš that irony recognition gene for Christmas? He apparently didn't get one in the initial genetic complement. It would help him a lot.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Give Me That Old Time Religion (No Others Need Apply)

Slate's editor Jacob Weisberg isn't ready for a Mormon President. The problem is the theology, you see.

There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president, because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others, myself included, would not, under most imaginable circumstances, vote for a fanatic or fundamentalist—a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu. Such views are disqualifying because they're dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.

By the same token, I wouldn't vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in "reformed" Egyptian hieroglyphics—a nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded. If you don't know the story, it's worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie's wonderful biography No Man Knows My History. Smith was able to dictate his "translation" of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man. Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don't want him running the country.

Weisberg is ready for those who might think a lot of our other popular religions are based on equally implausible miracles.
Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference.

To a Yalie, I guess. Age that grape juice a millenium or two and it's darn good wine.

I take a slightly different view: "by their works ye shall judge them."

Because there just aren't enough Unitarians running for President.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Abyss

Vali Nasr at TPM Cafe has a grim look at Bush's "Surge" strategy that he calls Surging into the Abyss. The aim, he says, is to crush Sadr's Madhi Militia. There is a very real chance that such a strategy could create what we don't yet have: a Shia insurgency targetting American troops.

New troops will be in Iraq not to police the streets and hold the line against the creeping violence, but to expand the war by taking on the Shia militias. This is an escalation strategy. Will it work; maybe, maybe not. But it runs the risk that it may very well provoke a Shia insurgency—something Iraq has not so far witnessed. Thus far the U.S. has faced a Sunni insurgency (which by most estimates continues to account for 80% of U.S. casualties), and sectarian violence in which Shias and Sunnis are killing each other. Shia militias are violent, destructive and radical, but Shia militias are a very different problem from the Sunni insurgency. Shia militias, unlike te insurgency, are not targeting American troops. But it looks like the administration is set to change that. Over the past year Washington and its Baghdad embassy have alienated the Shia and undermined the authority of the more moderate Ayatollah Sistani. Anti-Americanism has grown in Shia ranks as they accuse U.S. of favoring Sunnis by focusing on Shia militias rather than Sunni insurgency. By going to war with the increasingly popular Sadr Washington runs the danger of losing the Shia altogether.

If he's right, it would be unsurprising if the Joint Chiefs are worried. On the other hand, it might succeed in unifying the Iraqis - against us.

Tagged Again

Here are the rules.

Grab the book closest to you.
Open to page 123, go down to the fifth sentence.
Post the text of the next 3 sentences on your blog.
Name the book and the author.
Tag three people.

OK, that was enough fun that I think I should at least tag a few others who were skeptical. This time I walked with my eyes shut to the book shelf, incidentally knocking Aunt Melba's priceless Ming vase through the screen of my new 80 inch plasma HDTV, and selected a book at random.

Their relatives the bushbabies, on the other hand, are energetic leapers, and the have long feathery tails. Tree sloths are tailless, like the marsupial koalas who might be regarded as their australian equivalents, and both move slowly about the trees like lorises.

In Borneo and Sumatra, the long-tailed macaque lives up tree, while the closely related pig-tailed macaque lives on the ground and has a short tail.

The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins.

This time I tag Levi, the visitor from Santiago Chile, and two scroogelike skeptics: Molnar and Cynthia.

Tagged: The Great Chain of Being

I was tagged by Rae Ann, who was tagged by Lubos, who was tagged by Bee, who was tagged by Clifford, who was tagged by IP...

Here are the rules.

Grab the book closest to you.
Open to page 123, go down to the fifth sentence.
Post the text of the next 3 sentences on your blog.
Name the book and the author.
Tag three people.

It's my opinion that this is only going to work if I tell them, and Los Alamos cannot accept the responsibility for the safety of the Oak Ridge plant unless they are fully informed as to how it works!

It was great. The lieutenant takes me to the colonel and repeats my remark.

Most physicists may recognize the book. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard P. Feynman.

I tag - hmmm - does anyone read this blog who hasn't already been tagged? I will try Arun, Wolfgang (even if I can't find his blog anymore - if he still has one), and whoever it is that sometimes connects from Helsinki, Finland. If you don't have a blog, you can post here.

Merry Christmas, Happy Channukah, Sunny Solstice to all!

Tracing back a meme can be endless fun. I got as far with this one as a book written in arabic.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Taxing Thoughts About Climate

Brad DeLong has had a couple of posts up about the Stern report and the more general question of what we ought to do about global warming. Economists seems to believe that we ought to tax it, and I'm inclined to agree, but then comes the vexing question of the cost benefit analysis. It's at about this point that I tend to get really annoyed, mainly because any attempt at economic analysis seems at once hopelessly dependent on implausible models and largely beside the point.

The implausible models start with things like:

If the world grows in per capita income at about 2% per year, a marginal expenditure of roughly $70 today in cutting carbon emissions would be worth it if it were to enrich the world of 2100 by about an extra $500 of year-2006 purchasing power, once all the damages to the world economy and environment from global warming, costs of adjustment, and so on are taken into account. This looks like a very good deal to Nick Stern and his team.

On the other hand, critics point out that the world today is poor: average GDP per capita at purchasing power parity today is roughly $7000. We expect improvements in and the spread of technology to make the world of 2100, at a 2% per year growth rate much richer than the world of today: $50,000 per capita of year-2006 purchasing power. We today can use the marginal $70 per capita, critics say, much more than the richer people of 2100 will need the $500 or so they would gain from not having to suffer from the effects of global climate change.

Hey, if the economy keeps growing at a 2% per capita rate, the ecocatastrophe never happened - either that, or the number of heads will have shrunk even faster than the economy did in the ecocatastrophe. Even more importantly, from my perspective, are the costs that aren't measured in per capita GDP. How do value the loss of an ecosystem, or a million species, or costs to our health and happiness?

To ecologists, it's evident that the Earth is currently undergoing a mass extinction event on the scale of some of the major extinction events of the past, and that humans are the cause. Moreover, the damage to our ecosystems is proportionate not just to the number of people in the world but to their use of resources. If the people of China, India, and other emerging economies reach a point of wealth where their impact on the world ecosystem is comparable to that of the US (per capita), the speed with which the calamity unfolds will accelerate by manyfold.

The human race is not likely to be one of the species that becomes extinct in this scenario which is already rapidly unfolding, but the world left to our successors seems likely to be immeasureably impoverished in non-economic goods, and quite likely economically as well.

If economists figure out how to meaningfully value some of these things, they might have something interesting to say. Until then, their debates about rates of time discount are merely about how the deck chairs on the Titanic will be arranged.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Climate Stability?

William Connolley has this post asserting that climate is stable. His post, and some of the comments, got me wondering about what exactly was meant thereby. The climate has varied over a considerable range over the life of the Earth, but not, evidently, enough to kill off all life or even the advanced species. It is essentially certain that geology was a major player in some past climate matters.

If we stick to the last few million years, there don't seem to be any major geologic convulsions that have left big footprints, but there are those pesky ice ages, alternating with warmer periods like the present. The ice ages seem to be correlated with the Milankovitch Cycle, the slow periodic changes in the Earth's orbital parameters that have some affect on average insolation. The correlation is hardly simple though, and not, apparently, fully understood.

A system is stable if small perturbations cause small changes in the system behavior. The short term behavior of the Earth's weather is undoubtedly unstable in that sense. There are clearly instabilities, or at least irregular oscillations on the scale of years and tens of years. Conversely, it's pretty obvious that the very long term climate is quite stable - otherwise life would not be here. What about on the scale of a hundred years or a thousand?

In general, one expects dynamic stability if negative feedbacks (effects that decrease the departure from equilibrium) outweigh positive feedbacks. The climate system contains both, operating on various time scales. My question (for William or anybody) is what do the models have to say on these accounts?

Are the models stable, or is it necessary to put in nonphysical feedbacks "by hand?" Does the stability behavior of the models mimic that of the climate system, and if not, do we know why not?

Surge Insurgency

The "Surge" idea seems to be developing its own insurgency. Robin Wright and Peter Baker report in the Washington Post that the JCS really don't like it.

The Bush administration is split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate.

Sending 15,000 to 30,000 more troops for a mission of possibly six to eight months is one of the central proposals on the table of the White House policy review to reverse the steady deterioration in Iraq. The option is being discussed as an element in a range of bigger packages, the officials said.

But the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House review is not public.

This JCS leak indicates some long overdue pushback from the senior military. The lack of a defined mission beyond politics has been the central failing of every recent White House idea.

About Time!

Ever since I first tried Google Earth I have thought they needed to move out to the Universe. It seems that they might be getting around to it.

Web surfers may soon be able to explore the canyons of Mars and experience a virtual flight over the surface of the moon thanks to a deal announced on Monday between Web search company Google Inc. and the NASA Ames Research Center.

The Space Act Agreement is the first in a series of collaborations between the Mountain View, California-based Internet company and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Expletive Deleted Principle

The New York Times is publicizing a long talked about idea in Iraq that they call the Darwin Principle. I have another name for it but I can't print the two word expletive, the first word of which is Dumb. Some ironist at the NYT has titled the story The Capital Awaits a Masterstroke on Iraq. So what's the idea?

The Darwin Principle, Beltway version, basically says that Washington should stop trying to get Sunnis and Shiites to get along and instead just back the Shiites, since there are more of them anyway and they’re likely to win in a fight to the death. After all, the proposal goes, Iraq is 65 percent Shiite and only 20 percent Sunni.

Sorry, Sunnis.

The Darwin Principle is radical, decisive and most likely not going anywhere. But the fact that it has even been under discussion, no matter how briefly, says a lot about the dearth of good options facing the Bush administration and the yearning in this city for some masterstroke to restore optimism about the war.

There are a lot of reasons why this is a really bad idea, among them the fact that our allies are all Sunni and Iran is Shia.

If America has problems now with Muslim extremists around the world, those would likely worsen if the United States was believed to have aided the uprooting or extermination of Iraq’s Sunni population.

This idea is stupid enough for Bush and Cheney to like it. The most obvious contrast this plan would have compared to simply leaving posthaste is that we would get (and deserve) all the blame for the genocide, and a lot more American soldiers would get killed in the process.


With his Iraq strategy (or rather, non-strategy) in tatters, Bush has lately been talking up the idea of a Surge or a temporary increase in US troop strength. It's not quite clear whether the President saw this as a last minute "hail Mary" attempt to postpone disaster or as a purely political ploy to discomfit the Democrats.

This idea, anchored in no particular strategic conception, has now suffered a lot of damage. Colin Powell, doing some overdue penance for his part in enabling this war has dealt it a blow that ought to be fatal.

The summer's surge of U.S. troops to try to stabilize Baghdad failed, he said, and any new attempt is unlikely to succeed. "If somebody proposes that additional troops be sent, if I was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my first question . . . is what mission is it these troops are supposed to accomplish? . . . Is it something that is really accomplishable? . . . Do we have enough troops to accomplish it?"

The other problem is that there aren't really any more troops.
Before any decision to increase troops, he said, "I'd want to have a clear understanding of what it is they're going for, how long they're going for. And let's be clear about something else. . . . There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops."

He added: "That's how you surge. And that surge cannot be sustained."

The "active Army is about broken," Powell said. Even beyond Iraq, the Army and Marines have to "grow in size, in my military judgment," he said, adding that Congress must provide significant additional funding to sustain them.

The fact that our Army is so small now is a direct consequence of Bush and Rumsfeld policies. Rumsfeld made himself the proverbial donkey who starved to death between two haystacks. Committed to transforming the military into a smaller, lighter force, and faced with a strategic problem that required the opposite, he failed at both.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Econoworld and the Future

That most excellent blogger and polymath, Brad DeLong, commends for our reading what he calls Partha Dasgupta's excellent review of Jared Diamond's collapse. I'm afraid that I can't agree.

I disliked the review a lot. Firstly, his main quarrel with Diamond is that Diamond wrote a different book than Dasgupta would like. More about that later. More fundamentally, the review seems quite dishonest in the way it interprets what Diamond did say. Consider his only quote from Diamond:

At one point he claims that ‘all of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology,’ to which I felt like shouting in exasperation that perhaps at some times, in some places, a few of the unintended consequences of our existing technology have been beneficial. Reading Diamond you would think our ancestors should all have remained hunter-gatherers in Africa, co-evolving with the native flora and fauna, and roaming the wilds in search of wild berries and the occasional piece of meat.

To understand the dishonesty of Dasgupta's point here, you need to realize that in the passage quoted, Diamond is responding specifically to the argument that we don't have to worry about the environment because "technology will solve our problems." Moreover, the "all of our current problems" clearly is referring to all of the current problems with global environmental damage. The claim that Diamond thinks "our ancestors should all have remained hunter-gatherers in Africa" is completely absurd and false.

Dasgupta makes many errors, some of which suggest that he didn't read the book very carefully. He claims:

he [Diamond] describes how Rwanda’s collapse as a society was brought about by unprecedented population growth in a subsistence economy operating in a fragile ecosystem.

That is blatantly false. What Diamond describes is how unprecedented population growth in one of the richest and most fertile environments on Earth brought on social collapse.

So why is Dasgupta misrepresenting Diamond? Well his second gripe with Diamond seems to be based on the notion that Diamond should have acknowledged that economics has a toolbox for solving all questions of environmental impact:

The many people who will be reading Diamond’s book will be fascinated by the historical case studies, but they will also be left with the impression that there is still no intellectual toolkit with which to deliberate over the most significant issue facing humanity today. Worse, they may not even notice they haven’t got the tools. So readers will continue as either environmentalists or environmental sceptics, each locked into their own perspective. It is a great pity.

Dasgupta makes his own argument:

Diamond’s reading of the collapses is original, for nature doesn’t figure prominently in contemporary intellectual sensibilities. Economists, for example, have moved steadily away from seeing location as a determinant of human experience. Indeed, economic progress is seen as a release from location’s grip on our lives. Economists stress that investment and growth in knowledge have reduced transport costs over the centuries. They observe, too, the role of industrialisation in ironing out the effects on societies of geographical difference, such as differences in climate, soil quality, distance from navigable water and, concomitantly, local ecosystems. Modern theories of economic development dismiss geography as a negligible factor in progress. The term ‘globalisation’ is itself a sign that location per se doesn’t matter; which may be why contemporary societies are obsessed with cultural survival and are on the whole dismissive of our need to discover how to survive ecologically.

Since Diamond has now written two books on the centrality of Geography in human history, it's fair to say that there is a basic disagreement here. Dasgupta goes on to argue for his point of view:

The more important reason why Diamond’s rhetoric doesn’t play well any longer is that it presents only one side of the balance-sheet: it ignores the human benefits that accompany environmental damage.

Again, utterly dishonest. Diamond understands that point very well. His argument, made very clearly to anyone who has read the book carefully, is that it is exactly those benefits which propel societies to ignore the downside.

Dasgupta, again:

Here I should put my cards on the table. I am an economist who shares Diamond’s worries, but I think he has failed to grasp both the way in which information about particular states of affairs gets transmitted (however imperfectly) in modern decentralised economies – via economic signals such as prices, demand, product quality and migration – and the way increases in the scarcity of resources can itself act to spur innovations that ease those scarcities. Without a sympathetic understanding of economic mechanisms, it isn’t possible to offer advice on the interactions between nature and the human species.

Ah, the magic of the market. One reason, I think, that natural scientists have trouble taking economists seriously, is that they seem to imagine that they can pronounce sensibly on nature without knowing anything about it - from Marx to Lonborg. All this on the basis of a theory which every honest economist knows quite imperfectly captures its most fundamental substrate - human motivation and behavior.

Dasgupta is kind enough to explain how he thinks these issues ought to be analyzed:

If the future is translucent at best, what about studying the recent past to see how the human species has been doing? The question then arises: how should we recognise the trade-offs between a society’s present and future needs for goods and services? To put it another way, how should we conceptualise sustainable development? The Brundtland Commission Report of 1987 defined it as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. In other words, sustainable development requires that each generation bequeath to its successor at least as large a productive base as it inherited. But how is a generation to judge whether it is leaving behind an adequate productive base for its successor?

An economy’s productive base consists of its capital assets and its institutions. Ecological economists have recently shown that the correct measure of that base is wealth. They have shown, too, that in estimating wealth, not only is the value of manufactured assets to be included (buildings, machinery, roads), but also ‘human’ capital (knowledge, skills health), natural capital (ecosystems, minerals, fossil fuels), and institutions (government, civil society, the rule of law). So development is sustainable as long as an economy’s wealth relative to its population is maintained over time. Adjusting for changes in population size, economic development should be viewed as growth in wealth, not growth in GNP.

There is a big difference between the two. It is possible to enumerate many circumstances in which a nation’s GNP (per capita) increases over a period of time even as its wealth (per capita) declines. In broad terms, those circumstances involve growing markets in certain classes of goods and services (natural-resource intensive products), concomitantly with an absence of markets and collective policies for natural capital (ecosystem services). As global environmental problems frequently percolate down to create additional stresses on the local resource bases of the world’s poorest people, GNP growth in rich countries can inflict a downward pressure on the wealth of the poor.

A state of affairs in which GNP increases while wealth declines can’t last for ever. An economy that eats into its productive base in order to raise current production cannot do so indefinitely. Eventually, GNP, too, would have to decline, unless policies were to change so that wealth began to accumulate. That’s why it can be hopelessly misleading to use GNP per head as an index of human well-being. Recently the World Bank published estimates of the depreciation of a number of natural resources at the national level. If you were to use those data (and deploy some low cunning) to estimate changes in wealth per capita, you would discover that even though GNP per capita has increased in the Indian subcontinent over the past three decades, wealth per capita has declined somewhat. The decline has occurred because, relative to population growth, investment in manufactured capital, knowledge and skills, and improvements in institutions, have not compensated for the decline of natural capital. You would find that in sub-Saharan Africa both GNP per capita and wealth per capita have declined. You would also confirm that in the world’s poorest regions (Africa and the Indian subcontinent), those that have experienced higher population growth have also decumulated wealth per capita at a faster rate. And, finally, you would learn that the economies of China and the OECD countries, in contrast, have grown both in terms of GNP per capita and wealth per capita. These regions have more than substituted for the decline in natural capital by accumulating other types of capital assets and improving institutions. It seems that during the past three decades the rich world has enjoyed sustainable development, while development in the poor world (barring China) has been unsustainable.

These are early days in the quantitative study of sustainable development. Even so, one can argue that estimates of wealth movements in recent history are biased. As regards natural capital, the World Bank has so far limited itself to taking into account the atmosphere as a ‘sink’ for carbon dioxide; minerals, oil and natural gas; and forests as a source of timber. Among the many types of natural capital whose depreciation has not been included are fresh water; soil; forests, wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs as providers of ecosystem services; and the atmosphere as a sink for such forms of pollution as particulates and nitrogen and sulphur oxides. If these missing items were to be included, the poor world’s economic performance over the past three decades, including China’s, would undoubtedly look a lot worse. The same would be true for the rich world.

There are further reasons for thinking that the estimates of wealth changes that I have been referring to are biased. They have to do with the way prices are estimated for valuing natural capital. Empirical studies by earth scientists have revealed that the capacity of natural systems to absorb disturbances is not unlimited. When their absorptive capacities reach their limit, natural systems are liable to collapse into unproductive states. Their recovery is costly, both in time and material resources. If the Gulf Stream were to shift direction or slow down on account of global warming, the change would to all intents and purposes be irreversible. We know that up to some unknown set of limits, knowledge, skills, institutions and manufactured capital can substitute for nature’s resources; meaning that even if an economy decumulated some of its natural capital, in quantity or quality, its wealth would increase if it invested sufficiently in other assets. The remarkable increase in agricultural productivity over the past two centuries is a case in point. But there are limits to substitutability: the costs of substitution have been known to increase in previously unknown ways as key resources are degraded. Global warming is a case in point. When the downside risks associated with such limits and thresholds are brought into estimates of sustainable development, the growth in wealth among the world’s wealthy nations will in all probability turn out to have been less than present estimates would suggest. It may even have been negative.

What I have sketched here is the correct way to determine whether contemporary economic development has been sustainable. It is also the correct way to evaluate public policy, for it tells me that a policy should be accepted if and only if it is expected to lead to an increase in wealth per capita. But you won’t find any of this in Diamond’s book.

These few paragraphs, sparsely populated with ideas but rich in trite pieties, constitute the supposed nucleus of the book Dasgupta apparently thinks Diamond should have written.

All of Diamond's collapses represent market failures, broadly interpreted. Diamond seeks the clues for these failures in human biology, culture, and evolution, and, yes, in geography. These properly are economic questions as well as questions of biology and physics, but I see nothing in the history of economics and markets which suggests that economists are anywhere close to having a toolbox which sheds a lot of light on the critical issues.

We live in a world where some paint on canvas in a billionaire's office is worth more than an entire African nation's investment in elementary education. Tell us, if you will, Prof. D., how your theory of Capital is going to ensure optimal allocation of resources.

My Acceptance Speech

I would like to congratulate and thank the editors of Time for naming me as their Man of the Year. Flattered as I am, I'm still a bit startled that the editors were daring enough to make a choice that so exceeded even the banality, irrelevance, and lamentable lameness of their stupidest previous choice. This pick, I predict, will set a standard that even the redoubtable editors will have trouble matching in the future - if there is a future for Time magazine.

Check that. Maybe they could just save a lot of inane meeting time by making me the choice for every year: past, present, and future.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Worth Its (Iodized) Salt

For many of the world's people, a small deficiency in iodine makes a big difference in IQ. Using iodized salt is standard in advanced countries, but in many places is looked upon with suspicion. Iodizing salt is one of the simplest, cheapest (a bit over $1 per ton) and most effective public health measures available. This New York Times story by Doug G. McNeil, jr. has the details:

Valentina Sivryukova knew her public service messages were hitting the mark when she heard how one Kazakh schoolboy called another stupid. “What are you,” he sneered, “iodine-deficient or something?”

Some more excerpts:
Worldwide, about two billion people — a third of the globe — get too little iodine, including hundreds of millions in India and China. Studies show that iodine deficiency is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation. Even moderate deficiency, especially in pregnant women and infants, lowers intelligence by 10 to 15 I.Q. points, shaving incalculable potential off a nation’s development...

In the 1990s, when the campaign for iodization began, the world’s greatest concentration of iodine-deficient countries was in the landlocked former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

All of them — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrghzstan — saw their economies break down with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Across the region, only 28 percent of all households used iodized salt.

Naturally, there is resistance, usually on the basis of superstition or just because salt companies don't want to be bothered.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Educating America

The NYT and others are noting a new report on education reform. The study, by the National Commission on Education and the Economy, identifies some real deficiencies in our educational performance, and the threat that poses to our standard of living in the future. Other nations, with lower labor costs, are doing a better job of turning out well-trained students who are likely to take the best jobs away from many Americans.

They have a dozen or so proposals, ten of which are numbered, and some of which are probably even good ideas. Unfortunately, the overall product doesn't look very promising. They have only put their executive summary on the web (they want you to buy the report), but to me it looks like a mishmash of pius hopes and wishful thinking, larded with untested (and in my opinion, mostly stupid) right-wing social engineering: abolish teacher pensions, shuffle most kids out of school after tenth grade, privatize schools, create some funky kinds of private re-education savings plans.

Moreover, there is almost no discussion of the various problems and constraints that now hobble American education, and no discussion of how we could get "there" from here. Since much of the critique of American education comes from comparing results with the rest of the world, it is strikingly odd that instead of adopting the ideas that have worked well elsewhere and here, they are proposing mostly new, untested and in many cases, distinctly peculiar, approaches.

My gut reaction: the new American education system as designed by the people who brought you the space shuttle and the international space station.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


If you can keep your head
when all about you
are losing theirs,
You probably just don't
understand the gravity
of the situation

Iran's President Ahmadinejad held a little party for Holocaust deniers recently. the usual Nazis and eccentrics showed up, along with a few Orthodox Jews who don't deny the Holocaust but don't approve of Israel.

Which left me wondering about deniers in general. I don't for a minute believe that Ahmadinejad really doesn't believe the Holocaust happened. He is motivated by a different logic. He figures that Jews in general, and Israel in particular, have gotten way too much mileage out of the fact that Hitler singled them out as his special victims. He also wants to build credibility with the Israel hating Palestinian and Arab masses. Somewhat similar logic may apply to the David Dukes of the world.

Nonetheless, there are many real Holocaust deniers with no obvious political programs who really seem to believe their particular nut-baggery. I can't really fathom them, except to guess that some mental or emotional defect has separated them from reality.

The same kind of logic applies to other deniers, I think. The top rung of evolution deniers quite likely deny evolution as a matter of political strategy. The millions on the bottom don't understand or care about the evidence, but they cling to their lifeboat of religion.

Those who deny human induced global warming may be a more complex bunch. Once again, you have a collection of interests who find it politically and economically convenient to deny the evidence. There is a tiny pool of those who might be considered experts who align with the deniers - probably less than a score, worldwide. There is also a large pool of those with no special expertise - economists, petroleum geologists, statisticians, a stray physicist or two who are firmly in the denier camp. It's hard not to think that these people are delusional, but what is the source of their delusion? Religion or something like it? A stubborn contrariness? Or are they hoping for some financial or political gain from their allegiance? At the bottom again, are those whose lives are ruled by predjudice rather than fact or logic.

The big Kahuna of Deniers today is our President. As long as Don Rumsfeld was out there, looking and talking like someone's demented uncle recently escaped from the attic, Bush had a bit of cover. With Rumsfeld gone, Bush is increasingly alone with his delusion. It's pretty hard to escape the conclusion that his delusion, unlike Ahmadinejad's, is not motivated by strategy or political tactic, but expresses his fundamental disconnection from reality.

Now How *Did* That Ever Happen?

Josh Marshall:

President Bush, just now at the Pentagon (emphasis added): "I thank these men who wear our uniform for a very candid and fruitful discussion about how to secure this country and how to win a war that we now find ourselves in."

Why Not Hillary?

Because four Republican Presidents in a row has been enough (too d*** many).

Yes, I've heard that technically, Hillary is a Democrat. Ditto Bill. In terms of economics, though, both have practiced just a slightly less agressive version of the "Welfare for the Wealthy" policies of Reagan and Bush I.

Time for a Democrat from the Democratic Wing of the Democratic party.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Scary Movie

It seems that our good friend Lubosh Motl is the protagonist of Martin Scorcese's new "stringsta" movie String King's. Boasting a big budget and a star studded cast, this important new movie has almost all the ingredients for Oscar contention, except for being, quite unfortunately, apparently imaginary. Sean Carroll has "Steve's" review over a Cosmic Variance. Excerpts below:

The “String Kings”, Scorsese’s latest, is a highly violent but satisfying gangster movie, certainly on a par with Goodfellas or the Godfather trilogy, and does give the viewer insights into the raw and violent world of fundamental string theory research. The film also boasts a first-rate Hollywood cast: Joe Pesci as Michael “Mo “Green; Burt Young as John Schwarz; Antonio Banderas as the hot-bloodied Juan Maldacena, who is as fast with a flicknife as he is with an ADS duality; Leonardo deCaprio as Lubos “The Kid” Motl; Robert de Niro as Tom Banks; Harvey Keitel as Joe “the (quantum) Mechanic” Polchinski, Michael Douglas as Michael Douglas; Amanda Peet as Amanda Peet, Terrence Stamp as Lenny Susskind, Jackie Chan as Michio Kaku, Samuel L Jackson as Clifford V. Johnson and Eugene Levy as “Boss of Bosses” Ed Witten. The film is characterised by some extreme and gratuitous violence and is not for the mathematically squeamish, but this is to be expected considering the subject matter.

Most of the casting is impeccable, but diCaprio? He's a good actor, but does he have the gravitas, or for that matter, the levitas, to carry this kind of part. What was really needed here was clearly a young Al Pacino or Jonny Depp.

In the film, Lubos Motl becomes involved with the string mafia at a young age. As he says in the film, “I always wanted to become a string theorist”. As an undergraduate he idolises the string theory gangsters in the US and eagerly studies every page of GSW, Vols. I and II. ... Upon getting his Phd he moves to Harvard and gets to rub shoulders with some of the “made guys” within the east-coast string underworld. Ruthless and violent and described as “perturbatively unstable” he quickly establishes his reputation. From his Harvard base he helps the mob take over local bars, clubs, businesses, casinos, hotels, libraries, graduate schools and journal editorial boards. ...

However, at this time the FBI also begin to keep a close watch…

Perhaps the most violent scenes in the film follow when “Boss of Bosses” Ed Witten, from a huge luxury mansion in Princeton NJ, calmly gives the order for a long list of people to be “taken out” (spoiler alert). In a chilling sequence, the film repeatedly cuts between the increasingly violent mob hits and Ed giving a seminar on the twistor space structure of 1-loop amplitudes in gauge theory. Lee Smolin is seen shot multiple times in the back as he writes LQG constraint equations on a blackboard. There is a scene showing work on an extension of the New Jersey turnpike, involving string henchmen (disguised with hard hats and overalls) a large cement truck and Peter Woit. ....

Overall, String Kings will appeal to fans fo the gangster genre and despite the ending will probably still become a Scorsese classic.

Maybe a bit more Scarface than Goodfellas.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Assassination, FSB Style

Some person or persons unknown, sometimes referred to as Pootie-Poot (reputedly the Russian equivalent of John Doe), sent one or two FSB assassins from Moscow to London. Along the way, one stopped in Germany, leaving a trail of Polonium 210 along the way. In London, the assassin somehow slipped some Polonium 210 into Litvinenko's food, probably managing to inhale a fatal or near fatal dose himself at the same time. Now he is back in Moscow, in the hospital, and incommunicado.

So goes the current popular theory. It would be hard to make this stuff up.

To the Moon, Alice

OK, now I'm worried. Gregg Easterbrook is writing on science, a scary enough prospect in itself, and I'm agreeing with him! He doesn't like NASA's plan, or should we call it a "vision," of creating a permanent Moon base. This plan is inspired, no doubt, by the fabulous success of it's space shuttle and manned space station, the funding of which sucked up the money planned for the Superconducting Super Collider and about ten times as much more as well. About the next stupidity:

The United States will have a permanent base on the moon by the year 2024, NASA officials said on Monday. What does the space agency hope to discover on the moon? The reason it built the base.

Coming under a presidency whose slogan might be "No Price Too High To Accomplish Nothing," the idea of a permanent, crewed moon base nevertheless takes the cake for preposterousness. Although, of course, the base could yield a great discovery, its scientific value is likely to be small while its price is extremely high. Worse, moon-base nonsense may for decades divert NASA resources from the agency's legitimate missions, draining funding from real needs in order to construct human history's silliest white elephant.

What's it for? Good luck answering that question. There is scientific research to be done on the moon, but this could be accomplished by automatic probes or occasional astronaut visits at a minute fraction of the cost of a permanent, crewed facility. Astronauts at a moon base will spend almost all their time keeping themselves alive and monitoring automated equipment, the latter task doable from an office building in Houston. In deadpan style, the New York Times story on the NASA announcement declared, "The lunar base is part of a larger effort to develop an international exploration strategy, one that explains why and how humans are returning to the moon and what they plan to do when they get there." Oh–so we'll build the moon base first, and then try to figure out why we built it.

The main lessons learned from the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station are:
1) It's hard to live in space.

2) Going there is a good way to get killed.

3) Fabulous sums can thus be funnelled to aerospace corporations.

I think it's safe to say that Bush's Excellent Lunar Adventure could easily consume quite a bit more than the $200 billion or so so far spent on the space station - shuttle disaster (Easterbrook says $300 billion, minimum, but that looks lowball to me). The same amount of money spent on basic physics and space science could fund rovers and obiters for Mars, the Moon, and Titan, plus several more generations of particle colliders, space and ground based telescopes for exploring other solar systems and the cosmos, and gravitational wave detectors. Instead, this program, if attempted, will cannabalize all those programs just as the Shuttle & ISP did before.

Gregg, has his own ideas for what NASA should do, and they aren't crazy. He doesn't often write intelligently on science, but he did this time. Mild mannered and unaccoustomed to ranting, myself, I can only report his final senstence without other comment:
With public-good space needs unmet and the enunciation of a moon-base plan that will waste colossal sums of public money, agency director Michael Griffin has simply raised NASA's middle finger to the taxpayer.

Did I promise not to comment? Sorry about that. I expect that the fingers involved are really Karl Rove's rather than Griffin's.

UPDATE: Hmmm. How embarassing. It seems Sean Carroll published an identically titled piece on the same subject about a week earlier.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Juan Cole

Juan Cole is always invaluable reading on Iraq. Today he notes that Sarah Shields argument that Iraq is not so much having a civil war as suffering the consequences of the US having destroyed the elements of a functioning state does not rule out that Iraq is still having a civil war.

About those weapons with which we equip the Iraqi Army: A lot of them get sold to the insurgents and militias. This is no surprise. The same thing happened in Vietnam and was widely predicted by those with long memories.

Otherwise, Bush appears to remain a space cadet. Can we survive two more years?

The Times They are a Wasting....

My Appearance on Meet The Press

After inteviews with Baker and Hamilton of the ISG, little Russ had Tom Ricks of the NYT and three idiots with PhDs on to talk about Iraq. Tom didn't say much. Richard Haase of the Council on Foreign Relations was mainly concerned that we blame the debacle on the Iraqis.

The two main talkers were Eliot Cohen, who had attacked the ISG report in the Wall Street Journal, and Ken "Iraq will be a Cakewalk" Adelman. I formed an immediate dislike for Cohen based on my irrational hatred of bow ties. Come to think of it, Bill Kristol and George Will wear or wore bow ties. Let me revise and extend. I formed an immediate dislike for Cohen based on my well-founded hatred of bow ties. I also seem to recall that he was one of the promoters of this idiotic enterprise.

Nobody had any good ideas, but Cohen managed to mollify me a bit by pointing out the criminality of the fact that our soldiers are still riding and dying in those stupid up-armored Humvees when far more suitable vehicles are available.

I was there too, by the way. They didn't ask me any questions, and I was mostly off-camera, but when Ken f****** Adelman started talking about all the administration's mistakes, Ken the a****** who promoted this war, Ken the PhD who should have known what GWB and Rummy were, I snapped.

I jumped up and pulled his sports jacket over his head, jerked him out of his chair, and started kicking his butt around the room. Eventually Tom, Tim, and two bouncers from a weekday talk show managed to wrestle me off camera. It was fabulous television, but somehow I don't expect to be invited back.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Presidential Preferences

I have been looking over the likely suspects for 2008, and my reaction is mostly yetch. The rundown.

John McCain: Straight talking war hero McCain turned out to be politically inconvenient. He has spent the last year cozying up to and hiring every scumbag in the Republican Party. He is pro-victory in Iraq, whatever the hell that means, but not in any realistic way. He just wants to keep sending American soldiers into the meat grinder to kick this can down the road. PROSPECTS: +4 RATING: -4

Rudy Giuliani: Serial adulterer with many wives, too liberal for the Republican Party, too crooked for the country, and a real jerk. I can hope that he has no chance in the primaries. PROSPECTS: +1 RATING: -3

Sam Brownback: Seems to be an honest man. Way too conservative for me. PROSPECTS: +2 RATING: +0

Mitt Romney: I don't know much bad about him. Too liberal and too Mormon for the evangelicals. He's from Massachusetts for cripes sake. PROSPECTS: -1 RATING: +1.

Newt Gingrich: Another guy with an adultry problem. A disgusting human being and filthy hypocrite, but smarter than the average Republican. PROSPECTS: +1 RATING: -2

Hillary Clinton: I don't like her and I don't like dynasties. A lot of people agree with the former. The best thing I can say about her is that she's married to Bill Clinton. The worst thing I can say about her is that she's married to .... you get the idea. PROSPECTS: +4 RATING: +1

Barack Obama: I like him, or at least I used to before he starting running for President. Seems like a smart young guy, but he is way, way too green. PROSPECTS: +3 RATING: +1

Bill Richardson: My Governor. He has by far the best resume of any candidate now running: Experience as governor, congressman, cabinet member, and high level diplomat. Negatives: He's governor of a State most Americans don't even know we have, and he's made some enemies. PROSPECTS: +1 RATING: +4

John F****** Kerry: Puulleeeze! PROSPECTS: -5 RATING: -2

John Edwards: He tends to get old fast. PROSPECTS: +1 RATING: +3

Al Gore: The mystery candidate. A proven loser, but there are, it seems, second acts in American politics. PROSPECTS: +2 RATING: +4

The rest of the thundering herd: PROSPECTS: Not good. RATING: Who knows?

Predictions 06: Preliminary Look & More

It's still a bit early to evaluate my Predictions for 2006, but a preliminary review suggests that my best prediction was the one about my limitations as a prophet. I would now like to add a few more, just to improve my percentage:

1) Time magazine will make some really lame pick for "Man of the Year," but the record inanity insanity achieved by their Rudy Giuliani pick will not be broken. My shallow but obvious pick: The Angry American Voter.

2) President Bush will make a series of decisive moves to turn around the situation in Iraq, and forcefully articulate a comprehensive and comprehensible policy in the Middle East.

3) Circumstances will continue to be more like they are now than they have been in the past, but will be less like they are now than they are likely to be in the future.

4) I will continue to buy more mathematics books than I can understand.

OK, number two was a joke. But sometimes fantasy is a necessary ingredient for sanity.

Friday, December 08, 2006


There are two big problems in Iraq: no security and no economy. We don't have the troops to supply security in the short run and Iraqi troops won't do the job. That's why people join and support militias.

We should sponsor strictly local defensive militias. Let locals lead them but we would pay them. If they leave their area of attack other groups (or us) we stop their pay and smash them.

Every Iraqi who wants to work should have a local job, in his own neighborhood, protected by his neighbors in his neighborhood militia. Making Iraq a giant welfare state, or rather putting all the Iraqis on our payroll, might be the only way to save it. The direction and purpose of the work should be purely local and purely for Iraq - fixing streets and sewers, etc. That might help take the sting our of getting paid by the Americans.

Yet another idea that could have worked once. Could it still?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Victory Strategy

Now that the Iraq Study Committee has announced a strategy that has only a minute chance of success (in contrast to the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld strategy that has zero chance of success), the usual suspects are all over the tube wondering why a power that was able to play a key role in defeating Japan and Germany can't win against a two-bit insurgency. The answer is that we can win, not at all easily, if we are willing to make a World War II type committment.

That means putting the country on a war footing. Expand the military by 500,000 to 1,000,000. This would require a draft, or, preferably, large pay increases - say a 50% increase with double pay for combat tours. Double the taxes on high incomes (the rate was 91% in WW II). Equip and train an army for counterinsurgency, including replacing all the up-armored Humvees with armored V-bottorm vehicles. Make sure every soldier deployed to Iraq has at least eight weeks of counterinsurgency and language skills training.

Tell the Iraqis that they have sixth months to establish order, after which we will begin our "do over." If it comes to that, replace the elected government with a miltary governor. Ruthlessly suppress all militias. Give every Iraqi a local job and an income. Get the para-military contractors out of Iraq. Organize security on a block by block and village by village basis.

Sacrifices at home would be required. Luxury taxes. Quotas. A gasoline tax.

It's easy to talk about having the will for victory, but that will is a won't without the willingness to make the real and serious sacrifices concerned. I don't think we do have that will, and I doubt that we should undertake such a project. On the other hand, things are now at such a sorry pass that regardless of what we do we might be sucked into just such a war. Some combination of diplomacy and threat is probably the only alternative.

I think we need to try those ISG type recommendations, and if they fail, get the heck out, hope for the best, and prepare for a real war that may well come.

"Grave and Deteriorating"

The Iraq study group finds that the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating." This is not good news, and not a surprise, but still a welcome bit of reality after years of lies and nonsense. The report is a surprising quick read and filled with interesting facts. Crucially, it notes that Bush's plan, if it could be called that, was flawed and not working.

The recommendations of the ISG owe more to hope than certainty, and the obstacles to anything that might be called success look horrendous, but at least there is now some recognition of reality.

In another front on the war on fantasy, Steven Colbert had a nice explanation of how the Senate so rapidly confirmed Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. They had only one question, he said: are you, or have you ever been, Donald Rumsfeld? The answer, plus a photo ID, was sufficient.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Gates: Not Winning

From the New York Times article by David S. Cloud and Mark Mazetti.

Robert M. Gates, President Bush’s nominee to be defense secretary, won unanimous approval today from a Senate panel after testifying that the United States was not winning in Iraq and that American failure there could ignite “a regional conflagration” in the Middle East.

Not winning in Iraq. Not that that is news to anyone with a functioning brain stem, but still such a shock to hear someone uttering the obvious truth. It actually seemed to lift a little weight from my shoulders to see this one tiny pinprick of truth in Bush's vast cloud of lie and fantasy. No doubt the Senate panel felt the same.

Monday, December 04, 2006

RC Busted!

OK, so the headline is mainly a joke. Gavin Schmidt at Real Climate has reported that The Sky is Falling, or in rather less alarmist terms, that the stratosphere is cooling. Models predict it and measurements confirm it.

Inquiring minds, in the comments section, wanted a simple explanation for why. I've had a crack at this before, and Eli Rabett took me to task for my explanation. Instead, he offered this version from Professor Uherik, which he, Gavin, and most of the RC crowd seem to like. I don't buy it.

The picture, Uherik's figure 3, depicts the atmospheric cooling versus height and wavenumber. The dotted line is the tropopause. The light blue color represents regions of the height-wavenumber space where no net radiative cooling or heating is taking place. The colors to the right show how much or how little radiative cooling takes place, with green representing a lot and gray meaning that net radiative heating is taking place.

At 250 cm^(-1) for example, the region near the surface is light blue because radiation absorbed and emitted are in balance. Higher up, in the same spectral region the radiation decouples from the matter for lack of water molecules, and is lost to space. At 670, it's light blue from surface to the tropopause, because at the center of the CO2 band we are in thermal equilibrium all the way up.

The following sentence from Uherik seems to be at least seriously misleading if not outright bogus: If this [CO2 in the troposphere] absorption is really strong, the greenhouse gas blocks most of the outgoing infra-red radiation close to the Earth's surface.

HUMILIATING CONCESSION UPDATE (with quibble): The CO2 in the troposphere does a lot of blocking once the concentration reaches about 1/4 of the present level. Additional blockage due to additional CO2 at present concentration levels is purely on the wings of the 670 cm^(-1) band.

No frequency makes much of a *net* contribution until the sky above it is largely transparent, which doesn't happen for CO2 band center until you reach the stratosphere.

670 cm^(-1) is near the center of the strong CO2 absorption band. Notice that for that region, the atmosphere is light blue to the tropopause and beyond. That is emphatically not because it isn't radiating - it's radiating very strongly - but the downward flux of radiation from above is in balance with the upward flux at each level until well up into the stratosphere. Eventually the CO2 thins out enough so that it can start losing radiation to space (the colored regions above 18 km and on up well into the mesosphere.

It's wrong to say that more CO2 in the atmosphere limits the amount of thermal radiative transport into the troposphere - there really isn't any such net transport - not at any CO2 levels comparable to the present. The cooling effect of CO2 on the stratosphere is due almost entirely to the additional CO2 in the stratosphere making it a better radiator.

UPDATE: After study, meditation, and a couple of furry rodent lagomorph administered beat downs, I'm forced to admit that there is an element of bogusiosity in my argument. Adding CO2 to the troposphere does decrease the CO2 reaching the stratosphere, albeit only on the wings of the CO2 band, and it's really a logarithmic effect overall. I would further offer that since the additional emissivity in the stratosphere is almost a linear effect, and since the less pressure broadened stratospheric CO2 is not particularly sensitive to the far wings of CO2 emission, the stratospheric CO2 effect seems more likely to be primary. But I can't actually do the arithmetic.

PS - About the beat downs. I would have dropped that rodent lagomorph like a bag of bunny fur if that damn crazy bird of his hadn't kept nipping at my liver.

PPS - In compensation, he did give me this pretty MODTRAN pony. It's really cool. Now I want ones for Venus, Mars, and Titan.

Lowminded Fun: Bowdlerized Edition

Setup: Fan's are reminded of celebrity's marketing campaign for a clothing line. A link is provided.

Transition: Fan's are advised to get theirs since ...

Punchline: Celebrity appears to have made the clothing choice of Archie, pg. 84 of the paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and hence no longer wears the marketed items. Link to story and evidence is provided.

I thought the original might have been slightly funnier.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter was on Meet the Press today flogging his new book: Peace not Apartheid. At least I think that was the title. He argues that the core of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the desire of a few Israeli's for Palestinian land - and that the US and Israeli government are treating the Palestinians badly. He also says that while these issues are debated passionately in Israel, they are almost invisible in the US.

Since the Lebanese war, it's almost impossible for me to feel any optimism about the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. I suspect that Jimmy Carter will get a lot of heat for his ideas, but he is one of the few who ever did accomplish anything in the Middle East, so maybe he's worth a listen.

The alternative seems likely to be endless war, or war until one side or the other is exterminated.


Contrary to what you may have read here and elsewhere, it seems that Polonium 210 is not exactly hard to get, at least according to William J Broad in this article in today's New York Times. This complicates the story, to say the least:

The complicating factor is the relative ubiquity of polonium 210, the highly radioactive substance found in Mr. Litvinenko’s body and now in high levels in the body of an Italian associate, who has been hospitalized in London. Experts initially called it quite rare, with some claiming that only the Kremlin had the wherewithal to administer a lethal dose. But public and private inquiries have shown that it proliferated quite widely during the nuclear era, of late as an industrial commodity.

“You can get it all over the place,” said William Happer, a physicist at Princeton who has advised the United States government on nuclear forensics. “And it’s a terrible way to go.”

Today, polonium 210 can show up in everything from atom bombs, to antistatic brushes to cigarette smoke, though in the last case only minute quantities are involved. Iran made relatively large amounts of polonium 210 in what some experts call a secret effort to develop nuclear arms, and North Korea probably used it to trigger its recent nuclear blast.

That last sentence ought to make us a bit nervous. It seems that the "axis of evil" already has plent of nuclear weapons, not even counting nuclear bombs.

Some industrial anti-static devices reputedly contain as much as ten lethal doses. It maight take some chemical sophistication to remove it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


I produce rather more articles than I actually post. Sometimes I say to myself that this post is too lame, too offensive, or otherwise worthless. No doubt I don't hold back often enough. I've decided to save my scathing attack on Blair's cabinet for another day. Maybe they will wind up doing the right thing in the Litvinenko affair, but early signs are not encouraging:

Amid signs that his death could cause a diplomatic row, Tony Blair concluded the cabinet meeting by saying “the most important issue” was likely to be Britain’s long-term relationship with Moscow.

Another minister present said: “It caused some alarm that this case is obviously causing tension with the Russians. They are too important for us to fall out with them over this.”

Snowflakes Keep Falling on My Head

Rummy picks up a clue, as shown by this late memo published in the NYT.

Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working ...

Some of his ideas might have made sense, if tried two or three years ago. Some excerpts:
¶Initiate a reverse embeds program, like the Korean Katusas, by putting one or more Iraqi soldiers with every U.S. and possibly Coalition squad, to improve our units’ language capabilities and cultural awareness and to give the Iraqis experience and training with professional U.S. troops.

¶Retain high-end SOF capability and necessary support structure to target Al Qaeda, death squads, and Iranians in Iraq, while drawing down all other Coalition forces, except those necessary to provide certain key enablers for the ISF.

¶Initiate an approach where U.S. forces provide security only for those provinces or cities that openly request U.S. help and that actively cooperate, with the stipulation being that unless they cooperate fully, U.S. forces would leave their province.
¶Withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions — cities, patrolling, etc. — and move U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance.

¶Begin modest withdrawals of U.S. and Coalition forces (start “taking our hand off the bicycle seat”), so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country.

¶Provide money to key political and religious leaders (as Saddam Hussein did), to get them to help us get through this difficult period.

¶Initiate a massive program for unemployed youth. It would have to be run by U.S. forces, since no other organization could do it.

The last one would have been a good idea right after the invasion. It's almost certainly impossible now, though it might still make sense to try, starting in provinces that are relatively stable.

Advice, said Gildor, is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise. From the foolish to the moronic, it's probably just useless. Besides, Bush and Cheney are already plotting to build the Death Star.