Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Down Beat Climate Beat Down

I made the mistake of watching Larry King tonight. It's not like I didn't know better. I knew that nothing good can come from watching Larry King, but they were debating global warming and I got sucked into the vortex.

Debate is a game of matchups, and the first pairing didn't look promising. Wearing the black hat was our good buddy Richard Lindzen, while cast as his opponent was Bill Nye, the science guy. It was, as I feared, pretty much Jack the Ripper versus Mr. Rodgers. Whatever Bill's merits as a science popularizer, his command of rhetoric looked even worse than his command of climate science. Lindzen gutted him like a fish.

Next came the battling politicos: Barbara Boxer vs. James Inhofe. Now I knew that Inhofe was no brain surgeon, but he did have his AEI talking points down. Boxer, on the other hand, did a highly convincing immitation of a witless bimbo speaking meaningless platitudes.

I knew that the situation was hopeless, but by this time I was pretty much stunned myself. Some obscure economist was trotted out to explain how useful a rise of a degree or two F might be, and in supposed response, a TV weather guy allowed as he couldn't predict the weather five days ahead.

Inhofe claimed, and Lindzen agreed, that the IPCC summary was written by politicians and environmentalists not scientists. I don't know if that is true, but it was an effective claim, and nobody disputed it.

Lindzen's most telling point was his argument that whatever the truth of global warming, no action to address it had been seriously proposed that was likely to have more than symbolic effectiveness. This was also unchallenged, and I suspect, likely quite true.

If you're willing to play a little fast and loose with the facts, of course, it's a huge advantage - especially if your opponent don't know enough to correct you.

I know there are climate guys who could give a better account of themselves than our hopeless champions, so why weren't they there? Is nobody out their volunteering for this kind of gig or was Larry just making a little Colmes vs Hannity play?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Road to Iran

Many indicators are out there that Bush is itching to attack Iran. Josh Marshall speculates about how he plans to manage to conjure up a pretext:

As the saying goes, if it didn't exist, you'd have to invent it.

So with that in mind, let's do a little prospective journalism. When the bogus 'Iran incident' happens that becomes the predicate for a military attack on Iran, what will it look like? Let's try to sketch it out in advance. Will it be a real incident in Iraq for which the Iranians are blamed? Or will it be a complete bogus incident, something that never happened, that they're blamed for? Will we receive the news in manufactured evidence? Or will it all come through unnamed leaks and Richard Perle appearances on CNN?

Drudge and NBC are apparently already on the case:

NBC NEWS confirms a secret U.S. military report that says 'Iranian Agents' may be behind a deadly ambush in Karbala, Iraq that left five American soldiers dead. The report also claims the Iranian revolutionary guard is providing intelligence on U.S. and Iraqi military to Shiite extremists, in addition to sophisticated weaponry. Developing...

How likely is this report to be bogus? We have seen the Bush and Cheney lies so often, I discount anything coming from them. One or a few incidents that "may be" Iran sponsored don't look like convincing evidence to me. Remember, the same groups that got us into Iraq still want us to take down Iran.

If the insurgents do get late model Russian anti-aircraft missiles (SA-16 and SA-18) from Iran, we will likely see Blackhawks raining from the sky. I don't think Iran wants war, and I don't think they are going to give the insurgents this kind of help.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Going Dark

The Hubble space telescope lost a key capalility recently.

The Hubble Space Telescope is flying partially blind across the heavens because of a short circuit in its most popular instrument, the advanced camera for surveys.

The story indicates that the capability was lost permanently, but this quote seems to indicate that a new camera being installed by an upcoming spacewalk could repace some of the functionality.

Adam Riess of space telescope institute, who has used Hubble to search for supernova explosions in the distant universe in order to gauge the effects of dark energy on cosmic history, said these explosions would now be out of reach until the new camera was installed.


I occasionally marvel at the credulousness of my fellow citizens. An older conservative friend of mine sometimes spams me with right wing emails. One of them was the "Obama madrassa" lie. Another was some two or three year old White House press release about how many schools had been painted in Iraq, etc., etc.

What planet have the people who read and believe this crap been living on? It still astounds me. Even a liberal and anti-war friend of mine wondered aloud about why were the Iraqis so crazy with hate for each other.

It had never occurred to him, I guess, that Iraq wasn't like that under Saddam or before Saddam. Shia were treated badly by Saddam, but they lived among the Sunni and intermarried with them. The civil war in Iraq today is almost purely Bush's creation - his creation and the creation of Rumsfeld and his clueless generals.

There are still those out there who argue that Bush deserves another chance in Iraq - another chance to spend the lives of our soldiers to maintain a bit longer the fiction that he hasn't lost the war. Haven't they noticed that everything Bush, Cheney, and Rice have said has been proved a lie? Haven't they noticed that neither the military, the country, nor the congress believe that the latest plan has a chance. Now that the American Enterprise Institute and Fred Kagan, the original proponent of the surge have disowned the plan, the only two people backing in in Washington are the two biggest screwups to ever reach the top of the American government.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Now that I have once again updated the Wolfgang's blog link, I expect that he will abandon his blog and start a new one ;)

Maybe he is trying to tell me something.

UPDATE: OK, I have now replaced the [formerly] self-referential link above with one to WB's blog.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

String Theory: BBS, the Review

Walking around on college campuses, do you find yourself looking at the impressively ripped guns of the medical students with envy or admiration? Or thinking: Hey, they're med students, when do they have time to work out? They don't of course. Those biceps come from packing around and reading Weinstein et. al.'s Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology (5 lbs.) and similar weighty medical tomes.

You could do the same, of course, but maybe you don't want to spring for the $315, or maybe you think it's creepy carrying around a book on stomachs and snakes (or is it molluscs and livers?). There is another option now, a stylish and fashionable accessory that you can carry with pride, attracting the admiration of friends and tantalyzing the opposite sex, while still firming and defining those guns. And it's only eighty bucks. At four pounds, it has nearly the throw weight of those medical monstrosities without the unsightly and inconvenient bulk.

I'm talking, of course, about the new String Theory and M-Theory: A Modern Introduction by Katrin and Melanie Becker and John Schwarz.

What's the most important thing about a book? Let's start with the fundamentals: It has got to look good - look good in your hand, on the coffee table, or even on the bookshelf. A few old fogies, like your humble correspondent, may wax nostalgic about the once fashionable plain navy cloth book with gold lettering, but please! That day is dead and gone. Now, of course, a colorful plastic with an artisticially pleasing cover design is a must. BBS doesn't dissappoint. A stylish design in oranges, yellows and greens features abstractly stringy objects and geometries on the red, black, and gold Cambridge University Press background. It's even a family project: the cover painting is by the Becker sisters' mother, Ingrid Becker.

Looks are good, of course, but the rubber meets the road in performance. How does the new kid on the block stack up in that regard? Let's look at the stats:

Acceleration: 0 to 62 in 18.9 seconds. Not mind blowingly impressive, maybe, but I need a new car.

Maximum Speed: 600 km/s (as measured with respect to the local co-moving frame as determined from the cosmic microwave backgound. Take that Corvette!)

Displacement: The modest displacement of roughly 2.0 liters combines with a curb weight of 3.98 lbs to yield a truly impressive power to weight ratio.

Cornering: Eight, all right angled.

Exterior ballistics, range (shot put throw): 46 feet, or a bit further than I could throw a 16 lb shotput in high school.

Exterior ballistics, range (discus style throw): 35 feet, but the pages flapped.

Exterior ballistics, range (discus style throw, rubber band around book): 61 feet.

Terminal ballistics, penetration .22 caliber: To page 39, from the back.

Terminal ballistics, penetration, 50 caliber armor piercing incendiary round: Complete penetration, however book failed to ignite. The six copies of Wolfram's A New Kind of Science used as a backstop all did, however.

What about the content, you may ask? Oh that!

Well I have read the first Chapter, and it is a very nice essay, outlining much of modern string theory. Not completely without a tad of defensiveness, perhaps, as where it is rather snippily commented:

Some physicists believe that pertubative renormalizability is not a fundamental requirement to "quantize" pure general relativity despite its nonrenormalizability. Loop quantum gravity is an example of this approach. Whatever one thinks of the logic, it is fair to say that despite a considerable amount of effort such attempts have not yet been very fruitful.
..............(pg. 2 footnote)

The rest of the book has got to be good as well. Luboš Motl was one of the proofreaders.

Disclaimer: Despite what you may have read above, no actual books were harmed in the course of this review, except by Amazon/Airborne Home, who put a nasty dent in one of the covers.

I haven't seen a real review yet, but Lumo has some brief comments.

Update: I have corrected the references to "interior ballistics" to "terminal ballistics" in order to make it less obvious that I am talking through my hat.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Officials catch 761 illegals ...

in Los Angeles... screams the Drudge headline. How does the joke go? Imagine how many they could have caught if they had searched a second apartment?

There is a farcical aspect to such stories, and even to the purported punchline. Despite the inconvenience to their employers and the sometimes calamitous effect on those caught, these raids are mainly PR stunts. There are probably well over a million illegal aliens in Los Angeles alone, so while the raids can spread fear and distress, they don't really do anything to affect the overall situation.

Any serious attempt to stop illegal immigration needs to start with stiff sanctions for employers, and that is impractical without some kind of hard to forge social security card.

My guess is that we are unlikely to see much realistic immigration reform anytime soon. Too many people have too much of a stake in cheap illegal immigrant labor, and the present system, with illegals kept illegal, scared, and cheap, suits them just fine. The other problem is that even the best intentioned solutions are likely to fail. Any sudden cutoff in the supply will destroy thousands of businesses, and guest worker programs, much tried in Europe, breed many evils of their own.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

State of the Union

There is no doubt that Bush has improved as a public speaker - and not just a little. Missing from the SOTU were the maddening mannerisms and little acts of vilolence angaist the English language that we have come to expect - unless you count the point where he spoiled a gracious gesture of reconciliation by referring to the "Democrat" Party. Perhaps this reflects greater resolution or intellectual independence on his part, or maybe just practice, but it is encouraging.

Notwithstanding, the sense that we had heard these promises before - bipartizanship, energy independence, and so on, hung over the whole thing like a drunk's promise of never again. Nor were we given any reason to believe that giving him one last chance in Iraq would lead to a different outcome this time.

Once again, on the question of Iraq, I had the feeling that the President was still operating in a fantasy world of white hats and black hats and no trouble telling them apart.

By contrast, Jim Webb's brief Democratic response was economical, eloquent, and pointed. Those points were just two in number: that the country should return to the vision of Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt of a prosperity that benefitted all, not just the wealthy, and that in committing American soldiers to war, the leaders were obliged to do so with a caution and a judgement appropriate to the heavy burden being asked of those soldiers. Bush's conspicuous failure on both points was unstated but obvious - while Webb's alternative was an outlined reminder of the advantages of having a professional writer speaking his own thoughts.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Fingernails on Chalkboard

Those of us old enough to remember the hellish sound produced by the title action, can find a certain resonance in Luboš Motl's continual (literally) references to the supposed costs of the Kyoto protocol. I say continual, since not only does he frequently post on the topic, but he also runs a little clock-like widget on his blog displaying the supposed costs and minimal benefits of protocols never adopted or implemented.

His usual modus operandi is to treat these numbers as some sort of given and then give a long list of supposed benefits that the same investment could have purchased.

Because most people don't really "feel in bones" how much is 300 billion dollars that the world has wasted for carbon indulgences in the last two years - it looks like "some number" - let me translate the number to plain English. We could have paid for either of the following projects:

Twenty million luxury cars. Each new college student in the developed world could have received a new Chrysler 300 as a gift...

Tens of millions of houses in cheap markets or millions of houses in the most expensive markets: homelessness in the whole developed world, to say the least, could probably have been moved into history textbooks (there are about 1 million of homeless people in the U.S. only)...

Three billion of $100 MIT laptops, more than one for each family in the world....

And so on to profound tedium.

A question for you Lumo: Given that the US and a few other countries never adopted the protocol, and that nobody else has bothered to implement it, what happened to all that cool stuff you promised? I have a son in college, where is his car? Why are there still homeless people and people without laptops?

Luboš knows all this, of course. He knows that the numbers are bogus and based on conjectured events that never occurred. He even admits it. He is diligently trying to be a good right wing nutbag, though, telling the lies his audience want to hear, and doing his best to annoy the hell out of everyone else.

More seriously though, everyone knows that there are short and medium term costs for any serious attempt to control CO2 emissions. Incurring such costs would make no sense unless the long term costs of doing nothing were far higher. The recent Stern review was an attempt to make a sober assessment of those costs and benefits - a widely derided attempt (see Lumo's post here and links therin), to be sure, but a serious attempt, nonetheless. Such attempts make infinitely more sense than the meaningless chalk board scrapings of certain global warming deniers, so, quite naturally, Lumo thinks that anyone who tries to make such an assessment should be jailed.

I have said before that I don't think that human caused global warming is the most pressing ecological problem that we face. Habitat destruction and overpopulation are more serious, more pressing, and moreover, major contributors to global warming. I could be wrong about this, and will be if global warming turns out to be catastrophic.

In the meantime, I think various carbon taxes still make sense. Governments need to raise money, and carbon taxes are not especially likely to adversely affect economic growth more than other taxes. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that our heavy dependence on foreign oil is already very costly to the US. The net cost of our various operations in the Middle East over the past 60 years is surely in the trillions, none of which would have been worth spending if we were not dependent on Middle East oil.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Libertarians Fight Back

I haven't whacked away at libertarians for a bit, but JT has just today commented on an ancient post of mine - a couple of blog years or so ago, so this gives me an excuse to repeat myself. First - my post:

Anti-Libertarian: re-post
The most pointed critique of social security and liberalism in general is the libertarian critique. The problem with libertarians, for a liberal, is that we have too much in common. We both believe in individual rights, tolerance of individual differences, and dislike government prescription of religion. The basic difference, it seems to me, is the different answers we give to Cain's (with thanks to the Captain - my original version had the corpse asking the question!) famous question: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

That's not really my basic bitch against the libertarians though. My real complaint is the same as my complaint against most religion - its premise is a fraud. For those who can't stand to wait for the punchline, I believe that trying to implement libertarian principles leads to tyranny or social disintegration. Demonstrating that takes some historical (and pre-historical) context.

For all but the last 15,000 or so of the 100,000 years the human species has existed, all humans lived in a sort of libertarian paradise - no government, no organized religion, and few social constraints on behavior. A few lived that way until very recently. In many places people were able to achieve a kind of equilibrium with their environment, with population naturally controlled through homicide, infanticide, and starvation.

Clearly, humans are well adapted to that kind of life, so its no wonder libertarians would like to recapture that. The catch - there's always a catch - is that they don't want to give up the comforts of civilization.

Hobbes and Jefferson had somewhat different ideas about the proper role of government in civilization, but I think we now have some historical perspective on actual as opposed to theoretical development, so that will be my approach. The serpent in the above described libertarian paradise appeared in the form of horticulture and the settled life it required. Hunter gatherers have no property but that which they can carry with them, so their wives and daughters are almost the only things they have worth stealing. Farmers have property - stored food, dwellings, and tools too big to lug around much. They also develop population densities large enough to become a menace to their hunter gatherer neighbors and each other. Thus, the necessity for organized defence.

It's doubtless natural to be willing to fight in defense of one family and property, but it's decidely unatural to lay one's life on the line for the neighbors. Consequently, tribal and larger societies develop an array of strategies to compel service in the common defense, including elaborate patriotic social structures, organized religion, professional armies, and, or course, the naked threat of violence against non-participants. Military organizations inevitably partially enslave their members.

I'm pretty sure libertarians oppose slavery in principle, but how can you have armies without it. The only good defence anyone has found so far is the republican form of government. Unfortunately, as the history of Greece, Rome, Florence and many others shows, the Republic is fragile. There are a number of diseases that afflict the Republic, as Adams and others among the founding fathers noted. One of the most pernicious is the concentration of wealth and power in a few dynastic families. Libertarians, at least our current Rand influenced version, seem unwilling to address this problem. Several times our ancestors found it necessary to attack this problem, by eliminating primogeniture, instituting the income tax, and inheritance and gift taxes.

As long as libertarians refuse to embrace this necessity, they are the enemies of freedom, and need to be treated as such.

Posted by CapitalistImperialistPig at 2/17/2005 07:51:00 PM Comments (4)| Trackback

Next, JT's critique:

CapitalistImperialistPig makes several assumptions here that are obviously flawed.

1.The assertion that hunter/gatherer societies were libertarian is fallacious. Hunter/gatherer societies were far more communal than any modern socialist state has proven to be.

2.The assertion that most libertarian ideas are hostile to a modern organized society. Libertarianism does not reject the idea of a strong state, it only wants that state to be very limited in it's inteference with individual citizens lives.

3.The assertion that it is unnatural to put one's life on the line for one's neighbors is completely false.
Steven Pinker and other evolutionary psychologist have asserted that neighbors are more likely to share more genes with each other and therefore sacrificing one's life for the good of the community is completely natural and common to all societies, be they hunter/gatherer, agrarian or modern industrial.

4.At to the many diseases that affect republics, the single greatest threat and the usual cause of the demise of a republic is the slow extinguishing of individual rights by the state. When the state starts using it's powers to siphon off the wealth and vitality of enterprising individuals is usually when a republic begins it's decline.
JT | 01.21.07 - 7:26 pm | #

And my response:

1. I didn't say that hunter-gatherers were libertarian, I said that they had a few traits that libertarians seem to cherish. The communality practiced by HG societies is in the form of traditional, familial, or purely voluntary alliances - there is no government to enforce communality. Do lbts object to those?

2. A state cannot be strong without interfering in it's citizen's lives. I believe libertarianism is mainly a stalking horse for an oligarchy that wants no interference in it's process of enslaving its fellow citizens. Exhibit A: The Cato Institute. I believe in individual liberty of thought, person and expression. Libertarians, so far as I can tell, mainly believe that the rich shouldn't have to pay taxes.

3. No. You are quite wrong and are abusing Pinker's ideas. I don't share any more genes with my neighbors than with random Americans or random Europeans.

Primitive societies are organized around family ties - but they don't engage in the kind of warfare civilizations do. If a group of, say, Yanomamo go out to kill their neighbors, they aim at stealing their women, or revenge, or prestige. There is no BS about patriotism or sacrifice - each man is out to make a profit. A man may fight in defence of his family or property or pride - not country.

4. Cite some examples please. What happened in Greece, Rome, Florence and others was that an oligarchy siezed control of the apparatus of the state for its own profit.

The same thing has been attempted in the US numerous times, starting with Alexander Hamilton's paying off the US debt to it's richest citizens (Hamilton's friends, who had conveniently bought up much of that old debt at 10 cents on the dollar.) by taxing some of the poorest. More recently, Reagan cut taxes on the rich while raising them on the average worker, with the predictable result of a vast transfer of American wealth to a tiny oligarchy. Bush's tax changes and reckless spending are designed to have the same effect, mainly by cheating current workers out of their Social Security benefits. (Many details can be found in Kevin Phillip's book Wealth and Democracy.)

I'm not buying what you are selling. Thanks for playing though JT.

Feeding the Birds

A lesson in unintended consequences.

We had a cold snap recently, and rare snow was predicted, so I put out a bird feeder with some seed. I hung it from a beam above our covered patio, high enough, so I thought, to be safe from cats.

Looking out this morning I was a bit surprised to see no birds near it. Then, looking a bit further, a splash of feathers on the lawn, presided over by a large hawk, enjoying his breakfast - one of the finches I had unsuspectingly lured to his doom.

Hawks, I guess, need to eat too - but not on my lawn. I think I will need to rethink the bird feeding thing - maybe put the feeder in one of the Afghan pines. The threat from cats may be greater, but there will be more cover and concealment.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Life on a Young Planet: Review

Andrew H. Knoll's Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth is one of those rare books that can change your, or at any rate, my, picture of reality. I have posted twice before on this book: Eu are Irrelevant and In the Beginning, but the present post is my attempt at a review.

Dinosaurs and mastodons don't wander through these pages, unless you count a cameo or two. Their time was still far in the future when the characters whose story is told here held center stage. The Cambrian Period, which started about 543 million years ago, or a bit less than ten thousand times as long ago as our own species originated, ushered in the Paleozoic Era and the first easily recognizable fossils. It was the first age of animals - not the very first animals, but the first animals with considerable size and complexity. All the animal phyla we now recognize were onstage in the Cambrian, as well as numerous phyla dead and gone. Before the Cambrian, only sponges, jellyfish and other very simple animals left any trace. The three billion years of the fossil record preceding the Cambrian are Knoll's subject, and it is unexpectedly fascinating. A couple of chapters feature the Cambrian, but mainly it looms as an offstage presence, foreshadowed more than depicted.

Knoll is a graceful and vivid writer, and the story he tells is a detective story, as most good science stories should be (and why does that part always get lost in science textbooks, especially those for kids?). The web of evidence from which the past is constructed is an intricate one, built out of chemistry, physics, and biology, classical and molecular, but above all, out of old rock and the traces left on it by life. Because of that intricacy, the book makes some demands on the reader's attention span and memory for pattern, and enough background in biology to know the difference between Eukaryote and Prokaryote would be useful.

The Earth of three and one half billion years ago was different from the one we live in but not quite unrecognizably so. Oceans and continents already existed, and had for 700 million years previously. Those continents have left little of themselves behind though, suggesting, says Knoll, that the great geological engine of plate tectonics might have worked differently in those younger and internally hotter days; able, perhaps, to swallow and digest continents as well as oceanic crust. The earliest, highly suggestive but not quite conclusive, evidence of life dates from then.

Of what does that evidence consist? Microscopic impressions in the rock and organic remains of possible life, and context, context, context. Paleontology is a field science, and paleontologists spend an exciting part of their time clinging to precarious and sometimes icebound cliffs to retrieve their samples, but it is now also a laboratory science. The rocks containing these traces must be sliced in thin transparent sections, scrutinized through powerfull microscopes, subjected to isotopic analysis in a mass spectrograph - life, it seems, is picky about the carbon (and other element) isotopes it uses, and that signature is one of the most definitive. Knoll tells of putting the crucial samples under the microscope, scrutinizing them, and in the end concluding that while a circumstantial case existed, it couldn't be considered conclusive.

A deep skepticism of both one's own ideas and those of others is indispensible in this most vital kind of science. Knoll is expecially good at presenting contrasting ideas and hypotheses - a breath of fresh air after listening to the narrow minded fanaticism of some of the string theory debates. Paleontologists, of course, have a big advantage - they have actual evidence.

A few hundred million years later, the evidence becomes more unambiguous. Casts in the rock preserve more detail, both morphological and biogeochemical. Life, too, becomes more elaborate and presents more features for recognition. The cyanobacteria are one of the main heroes of the story. For two and one half billion years they have thrived almost unchanged - they did much of the heavy lifting of producing the oxygen that was previously lacking in our atmosphere, and they were incorporated in eukaryotic cells to allow plant life to arise.

I won't try to summarize this long elaborate story, but let me mention a couple of themes. Geology set the stage for life, but life became a major player in transforming the atmosphere and the oceans. Occasional cataclysms have shaken and transformed evolution. The photosynthetic production of oxygen was certainly one of these. Others likely had extraterrestial origins - great asteroid impacts, for example. Still others probably originated in the tectonic processes of volcanism and continental drift. Most, like the great ice ages of the late Proterozoic (just before the Cambrian efflorescence) are of uncertain provenance. Those ice ages, incidentally, made the more recent ice ages of the Pleistocene look like midgets. Glaciers advanced even into the tropics, and much, or all, of the ocean surface was frozen to great depths. Cataclysm for one branch of the tree of life may be opportunity for another. Mammals and dinosaurs coexisted for 150 million years, during all of which time the reptiles were clearly dominant. Not until the asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs did the great mammalian expansion happen. Knoll calls this "permissive ecology." When all the good jobs or ecological niches are already taken, it's hard for an evolutionary novelty to get a start.

The penultimate chapter is devoted to paleontology beyond the Earth, and expecially to LAH-84001, the grapefruit sized meteorite from Mars that NASA in 1996 claimed showed evidence of life. His exceptionally clear prose is put to good use explaining the pros and cons, as well as crucial background material (how do we know it came from Mars, for example - it was found in Antarctica.) The years since of intense study of this meteorite have taught science a lot about how to look for signs of life from other planets, but have not been kind to NASA's claim. The claim has not been disproven, but all the lines of evidence upon which NASA made the claim have been cast into doubt.

The final chapter, or epilogue is truly an elegant essay in itself. He touches on many themes, from religion and science to creationism, but concludes with an appeal that we realize the implication of the fact that we, the human race, now play a major role in shaping the future of the planet.

If we can acknowledge our unprecedented role as planetary stewards, we may be able to discharge our responsibility with wisdom and with honor. On this issue, at least, faith and science find common ground. I don't know whether God decreed the passenger pigeon, but if He did, it was not for us to exterminate...

Through our actions or inaction, we decide the world that our grandchildren and great grandchildren will know. Let us have the grace and humility to choose well.

He includes an extensive and lightly annotated list of references and further reading. In case it wasn't obvious, I really liked the book.

Fifty from '06

What kind of list includes Madonna, James Carville, Donald Trump, Deepak Chopra, Cindy Sheehan, Bill Gates, Nancy Pelosi, Carlos Mencia, Ryan Seacrest, Suri Cruise and you? A pretty funny one to be sure. How about The BEAST 50 Most Loathsome People in America, 2006? It's funny, scatological, and viciously satirical. The offenders are charged, convicted, and sentenced to sometimes bizarrely appropriate fates. Sample:

30. Rush Limbaugh

Charges: It’s hard to believe this repulsive shit fountain is even human, until you remember that we share 70% of our DNA with pigs. Then again, to be any more hypocritical Rush would actually have to be a member of another species. After the Democrats took congress in November, Limbaugh said he felt "liberated" because "I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don’t think deserve having their water carried," essentially telling his listeners he’d been lying to them all year. The dittoheads didn’t mind; that’s why they listen.

Exhibit A: If someone had taken a shotgun ...[Graphic violence deleted from this excerpt].

Sentence: Parkinson’s disease, of course, triggered by oxycontin abuse.

Biggest surprise: The Bush administration couldn't crack the top two.

(via David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo)

Friday, January 19, 2007


Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately, we are currently ruled by those singularly ignorant of both past and present. As the ongoing disaster of Iraq unfolds, fewer and fewer Republicans are willing to stick by the President. For most of them, and many Democrats, this has been a deathbed conversion inspired by November's election results.

One Republican who saw the light early is conservative Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina. James Pinkerton tells his story on the Huffington Post:

"If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied."

Those bitter words do not come from some folk-singing anti-war protestor. They come from a conservative Englishman, Rudyard Kipling, in his collection, "Epitaphs of the Great War." And those same words were heard today on Capitol Hill from Rep. Walter Jones, a conservative Republican of North Carolina.

I urge you to read Pinkerton's story, linked above, but I found a special resonance in another Kipling Poem, quoted by dap in the comments:

Mesopotamia (July, 1917)
They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide -
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To confirm and re-establish each career?

Their lives cannot repay us - their death could not undo -
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

I think Mr. Kipling is speaking pretty clearly across 80 years: Impeach Bush. Impeach Cheney. They lied. Over three thousand Americans and countless Iraqis died as a direct result. We should not let them quietly go "with years and honour to the grave".


Philip Carter of Intel Dump takes a look at more of Bush on sacrifice:

...And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life's moving on, that they're able to make a living and send their kids to college and put more money on the table. And you know, I am interested and open-minded to the suggestion, but this is going to be ...



We will not win this "long war" so long as our enemies want victory more than we do, and are willing to sacrifice more to achieve victory than we are. We are asking for tremendous sacrifice from our all-volunteer military today. But though the burden of military service is heavy, it is not broad. I believe this is problematic in its own right, because such a division between those who serve and those who don't has serious political and social consequences. However, there is an operational implication here as well. Our lack of national sacrifice telegraphs a very clear message to our enemies, not unlike the message which President Clinton sent to Slobodan Milosevic when he said "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war." Wars are a contest of will, and they are won in the mind. We cannot afford to tell or show our enemies that we want victory less than they do. Unfortunately, that is precisely the message that our current attitude on national sacrifice is sending.

Carter is a lawyer, military writer, and an officer recently returned from a tour leading soldiers into combat in Iraq.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bon Mot

Kevin Drum finds some vivid imagery to describe Bush's appearance on Lehrer:

Jeebus. Is Bush getting even worse with every passing day? I swear, he can hardly open his mouth these days without saying something so dumb and tin-eared it just makes your jaw drop. It's like reading the second half of "Flowers for Algernon."

So what was His Lameness's contribution?

LEHRER: Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you've just said -- and you've said it many times -- as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it's that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something?....

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.

Yup. I'd say so too if I were as clever as Kevin.


Lumo has a long post on entropy that is fairly interesting. Although much of it is a nice analysis, he can't resist setting up and toppling some of his usual strawmen:

Every single person who has ever argued that the low-entropy beginning of the Universe is a paradox neglects a huge body of observational evidence that is accessible to most supermodels, namely observations showing that there is a difference between the past and the future.

That statement well may be true, but are any of the people he mentions actually arguing that a low-entropy beginning of the Universe is a paradox, or expressing doubt that the Universe started in a low-entropy state? Not those I've read. Rather, it's a puzzle which challenges some theories of the beginning, expecially those attributing the beginning to a spontaneous fluctuation.

This puzzle is closely related to our friend The Anthropic Principle. We can imagine many possible initial states for the Universe, so why did it just happen to be in a freakishly low entropy state? Just lucky? Some Anthropicy at work? Or, as Penrose has argued, maybe it's a hint at a deep law that prescribed a low entropy beginning and perhaps many other interesting things. The same sort of thing occurs in other contexts. The myriad (ok, not quite that many) seemingly arbitrary parameters of The Standard Model just happen to have values which permit this conveniently (but barely) liveable Universe we find ourselves in. Among the many possible vacuua permitted by string theory, string theorists tell us that one was selected with just the hand properties to lead to our World.

These cosmic coincidences are, as I say, not paradoxes but puzzles - puzzles which may or may not have explanations. For thermodynamics and The Standard Model, these puzzles are interesting, but not a challenge at a fundamental level. Thermodynamics and the Standard Model work just fine and have lots of useful predictive value however the Universe began.

For string theory the challenge is more fundamental. What if string theory is right but there is not preferred state in the landscape? In that case, it's conceiveable that string theory might be unverifiable and unpredictive, because regardless of how many parameters we measure, there might remain myriads of vacuua compatible with them.

As an optimist, I hope that's not the case. I hope that there is more physics out there to be discovered. We, perhaps, shall see.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Last Refuge

The ongoing series of high crimes by Bush tends to dull our sensibility to his parallel pattern of low criminality. U S attorney's are appointed with the consent of the Senate and usually only removed for misconduct. For Bush, misconduct consists of investigating and convicting Republican criminals. No big deal so long as the Senate gets to vet new nominees.

Samuel Johnson famously noted that patriotism frequently became "the last refuge of the scoundrel," and no one has exemplified this maxim better than Bush. The so-called Patriot Act, that infamously allows Bush to indefinitely imprison American Citizens and others without charge or legal recourse, and to torture them into insanity, also contains many other assaults on the rule of law and the Constitution. One of them allows Bush to appoint US attorneys without the consent of the Senate, justified in order to better fight terrorism, which in the present case has to be defined as prosecuting criminals who happen to be allied to the White House.

Josh Marshall has the story of how Bush is firing conscientous prosecutors and replacing them with reliably political hacks:

Okay, so we already know that the White House has now taken the unprecedented step of firing at least four and likely seven US Attorneys in the middle of their terms of office -- at least some of whom are in the midst of corruption investigations of Bush administration officials and key Republican lawmakers. We also know that they're taking advantage of a handy provision of the USA Patriot Act that allows the White House to replace these fired USAs with appointees who don't need to be approved by the senate...

The replacement for the fired US attorney for Arkansas's previous legal experience was as an political hit man.

Now, why would Karl Rove want his top oppo researcher being the US Attorney in Arkansas for the next two years?

And is Ed Gillespie suiting up to take over the Duke Cunningham investigation in San Diego?

Monday, January 15, 2007

How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth

MoJoBlog watches 60 minutes so that you didn't have to miss 24:

Bush Says Iraqis Not Grateful EnoughThat's what he just said on 60 Minutes.

SCOTT PELLEY: Do you think you owe the Iraqi people an apology for not doing a better job?
BUSH: That we didn't do a better job or they didn't do a better job?
PELLEY: Well, that the United States did not do a better job in providing security after the invasion.
BUSH: Not at all. I am proud of the efforts we did. We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude, and I believe most Iraqis express that. I mean, the people understand that we've endured great sacrifice to help them. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq.
PELLEY: Americans wonder whether . . .
BUSH: Yeah, they wonder whether or not the Iraqis are willing to do hard work.

Here's a question for Emily Post: What level of gratitude is appropriate when your country has been invaded under false pretenses, tens of thousands of your fellow citizens have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country due to the very real fear of assasination? Will a muffin basket do it?

Not to be too picky, but hundreds of thousands have been killed and well over a million have fled.

So how about you? How grateful would you be if your country was invaded, your (admittedly execrable) leader deposed, your family members killed and tortured, your economy destroyed, and your life made unbearable? What the hell is wrong with these Iraqis anyway? Where is that gratitude?

Sunday, January 14, 2007


After crawling on it's belly through broken glass for 1000 miles, CBS News is now abject enough to be graced with a big Bush propaganda splash on 60 Minutes. I guess the key might have been replacing the late Ed Bradley with some empty haircut who talks about the nonexistent "Democrat" party. EH, whose name I don't intend to learn soon, had the honor of asking W the semi-tough questions.

I don't remember the answers much, except that they mainly seemed to address political matters like whether it bothered him that most people now think he is nuts. He remains steadfast in his belief that whatever he did, even if all the putative reasons advanced for the war were disproved, that he did the right thing. As usual, it was hard to tell whether the man was sincere and delusional, or just retreating to less currently obvious lies. There were few questions and fewer answers about how his "plan" for Iraq might work.

The key is clearly Maliki. Will he, can he, carry out any part of his side of the scheme. If he can, and will, maybe there is a rabbit that LTG Petraeus can pull out of the hat. I will be very surprised if so, but hope dies hard.

Pasteur's Principle and The National Review.

Before Pasteur there was a common belief in spontaneous generation. The tendency of any undisturbed organic matter to erupt in teeming microscopic (and larger) creatures had convinced many that life was a spontaneously arising phenomenon. Pasteur disproved this, showing that life arose only from life and that insects and microscopic animals bred as true as larger lifeforms.

Brad DeLong has discovered a sort of similar principle for The National Review Digging deep into the slime pit of the National Review archives, he unearths the slimy ancestors of today's National Review mold:

The soberly-dressed "clerky" little man... seemed oddly unsuited to his unmentioned but implicit role of propagandist.... Let me say at once, for the benefit of the wicked, fearful South, that Martin Luther King wil never rouse a rabble; in fact, I doubt very much if he could keep a rabble awake... past its bedtime... lecture... delivered with all the force and fervor of the five-year-old who nightly recites: "Our Father, Who art in New Haven, Harold be Thy name."...

The slime mold breeds true.

Or nearly so. There has been a bit of adaptation, with the racism now less overt, the supercilious slanders aimed at other targets.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Anthropic Thoughts

Irony has a way of extracting it's own revenge. A while ago, I posted a claim that Luboš was regrettably irony challenged. Naturally, it didn't take long for me to wind up hoist with my own petard. First, the setting - Luboš's post on Raphael Bousso's talk on the Stringy Landscape. In particular, in the comments Luboš said:

So the choice is rather clear. Either the observed value of the vacuum energy has more or less a calculable value that is, because of some mechanism, much smaller than the available calculations today. This means an extraordinary hypothesis and a big discovery waiting for us that may show that most of the things we know that work could be accidents and the vacuum energy follows rather different rules than what QFT/ST lead us to believe. Such a solution will avoid the points raised by Polchinski, Bousso, and others by an argument that will surely look like a shocking miracle to them.

Or you accept that the value of the vacuum energy is more or less a random number without a satisfactory explanation. Accepting this adjective "random" inevitably leads to thinking about details of these anthropic scenarios - the definition and origin of the randomness and their incorporation into more accurate theories we use for the Universe - and leads to Bousso's or Vilenkin's talks or other talks and papers.

Again, anyone who denies that these are the only options that exist is a crackpot.

Now I would essentially agree with this, since what Luboš has said in the first two paragraphs is just that either the vacuum energy value has some deep explanation or that it doesn't - his last sentence is just one of his random brain farts.

Another point arose in the comments. It was asserted that Bousso had assumed that the Universe started in a low entropy state. Lumo responded by citing some authorities:

...Penrose argued many years ago that the beginning must have a low entropy. Do you really have any reasons to doubt that the newly created Universe had a low - and I would probably say zero - entropy?

I found this a bit ironic, since Lumo has elsewhere called Penrose a crackpot. It ought to be mentioned that Prof Motl's estimate of the early entropy of the Universe is a very strange one, since big bang theory suggest that the early Universe consisted of a hot and highly uniform soup of particles. Hot plasmas have very high entropies, by terrestial standards, as a simple consultation of some Freshman physics texts will show. The oddity, as Penrose has emphasized, is that the Universe apparently started in a highly special state where the gravitational degrees of freedom were *not* thermalized. See, for example, Chapter 27 of his book The Road to Reality. There is no known explanation for this fact, though Penrose has hazarded some guesses.

My ironic error was attempting to call Lubos's attention to this fact as follows:

The initial low entropy of the Universe is yet another proof of Anthropicity, no doubt. Or, if you are [a] crackpot like Penrose, you might assume that it is due to some deep but yet unclear principle.

Naturally, my reference to Penrose as "a crackpot" was purely ironic, as I consider him one of the deeper thinkers on physics. It was intended to be an ironic reference to Lumo's categorization of Penrose as such. Here, the irony gods got even, since, *of course* Luboš missed the irony.

His reply:

Dear CIP, I don't think that there is any important correlation between the (likely) fact of a low-entropy beginning of the universe on one side, and the (hypothetical) anthropic scenario on the other side. Your comment just shows that you want to separate all ideas and all people in the world to two groups with different signs, which shows that you may be computationally equivalent to a 1-bit computer with 1 bit of RAM which may be insufficient to join discussions about theoretical physics, roughly by 15 orders of magnitude.

So does it really take a petabit (10^15 bits) of random access memory to discuss physics? Let's hope not, since even Witten is more likely to top out a factor of a million or so short of that.

Isn't it ironic that Luboš, of all people, would accuse me of partitioning the world into just two equivalence classes.

Let me not resist pointing out a final irony. By the logic of Lumo's original quote in this post, the strangely low initial entropy of the Universe must either be the result of a deep principle, or an incredibly improbable anthropic coincidence - and the number of possible initial states of much higher entropy is large even compared to the number of stable minima estimated to populate the moduli space of the landscape.

I would guess that Luboš is aware that the so-called The Anthropic Principle long predates the crisis of the landscape, and even string theory itself - but he doesn't seem to recognize it.

First Class Too

Of course, if you are among the elect, life can be good.

Or at least you can have a really cool looking boat.

Even if the neighbors consider it a bit gauche.

Personally, I think I would prefer a sailboat.

First Class

I've been a bit busy, and haven't visited Arun's Blog for a bit, which is too bad, because he always has interesting things to say. One post that caught my attention is a quote from Bob Herbert of the New York Times:

Bob Herbert in NYT TimesSelect:

"There’s a reason why the power elite get bent out of shape at the merest mention of a class conflict in the U.S. The fear is that the cringing majority that has taken it on the chin for so long will wise up and begin to fight back."

Arun fills in some details about why the non-rich might be getting antsy:

What will rile up the cringing majority?
Perhaps these numbers from Andrew Sum of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

Between 2000 and 2006, labor productivity in the nonfarm sector of the economy rose by 18 percent, real wages rose by 1%.

The (excluding farmworkers) 93 million production and nonsupervisory workers' combined real annual earnings from 2000 to 2006 rose by $15.4 billion, which is less than half of the combined bonuses awarded by the five Wall Street firms for just one year.

Most mainstream economists profess to be puzzled by these numbers, but some of their puzzlement comes from ignoring a taxation system that has become markedly less progressive. Inequality hit a low for the century in the years after World War II. The regressive taxes adopted especially under Reagan and Bush have now produced, or helped produce, the greatest inequality in the US since the "Gilded Age" and the greatest inequality of any advanced country.

Police State

Andrew Sullivan, former Bush supporter and scourge of doubters, now gets some things right:

Bush and the Rule of Law
13 Jan 2007 01:34 pm

They've never really gotten along, have they? But the more you think about it, the threats of a Pentagon official, Cully Stimson, against lawyers doing a constitutional duty defending terror suspects speaks volumes about the core malice of this administration. Sources among the heroic community of pro bono lawyers who are defending some of the innocent and some of the guilty at Gitmo tell me that Stimson's comments are not isolated, that there has been a full program dedicated to the harassment of Gitmo lawyers - surveillance, pettty harassment, pressure on their law firms. Now ask yourself: why would a government that has competently captured and detained dangerous terrorists not want good legal defenses for them to show beyond a doubt that they have been fairly detained? The Bush administration acts and sounds like a defensive police state when it comes to terrorism detainees. Maybe that's because, in many cases of competely unfair detention, they are.

Every time you think these people have plumbed the depths of contempt for the law and our Constitution, they find some new outrage to perpetrate.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Postmodern President

In postmodern theory, meaning is to be sought not in the straightforward interpretation of a text, but in the little hints and clues that lie between the lines or on the margins - sort of like looking for the signature of dark matter in patterns of deviations of light curves from the normal, or so I imagine. Both types of interpretation of Bush's speech are now out there, and I think I agree that the more postmodern interpretation is more sinister.

Eason Jordan, writing on The Huffington Post has an admirable paragraph by paragraph analysis and commentary on The Speech. He makes clear the central weakness in Bush's Plan.

I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people - and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act. The prime minister understands this. Here is what he told his people just last week: "The Baghdad security plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of [their] sectarian or political affiliation."

Promises, promises. Maliki is not his own master. He is beholden to Sadr and others who made him prime minister.

Although the President gave some lip service to the Iraq Study Group, his plan seems aimed at the opposite poles of their key recommendations. Escalation instead of phased withdrawal and threats for Iran and Syria rather than negotiations. The threats to Iran and Syria were not featured prominently in the speech, but if any clues needed highlighting, the US raid on the Iranian consulate in Irbil (which greatly annoyed our supposed Kurdish allies), splashed them in bright red paint.

Steve Clemons does the postmodern analysis, and sees a secret declaration of war against Syria and Iran.

But what is disconcerting is that some are speculating that Bush has decided to heat up military engagement with Iran and Syria -- taking possible action within their borders, not just within Iraq.

Some are suggesting that the Consulate raid may have been designed to try and prompt a military response from Iran -- to generate a casus belli for further American action.

If true, a good reason to impeach.

The Speech II

It appears that my opinion of the speech is not widely shared, especially by people who didn't watch it. One who apparently did watch it was MSNBC's Howard Fineman:

George W. Bush spoke with all the confidence of a perp in a police lineup. I first interviewed the guy in 1987 and began covering his political rise in 1993, and I have never seen him, in public or private, look less convincing, less sure of himself, less cocky. With his knitted brow and stricken features, he looked, well, scared.

Funny, I think it was the same traits that I liked. The man looked like he might finally have a clue.

(via Josh Marshall)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Speech

No one, I trust, will confuse me with a diehard Bush supporter, but I thought that the first half of Bush's speech was the best and most honest of his Presidency. The plan he proposed was not crazy, but it depends very heavily on the Iraqi government taking a lot of hard steps it has steadily avoided this past year. Much of the latter part of the speech was marred by the same Utopian neo-con fantasy that got us into this mess.

I really hated the responses of Democratic Senators Durbin and Obama. They were cookie cutter criticisms that did not address the specifics of Bush's proposals and merely sought to ride the wave of public hostility to Bush.

I don't have much faith that Bush's proposal can work, but it does at least propose to do things that should have been tried long ago - closer coordination (adult supervision) of the Iraqi military, fair distribution of oil revenues, public works employment measures, and amendment of the constitution. It's very likely too little and too late, both politically and militarily. Too late to rally the American people behind it, and too late to suppress the Iraqi civil war. Even if successful, it will be expensive in American lives and money.

We really could have used this Bush a couple of years ago.

Congress also faces a tough choice. They must either support or at least allow the President's plan to be tried or else bring home the troops very quickly. It is unacceptable to permit the present slow and bloody process of losing to continue. Time to fish or cut bait.

Engaged and Sceptical

A former Bush speechwriter, interviewed on NPR, said that he hears that Bush is now "more engaged and skeptical." Four years into a disastrous war that he started, he is now "engaged and skeptical?"

If I had still had any boggleable neurons left in my brain, that would have flash incinerated them.

Clearly I have some deep masochistic tendencies, since I intend to listen to Bush's speech tonight, even though nothing in my experience suggests that he will say anything true, interesting, or potentially important.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Who Goes There?

Long time students of Lumology might recall that at one time Luboš ran a post seeking the identity of CIP. Even though that was quite some time ago, I today was forwarded an email from one of those listed on his prime suspect list. What's this about, was the question.

My answer (not wanting to reveal too much): "Luboš is a string theorist."

I hope that doesn't give too much away.

Climate Change Tip of the Day

It is better to curse the darkness than to light one candle.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Boise State is Number One!

Florida ain't bad either.

Doubt and Certainty

Beyond our distantmost candle of fact lies a seductive darkness. Scientists are drawn to this blacknessn because we know it hides more candles, as yet unlit. We strike matches of hypothesis in the hope that a new wick will catch fire. Hypotheses seek to explain what we know, but most important, they make predictions about what we don't know - about experiments not yet run, or fossils not yet discovered. For this reason, hypotheses provide a built-in criteria for evaluation: do they help us light the next candle or not.

Many hypotheses turn out to be wrong-some gloriously and others ignominiously so. This isn't because scientists are dim or the exercise futile. It simply reflects the difficulty of fashioning a lating explanation of nature. In fact, most hypotheses include useful ideas that survive to become part of the next model or scenario...

.....................Life on a Young Planet by Andrew H. Knoll

Very poetically expressed, but to me this captures much of the essence of science - so much so that I am astounded to discover scientists who doubt it. There is another approach to understanding the world - one based on faith, revelation and certainty. I have always considered that the province of religion, but oddly, to me, it seems to crop up even in physics.

How otherwise can we explain the religious fury with which certain string theorists rage at any alternative to their hypothesis?

Knoll was talking about biology though, and specifically about the hypothesis Konstantin Sergeevich Merezhkovsky came up with a little over one hundred years ago: that chloroplasts were in fact endosymbionts of a Eukaryote and a cyanobacterium. That hypothesis languished for sixty years until by 1960 it was remembered in textbooks only as:

a bad penny that has been in circulation too long

The technology of the time had not been able to confirm his hypothesis. In 1967, Lynn Margulies (as Lynn Sagan), rediscovered and extended the endosymbiont hypothesis, and by that time the tools of molecular biology and electron microscope confirmed it beyond doubt (Her paper was rejected 15 times before being accepted!).

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Harry Potter 7

Since Stoat has already reported on Harry Potter 7 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) reviews at Amazon UK, I too wanted to get my review in the queue before the book is actually published, and hereby post it.

HP&TDP is truly a fitting conclusion to Jo Rowling's epic fantasy. Some critics have been less than kind, and the book banners have been out in force, but I say fie on the naysayers.

I suppose that it's not entirely surprising that the Vatican took exception to the depiction of the archvillian of the series as Pope Voldo I, or that the more fastidious moralists were upset by the explicit depictions of elf sex (snogging and other British diversions). I confess that even I was a bit non-plussed by the 183 page chapter devoted to a goblin - nevermind.

More upsetting to hard core fans, no doubt, was the gruesome execution of Harry and the entire Weasley family (except for Ginny's (and Harry's) young daughter, Marry, who improbably survived Goyle's Avada Kadavera curse.)

Only the hardest hearted fans were disappointed when Sirius Black and Albus Dumbledore sauntered out from behind the veil in the department of mysteries, though of course we were a bit saddened by the fact that this event destroyed the same, hiding all the other inhabitants of the world beyond in "death's dateless night."

This stupid software only allows me to give the book five stars, rather than the well-deserved 10^350, so I have resolved to devote the rest of my career to posting five star reviews of HP&TDH.

PS - This review only applies to the UK edition. Rumor has it that the more gratuitous sex and violence will be cut from the US edition.

Biden and Graham on MTP

Presidential hopefuls Joe Biden (D) and Lindsay Graham (R) were on little Russ's show this morning, talking anti and pro surge respectively. Graham was doing a little practice campaigning and warning about the dangers of leaving a failed state in Iraq. Good point, Lindsay, too bad you didn't think of it four years ago. Biden argued for the Baker-Hamilton commission approach, threatening withdrawal and negotiating.

The problem with the "surge" strategy is that it's way to little and way to late. Before the war, General Eric Shinseki estimated that pacification would require 300,000 to 400,000 soldiers, and Rumsfel and Bush fired him for his honesty. If I were in Congress, the first thing I would do is recall him to testify about how many he thinks we need now.

Kicking the can down the road is a strategy we should resist with all our might. If a surge is going to happen, Congress should be relentless in making asking what are the strategic objectives, metrics, and milestones.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Nuking Iran

Uzi Manaimi and Sarah Baxter report in The Sunday Times that Israel has drawn up plans to nuke Iran. They add the kind of helpful details that could only come from a high (and presumably officially approved)leak:

Two Israeli air force squadrons are training to blow up an Iranian facility using low-yield nuclear “bunker-busters”, according to several Israeli military sources.

The attack would be the first with nuclear weapons since 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Israeli weapons would each have a force equivalent to one-fifteenth of the Hiroshima bomb.

Under the plans, conventional laser-guided bombs would open “tunnels” into the targets. “Mini-nukes” would then immediately be fired into a plant at Natanz, exploding deep underground to reduce the risk of radioactive fallout.

There is always the question of how seriously such saber rattling should be taken, but once such threats are on the table, it's awfully hard to make them disappear.

I also suspect that it would be very hard to actually "reduce the risk of radioactive fallout" by very much. Since the targets would include lots of uranium, it seems likely that a whole lot of very radioactive material would be injected into the atmosphere, quite possibly poisoning large chunks of Asia. If it's actually possible to open tunnels into the nuclear facilities with conventional bombs, why bother with nukes, since a couble of conventional bombs would very efficiently smash up anything inside. If tunnels are open, there is already a vent to the atmosphere - and an underground burst is the most efficient way to create a large amount of highly radioactive nuclear fallout.

If I were the leader of Pakistan, India, or China, I would quietly inform Israel that any unprovoked nuclear attack on Iran that poisoned citizens of my country would be treated as a nuclear attack on my country.

I suspect that the real motivation of Israel here (assuming this leak is for real) is to push Bush into attacking Iran. He is definitely dumb enough to do it.

In the Beginning

We are not close to solving the riddle of life's origins. Origin-of-life research resembles a maze with many entries, and we simply haven't travelled far enough down most routes to know which end in blind alleys. Yet, increasingly, chemists and molecular biologists have abandoned the early view that life originated by means of improbable reactions that came to pass only because vast intervals of time were available. Most now believe that life's origin (or origens - it could have happened more than once) involved chemistry that was both probable and efficient; there is a direct route through the maze, if only we can find it.

.................Andrew H. Knoll in Life on a Young Planet

If creationists want to challenge evolution at the most fundamental level, they can merely say that no one can explain the origin of life. No one can prove them wrong. Of course that might not be true ten years from now.

To us (me and Eu), a bacterium looks very simple and a camel very complex. At the level of fundamental biology, though, even simple bacteria are factories of immense complexity and sophisticated regulation. The array of molecular machinery that must be assembled to carry out photosynthesis is daunting, and that required for protein synthesis, more so.

The fact of evolution is manifest in a million logical chains of evidence, and the theory of natural selection is unsurpassed in its elegant simplicity and intuitive appeal. The details still pose many puzzles, however, and the question of how the engine was first set in motion - what was it that was both chicken and egg - is yet unsolved.

Andrew Knoll devotes only one chapter of the book cited above to the question, but he tells the story of what is known so far with great economy and elegance.

That River Down Egypt

The redoubtable lagomorph of Rabett Run has a rundown on the hijinks of our old buddy ExxonMobil on the climate denial front. The main course is a link to a Union of Concerned Scientists report on the disinformation campaign waged by ExxonMobil on the climate front. From the press release:

According to the report, ExxonMobil has funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science.

"ExxonMobil has manufactured uncertainty about the human causes of global warming just as tobacco companies denied their product caused lung cancer," said Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists' Director of Strategy & Policy. "A modest but effective investment has allowed the oil giant to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years."

Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco's Tactics to "Manufacture Uncertainty" on Climate Change details how the oil company, like the tobacco industry in previous decades, has

raised doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence

funded an array of front organizations to create the appearance of a broad platform for a tight-knit group of vocal climate change contrarians who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings

attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for "sound science" rather than business self-interest

used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming

ExxonMobil-funded organizations consist of an overlapping collection of individuals serving as staff, board members, and scientific advisors that publish and re-publish the works of a small group of climate change contrarians. The George C. Marshall Institute, for instance, which has received $630,000 from ExxonMobil, recently touted a book edited by Patrick Michaels, a long-time climate change contrarian who is affiliated with at least 11 organizations funded by ExxonMobil. Similarly, ExxonMobil funds a number of lesser-known groups such as the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy and Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. Both groups promote the work of several climate change contrarians, including Sallie Baliunas, an astrophysicist who is affiliated with at least nine ExxonMobil-funded groups.

The campaign has a lot in common with the long time denialist strategy of our good friends in the tobacco lobby. What ever happened to them, I wonder?

Eli has a number of other good links to more of the story in his post. I heartily recommend it.

Prediction Confirmed

From the New York Times:

In the week since Saddam Hussein was hanged in an execution steeped in sectarian overtones, his public image in the Arab world, formerly that of a convicted dictator, has undergone a resurgence of admiration and awe.

On the streets, in newspapers and over the Internet, Mr. Hussein has emerged as a Sunni Arab hero who stood calm and composed as his Shiite executioners tormented and abused him.

“No one will ever forget the way in which Saddam was executed,” President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt remarked in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot published Friday and distributed by the official Egyptian news agency. “They turned him into a martyr.”

In Libya, which canceled celebrations of the feast of Id al-Adha after the execution, a government statement said a statue depicting Mr. Hussein in the gallows would be erected, along with a monument to Omar al-Mukhtar, who resisted the Italian invasion of Libya and was hanged by the Italians in 1931...

“Suddenly we forgot that he was a dictator and that he killed thousands of people,” said Roula Haddad, 33, a Lebanese Christian. “All our hatred for him suddenly turned into sympathy, sympathy with someone who was treated unjustly by an occupation force and its collaborators.”

Just a month ago Mr. Hussein was widely dismissed as a criminal who deserved the death penalty, even if his trial was seen as flawed. Much of the Middle East reacted with a collective shrug when he was found guilty of crimes against humanity in November.

But shortly after his execution last Saturday, a video emerged that showed Shiite guards taunting Mr. Hussein, who responded calmly but firmly to them. From then on, many across the region began looking at him as a martyr.

Americans around the world have been endangered by this Bush/Maliki stunt. Once again, Bush has proven himself the master of phony theatrical posturing that is guaranteed to backfire.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Gravity's Rainbow: Report of the Scouting Expedition

Every once in a while, I get to feeling a bit guilty about reading mostly children's books - I'm a big Harry Potter fan, for example. Ocassionally this guilt is enough to propel me to buying, and starting, one of those books so beloved of English majors - in this case, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Since I'm only only page 47, with more than 700 more to go, a review might be a bit premature, but I must say that I already find myself deeply annoyed.

The book is considered a postmodernist classic: "The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II," according to the back cover blurb from the New Republic. It was published in 1973, and it is set during that War, or a war a great deal like that War, and the characters are mostly concerned with V-2 rocket bombs.

It's not what I would call a page turner. This pre-review was inspired by a 134 word sentence, ostensibly introducing a building.

They are approaching now a lengthy brick improvisation, a Victorian paraphrase of what once, long ago, resulted in Gothic cathedrals - but which, in its own time, arose not from any need to climb through the fashioning of suitable confusions toward any apical God, but more in a derangement of air, a doubt as to the God's actual locus (or, in some sense, as to its very existence), out of a cruel network of sensuous moments that could not be transcended and so bent the intentions of the builders not on any zenith, but back to fright, to simple escape, in whatever direction, from what the industrial smoke, street excrement, windowless warrens, shrugging leather forests of drive belts, flowing and patient shadow states of the rats and flies, were saying about the chances for mercy that year.

It's not a book one would want to tackle without an unabridged dictionary handy, not, at least if you didn't max out your GRE verbal - or maybe even if you did - I missed by 20 points I think, and encounter about two new words per page. Some people quite clearly love this stuff. Others, and I might be a bit closer to this camp, think it's only a sort of English major penis envy, a flaccid sort of imitation of string theory for literature majors.


Former NATO Commander (and Presidential Candidate) Wesley Clark is angry, or so claims Arianna Huffington:

Clark was really angry about what he'd read in this column by UPI Editor at Large Arnaud de Borchgrave. In the piece, which Clark quickly forwarded to my BlackBerry from his Trio, de Borchgrave details Bibi Netanyahu leading the charge to lobby the Bush administration to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, and paints U.S. air strikes against Iran in 2007/08 as all-but-a-done deal.

"How can you talk about bombing a country when you won't even talk to them?" said Clark. "It's outrageous. We're the United States of America; we don't do that.

Clark may be angry (me too), but de Borchgrave is a tirerless cheerleader for Israel and war.[refuted, see comments] The groundwork is already in place, he claims:

Netanyahu then said Israel "must immediately launch an intense, international, public relations front first and foremost on the U.S. The goal being to encourage President Bush to live up to specific pledges he would not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons. We must make clear to the government, the Congress and the American public that a nuclear Iran is a threat to the U.S. and the entire world, not only Israel."

There are signs this is already happening in Washington. Before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld troika decided the ousting of Saddam Hussein had to become an integral part of the "war on terror." Eventually 60 percent of Americans thought Saddam was behind 9/11, even though there was no link between the two. Today, the Bush-Cheney team faces the same spin scenario: how to weave the global war on terror and the Shiite powers that be in Iran. This one is relatively simple: Iran trains and funds Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories.

Anticipating the new line, Sen. Joe Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut) referred to "Iran and al-Qaida" on Wolf Blitzer's Sunday program on CNN. That Iran is Shiite and al-Qaida Sunni becomes irrelevant in the new game plan that will most probably lead to U.S. air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities in 2007/08. Can a Democratic Congress be bypassed under a blanket authorization already secured to hunt down transnational terrorists wherever they may be hiding?

The usual suspects are on the case. De Borchgrave next proclaims:

The "neocons" who work closely with Netanyahu on what could be the next phase of a nascent regional war in the Middle East, say Bush has the authority to take out Iran's nuclear threat. Because it has only one purpose -- to take out Israel. One Hiroshima-type nuclear weapon and Israel ceases to exit[sic].

Of the three sentences quoted, the final two are nonsense. Iran has perfectly good geopolitical reasons for needing a nuke - it is surrounded by nuclear armed enemies. See for example this excellent Jerusalem Post article, which while making the case for taking out Iran's nuclear capability, notes that:

It will be very difficult for Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions," Asculi wrote in the center's Tel Aviv Notes in August. "The first [reason] is the need to deter several perceived threats: US armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf pose a danger from almost every direction; Iraq, though currently incapable of threatening any of its neighbors, could eventually reemerge as a regional force; and Israel is seen as a hostile nuclear-weapons state."

Not to mention Russia and Pakistan. One bomb would be a horrible blow to Israel, and fifteen might be fatal, but not one. The first of the three sentences is more interesting in that it explicitly states what is usually met with indignant denials and spluttering about anti-semitism: that the neo-cons who brought us the Iraq war and cheer for an Iran war are working with the Israeli Likud Party, rather than for the US.

I am deeply unenthusiastic about Iran getting nuclear weapons, either now or (more realistically) in 2010, but another US war is not the answer, at least not now. Diplomacy needs to be given a chance. Any deal would need something like the following elements: Iran agrees not to make nuclear weapons or enrich uranium and to let full inspection resume. The US, in return, would agree to not attack Iran and to guarantee its security against other nuclear powers. It should also agree not to continue to arm Hizbullah, but Israel should have to reciprocate by ending its campaign of sabotage and assassination against Iranian officials (see, e.g., the first page of the JP article cited above.)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Eu Are Irrelevant

Hey You! You and your fellow eukaryotes are irrelevant. From the larger standpoint of the long term planetary economy, you eukaryotic parasites (people, monkeys, dogs, orange trees, fungi, amoeba, and euglena, for eight)are just the "icing" on the prokaryotic cake. You, (yeah, you, Eu!) can't even do the simplest economic tricks without the help of a few prokaryotic class traitors (chloroplasts, mitochondria).

This is a bacterial world. We, the prokaryotes, laugh at your puny attempts to inconvenience us with your antibacterial magic tricks. We were here billions of years before you and will be here after you extinguish yourselves. We built this planet you (Eu!) call home. We create the atmosphere that lets you live, fix the nitrogen out of which you build your proteins and nucleic acids, learned how to master and tame the poisonous oxygen, reduce iron, and mastered all the exotic chemistry that built this atmosphere. When great planetoids crashed into the protoearth, vaporizing the early oceans, we survived, using our hyperthemal chemistry and other exotic tricks.

This message, delivered from the planet to Eu, is sent via CIP, who learned it from Andrew Knoll's Life on a Young Planet.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Shrinkage II: Felting

Since I couldn't sucker any of my readers into explaining shrinkage of wool, I forced the SockPuppetofDoom to do the work. Here is what he came up with:

(From an answer to Rebekah's question at the MadSci Network.)

Here is the response I recieved from Miss Helen Daily, who is a professional woolclasser and more than qualified to make this response. You can find more information via the Woolwise website:

"The problem lies in the professor's misinformed question. Wool does not shrink, it felts. And this is simply because of the raised scales of the cuticle layer of the fibre catching on one another. The fibres in a fleece on a sheep are all growing out of the follicles in the same direction, and generally speaking, they all grow at a similar rate. This means that the cuticle scales (which are a bit like the teeth on a saw, but not that pronounced) are all pointed in the same direction. They don't catch on one another. These scales can be seen clearly in electron micrographs. (some available on the Woolwise site).

After the fleece is shorn, the processing stages cause the natural fibre alignment to be completely disrupted. As the fleece is scoured, the "staple" structure is destroyed and the fibres no longer line up "tip to base" as they would in the fleece. They can be in all dimensions and also suffer entangling after scouring and drying, and the purpose of subsequent carding and combing is to remove extraneous matter and disentangle and align the fibres into a parallel arrangement. However the fibres will not necessarily be "tip to base". The scales now can be at 180degrees to one another, and can catch on one another.

When the fibres are spun, they come in close contact with each other, and the interlocking nature of the scales is what helps keep the yarn together (apart from the twist that is inserted). Felting usually occurs in the presence of heat, water and agitation, and this acts as a ratchet, tightening the contact between the fibres in the yarn, and then the yarns in the fabric.

Wool's propensity to felt is because of the scales on the fibre. Other animal fibres have cuticular scales also, but to different degrees. For instance, the scales on human hair are much flatter. I don't know much about dreadlocks, but I imagine this is caused by interrupting the usual parallel arrangement of the hair scales. Fine diameter wools are more likely to felt than broad diameter wools because they have a greater surface area, and hence more scales proportionately.

Shrink-proofing is a chemical treatment of wool, which uses chlorine to "burn" off the scales...this doesn't entirely remove them, but it does lessen their profile, and then the fibres are coated with a resin to smooth the fibre still further. This allows the wool to be machine washed without felting, and the shrinkage of the fabric associated with felting. So that is the story of wool felting in a nutshell. The wool proteins are very interesting, but really don't play a role in this part of the wool story!"

I felt it hat, er had, to be something like this (Rae Ann's answer was very close, but lacked pedantic certainty).

Did You Ask Who, What, When, Where?

An old joke has the druggie coming out of a hallucinogenic haze mumbling: "I spoke to God."

What did he say?

"I can't remember!"

Pat Robertson has had his own annual tete-a-tete with the Almighty, regarding their joint annual predictions for 2007. It seems that he, too, forgot to ask about some crucial details.

In what has become an annual tradition of prognostications, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson predicted Tuesday that a terrorist attack on the United States would result in "mass killing" late in 2007.

"I'm not necessarily saying it's going to be nuclear," he said during his news-and-talk television show "The 700 Club" on the Christian Broadcasting Network. "The Lord didn't say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that."

Robertson said God told him during a recent prayer retreat that major cities and possibly millions of people will be affected by the attack, which should take place sometime after September.

We need to get Pat one of those cards public employees get for how to talk to people who phone in bomb threats.

E pur si muove!

Louisiana continues to slide into the Gulf of Mexico. Long known to be sinking, it now seems that it's also sliding into the Gulf. Associated Press's Cain Burdeau has the story:

A new report by scientists studying Louisiana's sinking coast says the land here is not just sinking, it's sliding ever so slowly into the Gulf of Mexico.

The new findings may add a kink to plans being drawn up to build bigger and better levees to protect this historic city and Cajun bayou culture.

It's only a matter of a few millimeter's per year, but that's enough to affect plans for levees and floodgates.

On the other hand:

And some scientists have suggested the debate over subsidence is overstated.

Torbjorn Tornqvist, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Tulane University, found much of the region surprisingly stable and the rate of sinking to be at least 10 times less than previously reported.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

School or Die

Education turns out to be one of the most crucial things for long life, according to Gina Kolata's New York Times article. It also helps to be rich, have a loving family, lack stress, and be part of a tight social network. Of course if you smoke, forget it. Your death rate will be double that of never smokers.

The NYT story has a multicountry graph which only goes through twelveth grade, with pronounced flattening of the curve as high school is reached, but the corresponding graph for the US shows benefits up to grade 16 with no sign of levelling.

The effects of wealth, family, friends, and stress (and smoking) were well known. The education result was more of a surprise:

But the questions for researchers like Dr. Smith are why? And what really matters?

The answers, he and others say, have been a surprise. The one social factor that researchers agree is consistently linked to longer lives in every country where it has been studied is education. It is more important than race; it obliterates any effects of income.

The Steward and the Predator

Our distant ancestors were gatherers, opportunistic scavengers and hunters, and it seems likely that conservation of resources for the long term was not a priority for them. Once agriculture was invented, the situation became quite different. Fields needed to be planted and tended and domestic animals needed protection from beast and foe. Civilization arose, we can imagine, when it became apparent that cooperative effort could alter the local environment for mutual benefit through irrigation and related activities.

I have no idea when it first was understood that environment changing activities of the East African Plains Ape could produce major collateral damage, but the Ancient Greeks knew and discussed the matter. Recognizing the need for conservation is not quite the same as accomplishing it, though. Small scale societies far less sophisticated than the Ancient Greeks faced the problem, solved it and thrived, or failed, collapsed and disintegrated.

Thus it is strange to me that there are those in our modern society who fail to grasp this elementary principle - or claim to fail to grasp it. Of course there is always tension in a society over the control of resources - the age-old battle between the poacher and gamekeeper, between man the predator and man the steward.

Some of the blame belongs to three pernicious religious (or quasi-religious) ideas, of which I will mention three: the notion of the "End of Days," Marxism, and Capitalism in their religious forms.

The notion of the "End of Days" implies that it is pointless to prepare for a future that will never come, so that it makes sense to max out those credit cards and prepare for the rapture. Marxism and Capitalism (in its most extreme form) both seem to believe that economics can trump physics and biology - that "history" or "the market" will solve any problems worth solving.

The number of devotees of any of these notions is probably too small to be significant in itself, but skillfully wielded as weapons by would be predators, they can help paralyze the will to cooperate to solve environmental problems.

Another fundamental problem is the inherent conflict between long-term and short-term benefit. Should I have that chocolate fudge sunday right now for the short-term benefit or forego it in favor of the hope for a healthier and thinner longer-term future. Humans were designed to plan for the future, but not for too long a future.

Finally, there is the problem of uncertainty. How do we plan for the future if the cost and hope of averting an adverse future eventuality, and the the probable cost of the feared future are all uncertain?

The Year of the Pig

From James I have learned that 2007 will be (or in Japan, apparently, already is) the Year of the Pig. I'm looking forward to it, even though The Pig, like Bill Gates, George Harrison, and Mel Gibson, is actually a Sheep.