Monday, August 31, 2009

Bits and Pieces - August 31, 2009

The electronics in the Indian Moon mission have catastrophically failed. This will, undoubtedly, fire up the Indian weapons scientists who are already saying that they can't sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty because their nukes haven't been perfected. Now they can also point to this problem for their missiles.

The nations that decided not to develop nuclear weapons.

I was about to offer an apology, but I see that what I said last week is more or less consistent with Jeffrey Lewis's take on the situation, although my assessment was on the positive side and his is more toward the negative.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Not an Age for Oratory

Another day, another complaint that President Obama isn’t manning up to his oratory on, well, fill in the blank: healthcare, global warming, getting to zero nukes, getting Congress to pull up its socks. Or that his oratory isn’t manning up to what we want it to be, to do for us. And yes, I chose that verb deliberately. There’s an edge of macho to the complaints, but that’s not the whole story.

We want our ponies right now! And we want our president to show how tough he is, to show real leadership by telling us what we should be doing and thinking. And we want to be inspired, perhaps to feel how good we really are or could be if we had the right leadership.

I think the pony problem speaks for itself. But there’s something to be said about strong, manly presidents and inspiration.

We have just had a president, from 2001 to early this year, who was only too happy to show us how tough he was and to tell us what we should think and do, that we should leave all the hard stuff, like whether we torture prisoners, to him, and that his tax cuts for the wealthy and freeing the financiers up to do whatever they thought good would make this a stronger country. He showed his principle by refusing to talk to the bad guys, whether they were in North Korea or the US Congress, and he swaggered around with a chain saw to clear the brush at his ranch, a metaphor for clearing our vision so that we could see what good he was doing for us and the country.

Ah, but this new guy is supposed to be the good guy, so if he swaggers and tells the Congress how to do it’s business, that’s for the good, right? Please.

I watched the whole of Teddy Kennedy’s funeral. (Thank you, New York Times, for the webcast!) It was inspiring. I particularly liked the part where the youngest relatives prayed for Teddy’s ideals. Bob Herbert writes about the Kennedy ability to inspire. But much of Teddy’s ability to inspire was by personal interaction, not by Jack’s oratory. Joe Biden talked about that kind of inspiration.

Ah, couldn’t we wish that Barack Obama, known to be a skilled orator, could lift us as Jack Kennedy did, or perhaps as we now think that Jack Kennedy did.

Kennedy offered his oratorical inspiration at a very different time. The fifties were a dispiriting decade, even though the material circumstances of Americans improved. The Soviets had matched the American nuclear arsenal, bomb for bomb, and in 1957 beat us into orbital space. The indecisive end of the Korean War, following World War II, showed limits we didn’t think we had. China joined the Communist world and set off the witch-hunting of Joe McCarthy and others. Young people were becoming disaffected with what seemed to them the mindless materialism of their parents. Not with a bang, but a whimper was becoming more plausible, even while the bang hovered close by.

By the end of that decade, when Jack Kennedy ran for president, the problem was apathy, not noise; a unity in blandness, not division.

America now resembles the America of 1953 more than the America of 1960. We have the rightwing accusations and lies. We have wars to argue over. We don’t need inspirational oratory now; it would be too close to inflammatory. Although Obama is often compared to Jack Kennedy, his task is more like Dwight Eisenhower’s: to keep the country moving forward and deal with external threats while keeping the people together.

Congress is dysfunctional and public discourse is ugly. President Obama is giving Congress a chance to recall its purpose by developing the healthcare reform bill. He’s giving the public a chance to rebuild its ability to discuss public policy by holding back on pronouncing The Way Things Should Be. And, in any case, who would find him credible if he did?

Yes, it’s frustrating at times that January 20th didn’t switch us from The Matrix to reality, which was one of the implications of those Bush countdown clocks. But that was never an option.

America is a democracy, which means that all of us are responsible for governance, not just the President. Could things be arranged better in our political system? Undoubtedly. But this system has worked before to give us Medicare, Social Security, and the Church Committee. We’re going to have to work with what we’ve got. And it’s all of us that have to do it, not just one man, however capable he may be.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bits and Pieces - August 29, 2009

The Washington Post ombudsman suggests that his paper provide some facts on the health reform bill.

I've been trying to figure out how to write that people may not want all those end-of-life interventions and that following their wishes may also be the less expensive way forward. Devin Talbott and Strobe Talbott get it right.

North Korea mellowing?

T.R.M. Howard, an unlikely civil rights hero

President Obama's eulogy for Ted Kennedy was just right. Text and video here. I watched the entire funeral this morning; thank you, New York Times for the webcast. Much of it was very moving, particularly the prayers from the younger members of the family.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stephen Walt Says It Better

The other day, the Armchair Generalist drew my attention to something Paul Wolfowitz wrote, allegedly on what is called realism in foreign policy. I've been wanting to write a response to Wolfowitz, but now I see that Stephen Walt has done just that, and probably better than I would have. (BTW, Foreign Policy, ten "pages"? Ten clicks - oh you are so smart!)

As a bonus, David Rothkopf, Daniel Drezner, and Steve Clemons weigh in as well. Rothkopf is bothered by the label "realism," which, as I noted in the comments to the AG's post, is a continuing problem. International relations would do itself and the rest of us a great favor by coming up with another term, but Rothkopf makes too much of it. He also gets sucked in by Wolfowitz's too-narrow use of the word.

Drezner also recognizes Wolfowitz's sloppy use of words, but he gets sucked into the same pointless argument that Rothkopf does. Clemons doesn't quite get stuck in the word trap, but he dances around a number of points in a rather incoherent way. I'm not at all sure, for example, that Wolfowitz is putting forth a "new school of 'democratic realism'" as much as once again telling us that he was right all along, and no, he doesn't want to discuss the Iraq war.

So read Walt's piece for sure, and the others if you've got time on your hands.

Bits and Pieces - August 27, 2009

A Jupiter-sized planet that orbits its sun in one earth day. This article actually does a pretty good job of describing scientific uncertainty, rather than mystifying it. There are some things that are not immediately explainable. That does not mean that the explanation is supernatural or that scientific laws need to be changed: there could be something wrong with the observations, something left out, or something not correctly accounted for. As the article says, it'll be figured out.

Those documents that Dick Cheney wanted declassified so that we'd all see that torturing really truly was a good idea? They don't show any such thing. Be surprised.

The trouble with not using the locals in an enterprise is that then you get blamed when things go wrong. I'd like to see more about the Sayan-Shushen dam disaster in Siberia in other media as well. Paul Goble sometimes emphasizes developments that are negative for the Russian government, but then again, my Estonian friends say that the breakup of the Soviet Union was no surprise to people who were there.

A good explanation of a phenomenon I have observed at work but never quite understood. A friend this morning called it fear-based management.

Jeff Lewis tweets that he doesn't believe this report that the Obama administration is willing to give up the antimissile installations in central Europe. I do.

The Pentagon is profiling reporters who are embedded, and using a contractor to do the dirty work. We might also ask whether the contractor has their own agenda in marking various reporters in various ways.

Um, pardon me, Reuters, but could we at least know which countries these "Western diplomats" are from? Looks like it's the usual talky crowd associated with the IAEA in Vienna, who usually don't know what they're talking about.

Nice timeline of US-Iran interactions on Iran's nuclear program.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tick Tick Tick Tick

A distracting and addictive world clock, passed along by our old friend Rollo Groast.

See if you can look away.

What Makes Us Human

Two things I have read recently in close succession:

From Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, quoting Michael Tomasello in Mothers and Others:
We propose that the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species is the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions.

From Luci Tapahonso in "A Radiant Curve,"
One fall afternoon in 1998, my daughter Misty called to tell us that her infant son Isaiah had just laughed aloud. It was anticipated, because when a Diné, or Navajo, baby laughs aloud for the first time, a First Laugh ceremony is usually held. Shisóí Isaiah (Shisóí means "my daughter's child") had laughed in his sleep, and as a baby he still lived in the world of the Diyin Dine'é, or the Holy People. But this time he had been awake when his father, Lloyd James, tickled him.

Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009

Teddy Kennedy was the youngest, the irresponsible, the playboy brother of the Kennedy generation whose plan was to have achieved the heights of American politics. That was how he looked in the 1960s, when John became president and was killed, and Bobby was fighting with successor Lyndon Johnson.

You can never tell how it’s going to turn out.

Now, the Lion of the Senate is gone, not having been able to hang on long enough to see health care reform passed.

The next generation of Kennedys is scattered, diluted. He was the last of the family to achieve national political standing, the standing his father had wanted for his family.

We Americans love a story of redemption, of ill-got gains justified, a playboy turned into a statesman. We’ve seen it often enough, in Edward Kennedy for just one, to have hoped for it in George Bush and to have been disappointed.

The difference is that somewhere along the line, Kennedy learned that standing on principle was the key.

We can hope that he’s not the last to learn that lesson.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Iran: No New Centrifuges Since May

According to Reuters, Iran has installed no new centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment plant since May.

I've been concerned that those in Iran who might like a bomb would have taken the unrest surrounding the election on June 12 as an opportunity to push ahead more quickly toward their goal. But it looks like the opposite happened, that the moderates slowed things down and maintained control of the program during the street protests.

Those protests were far from Natanz, of course, so business most likely continued as usual, which apparently is not a run toward a bomb.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On Reconciling Evolution with God (or vice versa)

Robert Wright, who has just written a book entitled The Evolution of God, seems to be everywhere. Today, appropriately enough Sunday, he speaks to us from the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

I’m not fond of the more contentious atheists, either, but at least they aren’t shooting doctors in church. It’s religion that is currently running wild, not science, so I am more tolerant toward those contentious atheists than toward, say, Congressmen claiming to be living a more Christian life in a house on C Street. Not to mention the good Christians who are fine with 18,000 people dying every year because of deficiencies in our health insurance system.

So I picked through Wright’s op-ed and found many weaknesses. I think I’m getting less tolerant of such things in my old age; I suspect that back in the sixties, I might have liked this, or at least been less annoyed than I am today.

I won’t fisk the whole op-ed, line by line. That would take most of the rest of today, and perhaps some of tomorrow too. My bottom line, sorry to say, is that Wright makes his case only if you allow a bunch of sloppy thinking to penetrate your science, and probably your religion too.

We’ve gotten accustomed to thinking of religion in the United States as evangelical pentacostalism, an extreme and ecstatic form of religion. We’ve gotten accustomed to the claims that Genesis is a science text, rather than a collection of myths from more than one source, written down after they had long been transmitted by speech. We’ve gotten accustomed to overstretched interpretations of English words translated from the Greek translated from the Aramaic.

There are many other kinds of religion besides this, even within Christianity. In the 1950s and 1960s, there actually were some people thinking about what the Christian religion was in its many forms, from high-church Catholicism to snake-handling in the Appalachians. I happened to plonk down in the middle of some of that thinking and found it congenial.

But that all seems to be gone and a very long time ago indeed, replaced by megachurches and high dudgeon, but not much thinking. Wright tries to address today’s situation, but I suspect he was born long after the name of Paul Tillich had disappeared from the discourse of most churches. He is sort of reproducing some of the things that were said back then, but much less competently.

One thing I don’t recall from back then was having to give up any part of my science in favor of religion. I didn’t know as much evolution then as I do now, so it’s possible I simply fell for the kind of line that Wright is peddling.

According to Wright, believers need to accept what was once called the clockwork God, and atheists need to accept the watchmaker God. If I had time, I might try to go into the physics of that, but I’ll stick with evolution for this post.

The clockwork God set the world in motion according to his laws, which are now working themselves out. That would mean that God knew that those laws would produce the result he desired, so we have a fully deterministic universe, in which God no longer needs to intervene. I’m not sure that’s any different from a universe in which God constantly has to tinker, although it would allow God to, perhaps, mass-produce universes, so perhaps string theory is right with its multitudes.

Wright messes around with the idea of a “moral sense”, to which some, like C. S. Lewis, have applied the “God of the gaps” theory, which says that God has a place wherever science doesn’t yet have an explanation. Um, except the sociobiologists are coming up with evolutionary explanations for that moral sense, so Wright messes around some more and finds that Lewis was right anyway, that there must be an underlying moral sense in bats and chimpanzees and dolphins, so the universe, under God’s laws, of course, would have produced a thinking, talking being with a moral sense and, perhaps, membranous wings if it hadn’t produced us. And besides, Stephen Pinker thinks something like this, and he’s an atheist.

Wright doesn’t consider Samuel Bowles’s findings that altruism, an element of “moral sense,” as Wright seems to define it, may inevitably be accompanied by war against out-groups. Of course, this will fit right in with the beliefs of many American religious people, but it’s not, er, nice, and not consistent with the New Testament.

In return for believers settling for a clockwork God, scientists are to accept that such a God would be consistent with evolution. Since Wright hasn’t really worked this out, I don’t see that it’s a fair trade, since I remain attached to logic, but let’s just use the newspaperly principle of fairness to all sides.

Wright uses the argument that if you find a watch in a field, it’s obviously different from a rock. This argument has been referenced by both the Intelligent Design people and Richard Dawkins, so by that newspaperly principle, it must hold water. My problem is that I don’t see where Wright is going with it.

I’ve always found it fascinating that my eyes and brain together, with little input of thought, can range where I’m walking and immediately pick out a potsherd or fossil from the less-orderly. It’s one of the small miracles that the world presents to me, this one in my own body. I suspect that is why it seems so meaningful to so many.

But there are lots of occasions for awe, and not all have to mean anything. Much less do they have to mean that my eyeballs’ ability to pick out potsherds and fossils is evidence of a “higher-order creative process” in those potsherds and fossils. There is a human creative process evidenced by the potsherds, but what about those fossils?

Well, they’re there, just like clams and shrimp and dolphins and trees and hummingbirds are there. We can marvel at the luster of the hummingbirds’ wings or the cleverness of the dolphins, but to go from that to a designer requires a leap of faith. That’s something Soren Kirkegaard talked about, something we considered back in those far-away 1960s, but Wright just wants us to swallow it whole, something that Kirkegaard agonized over.

To whom is Wright talking? To the people who feel they (or others) need a God who will whack them if they get out of line? To scientists to whom logic and facts matter? For the first group, the clockmaker God will never be enough. The second group doesn’t see why they need to take Kirkegaard’s leap of faith, and, if you’ve read your Kirkegaard, that’s not subject to persuasion.

And, sorry, but if you’re going to discover new drugs, make a vaccine for the coming H1N1 season, send people to Mars, or figure out where cosmic rays are coming from, not to mention dealing with global warming or developing new sources of electrical power, none of those Gods are needed. The logic and facts, along with human creativity, will do just fine.

So Wright’s “solution” is nothing of the kind. Just a plea that we muddle things up, with equal time for all, the way the newspapers do.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Sage from Vesuvius?

I love obscure allusions, and I'm not too bad at identifying them, but Kathleen Parker today has me stumped.
But when [Barney] Frank is tossed into the ring with a Hitler-wielding instigator, he looks the sage from Vesuvius, and his opponents escapees from the asylum.
Vesuvius, of course, is one of the world's best-known volcanoes (livecam here). Like all volcanoes in the classical world, it's associated with hot springs and gaseous emanations that oracles sometimes sniffed to get high and give pronouncements. I simply don't recall a sage from Vesuvius, however, which implies wisdom more than oracularity.

So I googled "sage from Vesuvius." (Is there another place named Vesuvius? It's hard to imagine someone living in the volcano.) The most seemingly relevant thing I could come up with was this.
Thou hast had shelter under my roof, and warmth at my hearth; thou hast returned evil for good; thou hast smitten and slain the thing that loved me and was mine; now hear thy punishment. I curse thee! and thou art cursed! May thy love be blasted - may thy name be blackened - may the infernals mark thee - may thy heart wither and scorch - may thy last hour recall to thee the prophet voice of the sage from Vesuvius.
That's from The Last Days of Pompeii, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Parker was writing about the oratorical inadequacy of those who revert rapidly to comparisons to Hitler, and Barney Frank's masterful response to one of his constituents who had a poster in that vein, available here. I don't quite see how the sage from Vesuvius fits that, if this is the quote she's using, but I guess it sounded good at the time.

Oh. My. Lazuli.

At my feeder today:

(Photo from here.)
A male lazuli bunting. The writeups all say they're common in shrubby areas of the western United States, which describes pretty well where I live, but I don't think I've ever seen one before.

He's smaller than I expected - smaller than a house finch sitting at the next feeder perch, but quite beautiful.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Crossing the Borders

Kevin Drum wonders today why traffic from the United States to Canada has dropped suddenly. I can't give a global response, just two recent examples.

A young US couple with two children can't get back into the United States because an immigration official finds a birth certificate somehow lacking. This was before the requirements were increased to passports.

A woman brings her niece and nephews (total: three young children) back to the US from Mexico because of a serious injury to their father while on vacation. A number of her friends put together backup plans up to notifying the congressional delegation if she runs into trouble with immigration. Fortunately, there is no problem.

I have to admit that I am less enthusiastic than I once was about travel, particularly outside the US, because of the TSA and immigration hassles that might or might not take place. I've been terrorized once by TSA and lost a Swiss Army knife to them, although, to their credit, they didn't put me on the terrorist list. Yet.

The United States has always had more intimidating entry procedures than other countries. Now we've extended that unpleasantness to our next-door neighbors.

As we all hear stories like these, from trusted friends and relatives, we all become more apprehensive, less trusting of our own government, more afraid of what it might do to us.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bits and Pieces - August 19, 2009

Happy Birthday to Allan! (Although I know he doesn't read my blogging.)

Norks in Santa Fe today. Probably a good sign for resuming negotiations...eventually.

South Korea decides not to contribute to the problems. The "technical problems" were most likely occasioned by an official phone call from the United States.

Co-ops can work, but they are unfamiliar to most of the country and would take some time to organize, unlike the public option to the health reform bill.

10 reasons to support the health care bills.

Storm havoc in Central Park.

Your daily giggle: British troops on maneuvers with LSD. Via.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bits and Pieces - August 18, 2009

"Your roads are designed to kill people."

Rose Gottemoeller's progress report on negotiations with Russia. I have my doubts that a fissionable materials control treaty is worth the time, but her explanation isn't bad: nuclear arsenals come down, it will become increasingly important to have limitations on fissile material that could be used to produce new weapons.
Sort of a belt-and-suspenders approach. And many thanks to the Department of State's webmaster for getting rid of those little letters marching across the screen.

Historical movies of nuclear tests. YouTube it ain't, but the movies are fascinating. Hat tip to RG.

Steve Benen uses a Daily Kos poll on health care issues to score some points against Republicans, but I thought the real news was how much of the population remains rational.

Boo Yoo! I'm a Berkeley graduate.

Iran may or may not be ready to talk about its nuclear program without preconditions. There's been some movement, apparently backward as well as forward, but that anything like this has been said at all is a hopeful sign. I tend to agree with Trita Parsi that the biggest danger is that internal Iranian unrest will prevent anything from happening.

South Korea rattling missiles. Prelude to an east Asia arms race?

Advertisers continue to pull out from the Glenn Beck Show. Good job,!

A thorough and critical look by a Christian magazine at the C Street house with which several recently adulterous Republicans have been associated. Via.

The Arctic Sea

We still don't know much about what was going on with the Arctic Sea. The Russians and the Maltans (where the ship is registered) claim they knew where the ship was at all times, which makes more sense than its simple disappearance. They didn't say anything to protect the crew, so they say.

I have to say that any situation in which the Russians can blame four Estonians and two Latvians (although there were reported to be two Russian hijackers as well, and some reports are of Lithuanians rather than Latvians, but most say Latvians) turns on my skepticism. And the Estonian and Latvian governments are asking for more information.

The ship's timber cargo was valued at a million British pounds, and insurance was for $4 million, which presumably includes the ship and cargo.

The public facts about the ship and its cargo don't seem to justify a piracy operation, although I wouldn't be surprised to see Russian commentary trending toward the well-known desire of Estonians and Latvians to damage Russia in any way possible and to threaten its free and lawful commerce. I haven't seen that yet, but won't be surprised if it shows up in an official statement. That will send the Estonians and Latvians into a tizzy.

So, as long as I'm speculating, I'll include speculations from some others. Yulia Latynina, who hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio, an independent station often critical of the Russian government, suggests
The Arctic Sea was carrying some sort of anti-aircraft or nuclear contraption intended for a nice, peaceful country like Syria, and they were caught with it. And this wasn’t a one-time delivery. I’m not a believer in the omniscience of the CIA or Mossad, who might have somehow found out that on a certain date a certain old vessel would be delivering a certain little something. Most likely, it was a tried and true route that had been used successfully for quite some time. And now they’ve been caught.
The Estonians are repeating this, probably because they, like me, can see what is likely ahead in posturing.

If Latynina is correct, we're unlikely to ever hear what this was about. Unless, perhaps, the Russians have framed eight men.

Dam Disaster in Siberia

A dam on the Yenesei River in Siberia has been badly damaged and at least 64 people killed. The Guardian reports an explosion and flames, but I don't see them in the video provided.

Paul Goble's report is different:
The deadly disaster at the Sayano-Shushensk dam in Khakassia, the fifth largest hydro-electric facility in the world, occurred because officials sought to generate more electricity than the dam was designed to produce and because Moscow has ignored repeated warnings about such shortcomings or invest in the repair of such critical infrastructure.
He also draws a parallel to Chernobyl:
And in an eerie echo of the Chernobyl atomic power disaster, Russian officials at the dam took pride in the fact that they did not employ any local people, as if that provided a guarantee the dam would be safe. “We have no Tuvans and Khakass,” the deputy director of the hydro-station said in September 2008.
This has been Russian and Soviet policy forever: Russians man the critical infrastructure.

And there is more of a parallel, if the report Goble is translating is correct: the accident at Chernobyl took place because of unauthorized experiments with the power levels.

And the Arctic Sea has been found, the pirate crew mostly made of up Estonians and Latvians, the folks official Russia loves to hate. I'll see if I can glean anything from Postimees and try to post more later. That's a link to the front page, where the Arctic Sea story is the big one right now, but it will change.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Should Be Interesting...

The Third District Congressional Representative for New Mexico, Ben Ray Lujan, is holding a town hall meeting on the health care bill tonight. I had intended to go, drove down to the Unitarian Church somewhat ahead of time, as had suggested.

The parked cars long before I got to the church were a clue. At the church driveway, people were holding up signs: Town Hall at capacity per Fire Marshall. Maneuvering was getting difficult, owing to people stopping to talk with the people holding the signs and a woman headed the wrong way on a one-way street clogged with parked cars on both sides. So I wasn't able to see as much as I would have liked to, and the indications were that hanging around was probably not the greatest idea.

But I did take note of some things. At least two of the local television stations had trucks there. There was an ambulance and a Fire Department Brigade Commander truck, along with a number of police cars.

There were a couple of guys holding signs, one that I don't recall but was clearly anti-reform, and one that said "I'm Pro-Choice on Insurance." I think that may have been anti-reform, but it at first seemed to me that I'm pro-choice on insurance too, and that's why I support, for example, a public option.

So I untangled from the traffic mess and headed home.

Santa Fe is a liberal town. Chat with friends expected none of the rightwing ruckus that's been infecting our public discourse. But I think we were wrong.

Update: Here's the best coverage I've found.

Bits and Pieces - August 17, 2009

New Yorkers rediscover nature. I found a new plant in my flowerbed last week - purple flowers, globular seedpods with fearsome spikes - and couldn't identify it. I should have photographed it, but my excuse is that my life has been fairly crazy lately. Might blog about all that later. I pulled it, but now regret that action.

North Korea reaching out?

Backlash to Whole Foods's CEO's Wall Street Journal health care op-ed.

Britain's Ministry of Defense releases unidentified flying object reports.

More from Bruce Bartlett on the Republican Party and the media.

The Arctic Sea, that ship that disappeared in the Baltic Sea, has been found off the coast of West Africa's Cape Verde. But no explanation of what happened for the last three weeks or so.

Africa is now a nuclear-weapon-free zone.

Georgia is no longer a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. It's not clear that this matters much - the CIS isn't much of an organization.

A slightly flawed flow chart of what the health-care legislation will do. If the Democrats don't gut it trying to respond to Republican crazy.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bits and Pieces - August 16, 2009

Bruce Bartlett thinks he's making a case against George Bush, but it looks to me like it's against conservative economic theories. Look at all the good, for example, Bush's tax cuts did for employment.

The current US health system in action.

This is pretty bizarre, and I don't know how much of it to believe. For example, when I was in Petropavlosk in 2005, it still retained some of the characteristics of being a military zone, which was true of all of Kamchatka, the first land line of defense against the United States. I was told it had opened up only that year. So it's hard to believe that an American plane containing Americans without visas would have been let go so easily. Although a few diplomatic phone calls, a willingness to provide some US currency, I suppose something might be worked out.

Hawks and Nuclear Disarmament

Peter Scoblic argues today in the Los Angeles Times that hawks should be pleased with the idea of nuclear disarmament. It's too easy, he says, for a little country to block our throwing them against the wall if they've got a nuke or two. So no nukes is a good idea.
Yet despite potential flash points with nations such as Russia (over Georgia) or China (over Taiwan), it would be lunacy to engage in combat with either because of the risk of escalation to a nuclear conflict. Abolishing nuclear weapons would obviously not make conflict with those states a good idea, but it would dramatically increase American freedom of action in a crisis.
Sounds very much like the arguments for attacking Iraq/n.

What Scoblic misses is that if we go to zero nuclear weapons, it will be by way of a few hundreds each for Russia and the United States, followed by decreases among those nations in the second nuclear tier, followed by intensive arguments with the one-or-two-nukes holdouts.

Actually, if one is bent on, er, "American freedom of action in a crisis," those last one or two nukes don't matter. If we really wanted to pound North Korea, even without using nukes, we could, but it would be ugly, whether they used their nukes or not.

He also misses that if we go to zero nuclear weapons, other nations will insist on paring down that American conventional superiority. As he notes, those nukes are the great international equalizer, at least when you've got a couple hundred or so.

I'd really like to have a convincing argument for the hawks, but this isn't it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Health Care Mess

There are a couple of thoughtful pieces out there today. I've found myself quite exhausted just thinking about this health-care nightmare, which a friend is facing in spades just now.

David Goldhill has a detailed analysis of our current health system - the whole thing - in The Atlantic. I think he's largely right that we have built a health system that is distorted and dysfunctional, but I am concerned that his comments on current legislation will be distorted to say that we shouldn't do anything now. He believes that the whole system needs to be changed, root and branch, and that the current legislation will barely touch it, in fact may entrench some of the problems.

He's more pessimistic in those comments early on than he is later in the article. My own view is that the current legislation will be highly imperfect, but it will be enough of a change to uncover some of the other problems Goldhill writes about. He focuses on who the customer is, and that focus is quite enlightening.

There's a bit of good news, too. The current health care bill is an improvement on what Howard Dean offered, which seemed quite advanced at the time.

Steve Benen, with Bruce Bartlett, considers the credibility of the Republican Party, those folks who are encouraging the spectacle of people hollering about "death panels" and "socialism" in response to an initiative that most likely will improve their lives. One of the commenters on that thread suggests that what should be acknowledged is that "right-wing ideology is just wrong for America."

Looking back at history, that sounds about right. It was Betsy McCaughey who provided some of the lies against the Clinton health plan in 1994, and she's with us again in 2009. Here's her Wikipedia article, in case, like me, you haven't heard much about her.

Further back, apparently the rhetoric was similar every time the right-wingers decided that they didn't like a country in which citizens were treated equally or would have Social Security to fall back on, or all that stuff that they think the Founding Fathers never intended.

What puzzles me is why so many in the United States can so easily feel that well-being is a zero-sum game. Yes, I know the standard reasons - irresponsible media coverage, hot-button-pressing by Republicans, poorly educated populace. What I don't understand is why it is so easy for so many to give in to their meanest instincts and to be so proud to display them.

I suppose this is the next thing we will hear the Republicans saying that the health care bill will do.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bits and Pieces - August 13, 2009

Busy day today, so Bits and Pieces is earlier than usual.

Someone commented yesterday on the story about the two psychologists behind the development of torture as an acceptable tool in the war on terror that it is impressive how many of the, er, people associated with the uglier practices of the Bush administration seem to be con men and worse. Today we read about more of that sort, who developed the "black sites."

I thought that Hillary Clinton's response to the young man who wanted to know what her husband thought was fair enough. The words didn't read as being out of anger, but I wasn't there to hear her voice. How would a male Secretary of State respond if someone asked what his wife thought? Probably by laughing. The contrast gives a pretty accurate measure of the sexism with which these things continue to be reported. Judith Warner considers the problem, but I think that Jonathan Capehart comes closer to getting it right.

Good-looking makeover, LA Times!

Some photos of the Perseid meteor shower, in case you missed the real thing.

Keeping flying unpleasant.

The solution to the use of cell phones while driving would be a scrambler or blocker that prevents signals from getting outside the car once the ignition is turned on. A car is already almost a Faraday cage, a shell of metal that prevents transmissions from within it, so a technical fix can't be that difficult!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Use Your Auspicious Coconut

At long last, a nuclear sub for India.

Some other figures (from Unicef):
  • 42% of population below international poverty line of US$1.25 per day, 2005
  • 66% Total adult literacy rate, 2000–2007

Oh, and the Maharashtra State Government is also now planning building this beast (I think they hired someone from The Onion to do the artist's rendering):

The press release notes early on that it will be "four feet taller" than the Statue of Liberty (we should just send it back!).

It will only cost Rs. 200 crore (or about $42 million USD).

(Both images from The Indian Express)

Bits and Pieces - August 12, 2009

The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Atomic Radiation. There's some discussion at the link about the cover design. It's probably related to Op Art, which was popular when the book was published. The cover design is just a set of concentric circles overlaid with parallel lines, and every other space created by the intersection colored. Not too uncommon for those times. I used to do a lot of that kind of design-making, even before Op Art. (Thanks to Barba!)

Pirates in the Baltic Sea!

What US taxpayers are paying Goldman Sachs employees to participate in a gold-plated health plan.

The Brits, including Steven Hawking, strike back in favor of their health plan.

After that airplane-helicopter crash over the Hudson River, there are the usual sweaty palms about little airplanes and even big ones. I'm a pilot, and I'll just say that some pilots, usually the ones who say that everything is just fine, they can keep track of the traffic, fly like they drive. That is not a compliment. I don't fly any more, and sometimes when I'm driving I even make a series of right-hand turns around the block rather than try a difficult left-hand turn. You may make your own judgements about my viewpoint. And, oh yeah, how many people died in automobile accidents that day?

Alexandra Petri makes it sound like Smokey the Bear, whose sixty-fifth birthday is today, was strictly the product of an ad agency. Here's, as they say, the rest of the story.

The Torturers

The New York Times today has a profile of the two men who appear to have started it all. Sort of psychologists, fell into particular roles while in the military, decided they could make some good money at it as contractors after they got out. Not an uncommon pattern; I know a great many scientists whose careers have followed a similar trajectory.

Except that the product these two were selling turned out to be torture when combined with the predelictions of the Bush administration after 9/11.
“I feel their primary motivation was they thought they had skills and insights that would make the nation safer,” Colonel Kleinman [an acquaintance of the two men] said. “But good persons in extreme circumstances can do horrific things.”
Their psychology training was in areas far removed from interrogation. Otherwise Jessen might have figured out what was wrong with this:
At the SERE graduate school, Dr. Jessen is remembered for an unusual job switch, from supervising psychologist to mock enemy interrogator.

Dr. Jessen became so aggressive in that role that colleagues intervened to rein him in, showing him videotape of his “pretty scary” performance, another official recalled.
He might have known about Philip Zimbardo's prison experiment in the 1970s, in which college students readily took on the identities of prisoners and brutal guards. As a psychologist friend once said to me, "Attitude follows behavior." And Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen they were also being positively reinforced by money as contractors to the military.
“It was clear that this is what we’d expect from our enemies,” said Dr. Mays, now a clinical psychologist and lawyer in Spokane. “It was not something I could ever imagine Americans would do.”
Zimbardo's experiment showed that it was something anyone would do.

Two men set out to provide for a comfortable retirement on the basis of what and who they knew, exploiting the reaction to 9/11. But there should have been checks and balances from others. Philip Zimbardo could have told them. My psychologist friend could have told them. There's an institutional problem here as well. Part of it is a culture that is too quick to contract out difficult issues with too little oversight. Part of it was the Bush administration's love of the unitary executive.

We won't fully know how it all fit together and how to prevent it happening in the future until we investigate in a coordinated way. That's why we need some sort of governmental investigation.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bits and Pieces - August 11, 2009

Safe and happy travels, Helmut!

Is it unnatural not to know the names of the wildlife around you?

Pakistan's nuclear weapons facilities have been attacked. I thought that nobody was supposed to know where they were.

Some true end-of-life stories. When the discussion includes costs, as political discussions will in these monetary-conscious days, it will be easy to make end-of-life decisions sound crass. If you've been through them (and I have), you know that the truth is closer to these. My situation was made much easier by written directives, conversations with my mother while she was well, and medical personnel supported by law.

Mutual suspicions in Asia.

Relaxation Healthcare

After wrangling with a family that's going increasingly deaf to reason and reality, who inhabit an alternative universe in which exist death panels, euthanasia camps, abandoned elderly, general Marxist government, and various other oogedy-boogedies... and after a very busy work summer in offline land, I need a break to the land where mangosteens are abundant and fresh. I'll be back in a few weeks, maybe with a small post or two in the meantime. But probably not. Cheryl, Barba, and MT have the fort.

Reactor Reminiscence

Every once in a while, something reminds me of old reactors. This, for example. But, more than that, there is something called a pebble-bed reactor that has sounded to me like it's a descendent of a couple of reactors that I was close to back in the day.

I check the Web from time to time, and I haven't been able to find much on them. Until today! One of them was the Ultra High Temperature Reactor Experiment (UHTREX), and the other was its antecedent, the Rover space propellant reactor. Wikipedia now has a reasonably accurate article on UHTREX, and I see that the Japanese are attributing the ancestry as I thought.

I couldn't find as much about Rover. There was a brief flurry of attention to it a few years back, for a Moon-to-Mars run, but little of that gave proper credit to the history.

When I was in the reactor division, one of my responsibilities was collating the quarterly progress reports. The higher-ups seldom sent them on, however, despite my and others' nagging, so the lack of Web information on UHTREX didn't surprise me. I told them that was what would happen!

And the stories that didn't make it into that little Rover reminiscence I linked! Like the time they fired up a Rover reactor to destruction at the Nevada Test site. The reactor was relatively compact, a bomb, you might say. And it made a little mushroom cloud when it disintegrated. Shortly after the atmospheric test ban treaty. There was some scrambling to explain that one.

The Rover fuel elements were quite elegant: pyrolytic (very hard) graphite, about three feet long, hexagonal cross section a centimeter or two across, and holes down the length. Even back in the eighties, there was an unloaded (no uranium) one in a conference room that we used for a pointer.

Whose Fissile Material To Control?

The arms control crowd has wanted a fissile material control treaty (FMCT) for a very long time, and President Obama agrees. Such a treaty would prohibit the manufacture of fissile material (mainly enriched uranium and plutonium) for use in weapons.

The FMCT has been discussed in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (more here), not that body's liveliest forum, although it was instrumental in developing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. The history of the FMCT has been of blocking by one nation or another, to a point where it is barely discussed.

Why should that be? The purpose of the treaty is to end the manufacture of fissile material for nuclear weapons. Whose interests this serves is obvious. The United States and Russia have far more than they need; in fact, they are now burning excess weapons uranium in reactors and arguing about how to dispose of the plutonium - in reactors or by mixing with much more radioactive stuff and burial. They don't need any more.

The other NPT nuclear weapon states are also pretty well fixed for fissile material: the United Kingdom and France have plenty, and China may want a bit more, but probably not much. In any case, China hasn't been saying much on an FMCT.

The nations that have signed up to the NPT as non nuclear weapon states have essentially signed on to an FMCT: they've agreed not to make nuclear weapons, so they're not producing fissile material to that end.

The outliers are the three outside the NPT: India, Israel, and Pakistan; along with North Korea, which has withdrawn and tested two nuclear devices, and Iran, which remains within the NPT but has been developing the capability to produce fissionable material with some indications that it may be or may have been interested in using those materials in weapons.

An FMCT would not affect the behavior of the NPT nuclear five, nor of most of the non nuclear weapon states. So presumably it is directed at the five outliers. I say "directed at" because none of those states has pressed for an FMCT, although India reluctantly agreed to follow the US lead on the subject as part of its obligations in the nuclear trade pact negotiated under the Bush administration.

I keep wondering what makes anyone think that any of these five would eagerly (or reluctantly) sign on to an FMCT. We've sort of got India's agreement, yes, although during the discussions of the trade pact, there was strong resistance to any limits on India's nuclear material production, which continues.

Perhaps the benefit of an FMCT would be codification of increased surveillance of fissile material in the nuclear weapon states, which will be needed anyway as the numbers of nuclear weapons are negotiated down. That surveillance could be extended to other states as well.

Couldn't the time and effort toward an FMCT be spent more constructively? Why does anyone think that the states of concern would sign up? What does an FMCT do that the NPT doesn't?

We hear today that Pakistan is blocking progress on an FMCT in the Conference on Disarmament. Well, duh. Given that Pakistan is building two new reactors to furnish weapons plutonium and has repeated that it needs to counterbalance India's nuclear force, why did anyone expect anything else?

Monday, August 10, 2009


It's been an absolutely horrible Monday, with all that proper noun implies. But I'm not happy with leaving a trivial and crabby post at the top of the blog. So I've been looking all day. Maybe it was the frozen vodka I poured myself, into the frozen glasses I keep for that purpose. But I finally found something that provoked me to laugh. So here is Giustino, part Estonian, part American, part Italian, navigating through what used to be his home country.

And, sorry, the title is quite beyond my ability to translate. I think it has to do with crabs or cancer, rotation, and lines. I'm wondering if it's a variant on my crabby posts, sometimes on bits and pieces. But it's much better than mine when I do that.

Tänan väga, Giustino!

To complement Giustino's post, here's an Estonian flower. For the full surreal effect, click on it.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Him. Who.

Scott Horton frequently does us a service on the weekends and presents a quote, frequently not in English, that is worth thinking about, along with visual art, his translation and thoughts, sometimes with music.

I usually enjoy those posts, although they are sometimes pretentious. And I know everyone hates the grammar police.


Today's contribution contains this:
But too many people now scale the cross merely to be seen from a distance, even if they have to trample he who has been there so long in the process.

The sentence is overall awkward, but what really hurts is that he who. It's him, because the word is the direct object of the verb trample. It's who because the word is the subject of the clause modifying him. They don't have to be the same case. In fact, they shouldn't be.

Quote of the Day

Real culture lives by sympathies and admirations, not by dislikes and disdain—under all misleading wrappings it pounces unerringly upon the human core.

- William James, 1907

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Mob Rule

DougJ snags this from Peggy Noonan:
We have entered uncharted territory in the fight over national health care. There’s a new tone in the debate, and it’s ugly. At the moment the Democrats are looking like something they haven’t looked like in years, and that is: desperate.

They must know at this point they should not have pushed a national health-care plan...

You know what would happen if he did this (nixed health care legislation)? His numbers would go up. Even Congress’s would. Because they’d look responsive, deliberative and even wise. Discretion is the better part of valor.

Absent that, and let’s assume that won’t happen, the health-care protesters have to make sure they don’t get too hot, or get out of hand. They haven’t so far, they’ve been burly and full of debate, with plenty of booing. This is democracy’s great barbaric yawp. But every day the meetings seem just a little angrier, and people who are afraid—who have been made afraid, and left to be afraid—can get swept up.

No, this is mob rule. To back off legislation because a small minority who haven't actually read and tried to understand the bills, incited by demagogic "news" sources and cynical and immoral Republican political leaders, have come to shout unthinking epithets at others trying to explain the bills would be to bow to mob rule. It would express a fundamental denial of trust in democracy, which is not a matter of who shouts the loudest no matter what people like Noonan say. Real discussion implies a willingness, however slim, to change your mind if another's view is stronger and more sensible than your own. This is the basis of public rationality, which is fundamental to the very nature of democracy, particularly our founding Jeffersonian version.

Mob rule is an ever-present threat to democracy, not democracy itself. In this case, it doesn't even amount to the most primitive version of democracy, basic numerical majority rule.

Deadly Healthcare Policy

Obamacare will lead to the euthanasia of old people who are then converted into soylent green to feed the hungry. Haha.

But... Steve Benen directs us to Fox News implying just that. Benen muses,
It must be challenging to be a political writer trying to parody conservative arguments. Prominent Republicans, who are either stark raving mad or pretending to be, are speaking publicly about "government-encouraged euthanasia" and "death panels." How does a satirist exaggerate for effect when the right-wing has gone mad?
Sadly, it's true. I was going to ask if we could come up with similarly dark or absurd policies to which an Obama healthcare bill will most obviously lead. But it really is hard to outdo what many Republicans are already saying.

Here's an idea, but I don't have the wherewithal to carry it out: a healthcare policy generator. Enter a few nouns and verbs - e.g., a monkey, tiki torches, anti-depressants, Maxwell Smart, tomato gardening, and colliding atoms - along with a few standard healthcare terms, a bureaucratic grammatical structure, and a few racist codewords, and out spits a spin-off policy from healthcare reform.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Bits and Pieces - August 7, 2009

Tailfins of 1959.

A Republican endorses the Clintons' diplomacy with North Korea.

One way those in government can go wrong in managing contracts. I was taught to always offer to pay for my lunch when with vendors. Sometimes they would just sit up straight when I did that. And it ended all sorts of discussions that might have taken place.

Missile defense in Europe may cost a lot more than we've been told. But there was a clue: the initial estimate of $2.6 billion for development, testing, and procurement. That means that the system was nowhere near ready for deployment. So it's likely that the latest increase would be just one of many.

The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who got a lot right on Iraq, say that Iran is unlikely to have the enriched uranium for a bomb before 2013. Other info from the DNI here.

Was the social-networking outage aimed at a Georgian blogger? This needs to be investigated; might give some information about the denial of service attacks against Estonia and Georgia. Or can we put that circumstantial pattern together and draw a conclusion?

It's silly season in Europe.

How to disrupt the disrupters. And a test of character.

Why we need comparative effectiveness research.

Republican recommendations (from a while back) on care for the elderly.

Chinese Berry

Healthcare "Political Terrorists"

Wow. The Washington Post suddenly got some balls. Steven Pearlstein (via Balloon Juice):

The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.

There are lots of valid criticisms that can be made against the health reform plans moving through Congress -- I've made a few myself. But there is no credible way to look at what has been proposed by the president or any congressional committee and conclude that these will result in a government takeover of the health-care system. That is a flat-out lie whose only purpose is to scare the public and stop political conversation...

While holding themselves out as paragons of fiscal rectitude, Republicans grandstand against just about every idea to reduce the amount of health care people consume or the prices paid to health-care providers -- the only two ways I can think of to credibly bring health spending under control.

When Democrats, for example, propose to fund research to give doctors, patients and health plans better information on what works and what doesn't, Republicans sense a sinister plot to have the government decide what treatments you will get. By the same wacko-logic, a proposal that Medicare pay for counseling on end-of-life care is transformed into a secret plan for mass euthanasia of the elderly.

Government negotiation on drug prices? The end of medical innovation as we know it, according to the GOP's Dr. No. Reduce Medicare payments to overpriced specialists and inefficient hospitals? The first step on the slippery slope toward rationing.

Can there be anyone more two-faced than the Republican leaders who in one breath rail against the evils of government-run health care and in another propose a government-subsidized high-risk pool for people with chronic illness, government-subsidized community health centers for the uninsured, and opening up Medicare to people at age 55?

Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society -- whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off. Republican leaders are eager to see us fail that test. We need to show them that no matter how many lies they tell or how many scare tactics they concoct, Americans will come together and get this done.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Bits and Pieces - August 6, 2009

Congratulations to Sonia Sotomayor and to the United States Senate!

You do not have health insurance. A very good response to those opposed to the reform bill.

This is a move forward in the nuclear talks between the United States and Russia. Tactical nuclear weapons have not been regulated by previous arms control treaties, although both countries withdrew many of them from forward bases and probably destroyed many of them. Tactical nuclear weapons are the most likely to be stolen by terrorists, because they tend to be small and relatively portable. Russia has many more than does the United States and tends to feel that they make up for weakness in its conventional forces, so it will probably be resistant to reductions. But the United States still has a couple of hundred in Europe, so removing them might give Russia a bit more confidence about the US role in Europe.

Two resupply ships for the Antarctic science base may have to be replaced because they use potentially environmentally damaging fuel.

A photo from inside Israel's secret Dimona reactor installation. I have no idea what the apparatus is. Possibly a water purifier.

A lot of the criticism of Sheila Bair is due to sexism. I wish Tkacik had made a stronger case, although "personality conflict" and the other oblique accusations frequently are just a way of saying the boys' club doesn't want any of your kind.

George Monbiot: Let Battle Commence!

George Monbiot has been challenging Ian Plimer to back up some of his claims. Plimer is an Australian geologist and the author of a recent book supposedly debunking the idea that humans are changing global climate. Now Plimer has accepted Monbiot's challenge. If Plimer answers a long list of Monbiot's questions, the two will debate climate change.

Monbiot has posted eleven questions relating to claims in Plimer's book. They are pretty much deadly dull, unless you've read the book as closely as Monbiot obviously has. Most of them focus on the sources of Plimer's claims, with some apparent misquotes. Monbiot also asks if the misquotes are accidents or deliberate distortions.

I'm not sure much will come out of this beyond a small bump up in readership for The Guardian. Plimer likely will obfuscate, Monbiot will attack, and the questions will remain deadly dull. There will be an argument as to whether the debate should proceed.

If Plimer admits mistakes and answers the questions clearly, the legs would be kicked out from under his book. If so many mistakes, why shouldn't we believe that there are more? And were they, indeed, mistakes or deliberate distortions?

If Plimer answers at all honestly and defends his positions, we might get a look into the thinking of climate deniers. I would like to think that a geologist has backed up his conclusions scientifically, even if only sketchily. And I would hope he would check the references he uses in a book.

Bad kids of bad leaders

A partly depressing conversation tonight with a friend visiting DC from his temporary residence in Tajikistan. The depressing part came when he started describing Tajikistan. It's a state in which corruption has been naturalized and ultimately transcended into a post-corruption state. The post-corruption state (to coin a term, as far as I know) is a state in which it is completely natural for people in the streets to be killed by members of the government family speeding their Porsche Cayennes through red lights, with no recourse for the next of kin. A state in which tens of thousands of people starving to death last year can't keep the president from building a new marble palace. A state in which the president's daughter felt free to seize a successful supermarket chain from an enterprising businessman by having him thrown in jail for paying a bribe of about 4 dollars, a bribe which is otherwise a normal fact of life in the country ruled by her family.

But foreign aid keeps flowing into the country, which doesn't seem to be lacking in international relationships. It also has a rather rosy Wikipedia page.

Foreign Policy runs a couple of brief lists of the "World's Worst" sons and daughters. Nepotism will get you far.

Popoulu bananas

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Bits and Pieces - August 5, 2009

Paul Richter gets some of the background on the North Korean release of the journalists.

The Brits are thinking of replacing short-haul airplane flights with high-speed rail. The airlines don't like it.

Michael Gerson thinks needle exchange is a good idea.

A 95-year-old Jewish sabra renounces Zionism.

Two British satellites have been launched with the specific purpose of monitoring disasters.

Natural history museums as DNA repositories.

I loves me some overhead photos of mysterious buildings in the jungle. I've left a comment and expect there will be more discussion.

Public Intellectuals

I was looking forward to Crooked Timber’s discussion of the book What are Intellectuals Good For?, which is going on this week. I have to say I’m disappointed.

I would have thought that the joining of the words public and intellectual meant that the discussion such a person puts forth would be accessible to the, um, public. Perhaps not so much the meta-discussion of people to whom that label might be applied, though.

I have to admit that, in anti-intellectual fashion, I have not read the book under discussion. And, frankly, when I read some of the posts, I am glad to have foregone that pleasure in favor of others, which I will explicate further down in this post. (I am aiming my language to the level of the CT discussion.)

As a sometimes cranky scientist, and having read CT before, I figured that scientists would not be under consideration as public intellectuals, and I was right. The names of people being considered for that title are, in fact, rather few, far between, and not well known to the public. Or at least a public beyond the humanities departments of universities. The whole discussion tends toward abstractions rather than real people.

So what constitutes a public intellectual? My rather simple and obvious definition would be someone who qualifies generally as an intellectual but makes her/his thoughts available to the public. So we might include Glen Whitney, who leads mathematics tours around Manhattan. Or Stephen Pinker, who is always talking about something or other. Or the folks at RealClimate and P. Z. Myers, who brings snark to evolution.

Blogs, of course, are an interesting addition to public intellectualism. Their audience is likely to be fairly specialized, but perhaps the administrative assistant with an interest in science and the bureaucrat with an interest in art history get their daily lift from the appropriate blog. It’s really hard, for the most part, to figure out who’s reading which blog.

What’s that you say? I mentioned only science and math types? It must be my blinkered scientist outlook. Certainly there are many blogs out there that cater to the humanities, like Crooked Timber. And we can consider Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate who writes columns and blogs about economics and politics.

But those books I’m currently reading. One is the beautifully-produced Manahatta, by Eric W. Sanderson, an the Associate Director for Landscape Ecology and Geographic Analysis in the Living Landscape Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, with illustrations by Markely Boyer. The book reconstructs what New York City, Manhattan in particular, looked like before the Europeans arrived.

Another is Achieving Our Country an easy political read by a philosopher, Richard Rorty, who is mentioned at CT, largely as a foil to Christopher Lasch (whom Rorty mentions in the book) and Victor Davis Hansen. Victor Davis Hansen?

The third book I’m reading is Mothers and Others, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who identifies herself as a sociobiologist. She’s written a number of books on how we humans got to be the way we are. They’re fairly easy to read, at least as easy as anything by Rorty or Lasch, and they provide alternatives to a common sociobiological wisdom that’s settled in: humans are competitive, males need the sexual beauty of teenage females, males are polygamous while females are monogamous, and so on. It’s seemed to me that being of middle size or even smallish for the African savannah, not having heavy-duty teeth or claws, humans had to exploit some other qualities, like cooperation, in order to survive. Hrdy studies and writes about those other qualities.

Come to think of it, I’m not recalling any female names in the CT discussion, either discussers or discussed. Someone said something about those “outside the cave” as though that phrase referred to the CT discussers. I had to chuckle when I read that.

More Not Better Blues

After lots of icy towels and ibuprofen, and then a visit by a doctor, I managed to halt and then reduce a terrible fever early this week. It was the kind that makes your hands numb and makes it hard to speak. The doctor was curt and professional and did not react to my dramatic, slurred complaint that something was trying to kill me from within. His visit was both efficient and inexpensive, and the pharmaceuticals he prescribed were very, very inexpensive. I'm living in India at present.

But there's no sense even pretending that the healthcare system here in India is working terribly well. There are many, many thousands of excellent doctors here, but this country struggles with such massive inequalities, fiscal and ethnic and every intersection of those two and more, and such tremendous infrastructural holes that it looks like it will be a long time before the national picture of its healthcare can compare to countries that do it well.

What is remarkable from this perspective, though, is how poorly and unequally people in the United States are treated, given our tremendous wealth and technological infrastructure. How did it get so out of whack? And why are people so hell-bent on making sure it stays exactly the way it is?

When I could type well enough for browsing, again, I naturally had a look at Cheryl's links to rebuttals of anti-healthcare reform arguments (though, as for that, calling any of those 'arguments' is itself a stretch; they're mostly just depressing).

And then, like two months after it was published, I got around last night to reading McAllen, Texas and the high cost of health care, over at It's wonderfully disturbing. Short version: more money is spent on healthcare in McAllen than anywhere else in the country. As of a couple years ago, a little more than twice the national average. And people there are no healthier. Hint: it has to do with money. Money money money.

And then read, from July 29, the story about the lobbying and contributions from a hospital in, uh, McAllen, Texas.

And then read today's story about ghostwritten articles for medical journals!

I'll be visiting the states for a while over the winter holidays. Here's hoping I don't get sick while I'm there, as I'm not covered for it.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Bill Clinton in North Korea

It probably would have been Bill Richardson, except for this.

James Fallows speculates that Clinton's presence may have something to do with the Box in Myanmar, as well as the two reporters being held in North Korea.

I'm sure it does, but perhaps only indirectly.

Part of North Korea's gripe is that it wants higher-level attention from the United States. Bill Clinton is pretty high up, although his position is not official. However, North Korea's fondness for that other Bill was independent of his stature in the US government. And Clinton did manage to negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework, which George Bush trashed.

But North Korea has also been making noises about formally ending the Korean War, and Bill Clinton's charm is unlikely to make those noises go away.

His status may give an opening. It's unlikely that he was sent without consultation with the North Koreans.

Update: That was fast. The two reporters are said to have been pardoned. And I wonder if Russia and China have been talking to North Korea behind the scenes.

Those E-mails of August: Material for Rebuttal

Clearly those against health-insurance reform are e-mailing in force. Over the past few days, I've picked up some nice material for rebuttals, in addition to what I suggested earlier.

There is a very long e-mail circulating that supposedly is an analysis of the health-care bill. Here are two almost equally long fact checks, from Politifact and Huffington Post.

Jonathan Alter: What's Not to Like? The sarcastic approach.

A Canadian doctor and policy expert on the differences between their health-care system and ours.

And how firefighting went from fighting among the firefighters to our current socialistic system.

Monday, August 03, 2009

War as the Remedy to Nuclear Ambitions

Stephen Walt reminds us again today that attacking a country to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons has been proposed before. It would have been the US against the Soviet Union or against China in the fifties and sixties. And then there was Iraq...
...trying to re-establish and preserve a nuclear monopoly would be very costly, and would have required the United States to fight a series of preventive wars. U.S. leaders thought seriously about preventive war against the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, and pondered it again when China was developing its own nuclear arsenal. We should all be grateful that cooler heads prevailed, because nuclear strikes or a conventional invasion of the Soviet Union or China would have been a disaster for the United States. We did invade Iraq in 2003 in order to end Saddam's WMD ambitions once and for all -- unaware that he'd already abandoned them -- and we all know how well that worked out.
Let's remind Israel about all that too.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The August E-Mail Onslaught

When I received two viral e-mails in favor continuing the regime of obscene insurance company profits while destroying people's lives for getting sick from people I would have thought knew better, it occurred to me that the Congressional recess would be rife with such things.

Hootsbuddy, who evidently has more friends like that, debunks a number of the claims that are multiplying even as you read this.

My response was to e-mail back a suggestion that Ezra Klein and Kevin Drum are supplying reliable information and quoted Obama's eight points for health care reform, all with links. As an afterthought, I added this. Full text, with a link and an admonition to send it on.

Every one of those e-mails I get will get a response.

Deep in the Nuclear Weeds

Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) offered an amendment that would have made it difficult to ratify a followon START treaty, once it is negotiated. The amendment was greatly watered down and passed. A number of people in the blogosphere have opined both on the original amendment and the version that passed. Jeffrey Lewis is one, and he links to others.

My take is different. This is a political warning: Kyl and other opponents of improved relations and arms control between the United States and Russia will continue to come up with monkey wrenches to throw in the START machinery. It is essential to keep watch for attempts to John Bolton-ize the process.

Jeff gets pretty deep in the weeds by considering the meaning of modernization. There are a couple of assumptions in his discussion; one has marked too much of the discussion of, er, modernization and has avoided a rational discussion of what is needed in the nuclear complex, and the other is an interesting manifestation of a related concept that is part of the “New Triad,” but never explicated to my satisfaction. So I guess I’m headed even deeper, among the soil grains and slime molds. Or maybe I’m backing off to look at the whole meadow.

Perhaps the first is less than an assumption: if the nuclear weapons complex needs buildings, people, funding, modernization, what it needs depends on what the nuclear weapons complex should be doing. Should it be keeping the nuclear weapons in the stockpile usable and credible as a deterrent? (I keep asking what it means to have a nuclear deterrent, but we’ll let that ride for now.) Should it be disassembling the nuclear weapons that are being taken out of service and communicating with the appropriate parties about the results? Should it be developing new, er, modernized weapon designs?

Should it be standing by, alert and ready, to provide underground testing and other activities that would increase deterrence? This now begins to get into that “New Triad” question. One of the three corners of that triad is a nimble and capable nuclear weapons complex, ready to do all those things.

The bottom line is that the shape of the complex depends on what the complex is supposed to do. Jeff cites a letter signed by senators on both sides of the aisle:
We believe that when the START treaty is submitted, you should also submit a plan, including a funding estimate for FY11 (and out years across the next decade), to enhance the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile, to modernize the nuclear weapons complex (i.e. improve the safety of facilities, modernize the infrastructure, maintain the key capabilities and competencies of the nuclear weapons workforce — the designers and the technicians), and to maintain the delivery platforms.
Nice generalities, like the generalities that Congress has spouted so many times before. Congress appropriates funding for the complex, a program here and a program there, another program and a program taken away, while providing those nice words. Occasionally a big program gets a big facility, like Livermore’s National Ignition Facility. But never a look at the big picture.

The Department of Energy is supposed to do some of that, of course, and they will provide the report required by the watered-down amendment. The DOE has come up with vast dreams for a new nuclear weapons complex, without cost figures or options for various sizes of stockpile. Congress, to its credit, has been leery of funding such open-ended plans. Modernization is likely to mean whatever the DOE wants it to mean at that time, slightly modified by its trip through the administration to the President.

Saturday, August 01, 2009