Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Farmers Against Climate Change Legislation

Unfortunately, for US farmers (via the Wege):

The thing is that farmers should understand quite possibly better than anyone else, life scientists included, the fact that nature's cycles operate on multiple spatio-temporal scales. They should understand better than anyone else how crucial it is, because it is of the essence of what they do, that planning over not simply the short-term but the long term is both vital to survival and fraught with potential error, external risk, and uncertainty. They know that knowledge of the natural environment, the land and water and flora and fauna, of complex systems of which human beings are a part, is always provisional knowledge regarding which claims to infallibility or self-certainty or putting things off until later - the claims of the Aesopian grasshopper - seals human fate. They know that human action can lead to ecosystemic collapse on relkatively immediate temporal scales and from which recovery might be impossible regardless of technological prowess. They know better than most people how human action is an ongoing feedback loop informing the conditions of the natural environment, which in return is an informational feedback loop to the farmer regarding how he/she ought to adjust her/his practices so that both survive. There's always the possibility that next year will be radically different than the current year.

The very reality of climate change and of human responsibilities and behavioral changes in response is something farmers should be able to get more than anyone else. I imagine many do. And I imagine it's a real moral struggle for these farmers in the face of potentially higher costs to themselves over the short-term. That's also obviously a matter of survival. But it's also true that agriculture in the US today is an industry managed in large measure from agribusiness office suites in Chicago skyscrapers.

That distance itself has served to convert the long-term wisdom of the farmer into the shorter-term focus of the industrial capitalist. I wonder about the extent to which this situation is a loss to us all.

Extending Unemployment Benefits the Congressional Way

Sometimes you just want to scream at the multifarious ways in which a government leader can simultaneously lie, mislead, bullshit, and convey the view that his constituents are stupid. Really, it's indecent. Digby:

Moments ago, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) took to the chamber floor with a strange claim about the urgency surrounding legislation to extend unemployment insurance.

“The benefits haven’t run out yet,” Kyl said. “We’re going to pass this before the benefits run out.”

It’s tough to decipher exactly what he means. Roughly 400,000 folks exhausted their federal unemployment benefits in September, with another 200,000 projected to do the same by the end of October, according to a recent study by the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group. By the end of the year, NELP estimates that 1.3 million Americans will have exhausted their benefits unless Congress steps in with an extension. Each day the Senate dallies, another 7,000 people go off the rolls.

I guess Kyl thinks these lazy bastards should just tap into their trust funds. isn't that what everyone does?

And in case anyone doubts that the Republicans are holding a gun to the heads of the unemployed purely for political purposes, put them away:

Kyl claimed that Democrats are to blame for stalling legislation to extend unemployment benefits because party leaders are resisting consideration of several unrelated GOP amendments.

“We could have been done with this bill 24 hours ago,” Kyl said. “We didn’t ask for the delay.”

Right. If the Democrats want to help these unemployed people all they have to do is pass a bunch of bills declaring ACORN a communist organization and bashing immigrants and they can have it. They only have themselves to blame if the people suffer.

And then we have the words of the man fighting for Joe Lieberman's old position as the most sanctimonious, fatuous blowhard in the House of Lords:

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the slow pace of the Senate is a blessing of design, shielding the country from de Tocqueville’s feared “tyranny of the majority.”

“Unlimited debate. Unlimited amendment,” Alexander said. “There’s no need for the United States Senate if we don’t have that. … This is the body that protects the minority view.”

Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!

yes, it's an inspiring thing to see "the minority" literally take the food out of people's mouths and then brag about it. Makes you proud to be an American.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bits and Pieces - October 30, 2009

Stockpiling Tamiflu for the privileged.

Pakistan claims it has picked up passports linked to 9/11 and other terror attacks in Waziristan. The Guardian notes that the passports have not been authenticated.

Unstable states on the verge of splitting.

This story reminds me of the story of the bear and the pig. The bear starts the day with a supply of baked potatoes, and the pig with a supply of cabbage stew. The bear has a nickel. He has no customers and gets hungry, so he goes to the pig and buys a bowl of cabbage stew for his nickel and eats the stew. A bit later, the pig buys a baked potato with the nickel from the bear and eats it. And so goes the day, until all potatoes and cabbage stew are eaten, and only the nickel is left.

Quote of the day from John Ballard:
I want a vaccine that stops ignorance but most of those who need it would refuse to have anything to do with it.
What's wrong with the Bay Bridge in full photographic detail. h/t to Adam Rofer.

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of Orson Welles's radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Start here. Armchair Generalist is doing an obligato on the theme, starting here. Posting on the situation continues as I write.

Battling Drone Graphs

An interesting graph showing the ratio of civilian deaths to militant deaths from drone attacks in Pakistan (via). As with most things when it comes to Obama, the reality behind the numbers represents real difference between his presidency and that of his predecessors'. This decline in civilian deaths and apparent increase in enemy deaths caused by drone strikes indicates that before condemning drones outright as an inherently bad military technology (and there are other reasons to condemn the technology), we perhaps ought to consider the extent to which the way the technology is used matters. I would guess that after only nine months we could find lots of other statistical information on a number of fronts across the US government that show, all else being equal, similarly striking differences between the current and former administrations.

Right, that's still a high number of civilian deaths. But the graph here, if accurate, demonstrates some characteristics that distinguish Obama's approach. It suggests that Obama understands that you can't indiscriminately bomb your way to victory. Just because your enemies don't subscribe to the principle of non-combatant immunity doesn't mean that you can lift your subscription to the principle when it comes to anyone who looks like your enemy, let alone ignoring it in general. It took eight years to learn it, apparently, but indiscriminate killing and reinforcing beliefs that that's acceptable because your targets are "evil" is a sure-fire way to either lose a war or commit genocide.

Wait a minute.... This graph below says something quite different, at least about the first point raised above. Take a look and let me know what you think.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Coming Full Circle

Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation, from 1950:
In Western tradition negotiation was bargaining to achieve a mutually desired agreement. In communist doctrine it was war by political means to achieve an end unacceptable to the other side.
Replace communist with neoconservative. After all, they started out as Trotskyites.

Update: Compare Robert Kagan's op-ed today in the Washington Post. And his reference to poker. Acheson also had to put up with those poker references.
These resorts to the language of poker showed the recklessness of the gamble inherent in them.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Climate Modeling News

A couple of papers lately with big implications for climate modelers.

In the 9 October Science magazine, H. Cheng et al. make some big connections between glacier melt in the North Atlantic, Asian monsoons, and the ends of ice ages. There's no simple explanation. Jeffrey Severinghaus gives a nice summary in that issue of the magazine, but it's also hard to cut down in length. The last paragraph gives a flavor of the intertwined feedbacks.
Cheng et al. thus confirm the astronomical theory of the ice ages, but with a twist: The shutoff of the MOC [Atlantic meridional overturning circulation] and its associated southward shift of tropical rian belts, warming of the Southern Hemisphere..., and rise in atmospheric CO2 plays an integral role in the meltdown of the great ice sheets. Using monsoons to improve dating precision across the whole suite of paleodata, Cheng et al. show the way to the first coherent narrative that truly explains terminations and the inseparable question of what causes the ice age cycles.
In the 16 October Science, archaea and bacteria are reported to have been found in ocean-floor cold seeps that fix nitrogen. There have recently been some problems in modeling the nitrogen balance of oceans. This discovery may help to fix that.

It's frustrating that Science keeps their articles behind a subscription wall. I probably should sign up for the on-line version instead of depending on the dead-tree one.

Bonus: you can use the quote above as a Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper™.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bits and Pieces - October 27. 2009

This is really, really important. Modernizing the nation's electrical grid will save energy and improve energy security while providing jobs. And we're going to do it!

Photos from the weekend's global warming demonstrations.

Seven hundred people arrested across the nation in sex-trafficking rings. And a few days ago, more than three hundred in La Familia Michoacana's drug trafficking. I'm looking forward to Republican praise for the Justice Department.

Stop this man before he destroys the world economy again!

More greed in the financial industry. Goldman says that lack of transparency benefits Goldman and hurts the small investor, and that's the way it should be.

Women pay more for health insurance.

Support for Blue Dogs - not so much. Could it be their opposition to health reform legislation?

Why criminalizing illegal immigration is dumb.

Environmental war?

Pliosaur in Dorset! Those fossil cliffs are great; the inspiration for The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Central Asia under Stalin.

Florida real-estate developer Mel Sembler, whose last foray onto the political stage was as chair of the Scooter Libby Defense Trust, is financing Dick Cheney's latest efforts.

Texas in Taos. I suppose it's not a surprise after that Louisiana judge who wouldn't marry that interracial couple as a favor to their children.

The Obama Amendment to Godwin's Law

Reading this post, it occurs to me that with Godwin's Law in full bloom it'll soon become necessary for critics to find a new and unused batch of historical tyrants analogous to Obama. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are becoming stale.

Pol Pot is too easy. Ceauşescu too hard to spell. Idi Amin is a vague figure to the generation born in the 80s and 90s, and wouldn't be punchy enough. I think the right will need help on this one. So, to which other historical tyrants does Obama also bear an uncanny resemblance?

Ivan the Terrible? Vlad the Impaler? Robert Mugabe? Torquemada? These guys are all probably second tier. What about third tier? Or fourth, if Obama is elected for a second term?

Here's a mind-blower. What if the fringe began to suggest that Obama bears an uncanny resemblance to... Dick Cheney?

Unaccounted For

A few months back, I had a bright idea. Every year or two, a report on plutonium accounting is released by the government and, predictably, the media have sport for a day or so with the idea that, because there is inevitably a discrepancy, that discrepant plutonium must have made its way into terrorists’ hands. Or perhaps the material is being hidden away for no-good purposes or is residing in the reservoir from which you (you!) get your drinking water.

Actually, the numbers tend to be within the bounds of accounting errors and the material that, in any processing operation, gets stuck in the pipes. The bureaucratic term for the discrepancy is material unaccounted for (MUF).

My bright idea was that we now have a way of knowing what gets stuck in the pipes. I’m using that phrase, “stuck in the pipes,” as a shorthand for all the places where materials “disappear” to. For plutonium, it would be residues in gloveboxes, too-small-to-measure residues on wipes that become trash, and, yes, stuff that remains in glovebox and reprocessing pipes, casting and machining apparatus.

The pipes at Rocky Flats, where plutonium pits for nuclear weapons were manufactured for most of the Cold War, have been disassembled and trucked away for disposal. The material stuck in those pipes must have been measured, for many reasons, before it was trucked away.

The biggest reasons to figure out what was stuck in Rocky’s pipes are accountability and safety. Accountability knowing what you’ve got and keeping it away from the terrorists. Safety is for the workers doing the disassembly and includes the possibilities of exposure and criticality. There’s a cost issue, too. It’s slower and more expensive to do this work fully suited-up and with supplied air, not to mention uncomfortable, so it’s important to choose the amount of protective gear that is needed, but not more.

And there’s one more reason: the facility accepting the building waste is subject to waste acceptance criteria describing the kinds and amounts of hazardous and radioactive wastes it can accept.

I googled up the reports on Rocky’s cleanup and e-mailed to several people who might know where to find the accounting of the plutonium that was in Rocky’s pipes. Nada in the reports, and my correspondents didn’t recall that anyone had bothered to do those measurements, although they too thought they probably should have been done.

But Rocky isn’t the only place that processed nuclear material that is being decommissioned. K-25, Oak Ridge’s gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment facility, is being taken down. Frank Munger regularly supplies photos to Manhattan Project junkies. I’ve stolen one of them for the top of this post.

And DP Site at Los Alamos, where plutonium processing was done, is about to be taken down.

Munger is asking how much U-235 was left in the pipes at K-25. And he tells me he’s not getting any answers either. He’s wondering whether a critical incident, where enough fissionable material collects in one place to give a fast-neutron burst and possibly an explosion, is likely in the parts of the plant where the U-235 was most concentrated.

It’s not clear to me how much of the piping that contained the uranium is left in the building. The asbestos would have been removed separately. There was quite a to-do for a while about what to do about the nickel from the diffusion barriers at K-25. I don’t recall what was eventually decided, but if it was sold separately, the barriers and part of the piping have been removed. It might make sense to remove and dispose of the rest of the piping separately from the rest of the building. The piping, being more highly contaminated, would need a different sort of disposal from the rest of the building materials, which might even be able to go into a normal landfill if they are uncontaminated.

My guess is that a critical incident is unlikely during K-25’s demolition. K-25 didn’t do the full enrichment; the material was finished by electromagnetic separation, so any U-235 remaining in K-25’s pipes still contains some U-238. As long as the uranium is a solid crusted on the pipes, any collapse would contain steel and other things that would physically separate the U-235 and absorb neutrons to prevent a chain reaction. Presumably someone has done a more complete criticality analysis with real numbers.

The uranium at K-25 is probably in the form of uranyl fluoride, which would be a solid crusted on the pipes. But uranyl fluoride is highly soluble in water. I can’t find a number for its solubility, but uranyl chloride is ‘way more soluble than table salt.

Munger notes that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is seeking comment on an exemption for EnergySolutions’s Utah landfill. Whether or not it is the destination for the K-25 waste is not clear, but EnergySolutions is asking for an exemption for 100-ton shipments of piping in railcars, each containing up to 7.9 pounds of U-235 in the form of uranyl fluoride. That’s about 6 pounds of U-235 per railcar.

So let’s say that somehow the piping is exposed to water. I’m sure it will be in covered railcars and that every attempt will be made to keep water out of the burial pits. But if somehow the uranyl fluoride gets dissolved in water and that water drips to the bottom of the railcar or burial pit, a criticality accident becomes more likely. Water is a very good neutron moderator and decreases the critical mass of fissionable material. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did an environmental impact analysis and found no significant impact. I’m wondering if criticality incidents are a part of environmental impact analyses.

The issue of water potentially causing criticality incidents has arisen before in environmental cleanups, at least twice: for a sand filter backwash pit at Hanford, and for the underground chambers at Technical Area 49 at Los Alamos. I believe that the Hanford pit has been cleaned up, and the surface at TA-49 has been stabilized to a point where water infiltration is unlikely. (Btw, TA-49’s history is quite interesting; that link is worth clicking on – short pdf.)

The prospect of criticality from transport and burial of K-25 piping seems small in comparison to those two situations.

On DP Site, I’m a bit less sanguine. I brought up the MUF question at a meeting a few weeks back, and a fellow who claimed to have written the most recent workplan for demolition of DP Site said that there was no concern for the amounts of fissionable material in the buildings, just a great urgency to make the demolition happen. I challenged this statement, but he was adamant. Worker safety and waste acceptance criteria still exist, even for DP Site.

So I’m wondering on what basis that fellow made that statement. Bravado with little information? Setting out on an enterprise he doesn’t understand and will get whacked back by the reality of waste acceptance criteria? Or is somebody going to slip something past the public and maybe even the Department of Energy? If the last, I sure wouldn’t have bragged about it in public, but I have no way of knowing.

Back to my original point. It appears that the amounts of fissionable material stuck in the pipes of those old facilities now being demolished are not available to the public. It could be that the Department of Energy doesn’t like to admit that its past operations have been less than perfect and doesn’t want those numbers out. I would think that matching those numbers to the MUF numbers would be a public confidence-builder, unless, of course, they’re wildly off in either direction. It’s hard to see how they wouldn’t have those numbers, but I have no way of knowing this either.

Update (10/29/09): Munger has asked the DOE again, and they say that the amount of U-235 inside K-25 is Official Use Only, not to be released to the public. Another opportunity to gain credibility refused by the DOE.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bits and Pieces - October 26, 2009

Romania is not the only country that refuses to confront its past. That makes it harder for it to move into the future. Something to think about for America and the Bush-Cheney years as well.

And then there's Belarus.

Why is it the BBC, rather than an American network, that gives us this interview with Warren Buffett? A past we'd rather not confront?

Maybe the Superfreakonomics authors need to take a course in statistics.

Changes in the Climate Change Climate

The Post does an enthusiastic story on "Green Leap" China's progress. Yes, China is moving quickly toward a greener economy, and more power to them. But it's not always what it appears prima facie, which is what the Post sees. It's one thing to set new regulations and do new research, and even build new renewable energy technologies and install them, it's another thing to have them actually work in a country that needs serious infrastructural construction and coordination between provincial governments.

Moreover, the institutional capacities of China (and India and other developing countries) likely don't match up to the massive technology transfer demands integral to China's international negotiating position.

RealClimate addresses the global warming "pause" theme that has been tossed around recently - NASA graph above via them.

Developed nations' emissions reduction pledges fall short, if you need reconfirmation of that. Plus, here's a discussion of the ethical failures of national GHG reductions proposals in the run-up to Copenhagen. Plus, recommendations for strengthening the ethical dimensions of the UNFCCC negotiating text (the negotiating text can be found here and is appended here).

And... from UNEP, "Disney Fairy Declared Honorary Ambassador of Green."

How can you top Green Ambassador Tinkerbell? Maybe with the Encyclopedia of Life's organism of the day, Pissodes strobi?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bits and Pieces - October 25, 2009

I think that the noise about buying fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor is either an attempt to maintain "face" at home or an indication of a split within the Iranian government. I guess we'll find out when they're good and ready to tell us.

Errol Morris parts 5, 6, and 7.

John Cole finds the central thing the health insurance industry doesn't want us to realize:
This really is one of those things I never really thought about before the last year or so, but I still have no idea what exactly the health insurance companies offer this country. All they seem to do is sponge money off the top of what we pay for health care, make life a living hell for their customers and the medical community in the form of reams of paperwork, hand out lavish bonuses to their management, invest recklessly in whatever the Wall Street bad idea du jour is, and then raise rates when the fur-bearing trout farms don’t pan out and they need to cover their bad investments. Meanwhile, they don’t answer to the consumer and control congress, and are under orders from the Wall Street brokerages.

Do I have this completely wrong? Is there an actual fact-based (and that means you need to look somewhere other than the NRO or glibertarian sites) argument in favor of health insurance agencies? What service do they really offer? Why are these people who it appears add nothing so in control of the debate. I know I have turned into a pinko-commie, but right now this looks like nothing more than an elaborate and legal protection racket.

1980s Feminism Today

One of those young women of the 1980s, who was contemptuous of those who warned that all the problems had not yet been solved, found the real world to be different than her preferences and is now saying we should do something about it. She has actually done rather well in that unruly real world, although her enterprise has recently collapsed. Presumably she will continue to do well, although this op-ed seems to be a cry for attention and her next job.

She tells us that attitudes have gone backward, but from my somewhat longer perspective, I would suggest that they have progressed, albeit slowly. The world she saw in the 1980s never existed. Her suggestions for improvement are as superficial as her youthful denial.

Let's change the conversation, she suggests eighties-perkily! Um, some of us were suggesting that even as she was deriding us. And what was she doing to change that conversation when she was at the Wall Street Journal and Portfolio? What is she doing now, for that matter?

Meanwhile, the same old tired conversation goes on. David Sloan Wilson has moved from the Huffington Post to ScienceBlogs and is trying to find a metaphor for science. Why, I'm not quite sure, but if I can gripe about a pseudo-feminist op-ed, he can go ahead with his metaphors. I actually find metaphors fun, although one has to be careful of unintended consequences.

He seems to be pleased with one that must go back to the eighties (didn't Ms. Lipman notice this back then?): Science is a contact sport. There was a time back then when everything was a contact sport. I recall one executive in particular, who showed ever-renewed glee at inserting the word "physical" into the phrase. That was in case we didn't get that business about a contact sport. Football was of course the main referent, but basketball was making its way into that category as well, with some controversy.

I'll assume that Phronesisaical's readers are intelligent enough to be able to see the ways that "contact sport" focuses on masculinity. Add "physical" and a leer, and you have a standard method of excluding women. Or opening the discussion up to a sort of rape (physical? contact? get it? hahahaha).

So I'll have to agree with Ms. Lipman. There are still some lousy attitudes around. Too bad it's taken her twenty years to see them.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The New York Times Believes Everything It Hears

Or at least Michael Cooper does.

That jeep, carefully transported back from Trinity Site, a five-hour drive even today, contaminated by the first nuclear test to be buried in Material Disposal Area (MDA) B. Yes indeed. And a faint whiff of MDA F, where explosives are allegedly buried.

The cleanups at Los Alamos have gone in fits and starts. Back in the 1970s, a group of well-meaning people in the Health and Safety Division interviewed some of the old-timers about waste disposal practices and looked at some of the records, which were not in the detail now required by law. They wrote down what they learned, or thought they learned, which became the basis for the definitions of environmental hazards at the Lab.

Then nothing happened for a long time. I came into the program in the early 1990s. One of the areas I was responsible for was MDA F. Unlike those 1970s interviewers, I had actually worked with explosives engineers and knew how they do things. Firstly, they love a big bang. Waste explosives? They knew how to get rid of them. Burying them would be stupid. Although these would probably have been insensitive high explosives, the vagaries of impurities and inhomogeneities, weathering, and the compaction of a burial pit would have argued for the high possibility of a very bad outcome if that was how you got rid of them. Much better to blow them up. And sometimes, with the right explosives in the right form, burn them.

When I came to Los Alamos in 1965, big bangs were a regular occurrence. Some were experiments to determine various properties of materials for use in nuclear weapons. Some tossed uranium around. Now the bangs are done in carefully constructed containers, the history of which also contains some nice stories that won't appear in this post.

But the reports said that explosives were disposed of in a pit on Two Mile Mesa, now known as MDA F. What to do? We certainly couldn't drill, one way of figuring out what was in an MDA, because we might hit the explosives. But the story sounded fishy to me. When we got the aerial photos, craters were evident quite close to MDA F. It turned out that 500-pound shots were not uncommon there. Since Two Mile Mesa was just across the canyon from the Administration Building, there was a story about one of those shots that blew the papers off Director Norris Bradbury's desk one cloudy day when the shock wave got funneled toward the north. And there were documents and the agreement of the few old-timers who were still around.

I suspect that the 1970s interview contained a comment by the old-timer that they disposed of explosives out there. The interviewer, accustomed to the practice of burying things in pits, took this to mean that the explosives were buried and wrote that down. The Los Alamos environmental restoration program, and now the New York Times, live with that to this day.

And we laughed about that jeep many times. Is it possible that the Manhattan Project workers transported that jeep back? They would have needed a closed truck large enough to handle a jeep, and they would have had to be willing to contaminate that truck. They did enough construction at Trinity Site that they must have had the heavy equipment to excavate a burial pit there to drop the jeep into. But they were working under extreme circumstances and did extreme things. So a jeep in MDA B is not outside the limits of probability.

Ah well. At least we're down to a jeep. The story started out with a tank, but somewhere along the line, they must have decided that "tank" referred to an underground storage vessel, not a war machine. That was pretty much what we figured.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Germany is UnAmerican

In the US, this would appear in the Onion rather than the BBC.
A group of rich Germans has launched a petition calling for the government to make wealthy people pay higher taxes.

The group say they have more money than they need, and the extra revenue could fund economic and social programmes to aid Germany's economic recovery.

Germany could raise 100bn euros (£91bn) if the richest people paid a 5% wealth tax for two years, they say.

"The path out of the crisis must be paved with massive investment in ecology, education and social justice," they say in the petition.

Those who had "made a fortune through inheritance, hard work, hard-working, successful entrepreneurship, or investment" should contribute by paying more to alleviate the crisis.

Sweetsop (and Oriole)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Ongoing Torture Regime

I wonder if they got this idea from studying old Chinese war manuals.

Julie Ann Parrish and Kristina Marie Kallies face one count each of felony abuse after allegations that they forced a 13-year-old autistic boy's head under water after he fell asleep in class. They also stand accused of "forcing him to sit in his soiled pants for hours and making him eat his own vomit when he got sick," reports KTLA in Los Angeles.

"If the teachers thought Garrett was being lazy or falling asleep at his desk, they forcibly took my son to the kitchen sink in the room and forced his head under the water while he was screaming for his mother," Tifonie Schilling, mother of the alleged victim, told ABC News. "And if he had an accident in his pants he was made to sit in it all day. They would taunt him and say, 'You stink like a baby.'"

That's called "enhanced interrogation," and if you want to say otherwise, well, Dick Cheney thinks you're libelous. Which is false. And thus libelous. This is a revolting, indecent man. Cheney on Obama:
In short, to call enhanced interrogation a program of torture is not only to disregard the program’s legal underpinnings and safeguards. Such accusations are a libel against dedicated professionals who acted honorably and well, in our country’s name and in our country’s cause. What’s more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation in the future, in favor of half-measures, is unwise in the extreme. In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed.
The damage Dick Cheney did to the country is immense and we will be trying to repair for decades, if we ever do at all. The US tortured. On no account except Cheney fantasy-land is torture morally permissible. In no way is it politically respectable or image-enhancing as tough guys. It's an act of profound cowardice. In no way does it yield (falsely) alleged valuable information. It is an expression of total domination.

Whatever euphemism he wants to make up in Cheney NewSpeak, the acts approved by Cheney and the president are well established as torture. Torture is a war crime according to US civil code and to international law to which the US is party and thus integrates into US civil law. This includes the Convention Against Torture, which Ronald Reagan signed. Many of the torture victims were innocent, and many of them died in the process. The latter is called murder by any reasonable standard of the word and any honest use of the English language.

This conversation is over. There is no rhetoric to hide beneath except outright lies, absurd euphemisms, or the Rovean maneuver of accusing one's objectors of the sin one is committing. Dick Cheney is now a relic of a dark past who - if we're not going to put him in prison - should leave us to figure out how to get out of the mess and moral catastrophe he left us.

OK, I had a long day. Guess I was slow on this according to the blogometer. Here's an earlier discussion.

Bits and Pieces - October 22, 2009

Okay, let's start with a pet peeve: journalists who "blog." I put that in quotes because I doubt that a journalist can really blog. It's a different skill set, with some overlaps. But the dead-tree guys saw that there was something called blogging that seemed to be drawing eyeballs, so they decided they'd better do it too. The real problem is that it's a conflict of interest. If I'm going to write something that I want others to see, I usually post it here. There are a few exceptions, but not many. It's the job of the professional journalist (i.e., somebody who's getting paid for that sort of thing) to provide printable matter for her employer. Those employers are now extending their demands to something they call blogs. So how does a journalist decide where to place her material - in a regular article or in a blog? A few rather nicely add bits that wouldn't fit in the article into their "blogs." That looks sort of like what I do. And of course, they're always article-whoring. Probably a condition of their contracts. Inspiration for this rant here.

And, as I've said many times before, it's hard enough to get the explanations of climate change right.

I picked up the Jihadica piece the other day, but I don't understand the players well enough to comment. But Marc Lynch does. If you like convoluted plots, click through to the Jihadica post.

The Australians are getting cocky about their role in nuclear disarmament. They claim that at one of their meetings, representatives from Iran and Israel spent some time talking to each other. Needless to say, Iran and Israel deny any such indiscretions. But they would do that no matter what the case. (LA Times, NY Times, Ha'aretz)

Errol Morris parts 3 and 4.

Quote of the Day

Speaking against the Treasury restricting the pay level of Wall Street CEOs (from here),
"We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all,” Bloomberg news service quoted Brian Griffiths as saying. Griffiths is an adviser to Goldman Sachs International and once served as a special adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Hard to argue with that. Salary cuts and layoffs shall make the rest of us free.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bits and Pieces - October 21, 2009

I'm really impressed with a couple of our past presidential candidates. John Kerry seems to have saved the day in Kabul, and Hillary Clinton is everything a Secretary of State should be. It feels good to have such people in our government. Now the speculation: Richard Holbrooke, who might have been the one to whisper in President Hamid Karzai's ear, seems to have dropped from sight. Too much drama for Obama?

California is deciding on more Marine Protected Areas.

A report (pdf) on Jundullah, the organization that seems to have been responsible for the recent killing of Revolutionary Guards in Iran. Baluchistan presents problems for Pakistan as well. Another of those ethnic groupings across state boundaries, like Pashtunistan and Kurdistan.

It's about time!

Rating the states on improving energy efficiency.

The First Step

The news that a draft deal has been struck with Iran is indeed good. The Iranians must confer among themselves before accepting it, but even if they do not, the news remains good.

An agreement on the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor and the negotiations leading up to it are a first step in a much broader effort. That effort is Barack Obama's initiative toward a world without nuclear weapons.

In this first step, America has worked with Russia and France to develop the deal with Iran. Although Iran tried to split the negotiators with its insistence that France be dropped from the deal, it did not succeed in this tactic. Where the fuel will be fabricated remains unclear, although Argentina and a subcontract to France by Russia are possibilities.

Julian Borger has been reporting that the meetings among Iran, the United States, and the IAEA have included additional topics like technologies that might be made available to Iran. This is another positive result: topics that can be discussed in the future.

Whether or not Tehran turns down the deal, it is part of a building momentum on nuclear issues. Japan and Australia are discussing no first use of nuclear weapons, the doctrine that a country will not use nuclear weapons unless it is attacked with nuclear weapons. It looks like Japan is beginning to feel that it will be safe enough even if the United States takes that position. It hasn't in the past.

Switzerland and New Zealand sponsored a conference on how to de-alert Russian and American nuclear missiles.

The involvement of countries that don't have nuclear weapons is important in these discussions. The consequences of nuclear weapon use will fall on everyone, so it is in everyone's interest to solve these problems.

Hillary Clinton gave a speech on nonproliferation at the US Institute of Peace today. The text is not yet up on the Department of State's website. I'll be looking for it.

Momentum is the important thing. Even if Tehran decides against this agreement (and I don't think they will), it is likely that the parties will return to negotiations in public or in secret. And there are many other initiatives in play.


I haven't seen much mention of this, and none of any possible linkage to the nuclear negotiations, but Newsweek journalist Maziar Bazhari was released on bail from Iran's Evin Prison over the weekend and arrived in London in time for the birth of his first child.

Looks like Iran is trying to put its best foot forward this week. An agreement seems to have been crafted for the further enrichment of Iran's low-enriched uranium and its fabrication into fuel elements in Russia and, probably, France. It appears, however, that full approval of the agreement can come only from Tehran, which is supposed to have its say by Friday.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bits and Pieces - October 20, 2009

Part 2 in Errol Morris's latest opus.

A deficit hawk endorses the deficit.

Columbia University is suspending its program in environmental journalism. This isn't environmental journalism, but it is science and a good example of why journalists who cover science (and much in environmental issues is science) need more than English courses.

I discovered Climate Progress this week. It's very good indeed, and I've got it in my feeds now. The rate at which wind power is being installed is increasing (good news, Phila!) And here's an event that's coming up this weekend that I'll bet you haven't heard about.


Early tomorrow (Wednesday) morning should be the best time for viewing the Orionid meteors. More here. H/t to RG.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Talking with Iran

Um, did I say that there should also be talks behind the scenes?

Bits and Pieces - October 19, 2009

Errol Morris is at his historical studies of photography again, this time of the Rooselvelt administration during the Great Depression. I don't see the alarm-clock connection yet.

Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy on how Vietnam might have been different, and the difficulties of dealing with President Lyndon Johnson.

Is J Street becoming competitive in influence with AIPAC?

Pew is going to track government subsidies.

If you read the blogosphere at all, you probably have seen some of the uproar over Superfreakonomics' take on global warming. Here's a way into it if you have missed it. Apparently the Superfreaks like big interventions like "climate engineering" rather than reducing carbon dioxide emissions. So there's a fair bit of commentary on that too. Here's Ezra Klein. I think most of these schemes are nuts (added: here's why for SO2), although there are some simple interventions, like making roofs white, that could be called geoengineering that seem reasonable. From my window, I can see two new white roofs, one on a bank and one on a school. Good job!

At least the US is now willing to talk about regulating the trade in conventional weapons. A small step forward.

North Korea reiterates its basic request.

Remodeling the World

Timothy Garton Ash has the first of what I expect to be an avalanche of articles commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. (Well, Tom Friedman mentioned it the other day, but his op-ed was sufficiently incoherent that I will spare you clicking to it.)

Garton Ash reviews a group of books on that subject, or, more broadly, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Twenty years is about what it takes for documents to become available and context to clarify, although an enormous event like the fall of a superpower, without the death throes of war, will take many decades to assess.

Garton Ash says he comes away from this group of books “dreaming of another book: the global, synthetic history of 1989 that remains to be written.” His article, and the books reviewed, are primarily about the Soviet satellites: those countries that nominally were independent, but were fully under the sway of the Soviet Union. And, of course, about Moscow and Washington and the major European powers. He recognizes that Gorbachev “mistakenly believed such changes would stop at the frontier of the Soviet Union, which he saw as a country, not an internal empire,” but doesn’t consider much of that.

This article is a good overview of what was happening outside the Soviet Union. But
the Soviet Politburo did not even discuss Germany on November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall would come down, but instead heard a panicky report from Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov about preparations for secession in the Baltic states and their possible effects in Ukraine and Russia. "I smell an overall collapse," said Ryzhkov.
The Baltic states were republics of the Soviet Union, and by November 1989 their Supreme Soviets, made up of Communist Party members, had elevated their laws above those of the Union, made their languages primary and pre-Soviet flags legal. Nationalist political parties were growing, and demonstrations had been taking place for two years. Pro-Soviet protestors had peacefully been turned back from occupying the Estonian Parliament building. That August, on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which Hitler and Stalin had agreed on the division of eastern Europe, Baltic citizens had formed a human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius, accompanied by their flags. All that was inside the Soviet Union. No wonder Ryzhkov was worried.

Garton Ash recognizes that the interplay between people and institutions is important:
The point about such moments of popular mobilization and civil resistance is that, given certain preexisting conditions (including what may be tiny opposition groups and isolated political prisoners like Havel or Aung San Suu Kyi), forms of societal organization such as Civic Forum—improvised, often chaotic, but nonetheless definitely organization—can emerge with extraordinary speed. This is a phenomenon that historians of 1989 should study more deeply, not deny. To claim that popular and opposition agency in East-Central Europe had nothing to do with the outcome is as absurd as it would be to claim that "the people" alone toppled communism and a nuclear-armed empire. As with all historical processes, agency and structure must be understood in a complex interplay.
This can be seen quite clearly in Estonia’s actions: demonstrations followed by legislative actions followed by demonstrations.

A few years back, I interviewed some of the people involved in Estonia’s actions during that time in the hopes of telling a story that could be important to Americans. As we moved toward war in Iraq, I greatly regretted that I had not managed to tell that story; the justifications for the Iraq war both distorted what had happened in the Soviet Union and missed the facts on the ground that might have been deduced from a better understanding of those events.

But I was faced with clear evidence of “hindsight bias,” as Garton Ash notes,
the tendency, that is, to regard actual historical outcomes as more probable than alternatives that seemed real at the time (for example, a Tiananmen-style crackdown in Central Europe). What actually happened looks as if it somehow had to happen.
Further complicating this inevitable bias was the fact that events had turned out well for my interviewees: they achieved their goals and were joyous about that.

My Estonian was not good enough to ferret out all the documents I would have wanted to consult to help counteract that hindsight bias, like issues of Eesti Elu (Estonian Life magazine) from the late 1980s.

I found it remarkable that the Communist members of those Supreme Soviets had voted the Soviet forms of government out of existence. Another good lesson for Americans, I thought: not all Communists are like their stereotypes.

But the book remains unwritten, although I still have the notes and recordings of those interviews. I would very much like for Marju Lauristen to write her book. She is the daughter of two of the most prominent Communists in the Soviet takeover of Estonia in the 1940s. She became one of the most prominent members of the Supreme Soviet converting Estonia to independence. She was in the parliament building when the pro-Soviet demonstrators tried to take it over and played a large part in keeping a riot from taking place. The movie “The Singing Revolution” has dramatic newsreel footage of this event.

A couple of resources in English:

Lauristen has an article in Baltic Media in Transition.

The most complete history of Estonia in the 1980s is Rein Taagepera’s Estonia: Return to Independence.


Taliban Detainee Policy

David Rohde's account of his time in captivity by the Taliban (via Sullivan):
They vowed to follow the tenets of Islam that mandate the good treatment of prisoners. In my case, they unquestionably did. They gave me bottled water, let me walk in a small yard each day and never beat me.
Rohde says he came to detest his captors as violent religious nuts. The point here is not that the Taliban are great guys. They've murdered Arab prisoners who worked with Westerners as leverage in ransom negotiations for Western prisoners. The point is that our supposed enemies at least in principle avoid stooping to the level of Bush/Cheney torture policies, which existed in both principle and practice.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Getting Overheated

The recent deaths in a Sedona "sweat lodge," now being discussed at a couple of my regular reads, caught my eye because I am a bit of a sauna fanatic. I don't think I'm a fanatic, of course, but in a discussion with an Estonian-American friend on the subject this week, I could see that look in her eyes. And when an Estonian thinks you're fanatic about sauna, well...

I've done a sweat lodge once, too. I didn't like it as much because of the smoke (don't like smoke-saunas either), and there wasn't a cool shower or stream or snowbank for afterwards. To me, that's an essential part of the experience.

I like sauna because it feels good. I attach no spiritual significance to it; the sweat lodge had a bit of speaking one's thoughts, which I found pleasant in the way one might find a church service pleasant. But it's the hot and cold that I really enjoy.

When I saw the thermometer register 100 C in my friend's sauna, I asked if the thermometer was correct. My friend is a scientist, and he said it was. That took me aback. That's the temperature at which water boils and eggs cook. If the protein in eggs cooks at sauna temperature, then what is happening to the delicate insides of my lungs?

With more consideration, however, I realized that the air (a poor heat-transfer medium with a relatively small specific heat) would be cooled by my nasal passages and throat, the opposite of what happens when you're outside in winter. So my lungs were safe.

While I'm in sauna, I'm monitoring my body's response. Warming, sometimes with shivering, then sweating. You're not really getting the benefit, my Estonian friends tell me, until you're sweating. I've found it can take a surprisingly long time for sweating to start. Then I reach the right temperature for cold-water quenching. That's usually done with a shower. I suspect that breathing has a lot to do with the production of the endorphins that must account for the pleasant sensations of sauna. Breathing can be strange in sauna. If I tense up, it becomes difficult. If I go with the sensations, it's all right. It's more difficult with steam, and I prefer a dry sauna for that reason. When the cold water hits me, I gasp involuntarily, lots of air comes in. I haven't had a chance to roll in the snow, but I know it would be delightful.

It takes some learning to do this. People who are not accustomed to such things panic, as I did just a bit at first. It sounds crazy, especially the rolling in the snow part, before you've experienced it. It's important to keep in mind that you can leave the sauna at any time and you don't have to quench yourself.

There are a number of differences from what was going on in Sedona, of course. As is discussed at the links above, it was one of those promises of enlightenment if you just do as you're told by the guru. So people were doing what they were told and might not have paid attention to their bodies' saying "enough." And in a sweat lodge, as is noted in the comment thread at Emptywheel, hot stones are brought in and water poured on them to generate steam. What I haven't seen said is that herbs are put on the stones to generate perfumed smoke as well. I particularly didn't like this kind of smoke, which I found irritating. I'm wondering what kinds of herbs were used in Sedona. Some desert herbs have ephedrine in them, which could provoke bad physiological responses.

I do think that some of the common wisdom in places unaccustomed to sauna or sweat lodges is misleading. Harvard Medical School provides some cautions, but says that sauna should be safe for reasonably healthy people. I haven't noticed my heart rate increasing particularly, as they claim, which may be a function of that tendency to panic at first. Here's a paper with more detail, but it is by Finns, and they're likely to agree with me that sauna is a good thing. Both agree that people with heart disease should probably forego this particular pleasure.

Things That Go Wrong When You're Trying To Make An Atomic Bomb

This is the second item in this category that Frank Munger, chronicler of nuclear stuff at Oak Ridge, has provided in the last week or so. If you scroll down, I've linked the other in a "Bits and Pieces." This sort of thing happens, probably in Iran as well. I'm recalling another Manhattan Project story, this one at Los Alamos, where someone spilled most of the world's plutonium at that time, in a liquid solution. They ripped up the floorboards and extracted it back out.

It's what happens when you don't entirely understand what you're working with, when you're doing something new. It can be mistaken for carelessness, particularly in hindsight, and that's probably one element, but I would say not the full story. As an experimentalist, I have observed that I have had to learn how to do experiments, and the variables are not always obvious.

Josh Pollack quotes a "technologically sophisticated" person as warning against depending on technical glitches to prevent technological advances. People do indeed rip up the floorboards and extract the plutonium if they have to.

But the glitches do consume time and energy, and they frequently have nothing to do with the science of what is being done, although they can obscure that science. Pile up too many of them at one time, and you can have truly disastrous accidents, or maybe just the destruction of a bank of centrifuges.

This sort of thing is part of why I maintain that it's highly unlikely that non-state actors will ever manage to produce a nuclear weapon. The learning curve is too steep, and there are too many potentially disastrous things that can go wrong along the way.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Overnight Thoughts on Moly Hexafluoride

A couple of things that occurred to me overnight. They might have been noted in the many posts at Arms Control Wonk, but they're worth repeating.

For centrifuge enrichment, the levels of moly hexafluoride in the uranium hexafluoride feed probably have to be a lot less than for gaseous diffusion. That means that steps beyond the mixer-settler separations are probably necessary. I am guessing that parts per million are too much. As the gas moves from one centrifuge to another and the separation proceeds, the moly (being lighter than the uranium) will go into the fractions enriched in U-235, which are the important ones.

It's possible that the moly is coming from the apparatus itself as well as from the ore. This problem would be much harder to solve, particularly when it is combined with the requirement for very low levels of impurities. Most steels have some moly in them.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Let's Say This Is Right...

David Ignatius has finally gotten around to reading the Mark Hibbs article on a problem that some of us have been thinking about for some time. Joshua Pollack at Arms Control Wonk supplies some of the links so that I don't have to search for them.

The news strikes Ignatius "as a bombshell," partly because he doesn't know what he's talking about, neither on the technical side nor the diplomatic. Diplomatic solutions are about finding solutions that benefit both sides. So if Iran can get the molybdenum hexafluoride removed from the uranium hexafluoride feed material and get the uranium enriched for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for appropriate safeguards and an implicit discouragement of further development of its enrichment capabilities, that's really okay. "Especially cheeky," perhaps. But so what?

Yes, it's entirely possible that Iran is looking at this as a springboard to bigger and better things. But if they don't solve their technical problems, they won't learn those parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. And (here Ignatius gets it right) that will mean that it will take them longer to get a bomb, if indeed that's what they want. More time for negotiations, more time to find solutions that benefit all sides.

I'm not all that subtle and was confused by Ignatius's confusion, so I am indebted to Pollack for pointing out that the mumbling toward the end of Ignatius's op-ed is an attempt at implying sabotage in the feed preparation plant. But Pollock sets him straight on that. And let me supply just a bit more.

The molybdenum is in the uranium ore. The mixer-settlers that Pollock mentions are the means for purifying the uranium from a number of metals, like molybdenum, that are in the uranium ore and have very similar chemistry. I'd post one of my photos from the Sillamäe plant of the line of mixer-settlers once used by the Soviets in an early stage of uranium purification, but it's a film photo and I'd have to go to my files and then scan it...

That purification is not, er, rocket science, so I'm a bit baffled as to why this has been such a difficulty for the Iranians. If they can't entirely do it in the mixer-settler line, they should be able to distill the hexafluorides; the boiling point for moly hexafluoride is 35 C and for uranium hexafluoride is about 65 C. In fact, a couple of years back, the report was that they had solved the problem and I found that entirely believable.

And if there's a secret stash contaminated with moly hexafluoride, they'll have the same problems with that.

This Is Just Too Beautiful

You may have seen this photo already. The cloth is woven from spider silk from Madagascar golden orb spiders, collected by 70 people from a million spiders over four years. That comes out to about 10 spiders per day per person.

It's quite a feat, and I would love to be able to touch this fabric. Spider silk is stronger than Kevlar, so it would also be interesting to check out its strength.

Wired has the longest story (from which I took the photo), and the New York Times has more, with a photo of the entire textile. It sounds like they took pretty good care of the spiders.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bits and Pieces - Snark Edition

Shorter Tom Brokaw: And I want to go too.

Sun rises in east today.

We're paying private insurers more for Medicare Advantage because the private sector does it cheaper than the government.

The Media and Substance

I'm reading Dean Acheson's Present at the Creation. I'm about a third of the way through, and it's slow going. But I found this complaint, which seems quite current. Under "Problems of Negotiation," we have "The Press."
What I tried to do in the press conferences was give the men who covered the State Department a somewhat broader view of the purpose and significance of the great policy decisions than most of them had. With some distinguished exceptions, such as Paul Ward of the Baltimore Sun and John Hightower of the Associated Press, they were inclined to bring to the reporting of foreign affairs the same nose for controversial spot news that they had learned to look for on the City Hall and police-court beats. This did the country and their readers a disservice. In reporting news about the North Atlantic Treaty they tended to speculate on what countries might or might not be invited to sign it, what territory it might cover, what commitments might be made. None of these matters was ripe for decision. What I hoped to get them to discuss was the dangers the treaty was aimed to meet, how they could be met or avoided, the relation of the treaty to other measures contemplated - in other words, the place of the treaty in the developing strategy of the West...What most of my hearers would have much preferred would have been comments on the attacks made on these measures by their opponents. That would be news!
The year was 1949.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mexico in DC

Our friend, novelist CM Mayo, is giving a talk this Sunday in Washington, DC. If you are in DC, you should go. I'll let her explain:
This Sunday October 18 at 2:30 p.m. at the Historical Society of Washington DC, I will be talking about the Washingtonian history behind the true story of Agustin de Iturbide y Green, the last prince of my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire--- many curious things about 19th century Georgetown, Cleveland Park, the White House, and much more. Here's the formal announcement:

October 18th 2:30 p.m.
Historical Society of Washington DC Author & Lecture Series
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books)

Allow yourself to be spellbound by author C.M. Mayo as she gives a talk about her enchanting book, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. “A sweeping epic that takes you from a palace ball to an orphanage kitchen, from Brussels to Yucatan, the White House to the Tuileries to the flank of a snow-dusted Mexican volcano, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is also, and always, a story about a tiny boy, only two and half-years old, whose Mexican diplomat father and American mother agreed to give him up to Maximilian, to become, so they had supposed, heir apparent to the throne. A fairy tale based on the true but never before completely told story— the work of seven years of travel and research in archives as far flung as Vienna, Washington, D.C., and Mexico City— it begins, as it must, with, “Once upon a time...”

C.M. Mayo’s books include the widely-lauded travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California the Other Mexico, and Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O’Connor Fiction Award for Short Fiction. An avid translator of contemporary Mexican literature, Mayo edited the Anthology Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, and literary prose of 24 Mexican writers. Mayo divides her time between Mexico City and Washington DC. She is on the faculty at the WritersCenter.

Historical Society of Washington is located at 801 K Street, NW between 7th and 9th Streets.

"Competition" with the Insurance Industry

This news is late but worth reemphasizing. That report by the bullshit-producing consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, commissioned by the insurance industry (AHIP), that has been waved around by healthcare reform opposition is entirely bogus, or what Ezra Klein calls "a predictable industry hit job," and elsewhere analysis laundering. The report concludes that the Senate Finance Committee's version of the healthcare bill would send households' premiums through the roof, adding $4000 or so.

The report is bogus because, among other things, it assesses only costs (see this similar discussion on climate change costs). A critical response by economist John Gruber lays out the reality. Yes, PWC puts a disclaimer in the fine print that it's just doing what it was paid to do. But the report's methodology is akin to calculating one's personal finances by adding up rent or mortgage, transportation, food, utility bills, etc., while excluding all personal income or other sources of money (i.e., you have zero money, just large bills and debts).

Ezra is all over healthcare - you should be reading his WaPo blog daily for the most intelligent analysis of the healthcare reform issue (the guy, along with environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin, carry the WaPo's remaining journalistic integrity almost single-handedly). The report, however, has backfired for the insurance industry underscoring the necessity of the public option.
[Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.)] also made a fairly salient point. The analysis basically assumes that insurers will raise their rates because the finance committee won't make the pool of consumers more desirable for them. All of which lays out the logical case for providing consumers with a cheap and available alternative, set up and administered by the federal government.

"I think in a strange way and obviously they didn't mean this, the health insurance lobby fired the most important salvo in weeks for the option," said Weiner. "Because they have said clear as day... they'll raise rates 111%."

"Here is a tell," Weiner offered earlier. "If you have the health care industry complaining that we're going to raise costs because of these changes, it is then putting us on notice that we haven't put enough cost containment in the bill. You know if the health care industry themselves is putting out a whole report saying that, that should be a tell to the Baucus team that, you know what, maybe it is time to go back and revisit the public option.

"But the other thing that is interesting here is the deal was always good for the health care guys. Look, you'll get all these new customers coming in and that is going to be the reason that you're going to take a hair cut here. But make no mistake about it, if the health care industry keeps raising costs, and I think this is what's going to happen with the Baucus bill, we'll put new requirements on them, they raise costs. And whatever subsidies we are giving people to buy their own insurance, they won't be able to afford it And we'll keep on losing people. This is the whole argument for the public option. It is right here laid out by the health care industry right now."

It was always going to be a mistake to exclude some form of public option. The AHIP/PWC report ultimately confirms that conclusion.

See also SteveG's discussion of whether the insurance industry's lies are morally wrong.

Guava and Tarsier

Photo: Eric Sinclair

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bits and Pieces - Guardian Edition

Autumn in Britain - photos.

How long before these photos start showing up on YouTube?

...and he rode into the forest where there was no path. This analysis is superficial, but it tells me something about myself that I hadn't realized before. Someday when I have all the time in the world, I will tell you about how the stories of King Arthur and his knights began.

Changing Behavior

There's an argument that changing laws doesn't change behavior. We see in currently, for just one example, in the argument that everyone will use their cell phones in their cars even if laws are changed.

But I went to Home Depot yesterday to buy some light bulbs. They didn't have a single old-fashioned incandescent bulb on their shelves. And the law doesn't go into effect for some time. I guess they don't want to take a chance on getting stuck with them.

Today I saw some on the shelves at the supermarket. I suspect that they don't have as rapid a turnover as Home Depot, though.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bits and Pieces - October 12, 2009

Myths about the flu vaccine debunked.

Turkey has been one of Israel's few friends in the region. Now it's backing away. And just after it opened diplomatic relations with Armenia. Something's going on here.

It's really, really hard to figure out what happened medically in the past. The conceptual framework was different, the way a disease and drugs were thought about. That conceptual framework affects how data are recorded, too. We'll probably never be able to figure out how much a factor aspirin was in the 1918 flu epidemic, but it's worth thinking about.

And, speaking of different conceptual frameworks, here's the lengths one country went to in its effort to produce enriched uranium for a bomb.

The Economics Nobel

I gripe about economics from time to time. It's not a science like chemistry or physics, which have real predictive power. All too often, predictions from economics lack some crucial parameter, like time. Markets will go back up as the economy improves. Um, yes, that's fine and believable, but when?

Part of the problem seems to be that economics is a strange mix of theoretical assumptions and preferences with empirical observations. It's good to see that the empirical side of things is getting attention from the Nobel Committee. I don't follow much of economics directly, so I'll take some comments from people who do (Henry at Crooked Timber, Adrian Cho at Science Insider).

Elinor Ostrom, one of this year's Nobelists, has spent a lot of time looking at how people actually manage the commons and what the requirements are for sustainable management. That's an important issue; many of our resources, like grazing land in the Western United States and fisheries more generally, are commons. In order to make economics more of a science, observation of how things actually work are essential. It's observations that are the basis of the physical sciences, not doctrinal statements of how things should be like "the invisible hand" of economics.

So congratulations to Elinor Ostrom, both for working to make economics a science and for her Nobel honor!

Why I Like Bloggers - Updated

Because I don't have to do all the analysis.

Uh-oh, I thought this morning as I read the news (news?) that the insurance industry is gearing up for full opposition to health care reform. Although my immediate reaction to the lede was, yeah and no reform will raise rates $8000.

But bloggers to the rescue! Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein point out some of the problems with the industry's report. Ezra is actually reading the report and poking holes in it.

Update (10/13/09): More from Robert Reich. And Ezra supports my initial impression. Even more at Ezra's place that I won't link to but worth perusing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009



Interesting little line from Acephalous:
[T]he fact that the art or culture even exists only occurs to conservatives when politics are involved.

Good Idea

Green out of brown. It's even poetic, and poetry doesn't often come from the energy or toxic wastes sector. (ht Bouphonia).
President Obama and Congress are pushing to identify thousands of contaminated landfills and abandoned mines that could be repurposed to house wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal power plants...

Using already disturbed lands would help avoid conflicts between renewable energy developers and environmental groups concerned about impacts to wildlife habitat. These conflicts have stalled some high-profile projects despite the fact that renewable energy sources do not produce heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxides, the primary greenhouse gas driving global warming.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bad Idea

Emptywheel has been following those who are following the buyers of acetone and hydrogen peroxide. That's nail polish remover and hair bleach to the patrons of beauty salons. Mixing concentrated acetone and hydrogen peroxide will give TATP, the dreaded explosive of the so-called liquid variety beloved of the TSA and panicky officials everywhere.

Back in the summer of 2006, when TATP first came to the attention of the general public and draconian measures were imposed on lipsticks at airports, I couldn't figure out what the deal was on "liquid explosives" until I did some googling. I'll let you read about how I figured that out here.

TATP is not a liquid explosive. It is a solid, but it can be made from two liquids, acetone and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide you buy in the stores to deal with canker sores and the like is 3% peroxide, 97% water. Peroxide for bleaching hair is 30%.

In order to make TATP, you have to concentrate the peroxide by boiling. This is a very dangerous operation. Concentrated peroxide will make cloth, plastics, skin, and other carbon-based compounds catch fire. I've read some reports of boiling the acetone too. I'm not sure what's in nail polish remover, but chances are it's diluted with water too. In that case, boiling will leave the higher-boiling water unless you're doing a distillation. Result: no TATP.

The worst idea of all is actually to make the TATP, which is a solid, not a liquid. The synthesis says you've got to filter and dry the solid in order for it to become explosive. The difficulty with this is that it's a very sensitive explosive and filtering and drying just might set it off, as Mr. Kuzelka appears to have discovered. It also decomposes slowly, so if you don't blow your hand off making it, it may well not work when you get around to using it.

So, as I said earlier, it's hardly likely that my lipstick will become explosive aboard an airplane, but don't tell the TSA that. And there is an awful lot of acetone and hydrogen peroxide around.

And, er, any kind of nut can make this stuff, not just the dreaded dark-skinned terrorists of Fox stereotype.

But I wouldn't, and I'm a chemist. Much too dangerous. The government, by making it seem like it's really easy to make these "liquid explosives," is leading gullible people like Mr. Kuzelka into self-harming practices.

A Little More Peace In The World

Turkey and Armenia have established normal diplomatic relations. The breach goes back to the Ottoman Empire. And Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had a role in making it happen.
The United States, along with France and Russia, played a key role in prodding the two sides to come to terms. President Obama placed an encouraging call last week to the president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, while Mrs. Clinton was in regular touch with leaders of both countries.
But, as they say, read the whole thing.

Polluted Rivers

Citarum River, West Java, Indonesia, covered in garbage
The photo is from a slideshow at Treehuggers on polluted waterways. It's a strangely lovely and poignant photographic homage to the message nature inscribes through our self-polluted bodies that it cannot fully absorb all the waste humans produce. There are biophysical limits to local and global ecosystems.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Prize

I have to admit that when I first saw notice (on an e-mail list) of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, I thought it was from The Onion. It seems a bit early, but perhaps the surprise was part of the intent of the Nobel Committee.

The Peace Prize is political, and its intent is to make a difference in the world. So its awards have often been controversial, and sometimes time has shown them to have been wrong. But in my world, people get points for bold, and this is bold.

As the initial surprise wears off, I think it’s a good choice, and I think that President Obama is right to accept it. He said the right kinds of things this morning, with appropriate humility.

Here’s the citation:
The Norwegian Nobel committee has decided that the Nobel peace prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.

For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world's leading spokesman. The committee endorses Obama's appeal that 'Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges'.
There has been some comment that the prize is to America for turning around as much as it is to Obama. The turning around, of course, was in electing Obama president. We re-elected George Bush, after all. And electing a black president is a turnaround. Every time the world sees him, the turnaround is plain.

The committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.
Americans don’t realize what a big deal this is to the rest of the world, Europe especially. If there had been a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union, there was no question as to what would have happened to Europe. The survivors, if any, would have looked back to the summer of 1945 with nostalgia.

Obama is the first sitting president to make elimination of nuclear weapons a policy goal. He announced that goal on April 5 in Prague, the day before the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, the biggest conference on that subject, in a city where, as he remarked in that speech, the American President could hardly have gone only twenty years before. Impossible things do happen.

Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.
It’s that new climate that the committee wants to reinforce. The United States built a new world order after World War II, starting with the United Nations and going on to all those acronymic treaties and organizations that regulate trade and generally keep things in order around the world, not the least of which is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It was the Marshall Plan that revived Europe and encouragement from the United States of a European Common Market that led to the European Union. Plus arms control treaties with the Soviet Union and picking up the nuclear pieces when the Soviet Union fell apart.

And then George W. Bush did what he could to destroy those structures.

So Obama is going back to that world order, or perhaps moving on to a better one. We don’t know about the latter yet, but this prize is a great sigh of relief that America will be working for stability and peace rather than wars for regime change.

"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," said Thorbjoern Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Committee. (AP)
Capturing the world’s attention and giving people hope are achievements. Obama has begun negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians, something that other presidents have waited until the ends of their terms to do.
He has delivered four major foreign policy addresses explaining these themes -- his nuclear nonproliferation speech in Prague; his outreach to the Muslim world in Cairo; his offer of U.S. support to the developing world (tempered with a reminder that nations are responsible for their futures) in Accra, Ghana; and his call for global cooperation at the U.N. General Assembly last month. (WaPo)
On the arms control front, which the Committee emphasized,
Not only did he commit himself to this goal in April in Prague, but he has already taken many concrete steps in the right direction by commencing new arms reduction talks with Russia; committing himself to seek ratification and entry into force of a global nuclear test ban treaty; serving as the first U.S. president ever to chair a United Nations Security Council meeting on nuclear disarmament; pledging to secure all remaining "loose nukes" and nuclear bomb-making materials within four years, and holding a summit on the subject in Washington next year; and engaging in smart diplomacy by talking to Iran about getting rid of its nuclear weapons program. (TPM Cafe)
Humans are demanding creatures. We undervalue what we’ve got and focus on potential losses rather than potential gains. So now we’ve got an American president who has turned attitudes around (done; easy to undervalue) and is, like the Nobel Committee, taking risks. Those risks could turn out badly (focus on potential loss) or really very well indeed (potential gains, not so much). The Committee chose to consciously and counterintuitively focus on what we’ve got and the potential gains.
“We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year,” Mr. Jagland said. “We would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do.” (NYT)
We can hope that this exercise of the better side of their humanity will encourage that side in all of us.

Addendum (10/10/09): David Kaiser makes an argument that is somewhat similar to part of mine, with greater historical depth. Kaiser posts once a week, always worth reading.
The reason, I think, that all this is hard to understand here in the United States, is that conservative Republican positions, which the rest of the world fears and abhors, are regarded here as mainstream.