Monday, November 30, 2009

Question of the Day

Are there other first-world countries where the media spends a lot of time worrying that its leaders are too rational?

- DougJ at Balloon Juice

Bits and Pieces - November 30, 2009

Fallows isn't giving up on the theme.

And Ambinder jumps in.

Marc Lynch says that the commentators are getting it wrong on Arab disappointment with Obama. Maybe we can make this a blogstorm, although too many of the blogs have swallowed the conventional wisdom.

An account of the negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev over the unification of Germany that shows why details are important. The "agreement not to extend NATO" apparently never reached the level of an international agreement.

One small attempt to find context in Iran.

Friends come and go, but enemies remain. One more weakness in the Soviet Union.

Retired Republican congressional representative Jim Leach would like to encourage his party to engage in civil discussion.

A violation of the Constitution to use military tribunals without a Congressional declaration of war?

Fighting a smarter war on cancer.


The Obama Blues

Very few of us have first-hand knowledge of what’s happening in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Russia, Alaska, and even Washington. What first-hand knowledge we have is in bits and pieces, hardly ever a larger view.

That is why news reporting is so important.

What we need from reporting is not only the bare facts – Pakistan President Zardari turned over control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to Prime Minister Gilani, for a single example – but also how those facts fit into a context. That context includes history, culture, and what other nations are doing that is relevant.

It turns out that reporters have only bits and pieces, too, fewer and fewer as news organizations close down their foreign bureaus so that they can cover reality television, Tiger Woods’s midnight misadventures, and health news. They frequently misreport the health news, too, but that’s a subject for another post.

James Fallows, who has spent three years in China, was appalled at the coverage of President Obama’s trip there. He has been documenting the coverage and its problems at his blog. We can hope he writes an article for The Atlantic on it. If you only want to sample his oeuvre, I recommend coverage #1 and #6, and results #1 and #2. (The oeuvre so far: coverage #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, and the results of that miserable trip #1, #2, #3, #4)

One of the basic problems that the reporters seem to suffer from is the misunderstanding that diplomacy is a reality show. They would like loud confrontations, people being voted off the island, obvious results NOW! Much easier to report because that continuity stuff, which requires some factual knowledge, doesn’t matter as much. So they try to set up some of that with research they’ve been handed by partisans.

A theme running through Fallows’s coverage is that diplomacy with China is not done by banging shoes on the table and lecturing them on how they should act. In fact, diplomacy isn’t usually done that way, which is why we still recall Nikita Khrushchev’s act at the United Nations in 1960. I’ve written about that at WhirledView. It’s true that George Bush and some of the people around him seemed to believe in this sort of diplomacy, but they were outliers in this too.

For some reason, there seems to be a great desire on the part of the MSM, on all sides of the political spectrum, to tell us what a terrible job President Obama is doing. So a few people in the blogosphere are collecting some data on that terrible job. (Nathan Newman, TPM Café; Jacob Weisberg, Slate) I guess I'm still dazzled by that campaign rhetoric, but Newman's list looks pretty impressive to me.

It’s almost as though the press aspires to be Tareq and Michaele Salahi: anything to get the spotlight!

More news, please. And analysis means providing historical background, along with how the action being reported on fits with that country’s and its allies’ and enemies’ expectations, what they all might take it to mean in their contexts, not just who's politically in and who's politically out. I realize that in order to do a good job at that, the reporter’s ego needs to fade out of the foreground. That might be the hardest thing to achieve.

A Spot of Good News

Business activity in the U.S. unexpectedly accelerated in November as orders climbed, signaling the economic recovery will carry through into 2010.

The Institute for Supply Management-Chicago Inc. said today its barometer rose to 56.1, the highest level since August 2008, from 54.2 the prior month. Readings above 50 signal expansion. Milwaukee and Texas also showed gains in manufacturing, other reports showed.

Rising sales, spurred in part by government incentives, and growing demand from abroad have led to a drawdown in inventories that will boost production and sustain the recovery. Mounting job losses raise the risk spending will retrench, one reason why Federal Reserve policy makers have pledged to keep borrowing costs low “for an extended period.”

“There is definitely room for production to be coming back,” said David Semmens, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank in New York, who forecast the index would rise. “There will be some export-led growth.”

Stocks trimmed earlier losses after the stronger-than- expected report. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 0.1 percent to 1,093.07 at 11:00 a.m. in New York. [Bloomberg]

Elsewhere, Jacob Weisberg at Slate strengthens the case that the conventional wisdom - as unwise as ever - that Obama's first year is a wash has got things backwards, as the media rating of presidents goes.
...The bill he signs may be flawed in any number of ways—weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed...

For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government's role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ. He will also undermine the view that Ronald Reagan permanently reversed a 50-year tide of American liberalism.

Obama's claim to a fertile first year doesn't rest on health care alone. There's mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—combined with the bank bailout package—prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama's decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter. The New York Times recently quoted Mark Zandi, who was one of candidate John McCain's economic advisers, on this point: "The stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do—it is contributing to ending the recession," he said. "In my view, without the stimulus, G.D.P would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bits and Pieces - November 29, 2009

Some good suggestions for climate scientists. More transparency, less tribalism.

The IAEA's resolution on Iran. (pdf)

Historian of science Spencer Weart on the hacked climate e-mails.

A purity test for Democrats.

Organizational differences between the civil rights movement and today's faltering social movements. I can expand this to the expectation that people demonstrate in the streets of Iran, so far too many outside Iran expect the government to fall. As I've pointed out, using Estonia as an example, you've got to have organization behind those actions and a plan for what comes next. Conversely, it might be why the right sees ACORN as such a danger.

From the CATO Institute: Repeating that the debt is Bush's. Very informative pie chart.

The ultimate statement on the Salahis.

Cantus Arcticus

Haapsalu - photo by CKR.

I've been feeling homesick for Estonia and the North lately. Knitted a Haapsalu-style scarf for a friend. Then Andreas Persbo reminded me of my trip to the Ranstad uranium mine in Sweden, which had a wildlife refuge nearby with cranes, cranes, cranes. I was there in March, no green of spring, but the cranes were migrating.

Then today I played Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus. Lots of cranes there too. Here are the first and second movements, although I think that the second includes the third movement as well. Haven't listened closely yet. Sadly, they're not embeddable.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Getting It Wrong

The New York Times reports this morning that the corn belt, in response to Congress's infinite wisdom, will probably produce more ethanol than can be used in gasoline. That's because the country is using less gasoline because of the recession. Pete Davis reports that the politicking on what to do with that excess ethanol has already started. He adds
In my Capitol Hill experience, lawyers tend not to accept the constraints that seem incontrovertible to economists.
Or to scientists, I might add.

Seems like there's a lot of that going around. Here's a lovely little multimedia piece from the New York Times. There's a lot I like about it, but the science just isn't there. It's a feel-good piece. Even if all the (implied) science in it is correct, which it probably isn't, so what? Perhaps I'm being too hard on Maira Kalman, but all she does is raise questions that are already out there. And um, picking those natural mushrooms in the pine needles deprives the plants of their spore-spreading mechanisms to make more of them.

Or India wants to open the Bhopal site as a memorial to the victims of the explosion there that spread toxic chemicals through the area. The government claims that the site is safe, which is within the realm of possibility: most of the deaths and health damage were from gases that are now dissipated. And, on the other side of things, that white streak in the soil is not "pure mercury," which is metallic-looking and liquid. Is it a mercury compound? Only sampling will tell us for sure.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R, TX) calls for universal health care coverage without realizing that's what she's doing.

And I guess this one really doesn't surprise me, although the fact that these companies keep doing the same sorts of things does. But I would like to know more about the concerns of the British nuclear safety regulators on the new French and American reactor designs. But then we have this:
The HSE said it might allow so-called exclusions over some of its concerns under which it would allow construction to proceed on the understanding that the problems would be addressed later.
which is probably what the companies are depending on. Almost certainly, Hyperion is depending on something like that in its enormous shift in reactor design. If there's going to be a renaissance in nuclear power, the companies have to get more responsible than this.

IAEA Censures Iran

The IAEA has voted 25 to 3, with 6 abstentions, to demand that Iran suspend operations at the Fordow enrichment plant until it makes clear to the IAEA how that plant fits into its nuclear program. Part of the resolution also had to do with the question of how much Iran has researched nuclear weapons. That’s from the New York Times article by Alan Cowell and David Sanger; I can’t find a text of the resolution itself yet.

Mohamed ElBaradei’s statement to the IAEA Board focuses on the weapons allegations more strongly than in the past. Those allegations seem to have been growing in his concerns. The provenance of the data they are based on is not clear. First, a rather improbable collection of information on a single laptop (called the Laptop of Death by some of us) was asserted; more recently, the information was said to have been smuggled out of Iran on memory sticks.

There are problems on both sides. As ElBaradei says,
We have effectively reached a dead end, unless Iran engages fully with us. It would help if we were able to share with Iran more of the material that is at the centre of these concerns. I also believe that prospects for a resolution of these outstanding issues would be enhanced by Iran implementing the Additional Protocol and by the initiation of the hoped for comprehensive dialogue between Iran and the international community.
The United States, holder of the Laptop of Death (or whatever), will not allow more open sharing of this information because of the usually-claimed concerns about sources and methods. There is probably some legitimacy to this claim, along with the issue of classified weapons design information.

But it appears that Iran did some work that was probably weapons-related more than a decade ago. The United States’s 2007 NIE claims that weapons-related work was done up until 2003. If, indeed Iran did weapons work and has discontinued it, it would not hurt for Iran to disclose that, along with some of the details. Countries are very sensitive even about defunct nuclear weapons programs, however: Sweden still will not disclose why it gave up its nuclear weapons program, probably in the 1960s. Sweden, however, unlike Iran, has a long track record that makes this sensitivity less suspicious.

Iran’s response is in Specific Observation 4 of Iran’s statement to the IAEA Board. The response it is narrowly legal and blows some smoke. It basically says that these issues were not a part of the work plan and that Iran has responded to its satisfaction. It would be much better for Iran to lay out an array of defunct programs.

It’s significant that China and Russia voted for the resolution. Like ElBaradei, they may be losing patience with Iran’s dithering. The proposal from the Geneva talks is not part of this IAEA resolution, but ElBaradei’s statement expresses frustration with Iran’s rejection of his proposed solution. The Iranian statement that the normal procedure is simply to exchange money for nuclear fuel (Point 4 on the Tehran Research Reactor) is incorrect; usually the supplier country retains title to the uranium and frequently the supplier insists on return of the fuel for reprocessing or storage.

ElBaradei has given Iran the benefit of the doubt for some time now; many of us were dubious about US claims after the Iraq WMD debacle. But Iran has continued concealment and minimal cooperation with IAEA. There could be legitimate reasons for this, such as concern about revealing bombing targets or disarray within the government. If that is the case, there is another aspect of the Iraq WMD debacle that Iran needs to consider: that Saddam Hussein managed successfully to convince many that he did indeed have WMD, even though he didn’t. Whatever its intentions, Iran seems to be going down that road.

Climate Change Reminder

Ani Triastuti prays while sitting on a desk, in her house which has been flooded by sea water, at Mondoliko village in Demak, Indonesia's Central Java province November 14, 2009. Mondoliko village, home to some 188 families and located about one kilometer from the beach, has for the past three years been flooded by sea water because of rising sea levels, according to Sunarti Triastuti, a villager. Triastuti also said the floods destroyed the village's padi fields and farmers have had to head to the city to find other means of livelihood. (REUTERS/Beawiharta) Here.

Out of the Lobby

That's nice. Just a little less corruption in US government.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of lobbyists are likely to be ejected from federal advisory panels as part of a little-noticed initiative by the Obama administration to curb K Street's influence in Washington, according to White House officials and lobbying experts.

The new policy -- issued with little fanfare this fall by the White House ethics counsel -- may turn out to be the most far-reaching lobbying rule change so far from President Obama, who also has sought to restrict the ability of lobbyists to get jobs in his administration and to negotiate over stimulus contracts.

The initiative is aimed at a system of advisory committees so vast that federal officials don't have exact numbers for its size; the most recent estimates tally nearly 1,000 panels with total membership exceeding 60,000 people.

Under the policy, which is being phased in over the coming months, none of the more than 13,000 lobbyists in Washington would be able to hold seats on the committees, which advise agencies on trade rules, troop levels, environmental regulations, consumer protections and thousands of other government policies.

This isn't occuring without lots of whining:
"It's taken me years to learn what the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is," said Robert Vastine, a lobbyist for the Coalition of Service Industries who also serves as chairman of a trade advisory board. "It's a whole different and specialized world. It is not easily obtained knowledge, and they are crippling themselves terribly by ruling out all registered lobbyists."
The poor man.... The reality is not difficult to grasp. The public-private interface is the locus of corruption in a society as much as some transfer site of "expertise," as the lobbyists describe themselves as possessing in abundance. Don't be distracted by claims of "expertise." The very definition of a lobbyist has little if anything to do with objective, sound expert advice on good governance in a pluralistic democracy and everything to do with promoting particular interests, usually at the expense of other interests.
"You may lose a lot of expertise, but these people are also paid to have a point of view; they have an agenda," said Mary Boyle, a vice president at Common Cause.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bits and Pieces - November 24, 2009

President Obama likes science. [Replacement of science by religion has been running a close second this week to the media's ignorance in my irritation index. Have restrained myself from blogging about this as well.]

Blackwater's Secret War in Pakistan. More of Jeffrey Scahill's excellent investigation. Take note, media scribes! This is how you do journalism. Chris Bertram takes note of some of the ugly consequences.

Stephen Walt is pleased that the United States is playing a little harder to get with India. The Bush administration's desire to make India happy with nuclear trade outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty was the antithesis of the "tough love" Walt has been advocating, not just for India but for all US allies. Nicholas Burns, who negotiated that nuclear deal, urges other sorts of cooperation as well, which appears to be what President Obama is doing. But the agreement "lacks the big dollars," which may be part of Walt's tough love.

One more example of why I'm irritated at the media: the ACORN story. Emptywheel points out that it's the beat reporters who recognized the rightwing lies.

Kirsten Gillebrand, Hillary Clinton's Senate replacement, says she'll take down the Stupak amendment.

2009 could be the second-hottest year on record if things keep going the way they are. Nice animation of El Niño developing.

Iran Responds, Sort Of

Early reports this morning said that Iran would only swap its partly-enriched uranium for reactor fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor if the swap were on its soil. But Reuters now says that Iran's stance on this is not inflexible, although it wants "100 percent guarantees" that the exchange will take place.

George Perkovich provided some very insightful discussion on the subject to the Council on Foreign Relations before these developments were announced. His analysis is that the swap is a good deal for Iran and that President Ahmadinejad and his negotiators recognized this. But when the deal was brought back home, everyone who has ever been irritated by Ahmadinejad rejected it, not because of the deal itself but because of Iran's internal politics.

So this return to the table is something of a face-saver for Iran and a recognition on their part that it is a good deal.

And, gentlemen and ladies of the media, could you resist jumping to conclusions?
The Iranian terms mean an effective rejection of a U.N.-brokered plan designed to delay its ability to build a nuclear weapon. [NYT]

Any fuel swap in Iran would likely be a non-starter for Western powers, which want to delay Tehran's potential to make a nuclear bomb by reducing its LEU stockpile. [Reuters]
I could be wrong about this, but I don't recall that anyone has said this in an official capacity. It is something that the media have concluded, just as too many of them have concluded that Iran is working toward nuclear weapons. We're interested in your analysis, good scribes, but not in your conclusions, much less do we want them to drive the negotiations.

[I have been particularly irritated this week at the inability of reporters to look past their game-show mentality as applied to world affairs, of which this is only a small example. James Fallows has more of what I predicted for President Obama's China trip. I have not written that post, not least because thinking about it renders me wordless. Read Fallows.]

Grand Ball of the Whales

Image from here.

Just a little reminder that things change. From Vanity Fair in 1861, when it was becoming clear that there was a replacement for the diminishing sources of whale oil.

Monday, November 23, 2009


I wanted to find a video of Gustav Ernesaks's "Frost," but I couldn't find it. His "Morning" has some of the same feeling.

Bits and Pieces - November 23, 2009

Decaying infrastructure: sewers.

British military aerial photos, most from WWII, are now on line. The Guardian provides a sample.

Today's smart politics (for a change!): Under the Senate bill, Congress gets into the same health insurance market as the rest of us. And Representative David Obey of Wisconsin says that if more troops are sent to Afghanistan, we should figure out a way to pay for them. I'm looking forward to seeing all those Republicans who are deficit hawks on health care reform lining up behind him.

Nietzsche on leading and following, with further commentary by Scott Horton and a gorgeous painting.

I thought this was a parody, but probably not. Scrooge Defended.

Hemophilia B Brought Down the Tsars

The same group of DNA analysts that identified the remains of the last Tsar's family have now figured out the genetics of Tsarevich Alexei's hemophilia. It was
an A-to-G intronic mutation located three base pairs upstream of exon 4 (intron-exon boundary IVS3-3A>G) in the F9 gene.
One of Alexei's sisters, probably Anastasia, was a carrier, as, obviously, was their mother.

This is taken to be "a severe form of hemophilia B" by the authors, reporting in the 6 November Science.

It wasn't only Alexei's hemophilia that brought down the Tsars, but the attention and concern it drew from his parents distracted them from their duties as heads of state. Just one amino-acid substitution. Gives new meaning to that old chestnut about "for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Corps of Engineers: Guilty

As bmaz points out, this is potentially an enormous court decision.
the decision by Eastern District of Louisiana Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. in the In Re: Katrina Canal Breaches Consolidated Litigation case is a game changer with immense and far reaching ramifications.

Duval excoriated the Army Corps of Engineers and held them, and the government, directly liable for much of the flooding that devastated New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish in the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005.
Forgive me for some personal schadenfreude. When I was managing Department of Energy environmental cleanups, there was a never-ending drumbeat from the Corps that they could do it better. What I saw them doing didn't look better to me.

And building dams is what they are supposed to do.

Tipping Points in Iran

Last week, Haleh Esfandiari spoke in Santa Fe. One of the things she said that particularly struck me was that the participation of women in the demonstrations was something that the regime was not mentally prepared to deal with. The strictures on interactions between men and women put women demonstrators outside any of their models of public order.

Today, the New York Times reports that Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri has been criticizing the regime as acting against Islam. Because the 1979 revolution was supposed to make Iran into a thoroughly Islamic country, this criticism strikes at the roots of the government's legitimacy. More so because Montazeri helped to set up the form of the government.

Events that are impossible by the mental models held by a repressive government and criticism that goes to its basis for existence can be devastating. That was what happened in the Soviet republics particularly, and Moscow didn't realize what was happening until too late.

These two factors are likely to be the most powerful. Whether they are used successfully depends on the insight of the Iranian opposition and the willingness of the regime to use force.

Present At The Creation

Dean Acheson was President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State. That title, chosen in 1969, still applies. Acheson and Truman helped to build today’s world. Acheson could see some of the results as he wrote, twenty years on.

It’s hard to recall or imagine just how broken the world was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Europe had just finished a thirty-year run of two wars, monetary instability, the deliberate victimization of entire peoples, and the rise of an ideology that promised social justice and delivered dictatorship. The Soviet Union had lost millions of people, some of them in purges before the latest war. Portions of Asia were devastated, along with a civil war in China. European colonialism had lost its grip, leaving opportunity and enmity in its wake. Only the Americas had not experienced the wholesale destruction of cities and industry. Growing out of the ruins was a nuclear rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Truman and Acheson, with many others, built a different world. The idea was to end the rivalries that drove those terrible thirty years. Difficulties immediately presented themselves: the Soviet Union absorbed or controlled a number of European countries and was indurate against cooperation. France was terrified of and resistant to any but a totally prostrate Germany, which was now on that border of Soviet control. Although the Soviet Union had been exhausted by the war, they were able to support their Chinese and North Korean allies in yet another.

The solution to ending those rivalries was a framework of international organizations to encourage cooperation and arbitration where cooperation failed. The United Nations, of course, along with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and an organization for Europe to deal with commerce in coal and steel, two essential materials whose manufacture and sale continued to cause arguments. That last grew into the European Union, which was what its originators hoped.

The shape of today’s world, for good and bad, was formed in that decade between 1945 and 1955. The Soviet Union had to have the nuclear weapons that the United States had, which caused Truman to decide to go ahead with the development of the hydrogen bomb, which led to the arms race that we are still dialing down. Turkey still hovers between Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Israel is still fighting the Palestinians. Pakistan and India were separated in 1947 with much human relocation, which probably would be called ethnic cleansing in today’s world, as would the relocation of the Palestinians. Those scars linger. Then-Communist nations have opened up: the Soviet Union is gone, and China has adopted limited capitalism. Iran was a problem then, too. From his 1969 viewpoint, Acheson felt it necessary to devote a chapter to the evolution of conflicts in southeast Asia, the leftovers of the French colonial empire. Empire left the Middle East and Africa weak, and those countries have not yet recovered.

The book clarified for me the interactions among people whose names I heard when I was growing up. My parents were registered Republicans, of the Northeastern liberal variety, now an extinct breed. My father listened faithfully to Drew Pearson’s radio program and would curse out whomever he found to be the enemy of the week. As I grew older, we had lively dinner-table conversations about current events. But during the time Acheson wrote about, I couldn't fit it all together.

Acheson was clearly a Democrat, but he is extremely respectful of his opponents in a way we barely see today. He doesn’t vilify Joseph McCarthy, who was after Acheson’s scalp, or even devote a lot of space to him. The Republicans were capable of craziness and obstruction then too, but it wasn’t their only mode of operation.

The entire memoir is of a style that is also extinct, written from notes and memoranda and not much embellished. This can make it dull reading at times; I found that concentrating on the events and their latter-day sequelae improved my ability to read it, which flagged for two long hiatuses until I set a schedule of at least two chapters a night. Fortunately, the chapters are short.

Acheson’s style is not terribly complex but stuffy. There were many places that I wished he had been more personal, but that was not how things were done then.

George Bush felt that it was his mission to disassemble the structures that had kept the peace and made the world a more prosperous place. He partly succeeded, but the post-war statesmen built a robust structure. However, by his actions, Bush damaged the great prestige that America had accumulated by its leadership in knitting the world back together.

With the Bush financial collapse, we now have an opportunity and duty to make things better than they were before, as was done by Acheson and his colleagues. Today’s devastation is not as total as the result of thirty years of war, but that many things were done badly and could get worse. There are small signs that our leaders may be capable of rebuilding and renewing. I was too young to be able to remember how the events that Acheson describes looked day to day. He reports enough to-ing and fro-ing in Congress and close calls that I suspect it might have looked the way things do now: jumbled, confused, not able to get to clear solutions. Twenty years later he could see that most of what he had worked for had blossomed. Perhaps we will have to wait twenty years.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bits and Pieces - November 21, 2009

Essay or novel? Zadie Smith.

Congress gets around to considering whether all those military contractors can be held responsible for their actions.

Irtysh River, North Kazakhstan, dawn. Imagine a cuckoo and a million other birds singing.

Tug of war over the Irtysh River's water. More background here.

If you want to read only one rant on Sarah Palin, this is it.

Who runs Russia, anyway?

It seems to have been a crabby week for a lot of us. I have pulled my fingers back from the keyboard several times and deleted at least one crabby post before it could embarrass me. But it seems I'm not alone, and I'll let David Shorr's rant stand in for all those things I didn't write.

Why exercise makes you less anxious.

Alllll right! Call blocking while the car is moving!

JFK would be 92 years old if he hadn't been killed 46 years ago tomorrow. Ted Sorenson on what might please and disappoint Kennedy.

Not an Encouraging Development

A while back, I wrote about an interesting little reactor to be marketed by a company that calls itself Hyperion. I had a number of questions, some of which were answered, many not. I also had a reservation about Hyperion's approach to its publicity.
It is that “baffle ‘em with bullshit” approach that I sense in those Hyperion claims. If Hyperion's attitude is the sameold sameold of the nuclear industry, this enterprise will fail too. That would be too bad, because there appear to be many positives for little reactors like this one.
Well, Hyperion is still likening its reactor to a battery, which is inaccurate even if catchy. At some point, someone will use this against them as being misleading. I don't think they intend to mislead, but a reactor, as I said, is not a battery.

But even worse, Hyperion has now changed the fuel and perhaps the coolant in the reactor. This is relatively easy to do now, since the reactor is still only plans on paper. There will have to be a fair bit of calculating to complete a redesign, though.

Here's another warning signal:
Although no fuel has been tested or manufactured for the project, Deal said that fuel burns would begin before the end of the year. He said that Los Alamos National Laboratory, from whom Hyperion has licenced some of the technology, has researched uranium nitride. It said that the Russian military has used uranium nitride fuel and the lead-bismuth coolant.
"Researching" a fuel is not the same as developing production methods. It might be, but I've worked with overenthusiastic researchers at that very same Los Alamos National Laboratory.

It's a continuing attitude, and not just at Los Alamos. Superfreakonomics finds pumping sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere easy and without deleterious effects. Freeman Dyson imagines genetically engineered carbon-eating trees to solve global warming. Next problem. All that is easy to do, as long as you don't have to do it, just have the bright idea.

It goes back to the Manhattan Project, and I was entwined in a project where it ran rampant. The problem would be solved over Fourth of July weekend! Well, Labor Day! And so on. It never quite worked, and not only because hydrogen production of metal in acid (an overfilled beaker and a bolt on my optical table) was a new discovery to one of these genius researchers. Early on in the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer thought that fifty or so physicists could produce an atomic bomb.

Is that overenthusiasm operating at Hyperion? It's beginning to look that way.

The new design is quite different from the old one. The neutronics will be different. It looks like these guys are designing this on the fly.

Dan Yurman tells us that Hyperion plans to submit its design to the NRC in "late 2010 or early 2011." That's just a year away. We'll see what the story is then.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bits and Pieces - November 20, 2009

The negotiations with Iran haven't collapsed yet. And, from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,
I met recently with the Iranian foreign minister. We did discuss the nuclear question. The message he left with me was that they feel encouraged by the messages they are receiving from the Obama administration.
The Guardian's Week in Wildlife, with a photo of a Galapagos finch, as of Darwinian fame, whose species was observed in development. A counter to one of the anti-evolutionists' claims.

Speaking of such things, I've been impressed by the level of dumb displayed in our national dialogue (as they call it) this week. Almost wrote some posts on it, but found that too discouraging. So here are some fragments, along with a tiny bit of almost positive spin I've been able to work up.

Chris Cilizza has some polling results that show that more than 80% of voters in Nebraska, Louisiana, and Arkansas favor allowing the Senate's health bill to come to debate and majorities favor its passage. The poll is by an advocacy group, but those numbers are really, really high. Could the Senate take note? Better yet, could the Democrats change the rules and get rid of the ridiculous filibuster threats?

But then there's this and this. My almost positive spin: The polling on the health bill measures the desire for an action; on the budget deficit, a policy; and on ACORN, facts. I also read somewhere else today (link lost) that people tend to answer the latter two sorts of poll questions as questions about their political affiliations, so I'm hoping that our elected representatives understand this and make their judgements accordingly. That's why we've got republican rather than democratic (small-letter) government, after all.

And the answer to William Marshall's implied question in his last paragraph, why we haven't paid more attention to the discovery of water on the Moon, seems to be covered by the bits and pieces above: it's not news we can use in the narrow personal sense, nor does it play to party loyalties. So far, Marshall and Helmut seem to be tied for best commentary.

The Breast Cancer Dustup

We have to decide medical diagnostics and treatment on science. And science changes.

Medicine is an odd conglomeration of art, science, and common wisdom. The science part keeps getting bigger as studies are done to determine the effectiveness of various procedures. The art part will never go away, because we're dealing with issues that weigh heavily on people's emotions. But the function of that art will move toward comfort and persuasion, less in decision-making.

The common wisdom part was a foundation of medicine. People found that certain herbs and actions helped with diseases and other conditions, like broken legs. They combined that knowledge and passed it on. Some of that was a process like science, in which stuff was tried and note taken of whether it worked or not. But without scientific rigor, other sorts of things, like "I've always done it that way" kick into the common wisdom. As Ezra Klein reminds us, leeches were once a staple of medicine. Sometimes the blood loss from their treatments killed the patient, but hey, they were sick and probably would have died. Or maybe they died from what the leeches were treating them for.

Science is a more reliable guide. One of the tools it relies on is risk assessment, which is particularly difficult to communicate because it's counterintuitive.

We'd like our experts to give us certain and simple advice on health matters. But that's not the nature of science, particularly medical science. Individuals are different, and we don't know enough about cancer to be definitive.

A friend has gone through treatment for serious breast cancer. She keeps asking her doctor to tell her that the cancer is gone. Instead, the doctor tells her that the cells are circulating in her body, and what has to be done is to keep them from settling and making new tumors. My friend understands intellectually that that's probably correct, but emotionally she will keep asking the doctor to settle this question once and for all. And, of course, what she wants to hear is that yes, her body is totally free from cancer.

Many women thought that the previous guidlines on mammography were definitive. But mammograms don't catch every cancer, they see things that look like cancer but aren't, and they expose your breast to a tiny bit of radiation that ups the probablity of cancer later on by a tiny bit. Those are the considerations in this latest study, along with the outcomes of all that mammography. And the result is that mammograms aren't all that harmful. The same for doctors teaching women to examine their own breasts.

I haven't read the report, but it doesn't say that women should never check their breasts, as some (here and here) are taking it. I suspect that it says that doctors teaching women to check their breasts doesn't do much good. That may well be because many women are pretty conscious of what's going on in their bodies anyway and those who aren't don't change because their doctors tell them to.

And now a new recommendation on Pap smears. More hollering to come.

The guidelines for prostate-specific-antigen tests were cut back similarly a few months ago without all this noise. And I am wondering if these people who are so fond of testing have a colonoscopy every year, plus blood tests for leukemia and tests for all the sorts of cancer that there are. I am sure that there are many people who will attest to a colonoscopy's having found a cancer early and saving their lives.

The idea of detecting and treating cancer early was a success of public education. So far (and it's early), the medical profession isn't doing such a good job of educating to these new results. In fact, a number of doctors have firmly stated their intention not to change what they've been doing. Here are some better attempts, from the president of a medical-imaging firm; a woman who, like me, wonders about her diagnosis; a scientist who has looked at these matters for some time; the New York Times editorial board; a historian of science; and, of all people, Steven Pearlstein*.

*With the exception that the saying is "the plural of anecdote is not data." That appears to be what Pearlstein intended, but he got it wrong.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Two Track Torture

There's something vaguely appropriate about this pairing.
The CIA built one of its secret European prisons inside an exclusive riding academy outside Vilnius, Lithuania, a current Lithuanian government official and a former U.S. intelligence official told ABC News this week.

Where affluent Lithuanians once rode show horses and sipped coffee at a café, the CIA installed a concrete structure where it could use harsh tactics to interrogate up to eight suspected al-Qaeda terrorists at a time...

Lithuanian officials provided ABC News with the documents of what they called a CIA front company, Elite, LLC, which purchased the property and built the "black site" in 2004.

Lithuania agreed to allow the CIA prison after President George W. Bush visited the country in 2002 and pledged support for Lithuania's efforts to join NATO.

"The new members of NATO were so grateful for the U.S. role in getting them into that organization that they would do anything the U.S. asked for during that period," said former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, now an ABC News consultant. "They were eager to please and eager to be cooperative on security and on intelligence matters."

Sure, we'll do what you say and torture people as long as we get club membership in the Free and Just World. It's just a little fraternity hazing, after all.

Buah Lahung

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Bit More Than a “Hole In a Mountain”

Ten days ago, news reports and blogs characterized the Qom site in Iran as “just a hole in a mountain.” This seems to have originated in a quote from Mohamad ElBaradei, which Reuters gives as “nothing to be worried about.” That’s probably accurate and cautiously directed at not upsetting the Geneva talks. Reuters’ headline, however, is “IAEA found nothing serious at Iran site: ElBaradei.”

Now that the IAEA’s report has been issued, it’s clear that the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant is seriously moving toward completion, although nothing to worry about just now. The IAEA took photographs of “cascade piping and other process equipment” and environmental samples to see if enrichment was taking place.
Centrifuge mounting pads, header and sub-header pipes, water piping, electrical cables and cabinets had been put in place but were not yet connected; the passivation tanks, chemical traps, cold traps and cool boxes were also in place but had not been connected. In addition, a utilities building containing electricity transformers and water chillers had also been erected.
The rest sounds fairly irritated with Iran. Regular inspections will ensue, the next in about two weeks. Now there are additional questions that Iran needs to answer about how Fordow fits into its nuclear program.

That’s an issue because, if Iran is indeed building a civilian nuclear capability, it needs more than enrichment. It also needs a fuel fabrication facility, which doesn’t seem to be in prospect; that’s why the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor has to be fabricated elsewhere. And then there are the turbines and electricity-generating equipment that Iran isn’t building a capability to manufacture. It probably would need to boost its cement and steel manufacturing capacity as well. It is doing none of these.

David Albright points out that
Iran stated that the site was being built in case the Natanz site were bombed. However, in the event of an attack on Natanz, the Fardow plant would likely then have been used to make weapon-grade uranium for nuclear weapons rather than LEU for civil purposes. LEU production would hardly be expected to be a priority during a time of war.
And oh by the way, the IAEA observed drums of heavy water, about thirty tonnes, at the Arak site that the Iranians hadn’t mentioned.

The good news is that enrichment activity seems to be slowing down at Natanz. Whether this is because of the Geneva negotiations or technical difficulties is not clear. If it were because of the negotiations, it would seem useful for the Iranians to declare it as a show of good will. Heck, even if they were having technical difficulties, they could declare it for good will. But they chose not to, which is particularly foolish when the IAEA inspectors would inevitably see the slowdown.

How Much Is Too Much?

That's the question being asked about medical diagnostics, particularly for breast and prostate cancer. We don't have answers. I have thought about this for twenty years and more.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer just after the more sensitive x-ray films started to be used, when I was in my early 40s. It was my first mammogram, and there was no palpable lump. The biopsy said that the cells looked aggressive, but most of the hormonal and other tests available now were not then.

So I had a mastectomy. Fortunately, my lymph nodes were clear, and that was before it was decided that everyone who had breast cancer had to have chemotherapy and/or radiation. That was the end of it.

But I kept wondering. I was coming out of a very unhappy situation, and I think that one's emotional state can affect one's body and that our bodies have abilities to take care of errors like cancer. It was a small cancer, with lots of surface area for my white cells or whatever to attack the cancer cells. I had only one data point. Was the cancer growing or declining? No way to know. But I knew that my emotional situation was much improved from the year before and the year before that.

Should I have taken a chance on getting another data point in six months? In retrospect, that might have been a useful thing to do and would likely, given the sort of cancer I had, probably wouldn't have endangered my life. But I didn't know that then. I wanted it OUT OF MY BODY.

I recommended that a friend get a mammogram six months after my diagnosis. She had what seemed to be the same kind of cancer. She died from it last year after many surgeries and chemo and radiation treatments.

The problem is that we still can't distinguish which is which. We've gotten better at it, but we still have a long way to go. So this decision, to recommend less screening, is a substitute for knowledge. None of the media reports say this.

The decision makes sense in a public health sense. It will save anxiety, surgeries, and money. But there is no way to know for any individual. It could be that my cancer would have gone away, or it could be that I would have found a lump later and it would have become much more invasive.

We can't distinguish the various types of breast cancer to know exactly how to deal with each one. We don't know why my friend's returned and mine didn't.

Until we can distinguish, the medical professions have to decide how to deal with diagnosing in a general way what they can't characterize in detail. This decision seems to be the best they can do right now. The conflict between an individual's desire to know their own health and the medical profession's inability to provide a diagnosis that points to the best treatment is profound. Some women in my situation may be worse off in a tradeoff for some women who will avoid the pain of a false positive.

The only way to get beyond these tradeoffs is to understand the disease better.

Bits and Pieces - November 17, 2009

Hippopotamuses attack a crocodile on the Nile. Great photos!

Did Israel forge the documents for that ship allegedly carrying weapons to Hezbollah? Looks like the same sort of screwup as with the Niger yellowcake supplied to Saddam Hussein. Is there a consultant who specializes in out-of-date forgeries?

Why I can't support the nuclear industry. A continuing sense of privilege not unlike Goldman Sachs. See the comments by NRC commissioner Gregory Jaczko. This is the way those guys have always operated.

The START bridging agreement will most likely include provisional implementation of the new treaty, rather than extension of the old one. Good news that means that America and Russia are basically in agreement on the new treaty but need time to finalize it, rather than that they are at odds, as too many in the MSM have reported.

Oh, and tonight is the maximum for the Leonid meteors. Or early tomorrow morning, to be exact. Looks like the sky will be clear here, a nice change from the last couple of meteor showers.

Trials That the People Want

Almost two-thirds of Americans disagree with the decision by President Barack Obama's administration to try the suspected 9/11 mastermind in a civilian court, a poll showed Monday.

Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should be tried in a military court, while only 34 percent agreed with Obama that the civilian judicial system was the best way forward, the CNN poll said.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Friday that Sheikh Mohammed and four suspected co-plotters of the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people would be tried in New York in a civilian court.

Sixty percent of those questioned in the CNN poll agreed that Sheikh Mohammed should be brought to the United States to stand trial, while 37 percent opposed the move.

Polling on all sorts of things, from political candidates to various issues of the day, can obviously be useful for gauging public opinion, which may qualify a proposed policy or proposals by a candidate. That's why polls exist. They're problematic, of course, because they don't necessarily represent the most reasonable views. They often represent the populism-of-the-day. Governing according to polls is a capricious and dangerous affair.

But my question here is: why should what the CNN poll above indicates matter? One of the cornerstones of our society is due process. For due process to be meaningful at all, it has to be consistent. We can't start picking to whom it applies and to whom it doesn't based on whatever a random sampling of the public thinks on any given day, which often reflects what ignorant media and political demagogues are saying on any given day.

In a liberal democracy, it is not the case that anything goes. The will of a democratic majority itself has limits, and these limits are captured in the idea of rights, particularly minority rights. Rights, of course, come with responsibilities to the society that upholds them. When a person commits a criminal act some of his rights are abrogated by society in the name of protecting society from that person. But in our system it is not the case that all rights are abrogated, even when the crime is heinous. In the American constitutional system, legal rights apply most immediately to citizens. The philosophical conception of rights behind the statements of the Constitution, however, is that they apply to all human beings. They are essentially human rights. Part of the greatness of the US Constitution is precisely that it is one of the very first and founding constitutional expressions of what we would later call "human rights."

One might say that the difference between military tribunals and civil courts is negligible in this context. But it's not. Military tribunals are an important part of the US legal system. Closed military tribunals teeter at the edge of a different sort of political-judicial system. The very legitimacy of the US judicial system is grounded in its transparency. Due process through civil courts for foreign citizens who have committed a crime on US territory is a reasonable legal route. It also ensures the legitimacy of the process. Any problems with legitimacy in these cases are not due to the simple act of trying terrorists in civilian courts, but are rather in previous policies that circumvented and subverted the letter and the spirit of US law.

Regardless of the arguments here and elsewhere, however, it simply does not matter whether a sample of the US population favors military courts or civilian courts. It would be exceedingly dangerous to make policy influenced by such a poll.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Preparing for Health Care Reform

The pharmaceutical industry is raising prices for drugs that don't do what the claims imply.

The pharmaceutical industry's objective of making money encourages the development of drugs that will have to be taken regularly, preferably by as many people as possible. The scientific rationale behind the cholesterol-lowering drugs is primarily statistical. Statistics show that cholesterol is related to heart disease, and cholesterol is actually found clogging the arteries of people with some types of heart disease. That last is the kind of evidence scientists prefer. Statistics also show that lower cholesterol is related to lower risk of heart disease.

What the article I've linked says is that statistics show that taking these drugs doesn't necessarily prolong anyone's life.

The problem is that we really don't have a good handle on how eating foods containing cholesterol and pre-cholesterol compounds translates into the levels of high- and low-density cholesterol in the blood translates into heart disease. We've got bits and pieces of that story, but not the sequence from beginning to end. It might seem that lowering cholesterol in the blood is a good thing, but what if, for example, higher cholesterol in the blood results from ferrying it out from where it does harm?

One of the things proposed for health care reform is actually figuring out if medical interventions are doing what they're supposed to do. It won't happen through the good will of the pharmaceutical companies.

Sweden: Land of Peace and Vikings

Sweden has polished up its credentials as a peace-loving country. So much so that most people nowadays, when confronted with the fact that Sweden once had a nuclear weapons program, just look at you sort of funny and think that you probably meant, well, Egypt.

Oh, and Norway is part of the story too.

Andreas Persbo is doing a two-part look at the Swedish program at Arms Control Wonk. Here's Part 1.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

It's Funny Because It's True

The Onion:
Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be

ESCONDIDO, CA—Spurred by an administration he believes to be guilty of numerous transgressions, self-described American patriot Kyle Mortensen, 47, is a vehement defender of ideas he seems to think are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and principles that brave men have fought and died for solely in his head.

"Our very way of life is under siege," said Mortensen, whose understanding of the Constitution derives not from a close reading of the document but from talk-show pundits, books by television personalities, and the limitless expanse of his own colorful imagination. "It's time for true Americans to stand up and protect the values that make us who we are."...

"Right there in the preamble, the authors make their priorities clear: 'one nation under God,'" said Mortensen, attributing to the Constitution a line from the Pledge of Allegiance, which itself did not include any reference to a deity until 1954. "Well, there's a reason they put that right at the top."

Red Rambai and Black Pulusan

Photo from here.

Consequences of the Torture Regime, Part 746

The judges have found the government's evidence against 30 detainees wanting and ordered their release. That number could rise significantly because the judges are on track to hear challenges from dozens more prisoners....

More detainees are expected to soon be added to the prosecution list. But there will still be plenty of cases left among the 215 detainees now at Guantanamo to keep the judges here busy as they work to clear a legal morass the Bush administration created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Bush administration Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once promised Guantanamo held "the worst of the worst." The judges here have rejected pleas for release from eight detainees, but they have concluded the government doesn't even have enough evidence to keep 30 other detainees behind bars...

"Much of the factual material contained in those exhibits is hotly contested for a host of different reasons ranging from the fact that it contains second- and third-hand hearsay to allegations that it was obtained by torture to the fact that no statement purports to be a verbatim account of what was said," Kessler said. She ruled the government failed to prove the detainee was part of or substantially supported Taliban or al-Qaida forces.

The evidentiary record "is surprisingly bare," U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote in ordering the release of Fouad Mahmoud Al Rabiah, a 50-year-old father of four from Kuwait who had been an aviation engineer for Kuwaiti Airways for 20 years. He has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since 2002...

In the case of a detainee from Syria, Abdulrahim Abdul Razak Al Ginco, who uses the surname Janko, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon pointed to evidence that the man had been tortured repeatedly by al-Qaida for three months into falsely confessing that he was a U.S. spy, then jailed for 18 months by the Taliban in Kandahar before he fell into the hands of U.S. forces.

"Notwithstanding these extraordinary intervening events, the government contends that Janko was still 'part of' the Taliban and/or al-Qaida when he was taken into custody," Leon wrote in ordering the detainee's release. "Surely extreme treatment of that nature evinces a total evisceration of whatever relationship might have existed!"...

"The case against Awad is gossamer thin," consisting of raw intelligence, multiple levels of hearsay and documents whose authenticity cannot be proven, said Robertson. "In the end, however, it appears more likely than not that Awad was, for some period of time, 'part of' al-Qaida."...

Etc., etc.

A Brief Reminder

Sullivan on Liz Cheney:

We are nine months into Obama's first term. He inherited two disastrous and failed wars, a recession steeper than any since the Great Depression, countless prisoners of war imprisoned in a gulag in Cuba and largely unprosecutable because of torture illegally authorized by the former president, $5 trillion of debt accrued in eight years by Dick "deficits don't matter" Cheney, alliances frayed to near-collapse, and a total failure in eight years to do anything about climate change.

And she actually says that a Republican in 2013 will have to cope with the damage Obama has done to the country! And she talks about America's "standing in the world"!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Our Beautiful Wet Moon

And who has seen the moon, who has not seen
Her rise from out of the chamber of the deep,
Flushed and grand and naked, as from the chamber
Of finished bridegroom, seen her rise and throw
Confession of delight upon the wave,
Littering the waves with her own superscription
Of bliss, till all her lambent beauty shakes toward us
Spread out and known at last, and we are sure
That beauty is a thing beyond the grave,
That perfect, bright experience never falls
To nothingness, and time will dim the moon
Sooner than our full consummation here
In this odd life will tarnish or pass away.

- Moonrise, DH Lawrence

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Latest News from 1982

I’ve read this piece a couple of times now, and I don’t see why it’s news. Or rather, I think I do, but the reason doesn’t have much to do with what some of us think the function of the media is.

I think that this is the new element that the Washington Post provides:
…according to accounts written by the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, and provided to The Washington Post.
That’s it. Worth three internet pages. From an account by an untrustworthy writer, provided to the Washington Post by
Simon Henderson, a former journalist at the Financial Times who is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and who has maintained correspondence with Khan. In a first-person account about his contacts with Khan in the Sept. 20 edition of the London Sunday Times, Henderson disclosed several excerpts from one of the documents.

Henderson said he agreed to The Post's request for a copy of that letter and other documents and narratives written by Khan because he believes an accurate understanding of Pakistan's nuclear history is relevant for U.S. policymaking. The Post independently confirmed the authenticity of the material; it also corroborated much of the content through interviews in Pakistan and other countries.
Ah yes, just a good citizen from a right-wing think tank doing his civic duty. Er, British subject, it looks like.

But R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick don’t let that stop them from speaking truth to power. No, they demand to know why the United States hasn’t confronted China about this terrible breach of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which China hadn’t signed in 1982, the time of the alleged transfer.
China's refusal to acknowledge the transfer and the unwillingness of the United States to confront the Chinese publicly demonstrate how difficult it is to counter nuclear proliferation.


Asked why the U.S. government has never publicly confronted China over the uranium transfer, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said, "The United States has worked diligently and made progress with China over the past 25 years. As to what was or wasn't done during the Reagan administration, I can't say."
Oh wait,
U.S. officials say they have known about the transfer for decades and once privately confronted the Chinese
But that was in private and doesn’t count, although one of the experts Smith and Warrick consulted said
nothing has ever been said publicly because "this is diplomacy; you don't do that sort of thing . . . if you want them to change their behavior."
But that quote is hidden at the end of the piece.

Of course, Smith and Warrick would love to see President Obama ragging President Hu in public – maybe at one of those state dinners – about this terrible twenty-seven-year-old breach. But it probably wouldn’t even be particularly dramatic. The other guests would look at each other: huh?

It’s likely that Khan’s claim is correct. But how much weight do we put on something that happened almost three decades ago? The same problem applies to the evidence of Iran’s desire for a bomb. Even if it is correct, it’s from some time back. The international situation was different. Different governments were in place.

If we’re going to dredge up alleged transfers of nuclear material, how about that uranium that went from Pennsylvania to Israel in the late 1960s?

Oh right. We need to give the right wing something they can claim that Obama’s doing wrong during this trip.

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

...Yeah, after I took the mescaline, I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class. I got used to them. I would wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?” I would talk to them all the time. I would say, “Okay, guys, we’re going into class now, so we have to be still and quiet,” and they would be there, around my desk, absolutely still, until the bell rang. . . . The crabs stayed with me until the day I simply decided that they bored me and that I just wouldn’t pay attention to them. . . .

I would have liked my crabs to come back. The crabs were mine. I had gotten used to them. They kept reminding me that my life was absurd, yes, nauseating, but without challenging my immortality. Despite their mocking, my crabs never said that my books would not be on the shelf, or that if they were, so what?...
- Jean-Paul Sartre in a 1971 conversation with John Gerassi, printed in Harper's (via Chris Blattman)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Leaks on Afghanistan Strategy

I’m going to differ a little with Seymour Hersh. I don’t think that Obama has only just taken control of the process. I think he’s been in control all along.

Here’s what I think happened: President Obama told the relevant people – Cabinet Secretaries, military – to come up with plans for Afghanistan. They did, but the plans were unimaginative, pedestrian, what you might expect. General McChrystal said back in August that things weren’t going so well, but a few tens of thousands more military would assure victory. That’s pretty much what anyone would expect from the general in charge of the operation.

Up until then, the deliberations had been conducted quietly. This administration seems to be largely in control of leaks, allowing them when they want. The McChrystal leak had the look of coming from McChrystal’s organization or someone in sympathy with an expanded presence in Afghanistan.

And then, yesterday, an even bigger leak, from the ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. Both men are Obama’s choice for their jobs. Eikenberry was a general before he was an ambassador, so he is quite capable of judging the military situation, but he is also tasked with having a broader view.

If you’re going to use your head as well as your gut to evaluate the various courses of action, it will usually take longer, and that is what Obama has been doing. But that means that events on the ground continue.

One of those events was a clearly dishonest election in Afghanistan with decreasing credibility of the Karzai government. This is one of the factors that Eikenberry has to take into account; McChrystal, not so much.

The leak of the Eikenberry letter could be from Eikenberry or those around him, if he feels that a strong counterbalance is needed to McChrystal’s leak (which he couldn’t have been that pleased about). It could also be from an NSC staffer or other Washingtonian in favor of Eikenberry’s position. Perhaps even someone close to Obama wanted to test a trial balloon.

The election goes badly in Afghanistan, McChrystal goes public with his plan, and what Obama is getting from the rest isn’t adequately addressing what he is coming to understand as the situation there. It might even make sense for Obama to have his people leak Eikenberry’s letter to shake things up.

Waiting, I think, has been part of Obama’s strategy, just as it was with the health care bill. It allows those who have strong (and likely wrong) opinions to weigh in, so that he can prepare his proposals and rebuttals, which he is doing now, and what Hersh terms taking control of the process. But I would say that Obama has been in control all along.

And lo and behold! Many more leaks! Obama hasn’t made up his mind yet. He’s asking the military to come up with a timetable for withdrawal and maybe other revised options. It might be that the administration is irritated at the leak of the Eikenberry letter, or it might be that it is useful for them to say that. Hey, wasn’t us!

I suspect that now the White House is taking control with its own series of leaks, to shape the message. And it’s not too hard to shape, because it appears to be the truth: the President is considering the best way to serve the national interest in Afghanistan, and he’s getting a lot of input.

Bits and Pieces - November 12, 2009

President Dmitri Medvedev told Russia today to pull up its socks. Medvedev's prescriptions sound very much like Dmitri Trenin's in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, unfortunately behind a paywall.

The Los Angeles Times's November 1989 response to the destruction of the Berlin Wall. They pretty much got it right. But then, they wouldn't have republished it if they didn't.

Speaking of the media, Will Bunch wonders why it's Jon Stewart who keeps exposing right-wing lies instead of the MSM. Hey Will, you're a member of that elite fraternity! What are you doing about it?

UN investigator finds "shameful neglect of the homeless." Third world? Think again.

Indymedia supoenaed to find out who's reading it.

Cyber Chinese!

...U.S. officials and experts of all political persuasions in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, in private industry and in think tanks are convinced that China is behind many of the most egregious attacks. A senior Air Force official estimated that, as of two years ago, China has stolen at least 10 to 20 terabytes of data from U.S. government networks -- the larger figure equal, by some estimates, to one-fifth of the Library of Congress's digital holdings.

Nuclear weapons labs, defense contractors, the State Department and other sensitive federal government agencies have fallen prey. What experts do not know is exactly what has been stolen or how badly U.S. systems have been exposed. "Given the intrusions into defense industry networks, multibillion-dollar weapons systems . . . may have already been compromised," said James Mulvenon, a China expert with Defense Group Inc. ...

Some U.S. cyber policy experts such as James A. Lewis, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, acknowledge that the problem cannot be solved without international engagement. At the same time, Lewis said, "I'm not going to get upset about China spying on us, because we spy on them." (In the WaPo, via Ezra K)

This is mostly conjecture, but knowing something about China (which is not a whole lot), I'd venture that Chinese cyber-spying is currently more likely to be essentially a massive technology and information transfer system more than a defensive preparation for future warfare. That information flow just can't come fast enough for growing China and is intentionally regulated by the West. Since US commentators often seem incapable of analyzing foreign affairs in anything other than military and militaristic terms, however, we could easily miss this important reality.

Obviously, China is a rapidly growing economy and political force often operating at the far edge of hyper-modernity. But the reality is that the country as a whole is also largely a poor, under-educated, developing nation struggling with difficult problems and a relative paucity of ideas and idea-generating institutions adequate for China's scale (plus a citizenry that can be very quick to mass-protest failed policies and economic woes). Even many of the showiest, most impressive parts of the modern Chinese economy are at least as much about surface as substance. The very strength of the Chinese economy rests largely on currency controls that maintain artificially low (and inequitable) labor costs and prices within the country, thus quickly siphoning off labor-intensive industry jobs and other economic activity from the rest of the world. There's a good reason why it's often cheaper to have something manufactured in China and then shipped to the US than to go the guy just down the street who manufactures the same thing.

China remains desperately in need of information and ideas on many different fronts. Cyber-theft is one way to increase the supply flow when open and agreed routes of technology and knowledge transfer can't keep up with the pace of demand.

Okrung Mangoes

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Are The Talks With Iran Continuing?

Reuters reported today that Iran has stopped expanding its enrichment capacity since September. The reasons for this may be political or technical. If they are political, that is a sign that Iran is serious about the negotiations. If they are technical, that could be a motivation for Iran to get serious about the negotiations.

The fact that we haven't heard about the negotiations for a week or so now probably means that they are continuing in secret. That would be a positive development.

How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor

That’s the title of a long article in Der Spiegel. Aside from the big assumption (I’m still not convinced it was a reactor and stand by my previous posts here, here, and here), Erich Follath’s apparent connections to Mossad (h/t to Bernhard via e-mail), and the timing of the article, apparently to undermine Iran’s credibility during negotiations, it might be useful to comb it for new information and possible errors.

Most of the material in the article has appeared before. But some interviews have taken place with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israeli intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed ElBaradei and American nuclear expert David Albright, along with the predictable anonymous sources.

The article strings together assertions, quotes, and stories so as to imply connections between them that are not supported. Most notably, the article does not connect the violent deaths of two Syrians reported toward the end of the article to the Al Kibar raid. The language throughout is inflammatory, including rhetorical questions that have little or no basis.

The article claims that
In the spring of 2004, the American National Security Agency (NSA) detected a suspiciously high number of telephone calls between Syria and North Korea, with a noticeably busy line of communication between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and a place in the northern Syrian desert called Al Kibar. The NSA dossier was sent to the Israeli military's "8200" unit, which is responsible for radio reconnaissance and has its antennas set up in the hills near Tel Aviv.
I’m wondering a number of things about this assertion: whether the Syrians would communicate directly with the North Koreans from Al Kibar, how the Al Kibar location was determined, why the NSA shared the information with the Israelis, and whether the Israelis picked up the communications independently.

And yet another laptop loaded with classified information, left alone in a hotel room in London by “a senior Syrian government official.” This, it is implied, was the source of the photos released by the CIA in April 2008. It’s not the famous “Laptop of Death,” although the description is confusing. When a single explanation comes up over and over again, I begin to get credibility fatigue. And yes, there is a new explanation for the LOD information, which makes that all less credible.

An Iranian defector, Ali-Reza Asgari, tells the United States that “Iran was apparently funding a top-secret nuclear project in Syria, launched in cooperation with the North Koreans,” but that he doesn’t know any more about it. This is pretty vague, apparently a surmise on Asgari’s part. It’s the kind of thing that can be useful in collecting additional intelligence, but hardly enough to justify a bombing run.

The article then jumps to much more detail, making it seem like this continues to be Asgari’s story.
According to this [Mossad] version of the story, Al Kibar was to be a backup plant for the heavy-water reactor under construction near the Iranian city of Arak, designed to provide plutonium to build a bomb if Iran did not succeed in constructing a weapon using enriched uranium. "Assad apparently thought that, with his weapon, he could have a nuclear option for an Armageddon," says Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, the former director of Israeli military intelligence.
In September 2007, however, if a reactor was being built at Al Kibar, and if the photos released by the CIA are of that reactor, it would have been further along than the Arak reactor. Were the relations between Iran and Syria so good that Iran would entrust part of its putative weapons program (that’s not proved either!) to Syria?

And then we have the daring reconnaissance:
Olmert approved a highly risky undertaking: a fact-finding mission by Israeli agents on foreign soil. On an overcast night in August 2007, says intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, Israeli elite units traveling in helicopters at low altitude crossed the border into Syria, where they unloaded their testing equipment in the desert near Deir el-Zor and took soil samples in the general vicinity of the Al Kibar plant.
Apparently they didn’t find anything, which would have been a long shot anyway. The uranium in reactor fuel elements is thoroughly contained, and the fuel elements are heavily packaged for transport. I’m wondering if this was well thought out by the Israelis, if indeed it took place.

In August, Major General Yaakov Amidror, the trio's spokesman, delivered a devastating report to the prime minister. While the Mossad had tended to be reserved in its assessment of Al Kibar [compare the earlier Mossad story – CR], the three men were now more than convinced that the site posed an existential threat to Israel and that there was evidence of intense cooperation between Syria and North Korea.
But we don’t know what that evidence was. And, a couple of paragraphs down,
At the time [September 2007], no one was claiming that Al Kibar represented an immediate threat to Israel's security.
That’s the trouble with interviewing more than one person; you might get more than one story.
But where did the Syrians get the uranium they needed for their heavy-water reactor, and in which secret plants was it enriched? In addition to the North Koreans, were the Iranians also involved? And what did the latest images of this "Manhattan project" in the Syrian desert actually depict -- the conversion of an existing plant or a completely new facility?
This series of questions probably undermines the authors’ credibility more than any other paragraph in the article. The type of reactor that is alleged to have been built at Al Kibar, a heavy-water reactor, does not need enriched uranium. So no secret plant is needed. Sorry ‘bout that for those who were hoping to slam Iran one more time. But where the fuel elements came from, if indeed there were fuel elements, is a good question. Good enough that it makes one wonder if there were any. The innuendo is thick in the other two questions, but the last is pretty much incomprehensible.

The authors speculate on whether President Bashar Assad of Syria is considering coming clean on the alleged clandestine nuclear program. The article implies that silence on his part would be due to reluctance to open up, but it could be because there was no clandestine nuclear program. The article claims that relations between Syria on one side and Iran and North Korea on the other have worsened since Assad has floated this idea with his partners. In fact, “Western intelligence agencies report that the Iranian leadership is demanding that Syria return -- in full and without compensation -- substantial shipments of uranium, which it no longer needs now that its nuclear program has been destroyed.” Since Iran lacks the ability to produce reactor fuel elements, that cannot be the form of the uranium, but Syria also lacks this ability, so stocks of yellow cake or other unfabricated uranium would be of little use to them.

The article doesn't have much new information, but it's skillfully strung together to imply Iran’s involvement. The trouble is that it doesn’t make the case. C’mon Mossad! Give us some real information if you’re trying to justify bombing Iran!