Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bits and Pieces - New Year's Eve Edition

A small bit of good news to start the year.

Mark Hibbs, one of the world's most acute reporters on things nuclear, comes out from behind the Platts subscription wall to give us the agenda facing Yukyia Amano, the successor to Mohamed ElBaradei as director general of the IAEA.

I was wondering whether the special deal Ben Nelson got for the feds to pay all of Nebraska's Medicaid was constitutional. So are thirteen states' attorneys general.

Looks like the TSA and the airlines are backing off from the stupider restrictions they hysterically imposed as the result of the underpants bomber.

And a happy new year to everyone! I usually don't make predictions, but I am optimistic about the new year and the return of good sense, which should back us off from the attack of the crazies that the underpants bomber brought us and perhaps give us a better result in the election than anyone expects just now.

Connecting Those Dots

Spencer Ackerman, Kevin Drum, and Eric Martin have beaten me to it, so I'll expand on their point, as I was thinking of doing.

It's always easier to see the connections of those dots when you look back. We know that it was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who chose to set himself on fire in an attempt to bring down an airliner. So we can trace his path back.

Likewise, we can trace Nidal Hasan's path back before he went on his shooting spree at Fort Hood.

But it's harder to do that prospectively. There are half-a-million names on the broadest US terrorist list. At any given time, relatives may be complaining about some of those people, calling them terrorists or suspect in some other way. As we look back, the connection between his father's warning and Abdulmutallab's actions seem clear. But as one of a multitude, not so much.

Here's another problem in sorting things out prospectively: how do we know who will live and who will die with any given medical procedure? The answer is that we don't. As Peter Orzag is quoted in that piece,
One of them costs twice as much as the other, and I can tell you that we have no idea what we’re getting in exchange for the extra $25,000 a year...
Now that sounds like a condemnation of the more expensive care, and maybe it is, but I choose to take it as a statement of what we don't know.

It's useful to look back, but the value of retrospective analysis is to find things we didn't know, not to assess blame. Of course, we have Republicans spewing blame around like bullets from a Kalashnikov, and it's been the fashion for so long that the media have a hard time framing their stories any other way than pointing fingers.

Here's an interesting commonality between Abdulmutallab and Hasan: Both seem to have had the same guru in Yemen. And it might even be possible to figure out what went wrong in both their cases.

And once we know that, we might be able to craft workable preventions, or recognize that we can live with uncertainty.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Music of 2009

It's that time of year for the Phronesisaical Best Music awards, which is just me - Helmut - listing musicians and albums I found particularly interesting this year, who you might have missed, and who deserve reaffirmation of their good work.

As with previous years (linked below), these are in no particular order. They're not categorized by genre either this year. May all these musicians prosper in 2010.

Joakim Milky Ways (French industrial pop)

Dan AuerbachKeep It Hid (blues folk rock)

Ocote Soul Sounds & Adrian QuesadaCoconut Rock (Latin tejano)

Hornet LegRibbon of Fear (garage pop)

The Phenomenal Handclap BandThe Phenomenal Handclap Band (pop, disco rock, R&B)

El Perro del MarLove Is Not Pop (pop)

Yura Yura TeikokuHollow Me (Japanese underground psych; 2007 lp, released in US 2009)

Buddy & Julie MillerWritten in Chalk (country rock)

Euros ChildsSon of Euro Child (Welsh alternative pop)

Mama RosinBlack Robert (Swiss Creole-blues garage)

Dan Melchior und Das Menace - Thankyou Very Much (garage)

Jumping Beans & .tape. (Daniel Romero) - yo.yo.pang! (experimental)

Beirut March of the Zapotec (Dig) EP (indie)

Lord Newborn & The Magic SkullsLord Newborn & The Magic Skulls (funk pop)

OLAibiTingaruda (Japanese post rock)

Graham CoxonThe Spinning Top (rock)

Micachu & The ShapesJewellery (avantpop)

Melvin Gibbs' Elevated EntityAncients Speak (R&B, afrobeat)

Staff Benda Bilili - Très Très Fort (Congolese street rumba)

Lucas SanttanaSem Nostalgia (Brazilian avant rock)

The Cotton Jones Basket RideParanoid Cocoon (indie)

Bobby Ubangi - Inside the Mind of Bobby Ubangi (garage)

Shugo TokumaruRum Hee (Japanese psych pop)

Sir Richard BishopThe Freak of Araby (experimental guitar)

Ela OrleansLost (electronic experimental)

Wand (Wooden Wand)Hard Knox (psych folk)

Holden Fantomatisme (French pop rock)

Heartless BastardsThe Mountain (garage rock)

Richard SwiftThe Atlantic Ocean (pop)

William Elliot WhitmoreAnimals in the Dark (punk soul blues)

The Strange Boys...And Girls Club (garage rock)

Tumbélé! Biguine, Afro & Latin Sounds: French Caribbean 1963-73 - compilation (Afro-Creole)

Forge Your Own Chains: Heavy Psychedelic Ballads and Dirges 1968-1974 - compilation (soul, psych)

Earlier installments:

Best Music of 2008

Best Music of 2007:
Best Music of 2006 (An indolent top 45)

Apple Mango

No Fear

Josh Marshall discusses here the different reactions to Pres. Obama's calm regarding the recent terrorism attempt. Some, such as the cited TPM letter writer, view this calm with relief that a grown-up is now in charge. Others, particularly Republicans (who all apparently now think exactly the same thing about everything - so much for freedom-loving), view Pres. Obama's calm as an outrageously insufficient response to the war on terror. Many of the latter dramatize the event to try recreate the climate of fear that the Bush administration sought to maintain.

There's a simple point to make here about terrorism:

The primary objective of terrorists is not killing in itself. Terrorists most basically seek to generate terror and instill a climate of fear in a population as instruments for achieving political and/or religious goals. They succeed most efficiently when we help them do their job by allowing ourselves to be terrorized.

The Cheney Disgrace Continues

Steve Benen:

It was only a matter of time before Dick Cheney decided to trash the president again.

"As I've watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won't be at war."

...President Obama addressed a failed terrorist attack three days after it occurred. Eight years ago, when a terrorist tried to blow up an airplane under nearly identical circumstances, then-President Bush waited six days before making brief, cursory public remarks. Five days after the attempted terrorist attack, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused substantive comment altogether, telling reporters, "That's a matter that's in the hands of the law enforcement people." A White House spokesperson would only say at the time that officials were "continuing to monitor events."

Democrats, at the time, didn't launch an assault against the Bush administration, and we didn't see Al Gore condemning the White House. It simply didn't occur to Democrats in 2001 to use the attempted mass murder of hundreds of Americans to undermine the presidency.

Eight years later, Dick Cheney believes his principal responsibility is to destroy President Obama -- the man Americans chose to clean up the messes Cheney left as a parting gift after eight years of abject failure.

This recent piece from James Fallows continues to ring true: "The former vice president, Dick Cheney, has brought dishonor to himself, his office, and his country. I am not aware of a case of a former President or Vice President behaving as despicably as Cheney has done in the ten months since leaving power.... Cheney has acted as if utterly unconcerned with the welfare of his country, its armed forces, or the people now trying to make difficult decisions. He has put narrow score-settling interest far, far above national interest."

Dick Cheney is a coward and a disgrace.

It's one thing to have a misguided patriotism in which one does what one thinks is best for the country while in actuality being mistaken. It's quite another thing to portray as patriotic what is actually one's own interest in political power and personal gain. When actions based on this latter version have dire consequences for other people (in this case, millions), we usually think of this agent as morally and legally criminal.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How About This?

After reading far too many op-eds righteously urging us to like having strangers look at our naked bodies, harumph for the good of the nation harumph, and after reading many comments from presumably ordinary people saying that the additional requirements are convincing them never to fly again;

And after considering that those scanners are going to cost a great deal of money and that we are spending much less to prevent 40,000 or so deaths a year in automobile accidents;

And after wondering why metal-detector wands are being used in an attempt to detect explosives, which they do not, and why a terrorist cannot blow up an airplane 70 minutes before landing, and whether the transatlantic planes will be warm enough for me to sleep without a blanket;

Now therefore I do suggest that we suck it up (in the phrase of those righteous harrumphers) and accept the fact that there is a 1 in 10,408,947 chance that we will be involved in a terrorist incident as we fly. Not that we will be killed, because Nate Silver's statistics include the shoe bomber and the ball bomber. Just that you might have a nut on your plane who sets his privates on fire. That's a lot better odds than that you'll die driving to the store today to buy some New Year's cheer.

Monday, December 28, 2009

It's Not 2003, Thank Heavens

The New York Times, on the eve of the Christian holiday of peace, published a long op-ed advocating a military attack on Iran. A number of people, including me, have pointed out the problems with this op-ed. The question is why the Times printed it. (Stephen Walt, Jim Lobe, Helena Cobban, me, and links within those posts)

And now we have R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick, for the second time in two months, credulously passing on A. Q. Khan’s claims. As in the earlier article,
Khan described his dealings with the country in official documents and in correspondence with a former British journalist, Simon Henderson, who said he thinks an accurate understanding of Pakistan's nuclear history is relevant for U.S. policymaking. The Washington Post independently verified that the documents were produced by Khan.
This is the same Simon Henderson who provided the earlier information, the same Simon Henderson who is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a right-wing think tank. But Smith and Warrick mention only Henderson’s civic-minded concern for responsible governmental decision-making.

Smith and Warrick would do well to develop their own set of questions, rather than simply passing this material through. They do, in the spirit of what some journalists like to call objectivity, quote Sig Hecker, who has been to North Korea many times and knows his nuclear materials, at length. Shorter Hecker: it’s bosh.

Some of those questions might be: Why is Henderson the conduit? Why is this material being released now? What is the government of Pakistan’s view, beyond a simple quote from the embassy?

We’ve got the two national newspapers of record spreading the same sort of “news” that they did before the Iraq invasion, so pushback is called for. There’s a difference between now and 2003, however: the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State are not fanning the flames. Think of how Dick Cheney could have connected those dots, along with that terrorist who set his pants on fire! But it’s clear that some haven’t given up on pressing toward war.

It’s also comforting to realize that this President hasn’t made a panicky statement about securing our aircraft. He’s left that to nuttier Republicans and Joe Lieberman, the crowd who can be expected to call for war or body-cavity searches of all airline passengers or holy war against them brown people.

The commentary, outside of Wingnuttia, has been measured, another good sign. A number of people are pointing out that no system can be perfect, that bad things will happen no matter how much discomfort is imposed on the passengers. And the probabilities are vanishingly low.

President Obama has ordered a review of security procedures. We can hope that the response to TSA’s current flailing about will be to focus on those signs that a person might be a terrorist, long before he gets on a plane, to cut down the excess of caution that lists so many people that there is no way to tell who is truly dangerous. And maybe even to back the TSA paranoia down to where flying is tolerable again. Even before this latest lockdown, it was only barely so.

Quote of the Day

"[W]hile the overwhelming majority of Muslims are outstanding people, on the other hand 100% of the Islamic terrorists are Muslims." - Rep. Peter King (R-NY)

On the other hand, 100% of white male rightwing American terrorists are Caucasians from the US. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

It's Only That Last Hour

James Joyner has this right:
We’re simply going to make people miserable for no apparent reason. There have been precisely three attempts over the last eight years to commit acts of terrorism aboard commercial aircraft. All of them clownishly inept and easily thwarted by the passengers. How many tens of thousands of flights have been incident free? And, yet, we’re going to make hundreds of thousands of people endure transcontinental flights without reading materials or the ability to use the restroom?
And it doesn't address a couple of things: This latest turkey was in his seat when he set himself on fire.

And if you let people have access to their carryon luggage at other times in the flight, they could blow up the plane then or set themselves on fire if they are bound and determined in that direction. So the logic is to strap everyone in their seats for the whole time, all luggage overhead and inaccessible.

Er...maybe I shouldn't have said that?

Bits and Pieces - December 26, 2009

This just might be a good idea. I suspect that it has faltered, however, because of Russia's constant need for too much control and too Russia-centered.

Predicting the worst. I hope to have more to say about this phenomenon as we accumulate predictions during the coming week.

An assessment of the past decade and the dire predictions that didn't come true.

A smart op-ed from Ezra Klein on Senate reform. And Ezra is complementing the op-ed with a series of even better interviews at his blog. Looks like he's making this a campaign.

More about North Korea's currency revaluation.

Looks like I'm going to have to see "Avatar." After the kids go back to school.

The Obama Russia Policy?

I have a pile of magazines and a pile of books on the table next to my favorite chair. Reports go into one pile or the other, depending on how I’m feeling about the relative heights of the piles.

A couple of reports had been shifted from one pile to the other too many times, so I finally decided to read them or chuck them. Or both, the usual fate of reports. But I thought I’d at least skim them.

One of them was “The Right Direction for U.S. Policy toward Russia,” from the Commission on U.S. Policy toward Russia. It came out in March, and I must have picked up my nicely-bound pamphlet at the Carnegie Conference. Skim through it, I thought, more blah blah blah.

From the executive summary:
Most importantly, the United States must:
• Seek to make Russia an American partner in dealing with Iran and the broader problem of emerging nuclear powers.

• Work jointly to strengthen the international nonproliferation regime with the goal of allowing for wider development of nuclear power while establishing tighter limits on nuclear weapons technologies.

• Pursue closer cooperation with Russia against terrorism and in stabilizing Afghanistan, including strengthening supply routes for NATO operations there.

• Take a new look at missile-defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic and make a genuine effort to develop a cooperative approach to the shared threat from Iranian or other missiles.

• Accept that neither Ukraine nor Georgia is ready for NATO membership and work closely with U.S. allies to develop options other than NATO membership to demonstrate a commitment to their sovereignty.

• Launch a serious dialogue on arms control, including on the extension of the START I treaty as well as further reduction of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.

• Move promptly to graduate Russia from trade restrictions under the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, something promised multiple times by previous administrations, as a signal of America’s seriousness in restarting the relationship.

• Work to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization while insisting that Moscow must make its own strong and consistent effort to establish necessary conditions for foreign investment.
Whoa. Looks like the administration’s to-do list. We’ve got these in progress now:
• Seek to make Russia an American partner in dealing with Iran and the broader problem of emerging nuclear powers.

• Pursue closer cooperation with Russia against terrorism and in stabilizing Afghanistan, including strengthening supply routes for NATO operations there.

• Take a new look at missile-defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic and make a genuine effort to develop a cooperative approach to the shared threat from Iranian or other missiles.

• Launch a serious dialogue on arms control, including on the extension of the START I treaty as well as further reduction of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
And a few maybes:
• Work jointly to strengthen the international nonproliferation regime with the goal of allowing for wider development of nuclear power while establishing tighter limits on nuclear weapons technologies.

• Accept that neither Ukraine nor Georgia is ready for NATO membership and work closely with U.S. allies to develop options other than NATO membership to demonstrate a commitment to their sovereignty.

• Work to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization while insisting that Moscow must make its own strong and consistent effort to establish necessary conditions for foreign investment.
So that leaves the Jackson-Vanik amendment as the only point in the commission’s recommendations that hasn’t been addressed.

The members of the commission are a pretty high-powered and bipartisan bunch, none of whom, I think, are in the Obama administration.

The body of the report has a longer list of recommendations, including some for Russia. It’s a fairly basic set of actions, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the Obama administration has taken them up. But they are oriented toward a more positive relationship with Russia, quite different from the Bush program, which featured encouragement of Georgia and standing firm on missile emplacements in Poland and the Czech Republic, for just two examples.

The report has been presented to the President of Russia, and here’s a video of some of the commission members talking about it, if you like that sort of thing.

This has been another report on the do-nothing Obama administration.

Early Thoughts on That Plane Incident


Name not on watch list. Check.

Hard to see how an incendiary powder or liquid doesn't have nitrogen in it, the target of those swipes and explosive-sniffing dogs. Check.

So let's do more of what didn't work.

A bit more seriously, the perpetrator probably got on the plane at Lagos, and security outside the United States and Europe is much less stringent. Still, one might have expected a walk-through with an explosive-sniffing dog when the plane was on the ground in Amsterdam.

On the perpetrator's side of things, one more example that it's harder than one might think to make this explosive stuff work.

Update: So here's the last-threat response:
“Among other things,” the statement in Air Canada’s Web site read, “during the final hour of flight customers must remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have personal belongings or other items on their laps.”
Um, if I read the accounts right, he was sitting down. And I always put my backpack (only carry one item anyway) under the seat in front of me so that I can get to my magazines and food. So what exactly is this a response to.

(...maybe no stuff under the seat in front of you? And I can't say I'm unhappy that the guys with the foldover bags and a big briefcase will be limited to one or the other.)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Food-label regulator actually starting to regulate?

From the "Yes, Virginia" department, this just in from the L.A. Times blog:

Nestle rebuked by the FDA for misleading nutritional

December 25, 2009 9:02 am

The Food and Drug Administration came down on Nestle
earlier this month for marketing its childrens’ juice boxes as “medical” foods.

In a Dec. 3 letter, the FDA said the company mislabeled its Boost
drink, which comes in flavors like chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, “as a
medical food for the medical condition of ‘failure to thrive’ and also for
‘pre/post surgery, injury or trauma, chronic illnesses.’


A second letter dated Dec. 4 criticizes Nestle’s Juicy Juice line for, among other things, claiming the drink “helps support brain development” in children younger than 2. Also, the letter said the labels “may lead consumers to believe that the products are 100% orange/tangerine juice or 100% grape juice when, in fact, they are not.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

No, Let's NOT Bomb Iran!

Marc Lynch makes a good point: the appearance of this op-ed in the New York Times may signal a movement toward mainstreaming the idea of bombing Iran. When I read the op-ed this morning, I thought it was so old and stale that it needed no refutation. But I think Lynch is right: we've got to push back. He's covered most of the bases, although I can think of one or two more.
His argument is like a caricature of such war advocacy, hitting each predictable theme like a sledgehammer.

* Does he rule out the alternative policy be default? Yes he does! "peaceful carrots and sticks cannot work"

* Does he reduce the policy options to two extreme positions, one of which is guaranteed to be rejected? Yes he does! "the United States faces a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons."

* Does he warn that Saddam, um, Ahmedenejad will give WMD to terrorists? Yes, yes he does. "if Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal, the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb." (the "neighborhood bully" is a nice touch.) Will, pray tell, the smoking gun be in the shape of a mushroom cloud?

* Does he exaggerate the prospects for success? Yes, he does. Well, first he says "As for knocking out its nuclear plants, admittedly, aerial bombing might not work." But he quickly moves on from that, since that will not do. Oddly, his main example of success comes from Iraq, where he claims that the first Gulf war led to the uncovering of the Iraqi nuclear program --- not the Osirak raid -- which is accurate, but rather completely contradicts his argument.

* Does he minimize the risks of military action? Yes, he does. "Yes, Iran could retaliate by aiding America’s opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does that anyway." Try telling that to U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to leaders in the Gulf, who are slightly less cavalier with the lives of their people.

* Does he suggest that if all else fails regime change would be easy and cheap? Yes, dear lord, he does. "If nothing else, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to." Truly, this was the lesson to be drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm still marveling over how easily we overthrew Saddam and the Taliban and got out of Iraq and Afghanistan more or less costlessly. That was special. On the other hand, as Matt Duss helpfully points out, "if we don't have an Iran war, how are we supposed to have an awesome Iran surge?"

* Does he accuse those who oppose military action of appeasement? Yes, yes, of course he does. "in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement."
To which I would add that we don't know that Iran is working toward a bomb. Even if it is, it is still years away from one. I'm not sure that Iran's waffling on the latest negotiations can be taken as a refusal, although it sure can look that way, if that's the way you want to see it.

Then there's the whole problem of (yes, his word!) "surgical" strikes on seventy-five or more targets, some of which are located in cities. Lynch notes this, but it's worth emphasizing. The basic premise is crazy, as any number of reports have said.

And words fail me on the idea of bombing a nation to prevent nuclear proliferation. I'll let Walt Kelly (via Phila) say it:

Update: Marc Lynch said that he thought this op-ed was the first in the New York Times advocating military action against Iran. I would offer this one, by Benny Morris, published in July 2008, in contradiction.

Strange Bedfellows

The other day, I was wondering when Jane Hamsher will announce her alliance with Peter Wehner.

Now, as I read the piece Helmut posted yesterday, it occurs to me how very much our own super-American climate deniers sound like the Red Chinese.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blame China

From someone in that final negotiating room in Copenhagen.

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord's lack of ambition.

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak "as soon as possible". The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.

Prayers Not Working So Great

Oh well. I guess, as they like to say, healthcare reform must be God's will." When he ignores you crazies, he's simply working in mysterious ways.


Quote of the Day

During a fit of some sort or another a few years ago, I think I might have banned all references to Thomas Friedman on Phron. Whatever. If the ban is somewhere in the backpages of this blog, it's officially lifted with this:
How long are we Americans going to go on thinking that we can thrive in the 21st century when doing the optimal things — whether for energy, health care, education or the deficit — are “off the table.” They’ve been banished by an ad hoc coalition of lobbyists loaded with money, loud-mouth talk-show hosts who will flame anyone who crosses them, political consultants who warn that asking Americans to do anything important but hard makes one unelectable and a citizenry that doesn’t even ask for optimal anymore because it believes that optimal is impossible.
That's the thing. The Neocons think we're big wimps because we won't bomb indiscriminately and dominate other people in the name of American magical powers. No, we're wimps because we - and they - can't pull ourselves out of fantasyland and make the truly important decisions.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bits and Pieces - December 22, 2009

I caught the orange cat that comes around regularly eating the ground beef and cat food I had put out for the roadrunner, which proves that an open hand will always be slapped down, as Richard Perle observes.

Back in a horrendously real world, a Ukrainian archbishop who saved Jews will probably never be canonized because he dispatched chaplains to a Waffen-SS unit. The western lack of understanding of the vice that eastern Europe was caught in during World War II continues; when your choice is between rulers who will kill and exile your people and those who merely want to enslave them, you might do something like this.

My roadrunner, with her long legs and low flying habits, seems closer to the dinosaurs than many birds. Here's a very strange ancestor.

A view of the neocons as living in a pre-globalized world from Thomas P. M. Barnett.

I'm wondering when Jane Hamsher will announce her alliance with Peter Wehner.

Why the Health Care Bill Will Destroy the Conservative Movement.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Just Sayin'

When I read this quote from Glenn Beck
[T]hey cannot move on these things, because they are building a machine that will crush the entrepreneurial sprit and the freedom that our founding fathers designed. This machine, whatever it is they are building, will crush it. Do not let them build another piece. So while I turn away, I want to make sure that I have at least 10 million eyes watching -- watching every single move they're making.
I recalled the slogan of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the folks who kidnapped Patty Hearst.
Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.
The difference is that the Symbionese Liberation Army didn't have a television show.

And they were more succinct.

Bits and Pieces - December 21, 2009

Today is the solstice. It's officially the start of winter, but in my calculation we've had one wintry month already, with two to go, and now the days start getting longer. Reason enough for celebration!

James Traub had a summary of President Obama's foreign policy so far in yesterday's New York Times Week in Review. I thought about blogging it, but found it fairly lackluster. I've been feeling a bit beat down too by all the hollering about Obama's not having solved all the world's problems yet and no ponies either, and I'm not happy with my Obama post over the weekend. So here's David Shorr, doing a better job than either Traub or I did.

Jacob Hacker, who developed the idea of the public option, thinks that the health care reform bill should be passed. And here's Ezra Klein's response to Jane Hamsher.

Airlines will now be limited to three hours confinement of passengers on the ground when things go wrong.

An integrated school in Jerusalem.

Uh-oh. Looks like this is likely to be the next big uproar among the climate denialists.

Some Black and White Photography

The New York Times presents a slide show of Cristian Movila's photographs of Romania.

From the other side of the country, Women and War.

Both are fairly dark material. If you're having a bad Monday, don't click.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

President Obama Fails To Reduce Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Since Climate Summit!

The lefty naysayers on health-care reform seem to have quieted down a bit, perhaps in contemplation of Sarah Palin's triumphal tweet or perhaps placated by the extra 10% John Boehner will have to pay to maintain his complexion.

But we have another chorus of upset that President Obama isn't behaving sufficiently like a superhero. Neil Gabler would like to see more passion. Steve Clemons would like to see more fight. Or we could kvetch about deadlines.

But we had passion and fight in the Bush administration. And, for all Steve's concern about women's health issues, isn't fighting a male trope?

I continue to believe that Obama is working s a community organizer: get the people working together. A "strong" leader, one who anathematizes the opposition, who fights for the right, who is passionate about his policies, seems to me to be the opposite of what we need now. Quiet persistence is more like it, and that is what we're seeing from Obama.

Health care reform is the biggest social change since the Great Society reforms of the 1960s. And it's going to pass, battered, bruised, imperfect, but it's going to pass. We've been fixing up those Great Society reforms, and we'll continue to fix health care.

Obama also seems to have changed the conversation in Copenhagen. Andrew Light sees his last-minute negotiation as moving from developed countries versus underdeveloped countries to the big carbon emitters versus everyone else. Additionally, there is an agreement with China on measurement, reporting, and verification.

Neither of these results is everything we might have wanted. But change is not easy. If you believe, as I do, that it must start at the margins, then these two achievements are much more than might have been expected.

Here's an indicator: Evan Bayh, not the most lefty of Democrats, said that
the health care measure was the kind of public policy he had come to Washington to work on, according to officials who attended the session, and that he did not want to see the satisfied looks on the faces of Republican leaders if they succeeded in blocking the measure.
That's another good point: this is what Congress is supposed to do. If we can convince Congress of that, we might see less of the grandstanding, pork, and other malfunctions of our legislature.

We have had thirty years in the United States of a conversation slanted toward anti-science, unrestricted markets, and individual greed. It will take time to turn that around. But we're seeing the first signs of change.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bits and Pieces - Saturday Science Edition

A baby coelacanth was captured on video for probably the first time. Coelacanths are felt to be a link between fish and the first fishy organism that crawled out of the water.

Become a Facebook fan of your favorite chemical elements. Periodic chart with links here.

The West Bank and East Jerusalem Searchable Map includes lists of archaeological sites that have been surveyed or excavated since Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. Palestinians and Israelis are working together on this project.

Clorox says it will no longer make bleach by reacting chlorine gas with sodium hydroxide. This will eliminate transport of chlorine gas by rail and truck for Clorox. But they plan to buy concentrated bleach and dilute it for consumer sale. They don't say who will be making that concentrated bleach, presumably by reacting chlorine gas with sodium hydroxide, or where it will be made.

The American Chemical Society and American Institute of Chemical Engineers say that we need a transparent, comprehensive analysis framework (pdf) for proposed energy solutions and give some of the characteristics such a framework should have. I have been griping about this for some time. Everyone does their own analysis, which never quite can be compared with any other.

Seven hundred of those squooshy maps that show graphically the relative sizes of, well, seven hundred variables. Also some animations to show how things have changed over time.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Hope Blogging

I see that Phila hasn't posted his Friday Hope Blogging yet, so I'll put up this one little piece of hope. Actually, I think it's a pretty big one.

Nearing New Arms Pact, U.S. and Russia Look Beyond It

That headline alone is big. There must be a lot of agreement and positive anticipation if both countries are looking beyond the not-yet-finished START agreement. And they expect that it will be completed sometime soon.
The new version of Start would require each side to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to roughly 1,600, down from 2,200, according to a senior American official. It would also force each side to reduce its strategic bombers and land- and sea-based missiles to below 800, down from the old limit of 1,600.
No wonder it's been taking some time. This is big - many of us thought that further decreasing numbers was too much to take on and the treaty should just be extended, with numbers discussed later. But this was Obama's goal for START renewal.

If this is agreed, it will be a good foundation for more to come. I'll take it as a Christmas/solstice present.

And, oh yeah, the roadrunner is back, demanding and eating food.

Iran: Where We Are

I’ve wanted to do a couple of big thoughtful posts (in contrast to my recent insta-responses) but haven’t had quiet time to work them up. But, in the insta-response mode, there have been a couple of developments today that make me think I should write this one up.

Sean Paul comes up with a bit of what I’ve been thinking on Iran, but I’ll take off in my own direction. I’m also going to try to avoid the set-piece arguments about Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran has a long history of which it is proud, during part of which it dominated its region. For the past century or so, it has been dominated by others, frequently in a very humiliating manner. The United States did it the favor of eliminating its most immediate enemy in the region, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The next competitor is Israel, which has a nuclear arsenal of probably 200 weapons and the means to deliver them.

George Bush put Iran on his short list of enemies, along with Iraq and North Korea. North Korea had plutonium and Iraq didn’t.

Iran has had a nuclear program since the United States helped to start it under the Shah. It is very hard for me to believe that there have been no proponents of an Iranian nuclear weapon during that time; for some scientists, this is the ultimate challenge, and the contrast in treatment of the other two members of the “Axis of Evil” made clear yet one more attraction of a nuclear weapons program, if not a full-up arsenal.

In any case, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allows its non nuclear weapon signatories access to the full nuclear fuel cycle for civilian purposes. The full nuclear fuel cycle also allows the production of nuclear weapons if the IAEA inspectors are removed.

The technological challenges and perhaps the trade potential of a full nuclear fuel cycle also would be attractive to any Iranian government. European nations have reneged on Iran in nuclear matters several times, and Russia has been suspiciously slow in finishing the Bushehr reactor that the Germans started.

Iran’s internal governance has been difficult, partly because of the complex decision-making structure of its government and partly because the revolution introduced a number of stressors, including limitations in human rights and ever-present revolutionary questions of who are its proper heirs. Difficulties in external relations and trade have also stressed the government.

Pride in technological achievements of the nuclear and missile programs is one way to bring the people together; additionally, these achievements can be felt to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Iran is dangerous to mess with. While that demonstration may be comforting to some in Iran, it can also convince others that something needs to be done about Iran. There is a slender line to be walked here.

Iran’s nuclear program keeps offering surprises to the rest of the world: some genuine and some perhaps not. Surprises do not build confidence; they tear it down. The latest surprise was a large quantity of heavy water that the IAEA inspectors found at the Arak nuclear plant; before that it was the Fordow enrichment facility, near Qom. And there were others. Some came from documents that may or may not be authentic; in several cases, the holders of those documents are unwilling to make them available for authentication, so we don’t know.

The timing of the release
of some of those documents is also suspicious. Iran takes a small step toward negotiating, and a new document shows up. The most recent one apparently has been around for a year or more, but it just happened to leak right after Iran made a proposal on exchanging some of its low-enriched uranium for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.

Once, I had a professor working for me on a contract on which he was not delivering. I called him on the phone to talk about it; the conversation was interrupted, he said, by someone coming into his office. When I called the next week, oddly enough, before we could get to substance, someone came into his office again, interrupting the call. The timing of these document leaks is like that.

Are all these documents forgeries? Probably not. It’s not impossible that Iran has done some experiments, or thought about doing some experiments, on problems related to building nuclear weapons. From what I’ve seen of scientists, highly likely. My conclusion is that the evidence that has surfaced so far indicates only that some people have tried to check out some things, far short of a full-up nuclear weapons program.

But Iran has an obligation to report and explain those experiments to the IAEA, and it hasn’t been willing to. Whatever the reasons for Iran’s reticence, the impression that it gives is that Iran wants to hide something. And there are those who will put the worst interpretation on that.

Further, Iran’s inclination to respond to unfavorable developments with bluster, like its missile test this week or its declaration that it will build ten enrichment facilities, comes across more as weakness than strength, but a dangerous weakness.

The societal unrest and accompanying disagreements within the Iranian government further complicate the situation and most likely explain the on-again, off-again nature of Iran’s response in the nuclear negotiations and the resignations of negotiators. Ray Takeyh provides one more possible narrative of what is behind that back-and-forth.

Roger Cohen counsels the Obama administration to do nothing for a while. I think the administration has largely been doing that, with the occasional fierce word on sanctions to remind Iran that there are outstanding issues. The conference on sanctions was called off. Cohen points out that part of what the George H. W. Bush administration did right on the Soviet breakup in the early nineties was what it didn’t do. The George W. Bush administration, of course, poisoned the waters with Iran by publicly saying it would try to undermine the regime; the Obama administration has to live with the aftereffects.

Cohen argues that the Iranian regime is now destabilized and likely to fall under its own contradiction. Sanctions would indeed give the Iranian government a rallying point. The opposition leader Mehdi Karoubi is becoming more outspoken.

Iran would like to be the regional hegemon and sees its nuclear program, whether civilian or military, as part of that. Its internal disarray is an enormous barrier to that ambition. Its competitor, Israel, has been relatively subdued the last week or two. Has the United States told Israel to damp down the rhetoric?

Incorporating Iran into the region as a major player but not dominant is key to stabilizing the situation. Unfortunately, that can’t happen until Iran’s internal situation stabilizes. Or might it be possible to devise regional talks that would give Iran’s leaders a way to get some of what they want and motivate them toward an internal solution that would improve human rights?

Just Wondering

if the Democrats who are urging that the health reform bill be defeated have thought about the celebrations their Tea Party allies will have if the bill is defeated. The news articles that will declare this the end of Obama's "hope." How Sarah Palin will be energized.

President Obama Live Blog from COP15 Copenhagen

In a few moments, I'll live-blog Pres. Obama's talk at the COP15 climate change meetings in Copenhagen. I'm still here in Copenhagen. Little sleep over the past week, following events inside and outside of the Bella Center, the conference venue. I'm here as a delegate from a thinktank, doing some work for a second thinktank.

Late night agreement among world leaders staying up late at the Bella Center. The agreement doesn't break new ground from what I've seen thus far. Significant financial commitment for the adaptation/mitigation financing of developing countries' efforts. Will also commit to 2 degrees Celsius warming limit, the mean temperature target over which, it is predicted by various scientific assessments including those of the IPCC, the world risks dangerous climate change. A 2-degree increase already entails significant effects of climate change. Developing countries, with Tuvalu's and the Maldives' passionate pleas, prefer 1.5 degree Celsius limit. That's not going to be the agreement. 2 degrees means a likely 85% in global emissions reductions by 2050.

All conference long, we've awaited this final day of the conference and particularly the appearance of Pres. Obama. Everyone. Remember the lofty hopes for Obama just before the elections one year ago? Some similar sentiments internationally at the Bella Center this week.

Pres. Obama is not expected to offer anything more than what's already on the table, including the US commitment announced yesterday by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton to help build a $100 billion per year adaptation fund for developing countries by 2020. The agreement hammered out last night with lead taken by French president Sarkozy, Brazilian president Lula, Gordon Brown of the UK, added developed nation commitment to $50 billion fund by 2015. Short-term, the fund will be $10 billion over the next three years. Likely more since Japan's announcement two days ago of substantial funding. EU will add $3.6 billion. US will commit its "fair share." $1 billion already committed by US to REDD, the program that will be included in the post-Kyoto UNFCCC climate change agreement, to eliminate deforestation. This latter program is perhaps the biggest achievement of the Copenhagen meetings, thus far.

For its part, China last night agreed to further international transparency measures regarding carbon emissions reductions measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) within China, one of the main demands on China coming from the US, EU, and other countries. This will occur likely through national reporting program already in place under the Kyoto Protocol. But there are different requirements in KP made of developed (Annex I) and developing countries on reporting. Very loose under KP for developing countries; much more exact for Annex I countries. China will likely move to latter category, thus assuring world of accurate emissions reductions reporting while allaying Chinese concerns regarding state sovereignty.

So... live-blog coming up in a moment. Stay tuned to this post....

11:43am (Copenhagen time): Obama has been in meeting room with other leaders negotiating. Now, delegates in giant plenary room asked to take their seats. Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen takes seat at front.
11:48: French president Nicola Sarkozy apparently stormed out of backstage meeting room where late negotiations unfold with Obama and a dozen other leaders, Sarkozy saying that the countries were not cooperating.
11:52: Waiting on Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
11:57: Ban Ki Moon arrived. PM Rasmussen speaking right now.
11:58: Follow video feed here. If bogged down (likely), try Danish TV here.
12:01pm (Copenhagen time): Sec. General BKM gives welcoming remarks.
12:04: BKM: Decision on climate change for common good for all time.
12:05: PM Wen Jiabao of China takes podium to speak.
12:08: China PM listing all recent enviro achievements of the country.
12:09: Wen repeats carbon intensity reduction targets already agreed (I believe 42-45% decrease in intensity).
12:14: Boiler plate from Wen. Takes seat. Lula of Brazil now taking the floor.
12:15: Back-room meeting participants listed here.
12:17: Lula expresses frustration with process. Brazil has done a lot already, while science shows us worse CC problem. Brazil has had to make very difficult efforts as developing country. Spends $16 billion per year on CC efforts. Brazil has demonstrated its determination. Now discussing meeting last night with heads of state. Meeting was necessary because negotiations, preparations haven't done a lot until now.
12:21: Lula smackdown on developed countries.
12:22: Lula: we all agree on 2-degree warming limit.
12:24: Lula: for developed world three meals a day is thing of the past. For Africa, many developing countries, this would be a huge achievement.
12:27: Brazil willing to contribute to financing even as developing nations. Not acceptable, though, to have agreement document just for sake of signing a document. But if we don't have it by now, doubtful that "angel" will arrive to help. But "I believe in miracles."
12:31: Lula: can't do anything without addressing poverty, preserving the main species of this world, "its men, women, and children."
12:32: Here comes Obama.
12:33: Obama: CC not fiction. Unchecked poses risks to security, economy, and planet. Question is not nature of challenge, but capacity to meet it. "Our ability to take action is in doubt right now."
12:34: Here today "not to talk but to act."
12:36: "we are convinced that changing the way we use energy is essential to America’s national security, because it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and help us deal with some of the dangers posed by climate change."
12:37: Obama repeating US emissions reductions targets of 17% reduction by 2020 (from 2005 baseline).
12:40: "Mitigation. Transparency. And financing. It is a clear formula – one that embraces the principle of common but differentiated responses and respective capabilities. And it adds up to a significant accord – one that takes us farther than we have ever gone before as an international community."
12:41 "We know the fault lines because we’ve been imprisoned by them for years."
12:42: Obama: can choose something now or "choose delay." No time to waste, Obama says. He's trying some cheerleading. Time is now, etc. Finishes.
12:45: Prime Minister of Lesotho expressing deep disappointment from perspective of developing nations that nothing legally binding coming out of COP15.
12:49: Thanking Pres. Obama for leading his "great country" to turn around and join the world in dealing with climate change.

No new commitments from Obama. US emissions reduction commitment is ridiculously low and one of the central points of dispute. This just isn't enough. China's not giving enough either, of course. But COP15 ends with US not budging at all on its emissions reductions targets.

This meeting was always going to be about a political agreement, not a legally binding agreement, which would come at COP16 in Mexico City right now planned for November next year. But the political agreement is apparently what we've already known since at least yesterday.

There is indeed a political agreement but it's pretty mild. Available here - leaked version, supposedly, but beware that this is not official.

I need more time to assess and will sign off for now. But first impression, despite knowing this would only be a political agreement, is that the outcome of COP15 is a huge disappointment. The culprits are clearly China and the US. Shame.

But... it's still going to be a long day of negotiations....

Update: Official transcript of Obama's remarks here.

Rainforest Seeds

Photo: Helmut

Liveblogging President Obama's speech at COP15 Copenhagen as soon as it begins - probably about ten minutes. Thought rainforest seeds appropriate.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

President Obama Comes to “Hopenhagen”

For the past two weeks, at every juncture when the failure of COP15 has seemed inevitable, thousands of silent pleas have floated above Copenhagen hoping for the presence of one man on Friday to save the proceedings. President Obama arrives tomorrow in Copenhagen with hopes at COP15 raised beyond any likely outcomes of the president’s trip.

As U.S. delegation leader Todd Stern said yesterday “Our commitment is tied to our anticipated legislation. We don't want to promise something we don't have.” The President may have the constitutional power to sign treaties, but how an international treaty is legislated domestically is a job of the U.S. Congress and particularly in this case the US Senate.

These considerations must contextualize Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement today that the U.S. will help build $100 billion in annual funding to developing countries by the year 2020 for climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. The announcement is a serious commitment by the United States. It allays the fears of some critics for the time being. But there’s good reason to be wary of trumpeting success too early.

The European Union and several developing country leaders at the COP15 plenary today reasserted their demands for more emissions reductions from the U.S. and China. The U.S. reductions commitment at this point is pegged at a 17% reduction by 2020 using a 2005 baseline and a 4% reduction by 2020 using the 1990 baseline of the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. has never ratified. Those countries obligated under the Kyoto Protocol to meet certain percentages of emissions reductions based on that 1990 baseline are not happy with the paltry amount the U.S. has offered, despite the American claim that reductions will stand at 85% by 2050. The money is great but the emissions reductions are not.

With both the U.S. and China thus lacking on the emissions reductions front, COP15 comes down to the widely predicted showdown and hopes of an agreement between the two countries.

Secretary Clinton’s announcement places China on the defensive as the potential spoiler of COP15 and releases some of the pressure on the U.S. in terms of financing commitments to present more substantial solutions for now. Mexico City will determine that, buying some time. In terms of “Hopenhagen,” then, rather than entering into a situation of impossibly high expectations, today’s developments set the stage politically for President Obama tomorrow to leverage concessions from China and to fulfill at least some of the hopes of COP15.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Environmental Bits and Pieces - December 16, 2009

First, the lowly menhaden and those fish oil pills you've been taking. BTW, it seems to me that I've read that fish oil isn't so good at reducing triglycerides after all. I was using up the last of mine and not planning to get more even before I read this.

I think that the situation in science is not as bad as these two paint it, but I agree that the choices on global warming are ultimately political. I would urge, however, that those choices be based on good science. And I think that the predominance of good science is on one side of the argument - that we humans are producing too much carbon dioxide and warming the globe. The idea of "scientific purity" in this article is itself an abstraction that is being used to mislead. It's true that there is a range of behavior among scientists, and that some of it isn't pretty. But the worst (I presume it's the worst that is being quoted over and over) of what's in those e-mails sounds like the kind of overstatement that frustration can lead to. I've said as much at times and have meant none of it as a guide to action.

Here's a rundown of how a climate treaty might fare in the Senate. Treaties need 67 votes in the Senate to be ratified. Given that we have 40 members of the Party of No and 1 member of the Party of Lieberman, the prospect for ratifying a treaty supporting sunshine as a positive force in the world seems slim. So this kind of calculation is going to be important for the START treaty and later nonproliferation treaties as well.

Bits and Pieces - December 16, 2009

A whole parallel world at the edge of what it means to be alive.

Even NRA members think there should be some controls on gun sales.

Obama's Nobel speech: "Obama is wielding these ideas and images in an effort to forge a new political consensus in America."

Why does Joe Lieberman want to drive up the cost of health insurance and kill 150,000 people? And why is it that conservatives can talk about "death panels" but liberals can't talk about the continuing killing? I know, because we're decent people who don't say nasty things. But my patience is running short.

Back to the future with Glass-Steagall!

A graph for all those relatives who think the deficit is Obama's fault.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush predicts "cheap complex devices of great reliability," including computing machines, the copy machine, voice-to-text, and something that might be considered a precursor of the World Wide Web. (I do object to his "girls," but that was how they talked and thought in those primitive days.)

Twenty questions for all those relatives who think the health care bill is flawed enough that they are leaving the Democratic Party.

More Iran

Bill Broad and David Sanger come to the latest document party a day late. They say out what has been implicit in earlier articles.
Intelligence officials say they have yet to authenticate the document...
Well, that's a pretty big hurdle.
Diplomats raised the possibility that the publication of the memo on The Times of London Web site late Sunday could be part of an effort to raise international alarm over Iran’s intentions or progress in developing nuclear weapons capacity.
Ya think?
“This information’s been sloshing around for well over a year,” said one American official, who insisted on anonymity because he was discussing sensitive intelligence information. “It’s not new to the intelligence people. They’ve taken account of it. If, in fact, the document’s on the level, it shows the Iranians at some point were interested in testing an initiator. That’s not a warhead or the core of a bomb. It’s another reminder — as if one were needed — that the Iranians have a lot of explaining to do when it comes to things nuclear.”
And so Iran tests another missile to let us all know what they think of such document-rattling. Which is really dumb. If indeed the purpose of the leak was to disrupt the talks, Iran's responding in this way just adds to the case against them.

And another of Iran's nuclear negotiating team has resigned. (h/t to Steve) Very likely an indication of the infighting within Iran.

Back in the US, the House has passed the "draconian sanctions" bill, but some are showing better sense.

Innovation and Fear

Back in the 1960s, when I was finishing graduate school, finding a job was a seller’s market if you had a science degree. (Well, it was if you were male, but that’s another post.) Scientific American was loaded with full-page ads recruiting scientists and engineers to chemical and aerospace companies. A “grand tour” of several companies across the country was expected.

The United States was rebuilding its infrastructure, developing new things, and helping Europe to rebuild. The interstate highway system, NASA, and, yes, the nuclear weapons establishment, along with the foundations of today’s computational society.

Vannevar Bush had laid the intellectual groundwork for a government-science-industrial partnership during World War II as it became clear that science would be the source of the decisive weapons for that war. But he also had recommendations for keeping that partnership fruitful after the war, and they were largely followed, which was the engine keeping that seller’s market going in the sixties.

It’s always easy to mistake one thing for another, with a bit of greed thrown in, along with overconfidence that comes with success, and pretty soon we had a bunch of self-satisfied folks insisting that it was solely the free market and industry that drove those economic and technological miracles. Ronald Reagan and numerous legislators, Republican for sure, but also Democrats convinced of the free-market line, Vannevar Bush’s playing ground was tilted toward industry. And so the goose that laid those golden eggs was slit from gullet to vent, and, sadly, there were no eggs inside.

Today, J. was quoting Brian Jenkins on fearful Americans. I think that fear is something that happens when your mind doesn’t have anything better to do with itself. It probably goes back to ancestral hominids, when being too concerned that something awful might happen was likely to shorten your life by a bit, but not as much as not being sufficiently afraid of the tiger in the bushes.

We’ve been ripe for something better to do with our minds since the 1970s. Something to distract from the culture wars, shag carpeting, hot-tubbing, the oil embargo, obsessive running, environmental pollution, and terrorists. Some of those problems, to those of us who came of age in more optimistic times, seem ripe for putting our minds to. But now we’ve got that free market standing in the way, not to mention those financial innovations that a bunch of folks who didn’t have anything better to do came up with and sank the economy. The free-marketers have done their best to gut government research and to buy university research, while destroying their own capacities.

So it’s time for a change. Unfortunately, we no longer have, as we had in the sixties, a government in which most participants are concerned with the future of the country, so that’s another barrier.

I’m hoping that President Obama will be able to press his green energy initiatives forward. In the fifties and sixties, it was the transistor and space travel. Transistors at that time were space-alien-looking things, a cap on a tripod, only a bit smaller than your thumb. And we’ve got the Hubble telescope and Burt Rutan, even if we lost some of our nerve on the way to space.

That kind of excitement, along with other initiatives and the spinoff from all of them, gave us something to do besides fear.

There’s a chicken-and-egg character to innovation and fear. We’ve added in, since the sixties, the free-market freedom to be afraid that getting cancer will bankrupt you. That builds in a number of barriers to innovation, as David Leonhardt points out. So we need health care reform too.

The Next Big Thing is getting off the carbon energy bandwagon. Hard products to revitalize a manufacturing industry, and hard problems to put our minds to. It’s looking like President Obama is inclined toward a more Vannevar-Bushian model than we’ve had for a while, but he’s got Congress to contend with. The demands of private companies have to be balanced by a strong role for the government and the universities, and the universities have to be decommercialized. Basic research has to be part of the mix, even though our decades-long neglect means we will want solutions right now.

The Europeans are already ahead of us, and the Chinese are looking at nuclear. If we’re worried about how careful the Chinese are going to be about their nuclear plants, then maybe we should be looking into nuclear safety and develop gadgets and plant designs to sell them. And so on. Let’s get back to looking at solutions, not just the worst-case outcome.

[Photo credits: Hubble photograph of a jet in Carina from here; transistor from here; Space Ship Two from here.]

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bits and Pieces - December 15, 2009

Men are veiling themselves in a protest against the government's treatment of women in Iran. Gender-related, not-illegal actions may be a way to undermine the government's authority.

A photographic tour through the Volgodonsk Nuclear Power Plant. A couple of corrections: The photo (about a quarter of the way down) with the caption "That thing is located deep inside into the reactor; that’s where clusters with uranium fuel are loaded" is of a fuel assembly. It's similar to those in many reactors and worth a look if you don't know what a fuel assembly looks like. A little further down, the "huge thing" in the powerhouse hall is a generator, not a reactor. (h/t to Adam Rofer)

Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants. Sigh.

Olaf Otto Becker: Greenland Melting

Monday, December 14, 2009

Climate Bits and Pieces - December 14, 2009

George Monbiot and Ben Goldacre assess the damage rampant privatization has done to America's energy prospects.

Another sort of religion than we've become to accustomed to here in the US.

The AP's assessment of those hacked e-mails.

Gorbachev on climate change.

Andrei Sakharov on the rule of reason.

Strange How These Documents Surface Just When Iran Makes a Move

The Times of London claims to have a document indicating that Iran is working on uranium deuteride neutron initiators for nuclear weapons.

The article, like so many of its type, presents a document of unknown provenance from anonymous sources. Mark Fitzpatrick, a reliable analyst, is quoted, but I wouldn't be surprised if the more sensational of his quotes were taken out of context. And he attaches strong "if" clauses to what he's said.

Jeffrey Lewis notes that A. Q. Khan, who's been restless lately, has talked about uranium deuteride as a neutron initiator, and that Iran has gotten information from Khan. So Khan or one of his circle may be the Times's "Asian intelligence source," thoroughly unreliable, as Albright points out in that link and I did earlier.

And the timing, just as sanctions are being discussed and Iran makes another proposal, seems suspicious. Every time Iran tries to get a bit more credibility (and it certainly could do that more effectively!), something like this shows up. Sort of makes one suspicious.

Update: Bob Mackey has a good post about secrets when they don't stay secret.

COP15 Up and Down

Just something quick here. Big events of the day at Bella Center in Copenhagen have included the walk-out by the G-77 (they may be coming back at 7pm) in protest over the possibility of developed countries abandoning the Kyoto Protocol track. African Union came together as one in protest. Also, Sec of Energy Steven Chu announced the US renewable energy technology initiative, a proposed $350 million for clean techs in developing countries. The IEA's new data. And a new Yes Men prank committing Canada to a 40% emissions reduction by 2020. I'll leave you with some info from the IEA:

"With energy accounting for 84 percent of global CO2 emissions, the IEA has analysed what needs to be done to limit the long-term concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 equivalent, in line with a 2°C increase in global temperature. On current trends, unless new measures are taken, global energy-related CO2 emissions will reach 40 Gigatonnes (Gt) by 2030 (29 Gt in 2007) and continue rising thereafter, whereas climate stabilisation requires emissions to peak around 2020 and then decline."

"The 450 Policy scenario of our flagship publication World Energy Outlook 2009 is the right path to green growth but it is a radical departure from current trends," Mr. Tanaka stressed. "For instance, the world would need to retire a significant portion of today's coal-fired electricity plants before the end of their lifetime - by 2030, early closures around the world would amount to the equivalent of today's total coal-based power generation in Japan, EU and the US. Around 60 percent of global electricity production in 2030 would need to come from a mix of renewables (37 percent), nuclear (18 percent) and plants fitted with carbon capture and storage (5 percent). Another illustration is the dramatic shift needed in car sales, with hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles representing 60 percent of sales in 2030, from around 1 percent today."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Iran Makes Another Proposal

There is a war of words going on in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Very likely, a war of policies is also going on within Iran.

In the reporting and analysis, there seem to be many implicit assumptions. The assumptions differ with the source. On the one hand, much of the mainstream media in the United States has assumed that Iran's goal is to have a nuclear weapon. On another hand, there is a strain of analysis that assumes Iran's nuclear program is totally innocent. My own judgement, and all of these are judgements, are that Iran wants a nuclear program that will allow it to build nuclear weapons in a relatively short time, and that if that program allows it to build a civilian nuclear power program as well, so much the better.

Further, I believe that there is a range of opinion within the Iranian government, from those who would go directly to building nuclear weapons to those who feel that nuclear weapons are against the teachings of Islam but who find the scientific achievement of having a nuclear program a source of national pride. These opinions are complicated by a desire not to accede to the countries that have behaved colonially toward Iran in the past and a conflict within the government as to who is truly practicing the ideals of the 1979 revolution.

It is possible to find support for my conclusions, but not strong support, because of Iran's intricate and secretive governmental processes. The same is true of the other viewpoints, although I do believe that both the "run for a bomb" and "Iran is innocent" scenarios are undermined by available evidence.

Within that context, today's proposal by Iran looks like an attempt to buy time and perhaps to conclude a deal. Various US officials, most recently Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have commented that sanctions may be next, and the Senate is considering a vote on sanctions. Israel continues to make noises about its security, meaning bombing Iran. So Iran must reply.

Its reply is not very different from what it has proposed before:
Manochehr Mottaki said Iran agreed with a UN deal proposed in October in which up to 1,200kg of its uranium would be exchanged for fuel rods to power its research reactor.

"We accepted the proposal in principle," he said.

"We suggested in the first phase we give you 400kg of 3.5 per cent enriched uranium and you give us the equivalent in 20pc uranium."
Reports differ as to where the swap would take place, perhaps on the Iranian Kish Island.

This seems to be a different proposal than an earlier Iranian proposal, which required all the fuel elements for the Tehran Research Reactor (referred to as "the equivalent in 20pc uranium") first, with Iran's 3.5% enriched uranium to be delivered in later instalments. So perhaps there is some movement. Iran has reason to be suspicious too and wants to hedge its bets.

The fact that this offer was made at the end of the week supports the idea that it is for buying time. The question is whether that time is for further enrichment or an attempt to deal with differences within the Iranian government. Both are possible; the enrichment continues, although it has been slowed during the fall.

The early US response is not positive, but the official response has not yet been formulated:
A senior Obama administration official said Mottaki's remarks appeared to fall short of demands.

"Iran's proposal today does not appear to be consistent with the fair and balanced draft agreement proposed by the IAEA in consultation with the United States, Russia, and France," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the U.S. has yet to formulate an official response to the development.
Mohamed ElBaradei, who was an intermediary in his post as IAEA Director, has urged patience with Iran.