Monday, May 31, 2010

More on That Israeli Attack

Contributions from

Stephen Walt

Andrew Exum

Daniel Drezner

But Flying Rodent says it all.

Bits and Pieces - Good News Edition

We could use some good, or at least pleasant, news. I noted yesterday that US-Russia relations seem to be continuing to improve.

During the Cambrian Era (500 million years ago and more), a wild variety of living things came into being. Some were so strange that their fossils are difficult to interpret. Apparently some of those strange things continued on into the Ordovician Era, when plants appeared and some of our ancestors came out of the ocean and onto land. Chris Nedin tells us more.

A festival of science is being held in New York. Unfortunately, the AP news article doesn't give any dates. It sounds like it will be sometime soon, though.

Ohio is adding jobs at the fastest rate in 22 years.

The Economist gets tired of MoDo and other commentators calling for their daddies in the midst of the oil spill. I include this because it's refreshing to see a voice in the MSM that isn't saying that President Obama will lose his job because he's not comforter-in-chief.

Israel's Memorial Day Attack on Humanitarian Aid

The most self-destructive actions of a regime determined to keep people down are attacks on nonviolent actions. So we remember the fire hoses and dogs turned on demonstrators in the American South during the 1960s as a turning point.

Today Israeli special forces attacked and killed people attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. One can only wonder what made the government think that sending armed military forces, ready for battle, against unarmed aid ships was a good idea. We feel so strongly that Gaza must be made into a concentration camp, or punished for the existence of Hamas, that we must keep food and medical supplies out at all costs? Stop the boats and search them for weapons, perhaps.

The reports are conflicting and undoubtedly spun for the greatest effect. Marc Lynch is a good person to follow, and TPM Cafe also provides background and commentary. And an Israeli gives some insight.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

More Positive News From Russia

Some good news: Russia and the United States have agreed to work together to stabilize Kyrgyzstan.

And President Dmitry Medvedev will visit Silicon Valley next month. Should be interesting.

BP's Next Option

I'm following the Twitter stream from the incident command for the BP/Transocean/Halliburton oil spill, and the explanations aren't always illuminating. The problem seems to be the usual one that technical people have communicating with reporters, or perhaps I should reverse those nouns. I couldn't tell what was planned until the twitter stream gave me this graphic:

Now that is one humongous file (click on it for the whole thing). So along with all the other workers I listed the other day, count in some number of graphic artists to help tell us what's going on.

That next step has to do with containment only, not with fixing the well. I do hope they've been calculating the effects of the methane hydrates better this time. That was something that baffled me about that first attempt at containment. Oil companies know very well about methane hydrates, and it's obvious that there's a fair amount of methane coming out of the well. That error might have come from an underestimate of the overall flow or an underestimate of how much methane was in it.

A difficulty I have in watching spillcam is the scale of things. The blowout preventer is five stories tall. But the flanges, tubes, and fittings resemble vacuum systems I have built, which are more my size. So I have to keep reminding myself that those bolts on the flanges are probably each the size of my fist. Or bigger.

Update: More here about what might go right and wrong, particularly toward the end of the post.

Perfect Tommy, at Balloon Juice, has also recognized that problem of scale and has rescaled the graphic above to give you a better idea of just how difficult this operation is.

This Is Satire, Right?

On domestic issues, House Minority Leader John Boehner is unequivocal in his support for three items: Quench, Dawn and OxiClean.

Quench refers to the body lotion, Dawn the dishwashing liquid and OxiClean the laundry stain remover -- the first two are products of Procter & Gamble, one of the largest employers in Boehner's Ohio.

These state secrets surfaced when I asked the perpetually tan Boehner, who insists he was "born tan," how to treat my sunburn. Firing up a Camel Light, his first of three during our 40-minute interview in his Capitol office, he said, "Ah, I'm a Quench believer."

Before we moved on to more pressing concerns, Boehner riffed on other favorite products. Dawn works not only on dishes but on oil-slicked birds, as the manufacturer's Web site boasts. As for OxiClean, look no further than Boehner's dazzling white shirt.
Or is Kathleen Parker looking to become the first female David Broder?

Soooo many problems here...but I'll just refer back to the WaPo's wondering why they're losing women readers. Is it possible that, if those words are indeed taken from Parker's interview with Boehner, he felt he had to patronize an interviewer with two X chromosomes? And the interviewer didn't even notice?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Bits and Pieces - May 29, 2010

I have been very lazy today after a demanding week. Usually in "Bits and Pieces" I list links to stuff I've read. Today I've read some of it, but some of it looks like it might be worth reading, and I just haven't gotten to it. The most worthwhile thing I did today was reading some of the magazines in my dead-tree pile. Or maybe it was filling the birdfeeders and birdbath. I've been trying to convince some western tanagers to nest nearby. Didn't see them today, though. It's warmer than it's been, and they may have moved to the ponderosa altitude.

More volcanic eruptions, this time in Guatemala and Ecuador.

Correction of some bald-faced lies. The press is getting somewhat better at this.

Why does the right hate science?

This is peculiar; I need to check it out some more. Why is France sending uranium to Russia? Especially when Russia is sending enriched uranium to the US to be blended down and used in our civilian reactors. If your electricity comes from nuclear power, half of it is coming from former Soviet weapons.

Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001. I haven't had a chance to look at this yet, but Brian Jenkins is one of the best in this area.


Energy and Environment

I find this incredibly irritating. Gallup runs its poll on environmental protection a few days ago at the height of public attention to BP's attempts to stop the spew of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The poll asks two questions regarding 1) whether environmental protection or energy production should be given higher priority; and 2) whether environmental protection or economic development should be given higher priority.

Gallup and the news announce that Americans favor environmental protection over energy production for the first time in the ten-year history of these poll questions. The overall finding:
In March, by 50% to 43%, Americans said it was more important to develop U.S. energy supplies than to protect the environment, continuing a trend in the direction of energy production seen since 2007. Now, the majority favor environmental protection, by 55% to 39% -- the second-largest percentage (behind the 58% in 2007) favoring the environment in the 10-year history of the question.
That's just really great. Except that it perpetuates the conceptual framework that dichotomizes environment on one side and energy and economy on the other. That is precisely the dualism we need to overcome and that is what the most innovative work on new technologies, new methods, and new policies is doing. This kind of conceptual framework in the Gallup poll is a restraint and it really doesn't help to ask Americans to keep thinking of the energy-environment-economy relationship in those terms.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Looks Like Russia Really Means It

To go along with the United Nations Security Council resolution on sanctions, that is. Or at least Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to think so.

Three things to take away from this: Ahmadinejad (and presumably others in the Iranian government) is really distressed that Russia seems to have deserted him. Russia is serious about the sanctions. Iran feels that the sanctions will hurt, either economically or in prestige.

The interaction will continue. Brazil's President Lula is lobbying American President Obama.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Matisia Dulce

If You Need a Laugh

I haven't laughed so hard in ages.

DougJ and the Balloon Juice crowd spoof the Republican Party.

I Blame Action Movies

I'm watching the video feed from the top kill, and so far it's a little more interesting than watching paint dry. I think that what they are doing is assessing the various parts of the apparatus, but I'm not knowledgeable enough to know exactly what I'm looking at. I can identify probable functions of various parts, but I don't understand how the whole goes together.

Emptywheel (bmaz in particular) has an open thread going. So far it is dominated by someone who has no idea that the mud pipe will be attached to the well. His concern is that the mud is just going to go all over the place. There is also some confusion as to the difference between top kill and a junk shot.

If this were an action movie, Captain Obama would be sitting in his captain's chair with a big monitor of the action. "Pipe in place," he would order masterfully, and we would zoom in on the pipe moving into place. "Start mud flow." There would be some slight jerks of the equipment, the oil plume would, after a suitably suspenseful pause, slow down just perceptibly, then unambiguously, and the water would become a clear blue. Fishes and octopuses would begin to return.

And it wouldn't take longer than ten minutes. With suitable music.

What is this stuff of checking everything out anyway? Boooooring! Let's get to the main event.

Update: Here's some commentary on the video that makes more sense. Even the experts can't entirely tell what's happening. And some labeling of the video here.

Some Things The Government Is Doing


The Department of Energy

I'm getting a lot of good stuff from the Spill Command's Twitter feed. Highly recommend it. It might be a good idea for the administration to use additional modes of communication, though.


I just checked out spillcam again, and the most gorgeous long fish, an eel perhaps, swam into view. It appeared to be about the length of that pipe in the top third of the screen but was closer to the camera, so it would have been shorter in absolute length. Whatever the length of the pipe was.

It swam around the cloud of oil, inspecting it, inserted its front third into it with no apparent ill effects. It did make a quick motion, perhaps snorting some of the oil out of its mouth, and then swam off.

Oh man. Now I'd like to watch all day in case another undersea character shows up. I hope they're recording this.

Doing Something

I see that the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times have joined the outcry that President Obama must (must!) "take charge" of the BP/Halliburton oil spill and FIX IT NOW! Tim Rutten warns direly that the President's political reputation is On The Line! That should motivate him.

I noted yesterday that the commenters on a Balloon Juice thread seemed to express a greater degree of outrage in conjunction with a lesser degree of information. That seems to be generally true.

Another blogger or commenter (sorry, lost track) noted that uninformed hollering for instant fixes might be considered panic.

There seem to be a couple of problems here. One is that there are a lot of people out there who don't understand at all what it takes to do stuff that involves heavy equipment and big operations, like drilling thousands of feet under thousands of feet of water, then controlling immense pressures and volumes of thick liquids mixed with gases.

Another is that people are not focusing on the real problem when they holler, "Do something." I guess panicked people can't be expected to. But there are several problems here.
1. Plug the well.
2. Assess liability and determine penalties.
3. Set things up so that this doesn't happen again. This has a scientific/engineering and a legislative component.
4. Deal with the consequences to innocent people and the environment.

Like any wonk, I like to focus on plugging the well. And that seems to be what the "Do something" crowd is demanding. But it takes time. Sorry. Planning who and what need to be where when. Figuring out how to fit the pipes that are going to drive the mud and cement into the broken wellhead. Which requires figuring out how the wellhead is broken. Which requires manipulating those remotely-controlled submarines and then analyzing the data they get. Figuring out how much of the components of the mud and cement are going to be needed, where and how to mix them, where to stage them to get them into the pumps that will pump them down to the well.

And how many people does that take? People to run the project software to get who and what to the where; keep doing the runs with different inputs, depending on the answers you get from suppliers, from what the software tells you clearly isn't going to work. So that's a bunch of people. People to manipulate those remotely-controlled subs. People to monitor the data they're sending up; some of this is computer-controlled, but computers do dumb things, so you need people to back them up. People to calculate how much cement, how to set up the ship and piping, what the forces are of the stuff coming out of the well and the force needed to shove things together, whether the pumps and other equipment can withstand or generate these forces. Plus the people who already have been working on the pipe that has been sucking up some of the spill and the people who have been figuring these sorts of things for the dispersant operations. And I'm barely scratching the surface; this Washington Post article does a pretty good job of listing things that are being done, although it doesn't enumerate jobs to the same detail I've done.

BP has a lot of motivation to get this done as soon as possible. That uncontrolled flow is ruining the reservoir, to take the most obvious oil-company motivation. Plus the liability, plus the ruined reputation. The ruined reputation is now a sunk cost, but the reservoir might still be saved.

But stopping the flow involves many, many people who, as Peter noted, are most likely living on coffee and rehydrated ramen noodles and working around the clock to make it stop.


Here's the link. I can't find a way to embed it. BP is tweeting that coverage will continue through the "top kill" operation.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bits and Pieces - May 25, 2010

First, the oily bits:

An explanation of the "top kill" BP is planning for Wednesday morning. Warning: very wonky! But very good if you are a wonk.

More about working at those depths.

BP may be barred from government contracts, but it supplies a lot of fuel to the military.

Here's an idea for regulating the oil industry.

The thread at Balloon Juice from which some of these links were gleaned. The comments are worth reading; it seems to be the people with the least technical knowledge who are most vocal that someone must do something.

For a change of pace, something about China's role in the dispute between North and South Korea. Via, which has a bit more to say about this.

BP not even trying to stop flow

Examine the "insertion tube" that is BP's latest and most desperate intervention* at its gushing "riser" pipe on the gulf sea floor. Its floppy daisy-wheel flange isn't made to form a seal and BP doesn't say it will. It's to plug the riser "as much as possible," they say--except that plugging the pipe is not their priority. If stopping the ongoing contamination were their foremost goal, would their approach be to try to cram a second tube in beside the flanged one, and to inject a stream of anticoagulant--methanol--to keep oil flowing up the insertion tube?

The priority seems to be to collect oil for sale--which is so much easier to do from a well than from a slick or from seawater. There's lots of appliances for plugging pipes, and what BP's using isn't one of them.

* Actually, the very latest is that the insertion tube failed, so that at last BP will try to stopper their gushing well.

"Doing Something" About the BP/Halliburton Oil Spill

Kate Sheppard, subbing for Ezra Klein, is casting desperately around for something that someone should be doing in response to the oil spill that they're not doing already. Like many Beltway denizens, she focuses on doing that involves words rather than doing that involves pipe and chains and cement and mud. This is a particular example of a problem that affects the country in various degrees: we swipe our credit cards, pump our gasoline into our cars, pull the receipt, and off we go. No pipes and chains and cement and mud. Easy.

This spill is uncovering the holes in our laws and regulations, and we should be moving to correct those. But that doesn't plug the oil gusher that we have right now.

So the Senate is considering raising the liability cap for such disasters. This is far down the barn-door-horse chain of events, but probably should be done. And oh yeah, we could do some conservation. I hate to tell Kate, but "educating the public" is not the most effective way to get at this. It's going to take economic incentives, like a floor for gasoline prices at, say, $4. But it's going to be a long time before the Senate gets to that one.

On the other end of the fixit, er, pipeline, Derrick Z. Jackson tells us that there's been little or no research done on spill response in deep water. That's because, some long time ago, we took the word of the corporations that oh yes of course they would continue to do research to maintain their competitive edge and please stop those nasty government labs from trying to compete where industry could do a much better job. So tax structures and the sorts of research allowed to government labs and universities were changed, and the flourishing research establishment the United States could boast of during the 1950s and 1960s went away. Maybe we need to rethink that, too.

Twitter feed from Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center (JIC) on Unified Command response efforts to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Does this count as doing something? Yeah, I know, it's not stopping the gusher. (h/t to Jules at Balloon Juice.)


As a transplanted New Mexican, I've often wondered why New Mexico and Arizona are so different. Climatically, a difference in altitudes accounts for Arizona's saguaro cactuses and New Mexico's lack thereof. The attitudes, however, have been more puzzling. These are two states that entered the Union together, in 1912, the last before Hawaii and Alaska.

Here's some Arizona history I wasn't aware of that explains some of it. Now I'm wondering why New Mexico didn't have to prove its white bona fides when it entered the Union.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The BP/Halliburton Oil Spill

No end of opportunities for outrage here. Outrage at BP for its terrible safety record. Outrage at the executives of all the companies involved because of their finger-pointing in Congressional hearings. Outrage at the dreadful job the government has done in regulating drilling. Outrage at not having an energy policy that moves us into the 21st century; this one has to include outrage at everyone, including the voters (us!) who want cheap gasoline above all, but that's not so popular.

So let me address just one particular outrage: Why hasn't President Obama taken charge?

I'm wondering exactly what the people expressing this outrage want President Obama to do. They haven't been specific beyond "taking charge."

It's pretty clear to me that nobody has a definitive way to stop the well. I know a little about drilling, probably enough to get me a response from a reader who can find something wrong in what I'm going to say. But here is what I've gleaned from the coverage of the situation.

The well is in deeper water than has customarily been drilled for oil. BP has a bit of experience in these deep waters, but nobody else does, and BP's experience amounts to a few wells. That means everything is more difficult. The pressures are enormous, and getting equipment down to the well is more complicated. No runaway well has been capped under these circumstances before. There is a lot that is not known about the well, even by BP. If they had known, the blowout would not have occurred. What is not known is the condition of the well and possibly the situation in the reservoir.

We don't know how much oil is coming out of the well. BP probably is genuinely confused and trying to put all its resources on a solution and probably, as well, would like to control information to its advantage. The government is putting together a team to evaluate the data. This team has a somewhat better chance of coming up with useful results than the team charged with getting solutions.

However, all that water between them and the well is going to make that hard. It's possible to come up with ideas like this one, but they will take time and lots of money to implement.
In an article published in the British journal Nature this week, UC Santa Barbara geochemist David Valentine said that dragging gas sensors through the waters near the spill could provide data on how much methane was lurking in the ocean. From that figure, the volume of oil could be derived, he said.
There seem to be a number of assumptions here, the biggest of which is that we know the ratio of methane to liquid petroleum. And when an academic says that "the idea has been floated," that suggests to me that he hasn't provided the kind of proposal that would be needed for a decision.

We clearly can't trust BP to make decisions that are in the country's best interests, although maybe the libertarians are right and the spotlight on them and the prospect of all those lawsuits will concentrate their minds.

But back to the outrage.

The scientists don't know how to stop the well. From what I know, BP's current plan to plug the well and then cap it sounds like the best available. BP has the equipment to do that; I doubt that the government does, and, if it did, mobilization and staffing takes time.

So if Obama "took charge," what exactly would he do? Order up some different regulations? That would depend partly on Congress and partly on the agencies. And it wouldn't stop the oil. That needs to be done later.

Get some injunctions against the companies involved? Put people in jail? This is procedural, too; would take time and doesn't stop the oil. It would also distract people from focusing on dealing with the well.

What he might do is find ways (and he wouldn't do this himself, staff would) to pull the data out of BP. Data on the geology around the well, flow measurements, proportions of gas and liquid, records from the well drilling and completion. These would be useful to the teams working on figuring out what is going on and possible solutions, but working through the data will take time, people, and money. So BP might as well go ahead with what they're doing while others do some analysis. There probably would have to be legal action to get the data, or vigorous jawboning of BP.

So what do these outraged people want Obama to do in "taking charge?"

Update: These are the guys who put out the fires in Iraq and will most likely kill the BP well.

And I didn't mention the political problem.

5/24/10: More from the WaPo. Nobody they've talked to has any better ideas than BP does. The biggest gripe against the administration is coming from Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who is understandably upset. And just possibly has partisan motives.

Israel and South Africa

Let's take the easiest situation first: documents have surfaced that show that Israel was talking to South Africa about nuclear weapons in 1975. It's the easiest because the least information is available.

In 1975. That was a different time, and if we choose our facts selectively, we may focus on the fact that South Africa was an apartheid nation at the time. Ugly, but arms sales are arms sales. Anti-apartheid sanctions were imposed on South Africa by the United States in 1986, more than a decade later. And hey, arms sales are arms sales. How many other nations were selling arms to South Africa in 1975?

We now know that South Africa was seeking nuclear weapons around that time. I was working in the laser isotope separation project then, and at one division meeting, for a light diversion, we were told that South Africa, on stationary with gold leaf letterhead, had offered to send a couple of postdocs to the project, all expenses paid. And South Africa has since given up its nuclear weapons and granted full access to the IAEA.

Avner Cohen, who knows more about Israel's nuclear program than anyone else who is talking, parses the documents closely. They are not an offer of nuclear weapons, but the sort of discussion that precedes an offer.

The nonproliferation world of 1975 was far from what we take for granted today. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty had come into force in 1970, and about 90 countries had ratified it, if you include all those (a dozen or so) who ratified in 1975. It was far from the whole world, and major countries like Brazil and Argentina remained outside.

So the significance of the documents is that they show that Israel did have nuclear weapons in 1975. If we want to be picky, we could consider that perhaps Israel was scamming South Africa in the absence of nuclear weapons, but the probability of that seems low.

Outrage points:
* Israel was willing to sell the most destructive kinds of weapons to the apartheid regime, which likely would have used them against South Africans.
* Israel has not joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
* Israel's lack of transparency means that stuff like this could still be going on.

Even if these points were fully legitimate, countries hardly ever move because they've been pushed into a corner. The NPT Review Conference is discussing a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, and Israel would be part of that. The United States has made some of its nuclear numbers available, and that should be a spur to other countries to do the same.

Although it would make exciting news to report on, it's unlikely that the Review Conference will break up over this or that Israel will come fully clean. Whatever happens will more likely happen in small steps like those that are going on now.

Outrage Fatigue

Helmut has said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm better on analysis than I am on outrage. There's plenty that I might display outrage about: the BP/Halliburton oil spill, the latest revelation that Israel negotiated with South Africa in 1975 on nuclear weapons, the fact that there are too many nuclear weapons in the world. You can take your pick of outrage targets for last week's developments on Iran: Turkey and Brazil for having the temerity to negotiate, the United States for not immediately accepting the deal, or Iran for gaming the system.

I suppose a certain amount of outrage is useful to encourage action, but when every development is met with outrage, it is as devalued as any oversupplied currency and, very likely, a call to apathy rather than action.

Outrage does get clicks on the internet, though, so it's a favorite of columnists and bloggers.

I am concerned that I may sometimes appear to be defending the indefensible (the object of outrage, naturally). But I think that someone needs to be expanding on contexts. My intention is not to defend, but to understand the problem. I'll post on those three subjects, I hope today, and will try to be explicit about analysis and outrage.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


I need to announce a great little trans-Atlantic photo blog, EpideMixe, by two young photographers, Mariette (top photo) and Ines (bottom photo). Please stop by and leave a comment or two.

A Bit of Advice for the Washington Post on How To Appeal To Women

Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post's ombudsman, today takes on the challenging question of what do women want - um, does the WaPo's language turn off women?

Just the other night, I was reading the chapter in Gail Collins's When Everything Changed about the 1970s revisions to newspaper stylebooks relating to language to be used when describing women. Alexander's column is remarkably similar. So it's been thirty (forty?) years now, and the WaPo still hasn't caught up to its own stylebook?

Perhaps the problem goes beyond mere words. How many times has the WaPo's lineup of columnists been scrutinized for the presence of women? Or the subject matter. Today we have a rich mix of old men urging the rest of us to get off their lawns. I count at least three: David Broder, David Ignatius, and the president of the American Enterprise Institute. Robert Bennett's op-ed is borderline informative. (Note to WaPo editors: the president of AEI saying that his version of free enterprise is best and morally superior is not news, certainly not worth lots more words than the usual op-ed.)

Or perhaps the purpose of having all those old white men opine was to ingratiate the Post and AEI with the Tea Partiers, although the demographics of that movement hardly recommend it as a way to increase circulation.

Over the years I've been blogging, the occasional female editor has surfaced at the Post to claim an openness to female opinion. When they've posted an e-mail address, I've responded and gotten various brushoffs. It's entirely possible that my style or competence isn't up to Post standards, but it's hard to believe that I was the only one responding.

So the "next greatest columnist" turns out to be a male with connections to the Washington establishment and not very original opinions. Another recent addition is a male with a strong love of torture but not much in the way of substantive experience.

Consider that absence of substance. Burton Richter, who knows something about science, was eliminated early from that competition, and perhaps it is my leaning toward that subject that eliminated me. A woman writing about science? Isn't there something about dogs standing on their hind legs? Or we might consider Olivia Judson's excellent columns at the New York Times.

Gail Collins is a Times columnist, too. This is not to say that the Times has everything right in this area, just that the Post seems hopelessly male in its lack of women columnists.

That lack of substance is a problem, too. Maybe smart readers are getting tired of the "get off my lawn" columns. Maybe they are tired of Republican speechwriters. Maybe they would like to read some real news.

And at least half of those smart readers are women.

Update: Also, too.

Martin Gardner, 1914 - 2010

It's clear that I am not the only one for whom Martin Gardner provided important parts of growing up.

In my case, it was hexaflexagons. I happened on that copy of Scientific American with that column in it, and I was hooked on both Scientific American and hexaflexagons. I have subscribed continuously since then. I see that the article itself is so far back in the mists of time that Google provides it via one of Gardner's collections of his Scientific American columns.

I was at an age where I was fascinated by cootie catchers and other kinds of paper folding. The tetraflexagons had some resemblance to a cootie catcher, but they were much better. I never mastered the slight of hand necessary to convincingly change the no-cooties state to the cooties state, and, in any case, I liked more mathematical sorts of thing better. The hexaflexagons were extensible to numbers of configurations limited only by the thickness of paper and accuracy of construction. I think I got up to 24 faces on the biggest one I built.

I had been adept at mathematics from early on. I kept a notebook in which, during duller times in fourth grade, I would double numbers. I didn't know at the time that if I started with 1, I was enumerating the powers of 2. I did know that they were pretty. I was fortunate to live in an old house and to have tolerant parents who felt that writing on my bedroom walls and stapling, pasting, and taping my mathematical constructs to the walls and ceiling was a useful activity. I was also branching out from cootie catchers to the Platonic solids, via a number of library books, including W. W. Rouse Ball's Mathematical Recreations and Essays, a forerunner of Gardner's column and compilations, and Cundy and Rollett's Mathematical Models.

My family did not have a long academic pedigree; my mother was the first in her family to attend college and had a Master's in Library Science; my father was a high-school dropout. So I mostly had to find my own way into academia. Mathematics was satisfyingly lovely, but as I got into adolescence, I wanted to find The Meaning Of It All, which led me down the standard academic rabbit hole toward physics and philosophy.

Organic chemistry provided my conversion experience. It was the experiment, early in the course, on recrystallization. The quick formation of beautiful crystals hooked me as surely as hexaflexagons did earlier. As well as the nice little hexagons that I learned to draw quickly and neatly, as a chemist must.

It was that balance of the physical and the theoretical, geometry in the real world, that I really love, that my mind works well with. And Martin Gardner's article on hexaflexagons was the first time all that came together for me.

Good websites on flexagons and their construction can be found here and here. The image is from the first of those.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bits and Pieces - May 22, 2010

I don't understand why teabaggers are angry with Scott Brown for voting to bring the banksters into line. I thought that their depredations were one of the things the teabaggers were upset about.

Gary Sick makes some excellent points about the commentary on Iran. And here's some of the history to back him up.

Canada looks longingly at Brazil and Turkey's diplomacy.

And a bigger context for international leadership.

It's always better to know as much as you can about what's going on. I hope someone is keeping a close record of BP's actions throughout the spill for both legal action and an expose book later on.

If you're going to be in Santa Fe June 11 and 12, consider this. And the New York Times gets some other things right. But 10:00 for the Farmers' Market??? The tiny strawberries and asparagus that were there at 7:00 this morning were long gone by then.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Banganpalli Mangoes

Loony Tunes

Taking another unconventional stand, Kentucky's Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul criticized President Barack Obama's handling of the Gulf oil spill Friday as anti-business and sounding "really un-American." (here)

"What I don't like from the president's administration is this sort of, 'I'll put my boot heel on the throat of BP... I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business."
That's an American president and British Petroleum, not to mention devastation for the residents and wildlife of the coastal states and an ongoing flood of oil BP just can't seem to stop.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bits and Pieces - May 20, 2010

More Iran from David Ignatius and Peter Crail of the Arms Control Association. Both tend to agree that what we are seeing is some tough negotiating by all sides.

Turkey's role in the deal.

That other diplomatic conundrum: North Korea.

What is the future of Britain's Trident nuclear force and its opponents?

A few besides me still remember (and even use!) typewriters. But they are being ostracized.

The best takedown of Rand Paul's statement about the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

How scientists might help with nuclear disarmament.

Russia wonders what to do about Kyrgyzstan.

Iran continued...

Some clarification through the mists: the Obama administration doesn't see the move toward sanctions as an end of negotiations with Iran, although many commentators have taken it that way. Susan Rice, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations:
First of all we need to be clear that the Tehran Research Reactor proposal as tabled in October had nothing to do with Iran’s sanctioned activities to date and its international nuclear obligations. Iran has remained in violation of previous Security Council resolutions, it is in violation of its IAEA obligations, and that is why we are here today, making manifest and real the dual track approach that we have pursued. We continue to believe that this ought to be resolved through negotiation and dialogue, engagement remains on the table, but the dual track to be viable has to have a pressure component as well.
And Russia believes that the Brazil-Turkey deal can move forward despite the move toward sanctions:
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday he hoped a consensus could be reached on a draft United Nations sanctions resolution against Iran, Interfax news agency said.

Lavrov also called on Iran to send details of its proposed uranium swap to the United Nation's nuclear agency, the IAEA, as soon as possible.
At the same time, Lavrov assured Iran that work on the Bushehr reactor would continue. Meanwhile, President Obama has spoken to President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

If the Iranian move was indeed intended to head off sanctions, there may be some noses out of joint in Tehran. It remains to be seen whether that pique will stand in the way of negotiations.

Update: Farideh Farhi.

[h/t to Steve for the Haaretz link.]


I've had an unusually wonderful mixture of birds visiting my feeders lately. This week the black-headed grosbeaks and western tanagers arrived. They seem to be in family groups; the scruffy feathers and the amount of white on this grosbeak suggest a young male. A couple who nested nearby last year produced a male, but I think I've seen two other adults as well. The tanagers include at least two females, maybe three. Either last year's progeny, or that male is some guy!

Two or three starlings have stuck around from the winter, and there have been as many as ten mourning doves in the yard at a time. They seem to be in groups of three, so I am wondering if some are already this year's children. We had quite a few Asian collared doves over the winter, and white-winged doves, but now it is almost exclusively the mourning.

In the same color range as the grosbeaks are the rufous-sided towhees; a Say's phoebe calls but doesn't often show, and there were three chipping sparrows the other night on the ground, as the grosbeaks and tanagers hogged the tree.

Add in various hummingbirds, pine siskins, and, just this week, lesser goldfinches, and the yard is very colorful.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Trying To Figure Out Who Said What When

The more news stories I see about this latest deal with Iran by Turkey and Brazil, the less I feel I understand about what actually happened.

Brazil and Turkey negotiated a deal with Iran. That deal was similar, but not identical, to deal(s) negotiated earlier with Iran that failed in some way. The United States responded by saying that the IAEA would have to review the agreement first. It also announced that the five veto-bearing members of the United Nations Security Council had agreed on another round of sanctions against Iran. The deal still must be reviewed, as well, by Iran's powers that be, who have undone previous deals.

I think that is accurate so far.

It is not clear to me that the announcement of support for a vote on sanctions is the same as rejecting the Iranian offer. Many are taking it that way. One argument is that Iran cannot negotiate under the threat of sanctions. I'm not sure why this is the case. Iran has been negotiating, and sanctions are in effect, which seems worse than simply a threat of sanctions.

The Iranian offer would deposit 1200 kilograms of its 3.5% enriched uranium with Turkey, and within a year would get in return fabricated fuel rods for its Teheran Research Reactor. It is also reported that Iran would continue to enrich uranium to 20%, which would no longer be necessary if it is getting fuel for the TRR. So Iran has given a bit on the timing and location of the swap, but it is holding onto a step toward weapons-grade enrichment. Iran also has about twice as much low-enriched uranium now as it did when the offer of a swap was first made. This goes back to that idea of getting the low-enriched uranium out of Iran's hands, which has clouded the negotiations from the first and provided a provocation to Iranian hard-liners.

Turkey and Brazil may or may not feel betrayed; this is one issue that I simply can't decipher from what is reported in the media. Did President Obama personally ask for or encourage their negotiations? Was there constant communication between them and the United States?
“What they wanted us to do was give the confidence to Iran to do the swap. We have done our duty,” said Davutoglu, calling the deal an important step for regional and global peace. “We were told that if Iran gives 1,200 kg without conditions, then the required atmosphere of trust would be created [to avoid sanctions]. So if we do all these things, and they still talk about sanctions … [it] will damage the psychological trust that has been created.” (source)
Note that "without conditions." The Turks clearly are aware of that stipulation, which seems not to have been met.

It is hard to believe that there were no communications between Brazil, Turkey, and the United States. Some large part of such communications would have been secret, however, and we are unlikely to hear that full story any time soon.

The deal, as presented by Brazil and Turkey, seems not to have been fully approved by Iran, whatever that may take. It appears that there are factions in Iran who will not accept any deal that is acceptable to the United States, and that they sometimes have veto power. So would it make sense for the United States to accept and then have the deal slapped down again?

Here's the text of the sanctions resolution. And here are several pieces that lean more toward opinion than reporting. They contain some good points, but mostly jump much further ahead than I think is justified on the basis of the information I've seen.

New York Times editorial
Trita Parsi
Barbara Slavin
M. J. Rosenberg
Massimo Calibresi

Bits and Pieces - Science Edition

It's the thirtieth anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Photos here.

In addition to its other charming qualities, kudzu creates ozone.

Life-form of the month: Archaea, neither bacteria nor like the rest of us.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Continuing the Negotiation...

The Obama administration announced Tuesday morning that it had struck a deal with other major powers, including Russia and China, to impose new sanctions on Iran, a sharp repudiation of the deal Tehran offered just a day before to ship its nuclear fuel out of the country.
The first part of that sentence is news. The second part is...Peter Baker? The Times editorial board? David Sanger?

It's too bad that the Times chose to frame this story that way. Or perhaps it makes the negotiation more effective.

Brazil and Turkey persuaded Iran to agree to a modification of the deal that has been on the table for some time, and now a sanctions agreement is announced? There are other interpretations beyond repudiation of the deal. It's not clear to me from the quotes that this is not a continuation of the negotiations; unfortunately, the Times quotes from Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton are fragmentary enough that it's hard to tell what she actually said. We also do not know what Brazil and Turkey are being told behind the scenes.

So let's say that this is another step in the negotiation. The message is that Iran's Perils of Pauline strategy - poor little Iran on the railroad track, sanctions train stopped just in time - has been used too many times. As I agreed yesterday with Geoffrey Forden, the United States is being played. But so are China and Russia, who may just be getting tired of that.

Negotiations on sanctions have been ongoing, and yes, we have an agreement. There was no reason to end those negotiations just because Iran had (maybe) agreed to a deal that isn't that different from deals it could have agreed to a year ago. And, when Iran has had agreement offered to it, it has slipped away with disagreements (maybe genuine) within its own government. So enough already. Let us know you're serious, because we're serious about the sanctions.

The United States has bought time by asking that the IAEA review the agreement; it has neither rejected nor accepted it.

The ball is now in Iran's court.

Hank Jones, 1918-2010

He played with damn near everyone who was essential to 20th century jazz on some of the greatest records in the history of jazz, gently, modestly, superbly. The gentleman of jazz died on Sunday at the age of 91.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Latest "Deal" With Iran

Let me disagree with Geoffrey Forden on the Iran deal. Yes, we’ve heard this over and over again. Yes, Iran is playing the United States and others. Yes, we’ve set ourselves up for this. But I think in a different way than Geoffrey is saying.

When the deal was first interpreted, back in the Bush administration, as being directed at getting Iran’s enriched uranium out of the country, it seemed to me to be a stupid thing to say in public, if that was indeed the goal. Everyone could figure it out, of course, but saying it was sticking a finger in Iran’s eye.

And, of course, that was under the larger goal of ending Iran’s enrichment program, which I also thought was a dumb goal. Dumb goals lead to dumb behavior.

I would have made the goal to bring Iran into full conformity with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the norms of behavior exhibited by other non nuclear weapon signatories of that treaty. That would have allowed enrichment under careful IAEA supervision. It would have insisted on explanations that Iran has still not provided for previous documents and, perhaps, actions. It would have made the basis for those allegations available to all, as Iran would be expected to make their information.

But that didn’t happen.

So the Obama administration inherited some dumb goals. Changing those goals would entail renouncing a lot of work done by our European allies and taking a lot of flack from the US right wing, which hates treaties and wants a war with Iran. There would also be beating of war drums and perhaps more in Israel.

So that business about getting the enriched uranium out of the country had to continue. It seems to be a favorite of the news media, providing conflict and something to focus on that has yes-no sorts of answers instead of that icky science stuff that the IAEA focuses on. I don’t believe the administration has actually said, we want to get that stuff out of Iran, although this
While it would be a positive step for Iran to transfer low-enriched uranium off of its soil as it agreed to do last October…
could be interpreted that way, and so we will continue to hear about that. (NYT, WaPo, ISIS)

The question of where and when the enriched uranium goes is a sideshow. What we need is for Iran to act like a responsible party to the NPT. And, um, agreeing to a deal (although have all parties in Teheran agreed?) just as sanctions are being considered isn’t the most credible position to take.

There are some good aspects to this deal. Brazil and Turkey negotiated it; part of the message of President Obama’s security summit a few weeks back was that all NPT signatories have a stake in others’ behavior, and, in general, involvement of more nations is a good thing. At the very least, it encourages them to set good examples, and Brazil and Turkey are nations that might be willing to consider nuclear weapons of their own.

The Wall Street Journal may be correct about the best move for the US to make: declare victory and accept the deal. That would make it possible to move on to more productive goals.

Update: Stephen Walt's take.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Persian Limes

Creativity and Knowing Something About The Problem

I've been tossing this question around this week in another venue. Innovation requires seeing things with new eyes, which can mean that people who haven't looked at a problem may be able to propose solutions the experts haven't thought of. However, if you don't know enough about a problem, the solutions you propose may be boneheaded, even if you're quite a bright person. It may be something someone else has already tried and found inadequate, or it may be that you've left out an important variable.

With its openness and desire to address problems that have been swept under the rug for some long time, the Obama administration is raising the issue in numerous places. It's going to provide solutions in some places and not in others; I suspect that the ratio will be heavily tilted toward the latter.

So I am not as sanguine as Steve Benen about the panel of scientists that Energy Secretary Steven Chu is bringing to Houston to look at BP's problem with that uncontrolled deepwater oil well.
[Richard] Garwin, 82, held a 1991 symposium of academic scientists, explosives experts, firefighters and oilmen to grapple with how to stem oil flows from hundreds of wells Iraq set on fire in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War, according to a summary of the event.
I'm not sure about the others' expertise, but everybody and his brother (did anyone else notice that all five are male? still in that box) back in the day was trying to find an innovative solution to those oil well fires. I was involved in one of those efforts because I was working on a possibly relevant technology.

It was obvious to me from the beginning, having done some calculations of amounts of stuff coming out of the wells and amounts of force and other stuff needed to respond, that my technology wouldn't work. The discussions mainly involved people (men) throwing ideas from the tops of their heads - no calculations, no background - that they thought might work. I mostly kept my mouth shut, having noted in earlier such discussions that the king seemed to be developing goosebumps and having been quickly corrected in that misapprehension.

The oil well fires in Kuwait were extinguished by crews from Texas and elsewhere who were experienced in extinguishing oil well fires. None of the stuff the physicists had proposed.

There are a lot of things that aren't well known about BP's current problem, so maybe this group will be able to contribute. There is a balance between knowing something about the problem and knowing so much that you're stuck in the box. But I don't know where it is.

For another example, here are some bright ideas that didn't quite make it.

Update: Oh yeah, here's a new idea: let's nuke the slick. Or more accurately, let's use an underground nuclear blast to crimp the pipe to stop the flow. The Russians claim that they've done it successfully; I would like to see the evidence of that. And they say they placed the nukes 1.5 kilometers underground. So all we'd have to do is drill a hole 1.5 kilometers down, alongside the well that is leaking, emplace a nuke, and set it off. More underwater drilling. Lowering the nuke through water and downhole. Wires attached for detonation. And why not just use conventional explosives?

In contrast, here's a situation where long, detailed, sometimes boring work led to the solution. Plus politics.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Women's Work Is Never Done

I'm reading Gail Collins's When Everything Changed, which is bringing back memories of the bad old days, when everyone knew that women were the biologically weaker sex. But that's all change now.

It is the matter of exposure to radiation that is most unsettling to me. It is the genetically sensitive tissue in women that is intimately involved in the process of childbearing that needs to be addressed, researched and commented on by our Navy's leaders before they change the policy.

While sperm from men are frequently changing and thereby present a reduced vulnerability to radiation consequences, women have ovaries that contain radiation-sensitive tissue fixed for the life of the woman.
Um, guy, those frequently changing sperm are generated by cells that reside in the man for his whole life, more or less. Presumably damage to them means defective sperm for the life of the man.

Amazing that a doctor in 2010 can sound so much like the common wisdom of 1960.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bits and Pieces - May 12, 2010

Cheers for New Mexico's Senators Bingaman and Udall in the hearings on the oil spill!

The European Commission recommended that Estonia join the Eurozone on January 1, 2011. Guess I'd better get over there and spend the kroons I've got stashed!

The Wall Street Journal confirms my suspicions that Russia is moving towards the West. (Suspicions here, here, here, and here.) Chuck Thornton provides the Russian text of the document, with a promise of an English translation soon.

Russia is considering telling us how many nukes they've got, now that the Obama administration has released the US numbers. I guess that won't end the argument that US actions on stuff like transparency have no effect on other countries.

What Taxes Do

While I was in New Jersey, I visited my grammar and high schools. Both are doing very well, rated high in the state. They've added lots of rooms since I attended them, the older parts look as good as they did back in the day, and they seem to be well-supplied with all the stuff that teaching kids requires.

Former acquaintances that I talked to complained, mildly, about taxes, which are indeed fairly high in New Jersey. But overall, personal taxes are lower today in the United States than they have been for some time.

It's those taxes that are keeping those schools looking good. More tax-averse states have been cutting such things for some time now. It hardly seems worth it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Losing Biodiversity

Masoala National Park, Madagascar. Photo credit: Monique Rodriguez (from here).

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the CBD, released its Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 report yesterday (downloadable in full here). The news is not good, the GBO essentially saying that countries have largely ignored the accelerating loss of biodiversity. Here's an idea:

"The abundance of vertebrate species, based on assessed populations, fell by nearly a third on average between 1970 and 2006 and continues to fall globally," says the report, issued ahead of a top-level meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development this week in New York. [editor: Figures from a WWF report available here].

"The five principal pressures directly driving biodiversity loss (habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change) are either constant or increasing in intensity."

The report does see progress in the creation of preserves, in particular in the number of protected marine areas announced in recent months, but the overall assessment of the treaty by its Montreal-based secretariat paints a grim picture, saying habitat losses have offset gains. Wetlands, salt marshes and habitats for shellfish seem to be suffering the most damage.

More on this later.

Old Anti-Terror Lesson from Cuba


Monday, May 10, 2010

Profit, Loss, and Proliferation

Defense, Inc., Russian Style

Molly Cernicek and Cheryl Rofer

The Armchair Generalist drew attention last week to the Rocket-In-A-Box missile system marketed by a joint stock company of Russian defense firms at the Defense Services Asia exhibition in Malaysia. Called the Club K Container Missile System by the Russians, this system of missiles can be boxed up in a 40-ft standard shipping container and installed on coastal positions, surface ships and vessels of different classes, railway and automobile platforms. Price tag: $15 million. The mobility of this product has worried some that it could become a weapon system of choice for a terrorist organization. What should be watched closely is not so much whether a terrorist group will buy or acquire this system as whether Russia’s recently privatized defense industry can compete with the rest of the world for the biggest spending customers in the conventional weapons market. Because if it cannot, then there are more reasons to worry about Russian weaponry ending up in the wrong hands.

The Club K Container Missile System is a product of a thick web of companies whose shares are owned by both the Russian government and private entities. A joint stock company called Concern Morinformsystem-AGAT that makes the Club K includes ten additional joint stock companies and three Federal State Unitary Enterprises (FSUEs). (Concern in Russian means a group of companies.) A FSUE is a legal entity created by the Russian government that allows government enterprises to undertake commercial activities but that does not sell shares. Eleven of these participating organizations with Concern Morinformsystem-AGAT are Soviet-established military and scientific institutes dedicated for decades to shipbuilding and associated technologies; one has roots in Czarist times, and one was created post-Communism. State Corporation Rostekhnologii oversees Concern Morinformsystem-AGAT.

A state corporation is a state holding company that unites the largest enterprises of the military-industrial complex and associated civil industries. Its subsidiaries can carry out any market operations, including IPOs. It is not directly controlled by the government, its head is appointed by the president personally, profits of the corporations may not be distributed, and rules for disclosing information for such entities are less stringent than for open joint-stock companies. It’s a shadow ministry of industry.

In a massive effort to control and manage both the vertical and horizontal networks of the Soviet military-industrial complex, Putin’s government established a new management model for its defense industry. First it created the Rosoboronexport State Corporation (ROE) in 2000. ROE’s objectives included the restructuring of the military and technical system of coordination between foreign states and the Russian Federation, establishing and enhancing long term relationships with foreign customers, and to advance Russia’s standing in the international arms market. Sergei Chemzov was first deputy chief of Rosoboronexport from its creation in 2000 until he became CEO in 2004. In an earlier career, Chemzov was a KGB operative who served in the 1980s in Dresden, East Germany, with Putin. In 2005, he started to lobby for a new entity that would have more responsibility and reach than ROE.

In late 2007, Rostekhnologii was established to facilitate development, production and export of hi-tech industrial products for civilian and military purposes. It is a supercorporation that controls the production and supply chain from research and development as well as the supply of special equipment from abroad. Some of its assets include Russia’s biggest car-making company, Avtovaz; one of the world’s main producers of titanium, VSMPO-Avisma; Vertolyoti Rossia, which produces civilian and military helicopters; Oboronitelnye Systemi, which manufactures anti-aircraft and electronic equipment; steel producer RusSpetsStal, and multiple other properties.

So how is this model working so far for Russia? A quick glance looks positive as Russia’s defense products pulled in a record $7.4 billion in 2009, up 10 percent from 2008. ROE accounted for 80 percent of those sales with the remaining 20 percent coming from Russian defense companies that trade in spare parts, maintenance, and repair services. But $7.4 B is probably .2-.3% of the overall global market. And $7.4 billion is probably not enough to support the thousands of employees within ROE and Rostekhnologii. Though numbers are elusive, it is very likely that US top defense contractor Lockheed Martin has far fewer employees than these Russian state corporations. In 2009 Lockheed brought in $45.45 billion.

Presidents Yeltsin and Putin did not have the stomach to force many defense institutes out of business. Instead, they allowed them to hold on in a quasi-existence for years with no investment into research, people or infrastructure. Putin has created the public-private model where the toughest will survive and the others will go bankrupt. Soviet institutes now are joint ventures and sell shares. Many of their leaders have borrowed money against these shares to keep the old institutes on life support and then borrowed more money to pay off earlier loans at higher interest rates. Last year Chemzov, now CEO of Rostekhnologii, announced that that 30 percent of the nearly 400 firms under Rostekhnologii management were facing bankruptcy proceedings. Rostekhnologii owns up to 100 percent of these joint ventures.

There are destabilizing factors not just to Russia’s national security but to global security if Russia’s defense industry cannot maintain a competitive position in the global weapons market. In order to be competitive globally, Russia has to be competitive domestically, and that is a problem that so far has not been solved. The Russian government can no longer afford to give loans to other governments to buy Russian weapons…only to promise to forgive these loans down the road. This behavior takes the “business” out of “business model”. ROE and Rostekhnologii are also victim to entities and people within their massive organization who are selling products on their own terms, some of them violating international arms embargos and undermining the corporations’ operations and goals.

The jury will be out for a while before any clear conclusions can be drawn from Russia’s “modernized” defense industry. Thankfully, its nuclear complex is not part of a state corporation.

Progress Report on Organizing the Community

Issues to be addressed (a brief summary): At the start of our project, the community was fragmented and apathetic. Many serious problems had gone unaddressed for years, with the predicatable result that citizens felt disempowered and unable to address those same problems in a downward spiral of morale and effort. This feeling of disempowerment had led to a sense that only a “strong leader” could make a difference, and that leader would make that difference by issuing orders which would magically lead to the lost unity of purpose and direction. This is, of course, the definition of the “man on the white horse,” the desire for which has led in so many situations to the popular election of dictators, to whom power is given willingly.

Dysfunctional “solutions” to the problems abounded: many amounted to ignoring a problem so that it would go away, as in climate change and decaying infrastructure. In the case of the economy, responses were actively contradictory to reasonable solutions: encouragement of the same sorts of activities that led to the Enron and Long-Term Capital Management disasters; continuation of discredited “supply-side economics”; and the utter refusal of a positive role for government. The approach to economics was sufficiently delusional that a collapse on the scale of the 1930s disaster was in progress when we began our role in the project.

Internal dysfunctionality was reflected in external relations. Projection of one’s own problems on others was far advanced, and, in return, external confidence was much reduced and decreasing.

Initial goals: The first goal had to be preventing an economic disaster. Restoring external confidence (and therefore ending projection) would reinforce and support that goal. Also to be addressed immediately was empowering the people; reversing the downward morale and effort spiral was essential. This empowerment, of course, is also a long-term goal and is expected to progress gradually. As empowerment proceeds, the willingness to address problems and the quality of proposed solutions can be expected to improve. In some cases, all that can be expected initially is improved understanding of the problems. In a democracy, participation in generating and executing solutions is essential; improved understanding contributes to both a desire to participate and improved solutions.

Specific instances of progress toward goals
The economy: Although it is too soon for a full evaluation, the worst of the economic collapse seems to be over, and a number of indicators have turned around significantly. We must continue to monitor the situation carefully and act as necessary. Congress is working on regulations; the present bill may be insufficient, but it moves in the right direction, and changes can be made after it passes.

Empowering the people: Public discourse has improved greatly. While there remains a significant residue of desire for the magical leader, rationality is beginning to emerge. A caution is necessary here: as empowerment proceeds, an increasing number of voices will emerge, as will conflicts among those voices. Given the transition from the one-way media of newspapers and broadcast media to the multi-voiced internet, we can expect that those who are invested in the one-way model, along with those who are invested in the idea of a magical leader, will be extremely threatened by the emergence of new voices and new thinking. It will not be possible to discuss this dynamic fully in this progress report; we will include indicators of emerging rationality and new approaches and will discuss the threatened resisters separately.

Attitudes toward terror attacks: We are beginning to bring down the level of hysteria associated with attempted terror attacks. It was helpful that New Yorkers pride themselves on their coolness toward danger in responding to the Times Square attempt. It is also helpful that the last two attempts have been carried out incompetently while law enforcement rapidly mitigated what threat there was and arrested the perpetrator in a few hours more than two days. Richard Clarke provides a much more measured perspective today than he did a few years ago. The Washington Post editoral board explicitly distances itself from the cries for eliminating Miranda protections.

Tenor of political discussion: There are two aspects to this at our current stage of organizing. In one, there is a movement toward greater rationality and a willingness to call out obvious absurdities. Small examples can be found in the media almost every day. Paul Rademacher provides a way of visualizing the size of the BP/Halliburton oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and James Fallows expounds on it. Both parts of that observation are relevant; Rademacher develops a utility that others can use, and Fallows, a member of the old media, jumps on the bandwagon. The Boston Globe editorial board suggests that negative campaign ads be squarely set on their beneficiaries, whatever slim excuse those beneficiaries may muster.

In the second aspect, voices of dissent and opposition have grown, making the marketplace of ideas more contentious. Expanding the range of discussion is part of the near-term goals, so we may consider this a type of success.

The threatened resisters. A vibrant and thoughtful range of opinions, of course, is a feature of all healthy communities. However, when we began the project, a pathological Manichaeism had set in. Separating the world into good and evil prevented serious consideration of realistic policy options. So the improving tenor of political discussion is one measure of recovery from that pathology.

But as recovery proceeds, the threatened resisters will find it unacceptable for a variety of reasons. Some will, with time, come to see that open discussion in a less simplistic framework is necessary to their projects and prospects as well. As discussion opens up, however, the most threatened are likely to be the most vocal. Expression of opposing views should be welcomed, as is being done in the moves toward bipartisanship. People must feel accepted as they are if they are to participate.

Resisters to the opening up of discussion are likely either to form a more thoughtful opposition, or to become more estranged from the process. Formation of a thoughtful opposition is a positive step; a full discussion of possible actions will improve decisions. Estrangement is more difficult to deal with. Separation from the community will result in extreme beliefs and, potentially, actions. The political world has the corrective of elections. A group that becomes too far estranged will be unacceptable to the great majority and will lose power, and, losing power, will eventually disappear.

We are, however, in the middle of the process, when the estrangement seems more important and effective than it is likely to be in the long term. Some relevant examples follow.

The more extreme demands of insurance companies are being discredited, now that the health care reform bill is law.

The Republican Party is being strongly influenced by those who see separation from the larger community as their only way forward. Thus, they are jettisoning moderate candidates like Senator Robert Bennett of Utah in favor of separatist “Tea Party” candidates. A copycat attempt to call the BP/Halliburton oil spill “Obama’s Katrina” is not catching on with the media; in fact, the AP refuted the charge. An important point to be noted is that various arms of the media, including the MSM, are critiquing the actions of the threatened resisters, which helps to marginalize them.

External relations. To some degree, the community organizing process extends to the rest of the world, because America has been the leader in so many global initiatives and is expected to continue to lead. Some of the internal pathologies have spread to the rest of the world as well. However, we will include only three indicative actions in this report. A number of countries have stepped up to provide mediation and, potentially, nuclear services to Iran in attempting to defuse that situation, most recently, Brazil. Egypt is expected to play a major role in the NPT Review Conference and raise some delicate issues. Indonesia is about to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty without waiting for US ratification.

Improved relations with other communities was essential in dealing with the financial crisis. The clear delineation from previous policies and personalities was a first step, but introducing new policies designed for better external relations must continue. Negotiations for a follow-on treaty to START advanced the stated nuclear decrease agenda, gave Russia some of the recognition sought, and laid an explicit basis for bringing other countries into the negotiations. Although Russia retains significantly undemocratic internal policies and some apparent need to continue old behaviors, a large number of small actions indicate improving relations.

A number of former government officials, most recently Warren Christopher, Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, have written op-eds approving current foreign policy.

We are very much in the middle of the organizing process. Although the immediate dangers of the economy seem to have been mitigated, not all the deleterious effects, like the high unemployment rate, have been corrected. Political communication, news coverage, and external relations have all improved but also have some distance to go before our democracy can be considered healthy.

This is the most unstable part of the process, as changes begin to take hold. Opposition can be expected, but, if we continue to apply tested techniques of community organization, it can be expected to become more responsible or fade away.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Airlines' Death Spiral

On my recent trip, I was taken aback by what looks like the beginning of the end of air travel. I hadn't traveled by air since last fall, and the vacant gates as my airplane taxied out and in, the boarded-up gates on the interiors, the much smaller numbers of people than I recalled from past trips were quite remarkable.

The airlines are trying to run their planes fuller, so they are using fewer planes, which partly accounts for the vacant gates, and presumably the recession has put a crimp in some trip plans, both business and personal. But I'm wondering if the airlines might not be dying.

Delta has absorbed Northwest, except for a few not-yet-repainted planes wandering around the Minneapolis airport. But they no longer send out e-mail check-in, and the agents themselves had a hard time making the computer check-ins work. My own observation was that they've made the sequence too complicated and non-intuitive. And when the system didn't spit out a baggage tag, the fix took a full five minutes of two agents' time.

But they are providing pretzels, peanuts, and cookies, sometimes even a choice among them, on board, although it seemed to me that the extra inches Delta advertised some years ago have disappeared, and then some.

The New York Times editorial board wonders why the airlines are merging, as do I. I guess it's what you do when your business model is no longer working and you can't come up with another one. The Times editorial lists the usual airline woes: legacy costs and customers who seem to respond only to lower prices.

Has the degree of unpleasantness of air travel, the coffin-like space allowed to each passenger, the surly attendants, the indignities and inanities of TSA scrutiny, finally convinced people that other means of travel, or none at all, is the best plan? Is improved teleconferencing is taking the place of more business travel? I know that I am no longer as eager as I once was to travel because of these things.

The mergers are a sign that airline executives see no reason to rethink their business model. So they offer a service that is not unlike a public utility, neither delighting nor exciting the customer, and then accuse the customer of wanting only lower prices. Perhaps the cycle will end when the old behemoths finally merge into a single airline that dies, with newer airlines coming up. But it's not clear that airlines like Southwest are much more innovative in their business models; they merely take advantage of not having the legacy costs and are more explicit that they offer nothing beyond a utility.