Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Everglades Fauna Being Consumed by (Formerly) Pet Pythons

It sounds like the Everglades are on the way to becoming a single-species (well, maybe two or three) desert. Pythons that have escaped or been dumped when they got beyond the cute stage are growing big enough to eat deer and alligators.

There are lots of places for them to hide out. I suppose when they've eaten everything else they will start eating each other and will have a population crash. They don't seem to be easily captured.

Washington Post

Carl Hiassen

Friday, January 27, 2012

We Haven't Had a Photo In a While


Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, looking more or less north (maybe northwest) from near Georgia O'Keeffe's house.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bits and Pieces - January 26, 2012

Here's an article with some helpful information about those experiments on air-transmissible H5N1 influenza virus. Dr. Yoshiro Kawaoka, one of the two scientists whose laboratories produced the viruses, says that the virus his laboratory produced is not highly lethal. But I still don't agree that all the information should be freely available to everyone. I'm not worried so much about terrorists as I am about some idiot working in his basement.

Is there anything we need on the Moon? Probably not.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Big Reveal

John Cole of Balloon Juice has posted a photo of himself.

Just Wondering

As I read Ronen Bergman's piece in the New York Times, the latest breathless exposition of why Israel's leaders want Armageddon, I'm wondering how much Mossad contributed to the breathless expectation of WMD in Iraq. That's q, not n.

A rant on Bergman's useful idiocy and more links at Nuclear Diner.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Bits and Pieces - January 23, 2012

There was a gigantic solar flare a few days ago, and those who live further north are seeing some wonderful auroras. Here's a photo gallery. (h/t to RG)

Once diseases have disappeared because of vaccines, it's all too easy to believe that the hazards are mainly in the vaccines.

President Obama's proposed reorganization of business-oriented departments would remove the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from the Department of Commerce and put it in the Department of the Interior. Is this likely to be a problem?

An interview with Mikhail Prokhorov, who plans to challenge Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency.

Prime Minister Putin's statement on ethnicities in Russia. Dealing with the various ethnic groups that made up the Soviet Union was one of the problems that Mikhail Gorbachev didn't spend much time on while nationalistic groups made plans to leave the Union. Russia still has that problem, and Putin seems to be hoping that strong words about patriotism will deal with it.

Peter Beinart wants to know why the media aren't pointing out that the same Republicans who are calling for war with Iran also were all for war with Iraq.

The European foreign ministers have agreed to impose an oil embargo on Iran starting July 1. That means we'd better get negotiations going soon. Unfortunately, Iran hasn't formally replied to the invitation.

I won't pretend to understand all this, but the bottom line seems to be that divisions continue in the Iranian government. If people in the US government understood those divisions better, they might be able to lever them into negotiations. But it seems more likely that these divisions will just gum up the negotiations.

And, um, Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, is headed to Israel. The US's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made a visit there last week. Must be the season.

A couple more good articles on the Iran situation by Tony Karon and Yousaf Butt.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Quick Thought On The Meaning of the SOPA/PIPA Protests

There's been some ruminating today, after the Wikipedia blackout and other actions, about the new power of the internet and such, but I haven't seen this thought anywhere else.

I would hope it is one of the lessons occurring to our representatives in Congress.

SOPA was brought to those representatives of the people by lobbyists from an industry that wanted to protect its earnings. Congressional representatives have many bills brought to them in this way. But this bill had the potential to damage a great many of their constituents and, likely, the American economy. Yesterday's protests should have brought that home.

Passing legislation that favors the few at the expense of the many is a misuse of the power that the voters hand to their representatives. One indicator of such legislation is its origin with those who expect to make money off it. Such people (and corporations, but I am repeating myself!) frequently use lobbyists.

Perhaps, oh congressional representatives, you might consider the repercussions on your constitutents of legislation brought to you by lobbyists.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bits and Pieces - January 17, 2012

Reactions to Rick Perry's charge that Turkey is "a country that is being ruled by, what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists," from Juan Cole, the Foreign Ministry of Turkey, and Turkey's ambassador to the United States.

Marc Lynch: No Military Option in Syria.

City dwellers in China now outnumber rural dwellers.

And now NATO helps some Iranian fishermen. I suggested a while ago that the two previous saves were likely a way to open a communication channel and to provide a tiny bit of confidence-building. Still looks that way to me.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bits and Pieces - January 16, 2012

If you read only one thing about Iran today, make it Gary Sick's analysis of the Obama administration's approach.

And, speaking of the Obama administration, Sick's analysis dovetails with Andrew Sullivan's broader analysis. Which has some similarities to my analyses that I can't immediately find links for.

Speaking of getting it wrong, here's a good analysis of what far too many people get wrong about Central Asia. My limited time there showed me very little Islam. My hosts said that they were Muslim, but they seemed to be in the same way that people who go to church only on Easter are Christian. But there were gigantic monuments in the Russian style, many of them commemorating those who died in the Great Patriotic War, World War II to us.

And, yeah, if you still want to read more about Iran, check out Nuclear Diner.

Martin Luther King Day - Lyndon Johnson's Speech on Civil Rights

It's almost half a century now. This speech was made in 1965. There is so much win in it - read the whole thing.
In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation.

The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.

For with a country as with a person, "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans--not as Democrats or Republicans-we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal"--"government by consent of the governed"--"give me liberty or give me death." Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.
Lyndon Johnson is well-known as one of the great political wheeler-dealers. There are any number of colorful stories about his exploits in that realm. But when push came to shove, his interests were for his country and for what was morally right.

That's quite a contrast to far too much of what we see in Congress today. And those guys (yes, mostly guys) can't even claim Johnson's wheeler-dealer chops. They've made a lot of money for themselves, but they haven't moved politics. And far too many of them are still fighting the same battles Johnson was trying to end. Read the section of his speech on voting rights, for example.

We owe great thanks to Martin Luther King and the others who fought for civil rights back in the sixties. But the fight isn't over, and now it's up to us.

H/T to Tom Levenson at Balloon Juice.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Bits and Pieces - January 12, 2012

The United States no longer has heavy-duty icebreakers, and the delivery of fuel oil to Nome, Alaska, couldn't take place before the sea froze because of an unusual monster storm. So now Russia is helping us out, but it's touch-and-go for the people of Nome.

A Nordic-Baltic bloc is forming in the EU. It's been an obvious move for influencing Germany for some time, but it seems to be firming up. And I love to think about snow in Estonia.

Rumours of a coup in Pakistan may be exaggerated. The army may be satisfied with a political change of regime.

Since a focus of this blog is philosophy, I'll point to some links having to do with the morality of the assassinations of Iranian scientists and the use of the word terror over at Nuclear Diner. Plus lots of other good stuff.

A Warning to Israel? - Updated 1/15/12

The latest assassination of an Iranian scientist took place a day or so after American Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton released a statement condemning the Iranian Government’s decision to begin enrichment operations at its Qom facility but also calling for a return to negotiations. One interpretation of the assassination is that it was intended to disrupt the possibility of negotiating.

The Israelis are widely believed to be behind the assassinations of Iranian scientists, possibly with the cooperation of the Mujaheden-e-Khalq, an opposition group within Iran that has been designated a terrorist organization by the American government.

The murder was rapidly condemned by the American government:
The United States has denied any role in Wednesday's killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said the United States had “absolutely nothing to do” with the blast that killed Mostafa Ahmadi Rosha, and said the U.S. strongly condemns the attack and all acts of violence.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated the White House denial.

“I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”
President Barack Obama called Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. This report tells us that Obama assured Netanyahu that he is committed to Israel's security. Added later: Some say that Obama demanded some explanations from Netanyahu.

The condemnation of the attack is extremely strong. Obama's assurance to Netanyahu is pretty much the usual, which would make sense in balancing out the condemnation. And, of course, we don't know what else may have been said in their phone conversation. Added later: Some say that Obama demanded information about the killing.

Today this article appeared in Foreign Policy. It's a blockbuster: Israeli intelligence agents passed themselves off as CIA agents to recruit members of a Pakistani Sunni terrorist group that wants to overthrow the Iranian government. President Bush is reported to have been furious when he found out about it, as were members of the CIA.
"We don't do bang and boom," a recently retired intelligence officer said. "And we don't do political assassinations."

Israel regularly proposes conducting covert operations targeting Iranians, but is just as regularly shut down, according to retired and current intelligence officers. "They come into the room and spread out their plans, and we just shake our heads," one highly placed intelligence source said, "and we say to them -- 'Don't even go there. The answer is no.'"
That would seem to underscore the White House's condemnation of the latest assassination, as does the article's timing.

Is Washington trying to tell Israel something?

Update (1/15/12): A missile defense exercise between the United States and Israel, scheduled for April, has been canceled. This seems to have been done rather suddenly. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, will visit Israel on Thursday.

Israel's Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon says he's ' disappointed" with President Obama and says that ‘election-year considerations’ are behind U.S. President’s caution over tough Iran sanctions. That's pretty undiplomatic.

Here's an interview with Mark Perry, who wrote the Foreign Policy article on Mossad's false flag operation with Jundullah.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bits and Pieces - January 10, 2012

I don't want to be able to search Google+. Or Facebook. Possibly Twitter. What I write on Google+ and Facebook (Facebook more than Google+) is mostly trivial. If I write something there that I think is worthy of further distribution, I'll write it here or at Nuclear Diner. So give this up, Google!

This is a longish article, the large middle part of interest mostly to air-power wonks. But the beginning few paragraphs and ending few paragraphs say all you need to know about the role of lobbying in our defense spending.

So who's a terrorist? A thoughtful consideration of the way law enforcement officials use words.

Reeling in a nuclear whopper. Very cool photo for us nuclear remediation nerds.

Update: Just had a Twitter uproar (1/10/2012, 8 o'clockish EST) over this Washington Post article, which started out quoting an anonymous American official as hoping that sanctions will lead to the overthrow of the Iranian regime. The article now has a correction right up front; corrections are usually at the bottom. Here's an early reaction to it.

Now I see Twitter speculation that that's what the official said and had to walk it back. Or it could be the reporters; the WaPo folks don't seem quite as eager for war with Iran as the NYT folks do, but both have been extremely careless (I'm being nice) in their writing, implying that Iran definitely intends to produce nuclear weapons or has one already. That's not true, not even close.

So now we can only wait and see what the mullahs think the case might be. Or what they choose as the most beneficial to their situation.

And all this in the middle of the always-intricate dance of setting up another round of negotiations. Thanks a bunch, WaPo!

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Pentagon and R&D

One of my longer-range projects, which may never get done, is to write up some of the history of research in government laboratories, as seen from my perch at Los Alamos. It would be a broader history of something that was felt to be important in the 1950s and 1960s and got whittled away by any number of factors after those plummy days. The 1970s weren't too bad, and we even got some good stuff done in the 1980s, but it kept getting more and more difficult.

I was inspired in that enterprise by Hugh Gusterson's excellent article (sadly, now behind a subscription wall; this is an excerpt) on the decline of science at Los Alamos. But there was a history of decline before Gusterson's start in the 1980s that, in some ways, says more about the country's attitude toward research than the history after.

Now comes the New York Times with a paen to the Pentagon as the fount of R&D. Well, they have lots of dollars. A number of people have written about what's wrong with that idea and article; here's one that hits some of the points. I saw another somewhere along the way, the link now lost, that mentioned the corruption of the Pentagon's system of describing research, the 6.x system, where 6.1 is pure research. Some time ago, the greed of the defense contractors started pushing development and procurement, the big moneymakers (the higher numbers, like 6.5) back into the lower numbers so they could loot those categories. I suspect that very little pure research is done any more in 6.1.

But I really do have to note Robert Wright's article. The Times mentions Charles H. Townes, father of the laser, who apparently had some DoD funding at some time.
I don't know anything about Charles H. Townes, but if he's a Nobel Laureate who laid the groundwork for compact discs and laser eye surgery, here's my guess: Even if he had never gotten whatever DOD support he got, he would have done something pretty productive with his mind. He might, for example, have done research in the private sector, maybe starting his own company or going to work for one.
Mr. Wright is new to blogging, although he seems to have practiced journalism somewhere in his past. Mr. Wright, teh Google is your friend! Here's Townes's Nobel biography, obtained a little faster than I could type his name into the Google box.

Townes worked at Bell Labs, an institution that Mr. Wright, born in 1957 (teh Google again) may be unaware of. It was indeed private, as is Columbia University, where he worked later. Bell Labs was an important part of the country's research and development; the transistor was invented there. But that Bell Labs (I think there continues an institution by that name) is long gone. That's part of the story of the breakdown of research and development in America. There was also an ethos that held that research was important, teaching was important, and so people like Townes remained in institutions of higher education rather than creating their own companies, favored as that path and phrase are today.

Wright goes on from there to contrast private-sector and defense department R&D, seemingly oblivious that today's private-sector R&D compares to Townes's Bell Labs or what he did at Columbia as assembling Legos does to writing a novel. The Defense Department funding that Townes received was very likely 6.1 funding when that really meant research.

His admitted ignorance of history derails all the rest of Wright's post. I guess I'm going to have to write my long-range post, although I have another intensive one under way.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Science and Secrecy - III

More about the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and its limitations. The bottom line seems to be that nobody really thought out beforehand how something like this might unfold.

Reinforcing what I said about nuclear weapons secrecy actually keeping information out of the hands of those who would use it badly (that includes both terrorists and semi-competent amateurs playing at WMD), Alex Wellerstein examines The Nth Country Experiment. The Livermore Laboratory employed a couple of recent Ph.D.s and told them to design a bomb from open-source materials. His conclusion, through a heavily-redacted version of the report, is that there's some question as to the potential effectiveness of the design they came up with.

That was in 1967, long before the internet. I see the claim frequently that "all the information is out there," but I have my doubts about that. And, as Wellerstein points out, the design is only the first step.
I won’t even bother pointing out that “designing” an atomic bomb on paper is, of course, nothing doing compared to actually producing the fissile material, casting explosives, fabricating the right shapes of things, assembling the whole device, all the while not killing yourself in the process. Headlines aside, these guys did not build an atomic bomb in any sense of the term “build,” which I think most thoughtful nuclear observers realize.
Much of that information is classified too.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Peace, Not Non-Intervention

Well, I see that since I posted Bits and Pieces a fight that I'd like to join has broken out on the internets.

Ron Paul has suggested that America has been wrong to participate in wars. All wars. Ever. He would bring American troops home from everywhere and eliminate military action as a response to anything short of an invasion, and maybe not even that.

Some liberal commenters, who would like to see less American intervention, have latched onto Paul's non-intervention meme, perhaps just the word. Do they really think it was a bad thing for the United States to participate in World War II? And I guess that maybe even an attack on American soil (Pearl Harbor, remember?) isn't enough to justify military action for him. And then there's Robert Wright, who finds that the issuer of racist newsletters has "moral imagination" in his foreign policy.

I thought Kevin Drum got it right the other day: don't leave your message to crackpots to carry. If you look beyond non-intervention, as Kevin does, Paul is crazy. I would argue that he carries his non-intervention to a point of crazy as well.

I would like to change that framing, by reference to the much saner op-ed penned by Nicholas Burns. Let's look at peace as an objective. Not just withdrawing troops from everywhere, although troop withdrawal would be part of it. What would it take to bring peace in the places where the United States is involved? Yes, we're involved everywhere, so that would be peace to the world. (Didn't we just have a holiday with something about that?) That would require prioritizing some things: Iran and Israel would be near the top of the list, and things like relations with Russia might be framed differently.

Yes, I understand that we are going into the campaign with the candidates we have, rather than the candidates we might want, and Paul's non-intervention sounds sorta kinda like peace. But thinking it out suggests that Paul's preference are likely to lead to less peace, not more: let the Iranians get a nuclear bomb. Let the Israelis slaughter Palestinians and take their land. Confine the relationship with Russia to commerce.

And that's only the nonintervention part. Kevin outlines the rest.

It looks to me that if we want peace, we need to be thinking about peace and encouraging the candidates. Stephen Walt has pointed out that to get ahead in Washington, young international relations graduates have to be hawkish in either political party. To press for peace, we've got to do some thinking about it and then lean on the candidates. Ron Paul has done none of that. His foreign-policy ideas are just as crazy as his goldbuggery.

Bits and Pieces - January 3, 2012

A bunch of nuclear-related stuff, but why don't I bring on the peace first?

Nicholas Burns links to his excellent Boston Globe op-ed on how we've forgotten about peace as an international objective and suggests that maybe we might think about this during the upcoming presidential campaign. Sounds like a good idea to me.

How many times and ways can you say that the Republican Party has descended into unreality and extremism before you lose your viewers and readers?

What an EMP blast might actually do. Listen up, Newt!

Oak Ridge's mercury problem.

Pakistan doesn't want to talk about controlling fissile material production (continued).

Mark Hibbs on how Iran gets the HF and F2 for its UF6 production and the difficulties the Nuclear Suppliers' Group has dealing with this. Very wonky and very good.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission seeks public comment on a report updating preliminary assumptions for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the agency will develop to analyze the effects of storing spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s commercial power reactors for as much as 200 years. The link tells you how to comment, if you are so inclined.

Micah Zenko's eight questions for the Obama administration if it decides to attack Iran.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy New Year!


Western goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)