Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bits and Pieces - January 31, 2010

I'm not sure anyone in the United States government has thanked NATO members for invoking Article 5 (an attack on one is an attack on all) in response to the September 11, 2001, bombings. Hillary Clinton did this week:
When France and our other NATO allies invoked Article 5 in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, it was a proclamation to the world that our promise to each other was not rhetorical, but real. And the people of Europe brought great comfort to the people of the United States by reminding us that even in such a difficult hour, we were not alone. I was a senator representing the state of New York at that time, and I well remember the extraordinary outpouring of support that the people of New York specifically received. And for that, I thank you.
The New York Times takes Toyota at face value.

A very productive Congress, despite what the approval ratings say.

Fifty years ago, what I think of as the sixties started.

"Not our finest moment" in Haiti.

Vice President Biden shapes the message on the nuclear budget.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

New Links

I've added some new links to the blogroll and other categories. Browse through the sidebar to see them all - there's great stuff on that sidebar. We may not be a bigshot blog, but we've got one of the best damn links sections in blogdom. Here are a few of the new links:
  • Daily Dose of Imagery - Photoblog by Sam Javanrouh (see photo above)
  • Loomnie - Nigerian PhD student in Anthropology - various thoughts on environment, development, trade, and Africa
  • Magical Nihilism - design and a great blog name
  • The .Plan - electronic clippings posted without comment by James Choi
  • Complex Terrain Laboratory - collective on intelligence, security, urban design, surveillance
  • Prejka - music blog from Sweden - prog, jazz, pop, etc.
  • Paris DJs - music site with original remixes, mashups leaning towards soul, afrobeat by some of the best French DJs
  • Garage Latino - otherwise forgotten Latin American garage, psych, pop
  • World Service - otherwise forgotten African music
  • The Great Beyond - Nature's blog roundup of science news
  • Physics arXiv BLOG - Technology Review's great science blog
  • Yglesias - big-time, savvy political blogger



As another snow begins to fall this morning, 21ºF outside, thoughts turn to the question of freezing to death. Luckily, 3QD has already gone there and dug up this helpful 1997 article from Outside Magazine.

Were you a Norwegian fisherman or Inuit hunter, both of whom frequently work gloveless in the cold, your chilled hands would open their surface capillaries periodically to allow surges of warm blood to pass into them and maintain their flexibility. This phenomenon, known as the hunter's response, can elevate a 35-degree skin temperature to 50 degrees within seven or eight minutes.

Other human adaptations to the cold are more mysterious. Tibetan Buddhist monks can raise the skin temperature of their hands and feet by 15 degrees through meditation. Australian aborigines, who once slept on the ground, unclothed, on near-freezing nights, would slip into a light hypothermic state, suppressing shivering until the rising sun rewarmed them.

The narrator recovers from hypothermia, surface, as if from deep under water. A warm tide seems to be flooding your midsection. Focusing your eyes down there with difficulty, you see tubes running into you, their heat mingling with your abdomen's depthless cold like a churned-up river. You follow the tubes to the bag that hangs suspended beneath the electric light.

And with a lurch that would be a sob if you could make a sound, you begin to understand: The bag contains all that you had so nearly lost. These people huddled around you have brought you sunlight and warmth, things you once so cavalierly dismissed as constant, available, yours, summoned by the simple twisting of a knob or tossing on of a layer.

But in the hours since you last believed that, you've traveled to a place where there is no sun. You've seen that in the infinite reaches of the universe, heat is as glorious and ephemeral as the light of the stars. Heat exists only where matter exists, where particles can vibrate and jump. In the infinite winter of space, heat is tiny; it is the cold that is huge.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bits and Pieces - January 29, 2010

It's really hard to see circumstances under which the brake should not prevail over the accelerator if both are pressed. When you're building complex and potentially dangerous instrumentation, like lasers, you frequently build in interlocks that keep the wrong combination of things from happening. But I guess those high-performance customers, like the banksters, take precedence over ordinary people.

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer tells his banksters to stop feeling sorry for themselves.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future will provide recommendations for developing "a safe, long-term solution to manging the nation's used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste."

I wrote a post back last summer, I think, about President Obama's community organizing strategy, but I can't find it now. This one bears some resemblance, but it's not the one. Anyhow, I think that community organizing strategy is working. Short version: propose broad goals and then let the people involved develop how to reach them. If you've got some slackers and generally confused participants, let their peers straighten them out.

That strategy doesn't give quick results, and watching it play out can be nerve-wracking. But the results it gives are much more durable and likely to be even better than anything you could have expected.

I think now, more than ever, after the State of the Union speech, that this is President Obama's strategy. Some other bloggers are starting to get it, too. Steve Benen and Kevin Drum, for two. Benen has a series of posts today in which he begins to recognize some of the problems (first step to solving them) and begins to think about solutions. In this kind of strategy, the recalcitrant will eventually be called out. And recalcitrant is what the Republicans have been. But they have a big megaphone, and the Democrats are inherently not inclined toward that sort of thing. But maybe they need to think about it and develop some of their own tactics.

And here's part of what my argument, earlier this week, with Andy was about: the Republican meme that Democrats think people are dumb. But our electorate is uninformed. This is a problem. Our founding fathers assumed an informed electorate. If you have one group of people jumping up and down ragging on the theme that another group thinks yet a third group is dumb, however, it misrepresents the situation and prevents a discussion. And you can't solve problems without discussing them. But maybe that Republican meme is designed not to solve the problem, but to keep the electorate uninformed while feeling that they are certainly smart enough to see the virtue of the Republican program of ponies for everyone at no cost, and oh yes, bread and circuses too.

I'm headed out in a few minutes, so I can't read or watch the rest of this. I'd very much like to annotate the State of the Union speech for indicators of the community organizer strategy. Maybe over this weekend. In the meanwhile, James Fallows annotates the speech with his views.

And, moving toward unmasking that pony program, President Obama was talking to Republican members of Congress today. Seems as though Fox and others had a hard time with it. Their team didn't look so good when they had to face up to the opposition, instead of just using the big media microphone. Transcript here, video here. After reading a few of the reports, I'm looking forward to seeing or reading this.

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts"

Free public libraries are rare things in India, even in Pune, "The Oxford of the East." There are nominally public libraries, and I’m told some of these have decent enough collections—people speak highly, for example, of the British Council Library on Fergusson College Road. All the universities and colleges here also have collections, of course. But I haven’t found out about a library I can stroll into and browse, not without a membership, paid for or secured in some other way that those of us who grew up in the United States (thanks again, Ben Franklin!) find counter intuitive and culturally anti-social. Or socially anti-cultural, something like that.

I mean, I always felt lucky, as a kid, to ride my bike down King Street to the Martinsburg Public Library and browse for quiet hours. Not that it had anything to do with luck, I realized long years later; it’s just stunningly simple, brilliant public policy to make good free libraries possible.

Here, I sometimes meet people who tell me they can get me a membership, or at least access, to a library to which they belong. They say this conspiratorially, as if they were offering to sneak me onto their country club golf course.

I wouldn't have to sneak in to The British Council Library, however. Its website lists the requirements for a basic membership at the BCL in Pune. By the looks of it, this is one of the most accessible collections in the city: Rs. 1500 (roughly $30) per year and proof of residence gets you three “senior” books at at time for a four-week checkout. I don’t know how deep the BCL’s collection is, here. I also don’t know what a “senior” book is. But I know that Rs. 1500 is one hell of a lot of money on average in Pune. And the considerable numbers of people living in slums have a hard time with the whole proof of residency thing, too. Actual literacy aside (I know: it’s a big thing to leave aside), my point is: it’s not easy to get your hands on books for free in this country.

However, books of all kinds abound in India, in a marketplace of varying shades.

Alongside licit booksellers, street stalls sell magazines and mounds of pirated copies of best sellers, things like Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. While Friedman cheekily displays a pirated copy of his book, most authors and publishers don't really find this sort of thing amusing. It's exactly the kind of abuse copyright laws are supposed to prevent. Few authors and publishers, on the other hand, have a problem with libraries lending their books for free; ask an author sometime: black market or free lending library?

More importantly--from my non-publisher perspective--the accessibility of pirated copies of popular books, even if these are very inexpensive, does not remotely mitigate the lack of public libraries. This should be obvious to anyone who can actually read, but I'll let Lawrence Lessig put it another way. This is from his excellent essay, “For The Love of Culture,” published this week in The New Republic. He's talking here about the distinction between virtual and material cultural access, but the last two lines, of course, apply to that idea of cultural matter made available for and subject to the market:
In real libraries, in real space, access is not metered at the level of the page (or the image on the page). Access is metered at the level of books (or magazines, or CDs, or DVDs). You get to browse through the whole of the library, for free. You get to check out the books you want to read, for free. The real-space library is a den protected from the metering of the market. It is of course created within a market; but like kids in a playroom, we let the life inside the library ignore the market outside.
Lessig has a much bigger point to make, of course. In the context of a discussion about the settlement Google reached with the Author’s Guild of America and the Association of American Publishers, he points out a number of the ways in which evolving copyright law threatens to render much of our recent cultural past–artifacts like documentary media–inaccessible in the future.
Books--physical books, and the copyrighted work that gets carried in them--are an extraordinarily robust cultural artifact. We have access to practically every book ever published anywhere. You do not need to be a Harvard professor to enter the rare book room at the law library. You do not need to touch rare books to read the work those books hold. Older works--before 1923, in the United States--are in the public domain, which means that anyone, including any publisher, can copy and reprint that work without any permission from anyone else. There is no Shakespeare estate that reviews requests for new editions of Hamlet. The same is true for every nineteenth-century author in America. These works are freely and widely available, because no law restricts access to these works.

And just about the same is effectively true for any book still under copyright. No doubt, publishers are not free to take the latest Grisham novel and print a knockoff. But through the extraordinary efforts of libraries (and they are Herculean, no doubt) and used bookstores, you can get access to basically anything, and for practically nothing. Your library can get it, and share it with you almost for free. Your used bookstore can find it and sell it to you for less than the cost of a night at the movies.

So notice, then, how different our access to books is from our access to documentary films. After a limited time, almost all published books (but not all: put aside picture books, poetry, and, for reasons that will become obvious, an increasing range of relatively modern work) can be republished and redistributed. No heir of a long-dead author will stop us from accessing her published work (or at least the heart of it--some would say that the cover, the foreword, the index might all have to go). But the vast majority of documentary films from the twentieth century will be forever buried in a lawyer’s thicket, inaccessible (legally) because of a set of permissions built into these films at their creation.
Lessig is one of few people warning us that we are on the verge of giving up a model of access--to science, philosophy, literature, history, music--that has made us immeasurably rich; what can we expect in return? Pirated copies. I mean: when libraries are outlawed, only outlaws will have libraries.

I'm joking, but only mostly. Philadelphia came perilously close to losing much of its public library system a few months ago, but the conventional collection and circulation of books in the US isn't likely to disappear. There are even emerging public media collections, like the Internet Archive, that have begun to make available what is legally cleared (and Helmut has pointed to good collections of otherwise unavailable music floating around the web . . . but I suspect some of that is, strictly speaking--and distributors of media are speaking more strictly--not kosher). But it looks increasingly likely that many other productions--especially in media like documentary and narrative film--may be lost to the culture that made them possible and that might wish to learn from its past. We would be left instead the pirated stuff, those works whose availability correspond to the broadest interests and desires, to the market.

The world would be a flatter place.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Good Science Fiction

From E.O. Wilson in the New Yorker:

The only thing that he had ever done was accept meals regurgitated to him by his sisters, as if he were a nestling bird, and wait, and wait some more, and finally take the one short flight from his home, followed by five minutes of copulation. In other words, the male was no more than a guided missile loaded with sperm, his life’s work a single ejaculation. Afterward, he was left with only one instruction, to be enforced if necessary by his sisters: Don’t come back.

Trees, War, Myth, and Legend

The big tree in “Avatar” immediately reminded me of Yggdrasil, the world-tree of northern myth, so it seemed a particularly bad idea for the Earthlings to blow it up. My connecting it to Ragnarök was a bit loose, at least according to Wikipedia. I had a vague idea that Yggdrasil was connected to Götterdämmerung. I’m not very good on the northern myths.

J.’s comment, though, got me thinking about how much of myth and legend is about the conduct of war and reintegrating warriors back into society. Looks like that’s been a problem for a very long time.

I’ve also been reading Alessandro Baricco’s reworking of the Iliad, which is about the conduct of the Trojan War; the Odyssey, of course, is about the warrior returning home. Here’s Achilles bandaging his friend Patroclus’s wounds. DADT.

A friend suggested the war and return theme to me a number of years ago, when I was working through the Arthurian stories. It’s hard to see it in most of what we get as the Arthur stories now; Mallory provided a powerful filter, and he mostly liked the parts where one knight whacked another on the head, split his skull, and the brains poured out.

But before Mallory was Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote a number of novels a great deal more subtle. Mallory later tried to pull the work of Chrétien and others into a unity, preferring those bloody bits to others. And Chrétien writes largely about the relations between men and women, with return from battle a big part of that. His patron, Marie of France (pictured), daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wrote novels herself. All this was happening during the Crusades.

Eleanor, of course, was a very powerful woman. The responsible handling of power is part of the Arthurian stories and back further, as in the northern legend of the ring. And all this comes from oral tradition.

Lots to think about here, and I’m not going to unpack it all today. I do love trees, though. The one I’m currently using as an avatar is a big oak in Soomaa National Park, Estonia. Lots of lovely big oak trees in Estonia.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Just incredibly poignant:
Listen to the silence. It's the silence that greets the truth.
This was the grown-up in the room at work. Like I said clumsily a few days ago,
It's not the parties, stupid. It's the president.

Bits and Pieces - January 27, 2010

The guy who said that Abu Zubaydah started confessing after fifteen seconds of waterboarding now says it was just what he heard around the water cooler. We can hope his fifteen minutes of fame were worth it.

China is rebuilding the Silk Road for trade with Central Asia, but the singular Soviet railroad track gauge is standing in the way.

Some facts about US debt rating, including
US tax revenues are far lower, 25.9 percent of GDP, than the tax share of most other AAA countries. The median AAA-rated country had combined tax revenues equal to 43.6 percent of GDP over the past ten years.
But Oregon comes to the rescue!

Steven Perlstein writes a pretty good SOTU.

The Lure of Technology

The New York Times this morning published its second article, by Walt Bogdanich, in a series on the problems of radiotherapy treatments. It seems to me that the problems are illustrative of some of our societal blindspots that we are close to dealing with.

Mistakes are being made in the use of machines designed to deliver radiation to, usually, cancerous tumors. The mistakes result in radiation overexposures and serious damage to the patients. The articles (thank you, Walt Bogdanich!) are not just scare pieces on the dangers of radiation and actually try to pinpoint the problems.

But I'd like to illuminate those blindspots even more pointedly.

1. It's hard to be sure from the articles, but it looks like many of the problems would have been avoided by the use of a checklist. Atul Gawande wrote about this a while back in the New Yorker. Pilots use checklists to make sure their planes are working properly before they take them into the air. I've used checklists to make sure that complicated scientific equipment, not unlike the radiation machines mentioned in the Times articles, is working properly. But, as Gawande notes, medical doctors tend to be resistant to using checklists. This is the kind of thing that the health care reform legislation addresses by urging best practices.

2. Apparently the radiation machines don't need to be approved by the FDA? The articles don't say this, but it would seem a good idea.

3. The companies that manufacture the machines are eager to sell them. Well, yes. But the hospitals should be better customers. We're all too eager to have a technological fix for all sorts of things. Sometimes the technological fix works, but it often needs more auxiliary thought than goes into acquiring a machine. In this case, the operators need to be trained, and perhaps educated in what the machine does and how it does it as well. Punching the correct buttons comes more easily if you know how the machine works.

4. We can expand #3 to many other situations. The most obvious is the recent push by the manufacturers of those naked-body scanning machines to install them everywhere, for use by everybody. Particularly in airports, I should say. In that case, there has actually been a fair amount of discussion of the impossibility of stopping every terrorist everywhere all the time and other considerations for installing those machines, like privacy rights. We can hope that the relevant parties are listening.

It's obvious that Bogdanich and his team (Simon Akam, Renee Feltz, Andrew Lehren, Kristina Rebelo and Rebecca R. Ruiz) put a lot of research into these articles. He and the Times are to be commended. This is the kind of thing the MSM should be doing.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bits and Pieces - January 26, 2010

Female elementary school teachers can convince their female students that they can't be good at math.
You don't hear people going around bragging about the fact that they can't read, but you do hear people say, 'Oh, I don't want to calculate the bill.'
Pass The Damn Bill calls may be starting to make a difference.

I've always wondered why the government doesn't tell us what it knows already about our income for taxes. Now I know.

Yay Tom Udall, New Mexico's newest Senator!

Michael Cohen makes some points along the political lines I was grousing about earlier today. But I think I still may have something to say.


I've just been to see "Avatar." I feel a bit like I'm one of those people tumbling out of those pods after a battle.

They finally have this 3D thing down. Well done, and the animation is, as everyone is saying, incredible.

I'm not sure it's good as an escape film. Same conflicts, same characters. And the plot flow is nothing new, down to the final hand-to-hand combat with miraculous save.

Probably what urged me to see it more than any other one thing was Sean Paul Kelly's review. And he's pretty much right. I've felt the strong pull of another culture than the one I was born into and the barriers to merging. I think it's less tribalism than seeing others who are utterly different in some respects and completely sympathetic in others, the possibility of being a new person and leaving the old defects behind.

Carol Kaesuk Yoon had a similar reaction, although from a more organismic viewpoint. She was intrigued by the alien biology. I found it a bit more alien than I can easily relate to: cloudberries are enough like what I've experienced, and enough different to provoke, for me, the sort of reaction she describes. Or the intricacy of a tiny moss garden between two boulders. And maybe I'm just more attuned to the north than to the tropics.

Speaking of which, did anyone else figure that it had to be all over for the Earthlings when they blew up Yggdrasil? Could Ragnarok be far behind?

Calling a Bluff?

Kevin Drum is trying to figure out the rationale for the spending freeze.

How about this: We've got those newly-converted deficit hawks hollering that the government is spending too much. So give them a spending freeze and watch them holler about their favorites being cut out.

Since President Obama seems to be willing to try to face up to some of the things we've been choosing to ignore for some time, maybe this is a way to point up that you can't have spending on everything and lower taxes too.

And If He Weren't Pandering

If President Obama had said that government money for infrastructure improvements would be expanded in his budget and benefits of various sorts would be increased to get past this terrible recession and provide jobs, instead of the spending freeze, if he had said that, then what would the Los Angeles Times editorial board, and others, have said?

Too much spending, they would have clucked. Look at all that populist rage out there, all the concern about this enormous debt. What will China say?

I think they have macros for this on their keyboards.

Of Course It's Pandering!

I will answer the Los Angeles Times's editorial board definitively.

Isn't pandering what all the whining has been about the past couple of weeks? Why doesn't Obama hear (the netroots, the Real Americans, the debt hawks, insert favorite interest group here)?

I realize that some of those calling for Obama to listen to them genuinely feel that their views are the best for the country. Others, like the Republicans who are urging further mastication of health care reform, not so much.

But Joe Klein hits on something that's been bothering me, even back before the Massachusetts Senate election. During the Bush years, and perhaps back thirty or more, there's been a real effort to dumb down the electorate. Don't bother your pretty little heads about 9/11 - go shopping! There are the misinformation campaigns, heavily funded, against the idea that smoking causes cancer and that we are altering the earth's climate. There are the religionists who insist that belief is as good as scientific evidence.

Yeah - believe anything that makes you feel good! And insist that your elected representatives follow the program!

Sorry - I'm feeling sort of disgusted with that kind of process. I'm also trying to come up with a more constructive response. But that's harder than just complaining. And I don't think that President Obama is even listening to me. Sob.

The purple apple-berry really did cheer up my morning, though.

Disappearing Bees and Frogs and...

New research on bee colony collapses, which have accelerated and expanded over the past five years, suggests the culprit is indeed us, but in more complex ways than previously thought. If the researchers are right, this lends new significance and urgency to biodiversity conservation policy. Richard Black at the BBC:

...The latest twist in the plot comes from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, where scientists working in the lab have found a link between the health of hives and the diversity of plants on which bees forage for food.

Although the finding needs to be confirmed in field trials - which the team is hoping to instigate - the indication is that a diet of diverse pollen gives the bees the amino acids they need to synthesise their full panoply of chemical defences against pathogens.

A reasonable hypothesis, then, would be that if you put your bees to work pollinating one particular crop all summer and feed them on one particular food all winter, such as corn syrup - as is the practice in US commercial hives - they're going to fall like insects out of the sky when an unpleasant disease comes along.

Along with that goes the notion that if you lose a diversity of wild plants, you'll begin to impact wild bees. (The reverse may also apply, a little more intuitively.)

A recent study using records kept by amateur naturalists in the UK and the Netherlands suggests that the diversity of bees and flowers have been declining at similar rates for more than a century - a conclusion that could suggest the causes are intertwined.

If a monoculture diet was the only issue, perhaps it wouldn't matter; perhaps the insects would survive.

But add in a lack of genetic diversity among commercial stocks, the use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals to which they may be somewhat sensitive, changes to the availability of water brought about by everything from man-made climate change to dams, the greater mix of pathogens that commercial bees must encounter as the hives travel from one workplace to the next, the declining extent of "natural" habitat for wild bees, and so on and so on and so on - and once again, "everything" becomes a reasonable suspect.

If this is right - and other branches of the natural world such as coral reef ecosystems are also under multi-frontal attack - it raises a pretty obvious problem: how do you combat "everything"?

Warm Year

The Goddard Institute for Space Studies confirms that 2009 was the second warmest year on record and the 2000s the warmest decade in modern recorded history. More here.

Carlos the Jackalina

I see a terrorist reality show on the horizon....

Purple Apple-Berry

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sometimes I Almost Agree With the Conspiracy Theorists

There's a theme in conspiracy theory that says that the United States government is totally controlled by shadowy forces - choose your favorite - and we, and our duly elected representatives, are simply acting out a script.

So today I will turn to something I usually leave to my friend the Armchair Generalist: the faux weapon of mass destruction. I see that he's got another white powder scare, too, but it's in Manchester, England, so it doesn't count in the same way as this Washington Post article on the WMD potential of Botox.

Actually, the article itself says that Botox, and even the dreaded botulinum bacterium, is not suitable for biological warfare. So no story, right? No, for some reason, an editor at the WaPo thought that Joby Warrick's ramblings about a non-threat deserved three Web pages and the headline "Officials fear toxic ingredient in Botox could become terrorist tool."

There's quite a bit about shadowy botulinum salesmen in Russia and its environs. Good for them, I say; keeps the potential buyers from getting something useful. And some of the time, it's even fake botulinum they're selling. Even better. And that's the lede to the article, which is supposed to set the tone, and, kudos to Joby Warrick, it actually does.

Warrick repeats the old chestnut about a gram of pure toxin potentially killing half the earth's population, or whatever. So I'll repeat that that can happen only if that gram is distributed to all those people, which is always the problem, and, since botulinum is very heat-sensitive, as Warrick notes later in the article, most state bioweapons programs gave it up long ago.

Here: I'll scare you even more. You can make this WMD in your very own kitchen!!!!! (Is that enough exclamation points?)

I learned to can foods as a girl. One of the big warnings was that less-acidy foods (meat, beans, pretty much anything not-pickles, not-tomatoes and not-jam) could develop botulinum poisoning. So you had to process them longer and, if they looked funny after standing for a while, throw them out. This led some of us to speculate whether one might leave a can of mayonnaise out to spoil and then throw it in the local reservoir to poison the users of that water. It seemed a scary prospect to a bunch of eight-year-olds.

But we also learned, as did the weapons researchers on tax money, that cooking foods thoroughly would destroy the toxin. So an added precaution was to cook canned non-acid foods for a while. This was back in the days when green beans were supposed to be mushy anyway.

I ducked the problem by sticking to jams, pickles and tomatoes.

But, but, but! Warrick did the research and needed a story. Or perhaps our sinister overlords decided we needed to be scared this week so that we wouldn't try to get health reform passed. So maybe, just maybe, the terrorists could throw a spoiled jar of mayonnaise in the ressy, or, or, something!
"We know al-Qaeda has talked about going after food supplies in the United States," the official said. "There are new reasons to be concerned about what they're going to target next."
Be afraid. Be very afraid.

If there is a conspiracy, they really need better propagandists.

Update: I see that the Armchair Generalist posted on this almost at the same time I did.

And Phila puts his spin on it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bits and Pieces - January 22, 2010

Leadership on health care reform starting to emerge in the House: John Dingell

Michael Bérubé writes in praise of the Democrats' political humility. The commenters chime in equally wittily.

47 health policy experts say "Sign the Senate bill."

Andrew Sullivan writes why he's continuing to support President Obama. I've been thinking of writing something along these lines, but Sullivan's is probably better.

There must be something to the idea that greening our energy economy will produce jobs and profits.

Good news coming on START, it looks like.

Those famously anonymous diplomats around the IAEA (Israeli, likely as not) say that nuclear negotiations with Iran are off, although the IAEA and Iran say they're still on.

The week could have been worse. A big rock from outer space could have fallen on your head.

Can You Write News Based Only on Facebook and Twitter? Probably not.

On Speech

Here's how the U.S. Constitution protects speech:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That's the 1st Amendment, lead item of the historic Bill of Rights.

It's based on this prohibition that U.S. courts have certified the underwriting of campaigns by corporations and broadcasting to a hundred million eyes and ears at once. But no basis is there. Go ahead and read it again.

Money does not speak, and neither does TV or radio. If a corporation or union could speak, it wouldn't need a spokesperson.

Speech is what comes from mouths, is made powerful by assembly, and is reproducible from products of the printing press when read aloud. As the founders would say, it's self-evident, or should be.

Werner Herzog reads Curious George

This Is Important

Balloon Juice has all the information you need to call your Representative and urge her/him to vote for the Senate health care reform bill and fix it later.

Do it. We need to stiffen those congressional spines. I'm not great on communicating with my congresscritters, but this is important. And it's easy. I may start doing it more regularly.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Bits and Pieces - Supreme Court Edition

Erwin Chemerinsky blasts judicial activism. Let's was the conservative argument that their judges weren't judicial activists, that judicial activism was bad, and the same public swallowed it that is now swallowing that health care reform is bad, that public debts are bad,...I'm just wondering when these folks are going to realize that conservatives, particularly the Republican variety, lie.

The Court’s Blow to Democracy (New York Times editorial)

Conservative Supremes: superheroes of hypocrisy (Eva Rodriguez, Washington Post)

Campaign finance ruling reflects Supreme Court's growing audacity (Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law)

The Supreme Court removes important limits on campaign finance (Washington Post editorial)

Juan Cole considers the effect of the ruling in a Web 2.0 world.

Added later:
James Fallows:
The head of the nation's judicial branch was purposefully deceptive during his "umpire" testimony. Or he had no idea what his words meant. Or he has had a complete change of philosophy and temperament while in his mid-50s. Those are the logical possibilities. None of them is too encouraging about the basic soundness of our governing institutions.

Prized People

Our congratulations to two great human beings and influential scholars for the recent accolades bestowed upon them. These two people are very close to our hearts here at Phronesisaical and, although their work is widely known, we are glad to see them once again appreciated for contributions that remind us of what a good thing it is to be a human being.

Herman Daly, ecological economist at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and former Senior Economist at the World Bank, was yesterday awarded the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE). His constitutes the core of an entire field - ecological economics - which challenges many of the foundational assumptions of conventional neoclassical economics. His work on sustainability and steady state economy has been widely influential beyond economics. He is author or co-author of several game-changing books. Herman Daly's candid farewell speech to the World Bank is now considered a classic (and scathing) indictment of the international development industry. Still treated as an outsider by economics orthodoxy, he has nonetheless deservedly racked up the awards for his work, including the Grawemeyer Award, the Honorary Right Livelihood Award (Sweden's alternative to the Nobel Prize), the Heineken Prize for Environmental Science (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences), and the Sophie Prize for work on the environment and sustainable development (Norway).

Ian Hacking, emeritus professor of philosopher at the University of Toronto and the Collège de France, received the 2009 Holberg International Memorial Prize given by Norway's Ludvig Holberg Memorial Fund in recognition of outstanding scholarly work in the fields of the arts and humanities, social sciences, law and theology. He brought a fresh and influential historical and pragmatic approach to the philosophy of science and has continued to write on diverse subjects in an always entertaining and wise voice. Importantly, from my view, his intellectual life and production have always been idiosyncratic and generous, setting him apart from an academic field shredded by sub-disciplinary and methodological differences. His entertaining Holberg Prize acceptance speech can be found here.

Congratulations and gratitude to both. They are exemplars whose lives remind us that it is possible to combine the very pinnacle of scholarship and influence with warm generosity, decency, and wisdom.

Thought for the Day

The crisis consists precisely in the fact
that the old is dying and the new cannot
be born; in this interregnum a great
variety of morbid symptoms appears.

- Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thai Maroon Guava

Frustration and Reset

This morning I think we all live in a subatomic universe underneath the fingernail of The Great Propagandist and Jokester, whose "gotcha!" ways are beyond our comprehension.

This letter to Sullivan pretty much nails my first reaction to the combination of the Brown election and Coakley incompetence in Massachusetts; the idea that somehow a 59-41 majority is a disaster for any real policy making; the reality that a small minority of voters often less affected by a given policy than their fellow citizens determine national elections; and Nancy Pelosi's announcement not long ago that healthcare reform is essentially over (not her language, of course, but what has to be inferred from it). The letter writer says,
...A handful of morons in (insert a state here) invalidate my choice because the Senate is ruled by 5-6 Senators that refuse to face tough choices that need to be made to avoid a financial catastrophe in 10 years. There will be NO health care bill passed and the raging idiots will blame the Democrats and vote the Republicans in a landslide in November 2010. Forget about the REALLY tough problems like the debt, Social Security, moving away from our dependence on foreign energy supplies, etc. If Congress can't get it's collective shit together to pass a bill that attempts to fix a problem EVERYONE agrees on, then all hope is lost.

Obama can't change this. The country has exactly the government it deserves: fat, stupid and lazy. Built to respond to the 24-hour news cycle and a singular goal of protecting seats in the next election. Obama is a one termer. I hate writing that, but it's true. Republicans will put up some populist puff piece in 2012 and he's going to win.

The morons have indeed won, once again voting and acting against their own interests and their obligations to fellow citizens pressed by a GOP that has, as Sullivan says,
...abdicated any responsibility to tackle the problems we all acknowledge, while indulging in extremist rhetoric. They live for the spin and the rage. So this is the moment they have been waiting for.
And maybe our fat, stupid, and lazy asses justifiably deserve a GOP that has demonstrably run the country into the ground over the past decade, the only alternative being a Democratic Party that can't do anything about it.

But... recall this piece on Obama as philosophical pragmatist that I posted the eve of his election that concludes,
It's uncontroversial to say that US political life is dualistic and polarized. Demagogues constantly prey on this polarization by reinforcing it. Thus, most of the pundit class can't see past the possibility of either a conservative-Republican ideology in power or a liberal ideology in power. For these people and their dualistic framework, an Obama victory is necessarily an ideological shift to the left. What neither the right nor many on the left get, however, is that Obama is not an ideologue. He's a pragmatist...

I'm not worried about [Barack Obama] being an ideologue. Despite the right's best efforts to paint him as such, there's little evidence that he's that sort of person. He's going to make a lot of people unhappy on both the left and the right when he doesn't follow the rules of prior ideological commitments. That unhappiness will unwittingly reflect something profoundly wrong with the older and hopefully dying form of polarized ideological politics in the US. But, unlike how many pundits put it, the problem is less "polarization" than it is the epistemological backwardness of ideology-driven politics.
All the media narrative, voter reactions, party strategies on left and right, etc. are premised on the ideological dichotomy of conservative-liberal. President Obama has himself demonstrated that the dichotomy is not real or, rather, it has no existence outside of our own intellectual lassitude in perpetuating it. But he's a philosophical pragmatist, a perspective that has both profound roots in American history and culture and a generally progressive view on the future. This is why Obama seems conservative to some, liberal or socialist to others. They're all looking at him through their own antiquated ideological lenses. Meanwhile, the mass media, when not simply out for personal gain, relish what they see as a bare knuckle fight in which they encourage more blood by giving them brass knuckles. If it bleeds, it leads. Make it bleed. Oddly, we often seem to know well this situation and its dire limitations but yet have the inability to think ourselves past it.

The crass variety of pragmatist, how we usually understand the term, simply plays the match for advantage within the pre-existing structure and set of rules no matter the meaning or consequences of the match in the larger scheme of things. There is nothing else to lend it meaning. Obama is trying his damnedest to stand outside of this framework and acknowledge and act in the name of a real future for which we will have had to make serious policy choices, real sacrifices, and real gains. When the current hysteria dies down for a moment, I hope we'll realize that this is the guy we need to work with. Work with.

It's not the parties, stupid. It's the president. Despite my present urge to break something, I really do believe Andrew's cheerleading conclusion,
This is not over. In some ways, it is only just beginning.

Which is why Obama needs us breathing down his neck, and galvanizing support for necessary reform - now, more than in the campaign. If we give up, we will be copying the hysteria and nihilism of the right. Do not give up. Focus. Argue. Mobilize.

On Returning the Senate to Form

A timely Op-Ed in the Times by Thomas Geoghegan explains how the mere prospect of filibuster has incapacitated the senate since inception, just as the founders anticipated.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Toward a Nuclear-Free World: The Weapons Laboratories

The four nuclear statesmen, George Schultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, have another January op-ed. This one is not as attention-getting as the past two and will probably get lost in the uproar over the Massachusetts Senate election.

The four say that we must track deterrence along with disarmament. The last Nuclear Posture Review revised the old “triad,” which was composed strictly of nuclear weaponry, to include the capability to provide nuclear weapons, more or less just-in-time, which includes the nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia. A manufacturing capability would include more; the Department of Energy has been trying to sell a new manufacturing complex for a decade or more, misreading the politics and overreaching every time.

The weapons laboratories have historically been the brains behind the hands that manufacture the weapons. They not only design the weapons, but they have worked out most of the scientific and engineering problems associated with manufacture. They decide on the specifications and tolerances.

As the numbers of nuclear weapons decrease, the ability to manufacture them may increase. Being able to maintain or reconstitute that ability will be an essential part of any nuclear weapons program that eschews first use and resolves that such weapons exist only to deter their use by others. Even when all nuclear weapons have been eliminated, such a program, perhaps vestigial, will continue. We know how to make them and can never give up that knowledge.

Knowing how to build nuclear weapons gives you the knowledge of what other nations might do if they are trying to build up a nuclear weapons capability of their own. The weapons labs work with the State Department, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other countries to train people and provide their own expertise in figuring out what is going on in places like Iran and North Korea. They have developed and installed radiation monitors to detect the movement of dangerous materials out of Russian laboratories and at border crossings.

I came to Los Alamos in 1965, at the height of the Cold War nuclear weapons buildup. The Laboratory was smaller then, and more focused. Diversification from nuclear weapons was beginning, with design of the Rover reactors (nostalgia here, pdf) and the Ultra High Reactor Experiment, along with a tiny grant from the National Science Foundation for extracting energy from geothermal deposits that didn’t have water associated with them.

It’s been a downhill slide since then, with a few bright spots. The weapons groups have not suffered as much as other groups, but from what I hear from friends and associates at Los Alamos, it’s a very unhappy place. Livermore and Sandia are having their troubles too.

When I came to Los Alamos, it was understood that anyone there might be called upon to work on nuclear weapons. That has changed, and there are staff members who don’t realize that nuclear weapons are the primary product. Non-weapons researchers look down on the weapons people, and vice versa. The tradition of management’s acquiring large projects has collapsed in favor of a university principal-investigator model, while everyone has to fill out time sheets to the tenth of an hour.

There’s more, but the bottom line is that morale has been on a downward trajectory since 1965, still continuing.

So what the four nuclear statesmen are proposing is that the weapons laboratories be funded more generously to retain scientists and engineers who can maintain a capability for manufacturing nuclear weapons.

I would have made this op-ed stronger than the four did. More funding for the weapons laboratories is part of making them the motivated and competent institutions they once were. But massive culture changes are needed as well, along with much-improved management. That would likely require a change in the expectations of the larger culture, as well, a recognition that there are some things that are uniquely the province of the government, like developing and maintaining nuclear weapons.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bits and Pieces - January 19, 2010

Lots of snow here, and more predicted!

Some positive assessments of Obama's first year from Fred Hiatt, Aaron David Miller, and the Avuncular American. I guess Hiatt is trying to convince the Democrats who are complaining that Obama has not yet delivered their ponies that they have taken the right position.

Dialing the panic and militarism down. It's significant that this comes after the underpants bomber. A small move, but maybe a harbinger of more backing away from security theater.

Pakistan takes a leaf from the Republican playbook. Unfortunately, this is an inherent weakness of the Fissile Material Control Treaty, which is the next big item on the Conference on Disarmament's agenda: the big nuclear powers already have more than enough fissile material, so such a treaty is mainly directed at nuclear wannabes like Pakistan. Not a bad idea, but they can figure this out.

Haiti, Poverty, and Media Chaos

Chris Blattman notes something very important about current media accounts of apparent post-earthquake social chaos in Haiti:
Is robbery so endemic? One of my wife’s colleagues, a veteran of dozens of catastrophes and crises, is amazed by the (relative) calm and absence of looting. She reports storefront windows broken, but the goods behind intact. She’s seldom seen a crisis so under control.

Most journalists I know are keenly aware of the impact of their work on public opinion and policy... But looters and thugs on the front page only bolsters impressions that Haitians are ungovernable. This is a tragedy if untrue.

I wish I could say that security and aid decisions are not made on the basis of what is fit to print in the Times, or that accurate intelligence always filters up from the ground to the policy makers on high... aid and security policy designed for thieving, ungovernable, progress-resistant Haitians looks very different from one that views civil society institutions as shaken but fundamentally strong.

I’m worried because the latter doesn’t make a very good news story.

David Brooks took the opportunity in the Sunday NYT to suggest that the apparent chaos in Haiti is really a matter of poverty. For all the generous efforts of the wealthy, developed world, Brooks, says, there is still no final answer to poverty, economic development, and corruption. He writes that we should accept the hard reality that, "some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them."

Brooks' answer is that the Haitians - still digging dead family members and friends and strangers from the rubble - need more of a personal responsibility approach to their impoverished condition. Brooks subtly shifts blame for a devastating natural disaster to the character of the Haitian people themselves in a secular and urbane version of Pat Robertson's recent remarks. Robertson, of course, had said that the disaster was visited upon the Haitian people because they long ago made a pact with the devil - "true fact" - in order to drive out the French colonialists. Thus, "...we need to pray for them a great turning to God."

For his part, Brooks concludes his column with his own "great turning,"
It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
Haiti is poor in many ways - income, literacy, mortality rate, environmental conditions, etc. Poverty usually entails much greater vulnerability to natural disasters and social, economic, and political shocks. Regarding climate change adaptation, for example, vulnerability to the effects of climate change tracks poverty with geographic features often determining degrees of risk and likely intensity. These two elements are mutually reinforcing as the poor often live by default - for socioeconomic reasons - in high-risk areas and are ill-equipped to reduce their vulnerability to environmental shocks. Why poverty exists in the first place is an old question that involves political and economic context, history, and the cosmic accident of particular institutional and environmental conditions into which any given individual is born. But, in our moment in history, the reality is that poverty persists. As this century moves along, I think we're going to come to view Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake as harbingers.

Yes, it's true that poverty is complex and thus difficult to understand. It's true also that half a century of Bretton Woods institutions and development economists ostensibly fighting global poverty has still not yielded an encompassing concept of poverty and what to do about it. But, to set aside Brooks' indecorousness, he assumes that a conclusive definition of and approach to poverty is necessary and/or sufficient to global anti-poverty policy. In fact, this same assumption may be at the heart of the failures of the Bretton Woods institutions.

For most development economists in practice, low income - below $1 or $2 per day - remains the determinant of poverty. But this easily measurable definition of poverty has been challenged over the past several decades by more sophisticated studies, conceptual frameworks, and empirical data. Today, we think of poverty in economic and non-economic terms. In some cases, the very word "poverty" has been replaced by other terms such as "well-being" precisely because the former has failed to capture important elements, often qualitative, of the human condition and development. There exist different approaches - different monetary approaches, Amartya Sen's capabilities approach, social exclusion approaches, participatory poverty assessments - yielding different sets of data and targeting somewhat different objectives. Poverty or human well-being is measured in different ways - UNDP's Human Development Index, income poverty, the Human Poverty Index, aggregate approaches, etc. None of these approaches and forms of measurement can be considered comprehensive. Income as an indicator of poverty quite possibly retains its salience in the development industry precisely because income can be measured quantitatively (while aspiration, for instance, cannot), which makes for neater comparisons across spatio-temporal contexts and is thus considered more "objective."

The conceptual model that has failed is the unidirectional paternalistic model. Once the World Bank finally got around in the 1990s to asking poor people what they themselves want - a massive survey compiled in the three eye-opening volumes of Voices of the Poor - it became clear that the poor across cultural and national contexts don't want handouts but simply the ability to start a small business of their own or gain some semblance of security. The poor don't want dependency; they want autonomy like everyone else.

But - and this is essential - poverty is corrosive in that it destroys aspirations, the engine necessary for helping people pull themselves out of poverty. When you've come up against the same obstacles time and again, a reasonable and efficient response is to quit trying. Think of people in the US trying to find jobs in this lousy economy. The 10%+ unemployment rate doesn't include the deeply discouraged who have given up looking for employment. It's the same phenomenon. At some point it's futile to continue to look for employment. Once this happens, one's aspirations for the future undergo a transformation; one's sense of well-being is recalibrated. With poverty, once any aspirations to move beyond poverty are destroyed, one focuses attention elsewhere - on scavenging for food on a given day, for example.

The "personal responsibility" claim implicit in Brooks' column is a function of a mythical and simplistic view of poverty, one that's currently worming its insidious way through media accounts of the Haiti situation. I think it probably says more about those of us enamored of our generosity than about objective reality on the ground in Haiti.

Lucy in the Sky...

What a fabulous universe.

Oceans of liquid diamond, filled with solid diamond icebergs, could be floating on Neptune and Uranus, according to a recent article in the journal Nature Physics.

The research, based on first detailed measurements of the melting point of diamond, found diamond behaves like water during freezing and melting, with solid forms floating atop liquid forms. The surprising revelation gives scientists a new understanding about diamonds and some of the most distant planets in our solar system.

Via the fabulous BLDGBLOG.

Calming Down on Massachusetts and Healthcare Reform

Ezra Klein, voice of reason:
To state some of the arguments of my earlier post more succinctly, the short-term danger of a Scott Brown victory is not Scott Brown in the Senate, or even 41 Republicans in the Senate. It's Democrats freaking out and abandoning the House bill. But on the merits, this is just absurd. If health-care reform was a good idea last week, it's a good idea next week -- and just as feasible.

The bill has left the Senate, can be passed by the House, and can be tweaked using the budget reconciliation process -- which is not some wild idea, given that Democrats initially considered running the whole bill through reconciliation. Nor is a Brown victory some national referendum on health-care reform: This is a special election in Massachusetts where a bad Democratic candidate has insulted Red Sox fans no less than twice. If anyone thinks Ted Kennedy would lose this election or vote to filibuster this bill, they've not said so aloud.

Finally, Brown opposes the national health-care reform bill even as he supports the virtually-identical Massachusetts health-care reform (the main difference between the two is that the national bill is more conservative, with more cost controls). His candidacy, as Jonathan Cohn points out, is evidence that health-care reform is popular once implemented, and becomes an article of faith even among Republicans....


Monday, January 18, 2010

The Greenhouse Metaphor – More Response to Comments

Adding a bit to my earlier response. During an e-mail exchange, I recognized one of my assumptions: Things mix. This is a direct result of the second law of thermodynamics and part of why I was baffled by some of the comments. Gases mix particularly easily; it takes time for solids to dissolve in water, and some liquids don’t mix well, but gases mix very quickly and easily.

In order to separate things, you have to put energy into a system. They don’t separate by themselves unless there is a driving force that overcomes the tendency to mix. In the atmosphere, most of the concentration effects come about either because things haven’t mixed yet (think about the water vapor you see from cooling towers) or because chemistry is producing or destroying them. So the ozone is more concentrated in the ozone layer than in other parts of the atmosphere because sunlight is producing it from the much more plentiful oxygen.

Phila brings up the issue of engaging climate skeptics. I tend to agree with most of what he says, but I’ll give my reasons. He’s made my response easier by excepting my preparation for my lecture, which will largely be attended by those who are not hard-core skeptics. And part of what I’m doing is just trying to understand the issues better for my own satisfaction. I’ve had some questions rattling around in my head that I must clear up before I go before an audience.

Phila divides skeptics into three categories:
In terms of everyday skeptics -- the ones who think that "common sense" disproves this or that aspect of AGW -- I tend to be a bit fatalistic. I think the emotional payoff of not understanding is much larger than the payoff for becoming better informed. I don't think better metaphors and analogies will help, in those cases.

Which makes me wonder, sometimes, how much of the debate is actually necessary. Arguments by "scientific" skeptics tend to contain huge mistakes, but the people who are fooled by them don't care...they're just looking for something that sounds like science.

Meanwhile, amateur arguments are usually based on endlessly rotating misconceptions -- contradictory ones, often. Correct one, and another pops up instantly to take its place. Culturally, this stuff is allied to creationism and it's similarly difficult to argue against.
I’d add that I suspect that some of the skeptics are bound and determined, for purely political or wealth reasons, to take down climate change.

I guess I tend to be a bit of an evangelist for science. I find it ultimately fascinating, and it’s hard for me to believe that others won’t share that fascination if they understand it better. I may not be entirely correct on that, as Phila notes.

But what will be done on climate change will be the outcome of a political struggle. We need to convince the people in the middle that we need to do something. So we need to argue with the skeptics to show we’ve got a case, and we need to make that case well. Recent polls show a dropping-off of support for carbon trading legislation.
Maybe the time we spend arguing with people who can't or don't want to understand would be better spent motivating and encouraging people who either do understand, or are willing to trust the scientific consensus. Maybe that's exactly what skeptics are trying to prevent us from doing.
I think that some are raising objections, the same ones over and over again, to muddy the waters and throw sand in the gears. But I think we need to keep saying stuff that will encourage people, and sometimes that’s replying to the skeptics.

What English Sounds Like To Other People

Nonsense words that sound like English to an Italian.

But languages sound different when you don't understand them and when you do. Or at least I found that to be true as I learned Estonian.

The Massachusetts Senate Race

All the other pundits are weighing in, so I guess I might as well.

E. J. Dionne points out the many reasons why Martha Coakley, the Democrat in the race, might lose, and why it's not fully a referendum on Obama (here and here). He goes on to list some things that Democrats might learn from this race.

But I decided to write this post when I read Steve Clemons, who echoes a sort of common wisdom (if we may use that word) on the left. It's the messy health care bill that this is a referendum on, says Steve; President Obama was in office when this extremely messy process went on, and we sensitive beings who would prefer a more perfect bill and would have averted our eyes from the spectacle of politics being made have been forced to see this awful thing taking place, so of course we will stay home or even vote for the Republicans.

Dionne wonders why the Democrats' message isn't taking the way the conservatives' message is. He should be on the listserv I'm on. Or he could look at Clemons's post. How different is that message from the Republicans'? Obama is doing terrible things to the nation with the health care bill. I'm sure that Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Partiers are delighted with Glenn Greenwald's and Marcy Wheeler's attacks on the administration.

I keep wondering why people who call themselves progressives keep lining up on the other side. They're forgetting history and losing sight of the future. If you want to grade the administration, you need to think about whether you're grading on a curve or not. Curving Obama with George W. Bush, Obama's marks are all A++. Improving foreign relations. Getting the health reform bill this far along. Averting the financial disaster that was in progress during the transition. Good cabinet and other appointments. Changes in executive orders and agency regulations that will give us a handle on global warming and better regulation of food and hazardous waste. A wise Latina woman on the Supreme Court.

It's the future I'm worried about, though, in this election and in the constant carping of some so-called progressives. If the health care reform bill doesn't pass, it's pretty much all over for a progressive future. Big Republican wins in November, which will destroy chances for progressive legislation. A failed presidency, which those progressives are already trumpeting. (Why do they want this?) A Republican president in 2012. Do they think that will bring the progressive change they want?

The country has a bunch of trials to get through. We've chosen Barack Obama to lead us. What are we doing to get to the future we want?

Update: Bernard Avishai, Kevin Drum, and Andrew Sullivan. And John Cole, who just broke his shoulder protecting his dog from the cold.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Just Wondering

How much does it cost to do one of these? I wouldn't be surprised if it's a few million per incident if you count passenger time as having value, silly idea, I know. Plus the extra time getting to the airport? Plus all those TSA blueshirts hanging around?

This is the second one of these "unauthorized person" events in two weeks. One might argue that one of those TSA blueshirts might have done his or her job and kept this from happening.

Or that maybe all this "security" is working right along al-Qaeda's plan to paralyze us.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

Obama and Spending

Via Sullivan:
President Obama notched substantial successes in spending cuts last year, winning 60 percent of his proposed cuts and managing to get Congress to ax several programs that had bedeviled President George W. Bush for years. The administration says Congress accepted at least $6.9 billion of the $11.3 billion in discretionary spending cuts Mr. Obama proposed for the current fiscal year. An analysis by The Washington Times found that Mr. Obama was victorious in getting Congress to slash 24 programs and achieved some level of success in reducing nine other programs... By comparison, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says Mr. Bush won 40 percent of his spending cuts in fiscal 2006 and won less than 15 percent of his proposed cuts for 2007 and 2008.
And an entire political movement is built on a myth born of propaganda. A fine example of right-wing populism for the annals of history.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Greenhouse Metaphor – Response to Comments

Many thanks for the excellent comments on “The Greenhouse Metaphor.” They’re good enough that they require some extended response. I'm putting some phrases in quotes more to draw attention to their not-fully-literal nature than to discredit them.

Lifetimes of various gases in the atmosphere don’t have much to do with their segregation in various places. Yesterday, I could see Albuquerque’s brown cloud. It’s brown because of nitrogen oxides, which are gases, and particulates, which are solids. The nitrogen oxides are visible and more concentrated in that brown cloud because they haven’t mixed into the rest of the atmosphere or been rained out. Mixing doesn’t have much to do with lifetime, but being rained out does. Gases may be soluble in water and get rained out onto the ground, where they may react with vegetation and soil. That’s what happens with nitrogen oxides, and they have short lifetimes. Methane doesn’t have a long lifetime because it reacts with gases in the atmosphere: oxidation, just like burning, but slower. Carbon dioxide is water-soluble, so it may get rained out, but it’s not as reactive as the nitrogen oxides, so it may just go back into the atmosphere. So it has a long lifetime in the atmosphere.

The “different layers in the atmosphere” – that metaphor again. Gases mix rapidly and completely. That’s the primary fact. But we have the “ozone layer.” We have statements like “Most of the atmospheric ozone is contained in the ozone layer.” Which is true. All this gives us a picture of a clearly-defined shell of mostly ozone around the earth. But
Ozone concentrations are greatest between about 20 and 40 km, where they range from about 2 to 8 parts per million. If all of the ozone were compressed to the pressure of the air at sea level, it would be only a few millimeters thick.
Emphasis mine. And further, the article goes on to say that the “boundaries” of the ozone layer fluctuate with the seasons and from one place to another. Those “boundaries” are defined as ozone concentrations. Here's some more about the ozone layer. There isn't nearly as much of this kind of explanation on the Web as I'd like to see.

If you boil a bit less than a gallon of water for pasta and put about a tablespoon of salt in it, you have 500 parts of salt per million. That tablespoon of salt would be few parts per million in a smallish swimming pool. So you’re talking about really small differences in composition between those “different layers.” The rest of the gases in the ozone layer are the usual earthly suspects, nitrogen, oxygen, and argon.

The differences resulting from the masses of the gases (could we make a song out of that?) are much smaller than the other processes in the atmosphere. Albuquerque’s brown cloud is gone today because a new air mass has moved in. It’s pushed the brown cloud out, but it’s also mixed the particulates, nitrogen oxides, and whatnot into the rest of the atmosphere, giving us the adage that
Dilution is the solution to pollution.
Those air masses keep moving around, so there’s not much chance for molecules to settle out. In any case, carbon dioxide (44 mass units) is heavier than oxygen (32 mass units), so it should be less prevalent at altitude if such settling were possible. Blood concentrations aren’t simply related to atmospheric concentrations.

Phila’s comments require a separate post. Perhaps today, perhaps the weekend.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti Earthquake

Photo: Tequila Minsky for NYT

It is an unjust world. Our thoughts are with the Haitian people. Please help if you can (more here).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Greenhouse Metaphor

I’m scheduled to give a lecture on “The Science of Climate Change” to an adult-education class next month. My topic changed at the last minute because of circumstances beyond the control of those of us involved. I decided to take a chance and force myself to learn something.

I’ve followed the climate change debate loosely, starting a decade or more ago with some of the early modeling by colleagues. I was using similar computer models for another problem, and I started out skeptical because I knew the limitations of those models. But the models have improved mightily, and the evidence seems pretty firm that the climate is changing rapidly and the reason for it is all the carbon dioxide we’ve been pouring into the air for a couple of centuries now.

But, having started skeptical, and following my usual principle of preparing for questions my audience might ask, I’ve been looking at what the skeptics have to say as well as the IPCC website, RealClimate, and other explanations of the science.

I’ve said before that I think the science is not being explained well, and in working through the material along with a discussion with skeptics at an undisclosed interweb bulletin board, I think I see one of the stumbling blocks. It’s not clear to me whether the people who have seized on this are genuinely confused or are just trying to muddy the waters. I think there are probably some of both.

This particular stumbling block comes in several guises. The basic claim is that the explanation of carbon dioxide’s role as a greenhouse gas as given by the IPCC and others contravenes the second law of thermodynamics, or perhaps the first. The argument seems to be that there cannot be a layer of gas high in the sky that radiates energy back to earth because the temperature of that layer of gas would be lower than the earth’s surface temperature. I have not tried to catalogue all the variants. There are at least two levels to refuting this argument.

First, the scientists of the IPCC have learned their thermodynamics and will spot basic flaws. Those of us who have taken thermodynamics courses know how the sins of perpetual motion machines against thermodynamics can be subtly hidden. The sheer number of scientists looking at this material assures that such errors will not slip through.

The other level is a bit more fun. I didn’t realize how much the greenhouse metaphor had made its way into my own thinking until I started looking at these “second-law” arguments. It turns out I had two parallel lines of thought: a mental picture and the mechanisms of heat transfer and molecular dynamics.

The standard explanation of the greenhouse effect is that the glass in a greenhouse is transparent to visible light, which strikes the soil and other objects in the greenhouse and is converted to heat, or infrared radiation (I could say light here or radiation after visible, but I’m using the common idiom), to which the glass is opaque. So the light comes in, and the heat doesn’t get out. The glass is separate from the interior of the greenhouse, a shell over it. In the same way, it is said, carbon dioxide is transparent to visible light and absorbs infrared radiation, thus heating things up.

But it’s not quite “in the same way.” The carbon dioxide isn’t separate from the rest of the atmosphere, it’s thoroughly mixed in. Gases mix rapidly and completely. There isn’t a shell of greenhouse gas in physical analogy to that shell of glass on a greenhouse. Unfortunately (and this is where my mental picture got suckered in), most of the diagrams explaining the greenhouse effect look like this one from My Climate Change:

Problem with Plovers has an explicit layer of greenhouse gases!

Even the Department of Energy does it.

This one, from the University of Arizona, is a little better, but it’s still got a layer. In fairness, some of those layers represent the top of the atmosphere, but if you’re thinking about the glass in a greenhouse, those layers might seem to be the equivalent of that glass.

So the well-mixed carbon dioxide absorbs that infrared, maybe two feet from the ground, maybe ten thousand feet from the ground. After it absorbs that energy, it’s warmer than the surrounding molecules are, so transferring that energy to them is right in line with the laws of thermodynamics. No problem.