Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Iranian Dilemma

Dennis Ross, who held key State Department posts under the first Bush and was a special mid-East envoy for Clinton, has a nuanced discussion of the threat posed by Iran's attempt to gain nuclear weapons in today's Washington Post. His bottom line is that war against Iran would be very bad and so would Iran getting nuclear weapons. War would be difficult and expensive, possibly even calamitous for the US, but a nuclear Middle East would also be pretty bad. In either case, their is a significant threat that Mid-East oil might be lost for a long time, with huge economic effects.

His suggestion is that the US engage in direct talks with Iran, which would provide leverage to force Europe to agree to sanctions.

While one can argue that the Europeans were trying to negotiate something like this with the Iranians, they were never able to put together a package of credible sanctions and inducements, because the United States was not really a part of the effort. True, this country has coordinated with the British, French and Germans in the Bush second term. But a serious effort at raising the costs to the Iranians and offering possible gains has never been put together.

Why not now? Why not have the president go to his British, French and German counterparts and say: We will join you at the table with the Iranians, but first let us agree on an extensive set of meaningful -- not marginal -- economic and political sanctions that we will impose if the negotiations fail. Any such agreement would also need to entail an understanding of what would constitute failure in the talks and the trigger for the sanctions.

The Europeans have always wanted the Americans at the table. Agreeing on the sanctions in advance would be the price for getting us there. To be sure, the United States would focus as well on what could be provided to the Iranians, but the benefits have always been easier to agree on, particularly since meaningful sanctions will also impose a price on us. Real economic sanctions would not just bite Iran and its ability to generate revenue but also would undoubtedly drive up the price of oil. Our readiness to accept that risk at a time when high gasoline prices are becoming a domestic political issue would convey a very different signal about our seriousness to the Iranians -- who presently don't fear sanctions because they think they have the world over a barrel.

The Bushies have never been willing to do this, presumably out of some pride or (more likely) because they prefer posturing to actual constructive action. Ross adds:
There is no guarantee such an approach will work with Iran. This Iranian government may simply be determined to have nuclear weapons. If that is the case, and if President Bush is determined to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons -- as he has said -- we would still be better off having tried a direct negotiating option before resorting to what inevitably will be a difficult, messy use of force once again.
We can't even count on a cut off of Middle Eastern oil helping with global warming. Oil wells and pipelines might well be set on fire.

Teacher Appreciation Week

My wife, a teacher, says that this week is teacher appreciation week.

Is there a physicist appreciation week?

Hmmm. I wonder what I should get for Luboš?

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Real Time

Newsweek has an interview with Al Gore on his new movie and book, An Inconvenient Truth. The online only story is entitled "At some point, reality has its day." Most of the story is not new to those who follow the climate debate, but there are some nice quotes. On the deniers and the Exxon Mobil connection:

...I think that it’s an example of the Upton Sinclair quote that “It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding.” The behavior of ExxonMobil is disgraceful. They finance in whole or in part 40 organizations that put out disinformation on global warming designed to confuse the American people. There has emerged in the last couple of decades a lobbying strategy that is based on trying to control perceptions. In some sense it’s not new, but it’s new in the sophistication and the amount of resources they devote to it. It’s not new in the sense it’s the same thing the tobacco industry did after the surgeon general’s report of 1964, and that is a major part of the reason why the Bush administration doesn’t do anything. The president put their chief guy in charge of environmental policy in the White House.
On manufactured reality:
But you know the temptation to reject the truth and try to manufacture your own reality is what got us into Iraq—it’s what got us into these deficits. At some point, reality has its day. I hope they’ll change. I think there is a chance they’ll change. You know Winston Churchill once said that the American people generally do the right thing after first exhausting every other alternative. And maybe after exhausting every other alternative, Bush will do the right thing on this. I’m not going to hold my breath, but I do think that there’s a chance...
On depolitizing the environment:
..Now where the global-warming mission is concerned, I am a single-minded advocate to deliver a message that I think is crucial for our future. I don’t think that is a partisan message. I don’t think it should be a partisan message. I try to make it nonpartisan...

Unfortunately, Bush and Rove seem only to care about politics. Policy only interests them if it can advance their political agenda.

January, 2002: Success, Big Time

It is not widely appreciated that the foreign policy George Bush has been pursuing since late 2001 has been an unqualified success - for some. Who, exactly? Consider one data point: in January of 2002, the price of a barrel of crude oil was $18 (See, e.g., this NYT story).

So who loves you George? Saudi Arabia, Vladamir Putin, Exxon Mobil (first quarter profit, $8.4 billion), Chevron ($4 billion), etc. A very bad day for the lamb might just be a pretty good one for the lion.

Fearing Truth

Every tyranny suppresses speech and the press. Every tyrant fears the truth. The more bureaucratic tyrannies, like Communism and the Roman Catholic Church, established elaborate apparatus to suppress dissent.

The founders of the United States well understood this and so freedom of speech, religion, and the press are incorporated into the Bill of Rights.

This post was prompted by this fragment from a recent Lumo post:

Pure science is studied because the human beings have an inherent desire to learn the truth.

As it happens, I would like to agree with the sentiment, but as I said in a comment on that post:
From where I sit it looks like most people are mainly interested in shoving their version of "the truth" down other peoples throats. That applies to Muslims, Christians, atheists, and some string theorists.

Dependable whack-a-mole that he is, Lumo promptly reinforced my point by deleting the comment.

So why is it that tyrants fear dissent? Because their rule is built on lies.

What I haven't quite figured out yet is why string theorists are so afraid of dissent.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Fundamental Science

Lubos has this post up on the debate over funding particle physics, and it's a typical Motl mix of insight and mischief, but I don't want to comment on that here yet. Instead I want to mention this question that his post drew in the comments from Rae Ann:

Have there been very many products of pure science that haven't eventually become applied and/or recreational?

A very good question with a "yes, but" answer. Fundamental science has a tendency to become important for applications, but sometimes the incubation time can be pretty long. The thirty-something year old standard model in physics might be considered recreational for students, but so far it doesn't seem to have had any important technological implications. General relativity took 70 years or so to become relevant for GPS. Electricity and magnetism took a few hundred years from the initial investigations before technological relevance (but much less time after Maxwell finished up the theory). I remember reading in a book by one of the early pioneers in molecular biology that "of course we would never be able to manipulate and change the genome."

My guess is that if a discovery really is fundamental, it will eventually have technological implications, but it might take a while.

Book 'em Dano!

It's nice to be rich, must be what Rush Limbaugh is thinking right now, and I suspect that his lawyer is feeling the same. He has apparently reached a deal with authorities on his drug charges whereby he will pay $30k in fines and court costs in return for getting a chance to escape with a clean record (no conviction) if he can stay clean for 18 months. Still, it's nice to know that he does now have an arrest record.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Passing Gas

The President and the Congress are both passing gas on the theme of "obscene" oil company profits. Investigations of oil companies are being launched. Now there are no doubt many entirely legitimate reasons to investigate Exxon Mobil & friends, but making big profits is not one of them.

Fortunately, we may be confident that almost all concerned are deeply insincere in their efforts. They probably have neither the desire, intent, nor ability to do anything about high gas prices.

The system is supposed to work like this: scarcity -> high prices -> conservation + investment in exploration & alternatives -> lower prices and so on.

Now if they wanted to investigate big oil for corrupting government and spreading lies about climate, I would be right on board.

WHOA! NEVERMIND! Of course this is just the classic Jack Abramoff - Tom Delay shakedown in action - investigate oil -> worried oil execs -> big protection payoffs to our elected reps. Stupid me.

Military Revolution: Here Come the Arthrobots

A major transition in military technology is underway, and it's quite possible that it will be as revolutionary in it's impact as tanks, aircraft, and the rifle. Possibly even more revolutionary than metal weapons and armor. I'm talking about the rise of the robots.

Unmanned aerial weapons platforms made their debut in Afghanistan, and their kin have multiplied vastly in Iraq. It is now pretty clear than an unmanned jet fighter or bomber can outperform manned ones, and the twenty-first century combat aircraft will mainly be unmanned - or, at least initially, remotely manned. Unmanned ground vehicles too saw action in Afghanistan and also multiply.

These first steps into military roboworld are somewhat crude variations on existing manned platforms, but much more radical departures are already well into development. Mechanical arthropods are a current favorite. We know that very tiny arthropods are capable of very sophisticated behaviors, despite their tiny brains. Pretty good electromechanical muscles have been developed, and the computational capabilities of a modern microprocessor are, in principle at least, a lot greater than the million times slower arthropod brains. Moreover, nature has already done lots of great design work for us. Small artificial lobsters are already crawling and swimming, and tiny insect-like crawlers and fliers are already under development - or maybe even in test.

My most vivid memory of the movie Minority Report was of the little spider robots that swarmed all over looking for Tom Cruise's baby blues. You can be sure that the same thought made an impression on many military planners and developers.

Major shifts in military technology usually have important social implications. Bronze weapons and armor were so superior to more primitive technologies that a small number of well-equipped soldiers could defeat much larger numbers with more primitive weapons. Because bronze was expensive, only a small number of such warriors could be so equipped. Cheaper and superior iron weapons and armor made possible more soldiers and may have permitted the more democratic social order of Rome and Greece.

The rifle was another powerful social force. Mastery of Greek and Roman style warfare took many years of training, but a rifleman can achieve passable skill in a dozen weeks or so. Consequently, citizen armies largely replaced professional ones. The later tank and aircraft have an opposite effect.

I can't predict much about the implications of the robowarrior, but it seems likely that it could greatly increase the relative power of advanced nations in the short run. Armies of little bots swarming over a village or nation might be safer for combatants and noncombatants than "shock and awe" with bombs and tanks.

And when the computers decide to take over, their armies will be ready.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Langlands and Witten

What? Now physicists are going to be expected to know algebra and number theory?




Drudge headline: Israel: Iran 'worst threat to Jews since Hitler'... .

The Telegraph Story, it turns out, is quoting Iraeli Defense minister Shaul Mofaz. What I found remarkable was how moderate this Israeli hardliner is by comparison with the stuff now coming from inside the beltway. A nuclear Iran is indeed a major threat to Israel, especially if we take seriously the kind of rhetoric coming from Amadinijad. It could also be a major geopolitical nuisance for the US, not to mention some of it's other neighbors.

The threat, in short, is just the sort of thing deserving careful diplomacy, collaboration with all the stakeholders, and intensive negotiation. Alternatively, from the standpoint of Karl Rove, it's a convenient hook on which to hang some jingoistic rhetoric and a midterm election campaign.

It is a situation fraught with peril, though only perilous for the US because of our dependence on mideast oil. I can imagine a lot of bad outcomes, but none of the others is as bad as the prospect of it becoming the occasion for BushCo to launch a nuclear war.

Monday, April 24, 2006

You are getting warmer.

Wolfgang, commenting over at Scott Aaronson's Shtetl Optimized, disses global warming: [stop the presses: HE DENIES ALL]

I like to focus on *what* Lubos has to say and not *how* he says it. And I think he makes some important points:
e.g. the hockey stick debacle and the way the 'global warming' community handled it.
Or the fact that critical exponents of temperature variation observed in the real world does not match with the computer simulations. In other words CGMs overstate trends.

Hockey stick debacle? The critics barely layed a glove on it. At most they showed that the tree ring data was not particularly conclusive about temperatures 800-1000 years ago, which to me, is pretty peripheral in any case. I agree that the way the GW community handled it was not particularly impressive. I don't understand the critical exponents argument well enough to have an opinion.

I would also like to point out that the connection CO2 and 'global temperature' is not as direct as one would expect. CO2 increased in an almost straight line from 1900 to 2000 (except for seasonality), but temperatures increased strongly from 1900 to 1940, remained flat from 1940 to 1980 and then began to increase again.
By the way, from 1998 to 2006 temperatures have been essentially flat.

Could you change that to not as direct as the most naive possible observer might expect? All climate scientists know that climate has lots of variability. The only question is whether there is a credible CO2 signal superimposed on what is in effect noise. Note that even skeptics like Lindzen (and Lubos) want huge odds for a bet against future warming.

I am no expert on climate change, all I am saying is that you will have to convince the sceptics who are (or at least control) the majority in the US with good arguments.

Polls show that 85% of Americans believe global warming is real.

So far I have seen at least two climate researchers make a fool of themselves when debating with Lubos. It was not difficult for him to expose their ignorance of some basic facts.

Really? Who and where? I hope you aren't counting William's short-lived factor of 1000 error on melting rates. Anybody can make that kind of error in a blog comment - but leave it to Lumo to make an international incident of it. Lumo's got an error or two of that type in his own closet.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Conspiracy Theory

One of the enduring puzzles of the Iraq War is why. The fake reasons for the war have been utterly discredited. The most popular conspiracy theories are that we invaded Iraq to grab its oil or to protect Israel. The best arguments against these are the stunning incompetence with which those objectives have been pursued.

A dinner companion offered a contrary theory. What if the whole idea was to take a bunch of oil production off the market? That has in fact happened, and look who is raking in the dough. Exxon Mobil had the greatest corporate profit ever, by anybody, last year. Other oil interests have done similarly well. Maybe, he suggested, that is why Cheney has fought so hard to keep the deliberations and even the composition of his "energy panel" so secret.

My first instinct is to think such a theory is crazy. Are these guys really that depraved?

Consider the first Gulf War. As Saddam escalated border tensions, US officials six times told the world that the border dispute with Kuwait was not a US concern. To understand why, recall that oil prices were low and dropping, partially because Kuwait was pumping so much oil. Saddam didn't like this, but more importantly, big oil didn't like this, and when they spoke, Bush I and Cheney listened. It is thought that they encouraged Saddam in the expectation that he would just bite off a small piece of Kuwait, drive up oil prices, and cause no further trouble.

Saddam apparently missed this part of the script and grabbed the whole country. Margaret Thatcher convinced Bush that growing a pair might help him politically, and the status quo was restored, minus a couple of hundred dead allied soldiers, thousands of slaughtered Kuwaitis, and a hundred thousand or so dead Iraqis.

So my friend from dinner's theory is crazy. But, as they say in physics, maybe it's crazy enough to be right.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Addicted to Pain

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are we attracted to nasty and maybe crazy people?

Well, sometimes they are just too amusing to ignore. Consider this Luboš Motl post:

So far, Prof. Einstein, much like Honda's ASIMO, only knows how to walk, serve tea, and compute spin foam amplitudes, so it is not terribly useful.

He adds:
But they hope to teach Einstein quantum mechanics and bosonic string theory next week and how to climb stairs in a few years.

Which still leaves me wondering whether they ever plan to teach him anything useful - though the stairs might be a start.

The Fire Next Time

For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.

..........................Deuteronomy 32:22

Is the end nigh, if we don't change our ways? (and I don't mean Angela Merkel's.)

And are enviromental alarmists prophesying it? So RA has claimed.

Well I suppose some are. There are ecowacko's afterall. But I didn't think that it seemed too likely that any mainsteam scientists were, so I did a little research.

Eventually, of course, the Sun will expand and first fry and then engulf the Earth. That doesn't sound good, but we should have at least a few hundred million years to prepare for it, so I'm not planning to panic soon. The biggest die off we know about was the Permian-Triassic extinction event, which killed off most species and presumably almost all individuals. According to the Wikipedia article
For some time after the event, fungal species were the dominant form of terrestrial life.

The cause was probably global warming caused by fossil fuel consumption by the then dominant amphibians and trilobites.

OK, I was kidding about that.

Suspects do include the massive Siberian traps volcanism that occurred about then, a nearby supernova, rearrangement of the continents causing drastic climate change, and sudden temperature triggered release of methane gases into the atmosphere. The combination of the first of these triggering the last might raise the global temperature by about 10 C - likely enough to kill off most species - and a bit more than the worst case scenarios envisioned for our current warming event - unless, of course, it were to trigger a giant methane release.

The most dramatic version of the methane release scenario I heard of had the methane suddenly filling the atmosphere and then being detonated by spark or lightning, with the air turning into an ocean of fire. A fittingly biblical fate, I guess, but not too likely sounding to me. It seems pretty implausible that the whole atmosphere would reach ignition mixture simultaneously. The slow cooking scenario, on the other hand...

Apocalypse Now

I love the smell of Republicans spontaneously combusting in the morning.

Or evening.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Environmentalism is Dead

Lubos cites a Harvard Crimson story with the title as above. The undergraduate who wrote it is no doubt destined for a highly profitable future flacking for various agents of the Devil - he demostrates a nice mastery of the classic big lie technique. The pattern goes as follows: Doom was predicted because of pollution in LA, eutropification of Lake Erie, DDT, or whatever. Here we are 40 years later and all those things are better, so all the alarm was for nothing. Of course, the truth is that the alarms led to action, action that was fought as bitterly by the polluters of 40 years ago as the deniers fight action on global warming today. Depite the opposition, government took action, auto and lake pollution were minimized, use of DDT was banned, and the predicted recoveries happened . Of course this reality is 180 degrees out of phase with the message, but if you are addressing deluded nuts and idiots, who cares?

The patient had such severe angina that he was confined to a wheelchair and could do no work. His doctor and wife pleaded with him to have a bypass, but he resisted. As his condition worsened, he finally relented, and had the surgery. Two years later he's playing golf with his surgeon, who asks: "So how are you feeling?" "Great, just great, doc! See, I told you I didn't need that surgery."

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Quantum Gravity Without Strings

A new paper (hep-th/0604120) by Fotini Markopoulou and another (gr-qc/0602037), recently revised by Gary Horowitz and Joe Polchinski, explore some quantum gravity without strings. Markopoulou is strongly associated with Loop Quantum Gravity, though that's not her theme here. Polchinski, by contrast, is a card carrying member of the jihadist wing of the string theory mafia, while Jacobson has feet in both camps but seems to be more concerned with GR and black holes.

Fotini Markopoulou's paper probably has aspects to offend most of the prejudices of our favorite string jihad button man, since she is female and propounds a theory that is discrete, spin foamy, and background independent. Her abstract:

We review quantum causal histories starting with their interpretations as a quantum field theory on a causal set and a quantum geometry. We discuss the difficulties that background independent theories based on quantum geometry encounter in deriving general relativity as the low energy limit. We then suggest that general relativity should be viewed as a strictly effective theory coming from a fundamental theory with no geometric degrees of freedom. The basic idea is that an effective theory is characterized by effective coherent degrees of freedom and their interactions. Having formulated the pre-geometric background independent theory as a quantum information theoretic processor, we are able to use the method of noiseless subsystems to extract such coherent (protected) excitations. We follow the consequences, in particular, the implications of effective locality and time.

Horowitz and Polchinski start with:
Assertion: Hidden within every non-Abelian gauge theory, even within
the weak and strong nuclear interactions, is a theory of quantum gravity.
So is this really a "We don't need no stinkin strings" paper from the original D-brane-iac himself? Well, not exactly.

J&P start with the idea of a composite graviton built of two spin-one bosons and the famous Weinberg-Witten no-go theorem that forbids such. It turns out that this no-go theorem has an inconspicuous hidden assumption, like some other no-go theorems, and that this hidden assumption (that the graviton propagates in the same spacetime as the vector bosons) can be relaxed via holography. From this and some other assumptions they get gravity, and, oh by the way, strings.

Both papers are contributions to the forthcoming CUP book Towards Quantum Gravity, edited by Danielle Oriti.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Cue the Orchestra

Jeff Masters of Wunder Blog has a long article on Lindzen's WSJ anti global warming editorial. He takes a rather balance approach, reminding us of Lindzen's many accomplishments and honors, but he doesn't think Lindzen makes a case. Interestingly, he points out that Lindzen's editorial was just one of three appearing at about the same time, and reminds of a a previous orchestrated campaign of denial:

The fossil fuel industry has spent tens of millions of dollars on many such campaigns in the past. The most notorious of these campaigns was launched in 1991, when the Information Council on the Environment (ICE), a creation of a group of utility and coal companies, launched a PR campaign whose goal was to "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact". The campaign targeted "older, less-educated men" and "young, low-income women" in electoral districts who had a congressperson on the House Energy Committee. The PR campaign hired four "greenhouse skeptic" scientists--Patrick Michaels, Fred Singer, Robert Balling, and Sherwood Idso--to generate op-ed pieces, broadcast appearances, and newspaper interviews. Gelbspan writes: "The plan was clever if not accurate. One newspaper advertisement prepared by the ICE, for example, was headlined: 'If the earth is getting warmer, why is Minneapolis getting colder?' (Data indicate that Minneapolis has actually warmed between 1 and 1.5 degrees Celsius in the last century.)" Another print ad featured a cowering chicken under the headline "Who Told You the Earth Was Warming...Chicken Little?"

Master's also reminds us of the previous bit of global environmental "alarmism" over Ozone depletion. Not until the scientific case was absolutely rock solid did the industry flack skeptics fold their tents - interestingly enough, some of the same cast were skeptics back them. It would be tempting to accuse them of having learned nothing, but actually what they learned was that they could line their pockets by flacking for polluters.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Propagation of the Faith

Carlo Rovelli and some coauthors have a couple of new papers out, including this one on constructing the Graviton propagator in loop quantum gravity and another on Relational EPR.

Luboš Motl has weighed in on the first of these, and predictably enough, is not impressed. I took a look, expecting the usual rant, long on bombast and short on analysis, but that's not quite what I found. Instead, he provides a short description the semiclassical approach to GR and then a paradigm for writing down a propagator.

We needed several completely necessary assumptions and steps to be able to talk about a propagator at all, namely

the choice of a completely serious and fixed background (classical solution) around which we expand the existence of a unique quantum state corresponding to this background (even if we do thermal physics, there exists a unique state but it is a mixed state)

the existence of continuous (or at least effectively continuous) degrees of freedom in which the action can be Taylor expanded

in theories with local symmetries - which certainly includes general relativity - one needs to gauge-fix the gauge symmetry to obtain a non-singular propagator

in the path integral formalism, we need to sum over all configurations - in fact, the generic configurations that contribute to the path integral are non-differentiable almost everywhere and they look like a mess to a classical physicist

Before trying to address this, let me remind myself what the heck we need a propagator for anyway. The propagator (essentially a Green's function) is a basic building block of perturbation theory, and not coincidentally, the basis for computing scattering amplitudes. Rovelli and co-authors start as follows:
An open problem in quantum gravity is to compute particle scattering amplitudes from the full background–independent theory, and recover low–energy physics [1]. The difficulty is that general covariance makes conventional n-point functions ill–defined in the absence of a background.
Rovelli and co-authors have a proposal for getting around this, but Luboš won't hear of it. It doesn't fit his prescription, so it just can't be so.

Professor Motl has some more technical objections which can be found at the previous link, but I want to focus on the fundamental quarrel and what he has to say about it. LQG types think the most important thing in GR is background independence, and are happy to sacrifice conventional QFT in the quest to quantize GR. Stringers give pride of place to the perturbation expansion ala QFT, and regard background independence as an annoying side issue. Lumo says:
A physics theory per se cannot be background-independent. Background independence is a property of a particular way how a theory is formulated and how its predictions are computed: for example, the calculation of a propagator is always background-dependent.

String field theory is "background-independent" while the light-cone gauge matrix theory is not. But they describe the same physics. They describe the same physics in two different but equivalent formalisms. One cannot make an experiment to determine whether the world is "background-independent" or not...

I didn't know anything about string field theory, so I peeked at Wikipedia on the subject, some of which was written by Lumo. The article mentions that SFT hasen't proven too useful, since apparently they don't know how to incorporate D-Branes. I mainly wanted to know why Lumo was so sure SFT was background independent. I don't know, of course, but there is this paper by Sen and Zwiebach hep-th/9311009 I will cite just one sentence from their abstract:
Our result puts on firm ground the widely believed statement that string theories built from nearby conformal theories are different states of the same theory.

I won't pretend to understand any details of the paper, but I'm far from convinced that constitutes full background independence. That "nearby conformal theories" qualification hardly looks innocent to me.

I'm sure that if Lumo reads this he will find ample reason to call me stupid, but any explanatory details would be appreciated.

Saturday, April 15, 2006


I just watched a bit of Peter Jackson's butchery of The Two Towers. It was painful. The sad thing is that the guy actually shows flashes of great talent. The opening scenes in the Shire (in Fellowship), the signal fires in Return of the King seem like genius.

A certain crudity, ham-handedness, and lack of subtle taste poison his work for me. I had a somewhat similar feeling about King Kong, which was an excellent movie till they approached the Island.

In particular, I really hated the stupid scene where Gandalf heals the King of Rohan. Maybe the battle of Helm's Deep will be a little better.


Brad Delong has a habit of nominating Don Luskin for the title of stupidest man alive, so it came as a bit of a shock to me when he declared the contest over and John Derbyshire the winner. Since I previously had a post declaring that "John Derbyshire is Not an Idiot," I thought I should say a bit about the discrepancy. Brad's post was prompted by the fact that Derbyshire, himself an illegal immigrant (status: since legalized) is happy to join the anti-immigrant hysteria. Derbyshire is unembarrassed at his own hyprocrisy.

A couple of readers to this effect: "Aren't you a bit embarrassed to be laying in to illegal immigrants, having confessed that you yourself were once an illegal immigrant?" No. I look on it as being sort of like the reformed drunk at a temperance meeting.

Brad, I think, got carried away, and many of his commenters agree. Derbyshire, they say, is "callous," "amoral," "loathsome," "hateful, selfish, and small," not to mention insufferable, and despicable, but those qualities don't equate to stupidity. In fact, it could be argued that Derbyshire is sort of an apotheosis the "Republican Man." Except for inarticulate stupidity of course. Fortunately his president has that covered.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Our Stern Alarums: Richard III

Now is the Winter of our discontent made
glorious Summer by anthropogenic global warming...

Do alarms help funding? My first reaction was "Well duh!"

The American government funded physics, especially particle physics, very generously after World War II. So did a bunch of other governments. Was this because our leaders had a passionate desire to understand the strong interaction?

Not exactly. Radar and nuclear weapons made a big impression on everybody during WWII. Clearly that physics stuff might be important. Physicists parlayed that impression into 45 years of prosperity after the war, and that generous funding continued long after most physicists realized that new developments in particle physics were unlikely to have much strategic military impact. Similarly, our efforts in the space race were fueled by the fear that the Russians would get a strategic advantage. Quite likely some similar psychology fueled the disastrous stone statue arms race that ultimately destroyed the Easter Island society.

Similarly, climate science funding is driven largely by the fact that climate change (natural or anthropogenic) is an important factor in our future. That's a fact, not a fantasy. The very considerable evidence that human activities have become a major driver in climate change is evidence for alarm. Sensible alarms are not alarmism though.

Is it possible that some climate scientists have hyped the threat in order to get more funding for climate science. Well sure. Is it also possible that big energy companies with far more at stake try to discredit any evidence that might threaten their near and medium term profits? Yeah, that's for sure, also.

Exxon Mobil made $36 billion in profit last year, probably more than has been spent on climate research in all of human history. Lee Raymond, the retiring chairman who generously funded a whole raft of climate skeptics and other right wing organizations, got a nice $400 million retirement package for his efforts. I somehow doubt that any of the prophets of human induced climate change are going to pick up that kind of change. A few highlights of the ABC story:
April 14, 2006— Soaring gas prices are squeezing most Americans at the pump, but at least one man isn't complaining.

Last year, Exxon made the biggest profit of any company ever, $36 billion, and its retiring chairman appears to be reaping the benefits.

Exxon is giving Lee Raymond one of the most generous retirement packages in history, nearly $400 million, including pension, stock options and other perks, such as a $1 million consulting deal, two years of home security, personal security, a car and driver, and use of a corporate jet for professional purposes.

How about it, James Hansen and William Connolley. Anybody throwing that kind of bling at you guys?

Lindzen Again

I try not to get my science from the editorial pages - probably least of all the WSJ editorial page, and for that reason, I wasn't too interested the scientific arguments Lindzen advanced there - I had seen them all before, from him and others. I was interested in his theory of alarmism (more on that in another post) and in his claim of the persecution of skeptics, expecially the clearly implied (but not clearly stated!) notion that Tennekes was fired for speaking out against the global warming theory. A couple of other targets he mentioned as having been driven out of climate science appear not to have been, but I have yet to see anything clear on Tennekes.

Others have commented that Lindzen himself consults for oil and coal companies at $2500/day, and at least one has claimed that he tried to hide that fact in Congressional testimony. On his scientific record, Lindzen seems to deserve to be taken seriously. If he was untruthful on this key point though, I can safely consign him and his claims to the trashbin of liars, idiots, and religious fanaticš.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Our Hero?

Richard Lindzen of MIT, sometimes described as the most prestigious of global warming dissenters, has a fire-breathing Wall Street Journal Editorial. Most of it is the usual, but there is also this:

But there is a more sinister side to this feeding frenzy. Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds disappear, their work derided, and themselves libeled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse. Consequently, lies about climate change gain credence even when they fly in the face of the science that supposedly is their basis...

Sadly, this is only the tip of a non-melting iceberg. In Europe, Henk Tennekes was dismissed as research director of the Royal Dutch Meteorological Society after questioning the scientific underpinnings of global warming. Aksel Winn-Nielsen, former director of the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization, was tarred by Bert Bolin, first head of the IPCC, as a tool of the coal industry for questioning climate alarmism. Respected Italian professors Alfonso Sutera and Antonio Speranza disappeared from the debate in 1991, apparently losing climate-research funding for raising questions...

These are serious charges, and very damning if true. I hope the boys from Real Climate are on this one with some kind of response. Punishing legitimate scientific dissents is the sort of authoritarian (psuedo-Marxist!) tactic I find so obnoxious in certain so-called theoretical physicists.

Another good quote is:
In 2003, when the draft of the U.S. National Climate Plan urged a high priority for improving our knowledge of climate sensitivity, the National Research Council instead urged support to look at the impacts of the warming--not whether it would actually happen.

So did the NRC really recommend against further study of climate sensitivity? If so, that's pretty odd. On the other hand, if they went along with such further study, study of the impacts of warming is not only appropriate but obligatory once the probability of occurence begins to appear high.

The Opposite of Liberal

is not "conservative." From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

befitting free men, noble, generous," from L. liberalis "noble, generous," lit. "pertaining to a free man," from liber "free," from PIE base *leudheros (cf. Gk. eleutheros "free"), ...

Clearly the opposite should be befitting a slave, ignoble, and mean spirited. How about dogmatic and authoritarian?

Bush Lies Revisited

Since some have claimed that Bush was not a liar, but merely confused, WaPo's Joby Warrick reviews the evidence that Bush already knew the infamous "mobile bioweapons labs" weren't any such thing when he made the claim that they proved that weapons of mass destruction had been found.

On May 29, 2003, 50 days after the fall of Baghdad, President Bush proclaimed a fresh victory for his administration in Iraq: Two small trailers captured by U.S. and Kurdish troops had turned out to be long-sought mobile "biological laboratories." He declared, "We have found the weapons of mass destruction."

The claim, repeated by top administration officials for months afterward, was hailed at the time as a vindication of the decision to go to war. But even as Bush spoke, U.S. intelligence officials possessed powerful evidence that it was not true.

A secret fact-finding mission to Iraq -- not made public until now -- had already concluded that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons. Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the president's statement.

The three-page field report and a 122-page final report three weeks later were stamped "secret" and shelved. Meanwhile, for nearly a year, administration and intelligence officials continued to publicly assert that the trailers were weapons factories.

The authors of the reports were nine U.S. and British civilian experts -- scientists and engineers with extensive experience in all the technical fields involved in making bioweapons -- who were dispatched to Baghdad by the Defense Intelligence Agency for an analysis of the trailers. Their actions and findings were described to a Washington Post reporter in interviews with six government officials and weapons experts who participated in the mission or had direct knowledge of it.

All this was long known by people who were paying attention (I think I commented on it on the web before the CIP blog existed). After the pictures of the trailers had been published, they were quickly recognized by their British manufacturers as hydrogen generators for weather balloons.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Torture: Invention Wanted

Because my wife and I come from different religious traditions, we had this crack-brained idea that we would expose our children to a variety of religious experiences as they grew up. For the most part, this consisted of torturing them and ourselves with various highly mainstream religious services, but since my wife felt drawn back to her roots, we attended a lot of Passover Seders - the kind sponsored by the local temple at a hotel. If you are lucky, you will be seated with your surgeon and a middle-aged couple visiting from Mars. If you are unlucky - and I invariably am - you will be seated with a local political candidate, a retired insurance executive from New Jersey, and your surgeon's embittered teenaged children.

Passover commemorates the Children of Israel's miraculous escape from something or other, followed by 40 rollicking years in the desert. In commemoration, the Seder also lasts approximately the same four decades. Most of the service is spent reading fragments of Exodus and commentary thereon, in Hebrew, English, and translitterated Hebrew, while trying to figure out whether you are more likely to die of boredom, hunger, or a diabetic coma induced by the heavily sugared wine. The high point for me are the passages considered important enough to be given in English, Hebrew, and Hebrew translitterated into the English alphabet, since I can then amuse myself by trying to relearn the Hebrew alphabet, and translate the words.

Anyway, these cheerful memories inspired me to wonder if the people who put together the "Ten Minute Hamlet" might do the same for the Passover Seder. I tried the web, with no direct hits, but there was a "Thirty Minute Seder." The site promised that it could be done in 30 to 60 minutes, which, translated from HST, still works out to about 40 years.

Monday, April 10, 2006


According to David Stout in the NYT, President Bush has called reports that he plans to start a nuclear war "wild speculation."

Josh Marshall notes that this statement might be more credible if it were coming from someone who had not proven to be a serial liar.

It's not just that the president has now earned a well-deserved reputation for lying. It is because he and his chief aides lied to the country about a more or less parallel situation -- the build up to war on Iraq -- only four years ago. We now know that the fix was in on the Iraq War as early as September/October 2001. And the president and his crew kept up the charade that no decisions had been made long after those claims became laughable.


Bob Carter reveals that global warming stopped in 1998.

Consider the simple fact, drawn from the official temperature records of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, that for the years 1998-2005 global average temperature did not increase (there was actually a slight decrease, though not at a rate that differs significantly from zero).

Yep. That should prove it alright. A period of a whole eight years, most of which were among the hottest recorded, in which there was little or no increase, has got to be conclusive.

Where does Murdoch get these bozos? In Bob's case, it appears to be the Geology Department at James Cook University, Queensland.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Scary Movie Too: The Gambler

From Kevin Drum:

Here's Seymour Hersh on what George Bush thinks:

A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was “absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb” if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do “what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,” and “that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.”

....One of the military’s initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites.

As usual, Hersh's piece is based almost entirely on anonymous sources, so take it for what it's worth. But it warrants reading regardless. It may or may not be a bluff, but the PR campaign for an air strike against Iran is clearly moving into high gear.

It sounds a little like a plot for a bad movie. The scary thing for me though is the fit with the MO of the CEO. The guy is a gambler. His career is a history of bold bets, usually ending in catastropic losses. At this point his presidential legacy is mostly in shambles. He really might see Iran as a chance to get some respect from history.

A couple of more excerpts from Hersh's New Yorker piece:
The House member said that no one in the meetings “is really objecting” to the talk of war. “The people they’re briefing are the same ones who led the charge on Iraq. At most, questions are raised: How are you going to hit all the sites at once? How are you going to get deep enough?” (Iran is building facilities underground.) “There’s no pressure from Congress” not to take military action, the House member added. “The only political pressure is from the guys who want to do it.” Speaking of President Bush, the House member said, “The most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision.”

And then there's this:
He went on, “Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and fallout—we’re talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don’t have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out”—remove the nuclear option—“they’re shouted down.”

The attention given to the nuclear option has created serious misgivings inside the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he added, and some officers have talked about resigning. Late this winter, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to remove the nuclear option from the evolving war plans for Iran—without success, the former intelligence official said.
On the plus side, maybe Bush will save Ebola the trouble of decimating the human race [that's irony, and gallows humor, in case anyone is too clueless to so deduce].

String Theory as a Religion

An exchange from the comments to a post on Luboš Motl's reference frame:

There are better ideas under study about the role of time in quantum cosmology, by people who have thought deeply about the problem for years and know just where naive ideas of the sort described fail and what needs to be done to transcend them. Why don't Nima and you invite some of them to visit and talk? Among those whose ideas about time in quantum cosmology are worthing thinking about are Julian Barbour, Louis Crane, Chris Isham, Fotini Markopoulou, Carlo Rovelli, Raphael Sorkin. They don't agree with each other, but they agree on the failure of naive, wavefunction of the universe w/out unitarity kinds of ideas.

One would expect that if one of them began speculating about beyond the standard model phenomenology the first 10 ideas they had would appear naive to Nima, why shouldn't the reverse be the case.


Lee | 04.08.06 - 5:56 pm | #


Dear Lee,

thanks for your comment. I am not sure whether you have made the best advertisement for the group: they don't agree with each other, but they agree that physicists are misled.

Sorry, but that's a sufficient reason not to invite someone as a speaker. Our approach to physics is the opposite of yours. We think that ALL physicists should learn things that are canonical and have been tested - which implies that they must agree with each other on basic things, such as the rules of effective field theory, results of semiclassical gravity, and the reasons why string theory seems to be its only UV completion...

All the best

I guess you can take the Marxist out of the ideologue but you can't take the ideologue out of the Marxist.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Corporate Socialism

The essence of Capitalism is that the investor bears the risks and reaps the rewards of his investment. The essence of the Corporation is limited liability. The government, in granting a corporate charter, effectively subsidizes investors by limiting their liability to their investment. If the corporation borrows a lot of money and loses it, the investors are only out what they put into the corporation, whereas if they had done the same as individuals, they would be liable for the whole debt.

In effect, the government has socialized risk and subsidized investment, and in that sense, the Corporation is an anti-capitalist device. If I recall correctly, Adam Smith didn't like them.

Necktie Party: The Morning After

I'm no lawyer, and I don't know how vindictive a guy Eric Pianka is, but if I was a libel lawyer for one of the wingnut or other outfits who ran with Mim's little story, I might already be planning for a larger slip down at the yacht club.
Commenter Levi has a link to this story: Wingnuts in full, abject retreat on Pianka. The story has links to a couple of transcripts, which you should read for yourself, but it seemed pretty clear to me that what we read earlier was a gross distortion of the tone and substance of Pianka's remarks.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Crazy Talk

Some of you are familiar with my fondness for fringe science. My latest infatuation is this new paper:


Unlike many of my enthusiasms, this one has impeccable bloodlines. The author, Gerard 't Hooft, is a Nobel Prizewinner and one of the deepest thinkers in Physics. The subject, although somewhat disreputable, also has excellent heritage, having been championed in one form or another by Planck, Einstein, Schroedinger, and Bell. In The mathematical basis for deterministic quantum mechanics, 't Hooft takes a shot at a hidden variables theory of quantum mechanics.

Many physicists have been bothered by the paradoxical seeming qualities of quantum mechanics, and a lot of prominent ones have tried to fix it up. Even Feynman, who didn't believe in trying to fix up quantum, said something like If quantum mechanics doesn't bother you, you're crazy.

't Hooft's idea is that information loss can make an honest quantum theory out of a deterministic one:
If there exists a classical, i.e. deterministic theory underlying quantum mechanics, an explanation must be found of the fact that the Hamiltonian, which is defined to be the operator that generates evolution in time, is bounded from below. The mechanism that can produce exactly such a constraint is identified in this paper. It is the fact that not all classical data are registered in the quantum description. Large sets of values of these data are assumed to be indistinguishable, forming equivalence classes. It is argued that this should be attributed to information loss, such as what one might suspect to happen during the formation and annihilation of virtual black holes.
The nature of the equivalence classes is further elucidated, as it follows from the positivity of the Hamiltonian. Our world is assumed to consist of a very large number of subsystems that may be regarded as approximately independent, or weakly interacting with one another. As long as two (or more) sectors of our world are treated as being independent, they all must be demanded to be restricted to positive energy states only. What follows from these considerations is a unique definition of energy in the quantum system in terms of the periodicity of the limit cycles of the deterministic model.
The paper is only slightly technical. I predict that Luboš will hate it, partly because t' Hooft likes discrete time.

Denial isn't just another ecologically damaged river in Egypt

Rae Ann - I'll be looking forward to you explanation that the environmentalism movement does not try to exclude and/or villify humanity.

You really think that is why the great majority of your fellow Americans are concerned about the environment? The Faux News planet is a strange one indeed.

The environmentalists I know, and I know a bunch of them, are motivated by a desire to preserve a livable world for their children and grandchildren. Many or most of them also hope to preserve as much as possible of the beauty of the natural world that has meant so much to them.

Edward O. Wilson, who represents the environmental mainstream, put it somewhat like this in a recent talk I attended: The world is in the midst of a major extinction event. We can't save everything, but we should aim to bring the human race through it as well as possible and bring as much of the natural world with us as we can.

Jared Diamond is similarly an environmental realist, who recognizes that we can't have civilization without mining, for example, but we can attempt to minimize the collateral damage by sensible policies.

Some bacteria, placed in a dish of nutrient material, will multiply until they all perish in their own wastes. Humans have a couple of advantages over them. The small one is that they can use technology and science to cope with some of the consequences of ecological destruction. The big one is that they can recognize impending disaster and take measures to prevent it. Innumerable cultures throughout human history have faced the challenge of environmental destruction, and many have recognized the threat and dealt with it. Some of them are still around. None of the others are.

Today we have more capability than any other culture in history to understand the environment and our impact on it. If we ignore what we have learned, and the experience of all those other cultures, then we have utterly wasted the big thing that makes us so different from lemmings and bacteria.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Principles of Environmentalism

I claimed in a previous post that Luboš was quite wrong about the principles of environmentalism, and said that I would explain later. I'm a bit short of time, so I will just state the cardinal principle of environmentalism:

Don't Piss in the Soup

All other environmental principles derive from that idea.

Necktie Party

The Conservatives own all three branches of government and control most of the media, but lately have hit a bit of a rough spot, due to a lot of prominent leaders potential or proven criminality. The fact that the American people are figuring out how badly they screwed up the Iraqi occupation doesn't help either.

But hey! They still know how to organize a lynching! One of the most important things about a lynching is that it doesn't really matter whether the lynchee is guilty or not. Unlike those messy legal proceedings, there isn't really any need to assemble evidence, assess the credibility of the witnesses, etc. I wasn't really planning to blog on this story, at least until the facts became a little more evident, but what with both Luboš and Rae Ann already at the party, how could I say home.

I first became aware of the Pianka affair when Drudge started flogging it a few days ago. I wasn't too interested - it looked pretty much like your standard Alien abduction with anal probes type of story to me - but eventually I read the Forest Mims III article that started it. I vaguely remembered the name Mims, and it turns out that he is a noted instrument designer and a hugely successful author of books on popular electronics. Also, it seems, he is a prominent and perhaps somewhat disgruntled creationist.

The story Mims tells is strange, but was it too strange to be true?

I watched in amazement as a few hundred members of the Texas Academy of Science rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation to a speech that enthusiastically advocated the elimination of 90 percent of Earth's population by airborne Ebola. The speech was given by Dr. Eric R. Pianka (Fig. 1), the University of Texas evolutionary ecologist and lizard expert who the Academy named the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist.

Advocating the extermination of most of the human race with Ebola would certainly be both despicable and strange, but there are some pretty strange scientists. I had never heard of Pianka, so quite plausibly he might be one. On the other hand, a standing ovation for such would be very weird indeed, even from a bunch of Texans. He gives his account, and then concludes with the note that he exchanged some emails with Pianka, and that.

In his last e-mail, Pianka wrote that I completely fail to understand his arguments.

Mims doesn't think so, but I'm less sure. For one think, Pianka has flatly denied that he said what Mims asserted he said. Pianka claims that what he in fact said was that if overpopulation continued, population would collapse as a result of natural calamity and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and that he thought a catastrophic epidemic was likely.

Luboš has assembled the evidence tending to confirm Mims account at the link I gave above, and it consists of (1) Mim's account, (2) the account of a blogger named Brenna which appears to confirm Mims in part, (3) two student comments on Mim's classes. One student comment mentions Ebola, but doesn't say whether Pianka advocates or predicts it. The second seems to imply that Pianka thinks Ebola is an appropriate way for population collapse to occur.

[I have removed an apparently mistaken claim that the two student comments were the last in the file]

The creationists have taken this story and run with it. It is all over their websites. Was this a pre-planned hit? Is it coincidence that the Discovery Institute recently hired the guys behind the Swift Boat Liars?

So what is the real story? I don't know, but, as I said at the start, in a lynching that hardly counts. Pianka has gotten death threats. His family has gotten death threats. Random members of the Texas Academy of Sciences have gotten death threats.

On the bright side, Luboš has discovered his inner creationist.

I forgot to say that creationism, much like environmentalism, subtracts men from nature. The difference is that creationism puts the humans qualitatively above the nature while environmentalism puts the humans below it.

If I had to choose between these two things, I would choose "above".

Of course he is, as usual, quite wrong about what enviromentalism is about, but more about that in another post.

Meanwhile, there were reportedly several hundred people at the talk, so one might hope that some of them would be asked about what really was said. Incidentally, one report has it that Mims was not one of them, except for about five minutes of the half-hour or so talk. (Mims denies this, see comments)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Another domino has fallen in the vast criminal conspiracy otherwise known as the Republican Party. Tom Delay was the mastermind of the K-Street project, under which tens or hundreds of millions of dollars flowed from Indian tribes, the Russian military and other sources into party coffers. Not incidentally, a lot of it stuck to the fingers of Republican Party officials and their aides. Now that Delay has resigned to spend more time with his lawyers we should not forget that he was at the center of a much larger pattern of corruption. It seems likely that the dozen or so Republican Congressmen already known to be tainted are only a sample of the whole.

And before any Republicans write in with the wing-nut response du Jour - "Democrats do it too" please be prepared to cite a contemporary example. If you are having trouble, let me give you a hint: Cynthia McKinney has a wierd hairdo, and is always doing something strange. PS: to demonstrate comparability, you will need to show several millions in graft and vote selling.

UPDATE: I like to think that I've been around the political block a couple of times, but I have to admit that I couldn't resist a little twinge of awe at the amount of dishonesty this Republican Spinner managed to pack into one ordinary word. Rae Ann post a link to the site in the comments. After a bit of juking and jiving, the Pubs get down to the "point."

The NRSC has begun circulating among fellow Republicans new reports showing that all but five of the chamber’s 44 Democrats have taken Abramoff-related money.

So what exactly is Abramoff-related money? It turns out that it is money from Indian tribes or associates of Abramoff. How much of that money was from Abramoff? Well, how about zero. How much went through Abramoff? As far as anyone can tell, also zero.

For the record, their is nothing illegal about taking campaign contributions. Even if they are from Indian tribes, especially tribes in a state that you represent. It's also not illegal to take campaign contributions from people who know Jack Abramoff, people who hired Jack, or even the old Jackster himself.

It is illegal to take bribes or pay them, and that's one of the crimes that Jack, key associates of Jack, key Delay aides, and former Congressman Duke Cunningham pleaded guilty to. Tom Delay masterminded the K-street project, which institutionalized a shakedown and bribery racket intended to benefit the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Abramoff did a little riff on this theme to funnel off millions for himself and friends.

I doubt that money was Delay's motive, he wanted power. The only problem is that once you control all those vast streams of wealth, who can blame you for sucking just a bit off the top for yourself. And that will be the undoing of many a Republican Congressman. I felt a little twinge of pity when I learned Jim Ryun, the Congressman and former running great, was one of those who couldn't resist a little indirect bribery in the form of a "special deal" on a house.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Deluded

Via Josh Marshall, this piece in The New Yorker by Steve Coll looks at one side of the delusions of the Iraq War:

After the fall of Baghdad, three years ago, the United States military began a secret investigation of the decision-making within Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The study, carried out by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, drew on captured documents and interviews with former Baath Party officials and Iraqi military officers, and when it was completed, last year, it was delivered to President Bush. The full work remains classified, but “Cobra II,” a recently published book about the early phases of the war, by the Times reporter Michael Gordon and Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, has disclosed parts of the study, and the Pentagon has released declassified sections, which Foreign Affairs has posted on its Web site. Reading them, it is easy to imagine why the Administration might resist publication of the full study. The extracts describe how the Iraq invasion, more than any other war in American history, was a construct of delusion. Frustratingly, however, we now understand much more about the textures of fantasy in Saddam’s palaces in early 2003 than we do about the self-delusions then prevalent in the West Wing. (My Bold)

The study portrays the Iraqi President as a fading adversary who felt boxed in by sanctions and political pressure. Saddam’s former generals and civilian aides—such as his principal secretary, Lieutenant General Abed Hamid Mahmoud, and the former Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz—describe their old boss as a Lear-like figure, a confused despot in the enervating twilight of a ruthless career: unable to think straight, dependent upon his two lunatic and incompetent sons, and increasingly reliant on bluff and bluster to remain in power...

Which brings to my mind the question: to what extent did Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice believe their own lies? Given the information they had, how could they have? Given the stupidity of their strategic and tactical decisions, how could they not have? Perhaps someday this war's Pentagon Papers will come out, or given the Bush history, more likely they will just be shredded before he leaves office.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Why is There Sex?

Scott Aaronson has perhaps the ultimate reality bites post, but rather than address that, let me address a subsidiary question asked in his blog: Why is there sex?

The answer, alas, is quite boring: Creatures without sex couldn't evolve as fast, and hence failed to colonise new ecological niches, such as multi-cellularity.


My conservative friends like to tell me that poor people are usually poor because they make bad choices. I'm skeptical about the generality of the principle, but it's not hard to find examples. Dropping out of high school, getting caught in criminal activity, heavy drug use, getting pregnant at age 16, majoring in art history - all these things are likely to negatively impact your liftime earnings.

Societies make bad choices too. Germans made a bad choice when they followed Hitler into World War II, and the French made a bad choice when they invested in the Maginot line instead of tank divisions and fighter aircraft. Most egregiously, the person who cut down the last palm tree on Easter Island made a choice which doomed the whole society to mass starvation and collapse. Jared Diamond reports that when he started teaching the contents of his book Collapse, every group he taught wondered what that guy was thinking. We will never know, of course, but some societal mistakes are much better documented.

The classic reasons for mistakes are ignorance, failure to anticipate consequences, and conflicts of interest. The nineteenth century Australians who went to considerable trouble to import rabbits and foxes failed to anticipate the disastrous consequences they would cause. The Icelanders who imported Norwegian farming practices to Iceland were ignorant of the fact that the superficial similarities of the climates and soils of those places concealed subtle but crucial differences that led to catastrophic soil destruction in Iceland. Conflicts of interest are the most complex and difficult. The Easter Islander's interest in obtaining a new canoe or placating the ancestral gods might trump his interest in preserving the crucial palm tree resource for future use.

Diamond has a slightly different taxonomy of errors, but one key one is failure to perceive a problem. He says:

Perhaps the commonest circumstance under which societies fail to percieve a problem is when it takes the form of a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. The prime example in modern times is global warming. We now realize that temperatures around the world have been slowly rising in recent decades, due in large part to atmospheric changes caused by humans.

He goes on to discuss how this effect is somewhat buried in year to year fluctuations, how it took a long time for skeptical climatologists to recognize the changes, and even how Bush still doubted anthropogenic changes at the time of the books writing. Of course Bush has since changed his mind, and the skeptics have become increasing confined to the lunatic fringe.

A broad sample of that fringe "thought" has been recently assembled by another blogger here. I noticed a couple of interesting things about those samples. For one, none of them contained any substantive criticism of the science that has indicated a key human role in contemporary global warming. The other is that a new meme is propagating in the denialasphere: the claim that the environmentally concerned in general, and the global warming scientists in particular, are some kind of apocalyptic new "religion." One of them goes on to dis some previous prophets, unaccountably leaving out Cassandra (beware of Greek gifts), Daniel Webster (beware of civil war), and Winston Churchill.

There is a note of panic in that increasingly shrill denial, a note of panic that seems to originate more in the psychological arena than the economic. In the case of Exxon Mobil, the climate wars are probably no longer very interesting. Oil prices are high, and likely to stay that way. Also, corporations need to live in the real world. For its hired guns (The American Enterprise Institute, The Cato Institute,, and Tech Central Station, to name a few), the situation is a bit different. Their funding depends on the perception that crazy environmentalists will economically harm their funders, a perception that oil companies are probably now less willing to share, however much they dislike the idea of a carbon tax. Most interesting are the true believers, who have apparently invested their egos and personal cosmology in some sort of environmental conspiracy. I'm less sure where they are coming from, but I expect it's somewhere near crazytown.

Pride and Prejudice

I'm always a sucker for Jane Austen, and I've been a Keira Knightly fan since Bend it like Beckham, but I didn't get around to seeing the new Pride and Prejudice until last night. It seemed to vanish from the theatres in a flash, and perhaps that's just as well, since after ten minutes of frustrating failure to understand the dialog, I resorted to starting over with subtitles. That worked out well, especially since having the wide-screen version on my narrow-screen TV left plenty of blank space to put them on.

Casting the utterly gorgeous Ms. Knightly as the "plain" Miss Bennett seems a bit odd, especially when the dialog calls her just that, but in fact it works out pretty well. Mr. Darcy must fall in love with her for her wit, mind, and character, but the camera has its own reasons, and they look equally convincing. Since Mr. Darcy spends an inordinate portion of the movie in mostly silent brooding, Elizabeth Bennett must carry the movie, and indeed she does, and very well too, with a major assist from fabulous scenery.

I call it an impressive performance by a new director and a talented young actress.

Saturday, April 01, 2006


The Lubomaster has this post drawing parallels between Jill Carroll, the reporter who was held prisoner by murderous thugs in Iraq, and some Conservative Parlimentarian who may or may not have changed her mind on global warming, but who, so far as we know, had not been held in isolation by people who had already murdered her interpreter. I don't think I understood his point, but I understood a bit more about why I rarely understand his point. His brain is clearly operating on a different brane, one where logical relations and analogies work differently than on this one.

Environmental Disaster

Modern environmental disaster has already struck in a number of the World's countries: Haiti, Rwanda, Burundi, The Sudan, and others. First world countries have so far escaped, but few are home free.

Australia is about the size of the United States, has about twenty million people, and is almost certainly already overpopulated, according to Jared Diamond. Despite the tiny population, almost all of whom are concentrated in a few large cities, serious and potentially catastrophic environmental degradation threatens on many fronts. The litany is familiar: Deforestation, soil erosion and salinization, desertification by overgrazing, exhaustion of critical resources.

How could such a large and lightly populated continent be so endangered? Its environment is exceptionally fragile, and many years of systematic mismanagement of resources have taken their toll. Australia has the least biological productivity of any continent, due to a double geological and climatic whammy. The rock in Australia is the World's oldest, with only minimal soil renewing glaciation or volcanism having taken place any time recently. Its rainfall is both sparse and erratic, depending heavily on the El Nino Southern Oscillation. In addition, it may well prove to be vulnerable to the climate changes due to global warming, which are likely to make it even dryer.

The good news, says Diamond, is that the population has awakened to the problem, and is pushing the governments, who are still largely in the thrall of special interests, for ameliorative action. If that fails, Oz could be the first first world country to see a sharp decline in its standard of living due to environmental problems.