Monday, June 30, 2008

Oil Price & Oil Reserves - A Puzzle

There is something very suspicious going on with the price of oil...

So I did some "armchair research" using my favourite research tool: Google Search.
Here is BP (British Petroleum's) latest -- June 2008 -- research on oil reserves.

The US consumes 20.7 M/barrels per day = 7.6 B/barrels per year
The US oil reserves are 29.4 B barrels
therefore, the US has only 4 year's worth of known supply in the ground

That would be a real worry, except if you put it into the context of the world situation:

The world consumes 85.2 M/barrels per day = 31 B/barrels per year
The world oil reserves are 1.24 T barrels (that is T for "trillion")
therefore, the world has 40 year's worth of known supply in the ground

Since "seeing is believing", here is the relevant picture of reserves from the BP report:

Since world consumption is 31 B barrels/year, there is a full year's supply in the ground in Asia Pacific to feed the whole world, an additional 2 years in North America, another 3-4 years in the groundin South/Central America, another 3-4 years in Africa, and 4-5 years worth in Europe/Eurasia, and a whooping 25 years in the Middle East... around 40+ year's worth of oil supply that are "known reserves". (And the above does not even include the 5 year's supply in the Canadian oil sands. In short, there is plenty of oil for the next 45+ years. So why is the price jumping and everybody is screaming "the end of oil"? Something very fishy is going on!!!

My father likes to tell me that when he was in high school in the 1930s that teachers would tell him that oil would run out in "20 years". I remember teaching kids in social studies classes in the mid 1970s that oil would run out in "20 years". Then I read that "oil companies will only find reserves for about 20 years because it is uneconomic to find more since there is no point of piling up reserves so far in the future.

So is the world running out of oil? Obviously yes! And it has been "running out" for the last 70+ years based on "proven oil reserves".

What about the "Hubbert's peak oil" theory? Well... obviously it is true. There is only a finite amount of oil. But have we hit it? Obviously "yes" for the United States because the "end is in sight" for the US. For the world? Not so clear, especially if you look at this latest BP oil survey there is 40+ year's supply of known reserves!!! (And remember... this is just "known" reserves, more will be found when needed, there is no point in "finding it all" right now because there is no economic value in piling up reserves.) The "peak oil" theory is seductive just like the "Limits to Growth" theory of the early 1970s and Malthusian limits pontificated back in the early 19th century. These theories are seductive but too simplistic.

If the BP report is to be believed -- an why would a major oil company report an "excess" of oil reserves when a shortage would allow them to jack up prices? -- then there is plenty of recoverable oil out there to feed the world's need for another 40+ years. Where's the shortage? Why the skyrocketing oil price? (Is this just like the "end of available land for housing" and "house prices can only go up" bubble in US housing translated into the commodities market for oil? My bet is "yes"!)

So, bottom line: why has the price doubled in the last year? I don't know but it sure stinks like speculation.

Here is what oil analyst, Daniel Yergin, in a New Yorker article has to say about "speculation" and who is doing it:
...there’s also something else at work, which the oil guru Daniel Yergin calls a “shortage psychology.” The price of oil—more than that of many other commodities—isn’t based solely on current supply and demand. It’s also based on people’s expectations about future supply and demand, because those expectations determine whether it makes sense for oil producers to sell their oil now or leave it in the ground and sell it later. Currently, the market is assuming that oil will become scarcer, and that global demand will keep rising, especially in rapidly developing countries like China and India. As a result, producers are asking very high prices to pump their oil. Now, it could be that these assumptions are all wrong—that the supply of oil will not be constricted going forward, that concerns about the Middle East are exaggerated, and that higher prices will lead people to cut back on energy consumption, shrinking demand. In that case, oil would turn out to have been hugely overpriced. But that won’t be because of sinister speculators; it will be because oil producers and oil users collectively misread the future.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Picture This! Arrested for Picture Taking

The post 9/11 syndrome is for "free" societies to systematically remove "freedoms" from citizens while pounding their chest about the "advantage" of the West because it is a "free" society. You can watch this freedom in action here:

Friday, June 27, 2008

What do ACLU and JAG have in Common?

From the ACLU site, here is the closing argument given by JAG lawyer David J. R. Frakt in defense of Mohammed Jawad in Guantanamo:
Throughout the Global War on Terror we have heard repeatedly from our military and civilian leaders that this was a new kind of war, a war that requires new methods, new ideas, “thinking outside the box.” So that is what the highly creative and motivated people at Guantanamo did, they abandoned the tried and true and lawful methods of Army Field Manual 34-52 and wrote a new playbook, a playbook that included intimidation with dogs, sexual humiliation, and sleep deprivation. These and other methods were employed at Guantanamo and, as the Schlesinger report put it, migrated to Abu Ghraib, where they resulted in the shocking conduct portrayed in the infamous photographs. The Secretary of Defense said “take the gloves off” and the soldiers and sailors of Guantanamo saluted smartly and said, “Yes, Sir!” In fact, many of the illegal and abusive “enhanced” interrogation techniques were personally approved for use by the Secretary of Defense; other techniques, like the frequent flyer program, were simply invented on the fly. ...

The government admits that Mohammad Jawad was treated “improperly,” but offers no remedy. We won’t use any evidence derived from this maltreatment, they say, but they know that there was no evidence derived from it because the government didn’t even bother to interrogate him after they tortured him. Exclusion of non-existent evidence is not a remedy. Dismissal is a severe sanction, but it is the only sanction that might conceivably deter such conduct in the future. ...

Sadly, this military commission has no power to do anything to the enablers of torture such as John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Robert Delahunty, Alberto Gonzales, Douglas Feith, David Addington, William Haynes, Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, for the jurisdiction of military commissions is strictly and carefully limited to foreign war criminals, not the home-grown variety. All you can do is to try to send a message, a clear and unmistakable message that the U.S. really doesn’t torture, and when we do, we own up to it, and we try to make it right.
This ignominious episode in American history needs to be studied, studied in detail, pondered, and deep lessons learned. But, I'm pretty sure it will be like the Vietnam episode, i.e. quickly papered over and no lessons learned.

What Do We Really Know?

Here is a "sic transit gloria mundi" video... You get to watch ants devour a gecko....

Here is a "seeing is believing" video... You get to decide what is real and what isn't...

And if you want to understand why the world is a veil of illusions, read this NY Times article entitled "Your Brain Lies to You" in which a molecular biologist, Sam Wang, explains one teensy-tiny bit of why the world is not your oyster, that reality is not handed to you on a platter.

Or, read this New Yorker magazine article by Atul Gawande call "The Itch" that explains how, if you are persistent, you can reach out and really touch your brain in a way that will truly horrify you. Oh, and in explaining that, it also helps you understand how you can make a phantom limb disappear.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hanson on Global Warming

Here is an excerpt from a talk given by the leading advocate of Global Warming:
Altogether the evidence that the earth is warming by an amount which is too large to be a chance fluctuation and the similarity of the warming to that expected from the greenhouse effect represent a very strong case. In my opinion, that the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.

I believe that the change in frequency of hot summers is large enough to be noticeable to the average person. So we have already reached a point that the greenhouse effect is important.

Dr. James Hanson, Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, June 23, 1988

I find the above odd, given the following recorded temperatures in Seattle this year:

The light shaded green represents the "normal" range of high and low temperatures. The pink represent the high up to the maximum ever recorded. The blue represents the low down to the minimum ever recorded. This graph is from this year, 2008, twenty years after James Hanson's statement. I peer at it and I find it hard to achieve the "I believe that the change in frequency of hot summers is large enough to be noticeable to the average person" that Hanson asserted was true twenty years ago. I guess I just don't have the perceptive capabilities of Hanson asserts and an "average" person has. But to me, living just north of Seattle, I can tell you this has been one of the coldest winter/spring/early summer that I've experienced living here for nearly 40 years. But then again, I guess I'm not "average".

Right to Bear Armaments... Yes, You too Can Legally Own a Nuclear Bomb!

Here is a report from the NY Times about today's US Supreme Court decision striking down a Washington DC law to prohibit handguns:
Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion, his most important in his 22 years on the court, said the justices were “aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country” and “take seriously” the arguments in favor of prohibiting handgun ownership. “But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table,” he said, adding: “It is not the role of this court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.” ...

It has been nearly 70 years since the court last examined the meaning of the Second Amendment. In addition to their linguistic debate, Justices Scalia and Stevens also sparred over what the court intended in that decision, United States v. Miller. In the opaque, unanimous, five-page opinion issued in 1939, the court upheld a federal prosecution for transporting a sawed-off shotgun. A Federal District Court had ruled that the provision of the National Firearms Act the defendants were accused of violating was barred by the Second Amendment, but the Supreme Court disagreed and reinstated the indictment.

For decades, the overwhelming majority of courts and commentators regarded the Miller decision as having rejected the individual-right interpretation of the Second Amendment. That understanding of the “virtually unreasoned case” was mistaken, Justice Scalia said Thursday. He said the Miller decision meant “only that the Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as short-barreled shotguns.”
I find it funny that the "strict constructionist" judges can peer at the words:
2nd Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
and come up with ideas about "law-abiding citizens" or "typically possessed" but not notice that words like "militia" might mean the local national guard and not any Tom, Dick, or Harry that wants to own an assault rifle for "sporting" purposes.

The US has been hornswoggled by the NRA and right wing nuts into reading these words as "Every person has the write to arm themselves to the teeth." I find it funny that nobody has yet appealed a case to the Supreme Court arguing that the "right to bear arms" means that you can acquire and keep small tactical nuclear weapons in your basement or collect "bunker busting" bombs as a hobby. Certainly the US Supreme Court views assault rifles as covered by the law, so why not an M1 Abrams tank, or the right to have your own B1 bomber?

Sitting north of the US border I fall out of my chair laughing myself silly at how Constitutional "scholars" bend themselves like pretzels to interpret fairly clear words about a militia into an unrestricted argument for "citizens" to arm themselves to the teeth.

In closing, let me pass the microphone to what appears to me to be a reputable Constitutional Scholar who can help us understand the finer points of today's Supreme Court decision:

"Teacher" Leaves a Lasting Impression

Only in America! Here is a crazy religious fanatic allowed to push his brand of Christianity in a schoolroom to the point of burning a cross onto a kid. You would think this kind of behaviour would get the guy bounced immediately from a classroom. Ah... but you forget that America loves God and everybody has a right except those wronged, they get to suffer in silence because that is what God wants.

Here's a video of a news segment about the complaint:

Here's a local news article
that explains that after 11 years of complaints against this teacher, he has finally been removed.
For 11 years, other teachers in the school district and people in the community complained about Freshwater preaching his Christian beliefs in class and slamming scientific theories, a school administrator told investigators. ...
Freshwater was told to stop teaching intelligent design and creationism, but he continued, the report found. ...

The report confirmed that Freshwater burned crosses onto students' arms, using an electrostatic device, in December.

Freshwater told investigators the marks were X's, not crosses. But all of the students interviewed in the investigation reported being branded with crosses. The investigation report includes a photo of one student's arm with a long vertical line and a short horizontal line running through it.

The family of one student who was burned filed a federal lawsuit last week against Freshwater and the district, saying the student's civil rights were violated.

Yesterday, the family's attorney, Jessica Philemond, said it was "unfortunate" that the school district didn't do anything sooner to stop Freshwater. ...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The "Me First" Society

Here's a video clip of some examples of how some people who bought more house than they could afford decide that "other people" should pay for their mistake. This is really sad. It is symptomatic of a society that takes no responsibility but instead is quick to blame anybody and everybody else. Pretty infantile. And, as the end of the report notes, it will end up costing everybody as well as the perpetrator. So... go ahead and what how a dysfunctional person in a dysfunctional society thinks they can "solve" a problem they created by making a big mess...

I would say this is a pretty good example of what a society that has lost its moral foundation behaves when things don't go its way. So much for all that right wing talk of "family values" and all those claims of how "religion" is so important and prevalent in the fabric of America. That country needs to grow up and learn to take responsibility and show respect for their neighbors. More common sense and common decency are needed and less ideology and claims of exceptionalism.

This action reminds me of the so-called radicals of the late 1960s/early 1970s who who would pilfer and steal from stores under the cover of "ripping off" the rich. The joke was that this supposedly radical "action" merely raised the prices for everybody else. There was no way that retailers were going to "swallow" these costs. That's not how economics works. But these supposed "leftists" were as economically ignorant as well as morally bankrupt. So... after remembering this, maybe these right-wing radicals of today, the libertarian, me-first house/condo flippers of today who feel outrage that their speculations didn't work out are eerily familiar. They are the same kind of amoral, self-serving characters as those doing the "rip-offs" during the 60s/70s. In both cases, these self-justifying characters leave a mess for others to clean up.

Supreme American Justice

I'm amazed at how the US Supreme Court can advance new concepts in justice while carefully staying within the bounds of "strict construction". But this report shows how incredibly deftly these seven "heroes" have done the nearly impossible while bringing down new concepts in death cases for the 21st century. You just have to be impressed with how these seven geriatrics outclass the rest of us...

Does the Left Hand Know what the Right Hand is Doing?

You knowpolitical leaders are idiots when they act schizophrenically...

On one hand the Canadian government is telling us that we are all doomed by Global Warming. This issue is so important that they have formally committed to the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions to 6% below 1990 levels during the 2008-2012 commitment period. All the major parties in Canada have policies to reduce greenhouse gases. The Federal Liberals have a carbon tax. Provincially, in British Columbia, the Liberals have put in place a cap-and-trade scheme which is effect a tax on consumers. On July 1st I will have to pay a dime more per gallon because of provicial carbon tax. So... you would think there is a really deep commitment to "solve" the Global Warming problem.


Here is a news report that the Canadian government won't allow electric cars in Canada. This is a bit surprising given that these cars are being manufactured here and are currently sold in the United States. The federal government -- while claiming that Global Warming is an impending doom on us all -- has decided that the "safety issue" is too much for Canadians so the cars are banned here. Banned here, but manufactured and shipped the US where apparantly that government there thinks they are safe enough for their citizens.

Hmm... Do I smell hypocrisy? Can Global Warming be the evil doom that it is portrayed to be if in fact the Canadian government isn't willing to allow non-polluting cars to be sold to its own citizens? I know the auto industry has "bought" a lot of politicians. But surely these politicians have children and grandchildren, so they must have some concern for the future. So if Global Warming is the cruel, dark destiny painted for us, what depth of evil it must take to shout "the end is near!" out of one side of your mouth while saying "but you can't buy that product to save yourself!" out of the other side of your mouth.

The whole thing is just too juicy, just too funny. Do they really think we take them seriously when they play these kind of patent games with us?

Don't believe me? Here's a snippet from the news report:
Despite increasing local demand for zero-emissions cars and trucks and robust exports of electric vehicles, Canada will not allow them on its roads, lament manufacturers.

"It's a daily embarrassment," said Ian Clifford, president of Zenn Motor Company, which builds "zero emissions no noise" vehicles in Canada for export primarily to the United States.

"Even my employees can't drive to work in a Zenn. It's absurd," he said of federal and provincial rules that forbid electric cars from being driven on most Canadian roads.

Clifford's frustration is aggravated by the view that Canadians are increasingly concerned about the environment and are said to be eager to drive electric vehicles in this warming climate.

"We build the car in St. Jerome (Quebec) and ship them all south of the border," where 44 states allow them, and some 45,000 electric cars are in use today, he said.

But Transport Canada says the vehicles made of lightweight metals and plastics are not safe to drive on Canada's open roads, and would not stand up in a collision.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Surviving Growing up as a Hippie

Here is an interesting set of interviews with kids who grew up as offspring of "hippie parents". As you will see, kids come out "normal" despite the oddity of their upbringing. It shows you how robust humans are and it appears that human upbringing "doesn't take". These stories are taken from Caleb J. Clark's Master's Thesis at NYU:

Monday, June 23, 2008

I Will Die for You

Here is a cheesy video that makes a good point. It is a documentary on "the easy steps to become a cult leader". It reviews the techniques used by cults to recruit and control members. The message is is good despite the low quality production values. Take a look...

Death Comes a Knockin'

George Carlin died yesterday. I can't say I feel sorry for him. He isn't around to feel sorry for. If I knew his family and friends I could say I feel sorry for them. But, really I feel sorry for myself. He was funny, very funny. But I can't say I ever paid to see him or that I sought out his shows. I saw some routines and thoroughly enjoyed them. I read a couple of his book. Really enjoyed those. What I can say is I feel sorry because his death reminds me of my own mortality. This isn't something you feel until you hit your fifties. Kids never feel sorrow over a death. But I'm feeling each one. And I'm feeling them more poignantly.

Here's the famous "Seven Words" routine. He got arrested for this in Milwaukee in 1972. And he's famous because this ended up in the Supreme Court where:
Carlin and his "Seven Dirty Words" comedy routine were central to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, in which a narrow 5-4 decision by the justices affirmed the government's right to regulate Carlin's act on the public airwaves.
Looking at the routine from the perspective of 2008, it was a tempest in a teapot. There's nothing to get outraged about. To think that he was jailed for this is as funny as thinking about the Victorians and their pretense that sex never happened and that no "decent" women ever enjoyed sex.

Anyway... enjoy the show... and give a thought to George Carlin (and your own mortality)...

Augusten Burroughs' "A Wolf at the Table"

I find Augusten Burroughs' books to be gripping. He has a real storytelling flair. This book deals with his missing relationship with his father and is mostly focused on his early life (up to age around 11). The earlier book Running with Scissors dealt with this relationship with his mother and how she farmed him out to live with her crazy psychiatrist's family.

He never pins down what problem his father had other than alcoholism and a "deadness" about him (i.e. a lack of empathy and "sense of fun" that included tormenting him and his mother). His older brother, John Elder Robison, writes in his book, Look Me in the Eye, that his father probably suffered from Asperger's Syndrome like John Elder. But Augusten implies that his father was sociopathic. While the father brutalized the wife and kids he put on a "nice face" and rose to be head of the department of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts. Amazing!

The books by the two brothers raises the question of "where is the truth"? The two sons agree that the family was dysfunctional, that the father was an ugly drunk who beat on his wife, and that the mother drifted into psychotic episodes when the younger kid hit about 10 years of age. The older brother had a fondness for his father despite the beatings he got, but apparantly never reconciled with the mother. The younger brother's story is a longer for a relationship with his father but that the father terrorized him when he was young and rejected him all the way up to the end of his life. The younger brother doesn't show much desire for a relationship with the mother and paints a horrible picture of her abandoning him to a dysfunctional doctor's family. How much truth is there here? Presumably a lot. But, here is an audio recording of an interview with the mother that gives the impression that she has recovered and seeks a good relationship with the younger son. It is a mystery. But it is fascinating.

These books by Augusten Burroughs and John Elder Robison are an interesting study in genius, madness, and dysfunctional families. And they show that despite terrible circumstances, kids can prevail since both brothers have succeeded despite the horrible circumstances of their childhood.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Wrights and Wrongs

Lawrence Wright, who wrote the book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11...

has written an article in the New Yorker which describes the split in the radical Islamic world. This article talks about "revisions" among the Islamic terrorist groups in Egypt and, most interestingly, by one of the founders of Al-Qaeda, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (aka Dr. Fadl, aka Abdul Qader bin Abdul Aziz). This "Dr. Fadl" authored the book The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge which questions the terrorism of al-Qaeda. The article documents the turning away from the mad violence of the recent past.
It is, of course, unlikely that Al Qaeda will voluntarily follow the example of the Islamist Group and Zawahiri’s own organization, Al Jihad, and revise its violent strategy. But it is clear that radical Islam is confronting a rebellion within its ranks, one that Zawahiri and the leaders of Al Qaeda are poorly equipped to respond to. Radical Islam began as a spiritual call to the Muslim world to unify and strengthen itself through holy warfare. For the dreamers who long to institute God’s justice on earth, Fadl’s revisions represent a substantial moral challenge. But for the young nihilists who are joining the Al Qaeda movement for their own reasons—revenge, boredom, or a desire for adventure—the quarrels of the philosophers will have little meaning.

According to a recent National Intelligence Estimate, Al Qaeda has been regenerating, and remains the greatest terror threat to America. Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, says that although Fadl’s denunciation has weakened Al Qaeda’s intellectual standing, “from the worm’s-eye view Al Qaeda fighters have on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, things are going more their way than they have in a long time.”
I think Wright is too sanguine about the persistence of Al-Qaeda. This retreat from violence reminds me of the mid-1970s when the crazies of the Weathermen, the Black Panther Party, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (aka Red Army Faction), the Japanese Red Army, etc. lost favour because of their addiction to mindless violence. At that time that indicated that the fever of radicalism had broken in the West. Maybe the arguments among the Islamic militants represent the same end-stage decay of this infection of terrorism. That is my hope.

Enough of my crazy speculating. Read the article. It is full of details. Here are some quotes from Lawrence Wright's New Yorker article "The Rebellion Within: An Al Qaeda Mastermind Questions Terrorism" to give a sense of the depth and understanding that he brings to telling the tale:
Fadl acknowledges that “terrorizing the enemy is a legitimate duty”; however, he points out, “legitimate terror” has many constraints. Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in America, London, and Madrid were wrong, because they were based on nationality, a form of indiscriminate slaughter forbidden by Islam. In his Al Hayat interview, Fadl labels 9/11 “a catastrophe for Muslims,” because Al Qaeda’s actions “caused the death of tens of thousands of Muslims—Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis and others.” ...

Fadl’s arguments undermined the entire intellectual framework of jihadist warfare. If the security services in Egypt, in tandem with the Al Azhar scholars, had undertaken to write a refutation of Al Qaeda’s doctrine, it would likely have resembled the book that Dr. Fadl produced; and, indeed, that may have been exactly what occurred. And yet, with so many leaders of Al Jihad endorsing the book, it seemed clear that the organization itself was now dead. Terrorism in Egypt might continue in some form, but the violent factions were finished, departing amid public exclamations of repentance for the futility and sinfulness of their actions. ...

A number of Muslim clerics struggled to answer Dr. Fadl’s broad critique of political bloodshed. Many had issued fatwas endorsing the very actions that Fadl now declared to be unjustified. Their responses were often surprising. For instance, Sheikh Hamid al-Ali, an influential Salafi cleric in Kuwait, whom the U.S. Treasury has described as an Al Qaeda facilitator and fundraiser, declared on a Web site that he welcomed the rejection of violence as a means of fostering change in the Arab world. Sheikh Ali’s fatwas have sometimes been linked to Al Qaeda actions. (Notoriously, months before 9/11, he authorized flying aircraft into targets during suicide operations.) He observed that although the Arab regimes have a natural self-interest in encouraging nonviolence, that shouldn’t cause readers to spurn Fadl’s argument. “I believe it is a big mistake to let this important intellectual transformation be nullified by political suspicion,” Ali said. The decision of radical Islamist groups to adopt a peaceful path does not necessarily mean, however, that they can evolve into political parties. “We have to admit that we do not have in our land a true political process worthy of the name,” Ali argued. “What we have are regimes that play a game in which they use whatever will guarantee their continued existence.” ...

Even so, the fact that Al Qaeda followers and sympathizers were paying so much attention to Fadl’s manuscript made it imperative that Zawahiri offer a definitive refutation. Since Al Qaeda’s violent ideology rested, in part, on Fadl’s foundation, Zawahiri would have to find a way to discredit the author without destroying the authority of his own organization. It was a tricky task.

Zawahiri’s main problem in countering Fadl was his own lack of standing as a religious scholar. “Al Qaeda has no one who is qualified from a Sharia perspective to make a response,” Fadl boasted to Al Hayat. “All of them—bin Laden, Zawahiri, and others—are not religious scholars on whose opinion you can count. They are ordinary persons.” Of course, Fadl himself had no formal religious training, either. ...

One afternoon in Egypt, I visited Kamal Habib, a key leader of the first generation of Al Jihad, who is now a political scientist and analyst. His writing has gained him an audience of former radicals who, like him, have sought a path back to moderation. We met in the cafeteria of the Journalists’ Syndicate, in downtown Cairo. Habib is an energetic political theorist, unbroken by ten years in prison, despite having been tortured. (His arms are marked with scars from cigarette burns.) “We now have before us two schools of thought,” Habib told me. “The old school, which was expressed by Al Jihad and its spinoff, Al Qaeda, is the one that was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sheikh Maqdisi, Zarqawi. The new school, which Dr. Fadl has given expression to, represents a battle of faith. It’s deeper than just ideology.” He went on, “The general mood of Islamist movements in the seventies was intransigence. Now the general mood is toward harmony and coexistence. The distance between the two is a measure of their experience.” Ironically, Dr. Fadl’s thinking gave birth to both schools. “As long as a person lives in a world of jihad, the old vision will control his thinking,” Habib suggested. “When he’s in battle, he doesn’t wonder if he’s wrong or he’s right. When he’s arrested, he has time to wonder.”

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Crying Wolf

Here is Greg Ip of the Wall Street Journal (he is actually moving to The Economist) talking about an interview with George Soros:

I don't believe the wolf will show up. I think George Soros is a financial genius only in the sense that if you get a 1000 people flipping a coin, then after 10 flips, there will likely be one guy in the crowd who got 10 heads in a row. A champion flipper? Nope, just lucky. I think Soros' theory of "reflexivity" is an overblown piece of mummery to cover the fact that he is a sharp guy who has been clever and lucky. So... I don't expect to see any "superbubble" burst in the near future.

Where are the Social Critics Today?

Here is a song that I find beautiful, but when you pay attention to the words, it should make you stop and think. This song was written about Mexican immigrants who anonymously died in a plane crash. The words are by Woodie Guthrie, but this version is sung by his son, Arlo Guthrie:

The real tragedy is that Woodie Guthrie sang about the plight of migrant workers half a decade ago. The problem has gotten worse, and I don't see anybody writing anything as stirring as the song by Woodie Guthrie. The horror is beyond comprehension. The US declared war on the rest of the world because 2974 died in the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. But far more have died in the desert or suffocated on locked up trucks crossing the border. Here are the facts as reported by MPI:
From January 1995 through March 2004, more than 2,640 migrants died – more than one death per day in the last four years. Deaths occurring along the Arizona and Texas segments of the border have increased ten-fold since the implementation of the concentrated border enforcement strategy. Border-wide, the probability of dying versus being apprehended by the Border Patrol has doubled since 1998. These statistics understate the number of fatalities, since they include only those migrants whose bodies have been recovered by the Border Patrol and Mexican police.
What I find amazing about this song is how honest & perceptive it was. I wonder... where are the social critics of today with a voice as strong as Woodie Guthrie?

Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee)

The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"

My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tweedledee and Tweedledum

There is a very interesting paper from the Center for American Progress that reviews the record for the Depression-era president Hoover and the soon-to-be-a-two-recession-era Bush. The comparisons are haunting and bone-chilling. It is well worth reading the report.
It may seem premature to compare President George W. Bush to Herbert Hoover, the president who helped steer the economy into the Great Depression in 1929, and then presided over steady economic deterioration until the end of his term in 1933. After all, the current economic downturn under President Bush’s watch hasn’t even officially been declared a recession, while under Hoover the United States experienced four straight years of severe economic decline.

Yet close inspection of the economic track records and ideology of these two presidents reveals that they are quite similar. Both presided over a suddenly deteriorating economy yet resisted taking action to prevent further economic losses. Both believed the market would naturally self-correct, and that government intervention would be harmful. And both took limited government action once it became clear that it was needed—to help businesses, rather than working families—to weather the storm.

A Walk on the Wild Side

If you haven't heard of Olivia Judson then you are living an impoverished life. She is a delightful biologist & writer who does popular science on "curious animals" as well as a research scientist. She wrote the tantalizing book Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex. She has a blog on the NY Times that is well worth reading. The following is an extract from a longer article to give you a taste of her writing:
...many bacteria live deep in the oceans and deep in the earth, far from light, far from what we normally think of as good, comfortable places to live.

For example: the bottom of the Mariana Trench. This is a seam on the sea floor in the northwestern Pacific, not far from the island of Guam; it’s where the Pacific plate is sliding under the Philippine plate. The ocean is deeper here than anywhere else in the world: the seabed is 11 kilometers (almost 7 miles) below the surface of the sea. Yet even here, where the pressure of the water would crush you or me, there are bacteria. Some of them won’t grow at all unless the atmospheric pressure is at least 50 megapascals (around 7,000 pounds per square inch), and they grow better if the pressure is greater — 70 megapascals (more than 10,000 pounds per square inch). For comparison, the pressure at sea level — the pressure we have evolved to bear — is 700 times less.

Then there are the “intraterrestrials” — the organisms that live in rocks deep in the earth, the creatures of the “deep subsurface biosphere.” Bacteria have been found in rock samples taken several hundred meters below the sea floor, even when the sea floor itself is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) below sea level.

We don’t know how many organisms are living in this (to us) alien environment. But based on what’s been found in rock samples so far, the numbers are likely to be gigantic. One recent study found between 1 million and 1 billion bacteria per gram of rock (a gram is 1/28 of an ounce). It may be that a large proportion — perhaps as many as a third — of all bacteria on Earth live in rocks below the floor of the sea. That would be a lot of bacteria.

Michael Shermer's "The Mind of the Market"

Shermer writes an interesting tale, but there is something that just doesn't "feel right" when I'm reading the book. I buy most of the analysis, but he shades things toward a liberatarian bias that I'm not happy with. I know that I'm arguing ad hominem, but his background of being cocksure in his evangelical phase, then cocksure in his Ayn Randian/libertarian phase, and now cocksure in his free market/evolutionary psychology/neuroeconomics phase. He's a serial prosyletizer. He's very effective in packaging and marketing. He isn't an original thinker, but he is entertaining and informative.

He's the kind of guy that I don't mind edging up to in order to listen to, but he is not a guy I want to spend time with. He has too much of the air of snake oil salesman. He's probably a wonderful human being (e.g. he claims that people with his ideological makeup are far more charitable than people like myself), but I would rather spend my time with people who come across as more empathic and warm and caring and certainly more forgiving of the confusion that is the human condition.
I intend to read the book again. It is worth it. Not because it is original, but because it summarizes a lot of current trends in thinking. It is a nice panoramic survey. But it is too tidy to encourage debate. I guess what I'm saying is that this reads more like a Cole's Notes than a literary original. Certainly Cole's Notes has a role to play in helping you to understand the "lay of the land" but it doesn't provide the essential experience of plunging into the artistic original.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

How to Throw Around a Good Racial Epithet!

Here is a training video for all of those who want to hone their skills at using derogatory racial epithets:

E.T. Phone Home

Here's a video to convince you that not only have the aliens arrived, but they have "taken over"!

I didn't realize the crop circles were such a popular hobby among farmers. But thanks to Google Earth you can enjoy this passion (at least in the English countryside). I wonder how these guys know when to put on their best effort so that satellite imagery will pick them up and show them off to their best advantage? Who is timing those satellite overpasses? Could it be that the aliens have taken that over too?

From Cabinet of Wonders, here's something to impress the techies:
Below you can see Britain's most complex crop circle ever (according to the papers anyway) which encodes Pi to 9 decimal places - for those not able to reel it off that is 3.141592654, ah now you can see it:

Out of the Mouth of Babes

It is funny how the right wing media crucifies the left in the US. In the 2004 campaign John Kerry was painted as a "flip flopper" because he changed his mind about the Iraq war. (Note: the famous economist John Maynard Keynes dealt with this by stating "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?").

The following clip from the Randi Rhodes left wing radio show points out how egregiously McCain flip flops, but there is not a whisper in the US media. Strange?

Oh... and for added effect, here is right wing radio host Michael Reagan -- son of President Ronald Reagan -- calling for babies and mothers to be killed. As Randi Rhodes points out, it is odd that US "decency" laws forbid her to say the word "shit" on the radio, but a nutcase right wing lunatic like Michael Reagan can call for the blowing up of innocent babies and that is not considered offensive to US "decency". Odd...

As for the title of this blog entry? It comes from: Psalms 8:2: Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Explaining Political Movements

Over the years there have been numerous writers on the right who have tried to explain the ability of the right wing extremists to grow into power in the US. I enjoyed Kevin Phillips with his books "Boiling Point", "The Politics of Rich and Poor", and "Wealth and Democracy". Phillips supported Nixon but fell out during the Reagan years. I enjoyed Michael Lind's "The Next American Nation".

Here's an article in the New Yorker by George Packer that spells out how the new right wing majority arose in the 1970s to be dominant under Reagan and is now dying under the failures of Bush. It is a very good read and very insightful. At the least it simply names the key players and gives you themes and plots around which to understand how this movement has grown and changed over time. At best it "explains it all". For me it lies between the two and falls closer to the the latter than the former:
Nixon and Buchanan ... adopted an undercover strategy for building a Republican majority, working to create the impression that there were two Americas: the quiet, ordinary, patriotic, religious, law-abiding Many, and the noisy, élitist, amoral, disorderly, condescending Few. ...

Polarization is the theme of Rick Perlstein’s new narrative history “Nixonland” (Scribners), which covers the years between two electoral landslides: Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 and George McGovern’s in 1972. During that time, Nixon figured out that he could succeed politically “by using the angers, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s,” which were also his own. ...

In retrospect, the Reagan Presidency was the high-water mark of conservatism. “In some respects, the conservative movement was a victim of success,” Wilentz concludes. “With the Soviet Union dissolved, inflation reduced to virtually negligible levels, and the top tax rate cut to nearly half of what it was in 1980, all of Ronald Reagan’s major stated goals when he took office had been achieved, leaving perplexed and fractious conservatives to fight over where they might now lead the country.” Wilentz omits one important failure. ... He had succeeded in lowering taxes, raising morale, increasing defense spending, and facing down the Soviet Union; but he had failed to limit the size of government, which, besides anti-Communism, was the abiding passion of Reagan’s political career and of the conservative movement.

After Reagan and the end of the Cold War, conservatism lost the ties that had bound together its disparate factions—libertarians, evangelicals, neoconservatives, Wall Street, working-class traditionalists. Without the Gipper and the Evil Empire, what was the organizing principle? ...

In its final year, the Bush Administration is seen by many conservatives (along with seventy per cent of Americans) to be a failure. Among true believers, there are two explanations of why this happened and what it portends. One is the purist version: Bush expanded the size of government and created huge deficits; allowed Republicans in Congress to fatten lobbyists and stuff budgets full of earmarks; tried to foist democracy on a Muslim country; failed to secure the border; and thus won the justified wrath of the American people.

The second version—call it reformist—is more painful, because it’s based on the recognition that, though Bush’s fatal incompetence and Rove’s shortsighted tactics hastened the conservative movement’s demise, they didn’t cause it. In this view, conservatism has a more serious problem than self-betrayal: a doctrinaire failure to adapt to new circumstances, new problems.

... Democrats still can’t win the Presidency without the working-class Americans who remain the swing vote and, this year, are up for grabs more than ever. Hillary Clinton has denied Obama a lock on the nomination by securing large majorities of swing voters, beginning in New Hampshire and culminating last week in West Virginia. It took the Obama campaign months to realize that a 2008 version of the McGovern coalition will barely be sufficient to win the nomination, let alone the general election. The question is how Obama can do better with the crucial slice of the electorate that he hasn’t been able to capture. Recently, he has gone from bowling in Pennsylvania and drinking Bud in Indiana to talking about his single mother, his wife’s working-class roots, and his ardent patriotism on the night of his victory in North Carolina. But the problem can’t be solved by symbols or rhetoric: for a forty-six-year-old black man in an expensive suit, with a Harvard law degree and a strange name, to walk into V.F.W. halls and retirement homes and say, “I’m one of you,” seems both improbable and disingenuous.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bizarro US Politics

Here's a funny video clip showing how a politician can be one both sides of an issue, yet complain bitterly that his opponent misrepresents him...

I sure hope that the American people have had enough of the disasters of a Bush administration and won't select this Bozo. But... if the polls are to be believed, there is a good chance that they will be fooled again into believing that the Republicans represent something other than the top 0.01% of the population. They will be fooled about "straight talking", "family values", "a strong America", and other platitudes which have nothing to do with the policies advocated by McCain. You would think the American people would learn. Oh well.

David Sedaris' "When You are Engulfed in Flames"

This is another in the series of autobiographical novels by David Sedaris. He appeals to a reader who loves his quirky humour, his slightly oddball lifestyle, and the semi-sweet stories of his family. His writing style is what I would call "niblets", i.e. small, sweet, and golden little tales of his adventures in life. After reading half a dozen of his books I almost feel like "family" myself.

I love the way he downplays his own "abilities". I love stories about his family. I even enjoy the bits about his "partner" Hugh. He draws a sketchy picture, but that is part of his charm. He highlights the oddity and humour in life. I always root for the underdog, so I find it easy to root for Sedaris in his epic encounter with Life.

Oh, and I love some of his titles. My favourite is "Dress Your Children in Corduroy and Denim". The title of this one is from some oddball English he saw in one of his travels.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sleazy Sneaky Unstoppable Religious Nuts

Here we go again, Christian fundamentalists are using the courts to "fix" science teaching...

The Christian fundmentalists have tried various tactics to try and put religion into the science classroom. Here's a quick review of their tactics:
  1. With the Scopes Monkey Trial they tried to pass laws to prohibit the teaching of evolution.
  2. Then demand that "equal time" be given go the creation story as an alternate account of how the earth was formed and species "put" on earth.
  3. Next declare that the really supported science, and there was an "intelligent design" (ID) theory in the science community that was not being given a fair hearing, so they wanted laws to legislate "equal time" for ID.
  4. Declare themselves in favour of "critical thinking" and require that the "monopoly" of Darwinian evolutionary "theory" be broken so that "alternate" scientific viewpoints get a chance in the classroom.
Notice how, at each step, they lose, back off, water down their approach a bit, then go at it again. The one common factor? They demand that their favoured "theory" be given equal footing with what they claim to be a defective "theory" of evolution. Funny. Science is filled with a long history of defective theories being put to the test, found wanting, and replaced by new theories. But none of the others went to the courts or legislators to demand that scientists give way and let their "theory" have equal footing. These people are fundamentally anti-science. They don't understand that science is a competition of ideas, not a political competition to see who can get the most votes or bribe the most legislators or judges. If there was any scientific merit to their ideas, all they have to do is submit their research to peer review, publish it, and fight for the hearts and minds of scientists. But they lost this battle over 150 years ago, so they continue to fight for their cause through legislatures and courts. That is not how science is done. But is sure is the right way for a powerful minority to browbeat and defeat a majority. So they hope by keeping up the "good fight" they will one day win. Sad.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Muddling of Climate Models

A news release from the Earth Institute at Columbia University points out that climate models are in no sense "complete" and definitive. Scientists are still grappling with what elements to include in their models. For me, this raises the question of how seriously you can build policy -- especially economic policy -- on a foundation that isn't complete and is subject to significant revision. I'm not opposed to prudential measures, but I am opposed to fanatics who want to stop economic growth and roll back current technologies. I'm leery of models that do linear projections from current trends. I don't see any IPCC models that consider the near term changes to society's dependence on carbon-based technologies.

Here's an example of something new that climate modelers have discovered and now realize needs to be included in their models. I have bolded the key statement:
A new study led by Columbia University researchers has found that the closing of the ozone hole, which is projected to occur sometime in the second half of the 21st century, may significantly affect climate change in the Southern Hemisphere, and therefore, the global climate. The study appears in the June 13th issue of Science. ...

The team of 10 scientists compared results from two sets of climate models, the first one used by the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in late 2007, and the second from the Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion, published by the World Meteorological Organization in 2006. In their prediction of future climate, many IPCC models did not consider the expected ozone recovery and its potential impacts on climate change. The chemistry-climate models used for the 2006 Ozone Assessment, however, predict that the Antarctic ozone hole will achieve full recovery in the second half of this century, and that this may have profound impacts on the surface winds and, likely, on other aspects of the Earth's climate, including surface temperatures, locations of storm tracks, extent of dry zones, amount of sea ice, and ocean circulation. ...

In the past few decades, the tropospheric winds in the Southern Hemisphere have been accelerating closer to the planet's pole as a result of increasing greenhouse gases and decreasing ozone. This wind change has had a broad range of effects on the Earth's climate. The IPCC models predict that this effect will continue, albeit at a slower pace. In contrast, predictions made by the chemistry-climate models indicate that, as a consequence of ozone recovery—a factor largely ignored by IPCC models—the tropospheric winds in the Southern Hemisphere may actually decelerate in the high latitudes and move toward the equator, potentially reversing the direction of climate change in that hemisphere. ...

While previous studies have shown that ozone hole recovery could lead to a warming of the Antarctic, much work remains. For instance, the chemistry-climate models used in the 2006 Ozone Assessment Report do not include a full ocean circulation, which might affect surface temperatures. The interactions between a recovering ozone hole, increasing greenhouse gases, ocean currents, and other components of the climate system must still be explored in order to better understand how the Earth's climate will change in the future.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fascinated by Fire

In the digital age we don't sit by the campfire. We videotape wildfires and share them. Sadly it isn't the same as having a weenie roast and looking into the flames, but still, there is a fascination with this stuff...

Shot with 3 cameras over a period of 28 hours during September 28-29th 2005. Firestorm shows a a unique look at the Simi Valley fire which consumed 25,000 acres. Look for Mars, Orion & the Moon rising in the distance...

How Models (Ideas) Mislead

There's a short article on the Economist website that points out how the doomsayers keep misleading us. Their reasoning is seductive, but it overlooks human ingenuity. This point is made at length 27 years ago by Julian Simon in his book The Ultimate Resource.

The Economist article is a nice antidote to the current gloom-and-doom crowd. It discusses Malthus and his misleading ideas and the current food shortage scare. But the authors point at the more general problem of letting our models of how the world works mislead us because of their seductive simplicity:

Although neo-Malthusianism naturally has much to say about food scarcity, the doctrine emerges more generally as the idea of absolute limits on resources and energy, such as the notion of “peak oil”. Following the earlier scares of the 1970s, oil companies defied the pessimists by finding extra fields, not least since higher prices had spurred new exploration. But even if oil wells were to run dry, economies can still adapt by finding and exploiting other energy sources.

A new form of Malthusian limit has more recently emerged through the need to constrain greenhouse-gas emissions in order to tackle global warming. But this too can be overcome by shifting to a low-carbon economy. As with agriculture, the main difficulty in making the necessary adjustment comes from poor policies, such as governments' reluctance to impose a carbon tax. There may be curbs on traditional forms of growth, but there is no limit to human ingenuity. That is why Malthus remains as wrong today as he was two centuries ago.

Calling for the Next Einstein?

Robert Lee Holz in the Wall Street Journal discusses and anomaly in the Pioneer 11 & 12 trajectory that has astrophysists busy trying to interpret. Does it mean that there is new physics out there? Maybe.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Green Revolution is in Retreat?

There is an interesting blog entry at Marginal Revolution that points out how technology has allowed us to feed ourselves. The following picture summarizes a very key point:
Norman Borlaug, the "father of the Green Revolution", makes the following very interesting point. I would call this the "Clarence Thomas" point (note: Thomas is the black judge on the US Supreme Court who benefited from affirmative action as his ladder up but who then pulled the ladder up behind him by making judicial decisions that outlawed affirmative action):
Extremists in the environmental movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. Small, but vociferous and highly effective and well-funded, anti-science and technology groups are slowing the application of new technology, whether it be developed from biotechnology or more conventional methods of agricultural science. I am particularly alarmed by those who seek to deny small-scale farmers of the Third World - and especially those in sub-Saharan Africa - access to the improved seeds, fertilizers, and crop protection chemicals that have allowed the affluent nations the luxury of plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs which, in turn, has accelerated their economic development.
A commenter on the blog, "Cassandra", emphasizes a key point about the lunacy of the anti-technology, "organic", green movement:
Most people do not have any idea how much the yields have increased over the course of the 20th century. Corn yields in Nebraska now top 210 bushels per acre. Even the best organic is only able to produce about 70 bushels per acre. To produce the same amount with organic farming therefore requires more land.
I love the debate in the comment section of the blog. The greens are aghast at the praise given for growing more on less land. All they can see is "greater consumption" and "more people" and "more environmental damage". Their obvious solution is the old Roman one, decimate them (literally kill every 10th person). That certainly helps cut down on consumption. Of course, I'm waiting for the eco-nuts to fight over being that special 10th person, the one who does the necessary self-sacrifice for the good of us all. Meanwhile, pragmatists notice that humans can fix their problems without radical solutions.

This commentary about solving things with "smaller population" and "eat less meat/become vegan", etc. reminds me of the intellectual furor when I was a kid:
  1. Paul Ehrlich and the "Population Bomb" eco-nuts were demanding Zero Population Growth and moaning "we are all going to die in a horrible famine". Well, it didn't happen. Neither the famine nor the Malthusian runaway population. Most first world countries today have a population deficit problem that is only solved by immigration to keep the population from falling due to the low birth rate. What does this teach us? It tells us that the solution wasn't the "decimate them!" cry of the purists. Instead it was seeking to increase wealth that, in turn, gave people the education and tools to control their own reproduction.
  2. Similarly, visions of us dying is a miasmic swamp of pollutants hasn't happened. The solution wasn't "decimate them!" to rid the pure world of those impure souls who insist on defecating and allowing their machine exhaust to sully Mother Earth, instead it was to increase wealth that, in turn, allowed us to develop cleaner technologies that reduce pollution and/or treat pollutants rather than release them directly into the environment.
I get depressed by religious fundamentalists who have simplistic solutions. Similarly, I get depressed by green activists who have their set of simplistic solutions. Enough of self-appointed "messengers" telling us what to do. Let the people find their way to a solution. Most real solutions require a pragmatic "feeling your way" approach that evolves toward a solution. Beware of people who knock you over the head with simplistic solutions.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Theology of Penn & Teller

Here's a video where Penn & Teller help you "read the Bible"...

Bob Harris' "Who Hates Whom"

This book is categorized by the publisher a "humor" but it is really history/contemporary affairs. It is a good historical review -- leavened with humour -- of the world's hotspots and the story of what's behind these conflicts. It's a mad dash, but a good overview. It hammers home the point that so much of the turmoil in the world is idiotic, but gruesomely relentless in its violence. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

Here's a taste of some of the humor:
Prepare to be confused. The UK is a union of four countries -- England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland --- three of whom are the largest remnants of a once-global empire. But 80 percent of the population lives in England, so people often confuse "England" with "UK," which it isn't.

"Great Britain" isn't the UK, either; it's the island where England is. The "British Isles" would be Great Britain plus Ireland, except the phrase annoys Ireland, which isn't British. But a "Briton" is from anywhere in the UK, including Northern Ireland. Which, if you look at a map, doesn't include the northernmost part of Ireland. And when a British person says "Europe," they mean Europe except for the UK, even though the UK is part of Europe.
Another example that isn't humourous, but shows the light hand he uses to retell history:
Guatemala spent the early 20th century built around the interest of United Fruit (now Chiquita), its biggest landowner. But a 1944 revolution led to the election of Juan José Arévalo, who supported labor unions, universal suffrage, and workers' rights. His successor, Jacobo Arbenz, went further, legalizing the communist party (among others) and attempting a clever land reform: claiming that United Fruit had cheated on its taxes by pretending its land was worth a fraction of its true value. Arbenz proposed to buy the land for exactly what they said it was worth.

To Washington,this might as well have been a Soviet invasion. The newly formed CIA set up a propaganda apparatus to freak out the locals, hooked up rightist Col. Carlos Castillo Armas with some half-competent rebels... and lucked out. Although Armas' men got their butts kicked at first, Arbenz's generals believed a full-scale U.S. invasion was imminient, so they weenied out. Armas, the CIA, and United Fruit were in.

The Power of "Logic"

The following video is quite amusing. It is seriously put forward as an argument to prove God's existence as "the Designer". But the "evidence" is so funny, it comes across as a seriously funny comedy piece. Too bad the author's didn't intend it to be a comedy. I wonder if this lack of "design" proves the non-existence of Ray Comfort, the purported originator of this video entitled The Atheist's Nightmare:

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Slimeball Politics

The following is a perfect example of how politicians will not give a straight answer and how they will always paint the other guy as bad while ignoring any blemish on their own side. This, for me, is a perfect example of how ugly, disgusting, and vicious the "professionals" of politics are:

And if the above isn't enough to drive you crazy, consider these details about how the DNC rules committee meeting went. Especially, listen to the last minute of this tape to see how the Hillary Clinton crowd played the issue of "rules are rules" vs. "count every vote":

Margaret MacMillan's "The Uses and Abuses of History"

This book collects a number of essays about history, how it is written, how it is ignored, why it is useful, etc. Nothing truly revelatory or astonishing. Just craftsmanlike essays. It is nice to read a book by a Canadian. For me the key point was how badly people botch things because they don't know their history. I, for one, have been trapped many times into believing the propaganda put out by the US as it starts out on another of its disastrous adventures. I know the history, but I keep falling into the trap. So, it is easy enough to say that you need to know history. For me, knowing isn't enough. I need to be less credulous, more cynical. Oh well.

Here's a bit that I enjoyed that in a way sums up the book for me:
In 1893, the British naval commander in the Mediterranean, Vice-Admiral George Tryon, decided to take personal command of the summer naval maneuvers. When he ordered an about-face of two parallel rows of battleships, his officers tried to point out that there would be a collision. A relatively simple calculation demonstrated that the combined turning cirles of the ships were greater than the distance bewteen them. WHile his officers watched in dismay, his flagship Victoria was rammed by the Camperdown. Tryon refused to believe that the damage was serious and ordered the nearby vessels not to send their lifeboats. The Victoria sank, taking him and 357 sailors with it.

I take heart from this. Why? It show me that England managed to struggle on for another 50 years before it collapsed under the gross incompetence of its upper class, so I guess the US can struggle on another 20 years after the Reagan/Poppa Bush/Shrub Bush debacle. Using history as my measuring stick, it will take decades before the US finally collapses under the gross incompetence of its ruling mob, an amalgam of Wall Street "smart guys", fanatical neocons, and rabid fundamentalist Christians.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Jonah Lehrer's "Proust Was a Neuroscientist"

This is a wonderful set of essays that examine the interrelationship between science and art. Specifically it claims that "This book is about artists who anticipated the discoveries of neuroscience. It is about writers and pointers and composes who discovered truths about the human mind -- real, tangible truths -- that science is only now rediscovering." It looks at eight artists: Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Wolfe. Apparantly the author worked as a doctoral student in a neurologist's lab before deciding that a PhD in the field was not for him, so his science is excellent. Remarkably, his artistic knowledge and sensibility is first rate as well. This makes an excellent read.

The following fails to give you the delightful artistic insights of the book. But I find it interesting as a bit of debunking of expertise:
In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited fifty-seven wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn't stop the experts from describing the "red" wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its "jamminess," while another enjoyed its "crushed red fruit." Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.

The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was labeled as a fancy Grand Cur. The other bottle was labeled as an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings. The Grand Cru was "agreeable, woody, complex, balanced, and rounded," while the vin du table was "weak, short, light, flat, and faulty." Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only twelve said the cheap wine was.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Nutty US Politics

At the end of the primary elections Hillary Clinton appealed to her "white" voter base (i.e. racist whites) to come on strong and nearly overcome the deficit she had created by her earlier refusal to acknowledge a challenge from Barack Obama (i.e. the failure to plan for a campaign past Super Tuesday). Now a large vocal segment of her followers, this white working class segment of the Democratic Party, are threatening to bolt and vote Republican because their "gut" tells them there is something unacceptable about Barack Obama. This is incredible. They will vote against their economic and political interests because of a "gut feeling". They will do this despite having suffered for eight years under a President who rejected rational thinking in favour of his "gut feelings" and thereby led the US into major disasters.

Here's an example of this thinking. Judge for yourself:

Thursday, June 5, 2008


IEEE Spectrum's June issue is dedicated to the topic of Singularity. This is an idea put forward by Vernor Vinge but is probably best known through the book The Singularity is Near by Raymond Kurzweil. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Rodney Brooks, the roboticist at MIT:
Will machines become smarter than us and decide to take over?

I don't think so. To begin with, there will be no “us” for them to take over from. We, human beings, are already starting to change ourselves from purely biological entities into mixtures of biology and technology. My prediction is that we are more likely to see a merger of ourselves and our robots before we see a standalone superhuman intelligence.

Our merger with machines is already happening. We replace hips and other parts of our bodies with titanium and steel parts. More than 50 000 people have tiny computers surgically implanted in their heads with direct neural connections to their cochleas to enable them to hear. In the testing stage, there are retina microchips to restore vision and motor implants to give quadriplegics the ability to control computers with thought. Robotic prosthetic legs, arms, and hands are becoming more sophisticated. I don't think I'll live long enough to get a wireless Internet brain implant, but my kids or their kids might.

Here's an alternative view from Vernor Vinge:
In human history, there have been a number of radical technological changes: the invention of fire, the development of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution. One might reasonably apply the term singularity to these changes. Each has profoundly transformed our world, with consequences that were largely unimagined beforehand. And yet those consequences could have been explained to earlier humans. But if the transformation discussed in this issue of Spectrum occurs, the world will become intrinsically unintelligible to the likes of us. (And that is why “singularity,” as in “black hole singularity of physics,” is the cool metaphor here.) If the singularity happens, we are no longer the apex of intellect. There will be superhumanly intelligent players, and much of the world will be to their design. Explaining that to one of us would be like trying to explain our world to a monkey.

Bush "security"

Here's an article from the Guardian newspaper by Bruce Schneier that points out that the Bush Administration's idea of "security" is guided by watching too many movies. The restrictions that Homeland Security is putting on taking pictures is nonsense:

Since 9/11, there has been an increasing war on photography. Photographers have been harrassed, questioned, detained, arrested or worse, and declared to be unwelcome. We've been repeatedly told to watch out for photographers, especially suspicious ones. Clearly any terrorist is going to first photograph his target, so vigilance is required.

Except that it's nonsense. The 9/11 terrorists didn't photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn't photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn't photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren't being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn't known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about -- the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6 -- no photography.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A New Perspective on Classical Music

Here's the Zurich Orchestra and you've never SEEN them before...

George Johnson's "The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments"

I did not find this book as compelling as I had hoped. He met expectations in terms of arcane details and interesting facts. But I didn't find the stories compelling and I didn't get a feel that the book as a whole satisfied. These are just ten snapshots done with interesting details, but I didn't come away feeling I had learned any great insight into physics, these scientists, or any larger picture. It was entertaining but not enough to recommend it. I've enjoyed other books by George Johnson, so I was disappointed with this one. Maybe I'm just getting crotchety as I get older. Maybe I know "too much" for these tales to be riveting. Maybe I just plain expected too much. I don't know. I would recommend it as a read for somebody who is between high school science and college. But if you've had university level science classes, this book is too much cute historical detail and not enough meat-and-potatoes science.