Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Simon Winchester's "The Man Who Loved China"

This story was not as gripping as I had hoped, nor as colourful. It was satisfactory but not something to rave about.

I learned a far bit about an iconic character whose books on science in China have been on "would like to read" list forever. I doubt I'll ever get around to them. But this book gives me a sense of what to expect from them.

I enjoyed the adventure in China by Joseph Needham. I was surprised that iwas only a short 4 years. I would have loved more illustrations, but then I guess the book would have been a travelogue and not a biography.

Winchester presents Needham as quite a sympathetic figure with all of his concern for the "common man" and his socialist enthusiasm. But when I read deeper in the book I became less enthralled. Here was a guy "full" of himself. He ran through a lot of women. The book doesn't make it clear whether there were a lot of broken hearts left behind, but my guess is that you don't sweep into somebody's life and dazzle them and leave them without leaving a lot of "loose ends" behind. That part of the story isn't covered since that would take some burnish off the great man's legacy. The part that really soured me was how he allowed himself to be duped into taking part in a communist front "scientific committee" that "investigated" claims of US biological weapons use. I can accept that he was naive and can't be blamed for signing up. But he can be blamed for not responding when he noticed that his old colleagues in China were strangely reserved while collaborating in this "investigation". He can be blamed for noticing the poverty and the Mao posters everywhere. Here's a guy who touted socialism because it "freed men's souls" walking around in China during the 1950s and 1960s seeing the glum people in their Mao uniforms with no joy, no life about them. But he never questioned "the Revolution". That is completely unacceptable.

This blindness is even more unacceptable given the history of the 1930s Stalinist show trials and the great disiullisionment with Communism that came from that and the Khrushchev revelations in the mid-1950s. But Needham remained a "fellow traveller" for his entire life. Winchester is eager to talk about the wonderful do-good attitude, but he never tallies up the do-bad consequences of this blinkered political approach. Winchester notes some aspects of Needham that rest uneasy: he claimed to want to bust things open and give the outsiders a chance, but at the same time he layered on more traditions at Caius College with more prayers for the rich donors to the college. Obviously contradictions and hypocrisy don't bother Winchester as much as they do me.

I think it is sadly funny that Winchester hints at the end of this book that the "great achievement" of Needham may recede in the future when the pressing question of "why did science not develop in China" gets lost as China re-enters world history. That is the funny thing about history. What one generation finds interesting or pivotal, another generation finds uninteresting or derivative. Before I read this book I would have said that Needham was pivotal. But now I would say he is not that interesting. Winchester achieved the opposite of what I think he intended. He taught me that a person who I thought was an intellectual hero was in fact a person with feet of clay, worse, a person whose great life's work ends up being a forgettable accomplishment. Sad.

There are a lot of themes that are not developed. Needham's wife, Dorothy, a long suffering partner who put up with Needham's affairs and who devoted her life to her own science was generally neglected. As he points out, she never attained a position and lived on research grant scraps her whole life. Also, he gives no insight into loyal assistants like Lu Gwei-djen and H. T. Huang. Maybe I'm a sourpuss but I take the Newtonian "standing on the shoulders of giants" seriously. Nobody plays a heroic role alone. The many assistants help hold them up. This book gives too much the impression that Needham was a solitary genius. Nope. There is enough in the book to show that wasn't the case, but on the other hand the book doesn't really address how much support Needham got.

So... a book worth reading but not a great book. It won't live you dazzled or full of new insight. It is a biography that sheds some light on one man's life. It is interesting. But not something I will dip into again and again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Thought Police

I love freedom. Especially, I love the kind of freedom that you are free to exercise so long as nobody is offended by your freedom. If we didn't apply this rule, then we would have anarchy, not freedom. Who wants that. We should only allow people to be free to do those things that any "right thinking" person would freely do...

Isn't it odd that McCain is for "free" trade but not for "free" expression?

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Legal System is Broken

Here is a top notch law professor telling an audience "never talk to the cops" and "even if you are innocent, never talk to the cops". He goes on to show top legal minds, even Justices of the US Supreme Court tell you "never talk to the cops".

Amazing, eh? But it is true. The system is broken. The legal system is set up such that there is no benefit to you, a law-abiding citizen, to ever cooperate with the police. Top lawyers, even Supreme Court Justices, tell you this. If that isn't a broken system, I don't know what is.

See for yourself:

What is the benefit of a system which is so skewed that rational people have to refuse to cooperate for fear of being wrongfully convicted of a crime? How can it be cost effective or efficient or fair or serve justice to have such a system? The video is clever and amusing, but it is a tragedy. It shows a dysfunctional system. One in which you can never line up your self interest with the collective interest. Where you need to always look out for "number one" and never trust, collaborate, or cooperate with agents of the state. Crazy!

Now... Here's the other half where a police investigator tells you exactly how the police entrap you:

Notice his pride in how he tricks people into convictions. Notice that he happily admits the he lies as part of his entrapment techniques (e.g. convince them to write an "apology letter" to reduce their sentence while intending all along to use it as a "written confession" to seal their fate). Notice his disrespect for the "criminals" (by the way, since when is the cop given the write to be the jury and decide guilt and innocence?). Notice how he evinces a sense of entitlement and cleverness and superiority. I find it telling that he is convinced that dressing up and looking "professional" is good evidence of innocence. He's convinced that anybody who doesn't dress up is guilty. (He admits that there are very elegantly dressed criminals in the upper echelons of business, but it is pretty clear he is quite satisfied to go after the poor who -- by their very clothes, bearing, language, etc. -- "prove" that they are guilty. I guess he knows that in the pecking order, cops aren't going to win against the well-heeled criminals, so he stick to those lower on the pecking order to enforce his alpha-male version of "justice".)

So... two videos. Two sides of the legal system. Pathetic. Disgusting. Completely dysfunctional but these cogs in the system show no sense of failure or need for reform. This wretched system puts bread on their table and they are quite pleased with that.

Police Thuggery

We are all taught that "Mr. Policeman is our friend" but in the real world too many thugs are hired into police forces and the "brotherhood" of the police shields them from disciplinary action when they abuse their public trust and power. Here is yet another example of arbitrary use of force by a bully hiding behind a police uniform:

There is more detail on this web site:
Although a judge ruled in 2006 that the monthly Critical Mass bicycle rides could proceed without a permit, the NYPD's stance remains somewhat adversarial. Though the city has not been enforcing the controversial parade permit law when it comes to Critical Mass, police have been ticketing cyclists during the ride for such infractions as not having the required lights.

A representative for TIMES UP! tells us that the cyclist in this video was arrested, held for 26 hours, and charged with attempted assault and resisting arrest. One other cyclist was ticketed Friday night for riding outside the bike lane, which is not actually illegal and often necessary, considering how popular bike lanes are for double parking.

A Carpenter's Nightmare

Here's a all-wood hand-cranked gizmo that will amaze you...

The first half of the video is different viewpoints on the gizmo in action and the second half the inventor talks about the different wood he used to make it. It is amazing what people can do to entertain themselves!

Maytag Repairman?

Here's a professor of religion, Hector Avalos, telling the world that his academic specialty is going out of business. Specifically, the field of "biblical archaeology" is fast discovering that it isn't a science because the Bible is no guide to the past. It is literature, not history. He points out that the experts in the field freely admit this among themselves but paint a different picture when they talk to the public because they don't want to "upset" religious people...

Part 1

Part 2

He jokes that when his professon finally shuts down he plans to become a "Maytag repairman".

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Voice Of America, Bush Edition

Here's an interesting series of video bits by Chris Matthews, Scott McClellan, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow disclosing how the Bush White House used the supposedly independent "news organization" Fox as a propaganda arm of of the Bush government:

So much for "fair and balanced" Fox. Maybe "slanted and scripted" Fox is more appropriate.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Famous Religious Quotations

Here is a delightful video full of devotional quips from a number of great minds over the ages. These are well worth careful study. Enjoy!

Not exactly what you expected? Bait and switch? Isn't that the heart of religion?

Sensible Actions from an Senseless Administration

Paul McCulley from Pimco presents the sensible actions that the US federal government has to do to get the country out of its current mess:
...the paradox of thrift posits that if we all individually cut our spending in an attempt to increase individual savings, then our collective savings will paradoxically fall because one person’s spending is another’s income – the fountain from which savings flow.

This principle is part of a whole range of macroeconomic concepts under the label of the paradox of aggregation: what holds for the individual doesn’t necessarily hold for the community of individuals. Understanding this paradox is absolutely vital to understanding macroeconomics and even more so to understanding what is presently unfolding in global financial markets. ...

Once the double bubbles in housing valuation and housing debt burst a little over a year ago, everybody, and in particular, every levered financial institution – banks and shadow banks alike – decided individually that it was time to delever their balance sheets. At the individual level, that made perfect sense.

At the collective level, however, it has given us the paradox of deleveraging: when we all try to do it at the same time, we actually do less of it, because we collectively create deflation in the assets from which leverage is being removed. ...

As Keynes taught us long ago, that somebody is the same somebody that needs to step up spending to break the paradox of thrift: the federal government, which needs to lever up its balance sheet to absorb assets being shed through private sector delevering, so as to avoid pernicious asset deflation. ...

Fortunately, Congress is finally grappling with this reality, as it moves towards passage of Mr. Paulson’s plan for backstopping Fannie and Freddie with taxpayer funds. It’s not a fun thing to do, particularly following the use of $29 billion of taxpayer funds to facilitate the merger of Bear Stearns into JPMorgan. But it is the right thing to do. And it is further the right thing that Congress is doing it, not the Fed under Section 13(3), except as a possible bridge to Treasury authority.
Note: for those of you who are allergic to reading, here is the video version available on Bloomberg.
McCulley has it right. This action is necessary. Instead of the non-response of the Bush Administration to Katrina, this catastrophe is on a scale and at a scope that simply won't allow the "no government is the best government" ideology of the Bush administration to continue to be applied.

Instead, this calls for Keynes. Just like the Great Depression, the current situation is one of those classic economic catastrophes where government has to step in and act as the economic agent of last resort to save the capitalist system from itself. The good news is that there are enough capitalists with common sense to realize this. Sure, there will be the odd ideologues over the next two or three generations who will grumble and complain just as they do over FDR's efforts to save the capitalists from themselves. But sensible people will applaud sensible actions even when it is done to save a fool from his own foolishness!

Hang on...

Before I get too rapturous with praise for the Bush administration, I should point out that there are voices crying in the wilderness telling us that all is not sweetness and light. Here is Dean Baker from the American Prospect:

BIll That Will Cause 140,000 Homeowners to Face Second Foreclosure Passes Congress

Okay, that would not have been my headline, but when all the news accounts keep saying that the bill will "help" 400,000 homeowners, this fact really does deserve some attention. Just to remind everyone, the bill allows the banks -- not the homeowners-- to decide which loans get placed in the program.

If you are a troubled homeowner with the sheriff at the door with the eviction papers, this bill does nothing, as in zero, as in nada, for you, unless you can persuade your lender to take part in the program. The Congressional Budget Office expects that lenders will only place their worst loans into the program and that 140,000 of the homeowners who get new mortgages issued under the program will subsequently face foreclosure a second time. This means that only 260,000 homeowners will on net be able to keep their home as a result of this program, based on the CBO estimates. This is approximately 5 percent of the 5-6 million foreclosures expected over 2008 and 2009.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Mental Kaleidoscope Couched in an Economics Lecture

Tyler Cowen from George Mason University is an economist who writes the interesting blog Marginal Revolution.

What makes him interesting is his odd mix of interests in economics and culture.

If you want a taste of Tyler and his wildly variegated interests and his ability to bring themes together, listen to a lecture where he talks about:
The purpose of the lecture is to look at globalization and argue that of the two views:
  1. Losses from leveling down to the "lowest common denominator"
  2. Gains from free trade
He notes that the political left and right are going for view #1. But he argues that libertarians go for point #2.

Now that I've whetted your appetite, here is the video of the Tyler Cowen lecture.

Oliver Stone Inteview

Fora.TV offers the following interesting interview with Oliver Stone held at an Oxonian Society meeting in New York on May 23rd, 2007:

One nice thing about Fora.TV is that they provide a transcript which you can access on their website just below this video clip of this interview. Here is my favourite bit -- of the many interesting bits -- that I've pulled from the transcript and dressed up a bit:
Interviewer: Talking about an Iraq... when do you think you will make a film about the debacle?

Stone: I am not qualified to... I mean... there is so much Internet stuff. It's so edgy and hot... you know... I have lost interest in trying to be on the edge. I am into something else right now. These kids will make a movie about Iraq. It will be good... I think the contractors are much more interested in subjects for an older guy like me. Because I know a lot of guys who went back to Iraq. Not a lot... I know three or four guys... not a lot... they are all Vietnam vets and they say "Hey, Oliver, this is like a second Vietnam... this is cool... we make a lot of dough" You know, they are pulling $300,000 to 400,000 a year to keep some police station in Ramala... to be cops and then at night it's a whore house... but during the day they pretend to be cops... you know... it's like typical Vietnam stuff... Money... Iraq is about money... and these guys are going back to score. That's an interesting story to me. That would be wages of fear American style, you know. But I couldn't do the soldiers because I've lost touch with that generation. I mean... they are different than we were. Most of us were draftees, or volunteers because of the draft. These guys come from another ethic... they grew up in the 1980s, 90s... a lot of them saw the films I made... but it didn't change one iota their belief in what the government says.

Interviewer: Continuing on the one theme... Platoon took the United States and the world by storm... many critics thought another film on Vietnam was destined to fail. Can you explain what was so different about Platoon and why did it universally capture the audiences around the world? Briefly...

Stone: I think it hit an emotion... an emotion of a confused young man who went into a situation that was above his head. He didn't understand what he was into until it was too late... a classic situation like all of us, and I think he saw due two extreme sides of the conflict and the behavior that was possible to him... and I think people follow that story. It's a classic formula in the sense, you know... the classic novels are about the young man goes to sea... or young man goes to war... or young man goes west.

Interviewer: Seeing that how did "Born on the Fourth of July" and Platoon come about?

Stone: "Born on the Fourth of July" is completely different. It was written by Ron Kovic and I adapted the book 10 years before it was made. It was not made in 1978 with Pacino... ironically was made 10 years later by me directing it, I only had written it at first. But then I directed it with Cruise.

Interviewer: And "Platoon"...

Stone: 10 years later too... I wrote it. It was not made. I thought the world was against me. I went into other things, and then 10 years later miraculously it came around again, and it got made as did the "Born on the Fourth of July". So it was like a miracle.

Interviewer: Do you think it would have been the same exact product if you had made it.

Stone: I was not the director on either one I was the screenwriter. But it was fortuitous that it came around to me. Absolutely...

Interviewer: Tom Cruise gives an impressive performance as Ron Kovac... that you actually just mentioned. How did you decide on Tom in the casting of the film? My father actually went to school with Ron in Massapiquot...

Stone: If your father told you about Ron, then you know, Ron is competitive, he was, he's a very strong man... a very pure... American boy. Let's say, really a Polish immigrant, very strong and he believed in the war. He wanted Tom Cruise... In his foundation, what I knew of him, was that he very much liked Ron Kovic. I think Tom's behavior you can see is very willful and determined. He gets, you know, he gets what he wants and I think that was what Ron Kovic was. But the beauty of the film was that we were able to put Cruise into a position where he didn't get what he wanted in the end, you see. He sets out to be John Wayne and then of course he is shot, paralyzed and and basically castrated for the rest of his life. So he has to deal with being an hero, in another way, and I always thought that was the crux of the film: How do you get Tom Cruise in a wheel chair? How do you get him powerless? And how does he get to keep his powers? These questions. That's what made it effective for me.

Monday, July 21, 2008

John Shelby Spong's "Jesus for the Non-Religious"

I've always had a passion for theology and history. The quest for the "historical Jesus" has been an interest from childhood. Spong's "Jesus for the Non-Religious" is the latest of many books I've read. I picked it up because of the title. It intrigued me.

Part I of the book examines -- from a modern scientific viewpoint -- what we can know of the story presented in the New Testament. A lot of what he presents has been presented before. Some of his interpretations are newish. But I enjoy the thrill of the story that he develops. It is very well presented. After examining and interpreting the evidence, here is the major conclusion of Part I of the book:
The first stage of our faith journey, the clearing out of distortions in the way we view the Jesus story, is now complete. The literalness of centuries of misinterpretation of the Jesus story has been broken open. The pieces lie before us in frightening array. Jesus was born in a perfectly normal way in Nazareth. His mother was not the icon of virgin purity. His earthly father, Joseph, was a literary creation. His family thought he was out of his mind. He probably did not have twelve male disciples. He had disciples who were both male and female. He did not command nature to obey him. He did not in any literal sense give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf or wholeness to the paralyzed and infirm. He did not raise the dead. There was no stylized Last Supper in which bread was identified with his broken body and wine with his poured-out shed blood designed to symbolize his final prediction of death. There was no betrayal and no romance connected with cross, no thieves, no cry of thirst and no darkness at noon. There was no tomb, no Joseph of Arimathea, no earthquake, no angel who rolled back the stone. There was no resuscitated body that emerged from that tomb on the third day, no touching of the wounds of Jesus, no opening by him of the secrets of scripture. Finally, there was no ascension into a heaven that exists above the sky.
Part III of the book constructs Spong's vision of "Jesus for the non-religious". But to do that he needs to point out that religion has taken the message and turned it negative within its "theistic" framework:
I observe first the fact that for some nineteen hundred years institutional Christianity lived comfortably with prejudices based on gender, race and sexual orientation. With the emergence of the twentieth century, however, Christianity started to fade precipitously, beginning in Europe and spreading to the United States. Power shifted dramatically from institutional Christianity to a rising, vigorous, secular humanism. It was this secular spirit that proceeded to rout the prejudices with which Christianity had accommodated itself for so long. This enabled the twentieth century to become the most dramatic century in human history for the rise of human rights. ...

My question is: Why did these enormous transformations of consciousness take place only when Christianity receded and secularism rose to replace it? Why was institutional Christianity unwilling to challenge these dehumanizing practices when they had to power to do so? ... Why is it still true that the largest expressions of institutional Christianity continue their relentless battle against the full equality of women in both church and society? Why do Christian leaders in the highest places still today seek to wrest from these newly emancipated women the power to make decisions about their own bodies? Why is the most segregated hour in American today still the hour of worship? Why is the strongest bastion of homophobia in the developed world today still the Christian church? What is there about Christianity, organized as it is today around the concept of a theistic God, that seems to require a perpetual victim? ...

Scrape away from traditional Christian teaching the piety and the stained-glass attitudes, and one finds cesspools of anger, boiling cauldrons that have ignited religious violence in every generation. Christians need to own this part of their history. ...

Today's church spends its energy in losing battles about such things as authority, scripture, women, sexuality and homosexuality, about which its history reveals it knows very little.
I thoroughly enjoy Spong's deconstruction of the religion around Jesus, but in the end I don't understand why he doesn't just let go and admit that Jesus was an interesting historical figure. Instead he wants to cling to a remnant religiosity built on some mystery of "Ground of Being" and other mumbo-jumbo. I enjoy this pantheism and his iconoclasm, but I don't buy into his attempt to save Jesus for a special pedestal. I accept his death of religion, but I reject his new dawning centred on this repurposed Jesus:
The religion called Christianity is dying, the casualty of an expanded worldview. The God experience in Jesus -- that experience upon which Christianity was built -- is newly dawning and will in time create new forms through which that new vision can live. Once Jesus is freed from the prison of religion, a renaissance and a reformation are possible. Jesus for the non-religious comes into view.

I don't understand why Spong doesn't just move over to Unitarianism which, to me, seems the essence of his current beliefs.

Here is a bit from a decidedly negative review of Spong's book by the blogger Ben Myers:
... Spong’s interpretation of the Gospel texts often rests on outdated research and flawed interpretations of the scholarship. And he misses the mark when he insists on a rigid dichotomy between faith and history. ...

The Jesus who emerges from these pages is ultimately indistinguishable from any other respectably innocuous, politically correct member of the Western middle classes. ...

Bishop Spong’s Jesus may be useful and consoling, then, but he is not especially interesting, much less unique. He poses no threat, no challenge. He makes no demands. He tells us nothing that we didn’t know already. And for just that reason, it’s hard to see why “the non-religious” – or anyone else, for that matter – should have any special regard for this Jesus.
I accept the thrust of Myers critique, but I feel offended by the viciousness of Myers' attack. Myers strikes me as someone who is jealously fighting a rearguard action to preserve the very dying religion that Spong has described.

One final comment: For me, one of the great joys of reading Spong's book was his honesty about race relations of the US's Deep South and how it poisoned the community in which he was raised, specifically North Carolina. He calls out the ugly side of zealots who use religion to cover-up or justify their dirty little deeds. This resonated with me. When I was an adolescent the youth minister of our church came to us after fleeing his home in Alabama. The local KKK had burned a cross in his yard giving him a warning. He got "the message" and gathered up his two very young children and his wife, and he fled well over a thousand miles to get away from the pieties of these "religious conservatives" of the Deep South (now known as fundamentalists). This once slave-based society was busy in the 1960s blowing up black churches killing young girls, turning police dogs and billy club-wielding police loose on unarmed protestors, grabbing "uppity" young blacks and lynching them, and seizing civil rights workers in the middle of the night to kill and bury them deep in the back woods. Spong is right to point out the hypocrisy of such a "deeply religious" society of the Deep South, a society which harboured vicious racism. Spong's personal story reminds me of why I distanced myself from "organized" religion.

So... For me, the book is well worth the read for two reasons:
  1. It is an excellent tour of how the Gospels are in fact a constructed story. He shows how sophisticated the understanding of the Bible has become as a result of two hundred years of scholars freely analyzing the text unhampered by orthodoxies.
  2. You get a peek into the US Deep South and a sense of how religion aids hypocrites in acting exactly contrary to the very teachings of the Book they claim to hold dear.

Is there a Robot in Your Future?

Here's a video on the Felix project in Europe to create "feeling" robots:

The EU is big on "big science". They have had a series of "frameworks" in which they fund large collaborations with targeted goals. It isn't clear to me that this has been particularly successful. But my bottom line is that money moves mountains, so I'm a big fan even if the explicit funding goal isn't met. (I have the same complaint about grant-oriented funding in North America.)

The three-year, Sixth Framework Programme project involves six countries and 25 specialists who are building demonstration robots as proof of concept for advances in building social, emotional robots. From a report in
Robots that can adapt to people's behaviours are needed if machines are to play a part in society, such as helping the sick, the elderly, people with autism or house-bound people, working as domestic helpers, or just for entertainment, according to Canamero.

The work is still well shy of an I Robot scenario with emotionally complex machines taking matters into their own hands, but the empathy empowering software being developed by Feelix Growing is a big step forward for robotics.

Making Do with Less

I enjoy the hoary story about the kings of England declaring the oak forests off limits because ship building and charcoal-making was endangering a diminishing resource. So some clever guy started burning stone -- coal -- as an alternative. It ended up cheaper and more plentiful.

Here's a story about technology riding to the rescue yet again as we puzzle over pollution and global warming and fear having to tighten our belts because of cost or government mandate:
Researchers at Purdue University have overcome a major obstacle in reducing the cost of "solid state lighting," a technology that could cut electricity consumption by 10 percent if widely adopted.

"The LED technology has the potential of replacing all incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs, which would have dramatic energy and environmental ramifications," said Timothy D. Sands, the Basil S. Turner Professor of Materials Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The LED lights are about as efficient as compact fluorescent lights, which contain harmful mercury.

But LED lights now on the market are prohibitively expensive, in part because they are created on a substrate, or first layer, of sapphire. The Purdue researchers have solved this problem by developing a technique to create LEDs on low-cost, metal-coated silicon wafers. ...

Incandescent bulbs are about 10 percent efficient, meaning they convert 10 percent of electricity into light and 90 percent into heat. ...

By comparison, efficiencies ranging from 47 percent to 64 percent have been seen in some white LEDs, but the LED lights now on the market cost about $100.

"When the cost of a white LED lamp comes down to about $5, LEDs will be in widespread use for general illumination," Sands said. "LEDs are still improving in efficiency, so they will surpass fluorescents. Everything looks favorable for LEDs, except for that initial cost, a problem that is likely to be solved soon."

Outside the Box Thinking

For years a number of scientists have been running around announcing "the end is nigh!" with their warnings about global warming. Their prodding has moved various political entities down the road to "fixing" the problem through ham-handed solutions like Kyoto.

Here in British Columbia, the government has implemented a "carbon tax" that will add 7.2 cents/litre (roughly 30 cents/gallon) by 2012 (and has initially boosted gasoline prices by 2.4 cents/gallon. With this has pushed gasoline to over $1.40/litre (over $5.50/gallon). It has added insult to injury to the household budgets during an already worrisome economic climate.

My complaint about the global warming crowd is that they strike me as gloomsters & doomsters that I've seen too many times in the past. Sure, there is an element of truth in what they say. That's what makes the credible enough to get attention. But what really bothers me is that rather than demand a serious scientific effort to develop the fundamental science and test what we know, this crowd is a moralistic bunch that proudly "has the answers" and wants to bang us about the head until we give in to their demands. They are too much of a "hair shirt" crowd for my taste. They want to administer their medicine of puritanical "tighten the belt" and do without. It seems they take glee in passing out their castor oil prescription. But I notice that they can still justify their jet set lifestyle of flying around the world to attend conferences at which they dourly pontificate about our wasteful ways and "our" need (not them) to cut back on greenhouse emissions.

I admit the potential of greenhouse gases to cause global warming. I want to see governments mobilize science and technology to examine the science and develop the full panoply of technological alternatives before we are driven down some costly path that ends up based on half-baked ideas by scientists wearing hair shirts.

So... when I run across a report like the following about an open source technology initiative I think "why don't we explore this before we commit to Kyoto or something worse?" To me the following is evidence that all the viable alternatives to Kyoto and carbon taxes and other heavy-handed "solutions" have not been fully explored:
Scientists say they have found a workable way of reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere by adding lime to seawater. And they think it has the potential to dramatically reverse CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere, reports Cath O'Driscoll in SCI's Chemistry & Industry magazine published today.

Here is the Cquestrate web site.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Two By Four, or is that Four By Two?

Here's Feist's 1-2-3-4 song. Pick your own "age appropriate" version...

I must admit that I favour the pre-school version. That one has lyrics readily apparent in the choreography and a presentation that reinforces the conceptualization implicit in the number chant. For the life of me I don't "get" the bottom one. I see spirals and mobs rushing to-and-fro while singing words that undermine the principal concepts of the song. I guess Big Bird is simply a superior choreographer and Feist rises adeptly to the challenge of matching lyric to audience better in the Sesame Street version.

Talking Heads Take on the Financial Crisis

Here is an NPR station sponsoring a discussion on the financial crisis, specifically the July 2008 bank run at IndyMac and the panic at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The participants are:
  • Barry Ritholz, a Wall Street analyst and blogger
  • Thomas Donlan, a financial journalist at Barron's magazine
  • Jakob S. Hacker, a political science professor at Yale (author of The Great Risk Shift)
  • Peter Temin, a professor of Economics History at MIT

Apocalyptic Exegesis

When I was an adolescent I was not "hooked into" the 1960s culture in any deep way, but I was affected vaguely since it was all around on radio & TV. But...

I bought a Jefferson Airplane LP and would play the following piece over and over again on the family console record player lying prone with my head between the stereo speakers to get the full stereophonic effect. I would boost the sound up to ear busting and feast on the sound until my parents showed up from work and would yell at me.

There was a message in this music. I knew it. I didn't really decipher it at the time. (I've always been terrible at understanding lyrics. I just went with the flow.) But looking back I can understand the appeal of song and lyrics. At the time, my world was falling apart. This music captured the zeitgeist. The driving beat and insistent melodic progression keep ratcheting up the tension expressing completely my sense of impending doom.

I had lived my childhood in fear of atomic annihilation. I saw my culture dissolving into an inter-generational turmoil in the latter part of the 1960s. I saw the government as insane and at war with its own youth. I saw a wonderful movement of social justice that had bloomed with the Civil Rights sit-ins and marches turn ugly with KKK cross burnings and thugs beating up Freedom Riders and bombing churches. I saw assassinations: JFK, MLK, RFK and urban centres burning through long hot summers as ghettos exploded in violence. I saw the political leadership lie and drive the country into a meaningless and deadly war in Vietnam. I saw the right wing political party use clever language to paint the optimists and idealist as 'the enemy' with classic terms like 'nattering nabobs of negativism' as these Washington hacks milked the system for their on sinister ends and blind ideology.

The music with its insistent driving beat and eerily irrational/incomprehensible "message" somehow made sense...

Here's my favourite book on the era:

Funny how time washes away all the details. Much like headstones in a cemetery after a few hundred years. The engravings wear away until they are all but indecipherable. Instead, new headstones are brought in and planted. This one is the Gulf War. That one is GWB's Iraq folly. Here are the political scandals. There are the old mesmerizing words of the Right (tax cuts, trickle down economics, deregulation) carved into the hide of a new generation that will scar over and then slowly fade as time washes away pain and effaces the deep cuts and leaves behind only vague memories. But the cycle endures. Those with great wealth and power keep selling the same old snake oil over and over to each new generation. The wheel turns.

Getting another Perspective

Here's an unusual view of the moon. In late May 2008 the EPOXI satellite turned its cameras back toward earth an captured this lunar transit. A nice new perspective to enjoy of our little local moon-earth system:

From the EPOXI website:
On May 29 and June 5, EPOCh will again turn the EPOXI telescope toward our own Earth, and observe it in the visible and infrared for a full rotation. These data will be used to characterize the "Earth as an exoplanet," essentially to calibrate the properties of possible "pale blue dots" that may eventually be imaged by advanced missions such as the Terrestrial Planet Finder. The May 29 observations will be especially interesting because the Moon will "transit" the Earth while EPOCh is watching, and this is a view of the Earth-Moon system that has seldom if ever been seen before.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Moral Hasard

PBS has done an entertaining, but educational, segment on the The Newshour with Jim Lehrer about Moral Hasard.

This is well worth watching at the very least for the comedy bits which are taken from a Bird and Fortune comedy skit on the credit crunch:

Back to the PBS video: I object to the viewpoint of Catherine Mann of Brandeis. She argues against bailing out institutions because of "moral hazard". At 10:00 into the video she argues against the "rescue" of Bear Stearns because it "gives those institutions a green light to engage in riskier investments than they otherwise would have, to that extent they create an environment of moral hasard". Yes that is true. But two things:
  1. If you want no risk, we can just shut down the institutions. Nobody risks anything. Business grinds to a halt. We are all safe but impoverished living in Hobbes state of "war of all against all" and living out our "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" lives.
  2. If you accept risk, then you strive to moderate it, not elimiinate it. Actions that "save the system" while trying to punish those who took excessive risks is as good as you can get.
In short, my complaint against her is that she is a "fundamentalist". She sees no gray ground between hard "truths". But the real world is a world of gray, of compromise, of best efforts. To demand to live in a world of "hard truths" and "absolutes" is to undermine what life we can have in service to ideas that are unrealizable. If you look around, most of the problems of the world are caused by people who insist of "every jot and title of the law". Most of our great literature is written to point out the travesty of justice, morality, and law when extremists demand the world conform to their black and white blinkered view.

Steve Cecchetti made it very clear that the Fed's rescue did in fact punish risk taking. But it tempered its punishment with a eye to its higher goal of "ensuring the system". The rescue was to prevent the collapse of the system. Punishing moral miscreants is a desireable goal, but has to be subservient to the goal of ensuring that the system survives. And, as he pointed out, there was in fact punishment meted because hundreds of billions were lost by shareholders, managers were sacked, and employees lost jobs and pensions. This should be sufficient to deter future risk takers. Will it prevent all future risk taking? No! And it shouldn't. We need a system with some prudent risk taking. The Fed's action is meant only to limit "reckless" risk taking. But you cannot stop reckless risky behaviour without stopping all risk taking because there is no clear line between reckless and prudent. As with all things in life. In many cases it is clear what is reckless and it is clear what is prudent, but there is a large middle ground that becomes clear only in hindsight. This is what the fundamentalist don't recognize or acknowledge. Their rigid morality that will stop "all" reckless risk taking would in fact hobble the system by trying to prevent -- in advance -- something that isn't always clear until events unfold and we understand them better.

So... the video is a good one. It educates. It entertains. And it should make you want to reach in and join the argument. That's be best kind of informative video.

Friday, July 18, 2008

US Attorney General Says Waterboarding US Soldiers is OK

Here is a pompous ass, John Ashcroft who was US Attorney General from 2001-2005, telling a US Congressional hearing that waterboarding is "not torture".

The above are the opinions of a right wing stooge. The following is the opinion of Wikipedia which I believe is a more credible source on this issue:

Waterboarding is a form of torture that consists of immobilizing a person on their back with the head inclined downward and pouring water over the face and into the breathing passages. Through forced suffocation and inhalation of water, the subject experiences the process of drowning and is made to believe that death is imminent. In contrast to merely submerging the head face-forward, waterboarding almost immediately elicits the gag reflex. Although waterboarding does not always cause lasting physical damage, it carries the risks of extreme pain, damage to the lungs, brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation, injuries (including broken bones) due to struggling against restraints, and even death. The psychological effects on victims of waterboarding can last for years after the procedure.

Notice how Ashcroft never answered the question: "... if these techniques were used on American soldiers that they would be totally unacceptable and even criminal?" He talks about his son serving, but I'm pretty sure that if he knew that insurgents had his son and were waterboarding him he wouldn't be saying "these are tough practices but we cannot call them torture". He is a hypocrite. He is a right wing fanatic, an ideologue who is so wrapped up in his ideology that he refuses to answer questions or tell the truth.

This Little Light of Mine

I love the nutty stuff of religion. Here's a nice God-based demonstration of how God "lights you up" when you "connect" with God...

As I watch I keep thinking of the lyrics to that wonderful hymn This Little Light of Mine.

My only question... if you watch closely, at the end that pickle that has God's love "cookin' and lightin' it up" oozes out some awfully ugly black gunk at the end. This preacher doesn't explain just what that black gunk stands for. Is that all the "sin" coming out? Sure looks ugly to me. But we know that "God's power" wouldn't "cause" anything ugle. Maybe this is Satan sneaking in a disrupting God's wonderful light show. Who knows?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Fareed Zakaria's "The Post-American World"

This book lived down to my expectations. It was a pleasant read, but it didn't provide any real "aha" moments. It takes a reasoned, middle road in looking at today's world and the US's role in it. He is generally upbeat about the US but admits that in relative terms it is slipping. But as he explains "this is to be expected".

In had to resist the temptation to keep saying "he is an immigrant, so he has an immigrant's attitude toward his adopted country". He is proud of the ideals. He accepts the warts of political reality in the US while remaining hopeful that the country will muddle through.

I do like his discussions of history, of China, and of India. He is refreshing in having a wider perspective than most American commentators. He presents China as "the Challenger" and India as "the Ally". Yes, that's generally true, but I don't come away from these two chapters feeling any new great insight.

In the section on American Power he presents the history of British decline as an example to the US. But he assures his readers that this fate need not await the US since "... it is essential to note that the central feature of Britain's decline -- irreversible economic deterioration -- does not really apply to the United States today." I don't completely accept his argument. There are similarities. Both took their eye off the ball of maintaining a solid economy. Both let their educational system fall behind competitors. Both allowed their politics to be swallowed in the machinations of "great power" thinking. Zakaria is far too optimistic about the US having cherry-picked the best of the economy for itself while leaving the drudgery of mere industry to China. Seems to me this was the view of the English elites as they focused on their financial industry compared to the German's drudgery with manufacturing in such areas as chemicals and steel and electrical industries. I look back at how close a call WWI and WWII were for England and think it is because the English were too smug about their coupon clipping and not worried enough about how manufacturing would let Germany build up impressive war industries.

Zakaria sounds too much like somebody rationalizing when he claims that while US educational averages are fairly low on a global standard, the elite schools are still tops and the upper middle classes are getting advanced degrees. I just read a report where US education has recorded its first fall in levels of education. Previous generations got 1 or 2 years more education than the previous generation but now they are getting 1 year less on average. That can't be good. And all that vaunted "elite" university stuff is wonderful if the kids attending actually end up working in the country. But the US is filling its elite universities with more and more foreign students who now leave and take their skills back to their home countries. So I don't think the argument about hidden "strength" in US elite education really holds. Not when I hear that in the Gulf States of the Middle East a number of elite universities are busy trying to create duplicate elite name brand university campuses. Isn't this just one more example of moving a competence offshore?

I think Zakaria has it generally right, but he does read as a bit complaisant and smug that the US will muddle through. I think Americans need more of a fire-and-brimstone speech to wake them up to the dangers that they are letting themselves be lulled into. I'm happy enough to see a multipolar world, but I think a lot of Americans are going to be shocked when it happens and this book is not a clarion call to action. It is a polite whisper that there may be trouble afoot. This seems tepid when others are hearing blood curdling screams just outside the gates. I would love to see an American that is strong and benevolent. But given the change that is taking place and given my fear of a strong and tyrannical US, I'll be happy enough with a weak and irrelevant US in a multipolar world.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Getting Out the Vote

Sitting north of the 49th parallel it is fun to watch the US election gearing up. This is going to be an exciting presidential race. On the one hand you have a senile geezer who has trouble keeping track on which side of what issue he is on which day of the week. On the other hand you have a young attractive "person of colour" who is a crypto-commie-Muslim that keeps claiming to be a Christian just because he's attended church for the last 40 years (sure... that just proves how deep your cover is!).

This contest is sure to incite fury and hatred in large segments of the population because it appeals so viscerally to their prejudices. Yes, this promises to be a real bare knuckle down-and-dirty campaign.

Need proof? Here's a video that clearly demonstrates that both candidates are not just racing to reposition themselves in the middle to grab votes, they are off doing whatever it takes to win over the "no values" voters, a previously ignored segment of the American voting public:

Yep... this will be one heckova bar room brawl. Enjoy!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Power of a Good Argument

Too much of our lives are lived in a fog of ignorance. That is the price of living in a complex modern society. I happily admit my ignorance. I can't repair a car. I refuse to electrocute myself trying to do a home wiring repair. I know my limits, but I don't simply roll over and let experts run my life. I use them, they don't use me. I refuse to swallow "expert" testimony unless I can understand the basis of the statement and judge for myself how credible the expertise actually is.

The bane of our times are the experts who "know" and then push their "knowledge" on us. Here's an excellent example discussed by Arnold Kling on the Econoblog website:

Are My Days of Freedom Numbered?

The Guardian reports
James Hansen, one of the world's leading climate scientists, will today call for the chief executives of large fossil fuel companies to be put on trial for high crimes against humanity and nature, accusing them of actively spreading doubt about global warming in the same way that tobacco companies blurred the links between smoking and cancer.
Thus, the sainted "whistle-blower" wants those of us who disagree with him put in prison. If the oil executives belong there, then so do I.

Remember the lawyer's maxim that if the facts are with you, then argue the facts. If the law is with you, then argue the law. If neither is with you, pound the table.

Hansen sounds to me like a table-pounder. Instead, he should be trying to explain how a scientifically literate person can form a confidence interval for the feedback parameters in climate models.
Arnold has the same problem I have. Some experts claim expertise and want us to dictate actions to us. If a physicist explained a physical phenomenon, I would have about 99% confidence in his explanation. If a civil engineer told me a bridge will fail I would have about 90% confidence in his judgement. If a doctor gave me a diagnosis, I would have roughly 70% confidence. If a weatherman predicted next week's weather, I would have about 40% confidence. And if a climatologist tells me global warming is going to destroy civilization as we know it with 50 years I would have about 10% confidence. Expertise is qualified by the field. Some areas of knowledge are more easily modeled and understood. Others not. Hanson wants to be seen as a physicist. But I only see him as a climatologist.

As for Hanson's rant, I keep thinking of things like this year's prediction of the hurricane season. This is the 3rd year in a row post-Katrina that a "higher than normal" of hurricanes has been predicted. I'll eat my shorts if we in fact have a higher than normal number of hurricanes this year. How do I know that? I don't. So why do I say it? Because I have low confidence in weather & climate modelers.

Example: Ever since Hurricane Katrina the global warming crowd has been making dire predictions about severe hurricane seasons. Sure enough, the predictions jumped. Notice the pattern:

Trop Storm
Hurri- canes
Cat 3 & Up Hurri- canes

Hist Avg

The bold items are the anomalies. You can see that the modelers got caught with their pants down in 2005, so over the next 3 years they've upped their estimates and cited "global warming" for the reason to expect more storms and more intense storms. This year they've backed off a bit. They are still well above the historical average and they are terribly wrong for the 2006 and 2007 seasons. And I'm betting they are wrong for 2008 because I don't think the models are that solid.

You can check the above:

My George Santayana Moment

With the Bush presidency rumbling to a close (remember Yogi Berra: It ain't over until it's over!), this bit of nostalgia will help quell our fears...

From the Onion January 17, 2001...

Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over'

January 17, 2001 | Issue 37•01

WASHINGTON, DC–Mere days from assuming the presidency and closing the door on eight years of Bill Clinton, president-elect George W. Bush assured the nation in a televised address Tuesday that "our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over."

"My fellow Americans," Bush said, "at long last, we have reached the end of the dark period in American history that will come to be known as the Clinton Era, eight long years characterized by unprecedented economic expansion, a sharp decrease in crime, and sustained peace overseas. The time has come to put all of that behind us."

Bush swore to do "everything in [his] power" to undo the damage wrought by Clinton's two terms in office, including selling off the national parks to developers, going into massive debt to develop expensive and impractical weapons technologies, and passing sweeping budget cuts that drive the mentally ill out of hospitals and onto the street.

During the 40-minute speech, Bush also promised to bring an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years.


Bush concluded his speech on a note of healing and redemption.

"We as a people must stand united, banding together to tear this nation in two," Bush said. "Much work lies ahead of us: The gap between the rich and the poor may be wide, be there's much more widening left to do. We must squander our nation's hard-won budget surplus on tax breaks for the wealthiest 15 percent. And, on the foreign front, we must find an enemy and defeat it."

"The insanity is over," Bush said. "After a long, dark night of peace and stability, the sun is finally rising again over America. We look forward to a bright new dawn not seen since the glory days of my dad."

As they say... read 'em and weep. As the famous philosopher George Santayana said "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it." Or, as the Onion might put it, those who can't remember the jokes of the past will get to enjoy the punch line again and again and again...

What Went Up is Going Down, Down, Down

I'm not talking about the stock market...

I'm talking about demolition of buildings. Here's a nice video. See if you can notice anything different about this kind of demolition...

Hmm... must be a cultural thing. Americans go for the big razzle-dazzle fireworks of a building implosion. The above are the Japanese. Quiet, controlled, down-she-goes floor-at-a-time demolition. The old saying is "you are what you eat". I would say "you are what your culture shapes you to be".

The above video was taken from which explains the demolition:

Unlike conventional demolition that begins at the top of the building, Kajima’s new method starts at the bottom. As each floor is demolished, the support columns are cut and replaced with giant computer-controlled jacks, which slowly lower the entire building one floor at a time. The process is repeated for each successive floor until the entire building is gone.

Kajima informally calls this the daruma-otoshi method, after the old Japanese game consisting of a daruma doll made of stacked pieces that players knock out one by one without toppling the doll.
Go to the above site to get more details plus view the demo that visually compares this technique to daruma-otoshi.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Don't Fence Me In

One of my favourite songs as a kid was the country tune Don't Fence Me In. And when I was in school the teachers bludgeoned me into "appreciating" the poet Robert Frost who famously wrote "Good fences make good neighbors" in his poem Mending Wall.

Those are the happy references to fences, but here is the reality of a fences and walls as I see it... This is Ricardo Arjuno's El Mojado:

OK, that's pretty "dramatic". So for those of you that like something more rational and less emotional, try this...

Reason TV's The Wall (part 1)

Reason TV's The Wall (part 2)

Enough with the heavy stuff..

For those of you who want to enjoy the lyrics to Ricardo Arjona's music, here's they are line-by-line with the Spanish original followed by an English translation...

“El Mojado” por Ricardo Arjona
Empacó un par de camisas, un sombrero
He packed a couple shirts, a hat
Su vocación de aventurero, seis consejos, siete fotos
his job of adventurer, six advices, seven photos
Mil recuerdos
One thousand memories
Empacó sus ganas de quedarse
He packed his desire to stay
Su condición de transformarse
His condition of transforming himself
en el hombre que soñó
into a man who dreamed
y no ha logrado
and hasn’t achieved.
Dijo adiós con una mueca disfrazada de sonrisa
He said goodbye with a face disguised in a smile
Y le suplicó a su Dios crucificado en la repisa
And he prayed to his crucified God on the shelf
El resguardo de los suyos
Protection of his own.
Y perforó la frontera
And he broke through the border
Como pudo
However he could
[coro] [this is the repeated chorus]
Si la luna suave se desliza
If the soft moon slides over
Por cualquier cornisa
whatever corner
Sin permiso alguno
without any permission
Porque el mojado precisa
because the wetback needs
Comprobar con visas
to prove with visas
que no es de neptuno
that he is not from Neptune.

El mojado tiene ganas de secarse
the wetback would like to dry off
El mojado esta mojado por las lagrimas que evoca la nostalgia
the wetback is wet because of the tears that evoke nostalgia
El mojado, el indocumentado
the wetback, the undocumented person
Carga el bulto que el legal no cargaría
carries the load that the legal person wouldn’t carry
Ni obligado
even if forced to.
El suplicio de un papel lo ha convertido en fugitivo
The torture of a paper has turned him into a fugitive
Y no es de aquí porque su nombre no aparece en los archivos
and he is not from he because his name does not appear in the files
Ni es de allá porque se fue
nor is he from there because he left
Sabe a mentira tu verdad
Your truth tastes like lies
Sabe a tristeza la ansiedad
Like sadness tastes the anxiety
De ver un freeway y soñar con la vereda
Of seeing a highway and dreaming of the path
Que conduce hasta tu casa
that goes to your house
Mojado, mojado de tanto llorar
Wetback, wetback of so much crying
Sabiendo que en algún lugar
Knowing that in one place
espera un beso haciendo pausa
a kiss is waiting paused
Desde el día en que te marchaste
since the day you walked out
Si la visa universal se extiende
If the universal visa is extended
el día en que nacemos
the day that we are born
y caduca en la muerte
and expires at death
por qué te persiguen mojado
why do they persecute you, wetback
si el cónsul de los cielos
if the consulate of the heavens
ya te dio permiso
already gave you permission.

Nuts to NAFTA!

That's right... There are a lot of nuts running off to blame NAFTA for everything.

So, it time to bring in the BIG guns. Here's Drew Carey (big enough for you?)...

I know the reasoned argument of Drew Carey is less emotionally satisfying than the over-the-top rhetoric of doom-and-gloom NAFTA bashers. They would convince you that all the ailments of current society can be traced to those shifty-eyed foreigners who -- when they aren't trying to steal our womenfolk -- are busy stealing our jobs. But economists have known since the days of Adam Smith and David Ricardo that free trade that the path to greatest economic growth is via open markets and free trade.

Sure, if you lost your job you aren't compensated by knowing that "on average" everybody is doing better because of free trade. But that's life. We do better with free trade. So quit bashing free trade and demand social programs that ease the pain of the adjustment to the creative destruction that capitalism wreaks on an economy in the process of giving us a better life.

Isabel Allende's "The Sum of Our Days"

I really enjoyed this book. It is witty and serious. It is sentimental and it is brutally honest. It reads like fiction but it is a memoir. It has the ups and downs of a Perils of Pauline, but it drives to a point of conclusion with a grand philosophical acceptance of life's vicissitudes. It's just plain a good read. She has a delightful personality that shines through in this book. She can be searingly candid and hopelessly lost in reveries of magical realism.

This book is a memoir that picks up her story after the death of her daughter documented in the book Paula.

Here's my favourite part of the book. It isn't the story part. It isn't even representative of the book except for her honesty. It is just her cry of passion about he adopted country:
There was a sense of frustration in the country that had dragged on for a long time. The future of the world looked as dark and impenetrable as tar. The escalation of violoence in the Middle East was terrifying and international condemnation of America was unanimous, but President Bush paid no attention; he wandered like a madman, detached from reality and surrounded by sycophants. He could no longer obscure the calamity of the war in Iraq, even though the press showed only aseptic images of what was happening: tanks, green lights on the horizon, soldiers running through deserted villages, and occasionally an explosion in a market where supposedly the victims were Iraqis. No blood, no dismemebered children. Correspondents were embedded in units of the troops and information was filtered through a military apparatus; however, on the Internet anyone who wanted to be informed could consult the media of the rest of the world, including Arab television. Some courageous reporters -- and all the comedians and cartoonists -- denounced the government's incompetence. Images of the prison at Abu Ghraib flew round the world, and in Guantanamo prisoners indefintely detained without being charged died mysteriously, committed suicide, or agonized in hunger strikes, force-fed through large stomach tubes. Things were happening that could not have been imagined a short time before in the United States, which thinks of itself as a beaconof democracy and justice: the writ of habeas corpus was suspended for prisoner, and torture was legalized. I expected the public to react with one voice, but almost no one gave those matters the importance they deserved. I come from Chile, where for sixteen years torture was institutionalized: I know the irreparable harm that leaves in the souls of victims and victimizers -- indeed the entire population, which becomes an accomplice.
I enjoyed the bit in The Sum of Our Days where she explained how she got involved in writing her book, Zorro, and struggled to come up with something novel in interpreting the Zorro legend. She explains how she decided to take an approach connecting Diego de la Vega with the democratic ideals of the French Revolution by adding to his legend by talking about his youthful trip to Europe.

I'm always amazed at coincidences. Reading Allende's book brought back memories of Chile and the military revolt that forced her to leave. Just as I finished this book I watched a CBC program Our World that interviewed Ariel Dorfman about his experience making the documentary film "A Promise to the Dead". Here's a Salon article about the documentary film. Here's an audio file of an interview with Ariel Dorfman.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Alien Life?

Who said we can't know how life arose from the goopy swamp? Here's proof...

Now do you believe that we are all descended from a primordial soup?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mr. Gestapo Goes to Washington

The famous Frank Capra movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, presents the classic myth of the American "good guy" struggling hard against bureaucratic and political corruption to set things right and by dint of hard work and a good heart. These fine American traits sustain him in fighting the good fight and allow him to overcome. That's the story line that Americans paint for themselves. The little guy wins. Good triumphs over evil. In the end we get our just desserts.

The reality in the U.S. is very nearly the opposite. Today the Constitutions is regularly trampled upon by the executive branch and nobody bats an eyelash. Here's a bleeding heart liberal cry from the James Stewart of our day, the NY Times, and it is falling on deaf ears:
The Department of Homeland Security is routinely searching laptops at airports when Americans re-enter the United States from abroad. The government then pores over or copies the laptop’s contents — including financial records, medical data and e-mail messages. These out-of-control searches trample the privacy rights of Americans, and Congress should rein them in.

There have been widespread reports of the government searching — and often seizing — laptops, BlackBerrys, iPhones and other portable electronic devices at airports. It is not clear how often these searches occur, and the government will not say. The Association of Corporate Travel Executives says that of 100 people who responded to a survey it conducted this year, 7 said they had had a laptop or other electronic device seized. ...

The government has the right to take reasonable steps to control what comes into the country, but the laptop-search program’s invasions of privacy go far beyond what is reasonable.
You can rest assured that today's reality won't have the happy ending that Hollywood plotted. George Bush is too busy making sure that rights and laws are so distorted under his "security" regime that even when he leaves office you, unlike Dorothy, will have no "Kansas" to return to. In fact little Toto will have become a monstrous pit bull chewing off your face while you scream "But I have rights!".

Inquiring Minds Need to Know!

I'm sure you need to know the "definitive" sound of jello shaking. Well, you can now put your anxieties to rest. Here's a video clip done by a technical crew from the University College London:

Now... admit it... that is a most satisfying sound... even better than you imagined!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Alan Greenspan's "The Age of Turbulence"

I was pleasantly surprised by how readable Greenspan's book was. I had expected the opaque "Fed Speak" for which he was famous (and which he admits in this book that he purposefully made opaque).

The early chapters review his life and I found them interesting. One thing you wouldn't expect is that he was a musician in a 1940s big band, the Harry Jerome Orchestra. His nerd personality shows through: he makes the comment that while others were out carousing and doing drugs he would quietly sit and read and did the tax returns for them.

Greenspan mentions his relationship with Ayn Rand but doesn't go into much detail. He puts forward the story that he found her ideas interesting and enjoyed attending the meetings of the faithful in her apartment but eventually drifted away. The basis of his affiliation with her thoughts is his own commitment to a libertarian philosophy. He shows that he is an advocate of market fundamentalism, i.e. a deep belief that free markets will magically deliver a better world. He is also a leading figure in neo-liberalism, an economic philosophy that came from the right wing push of thinkers like Milton Friedman. This puts him solidly in a camp with right wing radicals.

I did enjoy Chapter 24, "The Long-Term Energy Squeeze". I think this book gets it right. The puzzle is "why are oil prices high?" Presumably if you look at a supply/demand curve you get a jump in prices if demand goes up or supply decreases. Sure, there has been some increase in demand as developing countries get richer and want more oil, but enough to double the price in 12 months and triple it in two years? On the other hand, fanatics who advocate "Hubbert's Peak Oil" theory would claim that prices are up because we are running out of oil. But this doesn't fit the facts I see. For example, if you look at British Petroleum's "BP Statisical Review of World Energy June 2008" you will see that there is 40+ years of oil supply. (And for the last 100 years there has been 30-40 years supply of oil because there is no incentive to find oil beyond what the market can use in a relatively short time.) Some argue that the crimp in supply is not because of long term shortage but because of short term speculation. But Paul Krugman, a liberal on the left, emphasizes that there is no oil speculation because there is no way to "hold" the oil. (I personally believe that there is some and it is mainly by OPEC which is simply keeping the oil in the ground knowing it will bring higher prices in the future since they have monopoly power to force the shortage to get the higher price.) Greenspan's argument is very interesting. He points out that for 30 years there has been a 1.6% increase in oil use and a 1.6% increase in discovered reserves. A balance. But the problem is that over this same period there has been only a 0.8% investment in infrastructure to extract, transport, and process the oil. The current price runup isn't because there is not enough oil and not because of unexpected surging of demand. It is simply not enough investment. He points out that OPEC didn't invest because:
  • They used revenues to support their rapidly rising populations (think of the oil subsidies and programs such as Chavez has in Venezuela to aid the poor).
  • These countries are basically hostile to the consuming West and keep all their statistics on oil reserves, production, and investment as "state secrets".
Consequently, there is suddenly a squeeze. Historically there was a large buffer of excess capacity that could handle problems like hurricanes and terrorist attacks. Now there isn't. So every news story scares the market and drives the price higher. This is obviously to the benefit of OPEC because it makes their resource more valuable. He points out that starting with Rockefeller and until 1973 US companies acted a "market maker" that ensure that supply met demand. But control has now been lost. While there was a capacity buffer this wasn't a problem. Now that the buffer is gone, it is a serious problem and drives the price up.

The book has lots of thoughtful and fact-filled material to enjoy. The trick is not to get seduced into Greenspan's peculiar right wing view of the world. He shows a remarkable indifference to human suffering and an amazing belief that a "free market" is a magic solution for all problems. For example, in chapter 21, "Education and Income Inequality", he notes that "average" income is generally up over the last 30 years, i.e. the split between enterprise profits and wages is fairly stable, the problem is that the workers are getting a smaller piece of the income than the managers, e.g. in 1997 the workers got 46% of income but by 2007 this was down to 41%. (The workers comprise 80% of the population and their share of income has gone down from 46% to 41%. To appreciate this, he points out that while worker income rose by 3.4% annually, manager income rose by 5.6%.) He worries about income inequality but his solution is "better education". For most people that is not much of a salve for the guy who sees his share of the income shrinking. It might help his kids -- maybe, no guarantee -- but it sure won't help him. And to add insult to injury, Greenspan's view of education is that it needs to be "fixed" by privatizing it, i.e. moving to vouchers and shutting down the public schools because teacher unions have "too much power". In short, he is not a guy to go to for sympathy or help. He's smart, he's knowledgeable, but he doesn't show much real sympathy and not much concern for something as abstract as "social justice". The only justice he likes is "free market" solutions to all of life's problems.

So... read the book. It is informative. But read with a critical eye. He isn't a writer who wants to lay out all the viewpoints and argue their merits. He simply gives you his viewpoint because he knows that one is right. He makes a few comments to criticize other viewpoints, but he really is not interested in exploring possibilities and certainly isn't willing to search for any strength in the other side's arguments. In this regard he is as beguiling as Milton Friedman, a writer with a wonderful writing style that can lull you into buying his viewpoint while not bothering you with any arguments that might support a contrary viewpoint.

Examples of Greenspan views:
  • In Chapter 2 he shows his fundamental hypocrisy. He is a libertarian who hates government, but he agreed to serve on the Council of Economic Advisors for Richard Nixon: "... I knew I would have to pledge to uphold no only the Constitution but also the laws of the land, many of which I thought were wrong."
  • In Chapter 11 he shows himself to be amazingly blind to the building housing bubble. He notes the relevant facts "Booms, of course, beg bubbles... That concern started to surface in hot markets like San Diego and New York, where prices in 2002 jumped by 22 percent and 19 percent, respectively, and where some investors now began viewing houses and condos as the latest way to get rich quick. ... Whether a bubble or froth, the party was winding down by late 2005... The boom was over." He shows himself to be spectacularly unaware of the timebomb of NINJA loans, "liar" loans, use of unreasonable models by ratings agencies to give AAA status to "structured" investments based on tranched packages large numbers of mortagages.
  • Chapter 22 he presents the phony argument that Social Security is "broken" and must be fixed. He doesn't distinguish between Medicare which is paid out of general revenues and is rapidly consuming a larger and larger share of the projected GDP from Social Security which is a program which is fully funded until 2047. Instead he presents the right wing's favourite bug-a-boo that Social Security will "break the bank". It will, but only because the extra taxes imposed on retirees was not kept separate. It was folded into general revenues to make budget deficits look small. The money in the Social Security fund is sufficient to cover retirement, but it has been spent because it was never invested! Greenspan himself was the author of the 1981 proposal (1983 law) that raised Social Security taxes to fund the program into the 21st century. He now conveniently forgets about the money collected. He focuses instead on the fact that, since no money was reserved, it will indeed be a "budget breaker" to meet the Social Security commitments. But this isn't a problem with Social Security. This is a problem with how the fund is administered and the fact that consecutive governments have played a sleight of hand collecting extra money as a "reserve" to cover the increased costs of Boomer retirement, but then folding that "reserve" into the general accounts so that it has long since been spent!
  • In Chapter 25 he asserts his love of the gold standard and makes the claim "I have always harbored a nostalgia for the gold standard's inherent price stability..." and "We know that the average inflation rate under gold and earlier commodity standards was essentially zero." This position is nutty because it pins the monetary system to a arbitrary resource that can distort commerce. Consider a thought experiment. Assume the amount of gold is fixed (no new mines and no losses). Suppose the population doubles and the exchanged economic goods double. You don't get "price stability". You get deflation with the price of all exchanged goods now half what it was before. (Unlike Greenspan, most economist will argue for a slight bit of inflation since it stimulates the economy. Deflation is deadly because of the psychological tendency to hold onto the gold waiting for it to "buy more" which in turn suppresses economic growth.) Here is an article by Hal Varian at UC Berkeley which contradict's Greenspan's view that gold holds inflation at zero. Varian states: "The post-Civil War deflation was essentially caused by increased productivity growth. The gold standard exacerbated the downward pressure on prices: With a fixed supply of money and an ever-increasing supply of goods, prices naturally fell."