Sunday, August 31, 2008

Taking Oneself Too Seriously

I have a bad habit of hauling a soapbox around with me and standing up on it and shouting.

So... it is important to not take myself seriously... it is important to take take and enjoy the humour in life... here's Bill Maher who does an excellent job of getting me to levitate with a little levity:

Trickle Down Reaganism

Here is an interesting post by Jared Bernstein at TPMCafe:
Trickle-down economics died yesterday morning at 10AM. The cause of death was a data release from the US Census Bureau, but trickle-down had been ailing from lack of empirical support for decades. Also known as "supply-side economics," trickle-down was the love child of Ronald Reagan, Arthur Laffer, and Jude Wanniski. It is survived by Larry Kudlow and Co., and the editorial page of the Wall St. Journal. ...

The Census Bureau released some new data on Tuesday that strongly contradicts supply-side, trickle-down economics, but the truth is that if this brand of hucksterism could be brought down by evidence, it would have died long ago. ...

Real (inflation-adjusted) median household income was essentially unchanged between 2000 and 2007 (it was $300 lower last year than in 2000, but the difference is not statistically significant).

This is the first cycle on record where the real median household income failed to surpass its prior peak.

For working-age households, real median income is $2,000 below its 2000 level.

Poverty rates were 1.2% higher in 2007 than in 2000, up from 11.3% to 12.5%, an addition of 5.7 million to the poverty rolls. This is the worst cycle for poverty on record. The second worse was 1979-89, a decade also dominated by trickle-down economics.

What is trickle-down? It's the set of economic policies based on the notion that if you provide economic incentives to the wealthy by cutting their taxes (or, as the supply-siders put it, "letting us keep our money") while deregulating industry, you'll unleash a tsunami of economic activities that will enrich even the least advantaged among us.

The theory doesn't make sense even on its face. Why would people work harder only if you cut their taxes? After all, their after-tax income goes up, so they might decide they can work less and still be as well off. Or, if you raise their taxes, they might decide to work harder to make up the after-tax losses.

No matter...this stuff is not based on logic. It's largely a rationale for upward redistribution that's been kept alive by the vested interests who benefit from it. Reagan put this stuff on the map, but GW Bush brought it back with a vengeance, and McCain goes even further. He extends the supply-side Bush tax cuts, and lards on about $75 billion more in corporate tax cuts on top of that.

Police Thugs in America

The Republicans -- experts in "security" -- are at it again. They have executed a series of raids against "dangerous" subversives in Minneapolis advance of the Republican convention. You can watch for yourself and judge just how "dangerous" and "subversive" these people who were subjected to a full-out SWAT raid really are. The following video is from a report in Salon magazine:

About halfway through a lawyer from the Minnesota Lawyer's Guild arrives to explain what is going on. If you listen you can see how politically motivated these police raids are:

Here is another video of a house being raided. This is apparantly a house of independent media types, e.g. "Democracy Now". And here is another video of another raid and an interview with a reporter from Democracy Now who was present at a house where a group called I-Witness were just arrested. I-Witness is a group of videographers who helped provide evidence to get charges dismissed against protesters at the 2004 GOP convention

Finally, here is a video of the mainstream media's take on these raids. You have to put up with half the video giving the thuggish sheriff his media exposure to point to a pathetic little pile of things that he presents as "tools of the trade" for taking down a convention. It is laughable to see a can of charcoal lighter presented as a dangerous "weapon". Sad! If you stick it out to the end of the video you get the other side's viewpoint, a potential protestor gives her side of the story, the receiving end of a thuggish police raid. She asks the obvious question: "If we were planning criminal acts so threatening to the RNC, why did the police release us?"

Watching these videos you can get a sense of the wild-eyed paranoia among the police. They came in guns ready to blaze... they had search warrants that allowed them to seize computers, "political materials" and the following "dangerous" items: twine, cardboard, spray paint, and paint thinner. As the lawyer points out, "these are items that can be found in any home in America".

The rabid religious Right a few years ago ran around asking "What Would Jesus Do?"... I ask, "What Would the Founders of the United States Do?" Let me answer my own question: the early patriots were the ones who put on warpaint and seized vessels in Boston harbor and threw tea into the ocean. Now that was a violent protest.

Where were the British "SWAT teams" back in 1775? They didn't exist. But the right wing "patriots" of today get red faced and full of bluster over the "outrageous acts" of the kids. What are these "acts". The kids want to wave signs, block streets, and make their presence known, i.e. do "political protest". Nothing as extreme as seize boats and throw cargo into the sea to destroy it. But raise a ruckus.

And what of those bully boy right wing "patriots"? They find this picture truly outrageous! How dare anybody question authority? For them "patriotism" is fighting to see who can salute the fastest, how can click their heels the hardest, and who can shout "Heil Bush!" the loudest.

Well... if there had been SWAT teams back in 1775, then there would be no United States today. Instead there would be comfortable English gentlemen sitting in their big country homes residing over a country of peacefully domesticated house servants, field hands, and wage slaves. Oh... that is exactly what the right wing in America wants. I guess these patriots are just plain mad that the Revolution of 1776 happened! They want to roll back history to a time when wealth and privilege and aristocracy ruled unchallenged and nobody was allowed to plan a "protest".

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Sophistication of American Politics

You would think that the country that pounds its chest about being "number one" and being rich and sophisticated would have a sophisticated politics to back it up.

Well... you would be dead wrong... look at this...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Peeking into a Different World

Here's a fun video of slime mold and mushrooms just "doing their thing". You just have to love the action...

I think you will appreciate this division of life because it dances to its own tune. Slime molds have many sexes, up to 13 different sexes. That knocks the socks off most people who figure the whole world is divided into two sexes: male and female. But, nope, the world of slime mold is much more exciting than that!

Blast from the Past

This brings back memories to me. The reference to JFK's moon shot is poignant. Ted Kennedy is an old man, a dying man, and he has referenced his brother's call to put a man on the moon. Yes, the US flag is still there, but that was 40 years ago and there hasn't been any mission to the moon since that Apollo series. Sad.

Here's Ted Kennedy's speech at the DNC. It's a good one. Enjoy...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Learning the Darwinian Lesson

Some people seem determined to prove Darwinian natural selection can be used to thin out the herd...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Playing Monopoly

When you play Monopoly you rush to put up houses on your property so that you can "win"...

I guess McCain has won. That means all the non-upper crust Americans have lost. That means they get another 4 years of government by the Bush look-alike plutocrat.

What to Worry About

Here's a guy who's worth listening to when he lays out what people should be worrying about. This is an article entitled "The Global Consensus on Trade is Unravelling" written for the Financial Times by Larry Summers, Secretary of the Treasury, under Clinton:
With two wars still continuing and violence in Georgia dominating the foreign policy debate; and with the financial crisis and economic insecurity for families dominating the domestic debate, US international economic policy is receiving less attention in this presidential election year than usual. The limited attention it has received has focused on concerns about specific trade agreements, not broader questions of international strategy. That is unfortunate. ...

The current distribution of regional economic power is unlike anything that was predicted even a decade ago. The rise of the developing world, its growing share in global output and far greater share of global growth, is perhaps a quantitative but not a qualitative surprise. The qualitative surprise is this: with almost all the industrial world in or near recession, much of the momentum in the global economy is coming from countries with authoritarian governments that are pursuing economic strategies directed towards wealth accumulation and building up geopolitical strength rather than improving living standards for their populations. ...

But the problems are much deeper than the question of who sits around the negotiating tables. For all the disagreements over the past decades, there has been a shared premise behind international economic policy discussions – the goal of increased economic integration, the spread of market institutions and more rapid growth for all nations. While companies may compete, the premise has been that nations co-operate to build a stronger economy in the interests of all.

It is no longer clear that this premise remains valid. Nations are increasingly preoccupied with their relative economic standing, not the living standards of citizens. Issues of strategic leverage and vulnerability now play a bigger role in economic policy discussions. ...

But the success of the next administration could depend on its ability to engage with a wider range of global economic stakeholders, on a broader agenda, at a time when disagreements are increasing not just about means but also about ultimate ends.

Krugman Comes Out Guns Blazing

It is reassuring to see that Paul Krugman, who so ardently supported Hillary Clinton and was unhappy about Barack Obama, has finally got his blood boiling and coming in to the political fray. Here's Krugman's latest op-ed in the NY Times. I especially enjoy the imagery of "bringing a knife to a gunfight":
Over the past month or so many Democrats have had the sick feeling that once again their candidate brought a knife to a gunfight. Barack Obama’s campaign, inexplicably, was unprepared for the inevitable Republican attack on the candidate’s character. By the middle of last week, Mr. Obama’s once formidable lead, both in national polls and in electoral college projections based on state-level polls, had virtually evaporated.

Mr. Obama’s waning advantage brought back bad memories of the 2004 campaign, whose key lesson was that there are no limits to the form G.O.P. character attacks can take.

You might think, for example, that a party claiming to support the troops would shy away from attacking a war hero’s military record — but back in 2004 the Swift-boat lies were enthusiastically embraced by Republican activists, and helped neutralize the advantage John Kerry was supposed to get from his biography.

And you might think that a party committed to tax cuts for the rich, a party that routinely castigates those who engage in “class warfare,” would shy away from attacking a Democrat for his wealth. But raw class envy played an important role in the attacks on Mr. Kerry, whom Rush Limbaugh described repeatedly as a “gigolo” with a “sugar daddy wife,” and G.O.P. supporters don’t seem to have experienced any cognitive dissonance.
Read the whole article. Krugman goes behind the cartoon caricatures to show you good in bad on both sides. Life isn't black-or-white. There is a lot of murky gray out there!

Christian Love and Charity

I'm always glad to see how God's Love is spread by Christians. Here is Richard Dawkins reading some of the more personal missives sent by Christians showing this concern for his health and well-being...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Taking a Biden Bite out of American Hide

I like this "coming out" speech by Joe Biden. It got a bite to it. That's something that has been missing from Obama. Obama can give some inspiring speeches, but he doesn't seem to have the streetfighter in him. Biden has the ability to identify the American dream and start throwing haymakers to defend that dream. That's good to see...

The Weary Task of a Rationalist in an Irrational World

Here's a guy that I enjoy listening to, Pat Condell, maybe it the fact that he is a comedian, or maybe it is the six years logging in Canada, or maybe it is that he's an atheist. There's just something about this guy that rings true to me. He makes sense...

I like his sense of realism. Take this bon mot:
Condell has said of his humour "I used to talk about this stuff in comedy clubs until I discovered internet video. Now I get a lot more death threats, but I don't have to deal with drunks."
You sure can't argue with that logic. This is a guy after my own heart! I highly recommend his channel on YouTube.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Charles R. Morris' "The Trillion Dollar Meltdown"

This is one of the first books out that explains the current financial crisis. And, it is an excellent account. First, it puts it into historical context with a description of the 30 year cycles leading up to this latest University of Chicago radical free market era whose deregulation has led to a series of booms and busts dating back to the 1980s. This viewpoint is nicely summarized in the last paragraph of the book:
My personal belief is that the 1980s shift from government-centric style of economic management toward a more markets-driven one was a critical factor in the Americaqn economic recovery of the 1980s and 1990s. But the breadth of the current financial crash suggests that we've reached the point where it is market dogmatism that has become the problem, rather than the solution. And after a quarter-century run, it's time for the pendulum to swing in the other direction.
Here's another quote that summarizes his diagnosis of the problem:
The American regulatory scheme is based on the insight that government can best support financial markets by ensuring that investors get accurate information. ... After a quarter-century of antiregulatory zealotry, however, and a parade of fiascos from the S&L crash through the Enrons and WorldComs, and now the CDO mess, the credibgility of that system, and with it the attractiveness of American markets, is at risk.

Only the most invincible dogmatists could survey the history of financial booms and busts and come away with the notion that markets are always right.
For those who are convinced that this lastest boom & bust came out of nowhere, Morris has a nice bit of history pointing out that CMOs (Collateralized Mortgage Obligations) has a boom & bust cycle in 1983 to 1994. All the issues of tranches and computer models of risk went through a boom & bust cycle back then. You would think the regulators would have used that experience to make sure it didn't happen again. Oh wait... this has been the era of "government is the problem, not the solution" and "deregulation" so no lessons were learned. Instead, that cycle's bust whose losses were $55 billion were not learned, so we've done it again only bigger, so the losses this time are $1 trillion. As Morris points out:
Dogmatic market capitalists hailed the deregulation trend, none more enthusiastically than Alan Greenspan. In 1995, for example, Greenspan argued against margin -- or minimum capital -- rules on derivative positions. He claimed, implausibly, that a lack of margin requirements would "promote the safety and soundess of broker-dealers, by permitting more financing alternatives and, hence, more effective liquidity management." In the week before LTCM imploded, he told Congress, "Market pricing and counterparty surveillance can be expected to do most of the job of sustaining safety and soundness."
But as Morris points out: "... counterparty surveillance works fine, so long as you're willing to accept the occasional crash of "the economies of many natons."

This is an excellent book. It provides the background to interpret and understand the market turmoil of the last 20 years. It provides the history to give you perspective on the current mess and see that historical trends indicate that we will fix the mess and start a new boom under a new paradigm of government rule-making and oversight:
It is a canon of Chicago-school economics that government resource allocations always reduce productivity. As a blanket proposition, that's evidently wrong. The federal government lavished a great deal of money on the semiconductor industry and the Internet, for example, and we're clearly much better off for it. Since the beginning of the republic, public works investments -- canals, railroads, highways, airports -- have generally paid high returns. In the nineteenth century, a British parliamentary commission identified America's greater investment in public education as a major competitive advantage. Government spending, in short, is productive or not, depending on what it's spend on.

But there is substantive truth behind the detestation of public spending. It is that any privileged industry -- and public enterprises are prone to become privileged -- will eventually fatten to the point where it becomes a drag on, or even a threat to, the health of the economy. But that's a general argument about privilege, whether it arises from tax subventions or some other source. The financial meltdown chronicled in this book was to a great extent the consequence of coddling our financial industry, fertilizing it with free money, propping it up with unusual tax advantages for fund partners, and anointing it with fresh funds whenever it stumbled or scraped a knee.
This is an excellent book. But to fully appreciate it, you need a book like Naomi Kline's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism to understand the social harm that ideological "free market" capitalism has done: tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands imprisoned to make the world ready for the joys of a "free market". Or as the Latin American's discovered: people must be imprisoned so that markets can be free.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

How to Read the Data

Here is an article in Salon by Nicholas Lemann called "The Test that Took Over" that discusses SAT scores, meritocracy, and affirmative action. The article mentions a book called "The Shape of the River" by William Bowen and Derek Bok where:
...Table 5.1, which compares the average 1995 earned incomes of a group who entered college in 1976. The data are sorted by race, gender, SAT scores and the selectivity of the college attended. You would expect whites to earn more than blacks, and they do. You would expect men to earn more than women, and they do. You would expect graduates of more prestigious colleges to earn more than those of less prestigious colleges, and they do. You would expect people who score high on the SAT to earn more than those who score low.

They don't. As it turns out, the highest wages belong to the white men with the lowest SAT scores at the most prestigious colleges. This is a remarkable statistic.
What I find interesting is not the discussion of minority rights, meritocracy, or questions of what SAT scores measure. For me the data cries out for a fairly simple interpretation. Those with low SAT scores -- say like George Bush -- get into elite colleges and then proceed to have very lucrative careers because they aren't competing based on skills. They get their high paying careers through their elite social connections. They don't have to compete on the basis of skills. They've already won the genetic contest by finding themselves some very well placed parents with big incomes/big wealth and silver-spoon-in-the-mouth connections.

Call me prejudiced, but that is my "reading" of the data.

By the way... the phrase "born with a silver spoon in his mouth" comes about because of the following:
"The earliest spoons were made of wood, the word 'spoon,' in fact, deriving from the Anglo-Saxon 'spon,' 'a chip of wood.' Until the last century most people used pewter spoons, but traditionally, especially among the wealthy, godparents have given the gift of a silver spoon to their godchildren at christening ceremonies. The custom is centuries old throughout Europe." From the "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

To Make a Better World

Here is a lecture by William Bernstein at Google on Sept 20, 2007. He is the author of the book "The Birth of Plenty".

He discusses the history of economic growth and identifies four key factors (about 20 minutes in):
  1. Property Rights
  2. Scientific Rationalism
  3. Capital Markets
  4. Power, Transportation, and Communication
He gives a devastating critique of the guilt over colonialism. Watch the video to see what he says (about 26 minutes in).

He also talks about development economics. I enjoy the part where he holds people like Jeffrey Sachs and Bono up to ridicule for talking about "aid" as the way to get poor countries out of their poverty rut. Bernstein says it takes several generations and that there are only three routes to developing a wealthy country (about 38 minutes in):
  1. cut population (think Black Death)
  2. improve institutions (takes 60+years)
  3. let the best & brightest immigrate and send back remittances.

Civic Lesson

Here is Scott Ridder, the chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq prior to Bush's decision to stop inspecting and start war-making. In this video he gives a very good lecture on the civic responsibility to inform ourselves. He says you can blame Bush, the Congress, and the media for leading the US into the mess it is in. But ultimately, the citizens have to take responsibility for the mess because they need to be informed and use that knowledge to force the president, the Congress, and the media to do a better job. This is a very good little pep talk, a very good civic lesson:

The Bear Facts

I live in British Columbia, but I had to read a blogger from New York City to get this bit of humour. Enjoy!


The race for the US presidency is tightening. Obviously the American people want 4 more years of the idiot policies of George Bush. And here's the guy that will deliver...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine"

Klein has assembled a pretty damning case against the direction that right wing ideologues have pushed society over the last 30+ years. This is an excellent review of the tragedy of economic control over the last 30 years. She documents how right wing ideologues have implemented ideas at the expense of popular control and socialist ideas all around the world. It is a story that well merits reading.

Here is her indictment of "disaster capitalism":
Since the fall of Communism, free markets and free people have been packaged as a single ideology that claims to be humanity's best and only defence against repeating a history filled with mass graves, killing fields and torture chambers. Yet in the Southern Cone [of South America], the first place where the contemporary religion of unfettered free markets escaped from the basement workshops of the University of Chicago and was applied in the real world, it did not bring democracy; it was predicated on the overthrow of democracy in country after country. And it did not bring peace but required the systematic murder of tens of thousands and the torture of between 100,000 and 150,000 people.
She is really down on Milton Friedman and his "Chicago school" of radical capitalism:
National salvation through the harnessing of greed was the closest thing Russia's Chicago Boys and their advisers had to a plan for what they were going to do after they finished destroying Russia's Instituions.

Nor were these catastrophic results unique to Russia; the entire thirty-year history of the Chicago School experiment has been one of mass corruption and corporatist collusion between security states and large corporations, from Chile's piranhas, to Argentina's crony privatizations, to Russia's oligarch, to Enron's energy shell game, to Iraq's "free fraud zone." The point of shock therapy is to open up a window for enormous profits to be made very quickly -- not despite the lawlessnes but precisely because of it.
And here is her statement on "disaster capitalism":
... the disaster economy sneaked up on us. In the eighties and nineties, new economies announced themselves with great pride and fanfare. The tech bubble in particular set a precedent for a new ownership class inspiring deafening levels of hype -- endless media lifestyle profiles of dashing young CEOs beside their private jets, their remote-controlled yachts, their idyllic Seattle mountain homes.

That kind of wealth is being generated by the disaster complex today, though we rarely hear about it. According to a 2006 study, "Since the 'War on Terror' began, the CEOs of the top 34 defense contractors have enjoyed average pay levels that are double the amounts they received during the four years leading up to 9/11." While these CEOs saw their compensation go up an average of 108 percent between 2001 and 2005, chief executives at other large American companies averaged only 6 percent over the same period. ...

Peter Swire, who served as the U.S. government's privacy counsellor during the Clinton administration, describes the convergence of fources behind the War on Terror bubble like this: "You have government on a holy mission to ramp up information gathering and you have an information technology industry desperate for new markets." In other words, you have corporatism: big business and big government combining their formidable powers to regulate and control the citizenry.
Here is her analysis of the Iraq war:
Our [anti-war] explanations for why the war [in Iraq] was waged rarely went beyond one-word answers: oil, Israel, Halliburton. Most of us chose to oppose the war as an act of folly by a president who mistook himself for a king, and his British sidekick who wanted to be on the winning side of history. There was little interst in the idea that was was a rational policy choice, that the architects of the invasion had unleashed ferocious violence because the could no crack open the closed economies of the Middle Esat by peaceful means, that the level of terror was proportional to what was at stake.
While I'm sympathetic to Klein's thesis and I enjoy the lively writing, some qualifications are necessary. I do not find Naomi Klein to be completely trustworthy. She is willing to overstate facts to try to make her point. I don't know enough details catch all the problems with the text but there are enough to make me somewhat suspicious. She is obviously very intelligent and very talented at writing, and the subject she takes on is worthy of the effort, but I feel she feels she needs to cut corners to "sell" her point of view. This isn't a condemnation of the book. It is well worth reading. But it is a caution that you need to read it with a critical eye and be ready to look for confirmation from other sources before accepting the story she gives you as the "whole truth".

Here's what I liked about the book:
  • Chapter 1 goes into more detail on the infamous "Sleep Room" at McGill where CIA-sponsored "psychic driving" experiments were undertaken. Her thesis was that this was the CIA testing torture techniques that would be used in the post 9/11 world.
  • Chapters 3 and 4 provides a good review of the horrors of the war on the Left carried out in Chile and Argentina.
  • Chapter 6 describes how Thatcher initially failed in her conservative "revolution" but was saved by the generals in Argentina when they invaded the Falklands. The surge in nationalism gave her the political clout to take on the miners and then impose her radical economics on Britain.
  • Chapter 7 describes how Jeffrey Sachs plotted to impose radical "shock therapy" on Bolivia and provides the details of the social disaster this brought that country. She also documents how this disaster is "sold" as a success by the right.
  • Chapter 9 describes how Jeffrey Sachs plotted to impose radical "shock therapy" on Poland and how this completely undermined the Soladarity movement.
  • Chapter 9 describes how Milton Friedman "consulted" with the Communist leadership in China to bring radical "shock therapy" to China. She points out that the fight in Tianamen Square was not between a conservative Communist hierarchy versus young new democrats. Instead she says it was a fight between a Communist Party that looked to Friedman's radical "free market" as a technique to enrich themselves at the expense of the large mass of China that resisted this radical economics.
  • Chapter 10 describes how the ANC sold out economic control to elites in a "trade" that gave political change but at the cost of control over the economy.
  • Chapeters 11 and 12 document how Russia was gutted by radical free market tactics that created the Russian mafia and huge profits for western investors.
  • Chapter 13 is the very sad story of how the IMF purposely delayed rescuing the Southeast Asian countries and piled on a lot of "structural reforms" which forced the sale of assets at knockdown prices to enrich investors as part of the free market shock treatment.
  • Chapters 14 and 15 look inside Bush's post 9/11 world and how the shock doctrine has looted the US.
  • Chapters 16 through 18 look at how the economic "shock and awe" has been executed on Iraq.
The book is a real eye-opener. I like the way it follows its theme around the world over the last 30 years. What she details is horrifying. There are lots of details that are behind the headlines and which have been forgotten with time. Klein is very good at taking this story and following it around the world and showing the connections.

But I am a bit concerned about the grand theme she has painted. It reads too much like a grand conspiracy theory. I don't doubt that fanatics wished for all the horrors she documents, but I do worry that the story isn't as interconnected and unified as she presents. Here are some of my specific complaints about exaggeration and overstatement:
  • pp 63-64: She claims that "developmental" economics made Argentina affluent under Juan Peron. My understanding is that in the first decade of the 20th century Argentina was a first world country. It was under Peron that the country slid down toward (but not quite into) third world status.
  • p 66: She call Eisenhower a "hard-core Republican". No. He wasn't even very political. He was a desperate attempt by the Republicans to win by courting a very popular WWII general. Both parties wanted him to run under his banner. In the end he favoured the Republicans, but not because he was an ideologue or had deep-seated "hard-core" conservative values.
  • pp 77-83: She tries to build a case that students of Milton Friedman, the Chicago Boys, directed the coup in Chile. The facts aren't as compelling as she would have us believe. Certainly they supported the overthrow, but a linkage between right wing military dictatorship and Friedman's economic theories is overstated.
  • p 186: "Here [Bolivia] was a country with a strong, militant labour movement and a powerful left tradition, site of Che Guevara's last stand." My understanding is that Guevara had little or no contact with Bolivian leftists and what contact he had led to his seizure and killing by CIA-led troops. Klein's reference to Guevara as if that were part of a heroic leftist tradition in Bolivia is quite odd.
  • p 262: She presents the idea of a central back that is independent of direct political control by the governing party is somehow an idea of "the Chicago School" is a distortion of history. There has been a long running debate of how independent a central bank should be of direct political control. This isn't an idea invented by Milton Friedman.
  • pp 299-300: She presents Clinton as an extension of Bush in a policy of letting Russia collapse rather than bring in aid. I accept that the US lagged, but I'm not wholly convinced that Clinton's administration was lockstep with the Reagan/Bush radical economics. I accept that bureaucrats were in place and acted during the Clinton administration, but I'm not convinced that there was a seamless conspiracy the continued from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush.
Despite my complaints, this is an important book, well written, so it is well worth reading. Sure it has imperfections, but if you work around those, the book is full of interesting facts and viewpoints that need to be understood if we are ever to get out of the current miasma of fanatical right wing doctrinaires who control today's politics and economy.

... here are some videos which introduce you to Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine":

... and here is Naomi Klein talking about her book at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Who Dunnit & How Dunnit

I ran across this BBC production on the History of Magic in the vast innards of YouTube and found the show quite interesting. If you stick through all the historical bits you get a little reward, you get to see the Tower Bridge in London "vanish"...

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

If you watched the BBC you realize that they don't want to "spoil" the magic by telling you how it works. (OK, they show one bit by Penn & Teller that lifts the curtain so you can see the trick, but that's it.) So if you are a rationalist like myself, you are itching to understand how it works. Well, as they explained in the documentary, there was a TV series with the "Masked Magician" who gave away the tricks behind the magic. For those of you, like myself, who want to know and for whom the magic is not destroyed by knowing the trick, take a look here...

Turning a Lady into a Tiger:

The Chinese Latern Trick:

Levitating a Woman:

The Houdini Escape:

The Linking Rings:

The Magic Bag:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thrill Seeking or a New Olympic Sport

The Olympic Games are on in Beijing and a tropical storm is chewing up the coast of Florida. So obviously thrill seekers are unhappy that they can't get the same attention as the athletes. What to do? Well, wind surf in a quasi-hurricane!

Here's a CBS report about this death seeker's new thrill ride:
A CBS4 news crew was on Fort Lauderdale beach at A1A and east Las Olas Boulevard on Monday when a huge gust of wind from Fay blew down the beach and took 28-year-old Kevin Kearney by surprise.

The kite boarder was harnessed into his sail when the wind violently picked him up and slammed him onto the sandy beach. Then, he was dragged across the sand before being lifted up into the air again and blown across the street where the wind slammed him into a building.

WFOR photographer Yuzeith Osorio believes the young man was blown away by a forming waterspout. "Basically, we were getting ready to go live and I saw something forming up in the sky. I told Pete, 'Hey, careful, something's forming.'"

Witnesses ran to help the Fort Lauderdale resident, who lay crumpled on the ground in pain. "I'm surprised he didn't get hit by a car because we have A1A right here," said CBS4 Engineer Anthony Romano. "I think it was a miracle that he just flew over the street and into the thing."

Fort Lauderdale fire rescue crews quickly arrived on the scene and transported him to Broward General Medical Center. He is currently listed in critical condition, but his friends continue to insist they believe he will make a full recovery.

In a statement, Kearney's family said, "Kevin is an experienced kite-boarder and an all around great guy. We ask that you keep Kevin in your prayers and respect our privacy."

Kearney's friends say he was strapped into a harness with emergency releases. However, everything happened so fast, it's possible he had no time to think about unhooking his clasps. The incident is a very surreal reminder of the dangers inherent in Tropical Storm-force winds.

McCain Bashing

I'm horrified to see McCain running within a few points of Obama. I just can't believe that the American people are going to repeat the mistake of 2000 and the mistake of 2004 with the mistake of 2008. Isn't there country wrecked enough by Bush and his "trickle down" economics and his war policies? Don't the American people catch on with the sensationalist "issues" that the Republican party trots out quadrennially to fire up "the base" to win another victory for the top 0.5% of the population? The real "elite" in America?

McCain is a flawed mini-me of George Bush. If you don't believe me, listen to Keith Olbermann:

Part 1

Part 2

And here is a Keith Olbermann / Rachel Maddow discussion of McCain's bombastic militarism with regard to Russia in the Georgia/Russia crisis:

James Laxer's "Perils of Empire"

This book is an entertaining look at the history historical collapse of empires (Egypt, Athens, China, Rome, Spain, England) followed by six chapters that supposedly nail down the case for the upcoming collapse of the American Empire. I'm sympathetic, but not fully convinced.

The historical part of this book is very good. The presentation of the current crisis is adequate but not compelling.

Consider an argument presented for the imminent demise of the US's empire:
The American Empire faces a legitimacy challenge both at home and abroad. ... because the United States was born from an anti-imperialist revolution, Americans are highly resistent to the idea that their country has become an empire. Not only does the Declaration of Independence announce the right of Americans to enter the world as an independent state, it also heralds the right of all peoples to self-government. ...

Along with the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence lies at the heart of the American civic religion of national values. To state the the United states has established an empire is to blasphere against the Declaration. ... A nation that will not admit that it is an empire is not well suited to rule other peoples over the long term.
How can this argument be taken seriously? The refusal by Americans to see that the US as an empire has been in place since the start of the country. So why would this portend the imminent demise of the American Empire now? How is a continuing state a triggering event?

I accept the arguments that the US is overextended, illegitimate, and in self-denial. But Laxer doesn't nail down the argument that collapse is imminent with what I would consider convincing proofs. His analogies with the exhaustion of the English Empire or the Spanish Empire is interesting, but analogy is not proof, or at least not convincing to me. I lived through the "the US is finished" claims of the early 1980s. This is more of the same. Will the end really come this time? Maybe, maybe not. I can't use Laxer's book as a crystal ball. It doesn't really give me any deep new insight that convinces me that this time the US will really fall apart.

But... on the whole the book is interesting, entertaining, educational. So it is worth the read. Just don't expect to come away with dazzling new insights!

UK "Security" Search

If you want to see the stupidity of "security" searches that the UK police force random people to submit to as part of their "terrorist" security operations, then view this video.

This poor guy puts up with all his possessions gone through in a "search" that he is forced to undergo. This includes having to stand with arms spread while the cops go through his pockets.

In a normal and sensible world, it would be utterly obvious that this guy isn't a "terrorist" suspect. A cursory glance at him & his stuff should convince any reasonable person he is not a "terrorist" nor involved in any "terrorist" activities. But the police carry out a twenty minute shakedown in which they meticulously take apart everything he owns, empties his pockets, and generally abuse him as part of an idiotic "security" operation. As you watch this video you see hundreds of other "random" people wander by this area unsearched. What kind of "security" is this? A random search of one out of hundreds? What does that claim to "catch"?

The whole scene presented by this video is absolutely mindboggling in its insanity. At one point the police carefully go through his stack of business cards supposedly "looking for" terrorist connections -- on business cards! Nutty!

This is a waste of valuable resources and a harassment of citizens by a police bureaucracy that has gone beserk. But this police state mentality has spread throughout the whole world the and the public at large accepts it as "serious" when in fact it is a great waste of time and is at best a Keystone Kops approach to security. Sad.

To show how shoddy this "security search" was, there is a section of the videotape where the cop calls in the "identity" of the detainee and gets it wrong. The poor guy has to struggle to get the cop to pay attention when he points out that the call the cop is making to "check" his ID is in fact based on wrong data. The cop misread the date-of-birth and was doing some centralized UK police "terrorist" database search using the wrong date of birth. Just has "secure" can such a system be if in fact the biggest crack in the system is the inability of the cops to read documents correctly into the phone so that a database can be checked?

I suspect the reason why they gave this one guy such a hard time is that he insisted on his rights: he videotaped the search, he asked for identification of the officers, etc. They begrudged every one of his requests. It is very clear that their "meticulous thoroughness" was simply a way to detain him an unreasonable time as punishment for his demanding his rights as a citizen.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Other Christianities

Here is an interesting BBC documentary on the suppressed books of Christianity. It is presented by Pete Owen-Jones. In this documentary Bart D. Ehrman makes a cameo appearance to introduce the books discovered in the Nag Hamadi library:

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

Part Five:

Part Six:

Part Seven:

Part Eight:

Part Nine:

A Good College Education

We all know how higher education educes our "higher self" and shapes us into more cultivated people.

Well... it is more than a might bit hard to spot that education in this college debating session:

Here's the report from Associated Press:

Debate coaches lose cool, 1 pulls down his pants

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — An argument between two debate coaches that was caught on video was not the sharp-witted dialogue typically associated with college debate teams. Instead, the two traded profanity-laced barbs and one of them pulled down his shorts, exposing his underwear.

An eight-minute segment of the argument, in which each cursed repeatedly and one student near the camera can be heard crying, was posted on YouTube on Aug. 2 and has garnered more than 100,000 hits.

"In 18 years of taking part in debates, I have never seen an incident like this one," said Gordon Stables, first vice president of the Cross Examination Debate Association, which sponsored the March tournament in Wichita, Kan., where the argument took place. ...

In the video, Fort Hays State University debate coach William Shanahan is shown arguing with Shanara Reid-Brinkley, debate coach at the University of Pittsburgh, during the competition's quarterfinals.

Economic Headache or Collapse?

Here is a nice graphic that I picked up from the Big Picture website. It shows in stark graphic detail why the US economy has had its legs knocked out from under it:

This shows that, with the jump in oil price, the amount of money siphoned off to pay OPEC is now greater than the amount of money that US taxpayers pay to the federal government as income tax. (OK, this is obviously a "projection" thatt is based on a doubling of oil price and with prices now down from $147/barrel to $113/barrel, this graph is overstating the case. But still, the graphic is riveting because it makes the cost of oil for US consumers so very, very obvious.)

The Big Picture site also points to this nice video slide show reviewing the past year's financial crisis.

Friday, August 15, 2008

American Madness

Here's an interesting interview with a retired police chief of Seattle who points out that the "drug war" is an insane policy that has run for 36 years and cost $1 TRILLION and utterly failed since drugs are available everywhere, at lower cost, and better quality than when the "War on Drugs" was announced by Nixon in 1971. This video is from this Reason TV webpage:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cruel Indifference, Justice for None

The Bush administration continues to set new lows for inhumane treatment, for cruelty, for indifference, for bureaucratic bungling, and for moral turpitude. Here is a NY Times story that will break your heart:
  • Bureaucratic bungling: because green card papers were sent to the wrong address, the US government jailed an innocent man.
  • Cruel indifference: because the US now treats everyone guilty until they can prove "innocence" to a suspicious police/judicial system, this man was not believed when he complained of excruciating pain.
  • Cruel indifference: because authorities "believed" this man was lying about his back pain, they first denied him pain medication, then when the medical staff came to believe him, they forced him to stand in line for the pills. But his pain became so great he couldn't stand in line, so he had to go without pain pills.
  • Vicious cruelty: rather than let his lawyers make a habeus corpus claim on him, they dragged this fatally ill man out of state and broke his cancer-weakened spine in the process.
  • Moral indifference: nobody in this system has admitted any guilt or any flaw in how this system could treat an innocent man so cruelly.
This guy is part of 300,000 people held in a "dead zone" where legal standards don't reach. These are the modern day inmates of a Devil's Island penal system from which there is no appeal and no escape.

Americans got a pimple, so they took a chainsaw and hacked off limbs and faces of everybody around them to solve their "terrorist" problem. What a grim, ugly, immoral joke. When will the American people wake up to their idiocies and crimes?

Read the article and weep. In the good old days the morally sensitive would say "you sow what you reap" and the prophets would say "woe unto you Israel". Well... if there was a God, the American people should rend their garments, throw ashes on themselves, fall onto their knees, and weep plentiful tears to try and show their repentence. But... I'm a modern person, so I expect none of that. I expect more bureaucratic bungling, more cruel indifference, more moral turpitude.

I understand the moral indifference of Nature. Justice and morality are human concepts. What I can't stand are the human perpetrators of injustice and immorality. Life is brief and cruel enough without our fellow human beings heaping misery on top of Nature's indifference.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bjorn Lomborg's "Cool It"

This is the second book, Cool It, by Bjorn Lomborg on global warming. In this book he takes the position that "yes, there is global warming, but let's make the most rational decision -- using economics -- that will benefit humankind". This book will be just as unpopular as his previous book The Skeptical Environmentalist because he does not toe the line that the alarmist insist upon.

Personally, I don't accept the modeling of the global warming crowd. I accept the principal of modeling, but as someone who used computers to model computer system performance I know how easily your assumptions can skew your results. I don't think the science is nailed down to the point where the models can be trusted. I accept that greenhouse gases imply warmer temperatures. Where I have problems is in the accuracy of the predictions.

The fundamental strength of Lomborg's argument is based on interviews he held with experts about priorities. If the priority is maximizing human welfare, then Lomborg is right to question the extremists of the global warming agenda. They are moral absolutists who say "climate change is such a disaster that all other issues pale in comparison". But Lomborg shows by careful reasoning that in fact these extremists build their case by only looking at negatives and never at positives. The are a one-issue crowd that is unwilling to consider alternatives or look at the bigger picture of human welfare. Here's how he puts it:
Global warming is happening; the consequences are important and mostly negative. It will cause more heat deaths, an iincrease in sea level, possibly more intense hurricanes, and more flooding. It will give rise to more malaria, starvation, and poverty. It is therefore not surprising that a vast array of environmental organizations, pundits, and world leaders have concluded that we must act to fix global warming.

The problem with this analysis is that it overlooks a simple but important fact. Cutting CO2 -- even substantially -- will not matter for much of the problems on this list. From polar bears to water scarcity, as we have seen, we can do relatively little with climate policies and a lot more with social policies.

If we claim that our concern lies with people dying from climate effects, as in the European heat wave in 2003, we have to ask ourselves why we are primarily thinking about implementing expensive CO2 cuts, which at best leave future communities warming slightly less quickly, still causing ever more heat deaths. Moreover, as warming will indeed prevent even more cold deaths, we have to ask why we are thinking about an expensive policy that will actually leave more people dead. ...

With Kyoto we can avoid about 140,000 malaria deaths over the century. At one-sixtieth the cost, we can takle malaria directly and avoid eighty-five million deaths. For every time we save one person from malaria death through climate policies, the same money could have saved 36,000 people through better antimalaria policies. Which should be our first mission? ...

Take hunger. Yes, global warming will probably mean more malnourished, but again tackling hunger through cliate policies is simply vastly inefficient. For each person saved from malnutrition through Kyoto, simple policies -- like investing in agricultural research -- could save five thousand people.

With all these choices, we have to ask over and over again, when choosing our generational mission, which policies should come first? We have become fascinated by the big knob of climate change and been sold the idea that if we can just turn this one knob, we can ameliorate most other problems in the world. Yet this is demonstratively false.
I found this bit about politicization of the science of global warming interesting:
Respected -- but skeptical -- climate scientist Richard Lindzen from MIT points out that
scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds diappear, their work derided, and themselves libeled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse. Consequently, lies about climate change grain credence even when they fly in the face of the science that supposedly is their basis.
This complaint of politicization is not isolated. If you look at Lomborg's Wikipedia page you can see how he was hounded by the global climate warming fanatics and "tried" by a science bureaucracy in Denmark and "found guilty" of using deliberately misleading data and reaching flawed conclusions. This was a purely political "decision" because upon appeal to a higher scientific bureaucracy, this "judgement" was annulled because of flawed claims and judgements by the lower level body.

This book is an absolute "must read" to get a balancing viewpoint to counterpoise to the ranting of the global warming catastrophists. I appreciate this book even though I don't accept the assumption it makes that "global warming is real". I think the science is too immature to make that claim. At best, I support the view that greenhouse gases are likely to raise global temperatures, but it is far from decided when and by how much or by what precise mechanisms. To establish huge political commitments on shakey science is foolish. Yes, I support more research, but I personally believe that the era of dependence on fossil fuels is coming to an end. In fifty years time, this hue and cry about "global warming" will have passed.

Bush Family Trait

I was just pondering the "family resemblance"...
  • Bush, the senior, sent ambassador April Glaspie to meet with Saddam Hussein shortly before the first Gulf War. She assured Saddam Hussein "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." Shortly afterward Hussein attacked.
  • Bush, the junior, bumped into Vladimir Putin at the Olympic Games in Beijing and gave him a warm hug, this despite the fact that Russian troops had just crossed the Georgian border to "teach a lesson" to Georgia about sending troops into its rogue province of South Ossetia. Shortly afterward, Russia sent in hordes of troops and pushed across the rogue provinces of Abkahzia and South Ossetia and throughout Georgia.
Isn't it odd how completely incompetent this family is at geopolitics. But they have sat astride the upper echelons of the political elite in the US for over three generations!

Funny... people love to hear about the foibles and incompetencies of other nations and other people. But the US is as wracked and worm-eaten by fools and incompetents as any country. In fact it is showing itself to have reached the dizzying heights of incompetence shown by empires as they decline while pretending to still be on the ascent.

Here is the relevant point made by a piece in the UK's Telegraph newspaper:
Mr Saakashvilli may also have banked on support from his closest ally, US president George W Bush, whose administration is said to have given tacit support for a Georgian assault on South Ossetia in the believe that the territory could be recaptured within 48 hours.

But as events have unfolded differently, Washington has offered Georgia - one of the largest contributors of troops in Iraq - little more than lukewarm vocal support.

In a demonstration of the fact that Georgia could be abandoned by its chief ally, President Bush warmly embraced Mr Putin at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing on Friday.

With the West apparently unwilling to participate in a proxy war with Russia at a time when relations with Moscow are already highly strained, Georgia now faces potential isolation in its conflict with its giant neighbour.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex"

This is an interesting book. It is a old-style grand novel across three generations. But it is modern in that it slices and dices the story with flashbacks and flashforwards and multi-perspective writing. Some won't like it because it is a bit complex and the early part of the book is set in the Greek remnants of western Turkey at the time of WWI. But I liked the historical sweep. I especially enjoyed the philosophical asides pondering our fate as humans.

The major premise of the book is a derelict gene that causes hermaphroditism. Funny... you have to read 400 pages before you really get into the details of the condition. So this book is not for the faint-hearted. Similarly, this book is not afraid to spell out scientific detail. I love the blend of fact and fiction, history and narrative.

I'm a sucker for a story and this one is good. It is a little slow getting started, but the good news is that the drama gets more gripping the further into the stories you go. The intial stories of the first generation immigrants in interesting but not gripping. The second generational stories resonate with me because they relate to my parents' generation. The third generation, which deals with Caliope, AKA Cal, and the story of her perigrination from girl to boy was very interesting. Add to this more twists to the plot than you can imagine and it was a real rollercoaster ride for me. Lots of fun.

This is not a great psychological novel. It isn't a great historical novel. It is a grand novel centered around the fascinating biological fact of hermaphroditism. But even this key theme, is really only dealt with in a couple of dozen pages. The material about Zora and Dr. Peter Luce is the only real discussion of the genetics and condition. The material about Caolipe is discrete and indirect. So this isn't really a book about hermaphroditism. It is a historical novel about three generations of an immigrant family that happens to harbour a defective gene.

As I read the material on Dr. Peter Luce I kept thinking of Dr. John Money, the opinionated sex "expert" at John Hopkins, famous for his claim that you could change gender identity by simply raising a child under an assigned sex. Dr. Money ruined a lot of lives. This novel happily avoids the ugly reality of cases that suffered under the hands of a ideologue like Money. If you want to see how ugly this reality can be, read David Reimer's story in the book "As Nature Made Him":

You can watch an eight minute CBC documentary on David Reimer's short life, the deceptions of Dr John Money, and the suffering of David. Notice how his mother found out only after Money did his "experiment" on David that most of the gender re-assigned kids committed suicide. Notice also, that the documentary pointed out the "Dr." John Money's office at John Hopkins University failed to respond to a request by the CBC for an interview. Most academics are proud of their work and eager to have access to the general public, but Money refused. Money died in 2006, but he was eulogized by the scientific society and he never accepted the horrors he had inflicted on other (nor has the scientific society). Here's an NPR piece about Money.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Why I Hate the Global Warming Propagandists

Here is a typical example of what outrages me...

Thomas L. Friedman has been running a series in his N.Y. Times columns about his recent trip to Greenland. He is full of clucking over the changes wrought by climate change and full of worries for "his children" about a nightmare future caused by global warming. The articles are full of praise for "energy saving" and worries that we all need to "tighten our belts" to help save the world. Here's an example from the August 9 column "Flush with Energy":
I walked back to our room after dinner the other night and turned down our dim hallway, the hall light went on. It was triggered by an energy-saving motion detector. Our toilet even had two different flushing powers depending on — how do I say this delicately — what exactly you’re flushing. A two-gear toilet! I’ve never found any of this at an American hotel. Oh, if only we could be as energy efficient as Greenland!

A day later, I flew back to Denmark.
Do you see what bugs me? It is the audacity of his moral hypocrisy. Here's a guy who is rapturous over the ecological "savings" of a two flush mode toilet, but sees no problem in flying 3,000 miles to and from to have this "experience".

Friedman is a moral hypocrite who makes the following lament in his August 5th column "Learning to Speak Climate":
We’ve charged their future on our Visa cards. We’ve added so many greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, for our generation’s growth, that our kids are likely going to spend a good part of their adulthood, maybe all of it, just dealing with the climate implications of our profligacy. And now our leaders are telling them the way out is “offshore drilling” for more climate-changing fossil fuels.

Madness. Sheer madness.
But he thinks nothing of jet setting around the world. And... he's still using his credit card.

This kind of hypocrisy drives me crazy. This guy urges us, the peasants, to tighten our belts so that he and his children can live in an air conditioned and centrally heated world of at-the-drop-of-a-hat jet flights halfway around the world without having to worry about global warming. He doesn't care that he is condemning us to a second-class lifestyle. Well, nuts to that!

I say develop the economy! Once I can afford to jet set around the world, then maybe I too will look out a jet window at 37,000 feet over a drought stricken over-heated world, and then maybe I too will have an enlightened vision that maybe everybody else should cut back on their energy use to help save me and my progeny. Nuts to him!

Nuts to all the eco-nuts who from their affluent lifestyles have decided "enough!" and want the rest of us to tighten out belts to preserve their world!

I probably didn't convince you. Let me try one more time with another quote from the August 5th column:
I was riding in a car back to my hotel at the 6 p.m. rush hour. And boy, you knew it was rush hour because 50 percent of the traffic in every intersection was bicycles. That is roughly the percentage of Danes who use two-wheelers to go to and from work or school every day here. If I lived in a city that had dedicated bike lanes everywhere, including one to the airport, I’d go to work that way, too. It means less traffic, less pollution and less obesity.

What was most impressive about this day, though, was that it was raining. No matter. The Danes simply donned rain jackets and pants for biking. If only we could be as energy smart as Denmark!
What bothers me about this? He admires the way the hardy Danes will take to bikes in rainy weather to be "energy smart". But Friedman -- ever so willing to sign everybody else up for belt tightening -- laments that he can't ride a bike and be "energy smart" in New York because there are no "bike lanes". What? The Danes are willing to suffer the rain and that is noble. But Friedman can't show equivalent commitment to being "energy smart"? Why? Oh, because there are no dedicated bike lanes. Yes, Friedman wants so badly to show solidarity, but unfortunately there are no bike lanes so he regretfully has to let others save the world with their "energy smart" ways. Instead, Friedman takes on the onerous duty of telling everybody else how to live their lives, i.e. do as I say, not as I do!

This is exactly the kind of hypocrisy that bugs me. He is a typical "moral reformer", i.e. full of advice & rules & demands for others to tighten up or cut back, but somehow he just doesn't have the time, motivation, or commitment to do the same. Hypocrite!

Climate Models

The Kyoto Protocol was an agreement to put a lid on economic development because climate models warn of "global warming". The idea was sold as simply "being sensible" (AKA, the "precautionary principle", see comments at the bottom of this post) because you weighed risk versus cost and made a rational decision. But that characterization of the issue justifies signing up for Kyoto only if the science is solid. But that agreement -- nearly eleven years ago -- is built on a pretty shaky foundation because climate modeling is a "science" only in the sense that it is a technology that attempts to capture known science in computer models. How accurate the models are depends on how well the known science reflects the real world.

People should be queasy when they read new science reports like the following from a news release on PhysOrg about recent research by Peter Crozier and James Anderson at Arizona State University:
So-called brown carbons – a nanoscale atmospheric aerosol species – are largely being ignored in broad-ranging climate computer models, Crozier and Anderson say.

Studies of the greenhouse effect that contribute directly to climate change have focused on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But there are other components in the atmosphere that can contribute to warming – or cooling – including carbonaceous and sulfate particles from combustion of fossil fuels and biomass, salts from oceans and dust from deserts. Brown carbons from combustion processes are the least understood of these aerosol components.

The parameter typically used to measure degrees of warming is radiative forcing, which is the difference in the incoming energy from sunlight and outgoing energy from heat and reflected sunlight. The variety of gasses and aerosols that compose the atmosphere will, under different conditions, lead to warming (positive radiative forcing) or cooling (negative radiative forcing).

The ASU researchers say the effect of brown carbon is complex because it both cools the Earth's surface and warms the atmosphere.

"Because of the large uncertainty we have in the radiative forcing of aerosols, there is a corresponding large uncertainty in the degree of radiative forcing overall," Crozier says. "This introduces a large uncertainty in the degree of warming predicted by climate change models."

A key to understanding the situation is the light-scattering and light-absorbing properties – called optical properties – of aerosols.

Crozier and Anderson are trying to directly measure the light-absorbing properties of carbonaceous aerosols, which are abundant in the atmosphere.

"If we know the optical properties and distribution of all the aerosols over the entire atmosphere, then we can produce climate change models that provide more accurate prediction," Anderson says.

Most of the techniques used to measure optical properties of aerosols involve shining a laser through columns of air.

"The problem with this approach is that it gives the average properties of all aerosol components, and at only a few wavelengths of light," Anderson says.

He and Crozier have instead used a novel technique based on a specialized type of electron microscope. This technique – monochromated electron energy-loss spectroscopy – can be used to directly determine the optical properties of individual brown carbon nanoparticles over the entire visible light spectrum as well as over the ultraviolet and infrared areas of the spectrum.

"We have used this approach to determine the complete optical properties of individual brown carbon nanoparticles sampled from above the Yellow Sea during a large international climate change experiment," Crozier says.

"This is the first time anyone has determined the complete optical properties of single nanoparticles from the atmosphere," Anderson says.

It's typical for climate modelers to approximate atmospheric carbon aerosols as either non-absorbing or strongly absorbing. "Our measurements show this approximation is too simple," Crozier says. "We show that many of the carbons in our sample have optical properties that are different from those usually assumed in climate models."

Adds Anderson: "When you hear about predictions of future warming or changes in precipitation globally, or in specific regions like the Southwestern United States, the predictions are based on computer model output that is ignoring brown carbon, so they are going to tend to be less accurate."
The precautionary principle: This sounds reasonable on the surface, and in broad outline it is correct, but applying it does not alleviate the need to do a cost-benefit analysis as part of an overall strategy of risk management. Life is full of risks. Avoiding risks is not a solution. Any gain requires taking a risk. The trick is to minimize risks while maximizing benefits. The Kyoto Protocol has lost sight of this. The Chicken Littles of the Global Warming camp tell you fearful stories and try to convince you that we have to forgo economic growth (and even technological advance) because of their fear of the future. I'm reminded of the story of nuclear scientists at Los Alamos fearful that testing the first nuclear weapon might cause the atmosphere to spontaneously combust or the modern day physicists at the CERN that running the Large Hadron Collider will create a black hole that will suck our world into nothingness. These are worries, but they shouldn't stop you. Instead, you do an analysis and make a judgement of risk versus benefit. The fearful few will always opt to "stop! don't take any risks" while the foolhardy few will say "who cares! go for it!". The muddled middle will be swayed either way. The rational few will want to sit down and calculate. To use knowledge to make judgements. What the climate modelers show is that their current models are not as solid a science as they present. So their give themselves over to the fearful few. I'm all for throwing money into developing the science of atmospheric physics and money into climate modeling. But I also think we need to fund those who also talk about the science of remediation or technical fixes. To be fair we need to compare benefit and risk with all options on the table. The Kyoto Protocol was a knee jerk reaction of those fearful few. There is a still a lot of science to be investigated. Even more importantly, there needs to be an intelligent tradeoff between economic development and a risks, not a blanket "precautionary principle" that stops all development. (Notice that it is always the rich and powerful, very satisfied with their current position and status, who advocate this stand down of the precautionary principle.)

I advocate the position taken by Bjorn Lomborg. Here is a summary of his current argument in the latest book, Cool It, as presented in Wikipedia:
The book argues that, while global warming is a genuine concern, the problem needs to be dealt with in a responsible way. He suggests that the solutions currently suggested by Kyoto etc. are both prohibitively expensive, and therefore will not be followed-through, but even if they were fully implemented, they would result in only a minuscule change, perhaps slowing global warming by only 5 years or so, by even the most optimistic predictions.