Friday, April 30, 2010

Happy Anniversary?

35 years ago today the Vietnam war ended with the collapse of the South Vietnam regime in the face of troops from the North Vietnam Army entering the South's capital, the infamous "fall of Saigon".

Oddly, Nixon won the 1968 election on a pledge that he has a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam. Unfortunately he didn't mention to the electorate that is "peace" was to be gained seven years later by abandoning the south in a confused "rush for the exits".

As you can tell from the following video, the US planned the evacuation of Saigon like it planned the rest of the war in South Vietnam... poorly:

The US electorate never held the Republican party responsible for lying about a "secret plan" to end the war. They didn't hold any political party responsible for 58,159 dead; 1,724 missing; 303,635 wounded Americans and 220,357 dead; 1,170,000 wounded South Vietnamese troops, and 1,176,000 dead/missing; 600,000+ wounded North Vietnamese (from Wikipedia).

Death, destruction, waste of resources, waste of money... I guess today is an anniversary to reflect on the foolishness of governments and political parties unwilling to tell their people the truth. Sad.

I can't help thinking if all that had been invested in building factories and infrastructure, educating people, supplying medical care. Today would be a better world. But people are more willing to expend resources to destroy, even in a futile war, than to put in the effort and dedication to build a better future. A tragedy.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rewriting Scientific "Truth"

I've had a problem with "global warming" since the early 1980s. I had bought a house on a flood plain sited below sea level and protected by dykes. So I worried about rising sea levels. So I closely monitored IPCC announcements. I soon became frustrated because their "science" had no integrity. They would announce expected sea level and change facts and predictions without any tracking of past "predictions" or any justification for the changing numbers. That's not science. That publicity, that's propaganda, that's fear mongering, but it isn't science.

Over the last couple of years I've watched another version of this story: predictions that the arctic ice will disappear. I'm seeing the same game of changing predictions. In this case, the argument is that "global warming" would show up in high altitudes first, so we could expect a melting of arctic ice. Predictions started appear about how quickly that would occur. In 2007 the ice hit a low and these predictions looked to be supported by the data. But now that the ice is recovering, suddenly the "predictions" are changing. That's not science.

With science a prediction can change if the theory changes or the measurements change. But when this occurs you explain what has changed and why that changes the prediction. With the "arctic ice will disappear" crowd, they don't hold themselves accountable to their predictions. They start hedging. They qualify. They change terms.

Here's a wonderful description of this situation in a posting by Anthony Watts on his WUWT blog. He gets pretty sarcastic at the end of his post:
With nature still not cooperating with “death spiral predictions”, what will be the press release ice meme this year? Color? Texture? Cracks per square kilometer? It will be interesting to watch.
Go read his post!

A Scientist Looks at Wall Street

Here is a bit from a posting by Adam Frank on the NPR website. Adam Frank is an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester.
Over the last few decades, Wall Street took on all the trappings of a large technical/scientific enterprise. The market, we were told, had become all about serious and even-handed analysis. Investment firms hired newly minted PhDs in theoretical physics.

Their job was to look into the global market's complexity. Supercomputers, in silent platonic mediation, peered into hyperdimensional simulations of market futures. Universities opened up programs in "financial engineering" developing advanced computer codes and data mining techniques to fill the analysis demand. The best and the brightest headed to Wall Street just like they had once flocked to science, medicine and engineering. There was only one thing missing in all this — the community ethos of responsibility that science, medicine and engineering had developed for themselves.

Here is a question — science manages to be self-policing, why can't investment banks do the same?

By self-policing I mean science should, eventually, find its own errors, its own failures in judgment. It does this through its own cultural institutions and cultural norms — what one may call its ethos. In the Reagan era, Wall Street was given the chance to do the same as regulations were stripped away. You don't need me to tell you it was catastrophic failure.

Sometimes people say that science is amoral, that it does not have a set of values inherent in its practice. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is one great rule in science, which none dare break. The rule every graduate student gets with their mothers' milk.

Fraud occurs in science but it's surprisingly rare. Scientists are loath to falsify data for a variety of reasons. One reason is that sooner or later the world will speak for itself and the fraud will be exposed. Another is that a scientist's worth is only as good as their reputation. Even a whiff of sloppy practice can be enough to sink a career. The last reason is a sense of community. Your results will be passed on and used by others. Falsifying results means stinking up the watering hole for everyone else. These three imperatives form a skeleton of the cultural "boundary conditions," which comprise science's ethical norms.

They are boundaries that one can imagine might have worked in a rapidly "complexifying" world of global high finance. But the harrowing culture of greed emerging from the go-go 1980s made those boundaries far too easy to cross.

In the current debacle, people knew the fraud was out there and might get exposed but, it seems, they would most likely have moved on by then. The banks would be "too big to fail" anyway.

As for reputation — who cared? All that mattered was wealth, the more obscene the better. Community? Please, don't be a rube. This was the world of Gordon Gecko, hero to a thousand Masters of the Universes. Exalting the self was the only value.

In the end, it was not the complexity of Wall Street's deals that was its (and our) undoing. The crazy products like derivatives and collateralized debt obligations that seemed to demand advanced mathematics to understand them were just part of the problem. Other endeavors like science handle this kind of complexity just fine. The problem was human, all too human.

It is a culture that perverted its sense of reputation, responsibility and community that brought us so close to ruin.

Even in an era of light-speed trading guided by multi-dimensional modeling, it was the simple perversion of communally-held values that shook us to our foundations. It was not complexity alone but in the face of complexity we needed (and still need) integrity. And, finally, given the complexity of the issues we now face from the global economy to global warming, the kind of value vacuum Wall Street created is something we can no longer endure.
Adam Frank promises to publish more on this topic, so check the NPR web site for new postings.

Here's what I distill Adam Frank's analysis down to:
  • Money corrupts causing people to lose sight of values, reputation, and community.

  • Traditional disciplines (he mentions science, medicine and engineering) have developed a code of ethics. The financial industry has not.

  • The financial industry had a chance to develop "self-policing" when right wing ideologues starting with Reagan argued for and won "deregulation". No code of ethics, no self-policing, emerged. Instead you got greed and fraud.

  • Arguing that Wall Street's failure was just an unfortunate side-effect of "complexity" or "bigness" fails to accept that other disciplines, like science, handle far more complex data and far larger data sets and don't have the fraud and corruption witnessed on Wall Street.
In short, Wall Street needs to be regulated since they obviously can't and won't regulate itself.

Widom-Larsen Redux

I've been watching "cold fusion" since 1989. Recently I became aware of the Widom-Larsen theory. This appears to me to be the long-awaited explanation for the phenomenon.

There is an interesting April 17, 2010 interview with Lewis Larsen, co-developer of the Widom-Larsen theory. Ignore the first minute or so where the host "personality" messes around. Larsen has some interesting things to say. The host, Sandy Andrew is an over-the-top character who intrudes too much into the talk. Ignore him and focus on Lewis Larsen. (You can download the interview here.)

One of the most interesting bits occurs about 37 minutes into the interview when Larsen talks about collective effects and evidence that biology has anticipated the theory by several billion years, i.e. bacteria appear to use this effect to transmute elements needed for their growth. He also mentions that there is similar -- but different theory -- collective effects going on in photosynthesis.

Larsen gives a very reasonable discussion of why it is so difficult for science to respond to the new experimental results. He recounts the negative reactions to Michael Farady's experiments with electro-magnetism. He explains that LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions) falls between current disciplines (it combines QED, condensed matter, nuclear, and plasma physics), so it requires collaboration and viewpoints which are not "normal". This typically causes a negative reaction. He also mentions Thomas Kuhn's classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which discusses this negative reaction to "anomalous" experimental results.

In the talk, he mentions the independent NASA review of the Widom-Larsen theory. Here is a presentation created by the NASA physicist Zawodny. This presentation is fairly accessible to the informed general public. And it draws conclusions to show the potential of the impact of the new technology, e.g. a 747 jet outfitted with take advantage of LENR at a 1% efficiency rate would allow 2Kg H2 to fuel the plane on 9800km flight.

Update 2010aug12: There is a nice presentation of Widom-Larsen in the July 2010 issue of New Energy Times: Widom-Larsen Simplified.

Click to Enlarge

Update 2011may25 NASA is attempting to replicate experiments as part of an evaluation of the Widom-Larsen theory of LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions).
The theory NASA is evaluating is the “Ultra-Low-Momentum Neutron Catalyzed Theory of LENRs” developed by Allan Widom and Lewis Larsen. New Energy Times has a dedicated “portal” page for information about this theory.

NASA researcher Joseph. M. Zawodny, along with this writer, have contributed the chapter “Widom-Larsen Theory: Possible Explanation of LENRs in the forthcoming Wiley Nuclear Energy Encyclopedia.

Update 2011jun07: Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist of NASA Langley was interviewed by EV World (here) and the interview has been transcribed by Steven B. Krivit in his LENR blog. Here are the bit published by Krivit:
J. William Moore: I’d like to [look at] some of the [energy alternatives] that you think look most promising from your perspective.

Dennis Bushnell: The most interesting, and promising, at this point, in the farther term, but maybe not so far, is low-energy nuclear reactions. This has come out of [22] years of people producing energy but not knowing what it is — and we think we have a theory on it. It’s producing beta decay and heat without radiation. The research on this is very promising and it alone, if it comes to pass, would literally solve both [the] climate and energy [problems.]

MOORE: I find it extremely exciting that there might be something here, so what is it that you think is going on at the atomic level here?

BUSHNELL: Let me back up a little. [Stanley] Pons and [Martin] Fleischmann came out with an experiment that they labeled “cold fusion” about 22 years ago which had replication issues at the time. Also, all of the fusion theorists came out and said absolutely “This is not fusion.” And, of course, they were exactly correct, this is not fusion.

They’ve gone through 20 years of massive experimentation worldwide, in almost every country, where they’ve been able to produce this effect. But all of the energy produced by these “cold fusion” experiments over the last 22 years didn’t produce enough heat to boil water for tea. So people didn’t get too interested in it and nobody knew what it was.

Back in 2005, 2006, [Allen] Widom [and Lewis] Larsen came out with a theory that said, no it’s not “cold fusion,” it’s weak interactions using the Standard Model of quantum mechanics, only the weak interaction part. It says that if you set up one of the cells, and you don’t have to use deuterium, hydrogen works fine, nickel works fine and you don’t need palladium.

If you set this up you produce an electron – proton connection producing ultra-weak neutrons and if you have the right targets out there you produce beta-decay which produces heat.

At that point, in 2006, 2007 we became interested and started setting up a set of experiments that we’re just about ready to start finally, where we’re trying to experimentally validate this Widom-Larsen theory to find out whether or not it explains what’s going on. And in the process, we used quantum theory to optimize the particular surface morphologies to do this.

Then, as you mentioned, in January of this year [Andrea] Rossi, backed by [Sergio] Focardi, who had been working on this for many years, and in fact doing some of the best work worldwide, came out and did a demonstration first in January, they re-did it in February, re-did it in March, where for days they had one of these cells, a small cell, producing in the 10 to 15 kW range which is far more than enough to boil water for tea. And they say this is weak interaction, it’s not fusion.

So I think were almost over the “We don’t understanding it” problem. I think we’re almost over the “This doesn’t produce anything useful” problem. And so I think this will go forward fairly rapidly now. And if it does, this is capable of, by itself, completely changing geo-economics, geopolitics of solving quite a bit of [the] energy [problem.]

MOORE: I think this was either last week or the week before last, I ran a story on this. I went and took a look at it – they were using hydrogen and nickel, I believe, using hydrogen gas and putting that into this device. In looking at the video and photographs, it looks to be about the size of a fist and that thing was running from about 10:45 in the morning till about 4:30 when they finally turned it off — and generating, I forget exactly what it was — but it was a significant amount of energy in the form of steam.

BUSHNELL: It produces heat and did so for days and was in the 12 or 14 kW range and they [will be] producing, with a large number of these devices, a 1 MW power plant.

MOORE: That’s a pretty exciting thing. Do you think that this theory that was developed — are these NASA scientists that were working on that theory?

BUSHNELL: No, the theory was developed by Widom and Larsen. Widom is a faculty member and teacher at Northeastern and Larsen has a company in Chicago.

MOORE: So that looks promising and so you can take and generate steam, and of course, that’s what a nuclear reactor or coal-fired power plant is all about. They’re just there to produce steam and turn a turbine and produce power.

BUSHNELL: Once you’ve got heat, you can do everything. We looked at using LENR to power a space-access rocket and it had better performance conceptually than a conventional nuclear thermal rocket.

MOORE: Wow! Exciting.

Update 2011dec12: There is slow progress in realizing that the Widom-Larsen theory may account for anomalous heat generation. Here is a relevant post on the New Energy Times blog:
Takahashi Now Includes Weak Interactions in LENR Theory

Posted on December 7, 2011 by Steven B. Krivit

Akito Takahashi, a retired professor of nuclear engineering from Osaka University, and now affiliated with Technova Inc., is shifting his thinking about low-energy nuclear reactions.


And here is a presentation by Joseph Zawodny on 22-Sept-2011 at a NASA sponsored LENR Innovation Forum workshop at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. This presentation has a nice historical review and provides some context to the Widom-Larsen theory.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lies and Thuggery in American Politics

I remember the "welfare queen" campaign of Ronald Reagan. The Republicans used race and fear to win the election.

I remember the infamous "Wille Horton" campaign of George H. W. Bush. This again played the race card, crime, and fear to help Republicans to win the election.

I remember the infamous "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" campaign of lies to allow the draft dodging wimp George Bush to defeat a Vietnam veteran, John Kerry. The Republicans used lies to win yet another political election.

The Republicans are at it again. Here is a posting by Robert Reich on his blog:
Swiftboating Finance Reform

Republicans are blocking a Senate vote on the Dodd bill, seeking to build public support by misleading the public. They’re claiming to want a stronger bill when in fact they’re doing the Street’s bidding by seeking a weaker one.

Evidence of their tactics comes in the form of a shady anti-financial reform group called “Stop Too Big To Fail” which today announced a new TV advertising push in three key states. The ad features an out-of-context quote from me to bolster its case to kill financial reform.

As TPMmuckraker has reported, Stop Too Big To Fail is the project of a veteran astroturf operation called Consumers for Competitive Choice, and it’s using the services of an ad agency that worked with the Swift Boat Vets For Truth in 2004. TPMmuckraker says the group has already spent $1.6 million on anti-reform ads and won’t say who’s funding the group’s efforts.

“Stop Too Big To Fail” has previously featured MIT economist Simon Johnson in one of its media conference calls before Johnson realized the goals of the outfit and demanded it stop using his name. Now, “Stop Too Big To Fail” is using me.

I demand it stop using my name.

The new ad, which is running in Virginia, Missouri, and Nevada, claims in a voice-over: “Congress is considering so-called financial reform that gives our government unlimited executive bailout authority. Unlimited bailouts for big banks, paid for by you and me. Even President Clinton’s secretary of labor said, ‘it preserves the possibility that the Fed could launch another bank bailout.’” The ad demands: “No more bailouts with our money.” It finishes by asking viewers to call their senators and ask them to vote against financial reform.

If the message sounds familiar, it is. It’s what we’ve been hearing from Republican opponents of reform in recent weeks: keep talking about bailouts while seeking to kill the reform bill.

If you read my post from two weeks ago that the group cites in the ad, you’ll see I was actually describing the very strategy employed by “Stop Too Big To Fail.” In that post, I critique the Dodd bill as not being tough enough on big banks — but I argue for tougher reform, exactly the opposite of what this group is seeking.

The Swiftboaters are back.
The joke is that Republican Bush is the one who bailed out the banks. It was his Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, who went to Congress and pleaded for a "bailout". This was a Republican bailout (made necessary by radical Republicans who refused to regulate the banks and Wall Street). But the Republicans pretend that Democrats are the ones to fear and must be blocked or they will "bailout Wall Street again". That's a lie. Hitler used this technique to control the German people. It is called "the big lie" propaganda technique.

A Climatologist Assess "Climate Science"

Here is a paper given in 2008 at a Euresis conference and released onto the Arxiv by Richard Lindzen. It is concerned with a corruption of science from an free interplay between observation and theory into something manipulated by funding and technology into directed research and simulation. This channels 'discoveries' and put blinkers on the process. It opens the process to political manipulation by interest groups and by funding agencies. This creates corruption in climate science and more broadly in all of science. Consequently it is changing people's perception of science.

Here is a bit from the conclusion:
As concerns the specific dangers pertaining to the climate change issue, we are already seeing that the tentative policy moves associated with ‘climate mitigation’ are contributing to deforestation, food riots, potential trade wars, inflation, energy speculation and overt corruption as in the case of ENRON (one of the leading lobbyists for Kyoto prior to its collapse). There is little question that global warming has been exploited [by] many governments and corporations (and not just by ENRON; Lehman Brothers, for example, was also heavily promoting global warming alarm, and relying on the advice of James Hansen, etc.) for their own purposes, but it is unclear to what extent such exploitation has played an initiating role in the issue. The developing world has come to realize that the proposed measures endanger their legitimate hopes to escape poverty, and, in the case of India, they have, encouragingly, led to an assessment of climate issues independent of the ‘official’ wisdom (Government of India, 2008). For purposes of this paper, however, I simply want to briefly note the specific implications for science and its interaction with society. Although society is undoubtedly aware of the imperfections of science, it has rarely encountered a situation such as the current global warming hysteria where institutional science has so thoroughly committed itself to policies which call for massive sacrifices in well being world wide. Past scientific errors did not lead the public to discard the view that science on the whole was a valuable effort. However, the extraordinarily shallow basis for the commitment to climate catastrophe, and the widespread tendency of scientists to use unscientific means to arouse the public’s concerns, is becoming increasingly evident, and the result could be a reversal of the trust that arose from the triumphs of science and technology during the World War II period. Further, the reliance by the scientific community on fear as a basis for support, may, indeed, have severely degraded the ability of science to usefully address problems that need addressing. It should also be noted that not all the lessons of the World War II period have been positive. Massive crash programs such as the Manhattan Project are not appropriate to all scientific problems. In particular, such programs are unlikely to be effective in fields where the basic science is not yet in place. Rather, they are best suited to problems where the needs are primarily in the realm of engineering.
My particular bugaboo is with climate modeling. Simulations are tricky to create. For well understood phenomena with limited dynamics and plausible benchtop validation and verification, simulations are an excellent mechanism for carrying out detailed studies. But for complex and incompletely understood systems like climate with non-linear dynamics over many different time and geographic scales and a wide number of interacting subsystems, simulations don't provide much useful information. In fact they are misleading because they give a confidence which isn't justified.

Lindzen is looking at an even bigger picture, the corruption of science and the role that simulations play.

A Little Physics In a Different Shape

Here is a bit from an article in Discover Magazine about Shing-Tung Yau. I always am curious about people and their experiences. Here's a peek at an important physics theorist:
Shing-Tung Yau is a force of nature. He is best known for conceiving the math behind string theory—which holds that, at the deepest level of reality, our universe is built out of 10-dimensional, subatomic vibrating strings. But Yau’s genius runs much deeper and wider: He has also spawned the modern synergy between geometry and physics, championed unprecedented teamwork in mathematics, and helped foster an intellectual rebirth in China.

Despite growing up in grinding poverty on a Hong Kong farm, Yau made his way to the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied with Chinese geometer Shiing-Shen Chern and the master of nonlinear equations, Charles Morrey. Then at age 29 Yau proved the Calabi conjecture, which posits that six-dimensional spaces lie hidden beneath the reality we perceive. These unseen dimensions lend rigor to string theory by supplementing the four dimensions—three of space and one of time—described in Einstein’s general relativity.
It is hard to write a good autobiography. This magazine interview gives a few glimpses into Yau's life. It isn't very satisfactory, but it is interesting. What I find funny is the contrast between life as observed and life as lived. You can observe somebody and be convinced they are the best of everything, but internally they are deeply depressed and in pain. Conversely, you can see somebody whose life appears to be a complete mess or a continual struggle with poverty, but on the inside they are happy as a duck in water. Appearance and reality diverge. People's description of their own state diverges from reality because we "bend the space" around us and recount our history mostly from the current perspective. So we distort the past and don't see the future.

What's Good for Wall Street

Here is a good article by Daniel Gross in Slate Magazine about Wall Street's incredible ignorance about what is good for it:
Last week, the Senate agriculture committee, led by Blanche Lambert Lincoln, sent to the floor a bill that would significantly alter derivatives trading. Should it become law—here are the highlights—the bill would require regulated banks with derivatives-trading units to spin them off. It would also require that derivatives, many of which are traded over-the-counter (i.e., not on an exchange), be traded through a central clearinghouse, with pricing and volume data made available to the public.

Predictably, the industry is opposed to the mandates for greater transparency. As Reuters reported, "Exchange trading has nothing to do with reducing credit risk," said Conrad Voldstad, chief executive officer of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association. "In fact, mandating that all swaps be exchange-traded will increase costs and risks for the manufacturers, technology firms, retailers, energy producers, utilities, service companies and others who use over-the-counter derivatives."
My general rule of thumb is that we should generally ignore what Wall Street has to say about financial regulation. Investment banks lack the common sense to know what's good for them. The financial sector opposed all the regulations that were good for it in the 1930s—i.e. the advent of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. And the regulatory changes it requested and received in the past decade—eroding Glass-Steagall, getting the SEC to permit investment banks to increase their use of leverage—set the stage for the debacle of 2008.

For the past several decades, Wall Street has continually told Washington that if the Street can't do things the way it always has, and if the government changes the rules to mandate greater transparency and customer protection, that the geniuses in Lower Manhattan won't be able to make money, and it would stunt the industry. They've been wrong every time.
Go read the original to get more details of Wall Street fighting change that ended up being quite good for it. Plus get the links.

You would think that an industry that is so bad at knowing what is good for it (and the economy as a whole) would learn to shut up and take the fixes offered. But no, they haven't learned their lesson. Worse, they keep using their money to buy politicians to "fix" the system the way they think is best for them. This only makes it worse for them and us. When will they learn to cut this out?

This reminds me of the billionaire right wing nuts. Their peculiar politics ends up distorting the country. They keep making life worse for themselves and everybody else as they pursue their oddball fanatical political beliefs. It creates grief for us and them. But they don't seem to learn any lessons from history. Tragic.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dowd Down on Goldman Sachs

Here's a bit from the NY Times op-ed by Maureen Dowd that talks about today's US Senate hearings on financial reform:
The wood-paneled Senate committee room had an old-school look. The combed-over committee chairman, Carl Levin, had an old-school look. And the Congressional hearing trying to illuminate surreptitious and avaricious behavior by an amoral, macho gang was the 2010 equivalent of the 1950s Mafia hearing depicted in “Godfather II.”

“Government Sachs,” as the well-connected Goldman Sachs is known, was called to account by the actual government on Tuesday. And the traders and executives who dreamed up the idea of packaging smoke were every bit as slick, evasive and dismissively unapologetic as Michael Corleone. He only claimed to trade in olive oil; they actually delivered the snake oil.

You know you’re ethically compromised when Senator John Ensign scolds you about ethics. The Nevada Republican is under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee and the F.B.I. for chicanery surrounding an affair with a staffer. His wealthy parents paid off the mistress and her husband, who was also on Ensign’s payroll.

“I think most people in Las Vegas would take offense at having Wall Street compared to Las Vegas. Because in Las Vegas, actually people know that the odds are against them. They play anyway,” said the righteous Ensign. “On Wall Street, they manipulate the odds while you’re playing the game. And I would say that it’s actually much more dishonest.”


As Americans lost homes and lined up for jobs, Goldman made $13 billion in 2009, and Blankfein got a bonus of, as he haltingly admitted to McCain, “um, um, nine million.”
Go read the whole article.

Thinking Small

Here's the latest advance in making things really, really small...

You need to sit down with a calculator and work through the numbers to truly appreciate how small these details are. And it is done fairly rapidly. This is a wonderful technological breakthrough. It was only 29 years ago when an IBM team created the scanning tunneling microscope. That was a gee whiz feat of its day. It was followed up with the atomic force microscope in 1986. And now this nanoscale fabrication technique.

I really love the world map they etched. Beautiful. But the fact that they could etch it quickly and do it in 3D is what is mind blowing.

And while this advance occurs...

Crazies are caught by police. Here is a NY Times report that crazies planned to attack this very same Zurich research lab of IBM. Yep, while some humans try to create a better world, others who hear voices in their head (God? A moral vision that science is destroying 'traditional values', or just a hatred for things that are 'different' or 'new') are out to destroy this place. Sadly, if you go back through history you find the same thing again and again.

I'm sure the guy who invented fire had to fend off those who were convinced that creating fire was an offense to the Gods (think of Prometheus who was chained to a rock and tortured endlessly for stealing fire from the Gods to give to mortals for their benefit).

American "Justice"

Peculiar ideas of law and justice abound in the US.

Arizona just signed into law hostile legislation directed at non-citizens. Wait, it is worse than that. It is directed at anybody who isn't an immigrant with a pasty pale complexion. Anybody who is a native Indian won't be "white" enough to avoid the "reasonable suspicion" grounds. Nor will the large number of descendants of involuntarily exiled Mexicans who ended up on the "wrong side" of US border after the US seized this land from Mexico.

Here's another example of how the border law works in the US...

US "law" comes down to the fact that the border guards are now top of the pecking order and expect instant and complete submission to any order they bark at you. Here is a report from BoingBoing:
The absurd and awful saga of sf writer Dr Peter Watts's adventures with the US border are finally at a close, and the news is moderately good. For those of you who missed it the first time around: Peter is a Canadian marine biologist and sf writer. He helped a friend relocate to the US, and, while driving back, found that US customs officers had opened his trunk and begun to search his car while he was in it, without saying anything. Peter had never encountered a US search on his way out of America, let alone a completely unannounced one. So he got out of his car and said something like, "Hey, what's going on?" The customs officers ordered him to get back into his car and he said something like, "But what's going on?"

That's when they beat him to the slushy ground, gassed him with pepper spray and charged him with a felony ("obstruction"). He was held in wet clothes in an unheated cell overnight during a snowstorm, then released and told to come back for his trial, where he would face up to two years in prison for his crime.

At the trial, the guards gave ridiculous, self-contradictory testimony (they said Peter had fought them), and the videos showed that Peter's side of the story was the correct one. He got out of his car, asked a simple question, then failed to instantly obey the barked order of the customs officer. This failure to be instantly obedient is apparently all the statute required, and Peter was found guilty. His jurors subsequently found their way onto his blog and apologized, but said that the judge instructed them that they had to find guilty if Peter had been anything less than instantaneously and wholeheartedly cooperative.

Then came the sentencing recommendation. The prosecutor, after making noises about a suspended sentence, came back with a recommended six-month sentence.

That was where things stood yesterday, when Peter drove to Port Huron for his sentencing. But the judge saw some reason and suspended Peter's sentence.
In most normal jurisdictions the police are required to identify themselves and respond to any reasonable request to clarify their authority and their order. That apparently doesn't apply to US border security agents. I'm only guessing this will make life easier for criminals since they can pretend to be police and can expect nobody will request clarification or proof because if you don't immediately spread eagle on the ground, you have just broken even more laws. So any petty thief can now announce "on the ground, hands behind your back" in any venue and expect immediate cooperation because this is "the law" in the United States. No questions asked. No need to verify that you are the police. No need to clarify the instruction. Anything but immediate face down submission is clearly "resisting arrest". This is a great day for criminals. Easy pickings!

For more details, read this.

Oh... and he's another example of American "security" and police powers...

Al Jazeera Reports on Afghanistan

Here is an interesting report from Al Jazeera on Muslim fanatics who poisoned school girls and previously barred them from education and threw acid at them:
At least 13 girls have fallen ill after a suspected poisonous gas attack at a school in northern Afghanistan.

The government has accused fighters opposed to female education of being behind the attack.

Sunday's incident - the third in Kunduz province - brings to 80 the number of school girls reporting symptoms such as headaches, vomiting and shivering after suspected poisoning.


But a Taliban spokesman denied the group had any involvement in the attack, and condemned the targeting of school girls.

Girls' schools have been attacked in similar fashion in other parts of Afghanistan over the past few years.

In one attack in Kandahar in 2008, around 15 girls and teachers were sprayed with acid by men on motorbikes.

During Taliban rule, from 1996-2001, girls were banned from attending school.

In parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, particularly in Taliban strongholds, schools for girls still remain closed.
I sure hope Al Jazeera ran the same story in its Arabic language service. And I would love to see some analysis that discusses where the Muslim religion stands on this practice.

Real Political Change

Here is a fascinating story of how one city changed itself through a new politics. They got rid of corruption, lobbying, and violent groups on the left and right to create a more civil society with greater democracy. This is a very optimistic story with lessons for everyone:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

You can find out more by looking at the articles in Wikipedia for Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, and Enrique Peñalosa.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Krugman's Prognostications for the Republican Party

Here in a nutshell is the Republican Party and its future. This is taken from Paul Krugman's NY Times blog:
For a long time the GOP was essentially run by business interests, with the cultural right taken for a ride; in 2004 Bush ran as the nation’s defender against gay married terrorists, then announced that the election gave him a mandate to … privatize Social Security.

But what the Tea Party really signifies, I think, is that the business interests have lost control, that the base, with its fears about the Other, has escaped from guidance. And the sudden immigration outburst is part of that phenomenon.

Democrats think this gives them an opening. I’m unclear about that, at least for 2010. But yes, in the long run you have think that if the GOP becomes the party of angry white men, unleashed — as opposed to angry white men harnessed to the business elite — it will have a poor future.
I would like to think that this signifies more: the death of the Republican party. Once the business group realizes it can't run the crazies as its "base" it will go looking to buy up the conservative wing of the Democrats as its future base. So my fevered imagination has the Republicans disappear and the red state/blue state divide among Democrats leads to two new parties, the Red Democrats and the Blue Democrats. You get the same tension, but without the fundamentalist crazies.

Wall Street Takes Washington in a Hostile Takeover

That is my loopy view of the way the world works. For a more informed opinion, here is a bit from a blog posting by Robert Reich:
Even as Congress debates legislation to tame it, Wall Street is conducting a bidding war between the parties for its continued beneficence. More than 60 per cent of the $34m given by the financial industry to fund the 2010 elections has so far gone to Democrats, but since January the Street has switched its allegiance to the Republican camp. In the first quarter of this year, Citigroup, Goldman, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley donated twice as much to Republicans as to Democrats.

It is hard to bite the hands that feed you, especially when you are competing for food. The finance reform bill emerging from Senate Democrats takes a hard line in many respects – requiring that most derivatives be traded on open exchanges where buyers can see what they are getting and sellers have adequate capital, establishing an agency to protect unwary consumers from predatory lending, and giving the government authority to wind down the activities of banks that get themselves into trouble. Democrats point to these and other features as evidence of their willingness to be strict with the Street, despite their dependence on its generosity.

But the American public has no independent means of judging how tough the bill really is. Most people do not understand the intricacies of finance, and still do not know exactly what Wall Street did to bring the economy to the brink. The dependence of both parties on the financial industry for political support inevitably feeds suspicions that the bill is not nearly tough enough. Why, for example, are so-called “customised” derivatives exempted from the exchanges? Does this not create a big loophole? Why does the bill not limit the size of banks so none can again become “too big to fail”? Why is the Glass-Steagall Act – which once separated commercial from investment banking – not being fully restored? Why does the bill not separate investment banking from the private banking and wealth management activities that got Goldman into trouble?
My answer is that Wall Street has already completed the deal and that the policians are now working for Wall Street.

Reich is more optimistic than I am. He still sees hope. He wants things done:
If Washington knew what was good for it and the nation, it would sever its financial connections with the Street. Better yet, it would enact legislation seeking to limit the impact of private and corporate money in politics. That goal is made more difficult to achieve by the grotesque recent Supreme Court decision (Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission) holding that corporations, including financial firms, have the right to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns. But there are ways around this, such as more generous public funding for candidates that choose not to take private contributions. Hopefully as well, the president will nominate Supreme Court justices who understand the importance of public trust in democratic institutions, and the difference between companies and people.
I hope he is right and things can be done. But I'm pretty pessimistic. The only thing that will get ordinary citizens to pay attention will be a full scale collapse like the Great Depression. It is pretty clear that the Great Recession was a minor interruption to "business as usual" for Wall Street and Washington. Sure, unemployement is astronomical and housing foreclosures are changing the face of America, but apparantly this isn't enough to get people to actually take off the blinders and realize what a charade has been pulled. They voted for "Change You Can Believe In" and got "business as usual".

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Real Heart of America

Here's Robert X. Cringely's nomination for "person of the year". I'm a little late on this, but it is still timely:
Time [magazine] made a mistake when it announced this week that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke should be its Person of the Year. But if Bernanke was a mistake, who should be Person of the Year? I nominate Grandma — your Grandma, my Grandma, every Grandma — because Grandmothers as a group are doing a better job than Ben is this year at propping-up the American way of life.

But wait, didn’t Ben save us all from a Great Depression? Didn’t his inspired and bold action opening taps and taking an axe to hogsheads of money down at the Fed preserve our very way of life? No. He preserved Wall Street’s way of life. He saved the banks, not their depositors. In fact, he used the depositor’s money (our money and that of our children and grandchildren) to not save the depositors, which I find particularly ironic.

We had a real estate crisis that precipitated a banking crisis, but Ben only fixed the banks, and not all that well, either.

And Grandma? She wrote a check, lots of checks, to her kids and grandkids helping them keep their homes. There is right now a charitable transfer of wealth happening from the oldest Americans to their middle-aged children that is, in many cases, the only thing keeping the latter in their homes.
Funny nobody talks about this.
Larry Summers was on the Sunday morning talk shows today. That guy along with Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner and Alan Greenspan are the ones who encouraged deregulation and big risk taking by the banks. They are the ones who almost single-handedly took down the world's economy. And they, like the Wall Street bankers, haven't had to pay any price. In fact, all except Alan Greenspan -- who retired -- got a promotion!

Politics Reduced to a Graph

The following is taken from a posting by Douglas Hibbs:

The graph below shows the strong association of aggregate votes for president to average per capita real income growth in combination with US military fatalities suffered in Korea, Vietnam and (the comparatively small number) in Iraq. Those two fundamental factors explain postwar votes for president remarkably well. Note that the allegedly “ideological” elections of 1964 (when Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater) and 1980 (when Jimmy Carter was routed by Ronald Reagan), which anchor the extremities of postwar election outcomes, are explained perfectly by the Bread and Peace objective fundamentals.
Click to Enlarge

I like the graph. It says wonderful things:
  • American voters are rational. They vote pocketbook and peace issues consistently.

  • The lesson for a politician: if you want to be re-elected, focus on "jobs, jobs, jobs" and give the country peace.

  • The voting pattern is stable and explicable in simple terms, therefore it is more credible that this is a true analysis of how "the average voter" behaves (i.e. no sophisticated computation, special knowledge, or ability to peer into the future is required, an "average" voter can understand and act using an internal representation of something very like this simple formula)

  • This leaves no room for crazy ideological politics. (And hopefully the 2010 elections will show that, although the graph implies Obama will have a very hard time winning because of the poor economic condition of the US and his troop "surge" in Afghanistan).

Seeing Through the Tea Party Camp

Here's a bit from an article by Cenk Uygur on the Huffington Post:
If you remember, the Tea Parties were originally formed to protest the bailouts. They were so mad at the Wall Street bankers who destroyed the economy and then took our hard earned money for their efforts.

So, they will take this opportunity, of course, to launch their own protest of Wall Street. They will protest the TARP money, the easy credit, the lack of regulation, the wild risk taking and the excessive bonuses paid with taxpayer money. They're really going to take the fight to them.

Just kidding. They're not going to do anything. They're going to sit out this fight on financial reform and put absolutely no pressure on Wall Street at all. Because they are tools easily manipulated by right-wing organizations funded by corporate America.

I really feel sorry for them. They're dupes. They think they are so fiercely independent when in fact they are the most easily manipulated people in the country. All that anger toward the power establishment and what happened? They were used by that same establishment to fight against health care reform and to try to protect the health insurance companies. Suckers.
Go read the whole article. It is worth your time.

Funny how the perspective of an outsider can be so much clearer than that of an "insider", especially when the "insider" is a dupe to political machination by billionaire right wing ideologues.

An Honest Man?

The "candid" comments by Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele has some asking if he isn't "too honest". Here's an example in a post by Faiz Shakir on the site Think Progress:
In candid remarks made before a group of students at DePaul University, RNC Chairman Michael Steele said African-Americans “don’t have a reason” to vote for Republicans because “we haven’t done a very good job of giving you one.” The Chicago Sun-Times reports:
Why should an African-American vote Republican?

“You really don’t have a reason to, to be honest — we haven’t done a very good job of really giving you one. True? True,” Republican National Chairman Michael Steele told 200 DePaul University students Tuesday night. […]

“For the last 40-plus years we had a ‘Southern Strategy’ that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South. Well, guess what happened in 1992, folks, ‘Bubba’ went back home to the Democratic Party and voted for Bill Clinton.”
Of course, anytime Democrats make similar arguments, Steele is quick to accuse them of issuing “blind charges of racism, where none exist.” Steele himself claims not to “play the race card,” but in addition to his comments last night, he has said that he has a “slimmer margin for error” because of his race and that white Republicans are “scared” of him.
My comment would be that this remark isn't "candor" so much as a demonstration of political ineptitude. If he is trying to sell the idea that the Republicans are going to give up their "Southern Strategy", this isn't the way to do it. This just makes him look foolish. Why would the chairman of a major party admit that his party is corrupt and racist? It can't be candor. It can be stupidity.

How Politicians are Bribed

Here's a little lesson in political corruption as recounted by Brad DeLong:
Eric Jackson:
Twitter / Eric Jackson: So Meg Whitman's defense o ...: So Meg Whitman's defense of spinning $EBAY stock given her from $GS is
everyone was doing it,
I only made $1.8m on it,
no one cares
Meg, they were trying to bribe you by giving you some of the allocation--trying to take some of your shareholders' money and give it to you in the hope that you would feel obligated and give something to them in the future.

Did you succumb?
She's running for governor of California, so it won't be clear for several years whether Goldman Sachs gets a return on its "investment" (aka bribe). My guess is "yes".

I have history on my side in guessing "yes". I hope I'm wrong, but it will take an upwelling of populism and "throw out the bums" to replace the current crop of corrupt politicians with young and shiny idealistic faces that we can hope to remain relatively corruption free for at least a few years.

Krugman & Wells Review Reinhart & Rogoff

The following is a bit from the review of the book This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff. The review is by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells:
What changed after World War II, and what changed it back? The obvious answer is regulation. By the late 1940s, most important economies had tightly regulated banking systems, preventing a recurrence of old-fashioned banking crises. At the same time, widespread limitations on the international movement of capital made it difficult for nations to run up the kinds of large international debts that had previously led to frequent defaults. (These restrictions took various forms, including limits on purchases of foreign securities and limits on the purchase of foreign currency for investment purposes; even advanced nations like France and Italy retained these restrictions into the 1980s.) Basically, it was a constrained world that may have limited initiative, but also left little room for large-scale irresponsibility.

As memories of the 1930s faded, however, these constraints began to be lifted. Private international lending revived in the 1970s, making possible first the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, then the Asian crisis of the 1990s. Bank regulation was weakened, enabling the mid-1980s savings and loan debacle in the United States, the Swedish bank crisis of the early 1990s, and so on. By the early twenty-first century, the rapid growth of “shadow banks”—institutions like Lehman Brothers that didn’t accept deposits, and so were not covered by conventional banking regulations, but that in economic terms were carrying out banking functions—had recreated a financial system that was as vulnerable to panic and crisis as the banking system of 1930.

As all this happened, proponents of looser regulation extolled the virtues of a more open system. Indeed, there were real advantages to laxer control: without question, some people, businesses, and governments that would not have had access to credit got it, and some used that credit well. Others, however, ran up dangerous levels of debt. And the old cycle of debt, crisis, and default returned.

Why didn’t more people see this coming? One answer, of course, lies in Reinhart and Rogoff’s title. There were superficial differences between debt now and debt three generations ago: more elaborate financial instruments, seemingly more sophisticated techniques of assessment, an apparent wider spreading of risks (which turned out to have been an illusion). So financial executives, policymakers, and many economists convinced themselves that the old rules didn’t apply.

We should not forget, too, that some people were making a lot of money from the explosive growth both of debt and of the financial industry, and money talks. The world’s two great financial centers, in New York and London, wielded vast influence over their respective governments, regardless of party. The Clinton administration in the US and the Labour government in Britain succumbed alike to the siren song of financial innovation—and were spurred in part by the competition between the two great centers, because politicians were all too easily convinced that having a large financial industry was a wonderful thing. Only when the crisis struck did it become clear that the growth of Wall Street and the City actually exposed their home nations to special risks, and that nations that missed out on the glamour of high finance, like Canada, also missed out on the worst of the crisis.

Now that the multiple bubbles have burst, there’s obviously a strong case for a return to much stricter regulation. It’s by no means clear, however, whether this will actually happen. For one thing, the ideology used to justify the dismantling of regulation has proved remarkably resilient. It’s now an article of faith on the right, impervious to contrary evidence, that the crisis was caused not by private-sector excesses but by liberal politicians who forced banks to make loans to the undeserving poor. Less partisan leaders nonetheless fret over the possibility that regulation might crimp financial innovation, even though it’s very hard to find examples of such innovation that were clearly beneficial (ATMs don’t count).


And as many have noted, President Obama’s chief economic and financial officials are men closely associated with Clinton-era deregulation and financial triumphalism; they may have revised their views but the continuity remains striking.

In that sense, this time really is different: while the first great global financial crisis was followed by major reforms, it’s not clear that anything comparable will happen after the second. And history tells us what will happen if those reforms don’t take place. There will be a resurgence of financial folly, which always flourishes given a chance. And the consequence of that folly will be more and quite possibly worse crises in the years to come.
The tragedy that the above points out is that the lessons of the past haven't been learned and that the ideologues of today are impervious to learning the lesson. Layer in the soft corruption of big banks with lots of money to bribe politicians. Therefore we are condemned to repeat the follies of the past until we elect leaders with more backbone that Obama.

Taking "Excess Risks"

Nope... this isn't about Wall Street banks. This is about a worry by Stephen Hawking. From a Times article:
THE aliens are out there and Earth had better watch out, at least according to Stephen Hawking. He has suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist — but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact.


Hawking’s logic on aliens is, for him, unusually simple. The universe, he points out, has 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. In such a big place, Earth is unlikely to be the only planet where life has evolved.

“To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” he said. “The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”

The answer, he suggests, is that most of it will be the equivalent of microbes or simple animals — the sort of life that has dominated Earth for most of its history.


Such scenes are speculative, but Hawking uses them to lead on to a serious point: that a few life forms could be intelligent and pose a threat. Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity.


He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
I'm not going to lose any sleep over this latest "the sky is falling!" doomsday scenario. I've learned over the years that it is a big waste of time to take them seriously.

Am I being foolish? I don't think so. One of the reasons we have governments is to plan for us and look out for our welfare. If there are real risks that rise about the "goosebumps in the night" scare story around an open fire, then I expect the government to undertake steps to deal with the risk without mobilizing fear. In a really dangerous situation the last thing you want is for people to panic or be frozen by fear. So fearmongering is the last thing you want for really serious "big risks".

Consequently, if any government think tank seriously thought that we needed to fear "alerting aliens" then they would have quietly gone about issuing the necessary regulations to reduce our "electromagnetic footprint". They would have done this without setting off panic. The fact that they haven't says to me that the consensus among experts is that Hawking is off his rocker on this one.

Since SETI has done a fair amount of searching with no success, I would say the odds of "advanced" alien life in our galaxy is pretty low. If some exists in another galaxy, then given science as we know it, they could never reach us. Even advanced life in our own galaxy would be hard pressed to "come visit". The distances are, well, astronomical! At best we might hope to hold long distance conversations with hundreds and thousands of years between our sending and their receiving, and the equivalent delay in getting their response back to us. In my mind that isn't a "conversation".

Nope... there isn't any real chance that aliens will be dropping by for a chat. We are going to have to amuse ourselves for as long as we exist, and I would suggest that isn't going to be that long. Evolution teaches us that species are malleable. I wouldn't give high hopes for seeing a human like us in 2 million years on earth. In fact, given the way technology is going, I wouldn't even give you much of a chance that a recognizable human will be around 2 or 3 hundred years from now. That means the only "alien" in our future will be our own progeny!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Learning History from Your Pop

I ran across this and still haven't digested it. I have a knee-jerk reaction to the words "John Birch Society" and I have a deep loathing for George Wallace. So I find the following more than of passing interest. It is about the son, Michael Allen, talking about his father, Gary Allen, a right wing nut. This is from an article on the FireDogLake blog and written by "Phoenix Woman":
Why am I talking about all of this? Because of a jarring passage in this otherwise-fluffy New York Times beat sweetener about The Politico’s Mike Allen, billed as “The Man the White House Wakes up to”:
[Mike Allen's father] Gary Allen was an icon of the far right in the 1960s and 1970s. He was affiliated with the John Birch Society and railed against the “big lies” that led to the United States’ involvement in World Wars I and II. He denounced the evils of the Trilateral Commission and “Red Teachers.” Rock’n’roll was a “Pavlovian Communist mind-control plot.” He wrote speeches for George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama and presidential candidate. “Gary Allen is one of the most popular writers that John Birchites read and believe with a zeal that is nervous-making,” wrote Nicholas von Hoffman in a 1972 Washington Post column. He wrote mail-order books and pamphlets distributed through a John Birch mailing list.

None of Mike Allen’s friends seemed to know any of this about his father, or they were diverting me with other monikers (like “football coach,” which he indeed was; Gary Allen coached a Pop Warner team that included Mike, who played center, badly). In an earlier phone interview, Allen said his mother was a first-grade teacher and his dad was a “writer” and “speaker.” After I mentioned his father at breakfast, Allen flashed a sudden, teeth-clenched smile that stayed frozen as I spoke. He had described his upbringing to me as nonpolitical. And maybe it was. People who knew Gary Allen, who died of complications from diabetes in 1986, described him as quiet and introspective. “He was more outspoken in his writing,” says Dan Lungren, a Republican member of Congress, who represented Orange County back then and knew the family. Lungren, who now represents a district that includes parts of Sacramento, said that the Allens hosted a meet-and-greet at their home for one of his early campaigns.

I asked Mike Allen what it was like being his father’s son. “We have a very close family,” he said slowly. “I’m very close to all my siblings, and I’m very grateful to my parents for all the emphasis they put on education and family and sports and Scouts.” He called his father “a great dad.” How did he make his living? “I don’t know the details of it,” Allen said.
Um, excuse me? Excuse me?

Gary Allen wrote speeches for George effing Wallace?! And held “meet and greets” for Republican candidates? And was a prominent propagandist for the John Birch Society?

And somehow his little darling son — a son who would grow up to become a reporter — had no clue what his dad was doing?!

This is hard to believe, as I’ve yet to meet any hardcore right-winger, especially a Bircher, who passed up the chance to indoctrinate his or her kids. And this particular Bircher was at a high enough level that he was entrusted with full-scale media manipulation by both the Birchers and George Wallace.
Yeah... a guy who gets a college degree in journalism and political science and never "knew" that his pop was one of the big shots in fanatical right wing politics in the US in the 1960s & 70s? That is just too much to swallow!

Go to the original posting to get all the links.

The US as Friendly Imperator

Here's a bit from an article by Tom Englehardt on his site. He points out the odd reluctance of the US to ever declare victory and go home...
Over the decades, Washington has gotten used to staying. The U.S. has long been big on arriving, but not much for departure. After all, 65 years later, striking numbers of American forces are still garrisoning the two major defeated nations of World War II, Germany and Japan. We still have about three dozen military bases on the modest-sized Japanese island of Okinawa, and are at this very moment fighting tooth and nail, diplomatically speaking, not to be forced to abandon one of them. The Korean War was suspended in an armistice 57 years ago and, again, striking numbers of American troops still garrison South Korea.

Similarly, to skip a few decades, after the Serbian air campaign of the late 1990s, the U.S. built-up the enormous Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo with its seven-mile perimeter, and we’re still there. After Gulf War I, the U.S. either built or built up military bases and other facilities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, as well as the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. And it’s never stopped building up its facilities throughout the Gulf region. In this sense, leaving Iraq, to the extent we do, is not quite as significant a matter as sometimes imagined, strategically speaking. It’s not as if the U.S. military were taking off for Dubuque.

A history of American withdrawal would prove a brief book indeed. Other than Vietnam, the U.S. military withdrew from the Philippines under the pressure of “people power” (and a local volcano) in the early 1990s, and from Saudi Arabia, in part under the pressure of Osama bin Laden. In both countries, however, it has retained or regained a foothold in recent years. President Ronald Reagan pulled American troops out of Lebanon after a devastating 1983 suicide truck bombing of a Marines barracks there, and the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, functionally expelled the U.S. from Manta Air Base in 2008 when he refused to renew its lease. ("We'll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami -- an Ecuadorian base," he said slyly.) And there were a few places like the island of Grenada, invaded in 1983, that simply mattered too little to Washington to stay.
If you can't declare victory and go home, it seems awfully strange to declare that a mission was "in assistance to" or "at the request of" or "in order to stabilize" or "necessary to pacify". Those are all events that typically have an end to them. But the American military seems strangely deaf to that kind of reality and the politicians never want to discuss it with their own people. Odd.

The Rich Get Richer

Here's a bit from a BBC news report:

The UK's super-rich have seen a resurgence in their fortunes, the Sunday Times Rich List suggests.


But the collective fortunes of the top 1,000 on the list have risen by 30% in the past year - the biggest jump in the list's 22-year history - to £333.5bn.

Last year the top 1,000 saw their fortunes decrease by about £155bn - to £258bn - and the number of billionaires fell from 75 to 43. This time, it has risen by 10 to 53.
Go read the report if you want the gruesome details of how quickly the rich have rebounded from the 2008/9 bump in the road as they race to heap their billions into bigger and bigger piles.

This report has a few interesting tidbits:
The Queen, who is Britain's 245th richest person, saw her personal fortune rise by £20m to £290m.
But Indian-born Anil Agarwal was the highest climber. He moved 60 places up to 10th position thanks to the rising share prices of mining group Vedanta Resources.

His wealth jumped a staggering 583% from £600m to £4.1bn.
Of course that sextupling of his wealth all came as a well deserved reward for hard and honourable labour and not from some trick to defraud the poor, right? Everybody knows that you can sextuple your wealth by simply putting your shoulder to the grindstone and "working hard". Virtue is rewarded. Fraud is always uncovered and the cruel and criminal will always get their just rewards, right?

Bernhard Schlink's "Guilt About the Past"

Bernhard Schlink is famous for his novel The Reader which became a film and won an Academy Award for Kate Winslett for "best actress". That film deals with guilt lingering from the Holocaust.

This book is six essays on the topic of guilt. I found them interesting but not really satisfying. Schlink is too much a laywer and too coolly rational for my taste. There are moments in these essays when he gets at some content with real bite, but not that often. This is surprising because the topic is so horrifying and has the potential to dig up lots of emotionally laden material. He doesn't.

The one essay that lingers with me, the one entitled "Prudence and Corruption", is the one where he blames himself for the same failings as his judicial colleagues, law professors, back in 1933 in Berlin. They had a chance to stand up for justice against Hitler's decrees to "purge" universities of Jews. They didn't. Instead they tried to use "influence" and wrangle a "deal" for their Jewish colleagues. It didn't work. The Holocaust was the result.

Similarly, in 1970 Schlenk witnessed a confrontation between a radical leftist and an old guard law professor, a member of the SS. That came back to bite him. In 1992 those two protagonists clashed again when this old professor wanted the Association of German Constitutional Law Professors to blackball the young radical who now had his PhD and wanted membership. Schlenk fell into the same trap as the professors of 1933. He worked to wrangle a "gentleman's agreement" that would paper over the conflict.

The point of the essay is to show how slippery justice, right, and guilt are. The world is a complex place and it is easy to lose your way.

So... if you like ruminations about law and philosophy with a bit of German guilt over its Nazi past thrown in, this is a book for you.

Be on the Winning Team!

Yes! Bet against the American Dream!

Nothing like a good old fashioned American Musical to lead you singing and dancing off to financial ruin. It is the American Way!

Yes... bless those bonuses and those Wall Street bankers for showing everybody a great time, a singing & dancing entertainment as they demolish the economy!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Scientific Experiment

A new theory of earthquakes has been posed by an eminent Muslim theologian:
"Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupting their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes." Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi
Purdue University student, Jennifer McCreight, has risen to the challenge and proposes a scientific test as reported by the Examiner.
A cleavage barring movement is underway in a valley near you. Called 'Boobquake;' the event already has 90,000 women across the globe committed to showing their own in an effort to ‘help stop supernatural thinking and oppression of women.”

Boobquake is the brain child of Purdue University student, Jennifer McCreight. The self described "liberal, geeky, nerdy, scientific, perverted atheist feminist" decided to donate her D-cups for political and scientific reasons: The event is a direct response to the recent Iranian clerical claim that promiscuous women cause natural disasters.

"Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupting their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes," Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

Sedighi is Tehran's acting Friday prayer leader.

“Sedighi claims that not dressing modestly causes earthquakes. If so, we should be able to test this claim scientifically.” said McCreight on official Facebook page for the event.

“On Monday, April 26th, I will wear the most cleavage-showing shirt I own. Yes, the one usually reserved for a night on the town. I encourage other female skeptics to join me and embrace the supposed supernatural power of their breasts. Or short shorts, if that's your preferred form of immodesty. With the power of our scandalous bodies combined, we should surely produce an earthquake.”


McCreight is astounded by the tremendous response, and has written a clarification to those who questioned her motives.

Boobquake is not meant to be "demeaning toward women." She explains in a recent blog. "To be honest...I never thought it would get the attention it did. If I would have known, I would have spent more time being careful about my wording."

"That being said, I don't think the event is completely contrary to feminist ideals. I'm asking women to wear their most "immodest" outfit that they already would wear, but to coordinate it all on the same day for the sake of the experiment...I don't want to force people out of their comfort zones, because I believe women have the right to choose how they want to dress. Please don't pressure women to participate if they don't want to. If men ogle, that's the fault of the men, not me for dressing how I like. If I want to a show a little cleavage or joke about my boobs, that's my prerogative."

For more info, visit the official Facebook page. This article contains updates from the original.
Great experiment. But I already know what the faithful Muslims will say: "Yes, immodest dress causes earthquakes, but only Allah knows which earthquake and when!" Unlike science, religion has no acid test because you can always "reinterpret" facts to fit beliefs. In science it is the other way around, you have to revise your theories to fit the facts.

By the way, it isn't only Muslim fanatics that have crazy views. Here's a Christian fundamentalist, Hank Erwin, who agrees with Sedighi that immodesty causes earthquakes.

Arm Wrestling with Wall Street

Paul Krugman has written an op-ed in the NY Times that points out that -- yet again -- Obama is trying to be the nice guy, mediator, feel good kind of leader. As Krugman points out, this isn't the right approach:
On Thursday, President Obama went to Manhattan, where he urged an audience drawn largely from Wall Street to back financial reform. “I believe,” he declared, “that these reforms are, in the end, not only in the best interest of our country, but in the best interest of the financial sector.”

Well, I wish he hadn’t said that — and not just because he really needs, as a political matter, to take a populist stance, to put some public distance between himself and the bankers. The fact is that Mr. Obama should be trying to do what’s right for the country — full stop. If doing so hurts the bankers, that’s O.K.

More than that, reform actually should hurt the bankers. A growing body of analysis suggests that an oversized financial industry is hurting the broader economy. Shrinking that oversized industry won’t make Wall Street happy, but what’s bad for Wall Street would be good for America.
The financial industry has grown from something like 12% of the US economy to 35%. It is bloated. It is sucking the oxygen out of the air. And it is filled with corruption and greedy people who think "making" a billion dollars in bonuses still isn't enough pay for their "talents". This bubble needs to be burst. These guys should be brought back to earth. They have caused $9 trillion in damage to the world's economy. They are criminals on the scale of a Hitler, a Stalin, and a Mao but Obama is treating them with kid gloves!
What’s the matter with finance? Start with the fact that the modern financial industry generates huge profits and paychecks, yet delivers few tangible benefits.

Remember the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” in which Gordon Gekko declared: Greed is good? By today’s standards, Gekko was a piker. In the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, the financial industry accounted for a third of total domestic profits — about twice its share two decades earlier.

These profits were justified, we were told, because the industry was doing great things for the economy. It was channeling capital to productive uses; it was spreading risk; it was enhancing financial stability. None of those were true.

Here's Krugman's "bottom line"...
But the fact is that we’ve been devoting far too large a share of our wealth, far too much of the nation’s talent, to the business of devising and peddling complex financial schemes — schemes that have a tendency to blow up the economy. Ending this state of affairs will hurt the financial industry. So?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Parody and Copyright Wrongs

This is funny...

To appreciate the above, you have to know that the maker of the film Downfall from which the above is taken have been "asserting copyright" and forcing YouTube to take down all versions. But this is nutty because the above and all the other parodies don't infringe copyright. If anything, they create an interest in the product "Downfall". But the idiots who "own" Downfall don't understand it and are quickly making themselves the laughing stock of the Internet!

I sure wish people had a way of getting back at

A Scientist Discusses Religion

Here is Marcelo Gleiser on an NPR blog talking about religion. This strikes me a reasonable presentation of the facts. I've chopped out two pieces, if you want to read the whole think, then go here.
It's rare that I give a public lecture or participate in an open debate without getting the "God question."

The hand goes up and the familiar words come out: "Do you believe in God?"

When I reply that I don't, I can discern a look of confusion, even fear, in the person's eyes. "How can you sleep at night without believing?"

There is nothing surprising in asking a scientist about their beliefs. After all, if we follow the age-old rift between science and religion, we see that as science progressed it has threatened God's traditional role in the world. The famous "god of the gaps" debate, that science squeezes God into ever-smaller gaps, has created much controversy over the centuries.

Even the great Isaac Newton saw a key role for God in Nature, not only as Creator, but also, continually, as a kind of cosmic mechanic interfering when necessary to keep the cosmos in check, making sure the planets and everything else in the solar system didn't end up as a giant ball of matter on top of the Sun.

However, as science advanced, it became clear that Nature could take care of itself without much divine interference. Newton's theistic God made room for Franklin and Jefferson's deistic God, creator of the universe and its ruling laws but nothing else. This being the case, what would be made of God in the long run? If science's explanatory power continued unchecked and undeterred, would God become a historical curiosity?

It is from this tension -- between science and belief -- that the notion that science's not-so-hidden agenda is to steal God from people, to kill belief once and for all. Books by Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists accusing people of faith to be living in a state of psychotic delusion don't help much. Given this mess, we should be asking if, indeed, this is truly what science has in mind. Do these atheist fundamentalists speak for all scientists?

Not at all.

I know plenty of scientists who are religious and don't see any conflict whatsoever between their science and their belief. To them, the more they understand the Universe, the more they come to admire their God's work.

Even if this is not my case -- I'm agnostic, an unacceptable position to fundamentalist atheists, but I defend it as the only position truly consistent with the scientific method -- I do respect those who believe.

Science doesn't have an anti-religion agenda. Its task is to interpret Nature, expanding our knowledge of the natural world. It seeks to alleviate human suffering, improve people's material comfort, develop advanced technologies and means of production, fight disease, and ask some of the deepest questions we face as a thinking species. The "rest," the human baggage that inspires our search for knowledge as well as personal agendas and vanities don't come from science as a body of knowledge but from the men and women who devote their lives to its study.


In my opinion, there are two kinds of people: the naturalists and the "supernaturalists." The supernaturalists see hidden forces acting behind shadows, dictating the affairs of men, explaining all that we can't through mysterious and law-defying cause and effect relations beyond what we call the real. They live a life of fear, enslaved by apocalyptic beliefs, oppressed by their gods and death.

The naturalists humbly accept that we will never have all the answers, that knowledge is an ongoing process, and that it's okay not to know. Instead of embracing fear, they embrace our ignorance as a means to inspire personal and collective growth, as a challenge and not a prison. Although death is painful and so is loss, they accept it as a part of life.

And it's because of that acceptance that I am able to sleep at night.

Dashell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon"

I've enjoyed the film with Humphrey Bogart so I decided to read the original novel. I was surprised at how closely the film hewed to the narrative. Usually a book and a film are only tangentially connected, this was hand in glove.

The only difficulty was with descriptive details. When Hammett starts with "Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostril curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal." I though "geesh!" this isn't the Sam Spade I know.

But that was the only jarring bit of the book. The rest was good. The book's description of the other characters was close enough to those in the film to not noticeably jar as I read.

Too bad Hammett didn't style Spade on Bogart. Oh well.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Good News for Inter-Species Sex!

I always felt it a tragedy that the Neanderthals disappeared without a trace. So I'm overjoyed to find that they didn't go away. Modern humans mated at least twice with them and remnants of Neanderthals live on in our genome! Here's a bit from an article by Rex Dalton in Science magazine:
Archaic humans such as Neanderthals may be gone but they're not forgotten — at least not in the human genome. A genetic analysis of nearly 2,000 people from around the world indicates that such extinct species interbred with the ancestors of modern humans twice, leaving their genes within the DNA of people today.

The discovery, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on 17 April, adds important new details to the evolutionary history of the human species. And it may help explain the fate of the Neanderthals, who vanished from the fossil record about 30,000 years ago. "It means Neanderthals didn't completely disappear," says Jeffrey Long, a genetic anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, whose group conducted the analysis. There is a little bit of Neanderthal leftover in almost all humans, he says.

The researchers arrived at that conclusion by studying genetic data from 1,983 individuals from 99 populations in Africa, Europe, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Sarah Joyce, a doctoral student working with Long, analyzed 614 microsatellite positions, which are sections of the genome that can be used like fingerprints. She then created an evolutionary tree to explain the observed genetic variation in microsatellites. The best way to explain that variation was if there were two periods of interbreeding between humans and an archaic species, such as Homo neanderthalensis or H. heidelbergensis.

"This is not what we expected to find," says Long.

Using projected rates of genetic mutation and data from the fossil record, the researchers suggest that the interbreeding happened about 60,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean and, more recently, about 45,000 years ago in eastern Asia. Those two events happened after the first H. sapiens had migrated out of Africa, says Long. His group didn't find evidence of interbreeding in the genomes of the modern African people included in the study.
I'm betting this new finding will help close the gap in an old debate. Twenty years ago there were two camps on human origins: (a) out of Africa and (b) the candelabra theory of simultaneous evolution. The best evidence for the candelabra theory was the strange connection between local homo erectus traits and modern traits, specifically the shovel-toothed denture of Orientals (see here). I have no knowledge, but I'm guessing that this unusual denture is explicable by the interbreeding 45,000 years ago in eastern Asia. I will have to wait to see if my wild stab is confirmed by the evidence or shown to be complete hooey.