Saturday, June 30, 2007

Angling for a Dictatorship

I don't recommend reading the Washington Post's Angler series on Vice President Cheney before bedtime. It certainly gave me nightmares. I can't think of another high American official who has pursued policies so deeply subversive of the Constitution and the law. Because Cheney combined enormous influence with nearly total unaccountability, he has dominated every aspect of Bush administration policy. Because he combines great secrecy with abominable judgement, those policies have catastrophically failed.

Bush bears a huge burden of guilt for outsourcing so much of his Presidency to this man. Fortunately for him, he is too dumb to know it.

For an alternative point of view, you might want to check out Tucker Carlson and Jonah Goldberg working themselves into a homoerotic lather over the VP's manly manliness. (Via Glenn Greenwald)

Evangelizing the Unbeliever

I have been spending my blogging energies over at Lumo's place, preaching to the unconverted. The natives haven't yet tossed me in the cooking pot, but there are signs of restlessness. The venue for my mission was the gigantic comment thread (300 plus) about a Lumo climate post.

There is a futility to trying to persuade someone of something they don't want to believe, so I try to avoid that. Consequently, I try to stick to just pointing out facts. This is a conceivably useful activity, because many of the commenters are deeply misinformed about what climate science is, what climate scientists do, and how they reach their conclusions.

The most serious problem for the climate missionary is that the subject is complicated. There are a lot of facts, ideas, and mathematical concepts needed to understand how the climate system works. Most of the readers don't have the necessary background to understand - one reader suggested that anyone talking math was incapable of writing English and was hence just putting out gobbledegook.

Some can understand, of course. Lubos in particular has the physical and mathematical background, but I suspect he knows less about the details of how the models works than he thinks he does. He is too stubborn to be persuaded by anyone else of course.

I can't help holding the probably silly hope that he might persuade himself though. He is the one person clever enough to do so.

On the plus side, I did learn one thing: the difference between bond albedo and visual geometric albedo.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Libertarian Parables

Perhaps you have seen this remarkable video, linked to here by Wolfgang. Of course it has plenty of natural interest, but I would like to interpret it as a parable of Libertarians and Collectivists.

Two social groups, one of libertarians and one of collectivists, meet on the stage. The libertarians, it turns out, are much more numerous, and individually more dangerous, but still it's one of them that gets eaten alive. The drama has four acts: in the first, the encounter with the collectivists scattering the libts, then pulling down a weak one. In the second act, bandits attempt to rob the colls of their reward, but in the third act they snatch their prize and sit down to dinner. At this point (act four), the libertarians come back together, stare angrily at the colls, and an Ayn Rand hero among them steps forward to send collectivists flying. After a few more join the skirmish, the collectivists are dispersed, and their prey, somehow miraculously still alive after having been dinner for bandits and colls alike, staggers back to the group.

It's pretty hard to imagine that our victim survived its wounds, but it's hard to see how it stayed alive that long, so who knows. If the libts had rallied and resisted from the first, it's hard to believe our aggressor would have had any chance at all.

For both our groups, political alignment is in the genes. For humans, it is more complicated, and we each choose sometimes one social strategy and sometime the other.

Another parable, the source of which I have forgotten: A ministry of agriculture official is studyinging a village of subsistence farmers. He notices that they all consistently plant weeks later than the optimal time, and asks them why.

Because of the birds, they say. The first farmer to plant loses most of his seed to the birds.

"So why don't you all agree to plant at once," the official asks? "That way the birds would only get a little from each of you.

"But if we could do that," said the farmer, "then we wouldn't be poor."

Revolutionary Justice

The present Supreme Court is the most radical Court in many decades. They have overturned a large number of previously settled decisions, rolling back desegregation, trashing separation of church and state, and said free speech is only for corporations, not for the people. Each case has been decided by the narrowest possible majority.

Adam B of Daily Kos notes that:

In one full term, this Court has severely curbed local efforts to promote racial diversity in schools, upheld a right-wing ban on a necessary medical procedure for women, curbed students' free speech rights, crippled Congress' ability to keep corporate money out of political advertising, prevented taxpayers from challenging the constitutionality of Bush's faith-based initiatives, made it almost impossible for women to prevail on claims of longterm sex discrimination . . . and they're just getting started.

Unfortunately, these guys are the ones who will be deciding whether the King President is entitled to the dictatorial powers he has claimed when the Congressional subpoenas come up.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Wingnut Wetdream

Sally Quinn, writing in the Washinton Post, gives voice to one popular Republican fantasy. How about, says this theory, swapping out Cheney for that tobacco lobbyist actor guy?

The big question right now among Republicans is how to remove Vice President Cheney from office. Even before this week's blockbuster series in The Post, discontent in Republican ranks was rising.

As the reputed architect of the war in Iraq, Cheney is viewed as toxic, and as the administration's leading proponent of an attack on Iran, he is seen as dangerous. As long as he remains vice president, according to this thinking, he has the potential to drag down every member of the party -- including the presidential nominee -- in next year's elections.
That leaves Fred Thompson. Everybody loves Fred. He has the healing qualities of Gerald Ford and the movie-star appeal of Ronald Reagan. He is relatively moderate on social issues. He has a reputation as a peacemaker and a compromiser. And he has a good sense of humor.

And a majority of both houses of Congress (both controlled by Democrats) would go along with this because?

The Amateur Climatologist

Lubos Motl has a new climate post mostly about radiative saturation of the CO2 band and climate sensitivity. He gets most of the main scientific points right (the next CO2 molecule costs us slightly less than the last one, the magnitude of the first order effect) but manages to draw some slightly odd conclusions. The chorus line of his worshipfull cult is rather more out to lunch, of course.

Let me pick out a clinker or two:

Most of the absorbed infrared rays are instantly transformed to kinetic energy of the atmosphere and this energy is not re-emitted.

I take issue with the last two words. Most of the greenhouse effect takes place in the troposphere, which is sandwiched between the warmer stratosphere above and the (usually) warmer ground below. The troposphere receives energy in four forms: solar radiation, infrared radiation (IR) from above and below, convected heat from below, and heat from the condensation of moisture convected up from the surface. Essentially all the energy it exports is in the form of infrared radiation, so it's always radiating more IR than it receives.

At least ideally - when you neglect the Doppler width of the lines and other effects

This is a minor point, but pressure (collisional) broadening is much more important than Doppler in the troposphere and (at least the lower) stratosphere.

The big problems come when he reports his results. He correctly states that in terms of effects of CO2 we are already halfway to the radiative forcing at a doubled CO2 from pre-twentieth century levels. One problem with this is that the thermal effect of the forcing is gradual - the ocean has a very high thermal inertia, so we won't see the full effects of the current CO2 levels, even if we stop emitting today, for another two or three decades. The other problem is that CO2 levels are unlikely to peak at 560. There might be another doubling by the end of the century.

How about saturation? Well, there is room for a few more doublings, since atmospheric CO2 is less than 0.04 %. More worrisome is the very likely prospect of positive feedback - adding heat to the oceans and atmosphere adds more H2O, the most important greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere. Also a bit bothersome is the fact that Venus, which has about 2^20 times as much CO2 as Earth, is a lot hotter than that factor (ln 2^20) of 20 suggests. Its closer proximity to the Sun explains only a little of the difference.

Lumo adds:

It's just like when you want your bedroom to be white. You paint it once, twice, thrice. But when you're painting it for the sixteenth time, you may start to realize that the improvement after the sixteenth round is no longer that impressive.

A more apt comparison might be wrapping your heater in 16 layers of paper towels rather than one. Those who want insight into how all this works might check out MODTRAN. I have some notes on what it means here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

More For Rupert Fans

Didn't like your tax bill last year? You were probably just too dumb to figure out how to avoid it. Rupert wasn't. This Huffpost story says

News Corporation paid no federal taxes in two of the last four years, and in the other two it paid only a fraction of what it otherwise would have owed. During that time, Securities and Exchange Commission records show, the News Corporation's domestic pretax profits topped $9.4 billion.

Huffpost links to the NYT series cited below.

Good work if you can get it.

America's Most Dangerous Immigrant...

... is not, so far as I know, the name of a new Fox reality show, but if I had to vote, I would definitely pick Rupert Murdoch. A new New York Times series profiles the remarkably successful Australian (and naturalized American citizen) purveyor of soft porn and softer trash news. Murdoch's wealth and media empire gives him tremendous power to buy politicians and influence people.

Murdoch’s sprawling media empire was in jeopardy.

Congress was on the verge of limiting any company from owning local television stations that reached more than 35 percent of American homes. Mr. Murdoch’s Fox stations reached nearly 39 percent, meaning he would have to sell some.

A strike force of Mr. Murdoch’s lobbyists joined other media companies in working on the issue. The White House backed the industry, and in a late-night meeting just before Thanksgiving, Congressional leaders agreed to raise the limit — to 39 percent.

One leader of the Congressional movement to limit ownership was Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi. But in the end, he, too, agreed to the compromise. It turns out he had a business connection to Mr. Murdoch. Months before, HarperCollins, Mr. Murdoch’s publishing house, had signed a $250,000 book deal to publish Mr. Lott’s memoir, “Herding Cats,” records and interviews show.

Lott was cheap, though. Gingrich's book deal was worth millions. Murdoch is no equal opportunity investor but he is smart enough to diversify his portfolio. Apparently he is investing significantly in Clinton.

Friends get rewarded, but enemies get pursued relentlessly. Senator Ted Kennedy pushed some legislation not to Murdoch's taste, and is pilloried.

Mr. Kennedy’s liberal politics had made him a target of Murdoch-owned news media outlets, particularly The Boston Herald, which often referred to Mr. Kennedy as “Fat Boy.”

It's a good series. Read it and weep. For America.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Whither Lubos?

Conscientious students of Lumology know that Lubos has been dropping hints about leaving academia for some time. Apparently that time is upon us (see first comment here and follow on). (Via this comment at NEW).

So far as I can tell, he's not telling what his future plans are. Speculations range from his becoming Minister for the Anti-environment for Czechia to retreating to the hills to meditate like Perelman and Grothendieck.

Lumo probably hates me, but I will wish him luck anyway, unless he is planning to turn himself into Dr. Evil and destroy the world. In either case, I hope he keeps up his blog.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A Hard Rain in a Dry Country

El Fuerte, Sinaloa, is at slightly more than 26 degrees North latitude and an elevation of only about 80 meters, so at this time of year the Sun is nearly directly overhead at noon, and it's hot. The Pig was hot. The Pig had been hot hundreds of kilometers North and 1200 meters higher in El Paso.

Walking around the plaza in the noonday sun, the Pig was sweating like a pig - or rather, sweating like a pig would sweat if a pig could sweat, which they can't. By the time he managed to stagger into the hotel's (shaded but outdoor and still sweltering) bar, he was as parched as the leafless semi-tropical forest all around.

When the P descended from the heights of the Sierra Madre on the Chepe he noted passing through a sequence of climate zones, from alpine pinon to tropical banana and palm, but as one approached El Fuerte, the landscape was dominated by a leafless and lifeless looking deciduous forest.

El Fuerte sits pretty squarely in the horse latitudes, that region where the hot air that rose in the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) comes back down, having been squeezed of its moisture along the way. That dry and descending air is quite effective at suppressing thunderstorm activity, which is why many of the world's deserts are similarly situated.

The ITCZ moves a bit with sun position, though, so like many such regions, El Fuerte has a rainy season that tends to fall in late July and August - the season following but lagging the sun position.

Weather of any sort being a fairly rare phenomenon in the P's home region, he was thrilled when distant rumbles of thunder heralded the approach of dark and nasty looking clouds. The storm arrived with gusty gusto, those gusts blowing leaves, tableclothes, umbrellas and similar items into the pool. A bit later rain arrived, and the thermometer dropped abruptly. There are storms like this in NM, but they only last ten minutes or so. This one lasted for hours, and the thatched roof of the bar proved little defense against horizontal rain, but we mostly stayed soaking up the welcome cold.

The next morning he took a train back up into the mountains, and almost every tree of that dessicated and gray forest was sprouting tiny green leaves or cheerful flowers. How do the roots get the water up to the growing sprouts so fast?

Friday, June 15, 2007


The Republican party has proven so corrupt in both Congress and the White House that it should by rights be euthanized. Unfortunately, the one party state envishioned by Karl Rove can no more be trusted to the Democrats than to the Republicans. The GOP has clearly become the OGP (Old Gangster Party) so what are we to do?

Third parties rarely get going in the US, and this is probably not time for one of those seismic political events to happen, so clearly some other type of massive adjustment is necessary. Such an event occurred in the sixties when the Democrats abandoned their racist Southern component in favor of civil rights. The Republicans inherited a significantly reformed if still bitter South, and Democratic power went gradually into eclipse. Karl Rove and his Justice Department henchmen (von Spassovsky, Sholzman, et. al.) did their best to bring back Black vote suppression but those guys may now be looking at some slammer time.

Who or what can put the Republicans back together? I sure wouldn't look for it from any of the current candidates, with the possible exception of super long-shot Ron Paul. Right now, the Republicans don't stand for anything but tax cuts for the rich and an almost certainly unwinnable war. The tax cuts will be rolled back or the country will collapse - we can't borrow a trillion a year forever. The war too will likely collapse - right now the only thing keeping it going is the Republican hope of pinning the defeat on a Democratic "stab in the back."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Off the Grid

I will be off the grid for a week or so. Feel free to use the comments to post anything interesting.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What's the Time?

What's the time?
It's got to be close to midnight.
My body's talking to me.
Says it's time for danger.
...........Mimi, in Rent

Time is one of the most difficult issues in physics. We all know that the past is pretty different from the future, and that the film run backward can usually be told from that running forward. Glasses fall off the table and break, but nobody has ever seen scattered bits of glass spontaneously assemble on the floor and then leap up to the table. The problem is that all the laws of physics that we know seem to be time symmetric. So how do we get time assymmetry from purely symmetric laws?

Sean Carroll blogs about a seminar he and co-authors gave at UC Santa Cruz: Why is the Past Different from the Future? The Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time. The discussion following the post brings in little guns and big, with the most illuminating points being made by Sean and John Baez.

There is no future
there is no past.
Got to make the moment last.
............Mimi again

The Genius of David Chase

Such as it is, was in combining the classic themes of the American gangster movie and the soap opera. I have watched a number of episodes, but I am by no means a fan of The Sopranos - though I must admit that my dear, sweet and non-violent wife is.

Having declared my non-allegiance to the cult, I have to admit that it was often gripping television, and that a number of excellent actors were in it, and that whatever his limitations as an actor (may or may not be), James Gandolfini was often perfect for his brutish thug of a character. My problem is that I think it was gripping for essentially bad reasons. The Roman gladiatorial games were no doubt gripping entertainment, and The Sopranos with all its nods to domesticity, was essentially about vicariously experiencing David Chase's sadistic fantasies. Tony Soprano was no Hamlet or MacBeth. His was an appeal based purely on his ability to do all the bad things we might want to do with utter impunity. Who hasn't wanted to humiliate and crush an enemy? Tony murders them, with sadistic details, and never has to pay for his crimes. The soap operatic domesticity gives him just enough of a hint of humanity to make it easier for us to identify with him, in a way that would be more difficult to do with a character whose only side we saw was depravity.

My view is distinctly in the minority. TV critics, talking heads, and their ilk mainly worship Chase (and Tony). Apparently I'm not quite alone, however. Tony Hendra, writing on HuffingtonPost, doesn't seem to be a fan in Arrivederci Tony -- and Good &%$@ing Riddance!.

He's a bit more hostile than I am:

Finally! It's OVER. The pandering, pretentious, overblown, over-wrought, over-interpreted, over-rated series about a loathsome subculture of brutal cowards who feed off the poor, the weak and one another, who despise anyone not of their race and express their displeasure with baseball bats (provided the odds are solidly in their favor) and manifest their manliness or loyalty or code or some such drivel by bravely shooting, stabbing or garroting their (preferably unarmed) victims from the rear.

No I'm not talking about the Republican presidential debates. I'm talking about The Sopranos

I sort of like the fact that he manages to link the thuggish Sopranos with the thuggish Bushies.

The Sopranos succeeded in catching the brutal retributive mood of the nation in the first years of the century, a mood fanned and pandered to by the mobsters in the White House and their made men in an all-Republican Congress. DC in those days was a one Family town. I doubt The Sopranos would have gone anywhere much if it hadn't been for 9/11. Gandolfini had to do very little acting to convey the unapologetic thuggishness that was in the air and people of all political stripes responded. The left had to find some intellectual ointment to ease their vestigial non-violent organs, but it wasn't too hard. Everybody wanted to whack somebody. And the reason they loved Tony so much, wooden and grim and inexpressive as he was, was that he -- no less than those infatuated by his unreflective brutishness - was NOT TO BLAME. Not in these very special times.

So one of the most loathsome characters in the history of American television played by one of the least appetizing actors ever to occupy the screen was the beneficiary of all kinds of grateful hot air about his conflicted-ness and his deep-seated needs and rotten childhood and his 'essential sweetness' That way when he went out to do bestial things to his enemies, just as they longed to, they needed to feel no guilt.

And that's why Tony never paid the price. Not even in the final episode. He was unaccountable. Just like the gang in the White House.


I'm not sure why he so despises Gandolfini, nor do I agree with him on that, but he does diagnose the Sopranos' modus operandi:

Every plot set-up, every twist, whether to do with The Families or the families; their countless schemes and scams and quarrels and plots against each other; the double agents or undercover cops or made men being turned or sit-downs or hits in restaurants or hits-to-be banging from inside the car-trunk -- it had all been done dozens of times before and far better in the Godfather or Goodfellas or in other mob and mob-related films from the 70s to the 90s.

If there was a Sopranos formula it seemed to be: let's put Tony and his tedious dysfunctional brood in some banal and unexceptional soap-opera wringer, grind them through the predictable conflicts and then liven things up by cutting to someone getting whacked in the most gruesome and graphic way possible. And because everyone on screen always had to conform to the morose, monotonic rhythms of its star even the soap-ish aspects of the series never came close to the zing of previous super-soaps, (which were also built around larger-than-life villains), like Dallas Dynasty and Falconcrest.

One of the reasons the Romans maintained their gladiatorial games at enormous public expense was to brutalize the population. Roman leader believed that the citizen's warlike qualities had to be honed by exposure to the most horrific violence. I don't think America needs to do that, and I greatly regret that so much of television is now dedicated to it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Watch Out!

In the US, Bush is not known as a typical flesh-pressing politician. In fact, to the general public, he's the most reclusive President in recent memory.

In Albania, though, they love him. He got out and grabby with the crowd. The rumor mill has it though, that some Albanian got grabby back. Pictures only a few seconds apart show the President wearing a wrist watch, and then not. Apparently the WH has given more than one account of what happened to it.

The really unfortunate part is that the watch was a new high tech version that incorporated that bulky old nuclear football some Aide always used to have to carrry around behind him.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Thucydides 1.3


Congress of the Peloponnesian Confederacy at Lacedaemon

OK, the MIT version sucks. Everything is incomplete. Project Gutenberg has a better version of the same Crawley translation here.

I am starting to suspect that I'm the only reader here, but I will keep posting my comments to the blog anyway, for my own convenience.

This chapter is all about four speeches: the speech of the Corinthian representatives, that of Athenians who were in town on othe business, that of the king of Lacedaemon (Sparta), and that of the Spartan ephor.

So what's an ephor anyway? This wikipedia article offers some insight into Sparta, but such insight is limited by the fact that:

The Spartans had no historical records, literature, or written laws, which were, according to tradition, expressly prohibited by an ordinance of Lycurgus (excluding, of course, the 'Great Rhetra,' supposedly given by Lycurgus himself).

By the time of this history, the Kings (there were two) had a mainly ceremonial role, with the real power wielded by the two ephors (elected for one year terms) and a council of elders.

Some excerpts:

Take time then in forming your resolution, as the matter is of great importance; and do not be persuaded by the opinions and complaints of others to bring trouble on yourselves, but consider the vast influence of accident in war, before you are engaged in it. As it continues, it generally becomes an affair of chances, chances from which neither of us is exempt, and whose event we must risk in the dark. It is a common mistake in going to war to begin at the wrong end, to act first, and wait for disaster to discuss the matter. But we are not yet by any means so misguided, nor, so far as we can see, are you; accordingly, while it is still open to us both to choose aright, we bid you not to dissolve the treaty, or to break your oaths, but to have our differences settled by arbitration according to our agreement. Or else we take the gods who heard the oaths to witness, and if you begin hostilities, whatever line of action you choose, we will try not to be behindhand in repelling you."

Such were the words of the Athenians

More later

Isn't it Ironic?

Eli reports on a Science article (subscription required) that seems to indicate a problem with trying to teach science. It seems that God arranged our evolution in such a fashion that we are genetically disposed to believe in Intelligent Design.

Eli quoting Paul Bloom and Skilnick Wisberg in the May 18th issue of Science:
The examples so far concern people's common-sense understanding of the physical world, but their intuitive psychology also contributes to their resistance to science. One important bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, 4-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"), a propensity called "promiscuous teleology". Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and prefer creationist explanations. Just as children's intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

I always suspected God of having an ironic sense of humor.

He also arranged our evolution to predispose us to believe that the world is flat.

Eli puts on a brave face:

These are truths that can cause one to despair, but they also offer insight into what must be done to educate people about science based issues and a more sophisticated analysis of the tactics that those who are spreading disinformation use.

Either that, or make you even more ironic.

Destruction of the American Middle Class

Daniel Gross writing in The New York Times has an article on accelerating inequality in America.

INCOME inequality is a hot topic in politics and economics. The rising economic tide is lifting a bunch of yachts, but leaving those in simple boats just bobbing along.

Two professors — Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley — have found that the share of gross personal income of the top 1 percent of American earners rose to 17.4 percent in 2005 from 8.2 percent in 1980.

Many economists, especially those who find themselves in the Bush administration, argue that the winner-take-all trend is fueled by other, unstoppable trends. After all, globalization, information technology and free trade place a premium on skills and education. “The good news is that most of the inequality reflects an increase in returns to ‘investing in skills’ — workers completing more school, getting more training and acquiring new capabilities,” as Edward P. Lazear, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, put it last year.


Aside from corporate compensation policies, public policies have played a significant role in contributing to the growth of income inequality. That’s the argument made in a recent, brilliant National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Professor Levy and Peter Temin, the Elisha Gray II professor of economics at M.I.T. The paper, which is more narrative than quantitative — Professor Temin is a distinguished economic historian — argues that the rise of income isn’t simply a byproduct of the free market working its wonders.


Since 1980, they argue, it’s been a different story, thanks in part to a shifting political environment. Unions have weakened, the minimum wage hasn’t come close to keeping up with inflation, and marginal income tax rates have been cut — the top marginal rate is now 36 percent, down from 70 percent in 1980. A result has been declining bargaining power for workers and the rise of a winner-take-all environment.

“The last six years of federal tax history have involved an inhospitable politics in which winners have used their political power to expand their winnings,” the authors say. In other words, if capital has lately been prevailing in the centuries-long battle with labor, it is doing so with a substantial assist from the government.

There is more to the story - much of it along the lines of "the computers made us do it." I recommend reading the whole article.

Via Kevin Drum

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Joe Lieberman

Joe Lieberman is still cheering for an attack on Iran.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman said Sunday the United States should consider a military strike against Iran because of Tehran's involvement in Iraq.

"I think we've got to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq," Lieberman said. "And to me, that would include a strike over the border into Iran, where we have good evidence that they have a base at which they are training these people coming back into Iraq to kill our soldiers."

I am pretty sure this is bullshit, just like all the other bullshit these guys have been peddling for the last five years. Like the IEDs they claimed were coming from Iran - until oops, they found a factory in Bagdad.

There are maybe a few groups in the world who have clear motives for us to go to war with Iran. The big oil companies might stand to make a tidy profit from the resulting spike in oil prices. Ditto Russia. Nobody has a better motive than the Israeli right-wing, though. They are terrified of Iran, and there's nothing they would like better than for us to take out the threat of Iran. That's why Olmert and his principal deputy came over here to lead the cheering section for staying in Iraq at AIPAC.

I think Americans need a clear view of who it is that's cheering on the idea of war with Iran, and why. I think we need to know that elected leaders are putting America's interest first.

Thucydides, I.2

Book I Chapter two: Causes of the War - The Affair of Epidamnus - The Affair of Potidaea

Fun fact: Potidaea was the alleged birthplace of Gabriele, gal-pal of Xena, the Warrior Princess.

Map links: Corcyra, Illiria, and Epidamnus can be found on this Bernard Suzanne map. They are on the Western side of the Balkan penninsula, toward the North. For Potidaea and nearby places, consult this map (also by Suzanne). They are East of the Balkan penninsula on the oddly shaped Chalcidician penninsula.

Quick summary: The treaty among the Hellenic states still held. Corcyra, originally a colony of Corinth, has had a dust up with it's colony Epipidamus. Epidamnus has sent to Corinth for aid. This provokes Corcyra, which lays seige to Epidamnus and defeats a Corinthian fleet sent to its aid. The hapless Epidamnians are slaughtered or sold into slavery. Corinth now builds a great fleet, bent on revenge, and Corinth and Corcyra both sent representatives to Athens appealing for allegiance.

The speechs of the representatives to the Athenians are rhetorical masterpieces, at least by the standards of today's political discourse. The representatives appeal to morality, law, historical ties and power politics. Of course, cell phone technology was less advanced in those days, so we only have Thucydides' reconstructions. The Athenians chose to try to walk a sort of middle ground, but naturally this did not work out.

Excerpts from the speech of the Corcyrans:

"If she asserts that for you to receive a colony of hers into alliance
is not right, let her know that every colony that is well treated
honours its parent state, but becomes estranged from it by injustice.
For colonists are not sent forth on the understanding that they are
to be the slaves of those that remain behind, but that they are to
be their equals. And that Corinth was injuring us is clear. Invited
to refer the dispute about Epidamnus to arbitration, they chose to
prosecute their complaints war rather than by a fair trial. And let
their conduct towards us who are their kindred be a warning to you
not to be misled by their deceit, nor to yield to their direct requests;
concessions to adversaries only end in self-reproach, and the more
strictly they are avoided the greater will be the chance of security.

"If it be urged that your reception of us will be a breach of the
treaty existing between you and Lacedaemon, the answer is that we
are a neutral state, and that one of the express provisions of that
treaty is that it shall be competent for any Hellenic state that is
neutral to join whichever side it pleases. And it is intolerable for
Corinth to be allowed to obtain men for her navy not only from her
allies, but also from the rest of Hellas, no small number being furnished
by your own subjects; while we are to be excluded both from the alliance
left open to us by treaty, and from any assistance that we might get
from other quarters, and you are to be accused of political immorality
if you comply with our request. On the other hand, we shall have much
greater cause to complain of you, if you do not comply with it; if
we, who are in peril and are no enemies of yours, meet with a repulse
at your hands, while Corinth, who is the aggressor and your enemy,
not only meets with no hindrance from you, but is even allowed to
draw material for war from your dependencies. This ought not to be,
but you should either forbid her enlisting men in your dominions,
or you should lend us too what help you may think advisable.

"But your real policy is to afford us avowed countenance and support.
The advantages of this course, as we premised in the beginning of
our speech, are many. We mention one that is perhaps the chief. Could
there be a clearer guarantee of our good faith than is offered by
the fact that the power which is at enmity with you is also at enmity
with us, and that that power is fully able to punish defection? And
there is a wide difference between declining the alliance of an inland
and of a maritime power. For your first endeavour should be to prevent,
if possible, the existence of any naval power except your own; failing
this, to secure the friendship of the strongest that does exist. And
if any of you believe that what we urge is expedient, but fear to
act upon this belief, lest it should lead to a breach of the treaty,
you must remember that on the one hand, whatever your fears, your
strength will be formidable to your antagonists; on the other, whatever
the confidence you derive from refusing to receive us, your weakness
will have no terrors for a strong enemy. You must also remember that
your decision is for Athens no less than Corcyra, and that you are
not making the best provision for her interests, if at a time when
you are anxiously scanning the horizon that you may be in readiness
for the breaking out of the war which is all but upon you, you hesitate
to attach to your side a place whose adhesion or estrangement is alike
pregnant with the most vital consequences. For it lies conveniently
for the coast- navigation in the direction of Italy and Sicily, being
able to bar the passage of naval reinforcements from thence to Peloponnese,
and from Peloponnese thither; and it is in other respects a most desirable
station. To sum up as shortly as possible, embracing both general
and particular considerations, let this show you the folly of sacrificing
us. Remember that there are but three considerable naval powers in
Hellas- Athens, Corcyra, and Corinth- and that if you allow two of
these three to become one, and Corinth to secure us for herself, you
will have to hold the sea against the united fleets of Corcyra and
Peloponnese. But if you receive us, you will have our ships to reinforce
you in the struggle."

If you want to follow the story to the end of the chapter, you will need to switch to this text only version, since the other ends abruptly just as hostilities are commencing.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The History of the Peloponnesian War

Book One, Chapter One: The State of Greece from the earliest Times to the Commencement of the Peloponnesian War

Reading Thucydides classic, written almost five centuries before the birth of Christ, I found myself struck by how utterly modern he seems. He begins by outlining the history of the Hellenes and the circumstances that led to the great war. He is well aware that he is dealing with the stuff of legends and poetry, and the uncertainties those pose. His voice is cool but not without passion, and he goes to some trouble to tell of the pains he went to to check and cross check his facts while recognizing the inevitable ambiguities that remain.

If your knowledge of Greek geography is no better than mine, you might quickly find yourself lost in a forest of place names. Fortunately, you can just open this great online map of ancient Greece. The map is active, so buttoning on most places will bring up historical and other background. Props to Bernard Suzanne who posted it.

The two great powers of Greece, Athens and Sparta had combined to defeat the Persian army - the greatest triump of Hellenes united. After the victory, the alliance ruptured. Before giving the reasons advanced by the parties as grievances, he gives his own diagnosis:

To the question why they broke the treaty, I answer by placing first an account of their grounds of complaint and points of difference, that no one may ever have to ask the immediate cause which plunged the Hellenes into a war of such magnitude. The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable. Still it is well to give the grounds alleged by either side which led to the dissolution of the treaty and the breaking out of the war.

Blogging a Book

The pig, whose patience with political ranting is exhausted (for the moment), and who figures the MSM are already covering the really important issues facing the world (Paris Hilton), is thinking of blogging a book. I thought I might read some classic one chapter at a time, preferably one found on line, and post my thoughts and questions. This would be a lot more fun if some readers would join in the conversation. My initial thoughts were Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil or The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.

Any takers? Alternative suggestions?

Friday, June 08, 2007

Is Our Children Learning?

Bigotry of low expectations?

A number of studies have shown that children are doing better on their proficiency tests since No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Unfortunately, we can't really trust the statistics much, since the states set their own standards, and they vary widely.

The recent developments are the publication of comparisons of state standards with those on a national test. It seems that every state sets its standards lower than the national standard, but some set theirs a whole lot lower.

There are stories out in the usual places, notably the NYT, but I like a couple of posts by Kevin Drum. He notes, commenting on a scatter plot State standards versus the NAEP:

state standards compare to the NAEP "basic achievement level" for 32 states. This one is for fourth grade reading, and the state standards vary from 161 to 234.

Does this seem like a lot? Well, hold on: the rule of thumb for NAEP is that ten points is about equal to one grade level, which means that Mississippi at the bottom has a passing standard seven grade levels lower than the passing standard for Massachusetts at the top. Overall, more than half the states had passing standards a full grade level lower than the NAEP "basic" level.

Like Mississippi, most of the States with very low standards are in the old south - Tennessee at minus six grade levels, Georgia at minus five and a half, with a bunch more (including non-southern Idaho) at about minus 4-5. SC though, has the second highest standard.

The effect is that proficiency means very different things in different states. Children well above proficient in MS, TN, GA, or ID might be well below in MA or SC. Some States clearly have chosen to greatly exaggerate their educational achievement. The whole concept is useless if its only purpose is to mislead parents as to their children's achievement.

If I lived in one of those low expectations States, I would be pissed.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Is It Just Me?

Or is this Drudge headline incredibly droll in a sick sort of way?

Lynne Cheney Floated as Possible Replacement for Dead Senator...
For some reason that reminds me of the church bulletin advertising morning and evening services:

Morning Sermon: Jesus walks upon the water.

Evening Sermon: Searching for Jesus

Scary Movie

Now I can climate scare monger with some of the best, but I always figured that I wasn't at too much risk from rising seas here at 3900 ft in New Mexico. Until I saw this HuffPost Story on the threat to Machu Pichu.

The devil is in the details. It turns out that the real threat to Machu Pichu was actually too many tourists. Not sure why it got the picture in a story entitled:
Report Says Global Warming Threatens Landmarks

Is Economics a Zero Sum Game?

Is the economy a zero sum game? Most economists in the neo-classical tradition would dismiss the idea out of hand, I think. It's not hard to find arguments against the idea. This being a physicist's blog, a quote from Feynman ought to be just as good as (better than) one from any economist:

"[T]he idea of distributing everything evenly is based on a theory that there’s only X amount of stuff in the world, that somehow we took it away from the poorer countries in the first place, and therefore we should give it back to them. But this theory doesn’t take into account the real reason for the differences between countries — that is, the development of new techniques for growing food, the development of machinery to grow food and do other things, and the fact that all this machinery requires the concentration of capital. It isn’t the stuff, but the power to make the stuff, that is important. But I realize now that these people were not in science; they didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand technology; they didn’t understand their time."

— Richard Feynman

Such is the conventional wisdom, and one cannot doubt that it is true is some approximation. The history of the human race has included a vast expansion in our capability to exploit the world, so some truth is self-evident. It's also a very convenient fact for the rich.

So what, then, if some billionaire builds himself a sixty story high palace? And so what if I choose a carnivorous life-style rather than a vegetarian one?

However, just because economics doesn't seem to be a zero sum game today doesn't mean that it's an unlimited sum game either. All resources are ultimately finite. Land, for example, and fresh water, and food. Technological and political progress are the factors that make expanding the pot possible, and to us, at the dawn of the twenty-first century technological progress looks like our inevitable birthright - after all, we have seen six or so centuries of virtually uninterrupted progress.

Looking at history on a smaller scale gives less encouraging examples. We have many cultures whose history ended at the height of their technological prowess. In fact those calamities were often a direct effect of the fact that their technology enabled them to exploit their environments to the point of exhaustion and consequent collapse. Should we fear that our national or global civilization might fall prey to the same collapse at the hands of our own wretched excess. Regular readers already know that I think the answer is yes.

There are some fundamental facts and principles that lead to the conclusion that, taken in context, economics really is a zero sum game. All but a tiny fraction of the energy consumed by life on Earth comes from the Sun. About 0.05% of the solar energy incident on the Earth at the top of the atmosphere is converted into biological net primary production (NPP), and that is the major source of energy for life, including us. Humans are now the top level consumer of about 40% of this energy, not including fossil energy consumption.

This situation is utterly different from 10000 years ago, when our consumption was a tiny fraction of a per cent, or even 150 years ago, when it was perhaps two per cent. There are a few minor ways in which we can slightly increase NPP - irrigation, for example, and there are many ways that we can decrease it substantially - deforestation, desertification, pollution, and erosion, to name a few.

Ultimately there is a lid on the pot, and ultimately the economic game becomes a zero sum or decreasing sum game. The lid is put there by the laws of thermodynamics, the amount of natural resources, and the limits of living systems. In some sense, too, the billionaire's yacht consumes resources that could have built schools, cured diseases, or fed the starving. Jesus Christ may not have understood the principles of economics, but I still like that he said that the rich were all going to hell.

That said, we have ample evidence that socialism doesn't work. It's too contrary to human nature. We are left with Capitalism, the worst form of economic system - except for the others. We need the rich to concentrate capital and invest it, and we should encourage them to do so. We don't really need for them to live lives of wretched excess, and we should make them pay for the priviledge - in taxes.

Questions of distribution aren't really the point though. If the human population continues to increase, increasing equality just means reducing more to miserable poverty. Population will be controlled. It might be controlled through the traditional means of war, murder, starvation and disease, or it might be controlled by limiting reproduction. It's our choice.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Death to NASA

Eli has some notes on the Bush administrations destruction of NASA's science program, especially its Earth science program. It sheds some light on Michael Griffin's bizarre interview on NPR last week.

After a few other considered remarks, Hansen points out that

The significance of the Administrator’s remarks is the insight it provides into the February 2006 massacre of the Earth Science Research and Analysis budget (which funds NASA support of Earth Science research at universities as well as NASA Centers, primarily Goddard Space Flight Center), as discussed here
Something that Eli mentioned a few months ago in his seminal post, Those who governments would destroy they first defund. The Bunny knows all.

The Bunny does know a lot. But I only give him an A- in omniscience, because I'm pretty sure it ought to be whom.

Does anybody else find it interesting that exactly the same people who say that we don't know enough about climate to try to deal with the threat of global warming are exactly the same people who are trying to keep us from learning any more?

Iraq Plans

One moment in the Repo debates tonight came when the sister of an American soldier killed in Iraq asked the candidates what they would do to conclude our efforts there. Somebody wanted to partition the country, somebody else wanted to write them a new constitution. Somebody else (Rudy?) wants more of the same -train the Iraqis. John McCain, after six years of kissing Bush's ass, has now decided that George did a lousy job of managing the war (duh!). He doesn't have a plan, but is sure George's new plan is just right, and that it would be bad if we left. Ron Paul was the only Republican who spoke forthrightly and sensibly: The war was a mistake and a betrayal of American values, Bush sacrificed the soldiers who died for nothing, and his colleagues all want to keep doing it. He, of course, has no chance.

America's Next Presidential Candidate!

I listened to a bit of the debates, and it was a pretty miserable experience. Whatever one thinks about politics, it's hard to deny that the current system really sucks. The endless campaign, the excruciatingly boring cattle show debates, the primaries all jumbled together in one big blur. The interminable debates with their stupid questions are just one symptom. As one of my continuing series of proposals for reforming the process, let me present an idea for an improved primary system.

We probably need to have a series of debates, but let's put in some human interest. Reporters always ask stupid questions, so let the debaters ask each other - make it a more pitted struggle. Initially, each candidate would get to ask a couple of questions, of, say, two other candidates. A lottery could be arranged so that each candidate gets the same number of questions (four in my example).

So far, so boring, right? It still looks like a miserably incremental approach. so let's take a page from television reality shows. Audience participation is the key. After each debate, let the television audience vote one candidate off the stage. With Mike Gravel and Duncan Hunter gone, the quality is already improved. Tension would build from debate to debate until the climactic week when each party selected America's Next Presidential Candidate.

This scheme might also relieve the Candidates of some of the burden of raising vast sums of money - with luck, commercials for deoderants and erectile disfunction pills might pay the bills. If these primaries became too popular, a series of regional competitions could set the stage for the big national showdowns.

All in favor?

Hard Jobs

Angelina Jolie, who is starting to look a bit over the hill even though she's only 32, recently said:

"I don't know how he does it, but ... I talk a lot in the bath," the actress and UN goodwill ambassador, 32, tells Marie Claire magazine for its July issue. "It's easier to talk when you're naked ... Get naked with me, and I'll talk!"

OK, it's a dirty job, but as a journalist I know my duty. I will volunteer for the interview.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A War We Can Win

It seems that Vermont is threatening to secede.

This is a war we can win. I recommend a Sherman like march to the sea, featuring the burning of the State's major city, if there is one. I'm almost sure we know how to do this part.

Let's skip the "shock and awe" this time. It just pisses the conquered peoples off.

I'm not sure about the freeing the slaves part either. I mean how many slaves are there in Vermont anyway.


Or did I mean, "tomorrow is another day."

Kicking Mike Around

I couldn't resist another go at Dr. Crichton. My favorite quote from the speech discussed in the previous post:

String theory cannot be tested and therefore string theory is not science. String theory is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the universe in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are strings in the universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence for any super strings, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief. String theory is a religion.

In honor of our old friend Lumo, I chose the above passage, since I know he's a big fan of Dr. C.

Since the original quote really doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny, I took the liberty of substituting "string theory" or "strings" for SETI in various places, but the rest has been left intact.

What's Wrong With Global Warming Skepticism?

Well, nothing really, per se. Some of my best colleagues are global warming skeptics. Most of them don't know enough to have an intelligent opinion, but that rarely stops anyone. Informed skepticism, of course is an essential component of science.

Unfortunately though, the principal players in the anti-global warming crusade are rarely either innocents or informed critics. Most of them are religiously or ideologically motivated zealots who know and understand little about modern climate science. A few are old geezers and soreheads who don't like the kind of science climate has become. The most despicable are hacks and flacks on the take from big oil and others with a stake in the status quo.

Michael Crichton doesn't really fit into any of these categories, except sorehead. He was trained as a physician, but made a fortune writing science fiction books and movies, some of which were quite excellent. The best of his stuff takes a scientific idea with a bit of credibility and weaves it into a compelling drama. Jurrasic Park (the first one) is the canonical example.

He entered the climate scene by writing a book in which radical environmentalists are the sinister villians, and also by giving a talk at Caltech that he called "Aliens cause global warming". This is the (in)famous talk in which he lambasted "consensus science." Since that time he has been a favorite with right-wing congressmen and other Kool-aid peddlars. An excerpt from his speech:

...Ehrlich answered by saying "I think they are extremely robust. Scientists may have made statements like that, although I cannot imagine what their basis would have been, even with the state of science at that time, but scientists are always making absurd statements, individually, in various places. What we are doing here, however, is presenting a consensus of a very large group of scientists…"

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks...

So what's the matter with Crichton's argument? Almost everything. The examples he chooses, the logic he deploys, and the supposed facts he exhibits. If you want to check out the details, read his speech, and then examine this detailed demolition by Reasic. Not only is Chrichton wrong in almost evey particular, his whole argument is specious.

The two-bit summary: there have been times in history when what most scientists believed turned out to be wrong. Therefore, if most scientists believe something, it must be wrong. He illustrates his point by bringing up a number of speculative scientific ideas and claiming them to have been disproved or worthless. Except when dealing with ancient history, he mostly is either wrong or just guilty of baseless speculation himself.

He ignores the current scientific consensus on such matters as relativity, quantum theory, natural selection, and the germ theory of most disease - presumeably because they don't fit his illogic.

So why did I call him a sorehead? As a Hollywood mogul, he understands well the art of punishing his foes. One scientist guilty of refuting him got the honor of having his name used for a child molester (or some similarly heinous character) in the following Crichton novel.

I guess that Crichton, not content with fame, fortune, and a passel of wives and starlets, decided late in life that he wanted to be considered a serious person. Well, he made it all the way to seriously deranged.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


I can't seem to get Blogger to accept my latest posts. I wonder what's up.

Blogs of Doom

Why does my browser crash most of the time when I access Lumo's The Reference Frame? Is it just the bloated immensity of the thing or has he devised some new snare for his enemies?

A Necessary Evil?

Who said it?

The history of peoples who have shucked off religion isn't an especially persuasive argument for living without it.

Google, I should think, would be cheating.

Sunday Death Heads

Talking head time today was godawful. First I check out little Russ. Arghh! There were Mary Matalin and James Carville, the Undead Couple of American politics. Quick jump to ABC, where things are only slightly better. George and some Iraqi, Congressman Murtha, who made sense, followed by Sam, Cokie, and George Will. All have clearly slid well into senile dementia, though Cokie and George aren't *that* old.

Malarial Climes

The tropical rainforest is the ecologically richest enviroment on Earth. There are (or were) up to ten times as many species per unit area in tropical rainforests as in temperate regions. These tropical rainforests have been rapidly vanishing for the past half century or so, and are likely to be essentially gone in a couple more decades.

Despite their species diversity, the TR's have usually not supported large human populations - not enough humans to destroy their relatively fragile ecologies. They largely resisted the onslaught of European civilization until relatively recently. There is a common factor between those facts: Malaria. Malaria and other tropical diseases (yellow fever, tsetse flies, etc.) have protected the jungle for millenia.

Populations living in malarial climes have evolved some expensive defenses, most notably, sickle cell anemia. Persons having two sickle cell genes typically die very young of sickle cell disease. Heterozygotic individuals have better chances of surviving both. The cost of this adaptation is losing 1/2 of your children up front, plus the cost of the possibility of sickles cell disease among the heterozygotic, plus the cost of malaria.

Modern insecticides, other prevention programs, and treatment have greatly reduced the effect of malaria, but has had the undesireable side effect of making it easier to destroy the tropical rainforests.

Big Experiments

Physicists tend to think of a billion dollar experiment as pretty big, and high-energy physics experiments have penetrated that barrier. All such are dwarfed by some other ongoing experiments though, a couple by the US and one by the world.

Experiment one: Does it really matter if you have an idiot for President, even if he is the idiot son of a corrupt dynasty who spent 25 years burning out his few functional neurons with alcoholic excess? The answer seems to be in on this one: Yes, it matters.

Experiment two: Can the US keep borrowing a trillion dollars a year ($3000/person) with reaping a financial catastrophe? The results aren't in on this one, but professional economists are mostly skeptical.

Experiment three: Can we pump up CO2 levels to ranges not seen for millions of years without producing extremely destructive changes? Again the answer isn't in. I've said before that I don't think climate change is the most dangerous ecological catastrophe we are heading for, but I could be wrong.

Interesting that the backers of all three experiments seem to be the same people.