Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Arctic Meltdown ...

... is hardly happening this year. After the gigantic record melt of 2012, many expected that such spectacular melts would become the new norm - but it hasn't happened - yet anyway. 2013 was the largest minimum ice area since 2005 (though still less than anything earlier) and 2014 is currently tracking well above it. No doubt the denialist crowd will find this yet another "proof" that science is nuts, but the fact is that weather remains variable, on a year to year and even decade to decade scale.

the culprit - if you can call it that - this year has been cloud cover, high pressure, and wind pattern that have favored ice compaction rather than export.

Of course we still have six weeks left in the melt season, so the final script isn't yet in. Meanwhile, Antarctic ice is at record levels, for essentially unrelated reasons.

The Difference

Reading, as I frequently do, a certain blog which must not be named, I notice a posting on the Israeli situation. The author recommends, and appears to endorse, this post by Ali A. Rizvi. I mostly agree with the latter, especially this first sentence:

Are you "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine"? It isn't even noon yet as I write this, and I've already been accused of being both.

Just to put it on the record, but for historical and family reasons I am "pro-Israel" but I am also pro-truth and anti-myth. Not only that, but I believe that Palestinians are people too and deserve a chance at a decent life. Is there a way to achieve that and still keep Israel safe?

I don't know, but I agree with Rizvi that the current path is not that way.

However, if Israel holds itself to a higher standard like it claims -- it needs to do much more to show it isn't the same as the worst of its neighbors.

Israel is leading itself towards increasing international isolation and national suicide because of two things: 1. The occupation; and 2. Settlement expansion.

Settlement expansion is simply incomprehensible. No one really understands the point of it. Virtually every US administration -- from Nixon to Bush to Obama -- has unequivocally opposed it. There is no justification for it except a Biblical one (see #2), which makes it slightly more difficult to see Israel's motives as purely secular.

I remain bemused at how little of my thought HWMNBN understands of my thought. Communication is always difficult, especially among hotheads.

Israel's Real Friends

It's one of those classic ironies that the fiercest battles over Israeli policies take place between those who both consider themselves friends of Israel. These camps might roughly be described as the liberal and conservative camps. The liberal camp thinks that the current Israeli government is pursuing policies that are likely to be suicidal in the long run. The conservatives seem to think that any criticism of Israeli actions is treason to the cause, and Jew hating anti-semitism.

Of course Israel has plenty of real enemies, and many of these would not be placated by anything less than the disappearance of Israel as a state. But, argue the liberals, there are lots of people in the middle, who are not deeply hostile to Israel, but are increasingly offended by the images on television. Of course that is point of the Hamas provocations - say the conservatives, truthfully enough.

No issue between the liberals and conservatives is as divisive as the settlements in the West Bank. The logic behind them is the logic of a "Greater Israel", but that's an Israel that has no room for the Palestinians.

My vote is with the liberals, partly because I think they have a clearer-eyed view of history, but mostly because I still think there may be hope for a peace that doesn't depend on apartheid or ethnic cleansing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Argumentation II

One of the most fruitful traditions of Judaism is argumentation. The Talmud can be read as a gigantic series of arguments, and, at least in some places, rabbinical students study in pairs, the better to sharpen their argumentation skills. The analytic abilities honed by this kind of culture have been put to good use in the larger world - helping Jews reach the top of nearly every occupation.

Even in the arguments over Israel, the sharpest points of each side are frequently made by Jews. The following curious anecdote was published in the Jewish Journal:

On a JetBlue flight from Florida to New York on July 7, just before the IDF launched its Operation Protective Edge, an argument over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict broke out between two passengers that got one of them, a Jewish doctor from Queens named Lisa Rosenberg, kicked off the flight before takeoff. Later it emerged that the passenger with whom Rosenberg argued, who on the plane had identified herself as a Palestinian, was in fact Jewish.

Jews also have a tradition of defending the underdog.

Israel's Support in the World

A former commenter was scathing in his denunciation when I suggested that Israel was losing friends in the world. From the NYT:

A 2013 Pew poll found vastly more unfavorable feelings toward Israel outside than within the United States, which registered a 27 percent unfavorable view of Israel and a 57 percent favorable view. In contrast, 44 percent of people in Britain had an unfavorable view of Israel. Unfavorable views of Israel were held by 62 percent in Germany, 65 percent in France, 66 percent in China and in the 80 percent to 90 percent range in Arab and Muslim countries.

But Nigeria is still with them - or was two years ago.

Making Friends and Influencing People

In the age of the internet, the business of war is even more damaging to reputation than ever. People don't like to see kids and hospitals blown up.

The good news for Israel in this new Pew poll is that Americans remain solidly behind Israel, blaming Hamas more than Israel by a margin of 40% to 19%, with the rest going with "both" or don't know. The bad news is that those 18-29 reverse this, blaming Israel more by 29% - 21%. Blacks and Hispanics blame Israel more as well.

Not sure what the comparable numbers look like in Europe, but rumors would seem to indicate that the numbers are worse for Israel there.

For now, it looks like Israel has a comfortable margin of US support, but its margin for error is endangered.

A recent Gallup poll had the maybe even worse news for Israel, with support looking solid only among Republicans, over fifties, and the most educated.

Prisoners of Events

Yuval Diskin's interview linked below implies the Israeli public opinion pressured Netanyahu into invasion of Gaza. Putin's meddling in Ukraine has caused his popularity at home to skyrocket. George Bush got a big boost from his Iraq war. The Iraq-Iran war of the eighties consolidated Khomeini's grip on power in Iran.

Wars are popular, especially at first, before the bills come due. The other side of this is that they are usually easier to get into than out of. Six year's later Obama is still struggling to extract himself from Bush's wars. Putin lately seems pretty unsure of his Ukrainian adventure, but any retreat now might collapse his power at home. Meanwhile Israel continues to ratchet up the bloodshed in Gaza, with very little sign the Hamas is about to collapse.

Can Israel stop short of a reoccupation of Gaza that's likely to be much bloodier and more costly to it and it's reputation? TBD.

Overthrowing Dictators

The dubious logic behind Bush's adventure in Iraq was that if an evil dictator was overthrown, democracy would flourish. The supposed exemplars of this notion were post WWII Japan and Germany. This naive expectation ignores the fact that neither Japan nor Germany was a complete stranger to democratic institutions and that the Allies, mostly the US, imposed long occupations on both defeated nations in which democratic institutions were carefully nourished and deviations rigorously suppressed.

Bush's slapdash attempts predictably failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the time since has seen a number of more or less spontaneous dictatorial overthrows in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt as well as a failing attempt in Syria. Most of these have been disasters. The pattern is hardly different in the dozens of former colonies that were turned loose with superficially democratic institutions by the European powers. With very few exceptions, democracy has failed in them.

This should remind us of the point that the republic is a fragile flower, and one that can only thrive in very carefully cultivated soil. As a minimum, a system of laws and a sense of nationhood seem to be required. Tribal societies almost utterly lack these.

The exceptions are very interesting. India is one of the very few that made the transition from colony to almost seamlessly, albeit with some bumps in the road. Taiwan and South Korea went from dictatorship to democracy in evolutionary fashion, though both had plenty of US influence for both good and ill. Probably more important for both was the presence of a strong and remorseless enemy at the gates.

Which reminds me: the internal enemies of the American Republic continue their relentless work to undermine our sense of common purpose and unity.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Gaza Interview

Via a blogger who must not be named, this interview with Yuval Diskin, former Israeli security chief. It's depressing reading, revealing the intractability of the problem and the lack of leadership on either side. Violence breeds violence, and it's hard to see how it stops before one side (mostly likely the Palestinians) is wiped out. Demilitarizing Gaza by force may be appealing despite the carnage, but then what?


Diskin: Israel didn't have any other choice than to increase the pressure, which explains the deployment of ground troops. All attempts at negotiation have failed thus far. The army is now trying to destroy the tunnels between Israel and the Gaza Strip with a kind of mini-invasion, also so that the government can show that it is doing something. Its voters have been increasingly vehement in demanding an invasion. The army hopes the invasion will finally force Hamas into a cease-fire. It is in equal parts action for the sake of action and aggressive posturing. They are saying: We aren't operating in residential areas; we are just destroying the tunnel entrances. But that won't, of course, change much in the disastrous situation. Rockets are stored in residential areas and shot from there as well.

SPIEGEL: You are saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressured to act by the right?

Diskin: The good news for Israel is the fact that Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz are not very adventurous. None of them really wanted to go in. None of them is really enthusiastic about reoccupying the Gaza Strip. Israel didn't plan this operation at all. Israel was dragged into this crisis. We can only hope that it doesn't go beyond this limited invasion and we won't be forced to expand into the populated areas.

SPIEGEL: So what happens next?

Diskin: Israel is now an instrument in the hands of Hamas, not the opposite. Hamas doesn't care if its population suffers under the attacks or not, because the population is suffering anyway. Hamas doesn't really care about their own casualties either. They want to achieve something that will change the situation in Gaza. This is a really complicated situation for Israel. It would take one to two years to take over the Gaza Strip and get rid of the tunnels, the weapons depots and the ammunition stashes step-by-step. It would take time, but from the military point of view, it is possible. But then we would have 2 million people, most of them refugees, under our control and would be faced with criticism from the international community.


And another horror story:

SPIEGEL: A lawmaker from the pro-settler party Jewish Home wrote that Israel's enemy is "every single Palestinian."

Diskin: The hate and this incitement were apparent even before this terrible murder. But then, the fact that it really happened, is unbelievable. It may sound like a paradox, but even in killing there are differences. You can shoot someone and hide his body under rocks, like the murderer of the three Jewish teenagers did. Or you can pour oil into the lungs and light him on fire, alive, as happened to Mohammed Abu Chidair.... I cannot even think of what these guys did. People like Naftali Bennett have created this atmosphere together with other extremist politicians and rabbis. They are acting irresponsibly; they are thinking only about their electorate and not in terms of the long-term effects on Israeli society -- on the state as a whole.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe there is a danger of Israel becoming isolated?

Diskin: I am sorry to say it, but yes. I will never support sanctions on my country, but I think the government may bring this problem onto the country. We are losing legitimacy and the room to operate is no longer great, not even when danger looms.

Of course he's probably delusional.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Scott Aaronson and Andrew Sullivan on Gaza


Hamas is trying to kill as many civilians as it can.

Israel is trying to kill as few civilians as it can.

Neither is succeeding very well.


My old sparring partner, Jeffrey Goldberg, has been busy pondering why Hamas has sent hundreds of rockets – with no fatalities – into Israel. He argues that it does this in order to kill Palestinians. It’s an arresting idea, and it helps perpetuate the notion that there are no depths to which these Islamist fanatics and war criminals will not sink.

It also helps distract from the fact that Hamas itself did not kill the three Israeli teens which was the casus belli for the latest Israeli swoop through the West Bank; that Netanyahu had called for generalized revenge in the wake of the killings, while concealing the fact that the teens had been murdered almost as soon as they had been captured; and that Israeli public hysteria, tapping into the Gilad-like trauma of captivity, then began to spawn increasingly ugly, sectarian and racist acts of revenge and brutality. It also side-steps the rather awful fact that this nihilist and futile war crime is all that Hamas has really got left.

Yes, they conceal armaments and rockets and weapons in civilian areas – and that undoubtedly increases civilian deaths. But what alternative do they have exactly, if they wish to have any military capacity at all? Should they build clearly demarcated camps and barracks and munitions stores, where the IDF could just destroy them at will? As for the argument that no democratic society could tolerate terrorist attacks without responding with this kind of disproportionate force, what about the country I grew up in, where pubs and department stores in the mainland were blown up, where the prime minister and her entire cabinet were bombed and some killed in a hotel? I don’t recall aerial bombing of Catholic areas in Belfast, do you? Or fatality numbers approaching 200 – 0? Democratic countries are marked by this kind of restraint – not by calls for revenge and bombardment of a densely populated urban area, where civilian casualties, even with the best precision targeting and warnings, are inevitable.

And there is, for all the talk of aggression on both sides, no serious equivalence in capabilities between Hamas and the IDF. The IDF has the firepower to level Gaza to the ground if it really wants to. Hamas, if it’s lucky, might get a rocket near a town or city. I suppose Israel’s reluctance just to raze Gaza for good and all is why John McCain marveled that in a war where one side has had more than 170 fatalities, 1,200 casualties, 80 percent of whom are civilians, and the other side has no fatalities and a handful of injuries, Israel has somehow practiced restraint. One wonders what no restraint would mean.

And look at the image above. Part of our skewed perspective is revealed by it. Imagine for a second that Hamas had leveled a synagogue. Can you imagine what Israel would feel justified in doing as a response? Or imagine if a Jewish extended family of 18 had been massacred by Hamas, including children? Would we not be in a major international crisis? At some point the lightness with which we treat Palestinian suffering compared with Jewish suffering needs to be addressed as an urgent moral matter. The United States is committed to human rights, not rights scaled to one’s religious heritage or race.

Scott has 196 comments, some taking his facile oversimplifications to task.

The Uses of Argumentation

One thing people do a lot is argue. It's ubiquity suggests that it has significant adaptive value. To my mind, the most important component of this value is the Platonic argument: argument as a tool for discovering the truth. That principle is the basis of our legal system as well as a critical component of scientific reasoning - the idea of testing a proposition against the alternatives. A related, but quite distinct, purpose is persuasion, or getting others to sign on to a course of action one wishes.

A couple of other common uses, IMHO deservedly in lower repute, are point scoring and proclaiming tribal affiliation. The aim of point scoring is to make somebody else look bad, while proclaiming tribal affiliation is the verbal or literary equivalent of the gang tattoo. "I'm a conservative, so I don't believe anthropogenic climate change is real," for example.

Even though real world arguments often contain all four of these elements, I think it make sense to distinguish them. Insult, for example, is a reliable indicator that you are in category 3 and 4 territory. Even more indicative is a disinclination to address the contrary logic and fact.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Speed Dating The Universe

At a party a woman once approached Einstein and said: I've been reading your book and there are just a few things that I don't understand. What are line element, tensor, stress-energy, metric and ...".

Einstein's reply: "Oh that's very simple. Those are merely technical terms."

Of course, those pesky technical terms, always cluttering up the intellectual landscape. What we need is the equivalent of speed dating for science, brief little capsules that will give you - and others - the impression that you understand. If you can't boil a big idea down to a brief paragraph, what use is it anyway?

For example, for DNA one might say: The instruction sheets for building plants, animals, and bacteria are written down on long strings of four different chemicals. Every cell starts out with one of these instruction sheets and teams of other chemicals that can read them and translate them into the stuff that makes brains, muscles, bones and skin (for animals) and leaves, branches and roots for plants.

Contributions solicited.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Our Israel Problem

The Middle East has been a central strategic preoccupation of the world for more than one hundred years, mostly because of oil. Winston Churchill's pivotal step of changing the British fleet from coal to oil was just the start of oil's dizzying rise to pre-eminence in the minds of of every strategic thinker. Since that time it has been a major focus of two global wars, the cold war, and numerous smaller scale wars.

These factors, and the vast wealth that the oil brought to the region, profoundly disrupted the relatively backward and tribal societies that dominated the area. So the Middle East would probably be a mess even without Israel.

Britain was probably the biggest player in the establishment of Israel. Motivated by a mixture of naive idealism and not as shrewd as they thought realpolitik, its leaders allowed and encouraged the immigration of Jews into Palestine. Their realpolitik backfired when the supposed "strategic counterweight" to the Arabs became a terrorist movement dedicated to domination.

Despite early support from the US (and the USSR), Israel didn't really become our own problem child until the 1973 war, when the US intervened very substantially by mounting massive aid when Israel was on the verge of defeat by Egypt and its allies. Out of this grew the Arab oil embargo, OPEC's imperial triumph, the enormous run up in oil prices, a major global recession, the Iranian revolution, and Jimmy Carter's political destruction.

Since that time, Israel, through its own efforts and plenty of American help (though the nukes were probably France's fault) has become the regional superpower. This overwhelming power has allowed it to behave very badly in its abuse of the Palestinians. The superiority is so overwhelming that Israel has essentially no stake in a peace settlement that would in any way approach justice. Instead, it imprisons the Palestinians in the Gaza concentration camp, steals Palestinian land and water in the West Bank, and crushes resistance with overwhelming force.

This behavior has turned many of Israel's old allies against it and utterly depleted the stores of guilt and moral debt that much of the world felt towards Israel. Only the US, where the alliance of American Jews and Christian Millenialists crushes any criticism, hold firm. The Israeli Prime Minister even insults the American President with apparent impunity. How long is this likely to last?

If Israel will not restrain itself, can anyone else restrain it? TBD.

Shoot Downs

It's not especially likely that the Russian/Ukrainian separatists who shot down the 777 intended to bring down a civilian airliner. That said, many are comparing this event with the US shoot down of an Iranian airliner in 1988. It's perhaps instructive to compare the circumstances.

At that point, the Iraq-Iran war had been dragging on for seven years, and Iran was losing. The two countries had been attacking each other's shipping and port facilities the whole time. A desperate Iran decided to widen the war by attacking Kuwaiti and other third party shipping. This presented a direct threat to world oil supplies as well as to the third party nations, and Kuwait appealed to both the US and Russian to intervene. This dual appeal was sufficient to awaken Reagan (or his inner circle) from his snooze and promise action, which came in the form of reflagging Kuwaiti tankers as American and providing naval escorts. One of these escorts, the destroyer Vincennes, was engaged by Iranian naval vessels when its radar detected an approaching Iranian aircraft, which it misidentified as military, and shot down the airliner, killing all its passengers.

Planetary Scale Catastrophes

There are a few kinds of planetary catastrophes that we can reasonably anticipate, some of our own doing, like a major thermonuclear war or catastrophic global warming. There are also some that are beyond our ability to control, like a major cometary impact. It seems that we narrowly missed a bad one in 2012, a gigantic solar coronal mass ejection that narrowly missed the Earth. The damage such a "space weather" event would do is mediated by the large induced electric fields it would generate, which very plausibly would fry all sorts of electrical and electronic equipment, including power lines, generators and all those other devices our lives now depend on.

The good news is that there are lots technological measures that can be taken to mitigate the worst effects of such an event. The bad news is that hardly any of them have, in fact, been implemented. Big coronal mass ejection events are not rare, like cometary impacts. We are very likely to be in the path of at least one in the next hundred years. there is no good reason not to prepare.

Raging Against The Dying of the Light

I've always been a book nut. As is the case with most nuts, there is a strongly irrational element in my bibliomania. I don't read that many novels. A lot of non-fiction is not my cup of tea. But I love technical books on subjects which I want to understand. I buy a lot of textbooks and monographs. And I've never sold one. I have also given away a lot fewer than I should have.

At this point, I have a lot more books on a number of subjects than I can ever hope to comprehend (differential geometry, astrophysics, string theory, quantum field theory, general relativity, to name a few). Of course I'm also getting dumber, and I probably wasn't bright enough for several of those subjects at my best. Also, my vision is going.

Obviously, a rational strategy would be to at least drastically prune the collection that clutters up my house, garage, and office. But I still lust in my heart over that new astrophysics book. Maybe that new quantum field theory book would at last clear up a lot of those puzzles I never been able to master. And I really do need a good review of statistical mechanics.

Maybe buying a new book is just a way avoiding contemplation of the end - a kind of rage against the dying of the light.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Putin's War Yet Again

Putin continues to wage a cross border war against Ukraine - or what's left of it. In addition to shipping heavy weapons to the separatists (including the long range missiles that brought down the 777, Russian artillery and missiles rain down on Ukraine from Russia. It's curious that Putin has chosen this half measure of cross border warfare rather than all out invasion. Perhaps he thinks the fig leaf of stopping short of massive invasion will keep Europe from any significant response, and he could be right.

Or perhaps he is just playing for time, hoping some suitable deal can be worked out. For the moment he remains popular and home, and credulity of the Russian public, and Putin's fellow travelers, seems capable of swallowing any nonsense from their bare chested hero.

It seems history may not quite be over yet.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Oil and the Free Market

As a dynamical system, oil prices have long displayed a rather unstable behavior. A number of factors have contributed: a long history of exponential growth in demand, the long time constant of the feedback of prices on supply, and the unpredictable nature of the discovery of new oil resources. As a result, oil prices and oil supply suffered from dramatic swings, and as the world became more oil dependent, these swings wrecked every widening paths of economic destruction. One of the first to clearly realize this was John D. Rockefeller, and his answer was the Standard Oil Trust. Besides giving him and his investors immense personal profits, Standard created safer standardized oil products and regulated production to maintain stable (and high) prices.

Motivated in part by Ida Tarbell's scathing exposes, the Trust was ultimately dismantled, and consumers got lower prices but also an unstable market. The ferocious competition unleashed that drove down prices also resulted in a number of inefficiencies (like overpumping, leading to premature exhaustion of oil formations) and created local economic havoc in oil country. Eventually, the Texas Railroad Commission, which for peculiar historical reasons wound up in charge, imposed a quota system which brought more predictability to the market.

In later years, the giant combinations of the international oil companies performed a similar function, until "their" oil concessions were expropriated by national governments, and later, for a while, by OPEC. These quotas and combinations imposed a cost - higher prices - but there were also often benefits. When middle eastern oil production exploded, the US domestic oil production would have blown away in West Texas dust storms were it not for import quotas imposed by Eisenhower.

A key reason for this sort of quota was the central strategic position of oil. Oil transitioned from just another commodity to the central strategic commodity when Winston Churchill switched the Royal Navy from coal to oil a bit over 100 years ago. Since then, it became ever more dominant. Without it, armies could not fight, industries could not function, planes could not fly, and people could not get to work.

It's economic role has often been neglected. Jimmy Carter's presidency was unsuccessful mostly because the events of 1973, 1978, and later led to oil prices more than quadrupling. The resulting deep recession crippled his presidency. These price rises triggered an explosion of exploration and development oil resources as well as dramatic conservation measures around the globe. By 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office, the new oil produced by the exploration and the conservation measures had started eroding oil prices, and by 1985, oil prices were in collapse. Carter had no more influence on the oil price rise than Reagan did on the oil price fall, but the first produced "malaise" and the second, "Morning in America." Luck is singularly important in politics.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Learning Physics

Rhett Allain, physics prof, wired writer, and blogger has an article entitled: What do you need to learn upper level physics? YMMV, but I found it spectacularly uninformative, so I decided to see if I could do better.

Firstly, compared to some other academic disciplines and professions, physics is heavy on technique but relatively light on memorizing facts. It also very "vertical" or hierarchical, in that it's built layer after layer one on top of the other, and you often need the lower layers to understand the upper layers. And by "techniques", I mostly mean skill at solving physics problems.

The foundation is mathematics. You can't really begin to study physics at a formal level until you are competent in high school level mathematics: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. At that point the student can tackle the basic subjects of physics at an elementary level: mechanics, electromagnetism, thermal physics, and waves. Simultaneously one should be learning some more foundational math: multivariable and vector calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra.

The foundational subjects of classical mechanics, and electromagnetism are usually tackled again in the undergraduate curriculum, at a higher level of sophistication and quantum mechanics added once students know a bit about partial differential equations - or sometimes as an introduction to that subject. Special relativity may be taught at either this level, the previous level, or both.

In many US schools, the finishing layers of these subjects are saved for graduate school, as are such more advanced subjects such as quantum field theory and general relativity, but more ambitious curricula give them to undergrads. Undergrads are also usually introduced to applications such condensed matter and nuclear and particle physics.

Prof Allain is pretty vague on how students go about learning these subjects, alluding to textbooks, lectures, MOOCs and online demos, but he leaves out what is to me the core: working problems. You learn physics by working physics problems. If there is another way, a royal road, I don't know it.

Putin's War

So far, Putin has waged a pretty successful PR campaign to persuade the much of the world that the Ukrainian war is anybody's doing but his - a plot by facists and the West. That view found plenty of subscribers among the "everything is America's fault" and professional Obama haters, but it's much harder for him to deny that he his systematic escalation is responsible for the Malaysian air shootdown.

He is the guy who has been supplying the separatists with advanced weapons, "advisors", and other support, probably including the crew that shot down the 777.

James Miller:

President Putin has been recklessly escalating the crisis in eastern Ukraine since he was embarrassed and outmaneuvered by the Ukrainian president three weeks ago. Allowing a passenger jet to be shot down is the act of an increasingly desperate man.

The Kremlin ordered tanks, heavy weapons and Russian fighters to pour over the border stoking up the crisis until tragedy struck. We should have seen it coming; on Wednesday morning the front page of Foreign Policy magazine had a headline that should have sent shockwaves through the geopolitical landscape: Russia Is Firing Missiles At Ukraine.

The story followed several Russian citizens posting videos to social media which they said show GRAD rockets being fired from Russian territory toward Ukraine. By triangulating the different camera angles, my team at The Interpreter proved that the unguided rockets were indeed being fired into Ukraine from Russia. Thursday morning, there were reports that a group of Ukrainian soldiers had been hit by the rocket fire and were actually receiving medical treatment on the other side of the border, ironically enough in the same town from which the rockets had been launched in the first place.


The firing of GRAD rockets and the shooting down of a civilian airplane are part of a pattern, a last-ditch desperate attempt to salvage a win in eastern Ukraine at any cost. In the last several weeks, Russia has pumped dozens of tanks, self-powered howitzers, armored vehicles and militants across the border to the Russian-backed insurgents.

Almost three weeks ago Ukraine’s government and the separatists had entered into at least a tentative ceasefire, and Russia believed the separatists could diplomatically outmaneuver Kiev. But Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, did not extend the ceasefire, as even his European allies thought he would. Instead he launched a sudden strike on the separatists, retaking a series of key rebel strongholds.

Putin was the one who had been outmaneuvered, and the effort to covertly support the separatists in eastern Ukraine was falling apart. Now the veil has fallen. Russia is almost overtly supplying the separatists with military support. But Putin’s urgency in Ukraine has turned to recklessness, and Thursday’s events are the recklessness of Putin epitomized.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Putin Screwup?

Josh Marshall on Ukraine:

Were it not for the hundreds killed, it would also be comical the ridiculous series of events Vladimir Putin's reckless behavior led up to this morning. For months Putin has been playing with fire, making trouble and having it work mainly to his advantage. Certainly in the context of Russian history and nationalist aspiration reclaiming the Crimea is a vast accomplishment. But the whole thing blew up in his face today in a way, and with repercussions I don't think - even with all wall to wall coverage - we can quite grasp.

Find extremists and hot-heads of the lowest common denominator variety, seed them with weaponry only a few militaries in the world possess - and, well, just see what happens. What could go wrong?

The audio tapes posted by The New York Times might as well be from some future Russia-based version of Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show, a comical rendering of rustics and morons stumbling into an event of vast carnage and international consequence mainly because they're hotheads and idiots - the kind of people no one in their right minds would give world class weaponry to. It's like finding some white supremacist/militia types on their little compound in the inter-Mountain west and giving them world class missile launchers and heavy armaments.

Another 777 Down

If, as some circumstantial evidence suggests, the Malaysian 777 downed in Ukraine was shot down by the Ukrainian rebels that Putin has outsourced his imperial designs to, with a weapon that he gave them, Europe may decide it might actually need to get serious about economic sanctions.

From Dylan Scott:

The leader of the pro-Russia rebel group that controls the area where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed on Thursday reportedly posted a warning on social media just as news about the commercial jet was breaking.

"We did warn you — do not fly in our sky," it reportedly said.

According to Mashable, Igor Gorkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, said that "a plane has just been downed" on, Russia's Facebook-like social network, around the same time that Flight 17 went missing.

Strelkov "deleted the post when he found out it was actually a commercial jetliner carrying 295 innocent people — not a military aircraft," Mashable reported.

It's also pretty bizarre that Eurocontrol was still routing aircraft across Eastern Ukraine in the wake of threats.

UPDATE: FT reports intercepted phone calls from rebels to Russia admitting the shootdown, but apparently because they thought it was a military aircraft.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Oh Dear!

From Forbes, I learned that Paul Krugman had been "publically eviscerated" by Harvard prof and Wingnut court jester Niall Ferguson. It sounds painful and potentially fatal. I certainly hope that the culprit has been brought to justice.

I guess Fergie must not have been satisfied with the results of his three part critique of PK in the HuffPost, which must have led him to the alleged physical violence. I can't say that I was very impressed by his ïntellectual "points" most of which concerned Krugman's predictions about the Euro, assuming the ECB failed to change its evil ways (It did, a point that seem to escape the Ferg).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Israel's "War Crimes"

For me the phrase "war crime" is somewhat redundant. War is murder, to start with. There are degrees, of course. By most accounts, Israel appears to be trying to murder mostly Palestinians it has some reason to suspect of trying to do them ill. Of course, by this point, there are probably few if any Palestinians in the Gaza prison who wouldn't do them ill if they could.

The pretext for this war was the murder of three Israeli teenagers. That, very likely, was a Palestinian "war crime". For Palestinians, one problem is that their efficiency at war is not one thousandth of that of Israel. The gruesome strategy Hamas has adopted is to provoke the murder of their own people to the point at which the rest of the world gets angry at Israel. They have been modestly successful in that, but it's far from clear that it will do them any good.

It's not clear that Israel's alternatives to playing defense and selective assassination are any better. One clear alternative would be to occupy Gaza, disarm Hamas, and take over its governance. That would be costly - thousands of Israeli casualties and tens or hundreds of thousands among the Palestinians. It was the strategy we used with Germany and Japan, and it worked, sort of.

The real alternative is a peace deal. But it's not clear that any workable version of such would be acceptable to the powerful fanatics on either side. From Israel's point of view, an armed Palestinian state with open borders is unacceptable. From the Palestinian point of view, the West Bank settlements have to go.

Pessimism is appropriate.

Monday, July 14, 2014

If You Close Your Eyes...

I read that climate skeptics are trying to rebrand themselves as "climate optimists." I can think of a few alternative designations, but rather than be bitter, let me just wish them well and suggest a theme song:

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Not Enough Magic: 1-0

Messi merely mortal, after all.

A very good game, with chances for both teams, but I have to think that the better team won.

Netherlands 3 - Brazil 0

Bizarre officiating, but Brazil was clearly exposed as a mediocre team without Nemar. Maybe not even that good. It's tactics were also dubious, pressing high early, and thereby exposing their weakness in the back. Another big triumph of for the new Northern European style soccer.

Peter Pomerantsev has a nice Daily Beast article on the end of an era in soccer - the era of Messi, tiki-taka, and Barcelona with the rise of the Soccer machines just offstage, right.

Medically he might never have made it. At 11, back in his home town of Rosario, Argentina, Messi was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency. “Every night I had to stick a needle into my legs, night after night after night, every day of the week, and this over a period of three years,” says Messi. But his steel factory worker father and cleaner mother struggled to keep on raising the 1,500 dollar a month treatment. His first Argentine team, Newell’s Old Boys, promised to pay, but couldn’t make good on the promise.

“Every night I had to stick a needle into my legs, night after night after night, every day of the week, and this over a period of three years,” says Messi. By 13, Messi was already a phenomenon—at halftime he would entertain crowds by keeping the ball in the air so long fans would try to distract him by throwing coins at him like Messi was some sort of circus act. Barcelona offered to ship him to Spain and pay for the treatment. It meant splitting up the family—Messi’s mother and siblings stayed in Argentina.

The Barcelona youth compound is called La Masia, a country house boarding school for 300 boys. The Barcelona ideal is heavily influenced by the Dutch concept of “total football,” with its focus on one-touch passing, movement, and the ability for players to switch positions, a style one Spanish commentator famously nicknamed “tiki-taka,” a nonsense word which catches the metronomic quality of Barcelona’s interchanges. But the team fostered at Barcelona with Messi would take tiki-taka to a new level, as a whole generation of players matured who were all small, agile and silky skilful.


Bayern Munich’s 7-0 thrashing of Barcelona in the 2013 Champions League semifinal was the first bell-toll: the liquid fugues of Barcelona’s elegant, lithe midfielders torn to shreds by a team full of strong, direct running and muscular midfielders. Holland’s crushing of Spain in the first round of this World Cup was the final burial. The subplot in the Holland-Argentina semifinal was Messi taking revenge for Holland’s destruction of his Barcelona teammates.

The subplot in the final will be Messi and the beautiful game’s last stand against the return of Butch football. Interestingly Germany began this tournament trying to play Barcelona style with a plethora of midfielders. They were weak and have become much better playing more traditionally. The miraculous brand of Billy-the-Fish football is almost over and the butch giants are back. Enjoy Messi while you can—he might play on for a few years yet but everything he represents is already a relic.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Citizen Koch

Citizen Koch is a fair and balanced account of the activities of two public spirited brothers. With their joint wealth of something like 100 gigabucks, they can and do spends tens and hundreds of millions of dollars on their advocacy actions. Most of those advocacy actions are directed at destruction of unions, disenfranchising African Americans and other low income voters, increasing corporate power, destroying environmental and other regulations and rallying their fellow super-rich to protect and perpetuate the American plutocracy.

Despite the title though, the documentary is mostly about a couple of series of events, one heavily influenced by Koch money and the other influenced mostly by corporate money. The first was Scott Walker's election as Wisconsin governor, implementation of the Koch program, and a subsequent recall election which he again won, partly by outspending his Democratic opponent 8 to 1, fuelled by Koch and other out of State money. The second was former Republican governor and congressman Buddy Romer's unsuccessful attempt to get on the stage in the Republican primary debates.

My initial reaction was furious rage at the way the Koch's and the Kochtopus had subverted the political process, dominated State politics, and corrupted the Supreme Court (Clarence Thomas's wife, for example, got big bucks from them).

The money doesn't just go to politicians. The documentary was originally scheduled for Public television, but PBS chickened out when it remembered that David Koch was a big contributor. As Stephen Colbert notably mentioned, "if you give $75 to PBS you get a tote bag, for $23 million, you get their nut sack.

The documentary is not really a very successful piece of political propaganda though. A lot of it was focussed on the members of the public employee unions that Walker broke. Their furious protests in the halls of the State Legislature were far from unambiguously attractive. These scenes probably put off at least as many people as they inspired. I would have preferred more details about who got Koch money and for what - but thanks to their friends on the US Supreme Court, they can operate with a high degree of secrecy.

All of Me

Commenter TE recently remarked that my posts on string theory reminded him of Lumo on climate. This got me thinking about what the heck I might actually have said on the subject. There is a whole potful of posts, many mentioning ST only peripherally, going back to 2005. It is collected here: Wit Wisdom and Foaming Mouthed Rage of CIP on ST

Oh well.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Post Empirical

One of the latest, and IMHO, lamest defenses of String Theory seems to be post empiricism - the notion that physics may not need all that experiment stuff. Peter Woit has an article on the subject at Scientia Salon and also on his blog. The comments are only on Scientia Salon, with the result that they are more plentiful, but to my mind, of much lower quality than usually found on the blog.

It's a real problem for fundamental physics that particle physics experiments may have run their course, at least for a generation or two. If the upgraded beam LHC sees nothing but a generic Standard Model, it may be tough to persuade governments to fund a next generation collider.

At the moment, there are two deep fundamentally unexplained phenomena in physics: dark matter and dark energy. Particle physics seems likely to have something to say about dark matter, but who knows? In the most pessimistic case, we may be approaching the limits of what a civilization of our scope can learn about the nature of the universe at the most fundamental level.

If so, post empiricism seems like a pretty bleak alternative - sending us back to the times of the ancient Greek philosophers.

Messi vs. Machine

I expect that Germany will be the favorite after it's demolition of Brazil, but Argentina looked pretty solid against Netherlands. Germany has lots of good players, perhaps even a great one or two, but Messi can't be discounted. I'm rooting for Argentina, but then I'm a sucker for underdogs. Can they score?

The fatigue factor can hardly be discounted. Robben looked notably less potent in the game against Argentina, and Germany has an extra rest day after a walkover. Argentina had a very tough 130 minutes vs the Orange.

The New Mexico Monsoon Has Arrived

Yes, it's here at last. Our rainy season, such as it is. We have been seeing hints, for a couple of weeks. A little verga here, a New Mexico six inch rain* there. With any luck, the desert will bloom, the rabbits will proliferate, and the coyotes will get something to eat besides cats and small dogs.

So today we had real rain, not Rains of Ranchipur** rain, nor even streets a foot deep in sand washed out of the desert rain, but enough to water the lawn.

And yes, in southern New Mexico, this counts as news.

* Drops six inches apart on my windshield.

** I've never seen this movie, but the trailer made a great impression on my youth. I watched it as a preview to one of the Westerns I got to see for 35 cents on Saturdays. It certainly seemed to be raining a lot. I don't seem to remember anything about any of them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

FIFA News Flash!!!

Because of the intense heat and humidity in Qatar, not to mention the intense humiliation suffered this year by Brazil, FIFA has ruled that the preliminary running around on the field will be dispensed with at the 2022 World Cup.

Instead, all matches will go directly to the deciding penalty shoot-outs.

The German (football) War Machine II

Ken Early, writing in Slate, looks at the Brazilian debacle.

On Germany's reaction to defeat at Euro 2000:

Rather than write it off under the heading of “these things happen,” the Germans decided to act. Clubs in the first and second division were told they had to set up standardized youth academies as part of a broad reorganization of the national football structure. The idea was to make sure that the next generation of German players would be better than the last.

Year by year, the new generations of German footballers were equipped with the technical and cognitive tools that we saw dismantling Brazil at the Mineirão. The coordinated movement that looked like some uncanny telepathy is really just coaching. Over the last five tournaments Germany have reached a semifinal, a final, a semifinal, a semifinal, and now another final, after what might be the World Cup’s greatest ever victory. Germany’s plan is working.

Of course, Germany is the spiritual home of planning in a way that Brazil will never be. But something in Brazil has to change, or the future of the national team—still the proudest institution in a country that doesn’t take pride in many of its institutions—looks bleak.

Historically, Brazil has produced outstanding footballers with the same seeming effortlessness with which it produces mangoes. The Brazilian football industry has been shaped by this plenty to resemble the country’s other exploitative, extractive industries. Footballers are another commodity to be exported. It’s a strictly materialistic system, in which the only guiding principle is success.

This has been how Brazilian football has worked over the decades as it has gradually ceded its vibrant former identity. It didn’t matter that Brazilian football gradually ceased to be loved around the world. Nobody cared that the beautiful game had been overtaken by a hollow cult of victory. The enduring success of the national team covered the flaws. At any given time, Brazil could count on several of the best players in the world, and that was usually enough.

Brazil, he writes, had fallen prey to magical thinking.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

High Interest: Who Loves Ya, Baby?

Paul Krugman looks at the numbers, and surprise, surprise - it's the rich, particularly the ultrarich, and of course the rentiers especially.

Another %*#(!@$ Penalty Shoot Out

Have I mentioned what a stupid way this is to end a soccer game? Yeah, maybe I did.

Soccer Wars: The German Way

World Cup watchers may have noticed that several of the best American players were German Americans who grew up in Germany. Bloomberg has an article on the German soccer machine. It reminded me of why Germans continue to scare the hell out of me.

Brazil certainly underperformed on Tuesday and throughout the World Cup. Its wins have all been lucky, barely, or both. But Brazil didn’t just fall apart against Germany (although it certainly did fall apart). Germany beat them with the precise and inspiring soccer it’s played all month in Brazil. This is not an accident, a golden blessing of a generation of talented fussballers. It follows a 14-year plan to find all the kids among 80 million Germans who can really play soccer, train them young, and get them attached to a professional team.


The Guardian wrote a great piece on the German program last year, or you can read the DFB’s own chest-thumping self-assessment from 2011. Germany’s standardized national program starts teaching the same skills to 6-year-olds all over the country. It’s run in every town by coaches who have to get a license from the DFB. Then by age 8, as training continues, scouts are watching for the kids good enough for the club programs.

This spring I watched my German godson, Paul, play a soccer game with his youth team. He’s 8 years old. German kids at that age don’t play herd ball. They play their roles, make clean passes, and pick their shots. None of this is left to chance. His youth club, TV Rodenkirchen, is part of the national program. And standing on the sidelines—for a league game between 8-year-olds—were professional scouts.

Every professional club team in the first and second division of Germany’s Bundesliga now has to fund its own soccer high school. Between 2002 and 2010, the amount that professional club teams spent on youth development almost doubled, to about 85 million euros a year. We can already see what this spending has helped create. Last year’s Guardian article listed them:

Joachim Löw, Germany’s coach, is blessed with a generation of gifted young players—Julian Draxler (19), Andre Schürrle (22), Sven Bender (24), Thomas Müller (23), Holger Badstuber (24), Mats Hummels (24), Mesut Ozil (24), Ilkay Gündoğan (22), Mario Götze (20), Marco Reus (23), Toni Kroos (23) … the list goes on.

By comparison, most American kid teams are coached by an adult who never played and barely knows the rules. "Kick with your toe - not your foot" I heard one yell. Of course all this disciplined planning and selection is anathema to the American way.

Imagine it being applied to, say, science talent.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

It Wasn't Really That Close

Germany 7 - Brasil 1.

Ukraine: Now What?

According to David M. Herszenhorn, writing in the NYT, Ukrainian separatists have retreated to a couple of big cities, and the government is making gains. For the moment, Putin has pulled back and does not seem to be helping the separatists.

KIEV, Ukraine — Separatist rebels retreated Monday from positions in eastern Ukraine, apparently blowing up bridges, and began building barricades in the two largest cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, in anticipation of a final stand against advancing government troops.

While separatist leaders have complained bitterly about being sold out by their allies in Moscow, Ukrainian officials said Monday that they had succeeded in sealing the previously porous border with Russia, stopping the influx of new weapons and fighters.

The action on Monday came after a series of surprising successes by Ukraine’s underequipped and underfunded military, which in recent days has driven the rebels from some strongholds that were seized early in the three-month rebellion. It has accomplished this without encountering strong resistance or a reaction from Moscow.

Whatever the outcome, it looks like Eastern Ukraine will pay a big price for its adventure with civil war. Whatever the sympathies of the populace, the core of the revolt seems to have been disaffected youths and police and others lusting after bigger Russian pensions.

In an apparent bid to slow the oncoming troops, the pro-Russian insurgents blew up two bridges on the road to Donetsk from Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, two long-occupied provincial cities where rebels were ousted over the weekend after a fierce bombardment.

At the same time, Ukrainian officials said their troops were setting up blockades to isolate separatists in the cities. “The points of access to these cities are being blocked so that militants are not delivered weapons or manpower or other resources,” Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said at a briefing in Kiev.

Is Life a Talent Contest?

The nature vs. nurture debate continues. Vox has a new article by Joseph Stromberg discussing results of a study that purports to discount the so-called 10,000 hours paradigm, promoted by Malcolm Gladwell, among others. That paradigm suggests that expert performance at almost anything requires about 10,000 hours of systematic practice. Stromberg's article has a photo of Argentine futbol star Lionel Messi, with a caption that claims he didn't get as far as he has just by practicing a lot.

My gut response is, tru dat, but he didn't get to where he is without practicing a lot, probably much more than 10,000 hours. The study is a meta analysis, looking at 88 other studies that looked at effects of practice time, and found that relatively small percentages of success in various endeavors could be explained by practice time with perhaps 25% in games, 21% in music, 18% in sports, to almost zero in professions. In most cases, practice times are "as remembered" but correlation was even lower when actual practice logs were available.

The original study is behind a pay wall, but I have to say that I have a whole lot of reservations. The traditional professions all require long hours of study, almost certainly 10,000 hours or more, just to get in the door. So if you compare members of these professions, you are comparing people who already meet the so-called "expert standard". There simply are not any MDs who put in only 200 or even 1000 hours of study and practice. Sprinters may be born that way, but no professional athlete in most sports got to the top level without practice and lots of it.

So if you compare those at the highest levels of achievement there will be very few who have not met the ten thousand hour standard, or close to it, and remaining differences are likely due to talent and other circumstances. I would be very reluctant to concede that the study in question proves anything except that hours of practice are not the only thing affecting performance - which is pretty darn obvious to start with.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Oil Shocks of the 1970's.

There were two great oil shocks of the 1970s, in 1973, due to the Arab oil boycott after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and in 1978, the withdrawal of Iranian oil accompanying the revolution. The net effect of the first was to give the oil exporting nations full control over their resources, including the ability to break contracts at will. The second was a catastrophe mainly because of an induced panic, due disruption of supply agreements and inventory buildup by everybody from countries to consumers - American motorists, for example, went from keeping their gas tanks 1/4 full on average to 3/4 full - billion of gallons of gasoline withdrawn from the market at once.

Perhaps the central fact at the heart of these crises was the US transition from oil exporter to huge oil importer. Many had warned of this threat, including President Jimmy Carter, but when the catastrophe hit the prophet had no honor in his own country. The US was burdened by efficiency destroying price controls and allocation systems introduced by Nixon, so markets had little flexibility in adjusting to the shortages and price increases - the two shocks increased the price of the central industrial commodity by a factor of six or so. Naturally, the option of letting the prices increase until gas lines disappeared was wildly unpopular.

Unfortunately, despite certain gains from improved technology - fracking -, and oil from Canada and elsewhere, the dependence of the Europe and the US on the Persian Gulf oil has not gone away. That's the reason why we can't just let the Middle East do whatever it will. Energy independence is still a goal we should seek, but we have to remember that it's a project that will take decades, not years. And it will involve some unpopular alternatives - nuclear power, maybe preferably thorium based, carbon taxes, and continuing risky investment in solar.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014


A new poll shows American voters rating Obama the worst president since WWII - and Reagan the best. Enough to erode what little faith I had in the American voters. Americans may just be too dumb to survive as a nation.

1 January, 1978: Ironic Prelude to a Revolution

President Carter and spouse decided to spend News Year's day with the Shah of Iran and his wife, because they liked the company as well as for reasons of international politics. The Shah has recently relaxed his hawkish views on oil prices, and was regarded as an essential prop against the soviet Union.

Carter also wanted to show his gratitude to the Shah for his progress on human rights and his switch of position on oil prices, which was seen as a major concession on the part of the monarch. Moreover, the President was regretful and embarrassed over the rioting and tear gas that had greeted the Shah’s arrival on the South Lawn of the White House, and he wanted to clear up any misunderstandings, within Iran and outside the country, and firmly underline American support. So, at a New Year’s Eve banquet, he rose to offer a memorable toast. “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” he said. “This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect and the admiration and the love which your people give you.” On that strong and hopeful note, the President and the Shah welcomed the momentous New Year of 1978.

Yergin, Daniel (2011-04-05). The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (p. 654). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Belgium 2 - US 1

Belgium's field players were clearly superior to their US counterparts, so the US lost despite Tim Howard's heroics. As usual, the US can't manage possession. Not only was Belgium winning nearly every challenge and fifty-fifty, but we couldn't pass accurately at all.

It's somewhat puzzling that despite our large population, huge number of youth players, and substantial resources, we can't play better soccer. Of course it's true that the best US athletes go into (American) football and basketball, but those elite super athletes in the Pro leagues are mostly not suitable for soccer. Lebron might be all but unstoppable in the box, but can anybody imagine him running 90 minutes in the heat and humidity? The potentially great US soccer players were probably really good high school wide receivers, defensive backs, and basketball guards who were too small for the Bigs.

I also suspect that US youth soccer is too organized and too badly organized. The really good future players are playing on playgrounds, not in leagues. My kids played in youth leagues at 5 and 7, I think, but they played 11 vs. 11. At that age, they ought to be playing 3 vs 3 or maybe 5 vs 5.

Of course it was a great game - with chances for both sides.