Saturday, February 28, 2015

Novel Experience

So far as I can recall, I've read eight novels in the last 18 months or so, seven of them in the last 18 days. They include three SF novels and three John Le Carre Smiley novels, the first three, and I have become an addict. This little binge seems to have been prompted by getting the flu, despite a flu shot, and subsequently contracting pneumonia. The flu didn't seem to make me very sick, but the pneumonia sapped every bit of my physical and especially intellectual strength. I sort of felt like I had gotten too stupid to read anything heavier than a short, light novel.

One of the best things about the Le Carre novels is the author's short introductions, which tell a little about his remembered state of mind when he wrote them.

I'd like to read more, but I had best get back to my edX computer science class, in which I had accumulated enough points for a minimal C before I got sick, but haven't done anything since.

Motive, Opportunity, History

All point to Putin, but other suspects can't quite be ruled out. Andrew E. Kramer, writing in the NYT, has some background.

MOSCOW — About two weeks before he was shot and killed in the highest-profile political assassination in Russia in a decade, Boris Y. Nemtsov met with an old friend to discuss his latest research into what he said was dissembling and misdeeds in the Kremlin.

He was, as always, pugilistic and excited, saying he wanted to publish the research in a pamphlet to be called “Putin and the War,” about President Vladimir V. Putin and Russian involvement in the Ukraine conflict, recalled Yevgenia Albats, the editor of New Times magazine. Both knew the stakes.

Mr. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, knew his work was dangerous but tried to convince her that, as a former high official in the Kremlin, he enjoyed immunity, Ms. Albats said.

“He was afraid of being killed,” Ms. Albats said. “And he was trying to convince himself, and me, they wouldn’t touch him because he was a member of the Russian government, a vice premier, and they wouldn’t want to create a precedent. Because as he said, one time the power will change hands in Russia again, and those who served Putin wouldn’t want to create this precedent.”

Putin or his spokespople had an imaginative list of suspects:

Russian authorities said on Saturday that one line of investigation would be to examine whether Mr. Nemtsov, a 55-year-old former first deputy prime minister and longtime leader of the opposition, had become a “sacrificial victim” to rally support for opponents of the government, the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement.

The economic crisis provoked by the collapse of oil prices, with a minor assist from Western sanctions, is already causing some economic pain, not least for the crony capitalists that form a hard core of Putin support.

This comes as analysts of Russian politics say the Kremlin could be worried about, and intent on discouraging, further defections to the opposition, given reported high-level schisms between hard-liners and liberals over military and economic policy. The government is already under strain from Russia’s unacknowledged involvement in the war in Ukraine and runaway inflation in an economic crisis.

A high profile murder might be considered a good way to discourage "further defections."

About that research and pamphlet. Will we now ever see it?

Nemtsov: Final Interview

Via Brad DeLong. For those with eyes to see, this interview has plenty of reasons for Putin and his corrupt associates to want Nemtsov dead. Of course we don't know who ordered the hit, or even whether it was explicitly ordered - maybe somebody just mumbled "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?".

...People see what this crazy politics led to, they see widespread corruption, they have firsthand experience with the inadequacy of the state. But they still believe in the leader because for the past several years, the leader was doing one thing very well: He was brainwashing the Russians. He implanted them with a virus of inferiority complex towards the West, the belief that the only thing we can do to amaze the world is use force, violence and aggression. [Putin] programmed my countrymen to hate strangers. He persuaded them that we need to rebuild the former Soviet order, and that the position of Russia in the world depends entirely on how much the world is afraid of us. He managed to do all these things with Goebbels-style propaganda.... The responsibility for spilling both Russian and Ukrainian blood... lies not only with Putin, but also with such gentlemen as Konstantin Ernst [director general of Channel One] or Dmitry Kiselyov [head of the new, Russian-government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya]. They operate in accordance with the simple principles of Joseph Goebbels: Play on the emotions; the bigger the lie, the better; lies should be repeated many times. This propaganda is directed to the simple men; there is no room for any questions, nuances. Unfortunately, it works.... We need to work as quickly as possible to show the Russians that there is an alternative, that Putin’s policy leads to degradation and a suicide of the state. There is less and less time to wake up...

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Thuggocracy That Is Russia

Russians who criticize Putin have a way of dying violently.

Boris Nemtsov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal and visible opponents was shot and killed near Moscow’s Red Square today, a member of his political party told ABC News.

Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader, was shot multiple times in the back as he walked by a bridge near the Kremlin late Friday night, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee.

Russian news reports said that Nemtsov was walking with a female companion when a white car pulled up and fired on him before fleeing the scene.

Don't expect this to discourage the enthusiasm of his fan club.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Contrarians, Crackpots, and Crooks

Contrarians play a significant role in science. Sometimes those who are willing to take an unpopular point of view have a point that's needed to wake up everybody else. Of course they are often completely wrong and even a bit nuts. Crackpots, on the other hand, are people of strong opinions who really have no idea what they are talking about, and contribute only noise to any discussion. At the rotten end of contrarian opinion are those who dishonestly present phony science in exchange for money. I just call them crooks. It's not necessarily easy to always tell the flavors apart.

The saga of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon fits somewhere along this spectrum, and recent revelations have not been kind. Soon is one of the favorite scientists of various climate denialists, speaking frequently to conservative groups, Congress, and other crackpots. He is now accused of failing to disclose conflicts of interest in various papers despite journal rules and ethical standards requiring such disclosure. Harvard-Smithsonian is charged with accepting money from energy industry interests which comes with unethical non-disclosure and prior review agreements.

Some details from the NYT here, the Washington Post here, and the Guardian here, plus an NPR story here. Naturally the right-wing wind machine has entered the lists as well.

From the NYT:

He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.

That "deliverables" word would seem to make clear that the work in question was a clear quid pro quo, rather than a considered scientific judgement.

From the Guardian:

A prominent academic and climate change denier’s work was funded almost entirely by the energy industry, receiving more than $1.2m from companies, lobby groups and oil billionaires over more than a decade, newly released documents show.

Over the last 14 years Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, received a total of $1.25m from Exxon Mobil, Southern Company, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and a foundation run by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, the documents obtained by Greenpeace through freedom of information filings show.

According to the documents, the biggest single funder was Southern Company, one of the country’s biggest electricity providers that relies heavily on coal.

The documents draw new attention to the industry’s efforts to block action against climate change – including President Barack Obama’s power-plant rules.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Krugman on Music/Bankers

PK for today:

Basically, musicians are just like bankers, except for the business about saving our souls versus destroying them.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Business and Islamist Politics

Via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, this paper suggesting that one reason for the success of Islamist parties in regions of social upheaval and civil war is their effects on the business class. The un-gated abstract:

In civil wars across the world, certain Islamist groups have competed exceptionally well against their rivals. The conventional wisdom points to either religion or ethnic politics to explain Islamist success. These ideological and identity-based explanations, however, tend to overlook the powerful economic influence that the local business class has over civil war outcomes. Civil war can be modeled as a market for security, wherein protection must be purchased from multiple substate rackets. Using this market model, a close investigation of the Somali case reveals why and under what conditions the interests of the profit-driven business class align with those of ideologically motivated Islamist groups. Security costs are of critical importance to businesses in a civil war, and Islamists are uniquely competitive in lowering these costs. The business-Islamist alliance is therefore driven by rational, economic considerations, which can contribute to the rise of Islamist power.

NFL vs. Second Law of Thermodynamics

Jason Lisk, whoever that may be, takes some anonymous NFL scout to task for bad thermodynamics. The alleged misuse, re Jemais Winston, Florida State QB and 2013 Heisman winner with a checkered past:

“Someone will take him in the first round, but how could you even let that guy in the building?” another scout said. “The second law of thermodynamics basically is the more ways something can happen, the more likely it is to happen. That’s true of players. The more ways they can (expletive) up, the more chances they (expletive) up. This guy’s got a lot of stuff that would lean him more likely to be a bust than a good player.”

Mr. Lisk seems pretty sure that:

Yeah, that’s not what the second law of thermodynamics basically says, but this scout’s take on entropy is quite refreshing.

Actually, for a non-technical summary, I think the scout's version is pretty good. The second law really can be interpreted in terms of the tendency of systems to occupy all of the available (coarse-grained) phase space.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bush World III

Maureen Dowd reminds us what happened last time we let the Bushies take us to the dance, and points out the Jeb Bush's pool of advisors is filled with the same rotten apples that led us to war and disaster last time around.

WASHINGTON — I had been keeping an open mind on Jeb Bush.

I mean, sure, as Florida governor, he helped his brother snatch the 2000 election. And that led to two decade-long botched wars that cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. The nation will be dealing for a long time with struggling veterans and the loss of American prestige. Not to mention that W. let Wall Street gamble away the economy, which is only now finally creeping back.

Dowd is no friend of Hillary, but her enthusiasm for the Bushes is no greater.

Like the Clintons, the Bushes drag the country through national traumas that spring from their convoluted family dynamic and then disingenuously wonder why we concern ourselves with their family dynamic.

So who is advising Bush III?

W. was a boy king, propped up by regents supplied by his father. Since he knew nothing about foreign affairs, his father surrounded him with his own advisers: Colin Powell, Condi Rice and Dick Cheney, who joined up with his pal Donald Rumsfeld and absconded with W.’s presidency.

Jeb, too, wanted to bolster his negligible foreign policy cred, so the day of his speech, his aide released a list of 21 advisers, 19 of whom had worked in the administrations of his father and his brother. The list starts with the estimable James Baker. But then it shockingly veers into warmongers.

It’s mind-boggling, but there’s Paul Wolfowitz, the unapologetic designer of the doctrine of unilateralism and pre-emption, the naïve cheerleader for the Iraq invasion and the man who assured Congress that Iraqi oil would pay for the country’s reconstruction and that it was ridiculous to think we would need as many troops to control the country as Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, suggested.

There’s John Hannah, Cheney’s national security adviser (cultivated by the scheming Ahmed Chalabi), who tried to stuff hyped-up junk on Saddam into Powell’s U.N. speech and who harbored bellicose ambitions about Iran; Stephen Hadley, who let the false 16-word assertion about Saddam trying to buy yellowcake in Niger into W.’s 2003 State of the Union; Porter Goss, the former C.I.A. director who defended waterboarding.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

If Putin Moves on NATO

Germany is ready - to sweep up after.

On Tuesday, German broadcaster ARD revealed that German soldiers tried to hide the lack of arms by replacing heavy machine guns with broomsticks during a NATO exercise last year. After painting the wooden sticks black, the German soldiers swiftly attached them to the top of armored vehicles, according to a confidential army report which was leaked to ARD.

…To make matters worse, the broom-equipped German soldiers belong to a crucial, joint NATO task force and would be the first to be deployed in case of an attack.

- See more at:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: The Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu.

The three body problem is a famous problem of classical mechanics, and Poincare's researches into it led to some of the first deep insights into chaotic dynamics. Cixin Liu is the most famous science fiction writer in China, and a writer who deserves to be better known to the English speaking world. That classical physics problem forms the centerpiece of his novel of the same name, but to tell too much would be too many spoilers.

The novel opens with two harrowing scenes from the Great Cultural Revolution of the middle sixties. In the first, two rival bands of Red Guards fight a bloody but meaningless battle. In the second, an older physics professor is brutally persecuted for, among other crimes, teaching relativity. These events, pitting husband against wife, children against parents, and students against teachers shape the pivotal character of the novel, a then young astrophysicist, and echo in the science fiction tale to come, but most of the novel is set in the China of the present or near future.

I have a tough time classifying this novel. Sometimes I think it's a little like Gravity's Rainbow or Infinite Jest, minus 600 pages of self-indulgent crap. But that's probably not fair to any of the authors.

I found it gripping and loaded with insights into an unfamiliar world - and I'm talking more about China than the interstellar civilization also featured.

I also suspect that the hysteria of the Great Cultural Revolution has plenty of elements homomorphic to current Jihadist fanaticism.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Disastrous Interventions

Much of the current chaos in the Middle East, not to mention the spreading threat of terror in Europe and America, can be traced to the series of disastrous interventions the West has made aimed at overthrowing dictators and establishing democracy. The original, the big one, was W's declaration of war on Saddam Hussein. In addition to destabilizing a lot of fraught relationships among Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd, Iran and Iraq, it set some unfortunate precedents.

Subsequent interventions in Libya, Syria, and Yemen have proven at least equally ill-fated. In no country has a stable democracy emerged. Libya and Syria are complete basket cases. It's obvious now, if it wasn't always, that we don't have a clue as to how to go about imposing democracy.

So what to do? Avoid interference when possible? Discourage our citizens from travel to these places. Respond at a basic level by revenging the murder of our citizens.

Revenge is a basic human emotion which even quite primitive groups understand. Make it clear that we don't want to change their religion or culture, but we will kill them if provoked?

Better ideas?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Crimes of 1948

The story of the foundation of Israel is a story of heroic immigrants triumphing over hordes of savages and establishing an oasis in the desert through hard work, ingenuity, and a fierce determination to regain their birthright. That's the official version, the version Michael Kinsley learned in Hebrew school, the version most Jews everywhere most Americans believe, and there is a lot of truth to it.

There is also a lot left out, and Kinsley writes about that in today's Slate. The part left out is the savage and murderous program of ethnic cleansing Israel's founders carried out to establish their state. None of the material Kinsley mentions is secret. It is the result of careful scholarship of Israeli historians working from military records. As Kinsley puts it:

None of this is exactly a secret. Morris has written several books that discuss it in detail. But like the rape allegations against Bill Cosby, which were in public documents for years before they became common knowledge, it’s possible for something to be known and unknown at the same time.

Some gruesome details:

As Shavit, especially, describes it, with a lot of new research, the attack on Lydda was part of a purposeful strategy of Arab removal, approved at the highest levels. It had everything we have come to associate with a human rights atrocity: people who had been neighbors for generations turning on and slaughtering one another, Rwanda-style. Crowding people into a church (or, in this case, a mosque) and then blowing it up or setting it on fire. Torturing people, allegedly to extract information, and then killing them when they’ve been squeezed dry. Going house to house and killing everyone discovered inside. And so on.

In Lydda and elsewhere, residents were told they had an hour and a half to get out, so they “voluntarily” fled places their families had lived for centuries. Yes, the Arabs might have done worse to the Jews—did do worse when the opportunity arose. And the Germans of course could have taught both sides a lesson or two. So what?

Kinsley follows up with a weasely cop-out:

Shavit and Cohen both decline to condemn Israeli behavior in places like Deir Yassin and Lydda. Shavit sees the whole business as a human tragedy, with invisible fate directing the players. Cohen emphasizes practical necessity: It was this or be pushed into the sea. And, to be clear, I don’t condemn the Israel of 1948 either. As a diaspora Jew living in the comfort of America in 2015, I lack standing to criticize.

Kinsley thinks facing up to these facts might help promote peace. I have my doubts. But it's useful to remember that for each of us, we are where we are today because some of our ancestors killed out, enslaved, or otherwise managed to seize land previously belonging to somebody else.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut memorably wrote. That's the way history has always been - but it's not the way it always has to be.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Class Warfare

Paul Krugman's column today is headlined Nobody Understands Debt. I think he may really mean nobody else, but:

...You see, policy makers have been basing their actions on a false view of what debt is all about, and their attempts to reduce the problem have actually made it worse.

First, the facts: Last week, the McKinsey Global Institute issued a report titled “Debt and (Not Much) Deleveraging,” which found, basically, that no nation has reduced its ratio of total debt to G.D.P. Household debt is down in some countries, especially in the United States. But it’s up in others, and even where there has been significant private deleveraging, government debt has risen by more than private debt has fallen.

You might think our failure to reduce debt ratios shows that we aren’t trying hard enough — that families and governments haven’t been making a serious effort to tighten their belts, and that what the world needs is, yes, more austerity. But we have, in fact, had unprecedented austerity. As the International Monetary Fund has pointed out, real government spending excluding interest has fallen across wealthy nations — there have been deep cuts by the troubled debtors of Southern Europe, but there have also been cuts in countries, like Germany and the United States, that can borrow at some of the lowest interest rates in history.

Krugman interprets misguided policies to faith in a bad analogy between individual family finances and national finances, but I think he misses a key point - austerity and deflation may be bad for the economy as a whole and for individuals on average, but not for every individual. In particular, deflation enriches rentiers at the expense of debtors.

Debt has long been a key tool for keeping the poor downtrodden. Austerity not only keeps the European periphery in its place, but also keeps German workers underpaid, while maintaining a large group of unemployed to keep reminding workers of their place.

Netanyahu Speech: The Adelson Connection

Josh Marshall:

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has been around since 1985. But in its current, more amply funded form, it is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sheldon Adelson, who is both a major funder of Republicans in the US and - amazing how these things work - the de facto primary money backer of Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel. Adelson is in many ways the thread, the monetary backer, who weaves together the entire drama of bad-acting and partisan connivance behind the Netanyahu speech stunt. Remember, the first major controversy with Ron Dermer - the former Republican political operative turned Israeli Ambassador - came when he attended the RJC Republican presidential candidate cattle call as a featured speaker.

As one of my favorites, J.J. Goldberg, put it acidly and hilariously last March, "Amid mounting alarm that anti-Semitism is on the rise in key spots around the globe — and fears that Israel could be a prime target — a prominent Republican group has come up with a unique approach to fighting back: gather a bunch of Jewish zillionaires at a casino in Las Vegas, announce plans to buy the White House in 2016 and invite leading politicians to come, hat in hand, and beg for permission to be the candidate."

Empire Builders

The dominant political organization for most of the history of civilization, or at least the past several thousand years, has been the empire, with the defining characteristic of empire being the incorporation of diverse peoples and cultures in one political unit. Empires were built by conquest, by one group conquering several others.

The development of farming permitted land to support many more people than can be supported in nomadic or more basic economic systems, but it is a curious fact that for much of history, the relatively numerous farmers have been the conquered rather than the conquerors. For much of their history, the empires of Asia and the Middle East have been ruled by foreign elites, steppe warriors from central Asia and their descendants.

So why do we see this pattern conquest by groups that are much less numerous, usually technologically more primitive, and far weaker economically? One theory is that the harsh conditions of nomadic life made for more skillful and fiercer warriors. Later European conquerors brought the military skills of ocean going pirate-traders.

A slightly different point of view is that the key advantage the nomads (and later the Europeans) had was simply mobility. Nomads and traders can wander, but farmers need to stay with their fields.

This fits well with the idea that the Indo-Europeans who spread their language over much of Europe and Asia several thousand years ago based their expansion on the domestication of the horse.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Why the Long Paws?

A favorite resort of those who style themselves climate skeptics is to claim that global warming has "paused" for the past 17 years. This claim rests on a slender but not quite nonexistent base of empirical support - the fact that if one looks only at the satellite upper troposphere data, 1998 is still the warmest year on record. The reason for this is understood. Upper troposphere temperatures are significantly more sensitive to El Niño conditions than those at the surface, and 1998 was the last strong El Niño year. Consequently, the satellite temperature record shows larger year to year swings than the surface record.

Nevertheless, BOTH kinds of records, surface and satellite, show the same trend line of consistent increase on the decadal time scale. Details can be found at carbonbrief here. Carbonbrief also provides this interactive graph with NOAA, NASA, CRU, and the satellite RSS and UHA analyses of the temperature record. Interactive features include the ability to toggle individual curves on and off by clicking on the legend.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Blame the Paparazzi

Bruce Jenner, apparently in the act of fleeing several carloads of paparazzi, rear-ended another car and caused a crash that killed one and injured several. Jenner, and numerous idiots, blame the paparazzi.

Let me just make one point. You don't have a license to speed or drive recklessly just because some guys want to take your picture. If that's what happened, the blame lies squarely with Jenner and he should take the fall. If, on the other hand, it was reckless driving by the pp that caused him to crash, they should get the blame - but not if all they did was follow him.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Arming Ukraine

As Putin has increased his aggression in Ukraine, there are now some clamoring for the "West", i.e., the US, to arm the central government of Ukraine. I doubt that this idea can be taken seriously. Handing a few hundred tanks and jets to Ukraine is unlikely to change the balance of power. Putin is closer and can just push more Russian "volunteers" into the fight.

Moreover, new weapons would be useless without the elaborate training necessary to use them effectively. Of course it would just play into the Kremlin narrative that the West is the side meddling in Ukraine. Worst, of course, is the chance that such escalation would provoke a global war of annihilation.

That said, some bright lines need to be drawn, making it clear that any aggression against a NATO country would be met with maximum force.

It's still a scary world.

Crisis in Greece

If you want an alternative to the German fairy tale about Greece, Krugman is your go-to guy:

Basically, the current situation may be summarized with the following dialogue:

Germany to Greece: Nice banking system you got there. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Greece to Germany: Oh, yeah? Well, we’d hate to see your nice, shiny European Union get all banged up.


Like all too many crises, the new Greek crisis stems, ultimately, from political pandering. It’s the kind of thing that happens when politicians tell voters what they want to hear, make promises that can’t be fulfilled, and then can’t bring themselves to face reality and make the hard choices they’ve been pretending can be avoided.

I am, of course, talking about Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and her colleagues.

It’s true that Greece got itself into trouble through irresponsible borrowing (although this irresponsible borrowing wouldn’t have been possible without equally irresponsible lending). And Greece has paid a terrible price for that irresponsibility. Looking forward, however, how much more can Greece take? Clearly, it can’t pay the debt in full; that’s obvious to anyone who has done the math.

A Bit of My History

Some decades ago the Army gathered an elite band of scientists and mathematicians in the mountains of the southwestern desert to work on crucial problems of national defense, and I was a cog in that machine.

Oops, I was having a Brian Williams moment there - let me rephrase that slightly.

Some decades ago, the Army gathered a ragtag band of soldiers determined to be unfit for combat by reason of degrees in math, physics, or engineering in those mountains of the southwestern desert to work on stuff some of which might turn out to be useful. No, this wasn't Los Alamos - those guys really were geniuses - but the program that enrolled us had originated at Los Alamos. We were the S&Es, the Science and Engineering assistants, draftee enlisted men whose role was to work with the civil servants manning various Army laboratories.

Our roles were diverse and often vague, ranging from programming and systems development to lining ditches with rocks - the general's wife thought they looked ugly - of course the rocks all washed away in the first rainstorm. My initial job was listening to the lifestory of a civilian engineer who recounted it daily - until a kindly Captain with a PhD in Chemistry took pity on me and gave me some mathematical calculations that nobody else was willing (or maybe able) to do.

At least, I thought, it beat the hell out of slogging through the jungles of southeast Asia and getting shot.

Climate: Written in the Stars?

Well, not exactly, but the Milankovich theory of the ice ages has long been a major pillar of our understanding of natural climate changes in the past several million years. It's key idea is that natural variations in the Earth's orbit and inclination lead to changes in the amount of solar energy absorbed by the Earth and consequent changes in climate, including ice ages.

There are some unexplained details, including the difficulty in finding enough energy balance change to thaw a significantly frozen planet. It looks like marine geophysicist Maya Tolstoy may have found an important missing piece. Her experiment planted several seismographs on the East Pacific Rise, the most active site of sea floor spreading in the world. Her interesting discovery was that the rate of volcanism depended significantly on the positions of heavenly bodies, or, in plainer language, on the tides.

Although this makes good physical sense, it doesn't seem to have been considered much before, or in climate models. It makes sense because the rate of volcanism depends sensitively on pressure gradients in the lava column, so that changes in overpressure are important. This undersea volcanism affect climate because it releases significant CO2 into the ocean, which, over thousands of years, can migrate to the surface and into the atmosphere.

Ice ages produce large drops in sea level, 100 meters or more, and the pressure changes associated with this kind of drop would dwarf those associated with even the largest tide. Is it not plausible that such increased volcanism, acting over thousands of years, could pump up the CO2 enough to help the melting?

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Putin's Thought

I saw a couple of pieces on Putin's thinking recently, here and here. I don't know of any reason that these theories ought to be taken especially seriously, but they are at least thought provoking.

The first link is to a 2008 Pentagon study that suggests that Putin has Asperger's, an autism spectrum condition.

Putin's "neurological development was significantly interrupted in infancy," wrote Brenda Connors, an expert in movement pattern analysis at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Studies of his movement, Connors wrote, reveal "that the Russian President carries a neurological abnormality."

Since I tend to think that anyone achieving great political power is nuts in some way, this wouldn't surprise me, but I think this sort of diagnosis in absentia is absurd, I don't take it seriously, either. Even if it's true, it's far from clear that it would have important implications.

The second analysis, by Walter Russell Mead, is more concerned with geopolitical strategy, but not necessarily any better founded.

The trouble is that the contemporary Western mind has a hard time grasping a basic truth about both Putin and ourselves; we are not the world, and Putin is not us. There are three subjects on which virtually everybody in the Western policy and intellectual establishments agree: think of them as the core values of the Davoisie: The first is that the rise of a liberal capitalist and more or less democratic and law-based international order is both inevitable and irreversible. The second is that the Davos elite—the financiers, politicians, intellectuals, haute journalists and technocrats who mange the great enterprises, institutions and polities of the contemporary world—know what they are doing and are competent to manage the system they represent. The third is that no serious alternative perspective to the Davos perspective really exists; our establishment believes in its gut that even those who contend with the Davos world order know in their hearts that Davos has and always will have both might and right on its side.

But Putin lives and thinks outside of the Davos box. By Davos standards, Putin is a heretic and a renegade. He thinks the whole post-historical Western consensus is a mix of flapdoodle and folderol. It is, from his perspective, a cocktail of ignorance, arrogance, vanity and hypocrisy, and he wants no part of it.


What the West doesn’t understand about Putin is that he doesn’t think the West is as strong as the West thinks that it is. Putin thinks the West has fallen in love with its own prejudices and illusions, and that the imposing structures of the Western world, both NATO and the EU in particular, are hollow facades. Because of this, Putin believes, the West continually embraces foolish foreign policy choices. It overreaches and underresources its foreign policy, and the result is to create a series of opportunities that a hungry power like Russia cannot afford to ignore.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, western power in Europe rests on two platforms. There is the global American hegemony, and then there is Germany, which has emerged as America’s sub-hegemon in Europe. Putin thinks that the Germans aren’t wise enough to rule Europe well, strong enough to rule it by force, or rich enough to rule it through economics and that Washington doesn’t understand that or, if it does, that Washington itself is too distracted or too weak to care. Either way, from Putin’s point of view, Germany’s position is much, much weaker than either Berlin or Washington understands.

At the same time, he believes that the American commitment to Europe is so weak that the United States will not react in a timely or effective fashion as Russia sets about the revision of the European order.

Putin sees Germany as the weaker, nearer, and, in the short term, more dangerous obstacle to his ambitions than the United States. His current policy is aimed incrementally at reducing American hegemony; it is directly aimed at disrupting what Putin sees as Germany’s attempt to create a new post-1990 order in its image and under its aegis.

I have no idea if Putin actually thinks any of that, but story itself has a certain plausibility. It's something someone might think, for sure. And it would help explain his persistent border aggression.

The American Oligarchy

The United States was founded as a democratic republic, a compromise of sorts between monarchy and full on democracy which the founders feared would put too much power in the hands of the mob. Political power, and the vote were restricted to white males, and also by various economic tests. The vote has been progressively widened over most of the past two plus centuries, but various factors have narrowed political power, concentrating it in the hands of a tiny number of the super wealthy.

Since the Supreme Courts Citizens United decision, the American election system has become a system of legalized bribery. For the most part, the bribes don't flow directly into the pockets of candidate (New Jersey governor Chris Cristie being slightly exceptional, though not, of course, in New Jersey). Instead, the bribes are direct or indirect campaign contributions.

Economic and technological factors have made running for political office enormously expensive, and concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few giant corporations and individuals has made independent sources of election information rare. In addition, the rise of so-called "think tanks" that deal more in propaganda than thinking has provided a focus for oligarchs to organize and push their agendas.

The immense wealth concentrated in a few hands gives these people immense power to influence elections at every level. The two Koch brothers, whose joint wealth comes to $ 85 billion, have announced plans to raise over $880 million for the 2016 election. That number is far larger than the total amount of money on elections just a few years ago. That money, together with a plan, gives them great power to influence elections at every level.

For example, my State of New Mexico is traditionally narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats, with a slight edge to Democrats. State House of Representatives elections are traditionally local events based on a lot of direct voter contact and very little campaign expenditure. My district traditionally features very close races and the Democrats had an excellent candidate this year, who probably had a slight edge until a late dark money smear campaign featuring full page ads in the local newspaper tipped the balance in favor of her opponent.

A few key interventions like this changed the State House from Democrat to Republican.

Of course not all oligarchs are as radically anti-democratic as the Koch brothers, but they are all oligarchs, and as such have a lot more in common with each other than with the rest of the country. Consequently, the opposition Democratic Party is also dominated by those heavily indebted to some group or other of the super wealthy.

It's not a pretty picture for those who value the Constitution.

More Krugman on Greece

I liked this bit from Krugman's blog:

Does Draghi know what he’s doing? Of course not — nobody in this situation knows what he or she is doing, because it’s structurally a mess. But don’t panic — yet.