Monday, November 30, 2009

'The arbiter of Western reason and sanity'

Tom Friedman can declare with a straight face that "anyone who shoots up innocent people is ... mentally imbalanced" without seeing how clearly that applies to himself and those who think like he does. It's that self-absorbed disconnect...that shapes most of our warped political discourse.
-- Glenn Greenwald vents on Thomas Friedman, and there's a note that Orwell would have recognised Friedman's use of euphemism.

Have the Iranians blown it with Russia?

Gideon Rachman applies some actual thought to the current situation.

Beyond prayer

As the months went on, Todd’s prayer was answered by an offer for a permanent position with BP.
A line in Sarah Palin's book quoted by Sam Tannenhaus.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Analogies and stories

Paul Kingsnorth compares Copenhagen 2009 to Munich 1938. He's not the first to be pessimistic. James Lovelock, for example, was among those saying something similar about ten years ago. And yes, of course things may get a little bumpy in future.

I agree with those who warn against seeing COP15 as a last chance. My own hackneyed historical analogy of choice relates to a letter sent by Winston Churchill to British officers on 4 July 1940 at a time when German invasion seemed imminent. (I have the copy that was sent to my grandfather, who was Naval Liaison Officer with Army Eastern Command.) It says, basically, don't panic and don't give in. [1]

Moving beyond historical analogy, Robert Butler at Ashdenizen notes this from Steve Waters:
Climate change seems to elude dramatisation, perhaps because it presents not only a challenge to the habits of everyday life, it challenges the habituated imagination itself, it challenges the very basis of story-telling.

[1] (added 1 Dec) James Hansen expresses this in terms relevant today here and here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Distant light

Light reveals nothing about how far it has travelled. A ray of light arriving from a distant star makes no more fanfare on its arrival than does the glint reflected of the rim of a cup.
-- Simon Ings
The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent upon it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.
-- Galileo Galilei

Climate birthers

George Marshall on the attempted Swift boating of climate scientists

'I'll show you my birth certificate' doesn't work as an answer to 'Bastard' because that's not what the insult is about. This is bear baiting not a pursuit of truth

P.S. 23 Nov George Marshall in The Guardian, and George Monbiot.

Friday, November 20, 2009

After a gale

Down by the beach, the Burn of the Waters, rushing seaward, is impossible to cross. My step stones have disappeared, the burn is running twice as fast and wide as usual. I detour up to the road, where the water pouring under the bridge just about remains contained by its banks. The beach itself is still being pounded by the breaking waves, flinging spray high into the air, but their ferocity has subsided and old greying foam has left a tidemark along the stones. At the end of the beach, the higher black rocks are covered by a denser whiter mass of foam like discarded fleece.
-- Christine Smith

Which is it, Mr Miliband?

I have had a copy of the infamous Bybee memo for months, and this allows us to consider which of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" the British government would rather keep under wraps. As identified by Bybee, the 10 techniques are:

(1) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard.
-- from Britain's torture cover-up continues by Clive Stafford-Smith

Got Hope?

Gandhi was killed by fanatics. Mandela's legacy is at risk. But both of them, along with others, provide hope that tribalism, bigotry and hatred as prime movers in human affairs can be overcome some day.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I used to doubt that a 6°C rise global average temperature this century was likely. Now a study indicates it may be a plausible scenario. [1]

CO2 emissions have risen by 29% in the past decade, and 2% in the last year despite the economic downturn.

Concerns such as 'peak oil' look more misplaced than ever as there is more than enough coal, oil (if Dan Yergin is right) and natural gas to send things over the edge.

[1] P.S. Richard Betts says:
Year-to-year changes in the global economy have quite an effect, and it's too early to discern longer term, robust changes. However, if we continue to let emissions rise without mitigation, there's a strong chance we'll hit 4 °C and beyond. If we want to be staying below 2 °C then it's true to say we've only got a few years to curb emissions.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On old photos

I have long wondered the photographs of people who have been dead for several generations, especially those whose identity is unknown, are often so poignant. [1]

An idea articulated by Douglas Hofstadter in I Am a Strange Loop may cast some light on this. Hofstadter suggests that each human "I" is distributed over numerous brains rather than being limited to just one brain -- that is, a human identity is a phenomenon of relationships between people, not something that exists on its own.

An analogy could be made with the nature of a secret. As has been pointed out, a secret is not (as we may tend to think) something that exists within a person's head, but rather a relationship between two people. [2]

And so with some old photographs. The people to whom they were significant, precious are now themselves dead and so are those who knew them. The network, the circles of relationship are broken forgotten faded.


[2] This point is well made by a Dutch academic here.


A debate here on Hobbes in Hebrew.

But how much is there really to learn? Israel's 'mad dog' strategy -- readiness to use overwhelming force up to and including nuclear weapons -- suggests little has escaped attention with respect to the use of violence for ends of state.

And among supporters such as Christian Zionists in the U.S., the state has substantial numbers of citizens governed by religious belief in support of a civil power.

Friday, November 13, 2009


The Pentagon has provided $3.7 million for an independent production company, Theater of War, to visit 50 military sites through at least next summer and stage readings from two plays by Sophocles, “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” for service members.
-- NYT

Shadows of unforgotten ancestors

In one sense, we know more about the French Revolution or the Stalinist reign of terror than those who were involved in them, because we know what they led to. With the privilege of hindsight, we can inscribe these events in a broader narrative, making more sense of them than Robespierre or Trotsky were ever able to do. The price of this superior knowledge is impotence. There is no way we can use this knowledge to undo past catastrophes. We are like men and women frantically waving at history from a long way off, powerless to intervene in its crises and convulsions.

Yet we are not entirely impotent. It is up to us to ensure that Michelangelo and Thomas Mann, say, did not belong to a race that ended up destroying itself. They themselves, being dead, are powerless to prevent that tragic denouement, whereas we are not. We can make a difference to their stories. We cannot undo the fate of those in the past who fought for justice and were murdered for their pains. But we can rewrite their narratives by our own actions in the present, and even give them a classical happy ending.
-- from Waking the Dead by Terry Eagleton

Death wish

If you can't imagine why anyone would want to watch entire continents destroyed -- "2012" is not the movie for you. For "2012," needless to say, lacks all reasonable perspective. It's the kind of movie that expects that audiences, shortly after watching the entire population of India subsumed by a tidal wave, will urge on a fluffy white dog as she crosses a chasm and leaps into her owner's arms.
-- Dan Kois

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Take all the power stations in the United States. Together, they produce almost 5000 gigawatts of electricity - enough to boil several billion kettles simultaneously.

Now imagine building another five power stations for every one that already exists in the United States. That is about the amount of electricity generation that the world is on track to add over the next 20 years. And three-quarters of the new stations will use fossil fuels.
-- Energy agency warns of 'irreparable' damage

Brothers in arms

In the margin of a page on Lapham's quarterly is this from Thucydides:
The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting done by fools.
Andrew Bacevich, both soldier and scholar, is neither coward nor fool. His analysis of Afghanistan (republished in Harper's this month) stands.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Tear it down

Deceived by 20th-century Communism and disillusioned with 21st-century capitalism, we can only hope for new Kravchenkos — and that they come to happier ends. On the search for justice, they will have to start from scratch. They will have to invent their own ideologies. They will be denounced as dangerous utopians, but they alone will have awakened from the utopian dream that holds the rest of us under its sway.
-- Slavoj Zizek

New nuclear in Britain

UK government fast tracks nuclear power, never mind the extraction footprint, without having worked out what to do with the waste, and reckless of cost.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

One path leading to another

Road shining like river uphill after rain.
-- a line found on a slip of paper in Edward Thomas's diary after his death at the battle of Arras. RM

Loose nukes

The Taliban overrunning Islamabad is not the only, or even the greatest, concern. The principal fear is mutiny—that extremists inside the Pakistani military might stage a coup, take control of some nuclear assets, or even divert a warhead.
-- Seymour Hersch

G_d's work!

Rejoice and thanks be to G_d, I am saved. Lloyd Blankfein has explained that G_dman Sachs is doing G_d's work on Earth. Verily, His beneficence is infinite. Praise be unto His Name!

And here was me thinking that, as Jon Jost put it, there was some kind of racket at work. Cursed be my evil past. I once was blind but now I see.

Blankfein: New Pope, or greater manifestation of a Higher Power?

U.S. unemployment, on a broad measure, is 17.5%

Friday, November 06, 2009

Pinker or Lanier?

For all their flaws, media such as Wikipedia, news feeds, blogs, website aggregators, and reader reviews offer the potential for great advances over the status quo — not just in convenience but in intellectual desiderata like breadth, rigor, diversity of viewpoints, and responsibility to the factual record. Our intellectual culture today reflects this advance — contrary to the Cassandras, scientific progress is dizzying; serious commentary on the internet exceeds the capacity of any mortal reader; the flow of philosophical, historical, and literary books (many of doorstop length) has not ebbed; and there is probably more fact-checking, from TV news to dinner tables, than an any time in history. Our collective challenge in dealing with the Internet is to nurture these kinds of progress.
-- Steven Pinker
If the new world brought about by digital technologies is to enhance Darwinian effects in human affairs, then digital culture will devour itself, becoming an ouroboros that will tighten into a black hole and evaporate. Unless, that is, the Pirates can become immortal through technology before it is too late, before their numbers are overtaken, for instance, by the high birth rates of retro religious fanatics everywhere. This race for immortality is not so hidden in the literature of digital culture. The digital culture expressed by the Pirates is simultaneously nihilist and maniacal/egocentric.
-- Jaron Lanier

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Strange planet

The Tao-Rusyr caldera and Kal'tsevoe Lake on Onekotan, one of the Kuril Islands.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Look no rabbit

Writers are sometimes likened to illusionists, but I'm not sure that's the right analogy – for the illusionist the rabbit is in the hat and the trick is to disguise how it got there. For the writer there is no rabbit, and there is no hat, and there never was and never will be.
-- Samantha Harvey


The 65th bomb killed Olaf Schmid


A company behind plans to open the first hotel in space says it is on target to accept its first paying guests in 2012 despite critics questioning the investment and time frame for the multi-billion dollar project.

The Barcelona-based architects of The Galactic Suite Space Resort say it will cost 3 million euro ($4.4 million) for a three-night stay at the hotel, with this price including an eight-week training course on a tropical island.

During their stay, guests would see the sun rise 15 times a day and travel around the world every 80 minutes.
-- Reuters
Put quite simply, the life of [the British
 statesman in 1905] was superior [to that of the super-connected California company executive of 2016] because he was
 allowed rest and reflection, his
contemplation could seek its own level, and
 his tranquility was unaccelerated. While he
was in his time a member of a privileged
class unburdened by many practical
necessities, today most Americans have
similar resources and freedoms, and yet
they, like their contemporaries in even the
most exalted positions, have chosen a
different standard, closer to that of the [frenetic company executive].

...Requisite, I believe, for [the good life] are the discipline, values, and
clarity of vision that tend to flourish as we
grapple with necessity and to disappear
when by our ingenuity we float free of it.
-- Mark Helprin (1996)

Death and the contrarians

George Monbiot reflects on link between climate science contrarianism/denial and the psychology of vital lies, entitlement and exceptionalism.

Whether or not there is link between old age and contrarianism/denial is an open question. My guess is that there is a stronger correlation with other factors, including education attainment, pre-existing political and cultural beliefs, and immediate life experience and expectations.

On the question of how to confront the growth of contrarianism/denial in the face of even more compelling scientific evidence, one place to start could be IPPR's recent document Consumer Power: A Communications Guide for Mainstreaming Lower-Carbon Behaviour. Its checklist goes:
1. “Don’t focus on climate change"
2. “Focus on saving money now”
3. “Prevent the rebound effect” (in which people spend money saved through low-carbon behaviours on other, high-carbon practices)
4. “Talk about carbon pollution, not CO2 emissions”
5. “Satirise high-carbon behaviours”
6. “Make lower-carbon options desirable”
7. “Remember that being in control matters” (e.g. with regard to controlling personal energy costs)
8. “Make it fun”
9. “Avoid guilt and the ‘environmental’ label”
10. “Use messengers that ‘keep it real’”
But clearly we need more than that.


The story of Mahmoud Vahidnia. Via AS.

P.S. 6 Nov: or was it a put-up job?

Sunday, November 01, 2009


In Afghanistan's disreputable 2009 presidential election, everyone's a loser. Hamid Karzai's "victory", achieved by fraud and now by default, has left him a tarnished, diminished figure. The US administration that orchestrated the whole process still lacks the credible partner in Kabul it says is essential for success.

The UN's reputation for probity lies critically wounded in the gutter, a victim of inaction and bitter infighting among officials. Nato's mission looks even more rudderless and ill-defined than before. The cause of the Afghan people, bemused and terrorised by turns, is no further forward and may in truth have been set back.
-- Simon Tisdall

P.S. 2 Nov: Andrew Sullivan:
The surge has failed in Iraq to create the national unity it was designed to achieve; and its security achievements are just not replicable in Afghanistan. Expecting Karzai to reform now when he is in a civil war and just defeated his opponent makes no sense at all. Enormous pressure on him for years made no discernible difference.