Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The worse angels of our nature

We are different from the Nazis and the Soviets not because we have more self-control -- we don't. We are different largely because postwar improvements in agricultural technology have provided the West with reliable supplies of food, our massive consumption of which says much about our limited self-control. But what if food were to become scarcer and more expensive, as seems now to be the trend? What if unfavorable climate change were to outrun our technical capacities? Or what if melting glaciers leave societies such as China without fresh water? Pinker claims, unpersuasively, that global warming poses little threat to modern ways of life. But it hardly matters whether he is right: states are already taking action to minimize its consequences. China, for example, is buying up land in Africa and Ukraine in order to compensate for its own shortage of arable soil. The fresh water of Siberia must beckon. If scientists continue to issue credible warnings about the consequences of climate change, it would be surprising if leaders did not conjure up new reasons for preemptive violent action, positioning their states for a new age of want.
-- from War No More, Timothy Snyder's review of Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Trails and stories

The nomads who still inhabit the Kalahari Desert are said to tell one another stories on their daylong wanderings, during which they search for edible roots and animals to hunt. Often they have more than one story going at the same time. Sometimes they have three or four stories running in parallel. But before they return to the spot where they will spend the night, they manage either to intertwine the stories or split them apart for good, giving each its own ending.
-- Henning Mankell

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Durban and Kellogg-Briand

Last week, looking over various comments (including this) on COP 17, the following came to mind: 
I wonder sometimes if Durban and the COP process generally is a little like the negotiations that led up to the Kellogg-Briand pact outlawing war.  Lots of good intentions, but the real action was elsewhere.   This is not to say that trying to negotiate treaties on war and violence is totally pointless; they did, for example, lead to the Geneva conventions.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A hitchhiker's guide to the multiverse

Different theories spin off very different kinds of multiverses. Our current standard theory of how the universe came to be, for example, predicts an infinite expanse of other universes, including an infinite number in which duplicates of you are reading this sentence and wondering if those other versions of you really exist. Meanwhile, string theory, which hoped to derive the particles, forces and constants of our universe from fundamental principles, instead discovered a wilderness of 10^500 universes fundamentally different from ours. Even quantum mechanics implies that our universe is a single snowflake in a blizzard of parallel universes.
-- from The Ultimate Guide to the Multiverse.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A journey into light

As I understand it, people who are clinically depressed can get caught in there unable to move. The thing that the composer can do and the music can do is give you a ladder outwards from somewhere very extreme and painful...
...One of the most curious things is the pleasure we take in painful and unhappy music. There must be a reason for this, and part of may be that in exploring deep emotion the music gives you access to what they call 'the locus of control.' In other words, you externalize your feelings such that you can observe them and make changes in them or at least realise that change is possible. You can see that from the painfulness that something beautiful has occurred, and that begins to give it meaning. And if there's one thing about the human condition it's that all things are bearable if they have meaning...
...There's a paradox, a tension between the desire we have to let go of ourselves, to become without boundary (this is very beautiful but very terrifying) and the horror of finding ourselves completely hemmed in by boundaries, unable to make choices.... And there's something about music in particular... that allows us to find/project/ discover/make within that fabric of sound identifications with the most profound inner conditions.  This may be what music exists for...
For quite a long period I would take my string quartet to play in hospitals and we would often be playing for people who had truly diabolical situations, and sorrows. People do face big issues when they're that ill. To begin with, naively, we used to take in music that was broadly 'cheerful', what ever that means! But no; what we found was that if we took something like Schubert's Death of a Maiden or Schostakovitch's 8th quartet, this was the greatest consolation.
I can only theorize as to why this might be. We can all recognize that there's something extraordinarly uplifiting about recognizing that somebody has made something beautiful from being in such a condition themselves. There's something extremely liberating because even though we are taken up and gripped by music we always actually have choice so that the locus of control remains with us. And the very fact that we can chose to enter the searing emotional world of Shostakovich knowing that we can choose to step out -- we're free not to be there -- gives us an extraordinary philosphical freedom, which is what we are looking for.
From a rough transcript of remarks by Prof Paul Robinson,  interviewed by Stephen Johnson for Into the Light, an approach to Shostakovitch that was rebroadcast yesterday.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The reverend is against the death penalty, but in thinking about it before the camera he veers off into an anecdote about a golf trip and his relief at not hitting a squirrel and killing one of God’s creatures, and we can see how, when pressed to illuminate its own contradictions, the human mind can go on the fritz. This may really be Herzogʼs theme.
-- from Werner Herzog on Death Row by Lorrie Moore

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fun-sized nuclear weapons

Linked from a report on the expanding US budget for nuclear weapons, Mother-Jones lists 8 of the Wackiest (or Worst) Ideas for Nuclear Weapons

These have included The Davy Crockett, a tactical nuclear recoilless rifle with a 0.01-kiloton payload that was designed for use on conventional battlefields, and deployed by the US Army until 1971.

What ho, Jeeves! Some of these sweethearts should come in handy for keeping the Persians in line!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

'The music will begin shortly'

If you stop playing for like, even like a year - sometimes it all builds up in a really great way. But there's no such thing as not playing... Music has rests in it, so you are on a rest right now. And the music will begin shortly... It's like an orchestra tuning up. 
I used to try and get myself started. I would take a tape recorder, and I would put it in the trashcan and - the ones that are on wheels... And I'd turn it on, and then I'd roll around in the yard with it, and then play it back and see if I could hear any interesting rhythms, you know, that were just part of nature. 
Or - I tell you, the best snare drum on earth is a trampoline in like, November, when all the branches have landed and they're heavy and they're wet. And then you jump on the trampoline; they all lift up and come down at the same time. It's like, wow.
-- Tom Waits

Monday, October 31, 2011

Day of the Dead

A report from Basic notes:
• The US is planning to spend $700bn on nuclear weapons over the next decade. A further $92bn will be spent on new nuclear warheads and the US also plans to build 12 nuclear ballistic missile submarines, air-launched nuclear cruise missiles and bombs. 
• Russia plans to spend $70bn on improving its strategic nuclear triad (land, sea and air delivery systems) by 2020. It is introducing mobile ICBMs with multiple warheads, and a new generation of nuclear weapons submarines to carry cruise as well as ballistic missiles. There are reports that Russia is also planning a nuclear-capable short-range missile for 10 army brigades over the next decade. 
• China is rapidly building up its medium and long-range "road mobile" missile arsenal equipped with multiple warheads. Up to five submarines are under construction capable of launching 36-60 sea-launched ballistic missiles, which could provide a continuous at-sea capability. 
• France has just completed deployment of four new submarines equipped with longer-range missiles with a "more robust warhead". It is also modernising its nuclear bomber fleet. 
• Pakistan is extending the range of its Shaheen II missiles, developing nuclear cruise missiles, improving its nuclear weapons design as well as smaller, lighter, warheads. It is also building new plutonium production reactors. 
• India is developing new versions of its Agni land-based missiles sufficient to target the whole of Pakistan and large parts of China, including Beijing. It has developed a nuclear ship-launched cruise missile and plans to build five submarines carrying ballistic nuclear missiles. 
• Israel is extending its Jericho III missile's range, and is developing an ICBM capability, expanding its nuclear-tipped cruise missile enabled submarine fleet. 
• North Korea unveiled a new Musudan missile in 2010 with a range of up to 2,500 miles and capable of reaching targets in Japan. It successfully tested the Taepodong-2 with a possible range of more than 6,000 miles sufficient to hit half the US mainland. However, the report, says, "it is unclear whether North Korea has yet developed the capability to manufacture nuclear warheads small enough to sit on top of these missiles". 
Iran's nuclear aspirations are not covered by the report.
-- Beyond the UK: Trends in the Other Nuclear Armed States via The Guardian

Yes indeed: every day and in every way the world just gets more and more peaceful as the circle of empathy expands.

Monday, October 24, 2011

'Necessary Daemons'

Possession, in the Haitian context, can be kind of rough, the first time or two. Frightening. Terrifying, even. You feel what you think of as your self being peeled away like the husk from a fruit...
-- Madison Smartt Bell

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Lives of a cell

I finally got to the end of The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee this weekend, and posted this from penultimate chapter on the blog for The Book of Barely Imagined Beings:
Someday, if a cancer succeeds, it will produce a far more perfect being than its host. 
Preparatory to the observation, Mukerjee has noted that an emerging, although highly controversial, answer to the question of what allows a cancer cell to keep dividing endlessly without exhaustion or depletion generation upon generation is that cancer’s immortality is actually borrowed from normal physiology and, specifically, the stupendous fecundity of stem cells. No less remarkable (at least to me as a naive and ignorant reader) is the ability of the body as a whole to switch this on and off:
The human embryo and many of our adult organs possess a tiny population of stem cells that are capable of immortal regeneration. Stem cells are the body’s reservoir renewal. The entirety of human blood, for instance, can arise from a single, highly potent blood-forming cell (called a hematopoietic stem cell), which typically lives buried inside the bone marrow. Under normal conditions, only a fraction of these blood-forming stem cells are active; the rest are deeply quiescent -- asleep. But if blood is suddenly depleted, by injury or chemotherapy, say, then the stem cells awaken and begin to divide with awe-inspiring fecundity, generating thousands upon thousands of blood cells. In weeks, a single hematopoietic stem cell can replenish the entire human organism with new blood -- and then, through yet unknown mechanisms, lull itself back to sleep. [1]
I also read Will Self's essay on blood disease and drug addiction. Death, writes Self, remains the most metaphoricised phenomenon of all. Cancer, though, is also a distorted simulacrum of life.


 [1] Even in normal circumstances, however, haematopoiesis reportedly manufactures more than 100 billion new blood cells every day

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Something useful on peak oil

I have criticized wooly thinking about peak oil in the past, but I have a lot to learn, so it's good to come across some clear thinking on the topic from Jim Murray (pdf). This, for example, is quite neat:
Peak oil hypotheses 
It's not about the reserves 
It's about the production rate 
We are not close to running out of oil 
Never predict the future price of world oil or the date of world oil peak. You will only be proved wrong and discredited.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

'We are awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare'

Slavoj Žižek recalls an old joke from the German Democratic Republic:
a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let's establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair—the only thing unavailable is red ink.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Grand Map

This happens to be how many of us enter the great map. One night, you locate a distant childhood intersection. You leave the street map and enter the scene, passing seamlessly from map to territory. But there are no goofy hijinks or bloody corpses there. No sublime horses. Just a bright, sunny street with uneven sidewalks, lined with parked cars—a place that once contained everything that you knew and needed to know, which once held the entire range of possible truths. Then you take a Google-step back, and suddenly it’s a bit less sunny and a bit more populated. You swing around to your left, and now the sky is overcast and foreboding. A step forward and a neighborhood man you once knew, who was pictured sitting on his porch a frame ago, has vanished. Now the sun is out again, but setting. This private territory, with its radically shifting light, its dreamlike angles, and its specters popping in and out of view—that odd combination of detailed recollection and ever-thickening fog—resembles the structure of memory itself. It’s like visiting a lost place. It’s not the grandest idea but, at certain moments in life, it’s the best we’ve got.
-- from The Grand Map by Avi Steinberg

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Angel of Capital

Above and beyond the monopoly of violence claimed by the major states, there has emerged a new kind of command, a monopoly of actuality, exercised on one hand through the power to teletechnology to shape the world in its own image, and on the other by the power of money to decide what deserves to exist. The effective horizon of this control oscillates somewhere between the news cycle and the business cycle; moment by moment it translates everything it knows into the present tense. It seeks to glory not only in ratifying its mastery over what happens today; it meticulously amortizes what used to be and assiduously discounts what is yet to come.
-- from The Bonds of Debt by Richard Dienst.

Monday, September 19, 2011

'Temple of the winds'

Interesting section in Jim Al-Khalili's Hearing the Past, starting about 9 minutes 30 secs in, on the acoustic characteristics of Stonehenge. And he quotes from Hardy in Tess:
The wind playing upon the edifice produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one stringed harp.
Some of the work by Rupert Till et al is explored at Sounds of Stonehenge.

Perhaps archaeoacoustics will, one day, inform an even broader 'archaeology of the senses' in which the deep history of other senses including smell is even better understood.

P.S. 20 Sep: Bill Fontana wants to bring sounds of Chesil Beach to central London.

P.P.S. 17 Feb '12: Did otherworldy music inspire Stonehenge?

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Stalin Prize

I have little to add to Jonathan Steele's commentary on the launch of everycasualty and the issues it raises. Here are a few quick notes:

The dedication and courage of Sandra Orlovic and Bekim Blakaj, Deputy Director and Director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in, respectively, Belgrade and Pristina, and their colleagues is magnificent. There is great nobility in projects such as The Kosovo Memory Book 1998. Both Orlovic and Blakaj emphasized the importance, in the face of considerable opposition, of recording and describing in some detail the lives of all who died in the violence, military and civilian on both sides. By way of reminder that this in itself is not enough, Blakaj noted that 12 years after the end of the war there had been only 12 successful prosecutions for war crimes. No justice, however, was possible without an honest account of what actually happened.

Wissam Tarif of INSAN expanded on this last point. Those documenting the identity of individuals murdered or abducted in Syria and elsewhere were sometimes accused of opening tombs and opening wounds. But that was precisely the opposite of what they were doing.  Tombs and wounds could never be closed without a full accounting for what actually happened. In his own country, Lebanon, people were not fighting at present but there was no peace, only a ceasefire. This was because the Lebanese had to failed to acknowledge facts, to recognize the humanity of all those who were killed and to face their families.

According to the 2011 World Development Report, around 1.5bn people today live under the shadow of organized violence. Much of this violence is criminal. One of the questions at the launch was: should  innocent victims of crime and criminals who were themselves killed also be counted by projects such as everycasualty? One of the challenges in the 21st century, it was argued, is that while war between nations and even 'formal' civil wars are actually less frequent than before, large-scale, inchoate criminalized violence is on a greater scale than ever. This presents a challenge to existing institutional arrangements: agencies such as the Red Cross, for example, cannot act in Mexico even though the scale of the violence (recent small but typical example here) resembles war because the government does not recognize a state of war. [1]

Dan Smith of International Alert said that by making it possible to know who had died in a conflict and how, the charter had the potential to reduce the traction of wild claims (up or down), which were the meat and drink of propaganda. The charter could help us respect the 'fact of war', a continuing reality which is too often hidden behind cliches and euphemisms.

everycasualty, said Smith, was a civilising idea. Like all great ideas it was obvious once stated, but it also subtly challenged the norm. Also, there was something slightly obsessive, unrealistic about it. In this, it shared much with the ideals of the Red Cross at its foundation -- a 'wildly unrealistic' idea at the time of its inception, which acted on nothing but moral authority.

I think this is right. The everycasualty charter challenges the disturbingly plausible observation, misattributed, perhaps, to Joseph Stalin, that one death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic. It aims to make visible and irrefutable the tragedy of the violent death of each individual, including the deaths of those who are themselves killers.

Wissam Tarif told those present at the launch that the previous evening he had talked by telephone to one the volunteers on his team in Syria. The volunteer had said that in the midst of conflict people are completely focussed on what is happening right now. But others not caught up in the conflict -- such as those gathered together peacefully in London -- had the opportunity to think about the future. This was a tremendous gift.

everycasualty is an idea big enough for a version of the 21st century in which there is hope.  It will not of course end tragedy.  Ideals are frequently subverted (it is reported, for example, that death squads in Syria are using Red Cross/Red Crescent ambulances to abduct protestors).  And even a full accounting need not guarantee reconciliation. But it is a start.

A couple of other points: in June the Oxford Research Group published a working paper on The Legal Obligation to Record Civilian Casualties of Armed Conflict. And, drawing on the model of Iraq Body Count, there is now a Pakistan Body Count.

Note [1] My language and legal understanding here are shaky.

P.S. 24 Sep: A blog post by Dan Smith, who was on the panel at the launch

Monday, September 05, 2011

Unacknowledged noticers

Scientists are:
partly poets for they are not merely embellishing with their metaphors, but extending meaning into new domains
-- from a review by Nancy Golubiewski of Brendon Larson's Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability Redefining Our Relationship with Nature.

Sleeping with one eye, like a dolphin

Reverie, writes Raphaël Enthoven:
borrows the power of narration from wakefulness and the power of divination from sleep, and keeps them vying to suspend the alternation of day and night. Reverie is how one arrives at immediacy.
After writing Hypnagogia I should be sympathetic. Enthoven has considerable insight, but packages it in prose that -- at least in translation, or for my taste -- teeters on the edge of parody:
Between the sweetness of being and the pain of thinking, between sleep that is opaque to itself and the blindness of one who can’t see the stars because of daylight, lies the talent to glimpse what escapes us, the equivalent of the dawn that threatens at every instant to evaporate into dream or condense into knowing, but in that interval (and pen in hand) replaces something impenetrable with something immaterial and reveals the imaginary foundations of reality...

Because it generously accords the world the absentmindedness it deserves, reverie is light years distant from being a distraction, which does reality the considerable honor of turning its back on it. In fact, reverie celebrates the rediscovery of understanding and imagination, sets free the secret of disinterest which, because it lets you see beauty without your consent and see nature without ego, invests the world with intense interest.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Regions of light

All things, including the species to which we belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and reproduce successfully endure at least for a time;  those which are no so well suited die off quickly.  Other species and vanished existed before we came onto the scene; our kind, too, will vanish one day. Nothing -- from our own species to the sun -- lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.

In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, it is absurd to think that the earth and its inhabitants occupy a central place, or that the world was purpose-built to accommodate human beings: "The child, like a sailor cast forth by the cruel waves, lies naked upon the ground, speechless, in need of every kind of vital support, as soon as nature has spilt him forth with throes from his mother's womb into the regions of light." There is no reason to set humans apart from other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature. Instead, he wrote, human beings should conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.
-- from an essay on Lucretius by Stephen Greenblatt. But, notes Greenblatt, there is something disturbingly cold in Lucretius' account of pleasure.

 P.S. 1 Oct: In a review of The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt's, Sarah Bakewell quotes Poggio Bracciolini, who discovered a complete manuscript of De Rerum Natura in 1417:
Gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join with us in a living and intense intimacy.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Stormy weather

On Saturn a raging storm has developed from a small spot to cover an area about 4 billion square kilometres, or eight times the surface of the Earth (NASA, New Scientist).

Neptune's moon Triton has a thin atmosphere and huge streaks of black material across its surface. These are created by geysers of dust and nitrogen erupting from under its icy surface as it is heated by the sun. In other words, even at the edge of the solar system, where temperatures are below -200C, sunlight can still drive distinctive weather systems. (Carl Murray of UCL quoted in Guardian report)

Monday, July 04, 2011

'Into Eternity'

Here are a few half-thoughts (predictable for those who know my views) about Into Eternity, which I watched last night.

1. This is an outstanding piece of work. Do go out of your way to give it the time and attention it deserves.

2. Andrei Tarkovsky already made this movie. It was called Stalker.

3. A viewing of Into Eternity reinforces my view that it is corrupt and wrong to continue to increase the amount of nuclear waste unless and until we have proven and economically sane solutions as to what to do with that waste and we ensure that those who profit from new investment in nuclear power also bear their fare share of the liabilities and long term costs it imposes.

4. It would be good to see a thorough investigation of what the options are for (third, fourth generation...) nuclear power, and what prospects there may be for rendering nuclear waste, not least plutonium, less dangerous. A participant in Into Eternity says that it is theoretically possible to make transform waste into harmless substances but not practical to do so, but the film takes the issue no further. This assertion does need to be explored and tested in many fora, including non-technical documentary film.

5. The reality in the UK seems to be rather different from Finland/Sweden. Sellafield, where ... tonnes of plutonium are ‘temporarily’ stored on the surface in what is by some accounts a Steptoe and Son operation, with chaotic record keeping and people routinely ignoring alarms when they go off. Britain has at least £70 billion of liabilities in remediation at this and other sites to meet before we even start on something new. Meanwhile, as a polity, we are not yet anywhere remotely approaching serious regarding potential alternatives. We invest, according to one account, around £12m (20p per capita) per year into renewable energy generation and storage (wind, solar, hydrogen etc) R&D.

6. Watch this clip:

Note: Thanks to Jessie Tegin and OpenCity UCL for sending a copy of the film

P.S. There is a campaign to stop new nuclear power stations in Britain.

P.S. 5 July: George Monbiot has a useful commentary here, to which I have added my one penny worth of response here.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

'I guess what I’m saying is at some point, we’ve all parked in the wrong garage.'

Apart from the whole Mao was “70% correct, 30% incorrect” blather which the [Chinese Communist] Party has been clinging to like a crazy shut-in on an episode of Hoarders, there’s also a growing tendency to excuse the worst excesses of the 1958-1976 period as simply “Mao being Mao.” Like a kindly but eccentric drunk uncle who gave out candy to little children but also did to 5-10 for putting the candy store owner into a coma with a 2×4. I don’t count myself among the “Mao the Monster” crowd, but give the guy his due: His reign featured some of the the craziest and most destructive events in 20th century history, and whether he was the mastermind or a dupe is kind of irrelevant. As bad ideas go, having this guy run your country is up there with hitching a ride with Ryan Dunn or hiring R. Kelly as your baby sitter.

Mao may have been great as a political visionary, a poet, a revolutionary general and/or a noted connoisseur of stewed fatty pork, but when that many people die on your watch and the NEXT guy (or the next, next guy – sorry Hua) presides over a historically unprecedented period of economic development…that’s not good. That’s not even 30% not good. That’s like 70% sucks and 30% really, really sucks and all the Red Songs in the world aren’t going to change those numbers.
-- from It’s a Mad Mad 90th Anniversary by Jeremiah Jenne

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Aquarium

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling -- that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. [My daughter] Isabel's suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anyone. And Isabel most certainly did not earn ascension to a better place, as there was no place better for her than at home with her family. Without Isabel, [my wife] Teri and I were left with oceans of love we could no longer dispense; we found ourselves with an excess of time that we used to devote to her; we had to live in a void that could be filled only by Isabel. Her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is to a continuous secretion of sorrow.
-- from The Aquarium by Aleksandar Hemon

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Nothing to envy

Reading Barabara Demick, I understand better how it is that the North Korean regime has survived so long. Potential dissidents in the 1990s knew that, on the 'tainted blood principle,' not only they but their families for three generations and including cousins could be irreparably harmed. A lot of people, says Demick, were content with the idea of risking their own life in the hope that things might change but not those of their entire families. The system combined the most repressive aspects of Confucianism and Stalinism.

There's that line in The Big Lebowski:  'say what you like about National Socialism but at least it's an ideology.'   

P.S. Recent articles on N. Korea : Exogenous Zones and North Korea’s Meth Export.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The IPPC muddle

Sensible analysis from O.M. on the IPCC renewables 'scandal'. For example:
Without really understanding costs, how can one go forward to assess the merits and believability of scenarios.

Predicting future demand is as hard if not harder. This is one of the reasons why Vaclav Smil, doyen of energy analysts, devoted a magisterial chapter in his book “Energy at the Crossroads” to the manifest failure of more or less all predictions about the future of energy markets. Closer to home, Dr Pachauri wrote a book premised on the imminent arrival of higher oil prices in the mid-1980s; it didn’t happen. [The Economist] has similar skeletons in its cupboard.

It is exactly because assessing scenarios is so hard, says [Ottmar] Edenhofer, that the IPCC authors instead chose to simply expand on the details of four particularly striking ones. The Greenpeace one was chosen for this spotlight because it had the highest renewable penetration; the median penetration in 2050 across all 164 scenarios was just 27%.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Carbon future

‘Schumpeter’ in The Economist has a sobering overview of trends and forecasts for world energy. Here are some of the key points:
* Robust growth was seen in all regions and in almost all types of energy use: the world consumed more of every main fuel bar one [that is, nuclear] than it had in any previous year. Consumption of oil, which accounts for 34% of the world’s primary energy by BP’s calculations, rose by 3.1%. Coal, at 30% the number two fuel, was up by 7.6%, growing faster than at any time since 2003. Consumption of gas, which contributes 24%, was up by 7.4%, the biggest annual growth since 1984.

* The growth in fossil fuels was so strong that although non-fossil-fuel energy also had a record year, its share of the world total primary energy decreased a little. Hydro (6.5%) saw its biggest annual increase on record, in part due to more dams and in part due to a lot of rain; Christof Rühl, BP’s chief economist, notes there was more precipitation in 2010 than in any year in the past century...Most of China’s growth came from burning more coal: in 2000 China accounted for just under a third of world coal use; in 2010 a staggering 48.2%. Repeat that sort of expansion on a smaller scale for a number of other countries and you see why coal is going up in the global mix. You also see why the world’s energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions have grown even faster than its energy use—by 5.8% last year, on BP’s figures. That is the fastest growth since 1969...

* The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook [forecasts] a new “golden age of gas” scenario for future energy production and consumption. This sees global gas demand rising by more than 50% over the next 25 years, as gas outstrips coal to come close to equalling oil in the energy mix. Meeting that demand would require an increase in production equivalent to three times the amount of gas produced by Russia today, which the agency imagines being handily met by a mixture of conventional gas and shale gas, as well as some other unconventional forms of the fuel such as coal-bed methane. China becomes both a principal producer (its shale-gas resources are reckoned the largest in the world) and perhaps the largest importer. But all this does not do anything like as much as you might expect in terms of reducing carbon emissions. This is because cheap gas does not just displace dirty coal, as it has been doing in America; it also displaces expensive renewables and nuclear...
A view from Michael Klare here.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Beyond the rings of Saturn

CASSINI MISSION from Chris Abbas on Vimeo.

The Paypal Atlantis

"I envision tens of millions of people in an Apple or a Google country," where the high-tech giants would govern and residents would have no vote. "If people are allowed to opt in or out, you can have a successful dictatorship," the goateed Friedman says, wiggling his toes in pink Vibram slippers.
-- from Patri Friedman makes waves with 'seasteading' plan.  It sounds like the very opposite of Wolf's dream. Characteristic that it should have support of 'libertarian' Peter Thiel

Friday, June 03, 2011

Tree of lights


A very poor quality camera-phone image of a quaking tree in a park fails to convey sensations created by Andrei Tarkovsky or Victor Erice.
The problem of consciousness can now be stated somewhat more precisely: How does the brain produce qualitative subjectivity? How does it get us over the hump from the objective third-person character of neuron firings to the subjective first-person feelings we have when we are conscious?
-- John R. Searle

Monday, May 30, 2011

The God species

Biosphere 2 was a giant sealed world. Eight humans were locked in with a mass of flora and other fauna, and a balanced ecosystem was supposed to naturally emerge. But from the start it was completely unbalanced. The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the "ocean" and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The "bionauts" began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another's faces. A psychiatrist was brought in to see if they had gone insane, but concluded simply that it was a struggle for power.

Then millions of ants appeared from nowhere and waged war on the cockroaches. In 1993 the experiment collapsed in chaos and hatred.
-- from Adam Curtis on How the 'ecosystem' myth has been used for sinister means

Saturday, April 30, 2011

By the numbers

Our typical math skills seem quite undeveloped relative to our nuanced language skills [perhaps because in the world in which we evolved] communication was life and death, math was not. Have you not admired, as I have, the incredible average skill and, perhaps more importantly, the high minimum skill shown by our species in driving through heavy traffic? At what other activity does almost everyone perform so well? Just imagine what driving would be like if those driving skills, which reflect the requirements of our distant past, were replaced by our average math skills!
-- Jeremy Grantham in Quarterly Letter, April 2011
An estimated 1,400 billion tons of methane is stored in [East Siberian] deposits. By comparison, total human greenhouse gas emissions (including CO2) since 1750 amount to some 350 billion tons...Release of ECS methane is already contributing to Arctic amplification resulting in temperature increase exceeding twice the global average. The rate of release from the tundra alone is predicted to reach 1.5 billion tons of carbon per annum before 2030...
-- Agnostic and Daniel Bailey on Wakening the Kraken at Skeptical science.

Transmutation man

Acord was in favour of nuclear energy, and saw changing one element into another as the realisation of "mankind's most innate desire": alchemical transmutation. But he was wary of the nuclear industry's secrecy. Acord saw art as the way to wrest power from the hands of nuclear scientists. His aim was "to increase understanding and openness and transparency about nuclear issues".
-- from an obituary of the remarkable James Acord

Guerre des Etoiles Existentielles

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


We spend money we don't have, on things we don't need, to make impressions that don't last, on people we don't care about.
-- Tim Jackson quoted by Pat Kane

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The nation delights in servitude

We fought for the public good and would have enfranchised the people and secured the welfare of the whole groaning creation, if the nation had not delighted more in servitude than freedom
--John Cooke, quoted by Geoffrey Robertson


Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations.
-- Christopher Hitchens

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Home of the unfree

America now jails more of its people than any country, including all totalitarian states. We pretend to a war against narcotics, but in truth, we are simply brutalizing and dehumanizing an urban underclass that we no longer need as a labor supply.
-- David Simon

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The sense of time

Time isn’t like the other senses, [David] Eagleman says. Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are relatively easy to isolate in the brain. They have discrete functions that rarely overlap: it’s hard to describe the taste of a sound, the color of a smell, or the scent of a feeling...But a sense of time is threaded through everything we perceive. It’s there in the length of a song, the persistence of a scent, the flash of a light bulb. “There’s always an impulse toward phrenology in neuroscience—toward saying, ‘Here is the spot where it’s happening,’ ” Eagleman told me. “But the interesting thing about time is that there is no spot. It’s a distributed property. It’s metasensory; it rides on top of all the others.”
-- from The Possibilian by Burkhard Bilger

Friday, April 15, 2011

Not getting somewhere, but being somewhere

Once, our ancestors walked the world. Then came domestication of animals and the wheel, and now the car. Today walking can be hard, as settlements and transport have become rearranged beyond our control. Many people still walk for pleasure, in urban parks or in the countryside. But few of us now walk far as part of daily lives. This disconnection from regular contact with the land has shifted our perspectives on memory, place and time. A few people have walked all their lives, and have seen how the land has changed. Ronald Blythe remembers that footpaths were once full of people moving about, working, interacting. These were like today’s main roads, except people talked and walked and watched. The old countryside was peopled. Blythe writes, “friends never tire of telling me that my life would be transformed if only I could drive a car, quite forgetting how transformed it has been because I cannot.” The trouble is, we get out less today, and the resulting alienation from nature is contributing to environmental problems. We are suffering in short from an extinction of natural experience. “I wish to make an extreme statement”, said Thoreau, “walking is about the genius for sauntering. It is not about getting somewhere, but being somewhere.” Edward Abbey was blunter: “you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees.”
-- Jules Pretty

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Opening up the dimension of time

With Yasujiro Ozu, Orson Welles and others like Jean Renoir, you get images that no longer are strictly driven by the narrative purpose but start to take on a descriptive function.

The link between perceiving the world...[and] knowing how to act on it in order to transform it, that link has now undergone some kind of crisis, some kind of breakdown.
-- from Alan Saunders and Robert Sinnerbrink on Gilles Deleuze and the philosophy of film

Sinnerbrink calls two recent Australian films -- Samson and Delilah, and Ten Canoes -- Deleuzian. Agreed. Another could be a film that influenced many that came after it: Walkabout.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Sunday, April 03, 2011


The total costs of coal may be high, but the total costs of nuclear power are, in any meaningful sense, incalculable.
-- Thomas Noyes

P.S. 6 April: a roundup on the nuclear debate by Mike Child, and Joe Stiglitz on risk

P.S. 15 April: (surprise!) nuclear operators in Europe 'want liability capped at €0.7bn or at most €1.3bn '

Friday, April 01, 2011

Jeremy's stiffs

Last year I suggested that Jeremy Clarkson be held to account for extra deaths attributable to the switching off of speed cameras in Oxfordshire. Now it looks as if the evidence is in:
Speed cameras in Oxfordshire, which were switched off for cost-cutting reasons, have been turned back on again following publication of higher casualty figures...

...Superintendent Rob Povey, head of roads policing for Thames Valley, said: "This is important because we know that speed kills and speed is dangerous. We have shown in Oxfordshire that speed has increased through monitoring limits and we have noticed an increase in fatalities and the number of people seriously injured in 2010."
P.S. 20 May: 'Speed camera switch-off empowers reckless driving,' writes George Monbiot.

'Trump in 12'

In 2004 I took the URL for this web site from what seemed like a third rate joke. If I were updating it now I would call it 'Trump in 12'. Thanks to Lewis Black for showing the way.

Joe Stiglitz anatomizes the consquences of the rule of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nuclear doubts

George Monbiot's recent post on nuclear power is a valuable contribution to the debate. My doubts include the following:
If measures taken now to prevent climate breakdown are already 'too little too late' then how wise is it to build a new generation of nuclear plants for societies likely to be stretched to near or beyond their ability to cope with disruptive change?  In a more turbulent world, regulatory systems are likely to be even more vulnerable to capture by corporate profiteers (privatising gains, nationalising losses) while security systems are likely to be more vulnerable to breach by hostile actors. What could be the actual costs of just one major terrorist incident at a nuclear power plant in a densely populated country?

What if PV does end up costing $1 per Watt in ten years or so (recent breakthroughs suggest this may be possible, albeit very far from certain), while the cost of nuclear power does not decline significantly from its current level (something that may be quite likely, especially if the costs of security measures and waste management are taken into account)?
I would be glad to see these doubts dispelled/shown to be mistaken.

P.S. a view (pdf) from Paul Mobbs

P.S. 1 April: John Vidal says the actual impacts of nuclear accidents are much worse than is often claimed. Evidence or anecdote? Testament to psychological impacts rather than quantifiable physical ones?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Libyan dilemmas

Even if one's instincts are to help those fighting Gadaffi, it is no longer enough just to see it as a struggle of goodies against baddies. For it is precisely that simplification that has led to unreal fantasies about who we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fantasies that persist today, and which our leaders still cling to - because they give the illusion that we are in control.
-- from Goodies and Baddies by Adam Curtis
Some things are clear, though. In Benghazi, an influential businessman named Sami Bubtaina expressed a common sentiment: “We want democracy. We want good schools, we want a free media, an end to corruption, a private sector that can help build this nation, and a parliament to get rid of whoever, whenever, we want.” These are honorable aims. But to expect that they will be achieved easily is to deny the cost of decades of insanity, terror, and the deliberate eradication of civil society.
-- from Who are the rebels? by Jon Lee Anderson


As recalled in a recent post here, Werner Herzog distinguishes between what he calls "accountant's truth" and "ecstatic truth." Interesting to note, then, that (as Richard Brody notes) Frederick Wiseman (who is supposedly among the most realist and non-inverventionist of documentary film makers) calls his films works of imagination, and says, "They have nothing to do with reality!"  Is he serious?
Wiseman likens his work to that of a director or writer of fictions: "I ask myself the same questions of narration, of abstraction. Like them, I have to find a dramaturgy."

Nuke notes

The most pertinent challenges, argue Hugh Gusterson and Elizabeth Kolbert, may be regulatory and political (not to mention economic) rather than technical.

Julia Whitty has hair-raising primer on nuclear pollution of the oceans.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Best of both worlds

Tim Flannery notes:
In the 1950s the Richfield Oil Corporation was pondering whether nuclear power might play a role in helping to exploit Alberta's tar sands. The company executives reasoned that if it could expode a series of two-kiloton bombs below the 30,000 square kilometre tar-sands deposit, the heat of the explosion would vitrify the sand, coating the cavity and thus creating glass., while a peculiarity of the chemical structure o the tar would cause it to liquefy. When cooled, the tar would retain its more runny consistency and so fill the cavities. Three hundred billion barrels of crude oil would be made accessible by the process, the experts claimed, with no hazard from radioactivity.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Two useless things I learned today

Thing One:  The young Moon rotated very fast.  The Earth's gravity created a bulge in its surface seven meters high on the part closest to the Earth. You should imagine a wave traveling across the Moon's rocky surface. Eventually, the wave slowed the Moon to a stop, which is why we never see its dark side.
Thing Two:  In medieval Europe it was believed that pulling up a mandrake root (which was valued for its supposed medicinal or magical properties) would kill you if you heard the root scream. That bit I knew already. What I did not know was that the recommended solution was for a man to put beeswax in his ears, tie a dog to the stem of the mandrake, and beat the dog while sounding loudly on a trumpet so that the he would not hear the scream of the root as the dog ran away and dragged it out of the ground.
Both things I learned courtesy of the BBC (Brian Cox and David Attenborough respectively). Testament to the BBC as a civilisational institution. (I am being serious.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Gaddafi and Assange

As Steve Coll, among others, has noted, Wikileaks may have helped spark the Tunisian revolution and Arab spring (although other factors, not least the price of food, probably played a bigger role). Certainly, Wikileaks has been a target of vituperation by Muammar Gaddafi, a current focus of popular revolt. But the Libyan leader and the Australian hacker may share more than either realize. Indeed, the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is more like Julian Assange than he is like Charlie Sheen.

Gadaffi's vision of Jamahiriya is of direct democracy: all power is to reside in the people while government is swept away. Assange also dreams of demolishing state and corporate conspiracy.

Gadaffi sees conspirators against him everywhere: Al Qaeda and the U.S. government are working in concert against him. Assange reportedly sees a Jewish conspiracy against him (despite support from Alan Dershowitz, among others).

[To be fair to Assange, he is not the only rather confused person out there: as Jonathan Freedland notes, LSE Director Sir Howard Davies has suggested an equivalence between Muammar Gaddafi and George Soros.]

OK, I'm just kidding (a bit). For a more serious analysis of Assange's philosophy and politics see part one and part two of a series on ABC's Philosophy Zone.

P.S. 10 March: another view on Assange from John Pilger. Interesting, although I disagree with the implication of Pilger's first sentence that there should be no intervention in Libya in the form of a no fly zone so long as it is approved by the UN, the OIC etc. See Kristof, Campbell and Sands.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hard road

In the 1957 film The Battle of Algiers, the Algerian strategist Larbi Ben M'Hidi tells an activist, 'It's hard enough to start a revolution, even harder still to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it. But it is only afterwards, once we've won, that the real difficulties begin.'

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The unintentional humour of Pakistan's blasphemy law

...a 17-year-old schoolboy, also in Karachi, had been arrested and charged with blasphemy. His sin? Apparently he had written something objectionable while doing an exam, although nobody can be told what it was he wrote (lest they be charged with committing blasphemy-by-repetition).
-- The Economist

Thursday, January 20, 2011

China and power

In 2009 the Chinese authorities spent $75 billion on 'internal security,' nearly as much as the $80 billion they spent on national defense.
-- Li Xiaorong. See also Perry Link

Friday, January 07, 2011

Doing God's Work on the Magic Sugar Mountain

Not plutocracy but plutocrosis:
With Goldman’s investment in Facebook, we have a front-row seat to the process by which Wall Street creates and inflates financial bubbles.
-- William Cohan on a scam (with Nigerian overtones).

P.S. The Economist notes:
at $50 billion Facebook looks rather expensive. If its sales really are $2 billion a year, that implies that Goldman and DST are paying 25 times current revenues for their shares. That would be a breathtakingly steep multiple, even by the giddy standards of the start-up world.