Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wrong turns, failed policies

Klein is not an academic and cannot be judged as one. There are many places in her book where she oversimplifies. But Friedman and the other shock therapists were also guilty of oversimplification, basing their belief in the perfection of market economies on models that assumed perfect information, perfect competition, perfect risk markets. Indeed, the case against these policies is even stronger than the one Klein makes. They were never based on solid empirical and theoretical foundations, and even as many of these policies were being pushed, academic economists were explaining the limitations of markets — for instance, whenever information is imperfect, which is to say always.
-- from Joseph Stiglitz's review of The Shock Doctrine.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Biofuels and aviation

I've shared the widespread assumption that finding a substitute for kerosene is going to be one of the biggest obstacles to achieving less damaging means of air transport. "Biofuel trial flight set for 747" looks like one to watch.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Letter from Akbar Ganji to the UN Secretary-General

On 18 September the Iranian writer Akbar Ganji sent an open letter to Ban Ki-moon. It does not seem to be easily available. I am attaching a copy to this post as a comment (because it's too long to put in the post itself).

[P.S. 27 Sep: see also Peter Galbraith on The Victor in NYRB (Sep 13)].

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The tunnel

“I had a dream last night,” Haneke told me toward the end of our lunch in New York. “A nightmare, to be exact. Maybe you’ll find it useful for your piece.” For a moment he was uncharacteristically quiet. He finally said: “I was sitting in a bus, and suddenly it went out of control. For some reason I was responsible for everybody’s safety, but I couldn’t get the steering wheel to work: perhaps it was broken, perhaps someone else was preventing me. People were wandering up and down the street, and the bus ran them over, unavoidably, one after another. Somehow I was responsible for this, but I was helpless to prevent it.” He took a slow, thoughtful sip of his coffee. “A pretty terrible dream, but to me it seems representative of our current situation in the world. All of us are responsible but unable to change the direction of the bus — everyone in Europe, everyone in the so-called first world, is in that same position. A horrible predicament, almost unbearable if you think about it, but the bus keeps right on rolling.”
-- from Minister of Fear, a profile of Michale Haneke by John Wray.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Deep state

The fact that the British government has for two months not responded to requests from the US Department of Justice for assistance in its investigation into allegations of corruption concerning BAE Systems suggests little has changed from the Blair administration to the Brown administration.

[P.S. 23 Sep: "As scandalous as the allegations the authorities find it convenient to ignore are the accusations they are willing to pursue. While alleged fraud goes unexamined, the West Midlands police case against Channel 4 for investigating Saudi funding of extremist mosques goes on and on" -- Nick Cohen on The Saudi connection that belittles Britain.]

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Turtle Island Walkabout

A O Scott makes a case that Sean Penn's film of John Krakauer's notable book Into The Wild is worth seeing.


Robert Butler notes (20 Sep) Bill McKibben's review (along with Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger's Break Through and Kerry Emmanuel's What We Know About Climate Change) of Bjørn Lomborg's Cool It, and asks "Will Arts & Letters link to it?...Or does it, bizarrely, only link to articles that praise this peculiar book?"

We briefly discussed A&L's track record on climate change. Robert Butler said:
I think that Arts & Letters is committing a category mistake (to use the term loosely). It treats the issue as if it exists in the republic of letters and everyone has an equal claim to the truth. But in this area the opinion of a clever journalist is irrelevant when compared with the research done by [thousands] of scientists. What annoys me in particular about the Arts & Letters position (and the BBC is guilty of this too) is that it establishes some critical distance between itself and the majority opinion of scientists, without at any point offering justification for the existence of that gap.
See also Dasgupta on Lomborg's muddled concreteness.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Collective punishment

Judea Pearl (The death of relativism) is clearly a fine person, and is right to insist that the tragedy of her son Daniel Pearl's death demands an end to "false logic that all forms of violence are equally evil", and that "there can be no comparison between those who take pride in the killing of an unarmed journalist and those who vow to end such acts". I strongly support this.

What would she say of actions such as the one taken by an IDF bulldozer in April 2002, which in the middle of the night and allegedly without warning flattened the home of Mahmoud Omar al-Shu'bi, killings his father Umar, sisters Fatima and Abir, brother Samir and sister-in-law Nabila who was pregnant, as well as their three children aged four, seven and nine, while they slept (Families cannot sue firm for Israel deaths)?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The wages of hate

Steven Levitt blogs about his latest academic paper, Hatred and Profits, co-written with Roland Fryer. Levitt and Fryer argue that despite the size of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s and the education levels of its members, the group had little measurable impact on US society or politics. "It was, however, an incredible engine for generating profits for Klan leaders."

The paper would seem to support a general point we may be familiar with in general terms, but don't often see detailed evidence for, about entrepreneurs of hate in many times and places.

Monday, September 17, 2007

'Unreasonable effectiveness'

Ultimately, why should we believe the mathematical universe hypothesis? Perhaps the most compelling objection is that it feels counter-intuitive and disturbing. I personally dismiss this as a failure to appreciate Darwinian evolution. Evolution endowed us with intuition only for those aspects of physics that had survival value for our distant ancestors, such as the parabolic trajectories of flying rocks. Darwin's theory thus makes the testable prediction that whenever we look beyond the human scale, our evolved intuition should break down.

We have repeatedly tested this prediction, and the results overwhelmingly support it: our intuition breaks down at high speeds, where time slows down; on small scales, where particles can be in two places at once; and at high temperatures, where colliding particles change identity. To me, an electron colliding with a positron and turning into a Z-boson feels about as intuitive as two colliding cars turning into a cruise ship. The point is that if we dismiss seemingly weird theories out of hand, we risk dismissing the correct theory of everything, whatever it may be.
-- from Mathematical cosmos: Reality by numbers by Max Tegmark.

Carbon Commentary

Chris Goodall has launched a newsletter on climate change, British business and society called Carbon Commentary. The first edition is online here. Those wanting to receive future editions are asked to send an empty email to subscribe [at]

Sunday, September 16, 2007

'Muddled concreteness'

Lomborg’s thesis is built on a deep misconception of the Earth’s system and the economics when applied to that system...If there is one truth about the Earth system we should all know, it’s that [it] is driven by interlocking, non-linear processes running at different speeds…We have no data on the consequences if Earth were to cross those tipping points. They could be good, or they could be disastrous. Even if we did have data, they would probably be of little value because nature’s processes are irreversible. One implication of the Earth’s system’s deep non-linearities is that estimates of climactic parameters based on observations from the recent past are unreliable for making forecasts about the state of the world at CO2 concentrations of 560ppm or higher.

…[but] the integrated assessment models of Earth’s system on which Lomborg builds his case are arbitrarily bounded on either side of his point estimates. It can be shown that if those bounds are removed (as they ought to be), even a small amount of uncertainty – when allied to a moderate aversion to uncertainty – would imply that humanity should spend substantial amounts on insurance, even more than the 1 – 2% that has been advocated. If the uncertainties are not small, standard cost-benefit analysis as applied to the economics of climate change becomes incoherent, even it those uncertainties are judged to be thin-tailed (gaussian, for example)…

Economics helps us realise what we are able to say about matters that will reveal themselves only in the distant future. Simultaneously, it helps us realise the limits of what we are able to say. That, too, is worth knowing, for limits on what are able to say are not a reason for inaction.
-- from Partha Dasgupta's review (in Nature, Vol 449, 13 Sep) of Cool It by Bjørn Lomborg.

Dasgputa writes that Lomborg advocates allowing atmospheric concentrations to rise to 560ppm, on the assumption that this will cause a rise in global average temperature to increase by 4.7 degrees C.

[P.S. 17 Sep: Kevin Watkins, whose review will appear shortly in Prospect, says Lomborg is talking about a global average temperature rise of 4.7 degrees F - i.e. approx 2.16 C - for a doubling of CO2. So it looks as if there was a typo in the Nature review.]

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Writing on wall

The decision to attack was made some time ago. It will be in two stages. If a smoking gun is found in terms of Iranian interference in Iraq, the US will retaliate on a tactical level, and they will strike against military targets. The second part of this is: Bush has made the decision to launch a strategic attack against Iranian nuclear facilities, although not before next year. He has been lining up some Sunni countries for tacit support for his actions.
-- Vincent Cannistraro, former head of counter-terrorism at the CIA, quoted by Julian Borger and Ian Black in Proxy war could soon turn to direct conflict, analysts warn.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Iraq oil deal

What’s particularly revealing is the cause of the breakdown [on 12 September of attempts arrive at a compromise Iraqi oil law]. Last month the provincial government in Kurdistan, defying the central government, passed its own oil law; last week a Kurdish Web site announced that the provincial government had signed a production-sharing deal with the Hunt Oil Company of Dallas, and that seems to have been the last straw.

Now here’s the thing: Ray L. Hunt, the chief executive and president of Hunt Oil, is a close political ally of Mr. Bush. More than that, Mr. Hunt is a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a key oversight body.

...Mr. Hunt, thanks to his policy position, is presumably as well-informed about the actual state of affairs in Iraq as anyone in the business world can be. By putting his money into a deal with the Kurds, despite Baghdad’s disapproval, he’s essentially betting that the Iraqi government ­ which hasn’t met a single one of the major benchmarks Mr. Bush laid out in January ­ won’t get its act together. Indeed, he’s effectively betting against the survival of Iraq as a nation in any meaningful sense of the term.

The smart money, then, knows that the surge has failed, that the war is lost, and that Iraq is going the way of Yugoslavia. And I suspect that most people in the Bush administration ­ maybe even Mr. Bush himself ­ know this, too.
-- from Paul Krugman: A Surge, and Then a Stab (14 Sep).

I'm not quite convinced by this for a reason I can't put my finger on at present.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The servant of the passions

Studies of everyday reasoning show that we usually use reason to search for evidence to support our initial judgment, which was made in milliseconds. But I do agree...that sometimes we can use controlled processes such as reasoning to override our initial intuitions. I just think this happens rarely, maybe in one or two percent of the hundreds of judgments we make each week.
-- a snippet from Jonathan Haidt's rich Moral psychology and the misunderstanding of religion. Haidt summarises a new synthesis in moral psychology in four principles:

1) Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship
2) Moral thinking is for social doing
3) Morality binds and builds
4) Morality is about more than harm and fairness

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Six years on

In openDemocracy's 11 September anniversary package, Volker Perthes outlines four scenarios for Iraq in 2012; Audrey Kurth Cronin considers Al-Qaida: end of the beginning; and Malise Ruthven looks at "Born-again" Muslims: cultural schizophrenia:
[Mohammed] Atta’s “schizophrenic” behaviour seems to dramatise the conflict that also occurred in Sayyid Qutb’s mind after he abandoned his love affair with the west and reverted to “Islam”. In both cases, of course, this was far from being the received Islam or what scholars of religion call “cumulative tradition”; rather, it was a brand-new, invented Islam that drew on selected elements of this tradition but also incorporated, without acknowledgment, many “western” ideas – from the revolutionary puritanism of Robespierre to the “propaganda of the deed” advocated by the Baader-Meinhof gang.

The cultural and religious schizophrenia experienced by a man like...Atta is microcosmic when compared to that of a whole society. Modern Saudi Arabia (where Osama bin Laden’s father, a street-porter from Aden, made a fortune by constructing palaces for princes) exemplifies the paradox of a hi-tech society wedded to a pre-modern conservative theology. The chief religious dignitary, Sheikh bin Baz, still holds a Ptolemaic or geocentric view of the cosmos based on his reading of the Qur'an. Yet Saudi Arabia has bought into the US space programme, sending the first and so far the only Muslim astronaut into orbit.

Song lines

I have been invited to hear the Winchester Troper, "the earliest know manuscript of English music and apparently the oldest record of polyphony in Europe...written circa 1000 AD" being sung on 29 September in its original setting, Winchester Cathederal, for the first time in a thousand years. I can't make it, because I will be at Woods Hole, but anyone who goes, please let me know what it was like!

Nasty, brutish and very long

In Conservation alone 'is not enough', Richard Leakey (about whom I have previously blogged here) makes a good case that the recent 'execution' of gorillas in eastern Kivu in the Democratic Republic Congo is "fundamentally a human tragedy, with very human solutions". He recommends a "focused global initiative to end the conflict, introduce alternative sources of household fuel, and create alternative livelihoods".

Certainly, Leakey cannot be accused of underestimating the scale of the challenge, noting that the gorillas live "at the epicentre of the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War". But what are the prospects for solving it?

Congo is a textbook example of a country caught in three of the four traps that impede development identified Paul Collier in The Bottom Billion: the 'conflict trap'; the 'natural resource trap'; and 'landlocked with bad neighbours' (the DRC is not literally landlocked, but its littoral is small and inaccessible from most of the country). And it half meets the criteria for Collier's fourth trap, having bad governance. Extreme violence and exploitation have characterised the country for much of the last 120 years, with growing consequences as the population grows.

In his latest commentary on Iraq, Planning for defeat (which is worth reading for several reasons), George Packer notes that Things Fall Apart, an influential examination of the history of civil wars around the world, concludes that "[civil wars] usually last a long time, spill over into other countries, and end only through the military victory of one side, or through massive external intervention."

Given that a military stalemate looks likely in Congo, a solution will probably require outside intervention -- vastly more than the 'international community' (the rich Western powers, at best hobbled by lack of domestic political will, and self-regarding in their tokenism) -- has shown to date. From where might the determination to get serious come, given the profitability of the status quo to vested interests and the few near term benefits for most external players with capacity to act of doing so (be it 'the West', some of the more developed African nations or other players such as the Chinese)? If Tony Blair had been serious about his Commission for Africa would he not be flying around the world on its behalf rather than the Middle East Quartet? Global public opinion? How long are we talking about?

Meanwhile, the prospects for gorillas look grim and they remain among the one in four mammals under threat. Still, surprising things can happen. There may be more bounce in a 'dead species walking' than the evidence sometimes seems to indicate, as this report about tigers India apparently suggests.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Countdown 2010

As the rate of biodiversity loss accelerates worldwide, civil society organizations and governments are joining forces to fight the global extinction crisis. Today, twenty-one Chinese and international organizations in China signed the Countdown 2010 declaration, committing themselves to additional efforts to reduce biodiversity loss by the year 2010.
-- more here.

'Absolutely not the BBC's job'

Cancelling Planet Relief, a BBC spokesperson has said that the Corporation "will focus [its] energies on a range of factual programmes on the important and complex subject of climate change".

If they remain faithful to this pledge and accept the results of the scientific method, then perhaps an immediate "expletive deleted!" reaction among those who think there is a strong case for drastic action to reduce emissions is unnecessary, because the facts support their case.

But if the BBC management lend credence to unfounded conspiracy theories, then they are likely to be complicit in the destruction of much life.

[P.S. 7 Sept: see Row over climate change TV from Nature's Climate Feedback blog.]

Monday, September 03, 2007

Great disarray

Ahead of his first meeting with George W. Bush, Nichoas Sarkozy was advised by Jean-David Levitte, the former French ambassador "You will find him strong and welcoming but behind the façade you will find a man in great disarray" (or so it is reported by Yasmina Reza as reviewed by John Thornhill).

This seems consistent with something Bush is reported (here and here) to have said to Robert Draper : "Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency. This is a job where you can have a lot of self-pity."

But it's OK. He is going to set up a "fantastic freedom institute in Dallas".

Saturday, September 01, 2007


In HIV Denial in the Internet Era Tara Smith and Steven Novella review the "intellectual strategies" used by the HIV denial movement. They say that these share characteristics described of many other forms of popular denial, including denial of evolution, mental illness, and the Holocaust.

The orange light

Further to Cry Havoc, see George Packer's Test marketing:
...They [the source's institution] have "instructions" (yes, that was the word used) from the Office of the Vice-President to roll out a campaign for war with Iran in the week after Labor Day; it will be coordinated with the American Enterprise Institute, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, Fox, and the usual suspects. It will be heavy sustained assault on the airwaves, designed to knock public sentiment into a position from which a war can be maintained. Evidently they don't think they'll ever get majority support for this—they want something like 35-40 percent support, which in their book is "plenty."

True? I don't know. Plausible? Absolutely...
P.S. See attached comment for the full post.

P.S. 3 Sep: Ray McGovern asks Do We Have the Courage to Stop War with Iran?, and quotes Martin Luther King:
...There is such a thing as being too late. ... Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with lost opportunity.