Friday, October 31, 2008

open democracy

A little late, and perhaps superfluous, to comment on the Obama-mercial, but for me the very last sentence is the one that really matters:
I will always tell you what I think and where I stand. I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you when we disagree. And, most importantly, I will open the doors of government and ask you to be involved in your own democracy again.

"Vote like your life depended on it"

A good tag line in what looks like it may be a useful new book, Cool the Earth by Prof. John Harte and Mary Ellen Harte -- available for download here.

It's not just about voting, though...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


An official in China has said that Chinese emissions of greenhouse gases are roughly the same as US emissions -- report

Here is what I said two years ago.

Peak speak

UK will face peak oil crisis within five years, says a report flagged in The Guardian.

World will struggle to meet oil demand, says The Financial Times (The IEA expects oil consumption in 2030 to reach 106.4m barrels a day, down from last year’s forecast of 116.3m b/d).

But peak oil, more accurately termed elsewhere oil, remains a red herring (see this and this).

A new and terrible weapon

After Hiroshima, the Japanese scientists concluded, correctly, that the United States must have labored long and hard to create enough U-235, the difficult-to-extract fissionable isotope of uranium used in atomic bombs, and that they probably did not have any left—the Hiroshima bomb was a one-time shot, at least for now. After Nagasaki, however, these scientists recognized the plutonium used in that bomb and understood that it must have come from a working reactor—and, therefore, there would be more where that bomb came from. The authors [of The Nuclear Express, Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman] surmise the scientists’ advice to the Japanese war cabinet after Nagasaki: “Better take this one seriously; better accede to American demands; there are probably more plutonium bombs.”

If this is accurate, it creates a different context for reflection on whether the United States should have delivered a warning shot. Of course, in one important sense, the moral equation remains unchanged—the U.S. decision-makers could only proceed from the knowledge they possessed; they could not factor in how well-educated Japanese nuclear-weapons scientists would react. Still, it does suggest that if the U.S. had conducted a demonstration bombing with its uranium-based weapon, it might not have made a decisive impression on the Japanese at all.
-- Steve Coll.


We’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.
-- Sarah Palin, quoted by Hendrick Hertzberg

Teddy Roosevelt, John McCain's favourite president, was also branded a socialist, notes Andrew Sullivan


To the ancient Greeks, Arcadia was a rural idyll. Instead of a lush, bucolic landscape, I found one devastated by the hunt for fossil fuels. Sixty per cent of Greece’s electricity is derived from lignite (brown coal). This involves bulldozing whole landscapes to feed the nearby power station. In Megalopolis I found Greece’s second largest lignite mine. The village of Anthohori in Arcadia was wiped off the map - the church of Santa Maria was all that remained.
-- Stuart Franklin


the idea that a quick recession would purge the world of past excesses is ludicrous. The danger is, instead, of a slump, as a mountain of private debt – in the US, equal to three times GDP – topples over into mass bankruptcy. The downward spiral would begin with further decay of financial systems and proceed via pervasive mistrust, the vanishing of credit, closure of vast numbers of businesses, soaring unemployment, tumbling commodity prices, cascading declines in asset prices and soaring repossessions. Globalisation would spread the catastrophe everywhere.

Many of the victims would be innocent of past excesses, while many of the most guilty would retain their ill-gotten gains. This would be a recipe not for a revival of 19th-century laisser faire, but for xenophobia, nationalism and revolution. As it is, such outcomes are conceivable.
-- Martin Wolf

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


...There escaping the need for politics, for a robust international agreement that, among other things, commits America to sharing the burden for helping China and India develop without burning their piles of coal; building wind farms in Mongolia is even more crucial than in Minnesota.

...[Tom] Friedman can't easily deal with such [analysis] precisely because of the tenets of the conventional wisdom, American style, which is that fundamental change in direction is essentially impossible. The world is a growth machine and "nobody can turn it off."...

[He] can't see these new probabilities because they conflict with the one great imperative of the conventional wisdom, which is optimism. Just as you can't run for commander-in-chief on any platform other than "Our best days are still ahead of us," so you can't run for pundit-in-chief either. But those instincts can get you in trouble. Friedman, after all, supported the war in Iraq with a similarly glib but upbeat forecast. The day of the invasion he weighed the two schools of thought: the Europeans were predicting "more terrorism, a dangerous precedent for preventive war, civilian casualties," while Bush was arguing "that it will be a game-changer—that it will spark reform throughout the Arab world and intimidate other tyrants who support terrorists."

He chose wrong there, and of course deplores it now; my guess is he'll rue his dismissal of international diplomacy, and of the possibility that the world should consider more fundamental shifts than technological change alone. Global warming, above all, should give one pause—after all, we are making our mark now in geological, not human, time. But pause doesn't seem to be one of his modes.
-- Bill McKibben.

Get your kicks

McCain is right in detecting signs of growing class resentment; some of the angry are turning up at McCain-Palin rallies, where the mood has been not so much socialist as national-socialist.
-- Steve Coll
The problem isn’t lack of education—it’s that of a self-isolating political subculture gone rancid.
-- George Packer
Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured.
-- Christopher Hitchens

National Socialists here, End timers here


On average, common species are flowering seven days earlier than they did in Thoreau’s day...[Researchers have] determined that 27 percent of the species documented by Thoreau have vanished from Concord and 36 percent are present in such small numbers that they probably will not survive for long.

“It’s targeting certain branches in the tree of life...They happen to be our most charismatic species — orchids, mints, gentians, lilies, iris.”
-- from Thoreau Is Rediscovered as a Climatologist

Monday, October 27, 2008

That old time democracy

It will be hard to surpass the campaign of 1876, when Republican Rutherford Hayes accused his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden, of having picked up syphilis from a prostitute; in turn, Democrats accused Hayes of shooting his mother after a night of boozing. (In the end, Hayes stole the election by rigging votes in three southern states.)
-- from Ken Silverstein on the crowd-sourcing of Obama smears

The first African-American nominated for the office of vice president was Frederick Douglass in 1872 with Victoria Woodhull as the candidate for president on the Equal Rights Party ticket.

image: The Election (1) by William Hogarth, 1754.

We have a problem

The Spanish general has handed in his resignation to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General to Congo, Alan Doss:
His main reasons were that the mission lacked of a clear vision and was doomed to fail.

Heavenly twins

"Inexpert and delusory outlook", "a sense of self-adoration", "profound ignorance", subscribing to "superstitious religiosity", magic and the occult.
No, not Sarah Palin (although it's close), but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the words of some of his domestic critics in Iran, as reported by Akbar Ganji in his analysis for Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 08).

Cheney and Khamanei as the benevolent godfathers.

[P.S. 28 Oct: Elaine Sciolino scolds Robert Baer for peddling ignorance and misunderstanding]

'The freedom to be creative'

...a phrase used by one of the American practitioners in an excerpt trailed for The Torturer's Tale.

Congo, Greece under the colonels, and the present day U.S. provide the grist.

Congo, Greece (when it was a brutal military dictatorship), the United States.

Saddam Hussein, supported for two or three decades by the U.S. (and others), partly rose to the attention in the Ba'ath thanks to his creativity and virtuosity in the development and application of an alternative set of procedures. He used to offer some of his clients a menu to choose from, like a chef.

Denialists' deck of cards

Not before time, I came across this excellent guide.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Out of their minds

To properly support dualism...non-materialist neuroscientists must show the mind is something other than just a material brain. To do so, they look to some of their favourite experiments, such as research by [Jeffrey M. Schwartz] in the 1990s on people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schwartz used scanning technology to look at the neural patterns thought to be responsible for OCD. Then he had patients use "mindful attention" to actively change their thought processes, and this showed up in the brain scans: patients could alter their patterns of neural firing at will.

From such experiments, Schwartz and others argue that since the mind can change the brain, the mind must be something other than the brain, something non-material. [But] in fact, these experiments are entirely consistent with mainstream neurology - the material brain is changing the material brain.
-- from Creationists declare war over the brain. In addition to the faulty reasoning by Schwartz and the Christianists, an irony here is that the technique employed in the attempt to prove their point -- mindfulness -- comes from the Buddhist tradition, which in its core teachings is atheist.

P.S. In the first of a series of essays in Nature about 'being human', Pacal Boyer concludes:
Some form of [magical] thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems. By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.

'Ocean suffocation'?

Last night I created a stub on Wikipedia for ocean suffocation, and it has survived at least to the time of writing this.

The purpose was to help highlight for non-specialists a phenomenon that may prove to be important. As noted here, Ralph Keeling has suggested 'ocean oxygen deprivation'. But it's not clear to me that 'ocean suffocation' is any less accurate or more sensational than, for example 'ocean acidification', which is now a widely accepted term.

Anyway, this needs attention from people better-trained and wiser than me.

P.S. 24 Oct: After discussion involving distinguished oceanographers and others the wiki stub is now labeled ocean deoxygenation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On the edge

Darfur and Bosnia

Some reasons why

There is, after all, something simply irreplaceable about reading a piece of writing at length on paper, in a chair or on a couch or in bed. To use an obvious analogy, jazz entered our civilization much later than composed, formal music. But it hasn’t replaced it; and no jazz musician would ever claim that it could. Jazz merely demands a different way of playing and listening, just as blogging requires a different mode of writing and reading. Jazz and blogging are intimate, improvisational, and individual—but also inherently collective. And the audience talks over both.
-- from Why I blog by Andrew Sullivan

Enron capitalism explained

This seems to dates back to at least February 08, but it tells the essential story:

Banana Kingdom

Both major parties now caught up in the scandal. But the Labour government would not exactly be clean even without Mandy, LDV, etc.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Do the right thing

We often give a pass to racists by noting that they were "of their times." Fair enough, and I know Hawaii was a different beast, but still, today, let us speak of people who were ahead of their times, who were outside of their times. Let us remember that Barack Obama learned the great lessons of life from courageous white people. Let us speak of those who do what normal, right people should always do when faced with a child--commit an act love. Here's to doing the right thing.
-- Ta-Nahesi Coates.

See also Tomasky.

Vital bodily fluids

Bolton, for his part, was pleased that Palin, a hunting enthusiast, was familiar with his efforts to stave off international controls on the global flow of small weapons.
-- from The Insiders by Jane Mayer

photos from Service by Platon

Monday, October 20, 2008

What a friend we have in Mandy

Family-friendly work reform on hold.

Smith, Keynes and burning cars

All for ourselves and nothing for other people seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.
-- Adam Smith quoted by Susan George in We must think big to fight environmental disaster. George's vision is unity around the common purpose of facing up to the challenge. Touchingly, she looks back to her wartime childhood in Akron, Ohio:
Yes, there were still worker-management conflicts, but on the whole it was a time of opportunity, especially for women and minorities. Workers were well paid, everyone pitched in, "victory gardens" were cultivated, children used their allowances to buy war stamps, petrol was rationed. The country had never been so united before - or since.
Elsewhere, Nick Turse and Tom Englehardt highlight the costs of present economic troubles (car burning for insurance money has to be an icon of anti-sustainability).

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Friday, October 17, 2008

Islamabad bumps

A deep rift over anti-terror policy has opened up within Pakistan's political class, as extremist violence and an economic crisis push the country to the verge of collapse...
-- report from The Guardian. Panicky or a fair summary?

P.S. Fasih Ahmed asks whether Pakistan can stay afloat (10 Oct).

Before the deluge

The 150-strong population [on the Aegean island of Agathonisi] has been overwhelmed as it tried to cope with an influx of immigrants that by last week had surpassed 4,100 in number...

...Last year nearly 200 men, women and children were buried in unnamed graves, mostly on [Greek] islands where their bodies had washed up.
-- report in The Guardian.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Oceans of debt

On 13 Oct I moderate a discussion titled Saving the oceans: What needs to be done?, taking place in Lübeck [1].

A moderator's job is to help things run smoothly -- to facilitate firmly but to be inconspicuous. But if, as I have been asked, I am to say something at the very start, I may try to articulate a question that, I guess, is in many people's minds -- viz. how, if at all, might the current financial crisis influence prospects and opportunities? [2]

Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek thinks this crisis has a silver lining:
Amid all the difficulties and hardship that we are about to undergo, I see one silver lining. This crisis has—dramatically, vengefully—forced the United States to confront the bad habits it has developed over the past few decades. If we can kick those habits, today's pain will translate into gains in the long run.
Turning to the natural world, Pavan Sukhdev, lead author of a recent report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, has said:
Whereas Wall Street by various calculations has to date lost, within the financial sector, $1-$1.5 trillion, the reality is that at today's rate we are losing natural capital at least between $2-$5 trillion every year.
But what of the human debt to the oceans? How many get-out-of-jail-free cards are we relying upon them to gives us (as, for example, climate buffers and/or new and so far unregulated resource for exploitation such as"elsewhere oil")? And how many inescapable penalties are we incurring as a result of a "consume now, pay later" approach?

The Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood invites us to re-examine our attitudes to debt:
It is told of Nelson Mandela that, after much persecution, and when he was finally freed from the prison where he'd been put by the apartheid government in South Africa, he said to himself that he had to forgive all those who had wronged him by the time he reached the prison gates or he would never be free of them. In other words, the antidote to revenge is not justice but forgiveness.
Finally, some words of inspiration from two sons of Lübeck. Willy Brandt:
Could we not begin to lay the basis for that new community with reasonable relations among all people and nations, and to build a world in which sharing, justice, freedom and peace might prevail? (Brandt Report, 1983)
and Thomas Mann:
The beautiful word begets the beautiful deed. (The Magic Mountain)

[1] This is part of the XVII Malente Symposium: More than Water - Oceans and Global Responsibility.

[2] Added 13 Oct: In the event I also mentioned the U.S. Presidential election -- another issue front centre of global public concern, and contrasted these words of Sarah Palin's with the clarity of Jacqueline McGlade.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


It is hard to escape the fear, even the despair, that this whole area - all of Naples, all of southern Italy - is suitable only for a rain of fire from the heavens, or maybe a 1,000-year quarantine, like an ethical or indeed literal Chernobyl.
-- from a review of Gomorrah.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ayn's individualists

A professed libertarian, [Alan Greenspan] counted among his formative influences the novelist Ayn Rand, who portrayed collective power as an evil force set against the enlightened self-interest of individuals. In turn, he showed a resolute faith that those participating in financial markets would act responsibly.
-- from Taking Hard New Look at a Greenspan Legacy by Peter S. Goodman

Global renewables

full size image here. Series of articles here.

On a scale of one to five...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Israel's problem

In the first of two fascinating programmes from Israel by Peter Day, Professor Omer Moav of Hebrew University said secular Jews typically have two or three children, Arab Israelis four or five, and ultra Orthodox Jews eight. Orthodox children study little apart from the bible, and are a huge drain on the economy because they don't work when adult, and even if they did would have few useful skills.

By no means the country's only challenge, but clearly significant.

[P.S. an Israeli comments on the threat to "that one"]

Monday, October 06, 2008

The 30 day Hate

RovePalinMcCain are throwing the kitchen sink at Obama. As Schopenhauer observed, the last trick, the ultimate strategy, is, when you see that your opponent is winning, to 'become personal', to 'leave the subject altogether and turn your attack to his person by remarks of an offensive and spiteful character.'

They're at war with words and truth itself (see here and here).

Obama has music on his side as well as words. Listen here and here.
...Charity suffereth long, [and] is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;...

Palin around

String along a chain of nouns in the form of politically symbolic platitudes—“Hockey Mom Pitbull Joe Six Pack Wasilla Main Street Reform Soccer Mom Every Day American People Maverick”—and you have practically the whole of her program, her policies, her world view.
-- George Packer

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Cheney-Fox Fembot Horror

The NYT editorial board has it exactly right.

But Raban is more subtle. Dowd parses:
“Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet.” (Mostly the end-all.)

Friday, October 03, 2008

Hard choices

In a review of Simon Schama's The American Future: A History, Niall Ferguson says that in the not too far distant future Barack Obama will stand revealed as "the Chicago-schooled politico that he is". There may be something to this, although I still think Obama can be more and better than Ferguson means to imply.

That said, it's hard to see how an Obama administration will avoid the mother of all train wrecks in Afghanistan and Pakistan (on which see, e.g., Paul Rogers and Afghan 'dictator' proposed).

P.S. 5 and 6 Oct: Afghan victory hopes played down and Bloodiest year so far in Afghanistan.

Not in the pink anymore.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


I've never been an astronaut but I think I know the challenges of space.
says an angry man.

Realclearpolitics reports Colorado: Obama +5.0, Ohio: Obama +2.0, Florida: Obama +3.0, Pennsylvania: Obama +7.6, Missouri: McCain +1.7, Virginia: Obama +2.5.

The deal

The U.S. Senate has passed the civilian nuclear agreement between the U.S. and India by a vote of 86–13.

Burying the NPT for now, consider what Wikipedia (as of 9am 2 Oct) says about the economic considersations:
the U.S. ...expects that [the] deal could spur India's economic growth and bring in $150 billion in the next decade for nuclear power plants, of which the U.S. wants a share. It is India's stated objective to increase the production of nuclear power generation from its present capacity of 4,000 MWe to 20,000 MWe in the next decade. However,... Dalberg, [a consultancy which] advises the IMF and the World Bank...[concludes] that for the next 20 years such investments are likely to be far less valuable economically or environmentally than a variety of other measures to increase electricity production in India. They have noted that U.S. nuclear vendors cannot sell any reactors to India unless and until India caps third party liabilities or establishes a credible liability pool to protect U.S. firms from being sued in the case of an accident or a terrorist act of sabotage against nuclear plants.

Beyond vision

A solargraph by Justin Quinnell