Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blowing the faces off babies

As the father of a young child, I appreciated these images from Gaza.

"Useless collective punishment", says Yossi Alpher.

Looking ahead, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley write:

The question of what ought to be done on the Arab–Israeli front remains unanswered, and that may not be a bad thing. With so much that is novel, and with so much having gone so wrong for so long, basic issues should first be addressed. Among them are the reasons for recurring failures, the effectiveness of US mediation, the wisdom and realism of seeking a comprehensive, across-the-board settlement of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, or even the centrality of that conflict to US interests and the benefits that would accrue to America from its resolution. One also might ponder reasons behind America's chronic ineffectiveness in persuading lesser powers (Arafat, Hamas, Syria, or Hezbollah) to acquiesce in its demands, a pattern that suggests incapacity to identify local political forces, understand their interests, or comprehend their appeal.

Raising such questions might lead to heretical answers, or impractical ones, or none at all. But it is preferable to a headfirst rush to follow costly familiar patterns and to seek the comforting embrace of ideas that have been tried but never worked or that were never tried but can no longer work. Among the flurry of recommendations the next administration will receive, Obama could do worse than consider some simple advice. Don't rush. Take time, take a deep breath, and take stock.

Glen Greenwald cites George Washington to argue that the U.S. is a 'slave to Israel.'

Friday, December 26, 2008

'A plastic world, ready to be shaped and moulded'

[Some] amateurs will probably pursue serious work such as new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels, but they might also try, for example, to use squid genes to create tattoos that glow.
-- report

(The title of this post is from Man and The Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 by Keith Thomas, 1983)

29 Dec: 'I will believe "new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels" when I see them,' says Jake Young.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


A necessary hypocrisy

Pursuing the Bush administration for crimes long known to the public may amount to a kind of hypocrisy, but it is a necessary hypocrisy. The alternative, simply doing nothing, not only ratifies torture; it ratifies the failure of the people to control the actions of their government.
-- Scott Horton

Do and done by

A comparative survey of primate behavior has found a direct relationship between sneakiness and brain size. (23 Dec)

Another study claims to have shown the first evidence of "calculated reciprocity" in non-human primates, between orangutans (24 Dec)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ocean deoxygenation

The appearance of large zones of low-oxygen or no-oxygen along exposed outer coasts like Oregon and Washington came as a complete surprise. If someone had told me this rich, diverse, productive ecosystem could rapidly become a ‘dead zone’, I would have thought they were nuts. And yet we’ve seen the seasonal appearance of hypoxia in 6 of the last 6 years. Francis Chan’s close examination of all data on dissolved oxygen from the last 6 decades off the Oregon coast gives a sense of how very bizarre the last 6 years have been. The data show that the normal situation off our coasts is well oxygenated waters, with only 1 of 10,000 records showing any hypoxia. The recent transformation of this ecosystem from one dominated by a diverse assemblage of rockfish, crabs, sea stars, anemones, sea cucumbers, flatfish, lingcod and more to one devoid of life except microbes has been stunning, wholly unexpected and downright scary. We know that many of the fish and some of the crabs seem to be able to swim or scuttle away from the low-oxygen waters, and in some cases they reappear once the levels of oxygen return to normal, but we do not know the long-term consequences of an annual die-off of the habitat-forming, bottom-dwelling species, many of which live to be decades old.
-- Jane Lubchenco

(See also ocean suffocation?)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Worse than a crime

This is not a humanitarian crisis. This is a political crisis of choice with dire humanitarian consequences.
-- Chris Gunness, UNRWA, Gaza

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Understatement lives!

British understatement is not dead yet. Asked about Britain's recent involvement in Iraq, General Patrick Cordingley told Today that British troops could be proud, but "if you [look at this] a strategist it's not Britain's finest moment."

Asked whether it is "Mission Accomplished?", he said, first, that British troops did well in adverse circumstances (being greatly below necessary strength and having to react to events) and added, "I wonder what the four million displaced [Iraqis] would think about what has actually happened and the thousands of civilians have been killed. There are downsides as well as upsides."

Ah, but Mr Blair insisted, Saddam was "uniquely evil".

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bu Meiguo

The collapse of communism pushed China to the center and [America] to the extreme.
-- Ben Simpfendorfer, chief China economist at Royal Bank of Scotland, quoted by Thomas Friedman

But on China see Charter 08.

No end

Since there is no logical endpoint, we close with an image from the novel that is out of time. A world of "endless shipwreck," but met with the most radiant effort.
-- from Sarah Kerr on The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño

Luhrmann: the Bernie Madoff of film

By twisting history, garbling geography and glossing over the appalling exploitation of Aboriginal workers, Baz Luhrmann's film Australia bears more relation to fairytale than fact.
-- Germaine Greer

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

'Cheney Confesses To A War Crime'

notes Andrew Sullivan

A tiny drop

Spinning water droplets that behave like black holes look (to my untrained eye at least) like an example of how the very small may join to the very large. As a drop spins, it progresses through what seem to be almost Platonic shapes, starting with triangle, square and pentagon -- presumably reaching circle at the highest speeds.

Impatience, despair

"give us a disaster now that we can believe in!" -- William M. Connolley, in customary grumpy mood, decrys climate pundits

Obama energy challenge

quick notes from Elizabeth Kolbert and Andy Revkin

Monday, December 15, 2008

United States of Ponzi

This is almost like this.

So how can we displace a fraud?, ask Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Pablo Triana:
Not by preaching nor by rational argument (believe us, we tried). Not by evidence. Risk methods that failed dramatically in the real world continue to be taught to students in business schools, where professors never lose tenure for the misapplications of those methods. As we are writing these lines, close to 100,000 MBAs are still learning portfolio theory – it is uniformly on the programme for next semester. An airline company would ground the aircraft and investigate after the crash – universities would put more aircraft in the skies, crash after crash. The fraud can be displaced only by shaming people, by boycotting the orthodox financial economics establishment and the institutions that allowed this to happen.
See also Michael Lewis on The End:
Why bother to overturn your parents’ world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?


Some things in this interesting interview with IEA chief economist Fatih Birol are unhelpful. For example:
* the IEA is taken to task for changing its estimate of the oil price in 2030 (in today's prices) from about $60 to $120. But it should surely be evident that any estimate for so far ahead will in large part be arm waving. Remember that oil prices have plunged over recent months, for a variety of factors, from over $140 to under $50. Few people saw this coming. How can one expect them to forecast more accurately more than 20 years hence, given the much greater number of factors involved?

* the precise year that oil production is likely to plateau: again, this should be treated with real caution: it's quite possible the new IEA report is wrong.

* sounding a warning on social dislocation in the U.S. as a result of 'peak oil'. But serious social disruption is likely already given the current economic crisis, and 'peak oil' has not been a factor in the genesis of that crisis (high oil prices in 2008 occurred for other reasons). Beware one dimensional explanations. [1]

* the conclusion that "either the world economy comes to rely on tar sands for transport oils or economy screeches to a halt." No: there is scope to anticipate the problem and act -- as, for example, is reported to be happening in Denmark and Israel or China.
There is more, but I think the problems boil down to a search for greater certainty than is possible. This is illustrated by the description of the IEA report as "gospel" for the petroleum industry, a term that implies that, right or wrong, it is a text accepted with almost uncritical faith. But that's not the case: the report is an important and in this year's case evidence-based contribution to the debate, but one hedged with caveats.

Ashdenizen recently noted Andy Revkin's observation that "climate change is [just] a subset of the story of our time, which is that we are coming of age on a finite planet and only just now recognizing that it is finite." That's true enough, but it's also the case that our knowledge is necessarily finite and inadequate the challenges ahead.

This does not mean, of course, that we do not have enough information and understanding to see that the challenges are very large and very serious, and to recognize that governments, and others, need to wake up and get moving.


[1] In a Jan 2006 article, Jeremy Leggett cites Roger Booth, "who spent his professional life at Shell, and who now believes that, when the peak does hit: 'A crash of 1929 proportions is not improbable.' ". Well, we are experiencing a crash of 1929 proportions. Was this a result of peak oil, or was it, rather, the result of a financial system rotten to the core?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The right man?

It could be Chu.

[see also James Fallows]

Anatomy of evil

Paul Collier has been taken to task, perhaps rightly, on some matters; but his suggestion that Richard Fuld of Lehmans is symptomatic of political culture no less invidious than that of Angola, where Dos Santos got away with more than murder, is thought provoking.

The Attack of the Invisible Hand!

James Crabtree at Prospect Blog links to amusement from Tom Tomorrow

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The empire bats back

Obama ought to take up cricket, says Michael Fullilove.

It's almost as if one took seriously the words of Chuck Ramkissoon, a character in Joseph O'Neill's Netherland:
All people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilized when they’re playing cricket. What’s the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. ... I say, we want to have something in common with Hindus and Muslims? Chuck Ramkissoon is going to make it happen. With the New York Cricket Club, we could start a whole new chapter in U.S. history. Why not?
[P.S. 12 Nov: James Wood writes that "Netherland was consistently misread as a 9/11 novel, which stints what is most remarkable about it: that it is a postcolonial re-writing of The Great Gatsby." ]


Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
-- John Milton, 400 years old yesterday (hat tip, OD)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Too big to fail

P.S. 10 Dec: GOP Senator Warns of 'Riots' if Automakers Are Bailed Out,

Saudi nukes by '09

if you believe this graph (which accompanies this article)

The middle kingdom

It looks a little like 'everyone turn around us':
The Carbon Budget Proposal [put forward by China at Poznan] suggests that emission allowances could be set at 2.33 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year for each person on the planet in the period 1900 to 2050 as part of a goal of halving world emissions by 2050...

..."You might say this is in favor of China," says Jiahua Pan, who led the study. "It's not the case. China's own "carbon budget" would be roughly in balance at 2.33 tonnes per capita over the period 1900 to 2050, he says.
-- from Give everyone CO2 permits, say scientists

Convenient for China. What is the assumed total carbon budget?

David Adam on expecting the worst.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

What is man

Families offer shelter to victims of Congo war.

P.S. 8 Dec: A report on violence spreading to neighbouring CAR.

Jean Pierre Bemba is to be prosecuted by the ICC, which -- of course -- George W. Bush and his fellows refused to allow the U.S. to join. Earth to United States, will you join us now?

Change they can believe in (3)

The weakness of the Kennedy team [was] “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.
-- Frank Rich quoting David Halbertsam

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Peak interest?

Andy Revkin reports analysis by Maxwell Boykoff et al that suggests news coverage of climate change may be entering a 'trance'.

What's going on here?

In The Real Swindle, Boykoff quoted Revkin:
The media seem either to overplay a sense of imminent calamity or to ignore the issue altogether because it is not black and white or on a time scale that feels like news. This approach leaves society like a ship at anchor swinging cyclically with the tide and not going anywhere. What is lost in the swings of media coverage is a century of study and evidence....[Inadequate media translations of climate change have generated] probably more public confusion and cynicism about what is going on.
P.S. thunder from Kevin Watkins over Poznan

Friday, December 05, 2008



Militant idealism

Joan Didion defines a danger best of all:
Militant idealism -- the convenient redefinition of political or pragmatic questions as moral questions, which makes those questions seem easier to answer.
Source: What happens now? NYRB, 17 Nov 08.

Another kind of 'shock doctrine'

Larissa MacFarquhar's profile of Naomi Klein is worth the read. Klein's observations merit attention, of course, but should not get a free pass (and there are worse places to start than critiques by Mark Engler in Dissent and Stephen Holmes in the LRB).

The most virulent kind of 'shock doctrine' in the world today may actually be that of the government of Zimbabwe, which is not exactly Friedmanite (see, e.g., ICG, Amnesty).

[But in Zimbabwe, Mahmood Mamdani argues, Mugabe
has ruled not only by coercion but by consent, and his land reform measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa. In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved.]

Thursday, December 04, 2008


The moral code of these Wall Street executives corresponds to stage one of Lawrence Kohlberg’s famous stages of morality: “The concern is with what authorities permit and punish.” Morally, they are very young children.
-- George Packer

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Southland sky

The 3 Dec 'Astronomy picture of the day' shows heavenly bodies in a startlingly, almost implausibly clear sky above Los Angeles. It's very beautiful and so different from my memories of nights long ago up in the Santa Monica mountains, feeling like the loneliest person on earth, watching the lights of distant planes stacked out into the far distance as they followed the flightpath down into LAX.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The debt to nature

In the 2005 openDemocracy debate on the politics of climate change, we were glad to include Why wait and see won't do by John Sterman et al., which explained the stock and flow problem in climate change with a bathtub analogy.

Andy Revkin mentions another simple analogy that also seems helpful: slowing emissions of carbon dioxide is somewhat like slowing credit-card spending and expecting your debt to shrink.

Il Ritorno di Salter's Ducks in Patria

The London opera houses have had more taxpayer money than the British marine power industry over the past few years.
writes Chris Goodall.

It should not, of course, have to be either/or, and neither I nor, I am sure, Chris Goodall would want to suggest such a thing.

But in these straitened times, how about those in the performing arts concerned about climate change (on which, for example, see Ashdenizen) twin up with enlightened actors and investors in areas like marine renewables?
Der Fliegende Holländer und das Sea snake.

Les Pêcheurs de Perles, brought to you by tidal power.

Riders from the Sea, powered by offshore wind turbines.


Chis Goodall's The 10 big energy myths is the most e mailed article on The Guardian's web site in the last 24 hours.

Good to see someone as sensible as this attacking the myth that nuclear power is cheaper than other low-carbon sources of electricity.

See too Chris Goodall's UK energy top ten.

Climate sense

The Committee on Climate Change said a cut of 21% on 2005 levels was needed for the UK to play its fair share in combating dangerous change.It proposes firm carbon budgets for the next three five-year periods.
-- BBC
What is required is an expansion of support to low-carbon research and development, demonstration projects, and the creation of niche markets, on a much larger scale than we are currently seeing. And the key progressive message is that here, as in so many other areas, is that the free market will not deliver.
-- Matthew Lockwood

Monday, December 01, 2008

A sense of proportion

Clinton noted during the campaign that the United States could “obliterate” Iran if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel. Olmert chose different language. He noted “a megalomania and a loss of proportion in the things said here about Iran.” Once again, his words are instructive.
-- Roger Cohen

Grown-ups back in charge?

On the face of it, the appointments of Clinton, Gates and Jones, and of Rice look encouraging.

Also this:
The panel [of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism] is banking on the fact that some of its Democratic members - including Wendy Sherman, Graham Allison and Tim Roemer - have advised President-elect Barack Obama on national security issues and could serve in senior positions in his administration.