Friday, February 27, 2009

'The opposite of innovative'

The current [U.K.] coal policy illuminates just how static and rigid - the opposite of innovative - Britain's energy policy is. This lack of innovation has been fought for, and won, by the large companies and lobbies, so they can carry on doing as they wish - despite the urgency of climate change. The government has been complicit in this, and it is the people of Britain, and their children, who will have to pay for the consequences.
-- Catherine Mitchell

Thursday, February 26, 2009


If, therefore, a conclusion can be drawn from military violence it is that... there is a lawmaking character inherent in it.
-- Eyal quotes Walter. Is it possible, he asks,
that the attack on Gaza was not restrained by an extensive use of [International Humanitarian Law] - but rather, that a certain interpretation and application of this law have enabled, not only the justification of atrocities, but crucially, the affliction of otherwise inconceivable levels of destruction? Has the chaos, death and destruction been perpetrated with the full force of the law? If this is so, should those who oppose Israeli violence use the language of international law?

Grasp and shred

Interesting, detailed profile of Fred Goodwin in the FT concludes:
The source of the global banking crisis, which has humbled many of the world’s largest financial institutions, lies far beyond any one person. Yet his aggressive pursuit of growth meant that, when the crunch came, RBS had further to fall. “He was trying to do everyone else’s job” is how one former colleague sums up Sir Fred’s career. “But he wasn’t doing his own job.”
But it doesn't mention his eye-popping retirement package.

Brad de Long on the The Economics of Thugs with Spears Who Take Your Stuff

'Oldest English words' identified

cwiddest þu ?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

and finally

BT links to a fascinating account of a car crash being over before consciousness kicks in.

Obsessive, as ever, I wonder if some disasters happen too 'slowly' for us to be aware of intuitively. The consequences of doubling atmospheric C02, for example, take decades -- or more -- to feed through, and are not easily available to normal ways of thinking. In such a case, remedial action, including political engineering, may be possible.

Can we redefine 'the dimension of the present moment' (to use Holub's phrase)? Small clues from the present as cues for the not yet known, like puddles on the Antarctic ice.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


This evolving picture of a clarifying, but still uncertain, threat leads back to a persistent question confronting scientists who are eager for action by society. As Ralph J. Cicerone...put it in an interview two years ago: “Does it take a crisis to get people to go along a new path or can they respond to a series of rational, incremental gains in knowledge?”
-- from Climate ‘Embers’ Burning Brighter by Andy Revkin.

Another approach is suggested John Hagan:
Instead of focusing on "saving the environment," we need to focus on "sustaining human well-being."
Speaking yesterday about the world in 2050, Martin Rees said we need to value or grandchildren at least as much as we do ourselves. We need to 'act now' on climate change -- in his view primarily, but not only, with massively increased investment in clean energy and CCS [bigger, perhaps, even than this] -- or else the 22nd century risks being one of irreversible disaster. [1]

Rees contrasted the time horizon of European medieval cathederal builders, who believed the world to be only a few thosand years old but who thought and planned hundreds of years ahead, with the modern view in which we -- or at least those who are educated -- understand the universe to be billions of years old and have billions of years to go and yet actually behave as if the future could be discounted almost completely. [2]

This highlights the need for new ways of imagining the unity and simultaneity of a much greater range of existence than current cultural practice usually allows. Now, how to make THAT sound less like New Age gobbledygook?

“That sound you hear is the sea … I mention it because the sound is so strange, so unlike the sound of the sea, that if you didn't see what it was you wouldn't know what it was." - from Embers by Samuel Beckett


[1] Rees quoted Thomas Friedman's claim that the U.S. petfood industry spends more on R&D than the energy industry. He said his own favourite green energy technology is a massive DC grid connecting Europe to solar power from the Sahara.

[2] A good part of it looks like a re-run of remarks made here. I recently commented on some of Rees's other observations here.

Image: Nasa

Monday, February 23, 2009

Windows, fences

"Good prose is like a windowpane." As an instruction to cub reporters and old hacks—also as a self-instruction of the kind writer-critics issue to the world while actually describing their own procedures—it sounds reasonable enough. But it begs questions, as does Orwell's other key instruction, from "Politics and the English Language": "Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about." Together, these dicta presuppose, and instruct, that writing is a matter of examining the world, reflecting upon it, deducing what you want to say, putting that meaning or message into words whose transparency allows the reader, now gazing through the same windowpane from the same position, to see the world exactly as you have seen it. But does anyone, even Orwell, actually write like that? And are words glass? Most writing comes from a more inchoate process; ideas may indeed propose words, but sometimes words propose ideas (or both transactions occur within the same sentence). As E.M. Forster, a frequent target of Orwell's, put it (or rather, quoted) in Aspects of the Novel : "How do I know what I think till I see what I say?" To Orwell this might seem a piece of pansy-left whimsy; but it probably accords more closely to the experience of many writers.
-- Julian Barnes

Blair's children

I am not asking for vengeance; only that the truth should be made known so that nobody in the future should have to endure what I have endured.
-- from a statement by Binyam Mohamed read out by his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith.

Barbara Ehrenreich here.

Hot air

The lesson of the carbon slump, like the credit crunch, is that markets can be a conduit, but not a substitute, for political will.
-- Julian Glover


This tenacious artist has now given his father a proper memorial and has reasserted, with power and grace, the history and identity of his nearly effaced country.
-- from David Denby's review of Katyń

Another review is here (and a little background on Wadja here).

It would be nice if this film from the country that Norman Davies called 'the first ally' had a release in Britain too.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Clap trap

Good for Ben Goldacre for his demolition job of the newspapers regarding British army seizure of heroine in Afghanistan. But he lets the government and Ministry of Defence off too lightly. They were surely aware that the press, suitably groomed, would play the story up.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Global shift

...But the biggest deals were yet to come. Just after rumors swirled that China Investment Corporation and China Shenhua Energy wanted to take a starter position in a third Australian miner, Fortescue Metals, China unveiled its coup de grace: a 25 billion multi-year deal with Russia. And this time it was not for iron ore, but rather, the master commodity: oil. And they’ve just followed that blockbuster up with a similar deal with Brazil’s Petrobras.

What seems to have escaped wider observation, however, is that deals such as these are a clever way for China to dehoard itself of dollars...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Aid fade

Between 1970 and 1998, when aid flows to Africa were at their peak, poverty in Africa rose from 11% to a staggering 66%" - roughly 600 million of Africa's billion people are now trapped in poverty. Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.
-- Dambisa Moyo in an interview with the ubiquitous Aida Edemariam
Aid donors and recipients alike have good reason for preferring to focus on aid rather than trade or governance. Industrialized countries don’t want to liberalize trade in agricultural products, while making new commitments to aid targets provides popular headlines. African governments like aid because most of it comes to them, and while they are strongly in favour of trade reform they are understandably resistant to governance reform. Therefore we see that NEPAD began with a focus on governance, trade, and debt, with aid at the margins, but was reduced very rapidly to an aid disbursement mechanism.
-- Alex de Waal in a note on The Trouble with Aid by Jonathan Glennie

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Pakistan gamble

In a thoughtful interview [1] on NPR last week, Thomas E. Ricks concluded that the struggles raging in Pakistan, not Afghanistan are key to the interests of the U.S. and its allies, but that there is no military solution here.

Fuel for the hope of building a better society in Pakistan may come in part from its writers. Of course, they can always be killed or scared off.

In the medium term, a decline in the flow of the Indus could have enormous knock-on consequences.

Footnote [1]: but Emma Sky "anti-American"?


A moving programme about Ravel by Robert Winston. Unfortunately not available to listen again.

Iraq Ponzi

Another giant fraud comes to light in the U.S. but $125 billion unaccounted-for reconstruction and military equipment is a Ponzi scheme bigger than Madoff, writes Juan Cole.

'We risk a police state'

says Stella Rimington.  

Good for her. The story of how our government has become so corrupted will one day be told properly. 

(see also Another Bond is possible...wisdom from M)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Burn rate

Anthropogenic climate change is likely an important contributing factor in the unprecedented maximum temperatures on 7 February 2009
says RealClimate in a commentary the recent bushfires in the Australian state of Victoria

A kicker comes in the quote from the IPCC TAR, considered too conservative by more than a few:
In south-east Australia, the frequency of very high and extreme fire danger days is likely to rise 4-25% by 2020 and 15-70% by 2050.
P.S. Climate models predicted Australian bushfires, reports New Scientist.

Bearing in mind Vicky Pope's warning that overplaying natural variations in the weather diverts attention from the real issues.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Friday, February 13, 2009

On writing

The [neolithic] carvings themselves offered no clue, but lay mute in the morning sunshine. So, for want of anything better to do, I laid a page of my notebook over one of the carvings and traced it. On the rock, they looked almost cosmological. On my page, though, it looked like a fried egg.
-- from Markings by Kathleen Jamie. 

Bye Dubai

Lurid rumors spread quickly: the Palm Jumeira, an artificial island that is one of this city’s trademark developments, is said to be sinking, and when you turn the faucets in the hotels built atop it, only cockroaches come out.
-- from Laid-Off Foreigners Flee as Dubai Spirals Down.

Burj Dubai reached its final height of 818 m (2,684 ft) on 17 January 2009.

"A modern person is one with unlimited needs" according to Majid Rahnema (tagged by openDemocracy on 13 Feb 09)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Debt crunch

Jules Evans reflects on the significance of the issue US$2.5 trillion in debt by the U.S. government this year, and asks who will benefit.

David Harvey gives a Marxist view on "why the stimulus package is bound to fail":
In the United States, any attempt to find an adequate Keynesian solution has been doomed at the start by a number of economic and political barriers that are almost impossible to overcome. A Keynesian solution would require massive and prolonged deficit financing if it were to succeed. It has been correctly argued that Roosevelt's attempt to return to a balanced budget in 1937-8 plunged the United States back into depression and that it was, therefore, World War II that saved the situation and not Roosevelt's too timid approach to deficit financing in the New Deal. So even if the institutional reforms as well as the push towards a more egalitarian policy did lay the foundations for the Post World War II recovery, the New Deal in itself actually failed to resolve the crisis in the United States.

The problem for the United States in 2008-9 is that it starts from a position of chronic indebtedness to the rest of the world (it has been borrowing at the rate of more than $2 billion a day over the last ten years or more) and this poses an economic limitation upon the size of the extra deficit that can now be incurred. (This was not a serious problem for Roosevelt who began with a roughly balanced budget). There is also a geo-political limitation since the funding of any extra deficit is contingent upon the willingness of other powers (principally from East Asia and the Gulf States) to lend. On both counts, the economic stimulus available to the United States will almost certainly be neither large enough nor sustained enough to be up to the task of reflating the economy.
(Hat tip DP for Harvey)

P.S. 13 Feb: Paul Krugman writes:
The Congressional Budget Office, not usually given to hyperbole, predicts that over the next three years there will be a $2.9 trillion gap between what the economy could produce and what it will actually produce. And $800 billion, while it sounds like a lot of money, isn’t nearly enough to bridge that chasm.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

'An intellectual version of Wall-E'

John Whitefield completes his serious and witty appreciation of The Origin of Species

Communicating risk

Catherine Brahic reports what sounds like useful research by David Budescu and colleagues into public understanding, and a recommendation for improvement.

Looking again at the IPCC definition of "exceptionally unlikely" as a less than 5% chance, I wonder if the term is really appropriate.

If I was told on boarding plane that it was "exceptionally unlikely" to crash, I would think not think they meant there was a 1 in 20 chance that it would crash.

How about "very unlikely" for a less than 1% chance?

Still I wouldn't board an aircraft I believed had an up to 1% chance of crashing.

Here's a possible revision:
• "More likely than not" (more than 50%) [same]
• "up to one in three chance" (less than 33%)
• "a one in ten chance" (less than 10%)
• "a one in twenty chance" (less than 5%)

Amazonia burning

Could parts of Amazonia follow Australia?
new computer models suggest that, although the Amazon will not dry out as much as feared, humans clearing land with fire pose a huge risk as the region dries.


Why then is the [Obama] administration making what appears to be a blunder? It may be that it is hoping for the best. But it also seems it has set itself the wrong question. It has not asked what needs to be done to be sure of a solution. It has asked itself, instead, what is the best it can do given three arbitrary, self-imposed constraints: no nationalisation; no losses for bondholders; and no more money from Congress. Yet why does a new administration, confronting a huge crisis, not try to change the terms of debate? This timidity is depressing. Trying to make up for this mistake by imposing pettifogging conditions on assisted institutions is more likely to compound the error than to reduce it.
-- from Why Obama’s new Tarp will fail to rescue the banks by Martin Wolf

Monday, February 09, 2009

Dialogue of the deaf

People inherently understand that if they are going to get ahead in whatever corporate culture they are involved in, they need to take on the appurtenances of what defines that culture. So if you are in a culture where spending a lot of money is a sign of success, it’s like the same thing that goes back to high school peer pressure. It’s about fitting in.
--Candace Bushnell, quoted in an article titled You Try to Live on 500K in This Town.
Rather than discussing the roles of men and women in the economic crisis, we need to explore the unbalanced world views that all of us, men and women alike, have come to accept as normal in modern, industrial society.
--Tim Malnick.


Over the last few days, we Australians have looked our own future in the face.
-- Christine Milne
Smoke obscured the horizon, entering my air-conditioned car and carrying with it that distinctive scent so strongly signifying death, or, to Aboriginal people, cleansing.
Tim Flannery

Friday, February 06, 2009

The end, dude

...Mr. Pinchbeck, for example, contributes a think piece suggesting that a good deal of the current problems in the United States may be caused by “spirit possession on a mass scale.” We may be, he writes, “looking at situations in which unappeased demons and aggrieved ancestor spirits are overtaking people.” That’s one way of looking at Bernie Madoff
... from a review of Toward 2012.

Also strange: Odinism. And see Born believers: How your brain creates God

The zone

The turnaround, as the film-maker Chris Marker has pointed out, is that here freedom is found within the wire.
-- from a surprisingly thoughtful article about Stalker

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Not joined up

For all I know Seamus Milne is correct to defend the strikers against accusations of racism/xenophobia, but given a world in which, for example, "we're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going", it is surely well beyond time to look quite seriously at doing something else besides building power plants powered by fossil fuels. More joins needed in a global community of values

Wenlock Edge

The air was cold and full of a wild energy which got the ravens going and the small birds all of a twitter. The sky bore bands of pink, blue and grey blown horizontally across the wind. Then a massive bank of smoky cloud appeared as if a furnace door had opened, and the first flakes fell like cold ash. There were a few sputtering false starts but, as these steadied, the snowflakes grew with a kind of confidence, each one establishing its own little arctic territory on grass or path or car until the ground was white over.
-- Paul Evans

Bomb bomb bomb

There’s no changing [the] Israeli lens, however distorting it may be in a changed world. That could mean an Israeli attack on Iran within a year.
-- Roger Cohen

Monday, February 02, 2009

First steps

Joe Romm was impressed by this speech, and so was I [1]. Back in 2005, Roberto Unger said this is an interview with James Crabtree:
It is very difficult to be both a ruthless calculator and an instransigent prophet. But that combination is the mark of a statesman of the left.
George Packer has concerns, though [P.S. Daschle has now stood down].

[1] Someone else points out, though, that there is no mention of a big spend on energy R&D.

Politicide, part 841,239,017,973,986(b)

A report from Stephen Kamlish QC here. Short excerpt:
The use of phosphorus is only lawful under international rules of engagement when used as a smokescreen cover in open areas for combatants who are caught in the open and are under fire. However, the evidence on the ground makes clear that the Israeli Army systematically and unlawfully fired phosphorus shells directly over and into populated urban areas. We visited the site of a family devastated by the illegal use of phosphorous. The man we spoke to told us how his wife and three children were asleep in a bedroom of their house. A phosphorous shell came through the roof of the house exploding in the room where the family was sleeping. On impact the mother and children were engulfed in toxic flames smoke and fumes. They died an unimaginable death in that room. We stood in the room and saw the traces of white phosphorus on the walls in the otherwise completely blackened room. A woman came into the room and held up a piece of child’s clothing covered in phosphorus burns. Another man then showed us a picture of the body of a 10-month old child who had been in the room during the attack. The heat had been so intense that it had burned the baby’s legs off.
(Hat tip OT)

Sunday, February 01, 2009


Ian McEwan makes much of what he sees as metaphysical dread and shadows in John Updike's work. In this account the alienation of industrialized man from nature is almost an afterthought:
That dead spot is probed and palpated in the ever-present metaphysics, the thwarted religious sense, or in moments when a denatured suburbanite glances up beyond the telegraph poles and wires and notices that spring is coming on and experiences a jolt of indistinct excitement that is quickly smothered; or when Harry Angstrom, waiting to receive a serve in a game of social tennis, thinks of the mounting numbers of dead in his life, and feels camaraderie for his friends and loves the treetops around him - but cannot name a single tree, never reads a book, knows nothing and feels his life to be threadbare.
Martin Amis here.

Here Updike imagines looking back from 2099, and here are other writers' memories.