Wednesday, October 28, 2009


This is perplexing but fascinating:
If observers are an integral part of the cosmic formula, then it may not matter how many universes exist - just how many a single observer can tell apart. If the observer is a person, that depends on how many bits of information the brain can process. "Based on the number of synapses in a typical brain, a human observer can register 10 ^16," says Linde. That means humans can differentiate 10^10^16 universes, which is much more manageable than the 10^10^10,000,000 Linde and Vanchurin found to start with.
See also a report on Quantum to Cosmos.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

Science, imagination, art

I wrote here that "scientific and technological possibilites...lay the path and large human imagination and politics follow."

Some writers and artists appear to be sensitive to the very frontiers of scientific understanding in their time. Walter Benjamin wrote of Franz Kafka that he was a contemporary of modern physics. "When you read a passage from Eddington's Nature of the Physical World, it's almost as if you're listening to Kafka."

A photo by Eddington of the 1919 eclipse

[1] Letter to Gershom Scholem (1938). "Kafka lives in a complementary world," writes Benjamin, alluding to Niels Bohr's principle of complementarity. Kafka also anticipated political trends. Benjamin continues:
...the reality that now presents itself as ours -- theoretically in modern physics and in practice by military technology now almost beyond the individual's capacity to experience, and...Kafka's world, often so serene and pervaded by angels, is the exact complement of his age, which is preparing to do away with considerable segments of this planet's population. In all likelihood, the public experience corresponding to this private one of Kafka's will be available to the masses only on the occasion of their extermination.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Nuclear power is the lazy option. Stick up a few more reactors, don't say too much about costs per kilowatt hour (let alone costs for each tonne of CO2 abated), dump the responsibility of dealing with the waste on future generations, and don't worry too much about the state of the grid or the impact on renewable energy.
-- Jonathon Porritt
When France embarked on an aggressive program of building nuclear capacity — a 40- fold increase in 25 years from the late 1970s — annual emissions from the electricity and heat sector fell by 6 per cent, but total fossil emissions declined by only 0.6 per cent annually.
-- Clive Hamilton


Clive Hamilton thinks it may be too late to prevent catastrophic climate change:
under the most optimistic assumptions about the timing and extent of global greenhouse gas emission reductions, cumulative emissions over the next few decades will result in atmospheric concentrations reaching 650 ppm of CO2-e, associated with warming of 4°C or more before the end of the century, a temperature not seen on Earth for 15 million years. It now seems almost certain that, if it has not occurred already, within the next several years enough warming will be locked into the system to set in train positive feedback processes that will overwhelm any attempts to cut back on carbon emissions. Humans will be powerless to stop the shift to a new climate on Earth, one much less sympathetic to life.
Graph from David Archer via John Schellnhuber (slides here, page 11)
We moderns have become accustomed to the idea that we can modify our environment to suit our needs, and have acted accordingly for some three hundred years. We are now discovering that our intoxicating belief that we can conquer all has come up against a greater force, the Earth itself. We are discovering that humans cannot regulate the climate; the climate regulates us. The prospect of runaway climate change challenges our technological hubris and our Enlightenment faith in reason. The Earth may soon demonstrate that, ultimately, it cannot be tamed and that the human urge to master nature has only roused a slumbering beast.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Influenza A

While the world media has obsessed, and rightfully so, about this fast-spreading [Swine Flu], I'm worried about the next crisis, something much deadlier and much more catastrophic, indeed the kind of crisis most people wrongly believe could not happen in this day and age. If I were the author, this urgently needed novel would have to be called Plague.
-- Robin Cook. HPAI A(H5N1) + HINI, and no happy ending

Friday, October 16, 2009

The trap

For Obama to do the courageous thing and withdraw would mean having deployed against him the unlimited wrath of the mainstream media, the oil interest, the Israel lobby, the weapons and security industries, all those who have reasons both avowed and unavowed for the perpetuation of American force projection in the Middle East. If he fails to satisfy the request from General McChrystal – the specialist in ‘black ops’ who now controls American forces in Afghanistan – the war brokers will fall on Obama with as finely co-ordinated a barrage as if they had met and concerted their response. Beside that prospect, the calls of betrayal from the antiwar base that gave Obama his first victories in 2008 must seem a small price to pay. The best imaginable result just now, given the tightness of the trap, may be ostensible co-operation with the generals, accompanied by a set of questions that lays the groundwork for refusal of the next escalation. But in wars there is always a deep beneath the lowest deep, and the ambushes and accidents tend towards savagery much more than conciliation.
-- David Bromwich

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Six insights on Congo

Martin Shaw summarizes GĂ©rard Prunier:
* the Rwandan genocide was a decisive moment in modern African history;

* most of the states that became involved did so because of limited, local interests;

* the partial nature of most states' interests, combined with their restricted mobilising capacities..., explain why this was not really "Africa's great war", but rather a messy, episodic conflict across but some areas of the vast DRC;

* the Hutu Power forces in Rwanda in 1994 were unique in organising a large-scale, nationwide campaign of genocide. But genocidal violence (massacres, rape, expulsions) has remained intermittent throughout the conflicts in the DRC in the subsequent decade and a half, and been employed by many of the parties;

* the Rwandan...government of Paul Kagame was unique in having a sustained interest in continuing the Congo wars, and determined to use the west's guilt at failing to stop the 1994 genocide to produce impunity for itself;

* many western governments and NGOs were (most of the time) duly blinded by their guilt to acknowledge the hardship Rwanda's campaign was inflicting on the DR Congo's population, or to raise their voices against it.
Complex conflicts across northeastern Africa, centred on Sudan "still cast a long shadow that reaches into the DRC."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Monday, October 12, 2009


[LBJ] was a member of a minority group, defined not in racial or ethnic terms but in terms of "alienat[ion] from the self by a double sense of identity and so at the mercy of a self which demands action and more action to define the most rudimentary borders of identity."

"To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."
-- William Astore cites an unlikely pair: Norman Mailer and Sun Tzu.

But a central reason for the continuation of the war is that it is good business.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dreaming wakes

Giulio particularly concerned by the possibility that parts of our brain might be going offline without us even realising it. "In many respects, it would be like having a temporary mental disorder without anybody, including yourself, being aware of it," he says.
-- from Are you asleep? Exploring the mind's twilight zone?
Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.
-- George Santayana


[Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide] similar to those now commonly regarded as adequate to tackle climate change were associated with sea levels 25-40m (80-130 ft) higher than today.
-- BBC report

Thursday, October 08, 2009


Tom Englehardt compares the US and Nato in Afghanistan to the Martians in H G Wells's War of the Worlds.

It's a striking comparison, but I wonder if Ahmed Rashid is right: this is a war of necessity, it just needs to be fought smarter.

Monday, October 05, 2009


A good article on Maya Lin's What is Missing? (Hat tip BM)

Lin's Vietnam memorial is the greatest monument relating to industrialized warfare that I know of. How it got approval an imperial city like DC escapes me. Perhaps a Strong America Emergency Executive for the Protection of the Constitution under president Sarah Palin will relocate it.

The article on What is Missing? is nearly overwhelmed by obtrusive advertisements -- an odd effect, if not quite as odd as the start of Yann Arhus-Betrand's Home, where the opening title is constructed from brand names in the Gucci group.

Communicating the emergency

The Safe Climate Australia campaign is more than three months in. Their video Run for a safe climate remains one of the best bits of communication around.

Hat tip Climate safety.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Sympathy without the devil

"Attacking [religious fundementalists] is easier than understanding [them]," says Simon Donner. "It also does more harm than good."

Consider the Otin-taii declaration.

Condemned to repeat it

The beauty-contest analogy helps explain why real-estate developers, condo flippers, and financial investors continued to invest in the real-estate market and in the mortgage-securities market, even though many of them may have believed that home prices had risen too far. Alan Greenspan and other free-market economists failed to recognize that, during a speculative mania, attempting to “surf” the bubble can be a perfectly rational strategy. According to orthodox economics, professional speculators play a stabilizing role in the financial markets: whenever prices rise above fundamentals, they step in and sell; whenever prices fall too far, they step in and buy. But history has demonstrated that much of the so-called “smart money” aims at getting in ahead of the crowd, and that only adds to the mispricing...

...During the Depression, the Glass-Steagall Act was passed in order to separate the essential utility aspects of the financial system—customer deposits, check clearing, and other payment systems—from the casino aspects, such as investment banking and proprietary trading. That key provision was repealed in 1999. The [Obama] Administration has shown no interest in reinstating it, which means that “too big to fail” financial supermarkets, like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, will continue to dominate the financial system. And, since the federal government has now demonstrated that it will do whatever is necessary to prevent the collapse of the largest financial firms, their top executives will have an even greater incentive to enter perilous lines of business. If things turn out well, they will receive big bonuses and the value of their stock options will increase. If things go wrong, the taxpayer will be left to pick up some of the tab.
-- from Rational Irrationality by John Cassidy