Monday, September 15, 2014


The NFL may have caved on men "disciplining" wives and girl friends, but it's still a place where an indicted 100 kg thug can beat a four-year old bloody.

At least if that thug can really play.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kevin Drum on ISIS

Kevin is another guy who thinks we are wrong to take on ISIS:

There's no question that the beheading of American citizens by a gang of vicious thugs is the kind of thing that makes your blood boil. Unless you hail from Vulcan, your gut reaction is that you want to find the barbarians who did this and crush them.

But that shouldn't be your final reaction. This is not an era of conventional military forces with overwhelming power and no real fear of blowback. It's an era of stateless terrorists whose ability to commit extremely public atrocities is pretty much unlimited. And while atrocities can have multiple motivations, one of the key reasons for otherwise pointless actions like one-off kidnappings and beheadings is their ability to either provoke overreactions or successfully extort ransoms. Unfortunately, Americans are stupidly addicted to the former and Europeans seem to be stupidly addicted to the latter, and that's part of what keeps this stuff going.

In any case, a moment's thought should convince you that we're being manipulated. We've read account after account about ISIS and its remarkably sophisticated command and publicity apparatus. The beheading video is part of that. It's a very calculated, very deliberate attempt to get us to respond stupidly. It's not even a very subtle manipulation. It's just an especially brutal one.

So if we're smart, we won't give them what they want. Instead we'll respond coldly and meticulously. We'll fight on our terms, not theirs. We'll intervene if and only if the Iraqi government demonstrates that it can take the lead and hold the ground they take. We'll forego magical thinking about counterinsurgencies. We won't commit Western troops in force because we know from experience that this doesn't work. We'll avoid pitched battles and instead take advantage of our chances when they arise. Time is on our side.

Kevin is a very smart guy, but I think he is wrong, wrong, wrong on a number of points. Of course the beheadings were a deliberate provocation, but our failing to respond would be a tremendous success for them. They would have demonstrated that we are as impotent as they imagine. The last paragraph is starts out sensibly and rapidly degenerates into nonsense. There is zero reason to think time is on our side - ISIS was rapidly expanding before we intervened. The notion that we should avoid pitched battles absolute military nonsense - such a battle is precisely where our technology and overwhelming firepower have the huge advantage.

Climate Zombie Trolls

One of the blogs I read is devoted to Arctic sea ice. Most of those who comment there are professionals or very knowledgeable amateur Arctic watchers - I just lurk. Unfortunately the climate trolls attack, armed with their half-truths and outright nonsense from Denial Central or wherever the great stupidity attractor lurks. They invariably parrot the same stale mythology that has been circulating for years and fail to understand the implications of their own claims.

They do, however, wield one super-power - the ability to change the subject whenever somebody takes the trouble to refute one of their stupidities. Combine this with their general cluelessness and disrespect for staying on topic, and they become a serious pest - like flies at a picnic.

Here is a good, or rather, an egregious, example, posted by one keithwqq:

Astounding rebound in Arctic, record high levels in Antarctic. Tough year to be a warmist.

It would be hard to exaggerate just how much misinformation, confusion, and general dumbassery keith has compressed into two short sentences. His idea of an "astounding rebound," for example, is a sea ice area 1.1 million km^2 less than the mean and less than any year before 2007.

Not that they will pay attention, but here is my advice to them. Shut up and listen when the adults are talking. Do your homework and you can even participate. Or at least just confine your comments to unserious blogs like this one, or to your own echo chambers.

The Glue Trap

Obama made his intention to extract us from Bush's foreign wars pretty clear, but the US keeps getting dragged back in. Couldn't we, shouldn't we, just say the heck with you and let the Middle East and the rest of the world struggle with their own problems? Former big time interventionist Andrew Sullivan is sure that Obama is making a big mistake by going after ISIS. He quotes David Frum, good old "axis of evil" Frum, as follows:

The question before the nation is, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?” That was the question the speech left unanswered. And the ominous suspicion left behind is that the question was unanswered because it is unanswerable—at least, not answerable in any terms likely to be acceptable to the people watching the speech and paying the taxes to finance the fight ahead.

What terms likely to be acceptable is a question for the future, but I think Obama's rationale makes a hella lot more sense than Frum's rationale for his wars ever did. In ISIS, the US confronts an aggressive, rapidly expanding, declared enemy, which is disrupting an area of vital strategic importance to us. Moreover, its a murderous, genocidal organization attacking our allies. Finally, it is an organization which has publicly and gruesomely murdered Americans just for the crime of being American.

Getting involved in foreign civil wars is an unpleasant and frequently counterproductive business, but not getting and staying involved can also turn out badly, as it did when we let Afghanistan drift after the Russians were chased out.

One point which we should not delude ourselves about - stamping out ISIS will not end turmoil in the Middle East. Nor can we completely eliminate ISIS. What we probably can do is destroy its military power, kill or capture its leadership, and destroy its financial infrastructure. I wouldn't bet that these things can be accomplished without US troops on the ground though.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Obama's Anti-ISIL Speech

If Obama uses the phrase "reverse the momentum" I will likely throw-up. In fact any mention of p or other component of the stress-energy tensor will bother me. Other stupid words are: limited, defensive, and surgical. War is war. If you aren't in to win, you are just killing people for no good reason.

Suitable words and phrases include: defeat, crush, eliminate, annihilate, destroy, conquer and vanquish.

Please no idiotic euphemisms, equivocations, or weasel wordings.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Barbarians at the (Water)gate

The customer needed a haircut before an important public appearance.

The barber made polite conversation on the one subject every last customer was interested in: “What do you think of these Watergate hearings?”

“They’re pretty interesting, but I haven’t been able to see much of them.”

“I’ll say they’re interesting. I’m bringing my TV set to the shop next week. I want to see this guy Dean get his butt kicked.”

“Yeah, that’s going to be something. We’ll find out what the squealer has to say for himself.”

“Right. You know, I can’t imagine a guy lying that way about President Nixon. The guy is crazy, maybe.”

“Could be,” John Dean said, with all sincerity.

Perlstein, Rick (2014-08-05). The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Kindle Locations 2870-2875). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Scientific Conspiracies

A favorite ploy of denialists of various stripes (vaccination, global warming, evolution...) is that scientists are engaged in a sort of conspiracy to silence dissent. Given the pretty widespread belief that rigorous internal critique is at the core of the scientific method, can scientific conspiracies really exist?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes - though none of the above are likely examples. The most prominent contemporary example seems to be the great "saturated fats are evil" myth. Nina Teicholz has traced the story in her book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, which she is currently flogging in various venues.

Of course this was not a conspiracy of deliberate deceit, but of true believers. Their is very little evidence that Ancel Keys or any of the others propagating this myth were deliberately selling something they knew was wrong. Instead, they believed the idea so passionately that they discounted contrary evidence and relied on very dubious supporting data. Even the sugar and vegetable oil companies who jumped aboard with both feet and boatloads of cash probably thought they were during mankind a favor with their low fat foods, margarine, and other products.

One enabling factor has been the difficulty and expense of doing controlled nutritional studies, so almost all data must come from epidemiological studies. One strong piece of evidence, however, is the fact that overall, Americans have drastically reduced their consumption of saturated fats, while getting fatter and more diabetic. Also, the evidence that saturated fats are not the bogeyman has gradually accumulated and a critical analysis of the studies portraying it as such has found their severe weaknesses.

So how about those other conspiracy candidates? The big difference is the quality and quantity of the evidence. Evolution, vaccination, and human caused global warming all have all have ample evidence and detailed models of action, something that the saturated fat hypothesis never achieved.

A better candidate example might be string theory. It has achieved tremendous influence without a bit of direct evidence, and it's more zealous practitioners are famous for their persecution of doubters. Neither of those things is evidence that the string hypothesis is wrong - but it's equally certain that it is an unproven hypothesis. Of course it can't be compared in practical importance to any of the other hypotheses. If string theory is true and useful, we will likely find some evidence for it eventually, but it's practical importance will be confined to some faculty appointments, at least in the medium term. Meanwhile all the others concerned directly affect the lives and health or millions or billions.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Juggling for Seniors

Once upon a time I had a modest (OK, VERY modest) skill at juggling. So, not having done any juggling for a few years or decades or something, I decided to see if my old muscles, reflexes, and fading vision could still handle it. Three balls, check. Four beanbags - not so hot, managed 11 consecutive catches, while minimum proficiency is supposed to be twenty, but not bad considering that I never was any good at it. Three clubs is probably the minimum skill that is amusing to watch, and I used to be able to do it pretty easily, even managing a few simple tricks.

This seems to be a major challenge for my own personal beanbag - the fixed one, between my shoulders, I mean. So far, I just haven't been able to manage the air traffic control. The problem is that I just can't seem to stay in the basin of stability, and my pattern quickly become chaotic. This is a familiar pattern in control theory - either the sensors aren't up to the task or the actuators aren't.

But I haven't given up. Yet.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The El

Current Southern Oscillation conditions continue to muddle along in weak El Niño territory, so if you were counting on it to bring some big rains, maybe not. Of course it could still make a big splash, but odds now seem against it.

Uh Oh?


MOSCOW — A strange incident near the Russian-Estonian border on Friday ended with an Estonian intelligence officer in Russian custody and the two countries trading sharply contradictory allegations about what happened.

Estonia’s president and prime minister, among other officials, said the officer had been kidnapped at gunpoint from their territory and forced across the border in a blatant violation of sovereignty. The Russian Federal Security Service said the officer was in Russia and engaged in a clandestine operation when he was detained.

The episode threatened to heighten tensions between Russia and the NATO alliance, to which Estonia belongs, at a time when relations are already severely strained over the conflict in Ukraine. It came just two days after President Obama gave a speech in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, pledging that NATO would defend the Baltics against Russian aggression and suggesting that any attack on them would lead to war with the West.

Although the intelligence officer was apparently detained around 9 a.m., the Russian security service, known as the F.S.B., did not acknowledge the incident until Friday evening, when it issued a statement to three Russian news agencies.

Senior Estonian officials, including the director of the country’s Internal Security Service, held a news conference in the late afternoon, saying the officer had been abducted after unknown assailants set off a stun grenade and jammed communication signals. At the time of his capture, the officer was investigating a criminal case in the area of Luhamaa, Estonia, a little more than a mile from the border with Russia, officials said, according to Estonian news reports.

If Ukraine is Putin's Rhineland, moving against the Baltics would be his Czechoslovakia. NATO could not afford to ignore such a move. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that Obama's mealy mouthed speech in Estonia didn't do much to demonstrate Western resolve.

Debates About Israel

Jonah Shepp gives the standard boilerplate defense of Zionism at Andrew Sullivan's place. He claims to be "seeing both sides now" but the other side, whatever it may be, is hidden behind his paywall. I don't want to get into any of that on either side, but I would note that debates about Israel in the US are really about what the US should or should not be doing.

Israel lives in a tough neighborhood, and tough measures are sometimes needed in such places, but should their problems really be our problems?

Israel is a US client state, depending heavily on the US for money and weaponry, not to mention vital political support in the form of UN Security Council vetoes. Jon Stewart noted the irony that when Israel called a ceasefire in its latest Gaza war, apparently because it had run out of (American) ammo, the US, which had loudly proclaimed its desire for just such a ceasefire, was quick to promise that a few hundred million bucks worth of ammo was on the way.

The problem is that as a client, Israel basically sucks. It's leaders routinely undermine US attempts to broker peace settlements, insult our leaders and diplomats, and take actions like settlement expansion and siezure of Palestinian land.

So are the insults and disses just harmless political fun? Not to the thousands of American soldiers and civilians who have died, and the tens of thousands maimed by the enmity these things provoke among Muslims. If Israel can disrespect America and its President, then obviously the US is an tool of Israel, and deserves the violence and terrorism wielded against it.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, no American President can afford to treat Israel like just another country, like say, Turkey, or Thailand, worthy of US help to the extent that they serve our national interests. Instead, they are more like the obnoxious little brother who is always getting in bar fights and then running to us for help. And he's really not even a cousin - more like a friend of a friend.

Shot Clock: The Thoughtful Man

I've been trying to puzzle out Obama's unpopularity in the face of an economy that continues to improve despite relentless Republican sabotage.  Some of the theories I've floated have been met with less than widespread acclaim.

Rick Perlstein, in his new book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, notes that Reagan, in his youth, developed a talent,  for turning any situation into an inspirational or heroic narrative with himself in the lead role.  Many a youth does something similar, but Reagan's genius was in his ability to project this heroic myth into the world, and sell it.  Very useful for a movie actor, an for a leader too.  His remarkable record at lifesaving, for example, reveals a number of beneficiaries who didn't think they really needed succor.

Reagan the politician had a glib and self-serving, if not necessarily responsive, answer for every question, usually cribbed from one of his campaign speeches.

Compare and contrast the clip of Obama in the following Jon Stewart bit.  Obama is in Estonia, supposedly rallying NATO to respond to Putin's invasion of Ukraine.  A gray and sickly looking Obama stumbles through a shapeless lecture to Putin on how to play by the rules, delivered at an excruciatingly slow pace that makes it seem as if every word is being dragged from him under torture.


This sort of thing is leadership 001.  Obama is a lot smarter than Reagan ever was, but he has really shown a failure to master the elements of leadership.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Better Off Russian?

Some have argued that the Ukrainians would be better off in Russia. That doesn't seem to have been the case for the chunks of Georgia that Putin picked up on one of his earlier land grabs. In any case, one of the prime motivations for big desertions of Ukrainian police to the separatist cause seems to have been the promise of much larger Russian pensions.

So how are Russians doing, overall? In per capita GDP, a lot better than Ukrainians. In some other respects, maybe not so hot. From Masha Gessen's story in the New York Review of Books blog.

In the seventeen years between 1992 and 2009, the Russian population declined by almost seven million people, or nearly 5 percent—a rate of loss unheard of in Europe since World War II. Moreover, much of this appears to be caused by rising mortality. By the mid-1990s, the average St. Petersburg man lived for seven fewer years than he did at the end of the Communist period; in Moscow, the dip was even greater, with death coming nearly eight years sooner.

In 2006 and 2007, Michelle Parsons, an anthropologist who teaches at Emory University and had lived in Russia during the height of the population decline in the early 1990s, set out to explore what she calls “the cultural context of the Russian mortality crisis.” Her method was a series of long unstructured interviews with average Muscovites—what amounted to immersing herself in a months-long conversation about what made life, for so many, no longer worth living. The explanation that Parsons believes she has found is in the title of her new book, Dying Unneeded.

The story goes into her theory - mostly the shock of social disruption - but whether one buys that or no, the statistics don't paint a pretty picture of life in Putin's Russia. Men under 15 have mortality rates like those of third world countries with a tiny fraction of Russia's per capita GDP, not to mention the tremendous disparity in technological capability.

The Great Attraction

Our Galaxy is known to have a peculiar velocity of some 600 km/s with respect to the cosmic microwave background. It's long been rather unclear what the nature of "the Great Attractor" responsible for this velocity has been. A new study seems to clarify that question and to establish our position in a newly identified supercluster of galaxies being called Laniakea.

Within the boundaries of the Laniakea Supercluster, galaxy motions are directed inward, in the same way that water streams follow descending paths toward a valley. The Great Attractor region is a large flat bottom gravitational valley with a sphere of attraction that extends across the Laniakea Supercluster.

The name Laniakea was suggested by Nawa'a Napoleon, an associate professor of Hawaiian Language and chair of the Department of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature at Kapiolani Community College, a part of the University of Hawaii system. The name honors Polynesian navigators who used knowledge of the heavens to voyage across the immensity of the Pacific Ocean.

Read more at:

The name seems to mean "immeasurable heaven", which is a bit ironic, since the supercluster was traced by careful measurements of the peculiar velocities of the constituents.

I recommend that you go to the linked sight and watch the Nature video. It's very good, and the reader's accent is lovely.