Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Arctic Meltdown ...

... is hardly happening this year. After the gigantic record melt of 2012, many expected that such spectacular melts would become the new norm - but it hasn't happened - yet anyway. 2013 was the largest minimum ice area since 2005 (though still less than anything earlier) and 2014 is currently tracking well above it. No doubt the denialist crowd will find this yet another "proof" that science is nuts, but the fact is that weather remains variable, on a year to year and even decade to decade scale.

the culprit - if you can call it that - this year has been cloud cover, high pressure, and wind pattern that have favored ice compaction rather than export.

Of course we still have six weeks left in the melt season, so the final script isn't yet in. Meanwhile, Antarctic ice is at record levels, for essentially unrelated reasons.

The Difference

Reading, as I frequently do, a certain blog which must not be named, I notice a posting on the Israeli situation. The author recommends, and appears to endorse, this post by Ali A. Rizvi. I mostly agree with the latter, especially this first sentence:

Are you "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine"? It isn't even noon yet as I write this, and I've already been accused of being both.

Just to put it on the record, but for historical and family reasons I am "pro-Israel" but I am also pro-truth and anti-myth. Not only that, but I believe that Palestinians are people too and deserve a chance at a decent life. Is there a way to achieve that and still keep Israel safe?

I don't know, but I agree with Rizvi that the current path is not that way.

However, if Israel holds itself to a higher standard like it claims -- it needs to do much more to show it isn't the same as the worst of its neighbors.

Israel is leading itself towards increasing international isolation and national suicide because of two things: 1. The occupation; and 2. Settlement expansion.

Settlement expansion is simply incomprehensible. No one really understands the point of it. Virtually every US administration -- from Nixon to Bush to Obama -- has unequivocally opposed it. There is no justification for it except a Biblical one (see #2), which makes it slightly more difficult to see Israel's motives as purely secular.

I remain bemused at how little of my thought HWMNBN understands of my thought. Communication is always difficult, especially among hotheads.

Israel's Real Friends

It's one of those classic ironies that the fiercest battles over Israeli policies take place between those who both consider themselves friends of Israel. These camps might roughly be described as the liberal and conservative camps. The liberal camp thinks that the current Israeli government is pursuing policies that are likely to be suicidal in the long run. The conservatives seem to think that any criticism of Israeli actions is treason to the cause, and Jew hating anti-semitism.

Of course Israel has plenty of real enemies, and many of these would not be placated by anything less than the disappearance of Israel as a state. But, argue the liberals, there are lots of people in the middle, who are not deeply hostile to Israel, but are increasingly offended by the images on television. Of course that is point of the Hamas provocations - say the conservatives, truthfully enough.

No issue between the liberals and conservatives is as divisive as the settlements in the West Bank. The logic behind them is the logic of a "Greater Israel", but that's an Israel that has no room for the Palestinians.

My vote is with the liberals, partly because I think they have a clearer-eyed view of history, but mostly because I still think there may be hope for a peace that doesn't depend on apartheid or ethnic cleansing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Argumentation II

One of the most fruitful traditions of Judaism is argumentation. The Talmud can be read as a gigantic series of arguments, and, at least in some places, rabbinical students study in pairs, the better to sharpen their argumentation skills. The analytic abilities honed by this kind of culture have been put to good use in the larger world - helping Jews reach the top of nearly every occupation.

Even in the arguments over Israel, the sharpest points of each side are frequently made by Jews. The following curious anecdote was published in the Jewish Journal:

On a JetBlue flight from Florida to New York on July 7, just before the IDF launched its Operation Protective Edge, an argument over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict broke out between two passengers that got one of them, a Jewish doctor from Queens named Lisa Rosenberg, kicked off the flight before takeoff. Later it emerged that the passenger with whom Rosenberg argued, who on the plane had identified herself as a Palestinian, was in fact Jewish.

Jews also have a tradition of defending the underdog.

Israel's Support in the World

A former commenter was scathing in his denunciation when I suggested that Israel was losing friends in the world. From the NYT:

A 2013 Pew poll found vastly more unfavorable feelings toward Israel outside than within the United States, which registered a 27 percent unfavorable view of Israel and a 57 percent favorable view. In contrast, 44 percent of people in Britain had an unfavorable view of Israel. Unfavorable views of Israel were held by 62 percent in Germany, 65 percent in France, 66 percent in China and in the 80 percent to 90 percent range in Arab and Muslim countries.

But Nigeria is still with them - or was two years ago.

Making Friends and Influencing People

In the age of the internet, the business of war is even more damaging to reputation than ever. People don't like to see kids and hospitals blown up.

The good news for Israel in this new Pew poll is that Americans remain solidly behind Israel, blaming Hamas more than Israel by a margin of 40% to 19%, with the rest going with "both" or don't know. The bad news is that those 18-29 reverse this, blaming Israel more by 29% - 21%. Blacks and Hispanics blame Israel more as well.

Not sure what the comparable numbers look like in Europe, but rumors would seem to indicate that the numbers are worse for Israel there.

For now, it looks like Israel has a comfortable margin of US support, but its margin for error is endangered.

A recent Gallup poll had the maybe even worse news for Israel, with support looking solid only among Republicans, over fifties, and the most educated.

Prisoners of Events

Yuval Diskin's interview linked below implies the Israeli public opinion pressured Netanyahu into invasion of Gaza. Putin's meddling in Ukraine has caused his popularity at home to skyrocket. George Bush got a big boost from his Iraq war. The Iraq-Iran war of the eighties consolidated Khomeini's grip on power in Iran.

Wars are popular, especially at first, before the bills come due. The other side of this is that they are usually easier to get into than out of. Six year's later Obama is still struggling to extract himself from Bush's wars. Putin lately seems pretty unsure of his Ukrainian adventure, but any retreat now might collapse his power at home. Meanwhile Israel continues to ratchet up the bloodshed in Gaza, with very little sign the Hamas is about to collapse.

Can Israel stop short of a reoccupation of Gaza that's likely to be much bloodier and more costly to it and it's reputation? TBD.

Overthrowing Dictators

The dubious logic behind Bush's adventure in Iraq was that if an evil dictator was overthrown, democracy would flourish. The supposed exemplars of this notion were post WWII Japan and Germany. This naive expectation ignores the fact that neither Japan nor Germany was a complete stranger to democratic institutions and that the Allies, mostly the US, imposed long occupations on both defeated nations in which democratic institutions were carefully nourished and deviations rigorously suppressed.

Bush's slapdash attempts predictably failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the time since has seen a number of more or less spontaneous dictatorial overthrows in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt as well as a failing attempt in Syria. Most of these have been disasters. The pattern is hardly different in the dozens of former colonies that were turned loose with superficially democratic institutions by the European powers. With very few exceptions, democracy has failed in them.

This should remind us of the point that the republic is a fragile flower, and one that can only thrive in very carefully cultivated soil. As a minimum, a system of laws and a sense of nationhood seem to be required. Tribal societies almost utterly lack these.

The exceptions are very interesting. India is one of the very few that made the transition from colony to almost seamlessly, albeit with some bumps in the road. Taiwan and South Korea went from dictatorship to democracy in evolutionary fashion, though both had plenty of US influence for both good and ill. Probably more important for both was the presence of a strong and remorseless enemy at the gates.

Which reminds me: the internal enemies of the American Republic continue their relentless work to undermine our sense of common purpose and unity.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Gaza Interview

Via a blogger who must not be named, this interview with Yuval Diskin, former Israeli security chief. It's depressing reading, revealing the intractability of the problem and the lack of leadership on either side. Violence breeds violence, and it's hard to see how it stops before one side (mostly likely the Palestinians) is wiped out. Demilitarizing Gaza by force may be appealing despite the carnage, but then what?


Diskin: Israel didn't have any other choice than to increase the pressure, which explains the deployment of ground troops. All attempts at negotiation have failed thus far. The army is now trying to destroy the tunnels between Israel and the Gaza Strip with a kind of mini-invasion, also so that the government can show that it is doing something. Its voters have been increasingly vehement in demanding an invasion. The army hopes the invasion will finally force Hamas into a cease-fire. It is in equal parts action for the sake of action and aggressive posturing. They are saying: We aren't operating in residential areas; we are just destroying the tunnel entrances. But that won't, of course, change much in the disastrous situation. Rockets are stored in residential areas and shot from there as well.

SPIEGEL: You are saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressured to act by the right?

Diskin: The good news for Israel is the fact that Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz are not very adventurous. None of them really wanted to go in. None of them is really enthusiastic about reoccupying the Gaza Strip. Israel didn't plan this operation at all. Israel was dragged into this crisis. We can only hope that it doesn't go beyond this limited invasion and we won't be forced to expand into the populated areas.

SPIEGEL: So what happens next?

Diskin: Israel is now an instrument in the hands of Hamas, not the opposite. Hamas doesn't care if its population suffers under the attacks or not, because the population is suffering anyway. Hamas doesn't really care about their own casualties either. They want to achieve something that will change the situation in Gaza. This is a really complicated situation for Israel. It would take one to two years to take over the Gaza Strip and get rid of the tunnels, the weapons depots and the ammunition stashes step-by-step. It would take time, but from the military point of view, it is possible. But then we would have 2 million people, most of them refugees, under our control and would be faced with criticism from the international community.


And another horror story:

SPIEGEL: A lawmaker from the pro-settler party Jewish Home wrote that Israel's enemy is "every single Palestinian."

Diskin: The hate and this incitement were apparent even before this terrible murder. But then, the fact that it really happened, is unbelievable. It may sound like a paradox, but even in killing there are differences. You can shoot someone and hide his body under rocks, like the murderer of the three Jewish teenagers did. Or you can pour oil into the lungs and light him on fire, alive, as happened to Mohammed Abu Chidair.... I cannot even think of what these guys did. People like Naftali Bennett have created this atmosphere together with other extremist politicians and rabbis. They are acting irresponsibly; they are thinking only about their electorate and not in terms of the long-term effects on Israeli society -- on the state as a whole.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe there is a danger of Israel becoming isolated?

Diskin: I am sorry to say it, but yes. I will never support sanctions on my country, but I think the government may bring this problem onto the country. We are losing legitimacy and the room to operate is no longer great, not even when danger looms.

Of course he's probably delusional.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Scott Aaronson and Andrew Sullivan on Gaza


Hamas is trying to kill as many civilians as it can.

Israel is trying to kill as few civilians as it can.

Neither is succeeding very well.


My old sparring partner, Jeffrey Goldberg, has been busy pondering why Hamas has sent hundreds of rockets – with no fatalities – into Israel. He argues that it does this in order to kill Palestinians. It’s an arresting idea, and it helps perpetuate the notion that there are no depths to which these Islamist fanatics and war criminals will not sink.

It also helps distract from the fact that Hamas itself did not kill the three Israeli teens which was the casus belli for the latest Israeli swoop through the West Bank; that Netanyahu had called for generalized revenge in the wake of the killings, while concealing the fact that the teens had been murdered almost as soon as they had been captured; and that Israeli public hysteria, tapping into the Gilad-like trauma of captivity, then began to spawn increasingly ugly, sectarian and racist acts of revenge and brutality. It also side-steps the rather awful fact that this nihilist and futile war crime is all that Hamas has really got left.

Yes, they conceal armaments and rockets and weapons in civilian areas – and that undoubtedly increases civilian deaths. But what alternative do they have exactly, if they wish to have any military capacity at all? Should they build clearly demarcated camps and barracks and munitions stores, where the IDF could just destroy them at will? As for the argument that no democratic society could tolerate terrorist attacks without responding with this kind of disproportionate force, what about the country I grew up in, where pubs and department stores in the mainland were blown up, where the prime minister and her entire cabinet were bombed and some killed in a hotel? I don’t recall aerial bombing of Catholic areas in Belfast, do you? Or fatality numbers approaching 200 – 0? Democratic countries are marked by this kind of restraint – not by calls for revenge and bombardment of a densely populated urban area, where civilian casualties, even with the best precision targeting and warnings, are inevitable.

And there is, for all the talk of aggression on both sides, no serious equivalence in capabilities between Hamas and the IDF. The IDF has the firepower to level Gaza to the ground if it really wants to. Hamas, if it’s lucky, might get a rocket near a town or city. I suppose Israel’s reluctance just to raze Gaza for good and all is why John McCain marveled that in a war where one side has had more than 170 fatalities, 1,200 casualties, 80 percent of whom are civilians, and the other side has no fatalities and a handful of injuries, Israel has somehow practiced restraint. One wonders what no restraint would mean.

And look at the image above. Part of our skewed perspective is revealed by it. Imagine for a second that Hamas had leveled a synagogue. Can you imagine what Israel would feel justified in doing as a response? Or imagine if a Jewish extended family of 18 had been massacred by Hamas, including children? Would we not be in a major international crisis? At some point the lightness with which we treat Palestinian suffering compared with Jewish suffering needs to be addressed as an urgent moral matter. The United States is committed to human rights, not rights scaled to one’s religious heritage or race.

Scott has 196 comments, some taking his facile oversimplifications to task.

The Uses of Argumentation

One thing people do a lot is argue. It's ubiquity suggests that it has significant adaptive value. To my mind, the most important component of this value is the Platonic argument: argument as a tool for discovering the truth. That principle is the basis of our legal system as well as a critical component of scientific reasoning - the idea of testing a proposition against the alternatives. A related, but quite distinct, purpose is persuasion, or getting others to sign on to a course of action one wishes.

A couple of other common uses, IMHO deservedly in lower repute, are point scoring and proclaiming tribal affiliation. The aim of point scoring is to make somebody else look bad, while proclaiming tribal affiliation is the verbal or literary equivalent of the gang tattoo. "I'm a conservative, so I don't believe anthropogenic climate change is real," for example.

Even though real world arguments often contain all four of these elements, I think it make sense to distinguish them. Insult, for example, is a reliable indicator that you are in category 3 and 4 territory. Even more indicative is a disinclination to address the contrary logic and fact.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Speed Dating The Universe

At a party a woman once approached Einstein and said: I've been reading your book and there are just a few things that I don't understand. What are line element, tensor, stress-energy, metric and ...".

Einstein's reply: "Oh that's very simple. Those are merely technical terms."

Of course, those pesky technical terms, always cluttering up the intellectual landscape. What we need is the equivalent of speed dating for science, brief little capsules that will give you - and others - the impression that you understand. If you can't boil a big idea down to a brief paragraph, what use is it anyway?

For example, for DNA one might say: The instruction sheets for building plants, animals, and bacteria are written down on long strings of four different chemicals. Every cell starts out with one of these instruction sheets and teams of other chemicals that can read them and translate them into the stuff that makes brains, muscles, bones and skin (for animals) and leaves, branches and roots for plants.

Contributions solicited.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Our Israel Problem

The Middle East has been a central strategic preoccupation of the world for more than one hundred years, mostly because of oil. Winston Churchill's pivotal step of changing the British fleet from coal to oil was just the start of oil's dizzying rise to pre-eminence in the minds of of every strategic thinker. Since that time it has been a major focus of two global wars, the cold war, and numerous smaller scale wars.

These factors, and the vast wealth that the oil brought to the region, profoundly disrupted the relatively backward and tribal societies that dominated the area. So the Middle East would probably be a mess even without Israel.

Britain was probably the biggest player in the establishment of Israel. Motivated by a mixture of naive idealism and not as shrewd as they thought realpolitik, its leaders allowed and encouraged the immigration of Jews into Palestine. Their realpolitik backfired when the supposed "strategic counterweight" to the Arabs became a terrorist movement dedicated to domination.

Despite early support from the US (and the USSR), Israel didn't really become our own problem child until the 1973 war, when the US intervened very substantially by mounting massive aid when Israel was on the verge of defeat by Egypt and its allies. Out of this grew the Arab oil embargo, OPEC's imperial triumph, the enormous run up in oil prices, a major global recession, the Iranian revolution, and Jimmy Carter's political destruction.

Since that time, Israel, through its own efforts and plenty of American help (though the nukes were probably France's fault) has become the regional superpower. This overwhelming power has allowed it to behave very badly in its abuse of the Palestinians. The superiority is so overwhelming that Israel has essentially no stake in a peace settlement that would in any way approach justice. Instead, it imprisons the Palestinians in the Gaza concentration camp, steals Palestinian land and water in the West Bank, and crushes resistance with overwhelming force.

This behavior has turned many of Israel's old allies against it and utterly depleted the stores of guilt and moral debt that much of the world felt towards Israel. Only the US, where the alliance of American Jews and Christian Millenialists crushes any criticism, hold firm. The Israeli Prime Minister even insults the American President with apparent impunity. How long is this likely to last?

If Israel will not restrain itself, can anyone else restrain it? TBD.

Shoot Downs

It's not especially likely that the Russian/Ukrainian separatists who shot down the 777 intended to bring down a civilian airliner. That said, many are comparing this event with the US shoot down of an Iranian airliner in 1988. It's perhaps instructive to compare the circumstances.

At that point, the Iraq-Iran war had been dragging on for seven years, and Iran was losing. The two countries had been attacking each other's shipping and port facilities the whole time. A desperate Iran decided to widen the war by attacking Kuwaiti and other third party shipping. This presented a direct threat to world oil supplies as well as to the third party nations, and Kuwait appealed to both the US and Russian to intervene. This dual appeal was sufficient to awaken Reagan (or his inner circle) from his snooze and promise action, which came in the form of reflagging Kuwaiti tankers as American and providing naval escorts. One of these escorts, the destroyer Vincennes, was engaged by Iranian naval vessels when its radar detected an approaching Iranian aircraft, which it misidentified as military, and shot down the airliner, killing all its passengers.

Planetary Scale Catastrophes

There are a few kinds of planetary catastrophes that we can reasonably anticipate, some of our own doing, like a major thermonuclear war or catastrophic global warming. There are also some that are beyond our ability to control, like a major cometary impact. It seems that we narrowly missed a bad one in 2012, a gigantic solar coronal mass ejection that narrowly missed the Earth. The damage such a "space weather" event would do is mediated by the large induced electric fields it would generate, which very plausibly would fry all sorts of electrical and electronic equipment, including power lines, generators and all those other devices our lives now depend on.

The good news is that there are lots technological measures that can be taken to mitigate the worst effects of such an event. The bad news is that hardly any of them have, in fact, been implemented. Big coronal mass ejection events are not rare, like cometary impacts. We are very likely to be in the path of at least one in the next hundred years. there is no good reason not to prepare.

Raging Against The Dying of the Light

I've always been a book nut. As is the case with most nuts, there is a strongly irrational element in my bibliomania. I don't read that many novels. A lot of non-fiction is not my cup of tea. But I love technical books on subjects which I want to understand. I buy a lot of textbooks and monographs. And I've never sold one. I have also given away a lot fewer than I should have.

At this point, I have a lot more books on a number of subjects than I can ever hope to comprehend (differential geometry, astrophysics, string theory, quantum field theory, general relativity, to name a few). Of course I'm also getting dumber, and I probably wasn't bright enough for several of those subjects at my best. Also, my vision is going.

Obviously, a rational strategy would be to at least drastically prune the collection that clutters up my house, garage, and office. But I still lust in my heart over that new astrophysics book. Maybe that new quantum field theory book would at last clear up a lot of those puzzles I never been able to master. And I really do need a good review of statistical mechanics.

Maybe buying a new book is just a way avoiding contemplation of the end - a kind of rage against the dying of the light.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Putin's War Yet Again

Putin continues to wage a cross border war against Ukraine - or what's left of it. In addition to shipping heavy weapons to the separatists (including the long range missiles that brought down the 777, Russian artillery and missiles rain down on Ukraine from Russia. It's curious that Putin has chosen this half measure of cross border warfare rather than all out invasion. Perhaps he thinks the fig leaf of stopping short of massive invasion will keep Europe from any significant response, and he could be right.

Or perhaps he is just playing for time, hoping some suitable deal can be worked out. For the moment he remains popular and home, and credulity of the Russian public, and Putin's fellow travelers, seems capable of swallowing any nonsense from their bare chested hero.

It seems history may not quite be over yet.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Oil and the Free Market

As a dynamical system, oil prices have long displayed a rather unstable behavior. A number of factors have contributed: a long history of exponential growth in demand, the long time constant of the feedback of prices on supply, and the unpredictable nature of the discovery of new oil resources. As a result, oil prices and oil supply suffered from dramatic swings, and as the world became more oil dependent, these swings wrecked every widening paths of economic destruction. One of the first to clearly realize this was John D. Rockefeller, and his answer was the Standard Oil Trust. Besides giving him and his investors immense personal profits, Standard created safer standardized oil products and regulated production to maintain stable (and high) prices.

Motivated in part by Ida Tarbell's scathing exposes, the Trust was ultimately dismantled, and consumers got lower prices but also an unstable market. The ferocious competition unleashed that drove down prices also resulted in a number of inefficiencies (like overpumping, leading to premature exhaustion of oil formations) and created local economic havoc in oil country. Eventually, the Texas Railroad Commission, which for peculiar historical reasons wound up in charge, imposed a quota system which brought more predictability to the market.

In later years, the giant combinations of the international oil companies performed a similar function, until "their" oil concessions were expropriated by national governments, and later, for a while, by OPEC. These quotas and combinations imposed a cost - higher prices - but there were also often benefits. When middle eastern oil production exploded, the US domestic oil production would have blown away in West Texas dust storms were it not for import quotas imposed by Eisenhower.

A key reason for this sort of quota was the central strategic position of oil. Oil transitioned from just another commodity to the central strategic commodity when Winston Churchill switched the Royal Navy from coal to oil a bit over 100 years ago. Since then, it became ever more dominant. Without it, armies could not fight, industries could not function, planes could not fly, and people could not get to work.

It's economic role has often been neglected. Jimmy Carter's presidency was unsuccessful mostly because the events of 1973, 1978, and later led to oil prices more than quadrupling. The resulting deep recession crippled his presidency. These price rises triggered an explosion of exploration and development oil resources as well as dramatic conservation measures around the globe. By 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office, the new oil produced by the exploration and the conservation measures had started eroding oil prices, and by 1985, oil prices were in collapse. Carter had no more influence on the oil price rise than Reagan did on the oil price fall, but the first produced "malaise" and the second, "Morning in America." Luck is singularly important in politics.