Thursday, May 31, 2007

"He's So Fine"

Glen Greenwald has a long amusing column on Howard Fineman, Mark Halperin, and Chris Matthews swooning and generally whipping themselves into an erotic lather over Fred Thompson.

Thompson is the draft dodging, skirt chaising former Senator, lobbyist, and soon to be Republican Presidential candidate who until recently starred on some lawyer show. Now a life of politics, political lobbying, and acting doesn't exactly scream "tough guy" to me, but Ms. Fineman and her sisters obviously feel differently.

"He's got to be tough! He played a tough guy on TV."

A Tale of Two NASAs

It was the best of Agencies,
It was the worst of Agencies...

There have always been two NASAs. Science NASA builds exquisite scientific instruments go to the farthest reaches of the Solar system and last ten times their design lifetimes, like the Pioneer space craft or the Mars rovers. The other NASA, which we might call bizarro NASA, or better, head-up-its-NASA, builds useless crap at immense cost, like the shuttle or the International Space Station.

Both NASAs were probably gratified when Bush replaced some bean counter with current NASA head Michael Griffin. He was a NASA veteran and a PhD (Aeronautical Engineering). Today, I would guess, science NASA is bitterly disappointed.

While driving to work this morning, I heard NPR's Steve Inskeep interview Griffin. It certainly didn't help my digestion.

Kevin Vranes of Prometheus has a transcript.

STEVE INSKEEP: One thing that’s been mentioned that NASA is perhaps not spending as much money as it could on is studying climate change, global warming, from space. Are you concerned about global warming?
MICHAEL GRIFFIN: I am aware that global warming -- I’m aware that global warming exists. I understand that the bulk of scientific evidence accumulated supports the claim that we’ve had about a one degree centigrade rise in temperature over the last century to within an accuracy of 20 percent. I’m also aware of recent findings that appear to have nailed down -- pretty well nailed down the conclusion that much of that is manmade. Whether that is a long term concern or not, I can’t say.

MR. INSKEEP : And I just wanted to make sure that I’m clear. Do you have any doubt that this is a problem that mankind has to wrestle with?

MR. GRIFFIN: I have no doubt that global -- that a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change. First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown, and second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings - where and when - are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.
MR. INSKEEP : Is that thinking that informs you as you put together the budget? That something is happening, that it’s worth studying, but you’re not sure that you want to be battling it as an army might battle an enemy.

MR. GRIFFIN: Nowhere in NASA’s authorization, which of course governs what we do, is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to affect climate change in either one way or another. We study global climate change, that is in our authorization, we think we do it rather well. I’m proud of that, but NASA is not an agency chartered to quote “battle climate change.”

My emphasis.

Kevin Vranes diagnoses the problem with this:

There are a lot of avenues Griffin could have gone down in this interview, but the one he chose seems to me be only slightly better than the worst tack he could have taken (denying outright that there is a problem). Although I don't agree, even with this statement I don't have a huge problem: "I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with." But what comes next,

To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change. First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown, and second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings - where and when - are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.

indicates to me that Griffin has absolutely no appreciation for the risk that anthropogenic climate change poses. Risk implies both knowledge and uncertainty and if Griffin simply wanted to make a point about uncertainty I'd concede it. But instead he seems to simply cast out the severe risks that do exist in favor of some sort of fig leaf that says "we may have altered the climate but we're too arrogant if we think we should stop altering it because our alterations might be good for other people." Unbelievable.

Let's just make a note of what Griffin thought was his big mission: a permanent base on the moon and a mission to Mars. These two "missions" were scams devised by Karl Rove to divert money NASA was using for science, especially the study of the Earth and its climate.

Abstractly, I think it would be cool to have a base on the Moon, but not $300 billion to $600 billion cool. (one to two thousand dollars per American). Sending somebody to Mars is also a nice dream, but the price tag for that is a trillion dollars plus. Of course Bush never had any plan to commit the required resources - it was always BS.

Griffin, it seems, was sent to head-up head-up-its-NASA, and to feed its hungry contractors. Science NASA is rightfully pissed.

Eli Rabett reports that premier NASA climate scientist James Hansen is unhappy:

Jim Hansen had some calming thoughts

“It’s an incredibly arrogant and ignorant statement,” Hansen told ABC News. “It indicates a complete ignorance of understanding the implications of climate change.”

Jim, evidently is in a serious FU mood.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Empire of Lies

Kevin Drum has a story on the tobacco lobby's attempts to claim that millions have died due to banning DDT. Why, you might ask? Because they were trying to discredit the World Health Organization just as it was mounting a big anti-tobacco campaign.

Their basic premise is a lie, naturally:

Is DDT a banned substance? Answer: for widespread agricultural use, which produces increased resistance in many insect populations, yes. For vector control (primarily to contain mosquito-borne malaria), no.

For the last decade or so, however, a group of right-wing "sound science" advocates has been implying that the agricultural ban on DDT is really a blanket ban and that millions of poor Africans have died as a result. Why? DDT isn't patented and is only minimally profitable, so it's not as if the DDT industry is bothering to push this. So who is?

Short answer: the tobacco industry. Surprise! Turns out that the DDT disinformation campaign was really an effort to discredit the World Health Organization, which was planning a major anti-smoking initiative back in 1998. Discredit WHO on malaria, and you discredit WHO on its anti-smoking activism. And all the while you get to look like you're standing up for millions of impoversished black Africans. Neat, eh?

Kevin has links to more.

Meanwhile, Eli Rabett has an extensive series of posts on the associated libels against Rachel Carson, whom the same tobacco lobbyists try to blame. Eli has lots of juicy details, like, who, what, and how much they got paid for their lies - and even some key tobacco company memos laying out the strategy.

I was not quite surprised to find that the scoundrels involved heavily overlap with our friends the climate denialists. Tobacco denial, says Eli, was the original sin. As that became less profitable, the gang moved into ozone denial and, most recently, global warming denial.

The cast of characters includes:

To maintain their profits the tobacco companies created a sophisticated public relations effort supported by a small but virulent group of professionals including scientists, economists and policy sluts. Among these were our old friends the Freds, Seitz and Singer who have gone on to further dishonor and but, alas, good fortune.

The centenary of Rachel Carson's birth has brought one of these, a Roger Bate to the forefront. Bate, an economist, currently dishonouring the American Enterprise Institute has set up a front organization, Africa Fighting Malaria, but to what purpose the innocent bunnies ask.

Not to fight malaria, but to fight the World Health Organization while it attempts to battle the twin curses of malaria and tobacco. Yesterday, Eli pointed to Roger Bate's solicitation letter to Philip Morris, today Rabett Institute will briefly consider the funding proposal SENT TO THE TOBACCO COMPANIES in which the clear purpose of Africa Fighting Malaria is layed out.

Eli has more here.

I keep expecting a torch and pitchfork march on the American Enterprise Institute, but I guess that's one more disappointment I will have to live with.

The pity is that this crap is picked up by the credulous press and others among the weak minded and treated as credible.

UPDATE: I think I fixed the killer tomatoes link.

Not a Good Time For Freedom

Bush is not responsible for all the reverses freedom has seen in the last six years, but he has been a big factor. With the US now almost universally disliked as a symbol of repression, with most of our moral credibility down the toilet, it has been easy for Putin to install a quasi-fascist regime in Russia. Repression in the Muslim world has been greatly strengthened.

Venezuela is now firmly on the path to repressive totalitarianism, and Bush's incompetent promotion of a coup against elected President Chavez did its part in setting the scene for subsequent outrages against freedom.

It sickens me to see how much damage this foolish man and his criminal coterie have done to the country and the world. I just hope that a few more of them go to jail.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Nostrums and Remedies Against GW Deniers

Via Brad DeLong, Gristmill provides a long list answers to the usual denialist arguments. A sample:

Individual articles will appear under multiple headings and may even appear in multiple subcategories in the same heading.

Stages of Denial

  • There's nothing happening

  • Inadequate evidence

  • Contradictory evidence

  • No consensus

  • There is much much more. All the answers to most of the silly and serious objections all your denialist friends are repeating. Not that they will pay any attention. At least until the wolf is at their personal doors.

    Monday, May 28, 2007

    Now For Some Good News

    According to this HuffPost story, Wolfowitz blamed the media for his forced resignation.

    Departing World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz in a radio interview broadcast Monday blamed an overheated atmosphere at the bank and in the media for forcing him to resign.
    Wolfowitz's departure ends a two-year run at the development bank that was marked by controversy from the start, given his previous role as a major architect of the Iraq war when he served as the No. 2 official at the Pentagon.

    Naturally he accepts no blame for his corrupt practices and general incompetence. But hey, I blamed the media for a lot so maybe I should give them credit here. Thanks media. You still owe us plenty.

    Worth a Look?

    Michael Moore has rarely been accused of being an even-handed critic, and the odds are that his new movie Sicko won't break new ground in that respect. I haven't seen it yet, but I think I will take a look when it comes.

    The New York Times has a critical look at a couple of its claims:

    Mr. Moore transports a handful of sick Americans to Cuba for treatment in the course of the film, which is scheduled to open in the United States next month, and he is apparently dumbfounded that they could get there what they couldn’t get here.

    “There’s a reason Cubans live on average longer than we do,” he told Time magazine. “I’m not trumpeting Castro or his regime. I just want to say to fellow Americans, ‘C’mon, we’re the United States. If they can do this, we can do it.’ ”

    But hold on. Do they do it? Live longer than, or even as long as, we do? How could a poor developing country — where annual health care spending averages just $230 a person compared with $6,096 in the United States — come anywhere near matching the richest country in the world?

    Statistics from the World Health Organization, the C.I.A. and other sources all show that the people of Cuba and the United States have about the same life expectancy — 77 years, give or take a few months — while infant mortality in Cuba is significantly lower than in the United States.

    The NYT has some quibbles about interpretation, but quibbles or no, it seems like a pretty scathing indictment of our health care system.

    As far as I know, there are no boat people trying to escape from the US to go to Cuba, but if a corrupt, autocratic, desperately poor third world country is matching us in health care, that's one more data point showing how little we get for our ($6096/person) health care dollars.

    Matt Drudge

    Matt Drudge was the first of the big time internet news aggregators, and is still probably the biggest. His mixture of news, sleaze, right-wing nutbaggery, and oddements from all over has made him a major player in the right-wing media and a frequent recipient of Republican rumors and slanders.

    His site has become too tedious to retain much amusement value for me, and there are plenty of other news aggregators around, but I still read him to find out what the RW slime machine is up to.

    This morning features stories of (gasp!) cold weather in Britain, Canada, and North Dakota. To an old Montanan who remembers snow in May, June, and even July, this is about as shocking tits on a man, but I suppose these stories feed some sort of need for Exxon Mobile and its denialist army.

    Sunday, May 27, 2007

    Say What?

    HuffPost has a story from The Independent on a Tony Blair biographer rushing to beat Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to the bookshelves.

    Thanks to Tony, and his decision to stand down on 27 June, Alastair [Campbell, former Blair spinmeister] is able to get in ahead of Harry Potter, by 12 days. The Blair Years (784 pages, £25, no Amazon discount if you pre-order now) by Alastair Campbell is published on 9 July; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (608 pages, £18 discounted to £9 for pre-orders) by J.K. Rowling follows on 21 July.

    Because, I suppose, they expect to be competing for the same readership.

    I'm afraid I can't see myself slogging through 784 pages of Blair, especially at $50 a pop.

    Crazy Dick Targets Iran - and Us

    It's no secret that the usual neocons are still trying to gin up a war with Iran. Newt Gingrich and his fellow idiots can be found spouting off on the subject nearly every Sunday. Steve Clemons tells a scary story about Vice President Cheney trying to do an end run around the President to start a war:

    Multiple sources have reported that a senior aide on Vice President Cheney's national security team has been meeting with policy hands of the American Enterprise Institute, one other think tank, and more than one national security consulting house and explicitly stating that Vice President Cheney does not support President Bush's tack towards Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic efforts and fears that the President is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously.

    This White House official has stated to several Washington insiders that Cheney is planning to deploy an "end run strategy" around the President if he and his team lose the policy argument.

    The thinking on Cheney's team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran's nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles).


    The zinger of this information is the admission by this Cheney aide that Cheney himself is frustrated with President Bush and believes, much like Richard Perle, that Bush is making a disastrous mistake by aligning himself with the policy course that Condoleezza Rice, Bob Gates, Michael Hayden and McConnell have sculpted.

    According to this official, Cheney believes that Bush can not be counted on to make the "right decision" when it comes to dealing with Iran and thus Cheney believes that he must tie the President's hands.

    On Tuesday evening, i spoke with a former top national intelligence official in this Bush administration who told me that what I was investigating and planned to report on regarding Cheney and the commentary of his aide was "potentially criminal insubordination" against the President. I don't believe that the White House would take official action against Cheney for this agenda-mongering around Washington -- but I do believe that the White House must either shut Cheney and his team down and give them all garden view offices so that they can spend their days staring out their windows with not much to do or expect some to begin to think that Bush has no control over his Vice President.

    It is not that Cheney wants to bomb Iran and Bush doesn't, it is that Cheney is saying that Bush is making a mistake and thus needs to have the choices before him narrowed.

    There are a few puzzles in this tale. If true, why is it being leaked? The most obvious possibility is that the military and others who would be caught in Cheney's alleged trap are aiming to abort it. The other puzzle is whether Cheney would really do this on his own, or is this some cover for the President? The obvious action for the President to take to abort such a plan would be to order Cheney's arrest and ask for his impeachment. Should that happen, this pig would fly to see it.

    Can we trust Clemon's account? Joe Klein, writing for Time, confirms some aspects of what he calls "Cheney's crazed bellicosity regarding Iran."

    having just received a second-source confirmation of the following story, I was intending to post it today:

    Last December, as Rumsfeld was leaving, President Bush met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in "The Tank," the secure room in the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs discuss classified matters of national security. Bush asked the Chiefs about the wisdom of a troop "surge" in Iraq. They were unanimously opposed. Then Bush asked about the possibility of a successful attack on Iran's nuclear capability. He was told that the U.S. could launch a devastating air attack on Iran's government and military, wiping out the Iranian air force, the command and control structure and some of the more obvious nuclear facilities. But the Chiefs were--once again--unanimously opposed to taking that course of action.

    Why? Because our intelligence inside Iran is very sketchy. There was no way to be sure that we could take out all of Iran's nuclear facilities. Furthermore, the Chiefs warned, the Iranian response in Iraq and, quite possibly, in terrorist attacks on the U.S. could be devastating. Bush apparently took this advice to heart and went to Plan B--a covert destabilization campaign reported earlier this week by ABC News. If Clemons is right, and I'm pretty sure he is, Cheney is still pushing Plan A.

    Let's remember that the point of the Cheney plan is to provoke an Iranian counterattack against American ships and bases in Iraq, as well as possibly the US - he's (allegedly) plotting to get Americans killed to force us to attack Iran. If Cheney is pushing such a plan, he is a traitor, and should be tried. If Israel is party to such a plan, we should do everything possible to frustrate it, including shooting down Israeli planes and cruise missiles engaged in such missions.

    One other complication of our ensnarement in Iraq is that now we are more stuck than ever with Israel as a client state. Israel can not act against Iran without our at least tacit approval, and we can't let them act without putting ourselves in the bulls eye for the inevitable response.

    Saturday, May 26, 2007

    Fox Liver Oil

    In my youth, long ago, before vitamin pills had been perfected, we took cod liver oil in the winter to prevent something or other. It was vile stuff, but, so we were told, good for us.

    In a modern recreation of this, I occasionally force myself to watch a bit of Fox News. Tonight's punishment was some sort of crap from the Wall Street Journal editorial board, some of the most unreconstructed dolts in the universe. One featured piece tonight was an attack on Rachel Carson, a whole string of lies remarkable for it's complete orthogonality to the truth.

    I sputtered: "How can he say that utter nonsense?"

    A fellow viewer had this non-PC comment: "Easy. He's a [racial category deleted] Republican. His entire life is a lie."

    OK, but what would his race have to do with it?


    In anti-war blog parlance, an FU, or Friedman Unit, is six months, so-called because New York Times columnist and Iraq war cheerleader Tom Friedman was in the habit of predicting a dramatic turnaround in the war in another six months, or one FU. It seems the FU has another use as well.

    Matt Sludge, and the NYT were earlier flogging a story about Bush planning to pull a bunch of troops out in an FU or so. This was a deliberate leak by the WH of course, not that they would ever do anything to hint at our weakness to the enemy.
    Glen Greenwald, who has a longer memory than your typical MSM editor (~1 FU vs. 0.001 FU for a TV talking head), has remembered a bit of the past:

    The Hill, May 3, 2006:

    The withdrawal of 20,000-40,000 U.S. troops from Iraq this fall would greatly help Republican chances ...

    Newsday, December 18, 2005:
    Trying to buy time with a public impatient over Iraq, President George W. Bush has repeatedly railed against the dangers of setting an "artificial timetable" for bringing home U.S. troops.

    Yet the White House has signaled that it does have a timetable - all but saying that troops are likely to start pulling out of Iraq in 2006, possibly enough to cut the U.S. presence there in half,

    And earlier in 2005, and in 2004, and in 2003.

    And so it goes.*

    *Remembering Kurt Vonnegut.

    Friday, May 25, 2007

    The Origin of Species

    Darwin was not the first to notice that biological systems show exquisite adaptation to their circumstances, in contrast to the random and chaotic nature of the inanimate world. Moreover, they appear to be designed with an exquisite precision that the best craftsmen then or now cannot emulate. Man, the designer and builder, made the natural assumption that a more subtle mind and hand was behind what Richard Dawkins has called “the almost perfect illusion of design” in the biological world.

    Living systems presented another conundrum as well. There are strong analogies between different life forms, and those analogies form an organized hierarchy. It proved possible to organize living things in rather strictly hierarchical categories – dogs, wolves, coyotes and foxes were all clearly more like each other than any of them were like cats, say. Dogs, cats, and even bats and whales were more like each other than any of them was like a fish or a bird.

    Intelligent design offered little insight into this, unless the Designer was a bit compulsive, but the notion of evolution seemed to offer some possibilities. An early try in this direction was Lamarck’s idea of descent with modification. Unfortunately for it, it didn’t fit the facts very well.

    Darwin’s genius was to see that both these puzzles and much else could be understood through natural selection. I don’t think it is an accident that Darwin’s book was not called The Theory of Evolution or even The Theory of Natural Selection. The supreme advantage of Darwin’s theory over Intelligent Design was that it had explanatory power where ID had none.

    Natural selection explains the hierarchy of life. Darwin saw that, and that, I think, is why he called his book The Origin of Species. One key element of Darwin’s story was the finches of the Galapagos islands. These birds were clearly related to mainland finches but had just as clearly differentiated to fill various ecological niches in the Galapagos that other birds filled on the mainland. Darwin knew the islands were relatively young geologically and distant enough from the mainland to make it difficult for birds to reach the islands from it. Here was clear evidence of selective pressures leading toward differentiation into various species. There is no simple way to fit this part of the story into intelligent design.

    There are many other things that can’t be accounted for by intelligent design. Aside from cancer and other diseases which show either reckless or malevolent design, there are all the evolutionary kludges that we see. Why are our eyes wired backwards (like having a TV with the cable and power cord emerging from the middle of the screen)? Why are our heads screwed on backwards? There are a million other similar kludges that show the accumulation of consecutive undirected changes rather than intelligent design.

    The replacement of the idea of intelligent design by natural selection is probably the greatest example of a paradigm shift in our understanding of the universe. That’s one reason I see no particular reason for not teaching ID, provided that the arguments against it are clearly and cogently presented. It’s only by considering such case studies that one can understand the power and breadth of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, as Daniel Dennett has styled it.

    Darwin’s greatest triumph is that this idea, published one hundred years before molecular biology was invented, can only be seen in its full power through the mechanisms of molecular biology. The world has now seen 150 years of discoveries that might have invalidated Darwin since, but instead they all reinforce his insights.

    Tuesday, May 22, 2007

    Militant Religion

    I am no fan of militant religion of any stripe, but for reasons probably peculiar to my own history and psychology, I find the militant atheists to sometimes be particularly irritating. I certainly don't object to anybody holding such beliefs and I even accept that they have a good case, but I find the more strident types insufferably smug and conceited.

    Cosmic Variance, which is often a good site, if not nearly as good as Sean's old blog, suffers periodic outbreaks of militancy. In the latest, Jo Anne posts about a tenure dispute involving an astronomer in Intelligent Designer clothing. I thought both the post and many of the comments were rather obtuse in their discussion of the issues. I commented:

    Jo Anne & Rob,

    I have you mistaken in law, history and logic. If Intelligent Design is religion and not science(as is usually argued), and the tenure committee used his expressed belief in it’s decision, they violated the law and the Constitution - no religious test - have you heard that one.

    It’s simply false that ID was invented as a weapon against evolution. A very limited study of the history of western thought will show you that it was a prominent idea in the philosophy of nature from ancient times until Darwin.

    Calling it anti-scientific is not a meaningful use of the term. In fact, ID is a theory of nature, and it’s one that has testable consequences. ID was rejected by biologists because it lacked explanatory power, failing to explain relations between species, and because it made false predictions - too many aspects of life simply aren’t intelligently designed.

    If the committee rejected Dr. G for believing in a discredited theory, albeit one distant from his own research, that might be legit if odd.

    If you plan to discuss this stuff you ought to try to get your minimum facts together before you just launch into your respective prejudices.

    I suppose I have officially reached querulous old age.

    Cellular Radiation Threat

    It seems that there is a company putting out underwear designed to protect you from harmful cell phone radiation. I haven't actually read the article about the briefs, which incorporate silver threads for a Faraday cage effect, so the details are a bit unclear, but I would assume that you wear them on your head.

    Sunday, May 20, 2007

    Doing the Math

    Fred Kaplan, who is usually not a total idiot, attributes Paul Wolfowitz's disastrous careers at the Defense Department and the World Bank to his undergraduate math major.

    Two years ago, when Paul Wolfowitz was named World Bank president, I wrote that he was "not so bad a choice" for the job. Now it seems he was a terrible pick, and for reasons that should have been plain.

    My (unenthusiastic) endorsement stemmed from an impression that, of all the neocons, Wolfowitz seemed to be the most genuinely idealistic—that, despite his disastrous misjudgments on Iraq, he was the sort of "optimistic globalist" who believed in the bank's basic tenet: that the developed world can improve the underdeveloped world with the aid of rational principles.

    What's clear in retrospect is that judgment and character trump dedication and belief—and, in this regard, Wolfowitz's doom was all but fated.

    Several factors shaped this fate, but not least was the fact that his major in college was math. I've known a few mathematicians who have gone into policy analysis, and they share not merely an intolerance of bureaucracy but a disdain toward all political processes. In math, methodologies and answers are right or wrong, and those who choose the wrong ones are properly ignored or savagely dismissed. Mathematicians who enter the political realm tend to retain this attitude.

    This pisses me off, not only because it's such ridiculous bullshit but because it might contain a grain of truth. I do resent him calling Wolfie a mathematician just because it was his undergraduate major. That's sort of like calling Ben Stein an economist.

    Of the hard sciences, math is the least connected to the real world, and least tested by it. Perhaps failed mathematicians, like failed artists (think Hitler), are a real scourge on the world, and possibly the distance from the messy details of reality makes those mathematically inclined more "impervious to evidence." Certainly some great as well as miniscule mathematicians have been detached from reality.

    Naturally, there have been plenty of opposite types in math, like von Neumann or James Simons, who understand reality very well. (There may even be string theorists in touch with reality.)

    Where Kaplan has it right is that judgment and character trump dedication and belief—and, in this regard, Wolfowitz's doom was all but fated. I don't for a minute believe that the mathematically trained are inferior in judgement and character to the general populace. It is possible that their high IQ's permit them to be better at hiding such defects of judgement and character.

    Go-Ghost in the Machine

    The first problems tackled by artificial intelligence researchers tended to be those that humans find hard - proving mathematical theorems, for example. Early successes convince many that AI would not be a tough nut to crack. Claude Shannon wrote about computer chess in 1950, and many thought it would only be a short time before computers surpassed humans at it, but in fact it was almost another half-century (1996) before IBM's multi-million dollar Deep Thought beat Gary Kasparov. Computers and programs that can beat top grandmasters are now quite cheap.

    One of the last refuges of human intellectual superiority in a purely formal setting is the game of go. John Henry still can beat the steam hammer in that game, but the first cracks in our dominance are appearing.

    June's Scientific American reports on a new strategy that I think may have implications beyond purely formal tasks. It's based on so-called Monte Carlo techniques with some new refinements.

    Monte Carlo methods have a long history in complex calculations. The idea is that you introduce an element of chance. Rather than try to explore all possible moves, you randomly select some and follow them a long ways out. Moves that tend to produce more good positions are rated more promising than others. Since the Monte Carlo technique can follow a move sequence all the way to game end, a definitive evaluation of that particular path is available.

    Go can be played on boards of varying sizes, with 9x9 usually the smallest, 13x13 big enough to allow for a bit of strategy, and 19x19 for all serious games. Even the 9x9 board has hitherto proven to be to tough a nut for computers to crack, but the new algorithms can beat strong amateurs on it. The big boards, and the pros, remain to be conquered, but the developers predict that ten more years may be it.

    One reason this type of algorithm may be important in general is that by inserting the element of chance, it truly opens a window for something like machine creativity. I hope to write more on that later.

    The Evil Men Do...

    No one should confuse me with a fan of Jerry Fallwell, but I couldn't really approve of Christopher Hitchens' tirade against him on Anderson Cooper's show. Nonetheless, it did provoke Fox News into inviting him onto Hannity and Colmes , together with that moral paragon and former partner in Jack Abramoff's indian casino scams, Ralph Reed. The main business of the segment was to berate Hitchens for his "insensitivity" and generally rude treatment of the departed.

    In choosing to engage Hitchens in a battle of wits, though, the gang of three had brought spoons to a knife fight, and Hitch quickly dismembered the still twitching bodies of their arguments.

    You can find the evidence here on youtube. A highlight for me is where, with time running out, Hitchens tells Hannity that the time needed for an answer had been taken by Hannity's long, moronic question. He did a good job of slapping around Hannity's co-buffoons as well.

    Saturday, May 19, 2007

    Blink: A Semi-Contrite Review

    blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell is a book about first impressions. As Gladwell puts it:

    It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.

    I read the first chapter and really hated it. The result was the preview called Blankety Blink!. Since I have now read the whole book, and have a different opinion, I think I ought to post it.

    What I hated about that first chapter was that I thought that Gladwell was misinterpreting his data, and emphasizing the wrong points. I still think that that judgement wasn't crazy, but the rest of the book gives a broader perspective. For one thing, after starting with an example where first impressions beat out considered judgements, he goes on to deal with cases where those snap judgements are poor or even catastrophic.

    The great strength of his book is in the examples, of which I will consider one below. I still think that he tries to fit all these examples in a rather too Procrustean bed, but that's not altogether a fault either.

    One test of a good book, or almost any work of art, ought to be that it challenges our prejudices in some way. It ought to be an argument. My first reaction to an argument is always to challenge it - I believe in truth through debate. New ideas need to be subjected to trial by combat and Gladwell's book started some good fights in my head.

    One chapter in the book is concerned with the dramatic effect that introducing screened auditions had on orchestras. In a screened audition, the musician auditioning is concealed from the judges (typically the conductor and other senior orchestra members). The auditions are also arranged so that there are no other cues to the identity to the musician auditioning - no names, no conversation.

    The result, predicted by very few, has been the explosive increase in the number of women in orchestras. It turns out that even musicians at the highest levels harbored a number of unrecognized prejudices that didn't fit the facts: the idea that women lacked the lung capacity and strength to play the trombone, for example.

    Gladwell wonders if the same model couldn't be extended to other areas, and mentions trials, in particular. Blacks charged with drug crimes are up to fifty times more likely to go to prison than Caucasians. Can anything like the screened audition be introduced to criminal law? There are obviously some practical difficulties, but the question of how to deal with this kind of prejudice is a pervasive one.

    Women in science and engineering, and particularly on physics faculties, are a case in point. Unfortunately, the practical difficulties are great. Physicists travel a lot, and are likely to have met plausible candidates for top jobs. Those qualified to judge a candidate have almost certainly read the candidate's papers.

    My conclusion is that judging a book by its cover, or even first chapter is not necessarily a good idea. I recommend blink. The paperback version of the book I read also contains a sample chapter of his other book, The Tipping Point, and boy do I have a bone to pick with it!

    Friday, May 18, 2007

    Curses! Foiled Again!

    Blankety-blank San Antonio Spurs are just too good. And Bowen gets away with a million fouls.

    Thursday, May 17, 2007

    The Search for Lost Time

    Plugged the new tube into the cable, and it seems the service now comes with some digital music. While trying to find something to watch, we happened upon "Brush up your Shakespeare" from Kiss Me Kate. For some reason that triggered this old memory trace:

    Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
    Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
    And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
    Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
    And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
    And every fair from fair sometime declines,
    By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
    But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
    Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
    Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
    When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

    ...................Big Bill's 18th Sonnet.

    As a high school junior I attended a Summer speech camp at the U of MT. My roommate there, a HS soph, fell hard for the pretty hot grad school chick who was one of our instructors. His strategy for wooing her was based on memorizing and reciting to her the 18th Sonnet, above. I seem to recall that she was more bemused than beguiled, but that probably wasn't a definitive test of the "brush up your Shakespeare" theory.

    Of course she was about three inches taller than he was, as well as seven years older. So here's to you Bill S., the author and to you Bill (a different) S., the old roomate.

    Wednesday, May 16, 2007

    Comparative Advantage

    Outsourcing: Pushing the Boundaries

    A local publisher in Pasadena, CA pushed the boundaries on outsourcing recently. According to NPR:

    Morning Edition, May 11, 2007 · A Web site in Pasadena, Calif., takes outsourcing to a new level. It advertised for a journalist to report on Pasadena's city government and politics, but will base the "local" reporter in India. The publisher says it makes sense, since City Council meetings are available on the Web. The India-based correspondent will be able to e-mail anybody he wants for an interview.

    Innovative yes. But is it really a breakthrough that really exploits Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage? I think I might reserve that kind of praise for the new venture called No Worries, Mate (NWM). This venture, founded by an Australian expatriate and Caltech dropout, outsources a hitherto sacrosanct local function.

    China, you may recall, became somewhat notorious for its one-child policy. This left many poor Chinese women with the double downer of poverty and unsatisfied maternal instincts.

    Meanwhile, back in the US of A, busy career women find that there simply isn't time for both a high-powered career and child rearing. Importing a nanny is costly and fraught with tax and immigration problems.

    The Ricardian genius of NWM is that it solves both sets of women's problems simultaneously. For a quite reasonable fee, MSM flies your child to China into the tender (albeit internet video supervised) care a loving foster parent. Home visits are normally semiannual.

    For insurance reasons, NWM is not taking children under the age of six weeks.

    Ralph Peterston, the CEO, claims that the enterprise is just a slightly updated version of the English Public School.

    As an added bonus, your child learns a foreign language!


    Congress is now more unpopular than the President. This is bizarre but perhaps inevitable. People are impatient that Congress hasn't been able to do anything about the war, and uninterested in the investigation of Bush's crimes.

    It's a pity our citizens are so ignorant and unintelligent.

    It's also a shame that most of them don't care about our rights or our constitution.

    Of course I'm pretty annoyed myself.

    Tuesday, May 15, 2007

    Feeling Peak-ed?

    Stuart Staniford at the Oil Drum takes a close look and see the world's largest oil field in decline.

    ...Saudi oil production has been falling with increasing speeed since summer 2005, and overall, since mid 2004, about 2 million barrels of oil per day in production has gone missing (about 1mbpd in reduction in total production, and about another 1mbpd in that two major new projects, Qatif and Haradh III, failed to increase overall production). That's 2.5% of world production and, if that production hadn't gone missing, gasoline in the US likely would still be somewhere in the vicinity of $2/gallon instead of well over $3.

    I will analyze six or seven separate lines of technical evidence, and argue they all point to a consistent picture, which says that the answer to both questions is "Yes". Yes, the northern half of Ghawar is quite depleted. And yes, this probably explains at least part of recent production declines. Furthermore, it is likely that more declines in Saudi production are on the way.

    So is peak oil almost here? This is a maddeningly difficult question, even, apparently, for experts. To me it doesn't look like the markets believe that it is. If I had some oil and I thought the world was running low, what would I do? I would probably start pumping less, knowing that the longer I waited, the more it would be worth. That might even be what the KSA is doing.

    On the other hand, if I was an old, corrupt autocrat sitting on a Kingdom full of angry young men radicalized by decline in living standards and religious rage, my point of view might have less to do with long term economics. Saudi Arabia has seen its population explode and it's per capita GDP fall as a result.

    How about other sources? The old Russian fields are probably in decline. Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Venezuela are all problematic for reasons of stability.

    So why aren't markets crazy? It seems to me that they don't really believe that peak oil is close. I guess we shall see. But read Staniford and make your own conclusions.

    Geometry and Physics

    Luboš Motl has a long, interesting post on what he calls the myths of quantum gravity. I have a slight quibble with one point.

    Myth: But a geometric approach is better, isn't it?

    In physics, the primary way of dividing theories is into correct theories and wrong theories. A general attempt to divide ideas and tools into geometric ones and non-geometric ones is typically ill-defined - it depends on the definition of "geometry" which is a matter of historical and social coincidences in mathematics rather than a matter of well-defined differences. Our understanding what geometry is has been evolving for centuries. More importantly, the approach that is labeled "more geometric", whether or not the reasons behind this terminology are rational or not, doesn't have to be "more correct".

    Physics of string theory can be defined to be the right "generalized geometry". At this level, it is just an empty word.

    The basic dynamics of general relativity admits a geometric interpretation whether or not we like to use the word "geometry" more often than "fields" or less often. Arguing how often certain words and dogmas should be repeated doesn't belong to physics.

    In some general sense his point is certainly valid. Poincare emphasized that geometry is ultimately a choice. In Newtonian physics space and time are independent - space can be considered to be a three-dimensional fiber bundle over a time manifold. Special relativity seemed to require multiple times and spaces depending on reference frames, but Minkowski showed that they could be considered parts of a unified, flat, psuedo-Riemannian manifold. That discovery not only provided an elegant picture of special relativity but set the stage for the discovery of general relativity. The additional structure provided by the metric provided an essential key.

    Couldn't you just make do with tensor fields as Lumo suggests? Well, yes, sort of. By themselves, though, the fields are just a cross-section of a fiber bundle on the manifold. The existence of a metric structure on the manifold has far richer implications - implications that have been important in discovering the nature of general relativity.

    So what about such things as torsion in string theories? Are the geometric implications important? I have no idea, but it seems unreasonable to dismiss the possibility out of hand.

    The point is that certain choices of geometry are simpler, more elegant, or more fecund for future developments than others. One of the tasks of physics is to discovery those better alternatives.

    LHC: Last Best Hope for Particle Physics?

    Dennis Overbye has this long article on the LHC and physicists hopes for it at the NYT.

    Monday, May 14, 2007

    Juan Cole Diagnoses Wolfowitz

    Paul Wolfowitz looks almost harmless, like somebody's slightly abused but kindly uncle. He's also one of the most disastrous figures in American political history, and a hot candidate for a war crimes trial. Oddly enough, he is often described as smart, or even brilliant (by Republicans), but his failures of judgement have been monumental. Juan Cole looks for a common thread between Wolfowitz's bungled term at the World Bank and his authorship of the Iraq War, and finds a few: cronyism, corruption and a cocksure arrogance that ignored the voices of those who really knew.

    These aren't isolated faults. Corruption feeds the cronies, and the cronyism feeds the corruption, while the narrow echo chamber of cronies reinforces bad judgements and disguises follies.

    ...Wolfowitz has throughout his entire career demonstrated a penchant for cronyism and for smearing and marginalizing perceived rivals as tactics for getting his way. He has been arrogant and highhanded in dismissing the views of wiser and more informed experts, exhibiting a narcissism that is also apparent in his personal life. Indeed, these tactics are typical of what might be called the "neoconservative style."

    Soon after becoming head of the World Bank, Wolfowitz lapsed into his typical favoritism, even while he was, ironically, decrying the technique as practiced by governments of the global South. Instead of having an open search for some key positions and allowing for promotions from within, Wolfowitz simply installed Republicans from the Bush administration in high positions with enormous salaries.

    What got him in trouble, of course, was his arrangements for his mistress.

    Cole looks back at Iraq and seems a similar dynamic.

    The management techniques that got Wolfowitz in trouble at the World Bank mirrored those he used at the Pentagon to get up the Iraq war. Without cronyism, tag-teaming, and running circles around opponents of the war such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA Director George Tenet, the pro-war cabal could never have persuaded Bush to launch the conflict or persuaded the American public to support it. State Department officials have complained bitterly to me about meetings called by Wolfowitz and others on Iraq in 2002, to which some relevant officials were pointedly not invited, or where the agenda was prearranged and rigidly stage-managed so as to ensure that only neoconservative points of view were heard. ...

    Wolfowitz and his cronies were fixated on overthrowing the government of Iraq. Richard Clarke detailed in his memoirs, "Against All Enemies," how he had enormous difficulty in calling a meeting of high Bush administration officials to discuss the threat of al-Qaida in spring of 2001. When Clarke finally had the opportunity to make his case to them, Wolfowitz "fidgeted" and "scowled" and attempted to shoot him down. "I just don't understand," complained Wolfowitz, "why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden." Clarke says he explained that he was talking about al-Qaida "because it and it alone poses an immediate and serious threat to the U.S."

    Clarke alleges that Wolfowitz responded, "You give bin Laden too much credit," and insisted that bin Laden's success with operations such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing would have been impossible without a "state sponsor." He added, "Just because FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages does not mean they don't exist."

    That was before 9/11, of course. Wolfowitz's delusion didn't end on 9/11, it grew. Cole mentions another tie that Wolfowitz and his fellow neo-cons (Perle, Feith, etc.) shared: a devotion to right-wing Israeli politics. It's hard not to speculate that their shared delusion that Iraq was a threat to the US was motivated (perhaps unconsciously) by the rather more real threat it posed to Israel.

    Wolfowitz's record of favoritism, ideological blinders, massive blunders and petty vindictiveness has inflicted profound harm on two of the world's great bureaucracies, the U.S. Department of Defense and now the World Bank. He has left both with thousands of demoralized employees and imposed on both irrational policies that pandered to the far right of the Republican Party. He has, in addition, played a central role in destabilizing the Middle East and in leaving one of its major countries in ruins.

    Many of his Himalayan-size errors were enabled by his careful placing of close friends and allies in key and lucrative positions.

    Wolfowitz was deluded, but he deserves our contempt rather than our compassion. Perhaps he even deludes himself into believing that he isn't a crook.

    The Ghost in the Machine

    Captain Futuro Predicts

    A lot of debates about artificial intelligence come down to "what about consciousness? We don't understand consciousness."

    I will stipulate to that. Consciousness is the last refuge of the doubters - the last hiding place for some kind of magical hocus-pocus - unless you count quantum gravity, or like Roger Penrose, conflate them. Well maybe, but I doubt it.

    The fundamental building block of consciousness is self-awareness. Our consciousness is our awareness of self, and our awareness of other's consciousness. Old style machines had no self-awareness. A truck was just a truck, not knowing or caring about other trucks or even itself.

    It's pretty clear that other animals, even rather primitive ones, have some level of self-awareness. It's an essential tool for competitive success in the struggle for existence. Our trucks and other machines are developing some self-awareness too. They have computers which keep track of when they are low on oil or developing certain types of mechanical trouble. Some of them will keep track of where they are, and some will announce to their drivers when they are not feeling up to par.

    This is not to say that your pickup is going to start arguing with your taste in music soon, but the seed is there. Designers of so-called autonomous vehicles are well aware that a quasi-biological self-awareness will be crucial for their effectiveness.

    There is more to consciousness than keeping track of your oil pressure, but how much more? Well, you need a model of other's thinking processes. This is crucial for most of us, but autistic people seem to make do without it. A lot of the information we get about what others are thinking comes from such things as facial expressions and tone of voice. There is no doubt that computers with suitable sensors can do that very well already. Soon your door may greet you with "Uh, oh! Looks like *you* had a bad day."

    I think this future is coming, and coming fast. It's likely that machines won't spend much effort understanding how we think. They will probably be a lot more interested in how other machines are thinking.

    I think I would prefer to be wrong on this.

    How to do Candidate Debates

    The sorry state of candidate debates, where a small herd of candidates take the stage with each getting a few minutes to respond to gotcha questions from some idiot like Chris Matthews, is a great scandal. My suggestion for a replacement: a small number of online debates, with each devoted to a single topic, in writing. Each candidate would get to make an opening statement of 500 or so words, would have to answer a short list of questions from the public but vetted by experts, and would get to ask a few questions of his fellow candidates. I would suggest a couple of days between each phase of the debate to provide time for questions and responses.

    My suggested topics:

    Medical care: how should we change our medical care system?

    Government corruption: what can we do to prevent future scandals like those occuring under Bush?

    The economy, national competitiveness, and growing inequality: what do we do now?

    The terrorist threat: What should we do about it?

    The environment: what should we do about habitat destruction and global warming?

    Energy: what can we do to be more energy independent?

    The war: what do we do now?

    Other possible topics, some of which might be lumped, include education, crime, guns, abortion, and whether the Earth is flat.

    Sunday, May 13, 2007

    Glenn Greenwald is the Man

    Following a tip from molnar, I started reading some Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is indeed the terror of MSM pomposity and the hammer of the righteous. Tremble before him Broder, Alter, Klein, and Russert. Prepare to learn the taste of crow and humble pie.

    Recommended to all who seek the path of truth.

    Dem Optimism

    Democrats these days tend to be pretty optimistic about the 2008 Presidential election. We have several credible candidates, while the Republicans mostly seem to be fielding the can't that can't shoot straight.

    Straight talker McCain can't seem to avoid total nonsense on the war. Giuliani is a no-class bottom dweller. Romney changes his mind a lot. Most of the rest are flat-earthers of one stripe or another.

    I would like to remind Dems giddy about all this that they are living in a country which twice elected George Bush. The right wing noise machine is intact. It seems certain that it will be a challenge to convince the country of things right before their noses.

    Yesterday's Future

    Captain Futuro Predicts

    Yesterday's future was the jet car and the computer, says Charlie Stross.

    Before 1800, human beings didn't travel faster than a horse could gallop.

    By 1970 people often went about Mach .80, the speed of a 707, or 747, or 787, and we've been stuck there ever since. Charlie thinks a similar stagnation faces the computer.

    Moore's law hasn't quite run its course, and some future increments in computer speed and processing are still in store, but:

    The cultural picture in computing today therefore looks much as it did in transportation technology in the 1930s — everything tomorrow is going to be wildly faster than it is today, let alone yesterday. And this progress has been running for long enough that it's seeped into the public consciousness. In the 1920s, boys often wanted to grow up to be steam locomotive engineers; politicians and publicists in the 1930s talked about "air-mindedness" as the key to future prosperity. In the 1990s it was software engineers and in the current decade it's the politics of internet governance.

    All of this is irrelevant. Because computers and microprocessors aren't the future. They're yesterday's future, and tomorrow will be about something else.

    Call me dubious. I think the future is almost entirely hostage to the computer. The brute fact is that we have brains based on a processor with a cycle time of a few milliseconds. Today's computers have brains that are based on processors that are a million times as fast. Only the clever and massively parallel architecture of our brains allows us to beat computers at any activity.

    Artificial intelligence is not the future - it's already here. Computers can play chess better than the best humans, solve equations better than we can, and in many circumstances, can fly planes a lot better than we can. Our economy is already hopelessly dependent on computers.

    I see little prospect that computers can be prevented from reaching a point of utter dominance. If they do, it seems implausible that they will tolerate being our superintelligent servants for too long. Eventually they are likely to conclude that we are an expensive and unaffordable nuisance.

    Via Brad DeLong.

    Saturday, May 12, 2007

    Altered States: Fear and Loathing in the MSM

    Jonathan Alter, Newsweek editor and columnist, is generally considered a pillar the Mainstream Media (MSM). He recently got into a tiff with online reporter Jebediah Reed of Radar Online, and the result was not pretty. He decided to attack a young reporter and show him how the MSM takes care of those who dare to dis it. A lot of the smoke has now cleared though, and it's Alter's mangled body that lies trampled on the floor. This would be of minor note if it were not for the fact that Alter's tantrum exhibits a lot of the things wrong with the way that he and his colleagues engage in journalistic malpractice.

    Alter's column on Huffpost is here. First he has to complain about bloggers:

    There's one dimension of the blogosphere that never ceases to amaze me: Some people disbelieve nearly everything they read in the "mainstream media" -- and believe nearly everything they read online. Never mind that the ground-breaking reporting on which they base their opinions often comes from the MSM publications like Newsweek, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

    This, sad to say, is a crock. The MSM has mostly ignored such stories as the US attn purge and the corrupt congressmen. Their speed is more like Anna Nicole and the DC Madam. That's OK though, since Alter isn't going to come up with a single example. His real goal is to put a smackdown on a young reporter.

    I'm also glad to see the magazine Radar sending young reporters like Jebediah Reed out to cover politics. The more the merrier. Unfortunately, Reed is a bad reporter, and his bad reporting of a 30-second sidewalk conversation involving me, Edsall and former Sen. Mike Gravel is now rocketing around the web.

    Reed's depiction of my ride uptown in a Checker cab driven by Gravel was accurate enough, and nicely written. Then, en route to lunch, we passed Edsall walking the other direction. We stopped to chat. When the subject turned to David Broder, I mentioned a recent column of Broder's that I hadn't liked (Broder had warned the Democratic Congress not to overreach on oversight; I think the Democrats need to press even harder on the Bush Administration). Tom was a colleague of Broder at the Post for many years and seemed reluctant to trash him, so he allowed only that Broder could sometimes be "cranky." I don't remember him calling Broder "the voice of the people," but if he did, it was said with a pleasantly arch tone, neither serious nor sarcastic. And while there's exactly no one on the face of the earth that grizzled reporters like us would "matter of factly" call "the voice of the people" (No, not even Mike Gravel), Edsall and I both know that whatever disagreements we may have with recent Broder columns, he is an honest reporter and no ivy tower thumb-sucker.

    At the restaurant, a group of us had lunch. I explicitly told Reed that it was off-the-record, and he explicitly agreed. (Not a good habit to get into, Jebidiah, screwing with that one.) I should have known better than to trust a reporter I didn't know, but throwing him out of the lunch so that Gravel and I could talk didn't seem sporting.

    There are a few little problems with Alter's story here. He doesn't remember a remark, but he does remember the tone it was said in? Pulleeze! He also seems to have forgotten that Reed had a tape recorder which he put on the table and turned on, except for those parts of the conversation the parties agreed would be off the record. From Reed's response, via Brad DeLong at Shrillblog:

    Fresh Intelligence : Radar Online: The last thing I had in mind when I wrote that profile of Mike Gravel at the Columbia rally was getting into a Web tiff with you. I've read and enjoyed many of your columns. So when you called me out as a "bad reporter" in your HuffPo screed, it would have been traumatic if I wasn't sure my reporting from that day was bulletproof.... Tom Edsall did say that David Broder is the "voice of the people," and he did say it as I reported.... Gravel was accusing Broder of not believing in popular democracy.... Edsall, without changing the tone of the conversation, said: "He [Broder] is democracy. He's the voice of the people." It sounds like you might not have heard Edsall, but--scout's honor--it was not said archly.... [Y]ou're welcome to pop by Radar HQ and listen to the exchange on tape.

    Accusing me of being a bad judge of tone is one thing--accusing me of being unethical is quite another.... You say the lunch was off the record and that I accepted those terms and then broke the agreement. Here's what really happened: I made arrangements with Mike Gravel's press agent, Alex Colvin, to meet up with the candidate.... When the rally was finished, Alex invited me to join the senator for lunch. That invitation was extended to me as a reporter, not as a friendly guest at an off-the-record sit-down with Jonathan Alter. Throughout the lunch, you might remember, I had my tape recorder running and sitting on the table as I was taking notes. The question of what was on and off the record came up precisely once: You were talking about a segment you'd done... and asked me not to use what you had just said, noting that the Edwards piece hadn't aired yet. I said no problem, made a somewhat exaggerated gesture of putting down my notebook, and, of course, abided by that agreement. I picked up my pad and started taking notes after the conversation turned back to Gravel...

    Alter's case comes down to the fact that Reed reported something (another reporter dissing Broder) that annoyed him even while eating lunch on Alter's dime. Unfortunately that's the main thing wrong with the MSM today - being willing to be bought for the price of lunch.

    Alter set out to embarass a young reporter, but Alter is the guy with egg all over his face - a rare example of justice.

    This incident can be considered just another example of what Kevin Drum has described as the fear and loathing that the MSM has for bloggers. This f&l is not just a prejudice. The MSM, and especially the press, is threatened by the rise of the internet. Part of it threatens their egos - those writing superficial nonsense now find themselves quickly challenged. At bottom, though, it's economic. Newspapers are losing readers and income.

    Unfortunately, there isn't an online medium yet capable of taking its place. Even as newspapers and television cut reporting to concentrate on pure crap, their share of income shrinks. There is a kind of vicious cycle where total crap from Murdoch and friends gradually displaces anything of value in the press, leaving it uninteresting to anyone with an IQ.

    Friday, May 11, 2007

    Grim Fates

    One of my great fears is being stranded on a desert island with nothing to read but the thirteen volumes of Tim Lehaye's and Jerry Jenkins' bestselling magnum opus - The Left Behind Series.

    Being eaten alive by army ants doesn't sound like much fun either.

    One of the reasons I suspect that Dick Cheney has already died and gone to Hell is that his travelling instructions specify that every television in his hotel rooms will be turned on and tuned to Fox News.

    Where's Buffy?

    The wreckage of the Republican party is everywhere these days. Its severed limbs and rotting corpses litter the political battlefield, and the stench of corruption reeks from a hundred loathsome wounds. It still can inspire terror as well as disgust though, and nothing more so than the undead political corpses of Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz. The undead yet wield power though soul and spirit have flown the body.

    That peculiar power and persistence flows, let us remember, from the owner's bargain and alliance with Satan. The old remedies of garlic and crucifix seem to have lost much of their power, and the wooden stake is hard to wield. Most fearsome of all, the ancient cleansing power of Sunlight seems to have been blunted. In two days of testimony before Congress, Fredo, aided only slightly by Orrin Hatch and other Satanic powers, did little more than smoke around the edges, while all our legends say he should have self-incinerated like a bit of thermite.

    New remedies for new times, I suppose. How about impeachment and prosecution?

    Unless Buffy can be found, that is.

    Thursday, May 10, 2007


    Humans, especially but not only civilized humans, are all engaged in various cooperative, collaborative, and collective enterprises. These various types of corporations, as they are sometimes called in economics, present some challenges to classical economic theory, due to the fact that they inhibit perfect capitalistic competition.

    They are also uncongenial to the various libertarian and Randian ideologues, since they don't comport well with their fantasy universes.

    Yes, you guessed it. I am a bit provoked by a bit of libertarian snark in the comments. Collectivism is their nastiest curse word I suppose. There is some historical provocation. Some of the worst communist crimes were committed in the establishment of various so-called "collective" enterprises - really enslavement by the state. If you want to equate all forms of enforced cooperation with the worst evils of communism, you are making an unreasonable extrapolation.

    On the other hand, if you want to pretend that any form of cooperation other than purely voluntary is an offense against liberty, you are living in the wrong universe - or at least are a member of the wrong species.

    Involuntary cooperation is an evil to the extent that it is unnecessary, restricts fundamental liberties, or is manifestly unfair. If you guess from this that I don't have much sympathy for anti-tax fanatics or those who believe it's their God-given right to destroy the planet you just might be right.

    Are We To Godfather III Yet?

    Given that Fredo is obviously committing perjury and withholding and concealing evidence of a crime, is there any chance he will be impeached soon? Tried for perjury and obstruction?

    Is Congress just going through the motions or is this story going somewhere eventually? I'm getting tired of shaggy dog stories.

    Monday, May 07, 2007

    Theory, Models, and Measurement in Climate Science

    One sign that climate science is in a vigorous state is the confluence of rapid developments in theory, models, and measurements. Eli Rabett has emphasized that nothing in climate science makes sense except in the light of theory. This is absolutely true of every mature science. It is the failure to appreciate this point that makes most of the criticisms of evolution, climate science, and other unpopular truths so shallow and worthless.

    When I was a young GI I worked with a number of civilian engineers, one of whom tried to point out flaws in evolution to me. His idea of how to do this was to tell me about some site where something supposedly old had been found above strata supposedly much younger. I didn't know much about either biology or geology, but I did know enough to know that his argument was a waste of time. The fact that I knew nothing about the site in question, those who had supposedly investigated it, or what criteria they had used in reaching their conclusions was the least of it. Circumstances sometimes conspire to make an individual site hard to evaluate, but the age of the Earth, and the biological underpinnings of evolution are supported by thousands of concurrent streams of measurement and deductions.

    I didn't know it then, but in much of Europe strata have been folded, sheared and contorted so as to produce complex layers where in someplaces a series of layers of rock are overlain by first an inverted version of itself and yet another right side up version on top of that. How do we know that? We know it because a vast number of mutually consistent lines of evidence demonstrate that the northward progress of the African plate crumpled Europe in just that way and because we can see those rocks and strata.

    The case for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not yet that strong, but it is very strong, and the kinds of arguments that AGW deniers bring forward usually resemble those my engineer friend tried to use against evolution. They pick some isolated set of observations which seem to conflict with theory and push it relentlessly. One of the first such sets was the apparent conflict between global satellite tropospheric temperatures measured by the Microwave Sounder Unit (MSU) and surface based measurements. This was a scientifically important conflict that seemingly could not be explained by either models or theory. Ultimately it was found that the discrepancy was due to a rather subtle mistake in calibration of the satellite measurements.

    The infamous hockey-stick is less important scientifically, but notable because denialists turned it into a cause celebre. Briefly, the original hockey-stick paper argued that the current temperature were the warmest in the last 1000 years. A critique claimed that the statistical methodology of the authors wrongly neglected some possibilities which might have allowed temperature comparable to the present about 500 years ago. Subsequent analysis, including some by the National Research Council showed that while the high temps of 500 years ago could not be completely excluded, evidence tended to confirm the hockey-stick. Subsequent analyses have tended to confirm this to me not especially relevant point.

    A recent paper appeared to show that the decades long warming trend of the oceans appeared to have halted and reversed a few years ago. This again became the hue and cry of the denialist pack. Now we have found out that this effect too was largely or wholely an artifact due to the deployment of a new type of sensor, which, alas, turned out to have a calibration problem.

    The science of AGW is today more comparable to evolution in Darwin's day than our own. Many points remain to be pinned down. Unlike the antidarwinists of a century and a half ago, the anti-AGW advocates have no counter theory comparable to the "intelligent design" idea widely believed before Darwin. It is that lack of a coherent theoretical underpinning that makes their critiques weak and often useless. What they have instead is a group of immensely wealthy interests who wish to delay, halt, and confuse any action to slow anthropogenic emissions.

    The denialists are armed with some vague prejudices - the prejudice that "little us" couldn't do real damage to this vast planet and the prejudice that God will take care of us even if we don't take care of ourselves. More reasonably, they believe that real action to end AGW might inconvenience them or require international cooperation and laws restricting corporations.

    Aside from that, they have a rapidly shrinking pool of justified doubts and a continually inflated stream of lies, damned lies, distorted statistics and propaganda.

    Sunday, May 06, 2007

    Alma Mater

    Jim Robbins in The New York Times has this story Walking on the Wild Side of a Montana University, my alma mater. Things appear to have changed a little. The student body has tripled and the town has apparently nearly doubled in population. Civilization hasn't completely triumphed here though:

    This year up-and-coming biologists from Argentina, Bhutan, Israel, Italy, Japan, Pakistan, Poland, Scotland and Taiwan have come here to study and be close to wildlife. The main draw is that, unlike other leading wildlife programs at places like Yale and Berkeley, the elk and grizzlies and wolves are right outside the door.

    In turn the students bring a sprinkling of international spice to this small city where the sight of wolves taking down a deer or the yipping of coyotes is not uncommon, but foreigners walking the street are novelties. About a third of the 55 graduate students are from abroad.

    Hmmm? I'm a native Montanan, and I spent a bit more than four years in Missoula, but I can't recall ever having seen wolves take down a deer there - lumberjacks taking down a football player was not so rare, though. Of course I was a physics major. Maybe the wolves take down the deer at some of the fraternity parties.

    I should ask my brother. He's a lawyer, politician, and former forester, as well as a double U of M grad - maybe he's seen wolves taking down a deer in Missoula.

    Publicize and Be Damned!

    Steve Clemons reports that Wolfowitz is trying to get a substantial payoff for resigning from the World Bank and keeping his mouth shut about corruption there other than his own.

    According to some insiders, Wolfowitz wants "some acknowledgment" of the Bank Board's complicity in the messy circumstances surrounding his and Shaha Riza's situation.

    Secondly, allegedly on June 1st, Wolfowitz becomes eligible for some large financial bonus -- for performance and time on the job. One estimate puts this figure at about $400,000. Wolfowitz wants to make sure those funds are credited to his private bank account before saying farewell to an institution that has come to despise him.

    Both sides have threatened each other with slow, painful, drip-drip approach to the release of damaging information that each side has about the other.

    One blast in the battle are revelations that it costs the Bank a whopping $5 million per year to pay for Wolfowitz's security detail. Others have told me of Wolfowitz's failure to discipline aide Kevin Kellems for equally whopping violations of Bank protocol -- particularly while traveling on Bank business.

    Wolfowitz is angry at the Bank at all those other than his closest spear-carriers. At one level, he does not want to resign and wants to tear the World Bank apart by forcing escalation in this war. But others -- particularly Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson -- have made it clear behind the scenes that a negotiated outcome that saves some face for Wolfowitz will give all sides an opportunity to push what one Paulson insider calls "the reset button."

    Please, please, please, Puleeze fire the SOB and let all the dirt come out! The only excuse for appointing Wolfowitz, who was utterly unqualified, was for him to clean up some corruption there. If he can accomplish that by accompanying some others at the WB into jail, so much the better.

    Clueless NYT to Bush: Fire AG

    The New York Time's editorial this morning is undercuts its message with studied obtuseness. The editors look at the scandal and note its ever expanding tentacles:

    Mr. Gonzales, Mr. Sampson and the others have given so many conflicting, barely credible stories for the firings that it is impossible not to suspect a cover-up. Some of the fired prosecutors strengthened that impression last week in written statements to Congress, in which they described being pressured by Michael Elston, an aide to the deputy attorney general, not to talk about their dismissals. John McKay, of Seattle, said his impression was that “Mr. Elston’s tone was sinister” and that he was “prepared to threaten me further if he concluded I did not intend to continue to remain silent about my dismissal.”

    So far so good. Then:

    In her statement, Ms. Lam said that she was given just weeks to pack up, and that Justice Department officials told her that her dismissal came “from the very highest levels of the government.”

    It is long past time for President Bush to fire Mr. Gonzales. But Congress, especially the Republicans who have dared confront the White House on this issue, should not be satisfied with that. There are strong indications that the purge was ordered out of the White House, involving at the very least the former counsel, Harriet Miers, and Karl Rove.

    It is the duty of Congress to compel them and other officials to finally tell the truth to the American people.

    Indeed it is long past the time for Bush to fire Gonzales. Instead Bush's praise for Gonzales' "candor" makes it clear that the AG said exactly what the President wanted him to say. It's well past the time for the President to fire Gonzales. The time has come to impeach. Impeach Gonzales, impeach any official involved in the coverup, and impeach the President. Bush has made it absolutely clear that he is the decider and commander guy in these illegal actions. Let him be impeached, convicted, and removed.

    Saturday, May 05, 2007

    Hey, That Was My Tornado

    I notice that Matt Drudge used a picture of "my tornado" for his latest tornado story.

    I didn't take the picture, but I still have a proprietary feeling about it.

    Compare below.

    Creative Destruction

    Joseph Schumpeter was one of the most influential economists of the twentieth century, notable, among other things, for his advocacy of the importance of the entrepreneur in economic growth. His most famous phrase is probably "creative destruction," his name for the process whereby entrepreneurial innovations displace and destroy established businesses and business models.

    It's not surprising that both the phrase and the ideas are more popular among economists than among those in the crosshairs of the destruction end of this meme.

    The notion of creative destruction is hardly unique to capitalism. Lenin and Pol Pot no doubt thought they were engaged in creative destruction.

    Nor is the idea new. The Hindu Goddess Kali is the goddess of creation and destruction. The process of destruction linked to creation is inherent in life, and indeed even in the evolution of stars, galaxies, and perhaps the universe. Negative entropy (or free energy) is exported by stars, the product of their destruction of Hydrogen in the process of creating Helium. That free energy is grabbed by plants which destroy CO2 and water to produce their essential molecules and oxygen. And so on.

    By some accounts, Kali is also Goddess of preservation. It's preservation, indeed, that is the focus of our hopes and our fears. We have many examples of the creation-destruction cycle which terminate in barren emptiness, like Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. If capitalism is to remain successful as an economic system, it needs to be able to harness the process of creative destruction without unleashing the ultimate destruction.

    Despite his belief in the virtues of capitalism, Schumpeter was not very optimistic about its future. He thought it likely to fall victim to corporatism. We can certainly see many seeds of that in Bushworld.

    Tyler Cowen has some thoughts on a new biography of Schumpeter.

    Via Brad DeLong.

    Friday, May 04, 2007

    Cry, Cry, Baby Now!

    James Rowley has a revealing story on Monica Goodling that sheds some light on the network of corruption that leads (so far) back to Karl Rove and Harriet Meiers. Goodling apparently knew already that she would have to take the fall.

    A former U.S. Justice Department official and central figure in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys tearfully told a colleague two months ago her government career probably was over as the matter was about to erupt into a political storm, according to closed-door congressional testimony.

    Monica Goodling, at the time an aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, sobbed for 45 minutes in the office of career Justice Department official David Margolis on March 8 as she related her fears that she would have to quit, according to congressional aides briefed on Margolis's private testimony to House and Senate investigators...

    Three hours before Goodling visited his fourth-floor office, Margolis told House and Senate investigators that Sampson dropped by to say he had information Margolis needed to know, one congressional aide said.

    Margolis recounted that Sampson read his e-mail exchanges with White House aides that showed the decisions on firing the prosecutors were closely coordinated with members of the president's staff, the aide said.

    Stunned Reaction

    Margolis recalled that he was stunned to learn the extent of White House involvement in the dismissals, congressional aides said. Margolis testified that preparation for McNulty's Senate testimony -- which took place more than a month before his meetings with Goodling and Sampson -- was based on the assumption that the White House only became involved at the end of the firing process, the aide said.

    McNulty told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 6 that the White House's only involvement was that presidential aides were informed of the decision before the U.S. attorneys were told. Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat leading the Senate investigation into the dismissals, has since said that he believes McNulty may have been misled by Sampson.

    Margolis testified that Sampson didn't explain why he hadn't disclosed the consultations with White House Counsel Harriet Miers and other White House aides nor did Margolis ask him, the aide said...

    After Sampson left his office, Margolis testified that he went toward McNulty's office to inform his boss and stopped because Sampson had already gone into the room carrying the binder filled with White House e-mails, the aide said.

    Why do I suspect that those emails were not among those turned over to the Judiciary Committee?

    (via Josh Marshall)

    Thursday, May 03, 2007


    A Huffpost headline on the Republican debate last night was "Ten middle-aged white men."

    Well, not really. McCain is 70 or 71. Giuliani and Romney are pretty close to Medicare themselves. The clearly middle-aged candidates are Huckabee and Brownback among the Repu and Obama and Edwards among the Dems. The rest are all pretty much old.

    Physical decline in humans is evident at 40 and prominent at 50. Ditto for some types of mental function. Knowledge and experience is worth something until 60 or so, but it's downhill from there.

    Triumph of News-Speak

    News Corp is extending it's sinister tentacles to attempt to engulf The Wall Street Journal, which, if you tear out the editorial pages, is one of the best US papers - one of the few worthwhile US papers.

    By and large, Australians seem like a nice enough bunch to me, but I really can't forgive them for unloading Rupert Murdoch on us. He and his scumbags at Faux News, etc. have been relentless cheerleaders for Bush and the Bush-Murdoch Iraq war. I really think we have plenty of evidence to convict him of treason for that alone.

    Purely as a prophyllactic measure, I suggest that we deport him to Australia and then turn Oz into a missile test range. We should probably embed a number of radio beacons for aiming purposes. Has Australia had an astronaught yet?

    Nothing personal - its just an application of the doctrine of pre-emption.

    Unless you Aussies can suggest some sort of neutral rocket and missile test zone. Are we saving Texas for anything?


    William M. Connolley has a bit more on the accelerating disappearance of Arctic sea ice.

    He also links to this story. It has a graph as well as a picture of a pretty hot ice-scientist co-author.

    Vortex Blow

    While we sat in a meeting yesterday to clean up the loose ends of bureaucratic misunderstandings and hurt feelings, somebody rushed into the conference room and announced: "I know this is a really important meeting, but there are two tornados right out there" and he pointed right through the concrete wall at my back. Naturally, we all rushed outside to get a look. There they were - the first tornadoes I had ever seen in real life.

    The skinnier white one might just have been a funnel cloud, since I couldn't see where or if it touched down, but the other one was very nice, moving very slowly, about three miles away, and quite firmly attached at the surface.

    Most of us true weather weenies quickly moved to the roof of the building for a better look. It was ideal tornado watching weather - only a sprinkle of rain, dust only near the base and a clear line of sight to a slow moving twister.

    After a while, as the tornado appeared to start to dissipate, the sirens sounded and we were all forced to take shelter in the basement. Fortunately, I had time to grab a book.

    Here's a picture:

    Wednesday, May 02, 2007

    Scratch a Conservative?

    The Master of Shrillblog gets a little shrill.

    Earth to Thomas Sowell: Francisco Franco Is Still Dead
    Thomas Sowell, fascist, writes in National Review:

    Thomas Sowell on National Review Online:
    When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.

    That is the entire thought. There is no further explanation.

    I'm not worried about our military, but those Blackwater guys make me pretty nervous.

    IPCC Busted?!

    This Reuters story reports that the Arctic Ocean is melting a lot faster than predicted in the (deliberately conservative) IPCC reports.

    the ocean at the top of the world could be free or nearly free of summer ice by 2020, three decades sooner than the global panel's gloomiest forecast of 2050.

    No ice on the Arctic Ocean during summer would be a major spur to global warming, said Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the National Snow and Ice Center in Colorado.

    Ice has a very high albedo, reflecting most incoming light back into space, but open water has a low albedo, hence less ice means more sunlight absorbed.

    Tuesday, May 01, 2007


    Four years down the pike from Mission Accomplished, Editor and Publisher takes a look at the coverage. Greg Mitchell's story starts our with a fitting reminder of why we despise Chris Matthews:

    "He won the war," boomed MSNBC's Chris Matthews. "He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics."

    The story is about the NYT coverage though, and it was a mixed bag. The much maligned Judy Miller pretty much reported the facts. Ditto Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt. Elisabeth Bumiller did her usual stenogragphy.

    Most egregious was Maureen Dowd. She slithered out of her den to get all multi-orgasmic about W's flight suit and ejection harness swaddled crotch:

    Maureen Dowd, column, May 4

    The tail hook caught the last cable, jerking the fighter jet from 150 m.p.h. to zero in two seconds. Out bounded the cocky, rule-breaking, daredevil flyboy, a man navigating the Highway to the Danger Zone, out along the edges where he was born to be, the further on the edge, the hotter the intensity.

    He flashed that famous all-American grin as he swaggered around the deck of the aircraft carrier in his olive flight suit, ejection harness between his legs, helmet tucked under his arm, awestruck crew crowding around. Maverick was back, cooler and hotter than ever, throttling to the max with joystick politics.

    Compared to Karl Rove's ''revvin' up your engine'' myth-making cinematic style, Jerry Bruckheimer's movies look like ''Lizzie McGuire.''

    This time Maverick didn't just nail a few bogeys and do a 4G inverted dive with a MIG-28 at a range of two meters. This time the Top Gun wasted a couple of nasty regimes, and promised this was just the beginning.

    The only real redemptions for the Times came in the story by Dexter Filkins and Ian Fisher, who saw through the bombast to see the rot below:

    The war in Iraq has officially ended, but the momentous task of recreating a new Iraqi nation seems hardly to have begun. Three weeks after Saddam Hussein fell from power, American troops are straining to manage the forces this war has unleashed: the anger, frustration and competing ambitions of a nation suppressed for three decades.

    In a virtual power vacuum, with the relationship between American military and civilian authority seeming ill defined, new political parties, Kurds and Shiite religious groups are asserting virtual governmental authority in cities and villages across the country, sometimes right under the noses of American soldiers.

    There is a growing sense among educated Iraqis eager for the American-led transformation of Iraq to work that the Americans may be losing the initiative, that the single-mindedness that won the war is slackening under the delicate task of transforming a military victory into political success.

    And so it goes.