Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Unnecessary War

Churchill was a hero of my youth, based mainly on my reading of his autobiography and his history of WW II. I have since come to have a better appreciation of his flaws and errors, but I was still intrigued when I saw the sublead on the Christopher Hitchen's Review of Pat Buchanan's new book: Revisionists say that World War II was unnecessary. They're wrong. Buchanan's book, Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War, according to Hitchens, argues that:

    • That Germany was faced with encirclement and injustice in both 1914 and 1939.

    • Britain in both years ought to have stayed out of quarrels on the European mainland.

    • That Winston Churchill was the principal British warmonger on both occasions.

    • The United States was needlessly dragged into war on both occasions.

    • That the principal beneficiaries of this were Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.

    • That the Holocaust of European Jewry was as much the consequence of an avoidable war as it was of Nazi racism.

I have no interest in Buchanan's arguments, and Hitchens makes short work of them, but I was more interested in the fact that Hitchens, or at least his editor, seems unaware of the origin of the phrase "The Unnecessary War." It is Churchill's, from the first volume of his history of WW II, and I have remembered it these past forty years.

He was referring not to any Buchanan style isolationist notion of letting Hitler be Hitler, but to the notion that Hitler could have been very easily defeated if he had been confronted in 1936 or 1938. He pointed out, or at least claimed, that the munitions produced by the Czechoslovak's Skoda plant were more than the munitions output of all of Germany at that time.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Weak Sisters

Saudi Arabia is fabulously wealthy, so why hasn't it used more of its wealth to provide itself with minimal self-defense? My answer is in multiple parts: Israel, the US, and the Monarchy. Israel clearly wants to keep the Saudis weak, and the US government is largely controlled by Israel in such matters. Still, the Saudis have had a few trillion in disposable income this past quarter century or so, so you would think they could find somebody who would sell them a decent Air Force.

I suspect that the ultimate reason they have not is the Monarchy's fear that a strong military might prove fatally inconvenient to them. Ditto the mullahs. Consequently, Saudi Arabia remains flyover country for the Israeli Air Force.

Iran has been hobbled by the sanctions imposed on it, but the role of the Russians is pivotal. They may not relish the idea of a nuclear armed Iran next door, but they have also got to be nervous about US force projection in Iraq. They have signalled this by selling some anti-aircraft missiles to the Iranians, but these should be considered of more symbolic than real importance. If, on the other hand, they wanted to stymie Israel, and perhaps even the US, they could sell Iran, say, a few hundred of their top of the line interceptors, and three years training for each pilot.

China also wants leverage in the Gulf. I'm not sure what they have for aircraft, but if they are smart, and aren't they always, they may be tempted to skip a generation of fighter aircraft. Everyone knows that the manned fighter aircraft is obsolete. Everybody's next generation fighter aircraft will be a robot, so why not go right for it?

Minus pilots, fighter aircraft will be smaller, cheaper, faster, and more maneuverable. He who takes the plunge first might wind up with air supremacy. Or fail utterly, following Rockefeller's dictum that "pioneering don't pay."

Fortunately for Israel and us, the Arab states lack the technological base to create such a thing. But they do have all that cash.

Israel and Its Enemies

The US has been talking up a big exercise, suposedly a dress rehearsal for an attack on Iran's nuclear capabilities. The fact that the US is talking about it suggests that this has more to do with bluster than operations.

In the latest sign of escalating tension over Tehran's alleged nuclear program, Israel held a massive military exercise this month that involved the types of warplanes, distances and maneuvers required for airstrikes on Iran, according to senior U.S. officials.

The mock operation reflected a growing policy schism over Iran among major international players at a time when U.S. politics may freeze major decisions until a new administration is in place, its officials are confirmed and a policy review is complete.

More than 100 Israeli warplanes -- including F-15s and F-16s, refueling tankers and helicopters for pilot rescue -- were involved in the military exercise, which was first reported by the New York Times yesterday. Israeli warplanes flew as much as 900 miles across the Mediterranean and back, U.S. officials said.

To carry out a real attack, though, they would need to fly over Arab countries and US controlled air space. I don't think anybody doubts their ability to bamboozle Arab Air Forces more or less at will, but that isn't true of the US. So my guess is that they can't do it without our OK.

Which brings up the question: why are the Arab countries so impotent? I will save that for another post.

Torture Incorporated

Wolfgang notes his surprise that there was not more resistance to the torture and murder of sometimes innocent suspects carried out by the Bush administration. I, unfortunately, was less surprised. Once you have convinced someone that killing people for a living is his or her profession, going beyond is not so difficult.

We see this in many wars. In some, it's incidental violence, in others it is part of official policy. That's why we hung Nazi and Japanese military and officials after World War II.

It is an unfortunate fact that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Haynes, et. al. are unlikely to end up at the end of a rope, or even in long term confinement, but they certainly deserve to.


I haven't posted much lately, and probably won't post at all after tomorrow for a week or so. I will be off the net on family business.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

The Universe is well populated with catastrophic hazards. Wandering black holes, supernovae, gamma-ray bursters, intergalactic collisions that spray a whole galaxy with radiation, not to mention the more prosaic collision with an asteroid.

One thing these have in common is that there isn't anything we can do about them - though in a few decades we might be able to deal with a wandering comet or asteroid that has our number, if it announces itself well in advance.

UPDATE: Bee has some thoughts. See link at Blogroll.

On the other hand, there are the disaster we bring on ourselves. Most of the common epidemic diseases that plagued us for thousands of years - measeles, smallpox, etc., we got from the animals we domesticated. Even the modern scourge of AIDS was contracted from monkees. We also have a bad habit of devastating the ecosystem. The Native American immigrants to America of 13000 years ago promptly killed off a lot of the big game - elephants, camels, giant beaver, horses. Gun wielding Europeans came close to finishing off the rest.

More modern adventures are there too. Asbestos mining practically wiped out the small town of Libby Montana. The toxic stuff not only killed the miners, but the dust on their clothing also devasted their spouses and children. The clean living Mormons of Utah have very high cancer rates thanks to nuclear testing in Nevada, and everyone in the world of my age carries around some of the fallout in our bones.

One big challenge we face now is the threat of anthropogenic global warming. Unlike some of the others, we can't say that nobody saw this one coming. It doesn't seem likely that it can be prevented though. I see very little appetite for the kind of sacrifice likely to be required.

AGW is probably only a civilization destroyer in its worst case manifestation, though. How about more drastic stuff?

One of the odd puzzles of our Universe is apparent absence of other technological civilizations. "Where are they"?, as Fermi asked. As we have learned about star formation and planetary formation it has become obvious that planets are commonplace, as are stars like the Sun. What little we know about the origin of life argues that it too is likely to be common. As we run out of excuses for the absence of aliens to greet us, one ugly possibility rears its head.

Maybe when a civilization reaches sufficient technological maturity to advance to space it manages to destroy itself. Just about the time it starts getting decent space legs, it's probably also starting to probe the weak interaction center, thereby producing something bad, like a strangelet or a black hole.

Just sayin'.

Personally I think we face a much greater threat from Lord Voldemort. Not to mention George Bush.


Dennis Overbye reports in the New York Times today that the Large Hadron Collider won't destroy the Earth, at least according to a panel of expert physicists who did the study for CERN.

A new particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider scheduled to go into operation this fall outside Geneva, is no threat to the Earth or the universe, according to a new safety review approved Friday by the governing council of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or Cern, which is building the collider.

“There is no basis for any concerns about the consequences of new particles or forms of matter that could possibly be produced by the LHC,” five physicists who comprised the safety assessment group wrote in their report. Whatever the collider will do, they said, Nature has already done many times over.

The report is here

Of course as physicists, the panel members are hardly objective outsiders.

Though there are some other things that we are doing that look more likely to me to destroy the human race.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Hack Attack

Not so long ago, the not totally stupid 1/20th of David Brooks' split personality veered oddly into a critique of the sacred Republican creed of 'borrow and spend.' Perhaps he found the severed head of his pet gerbil in his bed the next morning, or something, because he is solidly back in the hackateria today, with a somewhat odd attack on somebody he calls "Fast Eddie Obama."

It's a typical Faux/Newscorpse steaming pile, long on invective and short on facts. Brooks reserves his main criticism for Obama opting out of public financing, for reasons the Brooks, of course, is usually happy to embrace.

Brooks pretends to think that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law was the "primary cause of his political life," and that Obama "sold it out" by declining public financing. This is an absurd interpretation of Obama, of course - he has been for public financing but has long been critical of McCain-Feingold.

Brooks does have one good point:

God, Republicans are saps.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Youth Movement

Republicans are talking about the need to put somebody like LA governor Bobby "The Exorcist" Jindal on the ticket to give McCain's ticket a more youthful look. I think that they are making a mistake. They don't need to pep up the ticket, they need to pep up their Presidential candidate. this guy is a proven conservative who could make McCain look, well, awake, by comparison.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Take From the Poor, Give to the Rich

The title, of course, is the McCain-Bush-Bush-Reagan-Greenspan Republicans always and forever tax policy. It has been an hugely successful policy - the past 28 years have seen an enormous transfer of wealth from the middle class and poor to the very rich. A perphaps unfortunate, but doubtless necessary, side effect has been an even larger transfer of wealth from the United States to Saudi Arabia, other oil exporters, and China.

I was reminded of this as I watched CNN while on the treadmill at the gym. A panel was comparing the Obama and McCain tax proposals. Oddly enough, many of the panelists stuck to the facts, noting that McCains tax proposals consisted of tiny tax cuts for poor and middle class plus big tax cuts for the rich and very big tax cuts for the very rich, while those proposed by Obama had much larger tax cuts for the poor and middle class, small tax increases for the upper-upper middle class, and substantial tax increases for the rich and super rich.

The ancient Republican hack on the panel complained bitterly that Obama's tax proposal was taking from the rich and giving to the poor, an imagery that would have been more credible if he or any other Republican had made the reverse observation when Reagan cut taxes for the rich while raising them for the working and middle classes.

These characterizations are of course dishonest, and designed to be emotionally loaded. In this golden age of crony capitalism the Republicans have consistently used the following strategy: cut nominal taxes by a pittance for most, cut taxes wholesale for the rich, and borrow the money to rule (or misrule). I call the tax cuts 'nominal' because of course the borrowed money will need to be repaid, one way or the other, though the rich and super rich will just take the fortunes they have accumulated in the meantime and move off shore, so they will likely escape any burdens. All that borrowing weakens the nation, of course, and strengthens its rivals and enemies - a price the Republicans have been too willing to pay.

Both McCain and Obama have proposed plans that will produce further deficits, probably inevitable in the current weak economy, but McCain's is both more expensive and less honest, since it produces huge deficits but pretends it doesn't by claiming to say trillions by cutting "earmarks" - a good idea, but hard to implement without public campaign financing, since the earmark system of semi-legalized bribery is the major basis of most current congressional campaign financing. The money involved is also about two orders of magnitude too small to balance McCain's budget.

Kevin Drum has a nice graph of the impact by income percentile.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tyranny 4, Constitution 5

The Supreme Court narrowly voted to uphold habeas corpus, the oldest civil liberty in English jurisprudence and a right specifically guaranteed in our Constitution. John McCain sided with Bush and the four fans of untrammeled executive power on the court against the Constitution, thus ensuring that the Republican Party continues to reject any genuinely conservative principle.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Free Trade

Economists believe in free trade almost as much as physical scientists believe in the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Free trade, they believe, makes both partners in the trade better off. There is both theoretical and empirical support for this notion. The theoretical support, to the extent that I understand it, is based on Adam Smith’s idea of economy of scale and David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. It makes sense to produce capital intensive products in countries with abundant capital and labor intensive products in countries with abundant labor. The same notion underlies all trade – if I have more X than I need or want and less Y, and you have more Y than you want, but less X, we are each better off if I exchange my surplus X for your surplus Y.

Tyler Cowen has a scorecard:

More than 400 million Chinese climbed out of poverty between 1990 and 2004, according to the World Bank. India has become a rapidly growing economy, the middle class in Brazil and Mexico is flourishing, and recent successes of Ghana and Tanzania show that parts of Africa may be turning the corner as well.

Despite these enormous advances, however, there is a backlash against globalization and a widespread belief that it requires moderation. Ordinary people often question the benefits of international trade, and now many intellectuals are turning more skeptical, too. Yet the facts on the ground show that the current climate of economic doom and gloom simply isn’t warranted. The classic economic recipes of trade, investment and good incentives have never been more successful in generating huge gains in human welfare.

Oddly enough, the general populace is deeply suspicious of free trade. They see the layoffs and erosion of salaries, but, say economists, don’t fully appreciate the advantage of all that cheap Wal-Mart junk they could buy if they still had jobs. This, say economists like Tyler Cowan and Brad DeLong, is irrational.

Cowen again:

What’s really happening is that many people, whether in the United States or abroad, are unduly suspicious about economic relations with foreigners. These complaints stem from basic human nature — namely, our tendency to divide people into “in groups” and “out groups” and to elevate one and to demonize the other. Americans fear that foreigners will rise at their expense or “control” some aspects of the economy.

Brad DeLong has a nuanced analysis, but doesn’t conclude differently, and Dani Rodrik has yet another theory of why we make the mistake.

For me, though, the problem is that people tend to think of the economy as a zero sum game – if somebody gains, somebody else, probably me, lost. That, say the economists, is their irrational error.

So why should so many make that error? Well, say I, there is the fact that 3.5 billion years of biological evolution have taught us that, to a very high degree of approximation, life is indeed a zero sum game in the long run. Economists say that technological and economic progress trump that, but I personally am very suspicious of any notion that conflicts with Darwin. It’s all very well for economists to worship at the altars of Smith and Ricardo, but if they forget Malthus, not so much.

The problem is that there really are scarce and non-renewable resources. Without doubt, many Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and others are benefitted by our appetite for their products. It is equally likely that at least some Americans are benefitted by the cheap goods they sell us and cheap money they lend us, at least in the short term. The Darwinian must take a longer and gloomier view, because in the long run we and our descendants are in competition with all those others (and each other) for living space, food, and what will remain of those scarce resources. The older generations of Americans who still remember a time when Chinese and Americans were killing each other.

There is only one obvious way out of that Malthusian box – limited reproduction. When we buy from China, we get not only cheaper clothing and electronics, but more expensive gasoline. Without population control, we need to see all our trading partners not just as sources for our goods and sinks of our products, but as future competitors for that last drop of oil or crust of bread.

Religious Experience?

Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin report that Bush fired Rove in church.

One is torn between "couldn't happen to a nicer guy" and "What an asshole."

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sunday Morning Gripe

Every once in a while I sample the Sunday Morning talking heads, just to reassure myself that there is nothing there. Today I tried CBS.

Bob Schieffer is an amiable gnome who looks a bit older than his 110 years. Unfortunately, he is also an idiot. His first question to Hillary Capo Wolfson: "Hillary looked much more relaxed yesterday. Why do you think that is?"

I didn't hear the answer, or any further questions.

OTG and the World

OK, I go off the grid for a lousy two days and the stock and oil markets go crazy. It does tend to feed my solipsist fantansies - not that the world is doing much better when I am plugged in.

We took the Cumbres and Toltec narrow gauge railroad out of Chama, New Mexico yesterday and it was remarkably pleasant. This old style steam train is more Old West than Hogwart's Express and its pace up the four per cent grade to the 10,015 ft. summit (or cumbres) is slow enough to give mounted bandits plenty of time to catch up and jump aboard. After a week of mostly 100+ temperatures in the low lands, it was nice to see snow on the ground, a patchy inch or so from the previous day's snowfall with occasional two and three foot drifts still melting from last winter (when they were ten times that depth). Elk and deer were a common sight but scenic pride of place went to the mountain meadows and valleys where spring was busy with all its burgeoning greenery and trickling streamlets.

In the median of the highway from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, there is busy construction, the result of our governor's promotion of a commuter train running between the cities in question, and ultimately, so it is planned, beyond. Trains have huge advantages in fuel economy for point to point travel, but the infrastructure costs are large, especially in cities where they are most useful but real estate is most costly.

If energy cost is to remain high, or perhaps go higher, trains may come back for both people and freight. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that they would be cheap, though. The great infrastructure advances of the past were built with government help and vast governmental subsidies - the railroads, canals, the interstate highway system, and the air transport network. Very likely something similar would be needed if the railroads were to be re-imagined.

The big pieces, the arteries, are actually the easy part - the 300 mph trains, the tunnel under the Bering Strait and similar engineering feats. The tough part is the capillaries. How do you deliver goods and people to their subburban homes, offices, and multifarious other destinations? Are buses still the best that we can do?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


You lost. Now get off the stage!

If Obama ever considered putting her on the ticket, last night's display of deranged narcissism should be the clinching evidence that the Clintons cannot be trusted anywhere near power.

Where are those bouncers who used to work for Jerry Springer?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

What If?

When I was but a wee lad of five or six, so my mother has said, I liked to ask questions of the following sort: What would happen if a 300 mm cannon shell hit an elephant right smack in the tail? While researching another matter recently, I ran across an interesting parallel question: What would happen if a mini-black hole, say with a marble sized horizon, collided with the Earth at say 100, 000 mph?

An awful lot of people who didn’t have a clue ventured answers. As it happens, a marble sized black hole (MSBH) ( 8 mm to 9.5 mm) is not particularly mini, though it is quite a bit smaller than those likely to be formed by astrophysical processes. Our MSBH would have a mass nearly the same as that of the Earth, so the gravitational forces would be roughly as disastrous for the Earth as an (exploding) 300 mm projectile would have been for my hypothetical elephant.

How about a smaller mini, though, say one with a mass 1/10000 that of the Earth? The Schwarzschild Radius (SR) for Earth is about 9 mm, and scales directly with mass, so our BH junior would have an SR of about 0.9 micrometers, the size of a quite small bacterium. The gravitational acceleration of a BH of that size would be equal to Earth’s surface gravity g = (GM/Re^2) = (GM/10000)/(Re/100)^2 at a distance of 1/100 of the Earth’s radius, or 64 km, and at 6 km would be 100 g. Consequently, we can conclude that gravitational effects alone predict that it would be mightily disruptive, smashing and vaporizing a huge tunnel through the planet.

So would it be slowed enough to be captured by the Earth and nibble it to death from the inside? Not likely. I can’t quite do the necessary math here, but the small size of the BH should make it difficult for it to ingest matter too rapidly. The infalling matter needs to crowd together and gets in the way of other infalling matter.

And what about Hawking radiation ? For our 10^(-4) Earth mass BH (5.97 * 10^20 kg) BH, the Hawking temperature is only 205 K, so it would not be an intrinsic radiation source, though the infalling mass should be heated to very high temperature near the tiny horizon, and that might emit a little radiation. Dial down the mass by another factor of 10^4 (to 5.97 * 10^16 kg.) and things change a bit. The 100 g radius of maximum gravitational destruction is now down to 640 meters, and the horizon has shrunk to 90 picometers (9e-11 m), intermediate between an atom and an atomic nucleus in size. Temperature has cranked up to a couple of million Kelvins – hot but too small to be much of a power source. If we assume Stefan-Boltzmann radiation from a spherical surface of the horizon's diameter, it only produces about a tenth of a Watt.

Yet another factor of 10,000 takes us down to about six billion tonnes mass, and sub nuclear size. At that size radiation is expected to be tens of millions of watts, or perhaps much more, and so gravity would no longer be the only major threat.

The sizes of BH that might be produced in the Large Hadron Collider are still many steps away in this iteration, and they would be hot indeed, but if they follow similar laws, would essentially instantly evaporate, returning their energy to other forms. For almost any other size black hole, though, close encounters with Earth are bad news.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Darktown: The Color of Despair

Dennis Overbye has a nice "State of the Universe" report in today's NYT. Dark energy: it's a puzlement.

“The discovery of dark energy has greatly changed how we think about the laws of nature,” said Edward Witten, a theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

This fall, NASA and the Department of Energy plan to invite proposals for a $600 million satellite mission devoted to dark energy. But some scientists fear that might not be enough. When astronomers and physicists gathered at the Space Telescope Science Institute recently to take stock of the revolution, their despair of getting to the bottom of the dark energy mystery anytime soon, if ever, was palpable, even as they anticipate a flood of new data from the sky in coming years. When it came time for one physicist to discuss new ideas about dark energy, he showed a blank screen.

The institute’s director, Matt Mountain, said that dark energy had given this generation of astronomers a rare opportunity, and he admonished them to use it wisely.

“We are placing a large bet,” Dr. Mountain said, “using our credibility as collateral, that we as a community know what we are doing.”

But many stressed that it was going to be a long march with no clear end in sight. Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University told them, “In spite of the fact that you are liable to spend the rest of your lives measuring stuff that won’t tell us what we want to know, you should keep doing it.”

Read the whole article, though.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

MoDo Reads McClellan

Maureen Dowd tries using her powers against the Dark Side. I'm impressed.

It turns out that our president is a one-man refutation of Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller “Blink,” about the value of trusting your gut.

Every gut instinct he had was wildly off the mark and hideously damaging to all concerned.

It seems that if you trust your gut without ever feeding your gut any facts or news or contrary opinions, if you keep your gut on a steady diet of grandiosity, ignorance, sycophants, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, those snap decisions can be ruinous.

We already know What Happened, but it feels good to hear Scott say it. His conscience was spurred by hurt feelings.

Author and subjects both get the MoDo treatment. You will not be surprised that Powell and Tenet get thumped. McClellan portrays himself as more the dupe.