Thursday, January 29, 2009


Super-cheap LEDs! I like this bit:
A 15-centimetre silicon wafer costs just $15 and can accommodate 150,000 LEDs making the cost per unit tiny. That levels the playing field with CFLs, which many people only ever saw as a stopgap solution to the lighting problem.

Humphreys reckons that the UK government encouraged consumers to drop tungsten bulbs too soon. "We should have stayed with tungsten for another five years and then switched to LEDs," he says.

Humphreys's team was funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The UK government's Technology Strategy Board will now provide the funding to turn the new technology into a commercial process.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Better and better

Barack Obama lectures Washington on proper winter preparedness, a subject close to my heart as I live in a city (Toronto) that is in perpetual denial about what lattitude it lies at.

I've had to shovel twice today, and am probably looking at one more outing before I call it for the day. Ibuprofen is your friend, as is a shovel made out of actual metal. Plastic is for chumps.

What, honestly, did you expect?

So, re: Ignatieff's acquiescence to the Conservative budget. The reviews aren't great. I'm not surprised at the results -- you'll note I've never put a lot of faith in Ignatieff's leadership -- but I am shocked at how obsequious it ends up being. After putting his name down supporting Dion's efforts to bring down this government over it's spending intentions of early winter, by mid-winter Ignatieff is going to be satisfied with... regular reports to Parliament? Weak. God knows what he'd have given them if they'd waited until Valentine's Day.

I am also surprised at the anger directed at the Liberal Party itself. I mean, this is a party that lives in the sphere of consensus, only barely tiptoeing out in to anything mildly controversial when a party leader goes mildly cuckoo. "Controversy" is what keeps the NDP out of legitimate consideration for governance, and kept the Albertan Right out of consideration until they'd gone through two rebrandings. As far as the Ottawa villagers are concerned, the worst thing Dion ever did for some Liberals was ally himself with the NDP, even temporarily.

So of course Iggy is going to bend the knee and kiss the ring. He doesn't want an election, can't afford one, and would probably lose. But more than that -- much, much more -- he doesn't want to be seen as beholden to the left. (Like his patron, Paul Martin, Iggy has more time for the right than an authentic left.)

So really, what did you expect?

Monday, January 26, 2009

About as bad as the Argentine Junta

This is an easy one: (via Chet) When a government has been committing human rights abuses and hasn't kept any files, it's because the crimes they committed were so bad, they hoped they'd never come to light. Look at the history of torture throughout the 20th century, and 2 things are incredibly common. Either a) the regime never kept files, or b) if they did, they were destroyed as soon as the tide turned. The Bushies apparently took the safer route.

And yes, keeping no organized comprehensive files, given the labyrinthine nature of the US government, is the same damn thing.

Lord, I tried

Okay, one of my New Year's resolutions (Gregorian, not Lunar) was to try and be fairer with Michael Ignatieff. Then I saw this here.
Keenly aware that his greatest future electoral opportunity is in Quebec, and his greatest challenge in Alberta, Ignatieff essentially told Quebecers they needed to get with the program when it comes to the Alberta tar sands.

"The stupidest thing you can do (is) to run against an industry that is providing employment for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, and not just in Alberta, but right across the country," Ignatieff told an audience largely of business graduate students at HEC Montreal, a management school affiliated with the University of Montreal....

"We provide more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia. That changes everything," he insisted. "It means that when the prime minister of Canada goes into the White House, he gets listened to, in ways that Canadian prime ministers have not been listened to before.
That last paragraph, by the way, made the ghost of Lester Pearson weep. Because, you see, Canadian Prime Ministers were never listened to at all before the tar sands came around.

But to the main point: if there's any hope of controlling climate change, the tar sands have to be shuttered just like all fossil fuels. By 2030, if possible, but certainly "soon" in an actuarial sense. Suncor and Encana can't be allowed to build many new projects with the expectation that they'll be able to run them for 50 years or more. (Lest I be accused of, in Ignatieff's words, national disunity I'd also say I've argued that we need a lot fewer people making cars in Ontario.)

To this basic, scientific fact we have Michael Ignatieff's response: "We're going to have this thing developing for a century. Let's do it right."

So it's now the official policy of the Liberal Party that the oil sands will continue to be developed for 100 years. Dear God in heaven, let's hope he doesn't mean they'll be expanding for 100 years, or we're all doomed.

These are the days of miracle and wonder

We're just gonna go and clear out a whole bunch of links, tabs, etc:

1) Carbon nanotubes! Getting better all the time! Maybe, just maybe, could be used to build a space elevator and get me off this rock! (Thanks for the link, Gar)

1.1) My understanding is that even if atomically-perfect carbon nanotubes can be made in bulk quantities, an actual, honest-to-Yahweh space elevator is a dodgy bet. But these kinds of super-strong materials make something more modest, like this, go from "possible but ruinously expensive" to "possible but ridiculously expensive." The upside is that we could build something that would give us, say, 80% of what a space elevator would do -- but it might actually be possible.

2) The Internet leads to world peace, publication of once-despised-leaders in the pages of the New York Times. A shocking breach of America's usual policy of ignoring dissonant voices. (I don't endorse Qaddafi's argument, but find it extraordinary that he's even being published. [Thanks, Liam.])

Seriously, the one-state solution is a non-starter. Asking 5.4 million Israeli Jews to abandon the Zionist project that they've, um, pretty conclusively demonstrated their attachment to, would require (appropriately enough) divine intervention, even if it was an obviously-best solution, and I'm not sure it is.

3) This is just bizarre. No spoilers, except to say that I'm suddenly a lot less worried about the potential of Skynet or the Cylons.

4) Ben Affleck schools Newsweek. Bill Kristol gets smacked by Matt Damon. The world is odd.

5) Jim Lovelock -- the guy nuke-boosters love to tout -- no longer thinks nuclear power is a panacea, and is boosting biochar.

6) I feel like this guy.

7) "Sustainable" may not be possible with 7, 8, or 9 billion people.

8) Man writes book arguing that children should be vaccinated. Man is threatened with death. The world is weird, and sad-making.

9) Tipping points are unpredictable, and may very well be irreversible. Lesson: don't get anywhere near tipping points if you don't know what the end state is.

10) If we'd just think differently, we've got plenty of room to massively build-out wind and solar power. Capsule: use hydroelectricity for spinning reserve, use wind and solar as baseload. Craziness, if you ask utility regulators. Of course, these are the kinds of people who would've sworn the PC would never replace the mainframe...

11) Once we've got enough clean energy, let's start sucking CO2 out of the air. Maybe biochar can't do it all, right?

12) For a must-read, Jay Rosen wrote this a few weeks ago and it's made the rounds, but seriously check it out: why the press can't control the terms of debate like they used to.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Odd days

It's an odd thing when you find yourself accidentally speaking with one of the lead authors of the IPCC AR4 report.

It's still odd, but kind of funny, when he refers to a prominent climate skeptic with the words "he's so stupid..." and you stifle the urge to call back "How stupid is he?"

I wouldn't have thought that a climate scientist would have been so quotable, but damn if he didn't use an f-bomb or two.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

It's like a dream

For my money, this might be the best thing Obama's done so far:
All departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall provide the International Committee of the Red Cross with notification of, and timely access to, any individual detained in any armed conflict in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States Government, consistent with Department of Defense regulations and policies.
There's been a lot of talk about how much of a change Obama will actually be, and this is the proof of the pudding or some other bad analogy.

The ICRC is what we call "third-party verification". It's the end of the "trust us" government. It's not even the hackneyed "trust, but verify" government. This is the "don't trust us, we'll prove it to you" government.

Red Star Rising

The NFB has put a bunch of its films up to be viewed online. There's quite the selection, but so far my favourite is this ravingly positive wartime propaganda film about the USSR. But then, I'm weird like that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Two things I've managed to avoid writing anything about

1) The York strike. Basically, the Kafka-esque absurdity of the modern University is well-described by Chet, here. I see with some dismay that John Tory is calling for the striking faculty and assistants to be legislated back to work. I think John Tory is jealous because CUPE has demonstrated it can do something Tory can't: actually win a vote.

I'd like to dwell on this for just one second longer, and say that it's especially grating that various non-tenured teachers at universities get treated like dogs, because distressingly frequently the actual tenured professors are shit. Every negative stereotype that exists about lazy public school teachers and actually applies 5% of the time exists at least as frequently when you move up to post-secondary education. (Before you accuse me of sounding like Ezra Klein, note the corollary to my last assertion. See? The value of a BA!) To put it quite bluntly, if I had to judge the value of my university education based solely on the experience of tenured or tenure-track professors, the discount would have to be somewhere in the range of 25-35%, I think. I had some fantastic TAs and contract lecturers, far more than I had any really bad experiences with bad ones. Meanwhile, I think I could (but won't) name at least one really sub-standard (and sometimes truly awful) Prof from each year that I attended Carleton. In some years, I had a truly awful Prof (as in change my degree awful) each semester.

Clearly, this is an entirely subjective view and shouldn't be taken as gospel. But that's my point: these people are teachers, and some of them are damn good ones. If they're going to do the work that the University makes its money from, they deserve some measure of security, both in terms of commensurate pay and in job stability.

2) Gaza: Basically, if you've read this blog long enough you know my views on Israel, Palestine, etc. I did cite Rob Farley's views, and I think that's about what Israel has gotten out of this mess: Lebanon III. Let's just hope they can learn from Hollywood and know that a fourth movie never, ever works out well. Especially if the original trilogy is shit.


Congratulations to Susan Walsh of the AP for getting this shot:

He has a fan.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


To: John King, CNN
From: Your history teacher

Dear Mr. King,

Clarence Thomas was not the first black man on the Supreme Court.

Yours very truly,

For the love of God, don't come back

"President Barack Obama"

I've been arguing with myself since about 12:30, but I think I've finally decided.

It sounds even better than "Former President Bush."


"You've been sick, but you're better now, and there's work to be done."
-- Kilgore Trout, Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

Vicki swears up and down that I actually said, after watching Barack Obama's 2004 speech to the DNC shortly after it was delivered, that he would be America's first black President. I have no clear memory of that, but I remember looking for video of it soon after it was delivered, because the bloggers who'd seen it were posting furiously about how awesome it was.

Watching it in retrospect, it's amazing to me how excited I was about John Kerry and how hopeful I was that he could win and Bushism could be repudiated as an error forced on an unwilling country. That, sadly, didn't come to pass. Bushism was confirmed by the election of 2004, and his crimes were in a sense sanctified by that decision. So Americans like this douche, who voted (by his own admission) for Bush out of ignorance twice and now think they can wipe their slate clean by voting for Obama, get no points from me. Tell it to the dead.

Yes, it's fair to say that I took the Bush years pretty personally. But then, those of us who were right about this monster from the beginning were told to sit down and shut up -- to get over it, in Scalia's words. Grossly unethical seizure of power? Get over it. Crippling new science to give the religious right a dog bone? Get over it. Using 9/11 as an excuse to bust unions? Get over it. Invading a country to kill hundreds of thousands of people for no reason whatsoever? Get over it. Smear your opponents as allies of mass murderers? Get over it. Using a brain-dead woman as a national spectacle to further whip up the fundies? Get over it. Allow a great city to be destroyed by storm, flood, and chaos? Get over it.

I don't mean to begrudge other people's joy in Obama's inauguration. American (and Canadian) blacks are astonished and jubilant over this milestone, and they have every reason to be. But for me, Barack Obama isn't just America's first black President. It's more important to me that he's the end of the Bush years, 8 years in which I've seen the world's most powerful regime act as rogue state, tearing a great hole in the world from beginning to end. My jubilation tomorrow (and I will be jubilant) will come from the fact that America seems to finally be led once more by a man who understands that we live in a world of complexity, and a world of multiple independent actors who need to be consulted and listened to, even if you're the United States of America.

The thing I will miss least of all about the Bush years is that valorization of the simplistic, the fetish of the "gut". It's a straight line from that to the up-is-downism of the American Right, where painting a school was supposed to be "the good news" that somehow outweighed the carnage in Iraq of 2003-2007. You don't need the complexity of actual reporting, facts, and research if you "know" that Iraq is going better than the media will report. That's right, a country at the heart of the Arab world was turned in to a charnel-house at the whim of a simpleton, but it's okay because (some) Iraqi (men) are better off (kinda) than they were under Saddam (after Gulf War I.)

The other thing I will not miss at all is my own anger. I have been, as the evidence of this blog will attest, pretty angry about the direction the US government has taken over the last 8 years. I don't like being angry, and while it sometimes makes for good copy I'd just as soon skip it. I am ready, even eager to be disappointed by President Obama. (Like I said, it makes good copy.) And while I'm certain he'll do things I disagree with, and not do things I'd like with as much urgency as I think necessary, nothing about the man's performance so far even hints at the kind of bald assertion of falsehoods that Bush, Cheney, and the rest of this criminal conspiracy are known for.

So I'll be watching the inauguration in full HD (thanks to my father for lending me his basment) and I will be smiling, and marvelling at it all. 40 years ago race was an issue that literally got great men killed. 20 years ago it was still enough to get men like Jesse Helms elected on the back of white fears. Hell, four years ago the Democratic Party was so diverse that it selected 2 white guys named John to run the country. But tomorrow, a half-Kenyan black man named Barack Hussein Obama will take the oath of office and become the 44th President of the United States.

So here's to you America. Welcome back. We missed you.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A day like no other

Watch the sainted King nearly fall over at the end.

As excited as I am about tomorrow -- and Good Lord, am I excited -- I would hate for people to see Barack Obama's victory as the culmination of the work that Martin Luther King did. A victory, and a monumental one at that. But not the end, never the end.

If you have some 40 minutes or so to spare, now's the day to listen to the full "Mountaintop" speech in it's entirety. You can find the link here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Conversations with the fiancée when you're drunk

Setting: After a birthday party with many high school friends.

Me: Did you know that [A] was my high school crush?

Vicki: That's okay, she's cute and she likes Star Wars and Star Trek.

Me: No, you're thinking of [B-with-similar-sounding-name].

Vicki: Oh.

Me: But those are your standards for acceptable women?

Vicki: Uh, yeah.

Me: I love you so much.


Me: Man, you've just been saying crazy things since we got out of the taxi cab.

Vicki: We took the bus home.

Me: Shit.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Watchmen is coming on schedule. And Fox can suck it.

Kinda awesome

Man, Obama can't catch a break from his own kids:
After pointing out Lincoln’s second inaugural within the monument, Obama told the paper, “Malia, turns to me and says, 'Yeah, how are we doing on that?” His younger daughter Sasha then asked if he was going to deliver a similar speech.

“I said, ‘Well, actually, that’s a short version, but yeah, I will,’” Obama remembered. “And then Malia says, ‘First African American president -- it better be good.’”
Have I mentioned that I'm not working or going to class on Tuesday?

Krugman wants a witch-hunt, and so do I

I would in fact say he's being too kind to the American system:
In fact, we’ve already seen this movie. During the Reagan years, the Iran-contra conspirators violated the Constitution in the name of national security. But the first President Bush pardoned the major malefactors, and when the White House finally changed hands the political and media establishment gave Bill Clinton the same advice it’s giving Mr. Obama: let sleeping scandals lie. Sure enough, the second Bush administration picked up right where the Iran-contra conspirators left off — which isn’t too surprising when you bear in mind that Mr. Bush actually hired some of those conspirators.
But the denouement to Iran-Contra was, itself, just a replay of Ford pardoning Nixon. And those assholes weren't just pissants like David Addington, they were criminal conspirators like, oh, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

I am shocked when I hear baby boomers say that Ford did the right thing -- hardcore lefties, in all other areas, who nevertheless think that it was grand for Nixon to go unpunished. I am told that "you don't understand what it was like then", as if the prosecution of criminal conduct of the highest order is something that should be optional. I'm told that near-impeachment was enough of a punishment, even if he never saw the inside of a cell, even if America never had to grapple with why they re-elected that monster.

Finally, I'm told that the country couldn't take it, the same logic that's being used now to urge Obama to carry on, nothing to see here. If that's the case, then the only real lesson to learn from the Bush, Reagan, and Nixon years is that we deserve everything we get, and nothing less.

4 days left

In just about 100 hours, Barack Obama will be the President of the United States. It's a fitting postscript to the Bush years that the best news I've heard all week is that Obama's Attorney-General 1) Says that waterboarding is torture, 2) even when America does it, and 3) the President can't break the law.

How sad is that, that I'm basically bouncing in my chair clapping like a kid on his birthday because for the first time in 8 years, the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America believes that the government shouldn't break the law???

As a side note, does it seem to anyone else like the course of Bush's 8 years has gone something like:

I) Really long first term;
II) Relatively short second term;
III) In-fucking-terminable last three months.

Because that's how I feel right about now.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Ezra Klein steps in it:
I grew up among academics. And I have never since met a class of people so contemptuous of teaching. You'd think they were being asked to chew mud.
Rob and Erik both respond to this, but I think it's just a silly argument to begin with. Of course, teachers come home and bitch about their students. They do this not because they have an ingrained contempt of the profession, but because in a class of 10 undergraduate students you're guaranteed to have at least one drooling moron, or worse yet the arrogant douche who thinks his reading of Ayn Rand prepared him to go mano a mano with the Political Economy prof.

Ahem. Not naming names.

But this is a universal phenomenon: waitresses complain about their diners, doctors complain about their patients, bus drivers complain about their passengers, and believe me that booksellers complain about their customers (many of whom are, based on the evidence of many years, functionally illiterate. Why they come to a bookstore is a mystery for the ages.)

Fuck me, reporters in newsrooms complain about their idiot readers/viewers/listeners, people whom they almost never have any direct personal contact with. (Yes, I have heard this talk directly. If you don't believe me, read Matt Welch.) You want to talk about a class of people who can whine over trivial affronts to their dignity...

I'm not surprised that Ezra Klein's family in academia came home and bitched about their jobs. I am surprised that Ezra has apparently never worked in a job that sucked enough to bitch aloud to anyone within earshot. Or else, he never connected the two experiences.

Oedipal, much?

Boy, Dubya's quest to exceed his father's legacy has failed fantastically: the final Gallup poll of George W. Bush's approval rating is out, and the comparison with his father is striking.

George W. Bush (34% approve, 61% disapprove)
George H.W. Bush (56% approve, 37% disapprove)

Not quite, but almost mirror images of each other. Not surprising, really. But still.... wow.

Things I would have surmised, without experiencing them first-hand

I learn that watching a sex scene next to the president of the United States is even more uncomfortable than doing so next to my own mother.
Okay.... But boy am I tired of the whole "Dubya is a charming guy in person!" stories. Of course politicians are charming. It's how they get elected.

The author of the above piece eventually learns that, charming or no, Dubya isn't worth crossing the street to spit on.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Is Google baking the planet?

Noumenon asked me to tackle this, from a British report:
Performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea, according to new research.

While millions of people tap into Google without considering the environment, a typical search generates about 7g of CO2 Boiling a kettle generates about 15g. “Google operates huge data centres around the world that consume a great deal of power,” said Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University physicist whose research on the environmental impact of computing is due out soon. “A Google search has a definite environmental impact.”
It seems fishy, and it almost certainly is. First, Google's response:
In fact, in the time it takes to do a Google search, your own personal computer will use more energy than Google uses to answer your query.

Recently, though, others have used much higher estimates, claiming that a typical search uses "half the energy as boiling a kettle of water" and produces 7 grams of CO2. We thought it would be helpful to explain why this number is *many* times too high. Google is fast — a typical search returns results in less than 0.2 seconds. Queries vary in degree of difficulty, but for the average query, the servers it touches each work on it for just a few thousandths of a second. Together with other work performed before your search even starts (such as building the search index) this amounts to 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, or 1 kJ. For comparison, the average adult needs about 8000 kJ a day of energy from food, so a Google search uses just about the same amount of energy that your body burns in ten seconds.

In terms of greenhouse gases, one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2.
Now, Google is notoriously opaque when it comes to its own operations, so it's not easy (or possible, really) to verify their claims. But Joe Romm is smarter than me, and he calls BS too:
What is the net energy consumed by the internet? I argue the internet is a net energy saver — and a big one — since it increases efficiency (especially in things like the supply chain) and dematerialization (it uses less energy to research online than in person). The fact that U.S. energy intensity (energy consumed per dollar of GDP) began dropping sharply in the mid-1990s is but one piece of evidence that internet- and IT-driven growth is less energy intensive.

I, for instance, am able to work at home and telecommute thanks to the Internet and a broadband connection. That saves the energy consumed in commuting and a considerable amount of net building energy: Most people’s homes are an underutilized asset, which consume a great deal of energy whether or not they are there.
There's sort of a weird disconnect where a society of SUVs, beef, and frequent air travel insists on finding equivalence with a mildly energy-intensive computer company and Japanese toilets.

Oh, and the researcher says the Times of London totally blew the point of the study, which was merely to say that the online world has definite offline impact. Seems like the reporter wanted to make his pieces of silver and the scientist didn't attend the media training seminar last September...

To go with Joe Romm's point though, I think Google has to be considered a winner even if you don't count Google's investments in solar and renewable efficiency. Google makes the Internet easier. Easier Internet = more Internet use. Hell, if you want to get really in the weeds, let's calculate how much more CO2 would have been generated if actual CDs had to be shipped to equal the volume of downloaded music in the world?

Sad news

Paul Attallah, one of my professors at Carleton and one of the best professors I ever had the privilege to learn from, has died too early at the age of 54.

It's a safe bet that I wouldn't be where I am today, academically speaking, if I hadn't taken his Intro to Communications course in first year. Without that, I probably would have switched majors to study only Political Science. As it is, I ended up doing a double major (both Comm. and PoliSci) with a minor in history. Zero electives, but worth the work.

Be warned that it turns out the study of communications isn't nearly as awesome as Prof. Attallah made it seem to me in first year. I hated the classes I had to take in 2nd year, and really only enjoyed 1 of them in 3rd year. Only in my final undergrad year did things really start to become enjoyable again.

I feel sad for his family, obviously, but even sadder for every class to come through Carleton's department of Communications from here on out. They'll never know what they were missing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Oh no!

Rod Blagojevich is impeached, and responds with:
He said Tennyson's words reminded him of his situation, and then read the poem to the assembled audience.

"Though we are not now the strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are," said Blagojevich. "One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and by fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find. And not to yeild. Thank you."
Now, sure, some people might conclude that Blago just remembered something about his high school English class. Of course, the truth is more sinister. Blagojevich isn't just quoting Tennyson, you see, he's quoting the Greatest TV Science Fiction Show of it's Time, Babylon 5. This, combined with the fact of Blago's hair, lead me to conclude the obvious. Rod Blagojevich is actually Centauri, and the reconnaissance has begun in preparation for the inevitable invasion.

After all, political corruption is so out of character for Illinois. It's the only reasonable conclusion!

Ed. note: It would also partially explain the hair.

10 years of laughing

Probably continue for another 90, until there's no snow anywhere anymore:
As Environment Canada predicts more snow this week and temperatures plunging to -22C, Mel Lastman is warmly recalling his decision 10 years ago to call in the military to fight a snowstorm.

It was January 1999, with the city buried under a metre of snow, when the then-mayor delighted the rest of the country by drafting Canadian soldiers to battle drifts and liberate buried bus shelters.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Adventures in cooking

I can now cook shepherd's pie, though I'm debating whether the "too much meat/not enough potato" situation is really a problem I want to solve in the future or not.

Update: JetSetter demands pics, and recipe.

Here's one:

Okay, it probably looked better before the fiancée and myself had seconds. If you look closely you can see that the mashed potatoes don't quite make it in to the corners. Spreads quite thin, actually.

As for two (the recipe) start with this and double the amount of gravy the recipe calls for. If you really want the authentic, Dymaxion World-certified experience, use about 25% less potatoes than the recipe suggests. Next time I make it, I'm thinking I'll replace the peas with corn.

Yes, I consult the internet for recipes. Yes, Rachael Ray has some utility.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Primacy never happened

Yglesias writes:
it might be impossible for us to actually follow wise policies in a sustained way or are we destined to flit from error to error until our national power is so badly compromised that we have few options left? As someone who likes to think of himself as involved, in a small way, in trying to get the country on a better course I don’t think I have any option other than to say the answer is “no.”
Hah. And here I am, thinking the evidence of the last near-decade is incontrovertible proof that the answer is in fact "yes". Leaving aside my pessimism that America is actually capable of long-term self-governance, I'm intrigued by Yglesias' agreement to Justin Logan's assertion that structural elements of the international arena aren't already working to limit America's power in substantial ways.

The existence of nuclear weapons, held in the hands of all major powers (and some minor ones too) means that Big War is either a) behind us or b) likely to end faster than it would take to mobilize the tanks. In either case, we're not going to see armored columns slicing through Poland again any time soon. Nor will we see conventional warfare between China and the US last longer than it takes for the first ICBM to leave an IR signature on satellite imagery. This is also the standard realist explanation for the long peace of the Cold War: nuclear weapons binding the hands of the superpowers.

On the other end of the spectrum, widely dispersed and proliferated small arms are now of a quality that can, in the hands of amateurs, bleed and preoccupy an invading army for years, preventing even the most basic of objectives from being accomplished until such time as the invader gives up on all of the nominal political goals of the original invasion. See Iraq, 2003-present. I honestly have lapsed in my IR readings over the last few years, but this seems to me at least as important a change in the international arena as the advent of nuclear weapons: Iraqi insurgents, with no outside sponsor of any international consequence, have totally negated any and all US efforts in Iraq. It's a rather striking thing that after fighting the Sunni of Anbar province for years, America was far more effective in buying them off. This says quite a bit about American military effectiveness, and about the effectiveness of modestly-armed and -organized forces. None of it is good for notions of American primacy.

As I said, I haven't read much in the way of IR journals for the last few years, but if realists are going to use nuclear weapons to explain one aspect of international behaviour, it seems reasonable to use small arms in a similar fashion. (I'm sure this isn't a novel insight.) America can, in a very narrow set of circumstances, be very effective. But make no mistake: the range of situations where America can intervene effectively is extremely narrow. Basically, using American power as it exists against any country larger than Serbia risks either nuclear retaliation or a prolonged, awful war of occupation where insufficient American numbers are eaten alive by motivated and passably-armed insurgents.

Now, American leaders clearly don't perceive the threat from small arms as clearly as they perceive the threat of nuclear weapons, but that doesn't make it any less. (Mao was ambivalent about the threat of nuclear weapons, after all. That didn't make him right.) So congratulations, America: the most powerful country on Earth has enough military power to reliably smack around the Serbias, Albanias, and East Timors of the world. (And can mount expeditionary forces smaller than those of 1930s Italy, btw.) But even a sanctions-hobbled, dysfunctional trinational state like Iraq poses a problem that US power can't really solve.

For a more concrete example, take a look at the options with Iran. Answer: there aren't really any. Either Iran gets the bomb, or it doesn't, but the policy options open to America are basically 1) ineffectively bomb a bunch of stuff, and Iran gets the bomb a few years later than otherwise, or 2) ask really nicely in a variety of ways for Iran to please stop. I'm an ardent supporter of policy option #2, but it's not exactly the roar of the lion, y'know?

Then there's the hypothetical: America could, in some fantasy situation, afford to raise a much larger army and (perhaps) successfully occupy a country like Iraq. Uh, maybe. But here again the existence of nuclear weapons means that nobody has any interest in the care and feeding of large standing armies, because you'll never get to use them. So it's unlikely that the American people will support a force large enough to back up the Primacy strategy unless they feel directly threatened by another conventional power -- in the neocon dreams, it's always China. But by the time that ever becomes a reality, yes, we will have passed out of unipolarity and in to bipolarity, or multipolarity.

So: the primacy moment was never really here, or if it ever was it disappeared sometime soon after the boys came home from Iraq in 1991.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

From the mailbag

Catelli asks, in comments:
Why do you say "When democracy comes to China"? Isn't that more of an if? What real chance does democracy have in being established in China?
And it's a fair question. No doubt some -- much?? -- of that assertion is my basic agreement with the Reverend Doctor -- "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice" -- but any student of Chinese politics (as I was in a previous academic life) spends a lot of time learning about the early, failed attempts to bring democracy to China. What really stands out about the early 20th-century attempts to bring democracy to China is a) how little state capacity existed in China at the time (China then being in many ways weaker than Afghanistan is today internally) and b) how undemocratic a lot of it actually was. Nevertheless, there's a heritage of pro-democratic thought in China going back much further than Tiananmen, and indeed the Communists today share a lot of that ideological heritage, though obviously not the practice.

The point of all this is to note that there's a current of democratic thought in China that continues to this day, and many of the more respected scholars of Chinese politics believe that the current regime simply cannot surive, long-term, the challenges of modernization. I happen to agree with that, and have argued rather vehemently in this space against voices in American opinion that try and build Chinese Communism in to an existential threat to liberal democracy, even when those voices come from the allegedly "left" side of the spectrum.

To put it bluntly, almost 60 years after Mao announced the People's Republic of China, the actual Chinese people have yet to really be sold on the deal. There's reason to believe they might, by and large, take the bargain the CCP offers them -- basically, "prosperity" for the Party's continued control -- and indeed that's the concern of the New Yorker article that started this all. I'm more skeptical, largely because the Party was having a hard enough time keeping a lid on unrest before the global economy went in to the shitter, and it seems likely to get a lot worse now. Clearly, if the party can't actually deliver on the "prosperity" part of the deal, the Chinese people might just decide to, ahem, renegotiate.

And this is where we get to one of those good-news/bad-news things. Because if an opportunity for Chinese democracy comes around again, this time China will be less of a failed state and more of a modern, mature nation-state. That offers much better odds for the survival of actual democratic governance in China. The problem is the mature nation-state in question is extremely well-armed and has any number of options to suppress domestic unrest. So any actual contest for power could get extraordinarily bloody very quickly.

One last thing I think people should grok early on: a democratic China is about as likely to "free" Tibet or Xinjiang, or relax its claims on Taiwan, as Canada is likely to relax its claims on Quebec. So it really is the case that there will be plenty of potential for conflict with a democratic China, even if a thousand flower bloom in the Middle Kingdom.

Bad news

India formally accuses Pakistan of complicity in the Mumbai attacks.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Democracy: good for peace!

...and if you believe that, you really ought to read this older piece from the New Yorker on the rise of belligerent nationalism among China's equivalent of my generation.

I also like the author's tone, which make me laugh at the extent to which an American writer is so confused about the sense of Chinese grievance against the US.
Tang’s friend Zeng smiled disdainfully as he ticked off examples of Chinese companies that have tried to invest in America.

“Huawei’s bid to buy 3Com was rejected,” he said. “C.N.O.O.C.’s bid to buy into Unocal and Lenovo’s purchase of part of I.B.M. caused political repercussions. If it’s not a market argument, it’s a political argument. We think the world is a free market—”

Before he could finish, Tang jumped in. “This is what you—America—taught us,” he said. “We opened our market, but when we try to buy your companies we hit political obstacles. It’s not fair.”

Their view, which is popular in China across ideological lines, has validity: American politicians have invoked national-security concerns, with varying degrees of credibility, to oppose Chinese direct investment. But Tang’s view, infused with a sense of victimhood, also obscures some evidence to the contrary: China has succeeded in other deals abroad (its sovereign-wealth fund has stakes in the Blackstone Group and in Morgan Stanley), and though China has taken steps to open its markets to foreigners, it remains equally inclined to reject an American attempt to buy an asset as sensitive as a Chinese oil company.

Tang’s belief that the United States will seek to obstruct China’s rise—“a new Cold War”— extends beyond economics to broader American policy. Disparate issues of relatively minor importance to Americans, such as support for Taiwan and Washington’s calls to raise the value of the yuan, have metastasized in China into a feeling of strategic containment
Ah yes, owning a share in Morgan Stanley totally counteracts the facts of, say, US military bases throughout the Pacific Rim and a lopsided nuclear deal giving advanced weapons technology to India for a song. No, those Chinese are totally loopy when they talk about America trying to "constrain" China.

The author of the piece tries to make symmetry between these Chinese youth and the American neocons, of course totally failing to note that the neocons have had substantial power and influence for the last decade (yes, even in the late Clinton years) while the youth of China have had pretty much zip.

When democracy comes to China, we'd best be prepared for some unpleasantness. I hope for the best, but I've never been as foolhardy as to indulge the liberal thesis that "democracies don't go to war with each other."

I read the news today, oh boy

The New York Times in unusually readable today. First, parts 1 and 2 of Michael Lewis and David Einhorn's monster op-ed about the Wall Street Meltdown, which really should be read in it's entirety. Basically, it's a neat precis of how the Madoff Ponzi scheme is, in fact, just a few degrees removed from the criminality embedded in the structure of American capitalism. Yes, it's hard to read it without coming away sounding like a Marxist.

Up next: from the Magazine, an article on how much faith the market placed in what amounted to a jumped-up spreadsheet.
The answer the bank’s quants had come up with was Value at Risk. To phrase it that way is to make it sound as if a handful of math whizzes locked themselves in a room one day, cranked out some formulas, and — presto! — they had a risk-management system. In fact, it took around seven years, according to Till Guldimann, an elegant, Swiss-born, former JPMorgan banker who ran the team that devised VaR and who is now vice chairman of SunGard Data Systems. “VaR is not just one invention,” he said. “You solved one problem and another cropped up. At first it seemed unmanageable. But as we refined it, the methodologies got better.”...

JPMorgan later spun RiskMetrics off into its own consulting company. By then, VaR had become so popular that it was considered the risk-model gold standard. Here was the odd thing, though: the month RiskMetrics went out on its own, September 1998, was also when Long-Term Capital Management “blew up.” L.T.C.M. was a fantastically successful hedge fund famous for its quantitative trading approach and its belief, supposedly borne out by its risk models, that it was taking minimal risk.

L.T.C.M.’s collapse would seem to make a pretty good case for Taleb’s theories. What brought the firm down was a black swan it never saw coming: the twin financial crises in Asia and Russia. Indeed, so sure were the firm’s partners that the market would revert to “normal” — which is what their model insisted would happen — that they continued to take on exposures that would destroy the firm as the crisis worsened, according to Roger Lowenstein’s account of the debacle, “When Genius Failed.” Oh, and another thing: among the risk models the firm relied on was VaR.
Nicholas Nassim Taleb comes of as a pompous ass, which has a ring of authenticity about it. But if you're a fan of his books, you should still enjoy the article.

I consider it especially ironic that these red-blooded giants of capitalism, the type of person who laughs at the predictions of a computer model like Earth II when it's used by the Club of Rome, managed to drive us all over the cliff by making their precious model in to the Godhead. Because, y'know, it's different when they do it.

Not in the NYT, but a decent article in the Wall Street Journal's website of all places, about how awful the professional standard of the field of economics actually as, as opposed to what it pretends to be:
Mr. Rajan also argued that because banks were holding a portion of the credit securities they created on their books, if those securities ran into trouble, the banking system itself would be at risk. Banks would lose confidence in one another, he said: "The interbank market could freeze up, and one could well have a full-blown financial crisis."

Two years later, that's essentially what happened.

Many of the big names in Jackson Hole weren't ready to hear the warning. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, famous among economists for his blistering attacks, told the audience he found "the basic, slightly lead-eyed premise of [Mr. Rajan's] paper to be misguided."
That's right, a University of Chicago economist was mocked for being insufficiently pro-capitalist because he was trying to ring the warning bell. Also, the attendees at Jackson Hole remarked that the Pope was insufficiently Catholic, and that bears are insufficiently pro-woods-shitting.

Yech. Economics: even sketchier than psychiatry.


This is the reason I wish someone would invent a really good VR deck I could plug in to and never emerge. Well, that and porn.

wingsuit base jumping from Ali on Vimeo.

You really won't do it justice if you don't press the full screen thingy.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Betrayal of Trust

This is an excellent essay in the New York Review of Books. Basically, the key is here though you should read the rest:
The problems I've discussed are not limited to psychiatry, although they reach their most florid form there. Similar conflicts of interest and biases exist in virtually every field of medicine, particularly those that rely heavily on drugs or devices. It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of TheNew England Journal of Medicine.
Seriously, read the rest.

This cartoon makes me laugh so goddamn much