Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I heart Sir Nicholas Stern

Chapter 1 of the Stern Report deals with the scientific grounding of climate change, and this passage made me want to stand up and cheer:
Some have interpreted the “Hockey Stick” as definitive proof of the human influence on climate. However, others have suggested that the data and methodologies used to produce this type of figure are questionable (e.g. von Storch et al. 2004), because widespread, accurate temperature records are only available for the past 150 years. Much of the temperature record is recreated from a range of ‘proxy’ sources such as tree rings, historicalrecords, ice cores, lake sediments and corals.

Climate change arguments do not rest on “proving” that the warming trend is unprecedented over the past Millennium. Whether or not this debate is now settled, this is only one in a number of lines of evidence for human-induced climate change. The key conclusion, that the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will lead to several degrees of warming,rests on the laws of physics and chemistry and a broad range of evidence beyond one particular graph.
This simple fact - that carbon dioxide and methane reflect more infrared radiation than other gases - is incontrovertible, as solidly known as the force of gravity at the Earth's surface. There is no question that an atmosphere with more CO2 in it will reflect more infrared radiation than one with less. These are laws of physics, not models or conjecture.

Somehow, this always gets lost in the discussion. To claim that continuing emissions of CO2 won't lead to climate change is to claim that up is down, black is white, and the laws of physics no longer apply. Very, very good of Stern to state the facts of this matter.

How many ploughshares do you need, anyway?

Mortar tube = coffee machine.

I am strangely amused

You know what kills me? When American politicians caterwaul about how they lost so much "national sovereignty" when they signed NAFTA.

Let's ignore, for a moment, that the United States could leave NAFTA at any minute (witness that fate of the ABM treaty) and thus has effectively lost no sovereignty whatsoever - America's fate is still manifestly in America's hands. Does anyone believe the same is true of Mexico, or Canada - if the US didn't will it, could we realistically abandon NAFTA?

Let's also ignore, just for a moment, that unlike Canada, America did not guarantee either of its NAFTA partners massive energy exports for the rest of time, even in the case of a domestic energy shortage.

Finally, let's also ignore the reality that Canada's "negotiations" for the (NAFTA precursor) Canada-US free trade agreement were so obsequious and craven that one could fairly say that Brian Mulroney's concessions were made on bended knees.

No, somehow, despite all this, it's the US that unacceptably lost its sovereignty in NAFTA. The same way, apparently, that Gulliver lost his sovereignty to the Lilliputians. (Hell, the Lilliputians were more assertive in defense of their interests than Canada is. Fat load of good it did them.)

This has some relevance to Canadian politics. It's an article of faith among some Canadians - more or less ignoring political parties - that NAFTA was a blow to our country that continues to hurt us. I actually agree with many of the criticisms of NAFTA, especially considering how little peace it's actually bought us - see, for example, beef, softwood lumber, and even threatened US tariffs on Canadian-made movies.

Nevertheless, it's simply not the case that NAFTA was "forced" on us by the Americans. Canada - with the generous help of a broken electoral system - elected a government that signed FTA, and expanded it in to NAFTA. The Liberals - elected in 1993 based partly on the promise to renegotiate NAFTA, did nothing. (This is why I have no time for Liberals who want to blame the NDP for the 1988 election.) If NAFTA was forced on us at all, it was by our own two "national" parties, led by Mulroney and Chretien.

The party of small government

The Republicans, having totally failed to keep teenagers from having sex (in fact possibly having encouraged it), are now going to try and keep 20-29 year olds from having sex. Brilliant. As Ezra says, "I didn't think armed guards bristling with tranquilizer guns could do that."

What Ezra's missing, of course, is that federal lawmen can now arrest you, throw you in a cell, and then torture you until you're so ugly no woman would touch you. See, this is why Habeas Corpus is obsolete.

What, you thought it was all about terror? These people can multitask!

PS - Why do Republicans hate sex so much? Seriously, I know it's an old question, but why?

Shockingly, virulent racism turned out to have limited utility

It had worked so well for the US Army in the past...

For those who don't recall, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, Bernard Trainor quotes one general as saying "The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I'm about to introduce them to it."

So there was a real charm offensive, you might say. It turned out, though, that the Iraqis had some introductions of their own to make - "US Army, meet IED. Army, did you know that IED just graduated from Fallujah technical college? We're all very proud." Of course, it was a pretty big party, and the Army met so many people that night, it was hard to remember who was who until the bodies started coming in.

So three years later, the US Army has gotten around to re-writing its strategies in Iraq. Tomdispatch had this reaction, which caught my eye.
The new counterinsurgency strategy acknowledges that the very idea of overwhelming demonstrations of force producing respectful obedience has backfired, producing instead an explosion of rebellion. And now that a significant majority of Iraqis are determined to expel the Americans, promises of more humane treatment next time will not get the genie of the insurgency back in the bottle.
It's funny - in a gallows-humor sort of way - because the statement that "these [insert racial epithet here] only understand force, so we're gonna [insert exclamation of sadistic impulse here]" is probably as old as humanity itself. Go back far enough, and you could probably find instances of cro-magnon man saying crazy stuff like "these Neanderthals only understand force, so we're gonna rape their cattle and steal their women..." (Apologies to Mel Brooks.)

Of course, it's never, ever been true. Indeed, it's only ever been an incredibly stupid belief to hold - ever know anyone to respond to abuse with love and obedience? Instead, it's been an excuse for the warmonger and the torturer to unleash their "skills" on the world for millenia.

Stern Report (Probably pt. I of many)

Olaf has asked me to post about the Stern Report, which in case you missed it expects climate change to incur $7 trillion (that's with a T!) in losses for the global economy, but could be averted for 5% of that.

Unfortunately, the Stern Report is 700 frickin pages long, so this isn't something we I can give a 300-word summary of. Rather, I'll be trying to go through the report over the next little while, and extracting the neat bits.

The short version is that Stern took the science of climate change seriously, and is presenting what I think is a reasonable estimate of the worst-case scenario. The skeptics see this and say "Oh, it won't be that bad." Well, sorry, no. Stern's estimates are worse than the IPCC's for the simple reason that in the intervening time, the science has gotten much more alarming - specifically, the discovery of a number of positive-feedback loops.

In five more years, I would be upset, but not surprised, to see Stern's own estimates eclipsed by even more alarming science. This isn't a sign of runaway sicentist hysteria, but a sign of runaway climate change.

There's one bit so far that I don't think has gotten enough attention - Stern's admonition that prices alone will not save us. That is, increasing the price of gasoline, coal, or whatever will not actually reduce the risk of climate change, and in fact may increase our risks. The simple fact is that as oil prices have increased, the resource pool has grown to include not just the tar sands, but also potentially coal-to-liquids and oil shale.

Stern estimates that even at current prices, there's enough economically-available carbon in the ground to almost triple the preindustrial levels of CO2 - an eventuality I don't even want to think of. The idea of sunny beaches in the NWT scares the crap out of me.

Bizarrely, I find myself in agreement with our PM and Environment Minister on this point: if we're serious about pollution, regulation and law are more efficient means of prohibiting certain behaviours than taxes. The main difference, of course, is that I actually am serious, whereas Harper and Ambrose are not.


Mental note to self: The boot record is important. Restoring it is tricky. It's alarming when your computer just doesn't work.

Crisis averted.

(Removing a dual-boot install was what brought this on, in case you're curious.)

Monday, October 30, 2006

Funny Stuff

Bill Maher:
And finally, New Rule: America must stop bragging that it's the greatest country on earth and start acting like it. Now, I know — I know this is uncomfortable for the faith-over-facts crowd, but the greatness of a country can, to a large degree, be measured. Here are some numbers: Infant mortality rate, America ranks 48th in the world; overall health, 72nd; freedom of the press, 44; literacy, 55th. Do you realize there are 12-year-old kids in this country who can't spell the name of the teacher they're having sex with?

Now, America, I will admit, has done many great things: making the New World democratic comes to mind, the Marshall Plan, curing polio, beating Hitler, the deep-fried Twinkie. But what have we done for us lately? We're not the freest country. That would be Holland, where you can smoke hash in church, and Janet Jackson's nipple is on their flag.

And, sadly, we're no longer a country that can get things done, either. Not big things, like building a tunnel under Boston or running a war with competence. We had six years to fix the voting machines. Couldn't get that done. The FBI is just now getting email!

Prop 87 out here in California is about lessening our dependence on oil by using alternative fuels, and Bill Clinton comes on at the end of the ad and says, "If Brazil can do it, America can, too." Excuse me, since when did America have to buck itself up by saying we could catch up to Brazil?! We invented the airplane and the lightbulb. They invented the bikini wax, and now they're ahead?!

In most of the industrialized world, nearly everyone has health care. And hardly anyone doubts evolution. And, yes, having to live amid so many superstitious dimwits is also something that affects quality of life. It's why America isn't going to be the country that gets the inevitable patents in stem cell cures, because Jesus thinks it's too close to cloning!

Oh, and did I mention we owe China a trillion dollars? We owe everybody money. America is a debtor nation to Mexico! We're not on a bridge to the 21st century. We're on a bus to Atlantic City with a roll of quarters.

WHITMAN: Take those — bring those quarters to Atlantic City, yes.

MAHER: And this is why it bugs me that so many people talk like it's 1955 and we're still number one in everything. We're not. And I take no glee in saying this, because I love my country, and I wish we were. But when you're number 55 in this category and number 92 in that one, you look a little silly waving the big foam "Number One" finger.

As long as we believe being the greatest country in the world is a birthright, we'll keep coasting on the achievements of earlier generations and we'll keep losing the moral high ground. Because we may not be the biggest or the healthiest or the best educated. But we always did have one thing no other place did. We knew soccer was bullshit.

And...and we also had a little thing called the Bill of Rights. A great nation doesn't torture people or make them disappear without a trial. Bush keeps saying the terrorists hate us for our freedom. And he's working damn hard to see that pretty soon that won't be a problem.

Your liberal media

How important is global warming in Maine? Not important enough for local television.

Michael Palmer, the general manager of television stations WVII and WFVX, ABC and Fox affiliates in Bangor, has told his joint staff of nine men and women that when “Bar Harbor is underwater, then we can do global warming stories.”

“Until then,” he added. “No more.”
Because, of course, the whole point is to inform the populace well after there's any chance to avoid disaster. Like with Katrina, I guess.
Mr. Palmer laid out his policy in an e-mail message sent out during the summer. A copy was sent to The New York Times. Mr. Palmer did not respond to a phone message left with an employee of the stations nor to an e-mail message. But a former staff member confirmed the e-mail message that went out during the summer after the stations broadcast a live report from a movie theater in Maine where Al Gore’s movie on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was opening.

Mr. Palmer began his e-mail message: “I was wondering where we should send the bill for the live shot Friday at the theater for the Al Gore commercial we aired.”

Mr. Palmer said he wanted no more stories broadcast on global warming because: “a) we do local news, b) the issue evolved from hard science into hard politics and c) despite what you may have heard from the mainstream media, this science is far from conclusive.
I'm trying - really, really hard - and I don't think I can think of anything funnier than the manager of two television stations slamming "the mainstream media". Because, y'know, ABC and Fox are scrappy underdogs.

Of course, I had university professors harangue me about "ivory-tower academics", too.

Altairnano unveiled

To continue with tech issues, the Energy Blog has a post up about Altairnano's batteries, which have demonstrated long lifespans, high power density, though slightly below-average energy density. This was a conscious compromise on Altairnano's, apparently, because the balance of power and energy is explicitly designed for the electric vehicle market.

Judging by Altairnano's technical documents, building a plug-in hybrid with a 100km range would take about 120kg of batteries or so (assuming 200wh per mile, or 120 per km), store 12 kwh of electricity and offer a maximum of power of 640 horsepower... which should be enough for most applications (I would hope!)

Given that these batteries could be charged by a much, much smaller engine than normal, that's probably a net weight saving, even with the additional batteries. Weight saving = fuel efficiency.

I can't seem to find details on what the extra cost would be yet, but their docs say these batteries are extremely fast-charging, and have been tested to at least 9,000 deep-discharge cycles, meaning a lifespan of something like 24 years - long enough, in any case. Hell, a car maker could offer you a steep discount to trade in your old car, keep the old batteries, and save the recycling/landfill costs.

I've written about Altairnano before, here and here.

New HD technology

That's hard disk technology, not hi-def. Robert Cringely:
Since disk storage is responsible for consuming 30 percent of the energy in your PC and up to 50 percent of the energy in a data center, it seemed to me that this would be a good area to look for improvements. Add to this the problem that in this world of YouTube and Sarbanes-Oxley no data center has enough storage, it becomes clear that we need disk drives that hold more, cost less, and use less energy.

So I found one.

Two old friends of mine, Anil Nigam and Jim White, and their company, Antek Peripherals, Inc., had been working for years on technology for a sort of hyper-floppy drive using metal foil for the recording medium. At the time they were aiming their work toward digital cameras, but I asked if the same technology could be used in a non-removable form inside a computer disk drive? And if it could be used that way, what would be the effect on price, performance, reliability, and energy consumption? The answers were stunning: they could design new families of disk drives that held up to three times as much data in the same space, were more reliable, actually cheaper to build, and used 70-95 percent less energy to run than the current state of the art.
Cringely seems to believe this technology can even compete with flash memory for speed, energy efficiency and durability at one tenth the cost - an astonishing development. It also seems to be compatible with existing technologies, meaning that the perpendicular storage that's already close to delivering 1 terabyte drives for desktops could be tripled.

The 500-gig iPod is not too far away, I think. What is the realistic possibility of controlling digital media in a future where that much data is foot-portable? A hi-speed USB connection would take all of 17 minutes two hours to empty 500g of data, which is a lot but certainly not prohibitive. Say you've decided to collect the raw HDTV versions of your favourite shows. At 20 mbps for uncompressed HDTV signals, that comes to just under 7 gigabytes per episode, or more than 70 45-minute episodes of television on our hypothetical 500g iPod. And this of course assumes that you don't compress the files - you could probably hold 10x as many episodes without significant quality losses.

So assume for a moment that we shut down Internet piracy - torrent sites, P2P sharing, whatever. CDs are still going to be rip-able, TV cards are relatively cheap and allow you to capture TV signals, and I'm not yet prepared to bet on HD-DVD or Blu-ray's encryption being hacker-proof. So it's almost certainly going to be easy to digitize and store media. All you need then is for friends to exchange data in their living rooms.

Suddenly, the Internet is the least-desirable way to get free crap. How can we possibly control data in this world?

(Edited post to correct math error above.)

Weekend Update

Eh, I forgot to cross-post what I did at Ezra's, so here's the link for that one - a post about how the iPod may in fact save the world.

Also, a post defending the belief that massive reductions in CO2 emissions are necessary now at Gristmill.

Heh. Indeed.

Jonah Goldberg writes about Battlestar Galactica:
In a society scientifically so much more advanced, it seems to me that the issue would no longer be controversial one way or the other. Either contraceptive technology would have "solved" the problem. Or moral dogma about abortion's acceptable parameters would have been long established.
Robert Farley writes:
Ron Moore has left us some subtle hints indicating that he's not optimistic about the ability of technology to solve basic societal problems. These hints include the low level of much Colonial technology, the vulnerability of high tech equipment to Cylon attack, the emphasis on religion as an enduring element of the human experience, and, last but not least, the fact that he's produced a show about killer robots who overthrow and try to exterminate humanity.
"The issue" Goldberg is writing about is abortion - featured in an episode of Galactica, last season. Ignoring Farley - who is absolutely right in his analysis - I think one potential technological "fix" (in the sense Goldberg means it) would be some kind of artificial uterus. (God help us all, Wikipedia has an entry for "artificial uterus.") Of course, all this does is allow pre-natal adoption, if you will. A woman with an unwanted pregnancy could, theoretically, have her embryo removed and implanted in a tube - and then move on with her life.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why a woman might still choose to abort a fetus rather than pursue this path, in the same way that women choose abortion over adoption today. But it would provide more options for women, a good thing in my books. So I don't see this as a "fix" the way I think Goldberg means it.

More worryingly, my nightmare is that Christian Conservatives would build warehouses full of these artificial wombs, and start mass-adopting "snowflake babies" and raise an army of indoctrinated aryan superbabies. But then, I read too much Science Fiction.

...actually, go ahead and raise the superbabies. I'm just watching a CNN piece about young evangelicals starting to vote Democratic this year. Nothing would amuse me more than some sheltered, tube-grown young Christian teen experimenting with liberal politics. Oh, the horror!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Color me skeptical

Paul Krugman in the NYT today:
If Afghanistan were in as bad shape as Iraq, stabilizing it would require at least 600,000 troops — an obvious impossibility.

However, things in Afghanistan aren’t yet as far gone as they are in Iraq, and it’s possible that a smaller force — one in that range of 4 to 10 per 1,000 that has been sufficient in some cases — might be enough to stabilize the situation. But right now, the forces trying to stabilize Afghanistan are absurdly small: we’re trying to provide security to 30 million people with a force of only 32,000 Western troops and 77,000 Afghan national forces.
First off, notice the use of the word "might" and other such ambiguities. Krugman's not being sheepish, he's just being honest - we don't know if Afghanistan is salvageable with a smaller force, or whether a major occupation is required. (For that matter, we don't know if a major occupation will work, either.)

But Krugman's own guesstimate here shows the problem - the high end of this range (10 soldiers per 1,000) means an army of 300,000. (1% of 30 million = 300,000) That's almost triple the current forces, even if we include the Afghan forces, and almost an order of magnitude larger than present if we don't include Karzai's bodyguards.

A few more implications follow: the low end of Krugman's numbers imply a force of 120,000 is necessary to pacify the country. But if we do include the ANF, we've already got a force of 110,000 in-country. Yet the situation is deteriorating. (Operation Medusa may already need a do-over, as of yesterday's NYT.) This implies either a) we can't rely on the ANF; b) we can't rely on low-ball estimates of the forces required; or c) 10,000 soldiers is the difference between victory and defeat.

The median between 120,000 and 300,000 is 210,000 soldiers. If we arbitrarily take that as our starting point, we see the problems - combining the existing, in-country forces with the American and British forces in Iraq just barely brings us to 210,000. (30,000 NATO + 180,000 OIF forces.) And remember, this is still assuming optimistic numbers. What if we're still 90,000 troops short, as the higher estimates suggest? Do we hope the ANF can fill that gap? Is hope a plan?

Moreover - and this is the bedrock problem for this idea - it's difficult for me to see the American and British militaries, already stretched to the breaking point, committing 100% of their Iraqi forces to Afghanistan. Frankly, we'd be lucky if we saw half of those troops arrive in Kabul or Kandahar.

Finally, this plan assumes that the US military has learned its lessons from Iraq and is willing to adopt a reality-based counterinsurgency doctrine, an assumption I'm not willing to wager more lives on. Does anyone want to wager on the competence of a plan for Afghanistan that continues to rely on the competence of the Bush Administration?

There seems to be this hope - having collectively waged the Afghanistan war on the cheap for the last five years - that we can now salvage it with a quick transfusion of labour from Baghdad to Kabul, from al-Anbar to Kandahar. We'd like to pretend it's a change of strategy, but fundamentally it's the same idea: hoping for success, hoping the easy way out will work. This way neither Canada nor the other NATO allies need to, say, raise taxes or dramatically increase their own military spending, while we let the two biggest military powers in the alliance shoulder a burden we're not even sure is worthwhile anymore.

Frankly, unless Canada, France, Germany and the rest of NATO start ponying up some more money and some more bodies, I'm not sure it's terribly ethical for us to ask the Americans to do so on our behalf, especially when there's no national consensus in Canada on the value of the mission. To ask Americans and British to die because, you know, whatever, is in fact profoundly wrong.

Question: If Afghanistan can muster a force of 70,000, why can't Canada, with a GDP fifty times greater? Other NATO allies can and have been criticized, but we in this country seem to have this idea that Canada is undertaking a uniquely Herculean task. But obviously, if we were committed to this war the way we're committed to the rhetoric of war, we could do very much more. This idea seems to be beyond polite discussion - our own Defense Minister seems to think it's only other countries who need to man up at this point. My support for the Afghanistan mission is waning on a daily basis - has nearly entirely disappeared, in fact - but surely we can all agree that to fight this war badly, spending men and women's lives to no purpose, is worse than to not fight it at all?

But fighting this war properly - with the level of national commitment that would have required - might have necessitated tough decisions for the Liberals while they were in power, and would definitely require tough decisions for the Conservatives today (like sacrificing those precious tax cuts, or facing the wrath of a disenchanted public) so I don't think it's going to happen at all. We're going to waste dozens, a hundred, or maybe (God please no) hundreds of more lives, until the situation goes from unsustainable to total disaster.

Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again

The Northwest Passage: Ice-free in October.

Doomed, I tell you. Dooooooomed.

Breaking News: German soldiers still assholes

I'm sure this won't have any ramifications whatsoever in the war:
BERLIN: Two German soldiers have been suspended following the publication of photographs of troops holding a human skull in Afghanistan, Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said on Friday.

"Two soldiers have been suspended from their duties," the minister told reporters in Berlin.

They are being investigated on suspicion of disturbing the peace of the dead, which is a legal offence in Germany punishable by up to three years in prison.

The scandal broke on Wednesday when Bild newspaper ran pictures of Bundeswehr soldiers mounting a skull on a vehicle bearing the German flag and the name of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Freakin' Star Trek nerds

Currently there is much debate over what name CVN-78, the first CVN-21 class carrier, should bear. This is elevated by the fact that the name of the lead ship of the class will be extended to all members of the class. As it currently stands, CVN-78 will replace the current USS Enterprise, making her name a viable candidate for CVN-78. Unsuprisingly, this has drawn out many fans of the TV series Star Trek, who are mounting a writing campaign to have the new carrier named Enterprise. This would, however, be problematic with respect to tradition as CVN-78 will likely be commissioned several months before CVN-65 is decommissioned.
Seriously, I love you guys, but calm the hell down with the letter-writing campaigns.

The Navy, understandably, does not want two ships named Enterprise in service at the same time. However, just as understandably, the Navy will not abandon the name Enterprise. The name Enterprise has been on ships fighting for America for longer than there's been a US Navy. More importantly in this context, the carrier USS Enterprise was one of the most-celebrated vessels in WWII.

What makes this all ridiculous is that there are two more carriers planned in the CVN-21 class, scheduled to commission in 2018 and 2021. I would bet my house, if I owned one, that one of those vessels will be named Enterprise. So at most, the world would have a grand total of 6 years without a ship named Enterprise. By contrast, there was an almost 15-year gap between the sixth and seventh Enterprises.

On the other hand, the proposal by Sen. Warner is to name the CVN-78 the Gerald Ford. Seeing as it is the first of it's class, that would mean all CVN-21 class carriers would be called "Gerald Ford-class carriers". While it would amuse me if the USS Gerald Ford were to accidentally attempt to liberate Poland, I think maybe a third option would be best.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Guess what? Technology proliferates

...and sometimes, it proliferates way, way faster than you'd like it to.

Case in point: electronics. This story at DefenseTech points out that
The computer which runs the F-22 is an absolute design marvel for its time, for example: 700 MIPS (Millions of Instructions per Second), approximately 300 Megabytes of memory, and some 20 billion DSP [digital signal processing] style operations.

Yet its time was the late 80s and early 90s, when much of the hardware was finalized. Today, a Playstation 3 meets or exceeds this performance, for $600 instead of perhaps $30,000,000. (Of course, the F22's avionics are considerably more robust and presumably more reliable.)
This has more relevance than simply comparing hardware. Stealthy aircraft like the F-117 scatter radar signals away from the receivers. (Other aircraft, like the B2, either absorb or are transparent to Radar.) If you've got multiple receivers, and decent computing power, you can still put a signal back together - a trick the Chinese are said to have taught some countries. But it gets much, much worse (if you've invested heavily in stealth technologies):
There are a few prerequisites for multipath radar. The broadcasters, although simple, need to transmit an identifier as part of their signals, and be at known locations. The receivers, on the other hand, need to be very sophisticated. This requires sophisticated radio antennas and, more importantly, "serious DSP magic," which, when networked together, can compute a cohesive picture of the defender's airspace.

Yet the hardware to perform such DSP operations is becoming commonplace and commercially prevalent. GNU radar and other designs can receive the signals, and conventional computers and DSPs can then process the results, extract the features, and create an overall picture. There have been prototypes built in the United Kingdom, able to track commercial aircraft by observing the reflected signals from cell-phone towers.
Most modern countries are awash in radio signals, and it would not be difficult for a well-organized insurgent group - much less a government - to get precise coordinates for things like FM towers and cell phone towers - and disperse the receivers throughout the countryside. With modern technology, putting them on the backs of the ubiquitous Toyota 4x4 shouldn't be hard.

Most importantly, the vast majority of militarily-useful targets are not very stealthy. Even if this technology didn't let you see F-22s and F-35s, you could certainly spot the flotillas of heavy-lift cargo planes that fly in and out of Iraq every day. Once you've got a bearing and a vector, putting a guy in place with a decent chance of firing a shoulder-mounted SAM is much easier.

(This would allow insurgents to fire on incoming aircraft well away from the airports themselves, which is what the Iraqis have been doing. This makes controlling the airspace one more task that falls to the army, ironically. It also makes occupation even more labour-intensive.)

That bit about using local cellphone towers is particularly difficult for someone like the US in Iraq. Your options at that point are probably limited to trying to hunt down every insurgent receiver (and the USAF hasn't had much luck finding SCUDs, remember) or shutting down a country's cellphone service somehow, an action which wouldn't endear them to the locals.

It would be interesting to speculate if some countries might start regulating civilian radio broadcasts to take these kinds of technologies in to consideration. There are large parts of the spectrum that commercial broadcasters use as buffers between channels, after all. A government that wanted to expand it's radar options could mandate a specific time/space code in these buffer zones to link every transmission with a place and time and make it easier to put all these signals together.

If I were Iran, I'd be thinking about it.

Silver linings to grey IEDs, or something

I have a confession, one I'm not proud of or even remotely comfortable with. This is going to sound - hell, this is - incredibly callous on my part, but it looks like the Democrats are going to be able to say, for the last week of the election campaign, that October 2006 was one of the worst months for American casualties in Iraq since the war began.

Seeing as the first step in staunching this hemorrhage of American blood - and the positive deluge of Iraqi blood - is for the Democrats to retake control of the US government, I can't say I'm 100% opposed to this outcome.

This, to me, is the worst thing about the Bush administration: Not that they've been bad, but that they've been so bad I actually see corpses and think, "Fuck, if this is what it takes to restore sanity to Washington..." As much as I hate what Bush has done to Iraq, and what he's done to America, I hate what he's done to me, and the way I think, too.

A few comments on Quebec

I am not - by any stretch - an expert on national unity matters, at least no more than any other Canadian is these days. But a few thoughts on the Liberal motion:

1) If it means anything, it's a bad idea to support it - if we're recognizing "nationhood" for Quebec, and that ends up meaning devolution of powers, or a veto over ammendments to the Constitution, this is a much, much larger and longer process than a majority of the Quebec Liberal Party has the right to inflict on the other 30 million of us.

2) If it means nothing, it's a bad idea to support it - if we're recognizing "nationhood", and then refusing to allow any conclusions to be drawn from that recognition, this is a waste of time. As a rule, you don't write something like "Quebec is a nation. So what?" in to the Constitution. This hasn't stopped Michael Ignatieff from arguing essentially this position.

3) Supporters of position #2 are forgetting - or never learned - that you don't win a political argument by conceding the other side's rhetorical points. If you are a federalist, it is difficult - though I concede, not impossible - to convince the people of Quebec that they a) are a "nation" (however you define the term) in fact and by right, b) have excercised a huge spectrum of autonomous powers for more than a century now, BUT c) the separation of Quebec from Canada is a bad idea, or simply wrong.

I would note, regarding point #3, that Stephane Dion has made exactly this argument against both "nation"-hood for Quebec and the "fiscal imbalance". Both are issues dear to the hearts of separatists, and when the Liberals go conceding both arguments to the other side, they make it more difficult to win the overall argument.

Finally, and I don't think this can be said enough: Separatists are, regardless of their actual numbers in Quebec, extremists. (Here I am not referring to what others have called "soft sovereigntists" who support the BQ or PQ but not necessarily full separation.) They are seeking the most extreme possible solution to their grievances, and are not interested in "concessions" from Ottawa, except in the sense of getting Federalists to provide the rope to hang themselves. We cannot bargain our way towards their happiness or satisfaction. The one thing a resolution like this can never do is solve our unity problems in Canada. Like I said, I'm not an expert on these matters - I don't know the secret to ending the unhappiness of some Quebecois within Canada. But I cannot imagine that this is it.

All that said, I would love to see poll numbers (if anyone has them) of how Ignatieff's proposal (meaningless recognition) actually plays in Quebec. I'm entirely willing to revise my theses if evidence proves me wrong.

Paper Dynamite Online has been doing yeoman's work on this issue - for more intelligent analysis, go read him. See especially this - it seems that the resolution changed from something that Dion couldn't support, to something that Dion already supported, after the vote. Shenanigans, I say!

His Father's Son

Justin Trudeau reminds Liberals who they're supposed to be. Is anyone listening?
Justin Trudeau has weighed in on the Quebec political debate, calling nationalism a small, old idea "from the 19th century" that has no relevance today.

Nationalism "builds up barriers between peoples" and has "nothing to do with the Canada we should be building,'' the eldest son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau said Thursday on Canada AM. ...

Without commenting directly on the Liberal contender, Trudeau called the idea of nationalism one "based on a smallness of thought that closes in, that builds up barriers between peoples and has nothing to do with the Canada we should be building."

"Some people these days are wrapped up in this idea of nation for Quebec, which stands against everything my father ever believed," he said.

But it's "something that is not relevant to the vibrant, extraordinary culture that is Quebec and of Quebec as being such an amazing part of Canada."...

Justin said what comes through "as clear as day" in Volume I of English's two-part biography is the evolution of his father's thought "away from nationalism -- towards a bigger view of Canada and of Quebec's role in it rather than folding back on this idea of a nation."
The political evolution of Pierre Trudeau is fascinating, and when I have more time I really, really want to read some bios of him. How a young man started out as, essentially, a Catholic Fascist Separatist and went on to become the Justice Minister who decriminalized sodomy and the Prime Minister who brought home the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should by definition be a fantastic read.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Who said it?

...and how does he sleep at night?
War should be the politics of last resort... And when we go to war, we should mobilize the country's resources to fulfill that mission and then go on to win. In Vietnam, we entered a half-hearted war, with much of the nation opposed or indifferent, while a small fraction carried the burden."
Answer: Colin Powell, in his memoirs. (p. 148)

Last year's news, today

So I just finished reading Cobra II. Yes, I'm behind the times. Lousy public library system. Moving on...

There were a few surprises for me in this book. Broadly, it's about the invasion of Iraq in March-April 2003. Given that it was a few years back, it was interesting to read how much of an adversary the Saddam Fedayeen - Baathist partisans, essentially - actually posed. (Short answer: More than you think.) I was also surprised that the book convinced me, at least in one case, that I'd been maybe too harsh on the Bush Administration. The authors make the argument that the collapse of the Iraqi government was far more complete than I'd read, and putting a functioning state back together was consequently more difficult.

Also interesting is that Trainor and Gordon seem to argue that the peace was lost by autumn of 2003, while I'd always thought Spring 2004 was when the insurgency really delegitimized the Americans. Odd that even I can be too optimistic about the Iraq War.

What the book makes clear, in it's last chapter, is that the men who bear the most responsibility for this disaster are Tommy Franks and Donald Rumsfeld. Franks never - for a moment - appreciated the real threat of the insurgency, even as the army was busy fighting the Fedayeen. Rumsfeld, for his part, refused to believe that the occupation would be as labor-intensive as it turned out to be. Paul Bremer also has his hands in this disaster - Trainor and Gordon are scathing in their descriptions of the de-Baathification program and the disbanding of the Army - but he was, more than anything, an instrument of Rumsfeld.

One heart-breaking story occurs after the war, when a town decides to elect their own mayor to replace the US-installed one. The Marines on the ground are very receptive, and begin a plan to register voters and build ballot boxes and everything. A day before registration was to begin, Bremer's office tells them to stop, there won't be any election. "Bremer was concerned that an unfriendly Islamic candidate would prevail." (p. 490) Well, so glad we dodged that bullet.

Broadly, this account seems to make it clear that the Iraqis a) actually did welcome the initial invasion, as I'd suspected, and b) quickly wanted to put their own country back together so the Americans could leave. Had they been allowed to do that, it's possible this war might have ended less tragically than it will now. But the book also makes clear that the Americans could not - to use Jim Henley's language - separate their own ideas of liberation and control. The Iraqis could not be so free that they might choose to elect an Islamist candidate, as the above example shows.

Moreover, the Iraqis did not appreciate the revolutionary nature of the Bush Administration's ambitions. It was not enough for these people to depose Saddam, if the Iraqi state more-or-less survived. The state had to be destroyed utterly, and rebuilt in the American conception of what Iraq should be. To call this Leninism would be too kind - Lenin imposed his vision on his own country at least, and didn't go halfway around the world to create the Soviet Republic of Brazil or some nonsense.

It's funny, because Gordon and Trainor aren't lefties or even seriously ideological - this book is a very clinical text. But they make it explicitly clear why we've gotten to where we are now.

Ooooh... the conspiracy spreads...

New Jersey: newest member in the Axis of the Fabulous.

Amazing that they'd risk it, what with the instant and total apocalypse that struck Canada.

I was wondering about that

I thought it was just me who had a weird sense of deja vu, but if Andrew Coyne says it, well...
Watching Mr. Ignatieff’s supporters shouting down Stephane Dion at the weekend leaders’ debate in Montreal, it was impossible not to be taken back to another such occasion, in the same city, nearly a generation ago. Then, it was Paul Martin’s supporters, chanting “vendu” at Jean Chretien for his unwillingness to endorse the Meech Lake Accord. Now it is Mr. Ignatieff’s, Mr. Dion having shown the same reluctance to constitutionalize “national” status for the province.
I think Paul Wells' next book should be about how Martin's control over the Liberal Party is going to lose them the 2007 elections, too.

PR in Ontario

So the McGuinty government is moving - slowly - on electoral reform in Ontario. Yippee. But a few people seem genuinely angry that the law as proposed would require 60% approval before we adopt any changes. I don't get it - we aren't tinkering around here, we're talking about a major change to the way we do democracy in Ontario - one that, if it gets even close to electoral justice, would probably add the Greens to the Ontario legislature, increase the seat count for the NDP, and deny the Liberals and the Tories majority governments for the rest of time.

It's understandable that the Liberals are not wild about that idea, but I think people need to understand how big a change this is, especially for it to occur in Canada's most important province (take that, everyone else!) This should require a super-majority of some kind, and 60% support is at least more likely to occur than 66%, or 75%.

And frankly, the Westminster system is so antiquated I will all but certainly vote for whatever proposal is actually made - almost anything would be better than what we've got now.

One thing I would really, really like not to see the Libs and Tories (or their helpers) engage in FUD tactics when the referendum comes around - that's what we've got the Globe and the Post for. In BC, Wikipedia says the government stayed neutral in the referendum, something that makes no sense to me - Campbell ran on reform, announced the referendum, then stepped back? If you're serious about reform, then let's see something as radical as advocating the position you've already said you support. Dimwits.

Memo to McGuinty: If you actually support reform in Ontario, let's see you come off the sidelines and endorse the proposal when it's made. As I said, it's bound to be better than the status quo.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Things I did not know, cont.

(This is going to be a rather long-running series, I suspect.)

From PZ Myers:
...the gene for the androgen receptor, a protein absolutely essential to the development of his masculinity, is located on the X chromosome—you know, that female thing.
As men, we can only get our X chromosome from our mothers. That same X chromosome is also crucial to our masculinity in the most fundamental sense.

(I suspect the explanation is rather mundane - the X chromosome, if I recall my high school biology, is much larger and more complex than the Y.)

Still, the idea that it's only through our mothers' genetic gifts that we can be Manly Men makes me smile.

Ah yes, now I remember

...why I continue to hate Henry Kissinger with every fiber of my being:
“Why did you support the Iraq war?” Gerson asked him [Kissinger.]

“Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough,” Kissinger answered. In the conflict with radical Islam, he said, they want to humiliate us. “And we need to humiliate them.”
So of course, Kissinger - his aim as accurate as it was during Cambodia - advocated a war to humiliate the Muslim world by attacking the most secular state in the region.

Monstrous incompetents, all of them.

In the next life, someone will have to explain to me why, say, showering the people of Afghanistan will $300 billion in aid and reconstruction would not have been sufficiently humiliating for the crazed lunatics of Al Qaeda. (No, Olaf, I'm not saying we respond to 9/11with only humanitarian aid. Sit down.) Responding to attacks and acts of violence with generosity - turning the other cheek, to quote some guy - has a long history in western thought. Certainly, rebuilding Afghanistan properly would have a) delegitimized the charge that the west, and the US particularly, hates Muslims, and b) would have been a better use of the Iraq monies anyway.

Hmm.... $300 billion over Afghanistan's 31 million comes to... just under $10,000 a piece for every man, woman, and child in Afghanistan. Over the last five years, that would amount to $2,000 per person per year, or increasing Afghanistan's per capita GDP by two and a half times.

Actually, I suspect avoiding the Iraq war and rebuilding Afghanistan competently would have been humiliating for the crazed lunatics under bin Laden. The Taliban would have no way of saying - like they do today - that things were better during their tenure in Kabul.

This scenario would not, however, have been sufficiently humiliating to Muslims for the crazed lunatics in the Bush Administration.

Things I did not know

From an excellent article in the New Yorker about the global water shortage:
Yet at least since the cities of ancient Sumeria went to war over control of their rivers—long before tales of Moses parting the Red Sea or the Flood described in the Bible—water has been a principal source of conflict. (The word “rivals” even has it roots in fights over water, coming from the Latin rivalis, for “one taking from the same stream as another.”)
If you get the suspicion that your mood is, well, just too damn good then read the whole thing.

What did Turkey do?

This is a bit of an older link (in blog time, anyway) but it highlights one of the enduring paradoxes to the Iraq mission: we're supposed to "liberate" the Kurds, but do so without creating the conditions for an independent Kurdish state. This - given the fact that the Kurds are well-armed, trained, and willing to fight for lands they see as theirs - may very well be impossible.

So what are the Kurds likely to do once they have a state? Well, probably more of what they're doing already - attack Turkey and try to take even more land. To do so would be foolish, but as I said, it's already happening.

Some Iraq War partisans readily acknowledge that the point of the war was to re-draw the lines of the Middle East, explicitly without the consent of the inhabitants. I suppose it's a bit much to ask Washington to care what, say, Iraqi Sunnis, think about this project. But you'd at least think that Turkey - you know, moderately Islamic, NATO ally, secular free-market state Turkey - would be exempt from this colonial impulse.

But no. It seems the craziest Americans think that, for no good reason whatsoever, Turkey should lose about 20% of its territory to the new Kurdish state. For what? Admittedly, Turkey did engage in a particularly brutal campaign against the Kurds during the 1990s - and was armed by Washington to do so. Whether or not a new Kurdish state is formed from the remains of Iraq is yet to be seen - about the only thing the Sunnis and Shia agree on is that the Kurds can't be accomodated. Destroying an embryonic Kurdish state could be the one thing that Syria, Iran, and Turkey all agree on.

I say this not because I'm hostile to the idea of a Kurdish state in theory, but because I can't think of a way in practice it wouldn't lead to even more regional instability.

Firefox 2 is out

Download link for the PC version here.

Doesn't seem to be wildly different, but tabs are easier to use - I've usually preferred opening new windows rather than tabs, but I may make a conscious effort to use tabs now.

Who we?

Totally random note: why is it acceptable for husbands/boyfriends/fathers-to-be to say, of them and their pregnant wives/girlfriends/mothers-to-be, "we're pregnant" or "we're having a baby"?

The latter is a bit more acceptable - a man can, and should, help his wife considerably during pregnancy. But to say "we're pregnant" seems bizarre and unfair to me. The word "pregnancy" refers to a pretty specific thing, something that's off-limits to men for anatomical reasons.

But maybe I'm being an extremist for no good reason. Any fathers out there willing to offer their thoughts?

This - WHAM! - is a metaphor

This morning, coverage of U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey’s Baghdad press conference was briefly interrupted.

The TurkishPress notes that “the hall was plunged into darkness by one of Baghdad’s regular power cuts, despite the fact the venue was in the capital’s heavily-fortified Green Zone, also home to the US embassy.” Here’s a screenshot from CNN:

A test pattern is a great visual representation of the Bush Administration, isn't it?

PS - I love CNN's banner "The Fight for Iraq" under same test pattern.

Something I missed

The Lancet study which concluded that there were 650,000 more dead people than there should be in Iraq was an extremely low-cost affair. The numbers are uncertain, but it certainly cost less than $100,000. If someone wanted to truly dismiss this study, it should be a simple matter for the US government, or some right-wing think tank, to put together a more robust, better-funded study to eliminate the doubts inherent in this study and its conclusions. Hell, Joe Lieberman could (literally) fund a new study out of petty cash.

Alternately, official bodies could double their efforts to provide timely, accurate data. Except that (pretense of sovereignty notwithstanding) this is the Bush administration we're talking about:
UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 19 -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office has instructed the country's health ministry to stop providing mortality figures to the United Nations, jeopardizing a key source of information on the number of civilian war dead in Iraq, according to a U.N. document.
Ah yes, we've seen this before: when the data are politically harmful, stop counting the data.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Like Creationism for liberals

After Atrios wrote the ever-controversial statement that war isn't always good, Kevin Drum responds with:
In general, it's hard to fudge on war: you either support it or you don't. After you've examined everything, talked to everyone, and thought long and hard, you draw together everything in your experience and make a decision. The gears may turn in private, but the final result represents one of the ultimate tests of someone's foreign policy judgment.
Atrios parries:
What's always bothered me most about the incompetence dodge isn't the basic set of reasons set out by Yglesias and Rosenfeld. Instead, what has long bothered me most about it was that pre-war it was probably the most derided (or, in the vernacular of the day, most "morally unserious") argument against the war. Imagine a senator getting up and giving a speech which said, in essence, that if we had competent people running the show we should go to war, but since George Bush is incompetent it'd be a really bad idea. The fine folks at Joe Lieberman Weekly would've really taken that argument seriously. But now it's the favored position of all those self-appointed very serious people.
In the name of consistency, I think it should be generally agreed that if you advocated war against state/people/ideology X, it should be for reasons that stay more-or-less consistent throughout the conflict. A war that is based on ever-changing founding rationales is, by definition, going to be fought using ever-changing strategies. If you simply want to destroy a nation's economy and ability to make war, airpower alone does, in fact, give you a decent toolbox to work from. If your goals are more humanitarian, a different strategy needs to be pursued. It is extremely dangerous - to all involved - to change your strategy midstream. (This can still sometimes be necessary if the current strategy is proving disastrous.)

To use the WWII metaphor beloved by warbloggers, the destruction of the Nazi state was a worthwhile endeavour long before the Red Army began liberating Auschwitz. (Obviously, we could say that the war became much more supportable after that. But who remained to be convinced by January of 1945?) You could reasonably have supported WWII all the way through without knowing the exact end point - the liberation of Japan and (most of) Germany, the end of the Holocaust, the Marshall Plan, etc. In contrast, you really could only support Iraq if you believed that a) George Bush's end-state was a correct one, and b) you were certain that it was within the means of the US government to achieve. Believing A marks you as a garden-variety liberal. Believing B marks you as gullible, if not delusional.

What always struck me about the argument that Iraq was a humanitarian war/liberation was that, chronologically, it was only advanced by the Bush Administration as the main rationale for the war after WMDs and terrorism had struck out. That is, Sensible Liberals like Joe Lieberman, Peter Beinart, and others should have realized that they'd already been lied to about two previous rationales for this war, but decided to take Bush seriously for #3. (It's also worth saying that many of these liberals were happy to change their rationales post facto: Ignatieff initially supported a war to disarm Saddam, then became an ardent liberationist sometime in 2004. The dishonesty astounds.) This decision on their part had nothing to do with who was talking (Bush) and everything to do with who was listening - Bush, Rumsfeld et al were saying exactly what these liberals wanted to hear: America was a force for good in the world, we were going to make Iraq in to a democracy, et cetera. From the beginning, these people decided to believe lie #3, after lies #1 and #2 were revealed, not because it was anymore plausible but because the voices in their head made them feel better.

And yes, at this point we have to say that the lie of "humanitarian intervention" was - without question in the case of Iraq - at least as fraudulent as the case for WMDs and terrorism. Just as WMDs and terrorism were empirical, testable theories (either they existed or not) the US Army and other national governments have sufficient history with foreign occupations at this point for us to judge whether Bush, Rumsfeld, and Franks were actually - as in, in reality - going to be able to "win the peace".

Had they amassed sufficient forces in March of 2003 to control events in Iraq after the initial fighting was over - that is, after the Baathist state collapsed? We can say from subsequent events that this was not the case, but this was knowable at the time, if you cared to. CNN, the New York Times, and many other media outlets were reporting that the Coalition had somewhere in the range of 150,000 combat troops, with some margins. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others said repeatedly and publicly that they wanted that number to shrink drastically in a period of months.

Meanwhile, Gen. Shinseki famously said that occupation was going to require "hundreds of thousands" of troops, with the assumption they would be there for years. So you've got military professionals (not Shinseki alone, but most prominently him) telling us what is required, based on historical evidence and analysis. On the other hand, you've got the American leadership publicly stating in early 2003 that they intend not to carry out this occupation in a competent way - indeed, ruling competence out from the beginning. Finally, you've got liberals supporting this war on the grounds that they expect it to be fought competently. Why? Because, in Michael Ignatieff's words, he couldn't imagine how incompetent the Bush Administration would be. Wasn't he listening? Does he want us to forget that the war plan was semi-public knowledge at the time? Do he and all pro-war liberals want us to forget that plan was, to use a word, insane?

The short answer is No, he wasn't listening to the actual words being spoken by the Bush Administration, and No, he wasn't seeing the actual events as they unfolded. Every scrap of supporting evidence was accepted without question, while the mountains of contrary evidence were dismissed and ignored. Like Creationists, for whom every complexity is the work of God, and every fossil is planted by Satan himself, the liberals who supported this war decided to see what they wanted and constructed their beliefs after the fact. Unlike creationists, however, the people who supported this war have helped lead to the deaths of thousands.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Gag me with a spoon

Don't get me wrong - iPods are neat and all - but surely this marks the point where we've jumped the adulation shark:

It would be a bit much to say that the iPod helped us heal from the wounds of 9/11 –- or would it?

It's a half pound of transistors and magnetic disc, or maybe it's Jesus in disguise. We report, you decide.

As usual, Paul Wells gets it right on

So Ignatieff supporters booed Rae and Dion during the debates. Wells writes:
It is now very difficult to imagine Dion, Rae or any large number of their supporters going to Ignatieff. This makes Gerard Kennedy, who after all has more delegates than Dion, a wild card. And for the front-runner, a lifeline. It would be amazing to me if Ignatieff is not making extravagant promises to Kennedy.

Kennedy had better not ask for anything in writing. Ignatieff seems unconvinced of the value of what he writes.
Not too long ago, it looked like Ignatieff was a shoe-in for the leadership. But the arrogance and sense of presumption surrounding his campaign has made enemies out of the people he needs to vote for him.

Because, you know, it worked so well for Paul Martin.

On a slightly different note, even if Kennedy went for Ignatieff - an event I would rate as likely as rivers running with blood and toads falling from the sky - it still leaves him just shy of 50%. This may mean that the 5%ers - Dryden, Volpe, Brison - actually have a role to play in this race yet.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

On oil and gasoline prices

Ezra is exactly right here - volatile oil prices are at least as worrisome than a moderately high, but stable, price. (Anyone say carbon tax?) The problem is that both the volatility and the high prices are the results, fundamentally, of the same circumstances - an industry with near-zero spare capacity at any point in the supply chain.

Oil demand is near 100% of oil production. Oil refining is similarly tight, after decades of surplus refining capacity. The market, doing it's invisible hand thing, knows all this. The high prices during the summer reflected anxiety over the possibility of a bad hurricane season, insecurity in Iraq, and other things.

The bad hurricane season that had been predicted by agencies like NOAA turned out not to hit the precious, precious oil, so speculators who'd bet on at least one bad storm started selling their contracts in late August - and hence the price decline. Such as it is.

(For a far more detailed explanation of all this, see the always-excellent Jerome a Paris.)

Once again - at the risk of boring people through repetition - I find it incredibly amusing that everyone's breathing a sigh of relief that oil's down to $60. The speculation that drove oil up to $75 a barrel is largely gone, and oil is still at a price that was unthinkable before the Bush Adminstration. I suspect - and I am prepared to be happily embarassed if wrong - that $50 is the new floor for oil prices. And I'm honestly not optimistic that we'll see even that.

The long-term problem is that the same circumstances that drove oil up to $75 this year could happen again next year, or the year after, or any time in the future unless we both increase oil production and refinery capacity. The idea of the industry investing in refining in a big way to decrease its own profit margins is a bit far-fetched for me, but then I'm a cynic when it comes to the oil industry. (I know, shocking but true!)

I'm generally skeptical about the idea of a substantial increase in global oil production, in any case, so we have many more years to look forward to of high prices, high volatility, until and unless we substantially reduce oil demand to bring some slack back to the market.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Stay the course

You know, I was optimistic - despite my better judgement - that when the Americans announced a change in strategies in Baghdad, that a new committment to counter-insurgency would work in Iraq. Despite the fact that I don't believe this is - or was ever - a just war, that doesn't mean I want to see it go badly. So I was curious to see how Operation Forward Together (who named that turd?) would actually play out.

Answer: Not so much goodness, here.
BAGHDAD, Iraq | The U.S-led campaign to curb violence in Baghdad neighborhood by neighborhood has failed, and American officials are looking for a new strategy, a top U.S. military official said Thursday.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said that instead of quelling violence, the campaign, code-named Operation Forward Together, had contributed to a spike in U.S. military deaths.

The operation "has not met our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence," Caldwell said. "We are working very closely with the government of Iraq to determine how best to refocus our efforts."
The clear-and-hold strategy was - or should be - the last hope for any kind of stability in Baghdad. And it's failed so badly that even the military won't lie about it anymore.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Iraq, the Mahdi army has taken over the town of Amara. There seems to be some confusion as to whether or not the Brits are going to try and take it back from them, or let the Iraqi "government" do it. Even worse, it seems that this is just the latest indication of Sadr losing control of his own forces.

Some people call him a space cowboy

Olaf on Bush's plan to militarize space:
I mean, I'm no space expert (which is evidenced by the fact that I don't even know what a space expert is called), but I'm pretty sure outer space is huge, and therefore not easily patrolled. To make things more difficult, it also extends in all directions.
It's actually relatively simple. The militarily-important satellites the US government uses daily are in predictable orbits around the Earth, which (all things considered) limits the space we're talking about considerably. A satellite in orbit 20,000 kilometers up is rather high up there, but it's not that far, all things considered.

There are only a few ways for America to conceivably "dominate space", if we mean the denial of space to non-friendly nations - either with ground-based weaponry designed to shoot down other countries' assets, or (more speculatively) with actual orbiting weaponry. The orbital weaponry - despite the expense - at least as the option of possibly being deniable: a satellite that "mysteriously" blows up while orbiting the Pacific might not be credited to the Americans. Ground based weaponry by defintion leaves a trail.

The problem for the US is that it is shockingly easy to destroy an orbiting satellite in retaliation. Their orbits are predictable, and most are easily tracked. (Almost by definition, the dangerous satellites are the ones whose orbits are above you, where they can see you and you can see them.) A modestly determined opponent could put together an anti-satellite weapon, as both the US and USSR did during the Cold War. Think what was doable for the Soviets 30 years ago is beyond the Chinese, the Indians, or for that matter the Brazilians today?

(There are obvious exceptions - GPS satellites are much too high above the Earth for the kind of near-term land-based ASAT weapon that a middle power is likely to build. A high-power laser, on the other hand...)

The point is, if America is seriously going to start threatening other people's space assets, they need to be prepared for others to do the same in short order. But unless America is willing to shoot down other people's satellites, or otherwise render them inoperable, it's difficult to think of what Washington could conceivably do.

More questionable is the entire idea that America has some kind of incomparable, irreplaceable advantage in space. America's space assets are highly impressive, but these are technologies that can be, and are, applied in other areas such as aircraft. (Witness the rise of unmanned aerial vehicles, with arguably higher battlefield value than satellites.) The actual role of space as a dimension of warfare - such as land, air, and sea conventionally - is so far uncertain. (Not saying there isn't a real oneThe biggest - and most important - exception is the role of global telecommunications in the military (low-frequency communications satellites are used to call submarines, etc.) But it's not news to say that America is opposed to people interfering with it's communications.

None of this negates the fact that, in a hypothetical war with the US over Taiwan, I imagine China would start trying to plink US satellites. Of course, China would also be trying to sink US carrier groups, which any sensible leader would see as a far more important threat.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Worst Congress Ever

Matt Taibbi reads out the bill of indictment:
These past six years were more than just the most shameful, corrupt and incompetent period in the history of the American legislative branch. These were the years when the U.S. parliament became a historical punch line, a political obscenity on par with the court of Nero or Caligula -- a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable....

"The 109th Congress is so bad that it makes you wonder if democracy is a failed experiment," says Jonathan Turley, a noted constitutional scholar and the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington Law School. "I think that if the Framers went to Capitol Hill today, it would shake their confidence in the system they created. Congress has become an exercise of raw power with no principles -- and in that environment corruption has flourished. The Republicans in Congress decided from the outset that their future would be inextricably tied to George Bush and his policies. It has become this sad session of members sitting down and drinking Kool-Aid delivered by Karl Rove. Congress became a mere extension of the White House."
The entire article is depressing and excellent - with plenty of awful details to make you want the Republicans to be driven out of Washington for good. My favourite lines, however, are these:
The GOP's "take that, bitch" approach to governing has been taken to the greatest heights by the House Judiciary Committee. The committee is chaired by the legendary Republican monster James Sensenbrenner Jr., an ever-sweating, fat-fingered beast who wields his gavel in a way that makes you think he might have used one before in some other arena, perhaps to beat prostitutes to death....

Watching Ted Stevens spend half a trillion dollars is like watching a junkie pull a belt around his biceps with his teeth. You get the sense he could do it just as fast in the dark.

I swear I didn't mean to

I really, really wasn't going to write about Michael Ignatieff again. I swear. Really. I want to leave it alone for a while, because he really does befuddle and enrage me. But his comments in the Globe and Mail today should be responded to:
"This president has been a disaster for the authority and the influence of the United States," Ignatieff told The Globe and Mail during a recent interview.... "A historic opportunity was missed by the Bush administration that Americans are now realizing was a catastrophe -- and a catastrophe not only against their values, but against their interests."...

"(I take) full responsibility for not having anticipated how incompetent the Americans would be. I don't have remaining confidence in the Americans... The Bush operation in Iraq betrayed any hopes I had of Iraq transitioning to a stable political elite, and now all those hopes rest with my friends, the Iraqi political elite."
Shorter Michael Ignatieff: I was so fucking stupid I trusted George Bush, when smarter Liberals (like Jean Chretien) didn't. Please elect me, so I can be exactly as stupid in the Prime Minister's Office.

And I have no idea what his remarks even mean anymore. Is he saying he regrets supporting this misbegotten war? Not really, he just blames Bush for screwing up his precious theories. See, it would have been okay to violate international law, and lie about WMDs to do so, if only Bush had done so competently.

Ignatieff isn't saying he was wrong - he's saying Bush was wrong. Well no kidding, perfesser. But some of us knew he was wrong before the bodies started piling up, and it's taken you too long to come to this point.

As if this weren't confusing enough, we get this bit:
The former Harvard professor made it clear he will not be hitching his wagon to any unilateralist empire-building. “I've supported the Afghan mission precisely because I don't want to live in an American imperial world. If we don't, as Canadians, want to live under American domination . . . then we have to have the courage to take on a difficult mission with our NATO partners and get it done. If we don't want a world run by the Americans, Canada has to lead.”
I really, really don't see how Canada's 2,000 soldiers are "leading" America's 20,000 in Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter. Canada is participating in NATO's mission in Afghanistan - and I'm a big believer in multilateral fora - but we're hardly leading. And to portray Afghanistan as a challenge to American hegemony is so incredibly stupid I can't even begin to imagine what he's been smoking. The two concepts have nothing to do with each other.

To say he supports Afghanistan because Canada has to lead is like saying he supports killing Iraqis because he wants to liberate them. Oh, wait.

Lawrence Martin gets it right when he says:
Mr. Ignatieff has to create a greater comfort zone with the other camps, so distancing himself from Bush country could well help. Defining himself coherently has been a problem for him [Ha!], partly because of his far-flung international career and myriad writings and pronouncements.

When in Britain, he often played to Britain. When in America, he often played to America (the famous “we” quote). He hasn't been home for long, and he is still trying to discover how to play to Canada. If he does, he will be in the best position to win on Dec. 2.
Shorter Lawrence Martin: Don't trust anything Ignatieff says - he won't be here long.

The continuing adventures of Peter MacKay, whiny pantywaist

So in one day, Peter MacKay says two incredibly stupid things.

Exhibit A:
OTTAWA -- Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay is accusing the New Democrats of demoralizing Canadian troops in Afghanistan with talk of withdrawing them from combat.

MacKay says in a speech to the Canadian International Centre that calling for peace talks with the Taliban -- a suggestion made by NDP Leader Jack Layton -- only makes insurgents bolder.
Exhibit B:
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay is in hot water after he allegedly referred to Belinda Stronach -- his former romantic interest -- as a dog.

His comment came during a heated exchange in the House of Commons over the government's new Clean Air Act.

After a Liberal MP asked how the new clean-air rules would affect MacKay's dog, he pointed to Stronach's empty chair and responded: "You already have her."
On the other hand, I did learn something new - apparently the legendarily "loyal" dog that MacKay posed with post-tantrum belonged to his neighbour, not him. So dude's not only a petty, vindictive, stupid pantywaist, but he's a liar, too.

As for the Afghanistan remark, Mackay elaborated to say this:
Although he doesn't refer to Layton by name, MacKay says there are some who believe they can wave a magic wand and make the insurgency disappear.

That's "naive,'' he says.
See, and I say there are some people who want to continue the policies of the status quo, despite the fact that it's clearly not working. That isn't naive - it's the textbook definition of insanity. Sadly for us all, those people currently fill the Cabinet positions in the government of Canada.

I should say that I actually believe that Layton's, and the NDP's, position probably does upset the troops in Afghanistan. That doesn't, by itself, make it wrong.


This government isn't going to last until the end of 2007, and they want me to believe that they're capable of setting policies that will last until 2050?


On the plus side, Canadian politics being what it is, the Conservatives have just effectively defined the minimum possible environmental policies for the Liberals. The onus is now going to be on the Liberals to bring in something tougher than this steaming pile. That, I can live with.

As an aside, this is possibly the worst picture of Rona Ambrose that I've ever seen, which helps me dislike her:

Anyway, we should all join the Ten Tonne Challenge - even you, Olaf.

Neoliberal crackup watch

The slow, withering death of economic neoliberalism continues. Brad Delong, of all people, gives up on "NAFTA and associated reforms."
We neo-liberals point out that NAFTA did not cause poor infrastructure, high crime, and official corruption. We thus implicitly suggest that Mexicans would be far wose off today without NAFTA and its effects weighing in on the positive side of the scale.

That neo-liberal story may be true. But it is an excuse. It may not be true. Having witnessed Mexico’s slow growth over the past 15 years, we can no longer repeat the old mantra that the neo-liberal road of NAFTA and associated reforms is clearly and obviously the right one.
Boy, if the pro-war people smarten up as quickly as the neoliberal-globalization people are, we'll only be in Iraq for another... fifteen years or so.

You read it here first

Me, Feb. 2005:
Interestingly, this is happening at the same time as the cost of video production keeps coming down. For Attack of the Clones, Lucas used a prototype digital camera that matched the resolution of the usual film cameras. And this summer, the otherwise-forgettable Sky Captain was done entirely on blue screen.... So what happens when a quality show can be produced by a half-dozen college graduates working out of a storage locker in Mississauga?
Someone much smarter than me, today:
So as technology advances and costs go down, a lot more amateur video will be produced. Economic rent comes from scarcity. It is true that there is only one Tom Cruise, but it is equally true that there are only 24 hours in a day. The more time young people spend watching Lonelygirl15, the less time they will have to watch Mr. Cruise.

I don’t think that the age of the megastar is over. Quite the contrary, there will still be big-budget movies, and stars with drawing power will still command high salaries.

But, at the same time, I believe that there will be a flowering of creative, inexpensive and compelling semiprofessional content available via the Internet. This content will occupy more and more of people’s attention, particularly young people.
Actually, you should really read the whole thing. Fascinating discussion of the role of rents in moviemaking.

Scifi Roundup

Jim Henley gets the new season of Battlestar Galactica exactly, fantastically right:
The Cylons’ failure is an inability to separate the concepts of benevolence and control. Even Caprica-6 and Galactica-Sharon haven’t advanced so far in their thinking as to conceive of Cylon-Human relations that don’t involve Cylon governance of the humans. Thus they have no real alternative to present the harshest elements in the irreconcilable coalition that runs the occupation.

The Cylons could have simply detached themselves from humanity. They could have opened negotiations as equals. They could have thrown themselves on humanity’s mercy. They did none of those things, because what they can’t give up is the idea that, as God’s instruments, they must shape human destiny.
What Jim neglected to say is that this has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to contemporary events. Any comparisons to Iraq mark you as a Communist and a homosexual.


Culled from comments at Henley's blog, this article is an excellent analysis of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. It actually explains how Card became a total Bush-loving nutjob, if you read it right. You have to be a bit familiar with the book, but a decent Cliff's notes would be that Ender is a character who, despite killing people, isn't actually a killer because he doesn't feel like one.
If, therefore, intention alone determines guilt or innocence, and the dead are dead because of misunderstanding or because they bring destruction on themselves, and the true sacrifice is the suffering of the killer rather than the killed—then Ender’s feeling of guilt is gratuitous. Yet despite the fact that he is fundamentally innocent, he takes “the sins of the world” onto his shoulders and bears the opprobrium that properly belongs to the people who made him into their instrument of genocide. He is the murderer as scapegoat. The genocide as savior. Hitler as Christ the redeemer.
I include the Hitler comparison simply for the completion of the text. Staying away from the issue of Nazi comparisons, however, we can still see this mindset in people who continue to support the Iraq war. You see, it doesn't matter that the invasion of Iraq has been a total catastrophe from beginning to end, or that hundreds of thousands of people are dead because of it, or that no positive outcome could possibly justify the costs at this point. Because we meant well.

As an aside, Ender's Game is a book I loved when I was younger, and it's still an excellent story. But even though it's not even an Ayn Rand book, I would say like The Fountainhead at this point it's definitely a book you should stop praising effusively after your 20th birthday. The book is all about how a young, tormented child actually turns out to save the world - Harry Potter with spaceships. (When I read Philosopher's Stone, I called it Ender's Game with broomsticks.) These stories have an obvious appeal for young people, especially adolescents of the nerdier persuasion. But the flip side of Ender's story is that even after he brutally murders his tormenters, he's still blameless and pure. And Card, this article argues, spins that story out to build an entire ethical code where we can only be blamed or credited for our intentions.

Indulging in the occasional violent fantasies is probably natural for young people - God knows I did. But I'm not 13 anymore, and don't wish to inflict pain and death on people who upset me. Or as the author of the article put it:
God, how I would have loved this book in seventh grade! It’s almost as good as having a nuclear device.

The problem is that the morality of that abused seventh grader is stunted. It’s a good thing I didn’t have access to a nuclear device. It’s a good thing I didn’t grow up to elaborate my fantasies of personal revenge into an all-encompassing system of ethics. The bullying I suffered, which seemed overwhelming to me then, was undeniably real, and wrong. But it did not make me the center of the universe. My sense of righteousness, one that might have justified any violence, was exaggerated beyond any reality, and no true morality could grow in me until I put it aside. I had to let go of my sense of myself as victim of a cosmic morality play, not in order to justify the abuse — I didn’t deserve to be hurt — but in order to avoid acting it out. I had to learn not to suppress it and strike back.

Airpower Maximalist Zombie Lies

A while back, I wrote a post comparing the oft-repeated promises of airpower maximalists - that wars of the future would be fought entirely from the air, that they would be cheap to the victors (and ruinous to the losers) and that the airplane was an invention that fundamentally changed the laws of war - to the reality of history. I'm making no claim to originality here, but I think it's useful to put my own writings in context - I am not, and almost certainly never will be, an airpower maximalist.

The simple reason for that is that the practice or threat of aerial bombardment has never, on it's own, won a war. (Milosevic endured months of bombing during Kosovo, only to fold days after rumours started that Clinton was considering a land invasion.) This isn't to question the real potency or success that airpower does have in wars - The Gulf War is a fantastic example of how airpower can exceed even the optimistic expectations. But the idea that America can fight and win wars exclusively with aircraft is an idea that just doesn't die - it is, as Atrios has called similar examples, a zombie lie.

What surprises me - though it shouldn't, I suppose - is how common airpower maximalism is today, when the United States, NATO, and Israel have all demonstrated in the last 6 months the severe limitations of airpower against a determined, trained, and decently-armed foe.

Via Rob, Charles Dunlap (USAF, ret, natch) gives us almost the Platonic ideal of the airpower maximalist zombie lie. What's bizarre is his assertion that airpower is America's "asymmetrical advantage" - that is, because America's foes can't respond with F-16 fighters of their own, America should use airpower as much as possible.

Now, there's nothing wrong with the idea that an armed force should play to its strengths. But in case you missed it, America has been using airpower as much as possible in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel used airpower quite a bit in that mess in Lebanon. And in no case has airpower provided the decisive victory. Dunlap quotes some Taliban fighters from 2002:
This new, high-tech air power capability completely unhinged the resistance without significant commitment of American boots on the ground. Indeed, the very absence of American troops became a source of discouragement. As one Afghan told the New York Times, "We pray to Allah that we have American soldiers to kill," adding disconsolately, "These bombs from the sky we cannot fight." Another equally frustrated Taliban fighter was reported in the London Sunday Telegraph recently as fuming that "American forces refuse to fight us face to face," while gloomily noting that "[U.S.] air power causes us to take heavy casualties."
And as we all know, the Taliban never resurfaced again, and Afghanistan is now a peaceful democracy exporting apples and cherry blossoms, not heroin.

Then, of course, Dunlap changes gears entirely and says that America also needs airpower for the symmetrical advantage - that is, deterring China. (God, it always comes back to China for these guys.) Dunlap says that there's no way that the US can possibly keep up with China's land forces, so the US needs to maximize it's air advantage. This implies that while ground-based competition is doomed, Chinese/American airpower competition is not. Dunlap never explains either side to that assertion.

For example, it's not clear to me that China's current backwardness (in military equipment) is any more detrimental to airpower than to ground-power. The M1A1 tank is a pretty expensive and advanced piece of gear, and I've seen no evidence that the Chinese have anything comparable. If the Chinese start to exceed American firepower on the ground, I find it hard to believe that Chinese airpower would be far behind.

Dunlap actually comes to within shouting distance of reality at one point:
Yet despite these realties, the [boots on the ground zealots] are waging a relentless campaign against air power. A favorite tact is to denigrate air power as "Cold War weaponry.".... Unexplained is the fact that, despite the awesome personal valor and energy of the troops, U.S. land forces have yet to begin to dominate their domain the way American air power does its domain.
Ah, the "air war" fallacy - that is, pretending that somehow the air campaign and the land campaign are separate, hermetically-sealed events with no connection to each other:
"See - America is bombing the shit out of Iraq, and hasn't lost a plane. We must be winning!"
Of course, reality manages to elude Dunlap - just barely. American ground forces have not managed to acheive victory, even with America's air supremacy in Iraq. For some people, that would be a sign that the status quo isn't working. For the airpower maximalists, it's a sign that real airpower hasn't yet been tried. Like old Marxists, and modern Republicans, it's not the theory that failed, it's the facts that failed the theory.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Changing gears

Stepping aside from issues of Michael Ignatieff, Stephen Harper, and George W. Bush, let me return to one of my other favourite subjects: the problems with copyright law. My objections to current copyright maximalism basically come down to two biggies:

1) Current law effectively eliminates the growth of the public domain - copyright law is always being extended to prevent currently-copyrighted works from lapsing. I'm a big believer that culture is a cumulative endeavour, and contemporary artists should be able to draw on their predecessor's works, after a decent interval, without fear of sanction.

2) Current law really enriches a few major corporations at the expense of the far more numerous small artists. There's little to no evidence that small artists benefit from double-lifetime copyrights, and no evidence that the community benefits from retroactive copyright extensions.

There are a number of possible policy solutions to these problems, mostly having to do with changing the terms of copyright. But one that occurred to me yesterday is starting to appeal to me a lot more. Having dug around a bit, I'm mildly saddened to see that I'm not the first to think of it, but far more encouraged to think that other, smarter, people seem to think it's worthwhile: tax intellectual properties held by corporations as if they were regular property.

To illustrate: The most popular works are unquestionably valuable, and provide companies like Disney with lots of income. So the government sets a per-copyrighted-work flat tax, at a more-or-less arbitrary level at first. For each work that Disney owned the copyright, they would pay an annual tax of $X. The obvious immediate way for Disney to lower the levels of taxation - something all corporations seek to do, after all - would be to release the copyright on any works that did not provide an income of $X+1. Given that the majority of works held in copyright by major companies provide exactly zero income, this should quickly expand the bounds of the public domain. Of course, a corporation may choose to hold properties that it takes a loss on, but it would have to justify that decision to shareholders, in the face of possible lawsuits.

Do we do this already? I can't find anything with a quick search, but it seems like a relatively simple idea... I'd be surprised it we weren't doing this already.

Some criticisms of this idea that occur to me immediately:

"The government isn't going to have a decent idea what level of taxation to set, and could harm copyright holders with a mistake."
The answer here is to start low, and slowly move the tax up. Later, after the government gets a good idea what the effects of taxation are, it may be desirable to introduce some progressivity to the tax, so Star Wars and Harry Potter pay more for their copyright than other, smaller works. There's other creative ways to tax, such as increasing the tax for older works, but in the beginning experimentation should be curtailed.

"Doesn't this hurt artists?"
Not if the tax works as planned. The tax is specifically targeted to corporations, not individuals, and if we wanted to be extra careful we could specify "large corporations". These are all distinctions that the government works with all the time, so we don't have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, this might encourage corporations to hand the copyright back to the artists who created these works - that would also avoid the tax. Obviously I can't predict the future with 100% certainty, and if this idea starts to devastate the culture industry and artists are even more starving than usual, the government should reconsider.

"Large companies are creative with their accounting. Couldn't they get income from works without holding the copyright?"
Sure, and tax law already has to deal with such vagaries. Law could specify that a company would be taxed for any property they derived income from, or something similar.

Leave your criticisms in comments.