Thursday, December 31, 2009

The year we make contact

10 years ago, I was a fan of Michael Ignatieff's.

True story.

Happy New Year everyone, and let's all hope the next decade is better than the last one.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Patrick Stewart — "Star Trek: The Next Generation's" Capt. Jean-Luc Picard — becomes Sir Patrick in Queen Elizabeth II's New Year honors list, which also includes a knighthood for theater and film director Nicholas Hytner.
This calls for a song!

ET stay home

An interesting take on the Fermi Paradox -- maybe the aliens aren't obvious because they're growing much, much slower than we assume:
Which, finally, leads me to my Sort-Of-Best-Unheralded-Scientific-Paper of 2009. It's called THE SUSTAINABILITY SOLUTION TO THE FERMI PARADOX. Its authors, J. Haqq-Misra & S. Baum, have been quite creative in merging SETI with our new environmental concerns.

Their answer to the Fermi Dilemma is simple. Civilizations, even extraterrestrial ones, can't grow without limits. Instead of using the question the Fermi Paradox raises to infer that we are the only intelligent species in the galaxy, Haqq-Misra & Baum use it to infer that these civilizations have learned a lesson which we are just starting to grasp. You have to pace yourself. You have to live within your means. Exponential growth is not likely to be sustainable.
You can read the whole article here, and I'd recommend it for those with some time to kill.

I'd like to point out one part of the article that I'm not sure is actually well-grounded:
However, a closer look at human civilization suggests two problems with this assumption. First, where human populations are exponentially expansive, they often—perhaps always—do so unsustainably, i.e. in a way that leads to an eventual end to the exponential expansion. Second, not all human populations are exponentially expansive, such as the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert [5]. These slower-growth human populations are without question intelligent. Indeed, global human population growth is currently slowing, and humanity as a whole may be transitioning towards a slower-growth, sustainable development pattern. A slower-growth humanity would even remain capable of space colonization.
Of course, projections of human populations peaking sometime between 2050-2075 relies on a number of assumptions coming true: a general move towards greater wealth among the world's poor, the spread of education for women, the spread of basic sanitation, etc. But the demographic transition that wealthy societies have gone through isn't an iron law by any means, and I'd draw your attention to the increasing efforts by western countries to boost the incumbent birthrate, e.g. in France most successfully.

I yammer about the dangers of explaining everything and everyone through the lens of economics, but you could crudely explain the demographic transition by noting that, as a society westernizes, children go from being an asset to being a liability -- they go from being a source of income to being a substantial expense. This, in combination with the right of women to choose, naturally reduces the birth rate. (We can see also that, while this isn't exactly romantic, it is verified by the most successful remedy to date: paying women to have more kids.)

The question for me in relation to this article is whether the costs associated with child-rearing would naturally be continued in a spacefaring civilization. I tend to assume they wouldn't, especially if you assume a large population in O'neill colonies in the asteroid belt or Lagrange points throughout the solar system. I think any extrapolation of the trends we're seeing technologically today would reasonably lead you to conclude that if (BIG IF) we get past the immediate problems of ecological, material, and energetic overshoot -- and having a self-sustaining spacefaring society would imply we have -- there's a lot of reason to think that having kids will become cheaper, not more expensive.

A few assumptions, before we continue: Humans survive the next century without a civilization-level collapse, and technology continues to progress in ways that we understand (no singularity.) Instead, we see a gradual decline in the costs of access to orbit, a continuing increase in the capacity of manufacturing, and continuing decline in the costs of information and electronics. Throw in some mundane AIs (software that can understand basic human language and logic, but not intelligent enough to be a threat) with some basic domestic robots, and I think you quickly have a situation in which most of the early, susbtantial costs of child-rearing have shrunk dramatically.

Health care: for the early years, providing basic sanitation and ample food really does most of the work. (Dear parents: yes, your doctor is valuable. No, don't stop going -- and please vaccinate. My point is only that rapid population growth is possible without these things.) Moreover, we're increasingly coming to the conclusion in parts of the west that the vast majority of primary medicine can be done in the near-absence of MDs. Ontario has a nurse practitioner program that is showing a lot of success at much lower costs than the apparently-chimerical goal of guaranteeing a family MD for everyone. There's no reason to suspect that, as far as basic health care is concerned, even isolated space colonies will lack for decent health results.

Education: here, combine two trends -- the move towards open-source software and documents with increasingly intelligent computing and cheap electronics, and I think you can easily imagine some kind of cheap electronic tutor capable of handling the basics of actual education. Human presence will be limited to crowd control, if we insist on keeping kids in dedicated buildings for the purposes of education, but there are good arguments for not doing so.

Material well-being: There's no real breakthrough necessary here -- simply the abundance of energy and materials in the inner solar system, sufficient to sustain a population of several trillion at least. This number is much larger if you assume technologies like the ability to turn raw carbon in to diamond, allowing a much larger number of super-massive space colonies. In short, there's plenty of room for growth.

Anyway, the point of all this is to say that there's no guarantee that a spacefaring society would continue the demographic transition that western countries have, and I think a few good reasons for believing the reverse. And none of this identifies cultural factors: a continued concern of being outbred by brown people (for example) or the natural frontier mentality of manifest destiny, the need to fill the empty corners of our universe with more people.

It's a relatively small quibble to an excellent article, and I really enjoyed it -- especially the repeated point that slow-growth societies, though not "modern" to our eyes, are of course quite intelligent. One could further note that for the vast majority of human history we have been "slow-growth" societies, with the last few centuries being the real aberration. If human society does survive the next century, it's quite likely that exponential growth will be looked back upon as a mental disease.

(Thanks to Liam, via email, for the link.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

About a zillion to one

It's a difficult argument over which is actually the worst, but if you wanted to make a list of bad policies currently being pursued with vigor at a national level in the United States, I think an uncontroversial top three would be:

1) For sheer daily cruelty, the prohibition of marijuana.

2) For long-term harm to our general survival, the impotent response to climate change.

3) For absolute face-palming stupidity, abstinence-only education.

These are by no means exclusive -- and arguably I'm showing my gender bias by not including the restrictions on women's rights to choose in the top three. What all three have in common is that there's basically no respectable evidence that the alleged benefits of the current approach even remotely approach the costs.

Here's my question, though: it would be bad enough if a country were busily pursuing just one of these policies. What kind of odds would you give a country that was busily pursuing all three?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas, everyone

Me, several hours ago at the Future Shop at Yonge and Dundas: I'm so lucky you're still open. When do you close? (This is the first question I ask a staffer when I enter a retailer's premises after sundown.)

Staffer: I don't know. We were supposed to close three hours ago.

Me: Thats... terrible.

Yes, it's that time of year when life is a living hell for the people who exist to make sure we're all tucked nicely in to our toys and iPods come Christmas morning. Spare a thought for the poor bastards who found themselves working unexpected overtime because head office decided there were a few more nickels to squeeze out of the general population.

Falalalala, lalalala.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Here, optimism!

You had me at "digital quantum battery":
Hubler claims the resulting power density (the speed at which energy can be stored or released) could be orders of magnitude greater, and the energy density (the amount of energy that can be stored) two to 10 times greater than possible with today's best lithium-ion and other battery technologies.

What's more, digital quantum batteries could be fabricated using existing lithographic chip-manufacturing technologies using cheap, nontoxic materials, such as iron and tungsten, atop a silicon substrate, he says. The resulting devices would, in principal, waste little or no energy as they absorbed and released electrons. Hubler says it may be possible to build a benchtop prototype in one year.
Ten times better than lithium-ion, in a power-dense capacitor? Pretty nifty. Built out of common elements instead of increasingly-dear lithium? Much better.

It's no exagerration to say that the things that brighten my day are mostly stories about energy storage. Renewable energy production is basically a solved problem at this point: transmission is expensive, but basically a known quantity. Storage is the last nut to crack, and it's actually coming along nicely.

It also gives me a good example of the difference between efficiency and resiliency that I keep harping on. From an article emailed to me by a friend many, many months ago:
Why not just upgrade to a so-called "smart grid" as President Obama has proposed in his economic stimulus package? There are complications, Nocera said.

"First you have to rebuild the grid because the one we have now is a creaky machine from the 1920s, and we keep trying to retrofit it," he said. "Then you're going to have computers trying to manage the energy, which brings up issues like security. You have to make it really secure so you don't have people hacking into things. And then politics. Just wait until you try to run power lines through someone's backyard.
The idea of the smart grid is basically the "efficiency" paradigm: the electrical grid does not, currently, do a good job of sorting out different uses of electricity and determining any kind of value or priority, the way you get (albeit amorally) in a market situation. Enter various smart grid proposals, where hypothetically the grid will know whether there's enough juice to let you turn on your AC or maybe just turn it down a few degrees for you. (Glazing over a varied and huge field for time's sake.) What they all have in common is adding a lot more information and intelligence to the grid.

The other side of the spectrum would be to simply build super-massive battery banks to act as a massive reservoir to both even out the daily fluctuations and provide security to the grid. Now obviously there's virtue to both approaches -- even something as basic as time-of-use pricing is a way of adding information to the electrical system -- but I'd like to emphasize the need for resiliency as well as efficiency: not only would a hypothetical home energy storage system be a good complement to time-of-use pricing, it also gives us things that even the smartest of smart grids simply can't, like a natural demand for renewable energy.

Some kind of small, home-scale energy storage system would be really revolutionary, and there are at least a half-dozen competing technologies out there that could do it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Taking a break from politics

...or trying to. Seriously.

Maybe palaeoanthropology isn't strictly apolitical, but it sure is fascinating. For example: consider the shellfish. More and more, studies of ancient human settlement patterns are focusing on the early coastal enclaves, and the evidence that early exploitation of protein and Omega-3-rich shellfish provided both a rich food source, and specifically a real jolt to our developing brains in the Middle Stone Age.

Curtis Marean's lecture, if you can spare the 60 minutes or so to watch it, is very interesting. Basically, he may have located -- with impressive precision -- the geographical location where our ancestors come from.

About 170,000 years ago, the Earth was going through a dramatic cooling phase, and Africa's climate got drier very quickly. This meant that hominid populations died out all over, and we know from genetic evidence that the human population shrank dramatically, to a number of breeding individuals certainly less than 1000, and probably around 600-700.

The small band that survived the cataclysm seems to have endured because of their love of shellfish. Basically, their coastal enclaves provided them with highly predictable, energy-rich sustenance while also being located close to diverse plant life that the humans had easy access to. More interestingly, in order to harvest shellfish efficiently, you need a relatively impressive brain and the ability to explain unconnected events in the world around you -- such as the phases of the moon and the tides.

So we have deserts expanding, food resources disappearing, and human populations dropping. If it hadn't been for a larger-than-normal brain, capable of figuring out how to capture, cook, and eat shellfish, you and I literally might not be here today. At the southernmost tip of Africa, driven to near-extinction, a small band of humans held on for just a little longer, and when the glaciers started to recede on the other side of the Earth, this bunch of bipedal, tool-using, and most importantly symbolically-communicating hunter-gatherers would eventually thrive and spread across the globe.

Bill Bryson starts his phenomenal Short History of Nearly Everything by saying, "Congratulations!" By definition, if you're alive today, you are extraordinarily lucky -- every single one of your ancestors for more than 3 billion years survived long enough to reproduce. The odds are not in your favour, and yet here you are. It's kind of silly, but a humbling point nonetheless.

Some nights, I wonder about the ones who never made it. About the African hominids that died in the great cooling that pushed our species to a thin beachhead at the bottom of the world. [1] I'd say they were experiencing the apocalypse, except that they might not have invented religion yet. One thing we can say for them, unlike our modern day Rapture fetishists, is that their world really was ending, and if they weren't being judged they sure as hell were being tested.

There's a sense in which all that was necessary for us to be here today -- that cooling would open up new opportunities for the survivors, who would go on to be fruitful and multiply. Those people were our great-times-10^?-grandparents, and we're fortunate they made it. But, well, tell that to the dead, right?

Of course, I can't resist a little politics, so it's worth pointing out that people who think the human past is a reason to not worry about climate change in the future don't know what they're talking about. The reasoning that "hey, we survived enormous climate change in our distant past, so climate change in the future won't be too bad" ignores a number of complexities, but most importantly ignores the whole "species driven nearly to extinction, with only fortune itself between us and oblivion" thing.

[1] Suck it, Australia.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

You and I agree, but with different emphasis

Attention Democrats-in-betrayal: I agree with Glenn Greenwald that Obama got the bill he always wanted. Here's the thing -- he's getting the bill he promised you, too. The whole public option fight was almost entirely absent from the debate during the primaries and the general election. It was a relatively late addition to the debate, beginning in the spring of this year really.

Now, I would have preferred a bill with a PO, or better yet Medicare buy-in. But neither of those things were seriously proposed by Obama during the election, so saying you would have never voted for him if you'd known you wouldn't end up with the public option sounds, well, ridiculous.

Of course, there's plenty of reasonable criticism for the White House and especially the Senate for not trying for a more progressive bill, but here's the thing about Obama -- he's not, never has been, and never will be a President to push the frontiers of the possible. There is a lot of good -- and desperately necessary -- work that can be done within those lines. But -- and this is a comparison that will mainly work for my Ontario readers -- he's basically a Dalton McGuinty-style liberal: wonkish, generally well-meaning, but as much as anyone in politics a Good Liberal(tm), in the sense that he doesn't really hold any unconventional opinions and hasn't, apparently, since 2003.

Anybody, however, who writes things like "No better than McCain" (much less "no better than Bush") is a blithering idiot and should check out, as just one example, the different approaches Barack Obama and John McCain have taken to climate change in the last six months: Barack Obama has sent a substantial number of his cabinet officials (including Secretaries of State and Energy Clinton and Chu) to Copenhagen, while John McCain has basically returned to GOP orthodoxy on climate.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

(US) health care dies in the dark

In The Strange Death of Liberal England, a lot of ink is spilled over a constitutional matter -- then of much importance, now largely forgotten -- involving the privileges of the House of Lords, and whether the Aristocracy had the right to indefinitely suppress the will of the elected government. The Conservative Peers had violated all precedent and traditions to put a halt to a Liberal government's policies, and the Liberals responded by threatening to create, en bloc, several hundred new Liberal peers in order to force their agenda through.

The Conservative peers, when told that the King would eventually accede to the elected government's wishes, were despondent. They could either give in to the Liberal government's demands, or irretrievably alter the Chamber they loved so much -- and the Liberals would still get their way. The choice, they said, was whether to be killed in daylight or die in the dark of their own hand. The Tories decided to die in the dark -- they eventually passed the Liberal budget and the government got its way.

The political crises of 1910-1913 were swept away in 1914, so you don't spend a lot of time learning about the People's Budget, or Home Rule, or Suffragism's impact on British politics. (Unless you're a giant nerd. Ahem.) But to put it briefly, any number of things threatened to spiral out of control in British politics in the immediate pre-war period, and in a lot of cases you found elected politicians deliberately throwing fuel on the fire -- up to and including encouraging Army units to mutiny -- in order to do anything to cripple the Liberal government of the time. Attention to these events was closely paid in places like Berlin and Vienna, and grasping powers looking for their place in the sun began to believe they saw daylight through the fissures in British power. Strange Death tiptoes up to, but never quite says, that the opportunists of 1910-1913 as good as brought on the war by making Britain look weak in the years leading up to the war.

Instead, of course, everybody basically shook hands and threw their petty concerns out the window when the war came, and a United Kingdom became a terrible enemy indeed.

As bleak as I may be sometimes, I don't actually think a world-straddling conflagration is actually going to erupt in the next 18 months, so if I were a member of the US political class, I'd be really concerned right about now about not pushing the system to a crisis. I'd be really concerned that people already question the basic legitimacy of this political system after the clear abuses of the Bush era and their all-too-sad continuation in the Obama era. I'd be really concerned that in a well-armed country of 300 million, statistics alone argue in favour of trying to comfort the afflicted, even if it means afflicting the comfortable.

But then, I'm not a member of the US political class. Joe Lieberman is.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A question

If the United States refuses, flat-out, to acknowledge any guilt or tangible responsibility for emitting the bulk of the CO2 that is actually causing the climate change of today, why should China or India give a fuck about what they might do tomorrow?

Sunday, December 13, 2009


This is the best thing I've read all day. In fairness, the day is only 32 minutes old.

Also, I have to remember this when Vicki and I get to our honeymoon -- I wouldn't put it past my friends...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Is there no story the Economist can't bollocks up?

The Economist on the USAF's purchas of several thousand PS3s:
But the desire to play games is not the reason why the United States Air Force recently issued a procurement request for 2,200 Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) video-game consoles. It intends to link them up to build a supercomputer that will run Linux, a free, open-source operating system. It will be used for research, including the development of high-definition imaging systems for radar, and will cost around one-tenth as much as a conventional supercomputer. The air force has already built a smaller computer from a cluster of 336 PS3s.

This is merely the latest example of an unusual trend. There is a long tradition of technology developed for military use filtering through to consumer markets: satellite-navigation systems designed to guide missiles can also help hikers find their way, and head-up displays have moved from jet fighters to family cars. But technology is increasingly moving in the other direction, too, as consumer products are appropriated for military use.
The article quotes a small handful of other examples, but it's not much to pin a story on. The PS3, of course, is being bought for its Cell processors. The USAF could just as easily buy the processors without the game console, but it prefers to buy the console. Why? Because, despite the article's implications to the contrary, the PS3 is still being sold at a loss by Sony to try and make up market share. (Hey, when you're third of three, you do what you can.) If the USAF wanted to buy the Cell processors without the consoles, they'd effectively be paying a tax to Sony for the privilege.

The story the Economist actually got is pretty simple: Sony is selling the PS3 cheap, the USAF is buying it cheap. Instead, they want to turn it into a story that, frankly, isn't really supported by the evidence they marshall. Show me the consumer-oriented assault rifles, kevlar vests, and UAVs fighting in Afghanistan and I'll buy your story. Telling me that the iPhone is a versatile piece of electronics that can be useful even for people in the military isn't exactly Earth-shattering.

How is this even remotely possible

Saudi Arabia is running short on sand?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Complexity, Vulnerability, and Deception

The way I've blogged -- when I've blogged, lately -- has been to store up points of interest in the tabs of my Mozilla browser until something catalyzes them in to a tab-dump. Meanwhile, there's always been some stuff left over from every tab-dump, little odds and ends that don't really fit with whatever I feel like writing that day.

Take this story: to run an average UK home, you'd need 100 cyclists putting out their best efforts for about... 11 hours. Given that some of these people were incapacitated for a day or so afterwards, we can guess that the slave population needed to sustain a UK home's energy budget -- not including the energy needed to run a car! -- is probably several hundred slaves. This means (if it means anything) that the average Brit would need to rely on a level of human bondage far greater than all but the wealthiest Confederates. And of course, the Brits are relatively efficient!

Now, the article is actually relatively meaningless, except as a useful metaphor. As the article itself notes, humans are poor livestock: you'd be better off burning the fodder than feeding it to humans. (See: Matrix, terrible science thereof.)

But of course, we do all sorts of things in the modern economy that have the appearance of efficiency but are, in fact, madness. Take bee slums and impotent turkeys, the title of Chip Ward's excellent essay from 2007. We subject bee colonies to forced bussing across the continent, crammed in with tens of thousands of other bees in environments where disease, anxiety, and waste all build up in to a toxic brew. This is "efficient" because we make maximum use of the bees to pollinate a wide variety of crops -- but sometime in the last two years we passed a threshold where the stresses built up and we got colony collapse all over the world.

As for the turkeys, well, the modern commercial turkey is so over-engineered by market forces that it needs to be artificially inseminated. This may be efficient, but it is kind of repugnantly delicious.

The point is one that Joseph Tainter makes in his excellent book -- which I've written about before -- The Collapse of Complex Societies. Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote was inspired by Tainter and wrote The Upside of Down which I loved. CoCS makes the basic point that complexity comes with costs. The examples above -- bees and turkeys -- may be examples of efficiency, but they're also examples of complexity and the costs it brings.

Expanded to the level of human societies, we need to understand that complexity manifests itself as the concentration of energy in to expansions of power -- in several senses of the word "power", of course. Pre-hydrocarbon societies collected energy in the form of food, wood, and other forms of natural energy which were then concentrated in to forms of power: furnaces, livestock for agriculture, and not incidentally soldiers for war.

The exploitation of coal, then oil and gas, fundamentally changed that dynamic. Instead of basically the entire population being involved in one way or another in the energy economy -- until the 20th century, the large majority of people were farmers -- the efforts of a relatively small number of workers in oil wells and coal mines liberated a much, much larger number of farmers: farm productivity surged, especially post-WWII, thanks to massive substitution of oil energy.

This is a phenomenal success story for human society: incredible efficiency, allowing the society we enjoy today to exist. It's also got a built-in warning: the base of this pyramid is crumbling beneath us. As fossil fuels become increasingly unuseable for a variety of reasons, the whole edifice of our society is threatened. Canadian economist Jeff Rubin is actually a relative optimist on this front -- he simply thinks we've got a lifetime of recession ahead of us. The worst-case scenario is in fact the collapse of the complex society we happen to live in.

Here's the thing that I worry about: its appears, based on the historical record, that it's very difficult to tell when collapse is happening. One example is Rome. There's some debate about whether or not Rome even "collapsed" in a meaningful way, but I think that debate is deeply mistaken -- a 95% decline in the population of the city itself makes Detroit look like a wonderland, so I think "collapse" is a useful and correct term.

But even in the midst of that collapse -- the population decline started in the 300s, long before the Goths came over the walls -- it was not obvious to the citizens of the Empire that the best times were behind them. Even keen observers seem to have not grasped what we going on. Ugo Bardi gives us the example of Namantianus:
Everything was collapsing around him and he decided to take a boat and leave. He was born in Gallia, that we call "France" today and apparently he had some properties in Southern France. So, that is where he headed for. That is the reason for the title "of his return". He must have arrived there and survived for some time, because the document that he wrote about his travel has survived and we can still read it, even though the end is missing. So, Namatianus gives us this chilling report. Just read this excerpt:

"I have chosen the sea, since roads by land, if on the level, are flooded by rivers; if on higher ground, are beset with rocks. Since Tuscany and since the Aurelian highway, after suffering the outrages of Goths with fire or sword, can no longer control forest with homestead or river with bridge, it is better to entrust my sails to the wayward."

Can you believe that? If there was a thing that the Romans had always been proud of were their roads. These roads had a military purpose, of course, but everybody could use them. A Roman Empire without roads is not the Roman Empire, it is something else altogether. Think of Los Angeles without highways.
Namantianus is writing in the early to mid 400s, by which point Alaric had already sacked Rome three times. In short, it was impossible to argue that things would continue as they had. And yet, it seems (based on the sparse documentary evidence) that people did, in fact, believe that things would continue as they had. After the fall of Rome and the Visigoth's ascendancy, the Senate minted coins with the words "Roma Invicta" on the back -- "Rome Unconquered".

Meanwhile, the Roman system was falling apart. Province after precious province was making deals with the invaders of one kind or another, for the simple reason that the taxes required to maintain the empire were far, far less than what the Goths wanted. By the 300s, Homer-Dixon describes the revenue system of the Roman Empire as something akin to GOSPLAN: mandatory grain confiscation at the village level, with the Empire's requirements coming before the needs of the peasantry. Unsurprisingly, we see a lot of starvation in the 300s. But this is the kind of system that powerful states resort to if change scares them more than popular backlash. (This David Frum essay [!] has a good discussion of the collapse of the Roman taxation system.)

The Roman system was complex, but increasingly fragile, and the people at the center really didn't realize it even as it was collapsing around them. But what would you have advised the Emperor to do if you had a time machine and an inclination to stop the fall of Rome? I like Ugo Bardi's point on this: you probably would have advised something that would have looked a lot like the fall of Rome: massive decentralization, shrinking the military, and letting fields lie fallow to replenish the soils. To the Emperor, Bardi argues, the choice between preventing collapse and collapse itself was really no choice at all.

So what do we advise people to do in order to stave off the collapse of modern society? Well, if you think the problem is peak oil or climate change, the efforts to prevent collapse look, to the people running this thing, a lot like collapse itself: deglobalization on a massive scale, major cuts to foreign military engagements, smaller homes with few to no cars (and the consequent massive waves of unemployment as homebuilders and carmakers are left idle) with some kind of government effort to cram down the use of fossil fuels, leaving some of the most powerful companies on Earth with nothing to do. Again, preventing collapse looks like collapse itself.

Of course, there is a difference, and now I'm going to use the US Civil War as an example: the Confederate States could have slowly phased out slavery over any arbitrary timeline they chose -- they controlled the Senate, Supreme Court, and Presidency for most of the antebellum period, so there was really nothing stopping them from making a managed transition. Instead, they insisted on preserving the odious privilege of white supremacy and the ability to own black people. So what could have been managed politically became a crisis whose result was both the bloodiest war in history up to that point, and a historical disaster for the South.

Of course, the leadership of the Confederacy actually made out okay after the dust settled: the Reconstruction was successfully beaten back, and for more than a century American historians debated how much blame the North bore for the war and its aftermath: almost all, or all. Jefferson Davis, having led bloody treason against his country, died peacefully in his sleep. His Vice-President was elected to the US Senate after the war.

Nevertheless, it's a basic point of political science that wars are negative-sum games, and I think the lesson applies more broadly to the kind of wrenching transitions that societies sometimes need to make in order to accomodate reality: if you know what the end result is going to be, you might as well concede early rather than waste years and lives fighting progress. The problem is that, on the human scale, fighting to restore the pre-Civil War white privilege was in fact a near-total victory: by 1870, 80% of southern blacks were back under some type of debt servitude. The choices that are bad for society are sometimes very very good for powerful individuals.

On a totally unrelated note, I watched Andrew Ross Sorkin on the Daily Show a few nights ago, and he pointed out that, despite having dragged the world in to a near-calamity, absolutely nothing has changed structurally on Wall Street. We are, hundreds of billions of dollars later, just as vulnerable to avarice run amok as we were before the current President was elected.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A handful of climate stuff

James Hansen is starting to look more and more prescient: in his 2007 article "Trace gases and Climate Change", he argued that previous estimate of climate sensitivity (how vulnerable the Earth's climate was to CO2 levels) understated the dangers because they failed to take in to account long-term feedbacks. He argued that a proper estimate of long-term feedbacks would add at least one degree to the 3-4 degrees of expected warming from doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. An independent British investigation has come to much the same conclusion.

Oh, how I wish President Gore had been allowed to take office.

If you'd like some depressing reading, check out the Copenhagen Diagnosis. It basically tracks with the estimate of the German report I mentioned a few weeks ago:
If global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2 °C above pre-industrial values, global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly. To stabilize climate, a decarbonized global society – with near-zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases – needs to be reached well within this century. More specifically, the average annual per-capita emissions will have to shrink to well under 1 metric ton CO2 by 2050. This is 80-95% below the per-capita emissions in developed nations in 2000.
The 2-degree guardrail may still not be enough -- a warming of 2 degrees globally implies much more warming over Greenland and West Antarctica, perhaps sufficient (the authors say) to eventually melt the Greenland ice sheet and raise sea level by 6m or more.

I'll reserve judgment to see what happens in Copenhagen, but it's worth noting that even if the governments of the world meet their current commitments, they'll still be committing us to at least 3 degrees of warming, enough at the poles to put polar ice at serious, serious risk. And remember that Antarctica is already looking unstable.

Things that amuse me, pt. MMXVI

The belief, usually expressed in the comment threads in newspaper webpages, that climate change is simply an excuse by communists to confiscate and redistribute wealth.

This amuses me for so many reasons, it's difficult to count the ways. Let's start assuming that all but recent history was in fact a blank slate, and that I did in fact want to confiscate and redistribute wealth. I can think of about a dozen ways that would be easier (and more effective by far!) than organizing a decades-long conspiracy among thousands of scientists in the hopes that their claims would be taken seriously enough by political leadership to begin serious state action -- in the further hopes that the actions I desire (namely, confiscation and redistribution of wealth) would be the ones that governments actually did. Indeed, as more than one critic has pointed out, many of the "solutions" to climate change being proposed by the US amount to giveaways to the same polluters who are the cause of the problem. If this is a conspiracy, it's first American result is likely to be an own-goal.

It gets even funnier when one realizes how climate science is situated historically. As just one example, Al Gore mentions in his film and book that he learned of CO2's impacts on from Roger Revelle in the 1960s, and Revelle started his work in the 1950s. These claims are true -- Revelle began his work measuring CO2 (his colleague Dave Keeling did the actual measuring) in the 1950s, and if you'd like to see how far back the records go, you can follow this link.

(The keen eye will note three months in early 1964 with the values "-99.99". These were months that the lab at Mauna Loa was shut down due to lack of funding. In the early days, it was difficult to convince people this data would ever be useful.)

Now, if I were an academic who believed in the confiscation and redistribution of wealth in the 1950s, was there any other option available to me other than organizing a decades-long conspiracy among thousands of scientists? Instead of devoting considerable energies to a task that, frankly, sounds insane even to hear, couldn't I have found perhaps a large, heavily-armed organization devoted to precisely the redistribution of wealth I desired and started singing their praises, or merely gone to live with them?

People who actually believed in the redistribution of wealth had no problem working for the USSR when they wanted to. I know of no evidence that any of the leading lights of climate science ever did. But then, if the nutters believed in actual evidence, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

What is past is prologue

It seems like more than a few people are reacting to chatter that Bob Rae may do to Ignatieff as Ignatieff did to Dion. Backbenchers, according to Angelo Persichilli, are increasingly unhappy with Ignatieff. A number of the people mentioned in the article have disavowed any disloyalty, and Bob Rae himself has called the entire column a fiction.

It's a shame that the Walrus doesn't have it's latest issue online, because the cover article by Ron Graham about Ignatieff's courting, the Liberal Party's history since Trudeau, and the mess that the Party's made in the last year would be valuable reading. Ignatieff is in the mess he's in today in large part because of the process which brought him to power in the first place -- most crucially, he and the people around him seem to have gotten to the cusp of power without ever really considering what they'd do when they got there.

Strongly recommended -- pick it up and pay for content!

Friday, December 04, 2009

For how long?

Steve Benen writes at WaMo:
Based on estimates from the International Monetary Fund, five years from now, China's GDP is expected to grow considerably faster than America's, but by 2014, the U.S. economy is still expected to be double the size of China's.

There's a lot more the U.S. can and should do to position itself for the future, and it's going to take some real leadership (and perhaps a majority-rule Senate) to protect the country's global leadership role.

But is China the world's leading economic power? Not yet, it's not.
This is all in reaction to the news that a plurality of Americans believe China is now the world's leading economic power. In terms of "whose economy is biggest", Steve is correct that China isn't anywhere near the throne yet.

But of course, that's not the only definition of "leading". Long before it was the world's largest economy outright, the US was seeing incredible new inventions flourish in their economy while they languished in the larger but also more staid economies of the Old World. (See telephones, electricity, etc.) Of course, this also depends on whether one counts the entire British Empire as one economy, and all of this gets cloudy when trying to compare historical data.

Example: This wikipedia page (use at my own risk, I know) states that by 1870, the US economy was still smaller than that of the United Kingdom alone, and much smaller than that of the broader British Empire. But by 1870, which country would you have bet on in the next 50 years? (The Civil War was over, the expansion to the west was spreading a human wave over the Great Plains, and the US had just purchased Alaska.) Even more intriguing, Qing China was still larger economically than that of the UK or US -- which of those three had a better time of the future?

Now, it's true that a lot of interesting stuff still happens in the US, and it still has a dynamic economy. But I don't think anyone thinks that the last 2 years have been good for American dominance. And Americans could certainly be forgiven for thinking that somewhere, a baton has been passed.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Hysteria of the Canadian left

I want to apologize in advance for using a gender-loaded term to describe the writings of a woman, but the fact is that the same words have been written by any number of Canadian men about Canadian politics since Harper was elected:
On every issue, from abortion rights to rendition for torture to fair treatment of non-white citizens who had the temerity to take a holiday and can't come home because they lost weight and don't quite look like their passport photo, Harper is determined to turn Canada into America-lite. He doesn't mean the America of Obama. He means the America of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, with its private affluence and public squalor.

American travellers used to shove a Canadian flag on their backpack for better treatment overseas. I'm sorry that the reverse has happened and Canadians now switch the conversation to Obama as quickly as possibly before the subject of clubbing seals arises.

We have shamed our better natures. But we Canadians will rid ourselves of Harper and rise again to be the decent and intelligent nation you Brits once patronised with such delight.
On any number of issues (hey, Afghanistan was Martin's war before it was Harper's!) it would be nice to pretend that all that is bad in this country started with Prime Minister Harper. But on the Tar Sands in particular, this is pretty galling. The Liberals spent just as much time and energy subsidizing the tar sands in their forlorn efforts to win seats outside of Edmonton. Honest Liberals (like their current leader) were once able to say "we didn't get it done" on the climate change front.

Meanwhile, if Michael Ignatieff is made Prime Minister some day, we already know how the debate around the tar sands is going to go: don't say anything too nasty about Canada's supreme environmental sin, else you risk "national unity". Those flinty, rough-hewn Albertans are so delicate that if we even criticize their main industry, they'll apparently check out of the country -- this according to the guy who wants their votes!

But even more broadly, the whole attitude of "Harper has changed this country in to something unrecognizable, and we need to change it back" is silly. In one sense, any government changes the way the country runs -- that's what governments do. But in a more fundamental sense, it's offensive. The only thing that's really happened in the last 4 years is that the Liberals haven't been able to win an election. You'll pardon me if I don't leap to associate the basic freedoms of my home with the political fortunes of the Liberal Party.


I believe the law requires me to have an opinion on President Obama's increase in manpower in Afghanistan. So here goes: this is a real missed opportunity on Obama's part. The US will now have 100,000 soldiers in Vietnam -- still less than the USSR used to lose their war, and less than a quarter of what the US used to lose their war in Vietnam.

Except that, to be fair, the obvious parallel isn't either of those examples but instead the recent "success" of the surge in Iraq. But the conditions for that success are not obviously replicable in Afghanistan -- to take just one example, the Taliban are recognized even by the US military for their ability to provide useful state capacity in a way that Al Qaeda in Iraq simply were not. Therefore, one of the key elements of the Iraqi "success" may simply not avail us in Afghanistan.

Of course, I'm a mere blogger, and thus know nothing about these things. Maybe having intelligent people in command of a more thoughtful Army will make the difference. I hope it does.

Nevertheless, the last decade taught me to be deeply skeptical about the merits of grand military plans. Claims that, after losing the war in Afghanistan for 8 years, we can now win it 18 months, are highly dubious to my ears. I believe that by 2012, we'll all be wondering one of two things: a) why are we now committing ourselves to even more years in Central Asia, or b) why didn't we get out years ago?

Stupid questions, cont.

The Munk Debate was tonight, and it seems to have largely gone well for the side of scientific accuracy and good sense.  But Dave Roberts was liveblogging it with a handful of folks, including Peter Tertzakian.  At 8:31, David Roberts writes something about how if the US halved its military spending, the entire debate over whether the US could "afford" to solve climate change would be meaningless.  And at 8:32, Tertzakian writes in that
We'll be militaristic regardless of whether or not there is climate change. Let's keep this nonsense out of the debate.
Ah, nothing like having basic mathematical facts called "nonsense".

Look, if American militarism is inevitable, or the result of some deep-seeded cultural mania, then isn't it just as likely that so is massive, unsustainable consumption? Or, if we're going to wave our hands about military spending, aren't we totally fucking doomed?

To be slightly less bleak about it, there are four basic parts to the US govt. budget (not including debt payments): Social Security, Medicare, the Military, and everything else, where everything else is less than 20% of the budget -- and we need to remember, "everything else" includes a bunch of stuff that in other countries would be counted as direct military spending, such as the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons spending.

So we could try raiding "everything else" for money to fight climate change, but at best we could get only a few crumbs. We could try and raid Medicare or Social Security, but if you want a way to lose a political battle, the best is to pick a fight with old people. So that leaves military spending -- which is both the largest pool of money in the US budget if accounted for honestly, and by the way does almost nothing for the economy. We could raid the war budgets, reduce the dead weight costs of maintaining the legions, and spend it instead on retooling the economy for a world with limits.

Nonsense, say the Voices of Conventional Wisdom. We're going to want to kill people in the future, climate change or no.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Well that's a stupid question

Matthew Yglesias:
I think the reaction to David Obey’s “war tax” idea is telling—nobody seems to really think there are national interests at stake that are critical enough to be worth paying slightly higher taxes for. But if a war’s not worth paying for, how can it be worth fighting?
Wars are always good, and cost nothing. Climate change mitigation, on the other hand, will be ruinously expensive, so we need to instead invest billions in CO2 sequestration and geo-engineering, which will be less expensive than not emitting CO2, even if it isn't.

Public policy in the West, for the last 30 years and for the next 30.