Friday, April 30, 2010

China, er, swims up

Wired has an interesting post about how the Chinese Navy (The People's Liberation Army Navy) has been stepping up its game in the last year:
The South China Morning Post recently reported that destroyers, frigates, and auxiliary ships from the North Sea Fleet (based in Qingdao) passed through the Bashi Strait between the Philippines and Taiwan to conduct a major “confrontation exercise” in the South China Sea. A few days later, Sovremenny guided missile destroyers, frigates, and submarines from the East Sea Fleet (based in Ningbo) passed through Japan’s Miyako Strait without warning Tokyo and conducted anti-submarine warfare exercises in the Pacific waters southeast of Japan. There have also been reports of naval aviators from several bases in the Nanjing and Guangzhou military regions conducting long-range exercises that incorporated radar jamming, night flying, mid-air refueling, and simulated bombing runs in the South China Sea.
I don't really see the case for alarmism here. Not asking Japan's permission may be the international equivalent of a dick move, but it's hardly "aggressive". Both passages are several hundred miles across open waters, and while I understand Taipei probably doesn't like the idea of the Chinese fleet going flanking the island on both sides, you could literally write the above paragraph if the Chinese Navy had sailed in any direction: China has a ton of contested water borders around it.

Considering the US maintains that it doesn't have to ask Canada's permission to send warships through the Arctic archipelago, they're hardly in a position to complain about China doing something that is, frankly, far less obnoxious.

Still, worth noting and very interesting to see Chinese naval competence growing in leaps and bounds.

Well said

Daniel Davies:
In related news, note that the main issue the ratings agencies have is the Greek pension liability, and the main component of the austerity measures will end up being a reform of the pension system. The sovereign bond market is a curious place, where 'He's willing to cheat his own grandmother, that one', can be a mark of the utmost probity.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

That was fun

Watching Miliken dismantle the government's arguments against disclosing torture documents was really, really, really satisfying. I mean, that was relentless. Government cites A? Here's the same A, from two pages later. There was a barely repressed "I can't believe I have to fucking tell you people this" quality which was really nice to see.

I liked Paul Wells' reaction, from Twitter:
The government can have as many Cheney fans as it likes. Canada remains a parliamentary system. That's not a direct quote.
I suspect we're now only about 72 hours from an election call. Because that's how this PM rolls. In the meantime, Miliken's proposed 14 days deadline for the parties to find some amicable way to move forward seems quaint -- the solution has been obvious for months, but Miliken thinks Harper is going to blink now?

Or maybe I'm misunderstanding things. Miliken's offer puts Harper's petulance in a pretty bad light, if he chooses to go to the polls now. So maybe it's more like this.

Miliken to Harper: Am I not merciful?

In which I call Stephen Hawking dumb

I suspect this is incorrect.
(AP) -- British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking says aliens are out there, but it could be too dangerous for humans to interact with extraterrestrial life.

Hawking claims in a new documentary that intelligent alien lifeforms almost certainly exist, but warns that communicating with them could be "too risky."

The 68-year-old scientist says a visit by extraterrestrials to Earth would be like Christopher Columbus arriving in the Americas, "which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans."

He speculates most extraterrestrial life will be similar to microbes, or small animals - but adds advanced lifeforms may be "nomads, looking to conquer and colonize."
The most convincing counter-argument to this, I think, is Gerard K O'Neill's argument from 2084:

1) Destroying a non-spacefaring civilization would be pitifully easy for a society of even modest star-crossing abilities.

2) We have not been destroyed.

Therefore, either

A) Aliens do not exist.

B) They exist, but are unable to harm us.

C) They exist, but are unwilling/not inclined to do so.

This isn't terribly hard thinking. I don't know how the Conquistador analogy is even supposed to work, really. There's literally nothing on Earth that would be worth the effort of taking that you couldn't get from the asteroid belt or outer solar system.

Monday, April 26, 2010

This is awesome, I'm stupid

via Lifehacker, this app for Android phones is pretty cool.

While watching the video, I actually thought to myself, "boy, detailed star maps like that would make navigation a breeze..." thinking of course of old-timey stellar navigation.

Took me a few seconds to remember the app only works with GPS.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A case of self-parody

Now, nobody goes to read the Corner for the broad intellectual debate. But this is a little funny. Mark Levin, a man who manages to make Jonah Goldberg look like an honest broker of knowledge, wrote a crappy book with an especially crappy chapter on climate change. Jim Manzi, a conservative who nevertheless takes some interest in the facts of anthropogenic climate change, responds.
I’m not expert on many topics the book addresses, so I flipped to its treatment of a subject that I’ve spent some time studying — global warming — in order to see how it treated a controversy in which I’m at least familiar with the various viewpoints and some of the technical detail.

It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times — not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided.

Levin argues that human-caused global warming is nothing to worry about, and merely an excuse for the Enviro-Statists (capitalization in the original) to seize more power. It reads like a bunch of pasted-together quotes and stories based on some quick Google searches by somebody who knows very little about the topic, and can’t be bothered to learn.
Oh man, I love that line about a clock that chimes 13 times. Manzi was doing this all in the spirit of intellectual honesty among ideological colleagues: legitimate self-criticism is a key part of a vibrant movement, right?

Wrong. The reaction to Manzi's post has been blunt, to say the least. Let's just say Manzi will be joining Frum in the outcasts.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Let's make it a nerdier day than usual

Just in case the ladies in the crowd weren't swayed by a short post about Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson, let's talk about the new space policies that Obama announced last week.

1) More money for science, which makes the first time a new launch vehicle has been proposed for NASA without a "slaughter of the innocents" that happened during the Shuttle development and, yes, had begun during the Bush Mars plans. This is a very good thing.

2) Speaking of: the Ares plan is being junked, and most of the Constellation architecture with it -- this is probably a good thing. The rocket derived from the Shuttle SRBs was already behind schedule and over budget, and there were serious questions about its ability to do any serious job. In the mean time, the US will rely on commercial operators and (GASP!) the Russkies if necessary.

Important to point out that it might not be necessary: SpaceX and their Falcon 9/Dragon system will be able to put 7 people in orbit when they're operational. Of course, they need money fast if they're going to have all systems go in the next year or two. You know what would probably bring investors in? The US government comitting to buy access to the ISS through a private corporation after the Shuttle is retired.

3) The really good stuff: Manned missions to a near-Earth asteroid, and Mars by the 2030s. I'd obviously love a more ambitious timeline, but the Moon is out and for good reason. The Moon has basically no relevance to training people to live on Mars (Antarctica is more similar!) and what you really need is long-duration tests of crew and equipment in real-world scenarious, like what a long mission to an Asteroid can provide. (Here I disagree with Phil Plait, who wishes the Moon were back on the menu.)

This puts NASA back where it belongs, on the frontier. Having NASA -- or the state, broadly -- operating something like a space truck seems like a poor choice, especially when the truck in question (the Shuttle) was such a mongrel machine. The private sector, after a bunch of fits and starts in the late 1990s, actually looks ready to take over the role of routine access to low Earth orbit.

Christ. Re-reading that sentence just made me smile. The future's late, but it's coming.

A future for the wilderness

Interesting article in the LA Times about the 45th anniversary of Dune's publication. I liked this bit about how it inspired one of my favourite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson.
Many consider Robinson's trilogy about the terra-forming of Mars the best-realized exercise in the form since Herbert's. Robinson calls "Dune" a big influence: The book showed him, he says, that "you could talk about the future of the wilderness. It gave me courage. I knew that people were willing to read at great length and that the world could be a character."

But Herbert's future vision of a galaxy with numerous populated worlds seems out of step with the deflated present. "The future," says Robinson, "doesn't look to be off-planet in any near-future time frame."
That the world could be a character. When I tell people that I came to my environmentalism via science fiction, that's what I mean. Sure, a lot of SF is explicitly anti-green. But some of it is capable of giving us a sense of place, an a meaningful one, that we can take back to the real world when we're done.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Yeah, but what does he know

Legendary energy investor says the shale gas cornucopia is basically all misplaced optimism:
Because, he contends, shale gas – the previously unattainable source of vast gas supplies that has been unlocked by new high-tech horizontal drilling advancements – is not the holy grail it's been cracked up to be. Not even close.

“Everyone thinks [shale gas] is going to solve all of our problems. There are very optimistic estimates about the economically recoverable volumes of gas from this new resource,” he said in an interview last week in the Toronto offices of boutique fund manager Middlefield Capital Corp., where he's a long-time consultant and is special adviser to the nine-month-old Middlefield Groppe Tactical Energy mutual fund.

“That's dominating everyone's views about the gas supply picture – that we're going to be flooded with gas.”

The reality, he argues, is that shale gas deposits are a tiny part of the North American production pool – and they are already depleting fast.

Mr. Groppe says that while the average depletion rate in conventional gas wells is about 25 per cent (in other words, if you didn't drill at all for new wells, production would decline by a quarter each year), shale gas shows even more rapid depletion – output tumbles, on average, 45 per cent in the first year for shale wells.
So, we're looking at heading back to natural gas scarcity in the near future, at the same time as oil scarcity gets worse. Wheee.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Camera test

Testing, testing, testing...

Unamused cat is unamused.


As always, I bring you last week's news -- today!
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Hewlett-Packard scientists on Thursday are to report advances in the design of a new class of diminutive switches capable of replacing transistors as computer chips shrink closer to the atomic scale.

The devices, known as memristors, or memory resistors, were conceived in 1971 by Leon O. Chua, an electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, but they were not put into effect until 2008 at the H.P. lab here.

They are simpler than today’s semiconducting transistors, can store information even in the absence of an electrical current and, according to a report in Nature, can be used for both data processing and storage applications.

The researchers previously reported in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they had devised a new method for storing and retrieving information from a vast three-dimensional array of memristors. The scheme could potentially free designers to stack thousands of switches in a high-rise fashion, permitting a new class of ultradense computing devices even after two-dimensional scaling reaches fundamental limits.
They also have a plan to build an electronic brain with as many artificial neurons as a cat's brain.

Because as any cat owner will tell you, there's absolutely no possible way that building an artificial cat brain could go wrong. I know! Let's hook it up to the nuclear launch forces!

The dirty little secret behind the Terminator franchise: Skynet only wanted tuna.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

This is a very, very good movie. Lots of fun, excellent animation, and really good writing. Shockingly, the hero's choices don't just all resolve themselves -- even in victory, there are lasting, believable consequences for him. About the only quibble is that the Vikings have Scottish accents. Part of me is choosing to believe they converted to Vikingism for the chicks.

Also, if you've never dreamt about riding a dragon I don't even wanna know you.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Who we, white man?

So, who do our former Prime Ministers hang out with these days? Let's check out the Globe and Mail:

Between German felons and the Saudis, I wonder what's next for dear Brian.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tab clearing, April 15 2010 edition

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gimme that old time religion

The Catholic Church's sensitivity training really pays off.
Last week, retired Bishop Giacomo Babini of the Italian town of Grosseto told the Catholic Pontifex website that the Catholic pedophile scandal is being orchestrated by the “eternal enemies of Catholicism, namely the freemasons and the Jews, whose mutual entanglements are not always easy to see through. … I think that it is primarily a Zionist attack, in view of its power and refinement. They do not want the church, they are its natural enemies. Deep down, historically speaking, the Jews are God-killers.”

For when I get my spaceship

Watery, rocky planets may be common in the Milky Way. That is all.
White dwarf stars are the endpoint of stellar evolution for the vast majority (>90%) of all stars in the Milky Way, including our Sun. Because they should have essentially pure hydrogen or pure helium atmospheres, if heavier elements are found then these must be external pollutants.

Instead, rocky planetary debris is almost certainly the culprit in most or all cases.

The new work indicates that at least 3% and perhaps as much as 20% of all white dwarfs are contaminated in this way, with the debris most likely in the form of rocky minor planets with a total mass of about that of a 140 km diameter asteroid.

Bunch a hippies, I tells ya

The US Joint Forces Command sounds like a bunch a treehuggers.
"By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day," says the report, which has a foreword by a senior commander, General James N Mattis.

It adds: "While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India."
Actually, the whole document (PDF) is kinda wild, because it reads like the military has been subscribing to TheOilDrum for a few years now.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

No, it won't be easy at all

One of the reactions to Paul Krugman's eco-econ piece last weekend that I've liked the most is from Stuart Staniford (via Kevin Drum.)
US trend economic growth in recent decades is about 3% a year. ... Now, if the economy is going to be a bit more than three times larger, but we are only going to emit 17% of the current level of carbon emissions, then the carbon intensity of the economy - that is the ratio of carbon emitted per dollar of goods and services created, is going to have to be only 5% of the current value.
That's his response to the idea that we'll be able to wring the carbon out of our economy easily by 2050. Needless to say, while I believe that a) this is probably doable and b) it's damn important that we try, I think Staniford does a service by pointing out how difficult it will in fact be.

Basically, we'd need to have efficiency grow twice as fast as it's ever done in American history, consistently, for decades, and the fastest growth in energy efficiency came during a series of recessions known as the 1970s. To say that this is going to be easily accomplished is stretching things, to say the least.

The other point I'd make is that the enormity of the task really makes a mockery of the standard policy prescriptions. If you think that the magical market fairy will make the kinds of dramatic carbon cuts that the situation requires so long as we put a carbon tax in, well, best of luck to you. It might have been sufficient 20 years ago, if then. These days anything short of some serious national efforts (including nationalizing certain industries, massive subsidies, and draconian rationing of things like cars) will probably fail.

That said, Kevin Drum's response to Staniford is a good one to keep in mind:
Well, look: three degrees of temperature increase is still better then five degrees. Six inches of sea rise is better than 12 inches. A hundred million dead is better than a billion dead. This stuff is worth doing even if it's not perfect. After all, what is?

Monday, April 12, 2010

This actually constitutes rapid response for the Church

VATICAN CITY—The Vatican has finally made peace with the Beatles.

The Vatican newspaper says the members’ “dissolute” lives and John Lennon’s boastful claim that the band was more popular than Jesus are in the past, while their music lives on.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Friday Funny

WASHINGTON—Citing a mutually shared vision of health care in America, congressional Republicans and the deadly bone-marrow cancer leukemia announced a joint effort Wednesday to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the historic new bill that extends health benefits to 32 million Americans nationwide....

"Leukemia has always been a disease that veers to the right," said Newsweek columnist Ezra Klein, adding that Republicans have also sought out the support of high-profile illnesses such as sickle-cell anemia, type 1 diabetes, and sepsis. "And at the end of the day, you can't ignore the fact that this deadly blood disorder has a lot to lose if the bill succeeds."
To think, I knew Ezra back when...

The Shirky Principle

"Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." -- Clay Shirky

An insight for complex times in which simplicity is the order of the day.

Spoke too soon

The peril of blogging: you can be wrong.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has accepted the resignation of Helena Guergis from cabinet and asked her to sit outside the Conservative caucus while the RCMP and ethics and conflict of interest commissioners investigate "serious" allegations over her conduct.
Hey, if the RCMP and commissioners think this is a serious breach worth investigating, I'm happy to retract my previous statement about Jaffer.

What every other green is talking about

Paul Krugman's piece this weekend about environmental economics, and he basically comes down for cap & trade + strong regulation (ban?) on coal plants. The implication being that cap and trade alone might/will be insufficient on its own to get the worst climate pollution out of the system.

(If I were Gar Lipow, I'd take this as a partial vindication of his argument that the best parts of the House climate bill have nothing to do with cap and trade.)

This little bit caught my eye, though. Krugman is discussing the difference between advocates of a carbon price that starts low and rises gently and a price that starts high and gets quite a bit higher (policy-ramp vs. big-bang):
The policy-ramp advocates argue that the damage done by an additional ton of carbon in the atmosphere is fairly low at current concentrations; the cost will not get really large until there is a lot more carbon dioxide in the air, and that won’t happen until late this century. And they argue that costs that far in the future should not have a large influence on policy today. They point to market rates of return, which indicate that investors place only a small weight on the gains or losses they expect in the distant future, and argue that public policies, including climate policies, should do the same.

The big-bang advocates argue that government should take a much longer view than private investors. Stern, in particular, argues that policy makers should give the same weight to future generations’ welfare as we give to those now living. Moreover, the proponents of fast action hold that the damage from emissions may be much larger than the policy-ramp analyses suggest, either because global temperatures are more sensitive to greenhouse-gas emissions than previously thought or because the economic damage from a large rise in temperatures is much greater than the guesstimates in the climate-ramp models.

As a professional economist, I find this debate painful. There are smart, well-intentioned people on both sides — some of them, as it happens, old friends and mentors of mine — and each side has scored some major points. Unfortunately, we can’t just declare it an honorable draw, because there’s a decision to be made.

Personally, I lean toward the big-bang view.
The old "friend and mentor" that Krugman is most likely referring to is Bill Nordhaus, who IIRC taught Krugman during his undergraduate degree. Nordhaus is a character who interests me because he plays essentially a sort of late Aristotelian role as far as I can tell: desperately trying to show how the system doesn't need any real changes, just tinkering at the edges.

He's been doing this for decades: he was one of the early savage critics of The Limits to Growth, and his current DICE model implies ridiculously low prices on carbon.

But here is a student of his, basically calling him out in the pages of the NYT Magazine, who by the way won a Nobel Prize and by the way Bill where's yours?

There's not a lot new in the Krugman piece for anyone who's been following this debate, though Krugman is pretty respectful of Jim Hansen's argument against cap-and-trade:
What Hansen draws attention to is the fact that in a cap-and-trade world, acts of individual virtue do not contribute to social goals. If you choose to drive a hybrid car or buy a house with a small carbon footprint, all you are doing is freeing up emissions permits for someone else, which means that you have done nothing to reduce the threat of climate change. He has a point. But altruism cannot effectively deal with climate change. Any serious solution must rely mainly on creating a system that gives everyone a self-interested reason to produce fewer emissions.
That's fairer to Hansen's point than I'd be, actually. Either a tax (Hansen prefers tax-and-dividend) or the overall number of carbon allowances will be set centrally, so the gross economic impact will be largely detached from individual action. If people (especially wealthy consumers) see a low tax as permission to emit rather than a fine for doing so, then you're basically right back where you started: there's a certain amount of bad behaviour washing out the good.

Part of me wonders if an individual tradeable ration, like that proposed by Carbon Equity, would satisfy both sides: acts of virtue are directly rewarded, instead of simply punishing vice.

Politically impossible in the US or Canada, I'm sure, but worth thinking about.

Actually, I agree

Jaffer's alleged boast about access 'absurd'

The Prime Minister's Office has dismissed a disgraced former MP's alleged boasts to his business contacts about access to Stephen Harper's inner circle as "false" and "absurd."

The Toronto Star published an article Thursday alleging Rahim Jaffer, husband of junior cabinet minister Helena Guergis, dined and drank with several prospective clients and prostitutes Sept. 10 — the night of his arrest on charges of drunk driving and cocaine possession.
There are, of course, reasons to investigate this story further. But to all appearances, Jaffer is basically one notch above "drooling simpleton" on the malfeasance scale. So if one con was out to con another, I don't think it necessarily implicates the government in this case.

(Waiting for someone to accuse me of raving Tory sympathies.)

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

I am a callous person

CHICAGO — The lives of nearly 900 babies would be saved each year, along with billions of dollars, if 90 percent of U.S. women fed their babies breast milk only for the first six months of life, a cost analysis says.

Those startling results, published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, are only an estimate. But several experts who reviewed the analysis said the methods and conclusions seem sound....

The $13 billion in estimated losses due to the low breast-feeding rate includes an economists' calculation partly based on lost potential lifetime wages — $10.56 million per death.
Okay. Assuming that these estimates are all correct -- and why not? -- there's a rather important point here: you could eliminate 900 deaths a year, and add $13 billion to the US economy, and nobody save the grieving parents would ever notice.

For example: even in a low-growth post-recessionary period, when the US GDP increases say, 1% a year, that still amounts to $140 billion a year, or ten times the estimated benefits of universal breastfeeding.

During "normal" times, when the economy grows at 4-5%, well, you do the math.

I'm not a pediatrician by any means, but the benefits of breastfeeding are pretty hotly contested. If the best estimate says that a country of 300 million might save as many as 900 lives every year by universal breastfeeding, I kind of wonder what's the point. You could save more lives by enforcing drunk driving laws more rigorously.

Friday, April 02, 2010


ROME — A senior Vatican priest, speaking before Pope Benedict XVI at a Good Friday service, compared the world’s outrage at sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church to the persecution of the Jews, prompting angry responses from victims’ advocates and consternation from Jewish groups.
Um. 21st century Jewry might have some pretty specific views about conspiracies of silence meant to absolve people in power from responsibility for massive violations of rights. There's some rather nasty stuff in still-living memory about people claiming "we didn't know" and "we weren't responsible, it was those other ones" that might, just maybe, trigger a less than sympathetic response from Jews.

I'm just spitballin' here.