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View 648 Movember 8 - 14, 2010


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Monday, November 8, 2010

What happened in Calif0rnia? The nation went Republican, but not in California, even though California voters are disgusted with their politicians of both parties. In California there was a clear Democrat sweep. Why?

Disgust, I suspect: the two major candidates had a lot of money. They didn't work very hard to raise more -- and they spent it on negative advertising. There was no campaign theme. Carly Fiorini make a big point of saying she would not be loyal to her own party, but not much about what principles would guide her in her decisions. Meg Whitman ran on a platform of personal ability and management experience, but demonstrated very well that she didn't know how to manage a campaign, and relied on not very competent campaign managers and advisors. The result wasn't very appealing.

Meanwhile, there was no party building, either by the Republicans or the Tea Party. There wasn't any dynamism. It's may well be that a Tea Party opponent to Barbara Boxer would have lost, but it's not certain; what was certain is that California is in an impossible financial situation, and neither candidate seemed by positive about what has to be done. Meanwhile there was a bewildering array of propositions some deliberately crafted with confusion in mind. The voters were bombarded with a media blitz that became wearying, with nothing new or clever said; just repetitions and denunciations. The voters were treated as gullible fools and acted accordingly.

There was almost no attempt to connect the state elections to the national agenda. There was little actual debate on policies. No one came out four square for lower taxes and lower spending, not in any believable way. The vast sums spent on the campaign weren't used in any attempt to build a party structure or to detect independents likely to vote Republican can get them to the polls. The campaign advisors seemed to believe that the national debates would somewhere trickle into California, the most organized large state in the country.

I could elaborate on that, but to what point? The voters weren't shown anything that looked like real choices, and there weren't any dynamic candidates. Almost every election was a choice of the least undesirable candidate: no one sparked much enthusiasm.


The Wall Street Journal reports today (in an opinion piece) that "Net Neutrality Goes 0 for 95". That is, of the 95 Congressional Candidates who promised to vote for Internet Regulation to promote "net neutrality", 95 failed of election. Whether this was the key issued in each of those districts is not clear. Probably it wasn't. But the result does show that being in favor of regulating the net is not sufficient to get you elected; and it's probably a fair inference that most of the country likes the unregulated net and doesn't want the government regulating it.


I rejoice: Walker has finally recognized that Prisoner Cole is Diana. It took the big stupe long enough; the twins would have known their mother instantly. Now we can get on with getting her out of there. The kids need their mother. For those who haven't the foggiest notion of what I'm talking about, don't worry about it. I have not lost my mind.


Spreading the wealth

The gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is bigger than at any time since the 1920s. Is that really what most Americans want?

 By Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely.


has some interesting numbers, assuming they are true (and I have no reason to disbelieve them). I have my own views, which tie into my concern that American companies are more interested in "growth" than in profits. .




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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The news is full of it: a mysterious missile launch off the California coast, north of Catalina Island. A video tape was shown on local CBS News. Officially the US Navy and Air Force have no idea of what it was or whose it was. It was certainly real enough; whether the military is as nonplussed as is being reported I do not know.

It's easy to speculate. One speculation is that this is a demonstration by China, but the timing seems odd for that. Other speculations come to mind. Who has missile submarines? Could this be some kind of private launch, similar to Captain Truax's Sea Dragon concept? That seems exceedingly unlikely, since the operations involved would be likely to attract attention well in advance, and what would be the point of a stealth launch.

From the video this does not appear to be a large toy rocket; it looks to be far bigger than that (by orders of magnitude from what I can see). News reports say that NORAD doesn't know what it was, but it wasn't ours. If true that is of great concern: we ought to know who can and would do something that spectacular. The fact that we don't argues that this is some kind of amateur operation, but why anyone would do it without announcement isn't clear. Certainly no flight plan was filed with the FAA, and we can see an airplane on approach to LA in one of the video recordings. Very odd.

This isn't the place to watch for breaking news; when we know more we can discuss the meaning and implications.

11:00 -- the Pentagon says it still doesn't know who launched this. More speculation that it's a private or amateur launch. I find it intriguing, but a bit alarming. I have seen no serious analysis of the size, range, and payload of this bird, or whether it was a deck launch or a sea launch.


The LA Times today has a front page article about the horrors of buying high deductible health care insurance, which results in putting off preventive measures like colonoscopies and blood tests, which results in tragedies for some people -- in the customary mainstream news narrative it is told from the viewpoint of someone forced to buy cheap health insurance, and who has bad fortune after that -- which results in more emergency room visits which results in higher costs for everyone. The remedy, of course, is Obamacare, or even better a national health service with free medical care for everyone. It's a harbinger of a coming assault. Liberal papers, newscasters, bloggers, talk shows, and random people interviewed on the streets will be telling this tale in the months to come. Stand by.

Of course no one is asking why you and I ought to be paying for someone else's colonoscopy, or how a national health care system will include illegal immigrants who now use the emergency rooms as free clinics -- or for that matter how we can convince citizens who don't take part in preventive care to do so now. I note that Kaiser has been on a hard campaign to get more people into the preventive care system, but I suspect Southern California Kaiser is fairly unique. I make no secret of my satisfaction with Kaiser here in LA: I have never had an unpleasant experience there, and I find their copayment charges to be reasonable: high enough to discourage frivolous visits and low enough to be affordable to nearly anyone (five bucks); and the present campaign to get more people to take advantage of preventive care seems to be working as well as any such campaign can work.

But then if I thought there were some kind of possibility of cloning our local Kaiser system into a national health care system I'd be tempted to support the notion. The probable outcome of doing that, alas, would be the destruction of the system as the Iron Law works its inevitable way.

But we can look for a new bombardment from the liberals complete with sob and horror stories, all with the intent of convincing you that Obamacare is both fair and cheap. It's coming.


International reaction to monetizing the debt continues. The Fed, already deeply in debt, buys Treasury bonds, which of course are long term debts, in the hopes of keeping the price of treasury bonds high and inducing someone who isn't running a printing press to buy more bonds. All this assumes that bond investors won't realize what's happening. Of course there will be some who don't.

This is inflation pure and simple, printing money. The result is predictable, and foreign countries understand that very well, and don't like it much. This storm isn't over.


We will be looking at the effects of the big Obama Expedition to the Far East for some time. There were two messages: Obama's words which say that US economic dominance is over:

MUMBAI: Implicitly acknowledging the decline of American dominance, Barack Obama on Sunday said the US was no longer in a position to "meet the rest of the world economically on our terms".

Speaking at a town hall meeting in Mumbai, he said, "I do think that one of the challenges that we are going face in the US, at a time when we are still recovering from the financial crisis is, how do we respond to some of the challenges of globalisation? The fact of the matter is that for most of my lifetime and I'll turn 50 next year - the US was such an enormously dominant economic power, we were such a large market, our industry, our technology, our manufacturing was so significant that we always met the rest of the world economically on our terms. And now because of the incredible rise of India and China and Brazil and other countries, the US remains the largest economy and the largest market, but there is real competition."

Read more: Obama acknowledges decline of US dominance - The Times of India http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Obama-acknowledges-decline-of-US-dominance/articleshow/6885877.cms#ixzz14oT4WZWb

Whether he intended to say this may be questioned, but it certainly was taken that way. The other message, though, was the Expedition itself. "See the President in all his Glory; the United States is still a very powerful nation. See our opulence."

Which message will be taken more seriously is worth discussion.


A great tribute to Colonel Kane, co-author of Strategy of Technology:


 Patron subscribers receive a free e-copy of Strategy of Technology upon subscribing.


One speculation:

> NOTAM for LA.

> W537 ACTIVE, CAE 1176 CLOSED. SURFACE - FL390, 09 NOV 20:00 2010 UNTIL
> 10 NOV 01:00 2010. CREATED: 08 NOV 20:52 2010 >

> Translation: The U.S. Navy is most likely conducting wargames in the
> area. All unauthorized air traffic should remain clear of the area. 

So the Navy shot something, POSSIBLY accidentally, though I strongly doubt that because it wasn't destroyed in flight. It was NOT a jet contrail. You and I both know that was a solid rocket booster, and it staged. Don't let anyone tell you differently. My own SWAG: it was a small demonstration to someone, China? India?, that we can still wield a sword if need be.

Which is interesting, but it is still speculation.

Another speculation

Has this been a false alarm?


Makes case it is likely an aircraft contrail from an inauspicious angle.

Just posted on Drudge.

It doesn't look like any contrail to me. It looked like a solid rocket. The angle would be from a thousand feet looking out toward the sea. I suppose it's possible. As I have said, this is not the place for breaking news. I'm through speculating until I know something. It remains odd to me that no one seems to know.

Perhaps it's an optical illusion. I'd prefer to think so. The Pentagon is now saying it's an optical illusion that makes it appear to be rising. Of course they could be right. Observers can't seem to agree whether it was traveling east or west (toward them or away from them) which may be significant.

So we now have:

Contrail of an airplane coming out of the Sun toward the camera.

Accidental launch from a Navy ship in war games.

Deliberate launch from Navy ship as a demonstration.

Private launch by someone who doesn't want to claim credit and didn't put out a press release.

No press release because not sure it would work

No press release because didn't bother to get a permit for this test.

UFO: anthropology graduate student gets drunk and puts on show for the natives.

I guess that's enough. I'll wait until someone is sure.



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Wednesday,  October 10, 2010

Founding Day of the Republic of China

Alas It Was a Contrail

Everyone seems nonplussed by the "missile" that "rose" from the snark-infested waters off Catalina. I spent some time last night looking at the video, and I conclude that it had to be an airplane contrail. Had it been an actual rocket launch, it would have been seen by someone not in the path of the incoming aircraft. Of course it was seen by those, but it looked to everyone not in the right place like a contrail, and thus wasn't noticed.  When there's an actual launch out of, say Vandenberg -- which is a lot farther from Los Angeles than the supposed "launch site" of this supposed missile -- people all over LA and Malibu see it. The fact that no one in Malibu saw this as a missile is pretty telling. What they saw was a contrail, and without the sun behind it and not being in its path they didn't see it as being on the horizon.

It's a jet contrail.

Lots more just like it are visible here:


(But the author wants "high-bandwidth sites" to link to http://uncinus.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/4/  instead.)

The absolute clincher is that videos showing the tip of the contrail show it developing VERY slowly, EXACTLY the same way that vapor trails form behind high-altitude aircraft.

In fact, the author of that site seems to have it pegged: it's US Airways flight 808 from Honolulu to Phoenix.

The two links above make it clear how the illusion works.

The only thing that makes me doubt it is that James Pike is loudly insisting that it was a contrail, and I find it odd to share an opinion with him; that may be unique.

Have a look at the contrails picture and you'll see how it works. Meanwhile I can assure you: had it been a real missile, it would have been seen and reported by people from Palos Verdes to Malibu, not just from one helicopter at a particular place. And there would have been reports from Catalina Island, which is inhabited. Twin Harbors would have been about 30 miles from the launch site. They would have seen it and been awed. There have been no reports of seeing a missile launch from Catalina. None from the ranger station on Santa Barbara Island. None from the air traffic coming in to LAX.

Examining the video has another tell -- it's too slow to have been a solid rocket. Liquid rockets start slow and go fast. Solids start fast and get faster. This one didn't.  I paid insufficient attention to that when I first saw this video -- I wanted to believe is was something real, because otherwise there's no story to tell -- but when I went back and watched the video again it was harder to believe. 

This had to be a large bird if it were a missile. That would have lit Catalina Island and Malibu Beach. Someone in Malibu or Palos Verdes or Santa Monica would have been watching that rather spectacular sunset. None of them saw anything -- or rather they saw an unremarkable contrail, not something to photograph. Ah well. It was a good story, and I am sure it will continue to be told on Coast to Coast for weeks to come, and someone will find a way to link it to Roswell and Area 51.


I have a lunch appointment with a Congressman. I'll have something to say on that when we get back. Mail is going to be late today.


Lunch went well.

There is still speculation about the "mystery missile" but the fact that no one in Avalon or Twin Harbor (on Catalina Island) nor in Malibu saw a thing, nor in Santa Monica, nor Venice, nor -- well you get the idea.  You had to be just at the right angle to see it as extending to the horizon. Then it looks so real it fooled me.  But I can't believe the government is keeping people in Malibu from reporting it...   There are rangers on Santa Barbara Island and I suppose they could be suppressed, but there are fishing boats and yachts all over out there, and none of them saw it? I  think it's pretty clear. The viewing angle had to be such that it looked as if it were rising from the horizon. Then it looks very real. But when no one else sees it, although they are closer, you have to wonder what was seen.

What was seen was a contrail, and from the proper angle that can look like something rising from the horizon; with the sun behind it you get that brilliant light, which ought to have lit up Catalina Island and Malibu, but didn't.

Pity. I'd love for it to have been a flying saucer or a US launch. Ah well.


On the other hand, why was Ambassador Ellsworth consulted? And we have

Physics Professor Michio Kaku told ABC News he believes it's a plane.

"It seems to change direction. Ballistic missiles don't do that. It doesn't accelerate. Ballistic missiles accelerate. This is traveling at a constant velocity. And it's going in the wrong direction. Ballistic missiles go east- to-west. This one seems to be going north and south."

As if USAF ever launched anything east out of Vandenberg. Ballistic missiles -- Minuteman tests, including those used as targets for SDI tests -- go southwest out of Vandenberg, not east to west. And sometimes Vandenberg launches classified mission packages south. But when that happens everyone in the LA basin sees them, and they are seen very well in Malibu and Santa Barbara.  No one watching the sunset from Malibu saw anything, or at least nothing unusual enough to report.





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Thursday,  November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day


The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high. 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
-- LtCol John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army
   May 3rd, 1915, Second Ypres


You can't predict the future, but you can invent it.

Taking that as a general principle, what kind of future do you want to invent? What would you like the future to be? That needs to be realistic, of course. We need to be able to see a series of steps, each doable, that get from here to there. A spacefaring civilization requires a series of technological developments that lead to reasonable cost access to orbit. There are steps beyond that, but once you're in orbit you are halfway to anywhere, at least to anywhere in the solar system.

There hasn't been a lot of thought given to questions like this. We use public money to fund a lot of research, much of it of the "as long as you're up, get me a grant" variety without much regard for where they lead or indeed if they lead anywhere worth going to. It is time for us to develop a strategy of technology for building a future.

I hope to have some notes toward this before the new Congress takes its seats. Suggestions welcomed.


Economic prosperity requires many things. We know that low regulation and cheap energy are sufficient conditions. They may not be necessary conditions. There may be alternate routes to rapid economic growth with widespread prosperity, but we have hard evidence that those do the trick.




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Friday,  November 12, 2010

Earmarks: there is a case for preserving earmarks. Not as they there are, but with a bit more openness about how they are adopted including an open discussion about how this particular project is useful to the general welfare. There needs to be a way to fund contrarian research, and that will never come from the bureaucracy or "peer review" controlled projects. There are national heritages that ought to be preserved but aren't widely known. I have made that case before, and I will make it again -- but sometime in future. For now, it's a key issue for the new Congress. No earmarks.

The new Congress needs to make some dramatic changes. Actually it will be more a matter of proposing changes which won't get through. The earmarks reform can be imposed by a simple House majority. All money bills have to originate in the House anyway. There are Republican Senators who want to keep earmarks, and they actually have some decent reasons for doing so. At another time I will be glad to defend resurrecting the practice as it was in older times; but for now, there needs to be a visible accomplishment of the New Congress. This is an easy one. There is a reasonable discussion of this under the title "GOP's Earmark No-Brainer" (link) in today's Wall Street Journal.


The deficit reduction "bi-partisan" report is in, and there was little not predictable in it. It does put the problem in stark terms: the United States is broke. We have not only spent too much money, we have committed ourselves to continue to spend. The money is going to run out -- it has run out -- and something has to be done.

The Wall Street Journal has found some pleasant surprises in the report, and says so in today's editorial "A deficit of nerve" (link).

Before we pound the details, it's important to understand why we have had deficits of 10% and 8.9% of GDP for the past two years, with another 10% or so anticipated in fiscal 2011. The most important reason is the burst of spending from the 111th Congress that has taken federal outlays as a share of GDP to 25% in 2009, 23.8% in 2010 and back to an estimated 25% in 2011. This is unheard of in the modern era, when the average has been under 21%.

The second reason is a revenue shortfall due to the recession and feeble economic recovery. Revenues have averaged about 18.5% of GDP in recent decades, but in 2009 and 2010 they were only 14.9% with little improvement expected this fiscal year. The single least painful way to reduce the deficit is to get the economy growing at a healthy pace again, which would cut the deficit by 3.5% of GDP a year without a dime of spending cuts.

Every one in the nation -- well, all of us not part of the 1% that own 40% of the wealth -- has had to take some austerity measures, learn to live on a bit less. When I was growing up we first had the Great Depression then the shortages caused by war. I learned "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" in the second grade. Perhaps earlier. But some have had less austerity than others: government workers neither get laid off nor take salary cuts nor have their pension plans changed. The worse that happens is that they don't get raises, and some resent even that. I would think that an actual cut in salary and benefits across the board would be reasonable, given the economic distress of the nation. Of course the service employee unions will go mad on this, but perhaps that is a signal that these times of both union protection and civil service protection have to come to an end. Civil service was intended to insulate government workers from danger of unemployment, and also to prevent them from becoming involved in politics. Under the spoils system -- otherwise known as a system of political responsibility -- the winners of elections got to fire everyone and appoint their own. This resulted in a fair amount of nepotism, and even more of political pressure: work with the machine, because if you don't, you are out of a job when it loses.

Civil service was supposed to end that: you got a steady job at a known salary with known benefits, and you couldn't be arbitrarily fired. You couldn't be asked to donate to political campaigns, in fact you couldn't get involved in politics at all. Civil service protection was a substitute for unionism. Now, union membership is required, and the unions participate in politics. Boss Tweed would have loved this notion: a total legalization of Tammany Hall, and the Tammany people were protected! The goo goos couldn't ever fire them!  All the benefits of both worlds.

That's one question the New Congress needs to address.


There's a more fundamental question that needs debating at some point: to what are people entitled simply because they live in the United States? How much of your neighbor's income are you entitled to for existing? If you are born crippled and stupid and incapable of making a living, does that entitle you to someone else's income? By entitle I mean that an armed tax collector takes the money from someone and gives it to you. I don't mean charity or "brother's keeper" or the various Christian and Jewish requirements to give to the poor ("Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away"). Indeed the courts have held often that the state has no obligation to enforce religious commandments.

We need a fundamentals debate on just what the productive owe to the non-productive. Is it a portion of their income? A portion of their possessions? Is there a limit? Can those in dire need compel you to donate blood? A kidney? Require you to do "community service" although you have done no crime other than not to be handicapped? How much of a handicap converts you from one entitled to receive when you were formerly among those required to give?

Is there anywhere an official discussion of these questions? Have they been debated in Congress? Should they be?

There are two questions here: to what are the needy entitled, and what must the able give? And second, what is the basis for the obligation of those who must give?


I was just sent this shot of me at the Niven Halloween Party. The costume theme was pirates. I went as a software pirate...


Everyone take down your flags. They offend the people of Mexican origin in the United States. At least that seems to be the case in one school district. Eventually they reversed the order. http://www.foxnews.com/us/
course-ordering-student-remove-flag-bike/  I gather that the local commander of the VFW was involved in getting the bureaucrats to reverse their decision. Perhaps.

American exceptionalism depends on assimilation, which is to say the Melting Pot. The notion that we must defer to "other cultures" and pay for it with public money is a bit bizarre.  Apparently one entitlement is for any "culture" or any interpretation of it to be "respected", and that means "diversity." At one time the goal was "tolerance" of views well outside the general American culture; the law requires a degree of tolerance. That is not "respect" or agreement. As for example pacifism in time of war: yes, it is tolerated. There is even a degree of respect for it; but we do not stop honoring our fallen dead because that might offend pacifists.

Of course the liberal notion of diversity is different. Americans are exceptional, but it is an evil exceptionalism for which we ought to apologize. Our President said as much at G20.  It is a view of America, and apparently one taught using public money in the public schools, and a view to which we are not merely entitled but required to accept. God save us.


Stephen Vincent Benet

I have found an online copy  of Stephen Vincent Benet's short story "Doc Mellhorn and the Pearly Gates," which I read a a child -- I was much taken by Benet, his stories and his poetry, when I was in grade school. I read everything of his I could find, and I do not regret a moment of it. His best known short story is of course "The Devil and Daniel Webster," but some of his others were well known in his time, and ought to be included in reading programs. This collection includes his "The Last of the Legions" which is a story everyone who wants to understand Roman Britain must read, and his post atomic war story written before anyone ever heard of the atomic bomb. Benet is not much read now, and that's a blasted shame. Patriot, poet, story teller. The formatting is off in both the items linked below but the story is readable. These are collections so you may have problems finding it, but it's in there; the story is worth finding and so are most of the others. Stephen Vincent Benet was one of America's better story tellers, and he consistently sold to the Saturday Evening Post when that was the highest paying market in the country (sort of like being able to sell scripts to the top TV shows). Of course that got him scorned by the literary critics who couldn't sell to the Post.



Incidentally on selling to the Post: Stuart Cloete, (Rags of Glory, Dove Hill) whom I met in South Africa and instantly hit it off with, told me that in 1948 he sold a story to the Post for enough money to let him take a year off to write a novel. It paid something like $4500, which in those days was a good bit of money.

Anyway, I recommend Benet and I suspect he will still appeal to bright kids in Grade School. His poetry is pretty darned good, too. Some of his "nightmares" have images that you'll remember for a long time.

Nightmare With Angels
By Stephen Vincent Benet

An angel came to me and stood by my bedside,
Remarking in a professional-historical-economic and
  irritated voice,
"If the Romans had only invented a decent explosion-engine!
Not even the best, not even a Ford V-8
But, say, a Model-T or even an early Napier,
They'd have built good enough roads for it (they knew how to
  build roads)
From Cape Wrath to Cape St. Vincent, Susa, Babylon and Moscow.
And the motorized legions never would have fallen,
And Peace, in the shape of a giant eagle, would brood over the
  entire Western World!"
He changed his expression, looking now like a combination of
Gilbert Murray, Hilaire Belloc,
and a dozen other scientists, writers,
  and prophets,
And continued, in angelic tones,
"If the Greeks had known how to cooperate, if there'd never
  been a Reformation,
If Sparta had not been Sparta, and the Church had been the Church
  of the saints,
The Argive peace like a free-blooming olive-tree, the peace of Christ
  (who loved peace)
like a great, beautiful vine enwrapping the spinning earth!
Take it nearer home," he said.
Take these Mayans and their star-clocks, their carvings and their
  great cities.
Who sacked them out of their cities, drowned the cities with a
   green jungle?
A plague? A change of climate? A queer migration?
Certainly they were skillful, certainly they created.
And in Tenochtitlan, the dark obsidian knife and the smoking heart on
  the stone but a fair city,
And the Incas had it worked out beautifully til Pizarro smashed them.
The collectivist state was there, and the ladies very agreeable.
They lacked steel, alphabet, and gunpowder and they had to get
  married when the government said so.
They also lacked unemployment and overproduction.
For that matter," he said, "take the Cro-Magnons,
The fellows with the big skills, the handsome folk, the excellent
  scribers of mammoths,
Physical gods and yet with sensitive brain (they drew the fine,
  running reindeer).
What stopped them? What kept us all from being Apollos and Aphrodites
Only with a new taste to the nectar,
The laughing gods, not the cruel, the gods of song, not of war?
Supposing Aurelius, Confucious, Napoleon, Plato, Gautama, Alexander -
Just to name half a dozen -
Had ever realized and stabilized the full dream?
How long, O Lord God in the highest? How long, what now, perturbed spirit?"

He turned blue at the wingtips and disappeared as another angel
  approached me.
This one was quietly but appropriately dressed in cellophane, synthetic
  rubber and stainless steel,
But his mask was the blind mask of Ares, snouted for gasmasks.
He was neither soldier, sailor, farmer, dictator, nor munitions-manufacturer.
Nor did he have much conversation, except to say,
"You will not be saved by General Motors or the prefabricated house.
You will not be saved by dialectic materialism or the Lambeth Conference.
You will not be saved by Vitamin D or the expanding universe.
In Fact, you will not be saved."
In his hand was a woven, wire basket, full of seeds, small metallic and
  shining like the seeds of portulaca;
Where he sowed them, the green vine withered, and the smoke and
  armies sprang up.


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Saturday,  November 13, 2010

Freeman Dyson, Global Warming, and the Lost Debates

Kenneth Brower, son of Sierra Club transformer David Brower, and onetime friend of Freeman Dyson, has been writing about Dyson and climate change. As is usual with books by writers who are not scientists, the scientific issues are not addressed. Those are settled. Instead the purpose of the article is to find out why Dyson, so brilliant, has gone so wrong.

Having myself grown up in Berkeley, where Nobel laureates are a dime a dozen, I certainly know the syndrome: the mismatched socks, the spectacles repaired with duct tape, the forgotten anniversaries and missed appointments, the valise left absentmindedly on the park bench. Yet hometown experience did not prepare me completely for Dyson. In my interviews with the physicist, he would sometimes depart the conversation mid-sentence, his face vacant for a minute or two while he followed some intricate thought or polished an equation, and then he would return to complete the sentence as if he had never been away. I have observed similar departures in other deep thinkers, but never for nearly so long.


Much of the article is like that. The assumption is that Deniers are off their heads, and the only question here is how someone as bright as Dyson could be so wrong.

Regarding absentmindedness, of course it's true -- less so for Freeman Dyson than some, such as John McCarthy who has famously wandered off from a conversation because he was lost in a new thought -- but it's also irrelevant. There's a difference between being abstracted and being unable to finish a problem or publish a good essay. Minsky and McCarthy are great examples. There's no requirement for being focused on what interests the other guy in a conversation or even an interview if there's a better use for your powers of concentration. What matters is the ability to finish the thought, and to use that concentration to think through things before publishing them. And, of course, to ask questions, which Freeman Dyson and other "Deniers" do frequently, and which are ignored by the Believers.

Freeman, for his part, seems to have settled more deeply into his own secular religion, becoming a prominent evangelist of the faith. He is in such a scientific minority on climate change that his views are easy to dismiss. In the worldview underlying those opinions, however—in the articles of his secular faith—he makes a kind of good vicar for a much more widely accepted set of beliefs, the set that presently drives our civilization. The tenets go something like this: things are not really so bad on this planet. Man is capable of remaking the biosphere in a coherent and satisfactory way. Technology will save us.

Once again, there is no discussion of the questions Dyson has asked.

Many of Dyson’s facts on global warming are wrong, as the scientists who have done actual research on the subject point out, but more disconcerting is the selective way he gathers his information and the peculiar conceptual framework into which he inserts it.

It is true that plants grow better with increases in carbon dioxide. (Photosynthesis is the conversion of carbon dioxide and sunlight into organic compounds, so the more CO2 and sunlight, the better, up to a point.) If a plant’s survival depended only on its metabolism—if all it had to do was photosynthesize—then increased CO2 in the atmosphere might indeed be a good thing. But plants happen to grow in these little universes we call ecosystems, where they are sustained by complex webs of interdependency with fungi, microbes, animals, and other plants. Much of this mutually dependent life is adapted to narrow temperature and rainfall regimes, and these biomes are collapsing everywhere.

Plants do grow better with increased CO2, but not when deprived of water. Water is a vanishing commodity in the American West, where I live, and where, like the Australians and Sudanese and many others, we are enduring a succession of increasingly prolonged and severe droughts. Drought is a paleontological fact in the American West, but the latest desiccations have a new signature, and my region’s climatologists, hydrologists, foresters, and water managers are nearly unanimous in their conviction that what we are seeing now is climate change, the anthropogenic kind, a consequence of too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Drought-induced stress increases plants’ susceptibility to disease, and tree diseases are epidemic now in my home landscape and elsewhere. Plants grow better with increased CO2, but not when they are dead snags.

The planet, Dyson assured Rose, is warming mainly in places that are cold; it is not getting hotter so much as the climate is evening out. This is a peculiar analysis. The fact is that the planet is getting hotter, by small but enormously consequential increments. That the warming is most pronounced in cold places is true, but this is no consolation to the creatures that live there. I recently returned from reporting on diminishing sea ice and the decline of penguin populations and krill stocks on the Antarctic Peninsula, the western side of which, over the past half century, has been warming at five times the world’s average rate. I feel obligated to put in a word for the elephant seals, fur seals, crabeater seals, leopard seals, whales, penguins, albatrosses, petrels, and other members of that cold-adapted, krill-dependent fauna. Dyson’s implication that an evening out of global temperatures might somehow be a neutral or beneficial phenomenon is astounding. Temperature differentials at different latitudes and altitudes are a prime driver of planetary weather. Weather patterns, needless to say, are full of consequence not just for penguins and seals, but for all life everywhere.

 Looking at some of the details of the above:

The fact is that the planet is getting hotter, by small but enormously consequential increments.

This is proof by repeated assertion. Few deny that there has been warming from 1885 to present; there is disagreement as to how much (how many tenths of a degree) and a lot of disagreement about the "enormously consequential" given that there was a lot more warming from 1776 to 1885. Indeed the consequences are what the debate is about. Assuming "enormously consequential" assumes the desired conclusion, which is standard "consensus" reasoning among Believers.

Plants do grow better with increased CO2, but not when deprived of water.

True of course, but irrelevant. Climate scientists do not understand the mechanisms of El Nino, which has far more to do with rainfall than average global temperature. For most of us, warmer temperatures cause more evaporation, which leads to more water vapor in the atmosphere, which would seem to make rain and snow more likely. If this is not true, one would expect to see some undergraduate level discussions of the relationship between temperature and rainfall, and some kind of chart analogous to the world average temperatures from 1885 to present. Perhaps they are out there but I can't find them. I do see http://www.climate-charts.com/
World-Climate-Maps.html#rain which seems to show, unsurprisingly, that the areas of the world with the largest rainfall seem to be those with the highest temperatures. Of course there is no discussion of how annual rainfall is measured to the nearest millimeter in all those areas of the world, nor is there so far as I know any attempt to combine all these measures into an annual rainfall number that can be displayed along with the world average temperatures. Is world rainfall going up or down? I found this:

Increasing temperatures tend to increase evaporation which can lead to more precipitation. Precipitation generally increased over land north of 30°N from 1900 through 2005 but has declined over the tropics since the 1970s. Globally there has been no statistically significant overall trend in precipitation over the past century, although trends have varied widely by region and over time. Eastern portions of North and South America, northern Europe, and northern and central Asia have become wetter.


Thus Brower's statement  Plants grow better with increased CO2, but not when they are dead snags.  is undoubtedly true, and one suspects that Dyson is aware of that as are most sane people. The relevance is doubtful absent strong negative coupling between local temperature and rainfall, and that is not evident at all. I have seen no convincing coupling between AGW and desertification. We do know that there are manmade deserts: the goat has done a great job of spreading the Sahara into areas that were once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire; but that has long been known (I learned it in high school) and not related to CO2 production. (1)

I could continue, but it would be pointless. Brower's article, attacking Dyson's sanity, is typical of the desperation of the Climate Believers. They refuse to answer obvious questions, referring questioners to enormous reports that turn out not to contain those answers; and since they assume that anyone who doubts their conclusions must be mad, they wax eloquently about the reasons why such smart people have gone mad.

Meanwhile I come back to "Globally there has been no statistically significant overall trend in precipitation over the past century" from Wikipedia. It may or may not be true, but I would suppose that if it were not true someone would have disputed it. If it be true, then the obvious question is, why not? Rainfall is far more important to people than a degree or so of temperature rise. Shifting patterns of rainfall have driven migrations for tens of thousands of years. If the average temperature goes up by a degree it may be less comfortable, but if that brings with it more rainfall the overall livability of an area may be improved, not degraded; while if an area cools but becomes a desert, that would be a different result.

At some point there needs to be a national debate on "climate change". When that takes place, I will myself place far more weight on the reasoned views of Freeman Dyson than on those of David Brower's son.


(1) Note: It used to be standard -- consensus -- theory that the goat was a major cause of the spread of the Sahara north into the older fertile Roman provinces in North Africa. The narrative was: goats, unlike cattle, eat everything, down to the roots, and in an area of marginal rainfall they produce much more bare ground; the ground becomes warmer, so when the rain clouds come over they are kept higher and drop less rain on the area. The goats continue their march, the land becomes warmer, less rain falls, the rain that does fall doesn't soak in because there are no roots and worm tunnels and such to hold it, and the desert grows. It grows slowly but the growth is fairly steady. When I say standard theory, I mean that it was taught in science classes in high school, and in Introduction to Ecology at the University of Iowa. The theory may have been disputed by climate experts, but if so they were mainly quiet about it, and historians accepted that the introduction of goats into Tunisia was a climate changing factor of some importance. Modern theory makes this more complex -- surprise. See http://www.munfw.org/archive/45th/csd1.htm . Still, no one doubts that deforestation is significant and can cause drastic climate changes http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=389&catid=10&subcatid=66 . There seems to be little recent discussion of the role of the goat in the spread of the Sahara hrough historic times, but I have devoted little time to searching for this. The point is that there is little to no published evidence that AGW is reducing rainfall.


The Rational Optimist on Global Warming


The "Rational Optimist", Matt Ridley, posts his correspondence with David MacKay, explaining why he doesn't believe global warming is going to kill us all.


Follow the link for charts and graphs, including:

"You will have seen this graph <http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/05/26/in-which-i-go-spelunking/>  , one of many now making it amply clear that the warmth of the Holocene optimum, peaking about 7,000 years ago, was both global in extent and considerably warmer than today"

And his penultimate paragraph:

"Now, if for the past 20 years we had been told that there is a probability of some change in the climate due to CO2, and a very small possibility that it is likely to lead to a drastic lurch, then I could join with you and the consensus. Instead of which I have been repeatedly told that trillions must be spent urgently because there are only a few months to save the world and it is the most urgent problem, more urgent than hunger, malaria and indoor air pollution, likely to lead to the collapse of the entire economy and moreover that the science is settled and to question it is to be equivalent to a criminal. So, apologies if I sound a little exercised on this, but as a huge champion of science I feel very, very let down by the science establishment, especially the laughably poor enquiries on the emails published this year. Ask yourself if these emails had been within a drug company about a drug trial, whether the establishment would have been so determined to excuse them."

People who are still interested in climate change might want to read the whole thing.


A New Treasure Trove Of 1970s Global Cooling Articles


I put these here rather than mail because it is relevant to the discussion. It is time to frame the coming debate that Congress will require before funding any more green subsidies. Cost benefit analysis....





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Sunday,  November 14, 2010

Last week Roberta was laid low by some kind of upper respiratory viral infection. It kept her  from singing in the concert on 6 November and pretty well laid her out for the rest of the week. Last night I started coming down with the same symptoms and I've been feeling worse by the minute, so I don't expect to be very productive for the next few days. I'll try to keep up with the mail, but I doubt I will be writing much in the way of original analysis or essays.

Several readers sent me this:


I recommend it. It has some startling statements -- such as that the $600 million purchase of Treasury Bonds by the Fed will not be direct purchase but done through Goldman Sachs, which presumably means paying some sort of commission to Goldman Sachs. That sounds odd, since you and I can buy Treasury Bonds direct from the Treasury. My head isn't working as well as it might be -- see first paragraph above -- so I make no comments here beyond saying that I found this a bit long but quite interesting, and that it presented "facts" I hadn't quite seen in that light. I welcome critiques of what was said.


http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/11/10/eveningnews/main7042324.shtml>  Perhaps the end of the matter.



 Earlier this week I posted Stephen Vincent Benet's Nightmare with Angels and a link to his short story Doc Mellhorn and the Pearly Gates. Here is another of his poems. I have remembered this since I encountered it in the Memphis Public Library sometime in the 1940's.

Nightmare Number 3
Stephen Vincent Benet

We had expected everything but revolt
And I kind of wonder myself when they started thinking ---
But there's no dice in that now.
I've heard fellows say
They must have planned it for years and maybe they did.
Looking back, you can find little incidents here and there,
Like the concrete-mixer in Jersey eating the wop
Or the roto press that printed "Fiddle-dee-dee!"
In a three-color press all over Senator Sloop,
Just as he was making a speech. The thing about that
Was, how could it walk upstairs? But it was upstairs,
Clicking and mumbling in the Senate Chamber.
They had to knock out a wall to take it away
And the wrecking-crew said it grinned.
It was only the best
Machines, of course, the superhuman machines,
The ones we'd built to be better than flesh and bone,
But the cars were in it, of course...
and they hunted us
Like rabbits through the cramped streets on that Bloody Monday,
The Madison Avenue buses leading the charge.
The busses were pretty bad -- but I'll not forget
The smash of glass when the Duesenberg left the show-room
And pinned three brokers to the Racquet Club steps
Or the long howl of the horns when they saw men run,
When they saw them looking for holes in the solid ground...

I guess they were tired of being ridden in
And stopped and started by pygmies for silly ends,
Of wrapping cheap cigarettes and bad chocolate bars
Collecting nickels and waving platinum hair
And letting six million people live in a town.
I guess it was that. I guess they got tired of us
And the whole smell of human hands.
But it was a shock
To climb sixteen flights of stairs to Art Zuckow's office
(Nobody took the elevators twice)
And find him strangled to death in a nest of telephones,
The octopus-tendrils waving over his head,
And a sort of quiet humming filling the air...
Do they eat?... There was red... But I did not stop to look.
I don't know yet how I got to the roof in time
And it's lonely, here on the roof.
For a while, I thought
That window-cleaner would make it, and keep me company.
But they got him with his own hoist at the sixteenth floor
And dragged him in, with a squeal.
You see, they cooperate. Well, we taught them that
And it's fair enough, I suppose. You see, we built them.
We taught them to think for themselves.
It was bound to come, You can see it was bound to come.
And it won't be so bad, in the country. I hate to think
Of the reapers, running wild in the Kansas fields,
And the transport planes like hawks on a chickenyard,
But the horses might help. We might make a deal with the horses.
At least, you've got more chance, out there.
And they need us, too.
They're bound to realize that when they once calm down.
They'll need oil and spare parts and adjustments and tuning up.
Slaves? Well, in a way, you know, we were slaves before.
There won't be so much real difference -- honest, there won't.
(I wish I hadn't looked into that beauty parlor
And seen what was happening there.
But those are female machines and a bit high-strung.)
Oh, we'll settle down. We'll arrange it. We'll compromise.
It wouldn't make sense to wipe out the whole human race.
Why, I bet if I went to my old Plymouth now
(Of course, you'd have to do it the tactful way)
And said, "Look here! Who got you the swell French horn?"
He wouldn't turn me over those police cars;
At least I don't think he would.
Oh, it's going to be jake.
There won't be so much real difference -- honest, there won't --
And I'd go down there in a minute and take my chance ---
I'm a good American and I always liked them ---
Except for one small detail that bothers me
And that's the food proposition. Because, you see,
The concrete-mixer may have made a mistake,
And it looks like just high spirits.
But if it's got so they like the flavor... well....





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