Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Gone, gone, gone - until mid-January

I'm off on the honeymoon, and unlikely to be able to post until mid-January.

Happy Holidays!


Monday, December 10, 2007

Notes on de Waal's "Tree of Origin"

Some random notes on Frans de Waal's "Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution," a book I had mentioned briefly in another post.

  • Page 47: says modern hunter-gatherer tribes rely more on plant foods, usually gathered by women, than by meat hunted by men. Vegetarians love to say this too. Maybe right today, but there's a bias in relying on modern tribes as a reference. They've been pushed out from the coasts and the most fertile hunting grounds by "advanced" groups, and have to make do with the wastelands. I'll bet most hunter-gatherers had more meat than modern groups did.

  • Page 64: contrasting human breeding patterns to chimps, it says "the nuclear family relies on paternity certainty." I think modern paternity testing plus the availability of abortion may change genes affecting human personality - the male genetic strategy of "cuckolding" without having to invest resources in the offspring works less well, the male strategy of monogamous investment in children no longer carries the risk of being cuckolded, and "straying" females are more likely to abort pregnancies that might be the result of a liason.

  • Page 143: in the last 1.9 million years, hominid sexual dimorphism has stayed roughly the same, despite massive changes in brain capacity. Gender dimorphism generally gives some clue about sexual relations. Our moderate level of sexual dimorphism suggests moderate polygyny, again very different from our chimp and gorilla relatives. Interesting that this has been stable through our ancestral species too.

  • Page 168: larger apes seem smarter than smaller monkeys, despite having similar neocortex/body size ratios. The book says that one explanation besides a better-wired brain is that "rather than relative neocortical enlargement, absolute size is what matters. When the total brain volume reaches a certain point, the ability to perceive and organize the structure of instrumental behavior emerges." My comment is, what about cetaceans? If only a small fraction of a sperm whale's 20-pound brain exceeds what's needed for body control, that's likely to be a scary amount of brain matter available for cognition. The author goes on to suggest that testing whales would be interesting, although I'd guess that experimental testing of adult sperm whales would be a challenge.

  • Pages 180-183: the most interesting part of the book. Neocortex/body size ratios for primates correlate positively along a line for each primate species typical group size. Applying the same neocortex ratio to humans gives a group size of 150, which the author argues fits well with the group size found for hunter-gather clans. Humans have other group sizes, he argues, but they're either much larger or much smaller than the 150 figure. And he claims modern groups fit similar size structures. The apogee of the neocortex ratio can be found with Neandertals, who could theoretically manage slightly larger groups than we can.

Like I said before, it's a good book and well worth reading.

I've just updated Nancy Pelosi's wiki article

I've added a section on enhanced interrogation/torture here, to reflect her record of secret briefing and non-objection to waterboarding. Just trying to do my little part for justice and accountability. We'll see how long that section survives.

I find her excuses flimsy and vague (see the preceding link) - not saying when she first protested the techniques, and saying she concurred with Harman's objection is meaningless if she didn't express the concurrence at the time. Kind of hard to express that with the concision the wiki article requires, though.

UPDATE: Took all of 20 minutes for someone to add the "she concurred with objections raised by a Democratic colleague in a letter to the C.I.A. in early 2003" blather. Without stating when she concurred, and whether she only concurred in her mind as opposed to telling anyone, the phrase adds nothing. I guess I'll just leave it though.

I expect this Bush Administration leak is meant to stop the Dems from pushing for a special counsel to investigate the destruction of the CIA videotapes. I hope it has the opposite effect - if they stop pushing, we'll know why.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A paper I need to read

Title: Climate agreements based on responsibility for global warming: Periodic updating, policy choices, and regional costs

Author(s) Rive, N, Torvanger, A & Fuglestvedt, JS

ISI Ref. No. 000238167800007

It has been suggested that calculations of historical responsibility for global warming should be used to distribute mitigation requirements in future climate agreements. For a medium-term mitigation scenario, we calculate regional mitigation costs resulting from global allocation schemes based on the Brazilian Proposal that solely incorporate historical responsibility as a burden sharing criterion. We find that they are likely to violate ability-to-pay principles. In spite of less stringent abatement requirements, developing country regions experience cost burdens (as a percentage of GDP) in the same range as those of developed countries. We also assess the policy options available for calculating historical responsibility. The periodic updating of responsibility calculations over time, concerns over the robustness and availability of emissions data, and the question of whether past emissions were knowingly harmful, may lead to policy choices that increase the relative historical responsibility attributed to developing countries. This, in turn, would increase their mitigation cost burden.

Similar to how I've thought mitigation should be worked out. Guess I need to find out what this Brazilian Solution is about.

Friday, December 07, 2007

It's like destroying all the movies of the D-Day Invasion

That's what destroying the videotaped "interrogations" of Al-Qaeda members amounted to, if you accept at face value the Bush Administration claim that the interrogation methods were ethical and produced valuable information. The tapes were perfect training materials - actual "interrogators" getting actual information from actually resisting enemies. To say they were destroyed to protect interrogator identities is ridiculous - the interrogators' faces and voices could have been easily obscured.

So either it was criminally incompetent to destroy something so valuable if the Bush/Republican approach is justified, or it was criminal obstruction of justice to destroy evidence of governmental interrogators committing crimes authorized high up the chain of command.

Kevin Drum has more on the uselessness of these particular results.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Maybe I should be paying attention to Lieberman-Warner climate legislation

People seem to be taking it seriously, unlike me. Gristmill is posting non-stop - if I can't read all those posts, I wonder who's reading them.

Matt Yglesias brings up what I'd call the "sticky slope" argument he infers from John Edwards' criticism of Lieberman-Warner's inadequacies. The argument is that if Lieberman-Warner passes it will take the steam out of a stronger bill. Matt thinks the best case is that L-W passes and then gets vetoed by Bush.

I think I agree that's the best case and the most likely case - while L-W isn't nearly enough, it also seems far more than Bush would allow. On the other hand, what if he surprises us and doesn't veto it?

Unlike slippery slope arguments, I think "sticky slope" arguments are more likely to be valid, especially since L-W is supposed to be comprehensive, long-term legislation. Still, I think pushing something now as a benchmark for something better in '09 is worth the risk. It might be worth mentioning that it's not impossible that we'll have a Republican president in '09, too, so we don't want to throw all our eggs in the basket of waiting for a better administration.

But under no circumstances should L-W be weakened to try and avoid a presidential veto.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Omaha killer: "Now I'll be famous"

That was his motivation for killing strangers.

So I'll just repeat this post from April 19th after the Virginia Tech killings:

One small way to help in the case of massacres

Somewhere I had read an idea that sounded pretty good to me in helping to handle the phenomenon of mass killers looking for glory - the media should, as a matter of self-restraint, not publish their names. This isn't a call for government censorship, and I'm sure somebody somewhere will publicize their names, but we could still deprive them of the glory they're looking for on the front pages of the major newspapers and websites, and keep their names off the television networks.

I think it might also make sense to obscure their faces in some way when photos are shown in the media, so they can't anticipate that the image will go down prominently in history, either.

I don't know if this will actually restrain a killer from going on a rampage, although who knows - if someone's balancing on the edge between checking himself into a mental hospital or going out in a blaze of glory, maybe it could sometimes be decisive. If nothing else, though, it would help media and the public focus on the names and faces of the victims in the aftermath, where the attention belongs.

Could be the Clean Energy 1.0 Bubble Video

Crooked Timber has a great clip, the Bubble 2.0 Music Video. I'm not involved at all with the tech industry, but just living here in Silicon Valley makes it easy to pick up the references. The current bubble is starting to feel like the last one from ten years ago. Facebook has nearly the same capitalization value as Ford - that seems a little frothy.

And while I'm glad the industry is so into clean energy as well, I suspect there's some bubbling on that front too. Hope I'm wrong.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The rush to war with Iran isn't over

The recent National Intelligence Estimate saying Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 is great news. First, it's great news for the cause of world peace. More immediately, though, it imposes a new barrier to the Bush Administration's drumbeat for war with Iran.

Unfortunately, though, we can't assume that we're free from the danger of yet another war started during the Bush presidency. They have another path to war.

Several months ago, the Bush Administration signaled that the first act of war would not be an attack on nuclear facilities, but cross-border attacks from American troops in Iraq:

In a chilling scenario of how war might come, a senior intelligence officer warned that public denunciation of Iranian meddling in Iraq - arming and training militants - would lead to cross border raids on Iranian training camps and bomb factories.

A prime target would be the Fajr base run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force in southern Iran, where Western intelligence agencies say armour-piercing projectiles used against British and US troops are manufactured.

The way we end up in an all-out war with Iran is not starting with a massive invasion, as happened in Iraq, but as a result of attacks and reprisals that bring us stumbling into all-out war. Stumbling into full scale war may or may not be the intention of the Bush Administration, but that doesn't really matter once we start down that path.

The trigger event is still a cross-border attack related to labeling the Quds Force as a terrorist organization: in other words, the Kyl-Lieberman resolution that John Edwards condemned and Clinton supported. This danger still exists, despite the good news about the nuclear weapons.

Two final notes: it's hard not to conclude that Iran's halting its program in 2003 was related to a significant event that happened on its border in the same year. While the Iraq invasion was a huge mistake, this may have been the small silver lining.

Second, an amusing Fox News report from September:
Germany's withdrawal from the allied diplomatic offensive is the latest consensus across relevant U.S. agencies and offices, including the State Department, the National Security Council and the offices of the president and vice president. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, the most ardent proponent of a diplomatic resolution to the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions, has had his chance on the Iranian account and come up empty....

Vice President Cheney and his aides are said to be enjoying a bit of "schadenfreude" at the expense of Burns. A source described Cheney's office as effectively gloating to Burns and Rice, "We told you so. (The Iranians) are not containable diplomatically."
What's the German term for schadenfreude that actually ends up all over one's face?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Got another climate change bet, with a twist - now I'm betting on the cold side

I think we've got the details nailed down so I can blog about it: William Connolley, James Annan, and I are betting against Joe Romm's statement here:

It is very safe to say the Arctic Sea will be essentially ice free by 2030, and I’d personally bet on 2020 — any takers?

I think (and hope!) that's too pessimistic. When I saw it, I contacted Joe and cc'd William and James, figuring their interest in betting against climate skeptics might extend to this too, which turned out to be right. We hammered out the details (mainly that the ice is 90% gone, not 100% gone), and ended up with Joe betting $333 against each of the three of us. While the bets may be legally enforceable in theory, in reality it's a matter of trust, especially for the modest amounts involved.

I can't say that betting against over-alarmism is very important to me. I think we've done far too little about climate change, not too much, and so it's the skeptics/denialists who are the real problem. Still, it's interesting to me as something that brackets my climate expectations with the $9,000 bet I made with a climate skeptic. James, on the other hand, might consider this closer to what he hoped a betting mechanism would be in terms of showing what overall group expectations are for climate.

I think James, William and maybe Joe might blog about this, and I'll put in links if they do. (UPDATE: William's post is here, James' with an amusing put-down of me is here, and Joe's side of things is here.)

One thing I'd note: if the bet ended in 2050 instead of 2020 (and if I was interested in betting that far in the future, which I'm not) then I'd be on Joe's side in this bet. The question is how soon the climate catastrophe will start.

The other interesting psychological aspect: I was originally interested in just betting Joe a token amount. When William and James both wanted to bet far more, I suddenly became willing to up the ante. Following the herd....

MORE UPDATES: See crandles' comment - I haven't checked his math, but if it's right, then a 70% increase in the current rate of sea-ice retreat is necessary for me to lose the bet.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Edwards will stop FBI raids on medical marijuana clinics

Maybe there's a reference to this somewhere that I missed before, but in this YouTube clip, John Edwards says he will stop the FBI raids on medical marijuana clinics, and that the FDA should reassess the role of medical marijuana.

This puts Edwards in a pretty similar position as Obama. It's not a Chris Dodd position, on the other hand, but it still represents a tremendous improvement over Bush and the present Republican candidates.

Climate change solution from Congress: fire Robert Samuelson

Congress has agreed on legislation raising fuel standards by 40% by 2020.

Robert Samuelson, Feb. 7 2007, "Global Warming and Hot Air":

...Don't be fooled. The dirty secret about global warming is this: We have no solution.....Considering this reality, you should treat the pious exhortations to "do something" with skepticism, disbelief or contempt....Nor will existing technologies, aggressively deployed, rescue us. The IEA studied an "alternative scenario" that simulated the effect of 1,400 policies to reduce fossil fuel use. Fuel economy for new U.S. vehicles was assumed to increase 30 percent by 2030; the global share of energy from "renewables" (solar, wind, hydropower, biomass) would quadruple, to 8 percent. The result: by 2030, annual carbon dioxide emissions would rise 31 percent instead of 55 percent....So far, global warming has been a change, not a calamity....I do not say we should do nothing, but we should not delude ourselves....It's a debate we ought to have -- but probably won't. Any realistic response would be costly, uncertain and no doubt unpopular. That's one truth too inconvenient for almost anyone to admit.

Samuelson says even under best-case scenarios, we won't do enough to make a difference, and says maybe we'll luck out and not be badly harmed by climate change anyway.

I remember thinking that 30% by 2030 was ridiculously far from what's possible. Congress proved it. Wishing on the magic star of new technologies, especially without mandates, is what's most likely to keep us from taking effective action.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More jet travel imbroglio

The periodic eruption of outrage, that people who consider climate change a crisis either cause some emissions themselves, or sometimes do so wastefully, is happening again. Comments over at Stoat might be interesting, even maybe my surly ones.

I'd be very interested in anyone's experiences with virtual meetings, like using Second Life to set up meetings. I'm thinking of trying to do that here, but don't know much about it. The trick would be to combine virtual meetings with real life meetings happening at the same time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

My JohnEdwards.com blog posts

As I mentioned a while back, I've started blogging at the JohnEdwards.com site. My main blog posts are here, and also diary posts are here. I don't really blog there about climate change, though, if that's what you're looking for.

I'll put in a link to these posts at top left on Backseat Driving website (very exciting, I know).

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A climate solution: "Biotic landfill cover treatments for mitigating methane emissions"

I'm reading abstracts on global climate change for a project I'm working on, and came across this one:
Landfill methane (CH4) emissions have been cited as one of the anthropogenic gas releases that can and should be controlled to reduce global climate change. This article reviews recent research that identifies ways to enhance microbial consumption of the gas in the aerobic portion of a landfill cover. Use of these methods can augment CH4 emission reductions achieved by gas collection or provide a sole means to consume CH4 at small landfills that do not have active gas collection systems. Field studies indicate that high levels of CH4 removal can be achieved by optimizing natural soil microbial processes.

Further, during biotic conversion, not all of the CH4 carbon is converted to carbon dioxide (CO2) gas and released to the atmosphere; some of it will be sequestered in microbial biomass. Because biotic covers can employ residuals from other municipal processes, financial benefits can also accrue from avoided costs for residuals disposal.

(ISI ref. no 000181688700007, Hilger & Humer 2003).

This is new to me and seems very doable. Obviously not a silver bullet, but every little bit helps, and people are already working on it.

Nice to find some good news.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Reviews: The Uplift Universe Trilogies, and "Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution"

David Brin's Uplift Universe trilogies are some of the better "hard science fiction" that I've read, defined as sci-fi that cares about the "sci" part. And unlike most hard sci-fi, the writing's good and the plots move quickly. The two trilogies deal with a universe populated by warring, status-seeking alien species all uplifted to sapience by previous alien species, except for self-uplifted humans who have just genetically enhanced chimps and dolphins. The Earth species navigate through this minefield to survive in a dangerous galaxy cluster.

The ideas are fun, with a decent if speculative grounding in biology, and the first-person perspective for non-human species works well. The chimps in particular are the most engaging characters, with their wisecracking, playful, sporadic heroism. The books would make a great movie, I think.

Downsides are the somewhat repetitive, victory-is-only-achieved-at-a-cost format, and that the best book is The Uplift War, at the end of the first trilogy. I recommend reading the first series, and then if you really liked it, read the second set.

The Uplift Universe's focus on obligations between species influenced how I read the collection of science essays, "Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution," edited by Frans de Waal. The essays are well worth reading, some more than others but you can skip the less interesting ones. I'll write more about it some other time, but I'm very interested in the discussion of chimpanzee culture (p. 248) and how different chimp groups have developed different tools. Chimps in west Africa learned to use stones to open nuts. Nothing stops other chimps from accessing the same food, except geographic barriers stop the spread of knowledge. Similarly, I also saw recently that other chimp groups use tools to extract ground tubers (via Afarensis).

I've argued recently against Denialism Blog that we have a special moral obligation not to harm intelligent species like chimps. Do we have any other obligations? Eli Rabett suggested that we might follow the Uplift Universe path and choose to genetically increase chimp intelligence, in the near future. My spin on all this is that we should, right now, teach wild chimps any tool using technologies currently used by other chimps in separate geographic areas. One could justify this as slightly balancing out all the harm we've done to them by enabling more of them to survive in the decreased habitat available. I don't think that's necessary though - it's justifiable on the basis that it makes their lives better.

What we can do beyond this, I don't know. I don't know if wild chimps could feasibly use or benefit from human-created techniques for improving their lives. Maybe chimps aren't even smart enough so that one group can master all the techniques used by all chimp groups. But then again, maybe they are, or at least can choose the best techniques.

I think this type of uplift is justified.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I'll take back half of the bad things I've said or thought about Todd Zywicki if this is true

Todd Zywicki is normally one of the worse authors I've criticized at the Volokhs, but if it's true that he helped the ongoing Department of Justice efforts to break monopoly power by full-service real estate agent syndicates, then he's done something significant to help the environment.

The full-service real estate agents, many of them organized into Realtors Associations, use their monopoly power to bump up commission money (by prohibiting discount brokers from making use of listings of for-sale properties), and then funnel some of that money into anti-environment, land use politics meant to increase sprawl, development, and real estate deals. I've encountered that problem in the course of my own professional work.

Of course many full service agents are just fine people, but their organizations are terrible for the environment, and are fleecing customers at the same time. A competitive market would have a lot less slush money floating around for political shenanigans.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The real middle on climate science, and why no one is or should be there

Unfortunately, Andy Revkin got it wrong in trying to find a non-existent middle ground on climate issues (see here, here, and here for why it's wrong). It's much like the problem that Andrew Dressler found for a previous Revkin article:
The problem I have with the article is that it confuses two separate debates, one scientific (is climate change real?) and one value-based (what should we do about it?). By putting these two issues into the blender, the article confuses rather than clarifies.
So what's the real middle in climate science, in terms of actual science? My amateur outsider's perspective is that there are two respectable scientific camps. In one camp we have people like Kevin Vranes and James Annan, and maybe we can broaden it somewhat to include William Connolley. These people think the mid-range IPCC climate projections are credible (or maybe for some the low range is credible), and the high range or above projections aren't credible. Separate from the science, they think the clear policy direction from this scientific understanding requires cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. (Let's see how many comments I get on how badly I've bungled their positions). (UPDATE: per comments, I removed Pielke Jr. from this group.) (UPDATE 2: See Connolley's comments re himself and Annan - my argument may be falling apart, but I'm not convinced yet.)

The other camp has people like Stephen Schneider, James Hansen, Eli Rabett, and non-scientists like Nicholas Stern, Al Gore, and inconsequential backseat-driving bloggers. This camp believes that the high-end climate projections are possible, or they think that because the unaccounted-for effect of each of the "known unknowns" ranges from neutral to bad, then high end or worse projections are credible. Separate from the science, these people think that the risks from the worse climate scenarios should also influence current policy direction on how to reduce emissions.

I suppose one could argue there's a middle ground for people who give a very low but real possibility for the high end projections to happen. I don't think that's the case though when it comes time to apply the science to policy - even a small chance of these very bad scenarios occurring should significantly affect policy.

Figuring out whether the high-end scenarios are possible should drive the discussion of the status of the middle ground and which side seems likely to be right, not some muddled middle of techno-optimists and near-denialists. I don't think they're relevant to the scientific debate, nor is James Lovelock or anyone off the deep end on the alarmist side, as well.

UPDATE: I agree with the blogosphere that Michael Tobis' comment on the problem being multidimensional rather than Revkin's linear setup is an excellent way to understand it. Maybe better than my approach. Someone with good graphics capability could even set up a website with rotating dimensions to show this multi-dimensional question.

Different point: I may have been trying what Eli describes as Overton framing, "a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas." Whether I got it right is debatable, I suppose. See Eli for his approach.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Death penalty as a deterrent?

This NY Times article discussing a fair amount of evidence that the death penalty does actually function as a deterrent for murders is unsettling for a luke-warm death penalty opponent like myself. The summary is that there's a fair body of evidence that it prevents murders, maybe 3 to 18 murders per execution, but experts disagree over whether it's conclusive.

The implication if it is a deterrent is in the article: “I did shift from being against the death penalty to thinking that if it has a significant deterrent effect it’s probably justified.” The quote is from Cass Sunstein, one of the leading liberal law professors.

But there's always another on-the-other-hand: "A single capital litigation can cost more than $1 million. It is at least possible that devoting that money to crime prevention would prevent more murders than whatever number, if any, an execution would deter." That's a testable proposition, I would think.

The article also leaves undiscussed the possibility that the death penalty reinforces the high level of violence in American culture, something that could explain why death-penalty-using America is more violent than Europe, and why the American South is more violent than elsewhere. The problem with this argument is that it's very squishy and not easily testable. I suppose that doesn't make it impossible though.

The trickiest question, assuming that spending money on policing won't work, is what to do with the current, less than perfectly settled state of knowledge. I'd think that applying the precautionary principle suggests that the most cautious approach from a saving lives perspective is to support the death penalty. Not something I'm quite ready to do, though.

And one more wrinkle: I usually think it obvious that policies proven to work should be expanded. If the death penalty works, are we making a mistake in the reduced number of executions over the last few years?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Instructors must love students like me

I'm taking beginning French in an adult education class. Teacher going over an exercise asks me to choose one of two possible grammatical constructions for a sentence. No idea. I choose one. It's wrong. She continues around the room asking folks and finally reaches me again. "We will give you lots of time for this one." I take lots of time - still no idea. I choose one. It's wrong.

Later she tells us the other class is proceeding more slowly than we are. Those people must be really stupid.

Gristmill writes a bad analysis so I don't have to

Here are some thoughts I had while reading this Gristmill guest post criticizing carbon sequestration because of the danger that CO2 would leak:

"Crud - someone's gone and written the post that I was going to write. I've seen very little discussion of leakage issues."

"Well, the author's language really seems overblown."

"Did NRDC really say that? Did Joyce Foundation really fund that?" (Clicks links, reads.) "No they didn't!"

(Reads another link.) "What the hell - IPCC says geological sequestration has a leakage rate of less than 1% per century, maybe less than 1% per 1000 years? This 'issue' just collapses."

So I left a nasty note in the comments. The argument against sequestration claims to be based on the precautionary principle, but you need some actual evidence of risk IMHO before the precautionary principle makes any sense. It doesn't work here, at least for geological sequestration that's properly managed.

I haven't seen much about mid-ocean and deep-ocean sequestration though - leakage and other environmental impacts might be an issue, if anyone's still taking about those ideas.

UPDATE: some good discussion in the comments. I suppose if I were really diligent I could pull out the IPCC cites and read those for flaws, but I'm not that diligent. If the Gristmill author had disclosed the IPCC view and then written an argument for why the leakage rate is wrong, he might have had a better case, but he doesn't really try.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A bubble on top of a bubble - finally understanding the mortgage mess

These two NY Times paragraphs finally made me understand why the financial markets are going to hell now when foreclosures are only at a modest level:

Among the fashionable new [mortgage loan] products were so-called affordability loans, like adjustable-rate mortgages (or A.R.M.’s), interest-only loans and reduced documentation mortgages. In addition to helping Countrywide win market share, those loans generated enormous profits, both in the commissions that borrowers paid and the premiums investors paid when they bought them as pools placed in securitization trusts.

Investors were willing to pay significantly more than a loan’s face value for A.R.M.’s that carried prepayment penalties, for instance, because the products locked borrowers into high-interest-rate loans with apparently predictable income streams.

Interest-only loans and reduced documentation mortgages only make sense if the mortgage company expects the housing bubble to last for many years, with no potential fall in value.
That bubble-inflated value was then bundled and resold for a still higher value (a second bubble) based on the idea that the landowners will be forced to pay higher-than-market interest rates. Now the base value of home prices is bursting, and the expectation that people will be locked into high rates goes away for those who default on their significantly-devalued mortgage. In addition, government legislation may void the prepayment penalties for the rest in order to reduce the number of people kicked out of their homes.

We may get a perfect storm if the dollar devaluation forces interest rates up - still more adjustable rate mortgages become unaffordable, refinancing isn't an option, and the underlying value of these bundled mortgage loans disappears into the air.

Climate spoofing and climate betting

The climate blogs are all interested in a spoof paper claiming global warming's a hoax that was uncritically cited by Rush Limbaugh and other denialists. The anonymous author was interviewed on the Nature blog, and he (Gender Genie says it's a he) gave this reason for doing it:

Its purpose was to expose the credulity and scientific illiteracy of many of the people who call themselves climate sceptics. While dismissive of the work of the great majority of climate scientists, they will believe almost anything if it lends support to their position. Their approach to climate science is the opposite of scepticism.

I think another purpose could be similar to a reason for challenging denialists to bets - it will reduce the number of ridiculous claims because the denialists will have to hesitate before backing whatever piece of nonsense comes their way. That's the idea, at least, but as with the non-betting denialists who won't put up and won't shut up either, it may not always work.

I also feel it's unfortunate that the somewhat deceptive technique of a spoof is necessary, but Rush and friends have just proven that's the case.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Proposal for contract between Pat Robertson and Backseat Driving

Dear Reverend Robertson:

I was very interested in these quotes from your show in January 2007 telling what God told you about what would happen this year:

The other thing He said was that this is the final year of the great demonstration of His grace to the world.... Well, that is going to come, I think, to an end, at least that great anointing. Well, the other thing I felt was that evil men, evil people, are going to try to do evil things to us and to others during the last part of this year. I don’t know whether it’ll be in the fall or September or later on, but it’ll be the second half, somehow, of 2007. There will be some very serious terrorist attacks. The evil people will come after this country....

It’s going to happen. And I’m not saying necessarily nuclear. The Lord didn’t say “nuclear,” but I do believe it’ll be something like that that’ll be a mass killing, possibly millions of people, major cities injured. I hope I’m wrong, and I hope people will pray and that won’t happen. But nevertheless, that seems to be what’s coming up....

I didn’t get a whole lot of word about natural disasters. Last year, the Lord said the coasts would be lashed by storms. Not necessarily hurricanes, but lashed. Up in New England, lashed. Denver—well not (the) coast, but the Pacific Northwest. And then, of course, over in the Philippines, two typhoons, one right after the other. Coasts around have been lashed by storms. I don’t know that we’re going to have a great many natural disasters, at least I don’t have any message in terms of that.

(In case the link above goes away for some reason, it's also summarized here.)

You said that late in 2007, there will be evil terrorist attacks on us that leave major cities injured, something "like" a nuclear attack, a mass killing of "possibly millions." Well, it's late 2007, but the year's not over.

I think you're wrong about your prediction, but I want to propose a deal: I give you $1,000 now to help you get your message out. If the year ends and there's no such attack, you give me my $1,000 back and another $1,000 of your own to help me get my message out that you're wrong about these predictions you've been making.

We just need to define terms, which I'll try to do as generously as possible. Since you only said the mass killing would "possibly" be millions of people, let's define it as any killing larger than the Virginia Tech massacre this year which killed 32 people. I also assume, along with all the mass media accounts of your prediction, that the attack will occur within the continental United States. If that's not the case, and all you were predicting is that terrorism would occur somewhere in the world during late 2007, then I'd suggest that God isn't passing on any real secrets to you.

Please let me know if you're interested.

Brian Schmidt, of Backseat Driving

P.S. You claimed vindication in your January speech for your 2006 prediction that coasts would be lashed by storms. You had actually said "the coasts," plural, "of America" would be lashed (it was a relatively calm storm year for the US) and you predicted for 2006 that "There well may be something as bad as a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest." Or maybe not, as it turns out. Please contact me if you think your predictions this time around are any better - my proposed contract should be a great bargain.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Fire offsets of forestry offsets

Via Inel, there's an interesting article about the amount of carbon released by fire relative to other sources in the US - it can be very substantial, about 4-6% of anthropogenic emissions.

The article acknowledges the conceptual problem that in the long-term, natural fire cycles are carbon neutral, with a constant cycle of burning and regrowth. I suppose the same is true about any natural carbon process, but the time scale for forests is just the right, multi-decadal length to complicate our plans to address greenhouse gases. Also, we don't have natural fire cycles any more, and the change can alter the amount of time carbon spends in the air instead of in a plant or in the ground.

Another wrinkle is with forestry offsets. You can't just measure the difference in carbon storage between a forest logged on a fast rotation cycle and a forest allowed to mature to old-growth stage, and say that's the offset amount. You can lose that offset in the next fire and have to wait for it to come back. It's not an insolvable issue, though. You just discount ("offset") the amount of carbon you calculate to have stored by the percentage of time you expect it will spend in the air over the long term due to fires. Here in California, with our quick-growing, 500-years-between-fires redwood forests, that discount won't have to be all that big.

I will concede this is another complication to using forestry offsets, despite my previous defense of the concept. Too bad, though - it's not like climate models are simple and error-free, and being complicated doesn't equal being useless. I say, "Viva conservatively-calculated forestry offsets!" Put that on a bumper sticker next to a picture of that idiot Che Guevara.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

My superpowers

Not boasting, just being informative:

*I don't get ice-cream headaches. Ever.

*Songs don't get stuck in my head, something that I understand to happen commonly among the little people of the world.

Got anything better, you mortals?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Hillary gets her climate cap on

Clinton is catching up to Edwards and Obama with a comprehensive plan on climate change. Link goes to what appears to be a white paper by Clinton reproduced at Grist, although I can't find the same document anywhere on Clinton's website. It's a non-trivial issue, because this document is the only place committing to short term carbon caps - "A fundamental cornerstone of Hillary's plan is reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020" - which I think may be more important than the commitment politicians would have of our grandchildren in the year 2050.

General opinion seems to be that her plan's not substantially better or worse than Edwards' or Obama's. I dunno - Obama's campaign says he "will start reducing emissions immediately in his administration by establishing strong annual reduction targets" to meet the same 2020 goal as Clinton. Immediate reductions sounds comparable to Edward's cap on emissions in 2010, but Clinton doesn't mention an immediate goal. I hope she doesn't expect the emissions reductions to start in 2017, after she leaves office.

UPDATE: Here's her plan on her website, with the 2020 quote.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Volokh Correction #22: Ignoring "self-defense" as a derived principle

A UN report says (at point 20) that rather than being an independent, self-evident principle, self-defense should be derived from the right to life.

David Kopel at the Volokhs says of the report that it "quite explicitly says that personal self-defense is not a human right."

I'd expect better from Volokh bloggers who aren't Zywicki or Bernstein.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Some improvements in the presidential race on climate change

NY Times has a chart on the candidates, and I've added it to my main post on this subject.

Obama has come out with a strong plan after flirting with the coal vote for a while. Edwards has tightened up his cap-and-trade from saying some permits should be auctioned to saying that all permits should be sold following a transition period.

Obama's call to match 1990 levels by 2020 is comparable to Edward's cap at 2010 and 15% reduction from the cap by 2020 (Obama's might be a little better, but Edwards has made this a priority). I don't see an equivalent short-term goal at Clinton's website, though.

On the Republican side, Thompson has allegedly started equivocating on his denialism (I'll resist the urge to take any credit for this). I'd prefer some actual quotes from Thompson though. My guess is that he's equivalent to Bush 2005-2006, saying different things according to what the audience expects. Giuliani is only a smidge better, saying there's a human contribution to warming but not how much. Romney is equivalent to Bush today, acknowledging the problem but not wanting to do anything about it. McCain is a significant improvement, although not as good as any of the Democrats.

UPDATE: He's not a major candidate, but according to the Times chart, Ron Paul is a disaster on climate change.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Really easy view of Comet 17P Holmes in binoculars

Comet 17P Holmes brightened from an extremely dim 17th magnitude object to an easily viewed, naked-eye "star" even visible in light-polluted cities, due to some poorly-understood explosion in the last two weeks. In binoculars, it's clearly not a star but a white sphere. From what I've read elsewhere, these brightening events have occurred before, but never so dramatically as this one.

It's also ridiculously easy to spot. Find the Cassiopeia constellation in the northeast sky around 9 p.m., look a short distance down and to the right to find another star, Alcheb, about as bright as the Cassiopeia stars. Alcheb appears to form the apex of a small, narrow triangle, and Holmes is the star at the bottom left.

Holmes is moving though, so in a week or so these directions will be less clear, and the exploding debris might dissipate and go away. If you're going to look, do it now.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Score a point for Dodd last night

Dodd said at last night's debate that he supports legalizing marijuana, a position opposed by all other candidates. My usual favorite, Edwards, said legalizing "sends the wrong signal" - a variant on the slippery-slope argument technique that I hate.

Dodd was good last night, as was Biden (surprisingly). Obama was okay, Edwards was okay, Clinton her usual evasive and competent self. Richardson, my second favorite, wasn't so good.

Clinton said she wants to keep the estate tax exemption set at $7 million per couple, which is insane. Edwards wants it at $4 million, which is still too high, but better.

I think Dodd might be my third favorite now, although I don't see him as a real contender.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The one Pinocchio given by 'Fact-Checker' is fair, the text isn't fair, and Dobbs forgot to give himself two

The pushback against the "nine errors" meme the press used against Gore has had some effect, as Washington Post's 'Fact Checker' column reluctantly limits itself to giving just a single Pinocchio to the allegation of a few errors in Gore's movie. It seems our side can also work the refs too and almost get some balance.

The 'Fact Checker' rating system awards "One Pinocchio" for "Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods."

Having read some of the discussion of alleged error, this seems fair to me for omitting discussion of timing for a 20-foot sea rise and for overemphasizing climate change's role in Chad and Kilimanjaro. I really don't care that Gore said people "all" had to leave their islands when only "some" of them did, that seems just like a slip of the tongue.

The 'Fact Checker' system awards two Pinocchios for "Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily." The 'Fact Checker', Michael Dobbs, clearly deserves at least this many for his own columns referring to "nine errors" while omitting the 'scare-quotes' that the judge used. In this last column, Dobbs claims the judge didn't always use scare quotes, referring to point 18 (really point 17.iii) and point 19. Point 19 refers to "errors, or departures from the mainstream" which doesn't clearly acknowledge error. Point 17.iii does acknowledge "errors and omissions in the film" though, the only place that appears unambiguous on that point. Fact Checker misses the possibility that not using scare-quotes in only one circumstance could have been a simple oversight. It still doesn't provide support for 'Fact Checker' claiming the judge said "nine errors" unambiguously.

'Fact Checker' fails to understand that the use of scare quotes is intended to convey meaning. I wrote the Washington Post ombudsman about this (and I emailed Dobbs about writing her) so I hope the Post someday figures it out.

UPDATE: I'll add that the one Pinocchio is fair as to the specific allegations, but not for the entire movie as a whole, which deserves no Pinocchios. You can't expect perfection, and these are minor points that amount mainly to bad examples of otherwise true and correct phenomenon.

UPDATE 2: One sentence rephrased for clarity.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My face on radio

Okay, not my face but my voice - Bay Area public radio station KQED released a two-minute commentary by yours truly yesterday on the flawed environmental review process in San Jose, where developers create the initial drafts of environmental documents that are supposed to neutrally evaluate the impacts of the developer proposals. More of a work-related thing for me than a Backseat Driving thing, but I'm posting it anyway. The link's here.

In other shocking news, the Volokhs have two non-wrong environmental posts in sequence. One on geo-engineering being worth a look (true, but worth nothing more than that right now), and another on the many problems of corn-based ethanol.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Watson and Summers and Myers, oh my

Via PZ Myers' blog, I see that DNA discoverer James Watson stated that Africans were less intelligent than other races (and Watson has a history of controverial statements). Myers disagrees with Watson but doesn't think he should be punished.

Two years ago, Larry Summers suggested without stating he believed it that genetic factors might account for why women are under-represented at top levels in academia. His statement was a big reason for his having to leave Harvard, and I remember Myers saying he should be fired (can't find a link for it though).

The idea supporting Summers' statement wasn't that men are smarter than women on average, but that men's fewer X chromosones mean less moderation of unusual genes, so more diversity in genetic expression means a wider distribution of intelligence, with more stupid men and more smart men compared to women.

It's not an impossible idea, but there are so many confounding cultural factors that looking at under-representation in the academia is extremely weak support for it.

The person who should have tried the idea is Watson, though. Summers had to hypothesize about increased genetic diversity for men in intellectual traits, but we already know that there's a significant difference in the level of genetic diversity between Africans and non-Africans. The more diverse group could be expected to have a wider distribution of genetically based intelligence traits, and the fatter tail at the high end of the distribution curve would mean that group would have more high performers.

The kicker to this is that it's the Africans who are more genetically diverse than non-Africans, yet we don't see a wave of academics leaving Africa and overwhelming their slower, non-African counterparts.

I don't consider all this to be a refutation of the idea that ethnicity or gender can have some effect on intellectual performance. It might, and maybe Africans do have some intellectual advantage at the high end for all I know. I do think though that it's a refutation of the idea that genetic differences are at all large at any level, and instead, other factors are far more important.

And I think foolish speculation about this stuff by two academics who, let's face it, have a disadvantageous genetic background, shouldn't get them fired.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Kant and Bentham battle it out over the Armenian Genocide Resolution

For the Kantian argument that the means matter, not the ends, try TAPPED here.

For the Bentham utilitarian argument, try TAPPED here.

As for me, I think I'll have to go with Kant on this one. Voting against the resolution is too close to lying about genocide.

Rossmiller, who argues against the resolution at the second link above, says "I studied Middle East international politics in Istanbul as a college student, and as a result I'm a great fan of Turkey and its people, so perhaps I'm slightly biased." If only he had met some Armenians during his time in Turkey, he might have seen both sides. Oh wait - I think there's a reason why the Armenians were missing. The genocide seems to have accomplished its goals in the sense of making sure Rossmiller only saw one perspective.

Kant is his own biggest problem when he says "let justice be done, though the heavens fall." I'm not going that far. The consequences of this resolution don't go that far either, but they're not good. Still, I don't see an ethical alternative to supporting it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lomborg's actually right about something

When I started writing this, I thought Bjorn Lomborg's claim that total worldwide spending on renewable energy research annually is only $2.5 billion would be about as accurate as his little jibe that climate activists land in Greenland on a glacier that's growing (it's not).

But after poking around on the web, I think it's probably correct or at least within range of being correct. That's such a low figure that I think it needs to be scaled up even faster than budgets that directly address emissions reductions. So score one point for Lomborg (although he could have also used the opportunity to criticize Bush for requesting 16% budget reductions on this research).

Where Lomborg goes wrong is in thinking that his one point means he's won the game. He wants the government spending to increase ten times, which is fair enough. But then he wants developing nations to pay for what I'd guess would be a third of that increase, the opposite of fair when they didn't create the problem.

His biggest mistake though is thinking this will revolutionize everything. It won't increase total spending on research ten times - much of current spending is from private and academic sources that won't be increased and may even diminish. And the primary government incentive for research probably isn't direct funding, it's likely to be tax breaks for renewable energy projects that allows that industry to be competitive and gives them commercial reasons for doing research.

Virtually all the climate solutions - increased renewables, increased nuclear power, carbon sequestration, even increased conservation and energy efficiency - require significant technological advances. Assuming Lomborg's one idea is all that's needed is a mistake.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Mind-numbingly stupid, Washington Post Op-Ed - but I'm being redundant

Future Op-Ed writers might hope for greater credibility by submitting pieces to the Washington Times instead. Sunday's blather from the Post has the title, "Hot World? Blame Cities." The authors have the following as their main argument:

1. Cities have stronger urban heat island (UHI) effects than suburbs. UHI is bad.

2. All other things being equal, adding more people to a city will increase its UHI.

3. Therefore, expanding suburbs out into farmlands and forests is better from the UHI-perspective than increasing urban density.

That's it. They never deal with the issue of whether the incremental effect, say of expanding suburbs into farmlands and forests to accommodate 50,000 people causes more UHI than adding 50,000 people to an existing urban area.

UHI happens when trees and vegetation are replaced by buildings and pavement. I can pretty much guarantee that spreading suburbs outwards will take out more vegetation than increasing city densities will. That's true if you just look at living areas, but if you also add the fact that people have to drive more and farther in suburbs, you get additional pavement, and probably more sprawling work and shopping places for those people who don't commute to the urban areas.

The Op-Ed deteriorates onward with the statement "Earth-to-greens message: Instead of demonizing the suburbs, why not build better, greener ones and green the ones we already have?" The green-the-ones-we-already-have message falls into the no-freaking-kidding category, and the authors might want to familiarize themselves with actual environmental organizations on Planet Earth before suggesting this is a new idea.

As far as building better ones, it's clear that development is far better environmentally in the cities. To the extent we can't stop sprawl though, we're back in the no-freaking-kidding category of enviros trying to minimize the damage from sprawl developers, who (mostly) are looking for a fast buck. The sprawlers will be certain to use nonsense like this Op-Ed, though, to try to support their case that they're doing the right thing.

Last note - the authors say suburbs could be made to function better. So can cities - there's a lot that can be done to fight UHI effects. Their rhetorical trick is to hold cities to the "all things being equal" analysis, and then assume changes are possible only for how suburbs operate.

Just enough Deadwood

I recently finished watching Deadwood’s third and last season on Netflix. Best television series I’ve seen, which is especially high praise considering that I often had to go to the Television Without Pity website afterwards to decipher the dialog I just heard.

It’s an extremely violent cowboy Western showing the founding of a new town, much of it written in Shakespearean style, complete with iambic pentameter. That alone is enough to make it interesting. The crowning point is that deals with the physical and moral sacrifices to find a home and develop “civilization,” with costs you weigh for yourself, for people you love, and for people who stand your way.

I had felt there was a serious flaw in the third season, but the finale fixed it in my opinion. I can’t write about the flaw without spoiling the finale, so I’ll just put something in the comments. Still, the first season was the best. I know the show was canceled only because of poor ratings, but I think that might be for the best.

Great story, great dialogue, great acting, and I’m glad it ended. Highly recommended.

(And now I just watched Battle Royale. This high-quality violent stuff is a little disturbing, especially when I seem to appreciate it.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Gore got it! (And the IPCC too.)

Nobel Peace Prize goes to Gore and the IPCC. Very well done, and I'll enjoy the smoke coming out of the ears of the denialists.

I suggest those denialists can get their revenge by betting me over how wrong they believe the IPCC to be.

UPDATE: I'll just add that while I agree with many people that Gore would be a great President but is a lousy politician and shouldn't run, there is one exception. If the Democrats end up with no candidate having a majority of votes at the Democratic convention, it would be fine for them to draft him. That late entry could stop the Republican campaign framing of him as nothing more than an ambitious politician, and they wouldn't be ready for it all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sandra Day O'Connor pays for her sins

There's a sad irony in that retired Supreme Court Justice O'Connor is one of the people who's paid a higher-than-average price for having Bush as president, ironic in that it's her fault. This has come out in several interviews by Jeffrey Toobin about his new book on the Supreme Court.

O'Connor is famous/infamous for not having a consistent legal philosophy driving her decisions, instead approaching each case separately. The danger in her style is that it's easy to let extraneous factors decide the case, like her belief in 2000 that Bush should win the election and the Florida debacle revolved around lazy and incompetent voters.

So O'Connor makes Bush president as part of the 5-4 majority vote in Bush v. Gore. Then as Toobin says at the link above, she doesn't take long to regret his presidency.

I can't find a link for this, but I also heard Toobin say in an interview that O'Connor had wanted to outlast the Bush administration so another, better president could appoint her replacement. She decided she couldn't do that though when her husband's Alzheimer condition deteriorated. She wanted to spend what remaining time he had with him, and announced her intention to resign. But O'Connor couldn't leave the court though until both she and Rehnquist had been replaced, and due to the Harriet Miers stupidity, it took months. By the time she could actually retire, her husband no longer recognized her and had to be institutionalized.

Had she done the right thing in 2000 and not stood in Gore's way, I expect she also would have tried to outlast the Democratic president. But when she couldn't, her resignation wouldn't have been caught up in a Harriet Miers spectacle, so she could actually leave when she wanted.

Bush cost O'Connor the last meaningful-relationship months of her long marriage. I agree with Toobin that it's a personal tragedy, although thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of others have paid a higher price. In O'Connor's case, the irony is in her responsibility.

Monday, October 08, 2007

"Cheap, tawdry, and useless" - Tim Ball wins Best Response Award to my climate bet offer

Deltoid notes that Tim Ball and Tom Harris are predicting declining temps for the next 20-plus years and wonders if they're willing to bet. Wonder no more! (For Ball, anyway.)

I emailed Ball and Harris with my usual, tiresome "willing to bet? You're betting with other people's lives, how 'bout some of your money, blah blah blah" and then, hijinks ensued:

Ball Response #1:
I don't bet on anything, it has nothing to do with science.  I
especially don't bet under coercive conditions. Your claim that if
the bet is not taken it is explicit evidence of a lack of belief or
that warming won't happen is ridiculous. You then cheapen it further
by suggesting that somehow I am emotionally responsible for the
deaths from warming. How on earth are peoples lives dependent on this
I suggest you spend your time reading and trying to understand the
science of climate and climate change rather than gambling.

I don't think conclusory statements do much to support
your position. Your best argument is that you don't
bet on anything, although you should qualify that you
don't bet on anything with your own money. It's a
mysteriously common personality trait among climate

Anyway, I'll report a summary of your response on my
blog, or with your permission I'll just post your

Brian Schmidt

P.S. I give you credit for responding though - 90% of
the skeptics can't be bothered.

Ball Response #2:
They were not intended to support my position on climate or climate
change, if that is what you mean. I find your exercise cheap, tawdry
and useless. You can post my response on your blog if you wish. I
suppose it is a way of pretending to be knowledgeable and important
about climate and climate change. I am amazed how many people have
such certain positions yet know virtually nothing and I include many
scientists in that comment.
I try to respond to everyone because unlike so many including Gore,
Suzuki, and many others I am prepared to answer questions.

I love the cheap-tawdry-useless line, especially seeing as the compliment is the only thing I and the world will get from this guy to compensate for all his effort to stop people trying to stop a disaster.

I think I'll adopt it for the blog.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Mostly hilarious Monbiot-Monckton exchange

Via Deltoid, here's a great email exchange between George Monbiot and climate denialist Lord Monckton where Monckton appears to have completely made up a lie about being paid damages by the Guardian for an article that Monbiot wrote about him.

It's only "mostly" hilarious because Monckton's obvious lying seems pathological. I hate the trend of psychoanalyzing one's opponents, but it might be appropriate here.

Anyway, Monckton won't bet, so we know he's not completely delusional.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Denialism Blog can't face a fire in a fertility clinic

Mark Hoofnagle's Denialism Blog is a good blog I agree with 95% of the time (especially about bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment). But - the blogger license requires me to focus on disagreement, where Mark is wrong, wrong, wrong. So let's start.

Mark begins interestingly with a post praising Obama for his willingness to answer hypothetical questions. I agree that politicians should answer most hypos. It fits the rule that one should generally do the opposite of anything Bush does, for one thing. It's not clear that Obama actually follows the rule though, when he says things like this:
AP: Is there any circumstances where you'd be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons to defeat terrorism and Osama bin Laden?

OBAMA: No, I'm not, uh, there has been no discussion of using nuclear weapons and that's not a hypothetical that I'm going to discuss.

Regardless of Obama though, where Mark goes off the rails is in denying there's any reason to treat especially intelligent animals like chimps as having some special moral value that relates to their intelligence. When asked whether a post-human evolved species could abuse us with moral impunity he says it's an impractical question, and therefore the response is "This is stupid. Fail. Try again." Mark should've just said, "I refuse to respond (and he did refuse to respond, we never got an answer) on the grounds that it's a hypothetical question."

Mark soon tries to rescue himself by saying that realistic hypotheticals must be answered, but it's fine for him to refuse to answer the unrealistic ones. This is where he can't face a fire in a fertility clinic.

The "Fire in a Fertility Clinic" hypothetical is a standard argument used against the people arguing that personhood begins at conception:

Probing the assumptions underlying the equal moral status view of the embryo, Sandel asks how a person holding that view would behave if confronted with a fire in a fertility clinic. Given a choice between saving a five-year-old girl or a tray of 10 embryos, which would one choose?

The right blogosphere has been fumbling with this one for years, with several unconvincing responses, but Mark's advice to them would be "Don't answer it! It's vanishingly unlikely! This is stupid. Fail. Try again."

I think the rest of us can see a value to the question that extends beyond its practicality - it helps us understand what we really believe to be ethical, regardless of what we tell people or tell ourselves about our beliefs.

But, if it's helpful to Mark to try something more probable than the specific fire in a fertility clinic scenario, I can come up with something regarding the treatment of intelligent beings. What if computers get smarter than us? Plenty of experts think that's possible in the next 50 years - some don't, but I think at our current state of knowledge, it meets the reasonable percentage probability that Mark demands. So what about it - okay for the smart computers to use us solely for their own ends?

Eli Rabett raised another sci-fi possibility in a comment, the possibility of "genetically modifying other terrestrial species (chimps/dolphins etc) to increase their intelligence to our level. It would make this a much more interesting place. This actually might be within reach." I agree that within 50 years this may be in reach, so what then? Should they be treated differently? What if we "overdo it" and make them superior - can they do what they want with us?

Finally, something I've not seen anywhere is a discussion about the ethical implications of intelligence distribution curves within a species, say for chimps. If they're like humans, a small percentage are likely to be much more intelligent than average. The tiny number of great apes taught sign language probably means we've never encountered individuals in the top 1% of their species for intellectual ability. What are they like? What can they do? If it's ethically disturbing (to me anyway, if not to Mark) to imagine killing Washoe in a medical experiment, what about a chimp that's twice as smart?

I don't think Mark's reason for refusing to answer an improbable hypothetical is right, and I think reasonably possible hypotheticals present themselves too. At some point, Mark says "I'm making a judgment, speciesist as it is, that human life is more valuable than the lives of other animals." I'll disagree with the first clause of that statement too - it's not a judgment, it's a fundamental assumption that he doesn't use logic to justify, and the only way to question such an assumption is to pose contrasting hypotheticals.

For my part, I'm a sapientist - smart creatures have moral value. There's lots of tricky gray areas that I haven't figured out with this, but I have more confidence with this approach for answering the hypotheticals.

(And yes, this is all about a post from months back. My typical quick response time.)

UPDATE: Mark and I have been emailing, and here's one response he sent me:
I still don't understand.  What is the use of a hypothetical if I can
just propose an alternate one that counters it? They are
uninformative. Surely you can see the difference between asking a
politician a question like, "If Roe v. Wade is overturned, would you
support legislation to guarantee or deny abortion rights?" It's a
hypothetical, yes, but it's about a possible event, of relevance to a
political discussion. Now, compare this to, "If space aliens came to
earth and enslaved us based on our moral code of speciesism, how would
you feel?" Yeah I can answer it, but it's not a meaningful response
and has no business being used to justify a moral code. It's based on
assumptions of the morality of non-existent aliens. I could just as
easily propose that we get visited by the Klingons, and in their
contempt for our vegetarian/pacifist existence they making us slaves.
What's the point of such stupid questions?

I'm not composing an argument for why I'm a speciesist based on this,
I'm just relating my contempt for the hypotheticals proposed by ARAs
like Singer, as if they are meaningful. As long as someone can propose
another that is equally improbable and contrary to the first, they have
no value for a moral discussion. If you like publish this reply as a
discussion of that aspect of the conversation.

I also don't feel as if I have to justify the morality of animal
experimentation and using animals for human benefit. I believe the
burden is on the ARAs to justify why we are the one species on the
planet that can not use or kill other animals. Why are we the exception
to the rule?

I think he's missing the distinction between the outcome of a hypothetical versus the lesson we can learn from the hypo. If he can come up with an alternative hypo that teaches a different lesson that backs his moral position, let's hear it, regardless of how outlandish it is. And he hasn't responded to my more probable hypos.

As for why we have to obey morality while animals don't, I would guess that sufficiently intelligent animals may well be capable of right and wrong, something that an intellectually-negligible predator like a shark or crocodile wouldn't. I'll further guess that existing apes are in a gray moral area, whose limited intelligence results in at best, limited moral culpability, but I don't really know. Before Mark jumps on this with the question "Is it then immoral for chimps to attack neighboring chimp groups?" I'd guess the answer is that it's understandable, and the morality is a gray area.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Trying to keep perspective on Hillary

Hillary Clinton is only my third favorite of the top three Democratic candidates, but I have to keep reminding myself that she's countless miles ahead in quality for any realistic Republican nominee.

It's hard for me to keep this perspective in mind though when I see articles about how she and Bill used their power to kill a negative story about her (Bill refused to cooperate with a GQ cover story about him if the criticism went through). This throwing weight around to kill stories, for reasons that are unrelated to whether the stories are accurate, does not speak well to playing by ethical rules.

GQ deserves the lion's share of the blame for selling out whatever journalistic integrity they had, though. And it's not as if Bill Clinton is some un-photographed, un-interviewed mystery guy. They could've done the story about him without his cooperation, but the marginal value of a special cover photograph was greater than their journalistic integrity.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

On a levee, running with the tides

Yesterday I went on one of my usual runs along the levees on this side of San Francisco Bay. It coincidentally happened to be during one of the highest tides of the year.

So as I ran south along the levee, I could see over five miles of water to my left separated by a ten-foot drop on my right by a twenty-foot wide, old dirt levee. For much of my run, the top of the levee was only three feet above the tide. Ahead and to the right was Google's headquarters, built right alongside the Bay. I couldn't see it but I know that Intuit was next door, along with many other driving companies of the Internet, and tens of thousands of residents.

The great sage, Bjorn Lomborg, says climate change isn't that costly and not worth spending too much money fighting. I don't know if he's including the rebuilding of the entire San Francisco Bay levee system when he makes his calculations. He thinks the sea level rise will only be eight inches in a century, so I doubt it. I know, though, that Silicon Valley and its residents aren't going to roll the dice on that prediction.

I should acknowledge there are second and sometimes third levees in most places, but not everywhere, and they're just as old and often no higher. And the levee system would have to be rebuilt regardless, but not as soon, not as high, and not as strong. Climate change is imposing this cost.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Little Rock and Rangoon

Amid the 50-year anniversary of desegregation in Little Rock (great article here about it), we have the real-time drama in Burma as Buddhist monks face off against the military dictatorship.

I spent two winters in the early 90's volunteering with the ethnic minority Karen opposition groups in eastern Burma, and several years afterwards assisting in efforts to stop financial support for the dictatorship. The media is accurately conveying how bad things are there, and the slim but real chance for improvement.

The best "what you can do with 30 seconds' time" action is to sign this online petition to the Chinese government. Petitioning Burma's dictators is useless, but the Chinese have to weigh how much their colonial enterprise in Burma is costing them as the 2008 Olympics come ever closer.

European Union citizens and others can also petition the EU President to support stronger actions, rather than get shown up by George Bush of all people on a genuine human rights issue.

The military is starting to take action now against the monks, so any outside pressure at all is sorely needed.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Climate legislation in Congress

Inel suggests I take a look at this post on climate change legislation currently in Congress. My wise words on all this are - I dunno. I'd guess that anything comprehensive that didn't get vetoed by Bush would be so weak that it would actually be a mistake - the footdraggers would then use the previously-passed legislation as an excuse to do nothing for the next few years when we'll likely have a Democratic president and bigger Democratic majority in Congress.

But I also don't think they're really trying to get anything passed before 2009, so this is all just prep-work, of a type. Dingell's prep-work bill is a poison pill, IMHO - making the perfect the enemy of the good so that nothing will happen on fuel economy standards, all in order to keep the car industry dinosaurs from being forced to do anything to save themselves or the climate. Opinions vary on this, I guess - Gristmill's been covering it.

I've got a much better opinion of Lieberman-Warner. However awful Lieberman is on Iraq and civil liberties, he's been very good on environmental issues. And yes, a carbon tax or a sale of all carbon permits, instead of just 24% of them, would be better, but the question is just how far you can push the utility industries and all their other polluter allies. Starting with 24% doesn't seem all that bad to me.

Bill details here. Some interesting parts:

Each year 4% [of carbon allocations] will be allocated to state governments, half based on population, half on historical state emissions.

Finally some partial recognition that allocations based on past emissions is unjust.
24% in 2012 will go to auction under the aegis of the Climate Change Credit Corporation; rising to 52% by 2035.
So the percentage gets better.

CCS regulations and a legal framework for the Federal assumption of liability for geological storage will be proposed by a study group within two years of enactment.



“The bill will set forth detailed, rigorous requirements for offsets, with the purpose of ensuring that they will represent real, additional, verifiable, and permanent emissions reductions.”

That's all solved then.

Foreign Tariffs

The President will be authorized to require that importers of GHG-intensive products submit emissions allowances of a value equivalent to that of the allowances that the US system effectively requires of domestic manufacturers, if it is determined that nation has not taken commensurate action to reduce GHG emissions.

I still think a trade agreement is the way to go with binding international climate action, dammit.

UPDATE: Saw this article on the same issue, with basically the same viewpoint. It's also probably worth mentioning that legislation providing for improved science, and for energy efficiency aid to developing countries could become law soon, and have a modest value.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Press Release: Backseat University Scientists Determine Method to Remove All Exaggerations in University Press Releases



Today, a B.D. University political scientist announced that he has determined a new method to remove all exaggerations in scientific press releases. Brian Schmidt said, "It's been clear for decades that press releases sent out by universities announcing new discoveries published in the academic journals will often make claims that go far beyond what was accepted by the peer-reviewed journals. The problem is not that the discoveries have no value, but rather that the press releases grossly exaggerate the value, often by eliminating any qualifiers forced into the article by editors and reviewers."

"Clearly, none of this exaggeration is due to the scientists themselves making statements in the press releases that failed to pass peer review, so there is no need to address that 'problem.' Instead, 100 percent of the exaggeration problem can be laid at the feet of overzealous university press offices and public relations officials."

"My solution is simple - the major universities must jointly create an independent nonprofit organization through which the universities release announcements about new scientific advances. The universities keep their PR departments for everything else, and they can even issue their own releases on any scientific subject, but meanwhile the objective organization has also issued a press release without the bias of the universities' PR people."

"With time, this organization's releases will gain credibility in the media because its PR people are objective. It could even ultimately become an academically-oriented news service."

"This method, I'm sure, will entirely solve the issue of someone going beyond a merely useful announcement of a means to partially reduce a problem, and instead claiming a comprehensive solution."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thomas Ricks degrades his reputation on Fresh Air

Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks has tried to make up for his mediocre-if-better-than-the-Times reporting in the runup to the Iraq War with his book Fiasco, criticizing US policy in Iraq after the invasion. He never apologizes for his past failures in his current book, however.

Now he's on to new failures. On the NPR show Fresh Air, Ricks says of the "General Betray Us?" ad that he was "appalled," that the ad was "unfair and not accurate," and that his long personal knowledge of Petraeus as a "good soldier" meant the ad was wrong. He said the criticisms consisted of personal attacks, which is where he goes wrong.

The Move-On ad's headline was juvenile and counterproductive, but morally justifiable based on the ad's actual content. Ricks never once responds to the iron-clad proof that Petraeus has in the past sugar-coated his description of Iraq prospects for purposes of political advantage. Doing that yet again in the life-and-death context of Iraq can appropriately be described as betrayal.

Ricks is engaged in what I'd call a reverse ad-hominem - saying Petraeus is a good guy, therefore the criticisms about his previous statements are inaccurate. Going deeper, I think Ricks thinks Petraeus' policies might have worked if applied from the beginning, and that his policies still have a slight chance of working, and so criticisms shouldn't be allowed. That's bad journalism, and the bad journalism of Ricks and people like him is why we're in the fiasco that we face today.

UPDATE: For a contrary view of the Move On ad, see this baloney analysis in the Washington Post. Personally I don't think an advocacy ad consisting of about 100 words is obligated to discuss opposing views and opposing evidence so long as it doesn't imply no such views exist. But what do I know.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The exception versus the rule on meat eating and other stuff

An email conversation I had with correspondent Kathy S. somewhat parallels the enviro blogosphere discussion of PETA's assertion "you just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist".*

Kathy noted how little emphasis the enviro groups place on eating less meat, while I mentioned that sometimes meat can be more environmental. Here in the SF Bay Area, eating locally-raised grass-fed beef, especially if the cattle isn't finished on grain, is more environmental than eating imported tofu.

Still, my response reminded me of a criticism someone posted on the John Edwards blog to my idea that monster mansions should lose the home mortgage tax deduction. The counter-argument ran that some large houses could be more environmentally-sound than smaller ones. Personally, I'm unimpressed with the claim that a generally-good rule should be stopped because in rare exceptions it will be counterproductive. Same holds true about meat.

On the other hand, there's a difference between a general rule and a universal rule. Generally, vegetarianism is better than meat-eating. Transforming that into a universal claim like PETA did is illogical. A better argument is to avoid factory-farmed meat, and choose either veggies or locally-raised animals.**

*I expect the PETA statement will be followed by the nuclear industry's assertion that you can't be an environmentalist and oppose nuclear power).

**Unlike cattle and buffalo, chicken and pigs can't be raised on grass. However, it just takes 2 pounds of feed to make one pound of chicken (including the inedible parts), so the loss ratio isn't all that bad, and free-range chickens live partially off the land.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Belated August 2007 Iraq casualties

Avg. daily Coalition fatality rate during the last month: 2.84 (the vast majority are Americans, but not including Iraqis)

Previous averages
July 2007: 2.87
June 2007: 3.6
Last year, August 2006: 2.13.

Overall daily average to date is 2.49. Total US dead as of today: 3781.

Iraqi monthly military and police fatalities: 76.

Previous military/police fatality rates
July 2007: 232
June 2007: 196
Last year, August 2006: 233.
Total Iraqi military dead: 7448.

Note that I've seen media reports suggesting the Iraqi military casualty figures are significant undercounts.


Iraqi monthly civilian fatalities: 1598

July 2007: 1458
June 2007: 1146
Last year, August 2006: 2733.
To-date civilian partial total (stats begin only in March 2005): 37441.

Note that the civilian numbers are far less accurate than others (most likely to be greatly underestimated, or even ridiculously underestimated), but could still be useful in determining trends, especially in the short term.

Comments: Now twelve months in a row with American casualties above average; no prior bad stretch lasted longer than three months. The overall average for American/non-Iraqi foreign fatality rate continues to move up, from a low of 2.29 deaths daily.

As before, civilian casualties remain terrible. The rate seems to hover around a level that is nearly twice as bad as early 2006, and three times worse than in 2005. Neither we nor the Iraqis realized how good we had it back in 2005.

Seven months have passed since the troop escalation began, with no indication in these statistics that it has accomplished anything, except possibly as a contributor to higher US military casualties. These civilian statistics do not corroborate US military claims for a decrease in violence in areas covered by the surge - either these stats are completely useless, the US stats are completely useless, or the violence moved away from Baghdad and into other areas.

Friday, September 14, 2007

On a vindication kick - this time, Greenspan

Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2007 - "Greenspan says didn't see subprime storm brewing":

"While I was aware a lot of these practices were going on, I had no notion of how significant they had become until very late," Greenspan said. "I really didn't get it until very late in 2005 and 2006."

An old post of mine:

Friday, June 17, 2005

Alan Greenspan should work at a coffeehouse

Greenspan, June 2005:

"The apparent froth in housing markets may have spilled over into mortgage markets," Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, said while testifying to Congress last week. "The dramatic increase in the prevalence of interest-only loans, as well as the introduction of other relatively exotic forms of adjustable-rate mortgages, are developments of particular concern."

Greenspan, February 2004 (via Brad DeLong):

"American consumers might benefit if lenders provided greater mortgage product alternatives to the traditional fixed-rate mortgage. To the degree that households are driven by fears of payment shocks but are willing to manage their own interest rate risks, the traditional fixed-rate mortgage may be an expensive method of financing a home."

Ask not from whom the froth bubbles, it bubbles from thee.

A lot of us saw the problem earlier than June 2005, buddy. Your genius certificate needed to be revoked a long time ago. Regardless, even in June 2005 the Fed could've taken steps to stop another 6-12 months of people being sold horrible mortgage packages, and we'd be better off now, but Greenspan's Ayn Rand philosophy told him to do nothing. Thanks.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Some SETI vindication

A while back, I wrote about an "interview" I had with E.T. the Extraterrestrial, disputing the idea that alien intelligence is unlikely:

ET: Well look, [P.Z Myer's] guilty of the same anthropocentrism he accuses Sagan of having when he says technological capability has only evolved once on earth. So what? It always evolves only once per planet, from the perspective of the first species to get it on that planet. That doesn't make it unique.

And this is in a recent interview with Frank Drake of the SETI Institute, who knows what he's talking about:

[Astrobiology Magazine]: Although we have no evidence for intelligent life in our own solar system other than Earth.

[Frank Drake]: But that’s meaningless. Probably every planet can produce more than one intelligent species eventually. But they do it at different rates. So on every suitable planet in very many planetary systems, there may be many intelligent species about to appear, but one is always first. And the first one looks around and says, “We’re the only smart ones!” It is the only way it can be, and this is greatly misunderstood. This inevitable situation does not say that a planet can produce only one intelligent species. This fact says nothing about the probability of intelligent life or the possible eventual number of intelligent civilizations.

Nice to see that agreement.