Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sometimes it's not worth scoring pedant points

I just composed this letter for El Pais de Murdoch, but decided it would serve no useful purpose:

I can see what Janet Albrechtsen is getting at with her call for a ‘Martin-Luther-style reformation’ of Islam. The Muslim world clearly needs another violent mass movement led by an anti-intellectual Jew-bashing demagogue.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Vehicle is not the Destination

Scene 1: A quote by 1960s geneticist Robert Sinsheimer, quoted in ‘Brave New Worlds’ by Bryan Appleyard.
The old eugenics was limited to a numerical enhancement of the best of our existing gene pool. The new eugenics would permit in principle the conversion of all the unfit to the highest genetic level ... it is a new horizon in the history of man. Some may smile and feel that this is but a new version of the old dream, the perfection of man. It is that, but it is something more. The old dreams of the cultural perfection of man were always sharply constrained by his inherent, inherited imperfections and limitations ... to foster his better traits and to curb his worse by cultural means alone has been, while clearly not impossible, in many instances most difficult ... we now glimpse another route – the chance to ease the internal strains and heal the internal flaws directly, to carry on and consciously perfect far beyond our present vision this remarkable product of two billion years of evolution.

Scene 2: A quote about that quote by Bryan Appleyard, in his book...
Both Sinsheimer and the NAS report took the view that biological control represented a logical extension of mankind’s glorious progress to complete mastery of nature. This progress is seen as the defining project of the species. In both quotations one feels that nothing else but science is of significance. All other human activity and achievements are reduced to a sideshow, for it is science that changes ‘man’s view of hismelf’, and it is science that can ‘ease the internal strains and heal the internal flaws’. If science alone can do all these things, it is difficult to know what else there is to be done and what possible historical status can be accorded to anybody who is not a scientist.

Scene 3: S’nshmra, the island of Flores, BCE 12,000
The old swimming was limited to the strength of one hobbit. With the new boats, we can in principle take any person, whether they are strong or weak, across the ocean to other places ... it is a new horizon in the history of hobbitkind. Some may smile and feel that this is but a new version of the old dream, the perfection of hobbitkind. It is that, but it is something more. The old dreams of the cultural perfection of swimming were always sharply constrained by our inherent, inherited imperfections and limitations ... to achieve the ability to cover miles of open ocean by training and practice alone has been, while clearly not impossible, in many instances most difficult ... we now glimpse another route – the chance to surpass the internal strains and internal flaws of the swimmer, to carry on and consciously perfect far beyond our present vision our remarkable capacity to travel not only on land, but in water.

Scene 3: P’plrda, the island of Flores, BCE 11,970
S’nshmra took the view that boatbuilding represented a logical extension of hobbitkind’s glorious progress to complete mastery of nature. This progress is seen as the defining project of the species. In her quotation one feels that nothing else but boatbuilding is of significance. All other hobbit activity and achievements are reduced to a sideshow, for it is boatbuilding that can ‘perfect hobbitkind’, that can ‘surpass the internal strains and internal flaws of the swimmer’. If boatbuilding alone can do all these things, it is difficult to know what else there is to be done and what possible historical status can be accorded to anybody who is not a boatbuilder.

God's Politics, Part Two

I don’t deserve Marco’s admiration. I am not, in the main, finding Jim’s book refreshing. In fact, I have stalled completely, since it is like reading porridge.

One of its features is inclusion of a great many fragments Jim wrote previously. To prove to you all that I am actually reading it, I should discuss one of them. The one that leapt out at me first is a ‘Six Point Plan’ for Iraq that Jim prepared with a number of other religious leaders in the US and UK in February/March 2003. Interestingly, this appears in two versions: one that mostly makes sense (pp.51-52), and an edited-down version sent to Tony Blair that makes much less sense (p.54).

Point one, version one:

1. Remove Hussein and the Baath party from power. The Bush administration and the antiwar movement are agreed on one thing- Hussein is a brutal and dangerous dictator. Virtually nobody has any sympathy with him, either in the West or in the Arab world, but everybody has great sympathy for the Iraqi people, who have already suffered greatly from war, a decade of sanctions and the corrupt and violent regime of Hussein. So let’s separate Hussein from the Iraqi people. Target him, but protect them.

[This preamble to point 1 is eminently sensible, and suggests a made-for-cinema-release war plan. I can envision a Jean-Claude van Damme-led special ops team seizing control of television stations and the presidential palace in a demonstration of ‘V for Vendetta’-style regime change. This would have been a good idea, I think. But this does not seem to be what Jim and company have in mind. How do they suggest that Hussein be targetted?]

As urged by Human Rights Watch and others, the Security Council should establish an international tribunal to indict Hussein and his top officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity. This would send a clear signal to the world that he has no future. It would set into motion both internal and external forces that might remove him from power. It would make clear that no solution to this conflict will include Hussein or his supporters staying in power. Morton Halperin has pointed out: ‘As we have seen in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, such tribunals can discredit and even destroy criminal regimes.’
[‘set into motion both internal and external forces that might remove him from power’. What does this mean? Presumably, since it isn’t a very Christian sentiment, Jim doesn’t mean ‘we hope those coloured folks will get rid of Saddam while all our boys stay at home.’ But really, what else is this plan going to mean in practice? Indicting Slobodan Milosevic was part of a plan that also involved invading his country with a dubious Coalition of the Willing, and the Rwandan genocide architects were only indicted after a ruthless Tutsi rebel leader and his band of ruthless Tutsi rebels had kicked them out of power. An indictment would have been a nice gesture, but for it to amount to something it has to be bundled with something else.
There is this understandable current of thought that if the Iraqi people had risen up and overthrown Saddam Hussein, that would have been good; but having somebody else overthrow him is bad. I can sympathise with this point of view, but it a view that is largely alien to the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. There aren’t any psalms full of exhortations for the Israelites to rise up against their oppressors; there are lots pining for the coming of a Righteous Ruler who will show their oppressors what for. (NB: You should check this for yourselves, since I haven’t re-read the Psalms for a couple of years and may be talking through my hat) In a similar vein, you will see in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica that the first criterion for a just war is that it be waged by a lawfully constituted authority of some kind. The Pope tried abandoning this principle once, and exhorted the English to rise against Queen Elizabeth, but had his fingers burned so badly that his successors have never tried it again, not against Stalin, not against Hitler. Much as I, too, am in thrall to the romantic vision of brave rebels overthrowing the bad guys, the weight of Judaeo-Christian tradition is in favour of the Good King riding in to cast them down.]

In the letter to Tony Blair, the preamble is ditched, and the amble is made more specific:

1. Indict Saddam Hussein for his crimes against humanity and send a clear signal that he has no future in Iraq, setting into motion the internal and external forces that could remove him from power and bring him to trial at the International Court in The Hague. History has shown, as with Slobodan Milosevic, that this can help bring down a criminal regime.

[They have cut the Rwandan reference, probably seeing that it had some problems. On the other hand, by specifying the International Court at The Hague they have guaranteed that their point will be ignored. A Republican administration might have gone for a one-off tribunal to indict Saddam, but the International Court of Justice is one of those button-pushing things: they don’t want to hand over any sovereignty to permanent institutions of the United Nations, nor give them any more legitimacy than they have to. Everybody knows that.]

Point two, version one:

2. Pursue coercive disarmament. Removing Hussein must be coupled with greatly intensified inspections. This would mean not just more inspections but inspections conducted more aggressively and on a much broader scale. The existing U.S. military deployment should be restructured as a multinational force with a U.N. mandate to support and enforce inspections. The force would accompany inspectors to conduct extremely intrusive inspections, retaliate against any interference and destroy any weapons of mass destruction it found. There should be unrestricted use of spy planes and extended no-fly and no-drive zones.

[Would a mandate like this have been forthcoming? I don’t think so. If such a mandate was forthcoming, would Saddam have complied with it? I don’t think so. What possible incentive for co-operation with the U.N. does he have if we have already signalled he has ‘no future’ in Iraq? We can dream, but any such resolution would have to specify what the U.N. would do if Saddam didn’t comply: and the only credible thing it could say was, ‘we’ll come in and do it whether you like it or not.’ I think the hope of getting a mandate like Jim describes, with the coda that is needed to make it believable, was why GWB went down the U.N. route in the first place. By working with the U.N. to try to get it to enforce its resolutions, which were all about weapons of mass destruction, he only handed his critics this big stick to hit him with, labelled ‘Bush Lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction, Boo, Hiss.’ But I am digressing.]

Point two for Tony:

2. Pursue coercive disarmament with greatly intensified inspections based by a U.N. mandated multinational force.

[The loss of the detail given in the first version effectively emasculates this point, I think.]

Point three, version one:

3. Foster a democratic Iraq. The United Nations should begin immediately to plan for a post-Hussein Iraq, administered temporarily by the United Nations and backed by an international armed force, rather than a U.S. military occupation. An American Viceroy in an occupied Iraq is the wrong solution. An internationally directed post-Hussein administration could assist Iraqis in initiating a constitutional process leading to democratic elections.

[Hang on: if ‘internal and external forces’ bring down Saddam, surely they are going to have their own ideas about running the country. This is clearly not a ‘Six Point Plan’, but a series of ‘If than else’ points: ‘If point 1 doesn’t work, and either point 2 leads to the regime falling when the multinational force is present, or point 2 fails and the Americans move on to point 2a, then we go to point 3...’
Besides this quibble I only have a rhetorical question: is a democratic Iraq more likely to be fostered by an unelected regime that is composed of people who are, when they are at home, practitioners of democracy themselves, or an unelected regime composed of people appointed by a committee including Libya, China, Sudan, Woy Woy, etc.?]

Point three for Tony:

3. Foster a democratic Iraq through a temporary post-Hussein U.N. administration, rather than a U.S. military occupation.

[Which looks even more ‘if-than-else’-ish in the executive summary version.]

Point four, version one:

4. Organise a massive humanitarian relief for the people of Iraq now. Rather than waiting until after a war, U.N. and nongovernmental relief agencies should significantly expand efforts to provide food, medical supplies and other humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people now. Focusing on the suffering of the Iraqi people, and immediately trying to relieve it, will further help to protect them from being the unintended targets of war. It would also help to further isolate Hussein from the Iraqi public by contrasting the world’s humanitarian concern with his indifference to his own people.

[This is the sort of thing one would hope would be part of any plan, though if Hussein was in power there is no practical way relief could be provided in such a way as to make him seem other than the benevolent father of his people. This point serves as a reminder that we always worry about catastrophes that don’t happen, and don’t see the ones that do happen coming...]

Point four for Tony:

4. Organise a massive humanitarian relief for the people of Iraq now, rather than only after a war.

[Now, Jim and company veer off to consider points that are only feebly connected to the other four.]

Finally, to ensure a lasting peace in that troubled region, two other points are necessary:

5. First, we should recommit to a ‘road map’ to peace in the Middle East. The United States, Britain, and other European Union nations must address a root cause of Mideast conflict with a peace plan resulting in a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians by 2005, structured to include meaningful deadlines enforced by the international community.
[What will ‘enforced by the international community’ mean? An invasion of Israel? If you could get the U.N. to agree to a resolution approving the invasion of just one country, I suppose that would be it. I don’t see how either side could be made to accept terms they consider grossly unfair except by overwhelming force.
I think it is hubristic in the extreme to suppose that anyone can come in and simply impose a peace plan on Israel/Palestine. And as far as putting effort in to negotiate a diplomatic solution, I can’t imagine anybody putting more serious, sincere effort in than Bill Clinton did. He tried really hard, and it didn’t work. The only thing he didn’t do- because he is basically sane, and decent- is join the U.N. orthodoxy of reflexively condemning Israel for everything. Is this what Jim wants? Would this point of the plan be satisfied if the U.S. were to vote for all the ritualistic anti-Israel resolutions, even if this didn’t – as it wouldn’t- bring us one step closer to a resolution of the conflict?
It is only fair to point out that Israel was the first, and as far as I know, the only state established by a U.N. resolution.]

Point five for Tony:

5. Commit to implement the ‘roadmap’ to peace in the Middle East, with a clear timetable toward a two-state solution that guarantees a Palestinian state and a secure Israel by 2005.

[The little introductory sentence is gone. This point is now just lumped in with the other points! Note that the sensible phrasing ‘a root cause’ which provided a vague link to the first four points has vanished. Note also that the reasonable ‘a roadmap’- committing us to some plan - has been replaced by ‘the roadmap’, commiting us to one particular plan that had already fallen by the wayside by 2003. The ambiguous ‘enforced by the international community’ is gone, but the equally impractical ‘guarantees’ has appeared. It is hubris, again, to say the international community can ‘guarantee’ a good outcome.]

Point six, version 1:

6. Second, we should refocus the world’s energies on the greatest threat it faces- networks of suicidal terrorists. The international campaign against terrorism has succeeded in identifying and apprehending suspects, freezing financial assets and isolating terror networks. But it is danger of being disrupted, both by acrimony and by lack of attention, as the world focuses on the impending conflict with Iraq.

[Ping! (That is the hyperbole meter going off.) There is no supervillain poised to destroy all major Western capitals with weapons of mass destruction. ‘Networks of suicidal terrorists’ are only a symptom of the greatest threat the world faces, the ideological vacuum and general gormlessness at the heart of Western Civilisation (sic). Jim Wallis has failed to engage with the ‘draining the swamp’ metaphor:

‘Prime Minister, the greatest public health problem Southern Italy faces is malaria, which everyone knows is spread by mosquitoes. Our campaign against mosquitoes has succeeded in squashing billions of mosquitoes. But it is in danger of being disrupted, both by acrimony and by lack of attention, as your government focuses on draining the Campagna marshes...’

The networks of suicidal terrorists of which Jim speaks require only two things to flourish: (1) an ideology that leads them to despise the godless West, and (2) a belief that the West is not only despicable, but weak and vanquishable. So long as these two things persist, there will be an inexhaustible supply of terrorists, and all our stupid infringements of civil liberties will avail us naught. We cannot directly address the terrorist ideology, we can only affect their perception of us. ‘Draining the swamp’ hence means ‘stomping on leaders who have thumbed their noses at the U.S. and the U.N. since forever’. I recognise that this is a debatable argument, and might not be working out so well in practice, but the only thing that a war on ‘terror’ can really mean is a war on ‘the perception that we are gormless losers’.]

Point six for Tony:
Reinvigorate and sustain international cooperation the campaign against terrorism, rather than having it disrupted by a divisive war against Iraq that intelligence officials believe will likely lead to further attacks.

[I have just realised now after having written the thing that I have no real desire to rehash the invasion of Iraq again, so I should have kept looking for something else to write about from Jim’s book. Perhaps I should just quickly post something else, in a weaselly effort to avoid discussion of the weak points in my arguments...]

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Why Water Doesn't Matter. Much.

Okay, there is obviously more to the Greenhouse Effect than a lame correlation between carbon dioxide concentration and temperature rise. I have only just figured out exactly how it all works, and maybe it is written up somewhere on RealClimate for noobs like me, but I couldn’t find it, so here it is.

Let us begin with the Sun. It is more or less a black body heated to a high temperature, and sends all kinds of electromagnetic radiation out in all directions, some of which impacts the Earth, as shown in Figure 1.

The difference between the upper dotted line (sunlight at the top of the atmosphere) and the lower solid line (sunlight at the bottom of the atmosphere) is the first lot of energy we need to worry about. Part of it looks like it is scattered back into space (the general fact that the solid line is lower than the dotted line) and part of it goes into increasing the kinetic energy of various molecules floating around in the air (those are all the little dimples in the solid line). These molecules (mostly water) can then knock into other molecules and increase the general kinetic energy- that is, the temperature- of the air. The more scatterers there are in the air- dust, soot, water droplets, etc.- the more energy will be scattered away, and the more water vapour (mostly) there is, the more the atmosphere will be heated directly. But on average, the solid line should not change much over time.

Now, what happens to the solid line when it reaches the earth’s surface? Either it will be reflected, and zip back off into space, or it will be adsorbed. This will be very variable indeed, and will depend on where the clouds are (they count as surface), and where the snow is, etc. Nobody is at all sure how this balance between reflection and adsorption will respond to an increase in global temperature, but the famous precautionary principle suggests that it is likely to stay about the same.

The adsorbed energy heats the Earth’s surface. But because the whole thing has to balance to keep the Earth’s temperature the same, it has to go somewhere: and where it goes is the energy radiated by a black body heated to a not-terribly-high temperature, as shown in Figure 2.

The heavy green line is the theoretical curve for a black body at 255 K, and the narrower green line is observational data from an area of the Pacific ocean at about 290 K. Now you can see the bending signal of carbon dioxide! This is the rational basis for being fretty about carbon dioxide. If the dip caused by carbon dioxide gets bigger, the total area of the curve has to increase to balance the average energy coming in with the energy being radiated out. Let’s say the dip increases to where it takes up an extra 10% of the total area under the curve: the surface temperature then has to increase by a factor of approximately the fourth root of 1.1, an increase of about 6 K. 10% is of course a ruinously gloom and doom eyeballing estimate by me that probably requires a quintupling of carbon dioxide concentration, so people are worried about an increase rather less than that.
This is why I was (probably) wrong about water vapour: Water vapour, though in one way of looking at things is responsible for 90% of global warming, in another way is irrelevant, since this emission is happening in a 'window' where water hardly absorbs at all.

Note that this 6 K with a vast increase of carbon dioxide is an increase in average surface temperature; not air temperature, which will be bouncing around all the time in response to the energy actually absorbed by the atmosphere directly, and the balance between reflected and absorbed radiation. I think this is the basis for the quarrel between the RealClimate guys, who think average air temperature is a good global warming way to measure nevertheless, and Roger Pielske Jr., who favours something to do with the heat content of the oceans as a better way to see how this balance between heat adsorbed and heat radiated is working out in practice.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Madness of King James

I was a bit peeved, finding out that ‘contrarian’ is a term of abuse on RealClimate. I assumed it meant ‘someone with a bias towards the position which is roundly abused by the majority’, but it seems they mean by it ‘someone who disregards all the evidence out of contrariness.’

Nature is doing the experiment for us, so there is no need for me to dispute with the RealClimate people. And no appropriate dangling threads to grab hold of at the moment, either. But all these things keep going around and around in my head and keeping me awake, and I am hoping they will go away if I write them down, so you will have to bear with me. Or go somewhere else, until the next post. That would also be fine. I am afraid all my links are recorded at work, where I have been collecting them in epsiodes of slackness, so I can’t put them in now.

I contend that:

* People who post comments on RealClimate erring on the ‘we’ll all be rooned’ side are not slapped down, unlike those who post comments erring on the ‘she’ll be right’ side.

* People who argue on RealClimate about the difference between 0.08 and 0.11 degrees as if it means something, and attribute deviations in multi-decadal averages of that magnitude to specific reafforestation events, are not doing anything worthwhile. They are finding patterns in noise, just like any good animist tribesman. We can only make very broad, careful statements with data as noisy as we have.

* If my y = mx + c correlation, where y = deltaT and c = [CO2], curves up at the end, it must mean that something other than CO2 is primarily responsible for the last fifteen years. This might be falling aerosols, or the delayed effect of rising CFCs, or something else, but we can be certain that the real ‘m’ for forcing due to carbon dioxide is not as great as the ‘m’ we might extrapolate from looking at the last fifteen years alone.

* The forcings used by Hansen et al. in 1988, an apparently seminal paper to which I was directed by Eli Rabett, are just that same y = mx + c that a dumb ox like myself could have come up with.

* I have learned what I ought to have realised from Beer’s Law, that y = mx + c ought to be y = m log(x) + c. NB: This means that any correlation curve ought to be curving down, not up.

* None of the specific predictions of the Hansen et al. model seem to have come to pass: China, Central Asia, the margins of the Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves, and shallow seas like the Caribbean, don’t seem to have experienced more intense warming than other parts of the world over the past eighteen years.

* The argument that anthropic influences on water vapour can be ignored because water vapour has a short residence time in the atmosphere does not hold, er, water. Ozone has a short residence time, too. It is the steady state concentration, averaged over space and time, that is important, and I cannot imagine how this could not have been affected by human activities. I feel that anthropogenic water vapour will be far more significant than a 30% loading on the [CO2] forcing, and it will be much more complicated to work out.

* The arguments about the ocean heating up and outgassing carbon dioxide, and the ocean becoming acidic, ignore the fact that the ocean is a very thin warm bit on top of a very thick cold bit. It is the mixing of these bits that is important. I found some US Geological Survey data of ships sailing here, there, and everywhere and measuring the carbon dioxide concentration in the water. There was a very broad range in carbon dioxide concentrations. The concentration in the water was often higher than atmospheric concentration. There wasn’t any trend to less carbon dioxide in warmer water. Why is this? Well,

* When I was last in Devil Bunny City I went to a talk by a physical chemist from New Zealand who talked about how mass and heat transport are coupled: you can’t calculate the flux of carbon dioxide from water to atmosphere and vice versa just by looking at the concentrations, you need to know the relative temperatures too. I worked out his equations in Excel, and a gas will move against a pressure gradient if it is moving with a temperature gradient: i.e., if the air is hotter than the water, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the water will be higher than in the air. He wrote two papers on this in 1991-1992 in the climate scientists’ journal of record, Geophysical Research Letters. They have each been cited exactly four (4!) times. I found a paper from 2003 by a collection of climate scientist chaps from Princeton and other places, who estimated carbon uptake in various places and come to the conclusion: ‘there is more carbon dioxide uptake at low latitudes, and less at high latitudes, than the models predict.’ Well, this is because the physics in those models is wrong.

Now, I might be in error. I may not have read enough and may be overlooking lots of things. But everything I have found has reinforced my belief that it is very wrong to make drastic and expensive changes in policy on the basis of projections of existing climate change models. The models do not contain all of the relevant physics. The models do not have proven predictive value. Extrapolations of the models to the future, to give ‘we’ll all be rooned’ gleefully and credulously reported by the popular science media, is irresponsible evangelism, not science.

Here's another quote from Diarmaid MacCulloch's book about the Reformation, page 571:
Personally leading an investigation to discover the causes of the storms, James
uncovered a story of a gathering at North Berwick parish kirk the previous
Hallowe'en (31 October 1589) over which Devil himself had presided, with the
agenda of plotting the King's destruction, principally through manipulation of
the weather. The details were abundant, or at least became so after the suspects
had been subjected to prolonged torture.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

God's Politics, Part One

The other day I followed Nato’s counsel and bought ‘God’s Politics’ by Jim Wallis. I bought it at the bookshop next door to the music shop where I previously bought ‘American Idiot’ and ‘Taking the Long Way’, thus doing my best to give that small part of the world entirely the wrong idea about where I stand. I have only been able to take the book in small doses, but I promise I will keep going to the end.

Jim has a little credo at the end of the introduction which I can pretty much agree with, if I carefully fail to notice all the button pressing.1

We believe that poverty- caring for the poor and vulnerable- is a religious issue. Do the candidate’s budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families? Do their foreign policies include fair trade and debt cancellation for the poorest countries?

We believe that the environment- caring for God’s creation- is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ policies protect the creation or serve corporate interests that damage it?

We believe that war- and our call to be peacemakers- is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ policies pursue ‘wars of choice’ or respect international law and cooperation in responding to real global threats?

We believe that truth-telling is a religious issue. Do the candidates tell the truth in justifying war and in other foreign and domestic policies?

We believe that human rights- respecting the image of God in every person- is a religious issue. How do the candidates propose to change the attitudes and policies that led to the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners?

We believe that our response to terrorism is a religious issue. Do the candidates adopt the dangerous language of righteous empire in the war on terrorism and confuse the roles of God, church, and nation? Do the candidates see evil only in our enemies but never in our own policies?

We believe that a consistent ethic of human life is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ positions on abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, weapons of mass destruction, HIV/AIDS- and other pandemics- and genocide around the world obey the biblical injunction to choose life?
(God’s Politics, pp. xxix-xxx)

Marco has already noticed what is wrong with this list. It is just like the grab bag of environmental problems presented to us by the media. There is no attempt at prioritisation. The rhetoric a candidate uses is placed as a dot point of equal significance to their position on abortion, HIV/AIDS, genocide, etc. In a fallen world, clearly all candidates will have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In order to judge between them, we need to rank the issues Wallis lists. We need a spiritual Lomborg2 to do an ethical cost/benefit analysis and decide which are really worth worrying about and which can be placed to one side.

At the beginning of the next chapter, Jim Wallis nominates the two issues that he sees as the most important. He hasn’t justified his nomination yet, but I hope he will later. His two most important issues are:

* Poverty reduction

* The war

I agree with Jim about the importance of reducing poverty, but I think there is good evidence that the policies he advocates don’t work. I may be blinded by spin, but I think that the ‘welfare to work’ policies Clinton was forced to sign by the Republicans have been a success in reducing domestic poverty over the past decade, and that the surest path to reducing poverty globally is free movement of goods and people, which the Republicans are stronger on than the Democrats.

Obviously, I disagree with Jim (and with the Pope, sadly) about the war.

Anyway, back in 17th century Transylvania, ‘God’s Politics’ had a slightly different meaning. We all think of Transylvania from the movies, as a sort of dark and superstitious generic Eastern European sort of place. But (I’ve only just learned this) in the late 16th century it was practically the most tolerant and progressive country in all of Europe. Its princes, vassals of the Ottoman Empire, were among the first Reformed3 rulers in Europe and extended toleration to their Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant subjects, including many extremist sects persecuted most everywhere else. Transylvania became a teensy bit less tolerant over time, and became unstuck when Prince György II Rákóczi invaded Poland in 1656.

..the aim was no less than for Rákóczi to seize the throne of Poland-Lithuania to promote the cause of Protestantism, as Istvan Bathóri had once done. Rákóczi went against all precedent for a vassal of the Turkish Sultan in pursuing his crazy campaigns in Poland without any authorisation from Constantinople, and he persisted in the face first of strong warnings from the Ottomans and then of catastrophic defeats at the hands of Polish, Tartar, and Turkish armies. He died of battle wounds in 1660, his death preventing him from witnessing the complete humiliation of the principality by the Ottomans. Historians have been puzzled by the apparently suicidal foreign and military policies of a prince who was clearly intelligent and effective, but Rákóczi was motivated by religious zeal. The princely Court resounded as it had done for half a century with sermons proclaiming that Transylvania was the Israel of its day, destined to lead God’s Protestant people all over Europe to victory against false religion whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Muslim. In this story Rákóczi was cast as King David, who might usher in a golden age for humanity. The preacher at his funeral called him ‘Israel’s illuminating candle.’
(Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, p.463)

Er, I’m not sure what my point is. But there must be some sort of lesson to be learned from this.

1: I could add two or three more dot points that immediately leapt to mind, but I won’t now.

2: NB: Catholics have one of these, called ‘The Pope’. He clearly said that ‘wars of choice’ were bad, but the whole ‘culture of death’ was very bad.

3: Using the word in its technical sense, as a sub-group of Protestantism including, but not limited to, Calvinism.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Salvaging shreds of comfort

Marco has assured me that blogging is mandated by God, so I will not shirk my Divine mission.

I was going to write something, whichever way the House of Representatives vote on therapeutic cloning went, about how sometimes we silly muddle-headed voters get leaders who are better than we deserve: viz., Messrs Howard, Rudd, and Vaile all voting against the 'Let Scientists Go Crazy Ape Bonkers with their Drills and Sex' bill, while every poll I saw had the electorate solidly in favour of it.

But... I read this morning in Hansard my local M.P.'s contribution to the debate, which was a speech about how he is only a humble servant of his constituents, doing what they tell him. And he voted the way I told him. Woot!

So the planned theme of my post is shot to bits. And the LSGCABWTDAS bill has passed. But I feel kind of vindicated.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Two Short Plays, or One Short One and One Infinitely Long One


The doorbell rings.

Salesman: Hi, I’m selling house insurance.

Householder: That’s great! How much?

Salesman: Well, its kind of a sliding scale. The more you pay, the more protection you get.

Householder: Okay, so what would it cost to ensure I could replace my house and contents?

Salesman: It’s hard to tell. You probably can’t protect your *whole* house, however much you pay. But the more you pay, the more likely you’ll be able to replace at least part of it.

Householder: Well, that doesn’t sound like a *very* good deal. But I don’t want to leave my house uninsured. What sort of protection can I get for $20 a week?

Salesman: Well, it's kind of hard to tell. I could make some kind of estimate.

Householder: Please do.

Well, I have to be frank, probably we couldn’t pay anything at all on a cockamamie policy like that, but its possible we might be able to replace your garage if it fell down. Possibly.

Householder: What about, say, $40 a week?

Salesman: Er. Might still be nothing. But there’s almost certainly a better chance we could replace your garage.

Householder: $60?

Salesman: I’d have to say, same again. Maybe nothing, possibly your garage.

Householder: Okay, so let’s say I want to make certain that at least my garage is covered. Hoe much will that cost me a week?

Salesman: You want to be *absolutely* sure your garage is covered?

Household: Yep.

Salesman: Absolutely?

Householder: Yep.

Salesman: (fiddles with calculator) I make that $1836.41.


A: This is my cake.

B: No, it’s my cake.

(they fight)

A: I’ve got an idea, let’s split it 50:50

B: No, it’s mine.

(they fight)

What’s going on here?

B: We’re fighting over this cake. It’s mine, but A said we should split it 50:50.

A: That’s right.

C: Well, there’s no need to be unreasonable. Why don’t you compromise? B, you take three-quarters of the cake, and A, you take one-quarter.

A: No, that’s a dumb idea.

B: No, it’s my cake.

C: Suit yourselves. (leaves)

(they fight)

A: Okay, you can have three-quarters of the cake.

B: No, it’s mine.

(they fight)

D: What’s going on here?

B: We’re fighting over this cake. It’s mine, but A said we should split it 75:25.

A: That’s right.

D: Well, there’s no need to be unreasonable. Why don’t you compromise? B, you take seven-eights of the cake, and A, you take one-eighth.

A: No, that’s a dumb idea.

B: No, it’s my cake.

D: Suit yourselves. (leaves)

A: Okay, you can have seven-eighths of the cake.

B: No, it’s mine.

(they fight)

E: What’s going on here?

B: We’re fighting over this cake. It’s mine, but A says he should have an eighth.

A: That’s right.

E: Well, there’s no need to be unreasonable. Why don’t you compromise?


Monday, December 04, 2006

More funny stuff for Dave

Figuring things out for yourself is practically the only freedom anyone really has. Use that freedom. (Jean Rasczak, Starship Troopers)

I know that during the next thirty years it will sink in, to everyone who is actually in a position to make or implement policy, that The End of Cheap OilTM and Anthropogenic Global WarmingTM are straightforward technical problems with straightforward technical solutions. I have that much naive optimism in the capacity of our species.

I know that during the next thirty years I will turn on the television and see a lake of fire where a major city used to be, because the hegemon has forgotten how the rest of the world plays the game and has thrown the ball down in the end zone. I have that much naive optimism in the capacity of James Baker et al.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


Dave has been up north! And I have been ferreting through my very disorganised documents looking for a version of something which no longer seems to exist, or only existed in a dream (curses!), and while so doing have found this poem-like-fragment which is about up north. Circa 1997, I think.

Two Mile Creek #2

Where I live nothing has a name
the rivers have no names
the mountains have no names
There is a place where the sea sticks in
There is a place where the coast sticks out
There is an island
and none of them have names

Where I live nothing has a name
we call a lot of things by the names of long-dead
paste-coloured millionaires
Not one of whom ever saw them
Or would have cared enough to notice them
if they had

We call the things where we live by the names of
slave traders
cattle raiders
any number of people who wanted to get rich quick
and the very occasional saint

Some things we only give numbers

Nobody knows the name of anything where I live
Even when we remember the things we made them give us
And worry about whether they will ever forgive us
Nobody remembers that even they don’t remember
the name of anything

Because nine times out of ten they are dead

Or else we have taken their fathers
and beat them for calling things by their names
until they only knew how to use our words
and play our game

So no one knows the story
Of how so and so came to that mountain there
and did something there for some reason
So that it was called the mountain where
so and so did something for some reason
And instead it is called by the name of the
man who once gave a hundred pounds to another
man who once saw it on the morning of
September 16th, 1864

Saturday, December 02, 2006

This Metaphor is like, er, that pointy thing

Watched V for Vendetta last night, on the recommendation of Nato.

It was an enjoyable bit of Neo-conservative agitprop, though a bit naïve and violent for my tastes.

Disregard the occasional bits of leftist trimming: they needed to put those in to get this past the censors. What is the real message of this movie? That you can overthrow an evil regime by brute force, spout a few flowery quotations about liberty, and everything will be hunky-dory. It is all the fault of those few bad guys, and when they are gone the masses will merrily join hands and embrace democracy. And- boo, hiss!- those bad guys are so very bad.

Can you think of a country that treats homosexuals and religious minorities as badly as the England of the film? Can you think of a country that marries religious and fascist rhetoric in the same way? Can you think of a country whose leader has the same dubious facial hair? I’m sure you can. Can it be a coincidence that it is the next country marked by the Neoconservatives for regime change?

The Neoconservative cabal behind V for Vendetta don’t seem to have taken to heart any of the lessons from the Iraq war. I’d like to see a sequel three years on, where all the tensions suppressed under the rule of the High Chancellor are boiling out in the open. All the ethnic and ideological divisions of English society are at each other’s throats, and London is on the brink of civil war. Many people will curse V, and wish for the security of the old days. I don’t know what the plot of this film would be. I’m not very good with plots. I’m not sure how it would end, either.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Pope to Blame

New Salisbury mayor Gordon Blake and shire councillors were unanimous today in placing blame for the deaths of lovable local larrikins Dan Mitchell and Gary Harris on Transport Minister Pope. Harris and Mitchell were killed early yesterday morning when their light utility was struck by a B-double at the intersection of Bringabong Rd. and the Dunnit highway.

‘Pope has blood on his hands,’ Mayor Blake told the media. ‘If there had been a stop sign at the intersection, Dan and Gary would still be alive today. Pope’s a bad man, with a callous disregard for human life. If there had been a stop sign, Dan and Gary would have stopped. Instead, they’re dead. Two innocent men who stopped off at the pub for a beer after work are dead, Mr Pope!’

Officer Eric Stubley, who was following Mr Mitchell’s vehicle in an attempt to encourage him to provide a breath sample shortly before the vehicle entered the intersection, joined in condemning Pope. ‘Er- it’s his fault, I guess, if you say so.’

And, as Google tells me today is World AIDS day, here are some statistics on contraceptive use in Africa. See if you can spot any correlation between condom use and Catholicism!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Why the War was Wrong, Part the Fifth

If the war in Iraq fails, it will have been wrong.

If the war in Iraq fails, it will fail because governments and peoples, West and East, have willed it to fail.

The war will have been/will be wrong because governments and peoples wanted it to be wrong, and for no other reason.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Neoconservatism Explained: An Interview with Dr Clam

Dr Clam, a Neoconservative has been defined as 'a liberal who has been mugged by reality'. Do you think this is a reasonable definition?

I would put it slightly differently. I think every Neoconservative has reached a point where they could take one of two paths. They could forget everything that they had experienced and remain in the world they thought they lived in, or they could chose to see things as they really are, knowing that there was no going back.

So having taken the second option, Neoconservatives see the world differently from the rest of us?

Yes. They're aware that the world we think we inhabit is a fraud, a construct, and with this knowledge they gain special powers to remake what we call reality. The laws of the world we think we know no longer apply to Neos.

So how is the world the Neoconservatives perceive different?

Well, we think we are free, but Neos know that we are slaves of the system. The system is parastic on us and keeps us totally inert, unable to act or interact with the world as it really is. Neos want to destroy this system.

Uh huh. It has been said that Neoconservatives are deluded, that they can't face the complexities of the real world, and so have projected a fantasy world where everything is black and white and they can fight an abstraction of evil. Do you think that Neoconservatives have a case to answer?

Well, the Neo worldview does have elements of apparent wish-fulfillment, but at the same time it is a harsh and uncomfortable existence. People don't realise that even with superpowers, its pretty hard fighting multiple copies of Hugo Weaving.

I guess it would be. So, granting for the moment that all this true, what is the ultimate goal of Neoconservatives?

Well, basically, Neos want to destroy the system and give us freedom.

Some people would say that was an impractical dream. Some people would say that the majority of people, even if you showed them the world as Neoconservatives perceive it, they would want to stay in the world they know.

That's understandable, I guess. Not everyone is destined to be a Neo. But we will free them whether they want to be free or not.

Thank you, Dr Clam.

No worries.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Unposted Posts

"Are you going to put that in your blog?" asked Jenny (28% Clam nature) at the beginning of the year, seeing the secondhand copy of "Why we were in Vietnam" by Norman Podhoretz that I was reading. "Yes," I said. But I never have gotten around to it.

I wrote at least two straggly drafts of posts about Norman's book.

The first was the obvious one, about the similarities between then and now. It seemed like exactly the same two mistakes had been made:
In both cases there was a clear and compelling case for the war, but the governments that were pursuing the war never really bothered to argue it. In both cases there was a desire to do things on the cheap, and promise the electorate that it would be easier than the generals said it would. But these thoughts never really came together, and I couldn't find certain passages I thought I had read and wanted to quote so I didn't post anything.

The second was about unintended consequences of polemical writing. I had always considered the Vietnam War to be a ghastly mistake, until I read a book by John Pilger (many years ago now) that convinced me it was a noble and successful endeavour to save the rest of Southeast Asia- Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.- from Communism. John Pilger didn't intend to convince me of that, of course, being a virulently anti-American looney, but he made a pretty convincing argument that the Vietnam War had been fought to strengthen the hand of Suharto and other right-wing strongmen and had been successful in doing so. This argument didn't come up in Norman's book, so I researched a little bit more, and found that Suharto had well and truly finished massacring the Indonesian Communists before American involvement in South Vietnam got underway, and that the Thai strongmen in 1975 were much less pro-American, and much less secure in their position, than the Thai strongmen in 1963. I guess that serves me right for trusting John Pilger.

I also read a book written by H. G. Wells in what was, I later found out, a very brief religious phase during the First World War. I suppose it was pretty innocuous, really, humanism tacked on to a finite emergent God like the one found in some of Frank Herbert's books, but in every line it was as though it was Weston writing, the evil demon-possessed scientist from C. S. Lewis's Perelandra. Was it just that H. G. Wells and C. S. Lewis came from the same age and wrote the same kind of prose? Or was Wells the model for Weston? I wrote a whole post about this but never posted it, either.

Lastly, I have been kicking around for at least a month the idea that the Reformation was inspired by Islam, and that the religion developed by the Reformers was a crude attempt to make Christianity into a less self-consistent version of Islam. But these tenuous stirrings haven't really come together.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Coupla graphs

Here is the scary CO2 graph; red points are the famous Mauna Loa data, blue points are from the number 1 ice-core study turned up by Google (

Here is the HadCRUT3 global temperature dataset for the same period at annual resolution; the solid black line is the best estimate value, the red band gives the 95% uncertainty range caused by station, sampling, and measurement errors, the green band adds the 95% uncertainty range due to limited coverage, and the blue band the 95% bias range due to bias errors.
Bias errors are urbanisation (the 'heat island' effect) and changes in thermometer exposure protocols over time. They have taken an urbanisation bias value of 0.055 C per century for their land values, which seems to be a consensus value. Some researchers they cite (i.e., not fruit loops) claim this may be as high as 0.3 C per century, but this figure incorporates both land and sea data so is not likely to be out by as much as that.

Here is my quick and dirty correlation of the two graphs above, with one data point every five years:

My naive extrapolation of graph (1) and graph (2) suggests that the mean global temperature ought to be bopping up and down one side or another of 0.0-0.2 degrees above today's mean c. 2030.

The nanny state taketh, and the nanny state giveth away

Being too disorganised to renew car registration on time: Unexpected $922 fine.

Being too disorganised to correctly calculate my share of the tax/benefit churn: Unexpected $1376 cheque.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

All the obituaries of Milton Friedman relate this little anecdote:

In 1962, Mr. Friedman took on President John F. Kennedy's popular inaugural exhortation: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." In an introduction to "Capitalism and Freedom," a collection of his writings and lectures, he said President Kennedy had got it wrong: You should ask neither.

"What your country can do for you," Mr. Friedman said, implies that the government is the patron, the citizen the ward; and "what you can do for your country" assumes that the government is the master, the citizen the servant. Rather, he said, you should ask, "What I and my compatriots can do through government to help discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all protect our freedom."

Milton Friedman forgot that John F. Kennedy was Irish Catholic in background, and hence knew that more often than not, the question: 'What can I do for my country?' should be answered: 'Shoot the landlord, and take to the hills with a rifle.'

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Global Warming, My Shiny Metal Arse

This increasing multipartisan consensus that Global Warming is occurring and is a Bad Thing is pushing me more and more into the 'Greenhouse Skeptic' camp.

I predict that the average temperatures in the place where I live now and the average temperature in the place where you live now, gentle reader, for the years 2026-2030, will be lower than for the years 2001-2005.
I'm happy to wager $1000 (in CPI-adjusted 2006 Australian dollars) on this prediction to the first three gentle readers who respond, even if they live in Southern Siberia.

I further predict that the net change in sea-level around the Pacific Ocean, once all local sinkings and risings of the crust are accounted for, will be not demonstrably different from zero over the years 2001-2030.

I predict finally that the relative magnitude of the costs incurred in avoiding global warming and the costs that can be with a reasonable degree of certainty be attributed to global warming will bear an eerie similarity to the 'Y2K' situation.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Lone Crescent State

All this talk about Rumsfeld reminds me of my preferred model for Middle Eastern democratisation. If I had been a member of the Neoconservative cabal surrounding Bush in 2003- a state of affairs fortunately impossible- I would have said something like this:

‘Once we have half a million men on the ground and have stabilised Iraq, we will need to organise some sort of referendum about their future. Of course, we are all hoping they will vote for a stable secular democracy. But how hard is it going to be to establish that, with Iran and Syria and all the unrepresentative swill in the neighbourhood keen to see democracy fail? So, let’s make one of the options on the referendum ‘Join the United States’. This manifest destiny thing has been on hold since the Spanish-American War and its time we got it rolling again. What is easier, constructing a functioning democracy from scratch or expanding an existing democracy? If the Iraqis go for that option, we can offer them the same deal we did Texas in 1845- option to form up to five states within the union, yadda yadda. They’ll never have to worry about a Democratic Congress stopping the flow of military aid in their time of future need, like happened to Vietnam in 1974. They’ll have the freedom to move anywhere within the United States, of course, so I expect given a choice they will come to Michigan and make money instead of blowing each other up. They’ll be grateful, so they’ll probably vote Republican. They’re certainly social conservatives, so they’ll get the country moving in the right direction. And they’re not Evangelical Christian social conservatives, so they will tend to balance out the peculiarities of the Evangelical Christian right.’

Monday, November 13, 2006


I spend much too much time meandering about the web, like most people nowadays. One place I visit far too often is Mark Steyn’s website, which is where I found the link to this sad little book review.

I am assuming the Mr Christian who wrote it is not one of the ones on Pitcairn Island, because I would expect a randomly selected inhabitant of a remote inbred island to write something more coherent. I am afraid, however, that you will have to read his book review if you want to make sense of the rest of this post.


Mark Steyn’s arguments may well be wrong. But they are not self-evidently wrong. It is not sufficient to repeat his premises without refutation, give his conclusions which follow logically from his premises, and then just state: ‘There certainly seems to be a large market for rants of this sort in the United States.’ What sort of feeble excuse for thought is that? O tempora, O mores!

Without any hint of irony, or even the rudimentary self-awareness of a mollusc, William Christian segues from:

(a) Mocking as ridiculous the idea that a strong Islamic faith might be incompatible with the core values of Western-culture-as-we-know-it, to

(b) Assuming that a strong Christian faith- an integral part of Western culture until a hundred years or so ago- is incompatible with the core values of Western-culture-as-we-know-it.

Mr Christian says that Christians said; ‘People who said that this wasn't a black-and-white issue simply didn't understand it.’ But look at the words he was using a few paragraphs before! ‘A woman’s right to choose,’ are not the words of someone attentive to shades of grey. They are the words of someone for whom abortion is a black-and-white issue, just with a different white and a different black.

And I hold this simile up for mockery: ‘Life is like a conversation. It is important to keep the conversation going. There is no defined conclusion that it is required to reach. It is the nature of an ideologue to demand the certainty of a conclusion.’

Perhaps there is no defined conclusion that it is required to reach, but I would hate to be dining with Mr Christian if he thinks that this obviates the need to reach some conclusion. ‘You want me to pick an entree? What are you, some kind of theoconservative ideologue? It is important that we keep talking about lunch, but only a fanatic would demand that we actually order something.’

In order to do anything, surely it is necessary to come to some sort of conclusion about what ends we want to achieve? And then come to some sort of conclusion about what means are best to achieve those ends? Obviously there will never be unanimity about either ends or means, but collectively we still must do something. Maybe Mr Christian really does believe that muddling along without explicitly defining either ends or means is noble and proper. But I think it is more likely that what he means by ‘conclusion’ is ‘conclusion different from my (self-evidently correct) conclusion’. Perhaps Mr Christian does not approve of the conclusions of Barry Goldwater and Andrew Sullivan that he quotes. But there is nothing in the review to suggest that he disapproves of them. There aren’t any weaselly statements like ‘appalled by this intolerance’. Sigh.

Friday, November 10, 2006

That eerie silence with a few chirping crickets... the sound of me not saying anything about the 34:32 vote in favour of therapeutic cloning in the Senate, nor the mid-term elections in the United States. Nor- you may have noticed- about NaNoWriMo.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Meandering through the stacks

Among the books I have fallen in with recently is a fairly slim volume written by Cecil Edward Chesterton (brother of Gilbert Keith) in 1916, the ‘Perils of Peace’. Its main theme is that the Prussian Empire must be thoroughly punished after the war to prevent it doing the same thing again. It is eerie to read someone innocently advocating something that we know in hindsight turned out really badly. He outlines a policy that sounds very like the policy that was eventually imposed at Versailles, but this is only his Plan B, and he recognises in a caveat that it can only be successful if the rest of Europe retains the will to enforce it and will be dangerous if they grow slack. His Plan A is for a thoroughgoing partition of the Germany more along the lines of what was done (temporarily) after World War Two. He presciently recognises the dangers in dismembering the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but not Germany: “For if the war leaves the Prussian Empire in being, even though reduced, while the Austrian Empire is dismembered, Prussia will certainly seek compensation by laying hands, sooner or later, on the German provinces of Austria (she would swallow Mr Shaw’s Austrian Republic at a gulp) and might ultimately emerge stronger in resources and more of a menace to European civilisation than ever.”
C. E. never got to write any second thoughts about any of this, since he went back to the Western front and was killed there.

I also re-read Erewhon. There is a little bit of good sense in the Erewhonian attitude to crime and disease. I am sure we would all look after ourselves much better if illness was seen as something disreputable and worthy of punishment. Conversely, I have always thought it is dreadful that our priests and sages can only say ‘well, don’t do that’ as guidance for dealing with temptation, rather than ‘take these drugs.’
I had forgotten that the narrator suggested the Erewhonians be induced to work on Queensland sugar plantations as the best way to effect their conversion to Christianity.

Oh, and how could I forget? The other day in Devil Bunny City I saw what appeared to be a scholarly work about the Cathars on the discount table of a bookstore and snapped it up eagerly. The first chapter seemed more favourable towards the Cathars than in other books I had read, but this was much as I expected, as those others were pretty much all written by the ideological descendants of the crusaders who wiped the Cathars out. Feeling the treatment of Cathar philosophy was a bit vague, I flipped idly ahead to get a feel for what the rest would be like, and found this on page 119: ‘In the preceding chapters I have dealt with Catharism as it is known to historians, theologians, and philosophers. In this section of the book I am concerned with what has been revealed to me of its deeper teachings. These have been communicated by a group of discarnate entities.’
Oh dear.

Friday, October 27, 2006

October 27th

Today is the 453rd anniversary of the death of Michael Servetus, polymath and unitarian heretic, burned alive at Geneva by order of John Calvin. I think it was 10 years ago today that I left a wreath with his name on it at John Calvin Presbyterian Church. I was told the other day that its name has been changed, to Willows Presbyterian Church, which was splendid. We cannot help it, after all, if the propagators of our memes have been bad eggs: but at least we ought not to name things after them.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Closer than lips and teeth

Before the 12th of October, and the 11th of September, and the 9th of November, there was the 4th of June. At least, I think of it as the 4th of June, though I suppose it began on the 3rd of the June. I was softer clay then, so it was the 4th of June that impressed me the most. I cannot really claim any family quarrel with the government of the Renegade Mainland Provinces. My grandfather, who spent part of his childhood in the old Republic of China, and whose uncle disappeared forever into Mao’s prisons in 1949, made his peace with them well enough, and must have made a dozen visits from the late 70s onwards to coal mines in Gansu and suchlike. My grandfather was in Beijing that night, and has always said that the media descriptions of it as a ‘massacre’ were propaganda. Unfortunately I can’t remember him saying what it was, just what it wasn’t. I think it was that thing more romantic and indefensible, an armed uprising quashed.

My only visit to Northeast Asia was a few years ago, and I went to the Republic of Korea. One night at the end of the conference I went out for dinner with a Canadian, a Hong Konger, and many Koreans. I must stress that both the Canadian and Hong Konger were really really nice, very intelligent, and tremendously good company, and I don’t want to personally slight either of them, but the ironies of this anecdote are too tempting. First, I remember the Canadian talked for a while about how difficult it was in Canada, being next to a big overbearing neighbour like the United States, and all the Koreans listened politely. Then the conversation shifted, and the Hong Konger asked one of the Koreans if he travelled to China often. ‘Yes, I’ve been to Yentai several times,’ he replied. ‘Yentai? I don’t know it,’ said the Hong Konger. ‘You should,’ said the Korean. ‘It’s a city of four million people.’ And so it is! It’s there in Shandong, just across the water from Korea. I thought that was so cool, a country where a highly educated and well-travelled citizen can never have heard of a city of four million people. But I don’t want to go there myself. I don’t plan on watching the 1936, oops 2008, Olympics, either.

Now I am going to come to some sort of point. Let’s imagine for a second that everything the left-leaning commentariat says about Israel was true, and that it really was an armed camp, a rogue state, a brutal military regime that lived to mess with its law-abiding neighbours. Now, let’s imagine that it had no real economy, had no way of meeting its own food and energy needs, and was propped up in toto by another much larger and more viable country. By India, say, as part of some wacky geopolitical calculation involving keeping the Muslim world distracted. Now, if Israel tested a nuclear bomb and followed it up with scary sabre-rattling gestures, don’t you think everyone would be giving India some rather hard stares? Don’t you think everyone would be saying, ‘the way to get at these Zionist wackoes is, we’ve got to lean heavy on India’? I thought you would.

I suggest that North Korea exists because the government of the Renegade Mainland Provinces wants it to exist, and it will continue to exist as long as it is useful to them. The day it ceases to be useful, there will be a controlled implosion, and the regime will be replaced by one that is more to Beijing’s liking. But so long as it remains useful, there is nothing anybody else can do about it. However, I am happy to defer to anyone who has a more informed opinion than I do!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Moral Contextualist

Some deeds are black. And some are white.
But most of them are grey.
So we must talk about them in a quantitative way.
It is fine to follow. As it is fine to feel.
For we must believe in something, and believing, we must wheel
To defend what we believe in with a fine fanatic zeal.
But we must also measure. And we must also think.

Some things are true. And some are false.
But seldom can we know
Which falsehood is the falsest as the falsehoods come and go.
I know there is a best way. I doubt that it is good.
For we all were born to trouble in a vast and sunless wood
Where many are the paths of 'must' and few the paths of 'should'.
And we wander here to measure. We wander here to think.

The usages of Sulva! The portion of Lothair.
There are two sins against hope:
Presumption and despair.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Take that, Google!

All I could find searching for this poem by author and title were posts by people saying they couldn't find it. And when I had found it out in the real world, and Googled one of the lines not quoted in Chesterton's Autobiography, I got no hits at all.

The Rebel, Hilaire Belloc
From 'Sonnets and Verse', first published 1923, 1954 edition.

There is a wall of which the stones
Are lies and bribes and dead men's bones.
And wrongfully this evil wall
Denies what all men made for all,
And shamelessly this wall surrounds
Our homesteads and our native grounds.

But I will gather and I will ride,
And I will summon a countryside,
And many a man shall hear my halloa
Who never had thought the horn to follow ;
And many a man shall ride with me
Who never had thought on earth to see
High Justice in her armoury.

When we find them where they stand,
A mile of men on either hand,
I mean to charge from right away
And force the flanks of their array,
And press them inward from the plains,
And drive them clamouring down the lanes,
And gallop and harry and have them down,
And carry the gates and hold the town.
Then shall I rest me from my ride
With my great anger satisfied.

Only, before I eat and drink,
When I have killed them all, I think
That I wll batter their carven names,
And slit the pictures in their frames,
And burn for scent their cedar door,
And melt the gold their women wore,
And hack their horses at the knees,
And hew to death their timber trees,
And plough their gardens deep and through-
And all these things I mean to do
For fear perhaps my little son
Should break his hands, as I have done.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Mañana seré un tigre entre los tigres

The troubles of our proud and angry dust are from eternity, and shall not fail.
- A. E. Housman

There is such a thing as good. Existence is a positive good. To worship any being that is other than omnibenevolent is idolatry. I cannot abide in the religion of my birth because Hell is unworthy of God. All other religions are grey and tasteless to me, and I see their logical flaws as I cannot see the flaws of the religion of my birth. Nobody wants to change my mind about anything, and I have lost the taste for monologue, so I vaguely think of things to post and then discard them, unwritten.

I still cannot fit Angel into the logical framework of the Buffiverse, as I embark on the perilous and increasingly ludicrous journey of the fourth season. The main thoughts that recur to me are:

* The continuing 'vampires and mobile phones' shtick is highly amusing.

* Angel shoulda been staked a long time ago. Nothing I have seen has swayed me from my initial position that it would have saved everyone a world of pain to dust him when he first appeared.

* Everyone's characterisation continues to swing wildly from pillar to post, to an even greater extent than in Buffy.

* Notwithstanding the above point, Cordy is so much more a hero than Buffy the whiney.

* Dave sure was right about that stubble wrangler.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Weirdness in El Pais de Murdoch

This article contains the line 'In January 2000, al-Qa'ida tried and failed to attack the USS The Sullivans off Yemen'. Does the US Navy really have a vessel called The Sullivans? I hope so.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Chastened Dr Clam

Nato presents me with a fine discourse on humility, which I ignore. I proceed to get stuck into Jim Wallis for recognising that poverty is bad but not giving any serious thought to what courses of action are best suited to get rid of it. Then Marco kindly and gently points out that this is exactly what I tend to do about abortion. Curses!
It seems that the lowest rates of abortion in the world are in Western European countries characterised by extremely high rates of contraceptive use encouraged by universal public health care. (Note to self: find out if anyone in the United States has been game enough to suggest this lately). Prohibition per se does not seem to be very helpful. This seems to suggest: (1) as with so many other things, economic growth is what humanity needs, and abortion rates can be expected to fall as more folks have more stuff; (2) ideologists such as Dr Clam should remain ever aware that forwarding the aims of their meme-bundle in society at large may require entirely different courses of action than those mandated for those who share his meme-bundle. I am a humbler and a wiser Dr Clam this afternoon- thank you, gentlebeings!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A long, long, time ago...

...I was brought up in the same sort of liberal Christian orthodoxy that Jim Wallis is espousing. I have to admit that I haven't yet found his recent book, Nato, but I have skimmed two from the early eighties I found at the library. It is all wearily familiar and pretty much as I remember it from the guitar-playing nuns of my childhood. They never said anything about abortion. They said a lot about the evils of American militarism. They said a lot about the evils of poverty. They never said anything much about the evils of America's enemies, and they left me with the strong impression that poor people were poor just because the rich people were keeping all the money for themselves.

I am one of those 16% of people in the poll Jim Wallis talks about who would say abortion is the greatest moral crisis facing America. It is a wrong that is obviously wrong, it is symptomatic of a deep philosophical loss of bearings that separates our age from the earlier centuries of Western civilisation, and it is a wrong that is easy to fix. Poverty is also a wrong that is obviously wrong, but it is something that is non-trivial to fix, and the 'obvious' solutions to fixing it are not solutions that work. The empirical evidence seems to be that the best way to alleviate poverty worldwide, an outcome I fervently desire, is to eliminate artificial barriers to the movement of goods, services, and most of all, labour. At the moment, the people who are pushing for the removal of these barriers in the United States are overwhelmingly on the right-wing side of politics. So, if we accept Jim Wallis' vision of poverty reduction as the single overriding concern for Christian voters, voting for the Democrats is still daft.

You might notice in one of the Gospels, Nato- I can't remember which one- Judas says 'This is a waste of money: this perfume should have been sold and given to the poor' and Jesus says 'Don't sweat it. The poor will be with you always', and in the next chapter Judas goes off to betray Jesus? That synchronicity of events has seemed important to me ever since I noticed it. It still bugs me. I think Judas really believed Jesus was all about eliminating poverty and forwarding the historical praxis of liberation (like me, circa 1990, and like Jim) and that when he found out that the truth was something different, he couldn't handle it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The One Thing

I will have a go at answering Dave's question about whether I am diminishing myself by being a single-issue voter. It is my self-description, so I have to wear it. But I will redefine what it means to suit my purposes at the moment. When I say I am a single-issue voter, is the single issue really 'abortion', or is it something larger? Remember, the most important thing about a person is their philosophy. Does holding a correct opinion about abortion necessarily indicate that an aspiring politician holds a philosophy that is consistent with my own? No. But, does holding an incorrect opinion about abortion necessarily indicate that an aspiring politician holds a philosophy that is inconsistent with my own? Yes.

I have recently been forcibly reminded of a minor flaw in my character- the extreme contempt with which I regard all arbitrary rules. For this reason I must necessarily believe in the existence of non-arbitrary rules. Are there philosophies that permit abortion and hold that there are non-arbitrary moral rules? Yes. Are these philosophies internally consistent and not inconsistent with our experimental observations of the universe? No. And since internal consistency and harmony with the results of observation are the two other things that I look for in a philosophy, there I must part company with the Sikhs and Dr Ahmadinejad et al. There are of course philosophies that are internally consistent and not contradicted by the universe which would allow abortion: the philosophies of moral relativism.

Which brings me to the Pope's speech at Regensburg. It is really about how a philosophy needs to be internally consistent and not inconsistent with observations of the universe, but that those two things are not enough. He was talking about how faith (that there are absolute rules) must be combined with reason (those rules have to make sense). These are the two things that need to be believed before anything else is possible. Science accepts these two things, without explicitly saying that is what it is doing. They are the assumptions you have to make before you can begin doing science. I don't think the Pope's philosophy is entirely internally consistent or in harmony with experimental evidence, but he is entirely correct to say that is how a philsophy ought to be. The bits of his speech that have caused all the trouble are where he is talking about religious philosophies that reject these as values. But he spent more time discussing the irreligious philosophies that reject the other half of the equation.
Quote number one from the Pope, on what happens when we reject absolute morality:
It is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science" and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

Quote number two from the Pope, on what this rejection means to the relation between the West and Islam:
In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.

Which is sufficient unto the moment.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Dave Challenge

You know, having done some perfunctory research, I reckon Al Gore would have done a pretty good job.

Q. Would September 11th have unfolded in a similar fashion?
A. Yes, I think so. I don’t believe the left-wing blogosphere when it says that the intelligence failures were all in Bush’s eight months, and I don’t believe the right-wing blogosphere when it says that the intelligence failures were all in Clinton’s eight years. I think the problems in the American intelligence services were bipartisan.

Q. Would Afghanistan have been invaded in a similar fashion?

A. Yes, I think so. The difference Al mentions is that he would have more troops on the ground, and I believe him, since nation-building was a big Clinton-era thing and the Democrats LBJ and Truman were the lads who got lots of troops on the grounds in the last two big ground wars in Asia.

Q. Would Afghanistan be better off now?
A. Pretty definitely. The idea that nation building is something that they might have to do has really had to be hammered home to the Bush administration with a two-by-four, but Gore would have grasped it from the start.

Q. Would Iraq still have been invaded?
A. This is the big question. Regime change irrespective of the presence of weapons of mass destruction was a Clinton administration policy, and after September 11th I think the combination of possible intent, probable capability, and easy-to-knock-the-stuffing-out-of-nature of Iraq would have made it an obvious target for any hyperpower government worried about terrorism. I think iraq still would have been invaded. I think the pro-war/anti-war dynamic really was government/opposition, not right/left. Gore would have been Blair. He would have weighed the strategicl pros and cons and gone to war over the opposition of much of his own party. There is a mainstream current in the left-leaning blogosphere that believes someone came up in early 2003 or late 2002 waving a piece of paper and shouting, ‘Mr President! Mr President! Here is incontrovertible proof that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction and no program to acquire them!’, and that evil Mr Bush told them to bugger off, but good, saintly Mr Gore would have immediately said, ‘Oh, that’s alright then, We’d better stand down then, and leave Saddam in power.’ I do not place much credence in this story.
Maybe Gore would have been more successful in gaining the support of the United Nations, but I don’t think so. He probably would have spent more time in pursuing the UN path, and depending on domestic politics might have been tempted to leave Iraq for his second term. I would assume he would get a second term, what with the increased benefits of incumbency in times of crisis. I don’t think we need pay to much attention to what Gore says he would have done, when he’s talking now: the internal dynamics of his party have changed too much in the past few years.

Q. Would Iraq be better off?
A. I think if there had been an invasion there would be a lot more troops on the ground, which would be a good thing. It is very hard to say. The longer the invasion was foreshadowed before happening, the longer Saddam (and Syria and Iran) would have had to prepare, but then the invasion was foreshadowed for a very long time already. I can imagine a scenario in which the US decides to go for funneling money to opposition groups within Iraq and hardening sanctions, with the result that in April 2003 a ground force rolls in from Iran and kicks over the enfeebled regime. We would have all the bloodshed we’ve seen in places like Anbar province, and another godawful mess in Kurdistan, but there wouldn’t be any television cameras to show it to us so it wouldn’t matter.

Q. What about Israel?
A. I think Israel has put off a lot of unilateral actions this century because of an expectation that the US would take care of things for it. I’m not sure if this would still have been the case under Gore, but with Vice President Lieberman I’m guessing yes, Israel wouldn’t have been tempted to take care of Saddam itself.

Q. And what about Kyoto?
A. Well, the President of the United States is not a despot, and I think Gore would have had a tough time getting it ratified by a Republican-controlled congress. I’m quite certain that congress would have remained Republican-controlled, what with the traditional American habit of keeping government divided- like our entrenching different parties at the State and Federal level. The last six years have been unusual and unfortunate that way. Of course, I don’t mind about the very-bad-and-expensive-sentimental-gesture protocol not being ratified, but on balance it would have been a splendid thing if the United States had kept different parties dominating the legislative and executive branches. The costs of government wouldn’t have ballooned out so spectacularly, and there wouldn’t be so much quasi-dictatorial Homeland Security legislation. Another thing we surely wouldn't have with President Gore is such a sickly, poisoned, vile political atmosphere in the United States, with both sides saying such awful things about each other. After all, the Republicans just moved on when Kennedy stole the election from Nixon.

Q. So what’s up with you and chimpface, Clam? It sounds like you’re convinced Gore would trounce him, foreignpolicywise (if there was such a word, which I doubt).
A. Single issue thing, remember? Basically, its never been about the foreign policy. It’s about those two conservative Supreme Court Justices.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

O Captain My Captain!

The other day I read something by John Birmingham on Steve Irwin
in which he wrote that we would all always remember what we were doing when we heard that Steve Irwin was dead, and I thought, er, what was I doing? I can’t remember. But I thought for a while and eventually remembered, so that is okay.

I do not have to think very hard at all to remember what I was doing at about half past six or seven in the morning, five years ago today. I was in the bad habit of waking up and turning on the television in those days, and had an easy familiarity with the lives of Mel and Kochie, who now seem utter strangers to me. I turned on the television and there was a picture that did not make any sense: a sort of textured grey thing with a blot in the middle. I remember looking at it having no idea what it could be, and figuring out from the sounds that the television was making that it was a wall of the World Trade Center. I needed to be at work early, so I did not tarry long before the television, but I have the impression that the entire story to that point was imparted to me rather quickly. I walked off briskly towards the train station, and I remember that my main thoughts were neither Christian nor civilised.
One thought was, what an audacious thing to do!
And the other was, someone is going down for this in a big way!
The thoughts had the ‘!’ on them, and I am sure I felt almost exultant. How dreadful. I did not have a strong sense of ‘how dreadful’ then or afterwards, because I have read too much and thought so long and so often about the numerically greater tragedies of our time and other times- The Gulag Archipelago, the Hungry Ghosts, the War Against the Jews, the genocide in Rwanda and against the unborn. I rarely think about the events of September 11th without thinking also of the 100,000 villagers murdered by jihadists in Algeria, whose memory rose in my mind unbidden in those days whenever I heard any commentator seize upon the attacks on Washington and New York as startling new evidence that islamofascists were bad. Most of that day I spent worrying about one particular person who I knew was working in the Pentagon until I heard they were alright, but I never dwelled upon the day as a great catastrophe. Three-thousand is, what, 48 hours of AIDS deaths in Africa? 24 hours? 12?
So, I have never thought of that day as a particularly bad human tragedy, but it was immediately obvious as a turning point in history. Independently from any Neoconservative cabal, I could see immediately that it was an opportunity. There seemed no better moment to cast down tyrants from their thrones. Why should the world endure half slave and half free? Democracy in its essence is a revolutionary ideology.
Carpe diem.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Thoughtcrime 2006

Get this: "Commonwealth Crown Prosecutor Richard Maidment told the jury at Lodhi's trial the accused was in the planning stages of an attack with the exact target, timing and method yet to be determined."
Penalty 20 years, 15 without parole.

He didn't actually do anything, but I suppose the sort of probabilistic calculations I have done elsewhere suggested that he might. I make it 25%, tops: I think he was just doing a kind of scoping exercise to make up his mind whether to carry out some kind of attack, and the fact that he was only considering infrastructure and military targets tells me he hadn't fully absorbed the jihadist mindset. Mind you, his excuses were pretty lame. I would have said I was doing research for a novel: "It's meant to be a kind of psychological portrait of an abortion clinic bomber. That's not a timetable, its a plot summary. All those addresses are just locations I was scouting for verisimilitude..."

David Hicks is lucky. Instead of wandering around Afghanistan with the Taliban shooting at people, he might have stayed in Australia and looked up a few prices for chemicals while being non-white.

And now for something completely different

Seachanger: Someone who leaves the rat race of suburban life for a new life by the seaside.
Treechanger: Someone who leaves the rat race of suburban life for a new life not by the seaside.
Weechanger: Someone who leaves the rat race of suburban life for a new life in a more ecologically-aware community that recycles its sewage.
Spreechanger: Someone who leaves the rat race of suburban life for a new life of Clockwork-Orange-style ultraviolence.
Sidhechanger: Someone who leaves the rat race of suburban life for a new life in the land of Faerie.
And, of course,
Fleechanger: Someone who leaves the rat race of village life for a new life somewhere the janjaweed haven't set on fire.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Brief Musical Interlude

I mentioned before with reference to the Narnia books that I, the reader, am free to interpret a work of art as if it meant whatever I wanted it to mean. Sometimes this involves painful mental gymanstics, but sometimes it is very easy to subvert the author's intent. For example, I frequently listen to Green Day's 'American Idiot' as if it referred to blue-state idiots rather than red-state idiots. This interprets the references to ominpresent media-instilled paranoia to mean liberal paranoia about sinister right-wing conspiracies rather than conservative paranoia about external threats. The 'new media' and 'information age of hysteria' can easily refer to things like the Daily Kos rather than Fox.
The only tricky part was the line 'maybe I'm the faggot America, I'm not a part of a redneck agenda', but then I realised that it *could* really mean, 'conservatism is an inclusive philosophy, not a redneck agenda'!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Paint, Dumber Than, continued

I feel more depressed about the direction the world seems to be heading now than at any time since 1994.

The United States has ended its laudable silence by taking the easy path, the popular path, the stupid path, the path entirely against its own long-term interests, by sponsoring a bad ceasefire resolution that will leave a bad ceasefire. Iran will be emboldened and empowered. This is depressing.

If I was a party political animal I would have to be glad about the downfall of Senator Joe Lieberman: clearly the Democrats are out to make themselves unelectable by pandering to their brain-dead extremist fanbase. But I don’t think it is good for democracy if the opposition is clueless and unelectable. Oppositions should be about coming up with alternative solutions for the problems facing a country, not reflexively saying ’white’ when the government says ‘black’ and ‘right’ when the government says ‘wrong’. So the pre-selection- or whatever the American word for it is- of Warbucks- or whatever his name is- in Connecticut is depressing.

I feel the lack of opposition keenly at the moment because of the cretinous reaction of governments in the big and busy parts of the anglosphere to the latest possible terrotist catastrophe. If these stupid security measures are worth doing now, they were worth doing in 1995, when a previous bunch of losers tried the same sort of games with liquid explosives in the Phillipines. But they weren’t worthwhile then, and they aren’t now. The nanny states just need to be seen that they are doing something, and it doesn’t matter if the ‘something’ shows contempt for ordinary people. What is depressing is the way we have put ip with it. All the articles I’ve read about travellers who have been done over by the UK and US governments mention that they are ‘not angry.’ Why the hell not? I’ll say that again. Why the hell not? Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t everyone implicated in trying to blow themselves up on public transport in the US or UK this century been: (a) Male (b) Between 19 and 45ish (c) Not obviously non-Muslim (I mean, while not announcing their convictions, none have tried to avoid suspicion by wearing a yarmulke or an ‘I go bananas for Jesus’ t-shirt)? (d) Also, these terrorists or would-be have all been travelling alone or with a group of people meeting requirements (a), (b), and (c). I frequently meet these requirements when I travel. I don’t mind if you give me a hard time. Search me! Take my bottled water so I get deep vein thrombosis and sue the airline. Let those octogenarian nuns keep their hip flasks.
I saw in the paper yesterday a picture of some mindless government goon in Denver consficating baby food. From a baby. I can’t imagine anything more insulting. ‘We used to have a presumption of innocence in this country, and hey, maybe you don’t look like the sort of people who would blow up your baby with liquid explosive, but who knows? Anyway, nowadays we’re into disproportionate collective punishment. So sucked in’
For the love of God, leave the baby alone...