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!