Friday, January 29, 2010

The future of the IPCC

A New Scientist editorial suggests:
  • keep intergovernmental status
  • more studies on special topics (e.g. geo engineering, carbon sinks)
  • yearly reports
  • much more open discussion and transparency

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The almost infinite game

The number of legal chess positions is 1040, the number of different possible games, 10120. Authors have attempted various ways to convey this immensity, usually based on one of the few fields to regularly employ such exponents, astronomy. In his book Chess Metaphors, Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy.
-- Gary Kasparov

Democracy now

Corporation to run for U.S. Congress: press release and video


Thoughtful piece . Striking story

Monday, January 25, 2010


Immigrants come to Italy to do jobs Italians don’t want to do, but they have also begun defending the rights that Italians are too afraid, indifferent or jaded to defend. To those African immigrants I say: don’t go — don’t leave us alone with the mafias.
-- Roberto Saviano

Sunday, January 24, 2010

'Where language is corrupted...'

Waterboarding is not now and never has been, under any legal, moral or historical authority, an interrogation technique. No one can be "interrogated" with a cloth across their face and water poured over them to bring them to the point of drowning 183 times. They can merely be tortured, and then their broken psyche can be questioned.

That the NYT, that Isaacson and Tanenhaus, two decent and intelligent and humane people, should now be forced by style manuals to say that torture is something else, suggests how far we've come. And how fast.
-- Andrew Sullivan

Friday, January 22, 2010

Holes in the sky

Nature has a useful overview of The Real Holes in Climate Science. In 2007, the IPCC highlighted 54 key uncertainties:
...such [uncertainties] do not undermine the fundamental conclusion that humans are warming the climate, which is based on the extreme rate of the twentieth-century temperature changes and the inability of climate models to simulate such warming without including the role of greenhouse-gas pollution. The uncertainties do, however, hamper efforts to plan for the future. And unlike the myths regularly trotted out by climate-change denialists..., some of the outstanding problems may mean that future changes could be worse than currently projected...
An accompanying editorial says:
...Perhaps the most important lesson is that researchers must be frank about their uncertainties and gaps in understanding — but without conveying the message that nothing is known or knowable...
On 'future changes worse than currently projected,' see this.

Two more on Haiti

Andy Kershaw and Nicholas Kristof

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

System failure (4)

The last few weeks of political developments around the American-European financial system make us feel like we are back in the USSR. During the final years of communism’s decline, Soviet bureaucrats argued for futile tweaks to laws that would crack down on speculators and close “loopholes” – all in the vain hope they could keep the unproductive system of incentives intact. The US, UK and key European countries are now making the same error.
-- Peter Boone and Simon Johnson

Related: System Failure (3), (2), (1)

Monday, January 18, 2010

'This is your father and this is your mother'

An AK-47 gives you so much power when you hold it in your hand. With this thing I can shoot an elephant down. With this thing I'm equal as an adult, I can make an adult scream and beg for mercy. And the way it was brought to us was we were told: "this is your father and this is your mother". And it kind of makes sense. When you have an AK-47 you will not go hungry, you eat anywhere you pass, any village that you go to - you just sit under the tree and people will bring you food. That's the power it had. When you don't have it you become like a child again, you become vulnerable.
-- Emmanuel Jal, interviewed on ABC. But Jal found a way out:
When I was smuggled into Kenya [to go to school] by Emma [McCune], I still have the anger and desire to kill even in cold blood. When she takes me out with Muslim friends, some would say my name is Mohammad or like this. I feel like taking that fork or the knife and jumping at their throat and doing something. But luckily you know Kenya became a transforming area to help me to forgive. But you know when I visit my family the wounds are scratches that have healed and I feel the pain again and I tend to forget I forgave and I want to pick an AK-47 again to go and fight. Then part of my brain tells me no, this is not about Muslims, it's not about Arabs, what is killing you is the oil. So, because I discovered the truth oil is what is killing us, and it's the religion has been manipulated to mobilise people they get what they want. And so now I know the truth, should I continue hating or not? And so that's where I have to keep on struggling when I get really mad and have to suppress it.
Photo: (Congo/Rwanda) Marcus Bleasdale

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dismal, utterly dismal or moderately cheerful

As the extent of the devastation in Haiti was becoming clearer, I happened to be listening to Al Bartlett talking to Tim Harford and giving his own gloss on three theorems of Kenneth Boulding:
"The Dismal Theorem"- If the only ultimate check on the growth of population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.

"The Utterly Dismal Theorem" - This theorem states that any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of [technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery.

"The moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem" - Fortunately, it is not too difficult to restate the Dismal Theorem in a moderately cheerful form, which states that if something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it can be stably prosperous.
Haiti, of course, is relatively self-contained and the situation may be salvageable through the efforts and wisdom of its own people, together with concerted external support. A nightmare is that Haiti's cycles of vulnerability, misery and destruction are a small prefiguring the global future for a civilisation that does not evolve to realise the moderately cheerful theorem.

'War is god'

Joe Penhall argues that in some respects The Road is McCarthy's most optimistic novel:
His other books give the impression that he thinks inhumanity is intrinsic. Those books are about the worst, the extent of man's inhumanity. The Road is very much about the best. It seems to be very autobiographical - a clever love story about McCarthy and his son, who was eight when he wrote it - but thrown into this post-apocalyptic landscape.
Contrast this, spoken by the judge in Blood Meridian:
It makes no difference what men think of war...War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

Al Qaeda franchise

The attempted Christmas attack also put Al Qaeda’s resourcefulness on full display. In its third decade, under severe pressure, it has evolved into a jihadi version of an Internet-enabled direct-marketing corporation structured like Mary Kay, but with martyrdom in place of pink Cadillacs. Al Qaeda shifts shapes and seizes opportunities, characteristics that argue for its longevity. It will be able to wreak havoc periodically for as long as it can recruit suicide bombers and well-educated talent, as it has done consistently.

Yet Al Qaeda is also weakening. Osama bin Laden sought to lead the vanguard of a spreading revolution. Instead, he and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are hunkered down, presumably along the Afghan-Pakistani border, surrounded by only about two hundred hard-core followers. Their adherents in Yemen and Africa number no more than a few thousand. Al Qaeda in Iraq is a tiny fragment of its former self. Bin Laden’s relations with the Taliban seem brittle. Unlike Hezbollah, Al Qaeda provides no social services and thus has built no political movement. Unlike Hamas, its bloody nihilism has attracted no states that are willing to defend its legitimacy. In a world of at least one and a half billion Muslims, this does not a revolution, or even a vanguard, make.
--Steve Coll.

Relating to Coll's observations on hysteria in the U.S, Mark Mardell has suggested that sometimes American media do Al Qaeda's job for it.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Under the sun

Man is endowed with creativity in order to multiply that which has been given him; he has not created, but destroyed. There are fewer and fewer forests, rivers are drying up, wildlife has become extinct, the climate is ruined, and the earth is becoming ever poorer and uglier.

...The world perishes not from bandits and fires, but from hatred, hostility, and all these petty squabbles
-- from Uncle Vanya (1897)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Writing in England

I think England is the very place for a fluent and firey writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. A bucket of Greek sun would drown in one colour the crowds of colour I like trying to mix for myself out of grey flat insular mud.
-- Dylan Thomas, Letter to Lawrence Durrell, December 1938

Monday, January 04, 2010

Fire from heaven

Testing of the LGM-118A Peacekeeper re-entry vehicles, all eight shot from only one missile. Each line represents the path of a warhead which, were it live, would detonate with the explosive power of twenty-five Hiroshima-style weapons.
A long way from chimpanzee aggressive display.

Friday, January 01, 2010

'The mirage is the traveler's book'

...Just as at nightfall
I say to my two friends
If there has to be a dream
Let it be like us and simple.
For example after two days
The three of us will dine
To fete our dream's premonition
That after two days not one of us will have been lost.
So let's celebrate in the moon's sonata
And make a toast to the lenience of death
Who saw the three of us happy together
And decided to look the other way.

I don't say, far way life is real with its imaginary places.
I say, life here is possible.
-- Mahmoud Darwish, by some oversight read by John Berger on BBC Radio 4 this morning.

(The line breaks are erratic as I haven't read the original, which is in any case only a translation...)