Wednesday, June 30, 2010

House of Continuity

Nick Clegg has been given the job of looking at reform of the House of Lords. It would be nice if, this time, there were actually some sensible progress. Who knows, perhaps in Britain's changed and reduced state such a thing may even be thinkable. There is no shortage of good ideas out there.

It might even be good to consider (with due scepticism and an eye on what is supposed to be 'the art of the possible') some really way out and whacky ideas. For example, the idea proposed by Jiang Qing in China for a tricameral legislature. As Daniel Bell describes this to Alan Saunders, this would comprise one House as 'more democratic', another House where the representatives are chosen by 'some sort of meritocratic means like some sort of examination system where the deputies would have the obligation to represent non-voters', and another House which Jiang Qing calls a House of Historical Continuity. In the second and third House the delegates would be required to consider and attempt to represent, somehow, the wisdom of past generation and the interests of future ones.

Jiang Qing's proposal may or may not be unworkable and misguided for China or anywhere else. But it has the merit of recognizing some shortcomings in what we regard as a typical system of representative democracy. And it might help us think.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"The prelude to an almost inevitable future"

It is time to stop demonizing Bin Laden and Al Qa’ida and focus on the broader threat. Massive population increases, poverty, decaying educational and social infrastructure, culture shock and alienation, and failed secularism affect far too much of the Islamic world. Yemen and Somalia are only the two worst cases, and some form of extremist and terrorist threat is likely to be a regional constant for the next two decades – regardless of whether the US and its allies win or lose in Afghanistan.
-- from Realism in Afghanistan by Anthony Cordesman

As Pericles is reported to have said, I am more afraid of our own mistakes than of our enemies' designs.

Sound and silence audiologist from New York [went] in the what was at that point one of the most remote parts of the world, a section of Sudan 650 miles south west of Khartoum where a tribe of people known as the Mabaans lived who had none of the exposures to the sonic assaults that we do in cities today. He discovered that among the Mabaan the majority of people who were 70 years old heard as well as 20-year-olds did in New York and that two Mabaans facing in opposite directions 100 yards apart could speak in a very moderate, even low voice, and hear each other perfectly.
-- George Prochnik talking to Natasha Mitchell.

My first reaction to this had been that it was a bit precious:
There's that beautiful line from Thoreau, that silence has various depths of fertility, like soil. I felt again and again when I was traveling how each one of these different microclimates of silence, a pocket park or a monastery or a Zen garden or a neurobiology laboratory, had such a different texture to it.
But the conversation with Mitchell changed my mind.


Every second of every day people believe, often in perfectly good faith, that they’re doing one thing when they actually doing something completely different. And this is what I find to be the true poignancy of being human. It’s tragic, it’s comic and in its own peculiar’s beautiful.
-- Ted Mooney in an interview with Sam Tannenhaus, NYT book review podcast, 4 June 2010.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tea, and the Philosophy of Right

This is the rage and anger I hear in the Tea Party movement; it is the sound of jilted lovers furious that the other — the anonymous blob called simply “government” — has suddenly let them down, suddenly made clear that they are dependent and limited beings, suddenly revealed them as vulnerable.
-- J.M. Bernstein builds a plausible hypothesis, following Mark Lilla's analysis of the Tea Party activists. But, Bernstein thinks, they are not Jacobins but nihilists. I think they are Carl Sagan's nightmare come true.

Words and deeds

...some of them pointed in the right direction. Obama used his first address from the Oval office to attack corporate self-regulation and to call for a revolution in energy and environmental technology: >
The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet know precisely how we're going to get there. We know we'll get there.
William Galton sees a missed opportunity:
In my judgment, the president’s speech tacitly sounded the death-knell for the inclusion of serious climate change provisions in any energy bill that Congress might enact this year.
P.S. Bradford Plumer sees a terrifying message in responses to the spill.

Monday, June 14, 2010


As winter turned to spring in the early months of 1960, a thick smell of death began to rise out of the landscape. Yu remembers the change of season clearly. Walking around the semi-rural enclave, he saw thousands of corpses strewn alongside the roads and in the fields. During the winter, the bodies had hardened and set in the cramped, bent shapes in which people had died. They looked like they had been taken out of a freezer and then randomly scattered across the landscape. Some of the corpses were clothed, but the garments had been ripped from others, and flesh was missing from their buttocks and legs. In the first days of spring, the corpses began to thaw, emitting a sickly smell that permeated the everyday life of a shell-shocked local citizenry.

The surviving residents protested later that they had been too short-handed and exhausted to give the dead the dignity of a burial. They blamed the disfigured corpses on hungry dogs, whose eyes, according to rumours which swept the area, had turned red after gnawing at human flesh. “That is not true,” said Yu. “All the dogs had already been eaten by humans. How could there be dogs left at the time?” The corpses hadn’t been eaten by ravenous animals. They had been cannibalised by local residents. Many people in Xinyang over that winter, and the two that followed, owed their survival to consuming dead members of their families, or stray corpses they could get their hands on.
-- from The man who exposed Mao’s secret famine, a profile by Richard McGregor of Yang Jisheng, the author of a book about the famine during the Great Leap Forward in which 35 to 40 million people starved to death.

Friday, June 11, 2010

...We are such bubbles as the water has...

Rising from the depths of the Boiling Abyss
Returning to rest in the Gulf of Obscurity
From The Question of Heaven, Songs of the Ch’u, translation by David Hinton

se non è vero è ben sognato

Running on water:


I think it is extremely unfortunate that Matt Ridley has missed many of the important points and concepts. In my view, he has also cherry-picked evidence to form opinions which are unsupported by the bulk of scientific evidence and understanding. This is demonstrated by the fact that he completely ignores the mainstream scientific literature. In my view, it is also clear that he has a very poor understanding of the core issues.
-- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, one of the experts asked by New Scientist to comment on Matt Ridley's take on ocean acidification, which is that:
Ocean acidification looks suspiciously like a back-up plan by the environmental pressure groups in case the climate fails to warm.
That sounds to me a bit like a PR person saying that:
the claim that smoking increases the risk of heart disease looks suspiciously like a back-up plan by anti-smoking campaigners in case smokers fail to die of lung-cancer.
On a broader point, how useful is Ridley's analogy of ideas 'having sex'? Is it more credible than the meme metaphor, which Scott Atran debunked in In Gods We Trust?

Ridley, it may be noted, is a passionate advocate of deregulation. Contrast this with a recent reality check by James Surowiecki.

P.S. 2pm: I haven't been keeping up with George's columns. He has a sound take here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Flooded in darkness

From Mikhail Bulgalkov's description of a mental breakdown in The Master and Margerita:
It was twilight, in mid October. She went. I lay down on my sofa and fell asleep without putting on the light. I was awakened by the feeling that the octopus [1] was there. Fumbling in the dark I just managed to switch on the lamp. My watch showed two o'clock on the morning. When I had gone to bed I had been sickening; when I woke up I was an ill man. I had a sudden feeling that the autumn darkness was about to burst the window pains, flood into the room and I would drown in it as if it were ink.
[1] Another translation has this as a large squid


Tony Judt (Israel Without Clichés) and Ilan Pappé (The deadly closing of the Israeli mind) -- following Ross Douthat (Outremer and Wanted: An Israeli Strategy) -- are among the latest to be worth reading and taken seriously on the upshots of the Gaza blockade. [See also a view from naval history and a Turkish view]

Barack Obama took a bold step in announcing $400m aid package to Gaza.

The divergence between Israeli views of the recent incidents associated with Gaza and those in much of the rest of the world is remarkable. Many Israelis, reportedly, saw the deaths of civilians as matter for humour. Others, e.g. UNRWA, tried to draw attention to the severity of humanitarian in crisis in Gaza.

I happened to be reading Stephen Asma's On Monsters and was reminded of the story of Golem -- not the Lord of the Rings character but the monster created to protect the Jewish community in Prague. In the old story, Golem runs amok, turning from a protector into a hazard. It seems to me that Israelis, who have created a military superpower and do not seem to set much store by many old friendships and alliances, would be wise to recall this story.

Asma quotes a characteristic insight of Montaigne's: "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself". Perhaps Israelis and others who are blinded by fear and rage will recover some of the sense of the miraculous nature of all lives.

Meanwhile, in the 'real world', Israeli preparations to attack Iran proceed. And Centcom is already at work.

A beautiful mind

Yellow-casqued hornbills—tropical birds that sport dusty orange mohawks—always perk up when Diana monkeys sound the eagle alarm, since eagles are a common enemy. But hornbills don't react to the Diana’s leopard alarm calls, because leopards usually can't catch the high-flying birds.
-- Scientific American

'The epitome of weakness'

The British Parliament really came about because it demanded control of public finances - the Magna Carta, the English Revolution and so on - and it once played a fairly important role in budgetary decisions, but it no longer does. So the last government defeat on estimates on the spending side of the Budget dates back to 1919 when the Lord Chancellor was denied funding for a second bathroom. So you have a situation where for a very, very long time, Parliament in Britain has not really done anything to the government proposal in terms of the spending side. On the tax side, once in a while it has managed to force some revisions to the government proposal, but even this is very, very rare. So you have a very weak Parliament. In an OECD context, Westminster really is the epitome of weakness.
-- Joachim Werner of the LSE, quoted in Economistocracy Analysis, BBC Radio 4.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


All denialisms appear to be regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature...This is not necessarily malicious, or even explicitly anti-science. Indeed, the alternative explanations are usually portrayed as scientific. Nor is it willfully dishonest. It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts.
-- from Living in denial.