Mar 24, 2011

Question of the day

Kevin Drum says:
Here's the thing: my guess is that virtually nobody in the country thinks that cities are greener places than towns or suburbs. And by "virtually nobody," I mean maybe a few percent tops. For most people, it's wildly counterintuitive on all sorts of levels to think of big, dirty, crowded, urban areas as "green." It just doesn't compute.
I'd like to solicit some opinions here. Is that really true? What's your gut reaction? (No fair looking up stuff, I'm really just honestly curious.)

Mar 23, 2011

Last chance to help with my Longtom fundraiser

Do it now!  Chances are there won't be another chance to help me out with the whole Africa thing.  See here to learn how.

Quote for the day

"That instead they want to write letters to Barack Obama is, again, a testament to the fact that the Senate’s preening self-regard is matched only by its lack of comprehension of the issues."  --Yglesias

Mar 22, 2011

The intervention in Libya

I'm not the full non-interventionist that Daniel Larison is.  I have to say that the failure of the West to intervene in Rwanda was a terrible mistake.  But I also think that clear-cut situations like that are extremely rare, and I am not remotely convinced that we face something similar in Libya.  So far the situation there is mildly encouraging in that it wasn't a completely unilateral rush to war.  I remain thankful that at least McCain isn't in charge of things.  Lord knows he would have gone off half-cocked and invaded Iran, Egypt, and Tunisia by now.

Setting that aside, my cocktail-napkin theory of humanitarian interventions is that if they're going to be done, they should be done right.  There needs to be a clear and obvious rationale (like genocide) and clearly defined objectives.  There needs to to be strong international support consisting of massive, overpowering force with more than token forces from at least a half-dozen great powers, and of course there should be UN authorization.  Most importantly, there should be a clearly defined exit strategy.  What, precisely, are we going to accomplish, and when can we declare victory and leave?  Or, if we cannot easily accomplish the objectives, do we then wash our hands and beat feet, or take ownership of the whole country?  We're at maybe 40% of that list with Libya.

It should be obvious that with these preconditions I oppose practically every proposed intervention.  What's more, I don't believe that most people currently pounding the war drums care that much about humanitarian problems.  How else to explain the complete inaction over the atrocious problems in Ivory Coast?  It is true, per Chait, that our glaring hypocrisy there doesn't necessarily invalidate the humanitarian rationale in Libya.  Two wrongs don't make a right.  But what it does say to me is that there isn't much of a humanitarian case to be made for intervening in Libya and instead it's all about democracy promotion, Libya's two percent share of world oil reserves, and loopy ideas about America's "credibility."  As Yglesias says:
If everyone cares as much about the loss of innocent African life as Libya interventionists say, then what on earth are they doing ponying up so little in foreign aid and doing so little to dismantle ruinous cotton subsidies? These aren’t really points about Libya. And why should they be? What do I know about Libya? What does Chait know about Libya? These are points about the United States of America and the various elites who run the country and shape the discourse. Exactly the kinds of subjects that frequent participants in American political debates know and care about. I see no particular reason to think that Libya will have any impact on malaria funding, but I do think the level of malaria funding is impacted over the long term by the existence of a substantial number of people (of which Chait is one) who seem to advocate for humanitarian goals in Africa if and only if those goals can be advanced through the use of military force to kill other Africans.
Emphasis mine.  It may well turn out that the intervention will go swimmingly. But right now I see a huge and completely unconsidered downside risk. Let's hope Obama and Sarkozy have the wisdom to avoid getting sucked into another Middle Eastern ground war.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall provides a more detailed argument along these lines, and James Fallows also chimes in.

Strike in Batlharos

Last week the big news in the Kuruman area was a strike in one of the outlying townships called Batlharos.  Students had been protesting the widespread use of corporal punishment, and the teachers called the police.  One of the police officers struck a student and was arrested for assault.  The whole thing seemed finished for a time, but apparently one of the local political leaders whipped the students into a frenzy and they attacked the police station en masse, stacking stones and a tree in the road, breaking windows, and burning a police car.  The main road was blocked, necessitating a lengthy detour.  The situation remained bit unstable until reinforcements arrived from Kimberley Friday night and clamped down.  By Saturday things were back in order.

Just a quick view of mob behavior.  It's a rare situation that would be improved by such random violence.

Mar 18, 2011

Programming Note

I'm away from the computer for the next couple days. I'll be back soon!

Mar 15, 2011

How Peace Corps destroys your social skills

Anyone who spends a bit of time around serving Peace Corps volunteers quickly realizes they're a little, well, off.  Aside from our shabby dressing, poor haircuts, and ratty backpacks, we generally struggle interacting with other non-volunteers outside the village.

Spending a lot of time alone, or unable to speak normally about our favorite subjects, we can lose some self-awareness when it comes to conversation.  Forgetting how nice it is to speak easy and fluent English and immersed in Peace Corps culture, we tend to ramble at length about tedious subjects only another volunteer could appreciate or find interesting, and we can forget how to notice we're boring the pants off every non-volunteer in the room (and sometimes the volunteers too).  Every volunteer gets this to some degree, some worse than others.

The other issue is the "village voice."  (This may only apply to English-speaking countries.)  Here most people speak at least some English, but people can be easily confused by rapid-fire American speech, so volunteers learn to speak slowly, enunciate, and use simple words.  This is great for the village, but it tends to infect the rest of our speech and make us sound either stupid or condescending.

I have found that, though I surely talk too much about Peace Corps like anyone, my larger problem is even more boring.  If you're reading this you probably realize that I consume a vast amount of nonfiction, politics, or otherwise nerdy material.  I've had this habit for years, but one way I deal with it without developing any serious problems is talking it out with friends.  In college, I could have one or two conversations (no more! I could stop anytime!) about the Mexican drug war, or the latest Joseph Stiglitz book, or the latest civil liberties outrages, without endangering any friendships.

Here, though, with so much time spent alone, the trivia builds and builds, until when I spend a vacation with friends I find myself talking literally all day, almost unable to stop.  It's a jarring experience for someone who was once considered notoriously reticent.  Blogging, I think, is providing the small relief from this backed-up trivia that is keeping my few remaining friendships intact.

Mar 14, 2011

Speaking of Japan

Check out TPM's slideshow of staggering images from the devastation.  I urge people that can to donate towards humanitarian relief.

UPDATE: Felix Salmon has some wise words on donations in general.  Don't give money to Japan, he says:
We went through this after the Haiti earthquake, and all of the arguments which applied there apply to Japan as well. Earmarking funds is a really good way of hobbling relief organizations and ensuring that they have to leave large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places. And as Matthew Bishop and Michael Green said last year, we are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective. Meanwhile, the smaller and less visible emergencies where NGOs can do the most good are left unfunded.

In the specific case of Japan, there’s all the more reason not to donate money. Japan is a wealthy country which is responding to the disaster, among other things, by printing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new money. Money is not the bottleneck here: if money is needed, Japan can raise it. On top of that, it’s still extremely unclear how or where organizations like globalgiving intend on spending the money that they’re currently raising for Japan — so far we’re just told that the money “will help survivors and victims get necessary services,” which is basically code for “we have no idea what we’re going to do with the money, but we’ll probably think of something.” [...]

That said, it’s entirely possible that organizations like the Red Cross or Save the Children will find themselves with important and useful roles to play in Japan. It’s also certain that they have important and useful roles to play elsewhere. So do give money to them — and give generously! And give money to other NGOs, too, like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which don’t jump on natural disasters and use them as opportunistic marketing devices. Just make sure it’s unrestricted.

The Japanese meltdown

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor, post-explosion.

Cooper has what is probably a common fear about nuclear power plants:
6. Drill Baby Drill - What’s happening with the Japanese nuclear reactors scares the shit out me. This crisis alone is enough to convince me that nuclear energy is a bad idea. I’ll take global warming over a nuclear meltdown any day.
I don't think this is a good reason to oppose nuclear power.  For better or worse, the environmental trade-off is that whatever disasters happen, they will be confined to a relatively small area, while global warming by definition will affect the entire planet.  (I'll take 10 Chernobyls over a 20-foot rise in sea levels any day.)

On a side note, I think the only reason that Republicans are huge supporters of nuclear power is because the DFHs were and are against it.

The French seem to have a handle on the nuclear issue and provide a good overview of what a nearly all-nuclear power system would look like.  Basically, it's very expensive and not particularly efficient (because nuclear is bad for on-demand power).  The waste is not nearly as big of a problem as in the USA (due to their nuclear reprocessing), but it still exists.  And, of course, there is always the security problem.  But they have among the lowest per capita CO2 emissions in the world, about two tons to the US's twenty-four.

I think nuclear can and should be part of the end of fossil fuels, but there are a lot of reasons (apart from fear of Teh Radiation) it will never be enough, laid out here by Joe Romm:
* Prohibitively high, and escalating, capital costs
* Production bottlenecks in key components needed to build plants
* Very long construction times
* Concerns about uranium supplies and importation issues
* Unresolved problems with the availability and security of waste storage
* Large-scale water use amid shortages
* High electricity prices from new plants
Basically there are a lot cheaper and less dangerous places to start. See here for more.

UPDATE: here is a captivating essay on Chernobyl (via one bloc east).

UPDATE II: Josh Marshall has some similar thoughts:
We saw a catastrophic accident with fossil fuels in the Gulf last year. What seems more relevant to me is that the proper and planned use of fossil fuels -- in other words, when everything goes just according to plan -- is creating what appears to be catastrophic damage on a planetary scale. What's more, setting aside global warming, there is a detailed scientific literature showing the number of deaths and chronic illnesses tied to the release of fossil fuel pollution into the air -- lung diseases, asthma, cancer, etc. Again, when all goes just according to plan.

None of these are facts we don't know. But even for those who are fairly versed in the details about global warming, it's still sort of long-term and invisible and thus somehow less threatening. Whereas 'radiation', for all sorts of reasons, is just scary. It's invisible and we know it can kill people quickly. Or create diseases like cancer that our medical sciences are still largely helpless to control.

If we imagine a hundred years into the future of fossil fuels and a hundred of nuclear power, at the end of a century, how much damage do we imagine each will have caused? I suspect that if it's really an either/or, the nuclear route is likely much safer.
That's a good reminder of the BP oil spill. Fossil fuels are not without their own horrifying accidents.

UPDATE III: Yglesias and Kevin Drum agree.

Mar 12, 2011

Collected links

1. GOP budget cuts would hit tsunami warning centers.

2. Awesome pictures of a volcano in the DRC.

3. A look at Alcoholics Anonymous.

4. Douchebag Texas cops thwarted.

5. Tyler Cowen, a notorious foodie, hyperventilates about some gas station tacos outside DC.

6. Paul Krugman looks back from 2096.

Let's not start another war

I am frankly stunned at the chorus of voices calling for intervention in Libya.  Everyone from Nicholas Kristof to Christopher Hitchens to David Frum to Fareed Zakaria is joining the "do something" chorus.  They are even using the classic slogans of the Iraq war, banging on about "credibility" and "reputation" and "democracy" and "responsibility to protect."

This is just unbelievably dangerous.  Though most of the warmongers only propose a no-fly zone, it is still a terrible idea.  No-fly zones have a way of turning into land wars.  I would have thought that two bloody, failed wars in the Muslim world might convince people to think twice about proposing yet another use of military force in a Muslim country most of us know nothing about.  America has no significant interests there, there is no international support, and we know very little about the Libyan rebels.  We don't know if the rebels are united or would fragment after taking power, or if they have significant jihadist support, or even whether they would welcome American assistance, or take it and then attack us after Gaddafi was toppled.  Let's mind our own business for once.

It's worth noting, by the way, that the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to intervention.  It's unfortunate in this case that American foreign policy has absolutely nothing to do with the desires of the American people.

Mar 11, 2011

They do interviews

My apologies for the light posting, I've been a bit busy.  I just wanted to call your attention to these Ezra Klein interviews with Tom Vilsack on rural issues and Grover Norquist on the budget deficit.  Both very interesting.

Quote for the day

"For the sake of conversation, set aside principled opposition to racism, religious bigotry and systematic violations of the constitution. Let's say we want the biggest counter-terrorism bang for our buck on the domestic front? How much do you think we accomplish by harassing the local Muslims in Tennessee when they want to build a mosque or a local community center with a swimming pool? Or passing laws outlawing Sharia? Again, stated like that, it seems pretty friggin' obvious.

Virtually all of what passes itself off as awareness of the threat of Islamic extremism is little more than mindless forms of petty harassment that probably have no effect whatsoever other than some small and incremental increase of the marginalization that is likely the largest single driver of sympathy with violent extremism abroad. You don't even need to get to all the principled reasons for combating Islamophobia. You can just oppose it on the general level of its complete unproductiveness as a tool to actually combating the minuscule but real threat of violent extremism among American Muslims."  --Josh Marshall.

Mar 8, 2011

Whales and cancer

Why don't whales get cancer? Or rather, why don't they get a lot more cancer than people? Carl Zimmer has an interesting post on the subject:
Blue whales can weigh over a thousand times more than a human being. That’s a lot of extra cells, and as those cells grow and divide, there’s a small chance that each one will mutate. A mutation can be harmless, or it can be the first step towards cancer. As the descendants of a precancerous cell continue to divide, they run a risk of taking a further step towards a full-blown tumor. To some extent, cancer is a lottery, and a 100-foot blue whale has a lot more tickets than we do...

In a review in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Caulin and Maley took Calabrese and Shibata’s model and ramped it up to blue-whale scale. They found that the huge size of the animals means that by the age of fifty, about half of all blue whales should have colorectal cancer. By age 80, all of them should have it. It’s likely that blue whales should have far higher rates of other kinds of cancer, too.

The failure of the model means that blue whales must have some secrets for fighting cancer. “The mere existence of whales suggests that is possible to suppress cancer many-fold better than is done in humans,” Caulin and Maley write.

The mere existence of whales is the most glaring example of what biologists call Peto’s Paradox. There seems to be no correlation between body size and cancer rates among animal species. We run a thirty percent risk of getting cancer over our life time. So do mice, despite the fact that they’re 1000 times smaller than we are. All animals studied so far have cancer rates in that ballpark. (And yes, sharks do get cancer.)
The traditional view of cancer is that it's an aberration, a simple mistake in cell division.  But Peto's paradox would seem to lend support to the idea that cancer is a net positive for a species—or, stated differently, it's a side effect of a necessary feature of all successful species, namely the ability to adapt.  Adaptation results from mutation.  Too much mutation, and a species would be too susceptible to cancer, but too little and it would not be able to respond to changes in the environment.  The roughly equal cancer rates across species suggest that there is a kind of "happy medium" with respect to mutation and therefore cancer.

I'm not a biologist, and I understand the details of something like this must be phenomenally complicated.  But on a broad scale it seems plausible.  For more, see this study, which proposes a "cancer of cancer" scenario that may provide large animals their relative cancer protection.

Mar 5, 2011

Collected links

1. Another look at the Stuxnet worm.

2. A profile of Haaretz magazine in Israel.

3. A blog to watch: Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

4. The coming generational war.

5. How we train our cops to fear Islam.

6. Vacuum MagLev.  From London to New York in an hour.

Book review: Freedom

Up today: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. Summary: this insightful and well-constructed work ultimately did not live up to the hype.

Freedom is the story of one family, the Berglands, a typical four-member unit, and their musician friend.  Their lives are drawn in exquisite detail; the richness that Franzen manages to create (reflecting what must have been a massive amount of work) is the best part of the book.  I won't go into much detail about the plot.  Like a lot of modern novels, the plot is almost beside the point; backstory makes up about half the book.

The defining feature of the Berglands is that they are mostly miserable failures.  The book is saturated with awkwardness, anxiety, and resentment; with competition, hatred, envy, and dishonesty; and most of all with sheer bloody-minded foolishness.  This litany of failures (which barely lets up throughout the book) are mostly of the small, pathetic variety.  Though there was some reconciliation towards the end, was a hard book to finish.

What makes the book good is that Franzen's depiction of these failures is astonishingly insightful—he hits very close to the mark again and again.  Every person will cringe now and again reading the book, recognizing some past mistake in Walter or Patty.  What makes the book bad is that most people are not quite that bad at living.  Each instance of foolishness is in itself well-demonstrated, but the totality of each character is simply not convincing.  Freedom is a book that purports to capture at least a significant fraction of the American experience, and it does not succeed.

The message of the book, insofar as one can be discerned, is that the "freedom" of American life is profoundly alienating and unhealthy.  I was strongly reminded of Infinite Jest—though that book is more focused on entertainment and advertising, the end state for America is largely the same.  Nearly every character in both books has profound psychological problems.

This isn't to say that I don't think there's something to Franzen's thesis.  I see it in our treatment of prisoners, our higher-than-average insanity rate (espcially in the libertarian Mountain West), and our perennial warmongering.  But I simply don't believe that excessive freedom (or entertainment culture) is capable of fouling up every person (or most people) as bad as Franzen seems to think.

This isn't a defense of America so much as it is greater confidence in human beings, and a rebellion of my own life against such characterizations.  One recurring theme in Freedom is atrocious, competitive relationships between fathers and sons, and it simply does not describe my own life at all.  I have an extremely friendly and loving relationship with both my parents, and if I turn out to be half the man my father is I should consider my life well-lived.

Mar 2, 2011

Comedy gold

This blog is my find of the month.  It's got the best illustrations using Microsoft Paint I've ever seen—a great example of simple but seriously skilled cartoon art.  Some of my favorites:

1.  Going to a party heavily sedated.

2. The god of cake.

3. Don't exceed your level of responsibility.

4. The sneaky hate spiral.

5. Texas.

6. A revised cartoon pain scale.

7. A unfortunate fishing accident.

8. How Kenny Loggins ruined Christmas.

9. Things that make you feel like an idiot.

10. The scariest story.

11. How to tell if your dog is retarded.

12. Moving across the country with said dog.

Republicans attacking Teach for America and the Peace Corps

The GOP doesn't care about the budget deficit. Not even a little bit. For the umpteenth time, they're just using it as a convenient excuse to gut programs they don't like, such as Teach for America.
Teach for America costs the federal government $21m a year.

That's what happens when you pass an $858 billion tax cut and then try to make up for it with cuts to domestic discretionary spending. Now if we can just eliminate 20,000 more programmes like Teach for America, we might get back to deficit-neutral, though it's an open question whether future Americans will care about our achievement since they won't know how to add.
The Peace Corps is also up for a $70 million cut.

Department of WTF, robot Jeopardy bureau

A member of Congress (!!!) defeated the "Watson" supercomputer in a round of Jeopardy.  The mind reels.