Thursday, September 27, 2007

Death by mammoth poop

Oh joy, a new global warming positive feedback loop involving mammoth dung.

Ah, here's the original article:
Science 16 June 2006:
Vol. 312. no. 5780, pp. 1612 - 1613
DOI: 10.1126/science.1128908

Permafrost and the Global Carbon Budget

Sergey A. Zimov1, Edward A. G. Schuur2, F. Stuart Chapin III3

The carbon content of Earth's atmosphere has increased from ~360 gigatons (Gt)--mainly as CO2--during the last glacial maximum to ~560 Gt during preindustrial times and ~730 Gt today. These changes reflect redistributions among the main global carbon reservoirs. The largest such reservoir is the ocean (40,000 Gt, of which 2500 Gt is organic carbon), followed by soils (1500 Gt) and vegetation (650 Gt). There is also a large geological reservoir, from which ~6.5 Gt of carbon are released annually to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

Permafrost (permanently frozen ground) is an additional large carbon reservoir that is rarely incorporated into analyses of changes in global carbon reservoirs. Here we illustrate the importance of permafrost carbon in the global carbon budget by describing the past and potential future dynamics of frozen loess (windblown dust, termed yedoma in Siberia) that was deposited during the glacial age, covering more than 1 million km2 of the north plains of Siberia and Central Alaska to an average depth of ~25 m.

The frozen yedoma represents relict soils of the mammoth steppe-tundra ecosystem that occupied this territory during glacial times (1). ...we estimate the carbon reservoir in frozen yedoma to be ~500 Gt (2). Another ~400 Gt of carbon are contained in nonyedoma permafrost (excluding peatlands) (3), and 50 to 70 Gt reside in the peatbogs of western Siberia (4). These preliminary estimates indicate that permafrost is a large carbon reservoir, intermediate in size between those of vegetation and soils....

In response to climate warming, permafrost sediments have already begun to thaw (6), with extreme projections that almost all yedoma will thaw by the end of the 21st century (7).

In other extinct megafauna news, disgraced stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk apparently was fraudulently channeling research money into an attempt to clone a mammoth.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

We're still here, thanks to...

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, a Lieutenant Colonel of the USSR who decided to trust his own judgment over standing orders and did not unleash a nuclear holocaust when, in 1983, it appeared as if the US had launched a missile attack.

It's nice to know that (a) there was room human judgment in the system, and (b) the human involved made the right choice. Are we lucky or what? Things like this make me wonder about the anthropic principle. Perhaps in most universes we were incinerated and its just the happy few that had an intelligent and brave officer in charge at the right time that there are people around to celebrate.

Impressive futurism; misleading book titles

Pretty good call:

In 1883 [Charles Ammi] Cutter wrote a futuristic essay entitled "The Buffalo Public Library in 1983". imagining what a library might look like in 100 years, he envisioned readers sitting at desks equipped with "a little keyboard" through which they could connect with a central electronic catalog, ordering books form the stacks by punching in a call nmber. He even foresaw networks of libraries connected by a "fonographic foil" that would enable them to communicate telegraphically, accessing each others' collections so readily that "all the libraries in the country...are practically one library".

From Glut, by Alex Wright. Cutter was the inventor of the Library of Congress cataloging system. The practically one library bit is here.

On the whole I was disappointed by this book, which I was hoping would have some insight into the nature of thinking under conditions of infoglut. What it turned out to be is a history of information classification systems through the ages, from Sumerians to the web. Given that, it was pretty interesting. The author has a degree in library science and it shows. The treatment of Ted Nelson, which is the part of this history that I know best, is reasonably informed and fair, and he had some interesting things to say about the historical tensions between hierarchical and bottom-up organization.

Actually, this is an excellent book except for the title, which is misleading.

It's funny because I recently read another excellent book on a completely different topic: Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner, and had the same reaction. It was an frighteningly insightful memoir of Hitler's rise to power and how the educated, well-intentioned classes in Germany were totally paralyzed. The title in no way reflects the contents -- it should have been called Capitulating to Hitler.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Swords into plowshares

Surprising fact of the day:
Anderson said that 10% of US electricity currently comes from recycled Soviet nuclear warheads.
From a Long Now talk about nuclear energy. Which is apparently the least bad of options to supply the predicted doubling of energy demand by 2050. There's a bunch of questionable assumptions hidden in the argument as presented, some of which are addressed by the commenters. A huge nuclear infrastructure sounds enormously dangerous -- but then, so does burning a lot more fossil fuels.

I wonder what ever happened to space-based solar power generation? That was something I was interested in a few decades ago, but you don't hear much about it lately.

If I start getting into futurist mode I get very depressed. The world is going to go through some drastic changes in the next few decades. The biggest variable (which is not often discussed) is how fast things are going to go. If oil prices and climate change ramp up slowly, there will be time to adjust. If things go quickly, the result will be massive catastrophe. People and markets can adapt to anything, but it takes time. New technologies might help, but the cycle for developing and deploying a new technology is decades...and we've wasted the last couple twiddling our thumbs.

Oh well, this was going to be a happy's certainly nice that we are turning old nuclear warheads into useful energy.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Voting as ritual

If voting could change the system it would be against the law, I used to say in my cynical anarchist days. But now I'm a good citizen, and anti-voting sentiment strikes me as puerile. I tried to respond to TGGP in-place and ran into some kind of bug (or moderation), so am replying here as well.
The libertarian distaste for politics and voting guarantees that they will remain without influence -- a good thing from my point of view, but probably not yours.

Here are some of my thoughts on voting from a couple of years ago, see especially the link to the Valdis Krebs paper.

The Landsberg piece you link to is a typically autistic piece of economist crapola. The Freakonomics boys made the same argument and I answered them there (first comment).
Voting is a ritual of social participation. The point of voting is not (as Landsberg stupidly holds) that it is only worth doing if you stand a chance of casting the single vote that tips the balance past 50/50. The point is that you are joining in with other members of your community to make a collective decision. The act of voting is a humbling and equalizing one -- in voting you (briefly) set aside your personal identity and personal power and act as just another equal citizen among others, willing to take the economic hit for the benefit of playing their small part in the collective political ritual.

I think there's an interesting comparison to be made between voting as a ritual and religious rituals, in fact. The point of religious rituals is in their collective enactment. They don't "do" anything except foster a sense of solidarity amongst their participants. But this is not at all trivial. Voting may play the same role, with the endpoint decision being less important than the ritual, and the jealously fought-for rights to participate in it.

Libertarians have a problem with this. Either they can't understand it at all, or they equate it with North Korea's mass rallies. Or they feel threatened by it. I suspect that what's going on in many libertarians is that their sense of individual identity is so weak that it feels existentially threatened by acknowledging the social nature of human existence. The Ayn Randroids are the most notable in this regard.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Everything you know is wrong

If by "you", I mean "science", and by "everything", I mean "most things":
In PLoS Medicine, John Ioannidis says:
There is increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims. However, this should not be surprising. It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false.
This paper is written in an opaque style, but Alex Tabarrok clears up the murk. Bayes rules!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Marketeer Movies

I watched the first fifteen minutes of the Gary Cooper movie version of The Fountainhead, and it truly did suck as much as I had heard.

The following, however, rocks, in some weird sense of that word:

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Free-floating authoritarianism

While answering another blogger's apparent misinterpretation of a remark I made on yet another blog, I said this:
I'm not a conservative (except in comparison to Mencius Moldbug's plans to replace the entire sociopolitical system with something he's designing from first principles) so I'm not sure why you are directing your flames at me. In fact, if there are any actual conservatives in the Burke or William Buckley mode in American politics they are almost invisible. What we have instead in the Republican party is a sort of free-floating authoritarianism, with no tradition to appeal to.
which struck me as insightful, if I do say so myself. Why does neoconservatism seem so unconservative? The modern Republican party seems composed of equal parts imperialist maniacs and religious yahoos. Neither of these factions seem very conservative, in the sense of a respect for traditional authority. But that's not surprising, since there are no strong traditions in America to adhere to. The essence of classical conservatism is a more or less irrational cleaving to tradition and traditional authority. What traditional authorities do we have here in America? The old WASP power structure, which was the closest we had, is mostly gone. Conservatism minus tradition becomes, in my new pet phrase, free-floating authoritarianism. Pity the poor conservatively-minded citizen with no reliable ruling class to show fealty to! He's liable to latch onto all sorts of ridiculous authority substitutes, such as TV preachers or George Bush or the Rudy Giulani.

A related issue comes up again in this Reason article, where libertarians are confused by how conservatives claim to oppose a strong executive while simultaneously doing everything they can to strengthen it. The answer is, conservatism was never in principle about limiting executive power. The fact that they adopted that meme at all in the post-WWII years was just a reaction to Roosevelt and the New Deal, when the executive power was wielded for the benefit of the wrong kind of people. Now they are reverting to type, while still posing as somehow opposed to government. Conservatism craves strong government, preferably in the form of a daddy figure (check out the idiotic gushing over Fred Thompson's manly aromas for a window into this kind of thinking, which entirely eludes me).

The mystery is not their internal contradictions but that they can keep up the counterfactual marketing for this long, and how ostensible "libertarians" could play along with such authoritarian elements. But nobody every went broke underestimating the political acuity of the American public.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The obvious vs. the oblivious

I am an admitted economic idiot, which is probably part of my fascination with marketeers -- I can't help feeling that they must be privy to some secret knowledge that I can't quite grasp. But, despite that, I apparently am a more astute economist than Alan Greenspan:
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan acknowledges he failed to recognize early on that an explosion of mortgages to people with questionable credit histories could pose a danger to the economy.

In an interview, Greenspan said he was aware of "subprime" lending practices where homebuyers got very low initial rates only to see them jacked up later, causing severe payment shock. But he said he didn't initially realize the harm they could do.
It's too bad I wasn't running the Fed for the last six years, or some randomly chosed grocery clerk or waitress, since anybody with half a brain could have figured out that something like this would happen.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Shock the Monkey

Having just started covering the free-market-torturer beat, I was nonplussed to find that Naomi Klein has beaten me to the punch with a book and movie:

I have to say that I really hated the above movie. It's composed of equal parts self-righteousness and cheap emotional appeals, and drowns whatever valid things it is trying to say in questionable sludge. It's this sort of thing that has driven Mencius Moldbug to the dark side.

But it did remind me that Milton Friedman, hero of freedom-lovers everywhere, was hand-in-glove with the Chilean torture regime. So this peculiar association between "freedom" and authoritarianism is not a new story by any means.

[update: Oddly, marketeer Tyler Cowen likes the book while despising its contents..."Yes there is a senseless conflation of torture, Iraq, and the Coase Theorem." Sounds like I may have to read it after all.]

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Libertarian miscellany

Much funnier people than I make fun of "glibertarian" Megan McArdle and Professor Instaputz.

And I rather belatedly learn that just about every center of respectable libertarian thought (Cato, Reason, GMU, etc) is heavily funded by the Koch Family Foundations. If not for the smiling beneficence of David and Charles Koch, libertarianism would be still be confined to the rantings of cheeto-dust-encrusted Ayn Rand fanboys. Here's some more. There's remarkably little written material on these guys that doesn't smell of conspiracy theorist, but the conspiracy theorists may have it right this time. Essentially, everything you read from the more respectable libertarians at the above institutions should be labeled "bought and paid for by the oil and gas industries".

Update: And Atlas Shrugged gets featured prominently on the latest episode of Mad Men. Yes, I know Ayn Rand didn't consider herself a libertarian and hated those who were so identified -- it's all the People's Front of Judea to me.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


As Talk Like a Pirate Day approaches, let's remember that pirates are the original ontological anarchists:

An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization
Peter T. Leeson, Department of Economics, West Virginia University
This paper investigates the internal governance institutions of violent criminal enterprise by examining the law, economics, and organization of pirates. To sectively organize their banditry, pirates required mechanisms to prevent internal predation, minimize crew conflict, and maximize piratical profit. I argue that pirates devised two institutions for this purpose. First, I analyze the system of piratical checks and balances that crews used to constrain captain predation. Second, I examine how pirates used democratic constitutions to minimize contact and create piratical law and order. Remarkably, pirates adopted both of these institutions before the United States or England. Pirate governance created sufficient order and cooperation to make pirates one of the most sophisticated and successful criminal organizations in history.
This is the kind of political economy I can get behind. From the conclusion
Second, the institutions that comprised the pirates' system of governance -- democratic checks, the separation of power, and constitutions -- are remarkably similar to those governments employ to constrain ruler predation in the legitimate world. Government does not have a monopoly on these institutions of governance any more than it has a monopoly on the ability to generate cooperation and order...organized criminals are as interested in creating order among themselves as non- criminals. They, too, have an incentive to develop solutions to obstacles that otherwise prevent them from cooperating for mutual gain. The fact that their cooperation is directed at someone els's loss does not alter this. Thus, while Captain Charles Johnson described the pirates' criminal organization as "that abominable Society," it is important to acknowledge that, however abominable, it was nevertheless a society (Johnson 1726-1728: 114).
Some anarchists/libertarians get stuck on the idea that governments are nothing more than very successful criminal gangs. There is some truth in that, but not that much. Governments dont simply deploy force, they deploy force in ways that are legitimated by various rationales in a way that makes them more or less grudgingly accepted by their citizens/subjects. A good government is one that has tamed its criminality by means of law, institutions, and cultural norms -- but this is never a complete process, as the expanding criminality of the US government demonstrates all too well.

This study comes at this issue from the opposite end, showing that not only are governments criminal gangs, but criminal gangs are governments -- and they too can occupy a spectrum of good and bad, where good means roughly that they successfully implement rules that lead to greater levels of prductive cooperation.

The naive anarchist gets the idea that governments == violence and opposes government. The post-anarchist realizes that violence and coercion are part of reality, and you have a choice of unruly, random, chaotic violence; or violence constrained by productive institutions.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Dalai Lama rocks

Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA approach to the science/religion war has been roundly derided for believing that the truce he was trying to broker -- letting science lay claim to all objective truth, with religion relegated to matters of morality and subjectivity -- would be acceptable to the religious side of the conflict. After all, most religions make some claim to be describing reality, to be more than a set of myths and rituals.

Anyway, NOMA has finally found a religious leader with the right attitude -- the Dalai Lama, who has said:
If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own world view....
Yes indeed, here's a man who understands that religion needs to play yin to science's yang. Contrast this with popular frauds like Deepak Chopra who has been making an ass of himself attacking Richard Dawkins based on the lamest arguments imaginable.

BTW I once actually met the Dalai Lama while wandering around Cambridge...he petted the standard poodle I was walking. The dog has since passed on and I am fairly certain this helped her reincarnate as a higher lifeform.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Programming as Labor

On Labor Day, it's time to reflect about the nature of technical work. It can be enormous fun, or complete sucky. It can be enormously lucrative, or lead to abysmal unemployment. Technical workers can easily be exploited by management. Dilbert-like working conditions abound. Older workers can easily be shoved aside in favor of younger workers who can be paid less and work longer hours. The globalization of work and the relative ease of outsourcing work has the technical world in a race to the bottom. Open source is a great boon for the world but it drives down programmer salaries, and the net economic effects are that programmers around the world are subsidizing big companies with free labor. Software becomes a winner-take-all industry, which is great for the winners, but not so great for the also-rans, which is inevitably going to be most of us.

That's the downside, which very rarely gets talked about. The upside of course is that technology is in fact an extremely dynamic and productive industry, with a great variety of opportunities, etc. But technology cheerleading is so prevalent and tedious, that perhaps its time to take a look at the human downside of all those wonders. Today's a day for thinking about the 50-year old laid-off software developer who can't get hired, or those who have to pay California mortgages while competing with Indian salaries, or those with medical conditions that prevent them from working or getting insured, or other victims of life vicissitudes. There is so much lionization and hero worship in the technology industry, and so little attention paid to ordinary workers.

Stock options, the dream of starting your own company, and transitions to management all serve to keep the workforce from achieving the sort of class consciousness that would permit them to organize on their own behalf. Programmers think of themselves as independent-minded, and oftebn have been infected with libertarianism. They are probably the last occupation on earth that could be unionized. Like the children of Lake Woebegon, they all think they are above average and are going to come out on top in the winner-take-all competition, and don't have much patience with those who aren't winning the race.

Here are a few (very lame) efforts at getting programmers to organize on their own behalf:

Programmers-Union: a chat site that seems dead. Here are some typical reactions from libertarianish programmers.

Cyberlodge. Sponsored by a real union, the IAMAW. Tagline: "Fight Offshoring". They actually seem to have a tiny bit of a clue, but the site hasn't been updated since April.

Programmer's Guild: somewhat more alive, this is also function mainly as to lobby for increased protectionism of domestic jobs. "The Programmers Guild advances the interests of U.S. technical and professional workers in information technology (IT) fields, and opposes the transfer of U.S. jobs, technology, and infrastructure overseas." Here they are exposing a sleazy law firm giving advice to company HR departments on how to game H1-B regulations by place fake classified ads. That's a valuable sort of interest-group advocacy work, although a long way from collective bargaining.

Update: here's another one, The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, Communications Workers of America, Local 37083, AFL-CIO. This is the realest-looking one so far. h/t Wall Street Journal!

Would a programmer's union be a good thing, even if it was capable of getting off the ground? Probably not, at least not one that operated in the classical model. The tech industry is too distributed, entrepeneurial, and irregular to make such a thing workable. But that doesn't mean that tech workers can't start finding some common interests to organize around. Geeks are very effective when their interests are threatened, as organizations like the EFF, GNU, and Creative Commons show. But none of these address bread-and-butter economic issues, perhaps because geek culture is too young to have had to worry much about them. That will change.

[photo h/t: Happening Here]
[update: actual discussion of unions and the modern world happening here. I liked this comment:
the oft heard argument that "[name of multinational] moved its factories to China and Mexico. Therefore it is necessary to abandon unions" makes as much sense as "I had a lousy the Big Mac the other day. It is time to do away with restaurants."

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The unmentionable odour of death

Are we really going to attack Iran? I honestly have no idea. It's manifestly insane, but that hasn't stopped the Bush administration in the past. There have been false alarms about this in the past. In the meantime, this:
September 1, 1939
by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
That's the first lines of the signature poem of our time. Composed on the eve of Hitler's invasion of Poland, it also resonated eerily with 9/11, and the matches just keep on coming, for instance, I just noticed that the closing lines seems to describe the internet:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.