Sunday, March 29, 2009

Thoughts on Climate Change

I'm just a lay person reading this stuff, but here goes:

1. The site Watt's Up With That is wonderful--truly on a quest for information, totally lacking in snark. Editor Anthony Watts and others on the site probably tend green in many ways, and respect science. There was recently a post stressing that the people who actually developed computer models for climate over large regions truly made a great new discovery. No wonder they were excited, and no wonder the excitement spilled over to someone like Gore--and beyond him to many intellectuals. Instead of climate being a larger version of the weather guessing game--in which no one can say for sure if it's going to rain this weekend--computers hold out the promise of being able to include all relevant factors, then let the model work to predict actual conditions. It's nothing against the real scientists involved to say they probably don't have a very complete model yet, and it remains unlikely that the tail of man-made CO2 wags the dog of global climate.

2. Taking this further, it is understandable if real scientists applying for grants says something like: I may have identified a serious problem which will get worse if no action is taken. My research can be expected to point to some possible actions, and will also help to understand the possible disastrous results if nothing is done. There is a diplomatic way for scientists to say: give me my money, and no one gets hurt. It is a different thing for a political hack like Gore (abetted by James Hansen, who is perhaps less of a scientist, and more of a hack, than he used to be) to knit together a number of worst-case scenarios and say: do what we say immediately or the results will be disastrous.

3. Data problems: Freeman Dyson among others points out that there is remarkably little data behind any sweeping generalization about global climate. There are a relatively small number of temperature monitoring stations, even today, and the Watts people take pains to show that many of them are old and poorly designed.(In one case, there used to be trees around the station; the trees were cut down, and lo and behold, the temperatures that were recorded went up dramatically.) The twentieth-century data, which may or may not indicate that that was a warm century, is spotty and inconclusive; but before the twentieth century there is even less real data of any kind. Hence tree rings, etc., all very ambiguous.

4. Was the twentieth century a warm century? Perhaps somewhat warmer than the medieval period, although that was also a warm one, but almost certainly not warmer than a period before the Christian era--the blink of an eye in geologic time. Of course warming periods before the 19th century would have had nothing to do with man-made CO2, or man-made anything.

5. The best evidence that the twentieth century was unusually warm is probably the geographically isolated glaciers, in several parts of the world, retreating relatively rapidly. Of course, massive melting has happened before--that's how ice ages end--and has never previously had anything to do with man-made anything.

6. Even if the twentieth-century was warm (and even if the warming has continued past 2001, which is doubtful), is man-made CO2 the likely cause? No because even within the phenomenon of greenhouse gases (the reality of which no one doubts) CO2 does not seem particularly significant. To make it significant, the modelers have to include some reasoning that CO2 causes a multiplier through the really significant gases like water vapour. Interesting speculation based on very little data. And no, it's not enough to say: let's spend billions just to be on the safe side. We need to know not only how serious the risk is if in fact it develops, but how likely it is. Lomborg has pointed out for years that for a while the IPCC included a cost-benefit analysis in their reports; then they stopped doing so.

7. What's the most significant factor influencing global climate? The sun. Second? Probably the earth being struck by meteorites. The sun we can really do nothing about; for meteorites there may be some precautions we can take.

8. It's hard not to see the politics alongside the science. Many people who are proud to be known as progressive have criticized the burning of fossil fuels, particularly in the West, for years--since before the serious talk about global warming. They think the burning of fossil fuels, often wastefully and in a way that produces emissions, is proof of our materialism, our failure to be stewards of the environment, our lack of concern about the future. Global warming ostensibly caused by CO2 gives them a powerful vehicle to say we should cut back on our burning of fossil fuels.

9. There's also a kind of crypto-Marx and crypto-Rousseau that keeps coming up in environmentalism. Crypto-Marx: the very thing that seems most immoral in capitalism is the thing that will destroy it, and possibly destroy us. Capitalists think primarily of short-term profits; long-term issues such as preservation of the parts of the environment that are essential for life will be neglected, and the result will be an environmental disaster. This is very much like believing there is a big Dr. David Suzuki in the sky, ensuring that justice prevails. Unlikely.

10. Crypto-Rousseau: non-human nature good; human nature evil.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Research in the U.S. and Canada

To me it's a strange contrast between Canada and the U.S. Despite all the Republicans in the U.S. saying government can't do anything right, the federal government there spends an unbelievable fortune on research of almost all kinds. Despite the talk in Canada that certain government programs define us as decent people, etc., our federal government spends peanuts on research.

Maybe the contrast is: Canadians believe government should look after the people right in front of our eyes, while Americans believe government should cure cancer and build a colony on Mars. Freeman Dyson, a physicist who's a sceptic on global warming and therefore kind of a hero of mine, grew up in England, hoping to emigrate to the U.S., which he eventually did.

Yet even while probing and sifting, Dyson is always whimsically gazing into the beyond. As a boy he sketched plans for English rocket ships that could explore the stars, and then, in midlife, he helped design an American spacecraft to be powered by exploding atomic bombs — a secret Air Force project known as Orion. Dyson remains an armchair astronaut who speculates with glee about the coming of cheap space travel, when families can leave an overcrowded earth to homestead on asteroids and comets, swooping around the universe via solar sail craft. Dyson is convinced that our current “age of computers” will soon give way to “the age of domesticated biotechnology.” Bio-tech, he writes in his book, “Infinite in All Directions” (1988), “offers us the chance to imitate nature’s speed and flexibility,” and he imagines the furniture and art that people will “grow” for themselves, the pet dinosaurs they will “grow” for their children, along with an idiosyncratic menagerie of genetically engineered cousins of the carbon-eating tree: termites to consume derelict automobiles, a potato capable of flourishing on the dry red surfaces of Mars, a collision-avoiding car.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


One good thing about the recession and all the debate it has engendered: it is making many people re-consider FDR, what he actually did, and what the actual results were. This can occasion some debates which are lively, and perhaps more fruitful, in a way, than the necessary discussions about what to do right now.

I haven't read Jonah Goldberg's book on fascism, and I probably never will, but I gather he clarifies that there is a lot of conventional wisdom that is not true. It is not true that Hoover opposed the use of government spending (and other kinds of government intervention) to stimulate the economy in a depression, whereas FDR wisely favoured this approach. Hoover was running deficits by the 1932 election, and he intended to run more. In 1932, it was FDR, not Hoover, who ran on balanced budgets.

Hoover favoured "works" projects--it is right that the Hoover Dam is named after him, although for a while the Democrats were going to deny him that honour. He no doubt tried to avoid paying people to dig holes and them fill them again, but he certainly favoured far-seeing projects that might not be strictly necessary for a few years. What he opposed, above all, was "relief" from the federal government--cash to the poor simply for being poor, or what became known as welfare. The poor (Hoover probably told himself) had other sources to turn to: churches, other charities, local government, and to some extent state government. In the Depression, all these agencies might have run out of anything they could give, from time to time; but Hoover I believe would still object to the federal government stepping in with cash.

So FDR innovated by being more willing to help the poor directly. Oddly, though, he probably did even more to help people who had some degree of economic security, and gave them even more security, even if this hurt the poor. He stabilized farm prices, thus making food more expensive. He presided over enshrining union rules, including the law that says union wages apply in any federal government project. This would raise wages for the lucky few, but would probably cause some businesses not to hire at all, and thus hurt the unemployed. Many prices and wages were frozen. Michael Barone has pointed out that fixing prices may have stopped a downward spiral in the economy, but it did litle to stimulate recovery. Roosevelt gave some support to protectionist measures (continuing from Hoover), which may have prolonged the Depression.

My son is saying he now wants to read about FDR. I mentioned Conrad Black's book, and I mean to read it myself. I gather part of Black's message is reminiscent of what Saul Bellow used to say: radical political alternatives in the air, and many sophisticated people said liberal democracy was dead, and the only choice was which kind of radical, demagogic and/or violent political brand to adopt. FDR said clearly, and showed by his actions, that he stood for the liberal democratic alternative.

I gather Goldberg says a bit nastily that FDR developed so many fascist trappings, it is hard to tell whether fascism is more characteristic of the left or the right. I guess before World War II it would have been legitimate to say fascism, defined as populism plus authoritarianism, was somewhat more likely to arise on the left than the right. Although there were bright people on the right--moreso than after World War II--the left often seemed to be where the action was. Post-War, however, there seems to be little excuse for pretending the confusion continued. Fascism is to the right as communism is to the left. Both extremes are likely to commit violence, create new elites, and oppress the common people while claiming to liberate them; but fascists are far more likely to work with the old, right-wing elites: property owners, church, military. Communism, in its crazy war on its own people for not being socialist enough, is pretty well forced to keep making a clean sweep of the old elites. William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of the publication Goldberg writes for, liked fascists insofar as they were Catholics, or supported the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. He hated communists. Buckley accepted authoritarianism in his church, so he didn't want it from government. Enough is enough.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Wit and Wisdom of Richard Nixon

I dream of a book--not too big, a few hundred pages--with the very best of Nixon's White House transcripts, and a few other juicy quotes: funny stuff, insightful or smart stuff, slightly crazy stuff, overall conveying the unique Nixon magic.

Some Watergate material should definitely be in there, but it certainly shouldn't be all Watergate, scandals and Vietnam. The famous "cancer on the presidency" conversation with John Dean, March 21, 1973. My favourite part here is the million dollars in cash for blackmail money:

(Beginning in section #30)
DEAN: Well--who knows about this all now? All right, you've got (clears throat) the Cubans' lawyer's' a man by the name of Rothblatt, who is a no-good, publicity-seeking, son-of-a-bitch, to be very frank about it. He has had to be turned down and tuned off. He was canned by his own people cause they didn't trust him. They were trying to run a different route than he wanted to run. He didn't want them to plead guilty. He wants to represent them before the Senate. So, F. Lee Bailey, who was the partner of one of the, one of the men representing McCord; uh, got in and, and cooled Rothblatt down. So, F. Lee B-, Bailey's got knowledge. Uh, Hunt's lawyer, a man by the name of Bittman, who's an excellent criminal lawyer from the Democratic era of Bobby Kennedy, he's got knowledge. Uh--

MARCH 21, 1973, FROM 10:12 TO 11:55 A.M. 31

PRESIDENT: Do you think, do you think, that he's got some How much?
DEAN: Well, everybody-not only, all the, all the direct knowledge that Hunt and Liddy have, as well as all the hearsay they have.
PRESIDENT: I (unintelligible).
DEAR: Uh, you've got the trio lawyers over at the Re-election Committee who did an investigation to find out the facts. Slowly, they got the whole picture. They're, uh, they're solid, but they're--
PRESIDENT: But they know.
DEAN: But they know. Uh, you've got, then, an awful lot of--all the principals involved know. Uh, Hunt--some people's wives know.

DEAN: Right. Uh, so that's, that's it. That's the, the extent of the knowledge. Now, where, where are the soft spots on this? Well, first of all, there's the, there's the problem of the continued blackmail
DEAN: ...which will not only go on now, it'll goon when these people are in prison, and it will compound the obstruction of justice situation. It'll cost money. It's dangerous. Nobody, nothing--people around here are not pros at this sort of thing. This is the sort of thing Mafia people can do: washing money, getting clean money, and things like that, uh--we're--we just don't know about those (noise) things, because we're-not used to, you know--we are not criminals and not used to dealing in that business. It's, uh, it's, uh--
PRESIDENT: That's right.
DEAN: It's tough thing to know how to do.
PRESIDENT: Maybe we can't even do that.

MARCH 21, 1973, FROM 10:12 TO 11:55 A.M. 33

DEAN: That's right. It's a real problem as to whether we could even do it. Plus there's a real problem in raising money. Uh, Mitchell has been working on raising some money. Uh, feeling he's got, you know, he's got one, he's one of the ones with the most to lose. Uh, but there's no denying the fact that the White House, and uh, Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Dean are involved in some of the early money decisions.
PRESIDENT: How much money do you need?
DEAN: I would say these people are going to cost, uh, a million dollars over the next, uh, - two years. (Pause)
PRESIDENT: We could get that.
DEAN: Uh, huh.
PRESIDENT: You, on the money, if you need the money, I mean, uh' you could get the money. Let's say--
DEAN: Well, I think that we're going--
PRESIDENT: What I mean is, you could, you could get a million dollars. And you could get it in cash. I, I know where it could be gotten.
DEAN: Uh, huh.

I just love that.

One of my favourites, going beyond Watergate, is the "never hold staff meetings" conversation of December 1971. The highlights were reprinted in the Atlantic a few years ago.

A Navy Yeoman named Radford had been caught passing secrets from the White House to his superiors at the Pentagon. Documents were routinely passed to Admiral Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The situation developed out of Nixon's characteristic secrecy and paranoia, and in the way Nixon resolved it, further encouraged these tendencies. In the end Nixon left the principals in their jobs, reasoning that they could now be manipulated because Nixon knew what they had done.

On December 22, Nixon spoke with Bob Haldeman:

HALDEMAN: The worst thing about it is you get, you start—which we've managed to avoid, maybe too much—you start getting paranoid, and you start wondering about everything and everybody, and—

NIXON: I know.

HALDEMAN: —you figure you can't—

NIXON: But don't be too damn sure of anybody! I mean, that's—don't be too damn sure about anybody!

HALDEMAN: You can't.

NIXON: I am never sure of anybody.

HALDEMAN: Well [unintelligible]—

NIXON: You know, Bob, the reason you and I ain't so close now is, as you've noticed, I don't put that—[inaudible]. Do you not now see why I don't have staff meetings?

HALDEMAN: Damn right!

NIXON: Do you agree?

HALDEMAN: Oh, yeah!

NIXON: Don't you think I'm right?

HALDEMAN: I sure as hell do!

NIXON: I don't have staff meetings. Now I'd rather—I know it would charge up the staff for me to sit around and talk to 'em directly. But who knows—first, with—without evil intentions, some are going to leak.

HALDEMAN: That's right.

NIXON: Beyond that, there might be somebody in there that just—like a little guy like this [Radford] will get it all ... I tell you ... if there's ever anything important, just don't tell anybody. You know, I, uh—it's, it's really tough. It's got to be "Don't tell Rogers, Laird, anybody." We just don't tell the son—any son of a bitch at all.

HALDEMAN: And it is—it's a horrible way to have to work, but it's—

NIXON: Yeah.

HALDEMAN: —it's essential.

Then there's homosexuality, in May 1971, supposedly "glorified" in an episode of a TV show:

I don't mind the homosexuality. I understand it. Nevertheless, goddamn, I don't think you glorify it on public television, homosexuality, even more than you glorify whores. We all know we have weaknesses. But, goddammit, what do you think that does to kids? You know what happened to the Greeks! Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo. We all know that. So was Socrates.

EHRLICHMAN: But he never had the influence television had.

There's some pretty good stuff in Frost/Nixon. I'm reading the John Osborne collection, The Fifth Year of the Nixon Watch, and it doesn't really have enough Nixon quotes.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Stimuluses or Stimuli?

Whenever I talk politics, it is probably wise for me to say every so often: "Of course, I wouldn't want the job of the leader." In the present recession, I honestly don't know what exactly our leaders should do. Spend as much as possible, almost without discrimination as long as cash is in circulation? Rely on tax cuts more than spending? Focus on both spending and tax cuts that truly qualify as immediate and short-term stimulus (so that many proposed infrastructure projects are too long-term to count)?

Mickey Kaus, one of my favourite bloggers, has, I believe, made three suggestions:

1. In bailing out the automakers, don't protect either union rules or union wages, since both have helped to make the North American firms uncompetitive, and this is not the time to ask taxpayers to subsidize non-competitive practices;
2. Don't simply raise the budgets and staffs of government departments. This is the kind of change that a) is unlikely to be focussed on specific, urgent problems and b) is likely to be hard to reverse in the future--that is, it is a clear example of long-term as well as unfocussed spending. Even Reagan had trouble cutting government jobs.
3. Don't, in your liberal haste to make sure the poor are covered, give the states financial incentives to add to their welfare rolls; this is likely to reverse the good results of Clinton's welfare reform ("work (or training, or honest effort) for welfare").

David Dodge, former Governor of the Bank of Canada, has offered some specific thoughts:

But rather than obsess on designing short-term programs that will expire in a couple of years with the aim of returning quickly to surplus, he said, Ottawa should be spending in areas where there will be a payback to the Canadian economy later in the next decade, and where governments have not been able to spend sufficiently in the past.

“Everybody was afraid to do anything that has a tail because of the sense that this was going to be short and sharp,” Mr. Dodge said. “But I just don't think it's going to be short and sharp, not because of what we in Canada are facing, but because it's going to take a while for the world to come back.”

Urban infrastructure should be a key target for government spending, but won't benefit much from short-term programs that rely heavily on provincial governments and the private sector to match federal spending, he said.

Information technology in the health-care sector should also be a prime target, he said, since it is badly needed and there are now plenty of human resources in the technology sector who could be put to good use.

“We're thinking of it as stimulus, somehow, as a bridging exercise, instead of recognizing that it will be a somewhat longer period of recovery and that we really need to do some of these things to augment our productivity down the line.”

As recovery takes hold, Ottawa could then raise taxes a bit – by, say, increasing the GST by a percentage point – to nurse the country's books back to health.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


I've never really been a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. The whole Toronto area, including the suburb where I live, is amazingly loyal to that team, which has mostly been crappy for a long time. When I was blogging before, I would make mention of Raptors games, but I don't see much point in doing that now.

I was a Blue Jays fan in the 80s and 90s--beginning, I hasten to add, before they were in first place in their division. Their World Series wins in 1992 and 1993 were among the most exciting sports events in my life. I actually dreamed that Robbie Alomar (1992 76 RBI, 1993 93 RBI; 2 HR in the 1992 ALCS--he actually had some better years later with Cleveland) would hit a home run against Dennis Eckersley (see 1992, 51 saves, 1.91 ERA), and win a playoff game--and it happened the next day. Since then, there's been a lot of disappointment. My hopes will probably spring up again, er, this Spring, so I may be posting about them: Doc Halladay (2008: 20W, 11L, 2.78 ERA) still (amazingly) with them, etc.

I've suggested to my son, at least half jokingly, that we should just cheer for the New York Yankees and get it over with. They're always likely to be contending, one impressive star after another, and there is some interesting gossip to go with great performances. He said something like no, that's too easy, or contemptible, or something. I guess I'd better defer to him in the limited time remaining before I get on an ice floe.

The Obamas and Britain

I'm coming to this a bit late.

When British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently visited Washington, he was treated with less than the full formal welcome that he expected. He brought several gifts of some historical significance and thoughtfulness; in return President Obama gave him a set of widely-available DVDs, which turn out to be in a format that is not playable in Europe. Mrs. Brown gave the Obama girls some clothes that were chosen carefully to please them; Mrs. Obama gave the Brown boys some scale models of the Marine One helicopter used by the President.

The Obamas may actually have issues with the Brits. One of Brown's gifts was a seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Shortly before Brown's visit, Obama had actually taken the trouble to return to the Brits a famous bust of Churchill that had been in the Oval Office since 9/11.

It has been suggested that one of the Obamas, or both of them, associate Britain with the introduction of slavery to what is now the United States. Some Brits and their defenders are indignantly pointing out that Britain abolished slavery before the U.S. did (events that Brown's gifts are associated with), etc.

If this is in fact the view held by the Obamas, it is at least consistent with Thomas Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence:

Although the issue of slavery was widely debated -- both the chattel slavery of Africans in America and the civil slavery that fired patriot rhetoric -- it is conspicuously absent from the final version of the Declaration. Yet in his rough draft, Jefferson railed against King George III for creating and sustaining the slave trade, describing it as "a cruel war against human nature."

Then there is Ireland. After the perceived snubs to Brown, the Obamas treated Brian Cowen, Prime Minister of Ireland, as if he were indeed a king--and a king of a very important world power. I can't help recalling the history of Americans supporting the IRA--a terrorist group by any reasonable definition. And then more recently IEDs are used in Iraq, and at least some of them are traced back to the IRA--perhaps paid for by U.S. citizens. Let's just say it's a funny world.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Another Look at Global Warming

Thanks to Watts Up With That, slides and commentary from Steve McIntyre of McIntyre has become famous for questioning the "hockey stick" graph that is supposed to present the twentieth century as hotter than earlier centuries, and in general he questions the quality of data, and the reliability of the conclusions that are drawn based on the data, in the climate change world.

Al Gore represents what might be called the official view of climate change: the IPCC, James Hansen, and a few studies that are constantly cited. What few people realize is the extent to which all claims to the effect that the 20th century was unusually warm are based, ultimately, on a remarkably small number of data sets. There is very little direct evidence of temperature before 1900, so everyone is forced to rely on proxies such as tree growth. To an amazing extent, the Gore studies depend on a very limited study of one kind of tree in California--bristlecone pines, which apparently showed some dramatic growth in the 20th century in comparison to past periods.

The famous "hockey stick," showing a dramatic increase in temperature in the 20th century after temperature remained more or less constant for a millenium, depended on these pines, and a few other data sets that have been cited many times. When the hockey stick was criticized for being based on limited and inconclusive data, the response was a "spaghetti graph," showing six or more trend lines very similar to the hockey stick. When criticism continued, the claim was made that "twelve independent studies" supported the main conclusion of the hockey stick argument. Nine of the twelve continued to depend on bristlecone pines, and the data continued to show that without the bristlecone pines, the data were inconclusive. The other three of the twelve didn't have even one set of data as conclusive as the bristlecone pines.

To say the least, there are a variety of possible explanations for the findings involved with the bristlecone pines, so even with the pines, the studies don't pass established statistical tests of significance. Certainly without the pines, and perhaps one or two other highly localized results that are less conclusive, the twentieth century has not been proven to be warmer than any previous century--and it may have been less warm than the medieval period. Now that's a consensus. McIntyre is not committed to the view that the medieval period was warmer than the 20th century, but he suggests there is plenty of data to support that view. On the other hand, toward the end of his presentation he says there are several areas where glacier retreat indicates the twentieth century was warmer than the medieval period; plant life is being exposed that was growing thousands of years ago, and presumably was not exposed during the medieval period. There is one study indicating that in ancient Roman times the Swiss Alps were green in vast areas where they have been white--with snow and ice--more recently.

Perhaps there was a really warm age from some thousands of years BCE to just before the CE, then an age almost as warm in the medieval period, and then another warm period in the twentieth century. If so, then of course the earlier warm periods had nothing to do with man-made CO2 emissions, and probably nothing to do with man-made anything. Also the obvious point needs to be made: there are always tremendous local variations on earth when it comes to temperature. Some of those taking the Gore view say: if there have been various warming periods, with rapid, dramatic and potentially dangerous temperature changes caused by God knows what, then this supports a precautionary approach: man-made CO2 just might cause dramatic etc. changes. But this is not far from saying the sky might be made of cheese; let's take precautions (whatever they might be) to be on the safe side.

It's surprising to me how few actual data sets are referred to here. Supposedly some famous people in the Al Gore camp have claimed it is too difficult to go out and get such things as tree samples. Some local results point toward warming, others toward cooling. There is a tendency to dismiss what doesn't fit one's theory, and say it is "merely local." But then the data that does fit your theory is probably local as well. Gore's defenders have admitted that he could hardly have made a worse choice of a glacier to emphasize than the one he chose: Kilimanjaro. There is a group of reputable scientists who are convinced the retreat of the glacier there results from local factors, not temperature change.

I guess to understand climate, and climate change, we would have to understand such things as water vapour and cosmic rays.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Cheers for Anne Applebaum on Torture

She has tended to support Bush's various wars, and she says still believes in, and refers to, the War on Terror. But she has questioned torture for a long time, saying it is not only illegal and immoral--it probably doesn't work.

Now she says there are some specific cases of U.S. torture that need to be investigated--and prosecutions probably need to take place.

But the political rights and wrongs of this failed policy are no longer the point. What matters now is that our laws be enforced. America is not and never was a fascist state, and the CIA prisons were not the Gulag. These 14 prisoners were not tortured as part of an ordinary and accepted routine, in other words, but according to special rules and procedures, set up at the highest level of government by leaders who surely knew that they were illegal, or they would not have limited them so carefully. What we need now, therefore, is not an endless, politicized circus of a congressional investigation into every aspect of George W. Bush's White House but a very specific, carefully targeted legal investigation of the CIA's invisible prisons: Who gave the orders to use torture, who carried the orders out, what exactly was done, who objected? The guilty, however senior, should be named, forced to testify, and called to account—because the rule of law, and nothing else, is what makes us exceptional.

As I recall, Marty Lederman, now holding a senior position in the Obama administration, used to argue that getting soldiers in uniform to commit torture is even worse than getting the CIA to do it. Soldiers have the added obligations of the Code of Military Justice, which are violated by torture--and of course, they have reason to fear that they or their colleagues will get the same treatment they dish out. Perhaps the most bizarre part of the Bush approach was the rather proud boasting about it all: "We're tough enough to get the job done. Of course, we're Boy Scouts, so we don't really torture. But then, we never want to lose any fight, no matter how dirty, so we torture when we have to do. But (a bit defensively) less than anyone else, and somehow more nicely. In fact, come to think of it, we're Boy Scouts, so whatever we do isn't torture." Presumably a President or someone close to him can decide to attempt torture in certain circumstances. The fact should not be advertised, and the President should have deniability.

Applebaum, interestingly enough, questions whether there is any proof that Israel relies on torture. On my old blog I once sorted through a story to the effect that the Israelis relied on tortured testimony from a prisoner in Jordan to identify the perpetrators of the Black September attack on Israeli athletes; the information was wrong, and they killed the wrong guys in "retaliation."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Heart Rate Training

I'm about two-thirds of the way through a clinic to prepare for a half marathon on April 26. Most of the group is running in another event two weeks later, so I have to kick up my distance a bit compared to them.

This is my first time training so intensively, and running so far, so there is a lot to learn. Yesterday we had a speaker who has coached many half marathon clinics. He said "you can fake it in a 5K or 10K, but you can't fake it in a half."

Mainly he talked about heart rate training. It is possible to lower your resting heart rate (what you experience when you first wake up) which improves your capacity to increase your heart rate in order to race. The maximum heart rate is 220 (beats per minute?) minus age. For him, age 40, that means 180. For me, age 53 (almost), that means 167 (if my math is right).

Both for heart rate and for breathing, it is important to maintain different running paces in different training runs during the week. We are urged to do at least four runs, preferably five, with one being LSD--long slow distance. "Slow" means you can talk comfortably, breathing is not a big issue, and you really feel able to go about your farthest, or stretch the distance out a bit. At the other extreme is a tempo run, with or without speed runs, intervals, fartleks, etc. A tempo run is not 100% of what you can do, or a sprint, but it is 70% to 80% of that--it feels fast, you don't feel you can talk comfortably. A tempo run should be much shorter than your long slow run. In between is a steady run.

I'm doing four runs a week, and a couple of swims, with a swim on the weekend being long for me at 40 lengths. Our instructor said he has never trained by doing five runs a week--he has done four plus a cross-training session. I run with the group Tuesday and Wednesday evening. Tuesdays for the next while will be hills: don't really focus on speed, but on keeping the heart rate down, not over-doing it, moving the arms to maintain momentum, look forward not down, and being aggressive without really racing. Walk a bit on level ground, then do the downhill leaning forward slightly, small steps, let gravity do the work and take a break. Serious injuries are possible taking big steps downhill.

Wednesdays I guess will be tempo. Last week I made the mistake of going fairly quickly on the way back from our hill course. Wednesday I was feeling it, and lots of people doing a tempo run passed me. Thursday on my own I'll do steady, and then LSD on Saturday.

I don't own a heart rate monitor, but a Garmin with a lot of software may be in my future.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Man, has it been cold recently. Especially in Edmonton (more or less my home town): (Correction of original post: Temperature on March 10 was the record cold for that date, not for all of March)

So far this month, at least 14 major weather stations in Alberta have recorded their lowest-ever March temperatures. I’m not talking about daily records; I mean they’ve recorded the lowest temperatures they’ve ever seen in the entire month of March since temperatures began being recorded in Alberta in the 1880s.

This past Tuesday, Edmonton International Airport reported an overnight low of -41.5 C, smashing the previous March low of -29.4 C set in 1975. Records just don’t fall by that much, but the airport’s did. Records are usually broken fractions of degrees. The International’s was exceeded by 12 degrees.

To give you an example of how huge is the difference between the old record and the new, if Edmonton were to exceed its highest-ever summer temperature by the same amount, the high here some July day would have to reach 50 C. That’s a Saudi Arabia-like temperature.

Also on the same day, Lloydminster hit -35.2 C, breaking its old March record of -29.2 C. Fort McMurray — where they know cold — broke a record set in 1950 with a reading of -39.9C. And Cold Lake, Slave Lake, Whitecourt, Peace River, High Level, Jasper and Banff, and a handful of other communities obliterated old cold values, most from the 1950s or 1970s, two of the coldest decades on record in the province.

This has been an especially cold winter across the country, with values returning to levels not often seen since the 1970s, which was an especially brutal decade of winters.

Temperatures began to plummet on the Prairies in December. The cold weather did not hit much of the rest of the country until January, but when it hit, it hit hard. Even against Canada’s normally frigid January standards, “this particular cold snap is noteworthy,” Environment Canada meteorologist Geoff Coulson said this past January. Many regions across the country had not been as cold for 30 years or more, he added.

I pity those poor bastards in Edmonton when Earth Day comes around--Saturday, March 28. Last year there was cold and snow--outdoor events (naturally, to deplore global warning and train kids in things they can do to slow it) had to be cancelled. God knows what's in store this year.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Boomers have Screwed Up

This topic deserves a lot of reflection: what exactly have the boomers contributed to human well-being, especially compared to the hopes that have been invested in them, and their own endless self-congratulation for being compassionate, open, deep, etc.?

For now, the present economic crisis. This time, the boomers have no "establishment" to blame other than themselves.
Gordon Pitts in the Globe and Mail, February 10:

So how could people who came of age in the financial crisis of the late 1970s, who became so immersed in financial news, who thought they were so smart about money, end up looking so dumb? For all their apparent cleverness, this generation is now mired in the worst equity meltdown and economic downturn since the 1930s.

The lesson from all this is that information alone does not make wisdom, says Monica Townson, an economist who in the 1970s was one of the rare Canadian journalists who specialized in economics. She blames a lot of the current panic on the 24-hours news cycle. The bombardment of news every minute feeds a herd mentality, she argues.

That mentality has fundamentally changed the way the stock market prices assets, Prof. Levi argues. At one time, people got information in different ways at different times and thus could disagree on the price of a stock.

"You need disagreement to find a market price. If you think it is worth $10, and I think it is worth $8 or $9, I'm willing to sell and you're willing to buy, and we can have a market."

But now we all receive the same news at the same moment through the Internet, Prof. Levi says. "So we've all got bad news or good news instantaneously. There is no room there for much disagreement between two people or parties about what something is worth."

Therefore, we all try to sell or buy at the same moment. Eventually, the market does find an equilibrium price, but only after extreme volatility, with prices going up and down several hundred points in a single day.

That volatility, in turn, scares people. According to Prof. Levi, investors expect a much higher rate of return to compensate for this systemic risk. That drives prices even lower during a market downturn.

So the generation that came to maturity in the 1970s and 1980s may be much better informed than their parents, but this cascade of information makes it more susceptible to manias followed by panics. People are prone to more irrational choices, whipped on by the constant flow of news and views.

Global Warming Science

I'm going to develop a longish post on this, but for now: is there evidence of global warming since 2001? According to at least some people who agree with the IPCC-Hansen-Gore model, no, no, and no. But to continue the onslaught of warnings, they suggest the effects of the model are somehow delayed, and when they finally come to fruition, like the San Andreas earthquake, they will be even worse than originally projected.

Of course, the alternative is that the IPCC-Hansen-Gore model is wrong, and its wrongness is increasingly evident.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Science and Politics in Swift

The more or less undisputed findings of science can be attacked from both left and right. The right, meaning here social conservatives, criticizes "evolution" at least partly because of it's effect on faith in God, and thus on the soul. It is not obviously crazy to say these things are more important than whether children learn the latest findings on how life on earth develops. I might as well add: I have always found discoveries in the realm of evolution tremendously exciting. For a while in my twenties I was interested in the idea of serious doubts about evolution, not necessarily based in any way on the Bible, such as Koestler's, but I am dazzled by the way genetics, and waves of new paleontological discoveries, now show evolution to be a theory that is capable of explaining vast and growing stores of data. I was raised by somewhat liberal Protestants, and I don't really see why believers can't simply say: no matter how complex and surprising evolution is, all the glory goes to God, or something like that.

Some of the same social conservatives criticize stem cell research that involves killing human embryos. Pro-lifers are committed to the view that every embryo is a human being, so every killing of an embryo is tantamount to murder. As a rule, pro-lifers have had little to say about in-vitro fertilization since the time when Louise Brown was born--even though IVF historically, and almost inevitably, involves the deliberate destruction of embryos. Presumably pro-lifers realize that many of the parents going through IVF are the salt of the earth from a conservative perspective; they build loving, supportive families, they are likely to vote Republican in the U.S., and they may even go to church. In a way, they are more likely to be anti-abortion than their peers who do not go through IVF, just as neo-natologists, who care for fragile babies, are more likely to be pro-life than peri-natologists, who see a pregnant woman as the patient.

IVF and stem cell research aren't exactly "undisputed science" in the way that evolution is, but they are defended by many of the same people as extremely promising avenues of medicine and research.

The left, of an environmental variety, is likely to object to genetically-modified foods, to much corporate-produced food in general, and to the actions of corporations in general as allegedly harmful to human health. They claim, I suppose, to put one kind of science--nutrition and public health--up against the allegedly crackpot science that supports mass production, always driving down the cost, of food. They would tend to say that organic food is healthier than food produced with more artificial intervention--not only because of the lack of pesticides, but in other ways as well.

It may seem strange that criticisms of the work of modern, technological agriculture echo some passages in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, first published in 1726. In the Third Voyage, Gulliver famously visits the flying island of Laputa, but he also visits the land underneath the island, called Balnibarbi, and the metropolis Lagado. When he visits Balnibarbi, he finds that agriculture has been destroyed in most of the land; "except in some very few places, I could not discover one ear of corn or blade of grass." The only estate he sees that still has "fields ... containing vineyards, corn-grounds, and meadows" is owned by his host, who says that old-fashioned methods, which produce such impressive results, are only followed by "very few, such as were old, and wilful, and weak like himself."

Gulliver learns that 40 years earlier, a few people went up the flying island, and came back determined to put "all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics upon a new foot." In the newly created colleges:

the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments and tools for all trades and manufactures, whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase an hundred fold more than they do at present, with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection, and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes.

Swift seems to insist that modern, scientific agriculture began as hardly more than a dream; it will not work soon, perhaps it cannot work, and in any case a sane person would not place his hopes in it. Applied to agriculture, and perhaps to other fields as well, Swift's description seems to fit Soviet efforts more than anything in the West. One well-known element of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, which eventually led much of the world into a truly modern economy, was the Agricultural Revolution, well under way during Swift's lifetime. It involved new methods including larger fields, new crops, crop rotation, and selective breeding. By about 1800, fifty years or so after Swift's death, agricultural output in England had increased about three and a half times. Of course, people were often moved, against their will, off land that their families had occupied for generations, and the growth of cities meant no economic security in the absence of a job, as opposed to living in the country where it was rare to have no food at all.

Twentieth-century Communists were foolishly trying to achieve even greater gains in output by more dramatic and harsher methods: more central control, less tolerance of private property. If one huge experiment failed, it would be followed by an even bigger experiment on similar lines.

The West, by contrast, has actually continued to increase agricultural output per plant, animal, and acre of land. With the Green Revolution, similar benefits were brought to the Third World, so that predictions of endless famine were replaced by estimates that India, for example, was self-sufficient in food.

Why was Swift so confident that modern, scientific methods would fail? The point seems to be that he thought the proper attitude was to believe that they would fail--to remain loyal to traditional methods, even if in a given year the new methods might achieve some success. Although capable of assuming a kind of comic distance from almost everything he saw, Swift was also capable of a very conservative orientation in politics. He seems to think feudal agriculture, in which hardly anyone achieved more than subsistence, and bad years of starvation were fairly common, was better, or should be regarded as better, than a world in which experts are somehow trusted to transform all known methods in order to deliver unheard of, almost undreamed of results.

Today perhaps the history of medicine provides a better example than that of agriculture. Until about the beginning of the twentieth century, medicine was hardly more than quackery and torture. To be admitted to hospital was to prepare to die. Over the centuries, the various fields of medicine had attracted many bright, hard-working, ambitious people--probably even some geniuses. These geniuses were more and more trusted; the old taboos about autopsy were long gone, lots of surgeries and other methods were tried every day; to some extent medical people first became separate from priests or unofficial religious figures, and then became more trusted and respected than the religious people. Yet the medical geniuses themselves were puzzled at their catastrophic failure with actual patients. Not knowing about antibiotics, aseptic surgical technique, the importance of tying up blood vessels even if that slowed down a surgery, managing pain, and many other matters, they were in fact hardly more than butchers. Yet during these centuries, many people trusted them, and patiently waited for the amazing breakthroughs that eventually, in fact, arrived.

Was it morally or politically a good thing to put such trust in experimental butchers working on human beings? That is still a lively question today, which is at least touched on when people wonder if too many people are being kept alive, or being mis-treated while alive, in hospital. The pro-lifers always imply a kind of criticism of all modern medicine, insofar as it treats the body as all-important, and neglects the soul. To take only one example, it seems the main determinant of whether a patient has actually died has been defined in such a way that organs can be harvested. Not: make absolutely sure someone is dead, and then maybe organs will be available, and maybe not, but: make sure the organs are available. Swift is trying to ask the same kind of question about practitioners of scientific agriculture: are the human beings in front of our eyes being treated as means, or part of an experiment?

Of course, once science or technology has "worked," it seems impossible to go back. How can a sane person reject better results for worse? Since scientific agriculture, absent communism, does not reduce good land to a desert, people will support it. Modern medicine seems more colossal in its achievements than ever, although there may be a growing impatience at the lack of a dramatic breakthrough with cancer. And of course, while it is true that more people live to 80 or 90, it is still extremely rare to live to 100.

And so, actual debates continue about the morality and politics of both agriculture and medicine.

UPDATE July: I might have mentioned that the Irish potato famine, long after Swift's death, may seem a great example of the failure of scientific agriculture: one crop grown on a huge scale to maximize profits and feed the workers cheaply, etc. Without being an expert, I would say the Irish famine resulted from a combination of "new" agriculture and a corrupt version of "old" feudalism.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Running and Nutrition

I've been leading a Learn to Run group (one more session to go), and also attending a half marathon clinic. Between the two groups I've attended three nutrition talks recently.

My only clear take-aways:

1. Drink water lukewarm or body temp, not cold
2. The single most likely reason for sore muscles is dehydration--so drink lots

One person said take protein shakes--people who work out a lot will need the extra protein. Another person said the protein in shakes is not the best compared to actual food, and it might end up either as waste or fat. Wikipedia seems to confirm that very few people actually suffer from a protein deficiency. It might make sense that high performance athletes (not really people like me) need more protein, but the body can only process so much.

My guru on nutrition is Leslie Beck in the Globe and Mail. She has re-iterated that coffee has now been found not to be a diuretic, causing de-hydration, for most people. If you are used to it, your cups of coffee count as part of your liquid for the day. This is contrary to all the nutrition talks I have seen live recently. She also seems good on supplements. Calcium, probably yes, Vitamin D when you're not getting enough sun, maybe fish oil tablets with salmon for the good kind of Omega 3. But in general, rely as much as possible on actual food--fresh fruit and veg, whole grains, flax, dark berries, a few almonds, a very few walnuts, oregano--and as little as possible on supplements.

Like a lot of runners, I take glucosamine with chondroitin for joints, etc. One of our speakers said forget the chondroitin--it's expensive, and the body can't process it. For a while I was skipping it altogether since the glucosamine sulfate is a type of salt--possibly bad for high blood pressure. But now I'm not worried about that, so it's back on the pills.

I take zinc, rightly or wrongly.

I've found steel-cut oatmeal--the kind that's good for you, but normally takes 20 minutes to prepare--in a frozen form. I hope this is at least as beneficial as a good mix of whole grain dry cereals.

The nutrition speakers tended to discourage anything artificial: genetically modified foods or gmo's, anything microwaved, almost anything cooked. Yet they are also favourable to supplements, apparently they don't trust big business to provide the nutrients we need. But, but ... supplements don't grow on trees.

Vaccines and Autism

Incredibly, both Barack Obama and John McCain, in the 2008 presidential election, suggested that vaccines are likely to cause autism.

Anti-scientific mumbo-jumbo from the two candidates for leader of the free world.

As one commenter said--focussing only on McCain, since supposedly it is Republicans who are more likely to be anti-science--this can actually do more harm than being wrong about evolution, since the President can affect the success of public health campaigns.

This is the kind of thing that concerns me. Supposedly we live in an age when science is more important in shaping policy than ever. In principle, statements that claim to be based on science should be subject to the best evidence, etc. Instead there are indications that people will believe practically anything.

I don't necessarily think it's good to simply do what "the scientists" recommend. But a vague fear that people in labs are cooking up Frankenstein's monster, or a left-wing fear that capitalism is going to kill us all, are not necessarily healthy.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Juvenile Obesity and Diabetes

My first post, citing information from Junkfood Science, reminds me of another great post on that site. 

There is an increase, if not an epidemic, of childhood obesity in the U.S. Some people think this will lead to an increase in Type 2 Diabetes. Some have even said this is already happening, and this claim has been made in the media.

The Junkfood Science lady points out that there is very reliable data on the incidence of Type 2 diabetes among U.S. children, and the incidence is not increasing. The studies that seem to indicate the contrary are very limited and partial--basically confined to a small number of children who were already going to a doctor or the hospital. Increase in obesity? Yes. In Type 2 diabetes? No, at least not so far.

Getting Re-Started

I'll be posting mainly on news and opinion that interests me.

These days I'm training for a half marathon. The clinic I've joined includes guest speakers on nutrition, injuries and other topics, and I've been doing some reading on these topics for the past several years. There is a lot of science, with actual evidence, on topics of interest to runners, but there is also some controversy, especially on nutrition. So possible topics include running, nutrition, health studies.

I used to blog elsewhere, mainly on politics including the Iraq war. I believe the archived material can still be found, although the word search does not work.
I'm 53, recently started on medication for high blood pressure. It's unusual, although not unheard of, for someone who works out as much as I do to have high blood pressure. (Besides running three or four times a week, I swim three times and do a bit of walking to catch buses). My doctor didn't say much about salt, etc.--she just said briefly it may be genetic--but the conventional wisdom is that a high-salt diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart trouble or stroke, etc., and a low-salt diet can help to avoid these things.

Imagine my surprise at reading that a low-salt diet may either have no effect at all, or may actually contribute to high blood pressure etc.

Statements that are constantly repeated: connections between salt--high blood pressure--heart disease--x number of deaths per year--have never been supported by good studies. On the other hand, there are excellent studies to support the following claims:

1. Salt is essential for good health--it benefits the body in a number of ways, some of which have been identified only recently.

2. There is no better measure of the right amount of salt for a person than what that person actually chooses.

3. Claims about how much salt we eat in junk food, etc. are generally exaggerated.

4. Good stu
dies show either that a low salt diet makes no difference to health, or that it actually increases one's risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and other problems. Why a low-salt diet in itself would cause these problems is still not clear, but see #1 above.

5. The attack on salt by a
government agency is probably an attempt to get people to cut down on the junk food they eat. Since junk food tends to be salty, the salt is treated like a proxy for "unhealthy food." Yet the result is a campaign that flies in the face of science, and puts the health of many people at risk.

Hmmm... my diet has been somewhat low-salt for a few years, and I've recently begun taking medication for high blood pressure....

Via Ground Rounds, 2/24/2009: The Blog that Ate Manhattan: Grand Rounds