Sunday, November 30, 2003

Some extra reading untill tomorrow -  

I'm just back in town (after communing with the ancestral home over the holiday). In the interim I find that Chris Genovese has been busy. One post in particular caught my eye (more my line of work than his).

In 1967 Benot Mandelbrot pointed out that asking "How long is the coast of Great Britian?" is suprisingly deep. The answer, it turns out, hinges on how long (or how flexible) the ruler is that is used to make the measurement. You can use this physical system (as Mandelbrot did) to develop a geometry of systems that somehow fall between conventional notions of dimensionality.

This paper, by Sapoval and others, proposes that the fractal dimensionality of the coastline springs naturally from the interplay of the three processes at work: energy input to the coast by waves and energy dissipating from the coast either by chemical (chemical dissolution of rock) or mechanical means (breaking big rocks into smaller ones).

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

I'm a bit sad about this for reasons I don't quite understand -  

As those who've followed the decision of BA and Air France to discontinue Concorde service know, the fleet of supersonic jets was recently grounded (it now takes longer to get to Europe than it did 20 years ago: progress only if you think US isolation is a good thing). Anyways the last jet was brought into New York City today, to meet to its final resting place at the Sea, Air and Space Museum, on a barge. Who would've guessed you'd see the day where the Concorde came into New York harbor the same way the garbage leaves.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Darwin makes me read People (or at least makes women read People) -  

Over at Slate Jack Shafer has an interesting piece on why evolutionary psychology (very loosely defined) might be driving us to read tabloids. I think Evolutionary Psychology is dicey in general (dicey in this case means good at providing plausible sounding explanations after the fact but awful at predicting human action before it happens) but I have to admit that I've never before had any kind of explanation as to why the tabloids were so popular.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Now even the atmosphere is warming! -  

For years global warming skeptics have pounced on a long standing disagreement between satellite temperature measurements of the lower atmosphere and ground measurements. Satellite measurements have, in the past, failed to show any atmospheric warming while measurements on the ground, obviously, have. See this page for an articulation of the case against global warming by the ubiquitous Fred Singer (satellite measurements relate to #2).

A note in the NYTimes from Tuesday highlights a new study that brings the lower atmospheric measurements more in line with the ground. The authors of the study argue that we've been underestimating temperature increases from satellite measurements mostly because of poor data processing techniques.

This is really important work.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Drilling ANWR and the new energy bill -  

The energy bill currently circulating in the Senate has already been roundly derided by Gregg Easterbrook:

But overall the energy bill is a huge disappointment, 1,700 pages devoted to maintaining the status quo and indefinitely postponing every important energy-policy decision.

Gregg faults the bill for avaoiding anything either the left or the right disagree with (e.g. drilling ANWR, offshore drilling of natural gas, higher MPG standards for trucks and SUVS and long term actions to combat global warming ) and suggests that we need all of those things. This is convenient, and awfully centrist of him, but incorrect. Gregg writes:

ANWR exploration will help us be ready in case international petroleum disruption happens again.

In order for this to be true drilling ANWR would have to enable to the US to not just reduce oil imports but to, more or less, avoid it. However, an analysis by the World Resources Insitute based on projections of the oil available in ANWR by the U.S. Geological Survey and projections of petroleum consumption by the Department of Energy suggest that this just ain't so. Based on this analysis even drilling ANWR would still require the US to import something like 30% of its oil. Clearly if geopolitics cause 30% of oil to evaporate you, I and every other driver in our nation of drivers will feel it at the pump.

Which is all by way of saying a.) this is a bad bill b.) what are we going to do about it? The answer to b.) (nod to Matt Yglesias at TAPPED) is fillibuster. There seem to be several Republicans willing to go along so what's the hold up? In a strange case of Our Take congruence Matt argues that its the same farm subsidies Geoffrey already faulted below for entirely different reasons.

An Ashcroft Joke: 

I think on some level I must have known they were out there. Here, as far as I know, is the first (courtesy of Brian Leiter).

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

And on and on with marriage 

Massachusetts' high court has ruled unconstitutional the refusal to grant marriage licenses to same sex couples. The decision granted the legisture 180 days to rectify the situation. Governor Mitt Romney has responded by calling for a change to the state's consitution that would define marriage as a union exlusively between a man and a woman. Senator Bill Frist, of earlier comment on this issue, said, according to the New York Times, the following: "It is the law of the land passed by this body, and if the courts begin to tear that down, we have a responsibility to address it. And all options are indeed on the table."

It is rare, perhaps, when supporters of an unjust and unconstitutional position feel emboldened enough to try to change the constitution. Doing so will require resorting to explicit claims from a religious morality inconsistent with the foundation of a state capable of protecting the rights of minorities. As I've argued before, the best we can do is a secular state that can exercise equal protection. Now it may be that some people do not think themselves equal to others. And they may have religious or cultural basis for such an opinion. One may even believe that the world would be better if we were treated unequally with respect to their own valuations. But none of that matters. The claim for equal protection of same-sex unions is no different in its time, truly, than the claim for equal protection of interracial unions. That we have no constitutional amendment restricting the latter right should chasten those who would push for one restricting the former.

-- Geoffrey

Global Supremacy: playing hot potato with W. 

George Soros likens America's foreign policy to a bubble in the financial markets in this month's Atlantic. Quoting from the September 2002 National Security Strategy, one contemporary worldview understands that there is "a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise." But Soros argues that there is no "single sustainable model" and further that the model of the United States cannot be duplicated because it is contingent upon our occupying a dominant position with the global capitalist system -- a position we will not willingly yield. His broader point is that the distance between the former worldview and reality creates distortions in our international attitudes and actions. The net result is a decrease of national and collective security. A distinction is drawn between leadership and supremacy.

It's worth wondering, I think, about the cost of this type of supremacy. As an example, our own agricultural subsidies are a huge expenditure -- a price we seem willing to pay in order to continue to force to the economic margins agricultural producers in developing countries. The likelihood is that this sort of marginalization has additional costs associated with it. For example, impoverished cotton farmers in Peru or Pakistan are more likely to pursue activities which will cost us militarily -- perhaps entering narco-trafficking or Al Queda. In that sense saving the farm subsidy money would forward the additional goal of creating sustainable economic conditions in developing countries as well as reduce the provoked national defense spending of antagonistic policies. Faith in markets would dictate that this savings would then spur investment in ways that are currently stymied by our unfortunate terrorist and/or supremacist debt. Our lose-lose might turn to win-win and this would surely be a good thing if we care about global security, not to mention human dignity.

The analogy to a financial bubble is the following: when expectations and actions take leave of reality, the impending correction can be a crushing bust or a soft landing. In this case, choosing the soft landing would entail recasting our worldview of national vindication enough to allow other states to access the fruits of comparative economic advantage. But to be clear: this is in our interest anyhow. On the other hand the bust will occur if, in continually refusing to yield specific dominance (as with farm subsidy), we marginalize other global actors into desperation rather than galvanize them into cooperation and participation.

-- Geoffrey

Sunday, November 16, 2003

The tragedy of environmental contamination: what happens in the next Erin Brockovich movie? -  

Eric Umansky contends (in the current issue of the New Republic - if you don't subscribe a free trial is necessary to read the article) the Brockovich's (now Brockovich-Ellis) current case, and many other cases brought with her partner Ed Masry, is somewhere between sketchy and bogus.

If you believe Umansky, Brockovich-Ellis and Masry (I'm already tired of typing these names so hereafter B-E&M) have missed that good science doesn't necessarily make a dramatic or legally compelling story. In fact, once again as described by Umansky, the common themes in their work are small data sets and incomplete knowledge of the basic facts. Firstly, small data sets are awful (in the most recent B-E&M case the the data set seems to be one measurement which was, in fact, still below the relevant state limit) in assessing the public health effects of environmental contaminants because human exposure is strongly influenced by variability in sources (wells leak at rates which change in time) and variability in things like weather (e.g. many atmospheric contaminants can be dispersed by wind or washed out by rain). The second theme rears its ugly head because many manufactured chemicals are not known (particularly in small concentrations) to have any adverse effects in the environment. Which is to say, just because compound A has a name that sounds kind of similar to compound B (they're both letters) and compound A is known to cause cancer, it does not follow that compound B must also cause cancer.

To my mind the real problem with pursuing these sort of spurious class action claims for compensation for environmental contamination is less the individual claim but rather the climate of distrust it creates. If you think about environmental contamination in passing and you find that even the Hollywood sanctified B-E&M have been, more or less, making stuff up what do you think about the importance of environmental contamination in general? The answer is a resounding not much.

And that, I think, is the real tragedy.

Saturday, November 15, 2003


For those who may be interested in speed Rubik's cubing (don't be ashamed about admitting it) there's a new world record: 16.35 seconds. I, for one, am definitely impressed.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Where do you turn if you're a best selling novelist looking for a name for a geologist for a new book? -  

If you're Dan Brown and the novel in question is Deception Point, you think back to your undergraduate days at a humble, small liberal arts college in central Massachusetts and the professor with whom you probably took Introduction to Geology: Gerry Brophy. Change the first name, make the character a Canadian and you've got yourself a geologist.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Well at least the Federal Government is secular (and Alabama's not a sovereign nation)-  

It's worth pointing out that the Federal Judiciary (of our fair United States) is still clearly secular. Today Roy Moore, the former Chief Justice of Alabama who had refused to allow a federal court order demanding a removal of a granite monument to the 10 commandments from the court house, was removed from office by the Alambama Court of the Judiciary for ethical lapses (although Moore would probably call it just a novel reading of the Constitution). While the court struck a blow for the objectivity of the judiciary in the face of, possibly conflicting religous obligations (imagine a man coming before Moore who'd desecrated a cross) Moore is apparently more personally popular than ever. Perhaps he'll run for Senate?

Global shifts - a thought 

In the Atlantic article Kramer cites, the rise in a conservative brand of Christianity is also posited as a response to the extreme pressures of cultural isolation within a broadly and explicitly Islamic society. A propos, Tom Friedman writes today that Israel and Saudi Arabia need one another as never before. These pieces make me more inclined to hold to my belief that the most we are entitled to is a secular society, and not a society which echoes or ratifies explicitly religious values or doctrines. In a pluralistic world in which religion is more than a mere hot-button, but an identifier sufficient for the majority of the world's conflict (see Friedman's previous op-ed this week). Patriated Israelis have articulated (sorry, but apparently you have to pay for this archived article), for example, that there is something critically important to having a part of the world where Judaism governs and Jews therefore feel comfortable in their Jewish state. Not to pick on that country among so many examples, but I remain unconvinced that anyone has an actual right to statecraft amidst such religious restrictions. Not too many years ago, South Africa was a pariah for legislating racially-based restrictions that look somewhat similar to what any number of countries do now vis-a-vis religion. Plurality is a fact of life. Even a benign and moderately open Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Christian state is still an affront -- not to mention a potential international terrorist target or threat. Moreso, I would argue than even a racially supremacist state such as the old South Africa or, perhaps, the current Zimbabwe under Mugabe.

Global Shifts in Christianity - 

It's clear, I think, from the strength of evangelical Christian christian churches in the US how attractive a faith which hinges on literal interpretation of the bible can be. Equally interesting, at least to me, is how attractive such Christian conservatism proves in much of Africa . On the face of it such Christian conservatism may be a.) a potent first/third world unifying force b.) may herald the increasing spread of religon into public life. This trend is severely out of step with the vision of a secular state Geoffrey articulated earlier and raises interesting questions about the issues considered in trying to decide how explicitly religon should be involved with policy making.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

The Science Section of the NYTimes (or what I'm doing instead of sleeping this evening) -  

I know, I know, I know I shouldn't be posting about it until I've actually read them but in today's NYTimes there is a collection of essays on 25 interesting questions facing Science. Some of the topics, it seems clear, are interesting and timely both in terms of international politics - viz. Is War Our Biological Destiny? - and in terms of the more local world of Our Take's discussion of the ethical constraints on science).

For those who don't know, the NYTimes requires a free registration. As far as I can tell they a.) really don't send you anything if you ask them not to and b.)don't sell the list to organizations selling e.g. hair enhancement products. So if you haven't all ready register and make judgements about the presence (or absence) of left wing media bias for yourself.

- Kramer

Monday, November 10, 2003

Why we should clean up -- a reaction 

In reference to Kramer's post regarding the cost:benefit of environmental regulation given likely timescales for climate change, there may be an ethical consideration to do with the mode of time.

We are fairly good at dealing justice in the present. Some things that we might assess have to do with the intent, agency, and consequences to an action. On their own, these factors themselves can be complicated. But the temporality, endurance, and compounding effect of actions in time are just as important to any sense of justice.

Looking at our history, we might think of righting wrongs or making people whole. This may be the ethical underpinnings of damage awards, reparations, and the like. Injustice done in the past often has an effect on the present, frequently in terms of pain and suffering in torts, or in terms of some cumulative disadvantage endured. This might describe the case of family members compensated for some wrong that befell a deceased member. There is, I would suggest, a compounding need to right these wrongs. Time can bury the hatchet, but it can also chaffe and compromise the ethics we would hope to enact in the here and now.

Looking ahead from the present to the future, however, our ethical sensibilities are much less evolved. What responsiblities do we really owe those sure to come after us, anyhow? I think that serious thought is needed about this, as about a lot of things that may employ technological solutions, if only because technology will never answer these questions. Know-how does not equal knowledge in the sense of understanding. Our ethics is being dangerously outpaced in many realms by technology (see genetic research). Fortunately, or not, this is hardly the case regarding climate change. Our technology and development is actually speeding the crisis, sparing us, at least, the fevered hand-wringing about whether we should do just because we can do (see cloning).

Let me throw out, though, that religions are exemplary, for obvious reasons, in their sense of time (though less so for the Judeo-Christianity that remains fixated on an imminent apocalypse.) Within the J-C tradition, there is interesting language around covenants and the common good. In this context, our responsibilities toward future life are robust. Unpacking this stuff demands thought about relational ethics. We need to assess the multi-valent spheres of allegiences, interactions and duties that govern our own species and the environmental order.


Mark Ruffalo: the Manu Ginobili of American Cinema 

Mark Ruffalo is a good actor. Many people liked his unusually poignant performance as the troubled brother in You Can Count on Me. He was not just funny and winning in his humble irresponsibility, things that one often sees in those sorts of humbly irresponsible characters. There was also room for pain, memory, indignation, wistfulness, hope, and doubt within the character, all in an understated, wanting-to-please, scared kind of way. He carved something out that was new and appropriate.

A recent NY Times piece describes Ruffalo as an ascendent leading man after portraying a tough police detective in the upcoming release In the Cut, directed by Jane Campion and featuring Meg Ryan. There's all this interesting stuff about how honest and creative Ruffalo can be as an actor. How he is able to find legitimately new stuff within the craft just by using what he has without whitewashing it in the narcotic of method acting. Campion apparently pushed him here to do all of it without outwardly betraying powerlessness in a role requiring a presence close to hardboiled.

All of which makes View from the Top, the 2003 Ruffalo-Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, so much more perplexing. This movie, I think, might never have been good. A small-town woman leaving Wal-Mart to end up as a flight attendant is not, um, scintillating. Necessarily. Paltrow's character was played earnest as it gets, and as a not too obvious parody that could be a terrific in a somewhat satisfying way. On the other hand, when Mark Ruffalo enters this film as Ted, a humorously self-deprecating nice guy, things get a little more interesting. In the second half, however, the filmakers reduce his screentime and give him bland things to say. It actually becomes a movie about a flight attendant (to be fair, there may have been plot-driven reasons for this...which makes it damning to realize that the plot should have been thrown over in order not to mess with the Ruffalo magic). Even if he is creative and unique among actors, he's got slim-pickings to work with after a while.

Perhaps it's time to say that you got to let Ruffalo be Ruffalo. You got to keep feeding him, keep going to well (to mix the food and drink.) He's bound to spin something quirky and winning. The basketball player I'd compare him to right now is Ginobili -- a guy with an unselfish, sly genius, finding new ways to get it done, coming into his own as a household name.


Sunday, November 09, 2003

On Grand Goals in Iraq -  

Jack Beatty offers a refutation of, let's call it The Friedman Doctrine, in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly which is provocative. The gist of his piece is that it may be good to redefine our goals in Iraq, and by extension I suppose in foreign policy more generally, from, roughly, world transformation to just moderate improvement.

I'm not exactly sure how I feel about this, I like a good rhetorical call to arms as much as the next guy (very possibly more, depending on who exactly the next guy is), but it is indisputable that we operate within finite budget constraints. It is certainly worthwhile, therefore, to ask whether Iraq, and more generally global transformation through induced regime change, is the best use of resources. Clearly this will come into focus, at least for Iraq, as the cost of revitalizing society becomes clearer.


Friday, November 07, 2003

Why We Should Clean Up the Environment - 

I'm a bit late to this particular party (I occasionally have to do stuff to justify my scanty grad student stipend) but I couldn't resist taking a swing at Virgina Postrel's October 28th post Bioremediation and Political Time Scales. The sense of the post is that we shouldn't worry about issues of long term environmental quality because technology will likely take care of the problem before we ever get to the long term.

This argument is akin to those who contend (see early work by Bill Nordhaus on economic analysis of climate change-more on how Nordhaus' analysis has since deepened at a future date) that the best way to deal with the threat of climate change is to avoid the economic consequences of regulation. Which is to say, healthy economies will generate technological fixes to all climate induced ills. In both cases its assumed that the system we're thinking about regulating is linear: putting a small amount of pcb into drinking water causes a small adverse health effect, putting a little bit of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will cause a small change in climate. The scientific understanding of toxicity (to either humans or animals) and of climate leaves much to be desired but what is clear is that both systems are nonlinear: sometimes little things have big effects.

Because we can put some toxins in ground water and it probably won't matter, because we can add a little more and it still probably won't matter but because eventually it will matter a lot and we don't know exactly when, it seems prudent to regulate now and not rely on technology to clean up later.


Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Marriage, religion, and socio-politics 

"I very much feel that marriage is a sacrament, and that sacrament should extend and can extend to that legal entity of a union between -- what is traditionally in our Western values has been defined -- as between a man and a woman. So I would support the amendment."

Bill Frist, the Republican Senator from Tennessee and Majority Leader, not long ago shared his feelings on marriage, religion, and a possible constitutional amendment to expressly forbid same sex unions. In a religious sense, marriage denotes a specific sacrament to a great many people. Sacrament, of couse, is a strong concept. In the Christian tradition – summarized in the Baltimore catechism, parochial though it is, it indicates an act that contains an outward sign, was somehow instituted by Jesus, and is grace-giving in the moment – or efficacious. In a sacramental sense, it is far from obvious, though, that marriage can only belong to certain unions any more than others. Really smart theologians do dispute this. Perhaps Frist should join that chatroom, because in the political realm, his deeply held sentiment is irrelevant.

Sacramental marriage should no more bear upon the evident political necessity of sanctioning some unions and forbidding others than a sacrament such as baptism should upon the exercise of the freedom to assemble or affiliate within society. While Christian baptism may mark membership in a certain Christian community, it is nevertheless apparent that discrimination on this basis is wrong in a societal context. Just because Christians believe that one cannot be saved without it, with good reason other communities receive legal protections to pursue salvation or bestow the gifts of membership in their own way. The absurdity of politics wading into that sacramental discussion should be clear. Marriage is no different.

Politics is not the place to go about sanctifying the things that matter most to people – this is everyone's own right, a foundational one at that. At best, a state can assure that those things deemed holy in our lives are somehow protected and accessible. After all, you may think the bread and wine is really body and blood while I may be indifferent, but deciding such a dispute by appealing to political consensus is wildly inappropriate. Akin, I think, to deciding it on the basis of force. It may feel more civil to talk it out and then tally the votes, but that doesn't mean it's any less coercive.

It is for this reason that in this extremely heterogeneous world we owe ourselves a secular political culture. This is not a nod toward moral relativism nor does it imply that one's views cannot be informed by one's own faith commitments. Nor even that one cannot be an open believer in God or whatever else people believe in. But it is to say that political imposition of the content of these belief systems is not provided for in just social arrangements. If Frist believes that only men and women can marry one another, then he can try to persuade people not to try other arrangements, but to impose it politically crosses a crucial line.

One last observation: we seem to be talking about religion and politics more and more. I'm concerned where it is heading. A recent piece in Slate serves only to increase my concerns.


Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Carbon Dioxide, Climate Change and Future Energy Sources -  

I'll have a longer post on global warming and ways we might avoid it at some point in the future but for now this piece by Kenneth Change is a good place to begin. I think he accurately characterizes the main problem, do we a.) do nothing and hope for the best as the climate changes b.) keep generating power using fossil fuels and spend a lot of money/effort trying to figure out how to seuqester carbon dioxide or c.) spend a lot of money/effort trying to figure out a new way to generate power.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Things that may have happened when Bush looked into Putin's eyes -  

Earlier this year when Bush looked into Putin's eyes and found a man with whom he was a kindred spirit he was really establishing intimacy. Eyes, at least for me, have always been unreliable indicators of the level of intimacy we share with another. I've always stuck to conversation in the past - you know, asking someone how they feel - but apparently male baboons might have found a better way. According to a recent piece in the journal Nature they establish intimacy by tickling the genitalia of other male baboons with their teeth. So forget about looking into another man's eyes to know his heart, let's try teething on his genitals.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Things you stumble on while listening to NPR's Morning Edition -  

No I'm not talking about the bias often described by folks like Andrew Sullivan but the music. This morning Lianne Hansen had on Jim Infantino from the Boston based trio, Jim's Big Ego. If you like intelligent (Infantino referenced Wittgenstein in the interview), catchy pop this might be the place to head. As an added bonus you can buy a CD directly from the band and they then ENCOURAGE you to copy the music and share it with all your friends.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Carbon Dioxide in the Senate -  

Who would have expected that six Republicans would break rank with the White House on carbon dioxide emissions policy? (I'll answer my own question here - I'm guessing very few). I agree with the McCain quote in this NY Times piece, losing 55-43 makes it feel like victory isn't all that far away.

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