Thursday, November 30, 2006

Today's idea - anonymized audio interviews

One of the nice things about radio is that you can turn it on in the middle of a news interview and listen to what the interviewee says without the bias of knowing who he or she is. The other day I listened to some Washington politician talk straightforwardly and intelligently about her aims next year, and was very impressed. At the end I found out it was Missouri's new Senator, Claire McCaskill. Same thing happened the first time I heard Barack Obama. And a year or so ago, I listened to someone talk about a gas tax and some other things I basically agree with, and felt that even though I agreed with him, he was so condescending that I wanted to reach through the radio and slap him. That turned out to be Tom Friedman.

So the idea is a website that collects worthwhile audio interviews but bleeps out identifiers until the end. Tremendous copyright problems with this idea, but I'll just do a Bushlike wave of my hands and pretend they go away.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Volokh Correction #16

Jonathan Adler critiques a New York Times editorial about tomorrow's Supreme Court case over global warming. Let's return the favor.
NY TIMES: The Bush administration has been on a six-year campaign to expand its powers, often beyond what the Constitution allows. So it is odd to hear it claim that it lacks the power to slow global warming

ADLER: This is a fair point about the Bush Administration, but it says little to nothing about the merits of the litigation.

BACKSEAT DRIVING: Fine, but the Times is just commenting about the oddness, it didn't try and make a legal point.

NY TIMES: A group of 12 states . . . backed by environmental groups and scientists, say that the Clean Air Act requires the E.P.A. to impose limits on carbon dioxide...

ADLER: All true, but only part of the story. The EPA's position is also supported by several state intervenors, .... Nonetheless, the Times simply refers to "the states"...

BACKSEAT DRIVING: Times already made it clear it was 12 states, not 50, and referring to appellants as "the states" is a convenient shorthand. This is beyond nitpicking.

ADLER: It is also important to underscore that this case is not about the science of climate change.

BACKSEAT DRIVING: My recollection is that the Bush Admin. argued that the science is still unclear at the appellate level. I haven't read the current briefs, but I doubt they'd drop that argument, and if they did, I'll bet some crazy amici briefs picked it up.

NY TIMES: [Bush Admin] contends that the court should dismiss the case because the [petitioning] states do not have “standing,” since they cannot show that they will be specifically harmed by the agency’s failure to regulate greenhouse gases.

ADLER: This is a fair characterization of the EPA's position, but it is also worth nothing that the EPA is hardly alone in this case...

BACKSEAT DRIVING: The standing arguments are the worst for reasons I laid out here (the argument is that because everyone is somewhat affected by climate change, the harm is too "diffuse" to be solved by courts, and should be solved politically instead). If this argument succeeds, it will be used to cut off legal redress for many other air and possibly water pollutants.

NYTIMES: A plain reading of the Clean Air Act shows that the [petitioning] states are right.

ADLER: is difficult to argue that the relevant provisions of the Clean Air Act have anything to do with global warming. The text of the Clean Air Act, read in its entirety and in historical context, clearly bears this out. Congress has repeatedly considered climate change policy, beginning in 1978, and has repeatedly refused to adopt regulatory measures in favor of non-binding programs of one sort or another.

BACKSEAT DRIVING: Drawing inferences from what Congress did NOT do is a weak argument. Congress could be relying on the EPA faithfully administering the law it passed. What Congress did not do years after the Clean Air Act passed also tells you little about what Congress originally intended. This isn't a meaningless argument, but it's pretty weak.

ADLER: To declare carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to be "pollutants" under the Clean Air Act is to require far more than the control of vehicular would almost certainly place the EPA in the position of trying to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards for greenhouse gases....Yet the structure of NAAQS compliance, including localized State Implementation Plans, is wholly incompatible with a climate-wide concern such as global warming.

BACKSEAT DRIVING: Requiring state action on greenhouse gas emissions is hardly incompatible with addressing climate. States are already doing it.

NYTIMES: Beneath the statutory and standing questions, this is a case about how seriously the government takes global warming.

ADLER: Not at all. This is a case about what authority Congress delegated to the EPA and the role of the courts in climate policy.

BACKSEAT DRIVING: First, courts can and do consider the policy implications of their potential rulings. While policy can't override legal arguments, it informs them - a ruling with terrible policy implications is more likely to be a misinterpretation of Congressional intent, for example. Adler knows this. Second, the Times is talking to the public, not the Supreme Court, and they're giving the Bush Administration the criticism it deserves for doing bad policy on global warming.

NYTIMES: The E.P.A.’s decision was based in part on its poorly reasoned conclusion that there was too much “scientific uncertainty” about global warming to worry about it.

ADLER: I agree that if one concludes that the Clean Air Act applies to greenhouse gases, than the EPA's arguments for failing to regulate fall flat, but (again) this just begs the prior question.

BACKSEAT DRIVING: Adler ducks the issue that the Bush Administration is denying the scientific certainty of global warming. Contrary to his assertion, the case in large part is about the science and denialism.

The Supreme Court can strike an important blow in defense of the planet simply by ruling that the E.P.A. must start following the law.

ADLER: ...
the ultimate question for the Court is whether it wishes to place its thumb on the scales of climate policy, or is willing to leave such important policy questions in the political branches where, as a matter of both law and prudence, they belong.

BACKSEAT DRIVING: He's got the issue backwards. The Clean Air Act delegates significant power to regulatory agencies, and then expects them to act. If Adler doesn't like it, he and his friends should ask Congress to change the law, instead of supporting the Bush Administration's attempt to ignore it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Annoy the dolphin slaughter in Japan!

This'll be the second petition I've passed on in two-plus years of blogging. It won't end the dolphin slaughter in Japan, but maybe getting enough signatures will annoy it a little. I signed it a week or so ago and haven't noticed any increase in spam, so they appear to be taking their privacy vow seriously.

The environmental justification for ending the killing seems a little weak to me, but the moral justification for stopping the needless massacre of animals at their level of intelligence seems clear enough.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

What Borat tells us about Jeff Goldstein

Goldstein is a conservative who enjoys recounting violent homosexual fantasies he has about his left-wing opponents. Apparently I'm a humorless leftie who failed to appreciate his wit until I saw Borat. The nude wrestling scene is probably the model of Goldstein's fantasy. Understanding that's what Goldstein is about makes him less creepy, maybe all of one percent less.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Volokh Correction #15

Jonathan Adler claims that:
most so-called "denialists" or "skeptics" do not deny the reality of anthropogenic contributions to global warming nor are they skeptical about the basic science of climate change. Rather, most folks tarred with these labels are, to some degree or another, skeptical of the evidence for certain apocalyptic claims and the need for particularly dramatic policy measures and particularly vocal about their concerns.
Adler says his definition doesn't apply to Roger Pielke Jr., so I can't think of anyone it does apply to. Pielke Sr. seems to disagree with the basic science, although I don't follow him too closely. Monckton and some others think there will only be a tiny amount of anthropogenic warming and arrive at that conclusion by completely disagreeing with the consensus.

Adler's wrong. Or - congratulations, James Annan - you are a climate denialist!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Trade-based CO2 regulation raises its fair head

The NY Times wrote about a French proposal to tax imports from countries that refuse to comply with the Kyoto Protocol. I've seen several mentions of similar ideas over the last year or so - in other words, an unstoppable phenomenon!

As I wrote last year, I think trade-based CO2 regulation is a great idea. I continue to believe, until provided contrary evidence, that this is a legally-viable way to get US involvement in an international accord through a majority vote that would otherwise require a treaty's two-thirds approval in the US Senate. And as the French are suggesting, it's also a way for the rest of the world to force cuts by countries like the US and Australia that are free riders.

Taxing the imports in the right way would be important. Increasing taxes for products composed of non-recycled material would give an advantage to recycling, which is a decent proxy for saving energy and reducing emissions. So would biasing the tax on energy-intensive products produced in the coal-based eastern half of the US, versus the more diverse energy sources in the western half.

A revenue-neutral import duty would be even better - you increase the tax on bad products and reduce it on good ones. This might have a slight chance of being acceptable under the WTO as a means of requiring foreign products meet the same environmental standards as Kyoto-compliant country's domestic products. I'm not sure though - getting serious might require the rest of the world to overlay the WTO with a CO2 trade agreement, and make the overlay the controlling agreement, regardless of whether the US agrees. It's a matter of willpower. I concede it won't be easy, but it's not impossible if the rest of the world is serious, and the threat itself could make future American governments more reasonable.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Christopher Monckton won't bet over global warming

Monckton wrote yet another of those wrong denialist screeds about global warming (taken apart by Deltoid and others here and here). Monckton did say though that his best estimate was warming would be 0.6C per century. At .06C/decade, that's a significant difference from the consensus position of .1-.2C per decade. Time for a bet!

Or not.

I proposed to him an even-odds bet, he wins if temps increase .1C/decade or less, I win if it's .11C/decade or more. He replied, contrary to his previous statements, that climate is chaotic (I presume he means it's therefore unpredictable). He stated he had no problem with betting in other circumstances, but he wasn't a sucker born yesterday.

I'll grant him that he's not sucker enough to bet his money on a position he advocates that he's betting other people's lives with. And he also ranks in the top ten percent of denialists merely by coming up with an excuse for not betting. Most just ignore the suggestion that they put their money where their mouths are. Still, it's far from adequate.

My reply:

Dear Mr. Monckton,

I find it hard to believe that you can successfully
count cards in blackjack but can't see a mathematical
advantage to you in the bet I proposed, from your
perspective of what's likely to happen with climate.
As with election outcomes, you think you have a better
idea of what's likely to happen than the IPCC
consensus, so let's bet on it.

I'm willing, and would actually prefer, to use
five-year smoothed averages to eliminate most of the
random annual volatility in average temperature. And
while it's not my preference, I'd be willing to change
the bet so neither of us pays out within our likely
temperature range - say you win if the increase is
.06C or less, I win if it's .15C or more.

Finally, if you think temperatures are more chaotic
than driven by anthropogenic forcings, you should be
especially interested in my bet, since a random walk
that could go down as well as up is more likely to pay
out in your favor than mine. Even a modest increase
means you win.

Nicely written, but quite unpersuasive. Sorry. If my
improved terms sound interesting to you though, please
let me know.

(UPDATE: Via Deltoid, I find out that I'm a typically-ignorant American. First, I didn't know Monckton was a viscount; second, I didn't know what a viscount is; and third, I don't care.)

(UPDATE 2, Nov. 27th: Monckton replied very quickly to my original email, but I heard nothing after sending my response above. Another bet that's not going to happen.)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Get out of Iraq, and go fix Afghanistan

Same Facts is discussing what the Democrats' reform agenda should be (starting here and then with subsequent posts). Most of it sounds pretty good, and it feels even better to be able to seriously consider these things.

I disagree with simply backing anything reasonable that Baker-Hamilton produces on Iraq, though. Let's see what they produce. And while Dems could support anything that's superior to current policy, they can also advocate for what the best policy would be, which is to get our troops out of Iraq, and go fix Afghanistan while that's still possible.

Half our troops should go home, one quarter should stay in forward bases nearby (or possibly Kurdish areas) to intervene when absolutely necessary in the Iraqi civil war, and the rest go to Aghanistan.

I think escalating our investment in Afghanistan would make it hard for the Bush Administration to hit this strategy as cut-and-run.

Other thoughts:

  • The post I linked to says forget doing anything on universal health care before 2008. I wouldn't eliminate trying to get universal health care for children.
  • Some rumors were floating around that Bush is planning to have a Nixon-goes-to-China moment on global warming in his forthcoming State of the Union speech. I'm skeptical, but if it happens then the Dems should see how far they can take it.
  • Back to playing hardball - Dems can prohibit spending any money on planning permanent bases in Iraq. While such a prohibition is mostly symbolic, I think the symbolism could actually be very helpful in Iraq and in the Arab world.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

My Republican and Green Party votes

I voted for two Republicans and one Green. I picked Steve Poizner for California Insurance Commissioner over Cruz Bustamante. Poizner is an interesting, moderate Republican businessman, while Bustamante is a lackluster career politician who's taken a lot of money from insurance companies. Poizner took none, and that would be a great precedent to start for that office. The other Republican was a local candidate who gave a better answer to an environmental question I posed at a League of Women Voters forum than the Democrat did.

The Green candidate was Todd Chretien for Senate. Feinstein doesn't take chances for progressive causes, and a California Senator has the political opportunity to take chances.

The tough race was governor. Since it's not a close race, I'm free to vote as I wish. Schwarzenegger is pretty good for a Republican, but Angelides is still significantly better. But Green candidate Camejo is better still. In the end, I figured marginally increasing the vote for a good Democratic position will better influence Arnold than marginally increasing the Green candidate's position.

Other than that, my vote was for Dems, or unaffiliated local campaigns.

Now to see if the country is getting its act together.

Monday, November 06, 2006

E.T. smacks down Pharyngula

(Recently, Backseat Driving had the opportunity to interview E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial about Pharyngula's claim that alien intelligence is unlikely. Below is the transcript.)

Backseat Driving: E.T., thanks for taking time to answer my questions.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: EEEE TEEE PHONE HOME!

BD: Uh, that cliche got old a long time ago.

ET: Sorry baby - here in Hollywood, once you find a good schtick, you keep it.

BD: Okay. Your agent said you don't have much time, so let's get to it. What do you think of PZ Myer's statement in his Pharyngula blog: "Maybe, if we actually had accurate values for the [equation predicting whether other intelligent species exist], the expected number of spacefaring civilizations in our galaxy is something less than 1."

ET: He's wrong.

BD: Why?

ET: Well, first of all there's the classic documentary about my arrival here on your planet, now available on DVD with many wonderful extras.

BD: I have a feeling you make residuals off the movie.

ET: Maybe.

BD: Any other reasons why he's wrong? I mean, for people who think you're fictional.

ET: Well look, he's guilty of the same anthropocentrism he accuses Sagan of having when he says technological capability has only evolved once on earth. So what? It always evolves only once per planet, from the perspective of the first species to get it on that planet. That doesn't make it unique.

BD: I'm not sure I understand.

ET: Well, a good comparison is when my crabby old uncle got here. Uncle Deekchaynee landed here millions of years ago-

BD: Deekchaney?

ET: Yeah.

BD: What's he look like?

ET: You don't want to know.

BD: Ugh. I think I do know. Well, what about him?

ET: His first visit here was well over 300 million years ago, right after the very first insect species started to fly. They were the only animal with powered flight then - no birds, no pterosaurs, no bats, just one species of insect. If he had reasoned like PZ, he would've said, "only one species out of millions has ever evolved flight on a planet over 4 billion years old. Sounds like a fluke that won't repeat here, and is unlikely to exist anywhere else in the galaxy. The Search for Extraterrestrial Flight will find nothing."

BD: So the idea is that our current snapshot of earth's biology shouldn't be considered The End of History?

ET: Yeah. You've got another half-billion years or more before the oceans boil away, and you evolved in 65 million years after the dinosaurs died and opened up evolutionary niches. A lot could happen in the time earth has left.

BD: Okay, any other arguments against PZ's critique?

ET: The "technological intelligence" definition is arbitrary. Five million years ago, hominids had not much more technology than dolphins and chimps do now - mind if I smoke?

BD: I guess not.

ET: So back then, Earth would've completely failed PZ's test, when it was just a blink of a geologist's eye from going techno. (Pulls out cigar, lights it with a finger.)

BD: Wait a minute, I thought you meant cigarettes. That stuff is vile.

ET: Arnold gave it to me from his private stock.

BD: It's vile.

ET: (Sighs dramatically, puts out vile cigar.) What you have to consider is whether a trend towards greater intelligence is one of the countless ecological niches that life will explore multiple times, just like powered flight has evolved independently multiple times.

BD: So is getting smarter an evolutionary trend?

ET: Yes, it's ONE trend of many that animals explore. Many of the modern mammals are a lot smarter than their rodent-like ancestors. Pigs, dogs, elephants, and cetaceans are pretty smart - who knows where they could end up in a half-billion years? And lots of other primates besides you guys have travelled well down the big-brain path. Even octopi are pretty smart.

BD: But octopi have been around for what, hundreds of millions of years? They're not building spaceships.

ET: They have more time remaining than what they've used so far. You don't know what some of them will end up doing. Actually, I'd say getting smart isn't like powered flight so much as it's like gliding. Lots of species have explored gliding - squirrels, snakes, lizards, frogs, fish - so you have an indication from your one sample planet that on other planets, multicellular life with a high metabolism rate is going to explore getting smart, just as it will explore gliding and powered flight.

BD: Any last thoughts?

ET: Pharyngula is right that microbial life is dominant here and will be dominant elsewhere, but the question you're interested in is whether intelligence will happen on other planets enough times to make it likely that there's someone to talk to. You can't draw too many conclusions from your sample size of one biogenesis on one planet, but what evidence you have is promising.

BD: Okay, thanks E.T.

ET: Just call me E, baby, call me E. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention - PZ does a great job with Pharyngula, it's just in this case that he's wrong. Gotta go! We'll do lunch, sometime soon.


(Welcome, Tangled Bank readers! Would love to hear your comments, and please feel free to check out Backseat Driving's main page.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Methyl bromide and bonobos

Completely unrelated to each other, but two interesting links via recent posts in Focking Science:

1. An update on the usual Bush Admin. effort to screw up the environment, this time by further delaying the phaseout of ozone-destroying methyl bromide, which was supposed to have been eliminated by now. We Californians are the heart of the problem in pushing for a delay in the phaseout, and my recollection is that Dems are little better than the Republicans on this. Left out of the article was how bad this stuff is for farmworkers. They use it 30 miles from here, on strawberries grown on coastal farms, and the migrant workers suffer for their wages. Best argument around for eating organic strawberries, at least in the US.

2. A Smithsonian article on bonobos, saying the "make love not war" image they have isn't completely true. I never believed it, anyway - in Africa before humans became the dominant force, the bonobo population presumably expanded until it used all the food resources, and then they had the problem of determining who gets the food and who starves. I don't think playing kissyface was the method that rival bonobo groups used to solve that problem.

Friday, November 03, 2006

October 2006 Iraq casualties

Avg. daily Coalition fatality rate for the last month: 3.52
(nearly all Americans, and excluding Iraqis)

Previous months:
September: 2.53
August: 2.13

Last year, October 2005: 3.19.

Overall daily average to date is 2.31. Total US dead as of today: 2826.

Iraqi monthly military/police fatalities: 224.

September: 150
August: 233

Last year, October 2005: 215.
Total Iraqi military dead: 5703.

Note that I've seen media reports suggesting the Iraqi military casualty figures are signficant undercounts.

Iraqi monthly civilian fatalities: 1,315

September: 3,389
August: 2,733

Last year, September 2005: 463.

To-date total since March 2005: 18,962. Note that the civilian numbers are far less accurate than others (most likely to be greatly underestimated, or even ridiculously underestimated), but could still be useful in determining trends.

Comments: there's a deteriorating trend, but it's too early to determine if American casualty rates are entering a permanently higher level. Civilian casualties remain terrible.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

To all my friends and family in California and some other states - please forward

(I'm somewhat blurring the line I maintain here between my blog and my work, but so be it. Below is a modified version of an email I blasted out to anyone I can think of .)

Hi everyone!

I think it's been two years since I last sent out an email blast to most everyone on my list, and I'm sorry this can't be an individualized email to each of you.
This is just a heartfelt plea to consider two political issues in the upcoming election (and if you're not in the states where these apply, maybe you have friends who are).

If you live in California, please consider voting no on Proposition 90. This proposition tries to fool people into thinking it's about "eminent domain", but that's just a cover. I've worked for an environmental group for years.
Proposition 90 could stop any of our future attempts to fight sprawl in the hillsides because property owners will claim that preventing them from building Los Angeles-style sprawl means the government has "taken" their property value and has to pay them.

More information available here:

The other issue is for California residents who live in Santa Clara County, and I will get down on my knees and beg you to vote yes on Measure A. This measure puts the same type of voter protections against sprawl that we have in neighboring Alameda and San Mateo counties, where it's worked very well. The link above has more info, and there's the website

I know a lot about both Prop. 90 and Measure A, and would be happy to talk to you or anyone you know who has questions about them.

For residents of Washington, Idaho, Arizona, and Montana, you have your own version of Proposition 90 on your ballots (Initiative 933 in WA, Prop. 2 in ID, Prop. 207 in AZ and Initiative 154 in MT) I know less about these initiatives but it appears to be the same thing - pretend to be about eminent domain, but are really about preventing land use regulation. Some information is available here:

There's a big difference between attacking the use of eminent domain to transfer property to private parties, versus striking down the ability to do new regulations of land use. Some other state initiatives only go after eminent domain - I don't really care one way or another about those, but protecting the ability to protect the environment is crucial.

Thanks for putting up with this long email, please forgive me if your political views differ from mine, and please forward this email or something similar to anyone you think appropriate.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sharing subpoena and hearing powers as a solution to inadequate legislative oversight

This is an idea I thought I'd try and float more formally somewhere, but that may have to wait. The idea is that there's no reason why the majority party in Congress, or any other legislative body, should have exclusive control in overseeing the executive branch. While winning the majority vote rightly gives that party control over the legislative agenda to put its ideas into effect, oversight is a different matter.

My idea is each congressional committee that has an oversight role would split the oversight functions between the majority and minority party. The majority gets more hours to hold hearings and issue subpoenas, but not exclusive control. This way the advantage of having the executive and legislative branches controlled by the same party - a better chance at carrying out a legislative agenda - still has real oversight, something sadly missing in Congress for the last six years.

It would also have the effect of encouraging competition between the parties over which one does more effective oversight. It would be harder for Republican congressmen to coddle the Bush administration if on a regular basis they turned the gavel over to Democrats who actually asked hard questions. Maybe the Republicans would start stepping up to the plate.

Finally, I think it's a good idea for either Republicans or Democrats. All of them think they'll be in Congress for a while. Rather than become nearly irrelevant when they're in a minority, this could give them a bit of power in the lean years.

I don't see much of a disadvantage. But I always like my ideas.