Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bay Area local post: New College in trouble

From SFGate:

New College of California, a private liberal arts school in San Francisco, is at risk of losing its accreditation for academic and ethical violations.

School administrators, under pressure from faculty, students and the Western Association of Schools & Colleges, announced that they will form a committee to search for a new president and will reconfigure the board of directors.

New College, which emphasizes activism and social change, was put on probation July 5 by the association for violations found by the association's commission...

I know some great people who went through New College, and while the criticisms are valid, the college serves an important need for people who look for an alternative education. I hope it survives.

I always thought that the alternative high-tech communities - Creative Commons, Wikipedia, Linux etc. - were a natural fit for New College, but the college didn't seem interested in them.

The sneering comments on the article's webpage are disappointing. Some people like to see other people get torn down. It's fairly universal too - the right rejoices in Air America's slow decline, and the left cackles at Pajamas Media. More of the same in this case.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Another offset overstatement at Gristmill, this time about geoengineering

This Gristmill anti-offset post by Joseph Romm about geoengineering is more justified than their carpet-bombing of temperate forestry projects, but still a bit of an overstatement. It's completely appropriate to attack the stupid, fools-rushing-in approach of Planktos as it attempts to sell offsets for the unproven and dubious ocean-fertilizing project. But still, while no geoengineering ideas are currently ready for implementation, they shouldn't be completely ruled out.

Romm pulls back slightly, potentially allowing geoengineering in the future "(1) only after we have exhausted every plausible mitigation strategy, and (2) only after we have done rigorous, small-scale experiments to prove its safety and effectiveness." He's completely right about #2, but if it's safe and effective, why not use it? The ocean fertilizing approach has a lot of problems and may be untenable, and the same may hold true for the other geoengineering dreams, but part of showing seriousness about climate change means not stacking the deck against a particular approach.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Collapsing black markets in animal parts through counterfeits

There's an interesting post at Freakonomics where economists describe how to protect rhinos from poachers, and specifically whether it's better for donors to give money to the more-needy but more-corrupt Zimbabwe, or less-needy and less-corrupt Botswana. I especially like Emily Oster's answer that you look at the value of each marginal dollar in deciding where you allocate your donations.

Somewhat tangentially, I have my own idea for helping: flood the black markets in rhino ivory, ground-up tiger bone, and all other animal parts with counterfeit versions. This will somewhat depress the value to consumers since they'll be less sure that they're getting the "real" thing, and will decrease their demand. More importantly, the large increase in supply from the counterfeits will decrease the price that "authentic" suppliers can charge. Ultimately, it may help end demand for the animal parts as aphrodisiacs and folk medicines, as people learn that the fakes and the authentic parts have only a placebo value, and that illegal Viagra is much more effective.

Ivory and rhino horn obtained for aesthetic purposes instead of medicine might be a little harder to fake, but not impossible, and the buyer might not care as much either if the item is fake.

It's at least worth some investigation, I think.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The reasonable libertarian and small business discrimination

Many people might not know that some federal anti-discrimination law in the US doesn't apply to small businesses with less than fifteen employees. Aside from the administrative and political reasons for the exemptions, I think there are libertarian reasons for intruding more on business practices for larger businesses than small ones:

  • Relative power of a larger business to a job applicant greater than a small business.
  • Market forces that would punish discriminatory small businesses operate less efficiently against big ones.
  • Discrimination by a small number of large firms quickly becomes a problem for applicants.
  • Small firms are usually closely held while large ones have more owners or are publicly held, so the level of regulatory intrusion on an owner is greater for a larger firm.
  • Breaking a society-wide discriminatory collusion only requires enforcement against some actors, and market forces will bring along the rest.
  • Larger businesses "feel" more public, so public regulation is more appropriate for them.

What this fails to acknowledge is that culture is a powerful force intruding on private agreements and on markets, so it takes a long time for anti-discriminatory laws against large businesses to modify small business discrimination. Some libertarians think discrimination in the American South would have disappeared even without federal laws. I agree that change in the rest of the US would've affected the South, but they'd be years behind where they are now, which is still bad in many places.

This doesn't tell us what the balancing point should be between small business and big business. It depends partially on the level of intrusion. Requiring all businesses with public accommodations to serve everyone is less of an intrusion than requiring them to hire everyone. It all depends on the individual issue. The point though is that applying the law only to larger businesses isn't just a compromise, it actually makes sense.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Carbon offsets for temperate forestry projects can be fine, just fine

I don't know why there's so much freaking out by some Gristmill authors (and others) over carbon offsets in general and forestry offsets in particular. I think they may just not be used to the concept. In my field, environmental law, it's not a weird idea. If someone really really needs to screw up a wetland, they might be allowed to do it if they offset the damage by paying for the legally-protected rehabilitation of a former wetland.

Semi-valid reason #1 for the hostility might be that it's hard to do correctly. The same's true for wetlands - they could be screwed up by incompetence, bad luck, or corruption. The key is to put in safeguards, though, not to throw out the concept.

Semi-valid reason #2 is that reducing other people's emissions should be secondary to reducing one's own. No kidding. The problem with making this into a club to strike down programs you don't like, though, is it's forgetting that we're just at the beginning of the process of controlling carbon, and baby steps need to be rewarded, not stifled for being anything short of Fred Astaire.

Case in point - Pacific Gas & Electric's Climate Smart program that allows forestry offsets. Read Gristmill's critique by Joseph Romm here, and then PG&E's response here. The additionality problem is solved and the albedo problem is solved. What else have the critics got? At the end, it seems like PG&E has taken Romm apart.

Of course, that's not totally true. The forestry protocols here assume the level of offsets based on comparing emissions to a maximum legal logging rate and maximum development intensity for converting land from forests to residences in California. Both of those protocols involve areas where I have professional expertise, and the assumptions of maximum harm in the absence of an offset will often be wrong. Logging and land development for legal, political, and economic reasons will occur at a much slower rate. In other words, the offset level is exaggerated.

Despite that, it's worth supporting. This is a baby step. Future developments will tighten down the estimate. Most importantly, it does result in reduced emission, just not as much as the protocols say they will. There's no reason to throw this baby out.

UPDATE: I messed up - the albedo discussion is in a later comment, here:

Contrary to what is stated in [Romm's post], the Registry is not oblivious or indifferent to the potential albedo effects of forestry projects, (which are still being understood by the scientific community). The Registry's California Forest Protocols and reduction projects associated with them, however, do not decrease the albedo for the following reasons:

1.) The Conservation Management Protocol relies on implementing sustainable management practices that maximize the sequestration of carbon on land already covered by forests.

2.) The Reforestation Project Protocol relies on reforesting land that has historically been under cover by forest in the first place.

3.) The Conservation Project Protocol relies on maintaining existing forest cover, in other words, protecting forests from conversion.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The worst argument used by the left against tightening border security

I've heard both Arianna Huffington and Bob Scheer make this argument at Left Right and Center: there's no reason to worry about terrorists slipping over the US border with illegal immigrants some time in the near future, because there's no record that they've ever done it before.

I don't understand why they're so strongly defending the Bush Administration's inaction during the nine months prior to 9-11. Sure, Condi Rice can say that no terrorists had smashed buildings with planes before, but it's not a hard threat to anticipate, people did in fact anticipate it, and the Bushies still did nothing. That's inexcusable, and I don't see why the left is defending his performance.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Health08 kicks HeatIsOn's butt

Health08 is an all-singing, all-dancing website created by the Kaiser Family Foundation to analyze presidential candidate positions on health care policy. For climate change, by contrast, the best I've seen is this Heat Is On comparison chart provided by the League of Conservation Voters. Time for LCV to step up to the competition.

Meanwhile, I've put in a link to my post comparing presidential candidates on climate change in the list of links near the top left of the Backseat Driving website, titled "Pres. candidates and climate change." I'll try to update it when possible.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

From Panama to Iraq, via Dick C. and Mike O'H.

A missing piece of understanding why we screwed up in Iraq is because the people planning it compared it to the Panama invasion. I could probably prove it and end this post right now by pointing out a certain Dick C. was Secretary of Defense during the Panama invasion, but there's more to it.

Start with Grenada: 7,000 US troops attack a small island nation of 100,000 people with 2,000 regular and foreign (Cuban) soldiers. The US wins with 19 US soldiers killed, we take over the island, and it's hard to argue the place isn't better because of it.

Repeat with Panama: 28,000 troops invade a country of 2 million defended by 16,000 soldiers. The US wins with 24 dead, installs a new leader, and again it's hard to argue the country isn't better off.

Then, enter the establishment's favorite defense liberal, Michael O'Hanlon, with this gem:
Counting Casualties: How many people would die in an Iraqi War?

A central question about the war in Iraq is the likely cost in terms of casualties. Many Americans who would support an invasion on the assumption of 250 dead might feel very differently if our losses numbered 10 times as many. Unfortunately, such predictions have proven notoriously inaccurate in the past....

Is it possible to make better predictions this time around? It may be, but not with a single number or narrow range....

What do past cases tell us about how a future war conducted largely in the streets of Baghdad might play out....

Simply scaling the results of Panama for the size of the Iraqi military leads to an estimate of about 2,000 Americans killed, more than 10,000 dead Iraqi military personnel, and tens of thousands of dead Iraqi citizens. If, however, the only forces that fight hard are the elite—somewhat more than 100,000 Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard, and palace guard forces—extrapolation from the Panama case suggests that losses on all sides might be only one-fourth as great. Such an outcome is plausible. Indeed, U.S. war plans appear to envision targeting only these elite forces, at least at first, and trying to convince the regular conscript army to change sides or sit out the war....

One major wild card remains: the likely consequences of any Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction....Iraq could also increase casualty levels of U.S. or coalition forces by using WMD against them, particularly its thousands of chemical-filled artillery shells and rockets. But doing so would probably increase casualties by no more than 10 to 20 percent, given historical precedent in conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war....

The United States and coalition partners would win any future war to overthrow Saddam Hussein in a rapid and decisive fashion. This will not be another Vietnam or another Korea. But casualties could be significantly greater on all sides than in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The best analogy for what such combat is likely to involve is not Desert Storm, but the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama—and on a much larger scale. There is a very real possibility that American deaths could exceed 1,000 in number, and several thousand deaths cannot be ruled out. To count on easy victory, as many American proponents of war seem to do, is not only unsupported by the available evidence and by the methodologies of combat prediction. It's also an irresponsible basis on which to plan military strategy in any future war against Saddam Hussein.

(Emphasis added.)

O'Hanlon appears to put the 50% probability level as significantly less than 1000 US dead, and I think we've passed on to a casualty level O'Hanlon thought could be ruled out.

I'll leave a full analysis of why Panama wasn't a good analogy for Iraq to someone else - the minor issues of say, the lack of a religious conflict or that Panama had an elected president and authentic political leadership ready to step in and take power suggest themselves as potential distinctions.

The point is that the range and quality of expertise went from Dick Cheney on the right to this "liberal" military expert whose influence is still felt. I doubt the Cheney people missed the same lesson they also thought they learned in Panama. Can we get some new experts, finally?

As for the anti-war left, though, they're probably not all that interested in this lesson either, as it does point to some uncomfortable examples where invasion by Republican presidents seemed to work okay, whatever the true motivations involved.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Hoisting myself up from the comments - Slagle versus the WMO and IPCC

Maybe I'm a little less polite when I'm just posting comments at other blogs. I'm reposting this from a comment I left at the very good denialism blog (with some improved politeness). Denialism is taking down Mr. Slagle's misguided view about climate change.

Slagle's a fibber.

1. WMO doesn't dispute the general conclusions of the IPCC report. I"m not aware of WMO confirming them, either, but it may well have.

2. WMO doesn't say there's "no science" behind the suggested warming-hurricane link.

3. The IPCC doesn't say warming "will" cause more hurricanes.

3. WMO DOES say the science behind the warming-hurricane link is inconclusive, very much not the same as "no science."

4. The IPCC says more likely than not that warming will cause hurricanes, which is not a statement anywhere near certain nor conclusive.

5. The IPCC and WMO reports don't conflict.

6. I suspect Slagle knows this, assuming he actually read the reports he links to.

Therefore, Slagle's a fibber.

Because nothing's more exciting than diet blogging

I've been doing the South Beach diet for about 3 months now, which is one variation on the one million low-carb diets out there. I've lost between 14-18 pounds, and have never been down less than 10 pounds since the first two weeks of the diet.

I think I'm kind of an unusual case because prior to the diet I exercised a lot but had a very poor diet with a lot of junk food. The junk food went away just as I increased my exercise during summer time, and the pounds rolled off. My fiance's participation together with our joining a Community Supported Agriculture food delivery program also helped a great deal (the program is Eat With the Seasons and I highly recommend it to anyone living in San Francisco or the South Bay).

My sport activity is rock-climbing, and I run for exercise. The diet's made a huge difference in my indoor rock-climbing at the gym. It doesn't feel like it's made that much of a difference outdoors, where my mediocre climbing is limited more by technique and psychology than by strength. The diet at first made almost no difference in my running during the initial, no-carb period. Once I started adding some carbs back, I started improving, and ran my first half-marathon yesterday.

An accurate description I've heard is that you don't feel hungry on the diet, but you do feel deprived. It's interesting that I don't crave light carbs, but the heavy, whole grain stuff.

The down side is that I eat a lot of eggs and a lot of meat. I'm curious as to how it's affected my cholesterol level but haven't been tested.

All in all, I'd recommend it, at least for someone who has a bad diet to begin with.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The ignored asexual?

An interesting, if older, sexual preference survey is summarized at the Volokhs. Nearly 3% of people report no sexual partners since puberty, almost half of the number reporting same-sex partners since puberty. Another question asks about sexual attraction, but doesn't give an option of no attraction or limited attraction.

Once in a great while I read about people claiming no sexual interest and being quite happy about it. Seems like this could use more public discussion, although some discussion's already happening and of course there's a dedicated website.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Contrasting worst case scenarios for Iraq and climate change

(Following up on a previous post about worst case scenarios...)

The people who find the worst case scenarios to be persuasive reasons for action on climate change are likely the opposite ones who would use the same reasoning to argue for a continued military presence in Iraq.

Despite thinking we should get out of Iraq, I also agree that potentially, things could get much worse there after we leave. So why leave?

One argument would be that we're just putting off the inevitable - we're going to leave sooner or later, and even if the worst case scenario occurs, all we do by staying is add a lot of death and destruction in the meantime. Not a bad argument, but the counter is that staying can buy time to find a solution.

Another argument is that things can get worse with our troops there. I wouldn't disagree, but I don't expect it would get as bad as in some full-out genocide/civil war.

A better argument to me is that for the US and the rest of the world - basically for everyone except the Iraqis - right now is the worst case scenario. I don't think an Al Qaeda takeover of Iraq is a credible scenario, and even if it was, the current cost of 1,000 dead Americans and $120 billion annually exceeds the damage rate that Al Qaeda could do to us. As for the rest of the world, having the US in Iraq only creates problem. Only for the Iraqis could the situation get much worse.

The best argument though is that you shouldn't just look at the worst case scenario. I think Iraqis have a shot at things not getting worse but rather staying at the same awful level they're at right now, and after a decade or so, slowly improve and follow Lebanon's trajectory. I don't see any other path for improvement. For the rest of us, we're clearly better off if the US gets out. And the Iraqis want us out. It's time to leave.

I lost the climate change thread here, but I think a similar reasoning applies - making a decision solely based on worst case scenarios is a bad idea. The medium case scenario for climate change still describes a crisis, though, providing plenty of reasons to take action.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

John Edwards interviewed at Scienceblogs

The interview is here, and blorg commentary here. Some random thoughts:

On who actually answered the questions - it was an email interview, so was it actually Edwards who responded? I'd ask this question if it were Bush, so it's fair to ask here. You decide your own trust level, I guess, but the language style sure sounds like Edwards when he talks. FWIW, I ran some text through Gender Genie, and it scored the author as male.

On politicized science - Edwards says "As president, I will ensure that government professionals charged with the collection and analysis of scientific data--from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to the EPA--are insulated from political influence. Period."

He's trying to make a clear and simple distinction between himself and Bush. That's fine, but he needs to go on and advocate some of the solutions that have been proposed by the scientific community. Even saying something like "no political litmus test for scientific appointments" would be helpful.

Corporate farms and ethanol - he says "We need a farm bill that supports family farmers, but eliminates the massive subsidies that flow to corporate farms with high incomes. Corporate farms making more than $250,000 a year should not get our tax dollars."

That also needs details - it could be dramatically good, or it could be loopholed ($250k net revenue on a per parcel basis?).

"Millions of ethanol-ready cars are on the roads, but only about 600 of the 169,000 gas stations have pumps for E85, a blend of ethanol and gasoline. We will require oil companies to install ethanol pumps at 25 percent of their gas stations and require all new cars sold after 2010 to be "flex fuel" cars running on either gasoline or biofuel."

I'm not convinced yet that corn ethanol is the pure evil that many enviros think it to be, but it's no great thing either. I guess I'm undecided whether this is a useful bridge to cellulosic ethanol.

On manned space exploration versus real science - "We need a balanced space and aeronautics program. We need to support solar system exploration as an important goal for our human and robotic programs, but only as one goal among several. And we need to invite other countries to share in a meaningful way in both the adventure and the cost of space exploration."

Oh well. I think Dems will be only marginally better that Republicans on this, mainly by keeping the stupid Bush-to-Mars budget from intruding any further on the NASA science budget.

On climate change - he wants a 20% carbon reduction by 2020. That's very good to have a short term plan, which I think is more important than the 80% reduction by 2050. The baseline year though is 2010, so the 20% reduction probably takes us back only to mid-1990s levels. The other stuff about selling cabon credits to fund renewables research is great.

(Cross-posted at JohnEdwards.com.)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Don Easterbrook won't bet over global warming

A geology professor at Western Washington University presented a paper at a Geological Society meeting claiming that past and present warming periods were solar-caused and that we should be entering a cooling period quite soon. I don't know what level of outside review is needed in order to be able to present a paper there - hopefully it's not a journal-level peer review, or else his presentation doesn't speak well of the Geological Society.

Anyway, I sent him a betting offer weeks ago. He's acting like the smarter denialists - failing to respond at all works much better than some lame argument for refusing to bet in support of their lame arguments denying human-caused warming.

Dear Professor Easterbrook,

I read with interest your paper in the Geological
Society of America October 2006 meeting, predicting
"Global cooling should begin soon and last until about

For two years I've been contacting people who have
made similar predictions of falling temperatures or
something short of the IPCC predicted rise, and asked
them if they would bet with me over the issue. The
vast majority have refused to even respond, but about
a month ago an Australian mathematician, David Evans,
agreed to a bet. Basic information about the bet is


I would be happy to send further details, but I'm
contacting you to ask if you would agree to a similar
bet. The terms that Evans and I agreed upon should be
very advantageous to you, based on the predictions in
your paper. I am also happy to bet with earnings
going to charity, such as through the longbets.org

Please let me know your response when it is

Brian Schmidt

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Emily Yoffe won't bet over global warming

Emily Yoffe had an Op-Ed in the Washington Post about global warming that earned her much derision for writing it and the Post for publishing it. I'm not clear what the point of it was, but as it acknowledged some warming while denying we needed to worry about it, I placed her in the category of "the warming's natural, people!" and asked her to bet over it. No response so far, so I'm guessing the bet won't happen.

My email (with a fixed typo) below:

Dear Ms. Yoffe;

I read your global warming Op-Ed and found it very
similar to Senator Brownback's Op-Ed. He wrote an
Op-Ed criticizing evolution without ever clarifying
whether he believed humans and other organisms have a
common ancestor. You write one on global warming
without ever clarifying whether humans are causing and
will likely cause future warming. Brownback
acknowledged microevolution, and you acknowledged
warming up till now without clarifying if it's natural
or artificial. Very meta, both of you, but not very

I suspect in your case that your real opinion about
human-caused warming, something you didn't have time
to disclose in your Op-Ed, is that it's not happening.
In my opinion, people who suggest inaction is
warranted are betting other people's lives, something
implicit in your suggestion that hurricanes won't
become worse.

Are you also interested in betting your own money? I
don't know if the Washington Post pays for Op-Eds, but
regardless, the stakes you're dealing with are placed
at such a high level with other people's lives, that
betting some of your own money earned through
this or other work shouldn't be that dramatic an

I've negotiated one bet with a global warming skeptic.
Details are here:


I'm also willing to make a similar bet with winnings
going to charity, at longbets.org.

Please let me know if you're interested.

Brian Schmidt

Monday, July 02, 2007

Libby commutation may be about incentives, not polls

From Digby:

I'm not a lawyer, but I have to assume that this means he can still appeal --- which means he can still take the fifth if the congress calls him to to testify. Very convenient.


Update: Marcy Wheeler agrees about the fifth ... and says Bush is obstructing justice:
Well, George did it. Made sure that Scooter wouldn't flip rather than do jail time. He commuted Libby's sentence, guaranteeing not only that Libby wouldn't talk, but retaining Libby's right to invoke the Fifth.

This amounts to nothing less than obstruction of justice.
I hope nobody's expecting the DC press corps to see it that way.
Sounds plausible to me, both legally and politically. Here's my conspiratorial addition: commuting but not pardoning means that Bush can hold out the incentive of a potential pardon to Libby for the next 18 months, regardless of whether he gives one in the end. You lose control of an underling by giving him nothing, or by giving him everything he wants - the commutation means you keep control.

The Democratic presidential candidates should say they would never issue commutations or pardons outside of the established process, or at least they won't do it for anyone connected to top people in their administration.

(Cross-posted at the John Edwards website.)

Sunday, July 01, 2007

June 2007 Iraq casualties

Avg. daily Coalition fatality rate during the last month: 3.6 (nearly all Americans, and excluding Iraqis)

Previous averages
May 2007: 4.26
April 2007: 3.9
Last year, June 2006: 2.55.

Overall daily average to date is 2.47. Total US dead as of today: 3580.

Iraqi monthly military and police fatalities: 196.

Previous military/police fatality rates

May 2007: 198
April 2007: 300
Last year, June 2006: 132.
Total Iraqi military dead: 7086.

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


Iraqi monthly civilian fatalities: 1146

May 2007: 1782
April 2007: 1521
Last year, June 2006: 738.
To-date civilian subtotal, (stats begin only in March 2005): 34,030.

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: Now ten months in a row with American casualties above average, no prior bad stretch lasted longer than three months. The overall average American/foreign rate continues to move up, from a low of 2.29 deaths daily.

As before, civilian casualties remain terrible. The rate seems to hover around a level that is nearly twice as bad as a year ago, and three times worse than in 2005. Neither we nor the Iraqis realized how good we had it back in 2005.

Five months have passed since the troop escalation began, with no indication in these statistics that it has accomplished anything, except possibly as a contributor to higher US military casualties, with no trend yet for Iraqi military and police.