Monday, March 31, 2014

Another sadly-unpaid endorsement: Duolingo

Here's the article that convinced me to try it after shaking off the Candy Crush demon.

I've now spent about 30 minutes a day for the past month learning languages. Okay, playing/learning languages, but it beats passively listening to Spanish radio. AFAICT you can't do the translations of actual docs on the app but have to go the website - I helped translate one document about renewable energy in Spain, but I'm way too low-level to do anything with the other languages. I just wish they'd add learning non-Indo-European languages from English.

Anyway, for some reason I've been designated brian.schm3 in case anyone else is playing.

Shameless self-promotion: on GoGreen America radio tomorrow 9 a.m. Pacific Time to talk climate divestment

Link is here to listen in live or to get the archived version.

UPDATE:  good timing with this BBC article on a discussion of the carbon bubble in the UK.

UPDATE 2:  archive link here.

My guess: Putin won't invade the rest of eastern Ukraine

My civil war predictions aren't so hot, but let's see how my war-war predictions turn out:  I think Putin means to consolidate control in Crimea and not invade the other parts of eastern Ukraine. There are good political and strategic reasons for thinking he'd go after Crimea and not the rest, but I'm basing my guess on the assumption that the smart time to invade another country is when it's unprepared. With a shaky government and unsteady military, that was last week. Now Putin's given the government time to sort out who in the military it can trust, go on alert and start calling up the reserves.

All that would have been predictable in advance to Putin's top military leaders, who would've told him then that if you're going to take east Ukraine, take east Ukraine. I've seen some speculation that he's waiting for a provocation as an excuse to go in, but that doesn't make sense to me - he wouldn't need an authentic provocation when he could just make one up. Every day that goes by makes an invasion more difficult and therefore less likely to be in the original plan.

I could be wrong of course. An invasion will defeat Ukraine's military regardless how much warning time is given, so maybe Putin doesn't care about the cost to Russia, but I'd think he would care about how triumphant-looking and problem-free it seems. A war could also happen by accident, the way people used to think that World War I started.

And then there's the claim that Putin is in an information bubble and believes at least some of his own propaganda. If that's true then it's hard to understand what world he perceives. OTOH, I don't think the actions so far make as little sense from the viewpoint of an authoritarian populist semi-dictator as westerners claim, so I'm not sure this KGB officer is that far unmoored from reality.

So that's my guess of no invasion for the rest of Ukraine, but it shows my level of confidence that I'll just check the news one last time before posting.

UPDATE:  we should also start the timer for news about significant Russian migration and settlement activity in Crimea - I give it six months. Will be interesting to see how our Likudnik congresscritters handle that one. And that btw may be the one good thing about all this for Crimean Tatars that hadn't yet moved back - they won't be stuck across a fortified border.

Indre, Chris, Steven, and Ed are acting like Keith

Delving into others' motives is tricky, especially when you're annoyed with them, but sometimes it's worth doing. For example, Keith Kloor pretty clearly is motivated to punch hippies, metaphorically. He used to do it over climate change. IRRC, he was a somewhat-late convert to mainstream climate science, and still took a lot of shots at climate activists. In the last year or two he's switched his hippie-punching mostly to GMO issues, and that's an improvement, because this time it can be occasionally accurate and it's a less important issue, anyway.

So what's up with Indre Viskontas, Chris Mooney, Steven Novella, and Ed Yong? The link between them and Kloor is glossing over the real environmental concerns about GMOs, particularly genetic contamination of wild and escaped relatives of GM plants, most recently for Indre, Chris and Steven here. They appropriately describe the lack of health impacts from GMOs but then jump to conclusions that GMOs aren't a problem.

I'm simplifying and being somewhat unfair. Ed's more of a straightforward journalist than the others, conveying news moreso than his opinion, and occasionally links to contrary views (including once to this blog). Steven acknowledges the complexity of some environmental issues (while making simplistic arguments himself regarding biodiversity impacts).

Still, the motivational link I see between all of them is a kind of progressive hipster science nerd vibe that I think wants to push away from the earlier environmental generation in some ways, the Earth Mother hippie types. They demonstrate their independent "skepticism" by showing their willingness to take potshots at something often described as a liberal myth. While it's nowhere nearly as bad as Kloor, it's still behavior that looks for a chance to take potshots at those ignorant hippies. For three of them it might also fit into a generational thing (Steven's around my age).

I assume all four of them would be unimpressed with my thoughts about their motivations, so I'd rather focus on Steven's muddying the waters in describing the naturalistic fallacy. I think it's better to think of the appeal to nature as a fallacious ethical argument, but moving from ethics to policy makes it not so innately fallacious. The big advantage that organic farming and conventional breeding techniques have is that they've been done for a long time, so we're more likely to know the consequences.

What the four of them might consider wrestling with is a non-insane application of the precautionary principle. Doing something that's a little more natural in the sense that its been done for a while is less likely to have unforeseen consequences.

The vast majority of what the four do is great, and I'm doing my usual thing of highlighting only the part I don't like, but they could all do better.

Amazonian in the Martian sense of the word

More from CourseraWeek 3:
In the ensemble average, mean annual runoff decreases in a 2°C world by around 30, 20, 40, and 20 percent in the Danube, Mississippi, Amazon, and Murray Darling river basins, respectively, while it increases by around 20 percent in both the Nile and the Ganges basins, compared to the 1961–190 baseline period. Thus, according to Fung et al. (2011), all these changes are approximately doubled in magnitude in a 4°C world.
Yikes. Now I see a reason for the lack of snark-hiding.

Thanks a lot, Khruschev

The news from Crimea is unsettling, partly because it's not entirely clear to me whether it's bad to have Crimea reattached to Russia in some form.

From a utilitarian perspective, removing the most eastern-oriented portion of Ukraine from its electoral politics would pretty much guarantee a western-oriented political outcome. My less-certain idea is that Russians living closest to the rest of Europe may have more European attitudes, so moving this population into Russia might also somewhat liberalize Russian political attitudes.

From other ethical perspectives, this area was Russian and is populated primarily by Russian speakers, and was only transferred to the Ukraine recently (1954) by a Soviet dictator for reasons that have little to do with the historical or ethical way to govern the region. There are the Crimean Tatars, but AFAICT that's a relatively small minority. I think as a general rule the majority in a region does not have the ethical right to secede their region from the country, but that rule should have exceptions.

The key downside, which may be what motivates Putin as an upside, is that having a Russian-occupied region would make it very difficult for Ukraine to join NATO. This reason partly motivated the Georgia war. Still, I don't see what's to be done about it. The history of eastern Europe in the last generation has been a tremendous victory for liberalism. Consolidating these gains is more important and valuable than restarting a cold war.

Saber-rattling with Russia might have some limited value but not a whole lot, going beyond saber-rattling is definitely a bad idea, and Russia's status as semi-democratic/semi-dictatorial is still fluid, so there are opportunities for liberalization that shouldn't be discouraged. The end game here isn't Ukraine, it's the political liberalization and stabilization of Russia, and successful democracies on its borders take us in that direction.

The game changes if Russian invades other parts of Ukraine, let alone the entire country. That's a real war with assistance needed, although it also needs a limited scope.

One other point I saw somewhere - as in other parts of Slavic Europe, the division here may be more religious than linguistic, with Ukrainian Catholics oriented to the west and Orthodox to the east.