Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Gone, gone, gone - until mid-January

I'm off on the honeymoon, and unlikely to be able to post until mid-January.

Happy Holidays!


Monday, December 10, 2007

Notes on de Waal's "Tree of Origin"

Some random notes on Frans de Waal's "Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution," a book I had mentioned briefly in another post.

  • Page 47: says modern hunter-gatherer tribes rely more on plant foods, usually gathered by women, than by meat hunted by men. Vegetarians love to say this too. Maybe right today, but there's a bias in relying on modern tribes as a reference. They've been pushed out from the coasts and the most fertile hunting grounds by "advanced" groups, and have to make do with the wastelands. I'll bet most hunter-gatherers had more meat than modern groups did.

  • Page 64: contrasting human breeding patterns to chimps, it says "the nuclear family relies on paternity certainty." I think modern paternity testing plus the availability of abortion may change genes affecting human personality - the male genetic strategy of "cuckolding" without having to invest resources in the offspring works less well, the male strategy of monogamous investment in children no longer carries the risk of being cuckolded, and "straying" females are more likely to abort pregnancies that might be the result of a liason.

  • Page 143: in the last 1.9 million years, hominid sexual dimorphism has stayed roughly the same, despite massive changes in brain capacity. Gender dimorphism generally gives some clue about sexual relations. Our moderate level of sexual dimorphism suggests moderate polygyny, again very different from our chimp and gorilla relatives. Interesting that this has been stable through our ancestral species too.

  • Page 168: larger apes seem smarter than smaller monkeys, despite having similar neocortex/body size ratios. The book says that one explanation besides a better-wired brain is that "rather than relative neocortical enlargement, absolute size is what matters. When the total brain volume reaches a certain point, the ability to perceive and organize the structure of instrumental behavior emerges." My comment is, what about cetaceans? If only a small fraction of a sperm whale's 20-pound brain exceeds what's needed for body control, that's likely to be a scary amount of brain matter available for cognition. The author goes on to suggest that testing whales would be interesting, although I'd guess that experimental testing of adult sperm whales would be a challenge.

  • Pages 180-183: the most interesting part of the book. Neocortex/body size ratios for primates correlate positively along a line for each primate species typical group size. Applying the same neocortex ratio to humans gives a group size of 150, which the author argues fits well with the group size found for hunter-gather clans. Humans have other group sizes, he argues, but they're either much larger or much smaller than the 150 figure. And he claims modern groups fit similar size structures. The apogee of the neocortex ratio can be found with Neandertals, who could theoretically manage slightly larger groups than we can.

Like I said before, it's a good book and well worth reading.

I've just updated Nancy Pelosi's wiki article

I've added a section on enhanced interrogation/torture here, to reflect her record of secret briefing and non-objection to waterboarding. Just trying to do my little part for justice and accountability. We'll see how long that section survives.

I find her excuses flimsy and vague (see the preceding link) - not saying when she first protested the techniques, and saying she concurred with Harman's objection is meaningless if she didn't express the concurrence at the time. Kind of hard to express that with the concision the wiki article requires, though.

UPDATE: Took all of 20 minutes for someone to add the "she concurred with objections raised by a Democratic colleague in a letter to the C.I.A. in early 2003" blather. Without stating when she concurred, and whether she only concurred in her mind as opposed to telling anyone, the phrase adds nothing. I guess I'll just leave it though.

I expect this Bush Administration leak is meant to stop the Dems from pushing for a special counsel to investigate the destruction of the CIA videotapes. I hope it has the opposite effect - if they stop pushing, we'll know why.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A paper I need to read

Title: Climate agreements based on responsibility for global warming: Periodic updating, policy choices, and regional costs

Author(s) Rive, N, Torvanger, A & Fuglestvedt, JS

ISI Ref. No. 000238167800007

It has been suggested that calculations of historical responsibility for global warming should be used to distribute mitigation requirements in future climate agreements. For a medium-term mitigation scenario, we calculate regional mitigation costs resulting from global allocation schemes based on the Brazilian Proposal that solely incorporate historical responsibility as a burden sharing criterion. We find that they are likely to violate ability-to-pay principles. In spite of less stringent abatement requirements, developing country regions experience cost burdens (as a percentage of GDP) in the same range as those of developed countries. We also assess the policy options available for calculating historical responsibility. The periodic updating of responsibility calculations over time, concerns over the robustness and availability of emissions data, and the question of whether past emissions were knowingly harmful, may lead to policy choices that increase the relative historical responsibility attributed to developing countries. This, in turn, would increase their mitigation cost burden.

Similar to how I've thought mitigation should be worked out. Guess I need to find out what this Brazilian Solution is about.

Friday, December 07, 2007

It's like destroying all the movies of the D-Day Invasion

That's what destroying the videotaped "interrogations" of Al-Qaeda members amounted to, if you accept at face value the Bush Administration claim that the interrogation methods were ethical and produced valuable information. The tapes were perfect training materials - actual "interrogators" getting actual information from actually resisting enemies. To say they were destroyed to protect interrogator identities is ridiculous - the interrogators' faces and voices could have been easily obscured.

So either it was criminally incompetent to destroy something so valuable if the Bush/Republican approach is justified, or it was criminal obstruction of justice to destroy evidence of governmental interrogators committing crimes authorized high up the chain of command.

Kevin Drum has more on the uselessness of these particular results.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Maybe I should be paying attention to Lieberman-Warner climate legislation

People seem to be taking it seriously, unlike me. Gristmill is posting non-stop - if I can't read all those posts, I wonder who's reading them.

Matt Yglesias brings up what I'd call the "sticky slope" argument he infers from John Edwards' criticism of Lieberman-Warner's inadequacies. The argument is that if Lieberman-Warner passes it will take the steam out of a stronger bill. Matt thinks the best case is that L-W passes and then gets vetoed by Bush.

I think I agree that's the best case and the most likely case - while L-W isn't nearly enough, it also seems far more than Bush would allow. On the other hand, what if he surprises us and doesn't veto it?

Unlike slippery slope arguments, I think "sticky slope" arguments are more likely to be valid, especially since L-W is supposed to be comprehensive, long-term legislation. Still, I think pushing something now as a benchmark for something better in '09 is worth the risk. It might be worth mentioning that it's not impossible that we'll have a Republican president in '09, too, so we don't want to throw all our eggs in the basket of waiting for a better administration.

But under no circumstances should L-W be weakened to try and avoid a presidential veto.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Omaha killer: "Now I'll be famous"

That was his motivation for killing strangers.

So I'll just repeat this post from April 19th after the Virginia Tech killings:

One small way to help in the case of massacres

Somewhere I had read an idea that sounded pretty good to me in helping to handle the phenomenon of mass killers looking for glory - the media should, as a matter of self-restraint, not publish their names. This isn't a call for government censorship, and I'm sure somebody somewhere will publicize their names, but we could still deprive them of the glory they're looking for on the front pages of the major newspapers and websites, and keep their names off the television networks.

I think it might also make sense to obscure their faces in some way when photos are shown in the media, so they can't anticipate that the image will go down prominently in history, either.

I don't know if this will actually restrain a killer from going on a rampage, although who knows - if someone's balancing on the edge between checking himself into a mental hospital or going out in a blaze of glory, maybe it could sometimes be decisive. If nothing else, though, it would help media and the public focus on the names and faces of the victims in the aftermath, where the attention belongs.

Could be the Clean Energy 1.0 Bubble Video

Crooked Timber has a great clip, the Bubble 2.0 Music Video. I'm not involved at all with the tech industry, but just living here in Silicon Valley makes it easy to pick up the references. The current bubble is starting to feel like the last one from ten years ago. Facebook has nearly the same capitalization value as Ford - that seems a little frothy.

And while I'm glad the industry is so into clean energy as well, I suspect there's some bubbling on that front too. Hope I'm wrong.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The rush to war with Iran isn't over

The recent National Intelligence Estimate saying Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 is great news. First, it's great news for the cause of world peace. More immediately, though, it imposes a new barrier to the Bush Administration's drumbeat for war with Iran.

Unfortunately, though, we can't assume that we're free from the danger of yet another war started during the Bush presidency. They have another path to war.

Several months ago, the Bush Administration signaled that the first act of war would not be an attack on nuclear facilities, but cross-border attacks from American troops in Iraq:

In a chilling scenario of how war might come, a senior intelligence officer warned that public denunciation of Iranian meddling in Iraq - arming and training militants - would lead to cross border raids on Iranian training camps and bomb factories.

A prime target would be the Fajr base run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force in southern Iran, where Western intelligence agencies say armour-piercing projectiles used against British and US troops are manufactured.

The way we end up in an all-out war with Iran is not starting with a massive invasion, as happened in Iraq, but as a result of attacks and reprisals that bring us stumbling into all-out war. Stumbling into full scale war may or may not be the intention of the Bush Administration, but that doesn't really matter once we start down that path.

The trigger event is still a cross-border attack related to labeling the Quds Force as a terrorist organization: in other words, the Kyl-Lieberman resolution that John Edwards condemned and Clinton supported. This danger still exists, despite the good news about the nuclear weapons.

Two final notes: it's hard not to conclude that Iran's halting its program in 2003 was related to a significant event that happened on its border in the same year. While the Iraq invasion was a huge mistake, this may have been the small silver lining.

Second, an amusing Fox News report from September:
Germany's withdrawal from the allied diplomatic offensive is the latest consensus across relevant U.S. agencies and offices, including the State Department, the National Security Council and the offices of the president and vice president. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, the most ardent proponent of a diplomatic resolution to the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions, has had his chance on the Iranian account and come up empty....

Vice President Cheney and his aides are said to be enjoying a bit of "schadenfreude" at the expense of Burns. A source described Cheney's office as effectively gloating to Burns and Rice, "We told you so. (The Iranians) are not containable diplomatically."
What's the German term for schadenfreude that actually ends up all over one's face?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Got another climate change bet, with a twist - now I'm betting on the cold side

I think we've got the details nailed down so I can blog about it: William Connolley, James Annan, and I are betting against Joe Romm's statement here:

It is very safe to say the Arctic Sea will be essentially ice free by 2030, and I’d personally bet on 2020 — any takers?

I think (and hope!) that's too pessimistic. When I saw it, I contacted Joe and cc'd William and James, figuring their interest in betting against climate skeptics might extend to this too, which turned out to be right. We hammered out the details (mainly that the ice is 90% gone, not 100% gone), and ended up with Joe betting $333 against each of the three of us. While the bets may be legally enforceable in theory, in reality it's a matter of trust, especially for the modest amounts involved.

I can't say that betting against over-alarmism is very important to me. I think we've done far too little about climate change, not too much, and so it's the skeptics/denialists who are the real problem. Still, it's interesting to me as something that brackets my climate expectations with the $9,000 bet I made with a climate skeptic. James, on the other hand, might consider this closer to what he hoped a betting mechanism would be in terms of showing what overall group expectations are for climate.

I think James, William and maybe Joe might blog about this, and I'll put in links if they do. (UPDATE: William's post is here, James' with an amusing put-down of me is here, and Joe's side of things is here.)

One thing I'd note: if the bet ended in 2050 instead of 2020 (and if I was interested in betting that far in the future, which I'm not) then I'd be on Joe's side in this bet. The question is how soon the climate catastrophe will start.

The other interesting psychological aspect: I was originally interested in just betting Joe a token amount. When William and James both wanted to bet far more, I suddenly became willing to up the ante. Following the herd....

MORE UPDATES: See crandles' comment - I haven't checked his math, but if it's right, then a 70% increase in the current rate of sea-ice retreat is necessary for me to lose the bet.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Edwards will stop FBI raids on medical marijuana clinics

Maybe there's a reference to this somewhere that I missed before, but in this YouTube clip, John Edwards says he will stop the FBI raids on medical marijuana clinics, and that the FDA should reassess the role of medical marijuana.

This puts Edwards in a pretty similar position as Obama. It's not a Chris Dodd position, on the other hand, but it still represents a tremendous improvement over Bush and the present Republican candidates.

Climate change solution from Congress: fire Robert Samuelson

Congress has agreed on legislation raising fuel standards by 40% by 2020.

Robert Samuelson, Feb. 7 2007, "Global Warming and Hot Air":

...Don't be fooled. The dirty secret about global warming is this: We have no solution.....Considering this reality, you should treat the pious exhortations to "do something" with skepticism, disbelief or contempt....Nor will existing technologies, aggressively deployed, rescue us. The IEA studied an "alternative scenario" that simulated the effect of 1,400 policies to reduce fossil fuel use. Fuel economy for new U.S. vehicles was assumed to increase 30 percent by 2030; the global share of energy from "renewables" (solar, wind, hydropower, biomass) would quadruple, to 8 percent. The result: by 2030, annual carbon dioxide emissions would rise 31 percent instead of 55 percent....So far, global warming has been a change, not a calamity....I do not say we should do nothing, but we should not delude ourselves....It's a debate we ought to have -- but probably won't. Any realistic response would be costly, uncertain and no doubt unpopular. That's one truth too inconvenient for almost anyone to admit.

Samuelson says even under best-case scenarios, we won't do enough to make a difference, and says maybe we'll luck out and not be badly harmed by climate change anyway.

I remember thinking that 30% by 2030 was ridiculously far from what's possible. Congress proved it. Wishing on the magic star of new technologies, especially without mandates, is what's most likely to keep us from taking effective action.