Monday, August 30, 2010

Cuccinelli’s mini-me McCarthyism quashed

The quick eyes and fingers of Joe Romm have the story.

Cuccinelli's bogus "investigation" was a particularly chilling piece of ideological thuggery, striking as it did at any notion of free inquiry in science. Attacking Michael Mann, one of the world's foremost climatologists, with fraud charges and the threat of an endless, Whitewater-style partisan witch hunt, represented a new and dangerous corruption of the public sphere. Even the creationists, the tobacco pushers and the "scientific" racists, while attacking scientists' results, never dared attack the scientists in this brazen, harassing, threatening way.

It seems like a bad dream, and thanks to Judge Peatross, we can hope against hope that that is all it was. I fear, though, that the loss today will only be temporary. Cuccinelli lost on the facts almost instantly. But the effectiveness of McCarthyism never depended on the ability to win in court. All it requires is a bald-faced liar in a position of authority, a complacent media, a fearful populace, and the willingness to accuse. As far as I can tell, all those factors still exist. Expect to see more scurrilous accusations, and more big lies, until and unless the consequence of such are not just to be defeated but to be discredited, disgraced and speedily dismissed.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cheap coal, cheap sun

I was reading DeSmogBlog's account of the toxic coal ash problem, and it put me in mind of a recent interview Richard Rosen gave to Dot Earth. There are many excellent things in this interview, and it is a real pleasure to get the insider's view of these technologies, and the real barriers to replacing fossil fuels with alternative energy sources. Rosen is very clear that, while he is pessimistic on the prospect of dramatic R&D breakthroughs in renewables, he thinks the technology needs to be implemented on a broad scale today.

That said, I think he overstates the case here:

The situation is similar for solar thermal technologies; they have had major R&D expenditures for decades and they are improving slowly. But they can never be as cheap as coal-fired electric generation because the energy density of the sun’s rays are not nearly at the level of fossil-fuels like coal, so you necessarily need more physical equipment to collect the energy, and turn it into electricity. Also, the lower temperatures that result from collecting the sun’s rays compared to burning fossil fuels inherently limits the efficiency of solar generation, but more importantly, it increases its costs relative to fossil generation.

It's very difficult to predict, based on physics, what kinds of technologies will be cost-effective and which won't. Physics would suggest, for example, that long-haul trucks could never compete with trains for hauling heavy freight (in fact, they dominate the market in the US). Rosen is, under the gloss of a scientific argument, reasoning ex post facto from the actual relative cost of these technologies today.

Suppose we instead lived in a world in which wind, photovoltaic, and solar thermal sources provide most of our energy, and some clever reformer was proposing coal as a solution to the intermittancy problem. How might Rosen explain the prospects that coal would overtake solar and wind?

ALTER-REVKIN: Coal is a promising emerging technology, easily scalable, with theoretical efficiencies twice what we can achieve with solar, but will it ever compete on price?

ALTER-ROSEN: Coal may be a valuable minor player, but it will never be as cheap as solar. There are too many costly inputs and costly side effects. Imagine, you need a research team to locate the coal, you have to purchase the rights to the coal deposit, then you need an entire operation, separate and independent from power generation, to get the stuff out of the ground. That's trucks, it's heavy machinery, burning fuel and writing paychecks to the operators. Then you need to haul it to the power plant -- more trucks, more heavy machinery. Finally you burn the stuff, and it produces coal ash, which is toxic. You have to store that safely for hundreds of years -- it's not like you're going to dump it behind a rickety wooden dam somewhere and walk away!

ALTER-REVKIN: Wow, that's a lot of costs.

ALTER-ROSEN: And we're not done yet. Researchers estimate that if this technology were widely adopted, millions of people would die each year from atmospheric pollution. So the companies would be paying from that, as well.

Bottom line, it's too complicated to find it, extract it, transport it, store the wastes and cope with the consequences of the pollution for coal to every compete with a no-fuel, no-pollution source like wind or solar.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On lighter side: creative grammar

I've been noticing instances here and there of interesting grammatical "mistakes": inadvertent neologisms in which a word is created by combining two words, either of which relate to the intended meaning. It was this now-famous example that put my antenna up:

Sarah Palin (via Twitter): Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.

Palin here creates a word by combining "refute" with "repudiate." The words sound similar, and the phase would have meant much the same thing had she used either word instead.

You might suspect I'm going to castigate Palin for offenses against the English language, but I'm not. In fact, I rather like the word "refudiate." I imagine it means disassociating oneself from a position and, in the very act of doing so, showing that position to be false; i.e., the position in some logical or empirical sense requires your support to be sensible.

For example, suppose I am going around the neighborhood screaming at gay people, which I justify by saying my bishop supports it, and I must do what my bishop supports. Now suppose the bishop disavows me and any knowledge or approval of what I have been doing. He has repudiated me. But in doing so, he also destroyed my argument for what I am doing -- he has refuted it.

We are not talking about the content of her message, which is bigoted and offensive. But the word itself is kind of nice.

Another example, from the fertile garden of language experiments that is the internet comment thread:

The intellectual libertarianism of Brink Lindsey is a cousin of socialism and as such doomed to failure.

Both are fancied by self selected elites that think their intelligence and reasoning power can fix institutions and replace traditions that have organically evolved, over centuries and millennia, and thereby mold a better society in their image.

This is the fatal conceipt.

Here the author has taken the common cliche, "the fatal conceit" and added a little bit of the word "concept." Again, it's clear what he's taking about; liberal rationalism could be described as a "conceit" or as a "concept."

I'm not sure if this particular linguistic phenomenon has a name, though I wouldn't be surprised if there is one, and I don't know it. It's similar to a portmanteau, but that usually describes a conscious yoking of two words, while this seems to be accidental, like a spoonerism or a malapropism. Indeed, the hive mind at wikipedia wants to call "refudiate" a malapropism, but I have to respectfully disagree -- a malapropism is a similar-sounding, but nonsensical substitution. This is not a substitution at all, but a combination of two words, but of which are sort of right.

People who erroneously believe themselves to be experts in grammar will often deplore such innovations as crude, ignorant, barbaric, or ugly, or stupid. This is a particular type of what is known to the real students of language as "prescriptivism"; the impulse to seek universal "rules" of grammar and usage, to see those rules as indicative of education, culture, or intelligence, and to enforce them by heaping scorn on malefactors.

In terms of teaching people, especially non-English speakers, to speak and write for broad audiences, and in formal, work-related, or academic endeavours, the enforcement of grammatical rules has a limited practical use. But the moralistic colors it often flies make of it offensive nonsense.

It can easily be seen that prescriptivism has nothing to do with the study of language. The science of language -- linguistics -- is like every other science. It observes, seeks to describe, then seeks to understand and perhaps predict. It does not seek to ENFORCE the principles it discovers. That would be ridiculous! Imagine if biologists thought a species of fish ate only other fish, and then discovered that many of them eat plankton. Would they deploy nets to keep the plankton away? Poison the deviant fish? Sterilize the lake?

If you see why that would make no sense, you should see why prescriptivism is absurd. People talk the way they talk. There is no right or wrong as long as you can be understood by the people you're communicating with. Children learn the grammar of their native language naturally and without being taught -- we are "hardwired" for grammar, it's built into our brain's language circuits. Most of the things that make prescriptivists' heads spin around in circles -- double negatives, slang, made-up words -- are perfectly understandable and thus, perfectly good language.

I didn't really appreciate this fully until I studied the history of the English language, and was forced to confront the fact that there is no way to understand our modern language except as the accumulation of false analogies, borrowings, errors in translation and in pronunciation, neolgisms and shorthand. Words grow and shrink and are merged with other words.

Don't let me make linguistics sound interesting. It's not. Linguistics, someone famously remarked, combines the dullness of the hard sciences with the uselessness of the humanities. So take my word for it: language, like DNA, evolves via "errors," which are the primary way it grows and changes. Those people whose way of loving language is to attack rule-breakers would fatally wound the object of their affections, were their efforts not so ludicrously futile. So despise Sarah Palin for the many sound reasons she has given us to do so, but not for "refudiate."

Friday, August 6, 2010

No excuse

Andrew offers:

There is no excusing the senseless murder of an IDF soldier – shot while removing a tree on the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanon border.

While there may be no excusing it, one could certainly make excuses for it, offense being the best defense, as Israel's excuses for the killings at the Gaza border have shown:

Excuse #1: Describe the attack as retaliation, every if the site attacked has no connection with the other side's supposed offense.

"Israel routinely responds to rocket attacks with air strikes targeting smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border and workshops which Israel says are used to make rockets."

Excuse #2: Describe the attack as if it were an unplanned, mutual affair, "skirmishes" or "clashes":
(The headline) "2 Palestinians killed as IDF clashes with militants near Gaza border"
(The fine print) " Israel Defense Forces troop fired at suspected militants that had approached Gaza's northern border with Israel, Israel Radio reported on Wednesday, with two suspected militants reportedly killed in the incident."

Did the solider killed by the Lebanese "approach the border"? He most certainly did. Was he a "militant"? Worse than a militant, he was actually a uniformed solider of an enemy state. Is there a single righteous man in Sodom these days who would look at this incident and say "We've killed hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese for nothing more than being armed and close to our borders -- who are we to throw stones?" There most certainly is not.

Excuse #3 Justify the killings by asserting the victim was just about to commit an attack – they are dead, they can't contradict you.
"At least one Palestinian terrorist, who attempted to plant a bomb at the Gaza border fence, has been killed by the Israeli army."

When you read the story, you discover no bomb was ever found.
Literally thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese have been killed by Israel while going about their business, no immediate threat to anyone. If they have a gun, if they belong to an armed group – both conditions the IDF solider met – even those on the far left will seldom raise a protest. If on top of that they are in a border area, well, that's the end of it. But when it is an IDF solider who is dead we suddenly remember certain things, like: being an armed enemy during a time of peace or a cease-fire is no excuse for murder. If it were, the idea of a "cease-fire" would be meaningless. Or: being next to the border is not the same thing as being across the border – that's why it’s a border. You are supposed to be able to live and work and cut down trees and even train for battle on your side of the border, and it's not a justification for deadly force or any force at all.

There's an element of colonialism here, make no mistake. In the eyes of Israelis and their enablers, an Arab with a gun is by definition a Jew-murderer in waiting, no rights at all. A Jew with a gun is a brave defender of his home. A Palestinian near the border is an infiltrator, shot on sight; but an IDF solider considers it his right to march right up to the edge of his territory, armed to the teeth. Sometimes he doesn't stop there. For all their fear and rage at "infiltrators," it's not unusual to read that an Israeli "patrol" went a couple of hundred yards or a half mile into Gaza, destroyed some property, shot at some suspected "militants," and came home. If an army tried this on Israeli territory, of course, the IAF would carpet-bomb their cities.

Double standards. That's the work-a-day answer to excusing the inexcusable.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The shape of things to come

From the NYTimes:

MOSCOW — Russia banned all exports of grain on Thursday after millions of acres of wheat withered in a severe drought, a portentous decision at a time when crop failures caused by heat and flooding span the northern hemisphere.

The resilience of civilization is often cited as the answer to the destructive effects of global warming. When these materialize, so the story goes, people will simply deploy the adaptive powers of free-market capitalism and overcome all impediments to the continued growth of prosperity. To that end, we ought to focus not on things like reduced CO2 emissions, but rather focus on getting rich by any means necessary -- something which will position the world's people optimally for adaptation later on.

Russia's reaction to the failure of its wheat crop -- and we're lying to ourselves if we imagine our countries would behave any differently -- illustrates the flaws in that approach. Free markets can be a powerful tool to deal with resource scarcity, including damaged or degraded infrastructure and loss of productive capacity. But markets are only as free as governments make them. As global warming has uneven impacts across the world -- baking crops and destroying coastlines in some regions, mostly sparing or even temporarily increasing productivity in others -- the effects are likely to be magnified by protectionist responses far beyond what an ideal market model might lead us to expect.

Suppose, for example, that a bad growing season in the Northern Hemisphere cuts agricultural productivity by an average of 20%, but in India, for whatever reason, productivity falls by 80%. The "prosperity as adaptation" model would say that India would spend heavily on food imports, driving up food prices around the world, causing citizens of other countries to switch to more vegetable products, less meat and other luxury items, tighten their belts, and, of course, grow more food.

Now let's look at it realistically, given the way real people and real governments actually behave. Look at the protectionist barriers erected in the Great Depression; look at Russia today. And ask yourself, is any country that has lost a fifth of its agricultural crops going to be exporting food? Not likely. Bans like Russia's will be the rule, not the exception. India will have currency, but if enough of the major exporters close their markets, it will do them no good. You can't eat currency.

There are other dysfunctional responses to shortage that may exacerbate the dilemma. Hording, for example. This is a well-known pitfall of imperfect markets. As soon as any agent realizes they may not be able to get something they need in the future, their (rational) reaction is to stockpile it, which greatly exacerbates shortages. In the example above, suppose the following year they have a similar situation, minus 50 million starved Indians. But this year the harvest is better -- it's only down 5%. But this year the US is the "sick man" with harvests down 30%. How easy will it be to import food?

It might seem at first blush countries would be more willing to export food -- the harvest is better, they have more food to spare. But on the other hand, they saw what happened to India -- how they couldn't trade money for food when they needed it. So what is their play? Everybody is going to want to stockpile food. Months of it. Years of it. Even those areas where agricultural productivity is maintained, the temptation to horde and speculate will be great. Huge amounts of a scarce resource end up under lock and key, not in the hands of the people who need them.

A situation like this is hard for people in the developed world to grasp, because we have no experience of a world in which our wealth cannot be readily exchanged for any product or resource we might need. The above examples are greatly oversimplified. But the principle is an important one to grasp: ultimately our needs are for food, shelter and the like. The system that turns money into those things may, and likely will, be compromised by the very scarcity that "prosperity adapters" are counting on to deal with scarcity. With disruption on a large enough scale, scarcity is more likely to overwhelm free markets than the other way around.