Ignoring the Obvious

Although I found the article at RealClearScience, “Five Elements and Substances That Turned Out Not to Exist”, interesting and informative, after reading it I was surprised to find that the author failed to include the best known example of a substance that didn’t exist: the ether.


Proof By Cherry-Picking

I thought that Cathleen O’Grady’s Ars Technica post on the health benefits of relying increasingly on wind and solar power generation was an interesting tack:

A paper in Nature Energy this week dives into the weeds by trying to estimate the economic benefits of wind and solar power across the whole of the US. Berkeley environmental engineer Dev Millstein and his colleagues estimate that between 3,000 and 12,700 premature deaths have been averted because of air quality benefits over the last decade or so, creating a total economic benefit between $30 billion and $113 billion. The benefits from wind work out to be more than 7¢ per kilowatt-hour, which is more than unsubsidized wind energy generally costs.

I can’t read the actual journal article but I hope that it takes a less, well, selective approach to realizing its findings than appears to be the case.

At least 90% of all solar panels are made in China and the percentage of solar panels utilizing materials produced in China approaches 100%. That means that you cannot evaluate the health implications of using solar energy without taking the health implications of their production in China into account. Further the authors need to extend their investigations to a total lifecycle study. What are the health implications of the rising mountain of faulty or end-of-life solar panels? The health implications of solar energy begin before the panels are installed and continue after they’re taken out of service.

Additionally, very few people believe that we’ll be able to convert to 100% wind and solar in the foreseeable future. What are the health implications of fractional implementation? They’re unlikely to be linear.

I’m not hostile to the possibility that wind and solar energy may be healthier. I just think that we’ll never know unless we approach the question more critically.


How Do We De-Polarize?

In a post at The Conversation, ostensibly an analysis of the influence of Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, the authors, Dominik Stekula and Erik Merkley, present a model of American politics which, if correct, has some pretty serious implications. Here’s their model:

We have studied in detail how the media covered the issue of climate change since the 1980s and how it may have played a role in polarizing the American public. The commonly observed pattern is that public opinion tends to follow, rather than lead, debate among political elites. This is of particular importance for our work.

Voters, particularly in America, tend to harbour strong positive and negative attachments to political parties. These form critical components of their social identities. When uncertain about novel political issues, like climate change, they look for signals from political elites for guidance. These signals are, more often than not, carried to them by the mass media.

In our research, we examined the political signals that were present in the coverage of climate change in major, high circulation daily newspapers, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, as well network television channels ABC, CBS and NBC, and cable news channel Fox News.

What we found is a nuanced story that sheds considerable light on why the public polarized on climate change. First, politicians became increasingly common in coverage, politicizing the issue as it grew in importance. As a result, the public has been exposed to a growing number of messages about climate change from party elites.

Second, Democratic messages have been more common in news coverage, and, unsurprisingly, consistent in a pro-climate direction. Meanwhile, Republican messages have been fewer in number, and, until the Obama presidency, ambiguous in direction. Contrary to conventional wisdom, only a small fraction of Republican messages on climate change explicitly denied the scientific consensus on climate change.

Let me restate what they’re saying. That journalists skew towards progressivism is hardly an earth-shaking revelation. It may always have been the case in the U. S. and it has certainly been the case for the last century.

It has not always been the case that academics as a group have been at the forefront of progressivism. That is a product of the 1960s. Prior to that except in a few bastions, e.g. Yale, they were notoriously conservative. Whether it is part of a Gramscian strategy or not, today progressives, overwhelmingly Democrats, have control of the opinion-making instruments in our society. That provides Democrats with the initiative.

Republicans react negatively to those initiatives because they’re Republicans if for no other reason and their personal identities, as noted by the authors, demand it. Party members are like sports fans. Cardinal fans hate the Cubs because they’re the Cubs.

And that’s the model: Democrats are the initiaters; Republicans reacters. Under that model when Democrats, supposedly responding to Republican excesses, respond with excesses of their own, they are actually responding to their own mirror image and creating a positive feedback loop. They push; Republicans push back. Keep in mind that a characteristic of positive feedback loops is that unless some governing mechanism is applied they inevitably destroy their systems.

I think that this model has some failings, specifically, it denies agency to Republicans but I think it does provide a fair-to-middling first order approximation of the political situation in the United States. The circumstances of Democrats and Republicans are not symmetrical.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, it bears some resemblance to things I’ve been saying for the last forty years and writing about here for the last fifteen. To it I would add this. IMO both progressives and conservatives have been sold a bill of goods by the Democratic and Republican Party leaderships respectively. Those leaders have no closely held beliefs other than that whatever happens they should benefit from it personally.


An Alternative to Fracking?

At OilPrice Tsvetana Praskova reports on Russian developments in oil production:

ussian scientists and local oil field services companies claim to have created a technology for thermochemical gas fracturing that could be an alternative to hydraulic fracturing and could increase oil production by between 1.7 and 6 times, Russia’s news agency RIA Novosti reports, citing the University of Tyumen’s press service.

In hydraulic fracturing, rocks are fractured with high-pressure injection of fluids, while the new breakthrough technology, as claimed by Russian scientists and media, is creating chemical reactions in the strata that contain oil.

The chemicals react and emit heat and gas, which makes extraction easier and lifts well productivity, according to the scientists and researchers.

The other upside in the technology, the Russians claim, is that the main component in the chemical reactions is ammonium nitrate, which is often used as fertilizer.

Hmm. Oil; ammonium nitrate. I expected an earth-shattering kaboom.

More seriously, if this strategy proves successful I would expect it to be imitated here in the U. S. as well as in Saudi Arabia. Getting more yield from existing wells is likely to be less expensive than drilling new ones. And if it’s cheaper and more effective than fracking, all the better.


Kissinger and Korea

At RealClearWorld American China analyst Joseph Bosco critiques Henry Kissinger’s prescriptions for dealing with North Korea, earlier commented on at The Glittering Eye:

But Kissinger glosses over China’s critical role in supporting Pyongyang’s blatantly illegal weapons activities. On this fundamental point, he has been consistently faulty in his analysis and derelict in his responsibilities as probably the world’s most influential expert on U.S.-China relations.

From the inception of North Korea’s nuclear program with Chinese technology acquired through A.Q. Kahn’s network in Pakistan, through the decades of Beijing’s logistical, financial, and diplomatic support, Kissinger has offered one rationalization after another in China’s defense. His 1,400-word article, while explaining yet again why Beijing’s fear of regime collapse in Pyongyang accounts for China’s reticence, has nothing to say about its active participation in fostering the buildup of the nuclear and missile programs.

Indeed, the history of Chinese-North Korean collaboration contradicts this statement of conventional wisdom — a statement recited not just by Kissinger but by every U.S. administration he has advised on North Korea: “China shares the American concern regarding nuclear proliferation; it is in fact the country most immediately affected by it.”

You may see some parallels of my views in the sentiments expressed by Mr. Bosco. I think he’s still being too optimistic. The North Koreans aren’t interested in normalizing relations with the rest of the world. There isn’t much they can get through negotiations that they can’t get by maintaining their present trajectory.

In an odd sort of way the relationship between North Korea and China has resonance with John Maynard Keynes’s well-known wisecrack: “Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.” North Korea’s situation is so tenuous and they are so totally dependent on China that China is at North Korea’s mercy. Until it isn’t at which point the Kim regime will cease to exist.


Why We Can’t Have a System Like Canada’s

At The Conversation Simon Haeder outlines why state-based single-payer systems are impractical in the United States. The reasons boil down to three:

  • Health care is too expensive in the U. S.
  • Our political system is only conducive to adopting such a system under rare circumstances.
  • We don’t have enough social cohesion.

Here’s his statement of how Massachusetts managed to pull off their system:

First, there was bipartisan cooperation at both the state and federal level.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, President George Bush and Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, all Republicans, were able to come to an agreement with Sen. Ted Kennedy (Democrat of Masachusetts) and Democrats in the state legislature.

Bipartisanship also meant that everyone was invested in the project, at the state and federal level, and sought to make a success.

Second, the federal government was willing to foot most of the bill and provided regulatory support for the state’s effort.

Third, Massachusetts is a relatively wealthy state that already covered a large percentage of its population.

A confluence like this appears highly unlikely under current political realities.

Let me translate that. It took political moderates on both sides of the aisle at both state and federal levels. Somebody else had to pay for it. And Massachusetts is 83% white.

Mr. Haeder’s explanation doesn’t simply explain why a state-based single-payer system like Canada’s is impractical for the United States. It’s evidence that any single-payer system for the United States is impractical.

Ultimately, more people will reach the conclusion that I have. Health care administration won’t be rendered less costly in the United States via a single-payer system any more than educational administration is less costly in the United States because we have a mostly government-based system of education. U. S. attitudes towards government and government benefits are different than in the Canada, the UK, France, or Germany. The costs of health care and health care administration need to be reduced first. Then we might be able to afford a single-payer system.


Making the Case

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed on Chinese predations on American intellectual property, James Bacchus makes a pretty good case:

Intellectual property accounts for nearly 40% of the U.S. economy, and the U.S. government has a duty to protect American rights holders abroad. The annual cost to U.S. companies of pirated software, counterfeit goods, and the theft of trade secrets is as much as $600 billion. Most of these losses occur in China.

After 16 years in the WTO, China still falls far short of fulfilling its obligations to protect intellectual property rights. About 70% of the software in use in China, for example, is pirated.

Beijing’s mercantilist industrial policy, the Made in China 2025 program, aspires to make China a global leader in 10 strategic industries, including medical devices, artificial intelligence, driverless cars, and robotics. It requires that the domestic content of manufactured products be increased to 70%, state subsidies be granted, and companies in these targeted industries be protected from foreign competition.

U.S. and other foreign companies report being pressured by the Chinese government and by Chinese companies to turn over their patent rights, trade secrets and other intellectual property. Many major U.S. firms have long regarded this behind-the-scenes intimidation as simply a cost of doing business in China. Now that it could place them at a competitive disadvantage globally, they are turning to the U.S. government for help.

but the actions he proposes:

The U.S. could bring a systemic challenge to China’s intellectual property regime on the basis that the government is not fulfilling its affirmative enforcement obligations.

Trade secrets could be one part of a broad WTO challenge. The WTO agreement includes a rule requiring the protection of trade secrets, but it has yet to be asserted in a dispute settlement.

Another WTO rule requires that members administer all their laws, regulations and other actions in an “impartial” and “reasonable” manner. Is coercing foreigners out of their rights acting impartially and reasonably? If it can be shown using solid evidence that the Chinese government is engaging in such coercion, this could be another strong legal claim.

suggest that he doesn’t recognize what that case means. It means that China should never have been admitted to the World Trade Organization in the first place. China has neither the will nor even the means to enforce the obligations it has notionally undertaken. China does not have a robust system of civil law. There is no practical way for U. S. companies to seek remedies from Chinese courts for violations of their intellectual property rights. The very notion of “intellectual property” is a meaningless noise to the Chinese.

And that doesn’t even take account the systemic raids on U. S. companies, searching for intellectual property, that are obviously sponsored by the Chinese government. Under the circumstances there are no moderate, temperate remedies for this problem.

Here’s my modest proposal. Since the annual cost to the United States Chinese depradations on U. S. intellectual property is roughly equivalent to our trade deficit with China, the U. S. should stop protecting Chinese physical property. See “Made in China” on it? It’s free! Yes, it would provoke a trade war. We’re already at war. We’re just not fighting back.

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Re-Opening Old Wounds

The editors of the Wall Street Journal remark on the removal of statues commemorating Confederate generals:

In our view cities can properly decide whether they wish to take down Confederate symbols, many of which arose in the Jim Crow years of white supremacy in the early 20th Century. But erasing a nation’s history is a bad idea. Mr. Trump is being ridiculed for suggesting that George Washington or Thomas Jefferson could be next because they were slaveholders.

We’re glad to have the clarifications on the false equivalence between Confederate generals and the Founding Fathers, but we hope these clarifiers will be around when campus demonstrators or even historians start demanding that the Founders’ legacies be repudiated because they owned slaves.

“Racist” is a powerful accusation to make against anyone, but it is heard today in an ever-widening set of circumstances, not just against Confederate generals. It might be useful if more people understood the role race has played in American history, as well as that history’s effort to get past discrimination based on race.

It might begin with Jefferson and Washington, who wrote the language and built the institutions of the bedrock American belief that “all men are created equal” and possess inalienable rights. Those words planted the seeds of freedom for the slaves, an idea that advanced through the awful Civil War and, not without setbacks, for a century after, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

That is a long and difficult history of progress, one that deserves to be known in its complexity, rather than not known or forgotten. Robert E. Lee spent the rest of his life after the Civil War, notably as president of what became Washington and Lee University, trying to heal the wounds between north and south.

That’s at least one legacy of Lee we can all celebrate because we can’t see much purpose beyond political symbolism in reopening the Civil War 152 years later. It won’t educate an inner-city child trapped in a rotten school, it won’t create more economic opportunity, and it won’t lead to more racial tolerance.

There have been calls here in Chicago to have Washington’s image and name removed. A statue of Lincoln was defaced here and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, presumably soon to be renamed, was spraypainted with expletives. There have been calls for the destruction of Mount Rushmore.


The Confederate Monument in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago

In Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, covering the mass grave of 4,000 Confederate soldiers, captured and held prisoner at Camp Douglas, there is a large monument, pictured above. Here is the National Parks Service’s description of it:

Confederate Mound is an elliptical plot, approximately 475 feet by 275 feet, located between Divisions 1 and 2 of Section K. The most prominent feature of the plot is the Confederate Monument, a 30-foot granite column topped with a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier, a figure based on the painting “Appomattox” by John A. Elder. At the base of the tapered square shaft are three bas-relief images: “The Call to Arms” showing a group rallying for the cause, “A Soldier’s Death Dream” depicting a fallen soldier and his horse on the battlefield, and “A Veteran’s Return Home” showing a soldier arriving at a ruined cabin. General John C. Underwood, a regional head of the United Confederate Veterans, designed the monument and was at its dedication on May 30, 1895, along with President Grover Cleveland and an estimated 100,000 on-lookers. In 1911, the Commission for Marking the Graves of Confederate Dead paid to have the monument lifted up and set upon a base of red granite; affixed to the four sides of the base were bronze plaques inscribed with the names of Confederate soldiers known to be buried in the mass grave.

It was dedicated on May 30, 1895. It resides on private land. It in no way glorifies the Southern cause. The statue of the Confederate soldier is in an attitude of surrender or resignation. In the Chicago Tribune Ted Slowik remarks:

President Grover Cleveland and his entire cabinet were among the estimated 100,000 who attended the monument’s dedication on May 30, 1895. In 1903, Congress appropriated funds to improve the monument by adding six bronze plaques inscribed with the names of 4,243 Confederate soldiers known to be interred at the site.

More than 100 years later, many Chicagoans may be simply unaware their city is home to among the largest Confederate graveyards and monuments in the North. Its tendency to be forgotten might explain some of the lack of controversy regarding Confederate Mound.

Yet, local media have periodically rediscovered Confederate Mound. TV, radio, print and online reporters spotlighted the memorial in 2015 when white supremacist Dylann Roof shot to death nine black parishioners during a service at a church in Charleston, S.C.

As the official Report of Proceedings Incidental to the Erection and Dedication of the Confederate Monument prepared by Gen. John C. Underwood makes clear, the monument is explicitly a sign of reconciliation between the North and the South. Here’s an excerpt from the remarks of Rev. H. W. Bolton on the occasion:

Today we stand with comrades at the graves that are not simply houses for the dead, but vaults in which the Nation’s power, fame and glory are stored. Thirty years have swept over these graves, the dust of wasting forms, and yet they are centers of sufficient power to arrest a nation in its march and call a generation, born since they were made, of home, hothouse and conservatory, hillside and valley with flowers gathered, selected, arranged and transported for the decoration of the sacred dead. Every heart in this broad land is made broader and more patriotic by the services of this day in this place. If there were no words spoken or songs sung, an hour among the dead who gave up their lives for convictions, with muffled tread and silent prayer would impress us with a sense of that self-sacrifice which is most sacred to a nation’s well-being. None can move among the disembodied spirits of such men without being inspired for better service. We come not as the soldiers of the Grecian and Roman armies, but as brothers of one country. We have had trouble, ’tis true, and every thinking people will have. We entertained different ideas relative to government and polity—ideas that begot convictions resulting in war, but we fought, not to destroy but to maintain, and now that the Union is preserved and all men, north and south, cheerfully accept the results, support the government and obey the constitution, why should we be enemies or keep up a line of defense?

Recently, there have been calls for removal of the monument as an affront to the neighborhood, calls that were not in evidence prior to the events in Charlottesville.

Should the monument be removed?


The Past and History

I have been guilty of using language imprecisely. “The past” is what has happened. It is impossible to escape the past. Your very bodies are made up of the chemical and biological interactions that took place in the past. They condition your reactions. They affect your present decisions.

Your memories of the past are not the past itself. As Korzybski put it, the territory is not the map. Your memories are not just approximations of the past; they are approximations shaped consciously or unconsciously by your opinions and prior experiences.

As Korzybski also noted, one of the things that makes human beings different from other creatures on the planet is that it is possible for us to know about things that happened longer ago than any single human being’s lifespan. We can do that by asking people older than ourselves; we can do it by reading works written long ago or written by people who’ve read works written long ago. We can do it based on the artifacts left by people in the past; we can do it based on tradition or observing the present and making inferences about the past based on those observations.

We do not rebuild ourselves from scratch every morning. It is impossible and even if possible the transaction costs of such a practice would be too high.

History is not the past. History is what has been written about the past, the artifacts from the past, and traditions or things about the present from which inferences may be drawn about the past. If every history book were burned, every statue or memorial destroyed, traditions banned and uprooted, and new languages invented that eschewed the accretions of the past, we would still not escape the past. However, we would be subject to the whims and notions of rulers and politicians. Mussolini’s dictum of “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” would be realized. History defends us against the passing excesses of the present.