Wednesday, February 28

No democracy in China for another century

Premier Wen Jiabao
reported to be in charge of preparing a leadership platform for the party congress, reached into familiar Marxist vocabulary to build an argument that China is not yet ready for such a democracy, even though it remains a distant goal for the "socialism with Chinese characteristics" that the party hopes to build.

"We are still far away from advancing out of the primary stages of socialism," he said. "We must stick with the basic development guideline of that stage for 100 years."

Dirigisme, not communism

What the article "Does Communism Work After All?" outlines is hardly Communism, whether that is defined as either of the following:
  1. a totalitarian system of government in which a single authoritarian party controls state-owned means of production
  2. a final stage of society in Marxist theory in which the state has withered away and economic goods are distributed equitably.
I'd call China's a dirigiste economy--a mainly capitalist economy with a strong economic participation by government.

Industry, thrift, and prudence

When someone asks me what I would do to eliminate poverty in America, the first thing that pops into my head is the need for industry, thrift, and prudence.

What, no dark chocolate?

After some time in CIA custody, Marwan Jabour, an accused al-Qaeda paymaster, began to receive better food, including pizza and Snickers and Kit-Kat bars. Is this product placement for Mars and Nestlé?

The wealthy are conspicuous for their lack of consumption

Citing the 1996 book The Millionaire Next Door, co-authored by Thomas Stanley and William Danko:

The wealthy are conspicuous for their lack of consumption: "What are three words that profile the affluent? FRUGAL FRUGAL FRUGAL". The book is full of startling individual cases: the millionaire who refused the gift of a Rolls Royce because he couldn't imagine driving up in one to eat at the crummy restaurants he prefers, or throw caught fish in the back seat; the wife who, after her husband gave her $8 million in stocks, returned at once to clipping the 25 cent grocery coupons from her newspaper.

This is no coincidence. It is not that most millionaires are in the habit of being frugal despite their wealth: it is that they are so wealthy because they are in the habit of living so frugally. The plentiful residual income goes into savings and investments that are left to grow for decades.


This surprising picture of America's wealthy presents class warriors with two problems. First, un-American as it might be to scapegoat and overtax the rich when they are perceived as Porsche-driving and Rolex-wearing, one can nonetheless imagine the envy that might inspire. But what is the future of class hatred in an America where, in fact, Porsche drivers and Rolex wearers have little net wealth, and the real rich are those who eat at the same restaurants and drive the same cars as most people, even when they can afford not to? It is difficult to imagine even the most skilled demagogue persuading Americans to resent the man who drives the same American-made car for years or the woman who faithfully cuts out every grocery coupon.

Second, devising economic policies that would target the wealthy would be still more difficult. Higher income taxes might reduce income inequality, but it would be a sideshow to the reality that inequalities of wealth are a result of some living below their means, not unequal incomes. Higher capital gains taxes, which can only be levied on realized gains, would have also have little effect on most millionaires, who are passive, buy-and-hold investors who see their stocks appreciate but rarely sell.

If liberals are determined to reduce economic inequality, they would have to take lessons from Dr. Stanley and encourage generally a culture of delayed gratification and a certain amount of self-denial - a self-reliant America of stockholders and coupon-clippers who marry and stay married. This is the profile of America's wealthy, and a serious effort to reduce inequality would mean getting more Americans to adopt this lifestyle. But of course, for many who see inequality as a curse, this cure would be worse than the disease.

In The Millionaire Mind, Stanley finds that those with a net worth of at least $1 million possess qualities
...diametrically opposed to today's earn-and-consume culture, including living below their means, allocating funds efficiently in ways that build wealth, ignoring conspicuous consumption, being proficient in targeting marketing opportunities, and choosing the "right" occupation. It's evident that anyone can accumulate wealth, if they are disciplined enough, determined to persevere, and have the merest of luck.
If I had only known.

Dollar Cost Averaging vs.Lump-Sum Investing

Let’s say you have $100,000 to invest, and you want to achieve a portfolio of 90% stocks (modeled as the S&P 500) and 10% bonds (T-Bills). But that sounds risky to you. You decide to instead invest gradually over 10 years, every month putting a little bit more in, until you finally put $90,000 into stocks.

But what if you instead put everything at once into 50% stocks and 50% bonds, and kept those 50/50 proportions for the entire 10 years instead? That would also reduce your risk. You may be surprised to find out that historically the 50/50 rebalanced portfolio actually had the same amount of volatility than the 90/10 dollar cost averaged portfolio, but with a higher average return (8.37% vs. 8.05%).

old news on global warming

...many environmental campaigners, including the former U.S. vice president, Al Gore, and some scientists have portrayed the growing human influence on the climate as an unfolding disaster that is already measurably strengthening hurricanes, spreading diseases and amplifying recent droughts and deluges.

Conservative politicians and a few scientists, many with ties to energy companies, have variously countered that human-driven warming is inconsequential, unproved or a manufactured crisis.

A third stance is now emerging, espoused by many experts who challenge both poles of the debate.

They agree that accumulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe gases probably pose a momentous environmental challenge, but say the appropriate response is more akin to buying fire insurance and installing sprinklers and new wiring in an old, irreplaceable house (the home planet) than to fighting a fire already raging.
So far, so good. But then,
"Climate change presents a very real risk," said Carl Wunsch, a climate expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It seems worth a very large premium to insure ourselves against the most catastrophic scenarios."
How large?
"Claiming we can calculate the probabilities with any degree of skill seems equally stupid," he said.
So again, how large the premium?

Tuesday, February 27

The Western world is odious--to some

Curiously, what seems to rankle Europeans most is the enthusiasm with which Hirsi Ali has adopted their own secularism, and the fervor with which she has embraced their own Western values. Though this is a continent whose intellectuals routinely disparage the pope as an irrelevant dinosaur, Hirsi Ali's rejection of religion in favor of reason, intellect, and emancipation seems to make everyone nervous. Typical is the British feminist who complained that not only does Hirsi Ali paint "the whole of the Islamic world with one black brush," she also "paints the whole of the western world with rosy tints," which is of course far more objectionable.

That'll be the day

Stewart Brand has become a heretic to environmentalism, a movement he helped found, but he doesn’t plan to be isolated for long. He expects that environmentalists will soon share his affection for nuclear power. They’ll lose their fear of population growth and start appreciating sprawling megacities. They’ll stop worrying about “frankenfoods” and embrace genetic engineering.
He certainly is honest, though:
Mr. Brand is the first to admit his own futurism isn’t always prescient. In 1969, he was so worried by population growth that he organized the Hunger Show, a weeklong fast in a parking lot to dramatize the coming global famine predicted by Paul Ehrlich, one of his mentors at Stanford.

The famine never arrived, and Professor Ehrlich’s theories of the coming “age of scarcity” were subsequently challenged by the economist Julian Sinon, who bet Mr. Ehrlich that the prices of natural resources would fall during the 1980s despite the growth in population. The prices fell, just as predicted by Professor Simon’s cornucopian theories.

Professor Ehrlich dismissed Professor Simon’s victory as a fluke, but Mr. Brand saw something his mentor didn’t. He considered the bet a useful lesson about the adaptability of humans — and the dangers of apocalyptic thinking.

“It is one of the great revelatory bets,” he now says. “Any time that people are forced to acknowledge publicly that they’re wrong, it’s really good for the commonweal. I love to be busted for apocalyptic proclamations that turned out to be 180 degrees wrong. In 1973 I thought the energy crisis was so intolerable that we’d have police on the streets by Christmas. The times I’ve been wrong is when I assume there’s a brittleness in a complex system that turns out to be way more resilient than I thought.”

Monday, February 26

Why Americans Feel Poor

The Pew survey asked the "Luxury or Necessity?" question about 14 different consumer products designed to help make everyday life more productive, more convenient, more comfortable, more efficient or more entertaining. It was conducted by telephone from October 18 through November 9, 2006 among a randomly-selected nationally-representative sample of 2,000 adults.

Survey respondents placed the 14 items on a very broad range along the "necessity" scale -- with a high of 91% describing a car as a necessity and a low of 3% saying the same about an iPod.

FigureBut one pattern was consistent: wherever there has been a significant change in the past decade in the public's judgment about these items, it's always been in the direction of necessity. And on those items for which there are longer term survey trends dating back to 1973, this march toward necessity has tended to accelerate in the past ten years.

The two most ubiquitous products of the information era - home computers and cell phones - are currently situated in the middle of the pack, with the public evenly divided about their status. Computers are deemed a necessity by 51% of the adult public, and cell phones by 49%.

But both of these products are making a swift climb up the necessity scale. A decade ago, just 26% of adults considered the home computer a necessity, and back in 1983, when computers were still a novelty, just 4% felt that way. Meantime, cell phones were still so exotic in 1996 that they weren't even placed on the survey. The same holds for high-speed internet access; it didn't exist as a consumer service in 1996, but it's now considered a necessity by 29% of the adult public.
Why Do Americans Feel Poor? They're spending too much damned money!

Sunday, February 25

The worst investors

...the worst-performing accounts belong to those people with the highest education...
I've come the conclusion that highly-educated people often believe they know a lot about things outside their own field, even without having so much as read anything about it.

Barack Obama--not so fresh

Senator Barack Obama recently said, "let's allow our unions and their organizers to lift up this country's middle class again."

Ironically, he said it at a time when Detroit automakers have been laying off unionized workers by the tens of thousands, while Toyota has been hiring tens of thousands of non-union American automobile workers.

Labor unions, like the government, can change prices -- in this case, the price of labor -- but without changing the underlying reality that prices convey.

Neither unions nor minimum wage laws change the productivity of workers. All they can do is forbid the employer from paying less than what the government or the unions want the employer to pay.

When that is more than the labor in question produces, some workers who are perfectly capable become "unemployable" only because of wages set above the level of their productivity.

In the short run -- which is what matters to politicians and to union leaders, who both get elected in the short run -- workers who are already on the payroll may get a windfall gain before the market adjusts.

But, sooner or later, the chickens come home to roost. They have been coming home to roost big time in the automobile industry, where hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost over the years.

It is not that people don't want automobiles. Toyota is selling plenty of cars made in its American factories with non-union labor.

Some claim that it is automation, rather than union wages and benefits, that is responsible for declining employment among the Detroit auto workers.

But why are automobile companies buying expensive automated machinery, except that labor has been made expensive enough to make that their next best option?

Senator Obama is being hailed as the newest and freshest face on the American political scene. But he is advocating some of the oldest fallacies, just as if it was the 1960s again, or as if he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing since then.

He thinks higher teacher pay is the answer to the abysmal failures of our education system, which is already far more expensive than the education provided in countries whose students have for decades consistently outperformed ours on international tests.

Senator Obama is for making college "affordable," as if he has never considered that government subsidies push up tuition, just as government subsidies push up agricultural prices, the price of medical care and other prices.

He is also for "alternative fuels," without the slightest thought about the prices of those fuels or the implications of those prices. All this is the old liberal agenda from years past, old wine in new bottles, a new face with old ideas that have been tried and failed repeatedly over the past generation.

Senator Obama is not unique among politicians who want to control prices, as if that is controlling the underlying reality behind the prices.

There is much current political interest in so-called "predatory lending" -- the charging of high interest rates for loans to poor people or to people with low credit ratings.

Nothing will be easier politically than passing laws to limit interest rates or make it harder for lenders to recover their money -- and nothing will cause credit to dry up faster to low-income people, forcing some of them to have to turn to illegal loan sharks, who have their own methods of collecting.

The underlying reality that politicians do not want to face is that here, too, prices convey a reality that is not subject to political control. That reality is that it is far riskier to lend to some people than to others.

That is why the price of a loan -- the interest rate -- is far higher to some people than to others. Far from making extra profits on riskier loans, many lenders have lost millions of dollars on such loans and some have gone bankrupt.

Friday, February 23

How to create a black market

California's ban on tobacco in prisons has produced a burgeoning black market behind bars, where a pack of smokes can fetch up to $125.

Prison officials who already have their hands full keeping drugs and weapons away from inmates now are spending time tracking down tobacco smugglers, some of them guards and other prison employees. Fights over tobacco have broken out -- at one Northern California prison guards had to use pepper spray to break up a brawl among 30 inmates.

The ban was put in place in July 2005 to improve work conditions and cut rising health care costs among inmates but it also has led to an explosive growth of tobacco trafficking. The combination of potentially big profits and relatively light penalties are driving the surge.

Monday, February 19

She won't be happy until she has no legs

I was six when I first became aware of my desire to lose my legs. I don't remember what started it - there was no specific trigger. Most people want to change something about themselves, and the image I have of myself has always been one without legs.

To the general public, people like me are sick and strange, and that's where it ends. I think it is a question of fearing the unknown. I have something called body identity integrity disorder (BIID), where sufferers want to remove one or more healthy limbs.


I already feel more complete now that one leg is off. I have always been an outgoing kind of person, but my confidence is much higher now as my body is more like I want it to be. For the first time I feel able to move on and lead the life I have always wanted. In many ways I am starting again. I know it sounds odd, but it is incredibly exciting. Running the house, doing the gardening, going shopping - these are all things I manage easily by myself, even though now I might use a wheelchair or crutches. My husband has been supportive. He thinks I look a little strange missing a leg but says that, after all he has seen me go through, he accepts it. For now, he is just happy that I am happy, and I have promised to leave the remaining leg on for as long as possible; I know that losing that will be really difficult for him.


Removing the next leg will not be any easier than the first; the pain will be horrendous. But I have no regrets about the path I have chosen. In fact, if I regret anything, it is that I didn't do this sooner. For the first time in my life, I can get on with being the real me.

Sunday, February 18

Are Peter Pan and Wal-Mart's Great Value peanut butter the same?

I'm just wondering.

The answer:
Are Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter the same, since they're made in the same plant? Not necessarily. While the recipes could be exactly the same, they could also be somewhat different. (Great Value, for example, might have fewer crunchies.) A large food manufacturer like ConAgra uses its facilities to produce its own regular, branded products (like Peter Pan peanut butter), but it can also contract out production of "private label" brands under the specifications of giant supermarket chains like Wal-Mart.

The evolutionary imperative towards novelty

Free exchange asks,
Why do listeners demand such a steady flow of new music, almost all of it inferior to, say, Beethoven's 9th? But then why does novelty only persist in certain markets? Everyone wants new clothes and houses that look like they were built sometime in the 18th century.

Another political quiz

Like Daniel Drezner, I get classified as an enterpriser.

Hmm. "Extremely partisan"?? Well, OK. But some of fits, and some of it doesn't. Yes, I'm "driven by a belief in the free enterprise system", but not by "social values that reflect a conservative agenda." I may back "an assertive foreign policy, which includes nearly unanimous support for the war in Iraq, but not for "strong support for such anti-terrorism efforts as the Patriot Act." I certainly don't attend church weekly or attend bible study or prayer group meetings. I may follow news about government and politics more closely than any other group, and exhibit the most knowledge about world affairs, but I hardly ever watch the Fox News Channel.

And I agree with Dan about this:
In all seriousness, however, the test sucks. For example, you are asked which statement you agree with: "The best way to ensure peace is through military strength" or "Good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace." I'm pretty sure it's not an either-or distinction. Good diplomacy without military strength is largely ignored in world politics. Military strength without good diplomacy bears a strong resemblance to the Bush administration's first term. So, I voted for military strength, because it's more of a necessary condition -- but I wasn't happy about it.

Saturday, February 17

Keeping radiation risks in perspective

Edward McGaffigan, one of five commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — the agency that oversees the nuclear power industry, says,
if there was one thing he could convince people of about nuclear power it's that radiation is everywhere, and its risks should be kept in perspective.

"We self-irradiate ourselves at 40 millirems (a unit for measuring small doses of radiation) per year because of the potassium 40 we carry in our bodies. "[In] double beds, you know your spouse will irradiate you to about 2 or 3 millirems a year," McGaffigan said. "These are doses we actually regulate at. And I've always wondered, when people demand even tighter [nuclear] regulation, why they're not demanding that double beds be regulated or bananas be regulated or Brazil nuts be regulated."
Of course, people will say the reason he's dying from cancer is radiation.

Friday, February 16

China aids dictators

In recent years, wealthy nondemocratic regimes have begun to undermine development policy through their own activist aid programs. Call it rogue aid. It is development assistance that is nondemocratic in origin and nontransparent in practice, and its effect is typically to stifle real progress while hurting ordinary citizens.

China is actively backing such deals throughout Africa; its financing of roads, electrical plants, ports and the like boomed from $700 million in 2003 to nearly $3 billion for each of the past two years. Indeed, it is a worldwide strategy. Beijing has agreed to expand Indonesia’s electrical grid in a matter of months. Too bad the deal calls for building several plants that use a highly polluting, coal-based Chinese technology. No international agency would have signed off on such an environmentally unfriendly deal.

In the Philippines, the Asian Development Bank, which lends money at low interest rates to poor countries, had agreed to finance Manila’s new aqueduct. It, too, was suddenly told that its money was no longer needed. China was offering cheaper rates, faster approval and fewer questions.

What’s behind this sudden Chinese drive to do good around the world? The three short answers are money, international politics and access to raw materials. China’s central bank has the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, totaling $1.06 trillion. Beijing is increasingly leveraging this cash to ensure its access to raw materials and to advance China’s growing global influence. What better than a generous foreign-aid program to ensure the good will of a petro-power like Nigeria or a natural-resource-rich neighbor like Indonesia?

China is not the first country to make aid a tool in advancing its interests abroad. The Soviet Union and the United States spent decades giving development aid to dictators in exchange for their allegiance. Even today, American largess to Egypt and Pakistan is rooted in geopolitical calculation.

But beginning in the 1990s, foreign aid had begun to slowly improve. Scrutiny by the news media shamed many developed countries into curbing their bad practices. Today, the projects of organizations like the World Bank are meticulously inspected by watchdog groups. Although the system is far from perfect, it is certainly more transparent than it was when foreign aid routinely helped ruthless dictators stay in power.

Nor is China the only regime offering rogue aid. President Hugo Chávez has not been shy in using his nation’s oil money to recruit allies abroad. Indeed, Venezuela’s ambassador to Nicaragua, explaining his country’s large aid packages in the region, bluntly announced, “We want to infect Latin America with our model.”

Mr. Chávez’s financial aid to Cuba far exceeds what the island used to get from Leonid Brezhnev during the heyday of Soviet communism, and it has dashed hopes for Cuba’s opening as a result of Fidel Castro’s demise and the island’s bankruptcy. Because of Mr. Chávez’s artificial lifeline, Cubans will be forced to wait even longer for the indispensable reforms that will bring their society opportunities for true prosperity and freedom.

Iranian aid to Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon may have increased Iran’s influence in the region, but it is damaging to the people in those countries for the same reason that Venezuelan aid hurts Cubans. The same can be said of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship, in countries like Pakistan, of religious schools that fail to equip students with the skills they need to get jobs.

One could argue that students are surely better off going to any school than being in the streets. But why should these be the only options? Why can’t the Saudis finance education, the Chinese pay for railroads and electric grids, and the Venezuelans help Cuba’s economy without also hurting poor Pakistanis, Nigerians and Cubans? Because the goal of these donors is not to help other countries develop. Rather, they seek to further their own national interests, advance an ideological agenda or even line their own pockets. Rogue aid providers couldn’t care less about the long-term well-being of the population of the countries they aid.

Chinese Propaganda

The photograph and article in Tuesday’s Henan Daily could have been headlined “Happy Holidays.” Three highranking Henan Province officials, beaming and clapping as if presenting a lottery check, were making an early Lunar New Year visit to the apartment of a renowned AIDS doctor, Gao Yaojie.

They gave her flowers. Dr. Gao, 80, squinted toward the camera, surely understanding that pictures can lie. She was under house arrest to prevent her from getting a visa to accept an honor in Washington. Her detention attracted international attention, and the photo op was a sham, apparently intended to say, “Look, she’s fine and free as a bird.”

On Thursday, Dr. Gao said in a telephone interview, a handful of police officers remained stationed outside her apartment building in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou.

“I just can’t simply swallow it all,” she said. “I want to know two things. First, who has made the decision? I am an 80-year-old lady, and what crimes have I committed to deserve this? Second, they must find out who has been slandering my name on the Internet.”

Perhaps no issue is more emblematic of a changing China than AIDS. In less than a decade, China has gone from trying to hide its AIDS epidemic to confronting it openly. International groups like the Clinton Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been welcomed. The Chinese government has initiated medical research, a free drug program and a nationwide public awareness campaign.

But for a Communist Party intolerant of public dissent, embracing grass-roots AIDS activists is a different matter. They often complain loudest about inadequate care and official corruption. And few people have complained louder, or with more influence, than Dr. Gao, who gained fame for helping expose the tainted blood-selling operations that spread H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, in central China in the 1990s.

Dr. Gao was detained on Feb. 1 as she was leaving for Beijing to pick up a United States travel visa so she could attend a banquet to be held in her honor in March by Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nonprofit group whose honorary chairwomen are Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas.

International organizations and the United States Embassy in Beijing soon inquired about her status. Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch saw the Henan Daily article online and assumed that it meant the pressure had worked.

“I almost fell for the ploy,” said Mr. Bequelin, who later learned that Dr. Gao was still under house arrest. “Now it appears it was a very cynical move to try to assuage international concern. They had no intention to release control of Gao Yaojie.”

Officials in Henan are famously hostile to AIDS workers. But Mr. Bequelin said Dr. Gao’s case was particularly alarming because it suggested that officials in Beijing were complicit.

He said the Henan Daily article had been posted on a Web site administered by People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s most authoritative outlet. He noted that Dr. Gao’s detention had come only three months after another high-profile AIDS activist, Wan Yanhai, was detained and blocked from holding a conference in Beijing for AIDS advocates and people infected with H.I.V.

“It calls into doubt their commitment to let the grass-roots groups and H.I.V. activists carry out their work unhindered,” said Mr. Bequelin, who is the Hong Kong-based China researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It really, clearly shows that Beijing has endorsed this restriction on Gao. They are probably worried about her going there and talking to Hillary Clinton and other people.”

International pressure seemed to have weighed on the Henan officials who had visited Dr. Gao since her detention. She said one official visited three times a day, urging her to write a letter blaming poor health as a reason for not attending the Washington ceremony. Dr. Gao said she finally relented Wednesday.

“After negotiation, we agreed that I will just say I am preoccupied and won’t be able to leave for the award,” she said. “The letter I wrote only had two lines.”

Dr. Gao said she had written it to relieve political pressure on the local health department and her family.

She was also upset with entries on a blog she recently started in which she posts AIDS cases to give them public attention. “Various posts accused me of lying and making these cases up,” she said. “Personal insults were posted. These posts were then rebutted by victims. My blog then became a battlefield.”

During the Maoist era, dissidents who spoke out against the government were brutalized or even killed. That era is long past, though rough treatment can still occur. Dissidents are now sometimes jailed on dubious charges. The authorities often tap phones and otherwise monitor people deemed troublemakers.

Fear of international embarrassment appears to be the motivation for stopping Dr. Gao from going to Washington. Indeed, the doctor has received past recognition in China. She was given a “Ten People Who Touched China in 2003” award from the government’s television network. But she was prevented from traveling outside China to receive awards in 2001 and 2003.

Wenchi Yu Perkins, human rights program director with Vital Voices Global Partnership, said the group had protested Dr. Gao’s detention to an official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. The embassy official praised Dr. Gao’s work on AIDS. “He also stated that Dr. Gao was in poor health and unable to travel to Washington,” Ms. Perkins said by e-mail. “We know from sources close to Dr. Gao that she has repeatedly expressed her desire to travel to the U.S. to receive Vital Voices’ award.”

Mr. Bequelin and others say they think that officials were alarmed at the potential of Dr. Gao meeting Senator Clinton. Dr. Gao said she believed that the Washington ceremony, as well as her blog, were to blame for her detention. She said Zhengzhou’s former police chief, Yao Daixian, had gone to her apartment and personally warned her not to “communicate with foreign journalists.”

She recalled his saying, “These people are liars, and you must consider the negative influence it will bring on our country.” Mr. Yao, now director of the Zhengzhou Communist Party’s organization department, also addressed the young woman cooking and doing other tasks for Dr. Gao.

“He told her to love the country, the party, the government,” the doctor said. The woman quit.

Citizens in China understand where boundaries exist in society, and most do not cross them. But Dr. Gao has always trampled across.

In her youth, she was a rare woman admitted to medical school. She survived Japanese bombing raids during the 1940s and worked delivering babies as an obstetrician in the 1950s. When the famines of the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1960 unleashed mass starvation, Dr. Gao sometimes gave her food ration tickets to emaciated women.

During the violent class struggles of the Cultural Revolution from 1965 to 1975 she was labeled a “black element,” a term for members of the former ruling class or rightist intelligentsia. In a 2003 interview, she recalled surviving one night during that era by hiding among the bodies in a hospital morgue to avoid Red Guards.

Her involvement in AIDS began when she learned that H.I.V. was silently spreading through Henan in the 1990s. A government-endorsed blood-selling campaign had led to the infection of thousands of farmers. She traveled to villages to provide medical care and free informational brochures to people who had no idea why they were dying.

She also spoke out against local officials trying to cover up the crisis.

Her status came up on Thursday at the regular news briefing by the Foreign Ministry. “Please ask the local government about this,” the spokeswoman responded.

A spokesman with the propaganda office of the Zhengzhou Communist Party refused to give out a number for Mr. Yao, the former police chief. He referred the call to the city government’s press office. A spokesman there seemed startled when asked if Dr. Gao was under house arrest.

“What?” he answered. “That sounds very unlikely. We have not been informed of such a thing. But please be assured if we have any information we will inform you in time.”

A final call went to the press office of Henan Province. It had more information. “Did you read the newspaper?” a provincial spokesman said. “Our provincial officials have paid her a visit to see how she’s doing and wish her a happy New Year. I will look into it and get back to you.”

His response came quickly: a faxed copy of the Henan Daily story.

Dr. Gao said her restrictions had been loosened a bit. Her telephone was reconnected this week. Her family can visit her. She can step outside her apartment building for some air. But she can go no farther. Police officers remain posted. A group of AIDS advocates tried to visit her Wednesday but were turned away.

“Luckily I am still clear in the mind, or I could have been fooled by the government into speaking for them, telling untrue tales,” she said. “It does not matter to me at all whether I can go pick up the award.

“I think my absence at the ceremony will be more influential than me being there.”

Thursday, February 15

Statistically undetectable might want to read the December issue of the Journal Of Atmospheric And Solar-Terrestrial Physics in which Cornelis de Jager of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and Ilya Usoskin of the Sodankyla Geophysical Observatory in Finland test the validity of two current hypotheses on the dependence of climate change on solar energy -- the first being that variations in the tropospheric temperature are caused directly by changes of the solar radiance (total or spectral), the other that cosmic ray fluctuations, caused by the solar/heliospheric modulation, affect the climate via cloud formation. The Finn and the Dutch guy from the A-list institutions with the fancypants monikers writing in the peer-reviewed journal conclude that the former is more likely -- that tropospheric temperatures are more likely affected by variations in the UV radiation flux rather than by those in the CR flux.
...when you do read the actual science, you quickly appreciate that it's not by any means "settled" -- that there all kinds of variables. To quote the Finnish-Dutch bigshots:
"There is general agreement that variations in the global (or hemispheric) tropospheric temperature are, at least partly, related to those in solar activity (e.g., Bond et al., 2001; Solanki and Krikova, 2003; Usoskin et al., 2005; Kilcik, 2005)." Therefore: "Variations of the mean tropospheric temperature must include stratosphere-troposphere interaction."
However: "A detailed mechanism effectively transferring stratospheric heating into the troposphere is yet not clear."
...In the course of the 20th century, the planet's temperature supposedly increased by 0.7 degrees Celsius, which (for those of you who want it to sound scarier) is a smidgeonette over 1 degree Fahrenheit. Is that kinda sorta staying the same, or is it a dramatic warming trend?
And is nought-point-seven of an uptick worth wrecking the global economy over? Sure, say John Kerry and Al Gore, suddenly retrospectively hot for Kyoto ratification. But, had America and Australia signed on to Kyoto, and had Canada and Europe complied with it instead of just pretending to, by 2050 the treaty would have reduced global warming by 0.07C -- a figure that would be statistically undetectable within annual climate variation. And, in return for this meaningless gesture, American GDP in 2010 would be lower by between $97 billion and $397 billion -- and those are the U.S. Energy Information Administration's somewhat optimistic models.
And now Jerry Mahlman of the National Center for Atmospheric Research says "it might take another 30 Kyotos" to halt global warming. Thirty times $397 billion is... er, too many zeroes for my calculator.
So, faced with a degree rise in temperature, we could destroy the planet's economy, technology, communications and prosperity. And ruin the lives of millions of people.
Or we could do what man does best: adapt. You do the math.

Close Look at Human Arm Finds Host of Diverse Species

Hold out your hand, with the palm facing skyward. Pull the sleeve of your shirt up to your elbow. Now take a look at the fleshy part of your arm, about halfway between your wrist and your elbow. What do you see?

Nothing, probably.

But that's not what Martin J. Blaser of New York University School of Medicine sees. With the help of the latest scientific tools, Blaser sees a complex, microscopic world teeming with a vast array of microorganisms.

"The skin is home to a virtual zoo," said Blaser, a microbiologist who last week published online the first molecular analysis of the bacteria living on one small patch of human skin. "We're just beginning to explore it."

The analysis revealed that human skin is populated by a diverse assortment of bacteria, including many previously unknown species, offering the first detailed peek at this potentially crucial ecosystem.

The work is part of a broader effort by a small coterie of scientists to better understand the microbial world that populates the human body. Virtually every orifice and the digestive tract are swarming with bacteria, fungi and other microbes. By some estimates, only one out of every 10 cells in the body is human.


Scientists suspect these microbes play important but poorly understood roles, assisting crucial bodily functions and potentially helping prevent or cause many diseases. One recent study found that obese people appear to have a unique mix of microbes in their guts, which could partly account for the obesity epidemic.


"The result of this human microbiome project will be a more comprehensive view of our genetic landscape and should provide insights about which of our 'human attributes' are derived from products of our microbial self," he said. "This could lead, in turn, to new ways of defining health, new ways for predicting disease predilection, and new ways for treating illnesses affecting various components of our body, including the skin."


Blaser's team swabbed an area of skin about the size of silver dollar on the right and left forearms of three healthy men and three healthy women. They then used sophisticated molecular techniques to amplify and analyze fragments of bacterial DNA captured by the swabs.

The analysis revealed 182 species, the researchers reported. Of those, 30 had never been seen. They identified an additional 65 species when they sampled four of the volunteers eight to 10 months later, including 14 new species.

"We found a lot of diversity -- both in terms of distant relatives but also cousins. And not just first cousins, but second, third and fourth cousins," Blaser said.

On average, each person's skin harbored about 50 species, but only four of them were found on all six people, suggesting that the mix of bacteria varies significantly from person to person. But those four species accounted for more than half of all the DNA sequences found, indicating that a relatively few species tend to dominate. And when the researchers analyzed the bacteria using a broader classification, phylum, they found three phyla on all six subjects that accounted for 95 percent of all present species.

"It appears that there is a conserved infrastructure or scaffolding of organisms that's common in human skin, and then a lot of transient or uncommon organisms that are person-specific," Blaser said.


In fact, when the researchers sampled four of the six volunteers a second time, they found many of the species detected earlier were gone.


Scientists assume that most of the organisms have a symbiotic relationship with their human hosts and play some type of beneficial role. But the next step will be to try to characterize their functions.

"We're interested in understanding how we interact with these organisms and how they are communicating with human cells and vice versa," Blaser said.

Some of the organisms may also play a role in diseases such as eczema and psoriasis.

"These are chronic inflammatory diseases of the skin of unknown cause. If these microorganisms have something to do with skin disease, knowing what's there may help us diagnose or perhaps treat these diseases," he said.

Blaser noted that human skin probably has myriad distinct ecosystems, noting that a similar study looking at fungi produced similar results but also found tremendous diversity in different parts of the body.

Emphasis mine. Since I generally swim 5 days a week, am I washing away beneficial ecosystems? Or some of my "human attributes"? Then there's this:
Pheromones are chemicals emitted by living organisms in order to sexually attract a member of the opposite sex of the same species. Female insects, for example, excrete pheromones that will attract male insects up to 10 kilometres away.

[Ariel Fenster, a chemistry professor at McGill University] said there is evidence to suggest a physical response to being in love, although there are no definitive answers.

Studies have been done observing the mating habits of pigs, where the male pig will release pheromones to attract a female pig when ready to mate.

“What is interesting is that male pig pheromones are present in men,” Fenster said.

These sexual agents known as pheromones, more specifically, androstenol, are subtly emitted through a man’s sweat and are also carried by women. Whether or not they are effective in wooing members of the opposite sex is still unknown..
And this:
Male sweat contains a compound that appears to boost women's mood, sexual arousal, and stress hormone levels.

So says Claire Wyart, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley Olfactory Research Project, and colleagues.

The compound, called androstadienone (AND), "does cause hormonal, as well as physiological and psychological, changes in women," Wyart says in a university news release.
So what else am I washing away? Maybe I shouldn't bathe at all.

Save the ecosystem! Save your love life! Don't bathe!

Wednesday, February 14

What about tobacco and alcohol?

Mike Males claims
...teenagers remain the least part of America's burgeoning drug abuse crisis. Today, after 20 years, hundreds of billions of dollars, and millions of arrests and imprisonments in the war on drugs, America's rate of drug-related deaths, hospital emergencies, crime and social ills stand at record highs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of Americans dying from the abuse of illegal drugs has leaped by 400 percent in the last two decades, reaching a record 28,000 in 2004. The F.B.I. reported that drug arrests reached an all-time high of 1.8 million in 2005. The Drug Abuse Warning Network, a federal agency that compiles statistics on hospital emergency cases caused by illicit drug abuse, says that number rose to 940,000 in 2004 -- a huge increase over the last quarter century.

Why are so few Americans aware of these troubling trends? One reason is that today's drug abusers are simply the ''wrong'' group. As David Musto, a psychiatry professor at Yale and historian of drug abuse, points out, wars on drugs have traditionally depended on ''linkage between a drug and a feared or rejected group within society.'' Today, however, the fastest-growing population of drug abusers is white, middle-aged Americans. This is a powerful mainstream constituency, and unlike with teenagers or urban minorities, it is hard for the government or the news media to present these drug users as a grave threat to the nation.

Among Americans in their 40s and 50s, deaths from illicit-drug overdoses have risen by 800 percent since 1980, including 300 percent in the last decade. In 2004, American hospital emergency rooms treated 400,000 patients between the ages 35 and 64 for abusing heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, hallucinogens and ''club drugs'' like ecstasy.

Equally surprising, graying baby boomers have become America's fastest-growing crime scourge. The F.B.I. reports that last year the number of Americans over the age of 40 arrested for violent and property felonies rose to 420,000, up from 170,000 in 1980. Arrests for drug offenses among those over 40 rose to 360,000 last year, up from 22,000 in 1980. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 440,000 Americans ages 40 and older were incarcerated in 2005, triple the number in 1990.


But, some may say, don't teenage drug use rates predict future drug problems? To the contrary: 30 years of experience shows that fluctuations in the percentage of youths who report using drugs on surveys has almost nothing to do with the harm that drug abuse causes (addiction, disease, injury, death, crime, family and community distress), either in adolescence or later in life.


In 1972, the University of Michigan researchers who carry out Monitoring the Future found that just 22 percent of high school seniors had ever used illegal drugs, compared to 48 percent of the class of 2005. Yet as that generation has aged, it has been afflicted by drug abuse and its related ills -- overdoses, hospitalizations, drug-related crime -- at far higher rates than those experienced by later generations at the same ages.

It's time to end the obsession with hyping teenage drug use. The meaningless surveys that policy makers now rely on should be replaced with a comprehensive ''drug abuse index'' that pulls together largely ignored data on drug-related deaths, hospital emergencies, crime, diseases and similar practical measures.

A good model is the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs' fledgling drug abuse index, which I helped compile and which aims to pinpoint which populations and areas are most harmed by drugs, both legal and illicit.

Few experts would have suspected that the biggest contributors to California's drug abuse, death and injury toll are educated, middle-aged women living in the Central Valley and rural areas, while the fastest-declining, lowest-risk populations are urban black and Latino teenagers. Yet the index found exactly that. These are the sorts of trends we need to understand if we are to design effective policies.
So that's for drugs. It's nice to hear teens are doing well, and interesting to find that baby-boomers are causing trouble. But there are other social problems.
But the Journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 19, 2005, Vol. 293, No. 3, p. 298 reported on the leading causes of death in the United States:
  • Tobacco (435,000 deaths; 18.1% of total US deaths)
  • Poor diet and physical inactivity (400,000 deaths; 16.6%)
  • Alcohol consumption (85,000 deaths; 3.5%)
    (Note: 16,653 deaths from alcohol-related vehicle crashes are included in both Alcohol consumption above and Motor vehicle crashes below.)
  • Microbial agents (75,000)
  • Toxic agents (55,000)
  • Motor vehicle crashes (43,000)(see Note above)
  • Incidents involving firearms (29,000)
  • Sexual behaviors (STDs, hepatitis B and C, and cervical cancer) (20,000)
  • Illicit use of drugs (17,000)

Here's another rendition:

"Natural" isn't always safe

Maia Szalavitz writes,
When something is pronounceable and familiar and comes from a plant or animal, people tend to assume it’s safe. But nature is not benign: biological organisms produce some of the most dangerous poisons, from deadly nightshade mushrooms to botulinum toxin to snake venom. Plants often produce potentially toxic substances as a method of self-defense. Although animals evolve to be able to eat some of them safely, this doesn’t mean that “natural” is always good and safe.

Conversely, just because a chemical is manmade and unpronounceable doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. If the NEJM case reports had involved manufactured chemicals like phthalates or aspartame, media coverage almost certainly would have included calls for a ban on them. But even though this research suggests that lavender and tea tree oil act as “endocrine disruptors” – mimicking female hormones in a way similar to the effects of some pollutants – don’t expect to hear similar demands for action about these darlings of the “natural” health product industry.

The Inverse Power of Praise

Po Bronson writes,

For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.

But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it. 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.

After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

Now he’s on Dweck’s side of the argument, and his work is going in a similar direction: He will soon publish an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”

...the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification. Delving into this research, I learned that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain. Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis located the circuit in a part of the brain called the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex. It monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.” While putting people through MRI scans, Cloninger could see this switch lighting up regularly in some. In others, barely at all.

What makes some people wired to have an active circuit?

Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

Don't Always Be Interested in the Next New Thing

[University of Chicago economist Luis Rayo] began our conversation on a philosophical note. "What is happiness, exactly? Much of what we call 'happiness' is relative and based on comparison," he said. "We are always comparing what we have to something else. But, we're not anticipating that no matter what we have we will always be comparing it to something else. In fact, we're not even aware that we are doing this."


This unending cycle of serial interests and constant impulse to compare what we have now with what we might have in the future is wired into our brains, and there's an evolutionary reason for it, Rayo explained. Fifty thousand years ago, when we were hunter-gatherers, it served us well. To elude predators, our eyes developed the ability to judge moving objects and colors by comparing them with the background landscape. To ensure there would be enough food and water for everyone, our brains developed the ability to continually look ahead and press on to find new food sources.

In today's world, this strategy does not always serve us well, Rayo pointed out.

More important, he went on to say, the psychology literature and surveys clearly show that not all happiness is ephemeral and geared to endlessly moving targets. With nonmaterial things, the target does not move.

"Exercise will absolutely make you feel better. Your social network, family and friends can bring permanent happiness. Longtime relationships can bring long-term satisfaction."

One reason for this, Rayo said, is that our relationships with friends and families do not have a lot of "status differentiation." Though you may think that this sounds ridiculous, Rayo said that brain scans and hormone fluctuations in our bloodstream show that our brains are designed to know where we fit into the pecking order, and we're uncomfortable when we're not among equals. Our brains are also very sensitive to material success and who has more or less than we do.


What is the scientific proof that a modest lifestyle is the path to happiness? Rayo said one example is Buddhist monks. They eat the same food and wear the same clothes every day. With years of meditation they lose interest in the "next new thing and the moving target," he said. "And their brain scans show that they are happier than most people in a scientifically measurable way."

Yeah, I think too much emphasis on economic inequality can miss the point.

On the other hand, I'm not sure sure about the pecking order. I've known some people who are climbers, making "friends" with higher status people. Are they actually unhappy?

Robert Samuelson on the budget

The table shows the rise of the American welfare state. In 1956, defense dominated the budget; the Cold War buildup was in full swing. The welfare state, which is what "payments to individuals'' signifies, was modest. Now everything is reversed. Despite the war in Iraq, defense spending is only a fifth of the budget; so-called entitlement payments to individuals are almost 60 percent -- and rising. In fiscal 2006, the federal government spent almost $2.7 trillion. Social Security ($544 billion), Medicare ($374 billion) and Medicaid ($181 billion) dominated. There was $199 billion more for payments to the poor, including the earned-income tax credit and food stamps, among others.

Almost no one wants to slash these programs. They have huge constituencies; they're popular. Paradoxically, their invulnerability and size also protect much of the rest of the budget. Look again at the table. After payments to individuals, defense spending and interest on the debt (which must be paid), only about a seventh of the budget remains. Many of these remaining programs are widely supported. Does anyone really want to end the National Institutes of Health at $28 billion? Or how about the $41 billion we spend to support federal courts, prosecutors and police (the FBI, DEA, border patrol)?


Annual budget debates are sterile -- long on rhetoric, short on action -- because each side blames the other for a situation that neither chooses to change. To cut spending significantly, conservatives would have to go after popular welfare programs, including Social Security and Medicare. To raise taxes significantly, liberals would have to go after the upper-middle class, a constituency they covet (two-thirds of all federal taxes come from the richest fifth). Deficits persist, because neither side risks its popularity, and indeed, both sides pursue popularity with new spending programs and tax breaks.

It might help if Americans called welfare programs -- current benefits for select populations, paid for by current taxes -- by their proper name, rather than by the soothing (and misleading) labels of "entitlements'' and "social insurance.'' That way, we might ask ourselves who deserves welfare and why.

Sunday, February 11

Flick your hand

Award nominations are generally occasions for exaggerated compliments and air kisses, so it was something of a surprise when Eliot Weinberger, a previous finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, announced the newest nominees for the criticism category two weeks ago and said one of the authors, Bruce Bawer, had engaged in ''racism as criticism.''


For Mr. Bawer, the condemnations are more evidence of liberals' one-sided blindness. ''One of the most disgraceful developments of our time is that many Western authors and intellectuals who pride themselves on being liberals have effectively aligned themselves with an outrageously illiberal movement that rejects equal rights for women, that believes gays and Jews should be executed, that supports the coldblooded murder of one's own children in the name of honor, etc., etc.,'' he wrote on his own blog, In an e-mail message yesterday he said he did not have anything to add to his posts.

Mr. Bawer's book jacket is covered with admiring blurbs from well-known conservatives, but he does not fit the typical red-state mold. An openly gay cultural critic from New York who has lived in Europe since 1998, Mr. Bawer has published books like ''Stealing Jesus,'' a harsh critique of Christian fundamentalism. ''Some people think it's terrific for writers to expose the offenses and perils of religious fundamentalism -- just as long as it's Christian fundamentalism,'' he wrote on his blog.


J. Peder Zane, the book review editor and books columnist at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., was on the eight-member committee that nominated Mr. Bawer's book. He said it ''was not a contentious selection.'' Mr. Zane was furious at the way Mr. Weinberger used the nominating ceremony on Jan. 20 as a platform for his views. ''He not only was completely unfair to Bruce Bawer,'' he said in a telephone interview, ''he's also saying that those of us who put the book on the finalist list are racist or too stupid to know we're racist.''

Mr. Zane said he and four or five others booed when Mr. Weinberger, who was nominated last year for his 2005 collection of essays, ''What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles,'' made his comment to more than 200 people from the publishing world. Mr. Zane then threaded his way through the crowd to tell Mr. Weinberger he thought his comments in that setting were ''completely inappropriate.'' Mr. Zane recalled, ''He flicked his hand at me like I was a flea and walked away.''

Mr. Weinberger could not be reached for comment.
By the bye, Eliot Weinberger has also published books on Chinese poetry. I can't figure out whether he actually knows Chinese.

Saturday, February 10

An environmentally correct skeptic?

Reviewing Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, Michael Riordan writes
Smolin argues from the outset that viable hypotheses must lead to observable consequences by which they can be tested and judged. That is, they have to be falsifiable.... But string theory by its very nature does not allow for such probing, according to Smolin, and therefore it must be considered as an unprovable conjecture....

If we accept string theory as valid while it evades observational tests, how can we legitimately rebut arguments about the "intelligent design" of the universe? The honest answer is that we cannot. For these arguments, too, are not falsifiable; they do not allow testing by measurements. To me, string theory and intelligent design belong in the same speculative, unproveable category....
There's another unfalsifiable, speculative, and as yet unproveable theory that is being widely touted. Christopher Lingle suggests that the media's coverage of environmental issues portray un-falsifiable scientific models
Since climate is always either warming or cooling and ice is either melting or accumulating, the current warming trend is not unusual. Climate changes are just as certain as continental drift or growth and decay in mountains. And to suggest there is a scientific consensus for the extent of anthropogenic (human-caused) warming is simply false. Whatever the extent of the warming effect, it is impossible to discern whether it is due to human influences or a natural fluctuation.

It turns out that evidence indicating an appreciable human contribution to current climate warming is quite weak because many natural causes, like the sun or volcanic activity, affect climate. And these have effects of greater magnitudes than greenhouse gases emitted by all of mankind. A recent report by the former chief economist of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern, has received considerable press coverage. It should be remembered that economic projections are notoriously controversial and often wide of the mark due to the complexities of human behavior.

But what makes his finding more problematic is that his economic analysis relies upon forecasts from climate models that are based upon very subjective assumptions. As such, climate models should be considered even less reliable that short-term weather forecasts! Climatologists admit that the complexity of the microphysics of clouds requires that their models include highly-arbitrary parameters. Consequently, most models provide imperfect representations of the real atmosphere since they do not reliably represent clouds or account for the effects of water vapor.

Despite these criticisms of causes and consequences of climate change, suggestions are made that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should be stabilized. But this would require emissions to be reduced worldwide by between 60 to 80 percent. Such a dramatic reduction would come at an enormous cost that would be shouldered today against uncertain benefits in offsetting warming in the future. For example, the most optimistic estimates are that implementing the Kyoto Protocol would delay the increase in greenhouse gas levels by about six years and scarcely affect climate. But the cost to the US economy alone would be about $4000 per family of four per year.
"An Inconvenient Truth" is being touted by an adminstrator of our college. I remain skeptical, but I don't dare really speak out.
Frank Furedi writes on Denial

Once denial has been stigmatised, there are demands for it to be censored. Consider the current attempts to stifle anyone who questions predictions of catastrophic climate change. Such sceptics are frequently branded ‘global warming deniers’, and their behaviour compared to that of anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers. Some advocate a policy of zero tolerance towards the climate change deniers. ‘I have very limited patience with those who deny human responsibility for upper-atmosphere pollution and ozone depletion’, says one moral crusader, before declaring: ‘There is no intellectual difference between the Lomborgians [those who adhere to the arguments of the sceptic Bjorn Lomborg] who steadfastly refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of human-caused global warming from scientists of unquestioned reputation, and the neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers’ (8). The heretic is condemned because he has dared to question an authority that must never be questioned. Here, ‘overwhelming evidence’ serves as the equivalent of revealed religious truth, and those who question ‘scientists of unquestioned reputation’ – that is, the new priestly caste – are guilty of blasphemy. Such a conformist outlook can be found in the writings of sanctimonious British journalist, George Monbiot, who recently wrote: ‘Almost everywhere, climate change denial now looks as stupid and unacceptable as Holocaust denial.’ (9)

Heresy-hunters who charge their opponents with ‘ecological denial’ also warn that the ‘time for reason and reasonableness is running short’ (10). It seems that ecological denial, refusing to embrace the environmentalist world view, makes one complicit in a long list of ‘eco-crimes’. Some journalists argue that, like Holocaust deniers, those who refuse to accept the sacred narrative on global warming should simply be silenced in the media. ‘There comes a point in journalism where striving for balance becomes irresponsible’, argues CBS reporter Scott Pelley in justification of such a censorious orientation (11). From this illiberal standpoint, the media have a responsibility to silence global warming deniers by whatever means necessary...

Denial, it seems, is the contemporary equivalent of what traditional religion used to classify as a sinful or dangerous idea. A long time ago, theocrats recognised that the authority of their belief system would be reinforced if they insisted that ‘God punishes disbelief’ (15). Moreover, blasphemers had to be punished because of the evil impact their blasphemy might have on others. Today’s inquisitors have adopted this approach, insisting that repressing arguments is ‘responsible behaviour’ since it protects people from ‘wrong arguments’ and disbelief. The transformation of denial into a taboo reflects the conformist dogmatism that is widespread today.

It’s worth recalling, as Arthur Versluis reminds us in his important book The New Inquisitions, that the term heresy derives from the Greek word hairen, which means ‘to choose’. ‘A “heretic”, then, is one who chooses, one who therefore exemplifies freedom of individual thought’, notes Versluis (16). And what connects the Inquisition with the activities of heresy-hunters today is ‘perhaps the most important of all: the “crime” in question is fundamentally a “crime” of thought.’ (17)


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word denial denotes the act of ‘asserting (of anything) to be untrue or untenable’. That is why denial has been inextricably linked to critical thought throughout the ages. Those who deny the official version of events have always faced hostility, and sometimes physical repression. Today, the word denial has become denuded of its radical and critical associations. Instead it is used as a synonym for refusing to acknowledge the truth – as in Holocaust Denial. In its colloquial and everyday usage, denial is seen as an act driven by base and dishonest motives. This draws on the psychoanalytical usage of the word. In psychoanalysis, denial means the suppression of painful and shameful recollections and experiences. In today’s therapy culture, people who express views that contradict our own are often told that they are ‘in denial’ (18). It has become a way of discrediting their viewpoint, or shutting them up.

Contemporary culture encourages the public disclosure of emotion – and it encourages the recognition and acknowledgement of others’ feelings (19). In these circumstances, denial has come to be seen as a negative emotional response. One account says denial represents the refusal to ‘recognise a disturbing or painful reality’ (20). So being in denial is the polar opposite of acknowledging pain and other uncomfortable facts. In an age that prides itself on public confessionalism, the charge of denial is a powerful expression of moral disapproval. People can be forgiven for doing drugs or drinking too much, so long as they go on a 12-step recovery programme and acknowledge their wrongdoing. Denial, on the other hand, is seen as a symptom of a destructive and dangerous personality; part of a disease that dooms the individual to behave self-destructively. According to one account, alcoholism is ‘the disease of denial’ and ‘denial is the life-blood of addiction’ (21). In popular culture, denial often serves as a marker for a sick mind. One self-help website informs the world that the ‘disease of denial kills more people every year than any other disease’. Apparently ‘it also maims, cripples, disables and incapacitates more people, and those close to them, than anything else’ (22).

When denial is then attached to a painful historical event like the Holocaust, it ceases to be merely self-destructive and apparently becomes a threat to others, too. Denial is not simply the psychological attribute of an individual – it has become a cultural force that threatens people’s wellbeing. In the domain of culture, denial has acquired powerful physical and existential attributes with apparently grave consequences for its victims. The criminalisation of denial is most developed in debates about genocide. According to Gregory Stanton, former president of Genocide Watch, denial represents the final stage in what he calls the ‘eight stages of genocide’, and moreover it is among the ‘surest indicators of further genocidal massacres’ (23). From this perspective, denial is not simply an act of speech; it is part of the physical act of extermination.

Therapy culture encourages people to interpret their emotional distress as being more painful and damaging than physical distress. And from this perspective, the pain caused by denial is portrayed as uniquely grave and hurtful. This is what Elie Wiesel meant when he characterised genocide denial as a ‘double killing’, because he believes it also murders the memory of the crime. This transformation of words and metaphors into weapons of mass destruction has also become part of the green alarmists’ strategy. Psychobabble about individuals in denial who cannot acknowledge the truth is cited as an explanation for why the public is not always in a state of panic about the impending environmental apocalypse. Indian journalist Mihir Shah has described it as the ‘environment denial syndrome’ (24). Others preach that ‘we can intellectually accept the evidence of climate change, but we find it extremely hard to accept our responsibility for a crime of such enormity’. In this case, the deniers are condemned for refusing to accept responsibility for an enormous crime. According to George Marshall, this shows that denial is a fundamentally immoral deed. ‘Indeed, the most powerful evidence of our denial is the failure to even recognise that there is a moral dimension with identifiable perpetrators and victims’, he argues (25).

Free speech is sacred

Is it ever legitimate to criminalise free speech? There’s little doubt that people who deny or attempt to minimise the significance of the Holocaust are motivated by the basest of motives. They often believe that the wrong side won the Second World War, and they wish to rewrite history in order to legitimise Nazism. They are sometimes obsessively anti-Semitic. There are some very good reasons for taking up cudgels against those who would write concentration camps and gas chambers out of history.

But there are also some very bad reasons for crusading against Holocaust denial. One is the idea that denial offends the sensibility of Jewish survivors. Free speech cannot be free speech if people do not enjoy the right to offend their fellow citizens. The demand that we acknowledge the pain and suffering of any particular group of victims has more to do with moral policing than a desire to affirm historical truths. One critic of Holocaust denial, the author DD Guttenplan, argues that the debate is not about the minutiae of historical detail. ‘To fail to acknowledge the pain felt by Holocaust survivors at the negation of their own experience – or to treat such pain as a particularly Jewish problem which need not trouble anyone else – is to deny our common humanity.’ (26) Perhaps. But turning history into a form of therapy designed to affirm the feelings of victims risks transforming a debate into a method of social engineering.

Some argue that Holocaust denial is a problem because, as more and more of the survivors die, there will be no one left to counter the claim that this terrible event was a myth. Others worry that young people surfing the net will inevitably encounter anti-Semitic websites and will lack the historical nous to see through the propaganda. Yet bureaucratic intervention and censorship cannot prevent such ideas from gaining people’s attention. Even from a narrow pragmatic perspective, the policing of speech does not work. In the age of the internet ideas cannot be banned out of existence.

However, free speech is not a matter of pragmatic convenience; it is a fundamental democratic principle. This was recognised by the French National Assembly in 1789 when it stated: ‘The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen may therefore speak, write and print freely.’ This right has become divisible, it seems. Western societies find it difficult to live according to their principles. Pragmatic politicians and legal theorists continually lecture us about how free speech is not an absolute right. Others claim that free speech is an overrated myth. We spend more time discussing how to curb free speech than we do extending it. And every time curbs are introduced on one form of speech, they serve as a prelude for censoring another form. Thus, the criminalisation of Holocaust denial has led to the repression of other denials of conventional wisdom.

It is particularly unfortunate that science has been mobilised to assist the policing of free thinking. Sections of the science establishment argue that the debate on global warming is finished, and that those who deny the so-called scientific consensus ought to be ostracised. But science cannot be legitimately used to close down debate. At its best, scientific research can provide us with evidence of important problems – but how society interprets that evidence is subject to controversy and debate, to political, moral and cultural factors. Every culture has something different to say about what is an acceptable level of risk, how much pain people should be expected to put up with, and about what is safe. Claims made about safe sex, child safety and environmental pollution are the product of cultural interpretation, as are the many threats to the world that apparently lie ahead. Science has some very important things to say about these problems that cannot and should not be ignored. But science does not provide the answers as to what a problem means for society, and how we should deal with it. That is why no subject should be treated as a taboo. It is also why science should not be used to end a discussion. In our search for meaning, we are entitled to argue and debate and freely express our views about everything. And in our conformist era, a healthy dose of disbelief is no bad thing.

Ironically, even though I'm a skeptic, I live a comparatively "green" life. Although I do take international flights regularly, I walk to my office every day, only driving on the week-ends. I note that many of my colleagues seem to want the government to impose a solution, but don't change their lifestyles.

Thursday, February 8

Teach your dog to read

A Methodology Critique in Defense of Those Wascally Wepublicans by the Iron Shrink discussing the bad methodology in that Psychology Today article that claims conservatives are pathetic.

On a lighter note,
Q: Dear Iron Shrink: Me and a friend are doing a science fair project and we are testing hamster memory. We will make three different mazes and put the hamster in... do the shapes or the materials (or both) affect your thoughts more? - Johnny

A: To help you with your research, I taught my dog to read. This should improve her driving skills immensely.