Archive for December, 2009

It’s a New Decade

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

It’s the end of a decade, the 2001 Space Odyssey decade. That’s how I see it anyway. I first saw 2001, on acid, at the downtown theatre, I forget the name, just off Market Street in San Francisco, behind the pool hall that was the model for the pool hall in The Hustler. The acid was unnecessary.

Stanley Kubrick was a great prophet of a major aspect of the mood of the coming decade, the relationship of man to machine, man to network, man to virtual reality, man (and woman) to the web. He anticipated the charisma of the digital, and the corresponding monotonal analog detached restraint of the human, in the way Doctor Heywood Floyd talks to his daughter on the tv phone, while in orbit, and the way she, as young as she is, knows to talk back. And in the impersonal way that the astronauts react to HAL and to the delayed video from Earth, from their parents.

But Kubrick, and Arthur C. Clarke, were wrong about all of the technical particulars. HAL didn’t really come true, nor did ventures to the outer planets, or even the moon, let alone a psychedelic alien accouchement of the singularity.

To celebrate the new decade, here is a selection of my favorite photographs from the past decade, except for the first four, which were taken in the previous decade.

The Truth about Computer Modeling

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

I’m a computer programmer. I have been programming computers since 1966. My first programming job was at the Iowa State Highway Commission in Ames, Iowa. My first project was a computer model, similar in concept, if not complexity, to the computer climate modeling programs we have heard so much about. The purpose of my program was to predict when all of the roads and bridges in Iowa would need maintenance, and what kind of maintenance they would need. It was written in IBM 360 Basic Assembler Language on a million dollar IBM 360 computer that was less powerful than the Apple I.

The predictions were based on a set of data, and a set of algorithms. Data, such as when the road or bridge was built, what materials were used, how much traffic there is, etc. And algorithms that estimated, based on the data, when a particular road or bridge would begin to wear out and require refurbishment or replacement.

Of course the data, as is always the case, was incomplete and inaccurate to some unknown extent. And the algorithms were based on speculative engineering assumptions, and past experience, which was also incomplete and inaccurate. It wasn’t perfect. Computer models never are.

The current global financial crisis was brought about largely by computer models in which, obviously, too much faith was put. Unlike the executives at Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, nobody thought my computer model was infallible. Still, it was better than nothing. It helped the Highway Commission prioritize road and bridge maintenance. It was a useful guide for where to look for possible problems.

That’s as far as you can go with computer models. That is all they are capable of. Comparing my Iowa road and bridge maintenance model to an attempt to model the climate of the Earth for hundreds of years into the future, is like comparing a virus to the human organism, in terms of complexity and unknowns.

Even those complicated financial models that got us into so much trouble are nothing compared to the complexity and chaos and infinite variables of the global climate. The completeness and accuracy of Iowa road and bridge data, and the engineering algorithms applied to them, are perfect relative to what we really know about the Earth’s climatological past, and the formulas of its future.

As soon as claims were made, based on climate computer models, that the “science” was settled, the debate was over, and the consensus was unanimous, it was abundantly clear to me that something was rotten in Denmark.

Computer models are not science. They are useful, but they are not proof of anything. They are not scientific evidence, especially in the case of a system so complex and unpredictable, so little understood, as global climate. Long before the revelatory CRU emails, it was obvious that there was another agenda here that had nothing to do with science.

The extent to which this criminal hoax has been perpetrated is nothing short of astounding. It reminds me of the Y2K hysteria. I had friends who were stockpiling food and other essentials in caves, preparing for the year 2000. I tried to tell them everything was going to be alright. There was no dissuading them. But this “climate change”, end of the world, cult has gone way beyond the Y2K delusion.

There is so much invested in it at this point, that it will probably take awhile to wind down. Declining temperatures for the past 11 years (not predicted by the models), and unprecedented blizzards in Copenhagen and Washington, D.C., are helpful, but not sufficient. It will probably take at least a couple more years of unusually cold winters before the con is blown.

Worst Ever?

Monday, December 21st, 2009

It’s hard to dodge the temptation of schadenfreude these days, what with Obama’s unfortunate cameo at the Copenhagen Clown Convention, and the bi-partisan popular disgust at the secret, middle of the night, Democratic health care “reform” monstrosity. Not to mention moving Guantanamo to Illinois, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed to New York, the exploding deficits, the bowing and apologizing, the dithering, the non-transparency, the ram-it-through partisanship. Obama lied, people cried.

The epithet of “worst President ever” so recently, so angrily, so mistakenly applied to George W. Bush (a majority of Americans now believe that the war in Iraq has been a success. Duh.), is being resurrected, and this time it might stick, to President Barack Obama.

It may be too early for a conclusion, but surely not for a prediction. I hereby predict that Barack H. Obama will end up in the running for “Worst President Ever”, along with Jimmy Carter, and that George W. Bush will not.

Science and Politics

Friday, December 11th, 2009

If you are a real scientist, you might say something like this:

It has been shown, in the laboratory, that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 create a greenhouse effect that would tend to warm the surface of the Earth. Admittedly this is just under laboratory conditions, and not actual observations in the real atmosphere, but still, the results are quite convincing.

We have also been able to record a significant increase in the tiny concentration of CO2 in the real atmosphere, and there is some evidence, from various proxy ways of measuring global temperatures, along with a brief history of actual measurements, that there has been a slight warming trend since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Both the proxy and the actual measurements have a lot of problems, for a number of different reasons, but we have done our best to massage the data to make it as reasonable and accurate as possible.

There have apparently been even wider fluctuations in global temperature in earlier, pre-industrial times, but nevertheless, all other things being equal, we surmise that there is real evidence that human activities are contributing to a warming trend.

There are many other factors which affect the climate, some fairly well understood, some not as well understood, but there is a strong possibility that human emission of CO2 is warming the planet, to some extent.

Many other factors, which the computer models do not take into account, have apparently counteracted this warming trend for the past eleven years or so, but the overall trend is expected to continue, once these other factors have ceased to mask it.

That is really where the science stands. But that’s not good enough. There is no way that the desired environmentalist, statist political agenda can use that kind of scientific assessment to further the cause. Nobody will vote for an emergency that is so equivocal.

Hence the campaign to discredit skeptics (deniers!?), to declare the debate over, the science unequivocal, and the consensus that the end of the world is nigh. Since the revelations from East Anglia, the cries of impending climatic doom have only gotten more strident.

That’s what the emails are really all about, the corruption of science by politics. There is real science, but it has been pressured and seduced into juicing the stats, dissing the dissenters, and hiding the data. These are hustles that rightfully belong in the political sphere.

Now the debate really is over. The science has been exposed as having been corrupted by politics. The real science is not sufficient to mandate radical transformation of domestic and global economies, or radical enhancements of global governance.

Good. Now we can get back to real science. Real politics, like the poor, ye shall always have with you.

The Red and the Blue

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

My cousin Andy sent me the concluding excerpt from a Rudyard Kipling poem, regarding our adventure in Afghanistan.

And the end of the fight
Is a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased
And the epitaph drear,
A fool lies here
Who tried to hustle the East

I have been sensing a certain coming together of the supposedly polarized, ignorant U.S. masses. Republicans support escalation in Afghanistan, for the most part, but many do not, including influential conservative opinion makers, like George Will and Pat Buchanan and my cousin, who comments as coy66ote at the Washington Post and many other fine publications. Many Democrats support it as well, out of Party loyalty, and the desire to demonstrate their war-like manhood, but many more Democrats are really not into it.

Obama is a living symbol of this bipartisan schizophrenia. My continuously arguing brother, cousin, and I, exquisitely sensitive to the zeitgeist as we all are, have also muddied the partisan divide lately, over the AfPak policy. They are more or less against it. I am more or less for it.

In addition, concerns about government deficits and corruption and incompetence, these days, are basically non-partisan. Regardless of party affiliation there is growing anger and cynicism about the fecklessness of the government, Congress especially, but now even affecting the numbers of the risen President.

People were already fed up. That’s why they voted for Obama. He promised to do something about it. He lied. He’s not even trying to do something about it. “It” is just fine with Obama the way it is. He just wanted to get his hands on the levers. Fine. That’s how it works. That’s how it usually works, with brief intervals of courage and vision, which, so far, in the current Presidential incarnation, have not been apparent. Oh well, it’s only been a year. Maybe one is coming up. But you know, it’s been awhile now, and if it’s comin’, it better hurry up.

I think it took courage for President Obama to deliver the speech, and more importantly the policy, in the “enemy camp” over there at West Point, and I agree, I think (maybe, who knows?), with the policy. But any conceivable policy that he announced about AfPak would have taken courage, some options much more courage, such as coy66ote’s alternative cut-our-losses, admit defeat proposal. All-out or greatly-prolonged war would, likewise, doubtless have demanded even more public pluck than the chosen path.

Lately, surprisingly, my sympathies are with Barack. He is misguided, unschooled, excessively diffident, young, but he is not the Communist Party’s Manchurian candidate. How’s that for faint praise? He is the President we have. Breaking with his friend Bill Ayers, as he has in Afghanistan, is to be applauded.

Perhaps the intransigence of the problems we face, foreign and domestic, and the universal anger and disgust at the way our government is functioning, will transcend our differences and bring us together at last.

A Churchill for Our Time

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

I liked Obama’s speech tonight. I thought he did a good job of threading the needle between his Democratic colleagues, who want the Taliban to win, and the majority of Americans who want us to win. Of course George W. Bush is the reason that we are faced with this dilemma, and I thought Obama was quite magnanimous in not mentioning him by name, while making it clear that everything is his fault.

I caught a little bit of Chris Matthew’s show on MSNBC. He was wondering why on earth the President chose to deliver his address in “the enemy camp“, i.e., an audience of West Point cadets. An excellent question, I thought. Just another example of Obama’s endearing naiveté. All in all, a stirring call to temporary (as of July 2011) arms. I only wish my long vanished youth would permit me to answer it.