Addiction as tragedy

Keith wrote, of deaths caused by drunk driving:

But if we think of tragedy as the Ancient Greeks did — something that was unavoidable — drink driving deaths aren’t a tragedy but an outrage.

Dead right on the outrage. But did the Greeks really see tragedy this way?

maskSFIK the Ancient Greeks did not use the remarkable and unique art form they had developed, the “goat-songs” that they performed in competitive religious festivals, as a metaphor for life. It was the reverse: life and myth gave them stories to be recapitulated and reshaped in the performance of tragedies, and these in turn gave them insights into the human condition. Alexander modelled himself on Homer’s Achilles, but he was an outlier in everything.

The goat-songs and epic recitations came first, the theorising later. Continue Reading…

Look Ma, No Hands

The driverless car is one of those ideas that was obvious long before it was feasible. As soon as Marconi had demonstrated radio transmission of sound, televisions and videophones were on the agenda. Engineers toyed with driverless cars in the 1920s, with no success; the scheme requires massive cheap computation, which has only become available in the last decade.

SF robot carI looked for an SF magazine cover with transport pods from the 1930s. In vain: the problem is not that writers hadn’t thought of it, it’s that it’s not sexy, in the white girl/BEM/blaster convention of the genre. The best I could find was this alarming robot enforcer from 1935. Contrast today’s unthreatening prototypes.






We don’t get the technical progress we need, but what comes easiest. Cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s? They will be in the post, some day soon. Multi-player role-playing video games, that we never missed before they showed up: step this way. Sometimes need and feasibility coincide, as with the smartphone: the prototype of the universal communicator terminal of science fiction, and a social revolution. Are driverless cars more like video games or smartphones? Continue Reading…

The vultures circle the Clean Power Plan

How safe is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, adopted on Monday with conspicuous lack of ostentation, from legal attack?

It’s a regulation implementing the Clean Air Act of 1963 and its many later additions. The Supreme Court agreed in 2007 in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency that carbon dioxide was a pollutant for the purposes of the Act, so the defence should be plain sailing – on paper.

Not quite.

The resounding defeat Chief Justice Roberts meted out to the plaintiffs in the fanciful challenge to ACA in King v Burwell widens the door for challengers to the CPP. Simon Lazarus at Jack Balkin’s highly expert constitutional law blog explains some of the problems.

John Roberts’ new doctrine of statutory construction lays down (italics supplied) that

A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan.

Lazarus accepts that the 2007 ruling is a binding precedent for SCOTUS, so he doesn’t see a direct challenge on jurisdiction succeeding. IANAL, but with this politicised Court, can we be so sure? Carbon dioxide was clearly not specifically envisaged by Congress in 1963. Adding it in was a judicial inference. I for one can easily see this Court reopening and reversing Massachusetts in the light of its shiny new doctrine.

That case was a suit by various progressive states to force the EPA to reverse its 2003 finding that it lacked authority to regulate GHGs from vehicles under the Act, so the interpretation is not a matter of the bleeding obvious. Roberts’ new doctrine does, it seems, weaken Chevron deference to executive interpretation of ambiguous statutes in matters of great policy importance.

Pace Lazarus, carbon dioxide is easily distinguishable from other pollutants. The Act’s target is
“air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Mercury, soot, sulphur dioxide and so on quite demonstrably and measurably endanger public health. For CO2, you have to rely on welfare, a much more ambiguous concept. Climate change does endanger Americans through several channels: desertification, a rising sea level, a greater frequency of extreme weather events like floods, and spillover from climate-linked conflicts and disasters elsewhere in the world. However, these impacts depend on global emissions, of which the US is only responsible for 16% annually, though 29% cumulatively. This fact makes it tricky to justify the cost-benefit ratio of regulations to cut emissions, considered unilaterally. It was certainly not part of Congress’ legislative plan that the implementing regulations could become part of a grand cooperative global scheme to reduce emissions by treaty.

I pray that the CPP survives the blizzard of legal challenges which will be launched against it the day after its publication in the Federal Register. But these challenges are far more credible than the later ones against ACA – King v Burwell, which failed, and Hobby Lobby, which succeeded against the odds.

None of this helps the increasingly desperate coal industry and its champion turtle Mitch McConnell (footnote). For the war on coal is completely justified by the proven health impacts alone, which are essentially local and regional. A reversal of Massachusetts and rewriting of the regulation around health impacts alone would only help natural gas, which emits CO2 but hardly any other pollutants.

Barack Obama is a skilled politician. I would be surprised if he has not gamed out such a scenario. The emissions target is unambitious by European or Chinese standards, though it was quietly raised from a 30% reduction in GHGs from 2005 to 32%. This modesty makes it much easier to defend the regulation on shockproof health grounds alone. Meanwhile, the regulation is law. Whatever they think of it, state officials now have a duty to carry it out, and company directors to consider its impacts on their business plans. Obama plans to be on the side of a cultural sea-change, as with gay rights.

In the end, vultures have no talons and cannot kill their prey.

Mitch McConnell, in a WSJ op-ed: “States report that the regulation’s mandates are not technologically achievable..” The CPP will lead to a renewable share of generation of 25% in 2030, according to the EIA base projection. Germany is already at around 30% renewable electricity generation. (Update 6 August: the share was 34% in the first half of 2015, according to Fraunhofer ISE). But then, it’s a well-known conservative factoid that Germans suffer constant power cuts and brownouts from all that unreliable wind and solar … More likely, they would take to the streets if their 15 minutes of annual outages suddenly increased to the four hours Americans put up with.

The Iron Bank

The European Central Bank is failing abjectly in [update: what should be] its core mission to protect the common currency through shared prosperity as well as price stability. It no longer deserves its name and logo.

ECBlogo5So here are my proposals for a new name and logo. Continue Reading…

More climate sausage

Follow-up to my post on the Paris climate agreement.

To help you out – and to check for myself whether I hadn’t got the whole thing wrong – I’ve had a go at redrafting the Vice-Chairs’ non-draft in their non-paper, shrinking all options to one. It’s now comprehensible and of reasonable length (11 pages). Link to downloadable version.

The selection was entirely personal and has 0 promises of votes. I just took whichever option that seemed strongest, clearest or shortest. So what you have is in the top decile of the large universe of possible texts that could emerge from the drafts on the table. The outcome will almost certainly be worse than the King James Version: fuzzier, weaker, and more confused. But it probably won’t be that much worse.

For the most part, I resisted the professional bureaucrat’s temptation to improve. In three cases, explained in the intro, I thought it was essential. My changes (not selections) are marked in red.

Given a free hand, I could clean it up and cut it down a lot more. Dream on.

With any known make of pen, snarled Mitty, I could have redrafted the treaty at 1000 miles to six pages with my left hand.

Postscript 30 July

In hopes of stimulating some reaction, here are my drafts of Articles 2 and 3, to compare with the extracts of the real working document I cited in the previous post:

The objective of this agreement is to further enhance the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention in order to achieve the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner. To these ends, all Parties will strive to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions and maintain and increase resilience to the adverse effects of climate change.

All Parties, in accordance with Article 4 of the Convention and their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities shall make individual efforts and cooperate with a view to achieving long-term emission reductions and stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, consistent with holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Developed country Parties shall take the lead by undertaking ambitious emission reductions and Parties included in annex [Y] shall provide finance, technology and capacity-building support to developing country Parties.

I move the 1.5 degree cap to Article 7, “Ambition”, as an aspiration subject to review.

Inside the climate sausage factory*

We have a sort of draft of the Paris climate agreement, in the form of a “non-paper” (a charming diplomatic oxymoron invented IIRC in Brussels) of Figueres’ two joint vice chairs, Ahmed Djoghlaf of Algeria and US envoy Daniel Reifsnyder. (H/t to Sandy Dechert).

It’s true that to get a coherent document out of a long discussion, camels and committees don’t hack it. Real drafting is done by one or two people in a quiet room.  The wider forum then negotiates amendments to the reference text. The Paris agreement will follow the two diplomats’ structure.

Unfortunately it’s still unreadable. What we have is still an ordered compendium of all the positions on record, not a true working draft. I’m not familiar with UN procedures, and just how the UN deals with so many optional drafts is a mystery to me. I suspect that in the end, facing a deadline, a strong chair (and France will provide one)  just shuts down discussion, produces a chairman’s draft, and only important amendments are voted on.

Two sample core provisions give the flavour: Continue Reading…

The Francises, Pope and Saint

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Pope Francis Bergoglio’s encyclical Laudato Si’  “on care for our common home” is the first SFIK to have an Italian rather than a Latin title. It is also more significantly unusual in being addressed to “every person living on this planet” (§3). So non-Catholics like me are invited to react.

The praise part is easy. It’s a solid exposition of a theology of creation that most Christians and many followers of other faiths would endorse. The application to climate change and the call to action (§169) is clear and excellently timed, in the runup to the critical Paris climate conference in November. At times it transcends mere soundness and achieves prophetic force:

  • “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (§11)
  • “We can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. … This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” (§59)
  • “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God…” (§83)

The Pope, channelling Francis of Assisi, condemns the instrumental view of animals of Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas:

We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. (§67; see also §221)

Thomists get a consolation citation of their hero in §86. We can expect to see more and stronger Catholic condemnations of factory farming.

The encyclical is far from perfect, and I have my little list of complaints, for what they are worth. Continue Reading…

Brazil and the Iran nuclear deal

You should not evaluate the Iran nuclear deal without reference to data like these:

  • Price paid by Brazil for utility solar power in the October 2014 auction : R$ 215.12 per megawatt-hour  = $68.38 at current exchange rates;
  • Price paid by Brazil for wind power in the April 2015 auction:  R$177.47 per MWh = $56.41.

Why pick Brazil? Recent deals have been struck elsewhere at much lower prices. A company controlled by Warren Buffett has signed a 20-year solar PPA in Nevada for $38.7/MWh, beating the previous record for a plant in Dubai signed in January for $59.8/MWh  (the Nevada deal includes the ITC tax break, worth at most $20/MWH). The LLNL reports that prices for wind PPAs in the US interior in 2013 averaged $25/MWh, again with a tax break, taking the pre-tax price up to about $40. There’s no reason to think that wind prices have risen since.

Iran is unlikely to get these best prices, the fruit of deep and efficient markets. Brazil is medium inefficient and medium protectionist, with stiff local content conditions for getting low-interest finance from the state investment bank BNDES. It has developed an extensive supply chain in wind, but not yet in solar. It’s reasonable to think that Iran could get similar prices to Brazil for an extensive wind and/or solar programme. It should also look at Mexico, Turkey, India and Thailand for realistic benchmarks.

The point is that Iran has absolutely no hope of getting remotely similar prices for civilian nuclear power. You may say: ah, the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme is really aimed at nuclear weapons, not civilian reactors. But it is being advertised by the government, and sold to the Iranian people, as a peaceful civilian one.

But as such it’s a huge waste of money. The output of the prospective Hinkley C EPR in Britain is now advertised at £92.50/MW at 2012 prices, indexed, plus other valuable guarantees. In the USA, the EIA, wearing rosy spectacles, cites an LCOE for new nuclear of $86.1 per MWh; but the schedule and construction costs of Vogtle 3 and 4, with the more buildable AP-1000 design, are slipping badly. An honest nuclear LCOE, based on real not paper construction experience, must now be well north of $100/MWh.

With every year that passes, this gap will become more and more obvious to the Iranians. At the ten-year horizon for new civilian power plants, Iran can meet its electricity needs from wind and solar (with natural gas and hydro for backup) at probably half the cost and at much less risk. On a five-year horizon, the nuclear option does not exist at all.

An expenses-paid trip by Buffett to Tehran would be a good investment by Kerry. Moniz was invaluable in the negotiations as a card-carrying nuclear physicist, but by the same token he’s part of the dwindling club of pro-nuclear old-timers, which Buffett is not.

(Recycling a post from 2012, but why not? It still makes sense to me.)

The German Problem is back

Ever since 1945, it’s been a cardinal principle of German foreign policy to look harmless. Merkel and Schäuble’s mishandling of the Greek eurozone crisis has changed all that. The genie of fear of German power and self-righteousness is out of the bottle.

Comparisons with the Third Reich are as ridiculous as they are offensive. But raise the Second Reich, and you may have a point. Consider the Belgian atrocities.

American bond poster, 1917-18

American bond poster, 1917-18

The accusation implied by this skilfully understated wartime American poster is false. The Reichswehr did not make a habit of raping children, or bayoneting babies. Any large body of men includes some psychopaths (like Feldwebel Adolf Hitler), but there is no reason to think these were any more numerous in the German army than in its adversaries, or its discipline more tolerant of them. For most of the war, the trenches kept the armies largely insulated from the civilian population.

After the war, right-thinking opinion in the Allied countries became ashamed of the excesses of the propaganda like this manufactured by Northcliffe and friends: to the extent that the core of truth in the accusations was forgotten.

What happened was this. Continue Reading…

King v Burwell office pool

Here’s my card. I’m not a lawyer, but do you really think this is about the True Meaning of the Law, and not politics?

King to lose 6-3. Majority: Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Kennedy, Roberts, Sotomayor. The opinion, written by Roberts or Kennedy, will be on narrow grounds that the plaintiff’s reading would amount to unconstitutional federal coercion of the states, precedent NFIB v Sebelius. So it will duck the statutory construction issue.

Dissent by Alito, Scalia, and Thomas to uphold, because Obama. Scalia’s contortions on statutory construction, contradicting his own previous opinions, will be fun to read.

Dissent Concurring opinion [if I don't fix this I will never hear the end of it] by Sotomayor and Ginsburg listing about 200 reasons why the suit is frivolous, starting with the absence of standing. I’m not so confident about this; Roberts may have extracted their moderation as the price of his vote. But Sotomayor at least was very angry on the record about the Wheaton College double-cross after Hobby Lobby:

Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today.

Payback time maybe.

Your counter-offers?