Competition: diasyrms for Trump

Donald Trump said this about Ben Carson, a rival for the Republican nomination :

He was a doctor, perhaps an OK doctor, by the way.

The trope usually goes by Pope’s phrase “damning with faint praise”, but I’m sure RBC readers do not need reminding that its technical Greek name in rhetoric is diasyrm.

The put-down is feeble. You can’t take away from Dr. Ben Carson his outstanding medical qualifications and stellar career. He headed the department of paediatric neurosurgery at the teaching hospital of Johns Hopkins, which likes to think of itself as the best medical school in the world, possibly with reason. It is a great tragedy that in his very last operation in Baltimore before leaving medicine for politics, Dr. Carson heroically donated to his patient half the grey cells in his cerebral cortex.

It is Donald Trump‘s pathological vanity – he is in textbooks  as an example of narcissism – that makes him far more vulnerable to diasyrm. Readers are invited to supply examples. To get you going, a better jibe from Lloyd George:

[Neville Chamberlain] would make a good Lord Mayor of Birmingham in a lean year.

My suggestions:

  • Donald Trump has demonstrated far greater acumen as an investor than Bernie Madoff.
  • Donald Trump is magnetically attractive to women, for six months.
  • Trump’s dramatic hairdo would assure him a future as a hairstyling model for the leading trade magazine in North Korea.
  • Trump regularly demonstrates his superior people-management skills in firing no-hopers on reality TV shows.
  • Donald has never, ever had sex with a pig.

Entrants please remember the praise part. Straight insults do not count, however ingenious and deserved. Example: at Oxford, I once heard the young Quentin Hogg described as “a shining wit, as Dr. Spooner might have said”.




To make the punishment fit the crime

A wrinkle on the VW scandal. How does criminal justice achieve this goal? It’s often very difficult, but not here. VW’s environmental crime (forgetting about the deception of regulators and fraud of customers for a moment) was to cause the emission of a large volume of toxic NOx gas: 237,000 to 949,000 tonnes worldwide, estimated the Guardian. The number can be firmed up, and should be.

Reparation for this part of the misdeeds (and only this) is fairly simple:

require VW to secure at its own expense an equal reduction of the same emissions from vehicles, over the same timeframe as its offence, and on a permanent basis.

It’s not necessary to go into much detail on how. VW employs excellent engine emissions engineers: some of them are crooks to be sure, but they all know their stuff. (At risk of a Godwin violation, I can’t resist a reminder of  this guy.) The most efficient method is very probably not to take VW’s own modern car diesels off the road, but ancient trucks, buses and vans. The “permanent” condition means that the replacements wil have to be full or hybrid evs. If necessary the implication could be made explicit.

This should be only part of the sanctions. It would surely pay the VW board to offer it at once.


What is the Catalan for magic pony?

??Yesterday Catalonia held elections for the regional government. Since Madrid frustrated their hopes of an independence referendum, the tactic of the secessionists has been to try to turn every election from rat-catcher up into an independence plebiscite. From that perspective, yesterday was not a win. Pro-independence parties narrowly failed to get a majority of votes. They did together win a narrow majority of seats, and will continue to control the Generalitat. That does not look a basis for UDI.

The circumstances in the last few years could not have been more favourable to their cause: a disastrous boom-and-bust cycle in property, leading to bank rescues that doubled Spain’s national debt; mass unemployment from austerity dictated by Brussels and Berlin; and a governing party in Madrid mired in scandal. The economy has now started to improve, not dramatically but steadily, which should erode support.

The pedestrian Mariano Rajoy (no pigs, no bribes) has opposed the separatists by standing pat on the constitution. This has given him institutional wins through the Constitutional Court, but has done nothing to win Catalan hearts and minds. There has been no counterpart to Gordon Brown’s spirited defence of the Union in Scotland on emotional grounds: shared battlefields and war cemeteries, and the NHS. (Imagine an American politician defending US healthcare as a glorious achievement. On second thoughts …) Can you make such a case in Catalonia? Sure. Catalans died in 1714 and 1812 and 1936 in defence of a particular vision of Spain, not just Catalonia. Bringing up the Civil War is dangerous stuff of course, precisely because the memories are high voltage. If the stakes are the unity of your country, you have to take a few risks.

How serious is the independence project? I looked up the programme of Junts pel Si, the main separatist coalition in the election. Website, programme Continue Reading…

Volkswagen tötet Babys

(h/t to a famous campaign of the 1970s against Nestlé’s marketing of baby formula in Africa)

How many people did Volkswagen kill with their conspiracy to rig the diesel emissions tests? Kevin Drum has come up with a back-of-the envelope estimate of 12 in California. For the world, it’s much, much higher.

Step one: VW have admitted that the engine controllers may have been fitted to 11m vehicles worldwide. The Guardian has estimated the excess emissions:

A Guardian analysis found those [482,000 VW and Audi] US vehicles would have spewed between 10,392 and 41,571 tonnes of toxic gas into the air each year, if they had covered the average annual US mileage. If they had complied with EPA standards, they would have emitted just 1,039 tonnes of NOx each year in total. The company admitted the device may have been fitted to 11m of its vehicles worldwide. If that proves correct, VW’s defective vehicles could be responsible for between 237,161 and 948,691 tonnes of NOx emissions each year, 10 to 40 times the pollution standard for new models in the US.

Step two: translate that into excess deaths. Continue Reading…

Big History from 2300 AD

Bede writes history, 8th century

Bede writes history, 8th century

The British SF writer Charles Stross posts a challenge:

Assume you are a historian in the 30th century, compiling a pop history text about the period 1700-2300AD. What are the five most influential factors in that period of history?


For the sake of argument we assume: no singularity/rapture of the nerds, no breakthroughs that lead to wholesale invalidation of the known laws of physics, and no catastrophic events that render humanity extinct, destroy all archival records, or consign us all to a pre-industrial level of civilization.

Stross’ candidates are in the first comment on the linked thread. Brad deLong’s response is here. I reproduce both lists in fine. See also the comment threads. I contributed a comment, but RBC readers deserve a weekend play space too.

I just have three points – the replicator, advanced IT, and the stabilisation of the population are taken as read. As you would expect, there’s a lot of overlap with the earlier lists. Add your own.

JW1. The Big Crunch

Ages ago I posted my one-minute world history. Here it is again, in its 117-word entirety: Stross’ mere 600-year frame is spacious by comparison. Continue Reading…

Paying for a green Ethiopia

.. with an assist from Ur-Nammu of Sumer.

At Copenhagen in 2009, rich countries committed rather vaguely to putting up $100 billion a year from 2020 in long-term financing for climate mitigation and adaptation. The centrepiece of this effort was supposed to be the Green Climate Fund. So far they have pledged $10.2 bn to it. In other words, they have reneged. The future agreement in Paris will be based on “national contributions”, plans which may be contingent on finance. In advance of Paris, countries agreed in Lima to submit trial balloons, “intended national contributions”, INDCs in the insider jargon. Will the rich – us – finally cough up?

ethiopian-village-hut-23555546Instead of gloomy speculation, let’s try and make the question more concrete by looking at a sample country, Ethiopia. I pick it because it’s already submitted its INDC: not too long, and quite readable. French expert Bernard Chabot has analysed it for us (h/t Craig Morris). We can also rely on a recent World Bank country report.

Key points:

  • Ethiopia is populous (99 m) and poor. In 2012, PPP income per head was $1,086 (2005 $). But it is fast growing (10.7% a year over the last decade), and quite well-run, with single-digit inflation, affordable levels of external debt, and no fossil fuel subsidies. Politically it is a stable, de facto one-party state with rigged elections. So it’s better than most. If we don’t help Ethiopia, we won’t help anybody other than Costa Rica.
  • Carbon emissions are low: 1.8 tonne CO2e per head against 17.5 tonnes for the USA. Of this, 87% is generated in the countryside, from wood-burning, deforestation, crops and livestock.
  • Most of the population (76%) has no access to electricity. What there is is almost entirely renewable hydro already.

The government’s climate plan is nevertheless ambitious, and consistent with the global 2 degree C cap, which is more than can be said for the main polluters. Continue Reading…

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.