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November 30, 2007

Health Biz Health

WSJ has an article about a Mr. Jim Dawson, who was hit with a $1.2 million hospital bill after his insurance maxed out at $1.5 million. Excerpts:

Part of the problem: Even as medical progress and new technologies raise health-care costs, health plans have been slow to raise their caps. Mr. Dawson's $1.5 million cap was relatively generous by today's standards. The Segal Company, an employee-benefits consulting firm, says the average health-plan cap among companies it advises is $1 million a person — the same as it was in the 1970s, when the purchasing power of $1 million was the equivalent of nearly $6 million today.

Another issue is the widespread practice of bill padding by hospitals and other health providers. While hospitals say bill padding is their only defense against the aggressive cost-reduction efforts of insurers and government programs, the end result is that individuals can, with little warning, be left stuck with wildly inflated medical bills.

For instance, CPMC charged Mr. Dawson $791 for stockings designed to improve blood circulation. The same pair can be purchased on the Internet for as little as $12.

Allan Pont, CPMC's chief medical officer, acknowledges that the charges on Mr. Dawson's bill are "Disneyland numbers" that health insurers and government programs like Medicare and Medicaid never pay. But he says they reflect the hospital's operating costs, such as paying for doctors, nurses and medical equipment, as well as markups to compensate for the fact that CPMC collects only a fraction of what it bills every year. [...]

Hoping to stall CPMC, Mrs. Dawson sent the hospital two checks for $30. Bills were also piling up from doctors, so Mrs. Dawson also sent them small sums to keep them at bay. The Dawsons weighed whether to declare personal bankruptcy.

Before they made any decision, Mrs. Dawson asked to see an itemized bill from CPMC. When she received it, she was shocked by how much the hospital had marked up inexpensive items like the stockings. CPMC charged Mr. Dawson between $2,225 and $6,675 a night for an oxygen mask to help him breathe while he slept. After he was discharged from the hospital, the Dawsons rented one from a medical-supply store for $250 a month. [...]

"I do not deny that our charges look insane," says Dr. Pont, CPMC's chief medical officer. But all hospitals operate the same way, he says. "It's the reality of the industry."

Once its operating costs are factored into an item's charge price, Dr. Pont says the hospital marks up that price by threefold to account for the fact that it only collects on average a third of what it bills in any given year. [...]

In her quest to know exactly what she was being billed for, Mrs. Dawson also asked the hospital for copies of all her husband's medical records. A copy service used by the hospital called to say the copies would cost $1,030. Mrs. Dawson was outraged. Further angering her, a letter from CPMC's foundation soliciting a donation came in the mail.

That's how we roll here in the greatest country on Earth USA.

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Friday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Joke Humor & Fun

Mattel should produce a Mitt Romney action figure. In order to get it to change positions, you keep asking the same question. — Will Durst

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November 29, 2007

US Carbon Emissions Down In 2006; Bush Takes The Credit Energy  Environment  Politics

In a White House press release issued yesterday, President Bush declared:

I was pleased to receive the Energy Information Administration's final report today, which includes U.S. greenhouse gas emissions for 2006. The final report shows that emissions declined 1.5 percent from the 2005 level, while our economy grew 2.9 percent. That means greenhouse gas intensity - how much we emit per unit of economic activity - decreased by 4.2 percent, the largest annual improvement since 1985. This puts us well ahead of the goal I set in 2002 to reduce greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent by 2012.

My Administration's climate change policy is science-based, encourages research breakthroughs that lead to technology development, encourages global participation, and pursues actions that will help ensure continued economic growth and prosperity for our citizens and for people throughout the world. [...]

Energy security and climate change are two of the important challenges of our time. The United States takes these challenges seriously, and we are effectively confronting climate change through regulations, public-private partnerships, incentives, and strong investment in new technologies. Our guiding principle is clear: we must lead the world to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and we must do it in a way that does not undermine economic growth or prevent nations from delivering greater prosperity for their people.

Breathtaking in its cynicism.

Decide for yourself if you're willing to take the government's figures at face value. But let's suppose we do. As Andrew Leonard points out, here's what the EIA report actually says about causes of the drop:

U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2006 were 110.6 million metric tons (MMT) below their 2005 level of 6,045.0 MMT, due to favorable weather conditions; higher energy prices; a decline in the carbon intensity of electric power generation that resulted from increased use of natural gas, the least carbon intensive fossil fuel; and greater reliance on non fossil energy sources.

Andrew Leonard:

Call me partisan, but I'm finding it difficult to credit the Bush administration with responsibility for a year that featured both a mild winter and a cool summer. And while one can put some blame on the White House for high energy prices, the administration has actually fought tooth-and-nail against any kind of carbon tax or cap-and-trade system that would ensure stiff energy costs for greenhouse gas generating fossil fuel consumption. I'm also skeptical of the notion that "greater reliance on non fossil energy sources" has yet made any significant impact on emissions. Indeed, the EIA's own data have carbon dioxide emissions attributable to "renewable fuels" rising from 11.6 MMT to 11.9 MMT.

Which leaves us with the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation. I don't know the whole story of how that transition is playing out, but one major incentive has been the New Source Review requirement of the Clean Air Act, which was designed to encourage the phasing out of older, high-polluting energy-generating technologies.

Of course, the Bush administration attempted (and failed) to gut New Source Review.

And to that we can add this: natural gas is, in terms of its usefulness, the most valuable fuel we have. Think of a gas stove. Instant on, instant off, no fumes, no smoke, no soot. There is no substitute. Moreover, natural gas can't easily be shipped across oceans. When you use up what's on your own continent, you're pretty much done. Here in North America, natural gas production may already have peaked. So, if we're using more natural gas for electricity generation and building lots of new natural gas-powered generation plants, that's hardly cause for celebration.

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Thursday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Joke Humor & Fun

Rush Limbaugh and his chauffeur were out driving in the country and accidentally hit and killed a pig that had wandered out on a country road. Limbaugh told the chauffeur to drive up to the farm and apologize to the farmer.

They drove up to the farm, the chauffeur got out and knocked on the front door and was let in. He was in there for what seemed hours. When he came out, Limbaugh was confused about why his employee had been there so long.

"Well, first the farmer shook my hand, then he offered me a beer, then his wife brought me some cookies, and his daughter showered me with kisses," explained the driver.

"What did you tell the farmer?" Limbaugh asked.

The chauffeur replied, "I told him that I was Rush Limbaugh's driver and I'd just killed the pig." — Comedy Central

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November 28, 2007

Wednesday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Bush Joke Humor & Fun

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November 27, 2007

More Climate Feedback Loops Environment

As atmospheric CO2 levels increase, some of the CO2 gets dissolved in the oceans and some gets captured by green plants — forests, in particular. These effects have mitigated the impact of CO2 emissions to a significant extent, buying us some time. The oceans have been taking up something like a quarter of the CO2 emitted, land-based plant life another quarter.

It now appears, however, that both of these carbon "sinks" are losing their ability to take up carbon and are doing so much sooner than had been expected. Global warming is causing the carbon sinks to lose effectiveness, which leads to more warming, which leads to a further loss in effectiveness, etc., etc. Yet another example of a self-reinforcing climate feedback loop kicking in.

First, the oceans. Here are excerpts from a summary at RealClimate:

The past few weeks and years have seen a bushel of papers finding that the natural world, in particular perhaps the ocean, is getting fed up with absorbing our CO2. There are uncertainties and caveats associated with each study, but taken as a whole, they provide convincing evidence that the hypothesized carbon cycle positive feedback has begun.

Of the new carbon released to the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, some remains in the atmosphere, while some is taken up into the land biosphere (in places other than those which are being cut) and into the ocean. The natural uptake has been taking up more than half of the carbon emission. If changing climate were to cause the natural world to slow down its carbon uptake, or even begin to release carbon, that would exacerbate the climate forcing from fossil fuels: a positive feedback.

The ocean has a tendency to take up more carbon as the CO2 concentration in the air rises, because of Henry's Law, which states that in equilibrium, more in the air means more dissolved in the water. Stratification of the waters in the ocean, due to warming at the surface for example, tends to oppose CO2 invasion, by slowing the rate of replenishing surface waters by deep waters which haven't taken up fossil fuel CO2 yet.

The Southern Ocean is an important avenue of carbon invasion into the ocean, because the deep ocean outcrops here. Le Quere et al. [2007] diagnosed the uptake of CO2 into the Southern Ocean using atmospheric CO2 concentration data from a dozen or so sites in the Southern hemisphere. They find that the Southern Ocean has begun to release carbon since about 1990, in contrast to the model predictions that Southern Ocean carbon uptake should be increasing because of the Henry's Law thing. [...]

A decrease in ocean uptake is more clearly documented in the North Atlantic by Schuster and Watson [2007]. They show surface ocean CO2 measurements from ships of opportunity from the period 1994-1995, and from 2002-2005. Their surface ocean chemistry data is expressed in terms of partial pressure of CO2 that would be in equilibrium with the water. If the pCO2 of the air is higher than the calculated pCO2 of the water for example, then CO2 will be dissolving into the water.

The pCO2 of the air rose by about 15 microatmospheres in that decade. The strongest Henry's Law scenario would be for the ocean pCO2 to remain constant through that time, so that the air/sea difference would increase by the 15 microatmospheres of the atmospheric rise. Instead what happened is that the pCO2 of the water rose twice as fast as the atmosphere did, by about 30 microatmospheres. The air-sea difference in pCO2 collapsed to zero in the high latitudes, meaning no CO2 uptake at all in a place where the CO2 uptake might be expected to be strongest. [...]

The culprit is not in hand exactly, but is described as some change in ocean circulation, caused maybe by stratification or by the North Atlantic Oscillation, bringing a different crop of water to the surface. At any event, the decrease in ocean uptake in the North Atlantic is convincing. It's real, all right. [...]

For the time period from 1960 to 2000, the models predict that we would find the opposite of what is observed: a slight decrease in the atmospheric fraction, driven by increasing carbon uptake into the natural world. Positive feedbacks in the real-world carbon cycle seem to be kicking in faster than anticipated, Canadell et al conclude. [...]

In addition to the changing ocean sink, drought and heat wave conditions may change the uptake of carbon on land. The infamously hot summer of 2003 in Europe for example cut the rate of photosynthesis by 50%, dumping as much carbon into the air as had been taken up by that same area for the four previous years [Ciais et al., 2005].

Now, the forests (Independent):

The sprawling forests of the northern hemisphere which extend from China and Siberia to Canada and Alaska are in danger of becoming a gigantic source of carbon dioxide rather than being a major "sink" that helps to offset man-made emissions of the greenhouse gas.

Studies show the risk of fires in the boreal forests of the north has increased in recent years because of climate change. It shows that the world's temperate woodlands are beginning to lose their ability to be an overall absorber of carbon dioxide.

Scientists fear there may soon come a point when the amount of carbon dioxide released from the northern forests as a result of forest fires and the drying out of the soil will exceed the amount that is absorbed during the annual growth of the trees. Such a prospect would make it more difficult to control global warming because northern forests are seen as a key element in the overall equations to mitigate the effect of man-made CO2 emissions.

Two studies published [November 1] show that the increase in forest fires in the boreal forests – the second largest forests after tropical rainforests – have weakened one of the earth's greatest terrestrial sinks of carbon dioxide.

One of the studies showed that in some years, forest fires in the US result in more carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere over the space of a couple of months than the entire annual emissions coming from cars and energy production of a typical US state.

A second study found that, over a 60-year period, the risk of forest fires in 1 million sq kms of Canadian wilderness had increased significantly, largely as a result of drier conditions caused by global warming and climate change. Tom Gower, professor of forest ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said his study showed that fires had a greater impact on overall carbon emissions from boreal forests during the 60-year period than other factors such as rainfall, yet climate was at the heart of the issue.

The intensity and frequency of forest fires are influenced by climate change because heatwaves and drier undergrowth trigger the fires. "Climate change is what's causing the fire changes. They're very tightly coupled systems," Professor Gower said.

"All it takes is a low snowpack year and a dry summer. With a few lightning strikes, it's a tinderbox," he said.

Historically, the boreal forests have been a powerful carbon sink, with more carbon dioxide being absorbed by the forests than being released. However, the latest study, published in the journal Nature, suggests the sink has become smaller in recent decades, and it may actually be shifting towards becoming a carbon source, Professor Gower said.

"The soil is the major source, the plants are the major sink, and how those two interplay over the life of a stand [of trees] really determines whether the boreal forest is a sink or a source of carbon," he said.

"Based on our current understanding, fire was a more important driver of the carbon balance than climate was in the past 50 years. But if carbon dioxide concentration really doubles in the next 50 years and the temperature increases 4C to 8C, all bets may be off." [...]

"There is a significant potential for additional net release of carbon from forests of the United States due to changing fire dynamics in the coming decades," Dr Wiedinmyer said.

Not to sound like a broken record, but every time we read about a surprise in the rate of global warming effects, the surprise is always on the side of global warming happening faster than anticipated. Always. I think we have to assume, therefore, that we're worse off than we think: otherwise, there'd be some number of surprises going the other way. Meanwhile, each surprise leads to new surprises because of the self-reinforcing acceleration driven by the variety of positive feedback loops that are coming into play.

We fiddle, Rome burns.

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Goon Squad Rights, Law

Go read this. I'm not going to pull out quotes, because I hope you'll read it in full.

It's getting ugly out there.

[Thanks, Miles]

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Tuesday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Bush Joke Humor & Fun

President Bush's immigration bill failed to pass. To be fair, this is not the first time in his life George Bush has heard the term "failed to pass." — Jay Leno

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November 21, 2007

We're Doomed Energy  Peak Oil

...if this is how we think:


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Wednesday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Joke Humor & Fun

During one of the Democratic debates, Senator Joe Biden criticized Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani, saying, "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence — a noun, a verb, and 9/11." Giuliani later responded, saying, "Joe Biden sucks 9/11." — Seth Meyers

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November 20, 2007

Scott McClellan: Bush, Cheney, Rove, Libby Lied About Plame Politics

Scott McClellan's squealing. CNN:

Former White House spokesman Scott McClellan says top administration officials — including President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney — were involved in his "unknowingly" passing along false information about the leak of a CIA operative's identity.

In October 2003, as controversy grew about the leak of Valerie Plame's name, McClellan stood at the White House podium and told reporters that Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, had not been involved.

"There was one problem. It was not true," McClellan writes in his new book, "What Happened," which is to be released in April.

The excerpt, which consists of just three paragraphs from a 400-page book, reads in full:

The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White House briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

There was one problem. It was not true.

I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice president, the president's chief of staff, and the president himself.

Time for somebody in Congress to start issuing subpoenas. They won't do it unless pushed, so let's get pushy.

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Tuesday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Bush Joke Humor & Fun

I heard something interesting today. After he leaves office, George W. Bush is going to start a think tank. That's right, it's like Michael Vick opening an animal shelter. Yeah, the George Bush think tank: it only has a shallow end. — David Letterman

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November 19, 2007

Amazon's Kindle Science/Technology

Kinda interesting. Someday soon somebody will get this right, but Amazon looks to be well wide of the mark. Too expensive, too clunky, too limited. An over-priced novelty.

Bezos dreams of making the next iPod, but the iPod lets me do something I couldn't do before: shuffle among thousands of songs wherever I go. Kindle lets me carry hundreds of books, but people don't read books like they listen to songs. People listen while they're doing other things; hard to read a book that way. Besides, iPod without shuffle would be a lot less interesting; what's the shuffle equivalent for books? And what's with that keyboard? I want a touch screen and a stylus so I can write and highlight and create links freehand. I want easy interoperability with my computers and with the Internet. Basically, I want a tablet PC that really works, with a great screen, a low price tag, and access to all the world's books (including full text search). For starters.

Or what I've already got: books.

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What Kucinich Should Do Politics

Madison's John Nichols, writing in this month's Progressive on what Dennis Kucinich should do now:

There is much to be said for the power of positive thinking, but in Presidential politics the practice can be futile — especially when more prominent and monied candidates are stealing your themes: economic populist (Edwards), anti-war (New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson), and time-for-a-transformation (Obama). In Kucinich's case, his optimism borders on off-putting and out of touch. Indeed, if he continues on his current course, he runs the risk of falling short of the 643,067 (3.9 percent of the total) votes he scraped together by the end of his never-say-die 2004 run.

If that happens, it will be a political tragedy, because Dennis Kucinich is more right on the issues than ever: with his demand that Congress defund the war in Iraq, with his warnings about the dangerous machinations of the Bush-Cheney machine regarding Iran, with his courageous stance on nuclear disarmament, and with his increasingly ardent advocacy of impeachment.

Kucinich may be more necessary to the process of choosing a 2008 Democratic President than even he may understand. The front-loaded race for the nomination will be a blur for most Democrats, who will likely be told who the party's candidate is going to be long before they actually have a chance to weigh in. At that point, the trailing candidates will be told by the money men who define American politics that it is time to start suspending campaigns.

More than two dozen states will select delegates after February 5. Many of them — Wisconsin, Washington, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Oregon — have Democratic voter bases that are ardently anti-war. If Kucinich were to commit now to mount a campaign that made no pretense of personal electability but rather promised to force the party to debate its direction — not just on the war but on the whole question of what a post-Bush America might look like — he could yet turn himself into the most effective protest candidate this country has seen in years.

What might the Congressman propose to the voters of later primary and caucus states, where the choice could well come down to Kucinich versus Clinton? By telling voters "this is your chance to vote for a peace plank," Kucinich could — and should — promise to use whatever bloc of delegates he is given to fight for a clearly anti-war platform, to provoke floor fights over foreign policy and the domestic agenda, and to have his name placed in nomination in order to take his message to prime time.

In a one-on-one race, where the Kucinich campaign is about an idea rather than a man, he could turn the tables on the elites. By ditching talk about actually being nominated — which only strains his own credibility — and instead making himself the tribune of the peace and justice movement that is alive and powerful at the grassroots of the Democratic party, Dennis Kucinich could win hundreds of delegates to the 2008 convention. He could renew and redefine the debate in the later primaries and at the convention. He could force the eventual Democratic nominee to listen to the party's neglected base — which polling suggests is now very close in its thinking to the self-identified independent voters who decide close contests in November — rather than to the Wall Street donors and Washington think tanks that invariably muddle the message once the pundits declare the nomination fight to have been settled. And, maybe, just maybe, Dennis Kucinich could make the Democratic nominee more appealing than a broken political process is supposed to allow.

The challenge for Kucinich is a real one. He can run according to the rules and be a Democratic Harold Stassen, or he can break the rules and make his campaign a redemptive force. To do the former, he need merely continue campaigning as he now is. To do the latter, he must level with himself and with the voters and offer himself up as a representative of the idealistic insurgency that both the party and the country so sorely need.

It makes so much sense, and it would be a beautiful thing to see. Politics might actually mean something again. Dennis, are you listening?

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It's Hard To Be This Breathtakingly, Jaw-Droppingly Dumb Media  Politics

Unless you're Tom Friedman. Gawd.

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Monday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Bush Joke Humor & Fun

I learned today that President Bush is a sensitive man. There's a new biography of the president out in which he says "I do tears," which means he cries. And he says he cries a lot, and I think it's kind of nice hearing that the president cries. It would be even better to hear that he reads. — Jimmy Kimmel

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November 17, 2007

"We Have To Get Smart Fast" Environment  Essays  Future

[This is a rerun — a post from February 2006 that may be worth another read.]

The Long Now Foundation seeks to foster the long view, looking ahead to the next 10,000 years of human society. It sponsors monthly lectures by some of the West's most original thinkers, the audio for which is archived here. It's an extraordinary collection. Go explore. (The talk by Bruce Sterling is a hoot.)

I want to touch on just one of the lectures here, a recent talk by anthropologist Stephen Lansing, who has studied the planting and water management practices of Balinese rice farmers. From Stewart Brand's summary of the talk:

With lucid exposition and gorgeous graphics, anthropologist Stephen Lansing exposed the hidden structure and profound health of the traditional Balinese rice growing practices. The intensely productive terraced rice paddies of Bali are a thousand years old. So are the democratic subaks (irrigation cooperatives) that manage them, and so is the water temple system that links the subaks in a nested hierarchy.

When the Green Revolution came to Bali in 1971, suddenly everything went wrong. Along with the higher-yield rice came "technology packets" of fertilizers and pesticides and the requirement, stated in patriotic terms, to "plant as often as possible." The result: year after year millions of tons of rice harvest were lost, mostly to voracious pests. The level of pesticide use kept being increased, to ever decreasing effect.

Meanwhile Lansing and his colleagues were teasing apart what made the old water temple system work so well....

The universal problem in irrigation systems is that upstream users have all the power and no incentive to be generous to downstream users. What could account for their apparent generosity in Bali? Lansing discovered that the downstream users also had power, because pests can only controlled if everybody in the whole system plants rice at the same time (which overloads the pests with opportunity in one brief season and starves them the rest of the time). If the upstreamers didn't let enough water through, the downstreamers could refuse to synchronize their planting, and the pests would devour the upstreamers' rice crops.

Discussion within the subaks (which dispenses with otherwise powerful caste distinctions) and among neighboring subaks takes account of balancing the incentives, and the exquisite public rituals of the water temple system keep everyone mindful of the whole system.

The traditional synchronized planting is far more effective against the pests than pesticides. "Plant as often as possible" was a formula for disaster.

It seems clear how such "perfect order" can maintain itself, but how did it get started? Was there some enlightened rajah who set down the rules centuries ago? Working with complexity scientists at Santa Fe Institute, Lansing built an agent-based computer model of 172 subaks planting at random times, seeking to maximize their yields and paying attention to the success of their neighbors. The system self-organized! In just ten years within the model the balanced system seen in Bali emerged on its own. No enlightened rajah was needed. (Interestingly, the very highest yields came when the model subaks paid attention not just to their immediate neighbors but to the neighbors' neighbors as well. If they paid attention primarily to distant subaks, however, the whole system went chaotic.)

There's a lot more in the talk. It's a great little introduction to complex adaptive systems. It's a deeply thought-provoking look at the role of religious and other stable cultural systems in maintaining social norms over time. It's an extraordinary look at ecological interconnections and the disastrous unintended consequences that can result when Western development models are jammed down people's throats. And much more besides.

The thing I wanted to emphasize, though, is this. The planners and development "experts" thought they knew better than the knowledge and wisdom that was stored in systems that had had a thousand years to reach a stable optimum. Much of that thousand-year-old knowledge was unconscious knowledge in the sense that it was woven into the very fabric of systems and social arrangements. It's likely that no one participating in it had a conscious, analytical grasp of how it all worked. No experts could articulate it. And yet it was very real and very profound. It was the kind of knowledge that is stored in the fabric of any healthy ecosystem.

But the development "experts" were so sure of the superiority of their own brand of knowledge that they didn't hesitate to upset the whole apple cart, all at once, with disastrous effect.

Wendell Berry has a wonderful essay, "The Way of Ignorance," in which he writes:

The experience of many people over a long time is traditional knowledge. This is the common knowledge of a culture, which it seems that few of us any longer have. To have a culture, mostly the same people have to live mostly in the same place for a long time. Traditional knowledge is knowledge that has been remembered or recorded, handed down, pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined over a long time.

To think you know better than people who have "pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined" their knowledge over many, many generations, that you know so much better that you can just uproot a way of life, all at once, with scarcely so much as a pilot project, you really have to be ignorant, arrogantly ignorant. As Berry says:

We identify arrogant ignorance by its willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk. It fails to foresee bad consequences not only because some of the consequences of all acts are inherently unforeseeable, but also because the arrogantly ignorant often are blinded by money invested; they cannot afford to see bad consequences.

In this century, humanity is faced with global-scale challenges that will require global-scale action. The people at WorldChanging, for example, whose work I mostly admire, and who are determined to maintain an optimistic view of humanity's chances (which is a good thing), go so far as to talk a lot about "terraforming" and "mega-engineering", i.e., humans needing to engineer planetary systems on a planetary scale, literally re-forming the Earth.

It may come to that. That is, it may turn out that our only hope is to take the reins of Earth's systems and risk it all on a few rolls of the dice. But I have to confess that it all strikes me as crazy hubris, the very epitome of the "willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk," the last wild perturbations in a system that's growing increasingly chaotic. If we can't interfere with a thousand-year-old system of rice paddies without ruining it, what makes us think we can mega-engineer the planet?

As Lansing said at the very end of his talk: with the challenges that face us, "We have to get smart fast."

Part of getting smart is knowing the limits of one's knowledge. Part of getting smart is working on an appropriate scale. And part of getting smart is to realize that there's enormous knowledge and wisdom woven into living systems, including traditional human societies, that have had millenia and more to arrive at solutions whose surface we have only barely begun to scratch. They have much to teach us. We have much to learn.

(Note: Lansing's written a lovely book on all this.)

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Saturday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Joke Humor & Fun

I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is that Rudy Giuliani did. Besides climbing out of a hole and shaking his fist at the sky, that is. — Will Durst

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November 15, 2007

Biofuels From Food: A Crime Against Humanity Energy  Peak Oil

This is just the beginning. As fuel becomes more expensive and scarce, the world's rich will not only price the world's poor out of the fuel market, they'll price them out of the food market as well, as more and more food crops and agricultural land (and fresh water) are used to generate biofuels. George Monbiot summons up the appropriate level of outrage:

It doesn't get madder than this. Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava. The government has allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production in the county of Lavumisa, which happens to be the place worst hit by drought. It would surely be quicker and more humane to refine the Swazi people and put them in our tanks. Doubtless a team of development consultants is already doing the [math].

This is one of many examples of a trade described last month by Jean Ziegler, the UN's special rapporteur, as "a crime against humanity". Ziegler took up the call first made by this column for a five-year moratorium on all government targets and incentives for biofuel: the trade should be frozen until second-generation fuels - made from wood or straw or waste - become commercially available. Otherwise the superior purchasing power of drivers in the rich world means that they will snatch food from people's mouths. Run your car on virgin biofuel and other people will starve.

Even the International Monetary Fund, always ready to immolate the poor on the altar of business, now warns that using food to produce biofuels "might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further." This week the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will announce the lowest global food reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls "a very serious crisis". Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below the breadline.

The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%. Biofuels aren't entirely to blame - by taking land out of food production they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand - but almost all the major agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major governments are ignoring them.

They turn away because biofuels offer a means of avoiding hard political choices. They create the impression that governments can cut carbon emissions and - as Ruth Kelly, the British transport secretary, announced last week - keep expanding the transport networks. New figures show that British drivers puttered past the 500 billion kilometre mark for the first time last year. But it doesn't matter: we just have to change the fuel we use. No one has to be confronted. The demands of the motoring lobby and the business groups clamouring for new infrastructure can be met. The people being pushed off their land remain unheard.

In principle, burning biofuels merely releases the carbon they accumulated when they were growing. Even when you take into account the energy costs of harvesting, refining and transporting the fuel, they produce less net carbon than petroleum products....If you count only the immediate carbon costs of planting and processing biofuels, they appear to reduce greenhouse gases. When you look at the total impacts, you find that they cause more [global] warming than petroleum.

A recent study by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen shows that the official estimates have ignored the contribution of nitrogen fertilisers. They generate a greenhouse gas - nitrous oxide - which is 296 times as powerful as CO2. These emissions alone ensure that ethanol from maize causes between 0.9 and 1.5 times as much warming as petrol, while rapeseed oil (the source of over 80% of the world's biodiesel) generates 1-1.7 times the impact of diesel. This is before you account for the changes in land use.

A paper published in Science three months ago suggests that protecting uncultivated land saves, over 30 years, between two and nine times the carbon emissions you might avoid by ploughing it and planting biofuels. Last year the research group LMC International estimated that if the British and European target of a 5% contribution from biofuels were to be adopted by the rest of the world, the global acreage of cultivated land would expand by 15%. That means the end of most tropical forests. It might also cause runaway climate change. [...]

The only sustainable biofuel is recycled waste oil, but the available volumes are tiny.

At this point the biofuels industry starts shouting "jatropha!" It is not yet a swear word, but it soon will be. Jatropha is a tough weed with oily seeds that grows in the tropics. This summer Bob Geldof, who never misses an opportunity to promote simplistic solutions to complex problems, arrived in Swaziland in the role of "special adviser" to a biofuels firm. Because it can grow on marginal land, jatropha, he claimed, is a "life-changing" plant, which will offer jobs, cash crops and economic power to African smallholders.

Yes, it can grow on poor land and be cultivated by smallholders. But it can also grow on fertile land and be cultivated by largeholders. If there is one blindingly obvious fact about biofuel it's that it is not a smallholder crop. It is an internationally-traded commodity which travels well and can be stored indefinitely, with no premium for local or organic produce. Already the Indian government is planning 14m hectares of jatropha plantations. In August the first riots took place among the peasant farmers being driven off the land to make way for them.

If the governments promoting biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will be greater than that of the Iraq war. Millions will be displaced, hundreds of millions more could go hungry. This crime against humanity is a complex one, but that neither lessens nor excuses it. If people starve because of biofuels, Ruth Kelly and her peers will have killed them. Like all such crimes it is perpetrated by cowards, attacking the weak to avoid confronting the strong.

It will be a crime of unimaginable proportions, but it is hard to see what will avert it. People who can afford cars won't voluntarily give them up because of unseen side effects a world away. Rationalization will be easier than changing one's way of life. The resulting famine and war in faraway countries will be blamed on other causes — extremism, religious conflict, tribalism, backwardness — if it is even noticed at all. And even the minority of people who make the connections will find it hard not to take the path of least resistance: what good will it do really if I stop driving? I'm just one small drop in a very large bucket. I've got to get to work somehow, and to the mall, and my kids' soccer practice. And so millions will die.

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"Suicide Epidemic" Among US Vets 9/11, "War On Terror"  Iraq  War and Peace

A CBS news investigation has found that US veterans are committing suicide at an alarming rate, led by young veterans of the US "war on terror." Herald Sun:

The US military is experiencing a "suicide epidemic" with veterans killing themselves at the rate of 120 a week, according to an investigation by US television network CBS.

At least 6256 US veterans committed suicide in 2005 - an average of 17 a day - the network reported, with veterans overall more than twice as likely to take their own lives as the rest of the general population.

While the suicide rate among the general population was 8.9 per 100,000, the level among veterans was between 18.7 and 20.8 per 100,000.

That figure rose to 22.9 to 31.9 suicides per 100,000 among veterans aged 20 to 24 - almost four times the non-veteran average for the age group.

"Those numbers clearly show an epidemic of mental health problems," CBS quoted veterans' rights advocate Paul Sullivan as saying.

CBS quoted the father of a 23-year-old soldier who shot himself in 2005 as saying the military did not want the true scale of the problem to be known.

"Nobody wants to tally it up in the form of a government total," Mike Bowman said.

"They don't want the true numbers of casualties to really be known." [...]

"Not everyone comes home from the war wounded, but the bottom line is nobody comes home unchanged," Paul Rieckhoff, a former Marine and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America said on CBS.

It's not just the horror and stress of combat. It's hard getting most people to kill, so recruits have to be subjected to intense conditioning. The military's gotten very good at this. I read somewhere that during the Second World War, only 25% of US soldiers actually fired their weapons in battle; in Korea, it was up to 50%; in Vietnam, 95%. But people aren't machines. You change their programming, and it's hard to change it back. Too little thought is given to the large-scale consequences of taking a significant fraction of young people, conditioning them in this way, and then returning them to the general population with their whole lives lying before them. It's hard on the veterans, obviously, but it also warps the psychological climate and culture of American society as a whole, and not in a good way. Yet another uncounted cost of war.

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Thursday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Bush Joke Humor & Fun

Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey isn't sure whether waterboarding is torture. Sounds like a demonstration might be in order. I'm thinking the Senate Judiciary Committee should arrange one. — Will Durst

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November 14, 2007

Wednesday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Bush Joke Humor & Fun

Today, President Bush said, "The Iraqis are taking back Iraq." Then Dick Cheney said, "But not the oil, right?" — Jay Leno

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November 13, 2007

Deputy Director Of National Intelligence: Privacy Is Over Rights, Law

There's a good chance you've already seen this, but it's crucially important. AP:

As Congress debates new rules for government eavesdropping, a top intelligence official says it is time that people in the United States changed their definition of privacy.

Privacy no longer can mean anonymity, says Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence. Instead, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguard people's private communications and financial information. [...]

The most contentious issue in the new legislation is whether to shield telecommunications companies from civil lawsuits for allegedly giving the government access to people's private e-mails and phone calls without a FISA court order between 2001 and 2007.

Some lawmakers, including members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, appear reluctant to grant immunity. Suits might be the only way to determine how far the government has burrowed into people's privacy without court permission.

The committee is expected to decide this week whether its version of the bill will protect telecommunications companies. About 40 wiretapping suits are pending.

The central witness in a California lawsuit against AT&T says the government is vacuuming up billions of e-mails and phone calls as they pass through an AT&T switching station in San Francisco.

Mark Klein, a retired AT&T technician, helped connect a device in 2003 that he says diverted and copied onto a government supercomputer every call, e-mail, and Internet site access on AT&T lines.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed the class-action suit, claims there are as many as 20 such sites in the U.S.

The White House has promised to veto any bill that does not grant immunity from suits such as this one. [...]

Kerr said at an October intelligence conference in San Antonio that he finds concerns that the government may be listening in odd when people are "perfectly willing for a green-card holder at an (Internet service provider) who may or may have not have been an illegal entrant to the United States to handle their data."

He noted that government employees face up to five years in prison and $100,000 in fines if convicted of misusing private information.

Millions of people in this country — particularly young people — already have surrendered anonymity to social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, and to Internet commerce. These sites reveal to the public, government and corporations what was once closely guarded information, like personal statistics and credit card numbers.

"Those two generations younger than we are have a very different idea of what is essential privacy, what they would wish to protect about their lives and affairs. And so, it's not for us to inflict one size fits all," said Kerr, 68. "Protecting anonymity isn't a fight that can be won. Anyone that's typed in their name on Google understands that." [...]

"Anonymity has been important since the Federalist Papers were written under pseudonyms," [EFF's Kurt] Opsahl said. "The government has tremendous power: the police power, the ability to arrest, to detain, to take away rights. Tying together that someone has spoken out on an issue with their identity is a far more dangerous thing if it is the government that is trying to tie it together."

Opsahl also said Kerr ignores the distinction between sacrificing protection from an intrusive government and voluntarily disclosing information in exchange for a service.

"There is something fundamentally different from the government having information about you than private parties," he said. "We shouldn't have to give people the choice between taking advantage of modern communication tools and sacrificing their privacy."

"It's just another 'trust us, we're the government,'" he said.

It is such an outrageously bogus argument: that because you voluntarily provide private information to buy things online, say, then you shouldn't mind if the government vacuums up every single email, web visit, and phone call that you make. And not just the government; private corporations, too. They'll listen to everything, but they promise not to be naughty. It's insane. But it's how they think. And of course it's also what they're already doing. Once these rights are given up, we'll never get them back.

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More Than 50% Chance Financial System "Will Come To A Grinding Halt" Economy

Yikes. The head credit strategist at Morgan Stanley figures it's more likely than not that the financial system will grind to a halt. Bloomberg:

There's a greater than 50 percent probability that the financial system "will come to a grinding halt" because of losses from mortgages, Gregory Peters, head of credit strategy at Morgan Stanley, said.

The world's biggest banks and securities firms have written down at least $45 billion in the value of assets linked to subprime mortgages for the third quarter after borrowers with poor credit histories failed to keep up with payments. Structured investment vehicles have defaulted on debt, forcing lenders including Legg Mason Inc. and SunTrust Banks Inc. to prop up their money-market funds to cushion them from possible losses.

"You have the SIVs, you have the conduits, you have the money-market funds, you have future losses still in the dealer's balance sheet in the banks," Peters said in an interview in New York. "That's all toppling at once."

The risk of systemic shock from the current subprime meltdown is quite large in the near term, Peters said. "It's an overarching concern that we have," he said.

Losses stemming from the subprime mortgages have caused a seizure of a lot of other markets, especially the securitization market, Peters said.

The U.S. asset-backed commercial paper market had its biggest weekly drop in two months in the week ended Nov. 7, according to a Federal Reserve report. Debt maturing in 270 days or less and backed by mortgages, credit-card loans and other assets fell $29.5 billion, or 3.4 percent, to a seasonally adjusted $845.2 billion.

Sales of U.S. corporate bonds slowed to $11.1 billion last week, the lowest in two months, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

"While the near-term concern is the systemic shock of the subprime-related losses, the medium- and long-term concern is the impact on the average consumer," Peters said. "The ultimate irony here is that the U.S. consumer now needs readily available capital more easily than ever, but they're going to have the most difficult time getting it."

If that's what they're saying publicly...

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US Dollar Continues To Fall Economy

Nothing like a trip to Europe to make you painfully aware of the dollar's continuing slide. A month ago, people were shocked when the dollar hit 1.42 against the euro. Today it's at more than 1.46. I.e., it takes almost a buck fifty to buy what a euro buys. When Bush took office, it only took about 90 cents. An enormous sea change in a breathtakingly short time.

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Tuesday Gumpagraph Gumpagraphs
Today's Gumpagraph. Kent is 'Gumpa' to his grandson Sebastian.
© Kent Tenney 

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Today's Bush Joke Humor & Fun

Karen Hughes, a former adviser to President Bush, is leaving the State Department after working the last two years trying to improve the rest of the world's opinion of America. Congratulations on a job well done. Time to bring out that 'Mission Accomplished' sign again. — Jay Leno

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November 05, 2007

On The Road

I'm in Barcelona, Spain this week. Carie and I got here on Friday. She left this morning, but I'll be here all week for a Microsoft conference. This is truly a marvelous city; I've fallen in love with it. I've been completely offline for the past four days, which has been refreshing. I really have no idea what's been going on in the world outside, but I'll try to get some posting in this week as time permits. Stay tuned. Nos vemos pronto.

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