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  • No Military Solution?

    Posted on February 28th, 2010 Helian 1 comment

    It’s a persistent meme, isn’t it? You can see recent examples of it here, here, here and here. If you care to see a few thousand more examples, Google is ready and waiting. The interesting thing about it is that it’s completely ridiculous on the face of it. If nigh unto 5000 years of recorded history are any guide, there have been military solutions to virtually any human conflict of interest you can imagine, including countless situations entirely analogous to that faced by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan today.  This particular meme hasn’t acquired legs because its true, but because people who live in any number of different ideological boxes want it to be true.  Of course, it lacks what mathematicians would call symmetry.  Military solutions may not be available to us, but, oddly enough, they are invariably available to our enemies.  Just ask them.  For that matter, just ask the people reciting the meme.

  • Blasphemy Laws…

    Posted on February 28th, 2010 Helian No comments

    They work wonderfully well in Pakistan. No wonder Ireland has adopted them.

  • On the Smartness of Liberalism and Vegetarianism

    Posted on February 27th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias had an interesting post on intelligence yesterday.  He quotes an article in the Social Psychology Quarterly that claims, among other things, that

    Adult intelligence predicts adult espousal of liberalism, atheism, and sexual exclusivity for men (but not for women), while intelligence is not associated with the adult espousal of evolutionarily familiar values on children, marriage, family, and friends. … Childhood intelligence at age 10 significantly increases the probability that individuals become vegetarian as adults.

    Where to begin?  Perhaps with the obvious observation that the psychologists have lost none of their ancient skill in doublethink.  They are perfectly familiar with the meaning of the term “intelligence,” and consider it a “well known fact” that it can be measured using reliable tests when associated with, for example, liberalism, vegetarianism, and atheism.  At the same time they are just as certain that “intelligence” is a highly ambiguous complex that it is hopeless to even attempt to measure when associated with, for example, sex or race.  

    For the sake of argument, let us assume that the first of these “truths” of the psychologists really is true.  In other words, let us assume that Mr. Kanazawa really does know what he’s talking about when he speaks of intelligence, and that this intelligence really is measurable.  What, then, are we to make of its association with such “value-loaded” categories as liberalism and vegetarianism, not to mention a tendency to have fewer children?

    To begin, allow me to enlighten Mr. Kanazawa on a matter touching on this discussion, but about which he seems somewhat confused.  In his abstract we read, “The origin of values and preferences is an unresolved theoretical question in behavioral and social sciences.”  I have no doubt that it is an unresolved theoretical question in the behavioral and social sciences.  For those of us who don’t move in such high intellectual circles, however, the answer is obvious enough.  Values and preferences reflect mental traits of various animals, one species of which happens to be Homo sapiens.  Mental traits originate in the brain, and the human brain exists in its current form because all of its essential features have, at one time or another in the past, promoted our genetic survival. 

    Values and preferences such as liberalism and vegetarianism have not, of course, evolved in their perfect modern incarnations, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.  Rather, they correspond to responses of the human brain to conditions quite different from those that prevailed during the long process of its evolution, moderated by cultural influences.  As values and preferences, they are morally loaded.  In other words, one doesn’t embrace liberalism and vegetarianism by virtue of a purely rational evaluation of whether they will promote one’s genetic survival or not.  Rather, they are adopted by virtue of emotional responses associated with those innate mental characteristics we associate with morality.  In other words, they are perceived as “good,” and not just good from a utilitarian point of view,  but “good in themselves.”  That’s how human morality works, no matter how smart one happens to be.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an objective “good in itself.”  Liberalism and vegetarianism certainly have a real existence as “goods,” but only as subjective, or perceived goods.  In other words, they do have a genuine existence as goods, but that genuine existence is in the form of a figment of our imaginations.

    Liberalism and vegetarianism, then, can be considered artifacts of innate human mental characteristics interacting with an environment utterly different from that in which they evolved to begin with.  Those mental traits could not possibly have evolved fast enough to keep up with the profound changes in the human environment that have occurred over, say the last 10,000 years.  Furthermore, they are not perfectly malleable and adaptable to those changes, as the inventors of the New Soviet Man discovered to their cost.  Under the circumstances, it seems rather risky to assume that complex behavioral traits that have emerged as ancient human mental characteristics interact with the modern environment will continue to promote our survival. 

    In the case of liberalism and vegetarianism, I would claim that they certainly do not.  According to the article,

    Liberalism … [is] the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others. Defined as such, liberalism is evolutionarily novel. Humans … are not designed to be altruistic toward an indefinite number of complete strangers whom they are not likely ever to meet or exchange with. … There is no evidence that people in contemporary hunter-gatherer bands freely share resources with members of other tribes. …

    True enough.  However, as we often hear, the world has shrunk.  We are no more capable of altruistic behavior towards strangers and “other tribes” than we ever were.  However, thanks to modern means of transportation and communication, it has become possible for us to perceive a far greater number of others as belonging to “our tribe.”  “We” is no longer constrained by the environment to a small group of people who are likely to be genetically related to us.  “We” can now correspond to much larger social constructs, such as fellow citizens in a modern state, fellow members of huge political organizations, or fellow believers in massive religious denominations.  “We” can be such entities as “the proletariat,” or “the German people,” or “the oppressed masses.”  “We” can even include other species.  Liberalism and vegetarianism are only “evolutionarily novel” in the sense that they represent the response of a relatively unchanged human brain to massive and transformational environmental and perceptual changes.

    Unfortunately, such modern “goods” no longer promote our survival.  In the case of liberalism, the result is the handing over of resources to those from whom the chances that we will ever receive any corresponding benefit in return are vanishingly small.  In the case of vegetarianism, it is the establishment of artificial taboos against certain foods that one can dispense with in certain developed countries that happen not to be at war, but which may be essential to survival elsewhere, or in those same countries in the event of war or one of the other types of social breakdown that occurred with such alarming frequency in the 20th century.  To the extent that a “good” no longer promotes our survival, it is, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, a serious threat.  Morality exists, like everything else about us, because, and only because, at some time in the past, it promoted our survival.  That being the case, nothing can be more immoral than failing to survive.  To anyone who would claim otherwise, I can only say, to borrow a phrase from E.O. Wilson, please “lay your cards on the table,” and explain why.

    What, then, can we say about the association of higher levels of human intelligence with such survival threatening “goods” as modern liberalism and vegetarianism, not to mention with such behavioral tendencies as having fewer children.  Apparently, we are forced to conclude that, as things now stand, human beings with above average intelligence represent a biological dead end.  Eventually they must either become more stupid, or more intelligent.  My personal preference is for the latter.  I have a hunch it will more effectively promote our long term survival.

    UPDATE:  Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy has more on the Kanazawa article.  From his take:

    I suspect that much of the public interest in Kanazawa’s study is driven by a perception that political views endorsed by more intelligent people are more likely to be true. This, however, is a dubious inference. Even intelligent people have incentives to be rationally ignorant about politics and to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do know. I do think that, other things equal, a political view is more likely to be correct if it is more likely to be endorsed by people with greater knowledge of the issue (controlling for other factors that may affect their answers). While knowledge and intelligence are likely to be correlated, they are not the same thing. Ultimately, the fact that a political ideology is more likely to be endorsed by more intelligent people is only a weak indicator of its validity.

    Or, as Confucius once said, “Study without thought is vain; thought without study is dangerous.”

    Interestingly, Kanazawa himself does not claim that intelligent people are more likely to endorse liberalism because it is true. Instead, he argues that the result is due to the fact that liberalism is more at odds with our genetic instincts than conservatism is, and intelligent people are more likely to endorse “novel” ideas.

    Liberals are not different from conservatives because they are more rational, and therefore less subject to genetic instincts.  (“Genetic instincts” is imprecise, but we’ll use the vernacular for the time being).  Rather, liberalism and conservatism are manifestations of the same genetic instincts in the context of the modern world.  They differ only in such factors as identification of who belongs in the “in-group” and who belongs in the “out-group.”  These distinctions can have a major political impact, but, as far as human nature is concerned, they are peripheral.  They are both merely possible expressions of emotional responses whose fundamental origins in the brain are identical in both cases.

  • Of Assassinations in Dubai and Ideological Narratives

    Posted on February 26th, 2010 Helian No comments

    In the ancient times before the blogosphere, when even Internet forums were still a novelty, and blogs nonexistent, one occasionally ran across mainstream media types who would hilariously claim, with a perfectly straight face, that their news reporting was “objective.”  Nowadays such specimens have become a great rarity, seldom encountered outside of circus side shows.  Even the lowliest of trolls are now well aware of the existence of what is referred to as the “narrative.”  The narrative requires that reality be “adjusted” to conform to a particular ideological point of view.  These adjustments are seldom applied in the form of blatant lies.  In these days of instant Internet fact checking, it has simply become too risky.  Rather, one only reports stories that conform to the narrative, perhaps after trimming them of certain “irrelevant details” and adding some “interpretation” by “experts” to make sure readers don’t miss the point.  In other words, the story is massaged until, as the Germans put it, “Es passt in den Kram” (It fits in with the rest of the crap).

    Sometimes events of such a shocking nature occur that even the most carefully crafted narratives must be adjusted to account for them.  One such event was, of course, the demise of Communism.  As one might expect, it left the narrative of the “progressive left” in a shambles.  A new, somewhat ramshackle version had to be cobbled together, from such ideological flotsam and jetsam as bobbed to the surface after the Soviet Titanic slid beneath the waves, combined with some interesting new twists.  One of the more amusing of these is the left’s increasingly steamy love affair with the more extreme Islamists.  It seems odd on the face of it that ideologues who once posed as champions of women’s liberation and gay rights, and vehemently denounced the agenda of the Christian right, are now found in such a warm embrace with misogynistic, homophobe religious fanatics.  However, Homo sapiens has never really been a rational animal.  We are simply better than the other animals at using reason to satisfy our emotional needs.  When it comes to emotional needs, there are those among us whose tastes run to “saving” the rest of us and making us all “happy” by stuffing the messianic world view du jour down our collective throats.  These are the familiar types who love to strike heroic poses on the “moral high ground.”  Marxism scratched their emotional itch admirably for many years, but has lately fallen out of fashion.  When it did, it left something of a psychological vacuum in its wake.  Mercifully, no brand new surefire prescription for saving humanity was waiting in the wings to take its place.  Instead, radical Islamism has rushed in to fill the vacuum.  When it comes to messianic world views, it is, for the time being at least, the only game in town.  Incongruous successor to Marxism that it is, it still scratches that itch.  The “progressive left” jumped on board.  It should really come as no surprise.  After all, back in the day, they managed to convince themselves that they were “saving the world” by collaborating in the mass murders of Pol Pot and Ho chi Minh, not to mention Stalin. 

    Artifacts of this Islamist – leftist love affair are not hard to find.  When it comes to the European news media, for example, it takes the form of anti-Semitism Lite, often euphemistically referred to as “anti-Zionism.”  It manifests itself in the form of obsessive, one-sided bashing of Israel for the slightest real or imagined infractions of the left’s version of “morality,” combined with a the turning of a blind eye to the far more egregious misdeeds of her enemies.  For example, deliberate attempts by the Islamists to murder Israeli civilians with barrages of rockets are reported with as much emotional detachment as the next day’s weather, but grossly exaggerated accounts of atrocities in Gaza and “blood libel” fables about the harvesting of organs from Palestinian victims become the stuff of persistent propaganda campaigns without the slightest shred of proof. 

    The process is nicely illustrated by the manner in which the news about the recent assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai has been reported in Europe.  There, as in the US, the “progressive left” tends to be over-represented in the legacy media.  It is overwhelmingly the case in Germany, where no equivalent of our talk radio or influential bloggers exists to restore a semblance of balance.  Consider, for example, the coverage in Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading news magazine.  A story about the assassination that appeared last week began with the ominous headline, “How Israel Covered Mossad’s Trail.”  The opening blurb reads, “The Israeli secret service will neither ‘confirm nor deny’ its involvement in the murder of Hamas weapons dealer Mabhouh.  However, the Dubai assassin who went by the cover name Michael Bodenheimer left a trail behind him:  In Cologne and in Israeli Herzliya.”  The rest of the article is a collection of circumstantial evidence combined with suggestions that the crime had all the earmarks of a Mossad hit. 

    The “news” here is hardly that Mossad wasn’t involved in the hit.  It’s the disconnect between the way Spiegel reported on this story, which happened to fit its anti-Israel narrative, and the way it reports on similar stories that don’t.  Take for example, the involvement of Al Qaeda in 911.  This was a story that most decidedly did not fit Spiegel’s pro-Islamist narrative at the time.  It also came at an inconvenient time, as Spiegel was in the forefront of a quasi-racist German jihad against the United States that reached levels of obsessive viciousness at about the time of 911 that would scarcely be credible to Americans who can’t read German.   Nevertheless, all the same circumstantial evidence was there, complete with a trail leading back to Germany.  In this case, however, instead of accepting the obvious, Spiegel’s editors dug in their heels, and tried to create an alternate version of reality.  They began what I referred to at the time as the “Spielchen mit den Beweisen,” or “cute little game with the proofs,” coming up with ever more contrived reasons to dismiss the increasing mountain of evidence pointing to Al Qaeda’s guilt.  Even when bin Laden appeared on tape, practically jumping up and down and screaming, “We did it!  We did it!” the editors refused to throw in the towel.  They were nothing if not stubborn.  Reality was what they said it was, and the rest of the world be damned!  They pointed out that (aha, oho), the translators of the videotape had been in the employ of the evil Americans.  They produced their own “translators” from the enormous pool of experts they have constantly at their beck and call, ready to “prove” the most absurd concoctions.  These came up with a “corrected” translation on demand which (surprise, surprise) exonerated bin Laden.  Only after a chorus of native Arab speakers in countries that could hardly be portrayed as “friends” of the United States pointed out that Spiegel’s “translators” were sucking canal water, did the editors finally give over, muttering dark comments about the “exegesis of videotapes.” 

    In a word, then, as far as ideologues are concerned, be they on the left or the right of the political spectrum, the “real world” is what fits the narrative.  When it comes to dishing out blame, let him beware whom the ideological shoe fits.

    UPDATE:  It’s odd that Spiegel didn’t pick up on this.  Looks like prime material for another “Spielchen mit den Beweisen” to me.

  • A Malaysian Atheist asks for Help

    Posted on February 21st, 2010 Helian No comments

    The Friendly Atheist has posted a letter  from a Malaysian atheist appealing for help and advice to solve a problem related to religion.  It’s from a Malaysian woman in a relationship with a British man.  Both are atheists, but they can’t be married as such in Malaysia because, having been born to Moslem parents, she is automatically a “Moslem,” and can’t renounce the religion because apostasy is severely punished.  She claims the penalty is death, as in Saudi Arabia, but, based on some of the comments, in practice it’s less drastic than that.  As some of the commenters point out, the letter seems a bit fishy, I suspect because the British man isn’t really as interested in getting married as the writer seems to think.  Be that as it may, the letter is a case in point of how moral rules can be blunt instruments.

    In this case, the rule we are talking about is the rejection of “religious bigotry.”  Like all moral rules, to be effective, it must be kept simple.  In essence, the rule is that if you object to someone else’s beliefs, and the set of beliefs you object to are generally accepted as a religion, than you are a religious bigot.  There are good reasons for the existence of such rules.  They leverage the innate human predisposition to acquire a moral code in order to prevent harm to individuals on account of personal beliefs.  It is tacitly assumed that these beliefs pose no threat to other individuals that they cannot reasonably be expected to bear, or that the “bigot” would not be likely to bear if the shoe were on the other foot.  As the case mentioned above illustrates, it is unwise to apply such rules indiscriminately, untempered by considerations of what is really being accomplished in the process. 

    Take, for example, objections to Islam.  In general, a large proportion of the populations of the western democracies today would object to any sort of discrimination against anyone on account of their religious affiliation as Moslems.  To them, such discrimination represents “religious bigotry.”  However, if one really accepts the teachings of Islam at face value, their consequences if applied to these opponents of “religious bigotry” would likely induce them to change their tune with alacrity. 

    Suppose, for example, that they were made to suffer severe punishment for beliefs over which they had no more voluntary control than the belief that 2+2 = 4?  Suppose they were prevented from marrying a person they loved because that person was not a Moslem?  Suppose their best friend suddenly announced that the friendship was over because its existence was not in accord with the friend’s religious beliefs?  Suppose they were required to accept the murder of one of their children by someone acting explicitly in the name of that religion, because the child was a homosexual?  Supposed they were required to live under laws explicitly based on the prescriptions of that religion?  Supposed they were required to accept official discrimination, resulting, for example, in a higher tax burden, on account of their own religious beliefs?  All of the above are explicitly required by the Moslem religion if one takes the Quran and Kadith seriously.  These opponents of “religious discrimination” would certainly reject all of the above out of hand if it were required of them by some arbitrary tyrant acting in the name of pure self-interest.  Why, then, are such demands acceptable if made in the name of religion?

    Blind religious discrimination has been an incredibly destructive force in human history.  Religious discrimination against Moslems can be just as destructive as any other variety.  However, one does not become a “bigot” by virtue of objecting to the sacrifice of cherished liberties, won over centuries at a high cost in blood, because someone else’s religion demands it.  Those who demand religious liberty for themselves must be willing to accord that same liberty to others.  No “moral rule” can have any force that requires one to sacrifice one’s own liberty to accommodate someone else’s religion.

  • Niall Ferguson and the Amity/Enmity Complex

    Posted on February 20th, 2010 Helian 1 comment

    In earlier posts, I have noted the remarkable paradigm shift that has recently occurred in acceptance of the fact that human behavior, including moral behavior, is highly dependent on predispositions that are hard-wired in the brain. It did not come easy.  The concept of innate behavioral traits flew in the face of a good many cherished ideological myths, not the least of which was the myth of Marxism.  We have made great progress, but we have not reached our journey’s end. 

    Not all the myths are dead.  Legions of psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, theologians, philosophers, and other “experts” of every stripe are still fighting a delaying action.  They will continue to insist until the bitter end, or, to put it more concretely, until the facts finally drag them back to reality, that, while some aspects of human behavior may be innate, we are only wired to be “good” and “moral.”  Once upon a time they told us that, because the “gentle” chimpanzee was our closest relative in the animal kingdom, then, obviously, our nature was to be “gentle” and “unaggressive” as well.  When it turned out that, after all, the chimpanzee is not as “gentle” and “unaggressive” as first imagined, and, in fact, displays some character traits that are distinctly politically incorrect, the hapless beast was tossed overboard in favor of today’s favorite, the lately fashionable bonobo.  The bonobo, we are told, is a paragon of cooperative behavior, with sexual habits that are in perfect harmony with the most advanced views on the topic.  In a word, we have made progress, but only partial progress.  Instead of being fully buried, our heads are now only half buried in the sand.   

    All this gushing over bonobos ignores some hard facts.  Among them is the Amity/Enmity Complex.  As I noted in an earlier post, Robert Ardrey once described the Complex as

    …the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside under the pretense it does not exist. The paradox may be simply stated: If the evolutionary process is a merciless struggle among individuals to survive, with natural selection determining the fittest, then how could such human qualities as altruism, loyalty, charity, and mercy have ever come into existence? If Darwinian evolution presents a picture of dog eat dog, then how did dogs ever get together?

    …What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly (Arthur) Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years. But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.

    …Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.

    It does not take a mental giant to figure out how the predisposition to acquire such a dual morality would have promoted the survival of ancestral humans.  It served to spread populations out, optimizing their exploitation of available territory.  Ardrey has included several interesting descriptions of related behavior in other primate species in his books.  At a time when we possessed only crude weapons, the survival value of enmity between adjoining groups was enhanced by the fact that it was unlikely to have lethal consequences.  Times have changed.  Our weapons are no longer crude.

    The complex is the fundamental human behavioral trait behind such “isms” and other related evils as racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious bigotry.  However, rather than admit something as unpleasant as an innate behavioral trait that might predispose us to be other than perfect angels, we have refused to accept the obvious.  The obvious is that the enmity half of the Amity/Enmity Complex is the unifying fact that explains all these behaviors.  Rather than accept it, we have instead experienced the devastating effects of each of these “isms” in turn, only giving them a name that associates them with “evil” after the fact.  Would it not be better to understand the underlying phenomenon than to continue on this eternal treadmill, constantly closing the barn door after the animals have already fled?  There have been many Cassandras among us since the time of Darwin, thinkers who pointed to the abundant evidence for the existence of the Complex, and the dangers of ignoring its existence.  One would think that, if the preceding centuries of violence and warfare were not enough, the scales would surely have dropped from the eyes of even the most stubborn doubters after the genocide and mass slaughter of the 20th century.  Alas, bonobos are still in fashion, and we’re still not quite there yet.

    I remain optimistic, however.  I have witnessed the paradigm shift referred to above in my lifetime.  The other shoe will eventually fall.  Facts are stubborn things.  They don’t go away, and we continue to accumulate them.  The Amity/Enmity complex is a fact.  As long as we retain the freedom to inquire and to research the truth, it will become, like innate human behavior, a fact that is increasingly difficult, and finally, impossible to ignore.  It may be that we will have to beat the last, recalcitrant, “progressive” psychologist over the head with the last quantum fluctuation in the last electron in the last molecule in the final neuron that proves, once and for all, that the Complex is real, but one day he, too, will be dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world. 

    Meanwhile, the manifestations of the Complex, countless as they are in our history, remain obvious to anyone with a mind open enough to look at them.  Besides much else that recommends it to the interested reader, there are many interesting examples in Niall Ferguson’s book, “The War of the World.”  For example, referring to anti-Semitic pogroms in pre-WWI Russia:

    What happened between 1903 and 1906 was quite different in character… The catalyst was a classic “blood libel”, prompted by the discovery of the corpse of a young boy,…In the violence that ensued, hundreds of shops and homes were looted or burned. This time, however, many more people were killed… Between October 31 and November 11 there were pogroms in 660 different plances; more than 800 Jews were killed.

    To the persecution of the “bourgeoisie” in the Russian Civil War:

    The Bolshevik newspaper Krasnaya Gazeta declared: “Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood… let there be bloods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible.”… Between 1918 and 1920 as many as 300,000 such political executions were carried out.

    and, finally, to the genocide committed against the Armenians by the Turks:

    Like the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, the Armenians were doubly vulnerable: not only a religious minority, but also a relatively wealthy group… In the mid-1890s irregular Kurdish troops had been unleashed against Armenian villages as the Ottoman authorities tried to reassert the Armenians’ subordinate status as infidel dhimmis, or non-Muslim citizens. The American ambassador estimated the number of people killed at more than 37,000… The murderous campaign launched against the Armenians from 1915 to 1918 was qualitatively different, however; so much so that it is now widely acknowledged to have been the first true genocide… the men and boys older than 10 were massacred… The number of Armenian men, women and children who were killed or died prematurely may have been even higher than a million, a huge proportion of a pre-war population that numbered, at the very most, 2.4 million.

    Is it really so hard to see the common thread here?  Is the truth really so difficult to recognize and accept?  The damage we have done to ourselves boggles the mind.  One day we will learn to understand ourselves, and grasp the reasons why we do these things.  May that day come sooner rather than later.

  • Fact Checking Russian Demographics

    Posted on February 17th, 2010 Helian No comments

    When I was a kid I remember looking at the Soviet Union on a big world wall map and wondering how we would ever survive if a country that big was our enemy. Evidently, a lot of people who grew up during the Cold War never got over the trauma. For them, Russia will always be the enemy. When she sent troops into South Ossetia in response to Georgia’s attack on that province’s capital city with area effect weapons, they took it as proof that she was only waiting for some flimsy pretext to send her hordes pouring forth over eastern Europe. For them, such childish provocations as planting batteries of useless missile defense systems just outside her borders “to defend against an attack from Iran” represented the apex of political sagacity. They will never change. One must resign oneself to waiting until they finally die, and are replaced by a new generation that will, perhaps, at least have the virtue of choosing a more reasonable enemy.

    Meanwhile, they can count our ever-charming Vice President among their number. In an interview he gave to the Wall Street Journal he said:

    Russians…have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.

    Her obituary has been proclaimed in similar terms by a host of pundits. They might do well to take a look at what Anatoly Karlin at Russia Blog has to say about the matter before leaping to conclusions. It may turn out that, in the words of Mark Twain, the reports of Russia’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. For example, as Anatoly points out,

    As of 2008 there were 362,000 more deaths than births in Russia, down from 847,000 in 2005. Furthermore, adding in migration would give a total population loss of just 105,000 people in 2008, equivalent to -0.07% of the population, which is a massive improvement from the 721,000 fall in 2005. The situation continued improving in 2009 despite the economic crisis, with Russia seeing positive natural increase in August and September for the first time in 15 years.

    Russia’s total fertility rate (TFR) has risen from a nadir of 1.16 children per women in 1999, to 1.49 children in 2008 (and thus also breaking the “lowest-low” fertility hypothesis that states that no society has ever recovered from a fertility collapse to below 1.30 children). The figures for 2009 will almost certainly show a TFR above 1.50.

    (In response to the claim that the Russian far east is being overwhelmed by Chinese immigrants.) There are no more than 0.4-0.5mn Chinese in Russia (and probably a good deal less). The vast majority of them are temporary workers and seasonal traders who have no long-term plans of settling in Russia. Even though the Russia Far East depopulated much faster than the rest of Russia after the Soviet collapse, at more than 6mn today, Russian citizens remain ethnically dominant.

    and so on. Karlin provides links for these and many other assertions about Russian demographics that counter the prevailing wisdom in the West. Read the whole thing.

    If Russia’s population really does level off at something between 120 and 150 million, it seems to me history will have presented her with a golden opportunity. She has but to take advantage of it. If global warming becomes a reality, she may actually benefit from the change. That, and all the other potentially devastating environmental problems we face will be more or less severe depending on the size of human populations and their rate of increase. If Russia can somehow manage to avoid the suicidal tendency of the United States and the countries of western Europe to allow themselves to be inundated by waves of culturally alien immigrants, she can be one of the world’s big winners in the decades to come. Will it really be impossible for her to resist encroachment with such a relatively small population? I suspect that, with thousands of weapons in her nuclear arsenal, she will have a fighting chance.

    I, for one, wish her well. She did, after all, absorb the blows of the Mongol hordes, and helped to break the back of the Turkish advance into Europe. She stopped Napoleon and Hitler, and then shed an ocean of blood to demonstrate to the western inventors of Communism that their brilliant idea didn’t work. Surely no one will begrudge her a little peace and quiet for a while, and perhaps, to stretch a point, even a measure of prosperity.

  • Ethiopian Airlines Crash a Terrorist Act?

    Posted on February 16th, 2010 Helian No comments

    DEBKAfile claims it was.  Their record for accuracy has been a bit spotty, but occasionally they scoop the big news organizations. In any case, we’ve had the forensic capability to distinguish crashes caused by lightning strikes from those resulting from explosive devices for a long time now. The people running the investigation should know one way or the other in the not too distant future. When they do, I hope they will inform the rest of us.

  • Global Warming: FOXNews Posts a Statistically Significant Inaccuracy

    Posted on February 16th, 2010 Helian 1 comment

    “Global Warming in Last 15 Years Insignificant, U.K.’s Top Climate Scientist Admits.” That was the rather shocking headline of an article that appeared on the FOXNews site yesterday. The “top climate scientist” in question was Phil Jones, former head of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia. The banner beneath the headline elaborates:

    The embattled ex-head of the research center at the heart of the Climate-gate scandal dropped a bombshell over the weekend, admitting in an interview with the BBC that there has been no global warming over the past 15 years.

    One can only assume the journalist who composed the headline acted out of ignorance rather than malice, as the mistake is “corrected” a few paragraphs into the article:

    In response to the question, “do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically significant global warming?”, Jones said yes, adding that the average increase of 0.12C per year over that time period “is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.”

    Apparently the layers of editors at Fox have a less than exemplary understanding of statistics.  They should, perhaps, learn something about them if they intend to continue writing articles about global warming.

  • Whither Nuclear Power?

    Posted on February 16th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Carl at Chicago Boyz has some interesting insights on the future prospects for nuclear power.  According to his latest,

    While there has been talk of a nuclear “renaissance” in the media for years, it is mostly hype. Existing nuclear plants in the US are running at a high capacity factor and making money for their owners, but there has been little tangible investment in new nuclear plants in the US.

    One giant barrier to building new nuclear plants in the US is financing. We haven’t built a new nuclear plant in the US in decades so no one really knows what it will cost (and it depends on which design is chosen) but it is safe to assume that they will cost more than $8-10B each. Given that the entire market capitalization of most US electric utilities is smaller than this figure, as I discussed in this post in June of 2009, the idea that new nuclear plants would be built in large numbers was a pipe dream.

    Read the whole article and some of the outstanding comments as well.  For example, one of the nuclear engineers working on the new starts in Texas writes,

    First, let’s understand the nature of the loan guarantees. I’m a nuclear engineer who has been involved with the South Texas Project’s new reactor plans since near the beginning.

    The loan guarantees do not guarantee against technical risk. They only cover subsequent GOVERNMENT actions. In the last batch, investors lost billions due to capricous government actions either to delay or prevent startup. Once the NRC issues a “combined operating license” (COL) per 10CFR52, the guarantee is to kick in so that no county government or state agency (or feds) can block construction and completion. When a number is given on the amount of loan guarantees, that is NOT the money that has to be spent. It is merely the exposure of default. Each applicant for a guarantee has to pay an upfront fee like an insurance premium to the government based on the expected risk of default. Basically, the federal government is acting as an insurance company, collecting premiums and covering specific risks.

    THAT’S ALL WE NEED! Get government and politics out of the way and we can build and run new nuclear power plants in the country.

    As you will see if you read the article, Carl is extremely pessimistic about the possibility of a nuclear “renaissance.”  Unless we can find a rational way to deal with lawyers, NIMBYs, and multiple layers of redundant government regulation, he’s probably right.  He summarizes the countries energy picture as follows:

    - new drilling technologies are making natural gas in the US cheaper, which makes other types of investment (nuclear, coal) less financially feasible
    - while many companies were potential investors in new nuclear plants, only one (Southern Company) was really feasible, and they seem to be first out of the gate (woe to their shareholders, however)
    - NRG jumped out first with their Texas plant but it is looking like they are going to pull the plug on that under-capitalized effort
    - the Federal government is continuing to be completely inept in their activities 1) unable to disburse stimulus funds, as predicted 2) no plan for waste after abandoning Yucca Mountain 3) can’t figure out what to do about “clean coal” projects after spending over $1B in Illinois and 7 years to boot
    - not covered here is cap and trade, which needs its own post to do it justice. It looks like the recent change in the senate will stop this in its tracks, but legal efforts to stop the EPA from implementing new draconian rules continues

    As Carl says, the key problem when it comes to nuclear startups is the “giant barrier” of cost.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but a suggestion by one of the other commenters seems to make sense:

    One way of solving the quick problem is to use smaller units manufactured offsite. E.G. Babcox and Wilcox, proposes self contained reactors producing 100 — 250 MWe. The site would be prepared, the reactor could then manufactured in a factory and brought in by train or barge. Once at the site the reactor could be hooked up to the system and started up quickly.

    There’s an excellent article on small nuclear reactors at the World Nuclear Association website.  Carl plans to take a closer look at the cost issue in a later post, but, if new conventional plants really cost “more than $8 to $10 billion each,” small reactors look very competitive.  After all, a complete Virginia class nuclear submarine only costs $1.8B.  Why not just build a whole fleet of dummy nuclear submarines, float them out beyond the territorial limit, and hook them up to the grid with extension cords?  It would knock out the lawyers and the NIMBYs at one blow!