Notwithstanding my plummeting readership and paucity of recent referrals on Blogdex and Technorati, my earlier remarks on space colonization aroused some commentary. Old Arcturus hand Bill Walker asserts, with characteristic bluntness: "We're not in space for one reason: lack of property rights." He also questioned Randy McDonald's analogy:
Newfoundland didn't have 3He or billion-ton nickel-iron nuggets that can be moved billions of miles with a minor push. I agree with you that only 5% of the population will be involved in resource extraction ... but that doesn't mean that expending our resources by a millionfold won't have an effect.
This is where I flabbergast my libertarian audience (though not Bill, who is nothing if not resilient) by disagreeing. An undefined property rights framework is certainly a problem, but it's just not clear -- to me, anyway -- that one can precede habitation.* The colonists will create the institutions they need. Vehicles for getting truly large numbers of people into space, and a market comparable to the cruise industry, are -- in my view -- the next steps. We'll probably have to have nanotech for small groups of people to be self-sufficient; it's no good relying on Earth, dominated as it is by interventionist politics, to maintain a community elsewhere.
So I'm assuming nanotech. Well, with nanotech, siderophile elements just aren't where it's at anymore: your raw materials -- for processing into diamondoid structural components, as well as food -- are dirt, air, and sunlight. And the best substitutes for dirt and air in the asteroid belt are carbonaceous chondrites. Nickel-iron? Precious metals? We'll make paperweights out of them. Or statues, maybe -- there is an awful lot of the stuff out there.
* I note that a somewhat clunky system has been developed for geostationary communications satellites -- the Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau of the ITU says: "With enough funding it is technically and commercially possible to launch a satellite within 18 months of first planning for it. But the delay in allocating slots makes this impossible in reality. It takes two years alone to get a request published and considered."
On to previously unknown reader (the best kind) Troy Loney, who sent in an especially well-written commentary, which I reproduce below in full, followed, of course, by my reaction:
I read with interest your recent posts on why space colonization may not resemble most fictional presentations of it, and I largely agree. However, I think you (and Fred Turner and Randy McDonald) may have missed one of the primary reasons for a group deciding to create a settlement in space: isolation from the otherwise-pervasive influences which draw their members (especially the children) away from the community and its values.
Consider the fears of many Islamic nations in the Middle East; they see what has happened to many other cultures as Western civilization makes its seductive invasion, and they want nothing to do with that -- but here on Earth, there is no effective way they can avoid it. Even China hasn't been able to prevent subversion by the Internet and by broadcast media.
But (as Turner so eloquently points out) the vast distances of space will make that task far more manageable. People (mostly religious, but not exclusively so -- think of the hard-core communists) who now attempt to isolate themselves in, say, northern Idaho or the Carolina mountains, could easily find the greater isolation of space attractive.
All it will take is the mature technology which allows them to live there effectively and reasonably cheaply, and I think they'd go. I feel sorrow for their children, for whom escape will be much harder -- but then, wasn't that the case for the whole world until very recently?
Kudos to Troy for doing the homework -- the Turner article, in particular, is not short. And I would add that "escape" may be easier than is apparent at first. The people who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were practicing just the strategy Troy describes; the version of American history most of us are taught, in which they were seekers of religious freedom, glosses over their desire to keep their children from enjoying the relative freedom of the Dutch Republic. But their isolationism failed over time. And the eventual result was, well, us.
(Incidental personal datum: my own background lays great emphasis on being in the world, but not of it -- see, generally, John 17 -- and therefore does not countenance a Pilgrim-like withdrawal to a lonely colony.)
In a footnote to a post about the Free State Project (of whose utility I remain unconvinced, I'm afraid. Great logo, though), Razib at Gene Expression encapsulates the political attitude which -- if I may be forgiven an extravagant characterization -- will save civilization: "My political factionalism has waned as my concern for the safety and health of western liberalism has grown." May this meme spread far and wide ...
-- have been compiled here by the BBC.
Currently tied at #23 on Blogdex, we find U.S. 'negation' policy in space raises concerns abroad, in which Loring Wirbel notes an aggressive new approach to risk management on the part of the National Reconnaissance Office:
Beginning next year, NRO will be in charge of the new Offensive Counter-Space program, which will come up with plans to specifically deny the use of near-Earth space to other nations, said [National Reconnaissance Office director Peter] Teets.
The program will include two components: the Counter Communication System, designed to disrupt other nations' communication networks from space; and the Counter Surveillance Reconnaissance System, formed to prevent other countries from using advanced intelligence-gathering technology in air or space.
I find this somewhat alarming, as I am unaware of any precedent and am reluctant, in at least this instance, to see the US introduce such an innovation. At the same time, however, I harbor no idealistic notions of the demilitarization of space through treaties. Those with faith in supranational authorities will undoubtedly make much of Offensive Counter-Space; we may expect to hear "cowboy" employed as an epithet before long. They'll have a fit over this, too:
At the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in early April, Teets proposed that U.S. resources from military, civilian and commercial satellites be combined to provide "persistence in total situational awareness, for the benefit of this nation's war fighters." If allies don't like the new paradigm of space dominance, said Air Force secretary James Roche, they'll just have to learn to accept it. The allies, he told the symposium, will have "no veto power."
But this has been true ever since Open Skies was rendered obsolete by the launch of the first CORONA reconnaissance satellite in August of 1960. The far more interesting question, presuming the imminent development of -- for lack of a better term -- anti-satellite satellites (we'll just avoid that acronym) by the NRO, is whether or how other countries' satellites will be endowed with defensive capabilities.
To speculate for a moment, it seems to me that Offensive Counter-Space must employ either directed-energy or kinetic-kill (more or less conventional bullets and warheads) weapons. Hardening electronics against blasts of radiation or developing reflective coatings as countermeasures to lasers is one thing, but stopping incoming projectiles doing several thousand meters per second is quite another. It is not at all obvious how this can be done within the mass budget of a reconnaissance satellite.
For a less speculative post, and in the interest of breaking this topic up into readable chunks, see the following.
The potentially most alarming quote from the Wirbel article is this:
To fill the imaging gap during the Afghan and Iraq wars, the NRO and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) bought up all the image products from two companies that fly commercial imaging satellites, Space Imaging Inc. and DigitalGlobe Inc. In the first phase, ClearVision, the agencies merely bought up existing photographs. But a new phase, NextVision, calls for NRO and NIMA to specify how the commercial firms should build their next-generation satellites.
-- which immediately raises the question of whether those specifications will enhance or hamper commercial satellite imaging. This NIMA media release says that
Its goal is to advance and protect our national security and foreign policy interests by maintaining the nation’s leadership in remote sensing space activities, and by
sustaining and enhancing U.S. remote sensing industry.
Well, they said "enhancing." Digging a bit further, however, we find this document, in which Federal intent begins to appear less benign; now the goals include:
Enable U.S. industry to compete successfully as a provider of remote sensing space capabilities for foreign governments and foreign commercial users, while ensuring appropriate measures are implemented to protect national security and foreign policy.
Sure enough, we get a glimpse of the mailed fist:
... because of the potential value of its products to an adversary, the operation of a U.S. commercial remote sensing space system requires appropriate security measures to address U.S. national security and foreign policy concerns. In such cases, the United States Government may restrict operations of the commercial systems in order to limit collection and/or dissemination of certain data and products, e.g., best resolution, most timely delivery, to the United States Government, or United States Government approved recipients.
... and this crippling provision:
The United States Government also may condition the operation of U.S. commercial remote sensing space systems to ensure appropriate measures are implemented to protect U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.
There's also this broad hint of government takeover of the industry:
Proposals for new partnerships regarding remote sensing that would raise questions about United States Government competition with the private sector shall be submitted for interagency review. In general, the United States Government should not pursue such partnerships if they would compete with the private sector, unless there is a compelling national security or foreign policy reason for doing so.
In other words, whenever they feel like it. If one-tenth of the people squawking about WMD in Iraq would get ahead of the curve for once in their lives and devote some attention to this, a significantly better risk-management strategy might result.
Despite my best efforts at eliminating my readership through obnoxious posts and systematic neglect of this blog -- caused, I must admit, by persistent demands on my time made by my employers, who seem to expect me to show up and demonstrate some kind of productivity almost every day -- still, once in a while an item like this one gets a response. And what a response!
Previously unknown (best kind) reader Rob Scott grazed in from Adelaide (that would be the capital of South Australia; turning to a handy Great Circle Calculator, we find this to be upwards of 8,300 nautical miles from KC) to state his willingness to go get it:
Thanks to your report I have the position. I have access to a telescope capable of seeing that faint, so I might have a look, although it would be fairly uninspiring. If you are interested I could send you a short report.
Observing reports are always welcome here. And SO25300.5+165258, while quite faint, may still be visually interesting due to its deep red color. A few years back at the Texas Star Party, I used a finder chart in Sky & Telescope to hunt down Barnard's Star. It was quite recognizable, being by far the reddest star in the field of view.
While I'm at it, some more visualization: if Earth were orbiting SO25300.5+165258, for it to appear as bright as the Sun does to us here, we would have to be less than 300,000 kilometers from it. Since SO25300.5+165258's mass is quoted as 7% of the Sun's, assuming similar density, it would have around 40% of the Sun's diameter, or nearly 600,000 km. Its disk would therefore subtend around 120° of sky! Also, its surface brightness per unit area wouldn't be much brighter than a Full Moon, making it quite safe to look at directly, without any optical protection.
Randy McDonald points out some difficulties with the assumption that space colonization can be driven by resource extraction and manufacturing. Read the whole thing (under 1,300 words; 5 minutes), then graze on back for my reaction.
OK, one more detour; read this post.
All done? As I noted in a roundabout way back in February, lots of people may someday live in space -- most likely in O'Neill-type colonies -- but I'd guess that fewer than 5% of them will be involved with mining or heavy industry. So I don't see this as a limitation. See also Fred Turner on what will really get people into space.
Reporting from the American Astronomical Society meeting in Nashville, John Noble Wilford of the NYTimes writes of tantalizing hints that planetary formation may be both more rapid and more physically extensive than formerly thought:
Commenting on the new findings, Dr. David Weintraub, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University, said it was "conceivable that the planet-forming process is well on the way" around three-million-year-old stars.
But it is also conceivable, Dr. Weintraub said, that all the dust has simply gone away. Some was probably sucked up by the star itself, and the rest could have been blown out into space by winds of stellar particles.
That would be the T Tauri wind, about which you may read at this excellent amateur page. Meanwhile:
In another discovery, a team of international astronomers using infrared telescopes was surprised to find similar circumstellar disks that were 10 to 100 times as large as the solar system or any planet-forming disks previously studied.
Dr. [Richard] Elston [of the University of Florida] said the observations suggested that it might be possible for planets to form at much greater distances from their stars than previously thought. This could throw theorists in a spin, but it would be good news for astronomers.
Not to overlook the obvious, if planetary systems an order of magnitude more spread-out than ours are found to be the norm, this means that there are a lot of cold planets out there; imagine Jupiter at nearly twice Pluto's distance from the Sun.
A brief but comprehensive background article on protoplanetary accretion is here.
With all due respect to Ron, it is possible to have "a naturally sunny outlook on life" and nonetheless become "morbidly depressed." In fact, that's me.
Back in the days of the four humors, people had no problem believing that temperaments emerged from the balance, or imbalance, of chemicals in the body. The people who gave us Hamlet and the Reformation believed that melancholy came from too much black bile. That belief didn't stop them from having identities.
As an obscure writer once noted (page down to "Cloning"): "Any parent who picks his spouse -- which, in this society at any rate, is the norm -- has helped 'design' his children."
So where Bill McKibben says that "[n]ever before has one individual tried to exercise such power over another human being[,]" I say that nothing on Earth will stop parents from trying to give their children every advantage in life. That's not an exercise of power -- it's an exercise of love.
That would be the designation of a newly-discovered red dwarf which, at 7.8 light-years away, makes it the third-closest star to the Sun, after the a Centauri system and Barnard's Star. In a nice example of synergy, it was discovered by a NASA GSFC team doing data mining on NEAT images.
The name gives its coordinates: R.A. 2h 53m 00s.5, Dec. +16°52'58"; turning to the Starchart Map Server and pulling up a map centered on these coordinates, we find that the new star is in Aries, is astonishingly close to the ecliptic (the plane of Earth's orbit), and is about 15° west-southwest of the Pleiades. Since it's 300,000 times fainter than the Sun, though, don't expect to be seeing it in a telescope from your backyard; this works out to magnitude +15.3. Do-able with a large amateur instrument from a good dark-sky site, though.
Now for some visualization. If Earth were orbiting around SO25300.5+165258 at the same distance we orbit the Sun, the "year" would be about 14 of ours, due to its much lower mass (7% of the Sun's), and SO25300.5+165258's ruddy glow would be only slightly brighter than a full Moon (with our Sun shining on it, that is). And speaking of the Moon, it would be proportionally fainter, shining at about magnitude +1; probably about the brightness, and color, of Antares.
Dust off a certain Rick Wakeman album and listen to it while reading Going Down? Probe could ride to Earth's core in a mass of molten iron:
If scientists pour molten iron into a narrow crack at least 300 meters deep, the pressure at the bottom of the fissure would be enough to fracture the rock there, [geophysicist David J.] Stephenson [of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena] says. As the crack grows deeper, the molten iron would flow downward and maintain pressure at the crack tip. The self-propagating crack—which high pressure in deep rocks would seal after the iron passed by—would progress at about 5 m per second and reach Earth's outer core in about a week.
There are non-trivial difficulties with probe design and manufacture, of course, but this is still the coolest thing I've read in Science News in a long time.
Graze on over to USGS/NEIC for the technical info, and be sure to page down to "Tectonic Setting," which gives some geological and historical background. The death toll is fairly appalling and adds to Algeria's litany of disasters, as Hassane Meftahi of the AP notes:
The earthquake was the largest in Algeria since the magnitude-7.1 El Asnam quake that struck Oct. 10, 1980, said Lucy Jones, scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey office in Pasadena, Calif.
Jones said Wednesday's quake likely occurred on a blind-thrust fault along the boundary between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, huge sections of the earth's crust. Blind-thrust faults produce earthquakes when one block pushes upward over another, as if moving up a ramp.
The earthquake was the latest tragedy to visit this North African nation, where an Islamic insurgency has killed some 120,000 people over the last decade.
In November 2001, more than 700 people were killed in flooding around the capital, with most of the deaths in Bab el-Oued.
Given that Algeria's population is about 32.3 million (source), proportionally equivalent American disasters in a population of 290 million would be an insurgency that killed 1.1 million, a flood that killed 6,300, and an earthquake that killed at least 4,800 and injured at least 42,000.
As of the time of this posting, the Algerian Red Crescent site seems a bit more concerned with Iraq than Algeria -- as does the International Committee of the Red Cross.
So if you're fed up with political correctness, pick an organization off of this list, or this list, instead, before opening your wallet.
The KCStar's Bill Tammeus notes a remarkable phenomenon in Crucible for Islam:
"The only place where Islam has the same diversity as in America," [Johari] Abdul-Malik [imam of Dar al-Hijra mosque in Falls Church, VA] says, "would be at Mecca during the time of hajj (or annual pilgrimage)," as Muslims from around the world gather there.
This kind of blending -- the sudden appearance of a "verge" of many cultures, formerly isolated from one another -- is a well-known recipe for rapid memetic evolution. And it seems to be happening:
When Pakistani, Saudi, Egyptian or Indonesian Muslims come to America, Abdul-Malik says, they bring with them habits and practices -- such as dress, food and family dynamics -- that are cultural but not necessarily Islamic. In the United States, as Muslims from some 80 countries literally rub shoulders at daily prayer, many of those cultural add-ons get discarded.
"If people are looking for the Islamic reformation," Abdul-Malik says, "it's happening in America, but we're missing it because we're living through it" and are too involved to see the big picture.
Might a decentralized, tolerant Islam, resistant to the lure of terrorism, grow up in our own back yard? It wouldn't be the first time this country has fostered the development of mutualistic memes ...
Obviously a long post -- this one's about a four- or five-minute read. If you've got the time, bear with me ...
Previously unknown, or at least unacknowledged, reader (the best kind) "RH" was inspired by Why People Don't Believe the Historical Sciences (plus the post immediately below it, and perhaps this follow-up) to write at some length. Longtime readers may have deduced that I have no system whatsoever for dealing with input from my audience. I acknowledge it on a completely arbitrary basis. In short, I love getting feedback but don't necessarily do anything with it, so keep writing and you'll probably get mentioned here eventually (do I know how to incentivize, or what?). Having said that, here's RH's letter, followed by my usual backpedaling:
"Historical Science" seems a viewpoint that is more literary than useful. It only means a way of looking at a science over time, and so probably a tautology to call evolutionary biology "historical science": It is, by definition.
When applied to the whole of biology (and even less so for other sciences) it isn't very useful for the advancement of knowledge. Even in Zoology, I learn more from knowing about groupings of similar animals than about their positioning in evolution (in time). For example, it's more useful to notice that mice are like other rodents then it is to observe when they might have appeared historically and what their ancestors might have been. Even in Medicine, the conjectured positioning of evolutonary relationships are much less useful than observing behaviors and observations of simularities of the systems of humans and some other animals ... no matter what their "historical" perspective. I observe that the liver of some mammals are very similiar to humans, and so may be candidates for temporary transplants. I don't care what the evolutionary theory might be.
In fact, your comments on Cladists misses the important observation that the element of "history" or "time" in their work is irrelevant. Cladistics have made the most notable contribution to the knowledge of realtionships among living organisms (more than just about anything else in evolutionary biology, IMHO). The relationships of dependence or precedence of characteristics need not assume time sequence. The greatest contribution is in those groupings and association of attributes, a tree of relationships whose nodes or branches convey more meaning that ascribing any notion of historical relationship ... something not required by the analysis. In fact, Cladistics does not need to find any actual evidence of an "evolutionary step" or a "missing link." The base of knowledge is in the grouping of simularities and judging relationships among attributes about whatever actually has, in fact, been observed.
On evolution itself, I am not one who doubts it, and not one who gives credence to creationism. I side with those who note that evolution doesn't say much and it has little to show for all the fuss. If one just accepts the assertion that all living things had a parent or parents, then one finds that evolution becomes the trivial naming of that process and without having to say anything about "how" it happened. Evolution as used in most citations becomes a totally obvious statement from a rather mild assertion from seemingly basic observation.
It is amusing to note that "evolved" is often used in daily conversation to mean "by an unspecified process." For example, "The committee met this morning and by the end of the meeting the original proposal evolved to the proposal you see now in front of you." So, too, with evolutionary biology, the interesting question is "how" the evolution took place not "if." I find that the proposed basic mechanism (genetic mutation) and supporting factors and observations are totally inadequate to explain most of the interesting questions (e.g., speciation). Most evolution teachers seem to say that given the possibility of genetic mutation that anything is possible with the element of time (i.e., stir it around for a few billion years and "puff" it happens. It is much more intellectually honest to say: "The facts of genetic simularities among living things, genetic mutation, and other factors makes the prospect of some form of evolution exceedingly probable. However, how it happened, how the development of the functions of higher life forms happened is still mostly speculative and is an exciting area for future scientific research."
It is ironic to think that the most significant historical observation on the development of life on earth is not the emerging of life forms but of extinction. Periods of extinction are more significant and notable events and they've been more thorough and "successful." More forms have ceased to exist than those represented by the current developed forms.
The intent of my original posts was to comment more on people's attitudes and inclinations than the methods or significance of the science itself. I find that many people struggle to incorporate a time-axis into their worldview (certainly in politics and science, anyway). Things like "the relationships of dependence or precedence of characteristics need not assume time sequence" -- an entirely true but deeply counterintuitive statement -- don't make it any easier. Since there is some risk (perhaps slight, but perhaps not) that negative public attitudes may someday seriously affect the pursuit of historical sciences in the US, my agenda is to encourage the mitigation of that risk through understanding people's struggles with these kinds of ideas.
As opposed to just calling them a bunch of fundamentalist yahoos, that is. The science, presuming effective peer review by those working in the field, will take care of itself. But public attitudes and beliefs are shaped by all of us.
RH also nails it on extinctions. To be sure, we would not be here without several mass extinctions in Earth's past -- events of such frequency and magnitude as to radically alter life without destroying it altogether, and indeed accelerating its development in ways which, as the ultimate by-product, we naturally find most intriguing. The estimate I've seen of total turnover of species was 99.9%; multiply the diversity of present-day life on Earth (to be sure, mostly microorganisms and insects) by a thousand to get an idea of all that has ever been.
(Those just grazing in may wish to read Of Museums and Power Laws: A Parable for background.)
Steve Connor, Science Editor of The Independent, describes something that looks very much like a power-law distribution in Alarm raised on world's disappearing languages:
Linguists estimate that there are 6,809 "living" languages in the world today, but 90 per cent of them are spoken by fewer than 100,000 people, and some languages are even rarer – 46 are known to have just one native speaker. "There are 357 languages with under 50 speakers. Rare languages are more likely to show evidence of decline than commoner ones," Professor [Bill] Sutherland[, a population biologist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich] said.
Between 200 and 250 languages are spoken by more than a million people, with Chinese Mandarin, English and Spanish being the three most popular tongues.
The difference between this and the museum-artifact situation, of course, is that the numerous languages with few speakers are the most highly valued by linguists. Some interesting efforts are underway to preserve them, but that's a topic for another post (or several).
Remarkably, the rate at which languages are disappearing seems relatively low:
Over the past 500 years, about 4.5 per cent of the total number of described languages have disappeared, compared with 1.3 per cent of birds and 1.9 per cent of mammals.
Note also the low extinction rate -- not what kids in public schools in the US are being taught, I'm sure, where environmental apocalypse has been the order of the day at least since I was in 6th grade in 1970. Self-awareness requires that I note that the obvious answer to the see-things-aren't-so-bad meme would be something about tipping points. And indeed one can imagine the popularity of a few very widely-spoken languages -- combined with speed-of-light communication and the ability to travel between almost any two points on Earth in under 24 hours -- driving out thousands of rare languages in the next generation.
Since it is not obvious why the same effects should cause mass extinctions, the main point of Connor's article -- that certain types of human cultural artifacts are at far greater risk than natural ecosystems -- deserves much greater attention.
From Michael Jennings, this encapsulation of the virtues of a minimal State and the superiority of decentralist strategies of risk management: "It's much better to let people leave the pub when they feel like it rather than all at once." How different a world this would be if this principle were generally applied ...
No joy in Mudville; KC was socked in. Send observing reports here (if you haven't corresponded with me since January or so, you'll be asked for a confirmation by Spam Arrest), and I'll post the good ones.
I can do no better than to point you to Fred Espenak's Eclipse Page; the specifics on this event are here. For locals -- and referring to this handy application for the times of sunset and moonrise -- here's the timetable:
The cool part is #3-4, ie roughly from 9-10 PM Central; adjust for your time zone. As of now, it appears that the weather in KC will cooperate.
(This is the sort of thing that Martin Gardner would write, if he were about one-tenth as talented as he actually is.)
Once upon a time, the country of Qari fell into the hands of an evil dictator, Haddam Sussein, who oppressed its people and invaded its neighbors. One neighboring country, Nari, fought Sussein off, but at enormous cost, and was unable to invade Qari to depose him. Another, smaller neighbor, Tiawuk, was overrun entirely before being liberated by its allies, but they chose not to pursue Sussein's armies after chasing them out of Tiawuk.
But some years later, two of Tiawuk's allies decided to eliminate the Sussein regime, partly to liberate Qari's people but mostly to intimidate other dictators and terrorist groups who presented a more direct threat. (The ultimate effectiveness of their strategy is beyond the scope of this parable.) They carefully prepared an attack and were indeed able to depose Sussein without fighting a single large-scale battle.
Since their tactics did not involve occupying Qari with large armies, however, there was a period of great disorder when the regime was removed from power. During the civil unrest, a unique asset, the Blog Museum, was plundered. First reports were that nearly all of its displays were stolen. Later reports were that only a few valuable items could not be accounted for. Opponents of the invasion to liberate Qari emphasized the large number of missing items; supporters of the invasion emphasized the small number of verifiable treasures involved, suggesting that the invasion opponents' reports of the pillaging of the museum were largely fabricated.
But both types of reports were correct. On the eve of the invasion, the Blog Museum contained 1,000 displays, whose value followed a power law; numbered in order of relative value, each display was worth 1/n times the value of the most valuable display, a commemoration of a well-known Presbyterian with a machete, once called "the fiercest of the bloggers." This display was worth Rs100,000 (no prizes for guessing what "Rs" is intended to abbreviate).
But thanks to the power-law distribution, the cumulative value of all 1,000 displays was less than Rs750,000! The most valuable display contained nearly one-seventh of the value of the entire contents of the Blog Museum. Half the museum's value was concentrated in only 23 displays, and three-quarters of it in the top 153 of 1,000. At the other end, the bottom 528 displays, commemorating such obscure blogs as A Voyage To Altair, A Voyage To Aldebaran, and A Voyage To Alpheratz, together comprised only 10% of the museum's value. Those at the very bottom were worth only about Rs100 each, hardly enough to buy a decent cup of coffee on the streets of Dadhgab after the invasion.
So even though the looters carted away hundreds of displays, only a couple of dozen were such great losses as to be individually noted by curators and connoisseurs. Thus the disagreement over the scope of the looting, with one side accusing the other of insensitivity to cultural losses, and counter-accusations by the other side of wild exaggerations fabricated for purposes of propaganda. An obscure blogger used the occasion to recommend higher standards for numeracy among journalists, and everyone lived happily ever after.
(Ref this earlier post.) Over on Impearls, Michael McNeil comments at length on earthquake risk, and includes a terrific map of earthquake distribution in the US. I will not attempt to summarize his post, which is well worth reading in its entirety, other than to say that he points out that earthquakes with Kobe-class body counts are still a possibility for the US.
Believing (as I still do) that much of the two-order-of-magnitude difference in casualties between Loma Prieta and Kobe was due to lower vulnerability of infrastructure in the Bay Area, the obvious follow-up would be to look up what official investigations turned up in Japan after the Kobe earthquake.
This report suggests that Japan is somewhat unique: "Because of a severe shortage of constructible land, much of modern Japan, including Tokyo and most other large cities, is built on the worst ground possible for earthquakes." But the Kobe earthquake offers lessons for certain sites in the US:
Ports all along the western United States are particularly susceptible to effects like those seen in the Kobe Earthquake. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, serving the second-largest urban area of the United States, are on or near the Newport-Inglewood and Palos Verdes faults, while the Port of Oakland (significantly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake) is only a few kilometers from the Hayward Fault. New data on faults in the Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, port areas are only now emerging. Significant sections of these ports were built before modern geotechnical practice permitted mitigation of liquefaction risk. The real possibility exists that a large portion of the West Coast’s shipping capacity could be crippled by a major earthquake.
The report hints at institutional -- perhaps cultural -- problems as well:
While data are not yet complete, preliminary observations suggest that preparedness and emergency response efforts in Kobe were less than satisfactory. The immediate urban search and rescue effort was inadequate for the thousands of buildings destroyed in this event. The problem would have been further compounded had the earthquake occurred during the day, when thousands more people would have been trapped in major derailments and office building collapses.
Efforts are needed to (1) continue and increase support for emergency preparedness and response, at all levels, public and private; (2) encourage development of innovative techniques for improved response such as automated, rapid post-event damage assessment and decision-making using geographic information system-based tools; and (3) investigate enhanced response through development of citizen cadres for disaster assistance.
For Americans, the problem is largely a technological rather than a cultural or institutional one, and earthquake damage is yet another hazard that will be greatly meliorated by nanotech, probably before anything worse than Loma Prieta happens. Not so for (to take the extreme example) India, where tens of millions of lives are profoundly at risk in a society which is just beginning to emerge from a stultifying, bureaucratic system.
So where our West Coast, to say nothing of our heartland, needs better engineering, Japan may need a dash of individualism and devolution of political power to the local level; and India needs Hayek. The approach is indirect, but powerful: create an environment where effective risk-management institutions -- including the kind of undirected heroism we saw on 9/11/01 -- can arise.
May 8, 1884 - December 26, 1972
"I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard. I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt. I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization."
-- Winston Churchill, 1952
A related distinction is between studies with clear, unique and certain solutions (the model of math and theoretical science) and those [with] more complex, less certain, more polyvalent solutions.
On this basis, and recalling Sulloway's work, I would expect later-borns, who are notoriously attracted to probabilistic models, to be more supportive of the historical sciences, and indeed, Pinker states: "When evolutionary theory was first proposed and still incendiary, later-borns were ten times as likely to support it as first-borns." (p 454)
Guess which I am? ;)
-- as quoted by none other than David Appell, reads: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." In practice, it often becomes risk management through risk avoidance rather than risk mitigation. The consequences are a bit worse than the principle's more ardent proponents acknowledge.
Previously unknown reader (the best kind) Kevin Munden pointed me to Science, risk and the price of precaution, where we find Dr Gail Cardew, "head of programmes at the Royal Institution in London," pointing out that
Were the precautionary principle adopted at the time, penicillin would not have been given to Albert Alexander after so little testing in animals. No doubt it would have been tested on other animals, and yet subsequently penicillin was found to be toxic to guinea pigs. In this scenario, would we have been too cautious ever to try out "the wonder drug" on humans?
Piers Corbyn, "meteorologist, and founder and managing director of Weather Action," notes: "Steam trains and cars were regarded as dangerous by many Victorian critics, who wanted them banned."
Present-day counterparts are listed by Stuart Derbyshire, "assistant professor of anaesthesiology and critical care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh":
Xenotransplantation could benefit thousands, but is being held back by ill-founded concerns about porcine retroviruses. Vaccines could be inside staple foods such as potatoes but are not, because of spurious concerns about GM food. Unsafe vaccinations are responsible for many thousands of avoidable infections and deaths every year. Stem cells and fetal cells could be employed against devastating and deadly neurological and cardiovascular disease, but are not, because of medieval beliefs about the sanctity of embryos. Even drugs to tackle neurological disease are held back, because of ridiculous fears that a "pharmacological underclass" will be created.
I can only hope that Sp!ked's conference will find some time to address the Bush Administration's favorite application of the Precautionary Principle (which would imprison scientists for ten years for investigating somatic-cell nuclear transfer).
Most of the action was in bordering counties; at stately Arcturus manor, the only practical effect was a repeated scramble to locate pets and shut computers down when the tornado sirens went off, which they did three times in the space of two hours. We did get hailed on a couple of times, but it was the usual pea-to-marble-sized stuff.
UPDATE: Nice historical perspective here. Notice the trend toward lower death tolls and -- for those of us who remember several of the later events -- faster recovery times, in spite of greatly increased population and infrastructure.
McKibben, I believe, would be making this argument whenever he happened to be alive -- 5,000 B.C., a century ago, or two thousand years from now. Preying on fears sells news, articles, and books, and offers a shot at piety at the same time. Finding real honest-to-god solutions does not do as well.
We are a species that has never said “enough,” yet we have always found meaning along the way, no more in McKibben’s time than did medieval peasants or ancient Jews, or Cro-Magnon man. We’re certainly not about to stop now; we can’t. The future, scary as always, needs us, no less than the present.
David's less-than-favorable reaction is especially significant because he shares, to a far greater extent than most bloggers, the concerns of environmentalists about climate change, unregulated introduction of new technologies by for-profit entities, etc. But he has, shall we say, a sharp eye for conservatism -- in this case, its age-old stasist stop-the-world variant.
The delightful John J. Reilly writes:
Of course, Ferguson's argument that the US is too impatient to run an empire should not be dismissed. The Astronomer Royal of the UK recently published a book, Our Final Century, in which he makes a plausible case for "doom soon." The book is also out in the US, but here it is called Our Final Hour. Now that's a difference in attention spans for you.
The recent strong, shallow earthquake in Turkey brought to mind a longstanding risk-management concern of mine: how to prevent high casualties from such events in the Third World?
Over on EurekAlert, we find Growing world urban populations threatened by massive earthquakes; key quotes:
[University of Colorado at Boulder geological sciences professor Roger] Bilham said a “fractal distribution of fatality count versus the number of fatal earthquakes permits a grim glimpse of possible future earthquake disasters based on past events.”
... recent research by Bilham and his colleagues indicate that at least one and perhaps as many as seven 8.1 magnitude to 8.3 magnitude earthquakes are overdue in the Himalayas facing northern India.
Bilham believes there is room for optimism, though he characterizes the present era as the age of construction when 3 billion new dwellings presently are being planned for a future doubling of the world population. “We are in a remarkably good position to make these new buildings safe to live in,” he said.
“Earthquakes don’t kill people, but buildings and builders of inferior buildings do.”
A key insight; compare the death tolls from Loma Prieta with those of Kobe, two events of nearly identical magnitude and depth. But one killed over 5,000, and the other killed 63.
Bilham's reasoning should be extended. Why are inferior buildings constructed? What conditions foster improvement in building construction -- what mores, what institutions, what public policies? The contrasts between Japan and the US, let alone between Turkey and the US, strongly suggest that open societies with competitive economic systems and a commitment to preventing corruption and protecting individuals -- in other words, where markets and the rule of law prevail -- are the ultimate lifesaver.
Of course, a cheap warning device would be a good thing to have. And we may be about to get one:
The first indication at the surface that a large earthquake has occurred is typically the jolt caused by the arrival of a fast-moving but low-energy wave called the primary or P wave.
It is followed by the more energetic but slower-moving S or shear wave that causes far more violent shaking.
If directly above the epicenter, there would be no time for a warning, since the S wave would arrive almost immediately after the P wave. At 37 miles from the epicenter, the system could give a magnitude estimate 16 seconds before the arrival of the S wave and the strong ground motion that accompanies it, [Richard] Allen [of the University of Wisconsin-Madison] said.
But even with lots of these, what India -- and Iran -- and a lot of other places need, is liberalization, and fast. Plate tectonics wait for no man.