Wednesday, June 06, 2012

the limits to computation?

americanscientist | The Limits to Growth appeared at a moment of acute environmental foreboding. The previous decade had seen the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” essay, Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle. This was the era when we began to refer to our planet as Spaceship Earth, and when Walt Kelly’s Pogo declared “We have met the enemy and he is us.” There was a receptive audience awaiting The Limits to Growth. The book has sold 10 million copies.

But if Limits has had a broad and sympathetic readership, it has also had vociferous critics. The most carefully argued rebuttal came from a group at the University of Sussex in England; their critique, Models of Doom, is longer than the book it evaluates. The economist William D. Nordhaus wrote a blistering review; the mathematician David Berlinski was snide and mocking. Vaclav Smil later dismissed the whole enterprise as “an exercise in misinformation and obfuscation.”

One complaint lodged against the World3 model is superfluous complication. If the intent is merely to show that exponential growth cannot continue forever, there’s no need for elaborate computing machinery. The model also stands accused of the opposite sin—oversimplification—in its wholesale aggregation of variables. In the resource sector, for example, the model lumps together all the raw materials of industrial civilization—coal and oil, iron and aluminum, diamonds and building stone—to form one generic substance measured in abstract “resource units.” Pollution is handled the same way, with a single variable encompassing everything from pesticides to nuclear reactor wastes. Quantities such as food per capita are global averages, with no way of expressing disparities of distribution. (A later Club of Rome model, written by Mihajlo Mesarovic and Eduard Pestel, did allow for regional differences.)

Still another line of criticism focuses on the inputs to the model—the initial conditions (such as the total stock of nonrenewable resources) and the numerical constants that determine the strength of interactions (for instance, the effect of pollution on agriculture). The Limits team made an effort to pin down these numbers, but huge uncertainties remain. There is no statistical analysis of these errors.

Both Forrester and the Limits group have responded to these objections, matching the vehemence—and occasionally the condescending scorn—of their critics. They stand by their models. When updated versions of the Limits book were published in 1992 and 2004, the authors reiterated their original conclusions and made only subtle changes to the model.

World3 now seems to be undergoing a revival. In 2009 Charles A. S. Hall and John W. Day, Jr., writing in American Scientist, defended the soundness of the model, particularly as it applies to energy resources. Graham Turner has compared predictions with data for 1970–2000 and reports a close match. Ugo Bardi, an Italian chemist, has recently issued a manifesto calling for the rehabilitation of The Limits to Growth.
The Dusty Deck

After 40 years of intense scrutiny, further probing of the World3 model is unlikely to yield big surprises. Nevertheless, nagged by a feeling that I still didn’t really understand the model, I decided to take it apart and put it together again.

When I wrote about Limits in 1993, I worked with a simulation package called Stella II, which offers a snazzy interface: You build a model by dragging icons of vats and valves across the screen. For my studies of World3 I was spared even that labor because a prebuilt version of the model came with the software. Stella II is still available, and so are competing products such as Modelica, Simgua and Vensim. These are impressive programs, recommended for serious work with system dynamics models. My aim, however, was not just to run or test the World3 model but to see how the parts fit together. I wanted to bake my cake from scratch, not from the Betty Crocker box.

The original World3 model was written in a language called DYNAMO, developed in the early 1960s by Phyllis Fox and Alexander Pugh for the Forrester group at MIT. The DYNAMO source code for the World3 model was published in Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World, a thick technical annex to The Limits to Growth. As a way of digesting the DYNAMO program, I decided to make a line-by-line translation into JavaScript, the scripting language built into Web browsers. (The result of this exercise is at

DYNAMO comes from the Fortran era, when programs were fed to the machine on punch cards, and variables had names like “FIALD” (which stands for “Fraction of Inputs Allocated to Land Development”). Beyond these musty lexical conventions, however, lies an interesting programming language, little known outside the system dynamics community. It is mainly declarative rather than procedural. A program is not a sequence of commands but a list of “equations” (really assignment statements) that specify relationships of variables. The sequencing is handled behind the scenes by the DYNAMO compiler.

The World3 program consists of about 150 equations. The vats and valves of the plumbing diagram correspond to “level equations” and “rate equations,” respectively. A level equation calculates a new value for the level in a vat based on the level at an earlier moment and on the rates of inflow and outflow. The calculation is an integration, which would be represented as follows in DYNAMO:

V.K = V.J + DT * (IN.JK – OUT.JK)

Here V is a level variable, IN and OUT are rate variables, and DT is the integration interval, the unit of time in the simulation. The suffixes .J, .K and .JK are time markers: V.J and V.K represent the level of V at successive instants, and IN.JK is a rate of flow during the interval between time J and time K.

Just as levels depend on rates of inflow and outflow, the flow rates in turn can depend on levels. (Think of a bucket with a hole in the bottom: The rate of flow depends on the height of water in the bucket.) This kind of feedback loop is what gives the system the potential for interesting behavior, but from a computational point of view it is an awkward causal circularity. DYNAMO breaks the circle by updating levels and rates in alternation. The level at time t0 determines the rate at t1, which determines the level at t2, and so on. Some conflicts are harder to resolve and require an explicit reordering of the equations, which DYNAMO handles automatically.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

will our kids be a different species?

Fist tap Dale.

is the human brain hardwired for god?

bigthink | Our Lady of Lourdes appears 18 times to a miller's daughter collecting firewood in a small market town in France. A young woman leads an army through critical strategic victories in the 100 Years' War, claiming to be guided by divine insight. In the very first hours of the 20th century, a student asks God to fill her with the holy spirit and begins to speak in tongues.

Are these incidents case studies in undiagnosed mental illness, spiritual transcendence, or something nebulously in between?

Monday, June 04, 2012

where the trough is overflowing (let my people go!)

NYTimes | Every five years or so, Congress promises a new, improved farm bill that will end unnecessary subsidies to big farmers, enhance the environment and actually do something to help small farmers and small towns. But what it usually does is find ways of disguising the old inequities, sending taxpayers dollars to wealthy farmers, accelerating the expansion of industrial farming, inflating land prices and further depopulating rural America.

The new five-year farm bill that could hit the Senate floor as early as this week promises more of the same — excessively generous handouts, combined with a serious erosion of environmental protections. The nearly trillion-dollar bill would provide over 10 years roughly $140 billion in farm subsidies, $55 billion or so in conservation programs and more than $750 billion in food stamp aid.

The subsidies have always been controversial. A mix of direct payments, price supports, loans, subsidized insurance and disaster relief, these subsidies provided protection for millions of farmers in the New Deal and afterward against the vicissitudes of the weather and the market. But in recent years, they have mainly lined the pockets of big farmers of big row crops who don’t need help, while ignoring the little guys who do.

As numerous studies from the Environmental Working Group have shown, the story of modern agriculture in this country is a story of concentration, of huge subsidies flowing to relatively few farmers who grow a handful of row crops — corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice — in a dozen or so Midwestern and Southern states.

Because farm subsidies, old and new, have been tied to production, those cultivating the largest acreage get the biggest payouts. The top 20 percent of recipients from 1995 to 2010 got 90 percent of the subsidies; the bottom 80 percent just 10 percent. Many farmers — well over half the total, by some estimates — get no help at all.

The Senate bill leaves these basic contours unaltered. One positive change is the elimination of an indefensible program of “direct subsidies” that showered $5 billion a year on farmers in good times and bad. But big farmers won’t be worse off. The Senate Agriculture Committee redirected much of the savings into a different subsidy — crop insurance, which pays farmers if they have a loss in revenue or crop yield.

The existing crop insurance program, which pays on average 60 percent of the cost of insurance premiums for farmers, has risen from about $2.4 billion in 2001 to about $8.7 billion in 2011, and is expected to cost $9 billion annually in the coming years. The committee also added a second insurance-related program that could cost an additional $3 billion a year. The main beneficiaries of crop insurance will still be the big farmers, who take out the biggest policies.

this devil had the nerve to hollar "let my people go!"

Long, long ago(1980s) a 'Glorious Deal' was struck in Springfield, Illinois. Chicago wanted to get control of the failing Chicago Public Schools but suburban Republicans refused to allow Chicago Public Schools to 'secede'from the State Board of Education unless the State of Illinois agreed to pay for the teacher pensions of all suburban school districts and the pensions for all Illinois
public university and junior college teaching faculties.

The Illinois university/CC system also have the ability to tax to pay pensions but don't bother doing it.

Over the last 30 years, the entire Illinois State pension liability has risen to $53 billion dollars(2010) of which $38 billion(72%) was suburban/downstate teacher's pension and $14.3 billion(27%) was state university/CC faculty and all other state employee pensions(judges, state
troopers and other state workers) totalled <$1 billion(1%).

So what has this to do with downstate Republican State Rep Mike Bost's tirade(who squealed from the floor, 'Let my people go!') ?

At this time of great sacrifice(eg Medicare is getting slashed), IL House Majority Leader Mike Madigan inserted a 'poison pill' into the Pension bill ending 'the Glorious Deal' and forcing local school districts/colleges to pay the pensions of their own teachers (oh horror!). In Illinois schools are paid by property tax levy(schools are ~75% of property tax as is) and ending the Glorious Deal would unleash the Mother of All Property Tax Increases.

For Illinois conservatives this is a truly nuclear option.

Since Bost's Teapot explosion, Democratic Governor Quinn directed the Republican leader Tom Cross to try to mend the Pension bill without unloading the teacher pensions properly on to suburbanites/downstaters but Chicago's Madigan said he wants the poison pill included.

Quinn is terrified that not dealing with the Pension bill will cause Wall Street to downgrade the Illinois' terrible credit rating.

As of today there is still no compromise.

Mike Bost became unhinged at the possibility that his constituents' free ride was ending and for him to support that ending in the name of financial responsibilty would unleash a tsunami of property tax increases would amount to political suicide.

This is the real story of our current crisis---conservatives and the wealthy want to balance the books on the backs of the poor and middle class, 'let someone else pay for it!'( even though the poor simply haven't the money to do it) and given their superior lobbying abilities that is exactly what will happen.

The rich who fret over 'subsidies' to the poor and middle class, can't bear to lose a penny from the MUCH larger, MUCH more secret subsidies they suck from the system.

If this occurs, America will become more Haiti-like with the 99% masses sunk into the pit and the 1% comfortably living in chateaus. And these were also the condition in 1789 France.

"Qu'ils mangent de la brioche," said the Queen of France.

how corporate socialism works (let my people go!)

Reuters | A proposal to spend $250 million of taxpayer money on a retail project here illustrates the damage state and local subsidies do by taking from the many to benefit the already rich few.

Nationwide state and local subsidies for corporations totaled more than $70 billion in 2010, as calculated by Professor Kenneth Thomasof the University of Missouri-St. Louis

In a country of 311 million, that’s $900 taken on average from each family of four in 2010. There are no official figures, but this one is likely conservative because — as documented by Thomas, this column and Good Jobs First [1], a nonprofit taxpayer watchdog organization funded by Ford, Surdna and other major foundations — these upward redistributions of wealth keep increasing.

In Irondequoit, just outside Rochester, N.Y., and a few miles from where I live, developer Scott Congel wants $250 million in sales taxes to finance rebuilding the Medley Centre mall while adding condominiums and a hotel. Typically local governments issue bonds, which are paid off using sales tax receipts that are diverted from public purposes to the developer’s benefit.

Subsidies for retail businesses are the worst kind of corporate welfare because, as the end of the economic chain, retailing grows only when population and incomes increase. If population or income falls, then subsidies for new projects like Congel’s damage existing businesses, where people would otherwise be spending their money.

The mall, which struggled from the start, was built in 1990 for $140 million in today’s dollars. A Congel associate, Adam Bersin, bought it in 2005 for less than $6 million in today’s dollars. He then persuaded the Monroe County industrial development agency to issue $5.4 million in bonds and then flipped the real estate to Congel in 2007.

[2]Today the mall is empty, its doors sealed, except for a Sears at one end and a Macy’s at the other, each with a handful of customers during my visits.

Congel promised a $260 million project, but five years on nothing is built and Congel is seeking delays in fulfilling promises for which the mall was granted property tax breaks.

That’s how corporate socialism works – taxpayers contribute when the market rejects.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

goodbye faculty

Education is the means of propagating knowledge from one generation to the next. Education has grown exponentially, both in terms of its own food-powered/make-work employment base, and, in terms of the numbers of these humans receiving it. Sadly, for the most part, education methods and results have not improved.

Education is commonly regarded as a good. It is seen as being a means of ensuring the continuing development of society. Ironically, one of its continuing deficiencies is that as currently configured, it fosters the fallacious belief that society can continue to grow without paying ecological costs.

That hallucination is coming to an end, even though few currently understand that fact. Various forms of human growth - population, economies, affluence, information and misunderstanding are unsustainable and coming to an end. There will continue to be a place for various forms of education as society seeks to power down with as little pain as possible.

Knowledge of science and engineering principles will make primary contributions given increasing demand for frugal operation and maintenance of the vast infrastructure of civilization. However, economics based on unsound and fallacious principles must soon die.

Relearning how to use only natural forces to produce and distribute food will take curricular center stage. Research will cease to advance the frontiers of knowledge about extraneous issues as it seeks to make best use of what natural capital is still available. The redirection of education is bound to head the agenda as society slowly wakes up to what civilization has done wrong.

prosperouswaydown | Goodbye faculty, hello neoliberal MOOCs. I read a NY Times article last week and was clued into a recent ‘innovation’ in education which may soon be sweeping the globe. Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs are being produced and promoted by some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as a just announced MIT-Harvard ‘nonprofit’ partnership, and another with Stanford, Princeton, UPenn, and Michigan. MOOC courses include video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback and student-paced learning, and most so far have been produced in the areas of engineering, computers, software, etc, but courses in all fields are clearly coming. Most of the article is techy and upbeat, but they let this quote slip in. George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer ominously said, “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.” Get it? This is the end of universities as we know them. A few top universities produce coursework for the world and there’s no need for any of the rest of you out there. Still, the reporter tries to keep it positive and ends with this quote, “What’s still missing is an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses.” That’s right, we’ll still need you to ‘customize’ the MOOC course for your classrooms.

So I started to search for articles on MOOCs. It’s all tech hype and whiz-bang. I could find nary a discouraging word. And I certainly could not find what I was really looking for, which is the corporate strategy behind all of this. Why are the big boys interested? I have some of my own ideas that I will try to relate and that refer particularly to issues of peak and descent.

markets and morals?

NYTimes | Does it bother you that an online casino paid a Utah woman, Kari Smith, who needed money for her son’s education, $10,000 to tattoo its Web site on her forehead?

Or that Project Prevention, a charity, pays women with drug or alcohol addictions $300 cash to get sterilized or undertake long-term contraception? Some 4,100 women have accepted this offer.

Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, cites those examples in “What Money Can’t Buy,” his important and thoughtful new book. He argues that in recent years we have been slipping without much reflection into relying upon markets in ways that undermine the fairness of our society.

That’s one of the underlying battles this campaign year. Many Republicans, Mitt Romney included, have a deep faith in the ability of laissez-faire markets to create optimal solutions.

There’s something to that faith because markets, indeed, tend to be efficient. Pollution taxes are widely accepted as often preferable than rigid regulations on pollutants. It may also make sense to sell advertising on the sides of public buses, perhaps even to sell naming rights to subway stations.

Still, how far do we want to go down this path?

Is it right that prisoners in Santa Ana, Calif., can pay $90 per night for an upgrade to a cleaner, nicer jail cell?

Should the United States really sell immigration visas? A $500,000 investment will buy foreigners the right to immigrate.

hould Massachusetts have gone ahead with a proposal to sell naming rights to its state parks? The Boston Globe wondered in 2003 whether Walden Pond might become Wal-Mart Pond.

Should strapped towns accept virtually free police cars that come laden with advertising on the sides? Such a deal was negotiated and then ultimately collapsed, but at least one town does sell advertising on its police cars.

“The marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives,” Sandel writes. “We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.”

“Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”

significant UK light crude refinery to shutdown this week...,

No doubt closing due to a multitude of interlinked factors. But basically not making profits for the owners anymore. The raw material is changing. While still nominally called "oil" it is moving to the heavy stuff rather than the light, easily refined oils of the recent past. To continue in business Coryton needs a major rebuild. They are probably not prepared to invest millions in a site that, in a few years, will have nothing to sell. Plus the markets are shifting. China, India are buying up the oil while the tired old economy of the UK has not got the financial clout to buy increasingly expensive oil. The chilling statement here, one that reverberates, full of portent for the coming days, is simply, "The plant will run out of crude oil to refine, and there are no ships on the way".

Guardian | The UK's financially strapped Coryton refinery will run out of crude oil and shut down in phases beginning by the middle of next week, its joint administrator has said.

The prospects of finding a buyer for Coryton look increasingly remote, warned Steven Pearson of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The refinery was one of several owned by Petroplus, Europe's largest independent refiner, before it declared insolvency.

Pearson said: "The plant will run out of crude oil to refine, and there are no ships on the way," adding that staff would remain for the time being to help shut the plant safely. "We will not announce any immediate redundancies – we'll have more detail in a week's time."

The plant employs 900 people including contractors.

Friday, June 01, 2012

capitol as power...,

bnarchives | Conventional theories of capitalism are mired in a deep crisis: after centuries of debate, they are still unable to tell us what capital is. Liberals and Marxists think of capital as an economic entity that they count in universal units of utils and abstract labor, respectively. But these units are totally fictitious: they can be neither observed nor measured. They don’t exist. And since liberalism and Marxism depend on these non-existing units, their theories hang in suspension. They cannot explain the process that matters most – the accumulation of capital.

This breakdown is no accident. Every mode of power evolves together with its dominant theories and ideologies. In capitalism, these theories and ideologies originally belonged to the study of political economy – the first mechanical science of society. But the capitalist mode of power kept changing, and as the power underpinnings of capital became increasingly visible, the science of political economy disintegrated. By the late nineteenth century, with dominant capital having taken command, political economy was bifurcated into two distinct spheres: economics and politics. And in the twentieth century, when the power logic of capital had already penetrated every corner of society, the remnants of political economy were further fractured into mutually distinct social sciences. Nowadays, capital reigns supreme – yet social scientists have been left with no coherent framework to account for it.

The theory of Capital as Power offers a unified alternative to this fracture. It argues that capital is not a narrow economic entity, but a symbolic quantification of power. Capital has little to do with utility or abstract labor, and it extends far beyond machines and production lines. Most broadly, it represents the organized power of dominant capital groups to reshape – or creorder – their society.

This view leads to a different cosmology of capitalism. It offers a new theoretical framework for capital based on the twin notions of dominant capital and differential accumulation, a new conception of the state of capital and a new history of the capitalist mode of power. It also introduces new empirical research methods – including new categories; new ways of thinking about, relating and presenting data; new estimates and measurements; and, finally, the beginning of a new, disaggregate accounting that reveals the conflictual dynamics of society.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

how bad is it?

the new inquiry | Pretty bad. Here is a sample of factlets from surveys and studies conducted in the past twenty years. Seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Fifty percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, 70 percent believed that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Fifteen percent could not locate the United States on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year. According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.

Among high-school seniors surveyed in the late 1990s, 50 percent had not heard of the Cold War. Sixty percent could not say how the United States came into existence. Fifty percent did not know in which century the Civil War occurred. Sixty percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government. Sixty percent could not comprehend an editorial in a national or local newspaper.

Intellectual distinction isn’t everything, it’s true. But things are amiss in other areas as well: sociability and trust, for example. “During the last third of the twentieth century,” according to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, “all forms of social capital fell off precipitously.” Tens of thousands of community groups – church social and charitable groups, union halls, civic clubs, bridge clubs, and yes, bowling leagues — disappeared; by Putnam’s estimate, one-third of our social infrastructure vanished in these years. Frequency of having friends to dinner dropped by 45 percent; card parties declined 50 percent; Americans’ declared readiness to make new friends declined by 30 percent. Belief that most other people could be trusted dropped from 77 percent to 37 percent. Over a five-year period in the 1990s, reported incidents of aggressive driving rose by 50 percent — admittedly an odd, but probably not an insignificant, indicator of declining social capital.

Still, even if American education is spotty and the social fabric is fraying, the fact that the U.S. is the world’s richest nation must surely make a great difference to our quality of life? Alas, no. As every literate person knows, economic inequality in the United States is off the charts – at third-world levels. The results were recently summarized by James Speth in Orion magazine. Of the 20 advanced democracies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. has the highest poverty rate, for both adults and children; the lowest rate of social mobility; the lowest score on UN indexes of child welfare and gender inequality; the highest ratio of health care expenditure to GDP, combined with the lowest life expectancy and the highest rates of infant mortality, mental illness, obesity, inability to afford health care, and personal bankruptcy resulting from medical expenses; the highest homicide rate; and the highest incarceration rate. Nor are the baneful effects of America’s social and economic order confined within our borders; among OECD nations the U.S. also has the highest carbon dioxide emissions, the highest per capita water consumption, the next-to-largest ecological footprint, the next-to-lowest score on the Yale Environmental Performance Index, the highest (by a colossal margin) per capita rate of military spending and arms sales, and the next-to-lowest rate of per capita spending on international development and humanitarian assistance.

SoCiaL MeDiA CoNFiDeNTiaL...

lagarde to greeks: it's payback time!

Guardian | The International Monetary Fund has ratcheted up the pressure on crisis-hit Greece after its managing director, Christine Lagarde, said she has more sympathy for children deprived of decent schooling in sub-Saharan Africa than for many of those facing poverty in Athens.

In an uncompromising interview with the Guardian, Lagarde insists it is payback time for Greece and makes it clear that the IMF has no intention of softening the terms of the country's austerity package.

Using some of the bluntest language of the two-and-a-half-year debt crisis, she says Greek parents have to take responsibility if their children are being affected by spending cuts. "Parents have to pay their tax," she says.

Greece, which has seen its economy shrink by a fifth since the recession began, has been told to cut wages, pensions and public spending in return for financial help from the IMF, the European Union and the European Central Bank.

Asked whether she is able to block out of her mind the mothers unable to get access to midwives or patients unable to obtain life-saving drugs, Lagarde replies: "I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens."

Lagarde, predicting that the debt crisis has yet to run its course, adds: "Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax." She says she thinks "equally" about Greeks deprived of public services and Greek citizens not paying their tax.

"I think they should also help themselves collectively." Asked how, she replies: "By all paying their tax."

Asked if she is essentially saying to the Greeks and others in Europe that they have had a nice time and it is now payback time, she responds: "That's right."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

how much does washington spend on "defense"?

tomdispatch | As the country’s big wars on the Eurasian continent wind down, American war-making and war preparations fly ever more regularly under the radar. There has, for instance, been much discussion about the Obama administration’s policy “pivot” to Asia -- the only warlike act in the region so far has, however, been a little noted drone strike in the Philippines. At the same time, remarkably little attention has been paid to a massive build-up of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, and -- though both seem to be underway (and connected) -- who talks about the “pivot” to the Western Indian Ocean or the “pivot” to Africa?

For those keeping a careful eye out, U.S. drone (and air) bases in the region have been proliferating -- in the Seychelles Islands, in Ethiopia, and at an unidentified site on the Arabian peninsula, among other places. Recently, however, Wired’s Danger Room website reported that an Italian blogger had put the pieces together and offered impressive evidence of a larger war-making effort in the region, involving not only drones but F-15E fighter jets, possibly being used to bomb Yemen. Meanwhile, there are U.S. drone strikes in Yemen almost daily and at least 20 special forces operatives are reportedly now on the ground there, helping direct some of the fighting and even taking casualties.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), set up in 2007, has been gaining clout. In 2011, 100 special operations troops, mainly Green Berets, were moved into Central Africa, officially to aid in the hunting down of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Recently, it was reported that a brigade of regular U.S. combat troops will soon be assigned to the command and given training duties throughout the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been organizing a proxy war, supported by drone attacks, against al-Shabab rebels in Somalia, using Ugandan, Kenyan, and other African troops as those proxies. And more’s afoot. It’s just that, if you weren’t an obsessive news watcher, you would have next to no way of knowing that any of this was taking place.

War American-style, already long detached from the lives of most Americans, is growing more so: ever more secret, presidential, and beyond the control of, or accountability to, citizens or Congress. In only one way is this not true: we taxpayers still fork over the massive sums that make our perpetual state of war and war state possible. As Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer of the invaluable National Priorities Project report, the expense of all this is blowing a hole in your wallet and our treasury. To offer but one small example, if someday soon the Pakistani/Afghan border is reopened to U.S. war supplies, you will be paying the Pakistanis $1,500-$1,800 for every truck that crosses it, at an estimated cost of at least $1 million a day (with other "fees" likely). And yet, it’s remarkable how little Americans know about what’s coming out of their pockets when the subject is “national security,” or where exactly it’s all going. Which is why we need Hellman and Kramer (and their new book, A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget) to keep us in the loop. Tom

global scarcity: scramble for dwindling natural resources

yale | National security expert Michael Klare believes the struggle for the world’s resources will be one of the defining political and environmental realities of the 21st century. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he discusses the threat this scramble poses to the natural world and what can be done to sustainably meet the resource challenge.

Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, devotes much of his time these days to thinking about the intensifying competition for increasingly scarce natural resources. His most recent book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, describes how the world economy has entered a period of what he calls “tough” extraction for energy, minerals, and other commodities, meaning that the easy-to-get resources have been exploited and a rapidly growing population is now turning to resources in the planet’s most remote regions — the Arctic, the deep ocean, and war zones like Afghanistan. The exploitation of “tough” resources, such as “fracking” for natural gas in underground shale formations, carries with it far greater environmental risk, Klare says.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, Klare discussed China’s surging appetite for resources, the growing potential for political and military conflict as commodities become more scarce, and the disturbing trend of the planet’s agricultural land being bought by companies and governments seeking to ensure that their people will have enough food in the future. The way to reduce resource conflicts, says Klare, is to find substitute materials and to significantly boost efficiency in a host of realms, most notably energy. Hope for the future, he says, lies with innovative entrepreneurs and, especially, the young. “They all want to be involved in developing solutions,” said Klare, “and they have a lot of optimism and enthusiasm for this.”

Yale Environment 360: You make the point that when it comes to the age-old competition for raw materials, we’re in an unprecedented age. How so?

Michael Klare: I do believe that’s the case. Humans have been struggling to gain control of vital resources since the beginning of time, but I think we’re in a new era because we’re running out of places to go. Humans have constantly moved to new areas, to new continents, when they’ve run out of things in their home territory. But there aren’t any more new continents to go to. We’re going now to the last places left on earth that haven’t been exploited: the Arctic, the deep oceans, the inner jungles in Africa, Afghanistan. There are very few places left that haven’t been fully tapped, so this is humanity’s last chance to exploit the earth, and after this there’s nowhere else to go.

e360: Natural resource extraction has never been a pretty business when it comes to the environment, but you write that now that the era of easy oil, easy gas, easy minerals and other resources is basically over, and what’s left is in deep water, remote or inhospitable climates, or in geological formations that require extraordinary means to get at. So paint me a picture of what extracting these tough resources looks like.

Klare: We’re really going to be using very aggressive means of extraction, so the environmental consequences are going to be proportionally greater. For example, to get oil and natural gas out of shale rock, you can’t just drill
Oil companies want to turn this country back to what it was before environmentalism became an issue.”
and expect it to come out. It doesn’t work that way. You have to smash the rock, you have to produce fractures in the rock, and we use a very aggressive technology to do that — hydraulic fracturing — and the water is brought under tremendous pressure and it’s laced with toxic chemicals, and when the water is extracted from these wells it can’t be put back into the environment without risk of poisoning water supplies. So there’s a tremendous problem of storage, of toxic water supplies, and we really haven’t solved that problem.

earnest callenbach: last words to an america in decline

tomdispatch | Thirty-five years later, it was still on my bookshelf in a little section on utopias (as well it should have been, being a modern classic). A friend had written his name inside the cover and even dated it: August 1976, the month I returned to New York City from years of R&R on the West Coast. Whether I borrowed it and never returned it or he gave it to me neither of us now remembers, but Ecotopia, the visionary novel 25 publishers rejected before Ernest Callenbach published it himself in 1975, was still there ready to be read again a lifetime later.

Callenbach once called that book “my bet with the future,” and in publishing terms it would prove a pure winner. To date it has sold nearly a million copies and been translated into many languages. On second look, it proved to be a book not only ahead of its time but (sadly) of ours as well. For me, it was a unique rereading experience, in part because every page of that original edition came off in my hands as I turned it. How appropriate to finish Ecotopia with a loose-leaf pile of paper in a New York City where paper can now be recycled and so returned to the elements.

Callenbach would have appreciated that. After all, his novel, about how Washington, Oregon, and Northern California seceded from the union in 1979 in the midst of a terrible economic crisis, creating an environmentally sound, stable-state, eco-sustainable country, hasn’t stumbled at all. It’s we who have stumbled. His vision of a land that banned the internal combustion engine and the car culture that went with it, turned in oil for solar power (and other inventive forms of alternative energy), recycled everything, grew its food locally and cleanly, and in the process created clean skies, rivers, and forests (as well as a host of new relationships, political, social, and sexual) remains amazingly lively, and somehow almost imaginable -- an approximation, that is, of the country we don’t have but should or even could have.

Callenbach’s imagination was prodigious. Back in 1975, he conjured up something like C-SPAN and something like the cell phone, among many ingenious inventions on the page. Ecotopia remains a thoroughly winning book and a remarkable feat of the imagination, even if, in the present American context, the author also dreamed of certain things that do now seem painfully utopian, like a society with relative income equality.

“Chick” -- as he was known, thanks, it turns out, to the chickens his father raised in Appalachian central Pennsylvania in his childhood -- was, like me, an editor all his life. He founded the prestigious magazine Film Quarterly in 1958. In the late 1970s, I worked with him and his wife, Christine Leefeldt, on a book of theirs, The Art of Friendship. He also wrote a successor volume to Ecotopia (even if billed as a prequel), Ecotopia Emerging. And as he points out in his last piece, today’s TomDispatch post, he, too, has now been recycled. He died of cancer on April 16th at the age of 83.

Just days later, his long-time literary agent Richard Kahlenberg wrote me that Chick had left a final document on his computer, something he had been preparing in the months before he knew he would die, and asked if TomDispatch would run it. Indeed, we would. It’s not often that you hear words almost literally from beyond the grave -- and eloquent ones at that, calling on all Ecotopians, converted or prospective, to consider the dark times ahead. Losing Chick’s voice and his presence is saddening. His words remain, however, as do his books, as does the possibility of some version of the better world he once imagined for us all. Tom

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

video games and porn...,

CNN | Is the overuse of video games and pervasiveness of online porn causing the demise of guys?

Increasingly, researchers say yes, as young men become hooked on arousal, sacrificing their schoolwork and relationships in the pursuit of getting a tech-based buzz.

Every compulsive gambler, alcoholic or drug addict will tell you that they want increasingly more of a game or drink or drug in order to get the same quality of buzz.

Video game and porn addictions are different. They are "arousal addictions," where the attraction is in the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content. Sameness is soon habituated; newness heightens excitement. In traditional drug arousal, conversely, addicts want more of the same cocaine or heroin or favorite food.

The consequences could be dramatic: The excessive use of video games and online porn in pursuit of the next thing is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.

Stories about this degeneration are rampant: In 2005, Seungseob Lee, a South Korean man, went into cardiac arrest after playing "StarCraft" for nearly 50 continuous hours. In 2009, MTV's "True Life" highlighted the story of a man named Adam whose wife kicked him out of their home -- they have four kids together -- because he couldn't stop watching porn.

Norwegian mass murder suspect Anders Behring Breivik reported during his trial that he prepared his mind and body for his marksman-focused shooting of 77 people by playing "World of Warcraft" for a year and then "Call of Duty" for 16 hours a day.

Research into this area goes back a half-century.

In 1954, researchers Peter Milner and James Olds discovered the pleasure center of the brain. In their experiments, an electrical current was sent to the limbic system of a rat's brain whenever it moved to a certain area of its cage. The limbic sytem is a portion of the brain that controls things like emotion, behavior and memory. The researchers hypothesized that if the stimulation to the limbic system were unpleasant, the rats would stay away from that part of the cage.

Surprisingly, the rats returned to that portion of the cage again and again, despite the sensation.