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Archive for February 12th, 2010

Was science the mother of modern democracy?

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Interesting review in New Scientist by A.C. Grayling:

The Science of Liberty: Democracy, reason and the laws of nature by Timothy Ferris

Historians date the beginning of modern times to the period of the late Renaissance, the Reformation and the scientific revolution. These tectonic shifts in the western mind resulted in the 18th-century Enlightenment and the liberal democracies of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This broad-brush picture is a familiar one, and it is, equally broadly, right; but interesting questions remain about the relationship between the strands involved. In this lucid and captivating study, Timothy Ferris argues that the growth of science and the growth of liberal democracy were not merely contemporaneous, but causally connected. The growth of science, he says, caused the growth of democracy – and science continues to underwrite the political freedoms enjoyed by developed societies today.

His argument is not simply that the technological applications of science have promoted wealth-creation, military prowess and security in those nations that have, as a result, become both dominant and free. This is undeniably part of the story. But the more important point for Ferris is that scientific enquiry demands the freedom to enquire and debate, and that liberal democracy – meaning a pluralistic political system in which individual rights, free speech, privacy and autonomy are promoted and defended – is itself an experimental system requiring the same conditions of freedom and openness as science itself.

As he surveys how science influenced the social and political developments of the countries where it flourished, Ferris makes full and (as he acknowledges himself) potentially tendentious use of hindsight. But he keeps the risks in view, and is able to show how matters developed as expected given the influence of scientific styles of thought on social and political questions.

Inevitably, Ferris also addresses the conflict between …

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2010 at 6:16 pm

Interesting contrast

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China really does seem to be investing for the future—lots of money going into green technology, and now, reported by Keith Bradsher in the NY Times, they are building 42 high-speed rail lines. (The US is working on one, which won’t be ready until 2014, two years after the Chinese complete their 42.) Of course, China has much more money to work with, while the US has pissed its money away in tax cuts and avoidable wars—plus we lavish money on the military, totally beyond the bounds of any reasonable cost/risk ratio.

The story:

The world’s largest human migration — the annual crush of Chinese traveling home to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which is this Sunday — is going a little faster this time thanks to a new high-speed rail line.

The Chinese bullet train, which has the world’s fastest average speed, connects Guangzhou, the southern coastal manufacturing center, to Wuhan, deep in the interior. In a little more than three hours, it travels 664 miles, comparable to the distance from Boston to southern Virginia. That is less time than Amtrak’s fastest train, the Acela, takes to go from Boston just to New York.

Even more impressive, the Guangzhou-to-Wuhan train is just one of 42 high-speed lines recently opened or set to open by 2012 in China. By comparison, the United States hopes to build its first high-speed rail line by 2014, an 84-mile route linking Tampa and Orlando, Fla.

Speaking at that site last month, President Obama warned that the United States was falling behind Asia and Europe in high-speed rail construction and other clean energy industries. “Other countries aren’t waiting,” he said. “They want those jobs. China wants those jobs. Germany wants those jobs. They are going after them hard, making the investments required.”

Indeed, the web of superfast trains promises to make China even more economically competitive, connecting this vast country — roughly the same size as the United States — as never before, much as the building of the Interstate highway system increased productivity and reduced costs in America a half-century ago.

As China upgrades and expands its rail system, it creates …

Continue reading. It really does seem as though the US’s "get up and go" has got up and went.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2010 at 3:06 pm

Interview with a Nigerian scammer

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Very interesting. Via Schneier on Security:

Interview with a scammer – Part One

Interview with a scammer – Part Two

Interview with a Scammer – Part Three

Part One begins:

Editor’s Disclaimer: Whilst I am reporting an actual conversation, I have no way of verifying the information or details contained within. The interviewee contacted me voluntarily and anonymously claiming to be an ex-scammer who is now studying in the UK. I have agreed to tell his story but this is told ‘as is’ without guarantee as to accuracy or truthfulness. To protect our users we have agreed that the interviewee, who will be known by the pseudonym “John”, will not directly take part in discussions or comments and will not join our community. I do not know how long “John” will maintain contact and in the event that contact is broken, this series of blogs will be discontinued.

Scam-Detective: Thank you for agreeing to talk to us about your experience ‘working’ as a scammer in Lagos, Nigeria. Tell us a little about yourself.

John: I’m 23 years old and was released from prison in Nigeria in October last year where I served two years for fraud. I am now doing a business studies course at college and am in the UK on a student exchange programme. As part of my rehabilitation I am also working with the EFCC in Nigeria to help them understand more about scams and how the gangs work. I don’t do scams any more.

Scam-Detective: How did you get involved in scamming people on the Internet?

John: I come from a poor family in Lagos, Nigeria. We did not have very much money and good jobs are hard to find. I was approached to work for a gang master when I was 15, because I had done well in school with my English, and was getting to be good with computers. The gang master was offering good money and I took the chance to help my family.

Scam-Detective: Do you think that your teachers at school had reported your talents to the gang master?

John: Yes. There is a lot of corruption in Nigeria and the gangs pay well to find people with good English skills to work the scams.

Scam-Detective: What kind of scams were you involved with?

John: Mainly advance fee fraud where we would tell people that someone has died and left millions in a bank or safety deposit box and that we needed help to get it out of the country. That is the most successful type of scam, but I also did Phishing to try and get user names and passwords for peoples online bank accounts.

Scam-Detective: How did you find victims for your scams?

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2010 at 10:08 am

Posted in Daily life

Committee for Truth in Politics tries to keep its own truth quiet

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Source:, February 3, 2010

A group called the Committee for Truth in Politics (CTP) is running ads in selected states opposing the "Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act," which would overhaul the country’s financial sector, more tightly regulate consumer financial products like home mortgages, car loans and credit cards, and help prevent another Wall Street meltdown. CTP has no Web site and refuses to disclose any information about its spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The organization was created by a North Carolina Republican operative named William L. "Bill" Peaslee, and it is represented by attorney James Bopp, Jr., who has sued the FEC saying the group shouldn’t have to file any spending reports with the government. Bopp is the same person who drafted the Republican National Committee‘s "Purity Resolution," which threatens to cut off funding for any Republican who fails to support a list of far-right conservative values and beliefs. CTP is running its ads in Arkansas, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. The ads are aimed at confusing people by portraying the financial reform bill as a "new $4 trillion bailout for banks" — language that was suggested by discredited GOP pollster and wordsmith Frank Luntz, who recently urged Republicans to stoke opposition to the consumer-friendly legislation by portraying it as filled with bank bailouts, lobbyist loopholes and additional layers of complicated government bureaucracy.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2010 at 10:03 am

Posted in Business, GOP

The year climate change really started to hit

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Good post by Joe at Climate Progress summarizing key facts about 2009:

In 2009, the scientific literature caught up with what top climate scientists have been saying privately for a few years now:

  • Many of the predicted impacts of human-caused climate change are occurring much faster than anybody expected — particularly ice melt, everywhere you look on the planet.
  • If we stay anywhere near our current emissions path, we are facing incalculable catastrophes by century’s end, including rapid sea level rise, massive wildfires, widespread Dust-Bowlification, large oceanic dead zones, and 9°F warming — much of which could be all but irreversible for centuries.  And that’s not the worst-case scenario!
  • The consequences for human health and well being would be extreme.

That’s no surprise to anybody who has talked to leading climate scientists in recent years, read my book Hell and High Water (or a number of other books), or followed this blog.  Still, it is a scientific reality that I don’t think more than 2 people in 100 fully grasp, so I’m going to review here the past year in climate science.  I’ll focus primarily on the peer-reviewed literature, but also look at some major summary reports.

Let’s start with the basics.  Heat-trapping greenhouse gases are at unprecedented levels, and the paleoclimate record suggests that even slightly higher levels are untenable:

In two key papers, we learned that the planet is warming from those GHGs just where climate science said it would — the oceans, which is where more than 90% of the warming was projected to end up (see “Skeptical Science explains how we know global warming is happening: It’s the oceans, stupid!“).  The key findings in the second study are summed up in this figure:

Figure [2]: Time series of global mean heat storage (0–2000 m), measured in 108 Jm-2.

That study makes clear that upper ocean heat content, perhaps not surprisingly, is simply far more variable than deeper ocean heat content, and thus an imperfect indicator of the long-term warming trend.

We also learned that this was the hottest decade in the temperature record, that the Arctic is the hottest in at least two millennia, and that, unexpectedly, even Antarctica appears to be warming:

This global warming is driving melting at extraordinary rates every where we look, including places nobody expected:

And given that unexpectedly fast ice melt, it’s no surprise the science now projects much higher and much faster sea level rise than just a few years ago:

We continued to learn about the dangerous positive carbon-cycle feedbacks that threaten to amplify the impacts of human-caused GHGs.

High emissions levels + positive feedbacks = climate catastrophe:

And the plausible worst-case scenario is even worse than this grim “business as usual” emissions case:

And this is not good news for human health and welfare

So the time to act is most certainly now.

I’ll end with the best piece of scientific news I wrote about, which suggests it is not too damn late to act — a NOAA-led study, “Observational constraints on recent increases in the atmospheric CH4 burden” (subs. req’d, NOAA online news story here), which found:

Measurements of atmospheric CH4 from air samples collected weekly at 46 remote surface sites show that, after a decade of near-zero growth, globally averaged atmospheric methane increased during 2007 and 2008. During 2007, CH4increased by 8.3 ± 0.6 ppb. CH4 mole fractions averaged over polar northern latitudes and the Southern Hemisphere increased more than other zonally averaged regions. In 2008, globally averaged CH4 increased by 4.4 ± 0.6 ppb; the largest increase was in the tropics, while polar northern latitudes did not increase. Satellite and in situ CO observations suggest only a minor contribution to increased CH4from biomass burning. The most likely drivers of the CH4 anomalies observed during 2007 and 2008 are anomalously high temperatures in the Arctic and greater than average precipitation in the tropics. Near-zero CH4 growth in the Arctic during 2008 suggests we have not yet activated strong climate feedbacks from permafrost and CH4 hydrates.


Yes, early this year I reported that NOAA found “Methane levels rose in 2008 for the second consecutive year after a 10-year lull,” but so far that most dangerous of all feedbacks — Arctic and tundra methane releases — does not appear to have been fatally triggered.

The anti-science crowd use smoke and mirrors to distract as many people as possible, but the rest of us need to listen to the science and keep our eyes on the prize — reversing greenhouse gas emissions trends as quickly and rapidly as possible.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2010 at 9:55 am

A brief history of pretty much everything

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Via Open Culture, created with Biro pens:

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2010 at 9:39 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

How Christian were The Founders?

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TYD points out this intriguing article by Russell Shorto in the NY Times Magazine:

Last month, a week before the Senate seat of the liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy fell into Republican hands, his legacy suffered another blow that was perhaps just as damaging, if less noticed. It happened during what has become an annual spectacle in the culture wars.

Over two days, more than a hundred people — Christians, Jews, housewives, naval officers, professors; people outfitted in everything from business suits to military fatigues to turbans to baseball caps — streamed through the halls of the William B. Travis Building in Austin, Tex., waiting for a chance to stand before the semicircle of 15 high-backed chairs whose occupants made up the Texas State Board of Education. Each petitioner had three minutes to say his or her piece.

“Please keep César Chávez” was the message of an elderly Hispanic man with a floppy gray mustache.

“Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world and should be included in the curriculum,” a woman declared.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2010 at 9:35 am

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