30 December 2010

Climate Roundup

Most of the commentary on the cold winter has been too stupid to discuss, so I haven't. Certainly, cold winters do not prove that the climate scientists are wrong, though it does suggest that alarm is overstated: not only is weather not climate, but climate variability is so dwarfed by weather variability that it is not remotely possible to actually notice whatever climate variation there might have been over the last hundred years. The actual weather changes in any given place from year to year or decade to decade are vastly bigger than any global climate change we have seen. As I say, that doesn't make climate change wrong, but it does make it less relevant.

But most stupid are the desperate attempts to claim that cold winters are caused by global warming. Not because that is impossible, but because there has been scant regard for facts. I have been informed by one earnest physicist that snowy winters here are to be expected, because global warming increases the amount of water in the air. That would be sound logic if English winters were normally cold and dry, but they are not - winter conditions here are normally that if there is a clear night, there is frost, but if there is cloud cover, that keeps the ground too warm for frost, and it rains. We have snow this year because it is colder, not because there is more moisture.

Some random genius on Twitter takes the biscuit for claiming that the cold winter is to be expected, because global warming has melted icecaps, changed ocean salinity, and diverted the Gulf Stream. Again, logically sound, but the ocean salinity has not changed and the Gulf Stream has not moved. Apart from that, good try...

Monbiot's theory, that warming at the pole has disrupted atmospheric circulations, bringing cold weather down, is at least not obviously contradicted by the facts. It might be true. But there was certainly no consensus predicting it.

What has made this issue worth mentioning for me is the excellent collection of articles gathered by hauntingthelibrary, of the climate mainstream explaining that mild winters in Britain are the result of Global Warming. We are all familiar, I am sure, with the classic UEA "snowfall a thing of the past", but he shows that that was not one random nutter.

* Less snow and rain for islands (Hadley Centre)
* Warmer and Wetter Winters in Europe and Western North America Linked to Increasing Greenhouse Gases (NASA,Nature)
* The recent warm winters that Britain has experienced are a clear sign that the climate is changing (James Hansen)

The point is not that they are wrong. The fact is that the climate system is so complex, and the climate signal is so faint against the weather background, that there is no possibility of being right. If global average temperatures really have increased by a degree or so over the last fifty years, and I cannot see that there is any way to tell whether they have, then what the results are is equally unknowable. Weather is just too big a thing to see around.

The other point is the sheer lack of restraint in putting forward ad-hoc climate theories without the slightest thinking-through in response to any weather. Journalists do journalism, but this kind of speculation is what scientists were traditionally so unwilling to do that, 25 years ago, there was a popular stereotype of the scientist who couldn't commit himself to anything because "the evidence is not yet complete". That change is the most significant element in climate science.

22 December 2010

Friedman (D) on Rights

Some of you may remember my two posts on the nature of rights in 2008. If so, you can now forget them, because David Friedman has made the argument more completely and much more eloquently.

Rights in human societies, including modern ones, are based on the same pattern of behavior as territorial behavior in animals or enforcement via feud and the threat of feud, even if less obviously so. Each individual has a view of his entitlements and is willing to bear unreasonably large costs in defense of them.

Yup, that's what rights are.

21 December 2010

Cable and the Cables

I can't help thinking that the Vince Cable story is a knock-on effect of Wikileaks.

The biggest effect of wikileaks may not be either the secrets that it tells, or even the fear of the secrets it may yet tell. It may be the secrets that others tell, because of the feeling, "when all that is already in the newspapers, why am I keeping X a secret?"

Is it a breach of confidence to secretly record what an MP tells a "constituent" that he has never met? It's pretty thin... it is just a politician talking to a voter with no extra qualification; if he tells one voter something, what right does he have to keep it secret from other voters? But nobody did it before.

And, of course, the current story is based not just on the Telegraph's secret recording, but on a leak of that recording -- the Telegraph, perhaps for business reasons, chose not to reveal Cable's claim to have "declared war on Murdoch". So someone at the Telegraph leaked it to the BBC.

I rather suspect that norms as to what is publishable and what isn't have changed suddenly.

"Egalitarian Monarchism"

Reading Richard Spencer's criticism of John Médaille's form of "egalitarian monarchism", I was initially moved to leap to the defence of Médaille. There is indeed a sense in which the advantage of Monarchy is its egalitarianism.

What I mean is that the modern democratic state shares many of its problems with the feudal societies of the first half of the last millenium. Power is divided between many competing blocs (in the old world, aristocratic families, in the new, agencies and guilds) whose domains are variable and unclear, and much of what passes for policy results from conflicts between them for power.

The medieval problem was solved by the growth of Royal versus aristocratic power. The Tudors and the Bourbons (for example) were able to dominate the aristocracy.

This can be seen as an egalitarian reform -- the vast power blocs weakened, and the ordinary subject becoming more equal, at least in terms of political power, with his Lord who, like him, is under effective authority.

There are many institutions that today have too much power. A true royal restoration would make the government agencies, the quangos, the media, the universities, the unions, the banks, all bereft of political power. Opinions may legitimately vary as to which of those bodies most urgently need their wings clipped, and the Steel Rule means that I do not assert my own view, but the point is not so much that they all will be subservient to the Sovereign, as that he will be subservient to none of them.

One of the most important characteristics of personal power is that it is the power to get things wrong and then fix them. I do not in fact have confidence in the wisdom of some randomly selected King to know which of the above groups perform useful functions, and which are parasites perpetuated by their own acquired power.

I do think that only personal power is a recipe to eventually find the right answer -- all forms of collective decision-making are too easily swayed by the subjects themselves, with the result that the first decision made becomes irrevocable.

So, to summarise, the advantage of more monarchism, either in the hypothetical future or in the 1500s, is the stripping of power from the oppressors, and that can be (though I certainly wouldn't insist on it) seen as a kind of egalitarianism -- even as a kind of democracy if you really want to stretch.

Unfortunately though, Médaille is still utterly wrong. Actually looking at his pieces on Front Porch Republic, he makes an argument not for the ruling monarch of the later middle ages, but for the very confusion of competing political power groups that I see as analogous to the current mess, and which was superseded by what he calls "Regalism".

Once terms like "Tyranny" start to be thrown around in American publications, it becomes necessary to look at what the issues were at the time of the American rebellion. The rebels were certainly not out to free themselves from an absolute monarchy, since no English King had held such power for a hundred years. The Whigs had first made an alliance with William of Orange in order to remove the Stuarts, who were the last Kings who even aspired to really rule England, and with the importation of George I and his reception at the docks by the dignitaries of the Kit-Cat Club, the alliance became completely one-sided and the Whigs established their permanent dominance. (All English politics since that date has consisted of conflicts among Whigs, with the term Tory being revived from time to time by more radical Whigs as an insult to throw at their less radical colleagues).

George III did attempt to re-establish some kind of Royal power, though I am not sure he set his sights as high as the power Charles II had, let alone that of Elizabeth. (If I find out he did, I will adopt his banner as mine). The American rebellion was the Whigs' way of putting him in his place. The small gains he did achieve mostly lasted into Victoria's reign, but were finally expunged by the advent of universal suffrage and the acceptance of purely democratic theories of government in the 20th Century.

19 December 2010

Liu Xiaobo again

It seems that the Guardian has actually investigated and discovered (by the extraordinary method of finding someone who can read Chinese) what I merely assumed -- that Liu Xiaobo is a professional front-man for American imperialism.

That isn't such a bad thing, of course. There are many worse forces in the world than American imperialism, and many places that might benefit from a bit more of it. China might even be one of them (though I am not persuaded on that point).

What would be significant about the revelations that, for instance, his organisation has been funded by the US government, or that he was outspoken in favour of George Bush and against Kerry, or that he says "to choose westernisation is to choose to be human" would be if they changed anyone's mind about him. Because really, it is all implied by what little we knew about him before the Grauniad dredged up translations of his writing.

And of course, the fact that a paid agent of a hostile power, openly dedicated to overthrowing his country's government and culture, was allowed to remain at liberty for as long as he was, to my mind falsifies a lot of what is said about China today.

02 December 2010

Assange's Theory

I came across a link to a couple of articles by Julian Assange (from late 2006) detailing his motivation (via zunguzungu):

They don't amount to much. He opens, promisingly, "Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action."

He goes on to completely skip over the first two requirements. His very next words are: "Authoritarian power is maintained by conspiracy" the rest of the two powers covers nothing but how to take apart the conspiracy of government. There is zero discussion of what "Authoritarian power" is, and why we dislike it, or "what aspect of ... behavior we wish to change or remove". Which is rather a shame. It's all means, no ends.

The means, taking apart a government or other conspiracy by breaking the links of trust between elements, should work, and seems to be working, indeed. But what the ends are still eludes me - the word "authoritarian" means less to me than most other elements of unfamiliar theology. The natural consequence of the wikileaks style of attack would seem to be to produce networks with fewer and stronger links. I suspect that would be a good thing, but I have no idea whether Assange would consider it less "authoritarian".

He does say that "The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie". It's not clear whether that's put forward as a hypothesis or as an axiom: as a hypothesis, it's plausible but there are arguments to the contrary.

The real weakness in the analysis is the claim that "Conspiracies are cognitive devices". They are a lot more than that. Modern governments to not include so many hundreds of thousands in their conspiracies merely to enhance their information. Conspiracies gather power, and then they bring power to bear. By cutting off the extremities of the conspiracy, Assange is depriving it of some information, but that seems secondary; mostly he is reducing the reach of the conspiracy, both to gather power (for instance from allied governments) and to bring it to bear (for instance through distantly-deployed armies). The surviving conspiracy will have less total power at its command, which might be the point, but it will at the same time be constrained to use that power in a more concentrated direction.

More crucially, if it can no longer rely on power gathered from its periphery, the conspiracy will have nothing to offer the periphery. After all, the claim of (here it comes) democracy is that we are all part of the conspiracy - we are consulted, we exert influence, we communicate through our representatives. These are the weakest links that will be severed first.

So, I'm not here to criticise Assange's actions - only his writing. I might be on his side, if I knew what side he was on.