2021/07/14

A brief experiment with Truth

In my previous post, I mentioned in passing that an article by Declan Walsh in the NY Times about the war in Tigray seemed to have reversed facts and created a false narrative about who was the aggressor.  Well, this subplot took a dramatic turn today.  Long story short, in addition to the blog post, I asked him publicly repeatedly, and today he publicly admitted it! It is an extraordinary admission but since the editors of the NY Times are apparently sweeping this reversal under the rug, I would like to  relay the story more completely here.

On June 21, the NY Times published this article: "From Nobel Hero to Driver of War, Ethiopia’s Leader Faces Voters -- Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed plunged Ethiopia into a war in the Tigray region that spawned atrocities and famine".   It's quite long and there's lots of "color", but it basically has two pieces of new information.

First about Feltman meeting Abiy in Addis Abeba in May. The meeting itself is not news, what's being reported is an anecdote about how the meeting went, showing Abiy trying to clumsily charm Feltnan and failing, with details like coffee spills, etc. to show the info comes from someone who was there.  So basically this is relaying  the story of the meeting from Feltman's perspective. Not really reporting but ok...  

Second, it reports that Coons spoke to Abiy in "early November". What happened in that conversation is the real substance of the article. Here's what it said:
  • "Washington" heard about the war before it started 
  • Coons called Abiy and tried to talk him out of starting the war
  • Abiy wanted the war and predicted swift victory before it started
  • There is no mention in the article of the actual event that started the war, namely the Nov 4 attack by  TPLF on the national army
The story a normal reader would get is basically that the Ethiopian government was the aggressor against TPLF.  

But if you are not naive a  few things jump out. 
  • First it is saying the call happened in early November before the start of the war, and before the US election, so it must have been Nov 1-3.  At that time Coons was running for reelection.  It is hard to believe that a US Senator is making phone calls to foreign leaders in the last 48 hours of his own election campaign.  
  • Second, the reason Senator Coons has been involved lately is as a personal emissary of President Biden. They are both from Delaware, Coons took  Biden's seat in the Senate when Biden became VP, and it is not unusual for a sitting president or a president-elect to have personal emissaries do some international diplomacy for them.  What is unusual is for this to happen before he's elected.  And it is even more surprising that candidate Biden would be focused on Ethiopia while he is in the final hours of his own very intense presidential campaign!  
  • Third, consider how might have "word reached Washington" about a war that hasn't started. Who gets "word" about alleged secret military plans of a foreign country? Is the claim that Biden was getting secret foreign intelligence while he was still a candidate? The Trump adminstration and Biden transition  were not even cooperating *after* the election, so if there really was a secret channel of intelligence to Biden this would be news!
  • Fourth a quick look at Senator Coons website shows that his calls are logged.  For example the Nov 23 call is there and is consistent with what was widely reported at the time.  But there is no record of a call in early November. Strange exception.
What makes more sense is that there was no pre-Nov 3 conversation. It was the Nov 23 conversation. By taking what Abiy said three weeks after the war was started by TPLF, and placing it before Nov 4, the article creates a false narrative about who the aggressor is. Literally reversing the truth!

This was part of a pattern in all the other articles by the same Declan Walsh. In a June 28 article he wrote ENDF "invaded" Tigray back in November, a strange statement considering ENDF was attacked on its own bases in Tigray.  (I'm using links to tweets as neutral timestamps since publication dates on nytimes.com can change).  In May he wrote that "Abiy began a military operation on Nov. 4" , as if he just happened for no apparent reason.  In February article, he describes the beginning of the war by saying "Abiy launched a surprise offensive".  A surprise! A few people have noted this amnesia. By June, he had written over 6300 words in 4 articles on the war without once mentioning the Nov 4 attacks. The phrase "Nobel prize" appears in every single article in sentences with a negative or ironic tone. Every Ethiopian government or army action is portrayed as if it was done personally by Abiy himself on a whim, a typical "third world dictator" trope.  But the Nov 4 attack by TPLF was not mentioned, not once. Finally, after months, and thousands more words, perhaps as a result of the criticism,  "Nov 4" appeared in the 20th paragraph  of an article on July 3. In the most recent article, perhaps he has retreated  to  using passive voice formulations like ""war erupted in November".  All this to say this detail appeared on Jun 21 against a backdrop of consistent, shall we say, omission.

But this time it was more than just an omission and subjective tone, it was a blatant true or false question. So I asked him directly on Twitter And again two weeks later.

Finally today, (thanks to @Noslata and many others) Declan Walsh responded! He said the article was updated, and blamed the falsehood on Coons misremembering the dates.
Here's what the updated article says as of now 
So basically the main point, the meat of the story, is now completely different. 

Vindicated!  

But I'm not celebrating. The whole thing is still a loss for Truth. Either the reporter was  lying in the article and is also lying now on Twitter when he blames it on Coons; or he simply writes  what a politician tells him without even the most rudimentary checking --  more secretary than reporter. One might wonder how a "bureau chief" of a major newspaper could be such a clumsy liar or so gullible. I guess we are lucky that we are dealing with the B team here. Check this out:  "The New York Times shows how not to write an Africa job advert" a hilarious deconstruction of a job ad. That might even be the actual one that was filled by Declan Walsh!  Reading it you can totally see how the position could go to second-rate hacks who are easily manipulated by their sources.  This is not the first time either -- I've complained before.

More depressing is that on the article itself, even now there is no indication that a correction was made! No editor's note, no diff.  It just says updated as if it was a minor punctuation change.  It's hard to overstate the impact of this.... One of the most influential newspapers published a completely false narrative about one of the biggest most tragic events, then after millions had read it, quietly reversed the facts.  It's much worse than the old problem of print corrections not getting as much visibility as the original falsehood. In this case the damage is done and what little evidence there was is erased....  

Another disappointment is that  this  July 11 artcile in Al Jazeera  covers the same conversation with the same tone, and misses the opportunity to clearly put in the right context (i.e. after not before Nov 4). Before today's admission by Declan, I had asked the author privately if he had more info on this conversation but didn't hear back.  

So what can we do?   When this kind of stuff happened leading up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the NY Times played an infamous role. Here is their own list of articles that contributed to deceit about the war. Their ombudsman aka public editor, whose role was to hold the paper  accountable on behalf of readers wrote a scathing rebuke of the Time's failures. Sadly, this position was abolished in 2017 it seems. So I resorted to asking the question on Twitter. And that is the silver lining. You are now the public editors!  And unraveling falsehoods  can now happen in a few days instead of years.  And of course, the evidence was never really erased merely swept under the rug. We can see on archive.org that the change occured between June 25 and June 27.  Also I usually don't grab screenshots but for some reason something made me latch on to this  on June 21.   The summer solstice maybe?  Anyway  I hope  this little experiment shows there's hope for truth. Strengthen your mind we are living in serious times

P.S. The title of this post is borrowed from the autobiography of M. K. Gandhi, one of my favorite books

2021/06/24

Pay any price, bear any burden


There is so much to say about the tragedy currently unfolding in Tigray, so much propaganda, so many paranoid conspiracy theories on all sides in the conflict, and this being Africa, such low quality media coverage...  If you don't know much about it, don't get Gell-Man amnesia and start with a random news article. Instead, the best place to start is probably the Wikipedia pages on the war, the timeline, and the start (check the citations if anything seems biased!) But my assumption is that you have already done all of that.  

My focus here is just the US foreign policy aspect.  What is going on in Washington, how do we explain US government  actions vis-à-vis Ethiopia?  Is it  "responsibility to protect" or is it  "neocolonialism"? Is it all part of a broader strategy related to China or is it related to Egypt? I have not seen anyone answer this adequately, so this is my humble attempt to make sense of it.

Throughout this post I try to remember three principles.  Occam's razor: The simplest explanation is usually the best one. Hanlon's razor: never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. Third, every complex problem has a simple neat explanation which is wrong, so we won't oversimplify. 

Let me explain where the question arises. First let's take a snapshot -- the very eventful week of May 23, 2021:
  • May 23:  the US State Dept imposed imposed visa restrictions  on Ethiopian government officials, which had been rumoured a couple of days earlier.
  • May 24 Blinken spoke to the UAE foreign minister. The same day, the UAE pulled out of Ethiopia-Sudan dispute mediation.
  • May 26 Blinken met with Al-Sisi 
  • May 26 USAID said in a press release and in a US Senate hearing on May 27, that a "USAID partner" had been killed by "Ethiopian and Eritrean" and that the killing was " clearly intentional".  A few things stood out: 
    • I've tried but can't find the name of the partner organization.  It's not mentioned in the press release, or in the statements to congress the next day, or in any press interview. Why would it be secret? 
    • In congress, USAID's Sarah Charles said it happened in April. But for some reason, USAID did not speak bout the murder for a month.   Here's a CNN story where "a top USAID official working on the ground in Tigray" talks about the situation with partners on April 30, and does not mention the murder.
    • the press release says the killing was by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops. As described by Ms Charles, it was not in the heat of the battle. And she also says "and".  It would be understandable if they said "or". The "and" means they know it's both. It seems strange that both armies would simultaneously shoot one unarmed person, especially given that most reports have them in different territories, and there was no battle going on. 
  • May 27 In Senate testimony, Sarah Charles said that it was critical the US be allowed to bring in  "right kind of people" and "right kind of equipment" to Ethiopia, but that some people were denied visas.  Which raises the question, why would the Ethiopian government deny some visas but not all? WFP, World Vision and CARE don't seem to have visa problems. The government says it not only grants access but also provides security to aid workers when they go in areas where fighting is still going on. And adds that it has intercepted weapons and ammunition in food aid trucks,  so checking the trucks is necessary.  The subtext here is obvious.  It is not a  secret that USAID sometimes has secret programs  and after all, as it's current head Samantha Powers said in her confirmation hearing, USAID is a national security agency.  So a bit of disagreement on the "right kind of people" should be expected and the USAID reaction seems a little disingenuous.
Then there's the election. Despite all the flaws, the Ethiopian federal elections on June 21st are objectively an improvement over the previous ones. The flaws of course include the fact that two major parties OFC and OLF boycotted. And that the election has been delayed in some regions, including Tigray, which together represent almost 20% of the seats. On the positive side,  the independence of the judiciary, independence of the  election board, number of parties participating nationwide, number of voters are all better than ever  (admittedly a very low bar). Yet over the last few weeks, the US statements started sounding very negative about it. It started with "deeply concerned" on May 27,  to being "gravely concerned" on June 11.   They also keep talking about "post-election dialogue" before the election,  which sounds a lot like encouraging people in advance to not respect the outcome.  All we hear from the US state department  is glass half-empty rhetoric, and almost constant predictions of violence. Wouldn't it be strange if, while doctors are working hard to deliver a baby, a "friend" just kept repeating over and over that they are deeply concerned about the complications, and that the family should be prepared for a funeral? 

Now zoom out and consider the think tanks and media figures that form the bench of the foreign policy establishment. We have ex-CIA people like Cameron Hudson at the Atlantic Council and Judd Devermont at the Center for Strategic & International studies, consistently pushing the most pessimistic narratives about the election. We have Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute, ex-Pentagon neocon who worked on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, writing extremely negative articles about Ethiopia predicting trouble with Kenya and Somalia, and even predicting the break up of the country.  If we look at the NY Times, the chief Africa guy Declan Walsh  seems to be on a campaign to rewrite the history of how the war started: he wrote 4 long articles on it, without once mentioning the actual event that started the war,  namely the Nov 4 attacks, and each time stating the opposite of what happened -- that the first attack was by the government rather than TPLF.  (His most recent article seems to deliberately change the date of a conversation between Abiy and Coons to support that reversal).  This is really bizarre and reminds me of the scandal of the WMD stories  leading up to the Iraq war. 

If you know anything about US-Ethiopia relations, regardless of your views, it should be obvious that something is going on. It almost feels like a new product launch. The Biden administration and the broader foreign policy establishment in the US seem to be executing a policy which views the current Ethiopian government as an adversary. Most importantly, there is a clear push for "intervention".  What is the thinking behind it? Let's consider some hypotheses:

1. R2P: Our null hypothesis is to take it at face value.  The US actions simply reflect "the international community's responsibility to protect" and should be welcomed. No doubt that this motivation is true  for many of the individuals involved, so I will give this some weight, but overall, the pattern of actions listed above refutes this as the only explanation. Why would they go to such lengths to not acknowledge the cause of the war for instance?

2. Scorpion:  the opposite hypothesis is that the US and Ethiopia are like the scorpion and the frog in the fable, that "they" just want to harm Ethiopia period, because it is in their nature as an evil empire.  We can simply dismiss this hypothesis. And throw pure racism in this bucket too. Yes of course racism is a factor at various levels, especially the subtle racism of condescending "experts", but it is just silly to think that is the main force driving the policy.

3. Puppets: This hypothesis is that the TPLF is successfully manipulating "the west" using money and propaganda.   It's true that many journalists, crisis experts and activists on social media probably serve TPLF. Some may be paid agents, and  some may be "useful idiots".  But the idea that people at the highest levels of power in Washington are unwitting puppets of TPLF seems implausible. How about the idea that they are consciously doing it? Indeed much has been made of Susan Rice's history with TPLF, or Tedros Adhanom's connections etc.  Relationships matter a great deal of course, like Chalabi for Iraq, but  it seems like a stretch to say these personal relationships are the main reason for the overall policy.

4. China peril:  maybe it is just part of the geopolitical chess game with China. Ok that seems plausible on the surface, China has been very investing in Ethiopia, way more than the US. And containing a "surging China in Africa" definitely fits the bill as something big enough to drive policy in Washington.  But on deeper analysis... It doesn't explain our situation. Over the last 3 years with the current government, the trend in Ethiopia is slightly leaning more towards the West than before, including famously in the telecom sector.  So "growing fear of China" does not make sense as an explanation for US interventionism in Ethiopia at this time. Ditto for "fear of Russia".  

5. Neocolonialist resource grab:  this hypothesis is that "The West" has a strategy to exploit resources in the region in the long run, which requires a pliant government, which it had until three years ago with TPLF, but the current government is not, so they want to destabilize and ultimately replace it. Given the last 150  years of African history, this definitely deserves consideration. But in this case that doesn't really make sense as a root cause. Ethiopia is not a very good place for pure extractive exploitation... Not much oil and gas etc.  What there is is a lot of water, which is indeed very valuable. But even if you think of water converted to electricity, or water converted to food through irrigation, so what? It's not like the US or Europe need to take food or electricity from Ethiopia, so that doesn't explain it. 

6. Oak:  But of course water is the key and it brings us to our final hypothesis, which is the Egyptian angle. It is no coincidence that all of this strange stuff is overlapping with GERD.  Fundamentally, GERD itself is actually not harmful to Egypt,  and there is a reasonable way to share the Nile long term - the Cooperative Framework Agreement. But politically, GERD is a threat to the Al Sisi regime right now.  The military government in Egypt lives in constant fear of the  Muslim brotherhood, fear of a new iteration of the Arab Spring of 2011, etc. The exaggerated almost caricatural "strongman" image Al Sisi cultivates is because he needs to project strength. 
That's how he got there in 2013, it is in the nature of his power. The moment he shows weakness, he's toast.  Like the oak tree in the fable, if he bends he breaks. And nothing makes him look weaker than Ethiopia going ahead with GERD despite his intransigence. Egypt will be fine but the current Egyptian government is at risk, and the best way to minimize that risk is to destabilize Ethiopia enough that GERD is stopped or at least  delayed until it can be done in a "pliant" way that makes Al Sisi look "strong" domestically in Egypt. 

But why does the US care about this oak tree regime more than peace in the horn of Africa? Well the oak is a necessary part of the regional axis with Saudi Arabia, and UAE. If Egypt is run by the Muslim brotherhood or a secular civilian government, or anything other than a military dictator,  it may no longer be a reliable ally of Saudi Arabia and opponent of Iran.  And this is definitely the type of thing that could cause neo-cons, and the liberal hawks and all the other interventionists to coalesce.  So it seems plausible that there is a faction within the Biden administration and the broader "establishment" that believes in trying to weaken Ethiopia to help Al Sisi as part of the the overall strategy in the Middle East.  It explains the "launch" events of the week of May 23, it fits Feltman going to Saudi Arabia, the  UAE and Qatar to discuss GERD. It fits with the US policy in Yemen. And it is similar to the convoluted logic on Syria that you see from all the "serious people".  It is of course not wise to attach yourself to a doomed oak and it's not like they don't know it. Listen to this interview with Ben Rhodes  who was in the white house during the Egyptian coup of 2013. But a policy in an organization as complex as this is not like a logical thought in a single brain, it's the outcome of many competing interests.  If enough factions want something, it can happen even if their reasons are contradictory.  A great explanation of this is in an interview of Al Gore in 2006 which really struck me at the time.  Skip ahead to 27:20 where he says  "the decision to invade Iraq was the worst strategic mistake in American history" and goes on to very clearly explain the "perfect storm" of four policy forces that led to it.  It is really one of the most remarkably clear segments I've ever heard on recent US foreign policy.

And as in the case of Iraq in 2001-2003, here in 2021 with Ethiopia, it's not one thing, I would say US interventionism is driven by 
  • 60% stability of the Al-Sisi regime,
  • 20% fear of China,
  • 15% R2P
  • 5%  pro-TPLF feelings
For now this seems like a powerful mix, and the interventionists  have the upper hand in the Biden administration. They will "pay any price, bear any burden" to pursue these deeply flawed goals. As long as the price is paid and the burden is born by others of course.  That's the big picture. Not very glorious. Just the same type of mess that in the past has led to the US supporting military coups overthrowing democracy when the "wrong" party wins elections like in Egypt, talking about humanitarianism while favoring war like in Yemen, "accidentally" arming Al Nusra Front (aka Al.Qaeda) in Syria, lying about motives and bringing perpetual war like in Iraq etc.  I'm sure Samantha Powers and Susan Rice try to rationalize that they are the good guys, the ends justify the means, mistakes are made etc. But they have been staring into the abyss for too long, the abyss stared back at them and sucked them in. 

The best hope is for the interventionists to be slowed by the weight of their past disasters and blocked by other factions in the US. American interventionism has been failing a lot for a long time. The Iraq invasion gave birth to Al Qaeda in Iraq, then ISIS. They made Iran, which they want above all to contain, stronger than ever in Iraq. Assad won in Syria. Even Libya,  despite Egypt the supposed big force of the Arab world being right next door, is a dismal failure.  In Yemen $100B and five years of bombing, the Houthis are still there.   In Afghanistan, after 20 years and $2T US intervention, Al Qaeda moved and the Taliban won.  More important than the failure to achieve US goals, the incalculable damage to the people in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen is impossible to ignore and the strategic blow-back keeps getting worse.  So despite the strong interventionist cabal in the Biden administration, it's not clear they can beat the "isolationists", some evangelical Christians like Inhofe that are pro-Ethiopia, maybe even some "anti-imperialists" from the left,  and other factions in the administration and congress.

An additional weakness of the interventionists, which may seem paradoxical, is that they don't pay the price of their mistakes personally. No matter how wrong their predictions and disastrous their policies,  the same people keep shuffling in and out of think tanks and  the Pentagon and the state department, progressing their careers, with no evolutionary pressure, no natural selection.  So in effect, neo-cons and liberal hawks and Clintonites and Cheneyites in the foreign policy establishment have been in-breeding for so long their ideas are getting weaker, and their failures are getting more expensive.  Samantha Powers and Susan Rice are like inbred descendants of Henry Kissinger. Michael Rubin is like Paul Wolfowitz's mini-me.  So one possibility is that it all just fizzles out in incompetence and they end up doing nothing significant in Ethiopia.

There are also forces outside the US at play. GERD is kind of a pan-African rallying point. Practically six Nile Basin countries are already aligned with Ethiopia on this issue. Another key variable appears to be the UAE. They are usually aligned with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But, they have had a good relationship with Eritrea and Ethiopia,  helped with the peace treaty between the two governments, offered to mediate with Sudan (until suddenly backing off mentioned above). Qatar is famously not aligned with Saudis so a possible balancing force. Turkey is a other big source of investment in Ethiopia and is a potential stabilizing force and of course China is as usual against US interventionism.  Finally, there's the fact that no matter how many times they pooh-pooh Abiy's Nobel peace prize,  whatever his flaws, they can't make him look like a Saddam, Gaddafi or Assad because he isn't.  And the election will make that even clearer.

2021/05/20

Five books: Pandemic Pentateuch

During the last 12 months,  I read quite a few books that I really liked.  I doubt my overall reading volume increased during the pandemic (more time at home, but also less time in trains and planes), but for some reason, the past year yielded a memorable crop of books. Here are five of them: 

  • Apocalypse Never, an interesting and timely book, with solid coverage of the fundamentals of climate change. Besides being full of information, as I wrote in a previous blog post, it helps you think more clearly about what is good for the environment.
  • Apollo's Arrow  a very good book about the topic of the year: Coronavirus.  It covers all dimensions and is very educational on how to understand the pandemic in terms of medicine, epidemiology, sociology, evolutionary biology, public policy, history, etc. Lots of interesting details about how the pandemic unfolded in different places from  Wuhan to New York City.   It also helps to understand how things might evolve going forward.  For example, are future mutations of SARS-CoV-2  likely to be more lethal or less lethal? I won't tell you the answer because you should really read this book!
  • The Shadow King: "Fiction is a shadow of real life, great fiction is Truth! Furious, illuminating, warm, fantastic, can't say enough about this book. Highly recommended",  I  tweeted.  The author is a childhood family friend, and I was really happy to see it short-listed for the Booker Prize. But I can honestly say that was not at all on my mind while engrossed in the story.  
  • The Plot to Kill Graziani. "Deeply researched, meticulously sourced, highly readable account", was my brief review on goodreads.   This real life historical thriller would be fascinating to anyone interested in Ethiopia, Fascism, etc.  As a personal bonus,  I was able to use this book to fill in  a few specific details in my family tree. Interestingly I read both Shadow King and this book before the current war in Ethiopia started in Nov 2020.  Having the 1930s fresh on our minds is helpful  perspective on the current crisis. In the darkest hours, it helps to remember two thousand years of history, could not be wiped away so easily.
  • The Monk of Mokha, a real-life story of a guy who decides to make Yemeni coffee "great again" (my silly choice of phrase).  Nice deep dives into the ancient history of coffee,   the technicalities of high quality coffee in the modern world. A real tragic, dramatic and hilarious story, brilliantly  told.  If Shadow King shows how fiction can be very real, the Monk of Mokha is the converse, it shows how non-fiction can be as good as a novel. 
As usual with my "five books" -- not definitive. If I did it again, I'd likely come up with a different list. Some honorable mentions:   The Master and Margarita, an absolute classic; and  Le naufrage des civilisations a poignant personal view of history from one of my favorite authors, who has appeared a few times on this blog. 

2020/12/24

Five books: historical fiction

By historical fiction, here I don't just mean novels that are set in the past, but more specifically, accounts of actual events and people, but that are not strictly historical. While the main story is real, the author takes the liberty of imagining the details like thoughts, conversations, relationships, even some side characters. These details of course can't be known for sure but imagining them allows us to access a deeper truth. Here are some of my favorites in the genre:

  • Mémoires d'Hadrien by Marguerite Yourcenar. A brilliant imagining of the inner thoughts of the great Roman emperor. I read it a pretty young age, having found it while browsing the bookshelf out of sheer boredom. At the time I didn't really read this kind of stuff but to my surprise I ended up completely engrossed.  Much later in life, I came to appreciate stoic tradition, which makes me appreciate it even more in hindsight.
  • Léon l'Africain by Amin Maalouf.  Imaginary "auto-biography" of Ibn Battuta aka Leo Africanus. A great explorer who traveled a huge part of the Africa, Europe, and Asia, and had many incredible adventures. Everyone learns about Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus etc. But this guy should really be covered more.
  • Samarcande by Amin Maalouf. Another fantastic book by Maalouf, describes the life and times of Omar Khayyam, a great poet of the middle ages.  The city of Samarkand still exists, in present day Uzbekistan. It's fascinating to think that this place,  which we think of as so remote nowadays, was once a major world city, the equivalent of Paris or New York today.
  • Burr by Gore Vidal. The story of Aaron Burr, the second vice-president of the US, famous for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. I read this a long time ago, before the current Hamilton craze, and never formally studied American history in school, so  knowing more about Burr than Hamilton gives me an unusual perspective.  Very vivid description of life in the early 19th century New York. Every time I pass by  Jumel Mansion, I remember this book.
  • Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Imagine real life in the times of Buddha, how people lived and what they thought. Very wise book, historical, spiritual, took me a while to appreciate this gem.


2020/08/25

What is "good for the environment"?

Consider two pretty obvious statements. First, living in dense cities is much more energy efficient than living in rural areas, especially in cold places where you need heating. Second if we had 1,000 cities the size of New York City, that would be all of humanity, and they would only occupy a small fraction of the earth's surface. A somewhat larger fraction would be used for producing food and extracting some resources but  the vast majority of land on earth could be devoid of humans.  Yet, for years, I've been surprised at how often people are surprised by these points. Somehow, people assume that cities are bad for nature and that living in a rustic rural cabin or hut, using wood fires for energy is more friendly toward nature. Obviously the flaw in such reasoning is that they are thinking not of humanity as it exists today or in the future, but subconsciously going back to a time when there were very few humans, and so it didn't matter if we were extremely wasteful of resources. Of course the reason there were few humans is that most of them died very quickly.  It's a  "wet streets cause rain" type of reasoning that is surprisingly prevalent.

Another bit of inanity is that many people believe using bio-fuels is "good for the environment". Indeed the US government mandates blending corn ethanol in gasoline.  This is good for corn farmers, and good for politicians who depend on them, and maybe even good if you think foreign oil is a problem.  But in fact, when compared to just using gasoline without corn ethanol,  it results in an increase in green house gas emissions, not a decrease.   Yet the belief that it's good for the environment persists.

A new book, Apocalypse Never, by Michael Shellenberger covers  these as well as many other such points, in making a very good case that the current global alarmism around climate change is doing more harm than good.  Normally, the title and the marketing of the book would have turned me off. The last thing I want is more political BS from climate change deniers.  But this book is not that at all. The author not only agrees with the conventional view that the climate is changing due to greenhouse gas emissions, but he's actually one of the pioneers in the space.  Second what actually made me notice the book in the first place was that people were trying to get it banned or de-platformed. Which naturally kind of proves the point that he's making. And it made me want to look into it. (So maybe giving it a provocative title is a good strategy after all!).  Which I don't regret.

He also does a good job debunking the idea of "extinction of humanity". Of course we won't go extinct because of global warming. Isn't it enough to say it will cause a huge problem and enormous suffering? Similarly "saving the planet" is misguided hyperbole. The planet will still exist, even if it's boiling hot or completely frozen, and certainly more CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature changes of a few degrees are no big deal on a geological timescale. So this is just misguided and confused language that is counter-productive. It's like when people scream about "genocide" whenever there's some political violence or war that is ethnically motivated.  Constantly calling everything a genocide is not helping the cause of peace.  Similarly saying that smoking a joint is exactly the same as a heroin overdose is not helping kids avoid drugs.   

If you care about solutions and the well-being of humanity, you should be more precise in your thinking. What we care about is how we live, and what we mean by "we" is critical. The book does a good job of explaining this and the underlying basic concepts, perhaps the most important of which is "energy transitions", and he generally summarizes the science and arguments pretty fairly 

Still there are a  few points where I disagree with it, three in particular.

First, in a section on the "Tragedy of the commons", a paper and concept with which I'm intimately familiar, he  seems to imply that the "tragedy" in the paper is uncontrolled breeding of humans, which is inaccurate. But the "tragedy" is that when shared pasture land (aka commons) is not properly managed to align incentives, that leads to over-grazing and destruction of the shared resource. The real legacy of that classic paper is about mechanism design, pricing, property rights etc. But Schellenberger seems to reduce this classic insight to just the Malthusian aspect. This is a rather small technicality and doesn't change the main point he's making so I can give it a pass.

The second one is a much more serious problem. In discussing solar power he says "the achievable power density of a solar farm" is "up to" 50 watts/m2 (p. 188). But the solar constant is 1.37kw/m2 and the maximum solar energy on the surface of the earth is about 1,000 watts/m2. So he's assuming solar conversion achieves 5% efficiency at best. But this is not true, as we can see from this chart, we're at about 20-30% now and gaining about ten percentage points per decade, as I've written about before.  So his take is really unduly pessimistic about the future of  solar power.

Third, he makes a really good case for nuclear power for electricity generation. But he fails to address what to me is the strongest argument against it. Chernobyl and Fukushima are "supposed" to happen once every few hundreds of years.  But if we do a Bayesian update on those priors, the probabilities are much worse than advertised. Or to put it more simply: How come no nuclear power plant can get private insurance? If the risks are as low and manageable as he and other advocates claim, then one should be able to get free market insurance for it. But that has never happened.  I used to be pro-nuclear power, but I've become more skeptical over the years. And despite devoting a lot of the book to it, Schellenberger didn't quite convince me.

Overall, this is a good book, it helps the reader think of many of the questions in a more holistic way, and paints a coherent big picture of environmental humanism. Recommended reading.

2020/06/27

Proof of royal blood

I have royal blood. I'm a direct descendant of one of the great kings in the history of the world. I am sure of it. Pretty cool eh? 

Which one you ask? Well, ahem, I don't know which one exactly but I'm mathematically almost sure I am a descendant of a great king.  And so are you.  

Here's the proof. First, like everyone, (except clones if there are any)  I have 2 biological parents, 4 grandparents, .... 2^n direct ancestors n generations back.  This is not an estimate, it is a precise fact. Second, I am not a descendent of extra-terrestrials, so I must have human ancestors on earth who were around at all points in human history.  Now  let's take say n=30.  That would be about 1000 years ago.   That means I have 2^30 that is about 1 billion ancestors that existed then. Woah. But the world population was only a few hundred million. So how is that possible? How can you fill a billion positions on my family tree, which, remember *must* exist, when there are only a few hundred million humans in existence. Obviously it's because the same person must fill multiple slots. If there was 100M people  let's say, then each one on average must appear 10 times. Of course, some get more than average and some get less. It's like a lottery. And the odds of each person on earth getting many slots in my tree are directly related to how many children, grandchildren etc they had. Obviously most kings have more descendants than the average person by far. Not only do they have more kids they are more likely to survive and so on. Therefore in that lottery if the average human appears ten times then the average king who existed 1000 years ago must appear way more than 10 times.  Therefore I have lots of kings at n=30.  Now if we keep going, as n gets larger, each king gets exponentially growing number of lottery tickets to win sits in the tree. If you add it all up, the probability that I have at least one great king approaches 100%. QED.

P.S. I first read a version of this argument in a magazine article years ago, I think it was Harper's or something, will try to find it and give credit.

P.P.S. The picture is of King David (I love how it looks like "Dawit" but I think it actually says "Davidus"), from the Nine Worthies in the Palazzo Trinci, Italy, circa 1410.

2020/06/14

Pray for me: bossa nova Bob

Deep in the second hour of "The Bedroom Tapes", there is a song called "Pray for me". Today for the first time I listened to a cleaned up version. Though the quality is still terrible, genius shines through. The Jazz guitar ending is ... So sweet and unexpected.   I play it again, and realize it's all jazzy, bossa nova. Wow. World's colliding.  After all. these. years. Yet another dimension of Bob ... A gem within a gem within a gem.

Jailbreaker

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the amazing "Bedroom Tapes". This morning I was thinking about police brutality, injustice and so on, as one is wont to do these days, and I remembered the song "Jailbreaker" from those tapes:

The jury found me guilty
But I found them guilty too
I'm a Jailbreaker, hotstepper

As they take him to the gallows, an old priest says to him:

Son, I know you haven't  done wrong,
What a pity the things of today,
good got to suffer for the bad
But the townspeople were singing: he's a Jailbreaker

Powerful stuff. Jesus going to the cross. Where are these images coming from? I realize the images playing in my mind are from  "The Master and Margarita".... I've been rereading it over the last few months.

But then Bob goes on:

Old priest get out of the way
You don't know what I've had 
Watch this,  I'm a Jailbreaker
You can call me a hotstepper
...
Babylon get nervous, 
They know we've got to tear it apart




2019/11/17

Five books: recently read biographies

In the last year or so, I've stumbled into an unusual streak of 5 really good biographical books.

1. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight. Standing in an airport bookstore with a few minutes to kill, I saw this book and picked it up. I remembered an article I read years ago  in Wired about Nike's early days. For some reason I remember the phrase "halcyon days" being used. Such an interesting word. Halcyon. But I digress. Anyway I opened the book and read the first few sentences and it was surprisingly good. So I decided to buy it and was not disappointed.  It's well written, and focuses on the interesting early years rather than then better known recent history.  Does a great job of showing exactly how a tiny humble importer of Japanese sneakers born out of old school business hustle and a passion for running, grows into a manufacturing and branding icon.

2.  So much things to say, by Roger Steffens.  An "oral history" of Bob Marley. It's a collection of transcripts of people who were close to him talking about their memories of the singer.  Bob means a lot to me, I grew up with his music, I know the lyrics to even the most obscure unreleased songs, his biography in great detail etc. Still this book was enlightening and very deeply touching.  I happened to read it a unique time -- was it high tide or low tide? think of that song here -- in the late fall 2018 -- Bob was born in 1945, just like my mother. Possibly one of my favorite books of all time.

3. Lenin, by Victor Sebestyen. Really thorough book on the life of the revolutionary Soviet leader.  In our new world order, many old isms and schisms are coming back. Nationalism, mercantlism, Marxism. People see them and argue about them.  Leninism is different. It's meta. It's about the processes of ideology and power. And it is more relevant than ever. Osama bin Laden and Steve Bannon are Leninists. While this book is about none of that, simply reading the life and thought process of this man is worth it as, in a way, we still live in his world.

4. The First Tycoon, by TJ Stiles. A very solid biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, well researched. Great window into US history. Through this one person’s life you learn a lot about (among other topics): steamboats in the early 19th century; railroads in the mid centurye; east-westtravel, the panama canal; and filibusters! woah. US-Nicaragua relations: this was perhaps the most surprising part,  it gives really really interesting context  to the US-Nicaragua problems of the last 30 years or so; the evolution of the modern corporation; the early stages of the stock market. Great read. My only criticism is that the author is a little too sympathetic to the subject. I prefer when a biographer is a bit more neutral, still this book is really a fountain of information.

5. Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell. Excellent in every way.  One of the best writers in the english language: very precise, efficient, elegant, unpretentious style.  Very interesting story, important history and super relevant to what’s happening int he world today.  

2019/05/05

12 rules

Apparently everyone does this. So here are mine. Like my lists of books,  if I did this ten times I would generate ten different lists.

1. Burgers: well done. E. Coli.

2. Don't buy the second item on the menu (see my previous post on this). Relatedly for wine: order domestic or same continent. Imports tend to be  over-priced

3. Insurance: only buy insurance for losses you can't afford, or if you have asymmetric information

4. Debit cards: don't use them. Cash or credit are strictly better options.

5. Shoes: one area where it is usually worthwhile to pay the premium. Prioritize quality (comfort, weight, stitching) over quantity.

6. Investments: only make investments without deadlines,   timing is often where hidden uncertainty is greatest, so make sure time contingencies are on your side.

7. Identity: keep your identity small. (h/t Paul Graham)

8. Food:  the food chain is acyclic. don't eat animals that can eat you

9. Butter is always better than margarine. Never use artificial sweeteners.

10. Premature optimization is the root of (almost) all evil in software engineering (h/t Donald Knuth)

11. Never rewrite from scratch (h/t Jamie Zawinski)

12. My phone  does not notify me. I notify it.