Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of terrestrial intelligence.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Questions For The 9/11 "Truth" Movement

Now that my race for Congress includes a Green who claims the Bush administration staged 9/11, I've surveyed the landscape of the 9/11 conspiracy funhouse. As someone who spent years debunking JFK conspiracy theories in the pre-Web era of the Internet, I've had no trouble zeroing in on the multiple weak spots of the 9/11 "Truth" movement. For those new to the funhouse, the 9/11 "Truth" movement believes that the Bush administration staged the 9/11 attacks by
  • controlling the two 767's that crashed into the World Trade Center;
  • using pre-planted explosive charges to demolish the twin towers and the 47-story tower 7;
  • making Flight 77 and its passengers and crew disappear, so that the least-important wing of Pentagon could be hit with a missile alleged to be Flight 77;
  • shooting down Flight 93 over Pennsylvania and faking all the evidence of a passenger revolt;
  • arranging that America's air defenses failed to intercept the allegedly-hijacked jets; and
  • arranging that al Qaeda fails to deny responsibility and indeed appears to claim responsibility.
9/11 Truthers say that the linchpin of their case is the "obvious" and "incontrovertible" visual evidence that the WTC buildings collapsed as a result of controlled demolition. Even though demolitions experts are nearly unanimous in disagreeing with such claims, the Truthers assert that a proper understanding of physics and materials science proves their case. So they focus on the technical details of the building collapses, and ignore questions showing that the conspiracy can be seen to be utterly implausible without any technical expertise whatsoever.

Thus to my opponent Carol Brouillet and all other Truthers I ask the following.

1. al Qaeda. The JFK conspirators couldn't get their lone gunman to claim responsibility, but the omni-competent 9/11 conspirators have such influence over al Qaeda as to make it consistently take credit -- and never again deny responsibility -- for 9/11. Why has al Qaeda taken credit for 9/11 in multiple communiques, and not attempted to deny responsibility since losing Taliban protection in 2001? Bonus questions: If the conspirators are making al Qaeda (appear to) claim credit, why didn't they do so earlier? If you can prove the conspirators control al Qaeda, then why bother arguing the rest of the conspiracy theory -- missiles, controlled demolition, faked hijackings, etc -- to people who believe al Qaeda did it? Why does Zacarias Moussaoui not deny that his al Qaeda comrades perpetrated 9/11?

2. Flight 93. If the government conspiracy could control commercial 767's and fly them into the WTC, why would it shoot down a 757 over Pennsylvania instead of fly it into the ground as suggested by all the carefully-prearranged onboard transmissions and recordings suggesting a passenger revolt that you say never happened?

3. Pentagon. If the government conspiracy could control commercial 767's and fly them into the WTC, why use a missile instead of another jetliner to hit the Pentagon in broad daylight and clear skies over a crowded metropolitan area bristling with civilian witnesses and camcorders and camera phones? Bonus questions: And if a missile was used, why make a 330-degree turn in the final approach, creating more exposure to cameras and witnesses? And if the radar recordings are fabricated, why include a turn that you say is suspicious?

4. Wristwatches. If the government conspiracy could crash two commercial 767's in a window of 17 minutes, why would it risk ordering a suspicious and traceable stand-down of air defenses so it could hit the Pentagon with a missile 80 minutes later? Flight 77 would not have struck D.C. until about 95 minutes after the first WTC crash. Instead of the government conspiracy spreading its four meticulously planned attacks across an hour and a half, why not instead just pretend the hijackers had wristwatches and then competently synchronize the four strikes? Did the Pentagon missile/drone team oversleep the morning of 9/11? And why were the cockpit takeovers spread over 90 minutes, allowing Flight 175 to even be warned of cockpit intrusion before it happened?

5. We Have Some Planes. Truthers claim that the government conspiracy was so worried about the alleged ability of America's air defenses to intercept hijacked airliners that the conspiracy took the risk of arranging stand-down orders. Whey did the conspiracy then use a suicide flight crew so incompetent that two of them repeatedly used the air-traffic radio to broadcast warnings they were trying to give to their passengers over the cabin intercom, thus giving the earliest possible notice that hijackings were under way? Why did they broadcast "planes" plural? Why did they only turn off the transponders on Flights 77 and 93 only after deviating from their course? Why did they never turn off the transponder on Flight 175 at all? Just how stupid were these evil government geniuses who took over these planes?

6. Demolitions. Nobody trapped above the impact floors in the WTC was going to be saved from the fire, and 200 of them had already jumped to their deaths. The collapse of WTC 1 and 2 only contributed 400-600 of the 3000 fatalities on 9/11, and the collapse of WTC 7 contributed zero. Why would the conspiracy risk setting up and then performing in broad daylight a controlled demolition of buildings that it knew would be under massive videographic surveillance, just to kill 400 rescue workers? Bonus questions: What if one of those swarming radio-equipped rescue workers had found an explosive charge while breaking through walls to seek trapped victims or clear exits? And with the towers twice as tall as anything around them, why not quintuple the death toll by hitting the 110-story towers just above the 57-story highest neighbor, instead of at the 96th and 81st floors? And why wait an agonizing 102 minutes to push the detonator for the first tower struck, since it is allegedly known that jet fuel cannot bring down a steel skyscraper now matter how big a fire it ignites and no matter how long it burns? Also, consider that at least 25% of the jets controlled by the conspiracy failed to hit their target. What was the government conspiracy's contingency plan if one of the WTC jets missed its assigned tower, and the building was then found to be wired from top to bottom with demolition charges?

7. Execution. The story told by 9/11 Truthers would have taken hundreds of conspirators to plan and execute:
  • demolition experts to plant the explosives days in advance;
  • insiders to allow planting of the explosives in the WTC -- whose chief of security John O'Neill was killed on 9/11 and as FBI Special Agent in Charge for National Security in the New York Field Office from 1997 to 2001 had led the bin Laden investigation;
  • a team (presumably near the WTC) to stick around all day and trigger 3 controlled demolitions over a 7-hour span;
  • people in the air defense chain of command to issue traceable and documented orders for exercises and a stand-down on 9/11;
  • an Air Force pilot to fire a missile at Flight 93;
  • military personnel to execute the missile/drone strike on the Pentagon;
  • Pentagon insiders to allegedly suppress its air defenses;
  • operatives to fabricate and plant fake Pentagon surveillance camera images;
  • American Airlines and United Airlines insiders to allow access to the WTC jets;
  • either suicidal pilots, or a team of aeronautical/avionics/jamming experts to secretly modify and remotely control the WTC jets and prevent the actual crew from using any radio or cell phone to call out;
  • operatives to divert Flight 77 and make it and its passengers and crew vanish without any trace or making any onboard calls;
  • operatives to plant physical evidence at each crash scene right in front of first responders;
  • radio technicians remotely engineering the transmissions from the planes (or a far larger team to alter and fake the transmission records after the fact; see below);
  • actors pretending to be doomed passengers talking on cell phones to loved ones and operators;
  • agents to create false identities and histories and financial records for the hijackers;
  • actors to pose as the hijackers on airport and ATM surveillance cameras;
  • etc.
How is it plausible that the bumbling administration of George W. Bush could plan and execute such an intricate operation, without anyone among these hundreds of people blowing the whistle when first approached, or anonymously/accidentally leaking the truth anytime since?

8. Cover-Up. Attempting a cover-up the 9/11 conspiracy miracle would require thousands of more conspirators:
  • operatives with sufficient influence over al Qaeda to prevent any of its leaders from disavowing al Qaeda's multiple admissions of 9/11 responsibility over the last four years;
  • the nearby pilots who say they heard the cockpit transmissions from the hijacked jets,
  • experts to fake the recordings of the 9/11 transmissions, cockpit recordings, black box data, and radar tracking data;
  • the bipartisan 9/11 Commission and its staff of 100;
  • FBI, including the teams who searched for traces of explosives at the crash sites;
  • bitter Bush critic Richard Clarke, the NSC counterterrorism aide who managed the Situation Room video conference on 9/11;
  • Secret Service;
  • Justice Department;
  • CIA;
  • NSA;
  • FAA, including air traffic control centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Boston, and New York;
  • DOT;
  • NORAD in Colorado,
  • NEADS in New York;
  • CONR in Florida;
  • NMCC in the Pentagon;
  • Andrews AFB in Maryland;
  • Langley AFB in Virginia;
  • Otis AFB in Massachusetts;
  • Air National Guard;
  • INS;
  • Customs Service;
  • State Department;
  • NTSB;
  • NIST;
  • FEMA;
  • NYPD;
  • FDNY;
  • NY City Office of Emergency Management;
  • Port Authority Police Department;
  • four flight training schools in Florida and Oklahoma;
  • the government of Pakistan;
  • the government of Italy;
  • the government of Britain;
  • the government of France;
  • the government of Spain;
  • operatives working against or among the 185 photographers to suppress or plant evidence in the nearly 7000 photographs taken at the WTC on 9/11;
How is it plausible that the bumbling administration of George W. Bush could orchestrate such a massive cover-up, without anyone among these thousands of people blowing the whistle or anonymously leaking the truth anytime since?

9. Scientific Apologists. If the scientific and technical evidence for the impossibility of the mainstream explanation is so overwhelming, then when will that evidence be believed by a fraction of the scientific community that is larger than the fraction who believe in creationism? The mainstream explanation is based on or corroborated by expert investigations by:
  • Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers;
  • Society of Fire Protection Engineers;
  • National Fire Protection Association;
  • American Institute of Steel Construction;
  • American Iron and Steel Institute;
  • Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat;
  • Structural Engineers Association of New York;
  • Underwriters Laboratories;
  • NY City Dept. of Design and Construction;
  • American Society of Civil Engineers;
  • Controlled Demolition, Inc.; and
  • researchers from Purdue, Northwestern, Columbia, Carnegie Mellon and UCSD.
10. Radical Non-Believers. Why is sole al Qaeda responsibility for 9/11 not denied by radical critics of the U.S. government? Such critics include:
  • Ralph Nader, who said about reinforcing cockpit doors: "this single safety step could have thwarted the events of September 11";
  • Jesse Jackson, who wrote in 2006 that "bin Laden has not stopped targeting us", and called the 9/11 Commission's recommendations "common sense steps";
  • Noam Chomsky, who says corporate control of media and government in America leads to "manufactured consent" , but calls a 9/11 government conspiracy "extremely unlikely";
  • Michael Moore, who in Fahrenheit 9/11 alleged nefarious Bush collusion with Big Oil and the House of Saud;
  • JFK director Oliver Stone, who thinks the CIA assassinated Kennedy;
  • BBC muckraking journalist Greg Palast, who thinks Bush stole the 2000 and 2004 elections;
  • antiwar.com, which thinks the Bush Administration lied about Iraqi WMDs and terrorist connections in order to use an Iraq war as an excuse to consolidate political power and attack civil liberties;
  • the Green Party, which admits Mohammed Atta led the al Qaeda 9/11 attacks; and
  • the Communist Party USA, whose official newspaper lauded the 9/11 Commission's finding that al Qaeda's responsibility for 9/11 was not shared by Iraq.
I criticize the conspiracists for indulging in selective explanation -- for focusing on an accumulation coincidences and minor mysteries instead of advancing a comprehensive hypothesis that is consistent with the most evidence and leaves no glaring anomalies or contradictions. So what is my hypothesis for the existence of the 9/11 "Truth" movement? Read it in an upcoming posting on my blog.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Holtz vs. Brouillet & Co. on 9/11 "Truth"

On Thursday Aug 17 my Green opponent Carol Brouillet invited me to be a "skeptic" on a Palo Alto community access TV show about the 9/11 "Truth Movement". I agreed, even though I had been stunned by the size of the 9/11 conspiracy industry that was evident in the 200-page color biannual 9/11 "truth" magazine she gave me when I bought her lunch that Monday. I had in the 1980's and 1990's been immersed (as a skeptic) in the deep and fascinating world of JFK assassination conspiracies, but my only inkling of 9/11 conspiracies had been the occasional reference by Libertarian kooks to controlled demolition of the World Trade Center and a missile hitting the Pentagon. I knew that as a stay-at-home mom of teenagers, Brouillet had been a full-time student of 9/11 for five years, and I had just one weekend to get ready to take on her and two other conspiracists.
So it seemed like roughly even odds.
I started devouring the leading pro- and anti-conspiracy web sites, trying to anticipate what my opponents would say and what the best available rebuttals are. I got a huge break Friday when one of Brouillet's fellow conspiracist panelists sent a longish email explaining that a 9/11 government conspiracy is as "obvious" as was the JFK conspiracy, of which he (Robert Forte) had made "a very thorough study".
Big. Mistake.
In my response to him I slapped down his hopelessly uninformed assertion about the JFK Zapruder film, with a frame-by-frame analysis of the crucial head-shot sequence and a link to a web-based frame Z frame comparator.
Forte's co-panelist Dennis (galen) Mitrzyk was much more cautious about risking his credibility by directly engaging in the discussion, and so he instead forwarded a 9/11 conspiracist essay that nonetheless violated my advice that the conspiracists not invoke JFK. In this case, it was Paul Crag Roberts invoking Oswald's marksmanship as the key to realizing a conspiracy. I informed Mitrzyk et al. that Roberts' understanding of the JFK case was at least twenty years obsolete, as new studies in the 1970's and 1980's overwhelmingly substantiated the single/magic bullet theory that completely undercuts the marksmanship objection.
Forte still didn't quite take my advice, and weakly stood behind his Zapruder assertion with a defensive and vague one-sentence argument, giving me a chance to expand my earlier five-point rebuttal into a nine-point one. He then committed a series of major gaffes:
  • To divert attention from my Zapruder argument, he made a blatantly uninformed claim that Clay Shaw (the peripheral JFK assassination figure played by Tommy Lee Jones in the Oliver Stone movie JFK) had been a CIA "agent". Bzzzt.
  • He claimed the collapse of WTC 7 was "totally ignored in the official report", when in fact it's been discussed in two official reports totaling 86 pages.
  • He claimed "the CIA was holding exercises" on 9/11, when in fact it was a simple office evacuation exercise at NRO building 4 miles from Dulles airport. NRO manages spy satellites, and has nothing to do with air defenses.
  • He claimed that "the FBI admitted they have no evidence that bin laden had anything to do with 9/11", and I showed that this is blatant disinformation.
I couldn't resist closing my email by telegraphing the question that I think is most devastating to the conspiracist position: why does al Qaeda take credit for 9/11 instead of denying responsibility for it? As it turned out, my opponents did not take advantage of this by preparing very well for this question when I asked it on the show.
Next installment: highlights of the debate, and online video.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Conspiracy Theories Are Weeds

Conspiracy theories are weeds growing at the periphery of the currently-best-available explanatory web, finding sunlight only because of the gaps and tensions in the web. Conspiracy theorists forget the basic epistemological fact that such gaps and tensions are inevitable in any explanatory enterprise, and that empirical truth is defined only provisionally as the web of theories that currently has the most explanatory power and least amount of contrary evidence. Conspiracy buffs almost never attempt to set forth a coherent and consistent theory with anything like the explanatory power and conceptual economy of the theory they criticize. They see an accumulation of curiosities and one-sided criticisms and just-so stories and mistake them for the sort of dispositive Popperian falsifying evidence that is pardigmatic in the laboratory sciences but is so rare in the social and historical sciences.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Why No Vast Libertarian Conspiracy? (CF Remix)

I disagree with pretty much anybody who says there is only one right institutional or tactical way to focus liberty-increasing effort. There are wrong ways (like creating extra liberty-oriented parties), but there is no single right way. The Libertarian Party, the Republican Liberty Caucus, the Cato Institute, and Reason Magazine/Foundation are each useful, and it's just criminal that such organizations fight or ignore each other instead of working together in a Vast Libertarian Conspiracy. It's ironic that there are so many conspiracy theorists in the LP and the larger freedom movement, and yet we as a movement can't conspire our way out of a wet paper bag. Hell, we don't even have a secret handshake. Then again, it's nice to be reminded of just how far from tyranny America actually is, that all these self-proclaimed freedom-fighters so clearly believe they can afford the luxury of a balkanized freedom movement.
The role of the LP in the Vast Libertarian Conspiracy should be to use electoral politics to move public policy in the direction of increasing liberty. The LP should seek to be the political voice and electoral broker of the 16% and 20% of Americans who polls show favor increased economic and personal liberty. Of course, even if we capture that 20% electoral share, we will be winning very few legislative seats. So why run? There are multiple independently valid reasons for a Libertarian to run a race she has little chance of winning:
  • To educate voters about the libertarian alternative to Left and Right;
  • To provide voters in that election a way to signal their desire for increased economic and personal liberty;
  • To show the major-party candidates how many votes are they are losing for not favoring increased liberty;
  • To get more attention for the libertarian perspective from editorial boards, journalists, candidate comparison services, and other opinion-shapers;
  • To directly confront the incumbent and his attending staff with the libertarian perspective during candidate forums;
  • To help maintain LP ballot access, which in states like California depends on result thresholds in certain races;
  • To be prepared in case scandal knocks an incumbent off the ballot in a safe seat, as has happened to Tom DeLay in Texas this year.
Note that each one of these reasons is defined relative to the status quo, and not to some abstract utopian ideal. No election in the real world is ever an up-or-down referendum on libertarianism. Rather, elections are a choice between expressing support for increased liberty and expressing support for one (or none) of the alternatives. So to get people to vote our way, we only have to convince them we're not as ignorant as the Democrats and not as evil as the Republicans and not as silly as the Greens and not as self-disenfranchising as NOTA.
How hard can that be?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Earth's Ultimate Environmental Problem

Over the next millennium and for the rest of human history, earth's major environmental problem will be warming due not to greenhouse gases but rather to increased waste heat from non-solar energy (initially petrochemical, but then fusion). The problem emerges when a world population in the tens of billions all enjoy an energy budget equivalent to levels in the industrialized West in 2000. Humans in 2000 consume 10 terawatts, wherease the total solar energy received by Earth is estimated variously at 109000 to 174000 terawatts. Ten billion humans at U.S. levels of energy use would consume 1000 terawatts. All the waste heat from all the energy uses adds up, and the laws of thermodynamics guarantee that energy use always creates heat exhaust. Heat pollution will have to be managed to prevent a runaway greenhouse effect like on Venus.

Monday, August 14, 2006

CA Judge Rules Against Write-In Candidates

Minor parties suffered a setback Aug 9 when Sacramento Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian ruled that Prop 60's change to the California Constitution does not trump the Elections Code rule about how many votes a primary write-in candidate must get. The Code sets a threshold equal to 1% of the votes cast for the office in the previous general election. However, Prop 60 says that for "a political party that participated in a primary election for a partisan office", the general election ballot for that office shall include "the candidate who received, at the primary election, the highest vote among that party's candidates". Since the requirements for getting qualified as a write-in candidate are much less than for regular candidates, the LP and other parties were hoping to use Prop 60 to relax ballot access requirements. (California's other ballot-qualified minor parties are: Green, American Independent, Peace and Freedom, and Natural Law.)
Judge Ohanesian wrote that nothing in the Prop 60 language "suggests that it applies to the procedures for write-in candidates". Republican Assembly candidate Raylene Wiesner received almost 700 write-in votes in the June primary and had sued Secretary of State Bruce McPherson to be placed on the November ballot. The Democratic Party sought to join the suit on behalf of three of its candidates, but Ohanesian decided that the Democrats lacked standing to do so for want of "direct and immediate interest in the litigation", because her ruling allegedly would only affect Wiesner.
An appeal seems likely, as there are multiple grounds for disputing Ohanesian's opinion. First, she claimed that "the Analysis by the Legislative Analyst clearly stated that Prop 60 would not require any changes to election procedures." However, the Prop 60 legislative analysis inaccurately simplified the Elections Code when it said "the candidate receiving the most votes among a party’s candidates is that party’s nominee for the general election". Second, she didn't address the possibility that a write-in candidate could win more votes than a regular candidate and yet still be excluded from the general election by the 1% threshold, in contravention of the plain language of the California Constitution.
Perhaps the best argument for upholding Ohanesian would be based on what the Constitution means by "a political party that participated in a primary election for a partisan office". One could argue that a party doesn't participate in the primary for an office if it doesn't have any candidates printed on the primary ballot. However, parties don't place candidates on primary ballots -- that's the job of the candidates themselves. Libertarians have generally been much better at doing so than have members of other minor parties, so if Ohanesian is overruled, it may end up being a mixed blessing for the LP.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Feminism, The Bible, and Female Reproductive Strategy

My response to a friend asking about feminism and the Bible:
I don't agree that the Bible was written with the conscious purpose of suppressing women. That is, I don't think the guys who wrote it said beforehand: "gee, women aren't suppressed enough, let's write a book and do the job right." I think the Old and New Testaments were written by men who desperately needed to believe that there was something supernaturally special about the Jewish people and Jesus, respectively. It just so happens that these men never stopped to question their culture's treatment of women. So I don't think the Bible represented a turning point in the status of women.
I do agree that a key aspect of conventional morality in Judeo-Christian and Moslem society is the suppression of women. The most important aspect of this suppression is making sure that women are not free to have sex outside of a contractual arrangement whereby the father of any resulting child has to support it.
But who is really suppressed the most under this system? Recall that the ideal reproductive strategy of females is to invest a lot of resources (egg, pregnancy, child-rearing) in a few offspring, while trying to persuade a male to also invest his resources (food-gathering, etc.) in those offspring. By contrast, the ideal reproductive strategy of males is to invest few resources (sperm) in as many offspring as possible, while avoiding any obligation to invest in raising those offspring. In many species, the alpha males are free to have children with as many females as possible, but this is not the case under traditional Western morality. The fact is, traditional Western morality enforces the ideal female reproductive strategy, and bans the ideal male reproductive strategy. (For example, female reproductive fantasies -- romance novels -- are considered acceptable by society, but male reproductive fantasies -- pornography -- are considered unacceptable.) Unfortunately for women, the ban is enforced by restrictions ON WOMEN instead of on men, because parents of daughters have more incentive to protect their child's chastity than do parents of sons.
Western society is not alone in favoring the female reproductive strategy; pair-bonding (and restrictions on daughters) is the norm in most populations of Homo sapiens. I see Christian morality is just our version of the enforcement mechanism; Asian and African societies have equally effective mechanisms that don't involve the Bible at all. So I'm a feminist, but that isn't the reason why I'm not a Christian. I choose not to be a Christian simply because I don't think there is any credible evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was divine.
It is ironic that while the feminist movement of the last few decades has won more individual (and particularly sexual) freedom for women, women have paid a price. Feminism results in getting more women to participate in the male strategy of women having sex outside of marriage, and the result has been more single mothers and more poverty for women due to easy divorce. My hope is that these effects will be temporary, only affecting women who were caught off-guard by the changing rules of the game. I hope future generations of women will have the economic and reproductive self-determination necessary to enjoy their new-found freedoms.
Yes, the Eden story is bass-ackwards. The biological fact is that women are the default gender, and males serve a very limited purpose. The current thinking is that the males (i.e. sexual reproduction) only exists because asexual reproduction can't keep ahead of parasites like viruses. In asexual reproduction, the cloned daughters are so much like the mothers that viruses have a very easy biomolecular lock to pick, because the combination can only change across generations if there is a mutation. The purpose of males seems to be to spin the combination, so that each generation parasites have to start from scratch in trying to pass themselves off as 'self' cells to not get attacked by the immune system.
I highly recommend a book called _The Redundant Male_, which is where I read about this. It goes on to show how, since males have so little purpose in many species except to be chosen by females to spin the combination to the immune system, runaway sexual selection has resulted in some pretty odd male traits like bright colors, long tail feathers, and big antlers. The selection is considered 'runaway' because females want their sons to be attractive to future females, so they choose males with a trait that they consider by some arbitrary criterion to be attractive. The result is a runaway exaggeration of that trait.
As you can see, my perspective on these issues is quite zoological. But I think science is the best basis for feminism because it is objective, and can't be accused of self-bias.
[I wrote the above in 1995, and I don't see anything I disagree with eleven years later.]

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Global Warming & Our Generation's 2 Greatest Crimes

The vast majority of the debate over global warming is caused by two kinds of misdirection. In the first kind, industry interests opposed to amelioration efforts exaggerate the uncertainty and minimize the risks for obvious reasons. In the second, climate researchers exaggerate both the uncertainties and the risks to keep the climate research gravy train going. Anthropogenic global warming is not an urban legend. The urban legends are 1) that global warming might be much more than the expected 2 degrees C over the next 100 years, and 2) that modest global warming will have overwhelmingly negative consequences. The Cato Institute acknowledges that modest warming is underway but recognizes that it will likely provide a modest benefit: http://cato.org/research/articles/michaels-031016.html

My primary worry about anthropogenic global warming is the highly-uncertain possible risks to species in marginal ecosystems. Extinction of species and forgetting of languages are pretty much the only crimes against Earth that wealthy future generations will hold against us. Warming's two biggest threats -- to the Gulf Stream thermohaline circulation and the West Antarctic ice sheet -- are very unlikely to be realized, and moderate warming (up to 2C) would have a net positive impact on the developed (i.e. temperate) world. [For more on this, see Skeptical Environmentalist p301].

Friday, August 11, 2006

Best Chances To Avert The Third Reich

The Cato Institute's blind spot is its strategic isolationism. A good idea for the decades and centuries of imperial rivalry leading up to the early twentieth century, strategic isolationism is now two epochs out of date. The first epoch that obsoleted isolationism began when imperial rivalry gave way to ideological rivalry in an era whose technological advances allowed totalitarians to kill tens of millions and threaten hundreds of millions more. The second epoch began when that ideological rivalry was settled c. 1989 in an era whose economic advances had rendered territorial conquest obsolete as a way to increase national prosperity. In the penultimate epoch, the stakes were too high for strategic isolation to be wise. In the current epoch, the humanitarian cost-benefit ratios of certain interventions are too low for strategic isolation to be conscionable.

Cato's Jim Powell is a typical libertarian strategic isolationist, who blames Woodrow Wilson for most of the twentieth century's parade of horribles. This thesis about 20th century history suffers from misunderstandings about path dependence and the difference between necessary and sufficient causes. When looking for turning points at which Europe's mid-twentieth-century horrors could have been averted, there are far better candidates:
  • If France had used its overwhelming military superiority to oppose Hitler's 1936 re-militarization of the Rhineland, Hitler's triumph would instead have been a humiliating retreat -- a retreat he had secretly already ordered if the French tried to stop this blatant treaty violation.
  • If central banks had in the 1920s been more competent, then European hyperinflation and the global Great Depression would have been largely avoided, making Nazi totalitarianism effectively impossible.
  • If France hadn't demanded ruinous reparations from Germany in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic would almost certainly not have been replaced by Nazi totalitarianism.

Compared to these multiple chances to save Germany after World War I, it's just not tenable to lay Hitler at Wilson's feet for the latter's decision to enter that war on the side of the democracies. I don't know as much about Russia and China in the early twentieth century, but I suspect they were probably more subject to their own internal dynamics. To me, the more interesting historical what-if here is: given the intellectual dominance of socialism in the 1930s, would central planning now be not nearly so discredited if Soviet and Chinese communism hadn't had such ample latitude to fail so spectacularly?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

17 Free Variables in Libertarian Theory

It's impossible to derive The One True Libertarianism from a single bumper-sticker-sized axiom like the Zero Aggression Principle. Why? Because there are just too many free variables in the design of one's libertarian ethical/political system. A list of such variables would include:

  • Enfranchisement variables
    • rights of animals and species
    • rights of the unborn
    • rights of children
    • rights of the mentally disabled
    • rights of the comatose, the cryonically suspended, etc
    • rights of the dead (e.g. to bind the living with a covenant)
    • rights of inheritance
    • rights of corporate persons
  • Property variables
    • rights in natural (i.e. non-excludable) resources e.g. atmosphere, water, non-solid minerals, spectrum, orbits
    • rights in excludable resources e.g. land, solid minerals
    • rights in intellectual property e.g. copyright, patents
    • justness of original property acquisition
    • status of stolen property
  • Aggression variables
    • [added 2007-06-24] whether blackmail is aggression
    • forms of allowable judicial punishment
    • rules for allowable extra-judicial defense and retaliation
    • thresholds for reckless endangerment
    • extent to which unequal associations are coercive
The Zero Aggression Principle gives no definitive guidance on these issues, and anyone who claims that the ZAP sufficiently defines libertarianism is saying that libertarianism is hopelessly inadequate for determining the rules of a polity. Further, if one accepts the existence of the state, then the core libertarian principle of minimizing aggression doesn't give clear guidance on
  • the procedures and organization of the state;
  • the extent of one's right to immigrate across borders separating radically different levels of liberty; and
  • whether the state's duty to defend liberty vanishes completely at its borders.
Finally, one who believes in minimizing the role of force initiation in human life might recognize that complete abstinence from force initiation is not optimal as a single and inviolable principle of political economy. 20th-century advances in the theory of political economy suggest it is fundamentally important that the state
There clearly is a lot of room for principled disagreement among the 16% to 20% of Americans who want more personal and economic liberty than we have today. The Libertarian Party is the only party advocating increased personal and economic liberty, and yet we attract votes from only about one tenth of our natural constituency, and registration and membership from far less than that.

This is a measure of how badly we have botched our political opportunity by squabbling over who should or should not be counted as libertarian. The definition of libertarian is clear: one who advocates minimizing aggression against those whom no reasonably tolerant person disputes should be franchised for protection by the polity. No definition of "libertarian" can ever deterministically uncompress into a reasonably complete political theory, much less a complete system of jurisprudence. However, the ordinary-language definition of "libertarian" is more than adequate for unifying America's liberty-lovers for effective political action -- if effective political action is indeed what they really want.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Top 30 Libertarian Blogs

Here is a list of the 30 most influential liberty-oriented blogs. The list is sorted on the second column, which is the Alexa 3-month average reach per million users. The third column is the Technorati count of the number of blogs that link in. The more influential a blog is, the less generally liberty-oriented it has to be to make the list. Reynolds, Sullivan, and Becker/Posner aren't very self-consciously libertarian, but their influence is vast enough to compensate. Antiwar.com is more singleissuetarian than libertarian, and the site mentions Chomsky over 500 times, but its libertarian roots are undeniable. For EconLog, I attempt to break out the blog's Alexa reach from the reach of EconLib as a whole.

Glenn Reynolds: Instapundit 306 6945 "The Blogfather" is a liberventionist who ignores the LP as "trivial" and "a net negative"
Raimondo & Garris: antiwar.com
244 3005
2 Rothbardians have flitted among 4 parties, backing Buchanan 2000 & Nader 2004
Andrew Sullivan: The Daily Dish
205 3106 Time hired the gay Catholic New Republic ex-editor who coined "South Park Republican"
Lew Rockwell 198 2950 Culturally conservative anarcho-capitalist paleolibertarians who disdain the LP
Reason 120 1280 60K-circulation techno-optimistic libertarian magazine bemused by the LP
Neil Boortz
112
1148
The libertarian-leaning conservative talk radio personality
Volokh Conspiracy 84 2705 Law school profs who say the LP makes major parties less libertarian at the margin
Marginal Revolution 68
1606 Brilliant GMU economists/philosophers/aesthetes ignore the LP
Homeland Stupidity
56
1073
A libertarian look at technology and privacy
Hammer of Truth 34
721 Most important LP-friendly blog; Stephen Gordon is now LP Comm Director
Jane Galt: Asymmetrical Information 31
800 Libertarianish economics-literate journalism; McArdle hired away by The Economist
Daniel Drezner
28
1101
Tufts PoliSci prof gets 58/160 on the libertarian purity test
Radley Balko: The Agitator
23
797
Cato Institute policy analyst says "the LP is bad for libertarianism"
Vodkapundit
20
1021
Liberventionist who criticizes "doctrinaire libertarianism"
Samizdata
20
1006
Broad US/UK/Australian perspective from liberventionists who call the LP "turgid"
Jon Henke et al: QandO 19
1016 Interventionist neolibertarian Republicans who have given up on the LP
Strike the Root 19
245 "A libertarian / market anarchist perspective" that says the LP isn't radical enough
EconLog 13?
459 2 brilliant economists, including anarcho-capitalist theorist Bryan Caplan
Becker-Posner Blog 10
2040 Chicago's economics Nobel laureate and brilliant federal appellate judge
Catallarchy
10
455
Founding liberventionist Brian Doss says the LP's job is to discipline the GOP
Virginia Postrel: Dynamist 9
539 Former Reason editor, NY Times columnist, and Future And Its Enemies author
Cato At Liberty
7
521
Official Cato Institute blog
Cafe Hayek 7
460
2 more brilliant GMU economists who focus on ideas, not politics
Vox Populi
6
309
"the Christian Libertarian commentator from WorldNetDaily"
Technology Liberation Front
5
279
Libertarian perspectives on technology
Rational Review
4
79
Tom Knapp's web journal seeks a radical LP for this "revolutionary era"
Cato Unbound
3
387
Monthly big-idea essay and reaction essays by big thinkers
Positive Liberty
2
226
Intelligent libertarians embarrassed by the LP's anarchist silliness
Kn@ppster 2
208 ZAPsolutist anarchist Knapp is hedging his LP bet with a new protest party
Coyote Blog
2
203
Capitalist libertarian thinks the LP is too kooky
Will Wilkinson: Fly Bottle
2
198
Ex-GMU Cato Institute policy analyst
Free Liberal 2
87
"non-partisan left-libertarian journal of politics and economics"
David Friedman: Ideas
1
180
Milton Friedman's son is the world's leading consequentialist anarcholibertarian theorist

The Top 13 Libertarian Web Sites

Here is a list of the 13 liberty-oriented institutions with the most web traffic. The list is sorted on the second column, which is the Alexa 3-month average reach per million users. The third column is the Technorati count of the number of blogs that link in. For sites where Technorati does not aggregate multiple inbound links from the same blog, I divide total inbound links by three, which in this context seems to be the usual ratio of unique links to unique linking blogs.

Ludwig von Mises Institute 76
1481
The leading American institute for Austrian economics
Cato Institute
62
2380
Arguably the most important force for freedom since its 1983 schism with the LP
Libertarian Party 38
700?
The only American political party advocating personal and economic liberty
Library of Economics and Liberty 27
903
No bricks or mortar, but a potent academic-oriented web presence
Future of Freedom Foundation 23
300?
Advocates the "free markets and limited government that made our nation great"
Advocates For Self-Government 23
150?
Pushes its Nolan Chart quiz and lists libertarian celebrities
Ayn Rand Institute
14
600?
Official institute for Rand's Objectivist philosophy
Independent Institute 13
491
Second only to Cato as a libertarian think tank; GMU's Tabarrok directs research
Reason Foundation 9
263
Libertarian think tank specializing in privatization, environment, and California
Adam Smith Institute
5
418

Institute for Humane Studies
5
150?
Founded 1961, moved from Menlo Park to GMU in 1985, focuses on scholarships
International Society For Individual Liberty
4
700?
Students for Individual Liberty (1969) merged with Libertarian International in 1989
Downsize DC 4
130?
The late Harry Browne's group for petitioning Washington

Honorable mention: the Electronic Frontier Foundation has libertarian sympathies and a huge web reach of 183, but is not a pure libertarian play.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Yellow Pages Test

How is it that I'm only now hearing (from Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report) of the brilliant rhetorical device called the "Yellow Pages Test"? Reason.org has mentions as early as 2003, but the phrase seems to go back at least as far as 1992, when Stephen Goldsmith became mayor of Indianapolis and began privatizing city services. In his later book, The 21st Century City, Goldsmith put it this way:
If the phone book lists three companies that provide a certain service, the city probably should not be in that business ... The best candidates for marketization are those for which a bustling competitive market already exists. Using the Yellow Pages test, we could take advantage of markets that had been operating for years.
This is closest thing I've seen to a bumper-sticker-sized way to describe the textbook economic principle that the government should produce pure public goods and manage natural monopolies but not try produce any other kind of good or service. (The government should also manage natural resources to the extent required to prevent negative externalities and tragedies of the commons.) There aren't multiple vendors in the Yellow Pages competing to defend the nation, prevent floods, or provide local networks of roads, pipes, and wires, and it's untenable for anarchocapitalists to fantasize that there would be such vendors if only the state abstained from initiating force.
Of course, the "Yellow Pages Test" doesn't capture all the subtleties of the theory of public goods. For example, if we set aside the point that we desire not just sporadic aid for the indigent but a guaranteed minimum level of sustenance, then one can find multiple charitable organizations that compete to aid the indigent, or one can imagine multiple voluntary defense militias or police services. However, none of them can overcome the free-rider problem, which inevitably causes underproduction of the good (e.g. charity or defense or justice) when those who desire the good behave even approximately rationally.
So now I'm going to have to rework my campaign speech and brochure to use the Yellow Pages Test. And I wonder: what other good rhetorical devices for promoting minarchism are out there waiting for me to hear of them?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Why is there something instead of nothing?


I would guess that within the next few decades or centuries, mainstream philosophy will reach one of two conclusions here:
  1. No fact or cycle of facts can be meaningfully self-explaining, and so the Big Why is provably unanswerable.
  2. The Big Why is rendered fundamentally incoherent by its self-contradictory assumption that there pre-exists a tendency toward non-existence.

If we don't ever know the answer, here is a fundamentally unverifiable answer that may nevertheless satisfy some people:

Nothing exists except logical possibility, which necessarily exists, and our perception of material existence is an epiphenomenon of our being logical subcomponents of a logically possible universe.

Consider gliders in Conway's game of Life. Even if nobody ever wrote down the rules of Life, gliders would still be a logical consequent of certain possible configurations of the logically possible game of Life. It has been proven that Life is rich enough to instantiate a Turing machine, which are of course known to be able to compute anything computable. So if mind is computable, consider a configuration of Life that instantiates a Turing machine that instantiates some mind.

Consider the particular Life configuration in which that mind eventually comes to ask itself "why is there something instead of nothing?". Even if in our universe no such Life configuration is ever instantiated, that particular configuration would still be logically possible, and the asking of the Big Why would still be a virtual event in the logically possible universe of that Life configuration. The epiphenomenal quality of that event for that logically possible mind would surely be the same, regardless of whether our universe ever actually ran that Life configuration. So the answer to that mind's Big Why would be: because your existence is logically possible.

So pop up a level, and consider that you are that mind, and that your universe too is just a (highly complex) logically possible state machine. In that case, the answer to your Big Why would be the same.

Note that, while the Life thought experiment depends on mind being computable, the logically possible universe (LPU) thought experiment only assumes that our universe could be considered as a logically possible sequence of (not necessarily finitely describable) universe-states. The LPU hypothesis also depends on the thesis that physicalism is right and that qualia and consciousness are epiphenomena. The LPU hypothesis is of course unparsimonious (sort of like the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory), but parsimony is perhaps inconsistent with *any* answer to the Big Why. The LPU hypothesis is incompatible with strong free will (which itself may be incoherent), but is compatible with weak free will (perhaps only if we assume there are rules governing the transitions among universe-states).

The idea that the world might be a dream is of course not new. But I don't recall ever hearing that the world might be just a logically possible dream for which no dreamer exists.

[Posted on talk.philosophy.misc on 2001-01-12.]

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Why No Vast Libertarian-Wing Conspiracy?


I disagree with pretty much anybody who says there is only one right institutional or tactical way to focus liberty-increasing effort. There are wrong ways (like creating extra parties in our Nolan quadrant), but there is no single right way. LP, RLC, Cato and Reason are each useful, and it's just criminal that such organizations fight or ignore each other instead of working together in a Vast Libertarian Conspiracy. It's ironic that there are so many conspiracy theorists in the LP and the larger freedom movement, and yet we can't conspire our way out of a wet paper bag. Hell, we don't even have a secret handshake. On the other hand, it's nice to be reminded of just how far from tyranny America actually is, that all these self-proclaimed freedom-fighters so clearly believe they can afford the luxury of a balkanized freedom movement.

(The image above is a spoof of Byron Scott's left-wing conspiracy book.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

2 planets, 2 moons, and 2 asteroids

[XXX need to restore photos from original blog posting]

Humanity has acquired photos from the surface of 2 other planets, 2 moons, and 2 asteroids. We also sent a penetrator into Jupiter, but the gas giant has no surface to show in a photo.