October 16, 2007

The Spy Stares Back into the Eyes of the Cowboy

TEHRAN, Iran -- "Vladimir Putin issued a veiled warning Tuesday against any attack on Iran as he began the first visit by a Kremlin leader to Tehran in six decades _ a mission reflecting Russian-Iranian efforts to curb U.S. influence.

"He also suggested Moscow and Tehran should have a veto on Western plans for new pipelines to carry oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea, using routes that would bypass Russian soil and break the Kremlin's monopoly on energy deliveries from the region." Washington Post, October 16, 2007.

On Real Time with Bill Maher recently, Bill interviewed the wily Vicente Fox, former president of Mexico, who has generated a little buzz lately with his less-than-complimentary take on the Decider himself. In the interview he took his previous comments that Bush was a "windshield cowboy" who speaks "grade school Spanish" to a new and definitely snarkier level. He told Maher's audience that while Bush was visiting Vicente at the old family hacienda in Guanajuato, Fox offered to let Bush try out his favorite stallion, a caballo which Fox himself often takes for long rides. Bush demurred, Fox said, and then el presidente described with malicious glee how Bush seemed to "tremble" as he stood next to the horse and tentatively patted its head.

This shouldn't be that surprising. Bush is not actually a cowboy. When he puts on his Wild West costume, as Bob Cesca hilariously noted, he looks like a "preening line dance instructor." Bush was a cheerleader at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, which is possibly as effete a background as a guy can claim without actually undergoing a sex-change operation. The nation's oft-noted gullibility in mistaking image for reality does the rest, so that perhaps many Americans assume that Bush was a rodeo clown in Yuma, Arizona in the lost years before he became president. All the Bush guys go to Phillips Academy, and they aren't cowboys. Bush can walk around bowlegged and squint into the sun and speak with that phony drawl all he wants -- he ain't no cowpoke and that ain't his horse. He's the lazy and spoiled scion of a rich Connecticut family that uses the well-greased track of the Ivy League Brahmins for their connections and success. (Brahmin bullshit - that's as close as Bush comes to the rodeo.)

And then there's Putin. The after-thought child of a factory worker mother and a World War II vet, Putin lost two much older brothers to childhood diseases, one to diphtheria during the German siege of Leningrad, where Putin was born in 1952. As a kid he lived in a communal apartment with other families, but he did well in school and went to the State University in Leningrad, where he attracted the attention of KGB recruiters (his father worked during the war with a sabotage unit of the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB). Putin has a decidedly checkered past, with accusations of corruption and even plagiarism (his PhD dissertation was allegedly lifted from an American monograph) following him wherever he goes. He's fluent in German from his days as a KGB operative in Dresden during the Cold War, and speaks English well.

Bush claims that by looking deeply into Putin's eyes he saw his soul and declared him a good man. My guess is that Bush's SoulVision needed focusing. However, I also guess that this cunning and probably ruthless spy who worked and maneuvered his way to the top of the Russian ziggurat, beginning from very humble origins, was taking Bush's measure at the same time. I've often thought that Bush's personality represents one of the most serious threats to American security. He just pisses people off, to the point where a danger arises that foreign leaders will behave irrationally simply because they can't stand the guy. Vicente Fox called Bush the "cockiest" guy he'd ever met, which probably explains his delight in his needling story. Putin doesn't seem interested in name calling, only sabre rattling. There were the joint air force exercises with the Chinese, with the resumption of Russian fail-safe flights approaching American airspace. Then Putin, in retaliation for the American abrogation of the ABM treaty and plans to place missiles near Russian borders, announced Russia's intention to target European cities with Russian ICBMs. And now the rapprochement with Iran. Putin has announced, with his own form of Russian Monroe Doctrine, I guess, that none of the -Stan states around the Caspian can be used as a jumping-off point for an American invasion of Iran, and has gone even further in supporting Iran's claim that only the "littoral" countries bordering the Caspian have a right to its oil and gas, or to construct pipelines in the region. Putin is still playing cute about Russia's intention to cooperate in building Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr, as if acknowledging that he recognizes he can't alienate the rest of NATO just to bug the United States.

But my guess is that Putin has spent enough time around Bush to see some of what El Presidente Zorro says that he saw. A KGB operative no doubt learns to read the subtleties of human weakness. It's also an interesting contrast in relative bravado that Putin, who received credible death threats before traveling to Tehran (the first Russian head of state to visit in 60 years), nevertheless made the trip in a very public way. Bush, by contrast, has made his very few journeys to Iraq as complete surprises and is gone almost before the outside world is aware he's there.

Putin has probably also figured out that America's anemic Congress is no doubt completely incapable of standing up to Bush and denying him the authority for a preemptive strike against Iran. Thus, if the American runaway train in the Persian Gulf area is to be slowed, Vlad the Devious has decided it's up to him, and he keeps pumping up the Cold War rhetoric as he goes. Like Bush, he only has about a year left in office. You have to wonder whether either one of these egotists can bear the thought of leaving Hadleyville on the train at high noon without seeing which one would back down from a real fight. One way or another, the international seems dangerously dependent on the personal. Bush once invaded a whole country just to prove he was manlier than his father. Now he has another guy failing to give him his props. And I'm wondering: how far would Putin go to stop a U.S. invasion of Iran before Bush leaves office?

Klaatu barada nikto

from the Manchester, New Hampshire Union Leader -
Sunday, during a town-hall meeting in Exeter, Giuliani assured a young questioner that preparedness will be key for all crises, including those from outer space.

"If (there's) something living on another planet and it's bad and it comes over here, what would you do?" a boy asked.

Giuliani, grinning, said it was his first question about an intergalactic attack.

"Of all the things that can happen in this world, we'll be prepared for that, yes we will. We'll be prepared for anything that happens," said Giuliani, who was mayor during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Personally, I doubt it, and not just because neither Giuliani in particular nor the United States in general was prepared for the attacks of 9/11. A better answer would have been, for example: "How the hell would I know?" Or: "I don't think we'd stand a chance. Better hope it doesn't happen." As many cosmos-oriented thinkers have noted (including, of course, Neal the dog), the sudden, surprise arrival of space aliens here on Earth carries with it certain presumptions. First, they found us before we found them. Second, wherever they're from, they managed to get here, and we've never gotten farther than about 240,000 miles from where we're sitting right now. Third, if they can build a vehicle to get here, and survive the multi-light year trip to Earth themselves, God knows what other kind of nasty stuff they've come up with.

So to say, blithely and without explanation, that "we'll be prepared, yes we will," did not fool that young boy in New Hampshire. He was so on to Giuliani and his bullshit. Rudy must be a tone-deaf cornball if he couldn't see that the last thing his 11 year old questioner was looking for was reassurance. The kid wanted Giuliani to acknowledge that the monsters of the kid's imagination could beat the USA every time out.

And, of course, they probably could. These candidates have to inhabit such an artificial world that even admitting that giant green aliens, from a solar system in the region of Alpha Centauri, who look like a genetic crossing of an octopus and an alligator gone horribly wrong--to concede they might be too much to handle -- you can't even do that now. Instead, you have to assert, in the complete absence of any information whatsoever concerning the nature of the beast or his weaponry, or his designs on Earth, or even whether he exists in the same dimensional coordinates as we think we do, that you'll be prepared to deal with him when he comes.

Suppose we can't stop Gort this time? The phrase, after all, was a lucky guess, especially since no one has ever been able to translate it. How can Giuliani know he'll be able to guess right again?

October 15, 2007

The Potsdam Conference on the Climate, Currently at a Venue Nowhere Near You

"Next speaker was the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a theoretical physicist by training. She pointed out that inaction on the climate issue would be at least five times more costly than reducing emissions, and she called for a reduction of global emissions by 50% by the year 2050. She reaffirmed that the European Union has pledged to reduce its emissions by 30% by the year 2020 if others join in, and that the target of the German government is a 40% reduction by 2020...Several physics and chemistry Nobel laureates highlighted the tremendous potential of solar power for solving the world's energy and climate problems. Carlo Rubbia (NP physics 1984) pointed out that a square of the size 210 x 210 km receives as much solar power as the whole world consumes in energy today. This is just a small pixel on the world map he showed, and just 0.13 % of the world's desert area. Walter Kohn (Nobel Prize Chemistry 1998) reported from a meeting in China a few weeks ago, presenting a number of interesting facts, such as that the solar cell production in China is growing at a rate of 40% per year. Alan Heeger (Nobel Prize chemistry 2000) presented an inspiring lecture on cheap plastic solar cells - his lab is working on solar cells that can literally be printed on a roll of plastic sheeting, from a polymer solution. Present status is that they achieve an efficiency of 6.5 % with these printed solar cells, with much promise for rapid improvements."

I know. You're trying to get your mind around the idea of a major Western country with a theoretical physicist as its head of state. There are 15 Nobel laureates at this Potsdam Conference, and I'm thinking: Angela Merkel not only understands, in rigorous detail, what they're talking about, she probably can follow them in their native languages. Can you imagine? Suppose we had a president in this country who not only knew what the double-slit/electron experiment of quantum physics was, but could explain it to you in entertaining and clever detail, instead of telling you that childrens do learn and acknowledging how hard it is to put food on your family. A theoretical physicist making decisions at the top of government. What would public discourse have been like if Richard Feynman had ever been president of this country? He actually told us in one of the last books he ever wrote. He said when he had a problem to solve, he'd get the smartest people he knew within the field of inquiry to research the hell out of it and then make suggestions on the best approach. Then he would decide. I guess my question is: why is it ever done any other way?

Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., we must first explain a couple of things to W. For example, .13% of the world's desert area is not the same as "thirteen percent" of the world's desert area. It is thirteen one-hundreths of one percent. Okay, let's try that again. Suppose, Mr. President, you had ten thousand marbles. You'd have all your marbles! Get it? Okay, let's move on. If you gave away thirteen, you'd still have...how many? That's right, math was your higher...reported score on the SAT. 9,987 marbles. Perfect. (While we're doing this at the easel with a marker pen, Angela Merkel is sitting in a comfortable chair near the window reading a book in French about string theory.) Why did I use ten thousand? I multiplied 100 by 100, thinking that each of the 100 percentage points had one hundred parts, and then...no, you're right, Mr. President. Too much information! Cut to the chase: we'd still have 99.87% of the world's desert left for unmolested use by camels, gila monsters, and all-terrain three-wheelers, if we can capture the solar power falling on a square...oh no, here we go again. Can you look over this way for a minute and stop waving at those people through the window? Those aren't really people. They're statues along the roof line of that old building across the street, actually. They used to build a lot of that stuff like that here in Europe.That "km" that Signor Rubbia is talking about is a metric measurement, but it's not one of Donald Rumsfeld's "metrics," you know, that word he would use to talk about "progress" in Iraq because he thought it sounded smarter than "measurement." The Nobel Prize winner (don't worry, that's one award they'll never bother you with) is referring to kilometers. Most of the world uses the metric system; we use it here, in fact, in science and medicine, two activities which I know you oppose. A kilometer equals one thousand meters, and it's about 62% of a mile. Can we try multiplying 210 by point 62? Why? To get an equivalent...look, Mr. President, take my word for it. We're almost done here. You could build this power plant near Midland, and it could get lost out there. I mean, as a practical matter, you'd build a whole bunch, but the idea is...the idea is...I'm going down to the ratskellar and see if I can score ein grosses helles Bier, Mr. President. I'm gonna try and get Angela to explain to you about why it's cheaper to cut emissions now, by a factor of five...huh? Factor is like "times." No, it has nothing to do with Bill O'Reilly. What? Oh. He's okay, I guess. Not really, but I gotta run.