28 February, 2005

Seismic surveys

Below I commented on a 1998 USGS report on the availability of oil in the ANWR "1002 Area". This report superceded a previous USGS report released in 1987. Both of these were based on the same seismic survey data, taken over the winters of '83-84 and '84-85 (the 1998 report also included data from nearby wells). These were 2-D seismic surveys; since performing such a survey in a protected region requires an act of Congress (for reasons illustrated below), this is the ONLY such data ever generated from the region, and that is likely to remain the case.

A seismic survey works as follows: the survey vehicle is a 30-ton behemoth with a big metal plate attached underneath. At regular intervals it stops, sets the plate down, rests its weight on it, and sends out vibrations. These are picked up by seismic sensing equipment nearby; thus a seismic map can be generated.

2D seismic surveys and 3D seismic surveys both operate on similar data sets; it's the post-processing of the data that represent the technological leap in the latter. The only difference in a 3D survey is that the area needs to be much more finely sampled, with a grid density an order of magnitude higher than 2D surveys.

The geology of ANWR is such that the oil is distributed in many hundreds of relatively small pockets (in contrast to the nearby Prudhoe Bay, where most of the oil lies in a single giant field). Thus, to prevent the expense of drilling many, many dry wells, a comprehensive and accurate survey is in order, i.e. 3D or possibly 4D (time-lapsed) seismic surveys.

Here is a US Fish and Wildlife Survey image showing the relative density of a 3D survey to the 2D survey performed. And below is a dyad of images showing the effects of some of the survey vehicles from the 1984-5 survey. Scarring like that depicted doesn't happen everywhere, but it's safe to say that the much denser survey (especially if done repeatedly) would have a strong impact on the surprisingly delicate arctic tundra.

So, irrespective of the damage done by actual drilling, gravel roads, pipelines, etc., the impact done simply by exploration would be considerable.

The FWS page on the subject of ANWR, by the way, is very good and worth reading, here.

27 February, 2005

Oil in ANWR

Alt hippo* wants a lefty blogger campaign directed at the issue of ANWR. I'm game, partly because I find the issue compelling (see this), partly because I've been so impressed by the Social Security-focused discussion I've been watching Jonathan Schwarz of A Tiny Revolution participate in, and partly because I just find oil resource issues fascinating.

Speaking of which, here is the USGS factsheet on ANWR. You should read it, because it's the report that everyone will be quoting from when they talk about how much oil is sitting in ANWR. Taking the region as a whole (i.e., including "native lands" and offshore sites, what's called the "1002 Area"), the 95% confidence figure for technically recoverable oil is 15 billion barrels of oil (bbo). The more realistic figure is the mean confidence estimate, which is 10 bbo. This is a substantial quantity of oil, to be sure. To put it in perspective, Sudan has estimated reserves of ca. 1 bbo. U.S. proven reserves (i.e., that which you are capable of getting out of the ground) are somewhere around 29 bbo. In other words, ANWR can potentially add half again as much to American proven reserves. Although estimates of production are at this point premature, they are of course being made. Gale Norton claims ANWR could produce up to 1.4 million barrels per day. On a good day, the U.S. consumes 20 million barrels of oil.

If the drilling is confined to the "undeformed area" (the region above the Marsh Creek anticline, a boggy and unattractive mess), about 7 bbo are recoverable. Compare to the caribou calving concentration map of former USGS scientist Ian Thomas (who was fired for posting them on his USGS site), and you will find the happy truth: caribou calving will be unaffected by drilling in undeformed areas.

Sounds great, right?

Here's a wrench in the works: the above numbers are from a USGS survey done in 1998. A previous assessment in 1987 found exactly the opposite results: 75% of reserves were believed to lie in the deformed area, where most of caribou calving occurs. While it's probably the case that the 1998 study is more reliable than the 1987 one, the point is: exploratory drilling, and probably actual wells, will not be confined to the undeformed area. If drilling is approved in ANWR exploration will cover the entire 1002 area. Makes sense - why trust a flimsy study when you have approval to do exploratory drilling wherever you want?

And it seems likely that drilling would inevitably entail driving some natives off their land for the 4 billion barrels of oil they're sitting on, but obviously that's not as important as caribou.

* Random fact of the day: phylogenetically, the hippo is the closest surviving land relative of whales and dolphins, followed by the cow. See this.

18 February, 2005

Palestinian hanging

Read this and tell me it's not torture.

15 February, 2005

Moral values

Oh God. I swore to myself I wouldn't write about Social Security, and by Toutatis, I swear that I'm not - this is just a jumping-off point for another discussion!

But anyway. Brad DeLong posted a White House memo on their Social Security strategy (that is, their strategy for torpedoing Social Security). Therein is the following:
Here's a startling fact: under current law, an average retiree in 2050 would be scheduled to receive close to 40 percent more (in real terms) in benefits than an average retiree today -- and yet there are no mechanisms in place to produce the revenue to pay out those benefits. No one on this planet can tell you why a 25-year-old person today is entitled to a 40 percent increase in Social Security benefits (in real terms) compared to what a person retiring today receives.
This is indeed a startling paragraph. I think it does something positively spine-tingling; it cuts so deep it shows bone. What I mean is: so much of politics is actually a discussion of fundamental values, of the way we want the world to look. But that discussion is so wrapped up in the business end, in the nitty-gritty of how to enact our vision[s] of the world, that we never end up talking about the non-business (pleasure?) end.

Here is a case in point: I can tell you why a 25-year-old person today is entitled to a 40 percent increase in Social Security benefits (in real terms). Because the world should get better. Life should be improving - there should be progress. People shouldn't have to keep living with the same shitty hat and coat they've got now.

But this is a value judgement, something that rarely comes up in such conversations. We would prefer to slap down arguments as "Marxist" or "Imperialist" or whatever, rather than answer their moral underpinnings. Why is that? Why are we so shy about letting other people see our values? That's beautiful and enchanting, to me. I wish more of political discourse involved exposing underlying value systems - that way the ugly and the selfish couldn't hide behind cloaks of convoluted ideas.

14 February, 2005

Election irregularities in Kirkuk

Some allegations of Kurdish election-rigging in Kirkuk. That city is an area of some dispute, mostly because it contains a whole ton of oil. Saddam was in the habit of moving Kurds out of it. Post-invasion, many Kurds have been moving back, probably with the idea that Kirkuk would be a good city to have in an independent Kurdistan, if it comes to that (or maybe just with the idea that they want their homes back). Meanwhile, Arab and Turkmen residents of Kirkuk have not been happy about this.

So make of this what you will: some Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk are saying that thousands of Kurds were trucked into the city to vote in the elections, and basically that the votes in Kirkuk were a farce. Some are alleging even worse irregularities, like the well-worn ploy of having dead people vote.

The PUK response was pretty blithe:
"Unfortunately, the Arabs and Turkmen do not understand democracy," Rajkar Ali, a candidate for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) for the election, said.

Dean for Americuh

So Howard Dean got Terry McAuliffe's old job. This is good, in some ways, since Dean can't possibly be as big a boob as McAuliffe was (although apparently it is gauche to say this). Even though I wasn't paying attention that much during the primaries, I was a bit lukewarm about Dean, preferring the much more dyed-in-the-wool leftism of Dennis Kucinich (motto: "I'll do anything I can to draw an analogy to space."). What I'm hoping the Democrats will do is drink some of the medicine Thomas Frank has been recommending, viz., economic populism. In other words, repudiate the centrist economics of the DLC, give up "free trade" rhetoric and go galloping back to good ole progressive principles. You know, protecting the working class, shifting the tax burden back where it belongs (onto the capitalist ruling class, don't you know), resurrecting labor standards, all that good stuff.

I don't think Dean has any particular commitment to these principles, unfortunately. At least it's not evident in anything he's said out loud. But Dean has made powerful rhetorical commitments to the idea of a grass-roots party, to defining the party's principles and platform from the bottom up (you can read about it at the DNC website). Which is encouraging; rank-and-file Democrats have always been way to the left of the party leadership on economic issues. Duh - obviously a bunch of really wealthy white men will not be faithful representatives of working class interests. If Dean does make such a commitment, if he does adopt a bottom-up organizing principle for the party, it can only be good.

Iraqi voting

Although I haven't found a copy of their laws, I've been able to piece together some information on how Iraqi elections work, based on the results in this AP article.

Step 1: Set the "Election threshold. An election threshold is a minimum # of votes a lists needs to receive in order to be seated. In Israel, it's 1.5%, Germany it's 5%, Turkey it's 15%. In Iraq, it was 0.36%, or 1/275 of the total votes. This unfairly eliminated one list: that headed by Abdel-Hahmid. But compared to Israel, Germany, or Turkey, it was extremely fair to small lists. 12 lists passed this threshold.

Step 2: Set the quota.
Each quota represented 29,133 votes, or the total # of votes among the 12 lists to be seated, divided by 275. Each list received as many seats as they had quotas.

Step 3There were four seats left over; these went to the lists who were closest to having another quota. This is known as the Largest remainder method.

Comparisons Using the Saint-Lague method, the fairest list PR system, the results would have been almost identical: UIA would have received one more seat, Abdel-Hahmid would have been seated, and the Islamic Labor Party and the Cadres party would have each received one fewer seats. The only thing that would have made a drastic difference is if Iraq had used a different threshold in Step 1. For example, using Israel's system (1.5% threshold, D'Hondt), UIA would have received 148 seats, the Kurds 78, Allawi 44, and al-Yawer 5. With a threshold of 5% like in Germany, al-Yawer wouldn't have been seated, and with a threshold of 15% like in Turkey, Allawi's list wouldn't have been seated, leaving only UIA and the Kurdish list! (Note, though, that with thresholds like those, joint lists are more attractive and the smaller parties would have put all their effort behind placing their candidates high up on joint lists.)

Confusion/Numbers don't add up The article linked above still says that there were 8.55million votes cast, of which some 94,000 were invalid (8.46 million valid votes). But adding the vote totals for each list only adds up to a total of 8.05 million votes. There are 100 or so parties whose vote totals aren't listed. If they all received fewer votes than the smallest vote-receiver listed (1,600 votes), then the numbers don't add up.

13 February, 2005

Huevos Rancheros

In the past I've complained at least once or twice in this space about bad science being widely reported in the press and blown out of all proportion. This time, though, it's personal.

A few weeks back a study came out purporting to show that laptop computers (when used in eponymic fashion) can contribute to low sperm count and problems with fertility, due to the heat generated by the laptop. Millions of men are now doubtless (and needlessly) concerned that they have been slowly cooking their poor cajones over the past several years. And now I have to put up with my roommates chiding me for sitting on the sofa with my laptop atop my lap.

But, of course, the story is ridiculous. Here is a good summary of the study, with the salient result:
"We found that scrotal temperatures rose by 2.1°C when the men sat with their thighs together, which is necessary to keep LC on the lap. But, the rise was significantly higher when the LC were used - 2.8°C on the right side and 2.6°C on the left," said Dr Sheynkin. " It shows that scrotal hyperthermia is produced by both special body posture and local heating effect of LC."
Now, if one is not a total idiot, this should immediately strike one as moronic. The argument being made, essentially, is that KEEPING YOUR LEGS TOGETHER WILL DAMAGE YOUR FERTILITY! Jesús Marimba!

In addition the argument that long-term heat exposure is damaging to fertility should raise some eyebrows. After all, a significant fraction of the world's population spends a good portion of the year in 40+ °C heat. I can assure you they are still adequately fertile.

12 February, 2005

Bush - 1, Science - 0

The Union of Concerned Scientists announced the results of a survey of 1400 US Fish and Wildlife Survey scientists recently. They had a 30% response rate, and that despite the fact that the agency apparently instructed its employees not to respond to the survey, even on personal time. They paint a pretty clear and obvious picture: intimidation, manipulation of results, and outright lying. Pretty par for the course for the Bush Administration: "if the truth doesn't fit, you must alter it."

Some of the more egregious points:
Nearly half of all respondents whose work is related to endangered species scientific findings (44 percent) reported that they "have been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making jeopardy or other findings that are protective of species."

One in five agency scientists revealed they have been instructed to compromise their scientific integrity—reporting that they have been "directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from a USFWS scientific document," such as a biological opinion

Almost a third (32 percent) felt they are not allowed to do their jobs as scientists

Lexi Shultz of the UCS feels this goes further than the FWS (reported in New Scientist):
"We've had reports in agencies across the federal government dealing with public health, environment and national security," she told New Scientist. "We think this is a very widespread problem. We don't think this is isolated to the FWS."

The UCS survey is available here.

08 February, 2005


My mum had the opportunity to go to Sri Lanka to do volunteer work on tsunami relief, by way of her employer (Mass. General Hospital, where she works as a psychiatric social worker). The gig was a month long and was managed by the U.S. Navy. Naturally, she was excited about going, and I and everyone else I spoke to encouraged her to go on what was sure to be a very interesting voyage.

Well, it turns out she's not going. She heard back from a few of the people from her unit who are already there, all of whom say that the experience has been abysmal. The civilian medics are all treated as part of the crew, which means they have to perform crew chores, like cleaning latrines and scrubbing decks. The efficacy of occupying their time with menial tasks when they are ostensibly in place to provide medical services is perhaps a little questionable. But it gets worse: the navy ship on which they are stationed is actually out at sea. There is little opportunity for contact with patients - they have to be flown in via helicopter. There are no on-site accommodations for the volunteer medics, and they are rarely flown out to land. In some instances, they are forbidden - one woman was told that she couldn't fly because she did not know her blood type. What this amounts to is a terrible paucity of actual medical treatment - one nurse complained that in three weeks there, she had only seen a single patient.

Some of them have it worse. Apparently the Navy requires all the civilians to pass a training course in order to be allowed to do their work. One woman failed to pass one of her tests (jumping into a boat from the ship) and was confined to her bunk.

On the other hand, it seems like there would be work for a mental health professional like my mum after all: one of the nurse managers is depressed because he imagined he would be doing valued relief work rather than scrubbing toilets.

All of it sounds remarkably fishy to me. My hunch - the Navy, short on manpower, settled on this as a handy scheme to secure a host of civilian indentured servants. Not a far-fetched notion, I think. The armed forces are definitely overextended.

07 February, 2005

SCCC students kick recruiters out

On Inauguration Day, the Students Against War (SAW) group at Seattle Central Community College held a walk-out. The walkout, advertised heavily by NION (which, with ANSWER, dominates the meaningless protest scene in Seattle), drew about 400 students. A very small group of students, who had been organizing for weeks prior, were handing out counter-recruitment fliers near the table of a pair of military recruiters, who happened to be on campus that day. As the students gathered in the Atrium, some of them started harassing the recruiters. Within five minutes, the recruiters were surrounded by hundreds of students, shouting at them to leave, tearing up their materials and throwing the pieces at them, and dancing on their table. Campus security escorted the recruiters out of the building for their own safety.

The SCCC administration initially told SAW that they would be disbanded for the quarter if they didn't apologize to the recruiters, but later backed down. The recruiters for their part, sent this message:

>From: "Dupras, James L CPT USAREC" JAMES.DUPRAS@usarec.army.mil
> Date: Thu, January 27, 2005 12:42 pm
>College Students,
>What your college did last week to our Army Recruiters was not only a
>disgrace to our country, but a disappointment to our state and local
>community. Most of you have no idea what it is like to serve your country
>and be proud of a nation that has been free for centuries. Our
>Grandfathers and Fathers paid the ultimate sacrifice in past wars for you
>to enjoy sipping a coke in your college dorm. Millions of veterans
>scattered across this great land of ours are limbless or scared with
>battle wounds so that you can walk freely at your local mall without fear
>of a volley of missiles coming down on you. We are not on your campus to
>fill our Army with bodies to fight a war. We are on your campus to offer
>you and your fellow classmates a chance to serve in the greatest Armed
>Forces this world has ever seen. A chance to be a part of an organization
>that spews pride amongst its ranks. For you and your college schoolmates
>to scream obscenities and throw trash at my fellow soldiers should think
>about the day to day sacrifices our military endures. Whether overseas
>fighting door to door, or sitting in an office ensuring supplies get to
>the right location, our soldiers around the world do not deserve the kind
>of treatment you displayed. We will be at your college another day and we
>will recruit the fine young men and women who are upstanding and patriotic
>and want nothing more than the opportunity to serve our country. We have
>a popular saying in our military about folks like you...Lead, Follow or
>get out of the way.
>CPT Jim Dupras
>Executive Officer
>Seattle Recruiting Battalion

The story broke across the national news. Kudos to the great students at SCCC. CPT Jim Dupras has started a dialogue, and I encourage all interested parties to e-mail him directly with your take on his letter, especially if you're a college student.

06 February, 2005

Iraqi Election Turnout

So, now that ballots are actually being counted, we can figure out the real "voter turnout" percentage. According to this UPI story, there are 3.3 million ballots counted so far, which is 53% of the total, meaning 6.2 million ballots. Jon Henke at QandO does a pretty good job breaking down what the actual eligible voting populace in Iraq ought to be.* He arrives at a figure of roughly 14 million. However, I think he underestimates the number of expatriates, making it more like 14.5 million eligible voters. This comes out to 42.7% voter turnout, an impressive number, given the circumstances. But I'd be willing to bet that this is highly non-uniform with respect to religious group, district, and so on. We'll know for sure on Thursday when full results are apparently due to come out.

*Note that estimates based on the number of oil-for-food ration cards, which is what was actually used for election registration, is considered to be a very unreliable figure, since many ration cards were fakes, obtained fraudulently via bribes.

05 February, 2005

Devil's advocacy

I had an interesting conversation after my kung fu class this morning where I found myself arguing against the anti-war position. It's not uncommon for me to swap sides in a debate out of irritation at weaknesses in someone's arguments (since, after all, knowing how to think is more important than knowing what to think). But this did underscore for me how conflicted I am about the fundamentals of the Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq. If, in spite of the terror of occupation and bombing, in spite of the American's efforts to manipulate events in Iraq to their benefit, the end product is a stable and relatively democratic regime, how will I feel about it? And I don't consider this to be a mere flight of fancy - it's a real enough possibility. Things may turn out okay. And if they do, then what? Does that mean that the ends justify the means? That it is morally acceptably, maybe even correct, to use force to depose dictatorships and replace them with democracies?

The facile answer is a clear "no", which is the response I'm supposed to give as an anti-imperialist. But the waters seem a bit muddied, to me. Yes, the intent in Iraq was mistaken, and at every step the Bush administration has demonstrated that they do NOT understand what democracy means, that they will push American advantage in disgusting and underhanded ways. But I've never seen a convincing refutation of the idea that inaction is morally indefensible, that allowing dictatorships to persist is tantamount to supporting oppression. And if the effective result of George W. Bush's interventionist policy is not imperialism, but rather the replacement of the bad with the good, on what leg does the anti-war argument stand?

04 February, 2005


I went for jury duty today, which was rather uneventful (I got to read "Slaughterhouse Five" some), but did lead me to observe that my jury pool was overwhelmingly white. There were about a hundred-odd people in the room, maybe more, and only a handful of them were "of color" - maybe two black people, one asian guy (me) and this or that. Since the Edward J. Sullivan courthouse draws its pool from Cambridge, I imagine it ought to reflect the racial makeup of Cambridge, which is, roughly, 68% white, 12% black and 12% asian*. The fact that it doesn't suggests something funky. Of course, statistical error is possible, but my hunch was confirmed a little later when they made us answer a questionnaire which had only two questions: "What is your race?" (with the same stupid categorization), and "Do you consider yourself Hispanic or Latino?"

*I'll take this moment to complain about racial groups, which are especially silly for Asians, since it puts Gujaratis and Han Chinese into the same "group". Of course, considering that the African population as a whole has more genetic variation than the rest of the world combined, "Black" as a group is probably even sillier. Even "Afrocentrism" is sort of annoying that way - can you imagine trying to cultivate some agglomerated "Asian" or "European" identity?

02 February, 2005


I am slowly starting to realize that I am caught in a trap called MIT. Almost all my friends are from MIT. Everyone I've dated or been interested in dating went to MIT. Upwards of 90% of my roommates have been MIT alum.

And that's not all - everyone ELSE I know is good MIT material - you know, strong intellectual streak, geek-hip, droll sense of humor.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing - I surround myself with these people because I happen to genuinely like them. But it does present a conundrum: are normal people boring? I have no idea! I've never met one.

Proposal: a cultural exchange program. Intellectual blowhards like myself (or, preferably, one of my friends) swap places with someone from an alien subculture (hipster, b-boy, jock, etc.). The two make a genuine attempt to connect and see if there's any possibility of intermeshing. A proposition fraught with peril, I know, but it might be worthwhile. On the other hand, maybe I should just stick with what I know is good...

Democracy: a polite fiction?

Bob Harris links to an amazing document, a Republican guide written for Senators and Representatives on how to sell social security privatization. Now, unfortunately I think this whole social security question is boring as all get-out; if you want the scoop on that, you should visit A Tiny Revolution, where my man Jonathan Schwarz is kicking up a regular Social Security Shit Storm. But the text is fabulous reading for other, anthropological reasons. Check out this paragraph, from a list of recommendations on how to talk to your constituents:
Keep the numbers small: Your audience doesn't know how trillions and billions differ. They know these numbers are large, but not how large nor how many billions make a trillion. Boil numbers down to "your family's share." Also avoid percentages; your audience will try to calculate them in their head–no easy task while listening to a speech–and many will do it incorrectly.

and, maybe more incredible, in a different vein:
Don't say, "Social Security lifts seniors out of poverty": People don't appreciate all that Social Security does, and believe that despite the program, many seniors are still in poverty. Instead, talk about how Social Security is a "floor of protection" that keeps seniors out of the most dire circumstances.

This isn't really what I imagine when I hear the word "democracy": the people are venal and ignorant; fortunately, they can be guided like cattle to the correct line of thinking that their leaders have determined. Ugh. +4 cynicism for me.

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