November 2006

On Monday, a mainstream US news outlet (NBC) finally calls the war in Iraq a civil war. Of course this has led to a “civil” war of words within the media. Jon Stewart lampooned this debate (John Oliver played devils advocate) on The Daily Show. Meanwhile, The Colbert Report shows that the warmongers tend to be very selective of when analogies between the various wars are deemed appropriate.

PS. YouTube still has the Comedy Central purge in force, but MSNBC doesn’t seem to mind at the moment. Let’s see how long that Olbermann clip lasts. One can still find some persistent Daily Show and Colbert Report clips on the Net if one knows where to look.

The London Housing Federation and London Councils published a report last week that found that the amount of homes with three or more bedrooms had almost halved in the last ten years. This has resulting in overcrowding in the capital with detrimental effects on children, and recommended that more family sized homes be built. However, Terry Fuller, chair of the Home Builders’ Federation’s affordable housing panel, said that many of the family homes (71% the affordable homes in London) were under occupied. “Why aren’t London councils sweating their assets better? There are plenty of family homes that are not used as well as they could be,” Fuller claimed that forcing developers to build larger homes would result in fewer affordable homes being built. “The greatest demand is from single people.” Perhaps the shift in housing size is merely a reflection of falling fertility rates across Europe. A closer examination of the data shows shrinking family size is a worldwide trend, so brilliantly revealed in an animated presentation delivered by Hans Rosling at TED (Technology Entertainment Design) earlier this year.

The links between family size, life expectancy, and prosperity seem pretty universal though the direction of causality is not so clearly revealed. In the last four years, the cost of raising a child in the UK has risen 28% bringing the national average to £180,000. The cost of housing is a significant factor in this increase however it is not just the size of the house that accounts for this extra expense. In the book, “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke“, Harvard law professor and bankruptcy expert, Elizabeth Warren reveals that in America “married couples with children are more than twice as likely to file for bankruptcy as their childless counterparts.” One reason for this was identified:

“families were swept up in a bidding war, competing furiously with one another for their most important possession: a house in a decent school district. As confidence in the school system crumbled, the bidding war for family housing intensified, and parents soon found themselves bidding up the price for other opportunities for their kids, such as a slot in a decent preschool or admission to a good college.”

Indeed, British parents are no strangers to the intense competition for places in good schools, and this explains why affordable family housing may go unused if they happen to be badly located.

As a consequence, the housing market will target more single people and childfree couples, further encouraging lower fertility. But is this really such a bad thing? In 2005, the world population exceeded 6.5 billion with each successive billion person increment taking a shorter and shorter time. The WWF estimates that we would need two planets to sustain our projected population in 2050. A major factor is our rapidly increasing carbon footprint, of which the general public is slowly becoming more aware thanks to the success of documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth” (DVD released just this week.) and “The Great Warming“. A less well publicised problem is the peaking of oil and gas production, which even the optimists say will occur by 2050.

Yet those calling for bigger homes seem to be projecting past social, economic and technological growth blindly into the future. Governments have been especially willing to gamble on future technology that promises to overcome barriers to growth, as demonstrated by recent support for research in nuclear fusion as a power source. However it is a risky proposition to base our family planning decisions on technologies that do not yet exist, and more so when they only solve part of the problem. Even those in the business of developing technology will be the first to admit the real world limitations to scalability. Last year, Gordon Moore made this comment in relation to his famous Moore’s Law:

“It can’t continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens.”

This past week, the two sides of the peak oil debate have been solidified in the form of what you might describe as position statements. Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) released a report titled, “Why the Peak Oil Theory Falls Down: Myths, Legends, and the Future of Oil Resources“, to debunk the theory that predicts the global production of easily available cheap crude oil will go into irreversible decline with the next decade. Unfortunately the actual report costs US$1000, and only an executive summary was made available as a press release. The pro-peak camp released several statements in response, the most technically comprehensive of which was prepared by The Oil Drum. To their credit, much of the pro-peak argument is based on research from openly available sources. Nevertheless, it takes a substantial investment in time to fact check this, whereas CERA asks us to either pony up the cash or trust their results on faith. Some of the economic basis on which CERA bases its position is ridiculed in video:

although the use of Stephen Colbert’s The Word format could have been better executed.

Unfortunately for the peak oil-ers, the argument has been muddied over the last few years by 9/11 conspiracies. Recent evidence of this appears in the November newsletter of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) which includes a link to Oil, Smoke & Mirrors, a movie that piggybacks widely debunked 9/11 conspiracies on peak oil theory. The straw man risk is clearly evident here and only serves to undermine any resolution of this ongoing debate.

When linking 9/11 to the global oil economy, I prefer the approach of Brian McNamara and Knife Party:

George Bush Sr. blames the bloggers for worsening adversarial politics:

and also reveals his son won’t use “the email” because they might subpoena it and pressure him to tell the truth.

Still, it doesn’t stop Dubya from product placing “Dell televisions“.

One day before the Nov 7th mid-term elections in America, a video appeared on YouTube insinulating that the Bush Administration was guilty of Soviet-style revisionism of history. Initially, the video demonstration of suspicious cropping out of the “Mission Accomplished” banner seemed convincing and many commenters invoked Orwellian visions of government sanctioned manipulation of the recorded truth. According to this Spiegel International article, in the heated political atmosphere the video rapidly spread across the Net. However, as the audience for the viral video grew, flaws were soon discovered in the evidence. A counter YouTube video appeared revealing that many other videos on the Whitehouse government website also featured the same suspicious signs of being cropped. The accusations were discussed on prompting commenters to question whether the now embarassing banner could have appeared in the original shot at all. But even in the absence of the dissenting opinions, which one may have suspected of partisan motives, closer scrutiny of the original evidence would have revealed the visual subterfuge.

The author of the original accusatory video, Mike McIntee, presents as his evidence a video with a mysterious black bar (which according to Mike is evidence of cropping) and a wide angle still showing the “Mission Accomplished” banner just above Bush’s head:

Mission Accomplished feature correspondence

A cursory inspection of the background reveals that the two views are not from the same camera – not even from the same viewpoint. Perhaps the whole background was replaced? We can dismiss this idea easily by observing the positioning of the microphones in relation to the President’s shoulders. The viewpoints are indeed different, but given the corresponding background features one can easily align the aircraft carrier’s island in the two images:

Background realigned between photo and video

This composite view implies that the banner is much further above Bush from the point of view of the video camera. Note also the alignment of the fighter jet’s nose cone with the fusilage on the right. As one can easily see, the suspicious black bar is far too narrow to account for the simple vertical shifting of the video frame that McIntee is suggesting. Perhaps a more extreme crop had been done. To test this theory we can reframe the video view in an attempt to reconstruct what the original uncropped view might have been:

What the hypothetical uncropped image would have looked like

So if Mike McIntee’s conspiracy theory is correct, the original video would have Bush occupying the lower 40% of the video frame, and less than a ninth of the screen area. Such framing of anyone delivering a speech on national television is extremely unlikely. The teleprompters would have been in full view, treating viewers to a sight of their leader obviously switching his focus between two screens and breaking the illusion of talking directly to the audience.

Why were people so easily taken in? In the polarising climate of American party driven politics and a loss of trust in the government, people fell victim to unconscious confirmation bias. Those already predisposed to a particular opinion are more willing to accept evidence that confirms this viewpoint without question. The effect had been demonstrated using functional MRI in an experiment conducted by Professor Drew Westen on the brains of Republicans and Democrats. It is this unconscious process that is responsible for the many Democrats accepting McIntee’s video as truthful, and for the many Republicans interpreting Kerry’s botched one-liner as an intentional verbal attack on the troops. Outside of the political realm, the forces of unconscious confirmation bias have been observed throughout history. A few early astronomers observing Mars via telescope reported seeing a vast network of canals and cited this as conclusive evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Nicolas Hartsoeker claimed that spermatoza contained a homunculus (“little man”) based on his observations using early microscopes.

Several lessons can be drawn from the “Mission Accomplished” viral video incident. Distortion of the truth (deliberate or otherwise) is not only a tactic of the extreme right, and as power shifts in the US Congress, those with an interest in preserving the truth will need to be more sceptical of the claims from the left — reality may be starting to lose it’s “well known liberal bias”. If the fruits of the marketplace of ideas are to be realised, one must be willing to look for and to seriously consider the dissenting views. The advent of the blogosphere, social networking sites, and powerful search engines is the best opportunity thus far to achieve this goal, but only if we acknowledge our inherent biases and actively seek to overcome them.

Update: A blogger has posted the most plausible explanation for the black bar I’ve seen so far. Just goes to show how conspiracy theories can sprout from the most innocent of misunderstandings.

How the mighty have fallen. The American media are still digesting the mid-term election results, but some have found time to poke fun at the predicament in which the neocons have found themselves. (Keith Olbermann samples a wide cross section of comic political commentary.) But I think CBS’s Craig Ferguson of the Late Late Show had one of the best:

This guy has hidden talents — he folds an origami crane much faster than I can.

PS. Do check out the YouTube comments: “if u watch the bottom of the screen it isnt his hands its sum1 else filmed ova the top” Well, no shit, Sherlock! Award that commenter a Vote Republican button.

To drum up support for the Republicans in the final weeks before the US mid-term elections, George W. Bush has been holding “Victory 2006” rallies all across USA. Virtually every speech reiterates the same talking points and plays well to Republican audiences who tend to applaud in almost exactly the same places. Here is one excerpt:

“You do not create terrorism by fighting the terrorists. (Applause.) Iraq is not the reason the terrorists are at war with us. I would remind that Democrat that we were not in Iraq when the terrorists struck the World Trade Center in 1993, we were not in Iraq when they blew up the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, we were not in Iraq when they blew up the USS Cole, and we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001 when they killed nearly 3,000 of our citizens. (Applause.)”

(See also here and here for comparison.)
It is quite obvious that these compassionate conservatives are not applauding the terrorist attack that killed so many Americans. Rather they are showing their support for the view that Bush’s Middle East policy is not worsening terrorism, despite the views of the security agencies in both the US and the UK. Tony Blair parroted a similar talking point just weeks after the London bombings of 7th of July, 2005, when the government’s support for the America’s war in Iraq was being blamed for increasing the risk of terrorism in Britain. On 19 July 2005, Blair twice reminded the press of the obvious:

“Of course these terrorists will use Iraq as an excuse, they will use Afghanistan. September 11 of course happened before both of those things, and then the excuse was American policy, or Israel….As I say, how you try and put this together is extremely important, because September 11 of course happened before Iraq, before Afghanistan, and it was planned under the Presidency of President Clinton, not President Bush.”

This line of reasoning seems quite compelling: Since X happened before Y therefore should X happen again, Y cannot possibly be the cause. Those denying anthropogenic global warming, in spite of overwhelming supporting scientific evidence, often use a similar argument. During the medieval warming period, the climate warmed centuries before the industrially related rise in carbon dioxide, therefore the currently observed warming of the planet cannot possibly be caused by human activity. Unfortunately this line of reasoning is a logical fallacy that is easy to discover when one applies it to other domains and derives ridiculous conclusions:

  • London won the right to host the Olympics in 1908 and 1948, both of which happened before Lord Sebastian Coe was born. Hence London winning the 2012 Olympics bid was not helped by the efforts of Lord Coe.
  • Italy won the World Cup in 1934, 1938 and 1982, many years before Fabio Cannavaro played football for Italy, thus proving he doesn’t deserve any credit for Italy winning the 2006 World Cup.

Unlike Bush, Blair does at least acknowledge that US foreign policies predating 11 September, 2001 are often cited as “excuses” for terrorism, which makes his employment of the logical fallacy even weaker. But even if leaders were to accept some form of causal link between their foreign policy and terrorist activity, this does not automatically relinquish policy decisions to the whims of terrorists. Bad strategy should be discontinued because it is wrong, and not because an extremist objects. However, the war in Iraq was sold to the electorate on the basis that it would reduce the terrorist threat. The evidence that the citizens have made a bad buy is becoming difficult to ignore.