Monday, July 31, 2006

More on Tour de France cheat Floyd Landis

Der Spiegel's english website has an interesting article on Landis's TdF win--and the cheating that likely went on to secure it.

[...] Landis, during a press conference last Friday, denied having taken performance enhancing drugs. He said "two beers and at least four whiskeys" had caused his testosterone level to rise. Landis, in other words, crushed the world's cycling elite a night after a binge.

Not likely. In no other sport does one find the impudent, concerted fraud that cycling has been infested with. Only last May, Spanish police uncovered a drug ring closely linked to cycling; the investigator said the ring had 58 racers as clients, including Ivan Basso and Germany's cycling star, Jan Ullrich. After the "Operación Puerto" doping case, sponsors, race promoters, team heads, media, anti-doping activists and officials discussed whether and how to rescue the sport of cycling. No one doubts any longer that cycling is contaminated with drugs. The Spanish daily El País even prophesied that the Landis case means "a death sentence for the sport of cycling."

It may mean the end of big sponsership cycling, and a return to the cycling of the 1970s. Not such a bad fate as it produced some of the greatest cyclists ever.
That Landis got caught is surprising enough -- hardly anyone is netted in the obligatory tests. Athletes bent on manipulation have criminal doctors and biochemists working with them -- and international networks provide athletes with anything that the pharmaceutical industry has to offer and at levels just under the permissible values.

The ability to administer precision doses has led to a testosterone comeback in the doping scene. [...] During training, this wonder drug promotes muscle build-up and shortens regeneration time. During a competition, it serves another function: It increases an athlete's drive, the urge to fight.

In order to identify testosterone, [...] [i]nvestigators measure the relationship of testosterone to epitestosterone in urine. In the normal male, this relationship lies between 1:1 and 2:1. In order to take into account individual variations present in top athletes, cycling associations settled on a maximum value of 4:1. Anyone who crosses that boundary is considered to have used supplements. With Landis, the A-test supposedly showed a value of 11:1 -- a completely astonishing result, even for an athlete who can hold his alcohol. [...]
The previous ratio was 6:1. Landis cleared even that by a wide mark. His explanations have been beyond lame. No one drinks two beers and four whiskey shots before a tough race. He would have been better served to have claimed a la Gatlin, that some evil masseur rubbed the cream on him.
So why did Landis get caught like an amateur? The high testosterone ratio suggests it was no accident-- as might happen if a patch or a gel on his scrotum had a greater effect than planned. It is much more likely that Landis, after his disastrous Stage 16, took something like Andriol, a popular testosterone supplement also known as "Mexican Bean" and normally used only in training. It would hardly be the first time an athlete ignored all reason to enhance performance.
That's my guess as well: he was so humiliated after his stage 16 collapse that he threw caution to the wind and self medicated with too large a dose.
Whether or not it turns out to be true that Landis took testosterone, cycling is in deep trouble. No one believes any more that the sport can get the doping problem under control on its own. The field is too full of criminals, liars and cover-up artists.[...]

The sport of cycling has now lost a whole generation of stars. Like Landis, Jan Ullrich probably will never again race professionally. By now, the International Cycling Union has viewed the 500-page investigation report from Spain and will send its analysis this week to the Swiss association, which issued Ullrich's license.
Lance Armstrong was fortunate to be able to pay top dollar for helpers and physicians who were either totally discrete or not very believable if they wenty to the press.
By late August at the latest, a disciplinary commission will release its verdict. It is "likely," says law professor and commission president Gerhard Walter, that Ullrich will be banned.

Pat McQuaid, president of the ICU, also is expecting a conviction. And if Ullrich and his attorneys should manage to fend this off, says the Irishman, "we will drag this to the International Court Of Arbitration For Sport." [...]
I hope that any verdicts relating to Ulrich and others caught up in the Spanish scandal are completely transparent. There are no doping offense to go by. The accused need to be provided every opportunity to rebut the charges. I suspect that opportunity will come only when they appeal their suspensions.

Bonus: a list of the best alibis.

RINO carnival up at Evolution

J.D. at Evolution notices a downward mood swing in this week's RINO carnival submissions. Blue, or not, he gives them good intros and commentary. They are worth reading.

Will high petroleum prices drag the Arabs into modernity?

Reading this piece in Der Spiegel (discussing efforts in the Gulf states to build modern societies) gives me some hope (these days I have a mostly Spenglerian/Götterdämmerung outlook: Religious and civil wars in the Middle East as extremism gains is the future I fear). The Arabs and Persians of the Middle and Near East have long been laggards in representative government, and civil and human rights. Two previous oil price surges in the 1970s produced nothing but more wealth for the ruling classes.

The latest price rises look to be stable over the short and middle term, so several far sighted governments--mostly the Gulf states, knowing their stocks will dwindle over time, are plowing some of the windfall back into their countries in the form of infrastructure and tourist and leisure travel destinations.

If these governments wish to see a decent return on their investments, a stable and mostly peaceful Middle East is essential. If disputes with Israel keep flaring up, if Iraq remains unstable, and if Iran becomes a regional superpower, the billions being poured into Gulf states will be for nought.

Not that I expect things to go swimmingly. As the article notes, Qatar is home to Al-Jazeera and supports Hamas. Nevertheless, modernization brings modern ideas. Islamic extremism tends not to do well when confronted with the power of consumer goods and decent tv programming. It rails against it, but loses to it among the masses.

This hope for the future is predicated on some of the petroleum wealth spreading through all layers of society. Simply diverting people with the trappings of modernity is not enough. Allowing citizens a measure of input is required. Frustrated middle and lower class political yearnings can easily result in violence. In many Middle Eastern states with minority religious groups, the frustration finds a ready outlet in religious extremism. This is the race the Middle East needs to win: offer the people hope or succumb to nasty secterian civil wars. What we see in Iraq is horrible, but also inevitable. The country is likely to either split into smaller states or end up a very loose confederation of autonomous areas split along confessional lines.

With religious extremism on the rise, that will be the fate of many Middle Eastern nations. Modernization--with its attendent modern political ideals--is all that can save those nations from experiencing the brutal secterian wars Europe went through some 500 years ago.

A showdown with Iran awaits. Dr Kissinger explains all

Keeping his eye on the ball, Dr Kissinger speculates on the Iran problem; comparing--and discarding--it to 1938 Munich and 1970s China before finding a potential benefit in the current Israel-Hizbollah fight.

[... T]he current Near Eastern upheaval could become a turning point. Iran may come to appreciate the law of unintended consequences. For their part, the Six can no longer avoid dealing with the twin challenges that Iran poses. On the one hand, the quest for nuclear weapons represents Iran's reach for modernity via the power symbol of the modern state; at the same time, this claim is put forward by a fervent kind of religious extremism that has kept the Muslim Middle East unmodernized for centuries. This conundrum can be solved without conflict only if Iran adopts a modernism consistent with international order and a view of Islam compatible with peaceful coexistence. [...]

The challenge of the Iranian negotiation is far more complex. For two years before the opening to China, the two sides had engaged in subtle, reciprocal, symbolic and diplomatic actions to convey their intentions. In the process, they had tacitly achieved a parallel understanding of the international situation, and China opted for seeking to live in a cooperative world.

Nothing like that has occurred between Iran and the United States. There is not even an approximation of a comparable world view. Iran has reacted to the American offer to enter negotiations with taunts, and has inflamed tensions in the region. Even if the Hezbollah raids from Lebanon into Israel and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers were not planned in Tehran, they would not have occurred had their perpetrators thought them inconsistent with Iranian strategy. In short, Iran has not yet made the choice of the world it seeks -- or it has made the wrong choice from the point of view of international stability. The crisis in Lebanon could mark a watershed if it confers a sense of urgency to the diplomacy of the Six and a note of realism to the attitudes in Tehran. [...]

The nations lined up against Iran can no longer entertain any doubts as to the dangers Iran presents. Whether this is enough to overcome ecomonic interests is doubtful. Iran still has considerable wriggle room in the negotiations. Nevertheless, a stout response from the group of six can yet force Iran to make this fundemental choice.
The Six will have to decide how serious they will be in insisting on their convictions. Specifically, the Six will have to be prepared to act decisively before the process of technology makes the objective of stopping uranium enrichment irrelevant. Well before that point is reached, sanctions will have to be agreed on. To be effective, they must be comprehensive; halfhearted, symbolic measures combine the disadvantage of every course of action. Interallied consultations must avoid the hesitation that the League of Nations conveyed over Abyssinia. We must learn from the North Korean negotiations not to engage in a process involving long pauses to settle disagreements within the administration and within the negotiating group, while the other side adds to its nuclear potential. There is equal need, on the part of America's partners, for decisions permitting them to pursue a parallel course.

A suspension of enrichment of uranium should not be the end of the process. A next step should be the elaboration of a global system of nuclear enrichment to take place in designated centers around the world under international control -- as proposed for Iran by Russia. This would ease implications of discrimination against Iran and establish a pattern for the development of nuclear energy without a crisis with each entrant into the nuclear field. [...]

At the same time, an Iran concentrating on the development of the talents of its people and the resources of its country should have nothing to fear from the United States. Hard as it is to imagine that Iran, under its present president, will participate in an effort that would require it to abandon its terrorist activities or its support for such instruments as Hezbollah, the recognition of this fact should emerge from the process of negotiation rather than being the basis for a refusal to negotiate. Such an approach would imply the redefinition of the objective of regime change, providing an opportunity for a genuine change in direction by Iran, whoever is in power.
From his concluding paragraph, I get the impression that Dr K is none to optimistic about where the talks will lead:
In the end, the United States must be prepared to vindicate its efforts to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons program. For that reason, America has an obligation to explore every honorable alternative.

Friday, July 28, 2006

ID research still in the not happening stage

After reading this post at Evolution Blog about how Intelligent Design advocates are claiming that scientific publications containing the words "design principles" support them, I decided to check the PubMed database for papers containing the words Intelligent Design.

Amazingly, 513 publications popped up. Do the IDers know of this rich trove of potential publications, all of which contain the words "Intelligent" and "Design"? Probably. Unfortunately for them the few I scanned had nothing to do with their brand of ID.

Then I placed Intelligent Design in quotes; the total dropped to 49.

Looking through those 49, I searched for any remotely supportive of ID. Some titles (especially this one: "Evolution through intelligent design") looked promising. So I went through each abstract.

Result: a big fat goose egg. Zippo, nada. Nothing.

The only papers touching on the subject were those that either blasted ID or explained why it was important for scientists to confront ID doctrine. Sorry, fellas.

ID supporters will simply have to lower their standards of evidence once again if they are to keep up their fight. My suggestion: use "evolution" as a search term; then read the articles.

Granted, they did manage to slip a peer-reviewed paper supportive of ID into the decidedly low-impact journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (impact factor: 0.424; ranked tied for 4690 out of 5968 journals listed for 2004). But that paper didn't pop up in the PubMed search; nor does the journal itself appear in PubMed. The editor who approved the paper at the time was also a member of a group devoted to reconciling biology and the Bible. This remains the high water mark of ID research.

Saw it first on The Panda's Thumb.

Muslim? No botox for you!

Having solved all other vexing religious problems, Malaysia's top clerical body has banned botox to the faithful. Because it contains pig products. Maybe.

Cheese eaters, however, can rejoice as Allah approves.
The council decided that the serum contained prohibited substances, including those derived from pigs. [...]

They also ruled that it was alright for Muslims to eat cheese.

But they could not make up their minds about Botox.

Now they have come down against it, amidst fears that it contains pig products. [...]

The ruling is expected to find its way into Malaysia's Islamic laws. [...]
Now that Hizbollah has brought down the curtain, yet again, on Lebanon's tourism industry, look to Malaysia to be the next hotspot for cheese-eating Muslims not in the market for a botox pick me up.

Subsidies to Airbus OK, says EU official

The European backers of Airbus can't wean themselves from subsidizing the manufacturer. While no new subsidies were announced, the principle appears to remain sacrosanct:
European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said Wednesday that the United Kingdom, France and Germany can subsidize a new Airbus airplane, a step that might sharpen a World Trade Organization dispute with the U.S.

"I'm not saying they couldn't or shouldn't invest," Mandelson said. "I'm just saying make it WTO compliant."

Airbus, trailing Chicago-based Boeing Co. in orders this year by a 4-1 ratio, said last week that it would revamp its midsize, long-range A350 design to compete with Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. The Airbus redesign could cost $10 billion.

Fresh European aid for Airbus could aggravate tensions at the WTO after global trade talks collapsed this week and the EU blamed U.S. refusal to cut farm subsidies for the failure.

The Geneva-based WTO decided in July 2005 to rule on the legality of development aid to Toulouse, France-based Airbus and Boeing in a fight with roots dating back at least two decades.

The U.S. claims European governments funded up to a third of the cost of Airbus projects, including $3.7 billion in aid for the A380 superjumbo. The EU says Boeing received subsidies worth $29 billion, including illegal tax incentives, research funds and infrastructure loans. [...]

"Airbus needs to stop funding its new products with government money," said Neena Moorjani, a spokeswoman for the U.S. trade representative's office. "It should rely on the markets like everyone else."

Mandelson said EU "member states, like private-sector institutions and banks, are entitled to invest if they so wish," and any aid should be "clearly within the international rules."
I suppose what this will eventually mean is that EU nations are free to provide start up funds for new projects so long as there is some sort of agreement to repay the monies. This was always the sticking point for the US.

Most previous startup funding to Airbus was to be repaid only to the extent the funded plane made a profit. Loans to projects not returning a profit were to be written off.

Although expecting repayment of loans is a philosophical change for Airbus and its backers, I doubt much will change in the way things are done. Nations will simply have to be more clever in the future.

In other news, it looks as though Airbus's parent company, EADS will be very happy to receive whatever life line Europe's governments throw.

From the Financial Times (internal link removed):
Tom Enders and Louis Gallois, the co-chief executives of EADS, said on Thursday the group was facing "huge challenges ahead" and warned that it could incur further costs from the the efforts to stabilise its troubled A380 superjumbo programme and from renegotiating orders for the A350.

The leading European aerospace and defence group also faces a further round of cost cutting to address its loss of competitiveness due to the weakness of the US dollar against the euro and the gradual unwinding during the next five years of $50bn of protective currency hedges.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tour de France winner Landis guilty of doping

O la la! Well, the French have caught an American doping at the Tour de France. They would have preferred to nail their bete noire, Armstrong, but will settle for any American, in this case, Floyd Landis.
Tour de France winner Floyd Landis has given a positive drugs test, according to his Phonak team.

The 30-year-old American, who claimed victory in the Tour de France on Sunday, has tested positive for the male sex hormone testosterone.

The positive test came after stage 17 of the Tour, which saw Landis record an epic victory after struggling on the final climb the day before.

Landis has been suspended pending results of his B sample analysis.
He's probably guilty, although I hold out some hope for a medical explanation. The article notes that he tested positive following a fantastic solo win, which came a day after losing 10 minutes in a mountain stage. He was reportedly humilitated with his performance, so it is easy to imagine him acting recklessly and injecting testosterone (the drug detected). More surprising is that the drugs were so easily available.

What this will do for the TdF is unknown. If they are to keep any sort of interest in bike racing, the riders will have to be monitered 24 hours/day during the tour.

Thanks to my astute bike riding brother, who called long distance with the news.

Al-Qaeda to the world: what are we, chopped pig's liver?

Al-Qaeda (A-Q) wants to avenge Muslim deaths in Gaza and Lebanon. Is this bad news: that is, will the Sunni dominated A-Q soon be linking arms with the Shi'a Hizbollah, to cooperate over a broad set of objectives? Or is it a PR attempt by A-Q to remain relevant in the eyes of the Muslims?

I suspect the latter. A-Q, with its extremist Sunni religious interpretations, dislikes per se anything to do with the Shi'a branch of Islam. A-Q, busily concentrating on harming the US, has lost a march to Hizbollah in this case. As much as many Muslims wish to see America brought low, there is nothing like an attack on Israel to draw the approving murmurs from the Islamic community. A-Q is playing catch-up.

From the Beeb:
Al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has said in a video the militant network will respond to attacks on Muslims in Lebanon and Gaza.

Al-Qaeda could not remain silent in the face of a "Crusader war" and now saw "all the world as a battlefield open in front of us", he said.

Events in Lebanon and Gaza showed the importance of the battle in Afghanistan and Iraq, he added. [...]
A pretty desperate plea for attention from A-Q. Unfortunately, a fight for camera time between A-Q and Hizbollah will have consequences for the rest of the world. If A-Q is to again be the defender of the Religion of Peace, they are going to have to go on a serious slaughter-fest.

"Therefore, all those who have taken part in the crime must pay the price. We cannot just watch these shells as they pour wrath on our brothers in Gaza and Lebanon and sit back in submission."
Clearly, pouring wrath on the Shi'a is to be A-Q's job; they've done an expert job of killing Shi'a in Iraq, so experience won't be a problem.

I wonder if they are ever aware of the disconnect: the slaughter of Shi'a (by A-Q) in Iraq is acceptable, while the killing of Shi'a (by anyone else) in Lebanon is verboten.

Germany to be part of Lebanon peace keepers?

Germany is debating whether to participate in a hypothetical UN backed peace keeping effort in Lebanon.

I think that Germany should sit this one out. As much as I think Germans have accepted and learned from their ghastly history, they should not place their troops in a position where they could come into conflict with Israel's military. Nothing good could possibly come of it, as the thought of Germans pointing weapons at Jews raises ugly memories.

Aside from that, could Germans be expected to be neutral in such a role? Notwithstanding much of Europe's harsh criticism of Israel, I think German commanders would be at pains to favor Israel. Of course such partisanship would only slightly mitigate the general anti-Israeli tone of the UN, but peace keepers must be held to the highest levels of neutrality.

Both sides of the debate, from the BBC:

German newspapers on Wednesday aired a number of arguments for and against sending German soldiers to the Middle East, with the "burden of history" looming large.

"History is the past, but the history of the Holocaust belongs to the German present," said the Frankfurter Rundschau.

No German soldier should, even theoretically, "be brought into a situation where he has to aim his weapon at an Israeli", it added.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung said it was "astonishing" that politicians were discussing the idea, while Austria's Der Standard said it was "unthinkable" that the grandchildren of Holocaust perpetrators might find themselves shooting at the grandchildren of victims.

The secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan Kramer, added his voice to those against German deployment.

"There are Holocaust survivors living in Israel. I don't think they would feel good about German soldiers in South Lebanon, and certainly not if they had to take a stand against an Israeli soldier," he said.

He added that he would still be opposed if the Israeli government agreed.

It is 12 years since Germany's post-war constitution was changed to allow the use of armed force in international disputes.

In that time they have taken part in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sudan and DR Congo.

But the prospect of peace enforcement in Lebanon raises new complications. For Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, history actually burdens Germany with a responsibility not to walk away, but to get involved.

"I think this is appropriate given the difficult shared history between Germany and Israel," he told German broadcaster ZDF on Sunday.

His Social Democratic Party, like Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, is divided on the issue, while the three main opposition parties - the Greens, the Liberal FPD and the hard-left PDS - are against.

The leader of the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament, Elmar Brok, is among those arguing that German involvement must be ruled out, on the grounds that Germans may be unable to put into effect the "robust mandate" he says the Lebanon force will need.

"It is impossible for a German soldier to use force against an Israeli soldier," he says.

The opinion editor of Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel newspaper, Malte Lehming, agrees that this scenario would violate the main lesson of the last century: "Never again."

"I think Germany should take part in a multinational force enforcing peace in south Lebanon, but let's secure the Lebanon/Syria border where things like that are less likely to happen," he says.

"I think we can take that risk."

Joerg Himmelreich of the German Marshall Fund argues that the nightmare scenario is not, in fact, at all likely.

German troops would be much more likely to clash with Hezbollah than with Israeli forces, he says.

But he warns that German participation in Lebanon would be a new step for Germany in a different way, as it would be the first time German troops had taken part in a mission with a high probability of casualties.

How long will it be before Germany can contemplate the possibility of German peace-enforcers confronting Israeli troops?

"Maybe 10 years, 15 years..." says Malte Lehming.

"The World Cup has shown how relaxed people feel about pride and their nation, without producing any kind of nationalist feelings," says Elmar Brok.

"But we remember the past and we will not forget our responsibility."

Stephan Kramer thinks German soldiers will never be able to approach the borders of Israel. "Even if it's the great-great-grandchildren, I cannot imagine it," he says.

"Around the world, almost everywhere, but not when there is a chance of confrontation with an Israeli soldier."

Assuming an eventual UN mandate, European troops--largely French, I would guess--will be the obvious (and only) choice to serve as peace keepers. The US and the UK are precluded from such a mission, and outside of Europe, no other militaries have the professionalism necessary for such a delicate and perilous mission.

Apart from their history of being defeated, the French military is quite professional, and the only one large enough to lead such a mission. While other militaries (look for Italy, Holland and Denmark to play roles) will take part, France will supply the bulk of the troops.

The idea that Germany could play a leading logistical role should be kicked around. This would allow Germany to pull its weight in international affairs, while minimizing the chances of a confrontation with Israel.

Latest RINO sightings are up

Better late than never. I just got back from a week of sun and fun on the island of Mallorca. I missed the call for submissions, but I can tell you the posts on display at Nick Schweitzer's blog are well worth your time.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Most entertaining Tour de France in decades

Although I'm on vacation until next week, I still try to catch the Tour de France on Eurosport. This year's race has been terrific. After 7 straight years of ueber-doper Lance Armstrong dominating the peloton, we have a wide open race heading into the last two days. An American lies 30 seconds back in third place, but is well situated to vault into the lead.

His story is incredible:

Rebounding as spectacularly as he collapsed the day before, Floyd Landis stormed to a long solo victory in the Tour de France stage Thursday and put himself back in position to win the race when it ends Sunday in Paris.

Landis, who was in the leader's yellow jersey Wednesday when he lost more than 10 minutes and fell to 11th place, recovered most of that deficit Thursday with an epic ride over five climbs in the Alps.

For a 24-hour comeback from what he described as "a disaster," it was unprecedented in recent Tour memory.

"I was very, very disappointed yesterday," he said at a news conference. "Today I thought I would keep fighting. I wanted to show my team I deserved to be a leader. This day was for them."

The American leader of the Phonak team now ranks third over all, 30 seconds behind Oscar Pereiro, a Spaniard with Caisse d'Épargne. Pereiro rode bravely to save his yellow jersey by 12 seconds over Carlos Sastre, a Spaniard with CSC, who again rode with determination to finish second in the stage.

This 93rd Tour, the first in eight years not dominated by Lance Armstrong and his teammates, has developed, as expected, into a wide-open race with no team able to control events. What few expected was that the Tour would continue to be wide open, evolving into a battle among three men within 30 seconds, with just three stages to go.

One of those stages, on Sunday, is generally ceremonial, ushering the winner into Paris. Another, on Friday, is gently rolling and seems ideal for sprinters.

That leaves an individual time trial Saturday over 57 kilometers, or 35 miles, to settle matters. Unless, that is, another contender pulls a Landis on Friday and wins by 5 minutes 42 seconds as he did. [....]

Friday, July 21, 2006

On vacation

My family and I are visiting my parents on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Lots of sun, Brits, and Germans. Later this week, Paris Hilton shows up for a concert. Think I'll miss that one.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Eiger rock slide: climate change or not?

The recent rock slide on the Eiger's east face (Clint Eastwood climbed the north face in the Eiger Sanction) has been somewhat in the news. Many are claiming it is more evidence of climate change.

However, this piece on the journal Nature's website notes that such mass wasting events are just part of what mountains do: they rise up, and are eroded away.
The Eiger, Switzerland's most infamous mountain, is traditionally best known for the challenge of ascending its north face. But it gained fame in another way last week when a huge chunk fell from its eastern flank, triggering claims that climate change has been implicated in yet another high-profile natural event.

Geologists predicted the rockfall last month, after noting that large cracks were working their way into the mountain's side. The crash finally came on 13 July: Swiss rescue services estimate that some 700,000 cubic metres of rock — the size of a large skyscraper— have tumbled into the valley below.

Tourists have flocked to the area, hoping to witness the mountain shedding even more rock. Geologists reckon that a further 1.3 million cubic metres may be at risk, given the growing cracks.

Such a massive collapse is certainly dramatic. But the fervour with which tourists have seized on the Eiger landslide probably owes more to the mountain's fame than to the rarity of such events, or to the possibility that climate change is affecting the mountains.

"Climate change can melt the 'glue' that holds rock together in cold environments," notes Andrew Goudie, a geographer at the University of Oxford, UK. So melting ice can, in theory, release that hold and allow gravity to peel away chunks of rock. And the glaciers in the Alps do seem to be retreating.

But there's nothing to indicate that unusually warm weather is specifically responsible for this collapse on the Eiger. And geologists are at pains to point out that such rockfalls are a natural part of the process by which mountains rise and ultimately fall. "This is just part of the mountain cycle — it would have happened anyway," says Christopher Kilburn of University College London, who studies landslides at the university's Benfield Hazard Research Centre.

"Mountains are fundamentally unstable, otherwise they would just get taller
and taller," Goudie explains. "The point does come where they get too tall for
their own good." [....]
My family and I hiked near the base of the north face this week. It was a spectacular view, and my 4 year old walked all but the last 200 meters of the 4+ km.

Israel is right, and to hell with proportionate responses

David Aaronovitch, writing in The Telegraph, poses this question:
An autonomous heavily armed militia, working from the territory of a state, has — without agreement from its own government (of which it is a part) — launched its own attacks on the territory of a neighbour. What is Israel, or any nation in that situation, supposed to do?
Obvious answer: remove the threat to the extent reasonable and possible. Of course, in the Middle East, it's always more complicated than that. In this case, Hizbollah wants to attacked. It's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers was done in part to provoke an Israeli response, knowing the knee-jerk condemnations of disproportionate force would fly faster than Hizbollah's newest missles. Additionally, the abduction was to probe the untested Israeli government for softness, and generally to keep the pot boiling.
[...] It makes more sense to ask why Hezbollah provoked this crisis. There is a whole cottage industry devoted to the reweaving of Hezbollah as a kind of unique mixture of cool guerrillismo and charity organisation, and its leader Hassan Nasrullah as the turbanned love-child of Gerry Adams and Bob Geldof. For a few years now, one or other of the preachers of this pleasant metamorphosis will appear to tell us how sophisticated, tactically astute and popular Nasrullah and his men are.

Well, the abductions were almost certainly planned long in advance, as were the measures to be taken once the Israelis retaliated. And, having seen how Israel reacted to the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit near Gaza, Hezbollah must have had some idea of what was coming. The longer-range missiles were ready. The drones were good to go.

That still leaves why. The various possibilities seem to be these. One, to big themselves up in the eyes of those Lebanese who enjoy a bit of vicarious Israeli-bashing: it has been said that Hezbollah, which took the credit for getting the Israelis to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000, has been losing support during the period of reconstruction. Or, two, a kind of secondary picketing with rockets in solidarity with their Hamas brethren down south. Or three, to help their big brothers in Iran (or Syria) to convince “the West” that these states are not people to be messed with.

The closeness between parts of the Iranian Government and Hezbollah can be judged by who supplies Hezbollah’s munitions. You can make an argument for a political force in a dangerous country to run a Kalashnikov-armed militia all of its own. But quite why Iran judges that a party with 14 MPs in the Lebanese national parliament might require armed pilotless drones and medium-range high-explosive missiles is a matter for some serious thought.

Knowing this, do we think that Israel’s response is “proportionate”? By the way, if it isn’t, then the Falklands campaign, in which deaths actually exceeded the population of the contested area, can only be described as grossly disproportionate. [...]

It seems to me to be utterly reasonable for Israel to take steps against an extragovernmental armed force — one that is not party to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute — that threatens its borders. The bigger questions are whether Israel’s actions will attain the desired result, and what the international community can do, if anything, to help that process. This is a matter of trying to ensure that the military campaign for security does not fatally weaken support for the democratic and reform forces in Lebanon. It is unlikely that the Israelis have any very deliberate strategy for coping with this dilemma.
This is a good point. Hizbollah is a political organization, part of the government, in fact. Political groups seek to increase their power. Destabilitzing the government through Hizbollah's military wing fighting Israel to a draw will serve it well come the next elections.

Lebanon has the most to lose here. The fragile democracy could easily end up under Syrian influence again. The Lebanese should ask for an international force to come in and occupy the border area. Not because it will be be terribly effective, but because it provides Lebanon some breathing space and will help thwart Iran's and Syria's plans.

And there’s more at stake even than this. The Mohajer-4 drone, supplied by Iran and test-flown over Israeli soil in 2004 and 2005, could — as Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University, pointed out last year — be adapted to take “cluster munitions or even a chemical-weapon payload”. “The short flight of the Mohajer 4,” wrote Rogers, “could be seen as the precursor of a fundamental shift.”
Israel's response to date is perfectly legitimate, proportionate, and understandable. Let's hope they resist being pulled into a major invasion, which will force even those Arab states quietly approving Israel's actions (I suspect that so long as it doesn't involve the sacred Palestinian cause, it is OK) to shout and stamp their feet.

Hizbollah just part of Iran's plans in the Mid-East

An opinion piece in The Telegraph calls for the dismantling of Hizbollah. Unfortunately, Israel alone will never be able to complete the task. The Arab governments must step up and pressure Iran and Syria to stop their support of Hizbollah, although even if they do it is questionable if Hizbollah would collapse.

Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have offered differing levels of condemnation of Hizbollah, but until they put their words into practice, little will change. Lebanon must also take responsibility for its borders. Members of Hizbollah form part of Lebanon's ruling elite. Thus Lebanon bears responsibility for allowing Hizbollah's actions.

Many Arab leaders see the alarming rise of Hizbollah as having clear implications for themselves. No one wants a well-trained militia in its backyard. Especially if that militia is supplied by one regional power, and backed by another.
Since the 1982 Lebanon War, the United Nations has repeatedly demanded that all foreign forces leave Lebanese territory.

This evacuation of outside agents provocateurs was rightly seen as the prerequisite for the pacification of the volatile Israel-Lebanon border. When Israel completed its withdrawal from its southern security zone in 2000, one might have expected that this international principle would have been asserted, and a concerted UN effort begun to rid Lebanon of the Syrian army and other foreign forces - notably those of Iran.

Unfortunately, the situation in Lebanon was totally neglected, and ominous developments followed. Israel's withdrawal to what the UN called the "blue line" was recognised by Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a full Israeli withdrawal from Lebanese territory. His ruling was confirmed by the UN Security Council on July 27, 2000 with the adoption of Resolution 1310.

But the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hizbollah claimed that Israel actually had more to give to Lebanon. In particular, it wanted a tiny sliver of Golan territory that had been disputed between Israel and Syria. This outstanding grievance, which had no international backing, was used to justify Hizbollah's continuing war against Israel.

What made this dispute particularly dangerous was Iran's decision to deploy medium-range missiles in southern Lebanon, aimed at Israel's northern cities. In 2002, Lebanese media reported the arrival of Iranian Revolutionary Guards to train Hizbollah in the use of these new weapons, known as the Fajr 3 and Fajr 5 - which, unlike the older Soviet-made Katyusha rockets, had a range of some 45 miles. Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon. In return, it acquired a more powerful Hizbollah, with Iranian forces also taking up positions directly on its borders. [...]

So what is to be done? First, it is important to identify what should be the aims of the entire Western alliance - including Israel - in the current conflict. The chief goals are simple: full implementation of UN Security Council resolutions that call for dismantling Hizbollah and the deployment of the Lebanese Army along the Israeli-Lebanon border instead. Second, the removal of all Iranian forces and equipment from Lebanese territory, along with any lingering Syrian presence.

This is a regional war. Iran is seeking to dominate Iraq, particularly its southern Shia areas - the provinces where British troops are deployed. Iran's aim is to dominate oil-producing areas by agitating the Shia populations of Kuwait, Bahrain and the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. Finally, there is a second front in this war: the Gaza Strip. The Hamas movement, which came out of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, has decided to throw in its lot with Shia Iran and Hizbollah. Like Hizbollah, Hamas has embedded its military capabilities in civilian areas. Leaflets can help warn civilians, even if they give the terrorists advance warning that they are about to be attacked.

Israel must protect its civilians from these ongoing missile attacks, whether from Lebanon or the Gaza Strip. The first duty of any government is the defence of its citizens - a domestic duty which is also an international obligation, enshrined in law. But primary responsibility for what is happening rests squarely with Iran and its local proxies. The international community must see the UN resolutions on Lebanon implemented, and international security restored. That is the first step towards securing a pluralist Middle East, founded on representative government and human rights.

Monday, July 17, 2006

RINO carnival at Classical Values

This week's RINO carnival is hosted by first timer Eric at Classical Values (one of the better blog names as well as one of the better blogs). He does a fantastic job.

A350 redesigned. Airbus needs this to be a winner

Airbus is set to unveil a stem to stern redesign of its A350 model, which is currently having its stern handed to it by Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. The A350 has been harshly criticized for having been slapped together just so Airbus had something in their quiver to go against Boeing's well received 787.

Airbus saw themselves losing perhaps the whole market for mid-sized long distance jets if it was unable to fix the myriad of A350 problems.

It will be very interesting to see how the new A350 is received. It's hard to imagine that what they unveil will be the final product, but it will at least be a start.
Airbus, desperate to pull out of the worst dive in its commercial history, plans to disclose details of a radically redesigned midsize plane Monday - a $10 billion project to compete with Boeing's 787, executives said here during the weekend.

The announcement on the A350 redesign, at the Farnborough International Airshow near London, is meant to counter the impression that Airbus is hopelessly adrift amid declining orders, turmoil in its executive suite and manufacturing chaos that led to a six- month delay in the delivery of its flagship superjumbo jet, the A380.

Airbus concedes, however, that it will not get back on track until it cleans up the A380 mess. The company has all but halted its assembly line in Toulouse, France, while engineers struggle to untangle the electrical wiring that snakes through these flying behemoths. Solving the problem could take months.

"We don't harbor the illusion that we can fix it quickly," said Thomas Enders, the co-chief executive of European Aeronautic Defense & Space, or EADS, which owns 80 percent of Airbus.

Speaking to journalists during a two- day conference in southwest England, Enders said Airbus hoped to stick to its revised scheduled to produce nine A380 jets next year, instead of 25, but added that the number could rise or fall.

"Undoubtedly, the reputation of this company has suffered," Enders said Saturday. "So has the confidence of customers and investors."

The A380 fiasco reverberated through Airbus, EADS and the European political establishment. The French co-chief executive of EADS, Noël Forgeard, was ousted two weeks ago, as was the head of Airbus, Gustav Humbert, a German. Enders, a former German Army paratrooper, has taken over responsibility for Airbus, which now has a French industrialist, Christian Streiff, as its chief executive. Forgeard, meanwhile, has been replaced by Louis Gallois, a former aerospace executive, as co-chief of EADS.

Enders, anticipating another stream of negative headlines about the A380, said, "Farnborough is not going to be pleasant." Still, he insisted that the management crisis, at least, was over.

Not quite. The management crisis has been temporarily averted. The who reports to whom is settled on paper, but not in reality. France is seeking increased political oversight of EADS, and this is bound to provoke difficulties.
On Monday, Streiff will present a redesigned version of the A350. Executives refused to say much about the 250- to-350-seat plane, except for one who said it would be "bigger, lighter, cheaper, faster" than the existing design, which had been shaping up as an also- ran next to Boeing's more advanced 787. The development costs, however, will be twice that of the original A350.

"It's going to be very powerful, and it's going to reassert our position in the marketplace," said Tom Williams, an executive vice president at Airbus. "We're not going to give up on this market."

Williams also offered a detailed post- mortem on the A380's problems. Most have to do with the wiring, which is more complex than the wiring on any other existing plane - both because of the jet's size, and because of the customization demanded by Singapore Airlines, Qantas and other carriers.

The A380 has the equivalent of 500 kilometers, or 310 miles, of electrical wiring. The wires are threaded through the plane in bundles, called harnesses, which can be as thick as a man's leg.

Each harness carries a different combination of wires, depending, for example, on the demands of airlines for different entertainment systems to serve first-, business- and economy- class passengers.

For all the complexity, the mistakes grew out of relatively simple lapses in communication. Engineers in Toulouse and at the Airbus plant in Hamburg tweaked the design of the A380 on a digital blueprint but sometimes did not inform each other of their revisions.

As a result, Williams said, when the sections of the plane's fuselage were shipped to Toulouse for final assembly and workers began installing the wiring, they made some unpleasant discoveries. "We had brackets where we weren't supposed to have brackets, walls where there weren't supposed to be walls," he said.

These changes meant that the wires had to be strung differently and sometimes ran out short of their connections. Workers were forced to remove entire harnesses and start over. Airbus also has had to go to its suppliers for new wiring, causing further delays.

"We perhaps underestimated the complexity of the aircraft," Williams said. "We perhaps underestimated the customization. Were we complacent, arrogant? I don't think we were, but maybe."

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Evolution caught in the act

The smaller beaks of one species helps it find food and better compete. Evolution in action? or the Intelligent Designer doing his thing? To be fair, most if those pushing Intelligent Design wouldn't quibble with this sort of evolution. (Internal links removed)
Competition between two species of finch in the Galápagos has caused the beak size of one species to shrink, and scientists have watched it happen. Detailed observations of the birds, which Darwin famously studied while formulating his theory of evolution, have provided one of the best descriptions of a characteristic trait evolving in the wild.

In a paper appearing in this week's issue of Science, Peter and Rosemary Grant, both biologists at Princeton University, New Jersey, describe the struggle between the medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis) and the large ground finch (Geospiza magnirostris).

In the harsh environment of the tiny Galápagos island Daphne Major, the medium ground finch subsists mainly on small seeds. Members of the population with sufficiently large beaks, however, have been able to tackle the bigger seeds of a low herbaceous plant called Tribulus cistoides.

These larger-beaked birds met with competition upon the arrival of the bigger G. magnirostris, a few members of which flew to the island in 1982 and set up a colony. Their universally large beaks made cracking into big seeds an easy job.

A Tribulus seed is like "an orange wedge with two great big long spines sticking out the back of it," says Dolph Schluter, a zoologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who worked with the Grants when he was a graduate student. "The medium ground finches twist off the ends, but it takes a lot of force to do it. G. magnirostris has no problem with it."

The two species lived fairly happily together for many years, until two factors forced the birds into harsh competition.

The population of large finches grew, until there was enough of them to be battling with the medium finches, who were also going after Tribulus seeds. And then two years of drought, in 2003 and 2004, dramatically reduced the food supply, causing both populations to plummet as birds died of starvation. In these mean conditions, the medium finches with smaller beaks had an advantage over those with big beaks, as they could more easily suck up smaller seeds that weren't being gobbled by the large finches.

"Small-beaked birds survived better than the large-beaked birds, to a strong extent, during the drought," says Peter Grant. And that trait was then passed down to the next generation.

In 2004 and 2005, the Grants observed a strong shift towards smaller beak size among the medium ground finch. The birds' feeding patterns changed too: they went for the large seeds only half as often as in previous years.

This kind of evolution, in which a characteristic of two similar species diverges due to competition over resources, is called character displacement. The idea has become widely accepted thanks to a number of well-detailed studies, says Jonathan Losos, a biologist at Washington University, St Louis.

"People have inferred character displacement," says Jeffrey Podos, an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "But to actually see it as it happens is quite a triumph. To be in the right place at the right time to observe something like this is really just incredible."

Peter and Rosemary Grant have been studying finches on Daphne Major for more than thirty years. Just north of the better known and more hospitable island of Santa Cruz, Daphne Major is uninhabited. "There is barely enough flat ground to pitch a tent," says Podos. The small size of the island, and relative lack of diversity in animal and plant life made it possible for the Grants to monitor the population size and feeding habits of finches in intimate detail.

"This is the most thorough study of character displacement ever conducted," says Losos. "It will make its way instantly into general biology textbooks."

Friday, July 14, 2006

Red card for Chirac?

In honor of Bastille Day, I provide The Economist's verdict on French President Chirac's 11 years in power. Ouch. This political obituary may be early, but it sure stings:

AS JACQUES CHIRAC opens the Elysée Palace on July 14th, for his annual garden party, it is surely clear that this Bastille Day will be his last as president. [...] His government is paralysed, his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, is unloved, and the French have had enough. [...]

After 11 years in the presidency, Mr Chirac has come to embody the country's political inability to renew itself. In politics for 41 years, he is the only serving politician who has belonged to governments under every fifth-republic president since de Gaulle. His popularity has collapsed. According to TNS Sofrès, a pollster, Mr Chirac is now the most unpopular French president since its polling began in 1978. Libération put it well this week: “For a month, France has been dreaming with Zidane. This morning, it wakes up to Chirac.”

It is a measure of their despondency that the French have begun to write the president's political obituary. Franz-Olivier Giesbert's trenchant account of Mr Chirac's past 20 years, “La Tragédie du Président”, has been a bestseller for months. The author is merciless: “By cowardice as much as by blindness, he persists in pursuing policies which, for over 20 years, have been leading the country to ruin.” A satirical documentary, “Dans la Peau de Jacques Chirac”, is showing in cinemas. Le Monde recently called on the president to resign.

Certainly, the record of the past decade has been meagre. Mr Chirac was elected in 1995 on promises to cut taxes, to curb unemployment and to “mend the social fracture”. Yet, under his watch, France has slipped out of the world's top five economies. Its public debt has swollen from 55% of GDP to 66%; unemployment has never dropped below 8%. At the start of Mr Chirac's reign in 1995, France was paralysed by strikes against reforms, and governed by an imperious, unloved prime minister, Alain Juppé. Now, towards its end, France has seen 1m-3m people on the streets in a student-led protest against labour-market reforms, and is governed by the imperious, unloved Mr de Villepin. A president who promoted the construction of a strong Europe, to counter-balance America in a multi-polar world, failed to persuade his own people to vote for its new constitution in last year's referendum.

The disappointment is bitter. Some had hoped that the man who, as prime minister in the 1980s, launched privatisation and abolished the wealth tax, would rediscover his liberalising zeal. “The French machine no longer works,” he declared in his 1995 election campaign. Yet, after a bold but failed attempt that year, Mr Chirac gave up on anything more ambitious than little réformettes, such as those of pensions and health. Income-tax cuts have fallen far short of his pledges. These days, indeed, Mr Chirac blends leftish anti-liberalism with an ardent defence of France's traditional “social model” against those, including his interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who argue that after 20 years of stagnation it might need reinventing.

As for mending the social fracture, Mr Chirac did his best this week to lean once more on the multiracial French football team as a lesson in integration. “France”, he told the players, whom he hosted for lunch, “is stronger when it is brought together in its diversity.” Mr Chirac has, commendably, made a point of trying to stamp out racism and anti-Semitism on his watch. He was the first president to accept the official responsibility of the French state for the deportation of Jews from Vichy France during the occupation. This week, he honoured the 100th anniversary of the rehabilitation of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer wrongly condemned for treason. And he has long supported Turkey's entry into the European Union, against the wishes of voters as well as most of his party.

Yet the riots that swept through France's banlieues last autumn punctured any lingering illusions that the multi-ethnic country was truly at ease with itself—or that integration on the football field could be easily replicated off it. This is a country, after all, where the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the presidential run-off in 2002. The National Front leader remains a threat. During the World Cup, he declared that “France does not totally recognise itself” in its mostly-black team. [...]

That is exactly the sort of appeal to racism that must be guarded against. Le Pen is truly bad news for France. I suspect we'll see more politicians in his mold.

Back to Chirac: Nothing is going right for this guy. To add insult to injury, an American will wear the Tour de France's yellow leader's jersey today.

Hizbollah is Iran's cat's-paw in the Near East

This piece, in the Guardian, no less, largely summarizes my feelings on the extent Iran is able to manipulate events in the Near East. Just as N. Korea was able--by launching its rockets--to destroy the unity China, Russia, S. Korea, Japan, and the US had worked so hard to acheive, Iran is hoping to sharpen the disagreement between Europe and the US over Israeli actions.
[...] In southern Lebanon, Israel's unilateral withdrawal to the international border in May 2000 was expected to lead to a situation of managed enmity between Israel and its northern neighbour. The Lebanese government chose, however, to reject UN security council resolution 1559, which calls on the government to disarm all militias and extend its "full sovereignty over all Lebanese territory".

Instead Hizbullah, a client of Syria and Iran, retains control of a stretch of territory along Lebanon's southern border. It has used the time since 2000 to build up a formidable arsenal and to emit an endless stream of anti-Israel and anti-semitic propaganda. On July 12 the organisation chose to renew its war with Israel. Hizbullah rocket teams are now targeting Israeli civilians.

The actions of Hamas and Hizbullah initially seem counterintuitive. Organisations supposedly committed to the welfare of their peoples have thrown away a chance for peaceful development in favour of war. Israel, determined to restore deterrence, is responding vigorously, and the suffering will not be on the Israeli side alone.

Hamas and Hizbullah's actions become comprehensible when considered within the framework of their aims and those of their backers in Damascus and Tehran. Both organisations are informed by radical Islamist ideology and hold to a strategy of ongoing guerrilla and terrorist activity, with the intention of destroying Israel.

They do not act independently. Hizbullah is dependent on its Iranian and Syrian backers for its continued existence and for its hardware. It is unlikely that the incursion of July 12 could have taken place without the nod from the real masters. Arab intelligence sources quoted in the New York Times yesterday asserted that help for the Hamas kidnapping also came, via Hizbullah, from Tehran.

So the renewed crisis is a move by Israel's enemies in Iran and Damascus to raise the temperature of the confrontation. Israel will act to restore its badly damaged deterrent capability.

Ultimately, however, the problem goes deeper. Powerful states, movements and ideologies in the region place greater importance on killing Israelis than on developing their own failed societies. For as long as this remains the case, armed confrontation and needless suffering on all sides will continue.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

When was the onset of plate tectonics?

Very interesting question. This Nature article provides insight. When reading the article it is important to remember that while continental crust is required for plate tectonics, it doesn't mean that tectonics began as soon as the crust formed--thus the question of when. (internal citations removed).

UPDATE: A commenter points out that continetal crust is not necessary for plate tectonics to occur. He is correct. So ignore my second sentence.

Plate tectonics has created oceans and pushed up mountain ranges. But when did the process that shapes the planet get going? [...]

Plate tectonics is the grand unified theory of geology. Everything we see today, from the abyssal plains of the oceans to the heights of the Himalayas, is shaped by plate tectonics. As far back as there has been complex life — and perhaps even before — continents have come together and moved apart in a dance that has altered climates and geographies, opening up new possibilities for life and sometimes closing down old ones.

But it may not always have been so. Plate tectonics is driven by Earth's heat and constrained by the physical and chemical properties of the crust and mantle. The further back in time you go, the more different these things are likely to have been. It's been argued that on the early Earth, crustal plates, floating on a heat-softened layer of material beneath, would have simply been too thick and buoyant to get dragged beneath each other as they are today. And the greater temperature of the early Earth's innards would probably have made them move in very different patterns from those typical of today's tectonics.

On other Earth-like planets there's no evidence for today's plate tectonics. Planets do not have to work this way, and there was probably a time when this one didn't. "You don't just make a silicate planet and plate tectonics starts," says Robert Stern, a geologist at the University of Texas, Dallas. "Something special has to happen."

The nature of that special something cuts to the discipline's philosophical heart. Since the early nineteenth century, geology has been ruled by the principle of uniformitarianism — that the planet operates on unchanging laws, and that the present can be used as a key to the past. But how can that approach hold up when a science from a world where plate tectonics explains more or less everything is applied to a world that may have lacked it? How can you understand ancient rocks when you do not know what processes put them there?

The geologists [invited to the meeting were there] to try to fix a date for the onset of plate tectonics: the earliest possibility is pretty much straight after the planet formed, about 4.5 billion years ago; the latest is just 1 billion years ago.

To help them decide, the scientists brought to the table data from an array of disciplines. Geochemistry can help clarify the temperature and pressure at which Archaean rocks formed. Fragments of zircon crystals dated even earlier — to the Hadean eon, which stretches from about 3.8 billion years ago to the planet's birth — can provide hints about what Earth's surface environment was like back then. Palaeomagnetic studies can show how land masses moved across latitudes. And structural geology can identify features that, in today's world at least, seem to be indicative of plate tectonics. But in all these approaches, as with the komatiites, age makes the picture hard to discern.

Scant and difficult-to-interpret evidence presents one set of problems; slippery definitions present another. Plate tectonics has lots of constituent parts. It's not just a theory of how things move, but of how they are made and from what. For example, explanations for different sorts of volcanism in different settings also explain why the mineral make-up of continental crust and the crust beneath the oceans is so different.

Working out which attributes are essential to the theory, and which incidental, is not easy. The 65 attendees at the Wyoming conference came up with 18 different definitions of plate tectonics. Three components, most agreed, were key: there must be rigid plates at the surface of the Earth; those plates must move apart through ocean spreading, with new crust being made where the sea floor pulls apart; and the plates must on occasion dive beneath each other at subduction zones. [...]

Of the three, it seems subduction is closest to being diagnostic of plate tectonics. Subduction is the process by which one crustal plate slips beneath another, to be recycled into the mantle. Subduction requires rigid plates, and as it involves the destruction of crust, new crust must be created elsewhere, presumably at oceanic spreading ridges; otherwise, continental crust would eventually disappear. Some argue that this means plate tectonics should date further back than the earliest firm evidence for subduction.

A dramatic use of this argument is that made by Stern. In a paper published last year, he took an extreme position, proposing that Earth has been free of plate tectonics for almost four-fifths of its life, with the system we see today starting up only a billion years ago. He had two lines of argument. One was that plate tectonics could not begin until Earth's crust was cool enough, and that barrier was only passed about a billion years ago. The other was that the only reliable evidence for subduction on the early planet came from a period more recent than that.

Stern points to the geological record of three types of rock. Ophiolites are distinctive sections of the ocean crust that gets mashed up, often through subduction, on the edges of continents. Stern argues that very few of these rocks are more than a billion years old. Metamorphic rocks called blueschists, produced by squeezing the basalt from which oceanic crust is made at high pressures but not very high temperatures, are being made in today's subduction zones; none, Stern says, has been found that is more than 800 million years old. And rocks from 'ultra-high-pressure terranes' of the sort produced where one plate rides over another are at most 630 million years old.

He also makes a more general point. A dramatic shift, such as the introduction of plate tectonics, must have had huge planetary consequences. And between 780 million and 580 million years ago, Stern says, there was a series of glaciations, some very extreme — giving rise to the term 'snowball Earth'. "It was a wild time of change," says Stern. "The biosphere was out of control." On the basis that dramatic effects require dramatic causes, he argues that the introduction of plate tectonics, and with it an increase in planet-cooling volcanic eruptions, might have precipitated the great glaciations.

After reading Stern's arguments, Alfred Kröner of the University of Mainz in Germany fired off a rebuttal. He argues that there's plenty of evidence for plate tectonics stretching back at least 3.1 billion years — including geochemical work,seismic images of the 'sutures' where colliding continents join and, indeed, a few ancient ophiolites. "I believe we can see these features all the way back" — possibly all through the Archaean, says Kröner. [...]

Some of the newly shared data favour an early start for plate tectonics. Geoff Davies, a modeller at Australian National University in Canberra, presented work suggesting that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to an early start may have been removed. In the early 1990s, computer models created by Davies and others suggested that the crust on the early Earth would have been too thick and buoyant to get dragged down beneath another plate during subduction. But new simulations, using more sophisticated calculations, suggest that the crust may have been thinner than once thought — as thin as 4 kilometres or less — which would be thinner than today's crust. "Maybe plate tectonics on the early Earth was viable after all," says Davies.

In other cases, recent findings overturned evidence for early plate tectonics. In 2001, a team reported that an ophiolite from Dongwanzi, China, was 2.5 billion years old — making it by far the oldest such subduction remnant yet discovered. Now Guochun Zhao, of the University of Hong Kong, has re-dated those rocks, giving them an age of just 300 million years.

Timothy Kusky of St Louis University in Missouri, who led the original study, says that Zhao took samples from a part of the rock already known to be much younger than the main part of the ophiolite. But several attendees at the meeting said they found Zhao's data convincing. If true, it would pull the earliest evidence for ophiolites at least half a billion years towards the present, leaving the Archaean an ophiolite-free zone.

The Chinese ophiolite isn't the only evidence that is getting fresh scrutiny. For a while two independent groups have been quietly warring over the significance of a pile of ancient zircons from the Jack Hills region of Western Australia. The zircons are crystals that formed in the Hadean and later became incorporated into younger rocks.

Last year in Science, geochemist Mark Harrison of the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues used the Jack Hills zircons to argue that continental crust was present 4.4 billion to 4.5 billion years ago. The evidence comes in the form of hafnium isotope ratios in the zircon crystals, which preserve signals of the lighter minerals typical of continental crust. The data also suggest, Harrison argues, that that crust was being recycled down into the mantle by 4.4 billion years ago — perhaps though a process similar to plate tectonics.

Simon Wilde of the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia, isn't so sure. "You have to be very careful with these rocks," he says. Measuring one spot on a crystal, as opposed to another, can yield very different hafnium values that lead to very different interpretations, he says. Wilde argues that the zircons should be interpreted more conservatively — that the evidence points to there being some continental crust, but not plate tectonics and its associated recycling, by 4.4 billion years ago.

Such differences of interpretation make the problem of solving when plate tectonics began extremely difficult. In many cases, data can be interpreted in several completely different ways — all of which may seem valid.

For instance, another Australian geologist presented seemingly convincing evidence that plate tectonics had begun by 3.3 billion years ago in Western Australia, based on the very different histories of two sections of an ancient rock formation called the Pilbara. Hugh Smithies of the Geological Survey of Western Australia says that the eastern part of the Pilbara, between 3.5 billion and 3.2 billion years old, "shows no clear evidence for modern-style plate tectonics". It contains some geochemical markers that suggest subduction, but they could just as easily be explained by hot upwellings of rock known as mantle plumes or other non-tectonic phenomena.

In contrast, looking at the western part of the Pilbara — which is 3.3 billion to 3.0 billion years old — Smithies sees plenty of evidence for plate tectonics. There are geochemical signatures that cannot be explained by other factors, and the rocks show features that hint that plates had interacted along their edges. Smithies thinks the western Pilbara contains the remains of an oceanic arc — the sort of line of islands, such as the Aleutians of Alaska, that are characteristic of some oceanic subduction zones.

But then along came Julian Pearce of Cardiff University in Wales, who argued that each of the geochemical markers in the western Pilbara can be explained by other phenomena, such as magmas with an unusual amount of water in them, or crustal material from different places getting mixed up. The various researchers are hoping to settle the matter with a field trip. An excursion is already planned for next year, to re-examine the evidence for plate tectonics in the western Pilbara. [...]

Meeting organizers polled the attendees twice on when they thought plate tectonics began. At the beginning of the meeting, guesses were spread over more than 3 billion years of Earth history. At the end, a closing ballot showed that many had begun to push their thinking further back into the past; a majority of attendees voted for plate tectonics having started between 3 billion and 4 billion years ago.

Kent Condie, one of the meeting organizers, calls that a success. "We've got a majority favouring a definition and approach," says Condie, of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, New Mexico. "Sure, there will be a minority point of view."

At the conference, that minority pretty much constituted Stern. By the end of the meeting, he remained the one person voting for a start to plate tectonics at 1 billion years ago. "It's not a simple question," he maintains. And on that, at least, others agree.

Michael Brown, a geologist at the university of Maryland in College Park, doesn't endorse Stern's late start. But he does think that the nature of plate tectonics changed around that time. In a paper in press in Geology, Brown suggests that there have been two styles of plate tectonics: the modern kind that we see today, and an earlier version that lasted from about 2.7 billion to 700 million years ago. Evidence for the earlier style, he says, comes from minerals that are typical of higher-temperature, lower-pressure environments; these suggest a hotter Earth where plates did not subduct beneath each other to great depths and pressures. Minerals characteristic of high-pressure environments typify the later style. The properties of these minerals suggest to him that true plate tectonics, in which one plate subducts deeply beneath another, did not begin until about 700 million years ago.

And there is a possible further complication. Geophysicist Paul Silver, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, raised the notion that plate tectonics may have started and stopped several times during Earth's history. This is also an idea that Stern is comfortable with — he uses it to explain the presence of a small number of ophiolites about 2 billion years ago.

An 'intermittent approach' would be a wonderful way to reconcile things — but it takes geology even further from the comforting realm of uniformitarianism, into a world where the most basic principles come and go in fits and starts.

Those are intriguing theories. I wonder if that, once started, must plate tectonics take place uniterrupted? Or could it have progressed in fits and starts? Also, how could the style of tectonics have changed, and what triggered such a change (perhaps the earth's interior cooled enough)? I would guess that once it began in one place, it spread rapidly, and has been operating continuous ly ever since.

The principle of uniformitarianism is not a geologic law. It simply provides a path to understanding geological processes. Not every past geologic occurrence is expected to have an exact analog in the present. The idea of an asteroid wiping out the dinosauers is outside of uniformitarianism; it falls into the older, largely discredited theory of catastrophism, but is largely accepted (I have my doubts).

What caused N. Korea's premier missle to fizzle?

No one knows for sure, but this piece from Nature news offers plenty of speculation. The bad news is that the missle got as far as it did, and that whatever glitches occured are fixable:
Last week's fiery crash of North Korea's Taepodong-2 missile has left arms control experts theorizing about what went wrong.

The Taepodong-2 is North Korea's latest missile design. It is believed to be capable of reaching Alaska or the western United States and has been a source of anxiety for US officials who claimed that, if necessary, they would use their own missile defence system to down a test flight.

But that turned out to be unnecessary. Just 42 seconds after its 4 July launch, the missile plunged into the Sea of Japan, according to US, South Korean and Japanese intelligence. Much of what is known about the failed launch remains shrouded in secrecy, but the length of the flight indicates that the rocket's massive first stage fired correctly and that the guidance systems were initially operational, according to Jonathan McDowell, an expert on space launches who works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It's very hard to get this far," he says.

The failure appeared to take place at the moment rocket designers call 'maximum q', when a rocket feels the greatest aerodynamic forces.

The first stage had probably not finished firing by the time of the crash, says Charles Vick, a senior analyst with globalsecurity.org, a non-profit defence analysis group based in Alexandria, Virginia. But he suspects the fault lay elsewhere.

Vick says he has seen reports that something fell from the rocket immediately after take-off. He thinks that part of the final, third stage may have pulled loose when under maximum strain, and struck the body of the rocket. "Something came crashing down, and that's when all hell broke loose," Vick hypothesizes. After that, "it was a wild ride."

That 'something' may have been a shroud covering a small satellite that the North Koreans intended to put into orbit, Vick says. Such a problem would be relatively easy to fix, he notes. "If the shroud is the problem, we could see another flight within a year or less."

But other types of failure are just as likely, says McDowell. For example, the steering mechanisms might not have been strong enough to guide the rocket at maximum q, or a software or guidance glitch might have caused the crash. If the latter were true, he says: "They could fly it again in a few months."

McDowell adds that regardless of the specifics of the failure, the 42-second flight shows that the North Koreans are indeed skilled at rocketry. Most launch failures occur within the first few seconds after lift-off, he says. During the early days of the US programme, says McDowell, a 40-second flight would have been described as a 'partial success'.

Brussels puts the muscle on Switzerland

Switzerland is the land of the referendum. Don't like a government decision? Gather enough signatures and let the nation decide the matter.

The latest referendum has to do with an attempted shakedown by the EU. Brussels wants Switzerland to pay about $800 million to the newest members of the EU as part of a "cohesion" fund. Of course, such a donation is termed voluntary, but not paying it will bring problems down the line when bilateral trade agreements are negotiated.
Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, had pledged to pay SFr1 billion ($814 million) into the Union's so-called cohesion fund, as part of an agreement on a second round of bilateral accords with the organisation.The contribution, which would be paid over five years, will go to the EU's ten newest member states – most of them in eastern Europe - to help them develop economically and socially.

The contribution, which would be paid over five years, will go to the EU's ten newest member states – most of them in eastern Europe - to help them develop economically and socially.

Always some appeal to social factors in a EU proposal. Perhaps the newest EU members need to be pulled back from their attraction to the US.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The bigger the dinosaur, the hotter its blood

It seems dinos were cold-blooded, but the biggest ones conserved their heat so well that they didn't have to lie for hours in the sun each day just to get going.
The debate over whether dinosaurs were cold-blooded like modern reptiles, or warm-blooded like us, may finally have been settled. According to some elegant biophysics, they were both – depending on how big they were.

Dinosaurs were built like reptiles, so scientists originally assumed they were “cold-blooded”, seeking or avoiding sunlight to control their temperature as modern reptiles do.

But more recently, details of dinosaur anatomy have led some to argue that they actively regulated their temperature, as mammals do. But other researchers contend that dinosaurs did not actively regulate temperature, but lost the heat generated by their metabolism so slowly that they stayed warm anyway.

Now Jamie Gillooly and colleagues at the University of Florida at Gainesville, US, say both the first and last groups may be right.

The speed at which certain crucial biochemical reactions common to all life take place depends on temperature. Gillooly’s team found that this relationship means that a few constant values, arranged in a simple equation, can describe the relationship between temperature, metabolic or growth rate, and body mass. And the equation works across a very wide range of creatures – from plankton to blue whales.

They decided to apply their equation to eight species of dinosaurs, ranging in size from 12 kilograms to 13 tonnes. To do so, they needed information on growth rates – measured by other researchers from the annual rings seen in dinosaur bones – and body mass estimates at different ages. According to their equation, the body mass during maximum growth, combined with the growth rate, can be used to calculate temperature.

And it turns out that the bigger the dinosaur, the hotter it was. The smaller species were indeed like modern reptiles, with body temperatures around 25°C – the ambient environmental temperature for their era.

But as dinosaurs got bigger, and the ratio of their surface area to their volume fell, they became less efficient at dissipating metabolic heat – especially as they surpassed 600 kg. The 13-tonne Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus) reached 41°C. This is pretty hot compared to humans, at a mere 37°C.

In crucial support of the researchers' ideas, 11 species of the modern crocodile family, ranging from 32 kg to 1000 kg, exactly fit the curve charting the relationship between size and temperature in the dinosaurs.

Extrapolating the curve to the biggest dinosaur, Sauroposeidon, gives a body temperature of 48°C – the limit at which normal tissue begins to break down. This suggests the upper size limit on dinosaurs was decided by body temperature.

Gillooly says his team's conclusions suggest that juvenile Apatosaurus had body temperatures 20°C less than their parents. So while young dinosaurs sunbathed like modern lizards, ”perhaps the larger dinosaurs needed to seek out water or shade to cool off", he told New Scientist.

Gillooly hopes this modelling approach “could reveal aspects of the life of dinosaurs which might be tested using fossils".

In depth report on cyclists doping

Der Speigel reports on the Spanish doping scandal that has claimed two top favorites in the Tour de France.

The story is long but goes into quite a bit of detail:
For years Spain has been considered a paradise for athletes open to doping. A 500-page investigative report describes the network surrounding Madrid sports doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. [...]

[In the raid] [t]he police seized more than a hundred 450-milliter (approx. one pint) bags of blood, growth hormones, anabolic steroids and EPO -- in short, a full assortment of the tools of performance enhancement in sports. [....]
The story notes that until recently sponsors just didn't want to know about doping. Thankfully that is changing.

In other news, the Tour de France enters the Pyrenees today. Tomorrow finds 5 major climbs. Expect a major shake-out of the leaders.

A post-mortem on the World Cup

Verdict: Germany rocks. I certainly had a great time in Dortmund for the Swiss-Togo match, and it seems just about everyone came away from Germany with good memories and a new attitude toward Germans.

None of what so worried Germany in the run up came to pass. No terror attacks, no racist attacks on fans. The skin-head promise to turn the WM into a propoganda windfall turned out to be just hot air. Germany, by having numerous open air parties, confronted the threat of hooliganism head on.

From Der Spiegel (internal link in original):

England fans supporting the German team? Berlin policemen stroking puppies? Smiling shop assistants? Germany's image has changed over the last four weeks of the World Cup, which will be remembered more for the summer carnivalatmosphere and great organization than the football -- apart from David Beckham's vomiting and Zinedine Zidane's headbutt.

You know something seismic has happened when England fans who came to Germany with inflatable Spitfires singing " 10 German Bombers" suddenly start supporting the German national team.

That is unbelievable. In previous England-Germany matchups English fans were fond of shouting "Stand up if you've won a war."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair pointed out this unprecedented phenomenon in an opinion piece for Sunday's Bild am Sonntag newspaper, and declared: "The old clichés have been replaced by a new, positive and more fair image of Germany."

The 2006 World Cup host appears to have pulled off a coup no one had thought possible before the tournament began: a fundamental rebranding of Germany, a shift in the world's view of the nation from dour and humorless to fun-loving and friendly. [....]

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

North Korea sparks war (of words) between allies

North Korea's missles may have fizzled, but the strategy behind the launch was successful: rip a hole in the negotiating team. The launch has led to bickering and recriminations, and may yet lead to the collapse of a unified strategy on the part of the nations seeking to negotiate with North Korea:
Soon after North Korea started launching missiles in the predawn hours last Wednesday, Japan's television networks interrupted their regular programming to broadcast the news and the government's quick response.

By contrast, with the South Korean government refraining from commenting, networks here continued their World Cup soccer coverage until Italy beat Germany around 6:40 a.m.

On Sunday, the office of the South Korean president issued a statement - its first since the launchings - saying that overreacting to the tests would only heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

"There is no reason to fuss over this from the break of dawn like Japan," the statement read.

On Monday, Japanese officials called South Korea's comments "regrettable" and said it wasn't "creating a big fuss."

Even as Christopher Hill, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, crisscrossed this region stressing the importance of speaking with one voice against North Korea's missile tests, South Korea and Japan, America's two allies, were bickering.

The launchings have underscored how much North Korea has transformed South Korea and Japan in recent years, with each heading in opposite directions.

As South Korea has engaged North Korea and begun reconciling, the process has reshaped its image of the North and complicated its relationship with the United States.

Japan - which began shaking off its postwar pacifism after North Korea fired a long-range missile over its territory in 1998 - has led the campaign to punish Pyongyang for the tests. In the past two days, Japanese government officials have openly begun talking about whether Japan should acquire the military capability for pre-emptive strikes.

"South Korea and Japan are strategically interpreting information to further political goals," said Lee Geun, professor of international relations at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at Kyushu University in Japan. "South Korea is minimizing the threat to manage the hawkish reaction from the United States and Japan. Japan is exaggerating the threat in order to pursue the goals of strengthening its self-defense forces and the U.S.-Japan alliance."

As in 1994, when North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire," trouble with their northern cousins used to send panicked South Koreans scurrying to supermarkets to buy up bottles of water and instant noodles. But since the launchings Wednesday, the Korean Supermarket Alliance, with 4,000 members nationwide, and Emart, the country's biggest discount retailer, have reported no hoarding, no spike in sales of instant noodles, no effect at all.

Or consider the two young South Koreans sitting outside on a bench, Chun Kwon Mi, 27, and Kim Chung Nam, 30, who when asked about their reaction to the launchings a full four days later responded with blank stares.

"They fired?" asked Chun, who works in online shopping.

Kim, a construction worker, had not heard about any missiles either. "We never talked about it at work," he said.

Reconciliation with the North began in earnest after the former president, Kim Dae Jung, met the leader of the North, Kim Jong Il, during a historic meeting in Pyongyang in June 2000. Since then, South Korea under President Roh Moo Hyun has pursued a policy of engaging - or, say critics, coddling - the North, so that it is now its second- biggest trading partner and aid donor. Thousands of South Koreans travel to the North each month for tourism or business reasons, or on exchanges.

For South Koreans - educated during the Cold War to hold the North as the mortal enemy - North Koreans are now considered long-lost brethren, objects of pity, source of kitsch, or targets of ridicule - but rarely enemies.
There must be some psychological effect from being under a potential enemy's guns for long periods of time. Beginning in the 70s, Europe became convinced that they had little to fear from the Warsaw Pact, feeling that if only the US would stop provoking the Russian Bear everything would turn out fine. Now South Korea seems to have fallen into the same mindset.

Is it time to coin a new term loosely analoguous to "Stockholm Snydrome", but would include the whole nation? Something about believing the lion could lie down with the lamb and both would awake the next morning.
"They weren't firing at us," Nam Chul, a welder, 44, said of the launchings. "Theywere firing at the United States and Japan. For North Korea, this is almost like their own home, so why should they fire at us?"

The collapse of the Soviet Union and then of the North Korean economy shattered the image of North Koreans, in the eyes of many South Koreans, as fierce enemies.

Roh Shin Woong, 26, served for three years in the South Korean military, mostly along the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, dividing the two Koreas. "Before I joined the military, I used to fear and hate North Korea," Roh said.

But peering through binoculars at North Korean soldiers on the other side of the DMZ, Roh saw them collecting firewood for heating, and barley and vegetables to feed themselves. "We just had rations delivered to us," he said.

"I don't think North Korea would ever attack us," he added. "Maybe that's why I don't feel these missile tests have anything to do with me."

Older South Koreans with memories tend to be more distrustful of the North, but their fear, too, has decreased.

"In general, we've become too relaxed toward North Korea," said Kang Min Chung, an elderly woman on a bus seat. But, she added, "because my generation went through the Korea War, I'd still like to stay close to the United States."

Indeed, South Korea's engagement policy has created friction with the Bush administration, which has preferred trying to isolate the North and force it to collapse. Experts say North Korea is likely to become a long-term strain in the alliance between the United States and South Korea since a consensus has formed here that conflict should be avoided at all costs, and that engagement is the only way to safeguard peace on the peninsula.

US reverses policy on military detainee protection

About time. Whether or not the detainees meet the status of those protected under the Geneva Conventions is beside the point. What's important is that this is how the US should treat all those captured. No distinctions should be made as to the circumstances of the capture or the detainee. Not only will this decision remove a frequent target of international criticism, but it is more in line with what America stands for.

From the Financial Times:
The Pentagon has decided in a major policy shift that all detainees held in US military custody around the world are entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions, according to two people familiar with the move.

The FT has learned that Gordon England, deputy defence secretary, sent a memo to senior defence officials and military officers last Friday, telling them that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions – which prohibits inhumane treatment of prisoners and requires certain basic legal rights at trial – would apply to all detainees held in US military custody.

This reverses the policy outlined by President George W. Bush in 2002 when he decided members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban did not qualify for Geneva protections because the war on terrorism had ushered in a “new paradigm…[that] requires new thinking in the law of war”. [...]

“This memo was a prudent and responsible thing to do,” said a former Bush administration official with knowledge of the memo.

“Humane treatment is at the centre of the Pentagon’s directives and procedures, but the court’s ruling expanded previous understanding of the applicability of Common Article 3 so this memo was an important next step. It is now up to Congress to provide statutory clarity if possible.”

The move, which comes as Mr Bush gets ready to leave Washington for the G8 summit in Russia, is likely to be well received by his allies, including the UK, who have been very critical of Guantanamo Bay. [...]

While the Pentagon order applies to all detainees held by the US military, it does not
apply to prisoners held outside the military detention system, such as Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks who is being held in a secret Central Intelligence Agency prison. But the Pentagon move could increase pressure on the administration to re-examine CIA detention policies and practices. [....]
Anyone detained by the US should receive the basic protections afforded by the Geneva Conventions. It matters not that a detainee is in a CIA prison.