Archive for November, 2007

A good word for termites

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Today, we learn that termites may be able to produce biofuel or at least the microorganisms that allow them to digest wood can do so. Most higher life forms that are able to convert cellulose to energy, do so through the activity of bacteria in their gut. This is not confined to cows chewing their cud. Here is a primer on the comparative anatomy of the gut in vertebrates. Cellulose is digested only by microorganisms. That is why herbivores have a large cecum, the dilated segment of the colon where the small bowel enters. Our cecum has shrunk and left a remnant, the appendix. We may have evolved from herbivores.What about insects ? This may be more than you wanted to know about it, but insects are also dependent on microorganisms for digestion of cellulose. The future of biotechnology is probably congruent with the future of science, certainly those areas that concern energy side from nuclear power.

Russia chooses Fascism

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

Developments in Russia, the latest being the arrest of opposition leader Gary Kasparov , suggest that Putin is becoming less patient with the trappings of democracy. Reports of the growing trend have been coming for several years. Kasparov, a former chess champion, has been trying to build an opposition but the latest news suggests his task is becoming too difficult. Elections are unlikely to be fair and Putin is using Russia’s oil wealth to regain its empire. Potential leaders of breakaway republics are being killed as brazenly as though it were Lebanon. This article from 2005 points out the role played by oil revenue in the Russian economy and that was before prices rose by nearly 100% since 2005. Not everyone agrees with Putin’s policies, as another 2005 article points out. Still, Putin seems to be choosing the authoritaran route.

Why do I call this fascism ? The word has been thrown around in the past 50 years, usually as an epithet directed at conservative politicians and coming from the left. In fact, what is the definition of Fascism ? This is from the Wikipedia article and isn’t a bad description:

“Fascists accused parliamentary democracy of producing division and decline, and wished to renew the nation from decadence. They viewed the state as an organic entity in a positive light rather than as an institution designed to protect individual rights, or as one that should be held in check. Fascism universally dismissed the Marxist concept of “class struggle”, replacing it instead with the concept of “class collaboration”. Fascists embraced nationalism and mysticism, advancing ideals of strength and power as means of legitimacy. These ideas are in direct opposition to the liberal ideals of humanism and rationalism characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment.”

I propose that many of these features can be seen in present day Russia. They seem to have chosen this path and, President Vladimir V. Putin’s economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, “recently coined the term “Venezuelaization” to describe the fate he fears awaits Russia’s economy. “Today we decided to join the Third World,” he told reporters last December, following the controversial renationalization of the core production subsidiary of oil giant Yukos. The growing role of the state in Russia’s oil sector adds to the risk of economic mismanagement. ” Oil revenues have nearly doubled since then and Putin grows bolder as the arrest of Kasparov shows.

What does this mean for the US ? High oil prices mean more money for Putin’s regime. Germany and Italy were poor countries when they adopted Fascism. We have never before seen a rich country adopt Fascism but Russia’s riches are not evenly distributed. Now, Putin has both an imperial interest and a monetary interest in keeping the US on the defensive in the middle east. The Russians were actively helping Saddam Hussein before the war and may have shipped the missing WMD to Syria. They are now assisting the Iranians with their nuclear program. They are acting in what Putin sees as their national interest. We need an active program to reduce our dependence on oil and imported natural gas. That is in our national interest. Building nuclear power plants in every state would be a start.

Evidence that we are learning in Iraq

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

John Boyd was a flamboyant fighter pilot (Known as “40 second Boyd” for the time it took him to get on an opponent’s tail in combat) who changed the way the military adapts to combat lessons. His life has been the subject of several books and he became the center of an intense group of Pentagon acolytes. His influence extands far beyond the US military, as can be seen in that list of references. He is credited with the design concept for the F16 fighter, for example. Before his efforts were successful, Air Force fighters were getting progressively heavier and less maneuverable. They had become fighter-bombers but they were at risk in combat with the lighter Soviet fighters. He changed that with the emphasis on thrust-weight ratios. The F-16 is a huge engine with a pilot sitting on top.

His far more important innovation is called the “OODA Loop.” Military strategy is now focused on “getting inside the enemy’s decision cycle.” Adapting to the changing situation is another way of saying the same thing. Boyd’s loop consists of Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The end of each cycle is immediately followed by another, and so on until the end of the problem is reached. That point may consist of shooting down the enemy aircraft or winning the War on Terror. Military officers often state the problem as “The enemy has a vote, too.”

The war in Iraq has been a long series of decision cycles. War opponents seem to lack the willingness to acknowledge this fact or are ignorant of the entire process. Even the New York Times, which seems to be accepting the new circumstances, describes the process today. The theoretical concept seems to be beyond them but it can be found in the article if one can ignore the occasional snarky asides. Our strategy is changing as circumstances change. The Times comments that this conflicts with the recommendations of Colonel John Nagl but I don’t believe that is true. This article in Mother Jones magazine, hardly a supporter of the war or the military, shows his ideas. Petraeus has to get the swamp drained before he can implement a long term plan for the next war but Nagl is right and has the ear of Petraeus.

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

My turkey is in the oven but I thought I would provide a few pictures of wild turkeys in southern Arizona. These were taken at my sister-in-law’s family ranch south of Tucson.

The wild turkey tom

This tom turkey has his harem of nine hens trailing behind him. I was warned not to get too close as he can be quite aggressive but he seemed to tolerate me.

The flock crosses the meadow.

The flock crossed the creek at a narrow spot and started across the meadow.


Here they head off to the north feeding, with the tom on the alert for danger.

the ranchhouse

The ranchhouse sits on a low hill with a magnificent view to the east.

Ranch house close

The house is larger than it looks from a distance. A porch provides a gorgeous view.

The girls sit on the porch

Here, Annie and her friend Sammie, sit with Cindy on the ranchhouse porch. Have a great holiday everyone. We all have a lot to be thankful for.

Another restoration story

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

This is the story of the restoration of a classic wooden yacht. Fiberglass is easier as the hull is almost always sound. Still, restorations of old yachts are heartwarming stories for those of us who love messing around in boats.

The Bush foreign policy ten years from now.

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

The London Times looks at the Bush foreign policy and finds that it is far more conventional than usually acknowledged. With one exception, it has been multilateral and based on diplomacy. The only exception, Iraq, is the only part that will be seen as successful in years to come. The conclusion ?

The bungled road to a democratic Iraq has been far too bloody but it’s now perfectly sensible to believe that Bush’s pre-emptive war may have sown the seeds for what could be the least troubled nation of the region in a decade’s time. The multilateral approach to Iran may leave us with a nuclear-armed Tehran terrorising Israel and holding the world to ransom over oil supplies.

I think that is about right.

The history of the Cal 40

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

I have been working on a history of the Cal 40, the first fiberglass sailboat that was a successful racer. In 1963, racing sailboats were custom boats built generally in wood and affordable only for wealthy men, and a few women. That year, a new boat appeared which, for the next nine years, dominated racing, especially offshore racing in which men and their boats matched themselves against the sea. One design racing had been popular since the Star class was organized in 1912. The Star is still popular but it is not intended to go offshore or to race long distances. It is a daysailer and the courses for the races are inshore and usually a closed course. Class racing is based on a design rule in which boats are intended to be as nearly identical as possible. The Cal 40 was different. For one thing, it cost $17,000 dollars. That was a sail budget for one of the custom boats.

Illusion finishing the 2003 Transpac

“The following is from an article that appeared in Sailing Magazine:
When the selection committee of the American Sailboat Hall of Fame considered boats for induction this year, one boat was an instant consensus pick. No question, no argument, no doubt. No wonder–it was the Cal 40, the boat that changed everything.

When I assigned a young staff member to write a profile of the Cal 40 and told him that when it was introduced in 1963 it was considered a radical and possibly dangerous racing design, he gave me one of those “jeez, he’s lost it” looks. I couldn’t blame him. The Cal 40 doesn’t have the predatory look of today’s ocean racers, no angles, sharp edges or towering fractional rig. But, make no mistake, it was a predator, one that preyed on conventional thinking.

The Cal 40’s gently dipping sheerline, curve spoon-bow, counter stem and squatty sailplan gave it a deceivingly soft appearance. But there was nothing soft below the waterline. In an era of wineglass-shaped hulls with deep, stack bilges, the Cal 40 had a shallow dinghy-like hull with firm cheeks. The keel was a fin. The rudder-gasp!-was not attached to the keel, and this was heresy.

Conventional wisdom made the rudder a hinged extension of the keel. On the Cal 40 it was a freestanding spade at the end of the waterline. What it did back there was to give the helmsman exquisite control of the boat, particularly in fast off-wind sailing. Perhaps the reason it had not appeared earlier on big boats was that offshore boats of the time were rarely in danger of going fast enough to need a spade rudder.

The Cal 40 needed it. While other displacement boats were at the mercy of the law of hull speed, the Cal 40 thumbed its nose at it. The shape of the hull and its appendages combined with relatively light weight gave the boat the ability to get up on the waves and surf. Sailing 40-foot boat had never been so thrilling. Just how thrilling was evident in a photo that appeared on the cover of a new magazine called SAILING in 1969. Our covers weren’t glossy then; they weren’t even printed in color. But the cover, featuring the Cal 40 Melee, is still one of my favorites.

The boat, embraced in great plumes of pure white spray, is locked onto an enormous wave, surfing to the finish of the Miami-Nassau Race. Though the wind is so strong the boat is carrying a poled-out genoa instead of a spinnaker, the three visible crew members look nonchalant as they enjoy the ride of their lives on a boat that is in perfect control.

Melee finishing Montego Bay Race 1969

Sailors like to cultivate a swashbuckling image, but as an establishment they tend to be conservative. And so when the Cal 40 appeared it was ridiculed as some sort of wacky California take on sailboat design and criticized as unseaworthy. The rudder would break off; the keel would drop off; the hull would fail.

None of that happened; there was no chance of it happening. The Cal 40 was a carefully engineered, strongly built fiberglass yacht. It was only somewhat lighter than other 40-footers but the difference was accentuated by its long waterline, which yielded a displacement/length ratio of 250 at a time when the norm was more like 330.

The boat was thought of as a downwind machine, but in fact it was an all-around boat, fast on any point of sail. The best indication of that is that Cal 40s won both the Transpac Race, mostly a surfing contest, and the Bermuda Race, usually an upwind slog. In the 1966 Bermuda Race, five of the first 15 places overall were won by Cal 40s. Cal 40s won three consecutive Transpacs in 1965, ’66 and ’67. Incredibly, 22 years after it was designed, a Cal 40 won the 1985 Transpac.

No production boat has ever dominated racing the way the Cal 40 did, yet it would be wrong to classify it as a pure racer. Classify it instead as, simply, a good boat. Long after its racing heyday, the Cal 40 delights its owners as a safe, comfortable, easy-to-handle offshore cruising boat.

The Cal 40 was not chosen for the Hall of Fame because of its racing record. It was chosen because it propelled big-boat sailing to the future. Sailboat design was progressing in microscopic increments until the Cal 40 took it on a great leap forward. It leapt so far that today’s fastest racing boats are refined Cal 40s with fin keels, spade rudders and shallow hulls, free of rule induced distortions. They are far more sophisticated in many ways than the Cal 40, but you could say that, essentially, they were designed 33 years ago.

The designer of the Cal 40 is Bill Lapworth. His creation now has a place in the American Sailboat Hall of Fame and he, retired and living in Virginia, has, in the minds of knowing sailors at least, a place in the pantheon of the world’s most influential sailboat designers. There are some revered names in that group, but Lapworth may be the only one about whom it can be said — he changed everything.

— Bill Schanen
Editor and Publisher, Sailing Magazine”

These boats were so successful that, in 1972, the Ocean Racing Rule was changed and the Cal 40 was no longer competitive. Over the next ten years, the racing world returned to the realm of the rich man who could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on boats that were uncomfortable, unsuitable for anything but racing and quickly obsolete as the designers found new loopholes in the Rule. This trend culminated in the disaster of the 1979 Fastnet Race, in which unstable boats were “caught out” in a severe storm in the English Channel. The result was the loss of boats and lives. Olin Stephens, a famous designer who had a hand in the rule change in 1972, later said that they had made a mistake in the new rule. The material that boats were made of had changed from wood, which was well understood from centuries of experience, to new materials. As a result, the rule had not taken sufficient notice of the “scantlings” factor. How strong was the hull and what the limits of design stability were in this new material. Stephens regrets that they did not consider this factor more carefully.

The Cal 40 was built, not only to win races, but to carry the crew in safety and relative comfort. Now, 40 years later, they are still sailing and still winning races. Ironically, Stephens, himself, at the age of 90, recently awarded a trophy to a 40-year-old Cal 40 for winning modern races competing against modern designs.

I will post the story of the restoration of my own Cal 40 on a separate page of this blog.

A Skirmish in the Drug War

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

I drove to Tucson last night with Annie, my daughter, and Sammie, a school friend. We could not leave until the girls had finished the school day. It was a full day because the school was giving them today, the day before Thanksgiving, off completely. We got started about 4 PM. Traffic was starting to get heavy and it was slow going through San Diego. The shortest and fastest route to Tucson from Mission Viejo is down I-5 to I-8 and then east until I-8 intersects with I-10, about 60 miles west of Tucson. The whole trip is about 450 miles and takes us about 7 to 8 hours, usually. I fly most of the time but there were three of us (I would not let Annie drive through the desert at night without an adult), and she wanted her car for the five day holiday.

About 25 miles into Arizona, and about 250 from Tucson, there is a permanent Border Patrol check point. I’ve been through it 50 or 100 times, usually driving the car we were in, a Chevy Trailbrazer (My wife’s car). We’ve always been waived through until last night. Last night there was only one other car waiting (unusual) and the agents had a drug sniffing dog there. I don’t think I’ve seen that before. Anyway, Annie was driving, and after they had asked us where we were born, she started to put the window up and drive on. The agent stopped her and told us to pull into the inspection area. From there, it descended into farce.

They told us to get out of the car and ordered us to walk about 30 feet away and stand in a certain area. Then they took the dog into the car where it rummaged around inside. I asked the officer (They were all about 25 years old) what was going on. He told us that the dog had signaled drugs in our car. I said, “We have dogs. Maybe he smelled them.” The stern faced stocky woman with the dog, gave me her game face and said, “Our dog is trained only to recognize cocaine, heroin or marijuana.” I thought that was a bit of crap but, if she wanted to find out for herself, it was OK with me. After an obviously fruitless serach of the car, the woman came over and ordered Sammie, Annie’s friend to go with her behind the building and, I later found out, grilled her about where the narcotics were in the car. Sammie is pretty innocent. She is the girl whose parents were both killed in a car crash about eight years ago, when she was nine and her sister was six. They are being raised by her Iranian-born grandparents and other family members. She said, “What are narcotics ?” She didn’t know. Annie has the street smarts for both of them. After a while, the woman brought Sammie back and took Annie around behind the building , where she got the same treatment. After they brought her back, another agent (Who looked the youngest of the bunch) came over and again asked us where we were born, and who owned the car, etc. Cleverly, he was testing us to see if we had forgotten our previous answers. Finally, with obvious disappointment, they let us go.

Another day in the unceasing war or drugs; and on common sense. I was going to suggest that their dog needed a nose job but figured levity was not in order at that moment. Out there in the desert at night surrounded by officers whose average age probably exceeded their IQs, we could have disappeared without a trace. Even Sammie said that she had all she could do to keep from smiling at the third degree she was getting from this woman who was convinced we were big time drug smugglers. Their chance for glory was slipping away from them.

I am not a big fan of the Drug War, but legalization is tricky. Marijuana and heroin could be legalized in some fashion. It is amusing, in a sort of black humor way, to see the frenzied effort to prevent any contact with tobacco while marijuana is tolerated with a wink. Cocaine is another matter, because it produces hyperactivity and paranoia, a bad combination. The present War on Drugs has had some benefit in that it has helped make cocaine use socially unacceptable among law-abiding middle class people. Thirty years ago, I was being asked by patients if there was anything risky about using cocaine. Lots of people were doing it and thought it was innocent fun. It isn’t. Heroin has been the stuff that homeless people use but cocaine was, at that time, considered a recreational substance with little or no real danger. That has changed. The whole drug problem is a product of the 60s and the revolt against all standards of behavior. Theodore Dalrymple has written a new book about the destruction of all standards of conduct. He blames a lot of it on John Stuart Mill, the philosopher who attacked the “Victorian” standards of behavior of his day. Dalrymple, a psychiatrist, attributes to this beginning, the modern dogma that “one man’s opinion is as good as another.” From this, of course, we get all the slippery concepts of ethical relativism. “If it feels good do it.” The end result is a war between standards and license. Unfortunately, as we saw last night, the standards side of the conflict is being waged by the clueless.

Has Castro been running our Cuba policy for 20 years ?

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

The Timmerman book has a lot to say about Ana Montes who is serving 25 years for espionage on behalf of Cuba. She had a long career and, according to Timmerman, was virtually the director of US policy toward Cuba for nearly 20 years. She caused terrible damage to our attempts to spy on Cuba and may have insinuated herself with members of Congress, some of whom are conspicuous in their opposition to US policy. Scott Carmichael, the DIA counterintelligence agent who caught her, has written a book about her career. According to Carmichael and Timmerman, her analyses, written by a Cuban spy, are still being used for policy! As Carmichael says:

Even more astonishing is the fact that not a single product authored or influenced by Montes has been pulled back by the intelligence community.

Recalling products produced by tainted sources is a common practice within the intelligence community after it conducts a damage assessment. It happened after Russian spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen were caught, and it happened on a more limited basis after an Iraqi source known as CURVEBALL, who was controlled by German intelligence, was later found to be psychologically unstable.

But the U.S. intelligence community continues to base essential judgments on Cuba on products written by convicted Cuban spy Ana Belen Montes, despite a sweeping damage assessment carried out in the months following her arrest and sentencing.

“I don’t believe that any of her products have been pulled,” Carmichael said. This is simply amazing. Our Cuba policy is still being determined by the reports and advice of a confessed and convicted Cuban spy. Some in Congress, especially Senator Chris Dodd seem determined to battle US policy and to attack those who might change it. Why would they choose the interests of Cuba over their own country ? From the CNN report: “The other Democrats followed Dodd’s lead in dwelling on a 2002 speech by Bolton alleging Cuba’s development of germ warfare for export to rogue nations. The link to the U.N. was that another exaggerated weapons-of-mass-destruction claim would further undermine U.S. credibility there.

However, Dodd was following his regular practice of attacking anti-Castro officials, having barred Senate confirmation of Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and driven him from the government.

I have no explanation, although some have their own theories. John Bolton’s nomination to the UN Ambassador position was probably torpedoed by a Cuban spy. No doubt Castro awarded her another medal.

Chalabi and De Gaulle

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Ahmed Chalabi is widely hated on the left and blamed for us getting into the Iraq War. Reports of his death, however, have been greatly exaggerated. When the LA Times prints a story with “Chalabi” and “power” in the title, you know that has to hurt. Of course, the story stimulated the usual slanders. Kenneth Timmerman’s book points out that INC funding went mostly to contractors chosen by the State Department and CIA and who had little interest in INC priorities. Today, Hugh Hewitt interviewed Chalabi on his radio show. Chalabi, as might be expected from the treatment he received from Paul Bremer and the US State Department has little love left for the Bush administration.

Listening to the interview driving home, I was struck by the parallel with De Gaulle in WWII. Like Chalabi, De Gaulle was hated by State Department functionaries who preferred to deal with Vichy. De Gaulle was considered an egotist with touchy pride and a sense of his own power far out of proportion to the small band of exiles he commanded. Like Chalabi, he was disdained as “a fighter from a comfortable flat in Mayfair.” When the Allies landed in North Africa, Roosevelt dismissed De Gaulle as a poseur with no real power. The Vichy officers in Morrocco hated De Gaulle and Roosevelt sought another officer to try to avoid combat with the French military in Casablanca. Admiral Darlan was conveniently available and was enlisted to deal with Vichy officers. De Gaulle was snubbed then, and later at the Casablanca Conference. His only role was to shake hands in a public photo with another Vichy officer, General Giraud. The result was an enduring hostility that need not have been. In the 1960s, De Gaulle expelled NATO from France and asserted French independence in foreign policy. Chalabi already shows a similar willingness to thwart the wishes of a nation he was prepared to be grateful to; if only we had treated him fairly. Like De Gaulle, Chalabi has shown an inconvenient ability to rise in his liberated nation and will remember his treatment.