All’s fair in love and war

Natural gas exports to Europe account for a major proportion of Russian export income.

Russia has quarreled continually with Ukraine over the price of gas, leading to a showdown in the winter of 2009 during which supplies to much of Europe were cut off.  They have recently almost doubled the price of natural gas to Ukraine, effectively declaring an economic war on a country they hypocritically call a “Slavic Brother.”

Russia exports its natural gas to Europe through Ukraine and the Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic Sea.  They built Nord Stream to end their dependence on Ukraine.

Nord Stream is 1220 kilometers long, terminating in Germany.  The Baltic Sea is shallow.  For most of its length, the pipeline is at depths a Scuba diver could reach.  Or, perhaps, a Navy Seal.  Perhaps a Navy Seal sapper.  Perhaps without uniforms or insignia, like the insurgents who took over Crimea. 

I would propose that declaring an economic war might not be such a good idea for Russia.  People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and they have been lobbing a lot.  Some might come back.


This is the quiet face of a panic

 The dollar value of the Ukrainian hryvnya, which Yanukovych had propped up at the cost of running the nation’s reserves down to a dangerous level, has fallen by a third.  It is sinking two or three percent per day.  The buy-sell spread, about 3% in normal times, has jumped to 10% (12.20-13.60).  The same has happened with gold; the spread is about 8%.  If you want dollars, you are limited to $1,100 and have to wait forty minutes to get it.

Holding on, hoping for things to improve, is not the best course.  Anybody who has been through a currency crisis knows that currency controls come early.  If you can still get it whatever the cost, take the money and run. 

At some cost to the ruble exchange rate, Putin has destroyed the Ukrainian hryvnya.  He has to look at this as one of the costs of war.  There is no doubt that Russia is at war with Ukraine.  These upstart peasants in “Little Russia” had the effrontry to throw out his hand-picked puppet, Yanukovych.  Moreover, they are even showing signs of wanting a real democracy.  They must be squashed!

Russia has broken its contracts and is demaning an outrageous price for its natural gas.  The Ukrainian government is so far refusing to cave, demanding in exchange at least some compensation for the assets Russia seized in Crimea.  It is not clear whether or not the IMF will come through with a loan, and who would benefit if they did.  It appears that the proceeds would be used to pay off Russia, leaving Ukraine nothing but more debt.  As Russia and Ukraine have shown winter after winter, a Slavic standoff involves both sides digging in, refusing to budge from irrational, unsupportable demands.  It is deja vu all over again.

The rating agencies are betting that Ukraine will default.  Probably a good call, and not a bad idea.  Default by a country like Argentina is an indication of an inability to manage its affairs.  A default by Ukraine is no more than evidence of the extreme pressure placed by Russia, and the thievery of the pro-Russian despots who have controlled the country. 

Even Argentina, despite several defaults over the past three decades, has seemed to be able to find new suckers to buy its national debt.  Ukraine, pushed so forceably into its first default, may not suffer as badly.  Morevoer, given that the whole world order appears on the verge of collapse in the first place, the lack of good credit may not matter.  There may not be money available in any case.

Russia and Ukraine are in something of a game of prisoner’s dilemma.  Russia needs Ukraine to export its gas to Europe.  Europe wants the gas.  If Europe were to support Ukraine, demanding fair prices for all takers including Ukraine, they could have a lot of clout.  Russia has no slack in its budget; it needs the income from gas sales to Europe.  And, it needs Ukraine to transport the gas.  This may be time to growl back at the bear.  It looks like Ukraine may be willing to do just that.  What’s Russia going to do?  Throw them into debtors’ prison? 

If and when the price of gas becomes predictable, Ukraine’s budget can again become somewhat stable.  Maybe then, default or not, they can borrow to meet domestic needs. 

Everywhere in the world, foreign policy toward Ukraine seems to be controlled by domestic political considerations

In the United States the conservatives so much want Obama to fail, that they criticize everything he does.  This of course includes his policy on Ukraine. With regards to potential help from the United States, Ukraine is between a rock and a hard place. Obama does nothing but empty posturing, making himself increasingly a laughingstock.  Many conservative opponents want to send armaments and maybe even troops, which would only get a lot of people – mainly Ukrainians – killed. 

Neither side especially wants to respect the new Ukrainian government.  Several web sites I usually respect, zerohedge, Paul Craig Roberts and Mish Shedlock, put forth the claim that the ouster of Putin’s widely despised puppet, Yanukovych, was illegal.  He wasn’t ousted – he left of his own accord because he had lost the support of the people.  Using Putin’s methods, tools and even people to violently suppress Ukraine’s peaceful demonstrators resulted in the quiet resolve of Maidan that he did not have the strength to face down.

The new government has not yet had time to come together, much less prove itself feckless or powerless.  It is a hodgepodge confederation… It includes the right-wing party, Svoboda, a handful of politicians from the moderate centralist parties, and a few members of splinter groups, militants who came to the fore during Maidan. It also includes some oligarchs whose holdings are in the East, people who have an interest in maintaining some stability there and also have some administrative experience.

Given the corrupt nature of Ukrainian governments for all of the 23 years of its existence, it is entirely natural that every experienced member of the new government is somewhat tainted.  Expecting otherwise would be like expecting a kid raised in the barrios of East Los Angeles to have no experience with gangs, or an old-time politician from the American South (Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond) to have no experience with segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.  There are clear signs that the times are changing.  One can only hope that the politicians will change with them.

Europe’s interest is in keeping Russian gas flowing.  They depend on trade with Russia far more than does America.  Given their exposure, the Europeans, especially the Germans, appear to have been quite brave.  Timing is on their side – it will be seven months until they again need Russian gas for heating.

Russia’s domestic policy interest is quite clear. Putin wants to destabilize Ukraine and exercise an atavistic desire to recreate a Russian Empire by annexing Russian speaking parts of Ukraine.  Claims that he feels a need for buffer states to protect Russia against foreign aggression are far-fetched.  A more real need is to insulate the Russian people from other peoples with freer and richer societies.  The autocratic Putin has been careful to surround himself with similar martinets in Belarus and Kazakhstan.  Russia lost control of the Caucasus, and went to war with Georgia in 2008 to reassert its interests there.  The prospect of a democratic Ukraine, closer, more central to Europe, and with ten times the population of Georgia has to be a bigger threat. 

It appears, however, that Merkel had it right when she observed that Putin has “lost it.”  There is no small element of vainglory in Putin’s aggression.  It stirs the same nationalistic passions as (very temporarily) boosted the standing of Argentina’s dictatorship during the Falklands war.  Domestic politics are certainly key to Putin’s calculations.

Putin uses exactly the same kind of lies about “protecting Russian speakers” to justify meddling in Ukraine’s business that Hitler did about German speakers in the Sudetenland.  Borders have been fluid and Russian speaking populations have lived in Ukraine since the time of the Mongols.  Ukraine was situated in between the Ottoman and Russian empires.  About the time of the American Revolution, Catherine the Great cemented its Russification by founding cities on the lands captured from the Turks.  Changing a population’s language is easier than changing the population itself.  As part of the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union, eastern Ukrainians increasingly spoke Russian.  It is still a patchwork – there are pockets of Ukrainian speakers everywhere.

Americans, with Spanish as their frame of reference, are inclined to blow the language issue out of proportion.  Ukraine is a thoroughly bilingual country.  Aside from the border regions, almost everybody speaks both languages adequately.  The two are no more different than Spanish and Portuguese.  Knowing one, it is possible to make sense out of a document written in the other.  I write as a Russian speaker studying Ukrainian that learning to talk and understand the other takes only a bit of practice. 

Educated people in Kiev speak Russian as a matter of convenience.  It is a world language.  Even here more books are published in Russian than Ukrainian.  Serious books, those on business, science and medicine, are overwhelmingly in Russian.  However, to assume that because people want to join Russia just because they speak Russian would be as foolish as to assume that the Irish or the Americans want to join the United Kingdom because English originated there.

While the West may assume that Russophone Ukrainians are pro-Russian, the Russians themselves are under no such illusion. The referendum in Crimea was a complete farce, sprung with only two weeks’ notice, and no opportunity for any sort of electoral campaign.  They presented only two options, neither of which was for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine.   Both the reported turnout and the reported results are higher than would be statistically possible if one assumes that native Ukrainians and Tatars voted their self-interest.  This seems to be the model for the referendums Russia wants to impose in eastern Ukraine as well.  Stalin said “It’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes.” 

The big lie has been part of Russia’s toolkit for more than a century, at least since they annexed a free and unwilling Ukraine in 1922.  The Soviets adorned Kiev with a huge arch dedicated to “Druzhbi Narodi,” or friendship between peoples.  It is also the name of a major boulevard.  But the friendship has never been one of equals, a fact strongly underscored by Putin’s behavior since his protégée/puppet Yanukovych chose to scoot out of town.  Never a great intellect, the exiled Yanukovych gave the lie to Putin’s claims in an April 3 interview.  He confessed to having invited Putin’s soldiers into Crimea, whereas Putin still refuses to acknowledge either that they were soldiers, or Russian.

Putin echoes some of the kinds of ineptitude that brought Yanukovych down.  Yanukovych hired goons from the countryside, his “tituchi,” to foment trouble in Kiev.  They only reinforced the resolve of Kievyans, who scorned and despised them. 

Russia has exploited its long, unprotected border with Ukraine to infiltrate troublemakers such as those who took over government buildings in Kharkiv, Lugansk and Donetsk.  The troublemakers, however, seem at times not up to the task.  They unfurled a sign in Donetsk, the capital of Donbas, proclaiming “Free Dombas.”  It is a spelling error no Ukrainian would make.  In another incident, insurgents were videotaped as they tore down and burned two flags from over a building in Donetsk.  One was the flag of Ukraine, the other – that of the highly popular local soccer team, Shakhtar.  Locals would never have been so stupid.  In yet another incident, insurgents storming government buildings chose – a library.  Any local would have known better.

Ukraine has managed to arrest the 60 insurgents who took over government buildings in Kharkiv.  That leaves only Donetsk and Lugansk.  Ukraine has been highly successful in not rising to Russian provocations, avoiding giving Russia the excuse it so desperately wants to send troops across the border.  It will be interesting to learn the identities of the insurgents. 

The best Ukraine can hope for is that the world continues to pay attention to their plight, and, recognizing the depth of the hole they are trying to climb out of, allows them some time.  Just to be left out of other countries’ domestic political considerations would be the greatest of blessings.

Speculation on why our modern era is not producing profound science, like that of Darwin, Maxwell and Einstein. 

I wrote this essay as an afterthought, after reviewing the delightful book “Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field.

This era does not seem to be generating great scientists such as were evident in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. The names Rutherford and Einstein were on everybody’s lips in the 1950s. There is not a contemporary scientists whom most people could name.

Moreover, the best-known of the contemporary scientists, people like Trivers, Pinker, Kahneman, E.O. Wilson and others are all older men. There does not appear to be a rising generation coming to replace them.

So why is this? I believe that there are several factors.

The nineteenth century England population of 20 million produced more noted scientists than any country before or since: naturalists Charles Darwin and the Huxleys, Spearman and Fisher who founded the field of statistics, Faraday and Maxwell in physics and Davy in chemistry.  Other European countries also did quite well.

Reading their biographies, one is impressed at their varied backgrounds. People came into science not as a career, but as a calling. Faraday came from a blacksmith’s background. Gauss the mathematician from a ditch digger’s family. Lomonosov, the Russian polymath, who rode a sledge filled with fish down from the frozen north to Moscow. These men were not looking for comfortable salaried positions. Quite the contrary, they were driven by a desire to find things out.

Nineteenth century education was much less formal than today’s.  Families did what they could to educate their own children.  They hired tutors if they could afford them, sent kids to one-room schoolhouses in communities that had them, or gave them to schoolmasters who charged what the market would bear to provide an elementary education to neighborhood kids.  It was uneven, sometimes unfair – and by many accounts more effective than the highly regimented government schools that dominate today.  Judging from book sales and library usage in those times, literacy was quite high.

Smart kids in those simple days appear to have had more freedom to pursue their own interests.  They were generally not under pressure to “get an education” to make them employable.  If they came from wealthy families, society would find a place.  No education was necessary for working class jobs.  Gentlemen like Darwin and Huxley were free to dabble in science, and well-positioned mentors were attracted to the demonstrated genius of men like Faraday and Lomonosov.

Children were generally expected to work.  Most families worked on the farm.  In the cities, they might sell newspapers or work as apprentices here or there.  Most kids learned how to work with their hands, and it was not uncommon for a youngster to be exposed to several trades.  Children who did not want to be in school could more easily be somewhere else – helping support the family.  There were no school guidance counsellors working on behalf of parents to push bored kids into choosing some kind of a profession.  Nineteenth century scientists did it because they wanted to, because they were curious, not for the money, and not to satisfy their parents.

There have always been a few excellent schools where smart kids could rub shoulders with one another.  The most famous in the United States are the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School in New York City and New Trier in Chicago.  My own El Cerrito High School, in the shadow of UC Berkeley, wasn’t bad.  The New York schools especially, with their high concentration of second-generation Jewish kids, were great incubators of scientific genius.  Sadly, since those times, the schools have increasingly focused their energies on raising slow kids to average rather than helping smart kids excel.  Smart people just aren’t having as many kids, and concentrations of smart kids such as the Jews in New York City have dissipated.  The intellectual climate which incubated scientific curiosity has vanished.

Some of this curiosity was evident in the 20th century. Richard Feynman (of New York City) entitled his book, “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.” But more and more, science has become a career. There is a virtual dragnet conducted among junior high and high school students to identify the most promising. Whatever their natural inclinations, people with the talent to do so are herded into the sciences with promises from their mothers that they can make a good career. And so they go to the university, where they are measured by professors who are already making a good career out of science. So they join the existing herd, and they may indeed make a good living.

What they often lack is this fundamental curiosity that drove earlier generations of scientists. As well, they lack the practical knowledge that many early scientists brought to the field. I think it was the physicist Rutherford who said that the ability to envision mechanical systems, the experience that came from having worked with one’s hands, was absolutely essential to his intuition. Young people entering science today generally do not have the experience of having worked with their hands. Moreover, they do not have the breadth of experience of having worked for a living doing other things, such as farm work, blacksmithing or whatever. They are on a single track which leads to science. As a consequence, there are fewer polymaths than there used to be. It is increasingly rare for a person to make contributions in more than one field.

A lot of science today is funded by the government. It could not be otherwise. Whereas Faraday and Maxwell were able to put together experiments in their own homes to discover the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism, today it takes a nuclear collider, such as the large hadron collider in Switzerland, to conduct fundamental research. The costs mount into the billions of dollars.

Since an individual scientist cannot hope to fund his own research, he is dependant on the favor of others. That favor is of course dispensed through political mechanisms, although the politics may take place in the realm of science. As a case in point, Fahrenholt and Lüning write that Henrik Svensmark  needed access the CERN nuclear collider in order to research a theory of cloud formation due to solar radiation. Unfortunately, the implications of that theory would have undermined some of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control’s theories. It appears that access to the collider was withheld to prevent science which would have conflicted with the political interests of the well-established and well-funded IPCC.

Government funding distorts science. A great deal of money went into the war on cancer outlined by Richard Nixon. Since the war on cancer was where careers were to be made, that’s what young scientists decided to pursue. That’s where the money was. It resulted in a malinvestment of government money in the attempt to find a cure for cancer. In particular, a great deal of money went to looking for viral causes of cancer, when in fact only a few cancers such as that of the stomach may be caused by viruses.  Dr. Peter Duesberg discovered a chicken sarcoma which was indeed caused by a virus, winning awards and setting off a well-funded but fruitless search.

In his book “Inventing the AIDS Virus” Duesberg says that the same has happened with AIDS. There was a large financial interest supporting the proposition that AIDS is caused by a virus. Therefore, the correlation between the occurrence of AIDS and the presence of the human immunodeficiency virus was taken to be causation, Duesberg claims that the causation has never been proven. Robert Koch’s four principals for determining that a pathogen is the cause of the disease have never been satisfied despite 30 years of research. However, there was a drive to make the association, because it was highly beneficial to the virus researchers – the above-named people who had been unable to find a viral cause for cancer – and the drug companies which had a large interest in fighting viruses. They know how to fight viruses – they don’t know how to cure cancer.

Currently there is a lot of effort being put into attempts to find a biological basis for homosexuality. The science is being marshaled to support political views. Not unsurprisingly, they are finding what they’re looking for.  It is not pure science.  Pure science should be trying to find the truth, without a political agenda.  Since the gay community wants to promote the belief that their sexuality is inborn, the funding tends to flow (in this instance) to scientists who line up on the side of nature vs. nurture.

The same phenomenon appears to be at work again in intelligence research, this time shunning nature in favor of nurture. Researchers were relatively free to investigate human intelligence up until the 1960s, but Arthur Jensen infamously published a an article in the Harvard Education Review in 1969 suggesting that there were limits to the potential effect of programs such as Head Start intended to increase the intelligence of black children. He suggested that there were inherent limitations to what could be done. Since that time the whole field of intelligence research has been widely discredited.

Economics is not really a science.  It is interesting, however, to notice the significant divergence between the opinions of government paid experts on the economy, who tend to believe that everything is just fine, and a widening circle of nongovernmental observers believe that the economy is heading for a crash. Simply stated, it is wise not to bite the hand that feeds you, and a great many economists are fed by the hand of government.

As the above examples show, it is clear that government funding does not lead to unbiased science. There may be some interesting science done by with government money, but it is often in spite of the government.

Looking at the areas where science has been done in the past half-century, and finds it is mostly in areas in which, like physics in the 19th century, individual researchers are able to pursue their own ideas without much interference from anybody. One such area has been the emergence of sociobiology. E. O Wilson, Robert Travers, Sarah Hrdy, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others were able to start a new science, uniting observations about biology with physiology, and behavior with heredity. They broke new ground, and they have set the standard, or rather, laid the foundation for modern thinking in the area.

It is telling that the resistance to sociobiology has been largely political. Marxist academics such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould did not like the implications of sociobiology, and fought it on ideological rather than scientific grounds.

Another interesting area of research has been what one might call irrationality studies. This is an off shoot of sociobiology, Robert Trivers observations that people do not always behave in what one might call rational ways. The major thinkers in this area have been Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, and Dan Ariely. Working within a university setting, without much in the way of sponsorship, they broke new ground.

The same can be said for the DNA researchers, the field of genetics. The initial researchers, Crick and Watson, were working in small laboratory is pretty much on their own. They did not have government funding. And they make quite a bit of progress. Interestingly, there was a kind of a race between the government funded Human Genome Project, and Craig Venter’s Celera, in the private sector.  The latter, much less generously funded, actually led the way.  They were free to be innovative, and it worked.

With government funding come constraints, among them the constraint of political correctness. It is illustrative that a lot of the most interesting research on the human genome has moved to China. Specifically, the Beijing Institute of Genomics is mining huge databases of DNA for correlations. Among the associations that they are investigating are between high intelligence and specific gene combinations. There is a high likelihood that they will find the same thing that researchers have found for the last century, which is that high intelligence is associated with gene sequences which are themselves associated with ethnicity, or race. For this reason such research could not be done in the United States, because it might well reveal things that contradict the equality dogmas put forth by the United States government.  The Chinese are blissfully unconcerned with such things, and it is Americans as well as Chinese, who are funding this billion-dollar enterprise.

Computer science does not fit the definition of a real science: it restricts itself to artifacts of human intelligence.  Nonetheless, discoveries in the realm of computing, among them public key cryptography, relational data base tecnology, and algorithms to rapidly manipulate matrices and resolve complex equations have been very valuable.  Most major discoveries were, and are being made by individuals.  Even a desktop computer has all of the power needed for most types of discovery.  Massive government funding of organizations like the NSA has made it possible to apply computer analysis to massive amounts of data, but it hasn’t resulted in many strokes of genius that are widely recognized as such within the world of computer professionals.

Even within the physical sciences there appear to be areas that could be investigated with only a modest amount of laboratory equipment if only the researcher were free to think “outside the box.”  The work in material science, such as carbon nanostructures, theories of crystal formation and the properties of alloys (thanks, Bill Struve), and work at the frontier of organic and inorganic chemistry would seem (to this novice) to be open to exploration.

The message young scientists receive is that there are careers to be made getting on the government payroll, researching questions that governments want researched, wedded to the proposition that the answers will fall within the realm of government approved explanations.

On the other hand, there may well be frontiers of science of which the government is not yet aware, in which significant discoveries can be more easily made.  These are probably the best realms in which to search for a Nobel Prize, although not the best for those in search of a comfortable living and a well-paid retirement. So there may be areas which are open to science, but they are not the areas which will be found by following the direction of guidance counselors at the high school or college or even postgraduate levels. As always, the new areas of science are likely to be the ones which have not received official notice, are not on many people’s approved lists, and are still not terribly well funded. This seems to be the kind of realm in each individual genius can flourish.

As therefore hope that some individual geniuses escape the clutches of Wall Street, where money is to be made, and feel compelled simply to follow Feynman’s dictate, and research things for the pleasure of finding things out. There may still be hope, but it is for that offbeat minority of scientists who are not in it for the money, not seeking a career, but simply satisfying their curiosity.  The evidence is that they are few in number.  I can’t name as many prominent scientists in this era as I could in my childhood, and those I can name are of my own generation.  This does not bode well for science.