Category Archives: Ironic Science

The Waldo Canyon Fire

Yes, this posting is the morning of the 29th, but the latest update I’ve seen for the progressive map of the Waldo Canyon Fire is as of June 26th. The fire is still growing, though certainly not at the rate of that disastrous day. At its eastern edge, the fire entered the City of Colorado Springs and even required partial evacuation of the Air Force Academy.

In a bit of Jungian synchronicity (or what the Liberal Ironist likes to call “a coincidence”), I happened to pick up an old National Geographic in a doctor’s waiting room.  I read an informative cover article about wildfires.  Yes, it said, global warming contributes to Western droughts and warmer summer days, increasing the risk of fires breaking out.  But this, the article argued, represents a marginal contribution to the risk and scope of wildfires.  An entirely-different order of human activity has had a greater and more-counterintuitive impact on the probability and intensity of wildfires, in the Rocky Mountain West but also elsewhere.

Fighting all wildfires virtually ensures that the ones that we fail to prevent become enormous.

As is turns out, conventional fire department doctrine for dealing with wildfires was to fight every wildfire everywhere.  The benefits of this vigorous policy of fire defense were obvious: preventing the loss of trees for forestry; preserving beautiful wildlands available for hunting, fishing, hiking and camping; and of course protecting the steadily-growing stock of suburban homes on the edge of the wilderness.  This strategy was ultimately unsustainable, as it has simply led to the rapid expansion of dry kindling for future fires.  Our Western forests are now far, far more-lush than they used to be when the occasional wildfires were able to burn unopposed.  As a consequence the new fires burn much hotter and spread much farther, eventually putting so much heat and ash into the air that they can produce their own low-pressure microclimates as they burn.

Oh, right, the coincidence: A few days after I read this article (this would be April 9, 2012) I heard of a forest fire back on Long Island.  (Long Island, New York is better-known as the location of Brooklyn, Queens and to a lesser extent Nassau County, but if one continues east from Nassau County Long Island’s character shifts from urban to more-suburban; if one passes the halfway point going east–say, Exit 64 on the Long Island Expressway–the environs gradually shift from suburban to “exurban” and rural.)  This forest fire occurred in the Long Island Pine Barrens, a State wilderness area of 102,500 acres.  1,100 acres in the northern part of this area burned-out, just north of the Peconic River near an abandoned military-industrial production facility undergoing redevelopment.  Suddenly I had an event–not a large one by forest fire standards, but an event nonetheless–towards which I could direct my curiosity.  When I drove out to the burned-out area of the Pine Barrens in the 1st week of June, I could still smell the charcoal.  There isn’t much to see without entering the forest, but drive along 1 particularly-remote road and you can even tell that the forest around you has been gutted when traveling at night.

With that personal recollection finished, I’d like to shift focus to a fire that is still raging in Colorado.  The Waldo Canyon Fire is already 1 of the worst disasters–and officially the most-destructive fire–in the Centennial State’s history.  As of Wednesday 35,000 people were evacuated from northwestern Colorado Springs and its adjacent suburbs, including about 2,100 military and civilian residents of the U.S. Air Force Academy.  On Wednesday, this fire abruptly doubled its burn acreage, apparently having destroyed at least 18,500 acres of wooded and suburban land by 9:30 pm Mountain time Wednesday night.  Thursday reports were somewhat less-grim, clarifying that “only” about 16,750 acres had been burned and that the fire was now 15% contained–but that it was still burning.  The 1st and thus far only death from the fire was also confirmed yesterday, though that still reflects a high degree of organization considering tens of thousands had to be evacuated in advance of a fire that still threatens Colorado’s 2nd-largest city.  The cool air and moisture of the night means that the hours before dawn are a favored time to fight a wildfire, so the critical next few hours may give us a sense of how much time area firefighters–and their significant Federal assistance–will need to suppress this fire.  I’ve been following the story of this particular fire because a good friend used to live in that part of Colorado Springs.  A few days ago, she posted a picture of a nearby neighborhood turned to ash on Facebook.

The Waldo Canyon Fire enters the City of Colorado Springs last Tuesday. Associated Press photo by Gaylon Wampler (not my friend).

As I previously explained in declining to post on Japan’s truly devastating Sendai earthquake and tsunami last year, the Liberal Ironist is about politics, not just any event in the news; so why am I talking about a wildfire?  Of all natural disasters, no other seems to pose the sort of regulatory problem posed by forest fires.  Years of forest management for the purpose of cyclical logging, the maintenance of wilderness habitats, and the regular fighting of fires that might threaten Western towns and suburbs has gradually produced tinderbox conditions through millions of acres of the Rocky Mountain West.  The Liberal Ironist has no insight to offer other than the pessimistic suspicion that wildfires are simply a fact of life that you will have to deal with if you like in or near a forest that can dry-out in the summer heat.  Some people might aver that others choose to live in flood plains, or known tornado corridors, or in hurricane risk zones, or on fault lines or under the shadows of volcanoes; why shouldn’t people be able to live wherever they choose where wildfires are concerned?  The Liberal Ironist certainly sympathizes, but with 1 caveat.

Another perspective of the Waldo Canyon Fire entering northwestern Colorado Springs last Tuesday. Associated Press photo.

A more-sustainable long-term fire control strategy might advise occasional burns through stretches of our Western National Forests, simply in the interest of clearing-out the kindling that will otherwise eventually feed the rapidly-spreading and little-understood wildfire still menacing northwestern Colorado Springs.  After all, if allowing smaller fires to burn themselves out (to a point) could stunt a fire that could otherwise menace tens of thousands of homes (!) in a metropolitan area, that is something we should seriously consider.   The problem is, there are houses and private lands scattered throughout the wilderness; how could we decline to help those who live further afield?  How could we even decline to protect their property?  For that matter, who would be liable if the National Forestry Service and local fire departments see fit to let nature take its course while the rural folk are episodically exposed to a disaster due to a policy choice?

The images of burned-out neighborhoods in northwestern Colorado Springs are disturbing; it might take a moment to recognize just what you’re looking at, but you can see row after row of houses that are completely gone, reduced to a pile of ash.  Hundreds of homeowners and their families have lost almost all of their possessions.  We have witnessed more-deadly and more-costly disasters in aggregate, but the destruction a large fire brings to the property of those affected is total.  We certainly cannot allow people to fall into such a calamity by choice.

This would suggest that the “do no harm” course of action is to fight almost all of the fires–after all, the undisputed role of government is protecting people, right?  But again, 1 day all those trees you’ve saved are going to burn anyway, just as those rural homes are going to burn, because fires happen.  You can’t anticipate a lightning strike, or even an arsonist.  And if we let the trees and the foliage pile-on unobstructed, then as now in Waldo Canyon, the fires will be huge and hot.  We’ve got to find some way to thin-out the trees in those Western forests, or this problem will get worse.

Former President George W. Bush had offered the “Healthy Forests” initiative in 2003, in which logging companies would participate in the removal of excessive undergrowth and dead wood; skepticism prevailed among environmentalists over whether logging companies could be trusted to take this job seriously, and to spare old-growth trees while clearing brush.  W.’s policy doesn’t seem to have been very effective, considering the size of the Western wildfires that still break out year after year.  But we’ve got to do something, either very-proactive or less-proactive, to clear all that kindling from the forest floor.  Years of treating forest fires as manageable problems in isolation have made them enormous and chronic.

Only from these “after” pictures can the full scope of the destruction caused by the Waldo Canyon Fire be appreciated. As of this writing, 346 homes are confirmed to have been destroyed thus far by the fire; as you can see here, they were destroyed utterly. Photo by John Wark.

Advertisements

A Storm of Historic Disproportion

The Liberal Ironist has a contrarian view of Hurricane Irene, the much-anticipated “Big One” that turned out to be less-damaging than Hurricane Gloria, which made landfall on Long Island in late-September 1985.

Have you heard of Hurricane Gloria?  If you aren’t from Long Island, New York, there is a good chance you haven’t–and this now inescapably colors my view of Hurricane Irene.  Just a few days after public alarm over a magnitude-5.8 earthquake outside of Richmond, Virginia–noteworthy in fact for its novelty rather than the danger it posed–President Obama warned us that Hurricane Irene was “a storm of historic proportions.”

The proportions by which Hurricane Irene is truly historic are in the scale of the preparations undertaken in its advance, and in the overestimation of the force with which it would hit New York City.  Hurricane Irene is likely to survive in our popular culture as an obscure reference to mass delusion rather than as the 100-year storm–though the full scale of the damage to Long Island hasn’t been assessed yet.  Some of the preparations, inconvenient though they were, were simply the dictates of prudence.  Many elected and appointed officials, business operators and private citizens simply took the appropriate precautions in order to protect lives and material assets; some of these preparatory steps–President Obama ending his Martha’s Vineyard vacation a day early to come back to Washington being a good example–seem to have been motivated more by fear of public judgment than by he urgency of his presence.  Though questions about such motivations clearly irritated him, a sense of having been burned by a sluggish City response to last December’s blizzard probably led New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg to go into full crisis mode at the news of a hurricane, eager to demonstrate his seriousness and his ability to lead.

2 articles on this subject warrant reading in this order–“Hurricane Lost Steam as Experts Misjudged Structure and Next Move” from Monday’s New York Times and “Politicians Pushed to Stay Out in Front of Events” from Monday’s Wall Street Journal.  Together they paint a depressing picture of an indeterminate science where catalytic and repressive features are both incompletely-theorized and unaccountable in practice, and in which dramatic events are a consequence of contingencies on different fronts.  But the very drama of the results is enough to produce a popular expectation that these developments can be adequately foreseen and mitigated by our leaders, especially by the President.  This causes politicians to dramatize situations the public finds frustrating with lots of dark imagery and then to contrast that with promises they cannot keep unless they’ve already made the impending situation look quite bad.  (OK, this time I’m talking about meteorology, not economics or political science.)

In this situation the Liberal Ironist is brought back to the Allegory of the Cave, Plato’s very illiberal and un-ironic way of making sense of all the cant and injustices he saw in politics in his day: All human beings are shackled to the floor of a cave, staring at its back wall; behind them and further towards the cave’s mouth a few comparatively-free but rather un-ambitious people stand, with a bright fire burning behind them.  They hold aloft statues hewn to resemble “real things,” projecting shadowy images against the back wall of the cave, and sometimes they speak or project sounds to pass for the utterances or noises of those shadows on the wall: So do the powers that be, whether of politics or culture, keep the mass of people entranced by what they believe or want others to believe are “real things.”  The “real things” of which these shadows can be but a crude reproduction are to be found outside the proverbial cave altogether, under the all-revealing light of the Sun.

For readers who lack experience with the history of philosophy, yes, the Wachowski brothers derived the idea for The Matrix by literalizing a metaphor from a 2,400-year-old book.  The objection I’m raising is against the bit parts we tend to play in this comedy.

Maybe the Liberal Ironist is overreacting to this overreaction.  Hurricane Katrina–at peak strength a category 5 hurricane–was the real deal, resulting in 1,400 deaths and an American city inundated and forever changed by the loss of scores of thousands of its inhabitants, and over $100 billion in property damage.  The sheer scope of the human cost in New Orleans–and the institutional failure of the State and Federal response to it–was indeed not merely a major story, and a cultural event.

The sound and fury surrounding Hurricane Irene ultimately signified nothing–which also makes it a cultural event, in the Liberal Ironist’s view.  The philosophy that “The buck stops here”–with the President–has gone too far and essentially created a ritual of panic-mobilization.

President Obama’s handling of the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform is partly where these expectations–and some due comparisons to the current non-episode–come from.  Vapid talking heads on CNN–a key offender whenever it’s time to stir-up indignation during a lull in the news cycle–would point to misstatements by President Obama or appointed officials heading the Federal relief effort as evidence that the President, or the Federal Government, or someone, wasn’t doing enough to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  1st of all, it was silly for so many to blame the President for the slow pace of the operation to cap the leak; he wasn’t really in possession of a superior means to cap the spill than BP.  2nd (and I suppose more-provocatively), there isn’t much point in issuing charges against BP for the slow pace of the capping operation, either, since they were desperate to stop the damned oil leak so that the public relations nightmare would end.  Of course, if you wanted to issue charges against BP for its operation of the rig or against the Minerals Management Service for its cozy relationship with energy companies drilling for oil in unstable environments, be my guest–but that is a part of my point here.  Holding those who expose the public to a certain level of risk makes more sense than blaming those responsible for emergency response when the scope of the disaster exceeds the material means available to contain it.

If it sounds like the aim of this entry is simply to proclaim President Obama a victim of this cultural shift, then I’ve gone off-point–though not off-topic.  The point is that, as the Wall Street Journal article on the subject observed, a number of their leaders essentially used what proved to be a minor storm as an opportunity to demonstrate that they won’t miss an opportunity.  This was not a partisan phenomenon: Republican-turned-independent New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg sustained the hype surrounding Hurricane Irene, as did Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Republican Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue.  All were concerned about seeming to fiddle while Rome burned, so they…inserted themselves into what turned out to be a non-situation.

Better safe than sorry?  Absolutely–and mandatory evacuations are not a joke.  Some of the unprecedented 370,000 New Yorkers and 400,000 Long Islanders ordered evacuated in advance of the storm, for example, won’t have homes to go back to.  But New Yorkers will be sorry today–not because of the “disaster storm surge” depicted in spectacular graphics on CNN but because the New York City Subway, its entire rolling stock withdrawn into yards or to high-and-dry spots in the tunnels, won’t be fully-operational for this morning’s commute.

Sometimes there’s no choice between preparation and catastrophe but between differing types of inconvenience to be experienced at different times.  And the expense of preparations for this hurricane stand as a testament to our capacity for self-injury through expectations of risk-reduction imposed on our political class.  They aren’t precisely victims; they’ve been foisted into the role of Medieval doctors applying leeches.  If you want someone to blame, the Liberal Ironist would like to offer the television media.

We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself–Because Fear Means Under-investment, and Then Our Economy Stagnates

The Liberal Ironist would like to indulge in some intense pessimism: Our economic recovery is off-track, and there are several factors that could derail it outright.  None of these issues–as they stand–are sufficient to make the failure of the recovery inevitable, but each exposes us to risk of overproduction, rising interest rates, or significant inflation.

I should first aver that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke actually expressed optimism about the economic outlook for the rest of 2011, saying that our fundamental economic indicators look strong and that the late-spring reversal of our economic recovery–the slight-but-depressing uptick in unemployment included–should be temporary.  The Federal Reserve Chairman is better-equipped to offer such a forecast than I, by virtue of his academic knowledge of the economy, his command of the facts (those being the facts that he considers normally in-point to issuing a half-year’s economic forecast) and his privileged access to confidential opinion by relevant policymakers in both business and government.

ARTICLE OF FAITH: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke thinks our current economic slowdown should be temporary, a confluence of human-made disasters in the Middle East and a natural one in Japan. But in a social science, even a distinguished academic can't always see what's coming--especially if he isn't looking directly at it. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America.

That said, Economics is a positivistic academic discipline, and the appointed chairman of a major institution speaks with discretion.  Knowing how reactionary investors can be–for no reason other than that they have to beat the overreaction they suspect others might be prone to–the Federal Reserve Chairman isn’t likely to say “Granted, there are a few really big ‘kill switches’ wired to the recovery right now, and someone is just bound to trip over 1–or several.”  So, here is a confluence of trends which risk dragging on the recovery:

President Obama’s stimulus wasn’t big-enough, and we won’t be getting any more.  The Liberal Ironist has long-agreed with Paul Krugman that the chief problem with President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus was that it wasn’t big-enough.  But even in light of the massive Republican wave election in 2010, it would have been nice if current levels of Federal domestic discretionary spending–including some grants to the States to balance their budgets–could have been maintained.  The reason this would have been nice is simple: Our well-capitalized private sector, for whatever reason, has not seen fit to invest in more domestic production capacity while unemployment hovers in the 9% range.  Here House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) hasn’t exactly risen to the occasion, uttering one of the least-explicable bits of economic dogmatism I have ever heard: “You’ve heard me say time and time again that we’ve got to cut spending if we’re serious about creating an environment for job creators in America to do what they do best–and that’s to create jobs.”  The Liberal Ironist has never heard anyone explain how cutting government spending–in many cases necessitating the termination of Federal or contractor employees, or compelling State or municipal governments that lose grants to terminate more workers–helps private companies create jobs.  It’s true that budget deficits can become a problem if a government has no long-term means to pay them, and that problem can only be addressed by budget cuts or through tax increases that could stifle business development, but no part of that reality explains how cutting government spending–especially with a large magic number of sorts in mind–could plausibly encourage private-sector job creation in the short- or intermediate-term.  But the massive shift of voter support and thus political initiative (intermittently reflected in recent nationwide opinion surveys) in favor of the Republicans has made President Obama’s achievement of his remaining priorities–mixing spending cuts with elimination of certain tax breaks and the end of the Bush income tax cut for the wealthy, along with increased spending on transportation infrastructure, research and development, and education–much harder if not impossible.  The idea of encouraging economic growth during a period of sustained economic downturn by steeply cutting government spending even defies common sense–and Congressional Republicans can’t bring our yearly Federal deficits under control without including tax increases in a budget plan, which Republicans have ruled-out as unacceptable.  In effect Congressional Republicans propose sacrificing our economic turnaround to strike a blow against big government.

OBAMA AND KEYNES: PERFECT TOGETHA. President Obama promoted a large economic stimulus plan in early 2009 which headed-off a depression but didn't justify the level of productive activity needed to put millions of Americans back to work. Rather than conclude that the stimulus was insufficient or that more-targeted Federal spending is in order, Congressional Republicans have embraced the curious view that a recession is a good time to drastically-cut Federal spending. Lord Keynes is spinning in his grave--which makes him about as productive as the US economy is going to be if too many relied-upon Federal programs wind up getting the ax. Photo is a composite: Salon/Reuters/AP, credit Salon.com.

The domestic housing market is cooling-off again.  Maybe I should rephrase that: “The housing market is retreating from anemic back to comatose.”  The real estate situation is grim even in comparison to the jobs situation.  Janet Yellen, Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve, yesterday admitted that she “can envision no quick or easy solutions for the problems still afflicting the housing market” and that “recovery in the housing market likely will be a long, drawn-out process.”  She added that there were about 2 million vacant homes in the United States in the 1st quarter of 2011–many of them foreclosures, many of them pre-built models in surplus subdivisions that no one has ever lived in, and many of them simply abandoned.  This is bad news for recent homebuyers who made a bet that they could trade-up in what has already been a multiyear down housing market, bad news for homeowners who leveraged their mortgages to pay for major investments such as college for the kids, bad news for the construction industry, and obviously bad news for land developers and real estate agents.  It’s bad news for banks that continue to accept large numbers of foreclosed homes while market values are already depressed and there are few buyers, forcing the banks to pay taxes on properties they have no use for.  (Yes, this rolling mass of foreclosures victimizes banks as well.)  It’s bad news for municipal governments, whether townships, cities, or counties–as well as public school, police, and fire districts–as they are often supported by somewhat-regressive but usually fairly-stable property taxes.  A February article in the Washington Examiner portended hard times when it noted a tumble in commercial real estate values in Arlington County and the City of Alexandria in Virginia, affluent suburbs of Washington, DC inside the Capital Beltway.  (That the real estate market in our nation’s capital experienced such a shock ahead of the current Federal budget cuts suggests either truly pervasive stagnation in real estate or profound pessimism within the business community.)  The Bloomberg news article on this story further reported that 20 American cities currently have median home prices at their lowest level since 2003, and that economist Robert Schiller warns we should be prepared for further declines in home prices of 10%-25% over the next 5 years.  SmartMoney.com advised that “if employment creation remains low, risks of a double dip in housing naturally increase” in an article dated October 6, 2010.  At that time, the official US unemployment rate was 9.6%; in May it up-ticked slightly from the recent low to 9.1% according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  This is a good time to buy a house if you won’t need to sell it and you don’t need the equity; however, a year or 2 from now might be an even better time to buy.

Ouch--and this was the forecast over a year ago. Map courtesy of The Real Deal Online.

There is this slight but growing chance that…the United States Government will default on its debt.  This would be bad.  The astonishing part is that, unlike the rest of the current risk factors for a return to recession, a Federal Government default on its debt service would be the sole result of unintelligent choice, a self-inflicted wound.  The traditional opposition sermonizing about a lack of leadership aside, nothing aside from Congressional Republicans’ current Tea Party-driven aversion to authorizing an increase in the Federal debt limit even makes this an issue; the United States Government has never defaulted on its debt before.  There had certainly already been grumblings about raising the Federal debt limit by Tea Partiers, but I think the trouble officially got started when former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, now a Presidential candidate, wrote in a January op-ed in the Washington Post that the vote to increase the Federal debt limit would be a golden opportunity to force President Obama to accept drastic reductions in Federal entitlement spending.  A few months later, freshman Senator Patrick Toomey (R-PA) gave us assurances–based on the same hypothetical as Pawlenty’s op-ed–that even if Congress ran-out the clock on raising the Federal debt limit, Congress could still direct the Secretary of the Treasury to pay the interest on the Federal debt 1st, and proceed to fund or cut other needs 2nd.  Dana Milbank helpfully pointed out that if Congress failed to raise the Federal debt limit and Treasury prioritized Federal debt service in austerity budgeting, “even if we shut down the military and stopped writing Social Security checks, the government would still come up about $200 billion short.”  A default on Federal debt would plunge our economy right back into recession-easily.  Interest rates would rise substantially for everyone, as creditors would both be wary of debtors’ viability in general after the failure of the largest and most-reliable debtor, and would look to shore-up their capital through high-interest lending.  Meanwhile, holders of US currency reserves might abandon the US Dollar in droves if the government that prints them defaulted, thus making the currency drastically lose value.  Thus, during a prolonged period of economic stagnation, we would also face high inflation.

Stagflation.

THERE'S A LOT RIDING ON THIS GAME, GUYS: President Obama has invited Speaker Boehner for a round of golf, at which time the 2 will try to work-out common ground on a long-term deficit-reduction plan so that the increase in the Federal debt limit can pass. No, I'm not making this up. Composite photo: Carolyn Kaster (AP)/Douglas Graham (Roll Call).

The Initial Eurozone bailout of Greece didn’t work–and again, political preferences leave no clear path to restore confidence in the Euro.  One bright spot in this story is that the Federal Democratic Republic of Germany has consented to a 2nd bailout for Greece.  (As a Liberal ironist, I generally try to avoid referring to countries as if they were monolithic entities; I don’t like to talk about “America” as an agent because, unlike the United States Government proper, America is a continent-wide expanse of hundreds of millions of people who generally live and let live but whom have very different agendas and some profound differences in their moral beliefs.  Also as a Liberal ironist, however, my principles provide for exceptions, and as it is unfortunately far from clear who wasn’t complicit in government corruption and waste there I am left to say: “The Federal Democratic Republic of Germany has bailed-out Greece.”)  Note that the REUTERS article I have linked to indicates only that the European Union and the International Monetary Fund are the managing entities in Greece’s 2nd bailout; on the other hand the German government (as both the European Union’s largest economy and the current carrier of Europe’s hopes for an economic recovery) was apparently both the decisive agent of consent and the on-point information-broker for Greece’s new bailout and fiscal-restructuring deal.  This paternalism of the smaller European Union economies by the largest is the problem with the Eurozone as currently-conceived: Integrating most of Western Europe’s national economies with a single currency without standardizing those governments’ fiscal and economic policies led to corruptingly-low interest rates in Greece and Ireland and, according to Paul Krugman, a local inflation trap in Spain.  (For lack of a better word, “corruptingly” is now a word.)  So, falling interest rates encouraged peripheral governments to vastly over-leverage during the mid-Aughts boom; rising (Euro-driven) inflation in Spain, according to Krugman, led to a large international trade deficit that left both the public and the private sectors with a lot of debt once the international financial system crashed.  This divorce of organization-wide monetary from state fiscal and economic policy both facilitated perverse behaviors by some state actors, then punished both perverse and responsible state actors.  To operate without such hazards, the Eurozone should probably impose stricter control over the fiscal and economic policies of member states; frustratingly, however, these reforms are probably untenable at present precisely because of the inevitable growth of Euroskepticism in response to the costly bad behavior of Greek and Irish governments and financial institutions.  According to the Washington Post, Germany’s relatively-strong economic recovery also seems to have slowed, in part perhaps because of concern about Germany’s level of liability for damaged peripheral Eurozone economies but also, the article suggests, because of so many European governments’ reliance on mid-downturn austerity measures.

As goes the price of oil, so goes the price of pretty-much everything else in the World.  Consider the vicious cycle we’ve witnessed: The price of oil increases, which causes the price of food to increase because of mass agriculture’s reliance on the efficiency of oil-based synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  The unavailability of food provokes riots in the Middle East, which topples some governments, destabilizes and divides others, and sends a panic through all of them.  Naturally, this causes the price of oil to rise.  (Incidentally, Libya produced only about 2% of worldwide oil for the open market last year, but it happens to produce a relatively-clean grade of oil very close to Europe.  The result is that many of Europe’s older oil refineries are disproportionately-reliant on access to Libyan-grade oil, which must now be substituted with oil from more-reliable but also more-distant sources.  As a result, the Libyan Civil War has had a disproportionate effect on the price of oil–not just due to media amplification, but because it has generated a logistical problem.)  In any case, higher oil prices definitely make despotic middle-income countries that don’t have a lot of oil far less-stable.  Considering the interspersion of oil-poor countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain around the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, OPEC’s mostly-despotic member states might find it prudent to (somehow) lighten the load for everyone else.

For all our sakes, watch where you're shooting, Reds. REUTERS file photo.

Remember the March 11th Tōhoku Earthquake and Sendai Tsunami, and the triple full-core meltdown at Fukushima I nuclear power plant?  The news cycle has moved on from Japan’s great disaster (as, to his shame, has the Liberal Ironist–a neglect of a massive story which I hope to rectify soon), but it takes a while to reaally take stock of a natural disaster that will likely cost around $235 billion for repairs and which probably cost the lives of over 23,000 Japanese.  (This is part of why I didn’t say more about it earlier.)  As the Federal Reserve Chairman acknowledged in his recent address, this enormous disaster significantly undermined the economic recovery, though the rebuilding might prove beneficial to the Japanese economy.  After all, there will now be significant public- and private-sector investment in rebuilding and improving damaged infrastructure–investment that might otherwise go abroad–and this redevelopment will put people to work at a difficult time–though they might otherwise have been employed to manufacture goods or provide services for Japan’s major trading partners.

You didn't expect an event of this magnitude to harm our economic recovery? Where did you think these containers were being shipped? Photograph by Itsuo Inouye, Associated Press.

China’s economic growth might prove Icarian.  This is a big one, and the Chinese Communist Party has been on the watch for hyperinflation for a long time; however, neither the generality of the theory which suggests that a widespread improvement in the standard of living can lead to a politically-volatile increase in the cost of basic goods and services nor the motivation of the fully-consolidated Chinese Communist Party necessarily means that the People’s Republic of China will take the right course of action to prevent inflation from wreaking economic and then political chaos.  In fact, it isn’t even certain that China’s government has the power to stop inflation from hitting its fast-growing economy hard at some point in the near-future.

…Of course, maybe the Liberal Ironist is wrong and the Federal Reserve Chairman is right, and later this year the US economy will overcome this May sickness and our well-capitalized corporations will start employing new workers, increasing production and offering new services to renewed foreign and domestic consumer markets.  Until that point, however, our economy will be tailed by several prospective assailants (one of which is Congressional Republicans), several of which could strike.

I just hope the other sectors of our economy don’t have to wait on the housing market.

Star Trek: FUBAR

(Level 3 spoiler hazard: I will proceed to give away the events of the re-imagining of Star Trek by J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman as it serves my purpose throughout this review.  I do this not out of malice—though I positively hate that movie—but because science fiction that makes no sense at all annoys me, and today I will have my revenge.  So without further ado, I’m posting something very different today.)

Star Trek is a science fiction mythology about humanistic values and progressive hopes.

The Liberal Ironist is not going to talk about humanism or progressivism today.

No, today’s post is stand-alone self-indulgence: The Liberal Ironist is going to carry on angrily about Star Trek, the J.J. Abrams-produced, Damon Lindelof-directed reboot of the Star Trek film franchise.  This will be an angry review for no reason more-complicated than that this movie doesn’t make any sense.  Star Trek, heretofore and eternally known as Star Trek: FUBAR, is a nonsensical mess that insults our intelligence.

“FUBAR” is an informal military shorthand for “f***ed up beyond all recognition.”  This is nothing like what I normally write on this blog, but I wanted to clarify a few problems with a mostly critically-acclaimed (and very financially successful) sci-fi action/adventure movie.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a Trekkie.  I have seen all of the Star Trek movies.  But I’ve only seen several episodes apiece of the classic TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  I haven’t really seen the often-panned Voyager or the apparently-authentic but short-lived Enterprise at all.  I’m not very engaged in the lore of the show, and I am often quite comfortable with the shifts in tone that occur when a franchise is “re-imagined.”  I am a loyal observer of several other pop culture crazes, prominent among them the TV series LOST, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, each of which similarly straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy in ways that put them in a similar general category with Star Trek.  In declaring myself a LOST fan (and I am a big one), my disappointment with Star Trek: FUBAR should nonetheless be clear.  I expected a whole world of brilliance from J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, 2 of the principal lines behind the groundbreaking TV series that sold me on the value of allegory as a means of mapping out the web of one’s themes and cultural influences.  What I got from Star Trek: FUBAR was nonsensical manic bunk even in comparison to the mediocre big-budget action or disaster movies we see today, and it was so distracting that there was really no chance of me enjoying all the pretty special effects and warp-speed dialogue.

Without further ado, I will now do my best to spoil the movie.  For a standard post on politics or philosophy, please just wait a day or 2.  You’ve been warned…

Star Trek: FUBAR opens aboard the Federation starship on which George Kirk, the father of James T. Kirk, serves as 1st officer.  But his 1st officering is violently-interrupted as a huge, spiky and evil-looking ship suddenly emerges through a wormhole.  I don’t know why a ship piloted by an evil person has to be huge, spiky and evil-looking…particularly considering that it eventually turns out to be an unremarkable Romulan mining vessel from 175 years in the future.  So, consider that stupid thing #1 about this movie.

Oh, wait—that’s actually stupid thing #3.  Stupid thing #1 is the fact, also unknown at this time but causally prior to the 1st scene, that this mining ship fell through this wormhole from 175 years in the future completely by accident.  Isn’t it a little convenient to fall into a black hole as a result of a careless maneuver and to simply ride it back into the past?  Stupid thing #2: Isn’t it way too convenient to fall into a black hole completely by accident and to be transported 175 years into the past to the time and place in space of James Tiberius Kirk’s birth?  I mean, what are the odds?  Why not fall through time to…well, a location close to the system Romulus is in, or somehow accounting for galactic drift and rotation, to a location still in Romulan space?

Don’t give me that “many worlds theory” bunk.  Just don’t.

Wow.  I’m just through the 1st scene of the movie and already I have so many problems with it that I’m getting lost.  That’s funny, because when I would watch LOST I would see so many things I liked in it that I’d get lost.  Am I over-thinking this?  No, this is really reall dumb, and I am just getting started.

Stupid thing #4: Romulan mining vessels 175 years in the future are obviously pretty advanced, as they are able to utterly destroy capital class Federation starships in a matter of minutes.  An Alaskan fishing ship today is definitely more technologically-advanced than an Imperial frigate of the late 1700s, but I still wouldn’t put my money down on the fishing ship if the 2 did battle.  I mean, the frigate does have cannons…

So long story short, George Kirk’s captain is killed, his ship comes under heavy attack from a…futuristic evil mining vessel, and in order to save most of the crew George Kirk has to ram his ship into the enemy vessel, sacrificing himself.  This is a deviation from Star Trek canon, as Captain Kirk’s father “historically” went on to become a captain and died an old man having lived to see his adult son become captain of the Enterprise.  James Tiberius Kirk, who was miraculously being born at that very moment, grows up fatherless.  25 years later, he is a complete jerk.

This sounds to me like a plot a grade schooler would come up with—a smart grade schooler, sure, but still…

So Kirk grows up as a trickster with a death wish (although it is only the petty criminality involved that makes this Kirk different from the original, as he too had a devious side and sometimes exhibited a death wish).  He gets into a fight in a bar, right after buying a drink.  He pays for this drink…with money.  Again, I’m not a Trekkie, but I do know that in the humanistic future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned, money has been abolished within the United Federation of Planets because all people labor for the rational betterment of society as a whole.  (Granted, one may say this is not only ridiculous but in a sense unnecessary, as money is a perfectly valid means of measuring the exchange of a given number of hours of labor of 1 type for another, and the efficiency with which money tracks that exchange would remain regardless of the prevailing economic order.  The point is that this is a central feature of the world J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof have to work with, and there is no explanation of this glaring departure from canon by these 2 avowed Trekkies, making this stupid thing #5.)

During this bar fight, Kirk has the audacity to assault a Federation officer who tries to stop him.  That’s not just a death wish, that’s a stupid thing to do.  But young James Kirk isn’t the only person whom has taken leave of his senses, as he is visited in the brig by Captain Christopher Pike, who challenges young Kirk to be a real man, joining Starfleet like his valorous but deceased father.  It’s true Captain Pike knew Kirk’s father and understandable that he is troubled to see his friend’s son wrecking himself, but it’s showing extraordinary faith indeed to encourage a young delinquent to distinguish himself at Starfleet.  That’s not stupid thing #6, but it’s a little hard to fathom.

Stupid things #6, #7 and #8 are all biggies, spectacular failures of imagination, even common sense.  First, after the (still completely mysterious) Romulan mining vessel from the future destroyed a Starfleet ship, no Federation fleet has been sent out to counter this menace; apparently no Federation ship has even attempted a reconnaissance of that part of space.  This splendid desolation allowed Nero, the villain of this movie, to wait 25 years for his as-yet-unidentified quarry to pass through the wormhole himself—something the villain couldn’t have known for certain would happen at all—so that he could take him prisoner and set his plan for revenge in motion.  That absurd single-mindedness is stupid thing #7.  The fact that his crew made no noteworthy attempt at mutiny or defection for 25 years is stupid thing #8.  Apparently his entire crew is absolutely bent on revenge.  When you hear their reason why, that will sound pretty stupid, too.

Stupid thing #9 is the fact that Spock apparently devised the Kobayashi Maru test taken by Kirk.  (The Kobayashi Maru is a fictional freighter ship that issues a distress call to a Federation starship, only to face simultaneous sneak attack from 5 Klingon birds-of-prey.  As capital class offensive ships, there is no way for a single unprepared Starfleet vessel to defend itself; it is disabled and then either boarded or destroyed—a no-win scenario conceived to test the character of the pilot under evaluation.)  Now we learn that the test was conceived by Spock in a pointless and excessively aggrandizing bit of history.  Kirk takes the test and hacks it, contriving an utterly implausible way out for himself in a famous but never-before-seen moment in Star Trek canon.  Kirk and Spock confront each other in an inconclusive competition over who has the most-formidable ego.

This battle of egos is inconclusive because, after 25 years of silence, our villain has now decided to attack the planet Vulcan.  Because Starfleet’s main force is unavailable for some reason, a ship full of recruits is mobilized to combat this mysterious and powerful menace.  That ship is the Enterprise, commanded by Captain Christopher Pike.  Is there any canon significance to the timing of this?  No, nothing—it is a complete coincidence that out of all Starfleet, the Enterprise would be the only capital class ship available for deployment to Vulcan, and that James Kirk would be a cadet of sufficient standing to get roped onto the crew by the captain at the last second.  Talk about a cosmic coincidence; this is stupid thing #10, along with the fact that Starfleet apparently isn’t able to provide an adequate standing defense for 1 of the Federation’s core planets.

When the Enterprise reaches Vulcan we find that our villain, Nero, has launched a giant drill into the center of the planet.  This will also turn out to be stupid.  Anyway, Captain Pike is taken prisoner by the renegade Romulans following a failed diplomatic mission, but not before appointing Mr. Spock, his 1st officer, as acting captain, and James Kirk, a cadet in the middle of disciplinary proceedings, as acting 1st officer.  Is Captain Pike insane?!  That would be stupid thing #11.  An aerial insertion onto the giant drill by three trainees follows.  These are cadet–I’m sorry, acting 1st officer Kirk, ensign Sulu and an unknown man in a red suit; who do you suppose is killed in action?  While the drill is damaged by the strike team, it comes too late to prevent the launching of “red matter” into the planet’s core.  A pseudoscientific scan by a young Chekhov reveals that this “red matter” has produced a black hole in the core of Vulcan.

This brings us to stupid thing #12.  A black hole can have an event horizon of about 1 light-month; for perspective the distance from the Earth to the Moon is only about 1.2 light-seconds.  Yet apparently for this “red matter” to effectively produce a black hole that can consume the planet Vulcan entirely requires insertion directly into the core of the planet, an operation that requires…entire minutes!  Nero has jeopardized his harebrained revenge plan just to center a planet-destroying superweapon.

So, Vulcan is destroyed in a major history-altering event (as nothing like this ever happens in Star Trek canon).  Spock’s quick thinking saves the Vulcan High Council (or at least most of it), and his father whom out of the entire planet is conveniently located at the same place; his mother, however, is lost.  (Maybe they couldn’t afford to keep Winona Ryder on in the part?)  Most of Vulcan’s 6 billion inhabitants are killed.  As Captain Pike has been taken hostage, Spock remains acting captain.  He is deep in shock, of course, but still able to calmly follow orders to meet with the rest of the fleet.  Kirk angrily protests Spock’s refusal to pursue Nero (even though he is obviously an incredibly-dangerous, little-understood quantity, and they have a ship full of trainees), and proceeds to make a fool of himself on the bridge of the Enterprise.  Spock orders him loaded into an escape pod and dropped off on the next terrestrial planet, which amazingly has an atmosphere!  It’s also so close to Vulcan that the planet can be observed in the sky.  So, these planetary conveniences are stupid things #13 and #14.

Kirk receives an automated warning that the planet is a near-hostile environment and that he should stay with the escape pod; this he promptly ignores as he sets out on foot for the nearest Federation military facility.  Along the way he gets caught up in a pretty intense game of big fish, bigger fish as a few native predators chase him down.  He runs into a cave where 1 man with a burning branch—Where “on Earth” did that even come from?—scares off a predator the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and far more-agile.  This turns out to be Mr. Spock—as in Leonard Nimoy, old Mr. Spock!  This is definitely stupid thing #15.  Yeah, I know time travel is involved and I’m just supposed to run with that—but this really doesn’t make sense: When’s the last time you were marooned on an ice planet and after being chased by a succession of predators just happened to run into a cave where you incidentally met a much-older, gentler version of the man who marooned you just minutes before?  That’s not a cosmic coincidence, it’s a colossal plot convenience.

I should make an aside here.  I’m a huge fan of LOST, a show that practically runs on cosmic coincidences.  The difference (and a crucial narrative element in that show) is the fact that these coincidences aren’t supposed to be coincidences.  There is a manipulating force behind a series of long-shot encounters, it is purposive, and this purpose is central to the perspective one will have on the show.  Star Wars, of course, is centrally about the Force, the various shifts in which (depending on your perspective) either determine the nature and scope of our actions, or else provides a resource for the fulfillment of our wills.

Star Trek: FUBAR has no such prior metaphysical entity to address the point of why such an extraordinary chance encounter as Nero’s retreat through the past to the moment of James Kirk’s birth, or the James Kirk’s stumble upon old Spock, should ever happen.  This is simple plot convenience.  I mean, they only have about 2 hours with which to reboot the franchise!

Now it’s time for exposition and back-story…really stupid back-story.  175 years in the future, a supernova explosion “would threaten the entire Galaxy.”  (This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as our own Milky Way Galaxy contains well over 100 billion stars, a number of which are massive-enough to go supernova and which have gone supernova in the past.  These most-certainly haven’t destroyed life on Earth, which is located in a reasonably-busy suburb of the Milky Way where life has been evolving for about 3.5 billion years; meanwhile, supernova-prone stars are so unstable that they can only exist for a few million years at most.  So, that’s stupid thing #16.)  Anyway, the Vulcans invented or discovered something called “red matter,” which if freed from its containment will generate an instant black hole.  So, the Vulcans equipped their fastest ship with the red matter so as to deploy the red matter, form a black hole, and swallow up the shock wave from the supernova.  This doesn’t make much sense either, since a constantly-expanding supernova emanates in all directions and wouldn’t require long to exceed the event horizon of this “instant black hole.”  So this plan to save the Galaxy by deploying red matter to absorb the shockwave of the supernova shouldn’t be very effective; you would have to envelop it with black holes, a task of far greater difficulty, even giving Star Trek technology, than I think the writers appreciate…So that’s stupid thing #17.

Stupid thing #18 is the fact that this supernova explosion destroyed Romulus before the Romulans had a chance to evacuate.  Supernovas definitely don’t travel faster than light; and how far is this supernova from Romulus, anyway?  The next-nearest star to the Sun is Proxima Centauri, about 4.3 light-years away.  That means nothing could travel from there to here without taking at least 4.3 years to do so.  It would, however, be possible with already-known (though little-understood) physical principles such as quantum teleportation to develop a system that could detect a supernova and relay a warning when it occurred, so it makes no sense that a star close-enough to Romulus to threaten it in the event of a supernova wouldn’t be closely-monitored.

Anyway, “the unthinkable happened,” and Romulus was destroyed by this supernova.  Apparently the Romulans were just sitting around on their home planet, waiting for Mr. Spock to save the day with…a black hole…Nero was the leader of a mining team that returned to Romulus to find it destroyed.  He decided to take revenge on Mr. Spock for not getting to Romulus fast-enough to help; both Nero’s and Spock’s ships were pulled into the black hole Spock created to absorb the force of the supernova.  Nero passed through the black hole first; instead of being crushed along with his ship and his entire crew, down to a singularity, this black hole which they just happened to fall through delivered them, unscathed, to the time and place of James Kirk’s birth.  That’s unbelievably stupid, but we’ve already addressed that.

Nero then waited 25 years in the hope that Spock would pass through the wormhole, which he eventually did.  Stupid thing #19 is the fact that Nero never bothered to warn the Romulans that their planet would be destroyed by a supernova in less than 2 centuries.  When Mr. Spock emerged through the wormhole, Nero took him prisoner, commandeering his ship and the remaining red matter, dropping him off on the ice planet they both are on now so that he could watch Nero destroy Vulcan with the red matter.  Stupid thing  #20 is the fact that Vulcan loomed as large as the moon in the sky of this planet; such a close orbital situation would either destroy both of these planets or at least wreck their orbits and send them hurtling into space or into their own star in reality.

It’s about to get real stupid here.  Kirk and old Spock meet the young Mr. Scott on this ice planet.  That’s right, he just happens to be stationed here, so they can meet for the 1st time.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Scottish engineer in a science fiction story, but finding him in this barren waste, especially after Kirk’s utterly implausible encounter of old Mr. Spock, is just too much.  That’s stupid thing #21.  It also turns out that Mr. Scott is the inventor of a teleportation system that allows safe beaming onto a moving object; he just doesn’t know it yet!  So, old Mr. Spock literally says “Here is the equation for warp-speed beaming,” and Mr. Scott has the requisite knowledge to beam Kirk and himself onto the Enterprise.  No need for a retrofit of any equipment, no need for a test-run to ensure that they won’t get left in space due to a rounding error or explode at the speed of light upon beaming onto the Enterprise…No: “Here is an equation,” and now teleportation onto an object moving at warp speed is possible.  You could do it on your own teleportation device at home, just so long as you understand the math involved!  I’m pretty sure applied physics isn’t that convenient.  That’s stupid thing #22.

Onboard the Enterprise, Kirk taunts the young Mr. Spock into hitting him and attempting to strangle him (which is at least an understandable impulse considering how ridiculous this movie has been).  The purpose of this is to invoke a Starfleet regulation that requires an emotionally-unfit captain to relinquish his command to the ranking officer.  Once Acting Captain Spock realizes the extent of his impairment, he relinquishes command…and James Tiberius Kirk, who was a cadet facing disciplinary proceedings that very day, who isn’t yet a regular part of the Enterprise crew, who was just expelled from the ship by the previous acting captain and who just came aboard the ship unlawfully to pick a fight with that same acting captain, takes charge of a capital class Federation vessel.  If you’ll pardon the resort to cliche: “God help us all.”  That’s stupid thing #23.

Now it’s up to the Enterprise to protect Earth from Nero’s insane plan to destroy all Federation home planets, on the theory that “Only then will we (Romulans) truly be safe!”  (Actually, since Romulus was only destroyed because the Vulcans couldn’t come to their aid fast-enough, it seems like the greatest danger to the Romulans is not enough Federation, not too much Federation; did I mention Nero is a genocidal lunatic?)  Anyway, it’s all up to the Enterprise because the Federation fleet again is out of range.  The capital of the United Federation of Planets is on Earth, mind you; Starfleet doesn’t maintain a force in the Solar System strong-enough to defend the Federation Capital or Starfleet Academy from a Romulan mining ship from the future.  That’s stupid thing #24, and yes, by now I do regret deciding to enumerate the things about this movie that annoy me.

Kirk and young Spock finally teleport onto Nero’s vessel for a final confrontation; having been caught in the bowels of the ship surrounded by armed, fanatical Romulans, Kirk and Spock are able to phaser their way to safety.  A series of dramatic fights in a floorless room ensue…There is a room without floors or guardrails on a mining ship.  That’s stupid thing #25; why would anyone design such a ship?

Anyway, in a big climactic battle, red matter spills inside Nero’s vessel, opening a black hole inside it but somehow leaving enough time for communication from the Enterprise for an offer to take Nero and his crew prisoner.  The Liberal Ironist won’t debate the ethics of offering the worst genocidal abomination imprisonment as opposed to a quick, crushing death; he  will debate how there can possibly be any time to talk surrender terms while a black hole is forming in the hangar bay of Nero’s spaceship.  That doesn’t make the cut as a stupid thing, though; it isn’t as dumb and ridiculous as the preceding 25.

Maybe you can see what was coming: While Captain Pike was rescued from Nero, he is promoted to admiral and the movie ends with James Kirk’s promotion to captain of the Enterprise.  James Kirk, who enters Starfleet as a completely-unreliable jerk, essentially goes from cadet to captain after 1 day of active duty.  True, he just saved the capital of the Federation…but is Starfleet sure about this?  What about Mr. Spock?  He clearly acted above and beyond the call of duty, and he did so by the book; indeed, he is a true exemplar of Starfleet discipline and competence.  He also just lost 6 billion of his fellow-specimens, and still managed to act both heroically and gracefully.  What does he get?  He remains 1st officer of the Enterprise.  Ouch.

During a climactic ceremony, now-Captain Kirk approaches a wheelchair-bound Admiral Pike, formally relieving him as presiding officer on the Enterprise.  “I am relieved,” Pike says gracefully, with a warm smile.  So am I, because this absurd, extremely-taxing movie is finally over.

Is there anything worthwhile about this exceptionally ridiculous movie?  Well, Carl Urban makes a truly amazing Dr. “Bones” McCoy.  That’s…about it.  The Liberal Ironist eagerly-awaits a sequel in which the surviving Vulcans under old Mr. Spock’s guidance violate either the reproductive rights of their women or any biomedical ethics we humans could embrace in order to restore their species; an interesting depiction of such a challenging issue could at least allow some good to emerge from this complete absurdity of a movie.

Wait a minute…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture: lousy.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: good.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: lousy.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: good.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: lousy.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: awesome.

Star Trek Generations: lousy.

Star Trek: First Contact: good.

Star Trek: Insurrection: lousy.

Star Trek: Nemesis: very good.

Star Trek: FUBAR: lousy.

Remarkable: After 32 years and 11 movies, the Curse of the odd-numbered Trek remains…

With the World Watching, a Pot Boils

In a previous, very long blog entry I chronicled the events of the first 5 days following the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, a very large nuclear facility on the Pacific coast of rural Fukushima Prefecture, about 155 miles north by northeast of Tokyo.  The title metaphor metaphor exactly captures my thoughts as Japan braces for a worst-case outcome at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant: Partial meltdowns at multiple nuclear reactors, at least 2 of which have breached containment structures.  These developments occurred in the strangest manner possible–at a mostly well-designed (though significantly early-generation) and fully-staffed nuclear power plant that survived a magnitude-9.0 earthquake intact, where the reactors automatically powered down 2 weeks ago and the nuclear chain reaction has long-since ceased completely, where some of the best nuclear scientists in the World were readily-available and many of them were likely obsessing over this problem, where the whole World was watching and where the irony has already been acknowledged that Japan is the nation where the people have the deepest fears of nuclear catastrophe.

This is the setting for might still be the first textbook full-core nuclear meltdown in the World.  For want of water on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, as many as 3 nuclear reactor cores may be heating up into a pile of highly-radioactive slag, melting through their zirconium alloy casings at a temperature of about 2,200 degrees Celsius and plummeting in a molten heap at the base of the reactor’s inner containment structure–still heating further.  The worst-possible outcome would be this: If the uranium core at any of these 3 reactors melts through the hardened steel and concrete of that structure, it will burn its way into the Earth, bubbling down until it reaches the water table.  At that point the superheated water will blast back up through that hole in the Earth as if through the barrel of a rifle, scattering the entire disintegrated nuclear fuel mass into the atmosphere, to be borne where the wind will take it.  In theory the steel inner containment structure of these reactors should prevent the overheating fuel rods from melting through the slab of the reactor like that, but this is now a problem of applied engineering where all of the relevant information about the status of the containment structure and the reactor cores isn’t currently-known.

In any case this multiple meltdown happened in Japan, over the course of several days, with the World watching and with first 800, then a very-dedicated plant crew of 50 risking their lives to prevent it.  Nuclear catastrophe was an explicit fear in the Japanese popular consciousness long before it became a source of fearful speculation among many Americans.  Japanese filmmakers gave us Godzilla as a means of embodying and narrating the destruction caused by nuclear weapons without explicitly ascribing blame to the country that wielded first an atomic (Hiroshima) and then a nuclear (Nagasaki) bomb against them.  2 of the 8 dreams recounted in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams were intense nightmares about nuclear apocalypse.  The latter of these is of an unspecified origin, but the former, “Mount Fuji in Red,” is explicitly a nightmare of nuclear meltdown.  (It ends badly-with the great director hopelessly swatting at a large oncoming cloud of vaporized plutonium.)  Japan long-ago declared itself a nuclear weapons-free zone, and only uses nuclear power because its natural resource endowments are so small that it had to depend upon technical mastery and efficiency to drive its manufacturing powerhouse.

The relationship between nuclear power plant operators and regulators in Japan has come in for pointed criticism in the past for being too cozy, and both TEPCO and the Japanese government have been criticized at different points for not taking every precaution in estimating the danger posed to surrounding communities during this unfolding nuclear crisis.  Still, no one has denied that both the power utility and the government take the problem at Fukushima I completely seriously and are working around the clock to get that plant under control.  And while assisting officials of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission have voiced disagreements about the amount of attention the Japanese have given to cooling the plutonium-hybrid Reactor No. 3 while overheating spent fuel rods at Reactor No. 4 remain exposed to the air, there is no denying that plant workers have been working around the clock in sometimes-dangerous conditions.  So, how could the condition of 3 nuclear reactors get so completely out-of-hand?

The answer lies in a long succession of choices that may appear stupid in retrospect but which probably could not have been anticipated.  It’s ironic that the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck some distance off the eastern Honshu apparently caused no direct damage to Fukushima I, because the trouble started when 3 operational reactors there all successfully powered-down automatically in response to the strength of the quake.  3 specific events seem to have been the cause of the 2nd-worst incident in the history of nuclear power:

1.) Fukushima I’s automatic power-down at Reactors 1-3 removed primary power from their coolant systems.

2.) The earthquake destroyed some of the transmission towers that can bring electricity to the plant after a power-down, thus cutting off the coolant system’s primary backup.

3.) The tsunami destroyed the gas generators that provided secondary backup power to the coolant system.

With these 3 developments occurring over an hour or so 2 weeks ago, everything that has happened at Fukushima I has followed as a matter of course.  The odds of a dangerous malfunction at a nuclear power plant are very low, but to the Liberal Ironist–until about 2 Saturdays ago an unabashed defender of the potential of nuclear power–that sounds like another way of saying we are playing a game-of-chance.  We will have to play this game of chance not only with enriched uranium and plutonium nuclear fuel rods in use at nuclear power plants, but with spent nuclear fuel rods for the same reason.  We nearly lost this game of chance at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant back in 1979, and the Soviets lost this game most-famously at Chernobyl in 1986.  There have actually been several reported low-level civilian nuclear accidents every decade since the 1950s; for perspective, note that Soviet authorities initially tried to keep Chernobyl a secret.  Since we are already committed to play this game-of-chance with all the spent nuclear fuel we have yet to sequester somewhere for tens of thousands of years, we should ask ourselves now: How many times and in how many places do we want to play such an easy-odds but high-stakes game-of-chance, every day?

Or maybe we should be asking the Japanese, the people who take nuclear catastrophe as seriously as any and who now face a triple meltdown 155 miles away from the largest metropolitan area on Earth.  This is what those “long odds of a disaster” look like–this.  If this pessimism about nuclear power sounds too alarmist, the Liberal Ironist will explain himself in upcoming post.  Spoiler: You can have a safe nuclear power plant, but this requires a high level of state centralization for their construction and proper maintenance–and the expense will be so high that the paper efficiency of nuclear power will turn out to be an unreality.  Bite those 2 bullets (and thereby completely repudiate electricity deregulation for nuclear power), and the Nuclear Renaissance might still happen.

Meltdown at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant

This is the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, a 6-reactor commercial nuclear electricity-generating facility owned and operated by TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). Though it cannot be seen at this angle, the Pacific Ocean is just down the bluff immediately to the right. The nuclear reactors are housed in the large, free-standing box-shaped outer containment structures. From front-left to rear-right: Reactor No. 4; Reactor No. 3; Reactor No. 2; Reactor No. 1; Reactor No. 5; Reactor No. 6.

Actually, we have probably seen a quadruple partial meltdown at Fukushima I (or “Fukushima Daichi,” or “Fukushima Dai Ichi,” or just “Daichi” to those who don’t know that it’s their way of designating “I”) Nuclear Power Plant in coastal Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.  It isn’t clear whether a full-core meltdown has occurred at any of these reactors–though Reactor No. 3, a mixed uranium and plutonium design that was recently breached, is the best contender for this status.

This will be the longest blog post I’ve written–not a habit I intend to continue, but I wanted to fix a sequence of events in my mind (and for the convenience of readers to whom these events might be unclear) as I write more about this incident in coming days.

The automatic power-down during Friday’s catastrophic magnitude-9.0 earthquake also shut off the coolant feed for the plant.  Coolant–in this as in most cases water–is most-crucial by far for the physical regulation of a nuclear power plant.  The water that cools a water-boiling reactor such as those at Fukushima I vents out from the top of it as steam, quickly running down a pipe and spinning a turbine before cooling in the large tanks with which nuclear power plants are most-often associated in our country.  Nuclear power plants are attractive in the sense that this process is incredibly efficient–it involves the release of energy from a pure metallic substance at the atomic level–and it is carbon-neutral.  In fact, breeder reactors, which start with uranium and actually produce plutonium as a by-product, are the most-efficient power source yet conceived by humankind.  But the Liberal Ironist doesn’t think any of that is going to matter now, because the coolant that moderates a nuclear power plant cannot be removed from fuel rods or they will start to melt-down.  This is true even if there is no chain reaction going on within them, or if they are spent.

If nuclear reactors power their own water coolant feed and a significant seismic reading (and the March 11th Sendai Earthquake, as it is now known, was definitely significant as it knocked northern Japan 8 feet to the east) triggers an automatic shut-off of the nuclear chain reaction, what is the big deal?  Hasn’t the plant automatically canceled the problem?  Well, no, because even when the insertion of the control rods prevents a chain reaction, the uranium or plutonium fuel rods in the reactor still emit an ambient level of radiation–at each other.  At Fukushima I’s Reactor No. 1, for example, this natural radioactivity is about a mere 3% of the reactors normal top operating capacity–but the unaided process of radioactive decay is enough to slowly heat the uranium or plutonium in a nuclear reactor until it begins to melt–they are metals, after all.  While a water-cooled reactor running at full capacity can maintain a temperature of about 250 degrees Celsius, a fully-moderated reactor without coolant can heat up through naturally-determined radioactive decay to around 3,000 degrees Celsius–the point at which the uranium or plutonium fuel will melt away its zirconium alloy casing and pile on the floor of the reactor container as molten slag.  When this process visibly begins it’s called a partial meltdown; when this transition to a liquefied state is more-or-less completed and this slag begins to eat away at the floor of the reactor, it is called a full-core meltdown.

Yes, the water that flows through a reactor is that important: Some reactors slowly begin to melt-down as soon as it is removed–regardless of whether the nuclear chain reaction continues.  When the reactors powered-down, they also stopped powering their own coolant loops.  The coolant systems for these reactors could have drawn power from the rest of Japan’s grid; but the primary transmission lines from which Fukushima I provides power for the Tokyo area apparently have been damaged, and electricity was unavailable from these.  So the coolant systems for the plant’s reactors had to depend on the gas-powered backup generators.  These switched on and powered the coolant feed without much trouble…until they were destroyed when the massive tsunami washed over Fukushima I’s protective sea wall about an hour later.

This westward view from the Pacific Ocean shows the plant's seaside situation. The backup generators that powered the plant's coolant circulation system were located between the main structures of the plant and the sea wall visible a short distance into the water. While the well-built nuclear plant survived the force of a magnitude-9.0 earthquake quite intact, the tsunami jumped the sea wall and destroyed those generators. Plant workers have desperately worked to keep Reactors 1-3 and spent fuel rods stored in the upper levels of Reactor 4 cool over the past 5 days. As of this writing, they're clearly losing that battle. Reactors 4 through 1 are housed from left to right in the large cubic structures in this picture. Photo courtesy of Agence France Presse and JIJI Press.

Plant workers had one last recourse for keeping their deactivated but excited reactors cool: Battery-powered backup generators.  These worked perfectly–for about 8 hours, at which time the batteries died.  (Batteries do that.)  By the wee hours of Saturday morning, Fukushima’s reactors were starting to boil-off their remaining water and get hot.  This situation led to the active transport of any freshwater available into the coolant intake pipes at recently-active Reactors 1, 2 and 3.

On Saturday afternoon, Japan’s time, a now-famous spectacle occurred at Reactor No. 1:

Fukushima I's Reactor No. 1 sustained an explosion in the upper levels of its outer containment structure. All day emergency cooling had fed water into a reactor that had slowly been heating up. The reactor had become hotter than plant workers realized, as flooding it with water didn't just evaporate the water now; it actually broke the water down into its base components, which they reacted with metlging zirconium alloy in the fuel rods. This case drifted up into the outer containment area of the reactor, where the volatile chemicals ignited a large explosion.

This explosion, of course, got a lot of media coverage (and makes for spectacular video), but mainstream media generally didn’t jump to any conclusions about what they were looking at, and many nuclear engineers brought on to comment said the same thing: “I know this is going to be hard to believe, but that probably isn’t a big deal in the scheme of things.”  Though it took a few hours to determine this, the explosion on Saturday afternoon was caused by hydrogen buildup in the cube-shaped outer containment structure surrounding Reactor No. 1.  The fact that the explosion didn’t involve inner containment or the nuclear fuel in any way was the good news; the bad news was the reason it had happened: Plant workers (numbering about 800 at this point in the crisis, or about 11 times its personnel on a “slow day”) had to let lightly-irradiated steam from the reactor core gather in outer containment before venting it out into the atmosphere, as it couldn’t be directed into the non-functioning coolant system.  The fuel in the core had grown so hot that water being piped in wasn’t just evaporating but actually being broken down into its base components of oxygen and hydrogen.  Oxygen is very reactive in large quantities, and hydrogen is extremely reactive–especially with the oxygen from which it was just separated.   As this built up in the upper levels of Reactor No. 1, it exploded, blowing those levels up.  The upper part of Fukushima I’s outer containment structure were designed to blow outwards rather than downwards in the event of an internal explosion, directing explosive force away from the inner containment structure.

As fresh water for manual supply became scarce, parent utility TEPCO decided to start pumping seawater and a boron compound into Reactor No. 1.  Seawater ruins a reactor, corroding a number of metal components inside it–but Fukushima I is next to the Pacific Ocean, the largest liquid water supply we’ve found.  Boron helps absorb radiation in the reactor–but its introduction to the core would ruin the chemistry that sustains the nuclear chain reaction.  Having been completed in 1969, this reactor was well towards the end of its useful lifespan and was scheduled to be decommissioned in a few weeks; this seemed like a small price to pay to get the situation there under control.  Pumping enough seawater into Reactor No. 1 would be a challenge, but it was definitely doable.

Then Reactor No. 3 began to heat-up to unacceptable levels.  This became clear on their Sunday afternoon–our wee hours of Sunday.  Suddenly plant workers had to double their efforts to keep water flowing into these 2 reactors, eventually giving up on Reactor No. 3 and using seawater there as well.  A second, more-dramatic and fiery hydrogen explosion at Reactor No. 3 Monday morning (our Sunday night) confirmed that the seawater was pumping into the reactor reliably, but that it was very hot.  While the event injured some workers and indicated how urgent it was to continue cooling the reactor, as with Reactor No. 1 the explosion itself posed a problem.  In a few hours, it would become quite clear that it did.

These 4 images show the larger, more-fiery hydrogen explosion at Fukushima I's Reactor No. 3 Monday morning. In terms of the impact on plant operations it was thought to be as innocuous as the hydrogen explosion at Reactor No. 1; it was not. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press/NTV.

Things really started to get out of hand at Fukushima I on Japan’s Tuesday morning: A third explosion was heard at Reactor 2, this one more-muffled than those that destroyed the outer containment structure at Reactors 1 and 3.  The outer structure remained intact, but the pressure gauge for the reactor core plummeted, and the radiation level within the reactor increased seriously.  It appeared that the inner containment structure had been cracked and the core, now partly-melted down, was exposed to the interior of the structure.

Earlier it had been discovered that the hydrogen explosion at Reactor No. 3 on Monday morning had wrecked four of Reactor No. 2’s five coolant intake pipes.  This was discovered after both temperature and pressure were found to have risen sharply.  Plant workers soon realized that Reactor No. 2, which had sent water lost through the broken pipes, had been high and dry for about 2 hours and 40 minutes.  This created a frantic race to pump seawater, the mark of long-term abandonment of Reactors 1 and 3, into Reactor 2 through the one surviving containment pipe.  This didn’t result in any drop in temperature or pressure to the reactor core, making one plant worker desperate.  He opened a steam release valve at the top of the reactor and increased the flow of water into the reactor.  This cause the exposion–a steam explosion inside the reactor.  The steam relief valve at the top of the reactor had jammed; water levels hadn’t risen inside the reactor and pressure was increasing because steam couldn’t be vented-off.

This was the first time a reactor encasement had cracked, exposing those inside a reactor structure to sustained significant radiation.  While such concerns had already been raised about Reactors 1 and 3, Reactor No. 2 now seemed very likely to have experienced partial meltdown.  With the damage to inner containment it wasn’t clear that it could be cooled, and radioactive steam could now spread from the reactor core to the rest of the facility.  It was at this point that TEPCO told 750 of the plant’s 800 on-hand workers to just go home.  From here on, a skeleton crew (under the circumstances) of 50 workers would try to keep the reactors cool.

Shortly after the reactor breach at Reactor No. led to an increase in radiation levels, the outer containment structure of Reactor No. 4–which doesn’t even have any fuel rods in its core right now–burst into flames.  At this point there were more hazards than there were anticipated causes.  In a situation that had either received inadequate attention or simply couldn’t be addressed because of a desperately-stretched manpower and water supply, the spent uranium fuel rods deposited in a “pool” (a standard means of on-site storage for spent fuel rods) had boiled off the top of their coolant water supply and begun to melt at their exposed tip, causing the fire.

This is a fact which actually makes me skeptical of nuclear power: For weeks after being removed from the chain-reaction fission process in a nuclear reactor, spent nuclear fuel rods are sufficiently-concentrated with unstable radioisotope byproducts of the fission process that they will still melt down under their own radiation unless they are also kept water-cooled.

At foreground-left is the mangled heap of Reactor No. 3 after a hydrogen explosion ripped through its outer containment structure Monday morning; in the background is the damaged Reactor No. 4 structure following the Tuesday fire. Reactor No. 4 didn't even have any fuel in its core at the time of Friday's earthquake and tsunami; however, on Tuesday the worst ambient radiation was apparently coming from the overheating spent fuel rods stored in a pool in the upper levels of that structure. The fire exposed those spent fuel rods, raising the first prospect of a significant health hazard to those on the plant grounds since the disaster began 4 days before. Photo courtesy Kyodo News Agency.

If not hopeless, at this point things began to look rather bad.  Radiation levels around the plant rose to around 400 millisieverts per hour, about 160 times Japan’s regulation yearly radiation limit and 40% of the dosage that will cause radiation sickness.  This was because the spent nuclear fuel rods stored atop Reactor No. 4 were exposed to the open air following this fire.  Shortly after this, radiation levels 20 times the normal background exposure are detected in Tokyo.  This increase in radiation exposure in itself is not threatening or even cause for alarm, but it is significant: At the time of this reading in Tokyo, a strong prevailing easterly wind is still blowing most radioactive steam straight out into the Pacific Ocean.

On Wednesday conditions really took a turn for the worse: Reactor No. 3, which contains a uranium-plutonium mix and which previously lost the upper levels of its outer containment structure to a hydrogen explosion during steam release Monday morning, suffered a second explosion which apparently tore open its inner containment structure, releasing higher quantities of radiation than any previously experienced in the vicinity of the plant.  Reactor No. 3 began venting large quantities of steam, and after a while Reactor No. 1 began smoking.  Attempts to keep spent nuclear fuel rods at Reactor No. 4 submerged again failed, and the rods again ignited a fire there; 2 plant workers were apparently lost when this fire broke out, though details are not yet available.  In a report on “the faceless 50” taking most of the risk to control rising temperatures and prevent radiation leaks at Fukushima, the New York Times reports that a total of 5 TEPCO plant workers have died at Fukushima since the trouble began on Friday.  Radiation levels in the air in the vicinity of the plant reached about 1,000 millisieverts per hour.  Exposure to 1,000 millisieverts of radiation in an hour will produce radiation sickness.  The Japanese government, which had overtaken operations at Fukushima I from TEPCO, ordered the remaining 48 plant workers to come back to avoid prolonged exposure to radioactive vapors.

During the hours of human inactivity at the plant, Reactor No. 3 steamed and Reactor No. 1 smoked.  Reactor No. 2, site of the most-troubling deterioration until a reactor with plutonium fuel suffered an interior breach, continued heating up (and probably melting-down) unchecked.  As they left the increasingly-dangerous plant after a long day’s struggle on their own, the plant workers were unable even to confirm that their second attempt to put out the fire by the spent fuel rods in Reactor No. 4 was successful.  Shortly before they left, there was evidence that Reactors 5 and 6, powered-down before the earthquake, were heating up without functioning coolant loops.

During these hours when Fukushima I was abandoned, the whole plant filled with steam until it was almost impossible to see anything there.

The Japanese government’s desperate plan to use a helicopter to airdrop water onto the overheating and exposed spent fuel rods at Reactor No. 4 was canceled on Wednesday–though it was tried to little effect on Thursday; the 48 plant workers returned to the plant late Wednesday after the radioactive steam cleared somewhat.  Overall radiation levels have fallen again to 1.5 millisieverts–far-above background radiation but no longer dangerous.  So, this is where the situation stands on Wednesday in Japan, 5 days after the most-powerful earthquake to strike Japan in over 1,000 years, as 4 dozen nuclear plant workers try to flood 3 increasingly hot and damaged nuclear reactors with seawater and boron in an attempt to cool their fuel rods and further-inhibit their process of radiative heating.  The Liberal Ironist isn’t optimistic about their prospects for getting this situation under control.  It is no longer clear to me that writing these reactors off while there is a prevailing easterly wind wouldn’t be a better strategy.  But in increasingly-unsafe conditions, these dedicated and diligent plant workers confront the worst nuclear incident at Chernobyl–trying, with depressingly-little success, to stop it from getting much worse each day.  The New York Times now makes regular updates on the status of each reactor at Fukushima I on its website.

Fukushima I on Tuesday, March 16, 2011 in aerial view looking west. From left to right: Reactor No. 4, where there was no fuel in the core but spent fuel rods were overheating and releasing radiation; Reactor No. 3, which contains some plutonium but at this time had only suffered a hydrogen explosion in the upper decks; Reactor No. 2, which that morning experienced a core breach that exposed the structure to radiation; Reactor No. 1, the oldest and the first to heat to the point of a hydrogen explosion. The visible damage wasn't caused by the earthquake or the tsunami, but by the inability of the plant's many desperate workers to find an efficient means of cooling these reactors over the previous 4 days. By this time all 4 reactors were overheating, and TEPCO didn't have a long-term plan besides dousing them continually in the seawater-boron mix. Photo by DigitalGlobe-Imagery.

Tunisia and Egypt: What We *Thought* We Knew *Did* Hurt Us

1 month ago, Eric Goldstein wrote a fine retrospective on Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution on ForeignPolicy.com.  It hadn’t been 1 week since kleptocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia after just under 1 month of mounting riots in what had probably been the quietest Arab state since 1960.  Ben Ali’s regime had been a poster-child for “durable autocracy,” the broad theory that an autocratic government could employ certain combinations of mobilizing ideology, redistribution of benefits and spectacles of repression to stave-off popular sovereignty essentially forever.  Ben Ali’s regime wasn’t ideological, but it had been keen to advertise Tunisia’s supposedly exemplary economic development.  Indeed, of all Arab states Tunisia is probably the most-middle class.  (While several oil-drilling “petrostates” on the Persian Gulf have higher overall levels of wealth, several political scientists and economists such as Paul Collier and Michael Ross have convincingly argued that oil-dependence profoundly stunts economic and social–and thus political–development.)  And Ben Ali’s police force had mastered repressive spectacle, sometimes making arbitrary gestures of their impunity just to warn people not to stand out too much.

Then, apparently without giving any indication of discontent beforehand, Tunisia’s government collapsed completely over the course of 1 month.  This revolution was largely the work of 20-somethings who’d had no prior opportunity to develop political experience.  Crucially, when Ben Ali asked the Tunisian Army to fire on protesters in the capital, they abandoned him in disgust.  That was probably not a response most outside observers, inclined by historical anecdote to conceive of the armed forces as an aggregate, pro-incumbency actor, would ever have expected.  Tunisia’s reigning kleptocrat had to flee the country that day.

What I particularly like about Goldstein’s article, aside from some insightful (though admittedly retrospective) observations about Tunisia’s tinderbox status, is his foregrounding of the fact that we were all blindsided by the speed and thoroughness with which the Ben Ali regime fell apart–including the continuation of protests until most of his old cabinet appointees resigned from the interim government.  Following the end of Ben Ali’s 23 years of rule in Tunisia in about 28 days of protests and the much more-dramatic demise Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year “presidency” in  Egypt after just 18 days of peaceful (but violently-attacked) protest, demonstrations have emerged in Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, and even comparatively-democratic Iraq in response to poor service provision and apparently serious corruption by the Governor of Basra.  The violent repression of demonstrators in Bahrain and Libya follows the same old playbook of post-colonial dictators–but so far those demonstrations just keep spreading…and growing.

Whatever happens as these other bids for revolution metastasize, what has already happened in the Middle East should give us pause.  Twice in the past 2 months, selfish and callous despots who created an outward impression of a normalized society for over a generation were overthrown with little to no anticipation in a series of demonstrations that took less than a month apiece.  It has turned out, as dramatically at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union and the democratization of Eastern Europe, that we didn’t know what we thought we knew at all.  Not only for those of us in academic fields such as political science, political theory or sociology, but for laypersons interested in this busy World as well, the events unfolding in the Middle East should fill us not just with humility but with gratitude.  What we have seen is not all that is, and while the disappointments of the past will never cease to influence the present, they don’t determine what’s possible in the future.  We owe this powerful reminder of both our capacity for agency and the brilliant appeal of Liberalism to the various Arab peoples–a series of nations about whom we have generally thought very uncharitable thoughts over the past decade when we have thought of them at all.  Now we can smirk at our naiveté, and wish that the Arab democrats find the wind at their backs.

If you have a few minutes, a wise friend of mine who specializes in Arab politics was actually in Cairo during some of the grim early days of the revolution, and has blogged much more-eloquently about this, contrasting the banality of official corruption to the unexpected courage and enthusiasm of Egypt’s protesters.  He wrote this entry on February 9th, 2 days before Mubarak’s departure and 2 days before he could let himself believe that all this enthusiasm could prevail.  If you can spare a few minutes, his reflections on the eve of the Egyptian revolution’s success are the fitting last word; he has seen first-hand what the Arab lay revolutionaries are up against.