December 9th, 2010

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • Acts of Minor Treason's Andrew Barton discusses how science fiction writers have neglected to include the costs of launching things into space form Earth into their plans for interstellar imperium.

  • Bad Astronomy highlights the recent discovery of a high-mass but very low-density planet orbiting a red dwarf that seems to have an atmosphere of steam.

  • Castrovalva's Richard R dislikes Karen Armstrong's approach to religion, first stripping it of many of its identifying features, then defending it from criticism of religions generally while representing her version as normative, then expecting it to be taken up by the population at large. No, no, and hell no.

  • Daniel Drezner--author of a book on zombies and international relations--produces</ai> a template for zombie-themed articles, including zombie as metaphor, et cetera.

  • Lawyers, Guns and Money observes that South Korea has raised the stakes with its doctrine of quick response to North Korean attacks.

  • At The Power and the Money, Noel Maurerhas hope that German recognition of the costs of a Eurozone breakup will make Germany support more radical actions in support of endangered currency partners.

  • Gideon Rachman reconsiders his earlier belief that WikiLeaks was irrelevant on the grounds that it's conforming that the public face of US diplomacy does substantially reflect private opinions, to say nothing like bleak American views of Russia or the suggestions of US troops fighting alongside Pakistanis.

  • Strange Maps' Frank Jacobs discusses a mid-19th century plan to shift the American capital to a site more centrally located relative to the expanding country's geography, as a way to strengthen the United States' unity and further its progress. Compare Brasilia, if you would.

  • Sublime Oblivion reposts a WikiLeaks cable from former American ambassador to Russia, William Burns, really a great author. This cable discusses the corruption and cynicism of the war in Chechnya, discussing particularly the role of economic factors, including control of oil, as well as the handing-off of Russian sovereignty to local warlords.

  • Window on Eurasia suggests that the Karakalpak, a Turkic minority group related to the Kazaks living in the environmentally devastated west of Uzbekistan, by the Aral Sea coast, are being provoked by their environment's collapse into separatism.

[LINK] "Downtown councillors shut out of Ford’s priority committees"

The Globe and Mail's Kelly Grant lets us know about the geographical distribution of power on City Council.

The council committees overseeing the budget, labour relations, the Toronto police and the Toronto Transit Commission have all been stacked with councillors from the former inner suburbs, most of whom lean to the right and are allied with the new mayor.

Some of the shunned councillors argued the downtown could wind up being ignored without at least a token presence on such important committees.

“There are practical issues around how to simply make the city function that require input from people in different corners of the city because different corners of the city are built differently,’ said Ward 20 Trinity-Spadina Councillor Adam Vaughan, who will no longer sit on the Toronto Police Services Board.

In fact, all three of the former council representatives on the police board have been or will be replaced by Michael Thompson and Chin Lee of Scarborough and Frances Nunziata of York.

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday – the chairman of the striking committee, which doled out committee slots that council later confirmed with one exception on Wednesday – said Mr. Ford couldn’t be expected to empower his enemies.

“[Mr. Ford] has got an agenda that they don’t support,” Mr. Holyday said of the 12 councillors whose wards are entirely within the boundaries of the old city of Toronto. “How could he put them in key positions?”

The ideological divide on Toronto city council was even more apparent than usual Wednesday with some progressive councillors donning pink as a light-hearted rebuke to Don Cherry, the hockey personality who lambasted “pinkos” and “left-wing kooks” at council’s investiture ceremony Tuesday.

“I wanted to restore dignity to pink and to the council chambers,” said Councillor Janet Davis, clad in a fuchsia blazer nearly as loud as the jacket Mr. Cherry wore as the mayor’s special guest.

[LINK] Two links, two odd planets

  • In Andrew Fazekas' National Geographic "New Planet Found; Star's Fourth World Stumps Astronomers", the fourth planet of the very young and pretty bright young star HR 8799 turns out to be a very odd one indeed. How could it have formed where it did?

  • [T]he fourth world challenges current theories of planet formation, according to the study authors.

    "This is the first multiplanet system directly imaged so far, so it's quite a feat," said lead study author Christian Marois, an astronomer at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Canada.

    "But we are now stuck with four planets [and] we cannot explain their formation and their current locations by any of our models."

    The previously known planets around HR 8799 are about five, seven, and ten times Jupiter's mass. They orbit between 2.2 billion miles (3.5 billion kilometers) from the star—roughly the same as Neptune's distance from the sun—and 6.3 billion miles (10.1 billion kilometers), or almost twice Pluto's distance.

    [. . .]

    Images from Keck II show that the newfound planet is also a gas giant, about seven times Jupiter's mass. But it orbits closer to the star, at a mere 1.4 billion miles (2.2 billion kilometers), equivalent to between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus.

    [. . .]

    It's thought planets in general form out of the disks of gas and debris that surround many young stars. One model for how gas giants form is called gravitational instability, in which a perturbation in the disk causes a clump of material to suddenly coalesce into a gassy planet.

    The other model is core accretion, in which material first clumps into a rocky core, and the core then gravitationally gathers nearby gases. (See "New Model of Jupiter's Core Ignites Planet Birth Debate.")

    According to Marois's team, the problem with such widespread gas giants is that they all couldn't have formed the same way. Too far from the star and there's not enough gas for core accretion to work, but too close and it's too hot for debris to become gravitationally unstable.

    "The system is either just too young and the planets are just too far away and don't have time to form before the gas in the disk is depleted, or they are too close and the disk is too warm to form planets," Marois said.

    Gas giant planets have been found in orbits close to their parent stars, sometimes even closer than Mercury is to the sun. In these cases, many experts believe the so-called hot Jupiters may have formed farther away from their stars and then migrated closer over time.

  • Meanwhile, the CBC reports in "Carbon-rich planet may have diamond core" that the first carbon planet--a planet developed in a solar nebula carbon-rich and oxygen-poor--may have been found in the extrasolar planet WASP-12b.

  • Reporting in the journal Nature, Nikku Madhusudhan and colleagues from Princeton University say the planet WASP-12B has an atmosphere with equal parts carbon and oxygen.

    Madhusudhan said that's double the ratio of carbon to oxygen seen in planets in our solar system, and has implications for the planet's internal structure.

    "The high carbon-to-oxygen ratio indicates a carbide or diamond interior rather than the silicate geology of the Earth," he said.

    Madhusudhan said the planet's atmosphere is abundant in carbon monoxide, and has considerably more methane and less water than would be expected for a planet of this temperature in our solar system.

    "If WASP-12B's host star has a carbon-to-oxygen ratio similar to the sun, then it's difficult to explain the ratio in the planet's atmosphere," he said.

    Because the planet passes in front of and behind its star as viewed from Earth, astronomers can use multi-wavelength spectroscopy to directly view the planet's atmospheric chemical composition and thermal structure.

    Madhusudhan said these observations have revealed the absence of a strong thermal inversion — the difference between night and day temperatures.

    "The ability to also see the planet's daytime side just before it passes behind its host star as seen from Earth allows us to take accurate atmospheric temperature readings at different locations," he said.

    According to Madhusudhan, WASP-12B, which is 871 light years from Earth, orbits 40 times closer to its host star than our planet does to the sun.

    Being so close, the star's tidal forces are distorting the planet into an egg shape, which generates tidal heating.

    The star is also slightly hotter than the sun, giving the planet a surface temperature of more than 2,200 C.

    [BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Why the EurAsEc isn't such a big deal

    I'd like to thank S. for pointing me to this news story (the first link is Russia, the below text is in English from a separate article).

    Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan today agreed to create a fully fledged common economic space by 2012 after the three nations set up a customs union this year.

    The three nations signed 17 joint documents to create a common economic space and invited other former Soviet republics to join the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC).

    "At their summit Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have taken the decision to create their Customs Union and Common Economic Space," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced after the Kremlin summit of the EurAsEC Inter-state Council.

    "We have laid the foundation of real, true integration within the Customs Union and EurAsEC," Medvedev said at the joint press conference with his Belarus and Kazakh counterparts.

    He said that this opens the opportunities for the free flow of capital, services, ideas and single economic policy just like in the European Union.

    "This absolutely a different quality of life. The significance of such integration became especially obvious at the time of financial-economic crisis, when EU could ensure support to its member nations and prop the rate of common currency," Medvedev said giving the example of the European Union and urged other members to carry out economic and financial reforms to join the EurAsEC.

    Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenka said twenty years after the demise of the USSR, the three former Soviet countries with a total population of 170 million through economic, political and defence integration are moving towards a Eurasian Union, which will become a powerful player on the global scene.

    This is the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia that we're talking about, not the closely related Eurasian Economic Community that includes Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well, with Uzbekistan as a member of suspended membership and Ukraine, Armenia, and Moldova as associate members. It's been suggested that Ukraine might join the customs union, but its internal political issues seem likely to prevent that. Conversely, the dependence of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on Russia (and Kazakhstan) as markets and as destinations for migrant labour makes likely that they will join</a> soon. The stated expectation is that, contrary to fears that a customs union might delay these countries' membership in the World Trade Organization, things will be fine.

    Is this notable news? Yes, inasmuch as the economic unification of the geographical core of the former Soviet Union--excluding Ukraine, mind--is notable news. If this integration actually comes off, that is; any number of previous post-Soviet integration plans have failed, although this one seems different. The Times' Tony Halpin wrote about some of the underlying goials of this from a Russsian foreign-policy perspective.

    Were Ukraine to sign up, there would be a common economic space encompassing the “Big Four” republics of the Soviet era, with a combined population of 213 million and stretching from the European Union to China. Its political, military and economic centre would be in Moscow, where Mr Putin is expected to reclaim the presidency in 2012 for up to 12 more years.

    A common currency would give him an economic lever to challenge the US dollar and the euro by creating a regional reserve currency. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin stated last month that Russia, as the world’s largest energy supplier, may soon sell oil in roubles.

    A restored union also offers Russia a chance to “bulk up” as it fights for survival between the EU and Chinese giants. Its industry is outdated in comparison to Europe and out-priced in labour costs by China, so a future beckons as supplier of energy and raw materials to both economies. Mr Putin has no interest in competing on price in these markets with Kazakhstan or Ukraine.

    Other ex-Soviet republics would find it hard to resist the gravitational pull of a single currency and economic space. Armenia’s economy is almost completely owned by Russian companies already, neighbouring Azerbaijan would risk Russian meddling in the frozen conflict over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and struggling Kyrgyzstan has already accepted a $2.15 billion (£1,6 billion) bailout from Moscow.

    That's fine. Would--will--very much change? Assuming that this actually existing customs union was a political bloc under Moscow's control (which it isn't), the population of the three states effectively under the control of Moscow would rise from 143 million to 170 million, a notable increase but one that would do relatively little to alter its rankings globally, with a population smaller than that of any of the BRIC states and Indonesia (though larger than Bangladesh, Nigeria, and perhaps also Pakistan) and one that would still be shrinking. Aggregate GDP would be larger, but per capita GDP would be smaller since Russia's two smaller partners--never mind Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan especially--are at best on par or more frequently below Russian GDP per capita levels. But such a centralized polity isn't in existence, and isn't likely to exist because Belarus and Kazakhstan are countries run by people and inhabited by people who see themselves as nations distinct if not separate from the Russian. Certainly no one's talking about Russian military deployments.

    So, cool. Congratulations on the successful integration project, and may it continue as far as the participants might want it to!

    [LINK] "Collapse, stagnation, and explosion – Myspace, Yahoo!, and, Facebook"

    GNXP's Razib Khan created an interesting infographic the other day.

    A tale of three firms via Google Trends. I’ve been checking in on Facebook’s numbers in Google Trends for years to see if I can see evidence of plateauing. Not quite yet. Interestingly all three companies were drawing similar search traffic on Google at the end of 2008, after which Myspace began its long descent, while Facebook had an inverted trajectory, and Yahoo! kept muddling along….

    For the record, I'm active on Facebook, I use my Yahoo! account as a public E-mail address, for my E-mail discussion lists, and for my Flickr account, and I've not touched MySpace not least because each time I visit a MySpace page on my old desktop the browser crashes.

    [LINK] "Australia’s dangerous economic divide"

    According to the Globe and Mail's Andy Hoffman, just like Canada Australia is seeing an economic divide emerge between its resource-rich peripheries (northern and eastern Australia there, western Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador here) and its more densely populated, more urbanized, and more historically central "core."

    Australia [has a] “two-speed” economy: booming in the West – owing to soaring Chinese demand for commodities such as the iron ore mined here by BHP Billiton (BHP-N89.351.551.77%) – and struggling in the East. The resource boom in Western Australia has put the country at risk of contracting a classic case of what economists call Dutch disease, creating a commodity-powered currency that punishes industry outside of the mining and oil and gas sector. It has also spawned a tricky monetary policy dilemma for Australia’s central bank as it tries to rein in resource-driven inflation while at the same time creating conditions that foster economic growth in the rest of the country.

    But Western Australians have little sympathy for Eastern woes. Inadequately funded infrastructure, health care and education in the West is fuelling contempt for the economic and tax policies of the central government in Canberra and the lifestyle of Australia’s southeastern residents, such as those in Sydney and Melbourne.

    “We make all the money and they spend it,” says Rick Yeates, a mining-sector veteran and the head of Middle Island Resources Ltd.

    Australia’s growing economic schism reads like an extreme version of the increasing friction between the resource-focused provinces of Canada’s West and the manufacturing and financial services-driven economies of Ontario and Quebec. Down Under, the global commodity boom has created a dangerous economic divide.

    [. . .]

    Western Australia barely felt the tsunami of ill effects caused by the global financial crisis and is expected to continue leading the Australian economy’s growth in the near term.

    According to Canberra-based Access Economics, growth in regions endowed with minerals and oil and gas will far outstrip growth in the country’s more populous states next year.

    Western Australia is expected to enjoy gross state product (GSP) growth of 4.9 per cent in 2011. Northern Territory GSP is forecast to grow at 4.3 per cent and Queensland’s at 3.9 per cent. Meanwhile, New South Wales will grow by just 2.9 per cent and Victoria will grow by 3.6 per cent, slightly ahead of Australia’s overall growth forecast of 3.5 per cent.

    It looks like the efforts of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to introduce a mining tax that wold have had a redistributive effect on mining wealth--similar in intent to the hugely controversial National Energy Policy of Pierre Trudeau in 1980--brought him down.

    Australia’s mining sector and the state government of Western Australia went apoplectic over the proposed levy, which originally aimed to tax 40 per cent of the profits from Australian mining companies and shift royalty payments away from state governments.

    In response to an unprecedented lobbying effort led by the largest mining companies operating in Australia, including BHP, Rio Tinto Ltd. and Xstrata PLC, the central government was forced to back down, reducing the tax to 30 per cent of profits and limiting it to major iron ore and coal miners.

    Still, the botched attempt to extract more government revenue from the mining sector, which complains that Canberra’s investment in infrastructure in Western Australia and other isolated resource areas has been appalling, cost the prime minister his job.