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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Space mining update

Recommended: "Mining in the Last Frontier," by Glenn Reynolds, about a bill now under consideration, known as the Asteroids Act. Excerpts:
The Asteroids Act is short and simple. After instructing the president and all agencies of the U.S. government to use their powers to facilitate space exploration and exploitation, it provides that "Any resources obtained in outer space from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of federal law." In other words, if you mine it, you own it.
...
Things here on Earth aren't going so well at the moment, but we're actually in the midst of tremendous progress — most of it by private companies — with regard to human activity in outer space. The Asteroids Act is a significant step in taking things to the next level. I hope that Congress passes it.
Me: Here's hoping. I've been interested in this sort of thing for a long time, since well before this Reason piece I wrote in 1998. Sooner or later some broader framework will be needed (as I sketched out in Reason), when it comes time for, say, building hotels on the moon or other things that are not just about extraction and asteroids. Still, the Asteroids Act is a good step in the right direction (up).

UPDATE: For a different perspective (though not specifically about the Asteroids Act), see "Moon First—Mine the Asteroids Later," by Paul D. Spudis.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mideast hall of mirrors (updated)

Who knows if anything the Iranian government is saying is true? As in this:
Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking on Iranian state television, said his government privately refused American requests for cooperation against the Islamic State group, warning that another U.S. incursion would result "in the same problems they faced in Iraq in the past 10 years."
Or, to get it more directly:
If true, it's a failure for U.S. diplomacy, but also not very smart on the part of the Iranians. Not just because ISIS poses an obvious threat to Iran's interests, but because there's a whole other war waiting to happen sooner or later, and here was a chance to help avert it. Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry argued a few days ago that war between Iran and Israel is all but inevitable (and put the blame largely on the Obama administration, for its actions in Libya that showed that giving up your WMD is a mistake).

I don't tend to believe in things being "all but inevitable" but certainly that Israel-Iran war scenario is only made more likely by Iranian unwillingness to cooperate even against a common, profoundly evil enemy. It undercuts the "rational actor" theory that's offered for not worrying too much about Iranian nukes. Then again, who knows if anything the Iranian government is saying is true?

UPDATE 9/18: Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad, speaking in New York yesterday. I've only had time to watch part of it so far, and will watch more later.


UPDATE: Watched much of it, including the end. Many interesting things, but the ending wasn't particularly in keeping with his "new thinking" theme:

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The climate-foreign policy nexus [updated]

Here's some dreary news:
Levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose at a record-shattering pace last year, a new report shows, a surge that surprised scientists and spurred fears of an accelerated warming of the planet in decades to come. 
Concentrations of nearly all the major greenhouse gases reached historic highs in 2013, reflecting ever-rising emissions from automobiles and smokestacks but also, scientists believe, a diminishing ability of the world’s oceans and plant life to soak up the excess carbon put into the atmosphere by humans, according to data released early Tuesday by the United Nations’ meteorological advisory body.
Such information gets only a fraction of the attention it deserves, in no small part because many people have convinced themselves there's no problem. Amid the current international turmoil, climate change will probably get even less attention than it typically does. There is a tragic irony there, in that foreign policy problems and environmental problems are not unrelated; on the contrary, they are intimately connected by the nexus of fossil fuels.

Civilization's heavy reliance on fossil fuels is a key contributor to climate change, through the mechanism of the greenhouse effect--and at the same time is a key contributor to geopolitical trouble, through the mechanism of revenues to trouble-causing states and terrorist groups. Putin's Russia and socialist Venezuela are buoyed by fossil fuel revenues, as are numerous bad actors in the Middle East. (Fossil fuels also cause environmental and geopolitical problems in other ways, ranging from oil spills to the need to keep supply lines open by policing the Persian Gulf with aircraft carriers.)

Reducing fossil fuel reliance would make sense even if there were no climate change problem; and is an imperative given the climate issue. Lamentably, recognition of the interrelated nature of these problems is scant across the political spectrum. On the right, objection to supposed "alarmism" about the climate blinds many to fossil fuels' relevance to national-security threats that are otherwise perceived as pressing. On the left, environmental alarm is intense, but expressing concerns about fossil fuel revenues to malefactors tends to be avoided as so much saber-rattling. (The concern that climate change itself is a national security threat gets play instead, and while it is valid, it is by and large a longer-term consideration than what enemies are doing with fossil fuel revenues right now.)

Occasionally, there are hints of some concordance between "national security hawks" and "climate hawks," as they have been dubbed, but the friction of divergent world views has prevented anything like a meaningful coalition from developing. Such a coalition might press for a carbon tax and stepped-up renewable energy research, citing the full range of reasons such things make sense (including fiscal ones). Thirteen years after 9/11 and facing a new Middle East war, even as carbon continues to build up in the atmosphere and oceans, it's high time for such a coalition to take shape.

UPDATE: An interesting piece: "The Republican Party's Secret Stance on Climate Change."

UPDATE 9/10: Just came across this from a few days ago: “I don’t think we really want a commander-in-chief who’s battling climate change instead of terrorism.”-- Rand Paul. Note to self: Never vote for Rand Paul. UPDATE: All the more reason.

Foreign policy update

I read this Robert Kagan piece "America's Dangerous Aversion to Conflict" with initial interest, followed by growing boredom. Analogies to the 1930s are such a stock part of conservative foreign policy rhetoric that it's a wonder there's no app for them. Some wording about Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy being "fatalistic" also struck a tinny note. (That policy was in fact quite activist and creative, which is basically the opposite of fatalistic.) I recently expressed my disagreements with the ill-considered and poorly argued non-interventionism at Reason, but Kagan's essay is a good reminder that neoconservatism has its own formidable blinkers, as Jacob Heilbrunn points out.

What the U.S. needs is to be smarter than its enemies, or at least not manifestly dumber, and to have what's sometimes called, a bit pretentiously, "grand strategy." That strategy should include, sometimes, making common cause with enemies, against worse or more pressing enemies, and thus making judgments about which enemies can potentially be given a more benevolent status. Insofar as the U.S. is now working with Iran, or will do so, that reflects a belated recognition that sometimes governments that hate each other still have reason to work together. In the aftermath of 9/11, that recognition went by the wayside, with unfortunate consequences spilling down to the present.

Inasmuch as we do live in a period remotely similar to the 1930s, that's all the more reason why we need to be building up alliances, de facto and de jure, including in some cases with traditional enemies. If there's anything that's "fatalistic," it's assuming that this can't be done.

UPDATE: "Obama Should Play Nixon and Go to Iran."

UPDATE: "2014 Is Not 1931," though it is true, as has been noted, that Chamberlain wasn't PM in 1931 either.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Contemplating foreign policy at Reason

I've been reading the non-interventionists at Reason magazine, trying to assess what their preferred non-interventionist foreign policy would actually consist of. Here's Sheldon Richman: "Let's Have Some Honesty and Realism at the NATO Conference," explaining that the fault for the Ukraine crisis belongs to the U.S. and the West for having expanded NATO years ago, and concluding:
Yet another manufactured crisis — costing over 2,000 lives. It could be brought to a speedy end if Barack Obama would give the word.
Me: What word? What is Richman asking Obama to do? It's only implied, but apparently the answer is to expel Eastern European countries from NATO. Or is it to disband NATO altogether? (The latter would effectively follow from the former at this point anyway.) And if that means more countries would fall under the domination of an aggressive dictatorship, we should be willing to accept that, because--libertarianism. But how come a piece demanding honesty avoids saying any of that?

Also, here's Jacob Sullum complaining--rightly--that Rand Paul has flip-flopped on confronting ISIS. True enough, and one of the many dispiriting things about a Rand Paul presidency would be watching him engage in endless cartwheels between his father's positions (on domestic and foreign policy alike) and political expediency or, I would argue in some cases, sanity. Sullum states plaintively: "Paul still has not explained why the problem of ISIS is one the U.S. has to solve."

What exactly would have been involved in the U.S. deciding it wasn't going to participate in a response to that problem? (It's a strawman to complain the U.S. is trying to solve that problem singlehandedly, though admittedly some hawkish rhetoric plays into that misconception.) Let's see. In early August, the U.S. could have done nothing to help the Yazidis, beseiged and starving on a mountaintop, or to arm the Kurds, whom ISIS was attacking, or to prevent ISIS from controlling the Mosul Dam (and breaking it to cause a massive flood if they so chose). Humanitarian disaster on a vast and growing scale? Not our problem, because--libertarianism.

If that policy had been followed, perhaps ISIS would've been too busy slaughtering its local enemies to turn its attention to the U.S. anytime soon. Perhaps they would have refrained from murdering two U.S. journalists who were already in its captivity. Why is murdering Americans even a casus belli?, Sullum asks. I would suggest that every U.S. administration since that of George Washington, who warned against "entangling alliances," would regard it as such, though it is true that not every murder by some despicable group begets a U.S. military response. Some contextual thinking is required.

In this case, for example, we are talking about a terrorist group and rapidly growing self-declared state that is an even more brutal offshoot of a terrorist group that has already attacked the U.S.; and which controls a large swath of territory and has major funding, including oil revenues; and exerts an ideological appeal over alienated Western thugs and sociopaths and attracts recruits with each battlefield success. Imagine if, say, in 1944 some new Nazi movement had arisen, dismissive of Hitler as not aggressive enough, and retaken the Germany-France borderland after our troops had moved through. Would that have been not our fight?

And here's Nick Gillespie a few days ago:
Despite the claims of hawks and ISIL itself, the terrorist group is hardly an existential threat to the West any more than al Qaeda was. It can and should be contained and squeezed down everywhere as much as possible (this is not something that mandates either an interventionist foreign policy or expansive security state at home).
Me: How do you contain them and squeeze them down? The non-interventionist way of doing that remains unclear to me. And if they're not an "existential threat," are they some other kind of threat? And if they become a larger threat--with say multiple cells in the U.S.--will we then be hearing it's too late to do anything about it?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Fossilized dinosaur eggs or pebble bed nuclear reactor left by aliens?

Contractors laying down drainage beside our house (which is in northern New Jersey and was probably built in the 1940s) dug up hundreds of white spheres, each approximately 3/4 inch diameter.


They are of hard material and not easy to break, though we did split one with a sledge hammer. They seem to be stone, all the way through.


Folks at the Bergen County Historical Society were kind enough to give me an opinion, based on a photo and description, that these are white marbles. What do you think, Ray Haupt?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Troubled world watch

I suggested last March, as I had before amid growing international problems, that the U.S. needs a "foreign policy president," i.e., someone who knows what he or she is doing in foreign policy and who is highly focused on the subject. By 2016, I predicted, the world would be troubled enough that foreign policy will be a crucial factor in the choice of the next president.

My friend and colleague Gil Weinreich weighed in that America's culture and its academic culture in particular make it unlikely that such a president, however needed, will emerge. (Note: As always, here on my blog, I write in a personal capacity and not as a representative of any employer.) I thought he had an interesting point, but in any case I underestimated just how fast and far the world situation would deteriorate. As snapshots of such, I recommend Gil's article "U.S. Sleeps as 9/11 Approaches" and Anne Applebaum's "War in Europe Is Not a Hysterical Idea."

In fact, I have not seen the world situation ever look as dangerous and bleak as it now does, which is to say in decades. I can pinpoint the moment that I first started paying some attention to what was happening in the world: I was a kid who regularly read the sports and comics page of the New York Daily News, and then one day out of curiosity I turned to the paper's front to see what was there; it was an article about the U.S. Embassy being evacuated in Saigon.

As any readers of this blog can attest, I have not been a fan of my own party, the Republicans, in recent years, and I have tended to be averse to knee-jerk GOP criticism of President Obama. I was put off some days ago by William Kristol's complaint that Obama was doing "nothing" about ISIS when in fact Obama had ordered a bombing campaign against that metastasizing group of murderers and scum. However, in light of the vacillating and inept behavior of the president and administration in recent days (see here and here), on top of previous vacillation and ineptitude, it is evident to me that it's not just some spate of bad luck that has made the Obama second term a foreign-policy nightmare.

There can be little certainty about how things would have gone if something else had been done at some point in the past. It is an open question to me as to whether the situation in Iraq would have been better if the U.S. had negotiated an agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay in Iraq (how many troops? And would their presence have meant more--or possibly less--leverage over what happens there?). Arming the Kurds and working closely with them, our most reliable allies in Iraq, seems to me a key element of what was needed, and is very belatedly happening.

Moreover, here is a consideration that should have been obvious: Once you start bombing somebody, especially vicious terrorists such as ISIS, you don't then revert to your nuanced deliberations and take the pressure off. Obama's failure to kill those bastards on both sides of the Syria-Iraq non-border, and to do it fast and relentlessly, was a misstep that will have ample opportunity to evolve into a great tragedy. The lesson should have been that if you join those thugs, there will very soon be nothing left of you. This president, it is clear, acts when circumstances force his hand. May circumstances do so, now.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Glamour update

Some time ago, I reviewed Virginia Postrel's The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion. In the current issue of Research magazine, I interview Virginia on related topics for a Wall Street audience.

Monday, August 18, 2014

GOP future possibilities

A terrific article by David Frum in Foreign Affairs: "Crashing the Party: Why the GOP Must Modernize to Win." Read the whole thing if you're interested in U.S. politics and, especially, a Republican contemplating the future of your party. Excerpt:
Any aspiring center-right party hoping to succeed today must match its core message of limited government and low taxes with an equal commitment to be culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible. In the United States, with all its global responsibilities, there is an additional necessary component: a commitment to U.S. primacy that is unapologetic yet not bellicose. The passage of time will help Republicans get from here to there, bringing new generations to the stage and removing others with outdated ideas. Repeated defeat administers its own harsh lessons. But most of all, new circumstances will pose new challenges -- and open up new possibilities.
As David later points out, in a paragraph that opens with "Conservatism should be thriving in the United States" and lists several Obama administration failings:
Instead of market mechanisms to deal with climate change, the Obama administration has ordered up a new system of bureaucratic regulation of carbon emissions.
Me: Speaking of new possibilities, there would be, in Obama climate policy, a suitable target for the GOP if the party had not become so invested in denying there's a climate problem in the first place. Perhaps more Republicans will start listening to Eli Lehrer, whose advocacy of a carbon tax is the subject of a savvy Bloomberg View piece by Christopher Flavelle. Otherwise, we'll just have to see if the coming Naomi Klein phase of the climate debate helps center-right types define themselves against the hard left, or just gives hard-right types an excuse to continue dismissing the whole subject.

In any case, I highly recommend Frum's piece, including an apt point about Bob Dole's 1996 rhetoric.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Climate minus capitalism

Every once in a while I think there's some prospect that a reasonable degree of consensus will form on climate policy such that effective action can be taken. Such action, in my view, likely would consist of some combination of a carbon tax (accompanied by cuts in other taxes, but not necessarily revenue-neutral) and (partly as a consequence of that tax) stepped-up public and private research and development of advanced technologies that would reduce or counteract greenhouse gas emissions. Further, a combination of taxes on carbon-intensive imports, and international competition to be at the forefront of profitable new technologies, would spur international action along similar lines, in my hopeful vision.

Every once in a while I see signs that conservative and libertarian circles that have resisted such ideas are coming around to the imperative of taking action on climate change, as with the Energy and Enterprise Initiative and the Risky Business project. Resistance to climate solutions and to acknowledgement of human-caused climate change as a problem, is a prime reason why have I been a disaffected escapee from conservative and libertarian circles in recent years. Looking ahead, I have considered the possibility that climate politics will undergo a shift whereby the right is more willing to take action (and the left possibly becomes less willing to do so, though in my optimistic view I hope that reluctance can be overcome) as such action comes to include large-scale energy technologies and possibly geo-engineering.

But lest I get too optimistic, there's always some counter-evidence to suggest that human folly and ideology will persist far too long and far too strongly to enable the climate problem to be addressed with even a minimum of adequacy. Often, such counter-evidence comes from the right, but sometimes it comes from the left. Case in point is this post, "Everything Changes," by D.R. Tucker, which anticipates an upcoming book by Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Klein apparently argues, as her subtitle suggests, that there is a fundamental incompatibility between capitalism (or even more fundamentally, economic growth) and sound climate policy, and Tucker is excited to see her impact on the debate, with Klein set against people like Henry Paulson, Bob Inglis and Paul Krugman, who all take what we may call a "compatibilist" view. Tucker:
The question of whether the climate crisis can be resolved by fixing flaws in capitalism or fixing the flaw of capitalism is the most compelling political, ecological and economic question of our time. Only a debate between Klein and an advocate of the Krugman/Paulson/Inglis view can provide an answer. That debate will indeed change everything. 
Me: The "incompatibilist" view that to avoid climate disaster we must scrap capitalism and economic growth is not new (see for example this 2012 Grist post) but it is likely that Naomi Klein's book will give it a visibility it has not had previously. Probably this in turn will have some effect of hardening right-wing opposition to climate action on such grounds as "look, the greens have now acknowledged that their aim is to impose socialism and/or a reversion to a pre-industrial society without refrigerators."

Leaving aside its unfortunate impact on climate messaging, the deeper problem with the incompatibilist view is that it's wrong. It is wrong because it fails to see the disastrous record that non-capitalist and low-or-no-growth societies have compiled over the decades, centuries and millennia in managing their environmental impacts, from mammoth hunters in the Pleistocene to the Soviet treatment of the Aral Sea. It is wrong because it fails to take into account the human misery that would be involved in a deliberate suppression of economic growth, and how such a suppression would undercut prospects for remediation or adaptation in the face of climate change. (See Bangladesh.) It is wrong for thinking that a no-growth regime could be imposed by anything short of totalitarian methods and that it wouldn't ultimately be overthrown. (See Nicolae Ceaușescu.)

On a brighter note, the comments under Tucker's piece suggest that the putative incompatibilist Klein view and Tucker's provisional enthusiasm for it generated some healthy skepticism among readers at the liberal Washington Monthly, so maybe my optimism isn't misplaced after all.

Film note: The Unknown Known

This was a notably disappointing movie. Errol Morris thought he could make another The Fog of War and instead he got hours of Donald Rumsfeld saying basically nothing.



It's hard to imagine what's in the many hours of footage Morris didn't use. The filmmaker has said that he knew more about the decision to invade Iraq before interviewing Rumsfeld than after, which strikes me as plausible. I had a review of a worthwhile book about Rumsfeld here.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Film note: Captain Phillips

Got around to watching Captain Phillips, which had been on the list for some time.

 

I found it impressive, though I was wondering about historical accuracy. Afterwards, I was struck by the negativity of this New York Post article "Crew members: ‘Captain Phillips’ is one big lie." This History vs Hollywood piece helps put that in somewhat better perspective; besides the good casting (a lot of these people look like the actors), it seems that the film presented a reasonable picture of what happened, even if it underplayed some of the captain's failings and overplayed his virtues. Anyway, Somali pirates in reality seem to have jumped the shark, so fortunately there may not be too much material for future movies in this vein.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Libertarian moment again [updated]

A long and reasonably interesting piece in the NYT: "Has the Libertarian Moment Finally Arrived?" I tend to doubt it, and have written on the subject from the standpoint of a fairly disaffected onetime more-or-less adherent. See, in particular, "How Did Libertarians Lose Their Way?" and also "Libertarian Revolution? Not Exactly," along with David Frum's "Were the Founders Libertarians?" I have quite a few disagreements with the various strands of libertarianism today, and anticipations of a "libertarian moment" remind me of the old saying about nuclear fusion; that it's "the energy of the future--and always will be."

UPDATE: This Salon rejoinder "Ron Paul’s no Nirvana, and this isn’t the 'Libertarian Moment'" makes apt points that economic insecurity is not conducive to libertarianism and that there's no sense conflating libertarianism with disenchantment toward the two parties. Surely, some people are fed up with the Republicans because they don't like some of the more libertarian-friendly aspects of the GOP: the yearning for "hard money," for instance, or belief in making Kansas bloom with tax cuts.

UPDATE 2: Also see Chait, "No, America Is Not Turning Libertarian," which includes a dead-on rewriting of the original article's description of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

UPDATE 3: To get a sense of the repetitive and clichéd nature of "libertarian moment" prognostications, I recommend Googling "libertarian moment."

UPDATE 8/10/14: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then … well, I don't know that happens then. Here's Nick Gillespie on why non-libertarians shouldn't scoff:
It's because something new and different is in the air. You can see it in the bizarre, black-swan cashiering of politicians as varied as former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the sitting Democratic governor of Hawaii (who just lost his primary). You can see it in historically low ratings not just for Congress as an institution but in the way people feel about their own representatives. Mostly, though, you can see it in the way people are living their lives beyond the puny, zero-sum scrum of politics, where people as different as Glenn Beck and Glenn Greenwald are building new forms of media and storytelling and community. Whatever else you can say about politics as bloodsport, Obama sucking even worse than Bush, etc., this much is true: People are also getting on with their lives and building new businessess, communities, and worlds in ways that are pretty damn amazing.
Me: I am highly averse to my congressman, Rep. Scott Garrett, who was an enthusiast of debt-default confrontation. There's no clear basis for assuming that if people don't like their representatives, it's because the representatives are insufficiently libertarian. In my case with Garrett, the final straw was more the opposite. I don't admire either Glenn Beck or Glenn Greenwald, but their inclusion here strikes me as suggesting that a very wide range of phenomena are being adduced as evidence for a libertarian moment or era or whatever. Also, saying there's something "in the air" makes me snort.

UPDATE 8/11/14: I'll give the final words in this post to David Frum: "Why the 'Libertarian Moment' Isn't Really Happening." An excerpt:
Despite the self-flattering claims of libertarians, the Republicans' post-2009 libertarian turn is not a response to voter demand. The areas where the voting public has moved furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction—gay rights, for example—have been the areas where Republicans have moved slowest and most reluctantly. The areas where the voting public most resists libertarian ideas—such as social benefits—are precisely the areas where the GOP has swung furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction.

Nor is it the strength and truth of libertarian ideas that explains their current vogue within the Republican Party. Libertarians have been most influential inside the GOP precisely where they have been—and continue to be—most blatantly wrong, such as when they predicted that the cheap money policies of the Federal Reserve would incite hyperinflation or that the United States teetered on the precipice of a debt crisis.
 And another:
Like all political movements, libertarianism binds together many divergent strands. It synthesizes the classical liberalism of the 1860s with the human-potential movement of the 1960s. It joins elegant economic theory to the primitive insistence that only metal can be money. It mingles nostalgia for the vanished American frontier with fantasies drawn from science fiction. It offers three cheers both for thrift, sobriety, and bourgeois self-control and three more for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.  It invokes the highest ideals of American constitutionalism—and is itself invoked by the most radical critics of the American state and nation, from neo-Confederates to 9/11 Truthers.
Me: I could not agree more. You can't take the wheat with the chaff when the chaff has spread out of control. When I saw the continued and even stepped-up libertarian insistence on a gold standard in recent years in economic conditions that gave no indication whatsoever of the desirability of a gold standard, I knew that I was watching an ideology that had become divorced from "epistemological humility."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Odds and ends: AI, ISIS, DREAMers

Posting will continue to be light. This is a busy summer. A few items I've found interesting:

-- "Elon Musk Is More Dangerous Than AI." A fascinating piece in h+ magazine. It includes this cogent point:
Reality check: A machine that hunts and kills humans in large numbers wouldn’t need to be more intelligent than an insect. And yes it would be super dangerous to make such machines especially if we add in the idea of self replication or self manufacture. Imagine an insect like killing machine that can build copies of itself from raw materials or repair itself from the spare parts of its fallen comrades. But notice that the relative intelligence or lack thereof has little to do with the danger of such a system. It is dangerous because it has the ability to kill you and is designed to do so. The fact that this machine can’t play chess, converse in English, or pass a Turing Test doesn’t change anything about its ability to kill.
Me: For some background on this overall subject, see my recent piece "Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan?"

-- "Will the U.S. Help the Kurds Fight ISIS?" and "To fight the Islamic state, Kurdish and Iraqi forces need expedited aid." This is a moment when the deliberative, temporizing, conciliate-your-enemies-and-sell-out-your-friends approach to foreign policy is particularly inappropriate.

-- "Rep. Steve King Grabs Latina Woman's Wrist: 'You're Very Good At English' (VIDEO)," at TPM.  I have little sympathy for anti-immigration sentiment in the GOP (which is still my party, by the way) and I'm not a fan of either Steve King or Rand Paul, who in the latter case made headlines by rushing away at the first sign of confrontation with a couple of "DREAMer" activists. But reading the headline above and then watching the video reminds me of the smug tendentiousness of outfits like TPM. The Latina woman, handing King a business card and inviting him to rip it up, was not there for any kind of reasoned discourse but rather to goad him into an angry response on camera. Instead, he sought, vainly, to have a conversation with her. As for Paul, I can't blame him for leaving as he did.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Interstellar (nerd movie)

I noted this upcoming movie with anticipation before. After seeing the latest trailer, my expectations have gotten yet higher that it's going to be good.

Conservatives vs nerds [updated]

Here's a fight between two camps that I've been part of over the years. I refer to conservatives vs nerds, as exemplified in Charles C.W. Cooke's National Review piece "Smarter Than Thou," and Andrew Leonard's Salon rejoinder "National Review declares war against the nerds." Having written for National Review and various other conservative (and libertarian) magazines, I gradually became a centrist in recent years. Having freelanced at Scientific American and long written and edited on science, and having watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Neil DeGrasse Tyson's version, both with overall approval, I am indisputably a nerd, and that is a category that is hard to shed.

There's some truth to Cooke's complaints. The nerds do tend to assume that their science and their politics mesh more seamlessly than they do--that their politics are enlightened, as they see it, because of the same critical thinking that prompts scientists to rely on evidence and reject dogma; that liberal or progressive ideas are largely a function of intelligence and knowledge; and that science denialism is so manifestly a right-wing thing that any manifestation of it on the left is a minor mote by comparison.

But...I've spent a lot of time in recent years documenting how conservatives have played into the liberal stereotype of them as being dumb denialists in recent years. I won't rehearse all that here. See this and this and this, for starters.

Moreover, look at what Cooke identifies as one of the two distinguishing features of nerd culture: "the belief that one can discover all of the secrets of human experience through differential equations" (the other being the belief that they're smarter than everybody else) and then head over to this noteworthy interview of physicist George Ellis by John Horgan at Scientific American: "Physicist George Ellis Knocks Physicists for Knocking Philosophy, Falsification, Free Will." It's noteworthy above all because Ellis has many interesting things to say, but also because he's saying them at Scientific American, which I think one can fairly locate at close to the epicenter of nerd culture.

Ellis is making some of the same sorts of complaints that Cooke is--about what's sometimes called "scientism," a tendency to extrapolate scientific ideas and techniques beyond their applicability and to dismiss philosophy and other extra-scientific thinking as extraneous or obsolete. Surely, that's going to upset the sensibilities of anyone holding "the belief that one can discover all of the secrets of human experience through differential equations"--and yet there it is at Scientific American. Perhaps, nerd culture does have a considerable self-critical aspect to it, and thus potential for growth and change.

Can the same be said of the conservative movement at this time? It has had its internal critics, but they've largely become external in recent years, like me, or they speak sotto voce. The nerd culture has its flaws, but the conservative movement in its present state is ill-positioned to critique them.

UPDATE 8/1: Perusing the comments to Cooke's piece, I saw one fact checking point (I'm disappointed at not having caught it myself): Cooke describes Tyson as "director of the Hayden Planetarium at the New York Science Museum," which is incorrect and nonexistent. [Later: they fixed it.]

UPDATE 8/4:  A curious post by Ezra Klein at Vox: "Revenge of the conservative nerds." It reads like the opening of an interesting article, and then just ends. (I looked for the "next page" link after reading the line "His World of Warcraft guild could probably crush Obama's.")

One more UPDATE 8/4: Noah Smith:  "Cooke and the empire he serves are losing their battle against the advancing nerds, but they’re doing collateral damage as they retreat."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Cabinet memoirs [updated]

I mentioned recently that I was reading Hillary Clinton's Hard ChoicesContrary to my initial perception, it's not a dull book, even if it does have the caution one might expect of someone who's likely to run for president imminently. If I had been on her team of writers, I would have angled for something a bit more provocative, but nonetheless it's a worthwhile look at how a broad range of foreign policy issues developed during her time at the State Department. That the world is in such turmoil now cuts both ways in my assessment of her; clearly, for instance, the "reset" with Russia didn't achieve much; and some problems that have hit the headlines lately, such as the ascendancy of gangs in Central America, surely were festering under her watch. On the other hand, that things got worse after she stepped down from State suggests she was doing some things right.

Robert Gates' Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War has of course a different tone, coming from someone who seems to have no interest in further public employment, and his less diplomatic view of Washington workings makes for an interesting contrast with Clinton's book. Reading her book inspired me to turn to his, which I did while often cross-referencing between the two to see how they handled the same people and events differently. One noteworthy passage is his high praise of her, which may net her some votes among swing voters. As one might expect, Gates was highly focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during his tenure; indeed, he was critical of people in the Pentagon who suffered from "next-war-itis." That's understandable, and though Gates doesn't say so, Donald Rumsfeld showed some of the dangers of being too focused on what's ahead over what's here. Still, there's an obvious need for some balance of crisis management and advance planning, and this very interesting book would have benefitted from more discussion of where things are heading.

I ought to make it a trifecta by reading No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, especially given my suggestions that Condoleezza Rice just might have a step up or two yet to make in the career ladder. If and when I get around to that, I will report back.

UPDATE 7/28: I've now read Rice's biography of her pre-Bush administration years  Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family and started on No Higher Honor. I'll write something about both of those down the road.

UPDATE 7/30: Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family is certainly an interesting story; it was a good choice to tell her pre-Bush life story in the context of family. At times, the tone is a bit detached; in the discussion of 1963 strife in segregated Birmingham, I suspect that is because she was too young and/or too traumatized to remember it well. The step-by-step look at her rapid career ascent through 2000 is particularly striking when set against the backdrop of her early childhood.

I've now read about 100 pages of the 700-page-long No Higher Honor, going through 9/11 and its immediate aftermath. It's somber reading, and partly because one sees Bush administration mistakes as they form. In the bureaucratic fights described, my sympathies are very much with Rice and Powell, though that is largely retrospective wisdom. See by contrast this piece I wrote in 2003, which reads rather poorly in 2014. Besides war matters, her discussion of the Kyoto protocol and how the administration failed to provide an alternative response to climate change--without seeming to give it much thought--is disheartening. That she knows it was a blunder is to her credit.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

South Dakota: uncrowded splendor

Living in the most densely populated state makes one all the more appreciative upon getting to the fourth-least densely populated: South Dakota.

Not New Jersey.

A week-long trip in the Black Hills, centered on a cousin's wedding, enabled visits to many and diverse attractions, including Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, as well as horseback riding and a jeep safari to see bison in Custer State Park.

Bison in Custer State Park.

Wind Cave.

Oglala Lakota grass dancer at Crazy Horse Memorial.

If you're in the area, also be sure to see Brulé, an excellent Native American music group that performs with a dance troupe.

video

Monday, July 7, 2014

Summer reading list

I've acquired the following books lately (some as review copies) and have found time to read parts of some of them, as discussed below. All conclusions are tentative, as I haven't completely read through any of them.


Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology, and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics, by Mark Buchanan. This is by a physicist and science writer, who writes at Bloomberg View and elsewhere. His critique of economics is caustic; I suspect a book on this topic written before the financial crisis would've had a more detached tone. He argues economists place too much confidence in markets being in equilibrium, giving too little weight to the causes and likelihood of crises. That seems plausible to me. Other than a Hyman Minsky book I read at some point in college, I don't recall delving much into crises, bubbles and meltdowns as an economics major in the 1980s.


Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, by McKenzie Funk. I skipped to the last part of this book, which has a fascinating discussion of geoengineering, a subject I have been following with growing interest. I was unaware, or at best dimly aware, of the company Intellectual Ventures' focus on the subject, which evidently got a fair amount of publicity a few years ago. On a related note, see this piece by my ex-Sciam colleague David Biello on "Engineering the ocean."



 The System Worked: How the World Stopped Another Great Depression, by Daniel W. Drezner. I have not had a chance to read enough of this yet to have even a tentative response. I've found Drezner often interesting as a blogger over the years.



Hard Choices, by Hillary Rodham Clinton. As I've become more of a centrist, the likelihood has grown that someday I would read a book by Hillary Clinton, and not just view it through the filter of the conservative press. I also think the growing disarray of Obama foreign policy in the past year and a half is a point in her favor, as it suggests she was helping hold things together until then. However, I have only read the first chapter (in which she agrees to join the "team of rivals") and saw some worrying signs that this is going to be a very cautious, and therefore dull, book; hope I'm wrong.

Note: As usual with this blog, the book links are to Amazon, and potentially could generate some share of revenues for me from transactions that occur after readers click through on them.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Wall Street AI risks

At Research magazine, I look at a dark scenario: "Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan?" Excerpt:
No less a scientific name than Stephen Hawking has been raising alarms about out-of-control AI. In a recent opinion piece, Hawking and several scientist co-authors warned: “One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.” 
In an era of grandmaster-beating chess programs and driverless-car prototypes, it is no surprise that anxieties about where such technology is heading have gained traction. Nor is it a surprise that critics target the tech sector and the Pentagon (especially the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA) for working on increasingly powerful systems that may one day outsmart, outrank or outlive us all. (A UN meeting in Geneva in May convened experts to discuss emerging “lethal autonomous weapons.”) 
What might be surprising is the idea that Wall Street could give rise to dangerous AI—not in the obvious sense that financial institutions raise capital for the tech sector, but in that financial technology itself might be the matrix for the rise of the machines. That is the gist of one emerging line of thinking about the dangers of smart computers.
Whole thing here. Some related writing by me is here.