Thursday, April 23, 2015

Mini-review: Aferim!

My friend and occasional co-blogger Dan and I went to see this at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight: Aferim!

I can't say I recommend it. It's a story of man's inhumanity to man, presented brutally (especially at the end) but without sufficiently well-drawn characters to create much feeling of connection to them, and paced in a slow manner that sinks into the tedious. I do feel I know something now about Romania in the 1830s, and certainly the film shows some skill and originality. But its main effect, I found, is depressive. The title means "Bravo!" by the way, though this has only tenuous connection to the story.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Silber family history

Recommended reading: "Russian Jews should heed lessons of history," a Jerusalem Post op-ed by my friend Alexei Bayer. Some family history of my own is included in the opening paragraph.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Stop teaching math?

A dreadful article at Bloomberg View: "Want Kids to Learn Math? Stop Teaching It." Via Twitter, I called it to the attention of Edward Frenkel and Keith Devlin, whose reactions were as negative as mine. (The thread is here.) However bad things are in math education currently, one shouldn't underestimate how much worse they could become, and conveying to kids that math beyond some basic arithmetic is something that only a small segment of the population ought to concern itself with is surely a fast track to a dystopia populated primarily by mentally enfeebled Morlocks.

I speak as someone who, even though not exactly lacking intellectual self-confidence growing up, decided too early and too easily that developing mathematical abilities was not where my talents lay. My efforts to rectify that, which I wrote about recently, are ongoing and, oddly enough, fun.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fact check: Josh Marshall on James Woolsey

Political punditry may not be noted for its high intellectual standards, but you would think a prominent commentator such as Josh Marshall, editor of TalkingPointsMemo, would be able to offer some substantiation for a negative claim he made about a public figure. Here was Marshall on March 26, in his post "The Cruz Troika" about three foreign policy experts that Cruz "trusts most." (What exactly Cruz's relationship with these guys is was left vague.) After writing about Elliot Abrams and John Bolton, Marshall went on to say this about former CIA director James Woolsey:
After the respected neoconservative and the clownish warmonger you have a guy who might simply be certifiable: former CIA Director James Woolsey, perhaps the champion at being the biggest purveyor crap in the lead up to the Iraq War, which is saying something because the competition is intense. He may be the only former high level official still holding on to Saddam Hussein being the mastermind of 9/11.
Me: I was intrigued by that, and wanted to know what exactly Woolsey had said, and when. So I asked Marshall via Twitter.

And he answered:

So I did some searching around, finding that Woolsey had written a foreword to Mylroie's book "Study of Revenge." The foreword is dated 9/27/01, which is a few weeks after 9/11, and in it Woolsey obliquely suggests the possibility that Iraq may have been behind 9/11, noting that this becomes more plausible if "time proves that Laurie Mylroie is right about what happened in 1993" (i.e. that Saddam was behind the first World Trade Center bombing).

Given the foreword's hedged wording and even more so its long-ago timing, it clearly fell far short of substantiating Marshall's claim, so I tweeted him again.

That was four days ago, and I'm still waiting for a reply. Meanwhile, in my searching, I also found that Marshall in 2004 was castigating Woolsey thus:
Amazing. Jim Woolsey is on Lou Dobbs show, as I write. He continues to press the Iraq-al Qaida link, suggests only that it's not clear Saddam 'ordered' the 9/11 attacks (my recollection, I haven't seen the transcript yet), and goes on to accuse Clarke of being crazy or thoroughly lacking in credibility because he accuses Woolsey, Laurie Mylroie and others of saying what they have in fact been saying for years. A through-the-looking-glass performance.
Me: I looked up the transcript and here is the Woolsey interview (click to enlarge):

Me: Notice that this is a few years after Woolsey wrote the foreword to Mylroie's book, and Woolsey is still not saying that Saddam was the mastermind of 9/11. Nothing I have found that is more recent comes any closer to backing Marshall's claim about Woolsey's persistence in his alleged position.

So, as it stands, I have not found substantiation that Woolsey is "still holding on to Saddam Hussein being the mastermind of 9/11" and I have not found that an effort to "look up his work with Laurie Mylroie" leads to such substantiation. If evidence backing Marshall's claim exists, he should produce it. If Marshall can't do so, he should run a correction and apology.

For the record, I have no connection to Woolsey and no firm opinions about him. Also, I don't like Ted Cruz and would want neither him nor Lou Dobbs to be president of the United States.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Progress report on learning math online

I've been studying math lately, as noted in the post below. I'm now in the 6th week of Prof. Keith Devlin's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking," which runs either 8 or 10 weeks depending on whether you stop after the Basic Course or continue through the Extended Course. The latter is described in the course description as being particularly difficult:
Students who struggle with the Basic Course are likely to find the additional two weeks of the Extended Course extremely difficult, if not impossible. Note also that the final two weeks of the Extended Course are more intense than the Basic Course, being in part designed to give students a sense of the pace of a university-level course in pure mathematics. Moreover, in Week 10 there is a series of fairly tight deadlines you must meet, with 48 hour turnaround times. [Emphasis in the original.]
Me: We'll see how that goes, as I've been hoping to make it through the Extended Course and get the Statement of Accomplishment With Distinction that comes from passing it. I've found the course highly interesting and will have learned a great deal regardless of how far I get. The overall course emphasizes logic and proofs, and is designed to give a sense of how mathematicians think (in contradistinction to the emphasis on following instructions that characterizes much K-12 math). At times, I have struggled with the concepts, though my weekly test results have been generally decent (with one exception), with scores equivalent to about 87, 87, 41 (oops), 96 (comeback) and 86.

The course is not particularly oriented toward visual thinking, but I have found some visualization helps in grasping the concepts. Here is what I drew and wrote for a homework problem. [Added: SPOILER: Don't read the image first if you want to answer the question yourself.] The question was: "Prove or disprove the claim that there are integers m, n such that m2+mn+n2 is a perfect square." I drew and wrote the below, and posted it to a class discussion board (along with a question as to whether and to what extent "visual proofs" are acceptable):

A fellow student pointed out that my diagram doesn't match the algebraic expression m2+mn+n2, which is true. If I were to do it over, I'd leave one of the mn boxes out or cross-hatch it or something. My basic idea that the claim is verified by making n zero seems to have some merit.

Here is a report from someone who took the same course a couple of years ago. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed, including about finding the course very interesting and enjoyable, and also about this:
Assignments are not submitted for marking (but a helpful feedback video is made available in the next week in which Devlin explains how to answer a selection of the questions). In the first few weeks of the course Devlin puts a very prominent amount of emphasis on the need for all students to discuss the course with others in an informally established study group. In my case I chanced on and joined a Google Group called “Mathematical Thinking UK Discussion Group”. This initially had about 40 members. About seven were helpfully active in the first three weeks, but the study group has seemingly since ceased to function. So I am on my own: it feels a bit late in the day to try to find another study group, nor to attempt to breath life into this one.
Me: That mirrors my experience very closely, as I was part of a weekly Google Hangout study group, which started off very promising and then progressively wound down into nothingness. I gather the dissolution of such groups has a lot to do with people quitting the course (considerably more that, I suspect, than with people finding the course easy and deciding they don't need a study group). The statistics posted by the professor weekly show that, while a large number of people are enrolled (over 38,000, from all over the world), they vary in activity or lack thereof; and those who actually hand in the weekly test, or Problem Set, are a small and declining subgroup (under 1,500 at last count).

In any case, I've become a big fan of online courses, a remarkable and unprecedented resource (and one that for now at least is often free). Edward Frenkel, who did much to inspire my newly heightened interest in math, has an upcoming (and seemingly not too time-consuming) class, which I've signed up for as well. Whatever limits I encounter in my online education, it's clear to me that I've learned much already, and that this has been time well-spent.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How I became interested in math decades after studying it [updated and moved to top]

I've recently taken a strong interest in math, a subject in which I was not a particularly distinguished student decades ago. Math is highly relevant to many economic and science topics I've covered as a journalist; and has become a growing political issue involving how it should be taught (or in some misguided arguments, whether it's really much needed); and it's a personal issue for those of us with school-age children. I've come to a growing sense of all of that, as well as of what a fascinating, fast-changing, extensive, profound and, I think, socially under-appreciated field math is in itself.

A key factor in inspiring this outlook was an excellent book I recently read, Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, by Edward Frenkel. I've been in touch with Frenkel and hope to write about his views soon in a professional capacity. Another factor was reading the Simons Foundation's magazine Quanta, which provides much absorbing coverage of math and its diverse intersections with science.

Moreover, we live in the time of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. I've now taken Jo Boaler's online course "How to Learn Math: For Students," which I found interesting and helpful, and have signed up for Keith Devlin's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking." While I surely will not be making a mid-career shift to mathematician, I do hope to become progressively better at thinking and writing about topics in and around math. I have nothing to lose except the sour and befuddled feeling that I took away from calculus long ago.
Originally posted 1/20/15.

UPDATE 3/2/15: My interview with Frenkel, geared for an audience of financial advisors, is in Research magazine: "How Math Will Shape Wall Street's Future."

Also, now that I'm a few weeks into Keith Devlin's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking" course, I can confirm that it's extremely interesting and will not be the last math MOOC I take.

UPDATE: More on Devlin's course here, and a bad idea noted here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A snapshot of the left-right fight over science

At The Federalist, David Harsanyi has a list: "Here Are The ‘Science’ Questions Reporters Should Ask Politicians." The piece is in keeping with a theme voiced by many conservatives that the recent questioning of Scott Walker about evolution was tendentious "gotcha" journalism (which it was), and that liberal/progressive journalists and politicians who hector the right about science are often ill-informed about science themselves (which is true).

I've written (a lot) about skewed science on left and right, and concluded provisionally that there's plenty wrong with the left on this score and--at the present time--even more wrong with the right. To glean some of both side's deficiencies, I recommend scrolling through recent tweets by Harsanyi's Federalist colleague Sean M. Davis, who responded to journalists' derision of Walker by pressing them about what they know about punctuated equilibrium and other topics involving evolution. Fair enough--but: Davis's amusing screed also included some statements that are misleading at best:
Me: Macroevolution is commonly defined as evolution at or above the species level, and there is debate about questions such as whether the mechanisms of microevolution (change within species) are sufficient by themselves to account for change of one species to another, and the relative importance of the mechanisms. Complicated, certainly. Controversial? Only if one means the details of how macroevolution happens. That it happens--more specifically, that  new species arise from earlier ones-- is not controversial within the scientific community. At all. Davis's implication that there is some raging scientific debate about the existence of speciation is false. Plus, using the distinction between micro- and macroevolution spuriously is a tactic from the creationist playbook.

Me:  I never went to j-school, but I have written about both the multiverse and evolution on many occasions. And to the best of my knowledge, Davis's claim here, that multiverse theories developed because of problems with Darwinian gradualism, is false. I say "to the best of my knowledge" because there's no way to rule out that some scientist somewhere may have thought along such lines, but if so that certainly was not typical of how ideas about the multiverse arose.

In saying this, let me make clear that I think one motivation--among others--for receptiveness to the multiverse (the idea that there are many universes) was to bat away a particular strand of thinking that the laws of physics give evidence of an intelligent "fine tuning." There were other and I suspect more important motivations, particularly that theories of cosmic inflation (and also cosmological natural selection) inherently imply that the creation of new universes would happen more than once; there's no clear reason why the needed conditions wouldn't happen again and again.

But even agreeing (as I do) that some scientists like the idea of a multiverse because it weakens certain claims for design, let me be clear that the claims in question are not those of Darwinian gradualism but rather those of fine-tuning (e.g., that life could not have evolved if say the strength of gravity or mass of the proton were slightly different). Importantly, the more fine-tuning in physics you have, the less reason you have to doubt that biological evolution would occur. Fine-tuning means a life-friendly universe, whereas standard creationist/Intelligent Design arguments against evolution rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the idea that the universe is not life-friendly enough for biological evolution to occur. If you're someone who (a) wants evolution to be true and (b) is worried that gradualism is improbable, positing a multiverse is at best a change in subject.

Sean M. Davis's statements about macroevolution being controversial, and about the multiverse being a response to Darwinian gradualism's improbability, suggest a weak grasp of evolution and cosmology alike, and that his perspectives on these matters are heavily influenced by creationist/Intelligent Design critiques from far outside the scientific mainstream.

Now, as I mentioned at the outset, David Harsanyi has a list of questions for politicians. Their import, I think, is that Democratic politicians will stumble over these, out of ignorance and/or a desire to not offend the liberal base by stating scientific facts that the base doesn't know or doesn't want to accept. But if the point is to denounce tendentious questions by giving examples of some, Harsanyi certainly has done so. For example:

Is nuclear power the safest energy in the world? According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, around 70 percent of scientists support nuclear power development because it is. Yet large number of liberals oppose and stand in the way of science.
Me: No. The linked poll asks whether scientists support nuclear power, not whether it's the "safest" source of energy. It would be difficult to make a scientific case that nuclear is "safest" compared to say solar or windpower (birds notwithstanding), but far more plausible to say that nuclear is or with proper regulation can be a good idea, given its risks and benefits.

The Harsanyi list is filled with questions that make little sense. Do you believe carbon dioxide is detrimental to human existence? fails to acknowledge the obvious distinction between something being detrimental in a general, let alone absolute, sense and something being detrimental at certain levels or in certain ways; it also blurs whether something is detrimental in a direct way or indirectly. But I am not entirely clear whether Harsanyi thinks Democratic politicians would stumble because these questions are so probing or because the questions are so dumb (or both). I find the questions more dumb than probing.

I'm all for pointing out when liberal/progressive/Democratic pundits and politicians purport to be "sciencey" without foundation. But in doing so, conservative writers should have a firmer grasp of the subjects they're talking about than is evident in the Harsanyi/Davis responses to the Walker kerfluffle.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Advice on (not) being a journalist

In an excellent post at Bloomberg View, journalist Megan McArdle offers some career advice, under the paradoxical headline: "You Want Advice? Don't Ask Journalists." She comes down largely on Felix Salmon's dour side versus Ezra Klein's upbeat one in a debate over whether young people today should go into journalism. McArdle:
So when kids who are passionate about writing ask me how they can get a job doing this thing that they love, I don't tell them to follow their bliss; I tell them there are a lot of things they can love. I loved building computer networks. I loved business school. This is a fantastic job, and believe me, I count my lucky stars every day that I have it. But there are a lot of fascinating things in the world. Go get a job doing something in an industry that is not struggling so hard to get people to pay for their products. 
And if you find, in the end, that you have to write, you will be a better writer for actually knowing something about an industry other than the production and consumption of white papers. One of the biggest weaknesses of modern journalism, and modern politics, is that none of the people in them have any idea what it is like to work for a regular company. Organizations are very different from the inside than the outside, in ways that are not obvious to you until you've lived through a couple of executive bloodlettings and experienced the high-stakes tedium of the annual budget process. If you want to report on the military or global development or poverty programs or health care, go work for that industry and come back with some actual knowledge that you did not gain from earnestly asking insiders how they do their jobs. You'll not only be a better reporter, but you'll also have something to fall back on if your outlet folds.
Me: I could not agree more with the above. In fact, even before journalism's plague of financial difficulties in the past decade, it would have been good advice to spend at least some time immersing yourself in some industry or field other than journalism, so as to develop expertise that, besides its own merits, would also improve any journalism you might do at some point in writing about that area.

Not that being an expert outside of journalism is any guarantee against producing awful journalism even about one's area of expertise. I was genuinely shocked the other day by another Bloomberg View post, this one by economist Noah Smith, that went on at length based on a confusion of "billion" with "trillion" and thus made hash out of what could have been a cogent critique of something Rand Paul had said about the Fed. Smith's piece, now minus the Emily Litella paragraphs, is here.

As I wrote recently, I've been working lately on expanding my knowledge of math. One reason for this is that I want to be able to write more capably about math-related topics and about math itself, a vast field that in my view deserves more and better journalistic coverage than it tends to get. If I were giving advice to a young person considering a journalism career, I would include a suggestion that he or she get exposure to some technical subjects, and so know something journalism types don't tend to know.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Winter 2015

This is and will be a busy winter, with current projects including writing a book review involving nature and childhood, taking an online math-related course at Stanford, keeping up my column and editorial duties at Research magazine, and importantly, writing my Erie Canal/DeWitt Clinton book. Posting at this blog is going to be sporadic for some time to come. Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Quantum computers in finance

My January column for Research magazine looks at the implications for financial advisors of a futuristic technology. Excerpt:
Quantum physics, or quantum mechanics, is a scientific field focused on the behavior of subatomic particles. It is notoriously arcane, using math to describe phenomena that run counter to common-sense assumptions. Particles, for instance, can exist in a state of “superposition,” where such properties as location or speed are defined by a probability distribution rather than a single, definite number.
To illustrate that point, much popular-level writing about quantum mechanics has invoked “Schrödinger's cat,” an imaginary scenario (discussed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in the 1930s) in which a cat in a box supposedly can be both dead and alive, since its fate was determined by a particle process that yielded only probabilities.
Contrary to the impression one might get from reading some popular treatments, however, most physicists are not inclined to believe in dead-and-alive cats. Rather, they see superposition as a delicate state that is difficult to maintain in systems involving numerous particles (and effectively impossible in a large, active object such as a cat).
Such matters might seem far removed from the everyday concerns of financial advisors. But actually, quantum mechanics may end up being a subject of pressing importance in the advice industry. Whether that is the case depends on what happens with quantum computing, a technology that is now in its infancy but which—if its proponents’ ambitious visions are on target—could reshape finance and much else.
Read the full article: "Can Advisors Handle Quantum Computers?"

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Controversial messages to aliens

There's a discussion about seeking and contacting extraterrestrial intelligence this month at Cato Unbound: "Politics, Social Theory, and SETI." It includes some effort to connect the topic to libertarianism, this being a venue of the Cato Institute, but the main focus is on whether "active SETI" or "METI" (often called Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a good idea, with the balance of opinion so far being 'no' and Robin Hanson even throwing in a suggestion that we scale back radio astronomy as an activity that might send a relatively easily detectable message out inadvertently. David Brin's lead essay has a lot of interesting angles, though I'd tinker with his description of the math (the left side of the Drake equation is N).

I've long been interested in this overall subject, as with this review (which originally was planned for Reason but perhaps didn't have enough of a libertarian angle for them). I'm no enthusiast of METI, which strikes me as having less upside than downside; I would prefer that such activity be delayed until some time when we know more about what might be out there (but what that knowledge might consist of and how much of it we need is hard to say). Still, restricting METI, let alone radio astronomy that might reveal our presence, requires some very murky risk assessment. For all we know, it's only if aliens do know we're here that they won't use this solar system for some sterilizing experiment or such. If, notionally, the risk of extermination by aliens who pick up our signals is anywhere near one in a billion, then unlike Hanson I'd be happy to shrug off that risk.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Let us praise io9

Lest I appear, based on the entry below, to have given up on any hope for journalism's future, let me say a positive word for io9, which has impressed me not only with a good deal of its science and sci-fi coverage (and ability to straddle that line) but also with how it's largely avoided the sleaze and obnoxiousness that generally characterizes the rest of the Gawker empire. I'm impressed in particular right now by Annalee Newitz's apology and fix for running a one-sided piece about lab animals.

UPDATE: I should mention I came across above topic via Walter Olson.

TNR RIP [updated]

Opinion journalism is not what it used to be, and if I'd known what it was going to become, I would have been a great deal less inclined to become involved in it a couple of decades ago. I spent a lot of time reading The New Republic in the nineties, and while I was overall to the right of the magazine, what I read there definitely taught and influenced me in various ways. Admittedly, I found it less interesting in more recent years, but its prospective new incarnation sounds like a true descent into journalistic and business hell. A few recommended readings:

"Is There a Peter Principle for Investors?" by Dan Drezner, Washington Post.

"A Eulogy for The New Republic" by Jonathan Chait, New York magazine.

"The incredible imploding New Republic," by Kirsten Browning, Muck Rack.

"New Republic Staffers Resign En Masse," by Dylan Byers, Politico.


I'm also pretty amused by the seemingly upbeat tone of this tweet by an NPR reporter doing an early relay of the news; "punches the accelerator" indeed:
And as for Guy Vidra, the new guy in charge there who reportedly aspired to be a "wartime CEO," he seems to have gotten his wish.

UPDATE 2: Andrew Sullivan has a post that happens to have the same headline as mine.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Slowdown and baseball balloon

Quicksilber began in Dec. 2007 and has had some periods of fairly high activity and others of relative dormancy. I expect Dec. 2014 will not be a particularly active time on this blog. Meanwhile, work continues on my book, I continue to do a column at Research magazine, my Twitter feed is here, and my LinkedIn profile is here. Below is a giant baseball, inflated before Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Odds and ends: science, nukes, immigration

An informative and balanced post at Sciam: "New GOP Leaders Embrace Science but Don’t Hug Trees," about the implications of Tom Cole and John Culberson's appointments to science-relevant subcommittees. I'm pleased to learn the implications include brighter prospects for a Europa mission. I wrote about Europa some years ago for Sciam, and the ambitious plans I discussed then did not have much political staying power.

On a different topic: "China Going Nuclear." Excerpt: "China’s military capabilities are improving at such a clip that the entire western United States will be vulnerable to a Chinese nuclear attack within ten years, according to a new report." This surprises me, but what surprises me about it is I'd assumed it had happened long ago. Meanwhile, the U.S. is having its own nuclear arsenal problems, as discussed in this Bloomberg View editorial, though I don't see that what's discussed there impels the conclusion that the U.S. should downsize its arsenal.

And on immigration, I think Walter Russell Mead makes many good points here: "Obama's Big Miscalculation." To wit: the policy is debatable, the politics are bad.

In any case, we need more of this kind of immigrant (and I'm not making any ethnic point; I'm saying people this smart): "A Grand Vision for the Impossible."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Multiverse-canal connection

Here's a place where old canal history intersects with cutting-edge physics. From an article at Quanta: "Multiverse Collisions May Dot the Sky," by Jennifer Ouellette*:
In August 1834, a Scottish engineer named John Scott Russell was conducting experiments along Union Canal with an eye toward improving the efficiency of the canal boats. One boat being drawn by a team of horses stopped suddenly, and Russell noted a solitary wave in the water that kept rolling forward at a constant speed without losing its shape. The behavior was unlike typical waves, which tend to flatten out or rise to a peak and topple quickly. Intrigued, Russell tracked the wave on horseback for a couple of miles before it finally dissipated in the channel waters. This was the first recorded observation of a soliton. 
Russell was so intrigued by the indomitable wave that he built a 30-foot wave tank in his garden to further study the phenomenon, noting key characteristics of what he called “the wave of translation.” Such a wave could maintain size, shape and speed over longer distances than usual. The speed depended on the wave’s size, and the width depended on the depth of the water. And if a large solitary wave overtook a smaller one, the larger, faster wave would just pass right through. 
Russell’s observations were largely dismissed by his peers because his findings seemed to contradict what was known about water wave physics at the time. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that such waves were dubbed solitons and physicists realized their usefulness in modeling problems in diverse areas such as fiber optics, biological proteins and DNA. Solitons also turn up in certain configurations of quantum field theory. Poke a quantum field and you will create an oscillation that usually dissipates outward, but configure things in just the right way and that oscillation will maintain its shape — just like Russell’s wave of translation. 
Because solitons are so stable, Lim believes they could work as a simplified toy model for the dynamics of bubble collisions in the multiverse, providing physicists with better predictions of what kinds of signatures might show up in the CMB. If his hunch is right, the expanding walls of our bubble universe are much like solitons.
Me: I've long been attuned to odd connections between seemingly unrelated topics, but this one really stretches far. I'm impressed.

* - Fixed my misspelling of the author's name.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

U.S.-China climate … thing

A lot of our political discourse seems to be people playing their predictable roles without expending much thought. The debate about the U.S.-China climate announcement is a case in point. Democrats are hyping it. Republicans are denouncing it (seeing it as part of a "war on coal."). Neither side has much incentive to notice the considerable limitations on its significance; which are, however, sketched out in a post by Jack Goldsmith, a law professor. Excerpt (with emphases from original):
Here the two sides do not promise to, or state that they will, reduce emissions by a certain amount. Rather, they state only that they intend to achieve emissions reductions and to make best efforts in so doing. Whether and how the goals expressed in these intentions will be reached is left unaddressed, and one nation’s intention is not in any way tied to the other’s. Nor would it be a violation of the “announcement” if either side’s best efforts fail to achieve the intended targets. As we have seen with a lot with climate change aspirations, intentions are easy to state, and they change over time. The key point is that this document in no way locks in the current intentions. In fact it creates no obligations whatsoever, not even soft ones (except that, in a different place, both sides “commit” to “reaching an ambitious … agreement” next year, an empty commitment). It is no accident that the document is called an “announcement” and not a treaty or pledge or even an agreement.
Me: I've long thought some kind of U.S.-China arrangement could be important, given the centrality of those two nations to carbon emissions and international trade, and given how hard it is to get any kind of multilateral agreement. But still, what's been achieved here is nothing remotely like, say, a bilateral agreement to put a price on carbon emissions (not surprisingly, as something like that would require legislation on the U.S. side, however much it might be imposed by fiat in China). The back-and-forth over this deal (which Goldsmith plausibly puts in quotes: "deal") is more about people displaying their ideological identities than anyone actually having much reason to exult or despair.

UPDATE: A different take, from Christopher Flavelle: "Obama Outmaneuvers Republicans on Climate Change."

UPDATE 2: Tyler Cowen: "The announced deal is little more than a well-timed, well-orchestrated press release."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Climate solutions

"Conservatives don’t hate climate science. They hate the left’s climate solutions," by Chris Mooney. About a new study that gives more evidence of how views on science can change depending on the policy prescriptions offered (and which discusses gun control as well). And all the more reason to expect climate politics in the coming decades to look very different from how it does now. (After much time has been wasted.)

Brad Thor redux

I'm glad to see, in looking at this blog's incoming traffic, that Quicksilber ranks high (#3 currently) in search results for: brad thor conspiracy theorist nutjob. Here's the post that accomplished this: "Fact checking a novel: Brad Thor's Hidden Order." Apparently I'm not a fan.

Posting may continue to be light in near term.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Post-election reading

Recommended reading: "Why the GOP Blowout Is So Scary for Democrats," by Peter Beinart. Short answer: because a more moderate Republican Party is emerging. Excerpt:
...there is one big takeaway from tonight’s Republican landslide that should worry Democrats a lot: The GOP is growing hungrier to win. 
It’s about time. As a general rule, the longer a party goes without holding the White House, the hungrier it becomes. And the hungrier it becomes, the more able it is to discard damaging elements of party orthodoxy while still rousing its political base. Between 1932 and 1952, it took Republicans five election defeats to convince their partisans to rally behind Dwight Eisenhower, who accepted the New Deal. Between 1980 and 1992, it took Democrats three defeats to convince their base to get behind Bill Clinton, a former head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council who supported cutting taxes and executing murderers. 
In 2008 and 2012, Republicans couldn’t pull this off. Party elites backed John McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom had records of bipartisan achievement and ideological independence that might have made them attractive to swing voters. But McCain and Romney faced so much hostility from the GOP’s conservative base that in order to win the nomination, and then ensure a decent base turnout in November, they had to repudiate the very aspects of their political identity that might have impressed independents. McCain, who had once called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance,” made another such agent, Sarah Palin, his running mate. Romney, who given his druthers would likely have supported comprehensive immigration reform, instead demonized illegal immigrants to curry favor with the GOP base. 
This year has been different: GOP activists have given their candidates more space to craft the centrist personas they need to win.
Me: I hope that's correct. Read the whole thing.