Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Churchill on aliens

Recommended reading: "Winston Churchill's essay on alien life found." By Mario Livio in Nature. Found via Mental Floss.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Betraying our history

Recommended reading: "America Now Looks Like the Past, Not the Future," by Jeet Heer. Excerpt:
To judge by his speeches, notably an inaugural address that fear-mongered about “American carnage,” the president believes the country is in deep trouble and needs to get its own house in order. Trump is more interested in recovering past glories—the old days when “we’d win with wars” rather than now, when “we don’t win anymore”—than in creating a new tomorrow. It’s no surprise that some of the loudest complaints about Trump’s ban came from tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook that rely on the immigrants that Trump demonizes.
Me: I've spent the last few years researching the history of the Erie Canal, for a book I am now preparing to publish.

The Erie Canal is surely one of the things that made America great, and it would be easy to view it in terms of nostalgia. But looking back on its development I am struck most by how forward-looking the people involved were. The canal is where American technology really began, with surveyors turning themselves into a new profession of engineers in on-the-job training. The canal also helped immigrants become part of America, as they built it and traveled on it further into America.

America looking more like past than future is one of the deepest betrayals of our heritage that can be imagined. Those interested in recovering past glories should at least have some clue what they are.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Family photo, 1944

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Recent and upcoming books

Recently read: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. I can see why this book created a stir. It's often grim but extraordinarily absorbing, and maybe provides a glimpse of insight into why Trump did well electorally in Appalachia and areas that have some connection by kinship or similarity to Appalachia.

Recently received and read an advance copy: The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols. This book, to be published in March, tells a story that needs to be told, about people choosing their own "facts" and "reality" while denying what professionals and specialists have to say about matters. I may have more to say about this book once I've seen the final version. Nichols, an expert on the unfortunately pressing subjects of national security, nuclear weapons and Russia, has made a name for himself in the past year as one of the most incisive Never Trump Republicans.

Have read parts: Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. An interesting historical episode, and (in terms of importance and relative unfamiliarity) a good choice of one to focus on given how much has been written about Churchill.

Review copy received but not read yet: Containment: A Thriller by Hank Parker. Looks interesting.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Think better

Logical thinking is needed more than ever in the new political era, so all the more reason why I recommend Keith Devlin's "Introduction to Mathematical Thinking" course at Coursera.
I took the course a couple years ago, and wrote about it here and here. In my experience it requires 10-plus hours a week, so be advised accordingly, but if you're going to take it, now is a good time as I understand Prof. Devlin's personal participation ends with this session. Incidentally, I am currently taking a shorter and somewhat less time-consuming, but interesting, course on Fibonacci numbers.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Reminder: this story is not going away

Monday, December 19, 2016

This story is not going away

Friday, December 9, 2016

Improper ascendant

This clearly fits the bill, as described in Federalist 68. And it's far from the only reason the electors should act.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Book note: Earth in Human Hands

Planetary scientist David Grinspoon's book Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's Future, which I mentioned recently, has been published, and is well worth readers' time. I say this based on partial but compelling information, having not yet finished reading my review copy; but I have certainly read enough to say this is an important, timely and thought-provoking work.

It is also one that will spark some controversy, perhaps along the lines of the ideological shake-up I've anticipated, in which stock answers from left and right become less predictable as environmental problems grow along with human capacities to possibly do something about them. In his final chapter (I jumped ahead) "Embracing the Human Planet," Grinspoon is critical of environmental doomsaying such as accompanied incorrect reports a couple years ago that NASA had predicted civilization's collapse.

"If this human bashing and doom prophesizing is tactical, I think it's backfiring. It's more likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy than to rouse people to action," writes Grinspoon. He continues:
"Currently I feel that spewing misanthropy and random anti-human sentiment is just as dangerous as emitting CO2 into the air. It is the opposite of activism. I know that people spreading these messages mean well. They want to shock others into realizing the effect we're having on the planet, but there is a real danger of unintended consequences, of encouraging people to give up. Spreading messages of doom is a form of inactivism."
Me: While passages such as that may discomfit environmentalists, I should add that there is much to discomfit others, including anyone who's gung-ho for some hands-on geoengineering. Also, because Grinspoon's a planetary scientist, this book has a strong element of celestial perspective, as well as anecdotes about Carl Sagan and other space-focused luminaries. As I suggested in my earlier note, about this book and David Biello's The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age, questions about what humans should do on a large scale and for the long term are getting more important every day.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Not just words

Recommended reading: "In Defense of Trump Panic," by Benjamin Wittes, at Lawfare blog.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

He who lives by the lie

There's been a great deal of consternation, bordering on despair, about Donald Trump's tendency to tell brazen lies, and the willingness of many of his supporters to believe those lies (or at least to not care that they are lies). Here, for example, is Damon Linker (note: I've been critical of Linker recently, but consider him one of the best observers of our current political troubles): "Donald Trump's true lies"; excerpt:

Trump and his de facto allies in the fake news business aren't trying to propagandize the country with a coherent counter-truth that stands in opposition to a reality of indisputable facts that can then be marshaled to puncture and dispel the official disinformation campaign. On the contrary, they're acting in ways that deny the distinction between truth and lies altogether, transforming the public sphere into an anarchistic free-for-all permeated by a constantly churning swirl of claims and counter-claims, with no authority able to establish or maintain the standing needed to debunk any of it. You have your truth (InfoWars) and I have mine (The New York Times), and who's to say which is right? The dissidents from past totalitarianisms were able to puncture ideological lies by appealing to a common truth that was concealed or obscured by propaganda. But in the world Trump is working to build — a world of epistemological chaos, in which every party and faction has its own "truth" and a slew of media outlets to spread and promote its distinctive set of "facts" — the greatest impediment to the unlimited exercise of government power will have been removed, or at least badly degraded.

Me: I agree with all of that, and perceive the same danger Linker does. But I also see a ray of hope. Political leaders and movements that disseminate and thrive on lies ultimately collapse when they come upon some aspect of reality that they couldn't perceive or comprehend from within their own bubble. Hitler might well have won the war if he hadn't driven away (or worse) so many Jewish and other scientists who knew something about the emerging science of nuclear physics. The Soviet Union, for all its military power, spent its final years desperately trying to clamp down on samizdat that could be transmitted by fax machines. North Korea proved its adeptness at information warfare with the Sony hack, but remember it did so out of fear that some comedy could undermine its rule.

Donald Trump lives by the lie; his political career will die by the lie. At some point, even some of his more credulous followers will realize they've been had; that he's made them pathetic and absurd; and they will be angry. At some point, his indifference to reality (he can't even be bothered to get regular intelligence briefings) will leave him unprepared for some situation--perhaps some crisis created by foreign leaders to test him. He can deny global warming all he wants, but the streets of Miami already flood at high tide and his own coastal properties cannot be protected forever by walls, let alone by blather. There seems to be no bottom to the lack of intellectual integrity of some of Trump's enablers, such as Newt Gingrich, Ph.D., but others will jump ship when they see the shoals approaching. (Actually, Trump would be foolish not to see Newt would jump ship, out of expediency, not integrity.)

Things can get a great deal worse before they get better. But truth will out. The question is when.

UPDATE: See also "Trump’s Lies Destroy Logic As Well As Truth," by Jeet Heer.

UPDATE: For a professional fact checker, the Trump years should be interesting.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The electors should choose Pence [updated]

Damon Linker worries about "The dangerous scheme to deny Trump the presidency." Excerpt:
It began with an online petition launched in the hours immediately following Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the general election. Yes, Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College, the argument ran, but she won the popular vote (by a large and still swelling margin). That justifies asking electors to abandon Trump and switch their support to Clinton when they vote on Dec. 19 to make the outcome official. This is a terrible idea guaranteed to spark a constitutional crisis.
He similarly opposes the idea that the electors should choose a Republican alternative to Trump:
Yes, Trump poses a very serious threat to the country and its liberal democratic norms, but he is not the root of the problem. His millions of passionate supporters are. Among other things, these voters rallied to Trump because they responded to his message that the country's political and economic system is rigged against them. Denying the presidency to their preferred candidate after they'd been told for weeks that he prevailed in the election would confirm every conspiracy they ever entertained. That would be civic dynamite.
Me: Much as I'd personally like to see John Kasich or Mitt Romney get chosen by the electors, and though their doing so would be constitutionally valid, I recognize the danger Linker describes. So, a solution: the electors should choose Mike Pence. He's far from my first choice for president, and in some respects his policies may be worse than Trump's, by my lights; more socially conservative, in particular. But, crucially, he does not bring the egregious perils of self-dealing and conflict of interest that Trump does; has not engaged in demagogic behavior that violates democratic norms; has shown no affinities for foreign dictators; and overall evidences little risk of turning America in an authoritarian direction.

As for the Trump voters, remember they are Trump-Pence voters, and surely there are millions of them that have misgivings about the current situation and would be happier with the switch I'm advocating. As for Trump himself, he could present all this as a fantastic triumph whereby he set America on the right track, handpicked its next president and remains a power to be reckoned with in case the new administration veers too far from his vision. So, do it, Hamilton electors; and never let threats of riots interfere with legitimate constitutional processes.

UPDATE 11/24. An interesting poll from Quinnipiac. It shows about as much polarization as you'd expect regarding Trump--and less regarding Pence.

Let me point out, lest I be seen as some kind of romantic, that I would be very surprised if anything like what I proposed in this post comes to pass.

UPDATE 11/26: But is it so unlikely? After seeing this tweet, I wonder.

UPDATE 12/5: I can defend my Pence idea on the grounds that it's the one most likely (least unlikely) to work, among the strategies for blocking Trump in the Electoral College. However, defending Pence himself on anything like substantive grounds is not possible, as this makes clear.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Worse than you think

This problem won't go away until the current president-elect resigns or is forced from office. Moreover, it's worse than just some waste of money. Kleptocracy is a step toward an authoritarian state. (So is intimidation of the press, also readily apparent.) And of course, Trump's defensive feint that "everyone knew" he had such interests is the height of hypocrisy, given that he didn't release his tax returns. Recommended reading: "Trump's Businesses Represent an Impossible Conflict of Interest," by John Cassidy in The New Yorker. Excerpt:

The mask's off

I've written about Richard Spencer and the white nationalist alt-right a few times on this site. See here, here and here. And watch this.
UPDATE: See this interview, in which Spencer comes across as ill-informed, on top of his other problems.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The delivery of fake news

I hate to sound like a Tom Friedman-type columnist who draws sweeping conclusions from a conversation with a cab driver, but I'm thinking about the guy who delivered groceries to my house in the evening on Election Day. It was not yet evident that an upset was in the making, but there were some early ominous signs on TV. The grocery driver was from Egypt, a young guy who had become a U.S. citizen. He told me he was a Trump supporter and didn't want a woman to be president. He told me that Hillary lies a lot. I told him that Trump lies more, and he seemed genuinely surprised, asking me for examples. He told me Hillary had sold weapons to ISIS, apparently to make money.

Even though I thought I'd been following the election closely, I had not heard anything about Hillary selling weapons to ISIS. It turns out this was a staple of the fake news that inundated voters during the late weeks of the campaign. So a double lesson learned. One, be aware that some immigrants are going to vote on the basis of illiberal ideas from their countries of origin. And two, know that some people--many people, it seems--are going to be taken in by sources that I, as a fact checker, would want nothing to do with (and which in fairness are not always easy to recognize as such). In short, assume there are quite a few ignorant people out there. It worked for the president-elect.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Russian vote

Keep an eye on this story. It's the Achilles Heel of the Trump administration.


Sometime during the recent campaign, I conversed on Twitter with Bruce Bartlett, the former Reagan administration official turned GOP critic, and expressed dislike for his "plan" for this year's political season, which had stages such as "Vote for Trump to be nominee" "Trump loses" "Make sure crazies get the blame" and then, blessedly, "Get a better political party" or some such. I told him I'd remind him of this if the "Trump loses" part of the plan doesn't work out. I guess I don't have to. Here's from his Facebook page on Nov. 15 (click to enlarge):

Me: I disagree with him now too. Too much is at stake for sulking in your library.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Too optimistic?

Some recommended listening. Also linked in the tweet below, which has gotten a lot of notice.

Also see: "Let's Have a Fresh Start."

Friday, November 11, 2016

Within a year?

I recommend this David Brooks piece, particularly the ending.

Me: People who are interested in building a new political party should be getting very busy right now. My own earlier thoughts on what such a party should be like are here. I'll have more on that going forward.

UPDATE: I originally titled this "Within a Year? Let's Hope So," but then decided that rooting for a constitutional crisis is not my way.