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

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.

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.


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.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The reform conservative climate punt

Just for the record, in case future researchers in a heavily air-conditioned facility someday scroll through this blog as part of some vast data-mining project, let me state, unequivocally, that I dispute and reject Ross Douthat's post "Reform Conservatism and Climate Change," in which he argues that avoiding policy prescriptions on climate change is exactly the right thing for reform conservatives to be doing.

Douthat makes an extended analogy in which climate policy is likened to insurance that will be costly and have uncertain benefits, and require your neighbors to buy into it as well, plus the thing you're insuring against doesn't seem as bad as it did a few years ago, plus you're not as wealthy as you were a few years ago, so now is not the time to … blah blah blah. It's all offal. The risks are plenty real. The neighbors are considerably subject to your influence (because you are a huge property-owner known as the United States of America, and you buy a lot of their products and can put fees on ones that are carbon-intensive). You're not too poor to afford the insurance policy--if it's a carbon tax, it raises money, and can be used to help your economy by enabling cuts or elimination of other taxes.

This is what reform conservatism amounts to in 2014? Some child tax credits and deliberate omission of  action on climate? What kind of world are those kids going to grow up and grow old in? This kind.

UPDATE 6/30: "The best way to understand Douthat’s piece is by reverse engineering his argument as a constrained minimization problem The objective is to minimize the craziness he needs to embrace, subject to the constraint that he must end up in line with the denialist conspiracy theorists who dominate the base." I find this sadly persuasive, notwithstanding its lack of punctuation.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Research in Buffalo

A busy weekend of Erie Canal/Dewitt Clinton research. Here's a Buffalo News article about some of it.

UPDATE: As it appeared in the newspaper:

Monday, June 9, 2014

Some unconvincing AI

I have a piece upcoming about artificial intelligence. In the meantime, I recommend this post by Leonid Bershidsky at Bloomberg View: "Fake Victory for Artificial Intelligence." Bershidsky understandably expresses puzzlement about how the program called Eugene Goostman could have tricked 33% of judges at an event aimed at seeing whether people could judge whether their chat-session interlocutor was human or computer. Bershidsky points out that anyone can converse with the program at a Princeton site, so I went there and asked a question:
Are you worried about climate change?
The answer I got:
Yes I am worried about climate change, but it's my secret! Where do you came from, by the way? Could you tell me about the place where you live?
No, I'll pass on that. I also asked Eugene:
What do you think of the Bloomberg View column about you?
And instantly got:
"Artificial" doesn't mean "inferior". In some cases it means just the opposite... but not too often.
And later, when I mentioned what town I live in:
I can't believe it! The world went crazy, almost like my grandpa...

Friday, June 6, 2014

Premature failure report on climate change

Yesterday at Vox, Ezra Klein had an impressive but frustrating piece "7 reasons America will fail on climate change." Impressive because it makes many valid points, and frustrating because the tone of defeatism is unproductive and will never convince anybody of anything. For decades, many conservatives thought the Communists were going to win the Cold War; such thinking threatened to be a self-fulfilling prophecy and it was only in the 80s, when conservatism took a notably more optimistic tone in the Reagan years, that the scenario of a triumphant Soviet Union receded and then was falsified.

I've written before about how the politics of climate change could be reshuffled as the topic shifts from whether it's real or a problem to what to do about this real problem. Will a lot of time have been wasted and a lot of damage have been done by the time that shift is well underway? Yes. No denying it. But things change in American politics, sometimes fast. And predicting what won't be doable on the technological front is always a gamble.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Space pathways report

I know I said I wouldn't be blogging much, but this report from the National Research Council, "Pathways to Exploration," is very interesting (at least to those of us who are, as the polling data in the back of the report put it, "attentive" to space; a minority to be sure). I've read some of the document (notwithstanding the not-great legibility of its free, online version), and its call for setting up infrastructure on the moon to develop technology for getting to Mars makes sense to me:
While this report’s recommendation for adoption of a pathways approach is made without prejudice as to which particular pathway might be followed, it was, nevertheless, clear to the committee from this report’s independent analysis of several pathways that a return to extended surface operations on the Moon would make significant contributions to a strategy ultimately aimed at landing people on Mars and that it is also likely to provide a broad array of opportunities for international and commercial cooperation.
Me: The guy in the picture here looks a little spaced-out, but from what I've read in and about the report, it's a thoughtful piece of work, which includes discussion of fundamental questions about why go and who cares. I'll plan on reading more of it. On the off chance that Mitch Daniels, who co-chaired the committee, becomes president or vice president, one of the many credentials he'd bring to the job is a great deal of space policy knowledge, something not often found among high-level politicos.

New Jersey GOP primary results

Good news and bad news from New Jersey's primaries, and both are about the exact same thing: Jeffrey Bell's victory in the Republican primary to be challenger against Cory Booker for Senate.

The good news: Bell is an intelligent conservative policy wonk, someone with real experience and knowledge, not some "anti-establishment" candidate whose stock in trade is not knowing what he's talking about. He also has an interesting backstory of having unseated Clifford Case in the Republican Senate primary in 1978 (before losing to Bill Bradley for a seat that's been Democratic ever since).

The bad news: Bell is planning a campaign focused on the gold standard. Back in 1978, there was a case to be made for some kind of linkage of the dollar to gold. Inflation was surging and the then-new experiment in non-commodity fiat money was going poorly. Now, 36 years later, gold standard advocacy is a fossil relic of 1970s conservatism, a solution for a problem, high inflation, that doesn't exist, and a monetary policy repackaged as an all-purpose nostrum for whatever ails your economy.

It's good that policy-oriented conservatism will get a hearing in New Jersey this fall. It would have been great if this were a policy-oriented conservatism that's geared for the 21st century.

Bell has little chance of winning. The question is whether he'll make a case that will make him deserving of a win.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Blogging and more

This blog will probably be updated at a leisurely pace through the summer. Apologies to its small contingent of regular readers. I will be stepping up my Erie Canal/DeWitt Clinton book research, as well as writing for Research magazine (which bears neither credit nor blame for this blog) and other publications: I have a review upcoming in Financial History magazine, for example.

Regardless, I look forward to seeing the upcoming movie Earth to Echo, and certainly updates to this blog will include a review of that.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Extraterrestrial auditor

Posting may be light for a while. I have pieces in the pipeline in a couple of magazines, and work to do on my book. Meanwhile, here's something I saw on a recent visit to the Queens Museum.

Convenient to think an extraterrestrial auditor would share one's own political convictions. As I've written before, there's a wide range of possibilities as to what they might want to say to us.

Friday, May 23, 2014

More interstellar ideas

Finally got around to watching the latest episode of Cosmos, "The Immortals." Somewhere Fred Hoyle is smiling about panspermia (life being seeded from space) getting a respectful hearing. I was fascinated by the imagery of a future civilization complete with giant starships. Thinking about interstellar travel ideas seems to be heating up, perhaps in time to help the Interstellar movie's box office.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Life in space movies

Recommended reading: "Life in space is impossible," by Dwayne Day at The Space Review. The title refers to a line from the opening of Gravity. The article is about various movies, including the weak Elysium and the much-anticipated (by me) Interstellar. Day has a somewhat downbeat view of how the pro-space movement, as he calls it, is doing, as reflected in the movies, though I'd add that such a movement has always had its challenges, including in the supposedly halcyon 1960s when public opinion did not give much support for the Apollo program.

Carbon taxation for skeptics [with small update]

Sometimes, an opinion piece is notable not just for its opinion but for the lengths to which the author will go to convince a particular audience of that opinion. Case in point: Irwin Stelzer's "Let's Tax Carbon," in the Weekly Standard. I strongly agree with the basic position (tax carbon and cut taxes on other things), which is one of the issues on which my centrist zig veered from the conservatives' zag in recent years. But I'd part company from Stelzer's rhetoric at moments like this:
Conservatives can maintain their skepticism about global climate change, but that does not mean that a bit of prudential action might not be appropriate should it turn out that carbon emissions are indeed having a negative effect on climate.
Me: Conservative identity has become so beholden to "skepticism about global climate change" that it's apparently now necessary to tell conservatives they can keep that set of beliefs even while trying to convince them to act as if they didn't hold them. If you like your skepticism, you can keep your skepticism. But I'm a pragmatist and not complaining. I hope Stelzer's approach is convincing.

UPDATE 7/17: Stelzer and the Standard double down, denying a carbon tax even has anything to do with climate change.

Delhi-Washington prospects

The words in bold below (my emphasis) jump out at me from this piece by Tunku Varadarajan on India's incoming prime minisater, Narendra Modi, and his likely awkward relations with President Obama:
The foreign leader he [Modi] will bond with best is unlikely to be Obama, an American president who has none of the instinctive feel for India, or for the enormous potential of a U.S.-India alliance, that George W. Bush had. The withering of that alliance has been one of the bleak, untold stories of Obama’s period in office, and one senses that India will have to wait for Hillary Clinton to reach the White House before the Delhi-Washington relationship blossoms again.
What's interesting is not just that Varadarajan, a conservative writer, seems to assume or strongly suspect that Hillary Clinton will be the next president, but that among the major Republican prospects there's nobody that would fit easily into the sentence. "One senses that India will have to wait for Rand Paul..."? No way. "One senses that India will have to wait for..." Ted Cruz? Paul Ryan? None of the biggest hitters has distinguished himself on foreign policy. If Bobby Jindal's star had risen higher in recent years, the idea that he might repair relations with India might have been noteworthy, because it's his ancestral homeland if for no other reason. (Or would he be under pressure to show he's not engaged in favoritism on that basis?) Obama foreign policy looks likely to leave a legacy of great mediocrity, but who in the Republican Party is positioned to make a strong case about that?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Potentially interesting movie note: Interstellar

Planned for a November release is a movie called Interstellar, with an all-star cast. (I hope Michael Caine is an alien.) The plot, about which little is known, reportedly involves a wormhole, which may not be the most original device but it's hard to come up with ways to get people to another star system that won't bore an audience. Here's hoping it's good.

UPDATE: "I'm coming back." I like the trailer.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Space priority disagreements

I expressed some skepticism about the Asteroid Redirect Mission in my recent Space Review piece (while making a suggestion on how it might be improved). But I think it's fair to say my attitude toward that mission is mild compared to that of Paul Spudis, a lunar scientist whom I interviewed years ago. Spudis also has a pretty clear opinion about the idea of a human flyby of Mars.

Meanwhile, for those who think Mars is all that, here's Lee Billings arguing that the real scientific payoff is on Europa. (What I'm not clear about is whether the Monolith's "attempt no landing there" dictate applied only to human or also robotic missions.)