Monday, December 31, 2007

Charlie Wilson et al's War

Highly recommended: Charle Wilson's War. It's a remarkable story of how a handful of oddballs changed the world. Wilson himself is retired, and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos is dead, but their weapons expert Michael G. Vickers is now an assistant secretary of defense with broad counterterrorism responsibilities. His wife Melana Zyla Vickers wrote regularly for TCS during the same years I did.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Zubrin on alcohol

Robert Zubrin's new book Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil argues for imposing a sweeping mandate on the auto industry, requiring that all cars sold in the U.S. be flexible-fuel vehicles that can run on ethanol or methanol as well as gasoline. Doing this, Zubrin argues, would break OPEC's power, cut off financial support for terrorism, and give new impetus to world development.

Zubrin, of course, is known mainly for his views on space exploration. I reviewed his The Case for Mars at Reason a decade ago, and his Entering Space for a few years later. I was more impressed with the Mars book than its successor, though in retrospect it seems to me that his views about the feasibility and necessity of getting to Mars by next Tuesday or so were a bit overstated.

There's a similar rhetorical quality in Energy Victory. Zubrin says we can have energy independence within a decade (the same time frame he gave for his Mars mission) and that, unless we do as he specifies, the results will be disastrous. Much of what he says about energy (as well as about Mars) is valuable and thought-provoking. But having the government pick alcohol fuels as the energy future requires a lot of faith in the ability of experts and bureaucrats to get it right. I'd rather see a policy (such as a carbon tax) that spurs multiple alternative energy sources to compete, rather than assuming we know the best choice in advance.

Update 12/30: Rand Simberg notes the above and some other Zubrin-related links. I'd add that a mandate such as Zubrin proposes could have some dismal unintended consequences. By making new cars more expensive, it would encourage people to keep their old gas guzzlers on the road longer. And it would divert attention from other efforts to build greener cars.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Hoyle's mistake

Fred Hoyle was one of the greats of astronomy and cosmology. But, as JR Minkel explains, a proofreading oversight may have had a major detrimental impact on his legacy.

Sir Fred Hoyle, the late astrophysicist acclaimed for developing the theory of how stars forge hydrogen and helium into the heavier elements found throughout the universe, did not get the credit he deserved for a 1954 paper that outlined the idea, because he failed to spell out a key equation, a former colleague says.
Though as brilliant as Hoyle was, there were various reasons he didn't get the Nobel Prize, including his belief that life was raining down on us from outer space. I reviewed two books on Hoyle for Reason some time ago.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Zhou book

As a book reviewer, I receive many more review copies than I can write reviews about. One purpose of this blog will be to take note of various new books of interest.

I recommend Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, the story of the Chinese Communist official who both abetted and sought to moderate Mao's brutal rule. Author Gao Wenjian had access to an array of Zhou material in official archives in China, before coming to America, and concludes about his profoundly ambiguous subject:

"It is my belief that Zhou intended to be a good person, but failed."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Frum's Comeback

I recently gave a mostly positive review to David Frum's new book Comeback for the New York Post. Todd Seavey takes notice of the book as well, but with a lot less enthusiasm, finding "inadvertently heartbreaking" Frum's prescriptions for a more nationalistic and less market-friendly Republican Party than Todd would like to see.

But the Frum Republican agenda would be, overall, a lot more market-friendly than the administration that Frum used to serve (and now often criticizes), let alone what might replace it. A federal government that taxes carbon but stops subsidizing non-carbon energy, and that overrides state rules so people can buy health insurance across state lines, is pursuing a very different kind of activism than one that would give you universal pre-K as a Christmas present.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Hamilton defended

Alexander Hamilton was highly controversial in life, so it's no great surprise people are still arguing about him more than 200 years after his death. William Hogeland sees Hamilton as a statist villain, and so does Brian Doherty. I take a much more positive view, reflected in my latest history article for the financial magazine Research.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Photographic documentation of Galapagos wildlife and geology -- aka my honeymoon pictures -- can be found here.

UPDATE: Scientific American has chosen to delete its "community" section, so the link above will not work.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


This site currently contains links to a handful of my published writings and research interests, and provides a handy way for people to email me. More to come.