Thursday, July 31, 2008

Evolving well

"Evolve: Eyes," which I watched after seeing it mentioned at Pharyngula, is very adept science reporting, managing to convey a lot of information without veering into either boredom or schlock. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Question for Bob Barr

At Reason, Radley Balko has pointed questions for Barack Obama (I noted his McCain questions here). Asked in the comments whether he'll now direct such at Bob Barr, Balko responds:
Barr doesn't have a chance to win the election, so I'm not sure it's worth the effort. I'm also not really sure what I would ask him. He's been pretty up front about his Road to Damascus moment, and that he's done a 180 on a host of issues. Seems like it would just be the same question, over and over.
Well, I have a question for Bob Barr:

Mr. Barr, in 2002 you voted to add a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare. Such a measure -- the entitlement state's largest expansion since the 1960s -- was passed in 2003, when you were no longer in Congress. John McCain voted against it. Do you regret your 2002 vote, and do you regret obfuscating the issue recently by stating "I wasn't even in Congress" when it passed?

How retirement evolved

My article "From Bismarck to Bush: How the Idea of Retirement Evolved" is now online at Research magazine. The print version includes an old cartoon of "Bismarck struggling with a Socialist jack-in-the box." Here's how the piece opens:

On November 17, 1881, German Kaiser Wilhelm I issued an imperial decree stating that “those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.” The driving force behind this pronouncement was Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who had unified Germany, unleashed victorious wars against Austria and France and was now intent on creating the world’s first broadly available pension system.

Throughout the 1880s, Bismarck pushed for the creation of government social programs. The German pension system, financed by mandatory contributions from employers and employees, was enacted in 1889. When critics contended that such measures were socialistic, Bismarck replied insouciantly: “Call it socialism or whatever you like. It is the same to me.”

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Better than some parties

Some Objectivists are trying to form a political party. As a non-Objectivist (albeit one who thinks rationality, individualism and capitalism are all good things), I won't be offering advice, but I do note that Objectivist Diana Hsieh makes what I think is a pretty good case against it. Then again, if it does get started, at least it will drain some of the vote from the Libertarian Party.

On driving

Tom Vanderbilt has a blog How We Drive, as a companion to his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). He also had a piece in the Post here. It's a subject that merits more serious attention (as opposed to just angry fuming) than it usually gets.

New Silber blog

My brother has become a keyword.

UPDATE: And my sister can now be found in English here.

Non-winner Obama

I now reaffirm my prediction that Obama is going to lose the election (though I'd be a bit surprised, yet not displeased, if I was correct about who the Republican running mate will be). It seems to me that a front-runner who's actually behind among likely voters in one recent poll after his much-lauded Europe-Mideast tour, and who's apparently tin-eared enough to send his Wailing Wall prayer to the press, is a candidate with marked electoral vulnerabilities. The question is whether I should start making bets.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Radio notice

I'm slated to be on the Gabe Wisdom Show tonight at 7pm ET, talking about the stock market's "Roaring Eighties."

Cosmic know-nothingism

At The Space Review, Amitai Etzioni serves up some red herrings:

NASA, and the people who live off of its grants and contracts, keep telling the media that we may find life on Mars. Many people understand this to mean some civilization with which we could ally ourselves against the bad guys. If NASA would disclose that it is looking for some organic material we would be better prepared to have an honest discussion about how much the nation should pay for such a possible discovery. The same holds for claims that we learn about the beginning of the universe and expand our humanity and other such bull.

First off, I have doubts as to how much public support for Mars exploration is based on hopes of finding "some civilization with which we could ally ourselves against the bad guys." In many years of writing and reading about space, I've never come across anybody stating such a hope. Second, I find it just sad (as Ross Perot might say) that Etzioni dismisses learning about the beginning of the universe as "bull." I can't tell if he thinks there is no prospect of learning anything about that through space technology (in which case he should take a look here) or if he thinks the subject is not worth caring about. Either way, it's a crude and ill-informed view.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Space solar "death machine"

I can understand skepticism about space solar power. No one yet knows whether progress in launch technology and solar technology will make such a system feasible in the coming decades. But ranting that it's "a military research project to make a death machine" isn't much of a counterargument. There are much better, and cheaper, death machines already available.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Edwards' excellent foppery

Shakespeare depicted the folly of King Lear, of which we saw an excellent presentation today at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. But what playwright will put to words the stupendous blundering of John Edwards?
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Anti-McCain overkill

Over at Reason, Matt Welch is now explaining that John McCain took no political risks in supporting the surge in 2007 as he headed into the Republican primaries:
Second and more interestingly, at the time of the surge, there was zero political cost to McCain supporting the surge. He was running in a Republican primary, and not particularly well, so his ironclad support for troop escalation was largely seen by many Republican stalwarts (in a season where the only anti-war candidate was being treated like a leper) as one of the best things going for the guy, given his various transgressions on other counts.
Here's a report on some polling from June 2007, as the surge troops moved in:

Thirty percent of Americans polled say they favor the war, the lowest level of support on record. Two-thirds are opposed.

Anti-war sentiment among Republican poll respondents has suddenly increased with 38 percent of Republicans now saying they oppose the war.

Moreover, 63 percent of Americans are ready to withdraw at least some troops from Iraq. Forty-two percent of Republicans agree.

Forty-two percent of Republicans were ready to withdraw some troops, which would suggest less than overwhelming support in the party for putting more troops in. And the trend at that time was toward more opposition. Not exactly zero political risk, it seems to me.

More on Reason here.

Writer, kayaker, veep

Rob Portman, who's getting noticed as a possible McCain running mate, has a rather impressive resume, including congressman, budget director and trade representative. And I particularly like that he's a published author who's delved into such distinctly non-Beltway subjects as Wisdom's Paradise: The Forgotten Shakers Of Union Village and "China by Kayak."

Cities on Venus

Weekend space reading: "Colonizing Venus with Floating Cities." (Via my alma mater, Excerpt:
50 km above the surface, Venus has air pressure of approximately 1 bar and temperatures in the 0°C-50°C range, a quite comfortable environment for humans. Humans wouldn't require pressurized suits when outside, but it wouldn't quite be a shirtsleeves environment. We'd need air to breathe and protection from the sulfuric acid in the atmosphere.
Unless the Venusians come here first.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Battlestar cycle

Some Battlestar news:
  • The final set of episodes will be at least 11 hours long, and the series finale will occupy three of those hours. However, there’s a chance that the series finale could expand even more.
  • The “Battlestar” series finale will definitely expand on DVD. Regardless of the length of the finale that airs on Sci Fi next year, an even longer cut will be released on DVD.
  • I say use as much time as needed; it should be at least as epic as this.

    Exploding briefcase

    At The American Thinker, Dylan Gwinn has an evocative article about "The Day Hitler Should Have Died." I've long been fascinated by the story of Count von Stauffenberg and the miniscule factors (e.g., a table leg) that made the difference between failure and success in the assassination attempt. I just hope the Tom Cruise movie isn't a fiasco.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008

    The Soloist

    Current reading: The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. So far, I like the author's honesty in acknowledging that much of his motivation in helping a homeless, mentally ill musician was getting material for a newspaper column. Looking forward to the rest of the book and the movie.

    Tuesday, July 22, 2008

    Whip inflation then

    Greg Mankiw makes a derisive aside about the 1970s WIN program. But if you look at the speech Gerald Ford gave in announcing it, you'll find some pretty good ideas (such as restraining federal spending and reevaluating the need for various regulations) along with some less good ones (subsidizing mortgages). Wearing buttons might seem a silly request, but note that Ford asks it to emphasize the program's voluntarism and non-bureaucratic emphasis. As I've said in the past, the Ford administration gets less credit than it deserves.

    Monday, July 21, 2008

    "Pure-strain gold"

    This comment, sent to the GOP by a Ron Paul supporter, makes me smile:
    Says Bob in Clemons, North Carolina: "We need to abolish the Federal Reserve and go back to the gold standard. Not just any gold though, I heard about this stuff, pure-strain gold that has been around since God created the universe. That's what we should base our currency around since it is so close to God."
    Sounds like a great idea. I recommend getting it directly from the source.

    Space non-exploration

    Rand Simberg has a thoughtful piece at The Space Review on "Are We Driven to Explore?" It includes a good overview of various reasons to go into space that aren't of the "because it's there" variety (not that there's anything wrong with those).

    Egg-selling panel

    Unfortunately, I probably can't attend, but the upcoming panel discussion at Lolita Bar by women who've sold their eggs promises to be interesting, and mysteriously, the subject tends to involve women who are tall, attractive and intelligent.

    Political wilderness

    From the New York Times:
    Indeed, to Ms. McArdle, the possibility of a Republican defeat holds a certain romantic appeal. “Younger people are kind of excited about being in the wilderness,” she said, evoking the pre-Reagan years when Republican thinkers plotted their revolution at nonprofit organizations and in bars instead of in the Executive Office Building and congressional majority offices. The longer you’re in power, the more you want to preserve it. “That’s where the Republicans are right now, and it’s demoralizing for think tankers.” Desperation has a way of focusing the mind. As Ms. McArdle said, “When they’re out of power, they have to think in a clearer way.”
    Well, maybe. It also often happens that being "in the wilderness" causes you to become deranged. The right during the Clinton years became angrier, less intellectual and more personal in its anti-Clinton loathing. The Democratic Party arguably became clearer-thinking toward the end of the Reagan-Bush years, such that Clinton in '92 had veered from some left-liberal orthodoxies. But I don't see much sign that Democrats today have gained intellectual benefits from White House exile during the G.W. years; a perusal of, say, Daily Kos reveals an active disdain for ideas other than tactical ones. And I don't have much optimism that Republicans in a President Obama era will necessarily come up with cogent, persuasive new analyses.

    Sunday, July 20, 2008

    Art therapy vs terrorism

    The Economist reports that Saudi Arabia has taken a creative approach to rehabilitating Islamists who are deemed to not be hard-core militants:

    Those due for release after serving short sentences for, say, fighting in Iraq undergo rehabilitation in a low-security holiday camp outside Riyadh. Other inmates have served time at Guantánamo Bay. The young men spend their days in religious discussions, art therapy, sports, vocational training and psychological assessments.

    One of those who recently attended the course was 30-year-old Abdallah al-Sufyani, a lovelorn former university student from Taif. He decided to go to Iraq in 2003 after his secret girlfriend was made to marry another man. He wanted to die, but believed he would go to hell if he committed suicide. His answer was to fight the Americans and hope he would be killed as a martyr. But he survived and eventually returned home. “I did not find the truth in Iraq,” he says. “I found Muslims killing Muslims, Iraqis killing Iraqis.” Now, with the help of the Saudi government, he hopes to write a book and launch a poetry magazine.

    Of course, there's always the danger that people who pretend they'll launch a poetry magazine will launch something else. But it does make sense to try to divide enemies into those who are irreconciliable and those who are not.

    Saturday, July 19, 2008

    More Barrisms

    I must say, having found Bob Barr unreliable in a face-to-face discussion of his own voting record, I am not surprised to learn that his take on John McCain's judicial philosophy isn't accurate either.

    Friday, July 18, 2008

    TR in 1920!

    Bashing of Theodore Roosevelt (as an extension of bashing John McCain) is a growth industry among conservatives and libertarians. Here's an inconvenient fact overlooked by the bashers: Roosevelt, prior to his death in 1919, had reconciled with the conservative Republican Party and was, as the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, the "odds-on favourite for the 1920 nomination."

    Thursday, July 17, 2008

    Vice President Paul

    As if to prove the vacuity of Internet polling, Slate has determined that its readers want Ron Paul to be McCain's running mate. Well, at least it would defuse the McCain age issue.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008

    Time Out notice

    The Debates at Lolita Bar get a write-up at Time Out New York. And there's a picture with some people I recognize.

    Reason's tunnel vision

    The anti-McCain fervor at Reason continues to erode the magazine's intellectual capacity. Here's Matt Welch criticizing McCain for being a foreign-policy hardliner who's unfaithful to the heritage of Barry Goldwater -- who was no less of a hardliner. And here's Radley Balko stuffing straw-man words into McCain's mouth ("Do you really believe that the government is the root of American greatness?"). Some previous examples of Reasonoid lameness here, here, here and here. UPDATE: And here.

    Martian water park

    Rather than spending a July afternoon in a Manhattan office, I'd rather be at the frozen waterfalls of Mars. More here.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008

    Sizzle, the review

    I’ve watched an advance copy of Randy Olson’s “global warming comedy” Sizzle and, like many other bloggers, I’m posting a review today. It’s an unusual movie. It’s partly a mockumentary in which we watch biologist-turned-filmmaker Olson (I reviewed his movie Flock of Dodos and have met him a few times since then) getting saddled with a wacky film crew as he sets out to make a global warming documentary featuring lots of interviews with scientists and reams of PowerPoint data.

    There are some funny mockumentary moments, including a look at what one producer says is a statue of Charles Darwin, and a dream scene involving a polar bear. Randy acts as the straight man, an uptight scientist who is clueless about how to communicate with a broad audience; in reality, he’s built a career lampooning scientists for being like that.

    Interspersed with the mockumentary are actual interviews with scientists, including both some who are alarmed by global warming and others skeptical of such alarm. The interviewees field with good humor questions from the (ersatz) cameraman, as well as from Randy. Randy complains that the cameraman has ruined his interviews. In fact, based on what’s shown, nothing particularly striking emerges from the interviews. A couple of times, as the crew drives away from meetings, Randy says that one or another skeptic was “completely wrong” or some such, but he never says much about why.

    Then, at the suggestion of one scientist, Randy and a crew member visit New Orleans and see the agonizingly slow pace of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The point is supposed to be that we can expect much more of this sort of thing if global warming proceeds apace. (Randy notes that “the jury is still out” on whether the warming will intensify hurricanes, but says it’s widely agreed that warming will cause more disasters in general.) In any event, he’s putatively learned that you need to show how things affect real people and to speak in ways people can understand, rather than just boring them with data.

    But does the Katrina aftermath tell us we should put more effort into preventing global warming? Or does it suggest resources should go into adapting to the effects of climate change? Indeed, one could look at New Orleans and say this is the sort of immediate problem that should draw more attention instead of a long-term problem like climate change. Randy notes briefly the idea that a wealthy society will be better able to deal with environmental impacts than a poor one, but seems to agree with one green activist that New Orleans, located in a wealthy nation, counters this notion. I’m not sure the footage of devastation in the city’s poorer neighborhoods really carries this meaning.

    Sizzle is reasonably entertaining and interesting, and makes a valid point about the need for science popularization to be catchy (that point is also made in Flock of Dodos). But, I’m sorry to say, this movie doesn’t tell us all that much about global warming, and Randy’s formidable skills as a filmmaker could have been better employed to that end.

    Monday, July 14, 2008

    Fixing the planet

    This looks interesting: The Discovery Channel will be running a series on geo-engineering, Discovery Project Earth, including an episode on space solar power.
    You've heard the dire warning; you've seen the detailed PowerPoint; you've even bought that light bulb with the swirls, but how about some real action?
    As Gregory Benford wrote over a decade ago, the standard environmentalist response to global warming is "Sinner abstain!" Maybe that's changing.

    Could be a mistake

    Via Transterrestrial, David Brin has a disturbing discussion of recent pushes toward "active SETI," i.e., broadcasting messages into space in hopes they'll be received by intelligent aliens.

    Moon station

    Via Instapundit, a fascinating proposal by Michael Benson to send the International Space Station to the moon. Benson, author of the excellent Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes, acknowledges his idea isn't likely to be implemented; it would cost a lot of money and require a degree of political will not currently in evidence. But I suspect that real progress in space is going to require some kind of out-of-left-field concept that shakes up current public- and private-sector thinking. And I wonder if a certain "national greatness conservative," upon becoming president, just might embrace some idea that pushed the envelope farther than anyone expected.

    New candidate

    At last, an alternative to Bob Barr.

    Sunday, July 13, 2008

    Herzog's Encounters

    We saw Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World. The film is about Antarctica and, especially, the people in it. I was a little puzzled by the seeming contradiction between Herzog's negative reference to "tree huggers" and "whale huggers" and later doomsaying remarks that humanity may disappear soon. But as my wife points out, there is a common theme; Herzog cares about the environment mainly insofar as it relates to people.

    This humanistic emphasis is evident also in his interviews with scientists about the animals they study. He asks a penguin scientist about penguins being gay or going crazy, and is fascinated at the possibility they show such human-like attributes. When another scientist describes the world of ocean microorganisms as harsh, Herzog links that to humanity as well. He asks if it was to get away from that world that humanity's ancestors left the ocean and evolved on land.

    All in all, a very interesting work.

    Thursday, July 10, 2008

    The pull of center-wonkery

    Arnold Kling:
    There was a time when I would have rooted for the center-wonks. Now, though, I prefer something more radical, like competitive government. So I'd rather escape from current reality by reading history or by reading David Friedman than get immersed in today's discussions over policy and political coalition-building.
    This caught my interest because I've moved in precisely the opposite direction. There was a time, in my case roughly the late 1980s and early 90s, when I thought the key failings of conservatism and libertarianism were a willingness to engage in half-measures and "me-too"ism. Now I think their key failures are tendencies toward extremism and disdain for "current reality." As for "competitive government," I recommend the novel I'm reading, The Pillars of the Earth, with its narrative of 12th-century bloodshed committed by competing nobles.

    Sluggish in space

    Washington Post story: "U.S. Finds It's Getting Crowded Out There: Dominance in Space Slips as Other Nations Step Up Efforts." Of course, it's not necessarily bad news that other nations are doing things in space. But it's hard to imagine a U.S. that's dynamic or secure or prosperous well into the 21st century if it's not on the cutting edge of space technology and development.

    Wednesday, July 9, 2008

    Obama's business background

    NPR ran a story suggesting that Barack Obama's not-very-long experience at Business International in the 1980s gave him insight into financial markets. As someone who worked there a few years after Obama, I'd say it probably did give him some, though arguably less so than if he'd spent those months at an investment bank -- and of course the pay would've been a lot better, notwithstanding that Obama has made leaving the newsletter-publishing firm sound like a notable act of financial self-sacrifice. Alex Bayer had some elegaic thoughts about Business International here.

    Jindal jinx

    John Derbyshire has an incisive post on Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's sad role in promoting the misnamed Louisiana Science Education Act on behalf of the misnamed Discovery Institute. Between that and Jindal's bizarre exorcism incident, it would be Huckabee-league folly for McCain to pick Jindal as a running mate, unless Obama happens to pick Pazuzu.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008

    Swing state Ohio

    Over the Independence Day weekend, we participated in a sand-sculpture competition at the Sevakeen Country Club in Salem, Ohio. Our offering, titled "Swing State," amused some people, and baffled others.

    We didn't win a prize, but maybe next time.

    Monday, July 7, 2008

    Jefferson and intelligent design

    Nobody would argue against the existence of meteorites on the grounds that Thomas Jefferson didn't believe in them, right? As Arthur C. Clarke once noted:
    We have come a long way since President Jefferson remarked, "I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stones fell from the sky," for now we know that mountains can indeed fall from the sky.
    But here is the Discovery Institute citing Thomas Jefferson as a defender of intelligent design, because he wrote this:

    I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in it's parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of it's composition.
    Jefferson, however, didn't weigh in on Darwin's Origin of Species, because he had been dead 33 years when it was published.

    In other news, no word yet on the Discovery Institute's position regarding Arthur Conan Doyle and fairies.

    Sunday, July 6, 2008

    Bob Barr debate pix

    J.D. Weiner has posted a set of photos of the recent Bob Barr debate.

    Watch the skies

    Things to look for in the night sky: the moon, Mars and Saturn forming a "tight triangle" tonight (July 6), and Mars and Saturn passing within a degree of each other on July 10.

    Going medieval

    Spending the weekend in Ohio, we attended an excellent performance of Carmina Burana at Blossom last night. It's long been one of my favorite pieces of music, but now having read much of the Latin and German lyrics, along with English translation, while it's being performed, I finally understand some of its themes such as fortune, romantic love, and tavern life. It also made for a nice complement to The Pillars of the Earth, which I'm currently reading.

    Wednesday, July 2, 2008

    Sizzle, the movie

    Speaking of intelligent design, Randy Olson, whose film Flock of Dodos I reviewed a couple of years ago, has a new movie coming out: Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. Here's the trailer:

    Solar system dent

    This is about as good a piece of evidence for intelligent design as science has yet discovered:
    When viewed from the rest of the galaxy, the edge of our solar system appears slightly dented as if a giant hand is pushing one edge of it inward, far-traveling NASA probes reveal.

    McCain Sandinista lift

    I would've thought John McCain's arm injuries would have prevented him from lifting a Sandinista official out of a chair, as he's now denied doing. But it would've been worth doing.

    Obama's Gates

    What's a cheap, easy and meaningless way for Barack Obama to reassure voters rightly nervous about his national-security inexpertise? Have one of his advisors advocate keeping Robert Gates as defense secretary. No one will hold Obama to it, Gates himself says he won't do it, and it obscures Obama's lack of background knowledge to independently judge anything that any advisors or future cabinet secretaries tell him about national security. As politics, though, it's brilliant. Predictably, Andrew Sullivan is enthusiastic.

    Strad secrets

    There are a lot of theories as to why Stradivarius violins sound so great. The latest one involves wood density. It may be true, though I'm a bit skeptical of a mono-causal explanation, especially when wrapped in journalistic hype. I wrote about Strads, and some of their ramifications, here.

    Bosque Pintado

    Scientific American has changed its community feature, such that various photos I've posted there are no longer available. Since quite a few people have come to this blog looking for the picture of the Bosque Pintado, or painted woods, near Bilbao, here it is:

    The picture was taken on our trip to Basque country of northern Spain, 2006. The trees were painted by local artist Agustín Ibarrola.

    Bob Barr at Lolita Bar

    Todd Seavey has posted a round-up of links regarding last month's Great Bob Barr Debate.

    Tuesday, July 1, 2008

    Veepstakes watch

    Politico has an article on "Longshots in the Veepstakes." Some of them strike me as extremely longshots--Donna Shalala? Bill Gates?? I guess it's true that Colin Powell is a longshot now, too; that he could conceivably show up on either ticket doesn't necessarily double his chances. So, my official prediction is not looking so great.