Saturday, January 31, 2009

Has the right hit bottom yet?

The next Debate at Lolita is taking shape (click here and scroll down). Opponent needed.

UPDATE: Found.

Friday, January 30, 2009

2012 prophecies


And check out some of what people are asking at NASA's Ask-an-Astrobiologist.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

NYT columnist nomination

Speculations about whom the NY Times will hire to replace William Kristol as their "second conservative" (assuming they do) here. I think David Frum, whom I admire, would not be best utilized in that spot, being too similar to David Brooks in the scheme of things. Victor Davis Hanson has some interesting things to say, but also too many uninteresting things that could be dismissed as tough-guy wingnuttery. Heather Mac Donald would be an inspired choice, bringing both reportorial skills (in thin supply on the page, post-Safire), a deep knowledge of New York City and an unpredictability that would discombobulate knee-jerk-left-liberal Times readers. (Via Secular Right.)

Go to Europa

Coming soon (albeit with some delay): a decision on which far-off moon gets the next major space probe, Europa or Titan. (NASA can afford only one, although as Bob Park says, "3 or 4 billion dollars no longer sounds like much.") Nature offers a slight preference for Titan, on the grounds that a Europa mission would only be recon for a future mission below the ice. On the other hand, Europa is by all accounts much more likely than Titan to have some form of life.

It is a close call, but I'd say go where the life might be, use ice-penetrating radar to see if any shadowy forms are swimming around, and maybe invest some "stimulus" funds in an icepick.

UPDATE 2/24: Good.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Clinton Road song

Ever since I first wrote about Clinton Road of West Milford, NJ, this blog has received a steady influx of visitors seeking information about the mysterious thoroughfare. Given such public interest, I have written a song about the subject.


The hellhounds are running.
The hellhounds are running
On Clinton Road.

A two-lane highway
Surrounded by parkland
And public utility land.
It is isolated,
So isolated
That stories of ghosts
And witches abound.

There is a pond
Where the ghost of a boy
Will rise up to warn you
Not to drown
Like he did.

If a tree falls
In front of your car,
Go back!
For another tree
Will soon fall
Behind to trap you.

An old iron smelter
Is a witch’s tower
And demonic rituals
Are performed in there.

Do powerful forces
Rule on this asphalt?
Or do bored local teenagers
Make up these stories?

They say
The hellhounds are running.
The hellhounds are running
On Clinton Road.
Clinton Road,
New Jersey.

Copyright © Kenneth Silber.

Art market debate

Should be interesting: "The art market is less ethical than the stock market."

Monday, January 26, 2009

Orbiting teapot

Granted, it's implausible that a teapot is orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. But I can think of some ways it might be the case: The teapot was ejected into space during the Tunguska impact or other collision. Or it was discarded from a manned space mission and given sufficient momentum to escape Earth and lunar orbit, or detached from a space probe en route to the outer solar system. Or left behind by aliens, or by spacefaring denizens of Atlantis. Perhaps, if humans put it there, it was as a whimsical or conspiratorial response to Bertrand Russell's musings.

Interestingly, though, none of the above involves either (a) circumvention of reasonably well-established physical laws or (b) a scenario that humans would concoct because they desperately want it to be true. And so, it's arguable that some things people have been known to believe, including some religious beliefs, are even less plausible than the orbiting teapot.

Obama may be not so good

Well, it's starting to look like my Obama's-pretty-good file is going to get some stiff competition from my Obama's-not-so-good file. The new president has:

-- Resorted to poor economic logic and crude scapegoating by criticizing executives for redecorating offices.

-- Signaled an obeisance to feel-good but likely ineffective arms-control vagaries in the matter of space weapons.

-- Moved to raise fuel-efficiency standards, allowing unfunded mandates rather than a straightforward pricing of carbon emissions to dominate policy.

Let's see which file grows faster.

Friday, January 23, 2009

'90s radio spot

I'm slated to be on the Gabe Wisdom Show on Wednesday, January 28 at 7pm ET to talk about "The Soaring Nineties." I mention it early because things look to be busy between now and then.

Nuanced counterterrorism

Stop disappearing people who may or may not be terrorists, but continue blowing up people who clearly are terrorists. I agree with both decisions, and hereby add them to my Obama's-pretty-good-so-far file.

Sometimes influential

Political scientist Eliot Cohen has a thought-provoking WSJ op-ed to the effect that government officials generally don't pay much attention to outside commentators; serving recently as an aide to Condoleezza Rice, he found he was focused on info from inside the government, and punditry was basically background noise.

Historically, though, there have also been times when pundits seem to have influenced government, as with Commentary in the late 1970s paving the way for much Reagan foreign policy, and supply siders at the WSJ doing the same for tax policy. It also may be that Eliot's thesis is particularly true in foreign policy, dependent as it is on confidential communications. Economic policy in recent months was evidently influenced, at least for a while, by academic economists saying put government money into the banks, rather than buy up their bad assets.

In the film Arguing the World, Irving Kristol said that a journal with a circulation of 100 people could change the world. As for the impact of little-read blogs, that remains to be seen.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama whiskey

From Ireland, a story that has received little notice:

While Mr Obama prepares for his first hours in office, staff at the Cooley Distillery in north Co Louth are already preparing for his last day in the White House.

Today an American wood cask has been filled with a special blend malt whiskey which will be put in storage to mature before being given to the US President-elect when he eventually leaves the White House.

I wonder how different the quality will be if he has one term or two.

How about people who fire into the air?

From California, a minor case study in ludicrous, clueless "activism":

Four months after persuading the City Council to name James Madison Park after local resident Tony Cerda, Edward Samaniego is taking aim at Alexander Hamilton Park.

Pomona has no business honoring the first secretary of the Treasury (1789-1795), Samaniego told the City Council on Monday.

"Alexander Hamilton was in that famous duel with Aaron Burr," Samaniego noted. "We certainly don't need any more examples of people shooting people as role models in Pomona!"

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I watched the speech. Not bad. Reasonably interesting and nothing notably objectionable. Meanwhile, I was trying to do some of my office work by going to the White House website to look up a recent directive involving the Law of the Sea Treaty, and got this:
The page you requested wasn't found at this location. The Obama Administration has created a brand new White House website, and it's possible that the page you were looking for has been moved.
So, change has come.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama Art

By Dan Summer

As we start the Obama era tomorrow, Im looking forward to seeing how he implements the arts in the educational curriculum. The ridiculousness of cutting arts in the schools hopefully can be behind us, and the kids in the schools can partake in creative stuff, other than the usual, verbal minutia. Reading some articles about Obamas appreciation for the arts, gives me some hope.
It will take time of course. But according to this the white house may become an art house, unlike anything we have seen before.

A pretty good president-elect

I'll probably watch Obama's Inauguration speech on my DVR, though I may not have much time to comment on it. I'm sure it will be very skillful oratory, and will use some of the characteristic Obama oratorical techniques discussed in an interesting Financial Times piece this weekend.

As for how Obama has performed as president-elect, I give him a solid B+, which is considerably better than I expected. The fairly centrist tenor of his appointments and statements is a very welcome surprise, and something that I have a moderate amount of hope will carry forward into actual governing. A left-liberal friend of mine was recently delighted to hear me say I thought Obama's performance so far was "pretty good." What I should have added is that if I continue thinking Obama's pretty good, that has glum implications for how my friend will think of him.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Not too simulating

Contrary to Glenn Reynolds, I don't think our universe being a computer simulation is "statistically...the way to bet." For one thing, statistically, most known computer simulations have dragons, aliens, women being uniformly hot chicks, and other such features that don't entirely correlate with our reality. For another, I don't see how you can use statistics or other reasoning techniques derived from our reality if our reality is, you know, made up. I also don't think "hologram" and "simulation" are as closely linked as Star Trek might suggest.

Friday, January 16, 2009

So say we all

Some clever propaganda posters for a worthwhile cause.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Plane trouble

If you work near the lower Hudson River, or commute across it, tonight may be a good night to work late and let the emergency vehicles do their thing.

Audit this

Two scenarios for the Treasury Secretary-designate's tax situation.

Limited, strategic interventions

Are modern liberals people who find that, contrary to their hopes, laissez-faire policies don't entirely work and therefore "it is very much worth figuring out a set of limited, strategic interventions" by government? Brad Delong thinks so. If so, count me in. But I doubt it.

Sorry about that

I'm inclined to apologize only for things I'm responsible for, such as the existence of a blog that is wasting some of your valuable time. But others go beyond that:

Something moved her to apologize to the black woman for slavery.

“For two strangers riding a train to Oakland to have that conversation about race, it wouldn’t have been possible if Obama hadn’t been elected,” she said. “I always felt open with my colleagues, but to say to a stranger on the train, ‘Hey, I’m sorry about slavery,’ that just doesn’t happen.”

(Via Karol Sheinin, who's embarrassed for everyone involved.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Freelance freedom

Freelancing, which has constituted probably over 90 percent of my career, has its pros and cons, though I've encountered more of the former than the latter. I may discuss them in more detail some other time, but it suffices to say that in the current economy, whether by necessity or choice, more people will be doing more freelancing. Here's a mostly positive take on the subject.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Competing centrisms

Jennifer Rubin says "Obama's Centrism Could Drive the GOP Out of Business." Maybe. But centrism comes in different varieties. There's big-government centrism and small-government centrism. If the GOP adopts the latter, becoming the party of moderate reform toward less government, it'll distinguish itself over time from the party of moderate reform toward more government. Being wonkish, market-oriented and not frighteningly radical could go a long way.

On a related note, this could be interesting, and I'll try to be there: "Has the Right Hit Bottom Yet?"

Unbelievable history

The dumbest Valkyrie review I've seen -- and not excused by the fact that it's in a college newspaper. The writer complains that the movie "lacks believability," in that for example Cruise's character only has one arm:
I'm not sure someone so unhandy, so to speak, would be assigned the task of handling the bomb.
Lesson: Don't show up at a battle of wits half-armed.

Aliens vs wind power

Had enough of those aliens who come to Earth to lecture us about the environment? Perhaps you'd prefer extraterrestrials who actively oppose wind power?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

We are all Cylons now

IO9 rounds up a bunch of fan theories as to who the final Cylon is. One line of thought, that I've contemplated in my own idle moments, takes the "all this has happened before" slogan to mean that real humans are long since gone, and everybody on the show is a Cylon, some just thinking they're human. At least it would be better than the ending of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village.

Surrounded by glue

I've written a couple of times about the "surrounded property-owner" scenario as a reason to be skeptical of anarchocapitalism. Now my anarchocapitalist friend Todd Seavey has not only recognized that scenario but lived it (well, briefly, sort of).
Even girlfriend Helen asked me recently whether the possibility of a foe buying all the land around me to starve me constitutes coercion, if I’m for strict property rights, and I pooh-poohed the likelihood of the hypothetical — but the next day, as it happens, I heard the boss’s assistant where I work loudly freaking out at workmen in the hall who, with the permission of our building owners, were planning (in effect) to trap us inside the ACSH office for an hour while they spread super-strong glue all over the corridor — without advance warning — for construction purposes.
His principles remain mostly intact, however.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

McCain vs Drosophila

My desire to wade back into John McCain-related controversies is minimal, but what's noteworthy about the renewed contretemps over fruit fly research is that (a) McCain should be emphasizing that the funding was done wrongly (through an earmark) rather than that the research is frivolous, which it likely isn't; and (b) scientists such as P.Z. Myers who have now put themselves in the position of defending earmarked spending (because, after all, if Republicans don't like it, it must be good) are rather casually throwing away the ideal of peer-reviewed, politically independent science, which scientists once rightly argued for rather vociferously.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The pink iguana

When we were in Galapagos a little over a year ago, we saw a lot of iguanas, both land iguanas and marine iguanas. We thought we'd seen every kind of iguana the islands had to offer. We were wrong.

Overflowing bookshelf

Isn't there some vague irony in reading a book called The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory and three other books at about the same time?

More nineties nostalgia

One more excerpt from my "Soaring Nineties" piece, mentioned below. Note my own cameo on the stage of financial history.

The stock boom continued in 1999, with a particular frenzy developing around Internet startups. “Dot-coms” snapped up investment dollars, with little regard to the plausibility of their business plans. Indeed, worrying about a company’s lack of profits — or even revenues — seemed old-fashioned amid the focus on “eyeballs” and “mouse clicks.”

New companies sprang up in every imaginable Internet niche., seller of kitty litter and such, became famous for its sock-puppet mascot. offered free delivery of small goods, like pints of ice cream. Whoopi Goldberg became spokeswoman for, provider of e-currency. Lou Dobbs quit as CNN financial anchor to start celestial Web site (and this writer joined him there on the “launch team”).

The euphoric excesses were symbolized that summer when Stephan Paternot, co-founder of social networking site, was filmed by CNN dancing with his model girlfriend on a table in a Manhattan club, wearing plastic pants. “Got the girl. Got the money. Now I’m ready to live a disgusting, frivolous life,” he said, disgustingly.

But the dot-com boom was not all waste and delusion. From the perspective of almost a decade later, it is clear that companies such as eBay and Google have made lasting contributions, in wealth, jobs and beneficial technologies. As the nineties drew to a close, a mix of genuine innovation and errant overreaching brought stocks to new highs.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Nineties nostalgia

My article on "The Soaring Nineties," about markets and politics in that decade, is now up at Research magazine's website. Excerpt:

Democrats lost both houses in the 1994 electoral spanking, and soon House Speaker Newt Gingrich bestrode the Capitol like a Colossus. Republicans got various items of their Contract with America enacted, such as child tax credits and tort reform. But the Republican Revolution, as it was called, would start fizzling by the end of 1995, when a budget clash with Clinton resulted in an unpopular shutdown of parts of the government.

Equity prices, having treaded water in 1994, began an ascent that would reach unprecedented heights in subsequent years. Both political parties would seek some credit for this before too long. Democrats would note the huge gains in share prices that occurred in the Clinton era, and Republicans would point out that the early Clinton years had seen only modest rises, with the real gains starting after the 1994 election.

It may well be that divided government, combining a free-market Congress with a deficit-cutting administration, helped improve the investment climate. If so, both parties could be right in claiming a part in the stock gains of the 1990s. But a great deal of that boom was manufactured in Silicon Valley, and other places far from Washington. Technology drove the market and the economy to places few expected they could go.

Whole thing here.

Space questionnaire

Got an opinion about what the U.S. space program should do, or not do? The National Academies of Science would like to hear from you by January 30. (Via NASA Watch.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Forget about the weather

I'm sure there's a libertarian case to be made for eliminating or privatizing all functions of the Commerce Department. Such a case would include discussion of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the Commerce Department, and would analyze how NOAA's network of weather satellites, ships and planes could be operated on a private basis; to be really compelling, the argument would recognize that there have been partial efforts in that direction over the years, and would draw upon that history in seeking to chart a future course.

Or, one could just write something like this glib Matt Welch post, which shows no awareness of any of the above other than dismissing a Department web page about the weather as "marginalia." After all, you can get weather reports from lots of other websites, right? (But where do they get the data?)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Conservatism's history

With hopes of getting some insight into conservatism's future, I’ve read review copies of two new books about its past. The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution, by Gregory L. Schneider, is a solid, concise overview of conservatism over the course of the 20th century, written from a generally sympathetic perspective. Schneider, a historian at Emporia State University in Kansas, emphasizes the protean nature of conservatism—how it’s often reinvented itself and found new issues and approaches, while still being recognizably conservative.

A particular theme of Schneider’s is that conservatives after World War II embraced populism and mass democracy, contrary to the Old Right’s cloistered elitism and deep pessimism. I’m not one to praise everything about modern conservatism (particularly its talk-radio populism) but a modernization away from America First and Albert Jay’s Nock’s “remnant” was much needed.

The second book is Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, by Kim Phillips-Fein, a historian at NYU. This focuses on business support for conservatism, and Phillips-Fein is a basically unsympathetic observer of business conservatives such as DuPont’s Jasper Crane and GE’s Lemuel Boulware. But these free-market ideologues seem like a breath of fresh air compared to today’s corporate leaders, often found lining up for government bailouts.

Phillips-Fein notes that conservatives in the 1970s were instrumental in getting companies to be more politically active, but it would have been interesting to point out (which she doesn’t) that much subsequent lobbying was put to non-free-market ends. Still, her view of conservatism at least is not conspiracist (as the title might suggest) or dismissive (many left-liberals don’t seem to have read, let alone written, a book about conservatism).

Both books are worthwhile. Schneider’s deepens one’s appreciation that conservatives have been through tough times and internal divisions before, emerging with new ideas and energy. Phillips-Fein’s reminds one that some very talented people worked against the odds to make conservatism successful over past decades, even if she is not among their admirers.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Year's exercise resolution

May I never be so obsessed with politics as to write something like this. (Via Alarming News.)

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Highly recommended: Valkyrie. I first learned about the July 20 plot from when as a kid I read William Shirer's Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich. Later I read a biography that I believe was Stauffenberg,: The architect of the famous July 20th conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. I've always been fascinated by the conspiracy and the man who drove it forward. In Berlin in 1990 I saw the courtyard (and an exhibit inside) where Stauffenberg and others were executed.

The film does an excellent job of telling the story. I understand some details have been changed (as far as I know, Hitler did not slam the tabletop thus causing the briefcase to topple and then be moved), but many of the details correlate well with history. The film doesn't entirely capture Stauffenberg's eclectic personality (he was, unusual for a Wehrmacht officer, a poetry afficionado). Still, it shows what an extraordinarily courageous and charismatic individual he was.