Thursday, April 30, 2009

Destiny Disrupted

Current reading: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes. So far, quite promising, and I'll likely have more about it at some point.

UPDATE: A little more here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stock market of yore

My latest piece for Research magazine, "Character Counts," focused on Richard Whitney, the 1930s forerunner to Bernie Madoff, is now online. Excerpt:

Sometimes heroes are not all they are cracked up to be. Consider the case of Richard Whitney, whom Time magazine labeled “Hero Whitney” for his actions on October 24, 1929, the Black Thursday that marked the beginning of the Great Crash.

On that day, Whitney, principal of his own brokerage firm and acting president of the New York Stock Exchange, walked onto the exchange floor, went to the post where U.S. Steel was traded and in a loud, confident voice placed a large order at $205, some $15 above its offer price. The square-jawed, striding broker then bought up shares of AT&T, Anaconda Copper, General Electric and other blue chips.

Whitney was acting at the behest of a consortium of banks headed by J.P Morgan & Co. The goal was to allay the panic that had broken out in the market, and for a little while it worked. But a few days later, the Crash resumed in earnest, on Black Monday. Unlike in the Panic of 1907, when J.P. Morgan himself had rallied a recovery, the financiers this time around didn’t have enough cash or clout to prevent a collapse.

But that barely begins to explain why Whitney is remembered by history as less than heroic....

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Specter departing

To those who want to see the GOP expand and not contract, this should come as unwelcome news.

UPDATE: A predictable barrage of who-needs-him purism begins.

UPDATE2: Quiz question: What 1996 Republican candidate quoted Barry Goldwater's credo of keeping government "out of our pockets, off our backs and out of our bedrooms"? I'm not saying the candidate in question admirably lived up to that credo, but (memo to Matt Welch) Specter's departure isn't entirely a good thing if you'd like to see a GOP with more libertarian instincts.

UPDATE3: David Frum sums it up well: "Let’s take this moment to nail some colors to the mast. I submit it is better for conservatives to have 60% sway within a majority party than to have 100% control of a minority party. And until and unless there is an honored place made in the Republican party for people who think like Arlen Specter, we will remain a minority party."


UPDATE5: Specter offers a useful reminder of his opportunistic schmuckiness.

Screwing up light bulbs

Virginia Postrel links to an NYT interview with lighting designer Howard Brandston. Since I've married into the lighting-design world and also have met Howard a number of times, I found it of particular interest, but the subject of the emerging incandescent-bulb prohibition and its unintended consequences is something we'll all be hearing plenty more of in the next few years.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Dismal Battlestar redux

At PopPolitics, Sarah Yahm complains that the Battlestar Galactica finale was filled with pat answers and also implicitly endorsed colonialism and expansionism. I don't share a political perspective that would enable me to see the back-to-nature, stop-using-technology ending as not leftist enough, and I wouldn't describe the finale as having pat answers so much as pat non-answers, as when Starbuck says her "journey is over" and then disappears because the scriptwriters couldn't be bothered to explain her post-death existence or much anything else.

It irks me to think that I actually had better explanations for some things that had happened throughout the series than the writers ultimately came up with. For example, I long suspected that the appearance of the blonde Six visible only to Baltar had to do with Cylon resurrection technology; that she was killed in the nuclear war, and her consciousness was diverted into his head rather than a new body. But no. She (and her Baltar counterpart) turned out to be just one more unexplained phenomenon, "angels" who were still around, annoyingly, in the present day.

I also once thought it might turn out everyone on the show was Cylon; that the real humans went extinct long ago, and Cylons had forced themselves to forget this fact in order to experience what it had been like to be human. I didn't particularly like that possibility, but it would have been something, a coherent ending, rather than the pile of nothing that was actually given.

Atlas still shrugging

You don't have to be a Randian to be happy about this: "'Atlas Shrugged' Author Sees Resurgence." You just have to be someone who wants the climate of opinion to include some alternatives to the tax-borrow-spend-get-reelected mindset emanating from Washington.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Everest on orbit

I haven't had a chance to post more pictures of Nepal lately, but I can recommend these.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Battlestar and Akhenaten

By Mitch Johnson

Fans of the TV show Battlestar Galactica are left to wonder why the humans are polytheists and the cylon robots are monotheists. Back on Earth, however, the motivations and outcome of the first experiment with monotheism in history are well documented. Amenhotep III, pharaoh of the 18th dynasty in Ancient Egypt, desired to wrest power back from the priests at Karnak, who as direct representatives of the various gods were collecting enough tribute and power to challenge the pharaoh. His son, Amenhotep IV, ultimately rejected the Amen, embraced the obscure sun god Aten (changing his name to Akhenaten), built a new holy city away from Karnak in Amarna, and introduced to the world both monotheism and religious oppression. Only he could worship the Aten, and all references to the Amen were to be destroyed. After the unexplained loss of his queen, Nefertiti; his mother; and one of his daughters, Akhenaten became fanatical, introverted, and self obsessed. He ignored the entreaties of allies and the growing threat of foreign enemies, notably the Hitites in the East, and soon the empire was on the verge of collapse. With his death, Egypt dispensed with this disastrous experiment and managed to survive long enough for Ramesses II to rise and restore glory. Monotheism, of course, would return with the much more successful religions of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tax policies in Ancient Egypt

I took this picture on a recent trip to Egypt. It’s of the Nilometer, a sacred chamber on Elephantine Island in Aswan (southern Egypt), where the level of the river was measured each spring to predict the harvest throughout the rest of the kingdom. The priests would collect this information in secret and set taxes accordingly. As now, taxes were unpopular, and tax shelters for priests and temples could not have helped. However, it’s hard not to like the idea of calibrating taxes to what’s happening in the economy.

Yes, it does

Politico: "Waning GOP Needs Its Moderates." That's an obvious but lamentably controversial point. Excerpt:

During the 1970s and ’80s, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan generated support for their party by appealing to centrist and independent voters, thereby enlarging the GOP’s coalition and helping to make conservative Republicans the nation’s political majority. These presidents championed numerous conservative ideas such as tax cuts, but they also embraced more moderate policies that were important factors in the GOP’s ascendance.

Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, endorsed national health insurance and forged diplomatic relations with communist China. Ford treaded softly on social issues while Reagan raised taxes, negotiated arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and signed legislation strengthening Social Security.

Not everything on that list was of equal value; "national health insurance" is an area where I prefer to see the Republicans propose something clearly different from the Democrats. But the notion that the GOP doesn't need its moderates, indeed ought to drive them away, is the key factor making the party's electoral prospects so dismal at present.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Non-colonial legacies

Tyler Cowen has a withering review of leftist documentary The End of Poverty. (Via Brian Doherty.) Sounds like even when it's right, it's wrong. Excerpt:
Does The End of Poverty get anything right? Sure: The film’s critiques of colonialism are mostly spot on, but this is too easily carried off to merit praise. Of course colonialism was an immoral and impractical enterprise, and the movie serves up good evidence to make the point. But colonialism didn’t have the long-run impact that the film argues. The film, speaking through [narrator Martin] Sheen, never mentions that a number of countries or regions from the South were never colonized. Thailand was never colonized. Ethiopia was invaded by Italy but not colonized in the formal sense. Liberia was never colonized. Afghanistan and most of Central Asia were never colonized, at least not until Soviet times. These countries are hardly the major economic success stories of the South; if anything, their economic performance has been below average. China and Japan, on the other hand, started to do well once each aimed its targets on developing some version of Western capitalism.
This rings particularly true to me having recently come back from never-colonized Nepal, where most of the population lives on a few dollars a day while water and electricity are in short supply.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Haunted lawsuit

It turns out you can be sued, successfully, for writing on your website about places that are supposedly haunted. I just hope they make an exception for artistic license.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sea-space libertarianism

I wrote about seasteading years before it had that name (I think), and I've long been an enthusiast of space exploration. But it seems to me Peter Thiel offers a rather quixotic and counterproductive idea that libertarians should be throwing their energies into building new societies on the oceans or in space (or in cyberspace, though that's less of an all-or-nothing proposition), in lieu of the supposedly hopeless task of making existing societies more libertarian.

Brian Doherty expresses some skepticism as well. Incidentally, I once made Patri Friedman "want to scream" at my supposed obtuseness in an earlier discussion on some similar points. But I think part of the disconnect is that libertarians entertaining such ideas tend to have a more principled/extreme (take your pick) view of what constitutes a free society than I do.

UPDATE: At the risk of stating the obvious, I'd add that it's going to be a long time before anybody is going to be able to live in space, or in any desirable way on an ocean platform, without extensive support facilities on terra firma, including, not least, a bank account.

UPDATE 4-21: Actually, it turns out the market will solve these problems.

UPDATE 4-29: For some truly lame leftist responses to Thiel, see here and here. Note the ready resort to gay-baiting by these "progressives."

UPDATE 5-1: Arnold Kling has an idea -- support institutions that compete with government -- that I think is a lot better than the libertarian civil disobedience he and I have disagreed about.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tech slowdown

Business Week's Michael Mandel, whose work I wrote about here, has some interesting thoughts on "reverse black swans" and slowing tech innovation as a cause of the economic crisis.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

April 15

I won't be attending a Tea Party today, for reasons more logistical and temperamental than ideological. But Todd Seavey is on the job.

UPDATE: This is just pathetic.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Giant cosmic hand

Here's a photo suggesting a giant hand in space. Last time I wrote about a giant hand in space and Intelligent Design, I got some rebukes from people who failed to perceive the post's sarcasm (and its emoticon). But this time, it's different, because there's photographic evidence.


Space solar power update

I've been writing about space solar power for a decade and a half. In 1994, I happened to call Peter Glaser, who had done much to develop the concept in the 1960s, for an article I was doing on commercialization of space. I hadn't adequately done my homework before making the call (a journalistic occupational hazard) and even wondered if he was pulling my leg with his effusions about beaming power from space. He wasn't. It's a serious idea, but it's never been clear when it will become practical and how it will stack up against various energy alternatives economically.

Now, California utility Pacific Gas & Electric has made a deal to buy space-based solar energy from a company called Solaren as soon as 2016. Motley Fool is skeptical. I say stay tuned. Given the problems of all other energy sources (including terrestrial solar, with its limited efficiency and landscape-despoiling arrays), space solar power just might have a real future.

A reason to read the NYT

Since I was in Asia at the time, I missed the news that Ross Douthat is going to be a columnist for the New York Times. I think that's an inspired choice, with merits comparable to my own unsolicited recommendation of Heather Mac Donald. (Here's a debate between the two of them about secular conservatism.) Douthat's rise gives me a glimmer of hope for the right's future, compensating for the dread I feel at the ratings surge of the malevolently clownish Glenn Beck.

Incidentally, I do notice that commuters on my NJ Transit line are considerably more likely to be reading the Wall Street Journal than the Times, but now I see some basis for at least checking in at the NYT website more often than I have lately.

My generally favorable review of Douthat and Salam's Grand New Party is here, by the way.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Baby elephant, Chitwan

Chitwan National Park, early April. More Nepal pictures to come.

"Really tied to evolution"

You have to have a really crude understanding of evolution to say what Glenn Beck says here:

JONAH GOLDBERG, AUTHOR, "LIBERAL FASCISM": Woodrow Wilson is the first president to openly disparage the U.S. Constitution what no longer relevant, and then we've been (UNINTELLIGIBLE) aside.

BECK: But he did that before he was elected president. He said, "Disregard the Declaration of Independence. It's not valid anymore - the Constitution," because this is really tied in to evolution.

I mean, I think I understand why progressives fight for evolution so much now, and that's because if evolution isn't happening, well, wait a minute, progressivism kind of falls apart. Because what their claim was, and it is so discredited through the 20th century now, that the founders understood government as oppressive, but that will never happen because man and governments have evolved into a higher state. True or false?

I defy Beck to give an example of anyone, "progressive" or not, who makes the argument he's denouncing, or who thinks humans have evolved substantially since the 18th century. We need a smart right these days, and Beck isn't it. Nor is his guest, one R.J. Pestritto, author of a Woodrow Wilson biography, who responded to the nonsense with: "No, that's true...."

UPDATE: While we're on the subject of needing a smart right, David Frum makes an incisive point:
Anti-intellectualism as a style and sensibility will always be exploited by would-be populists of the left and right. Most of the time, however, it proves to be fool’s gold. Voters in advanced democracies have a lot to lose, and politicians who appear unequal to the task of managing the government will not be entrusted with high responsibilities. Who knows? Voter aversion to gut-playing politicians may prove one of the more enduring legacies of the Bush years.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Debate audio

My 2/19 debate with Ryan Sager on "Has the right hit bottom?" is currently available as an audio file right here.

Goldman Sachs 666

Efforts to demonize financiers have little appeal to me, and normally I wouldn't give any notice to a blog with the URL GoldmanSachs666 (though I have some friends who might find it somewhat amusing). But I'm with Ann Althouse in thinking that if Goldman is trying to shut it down, it just might be worth a look.

UPDATE: After reading this bit of fire-and-brimstone hoo-hah from the site's author, Mike Morgan, I am yet less inclined to take his project seriously:
I am 53 years old and believe all of the answers for how we should live are in the Bible...God gave David the choice of paying the consequences at the hands of David's enemies or at the hand of God. David chose God's consequences. Hank Paulson and the thousands of wicked men like him deserve the wrath of the millions of lives they have destroyed. We must go after the crooks and make them pay the consequences for their greed and the total disregard for anyone other than themselves. We need to start with Hank Paulson, who as CEO of Goldman Sachs, was more responsible than any 10 men combined, for the violent Depression we are about to enter.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Toward future dogfights

The recent Atlantic piece on the F-22 was intended, I think, to raise worries about what would happen if production of the futuristic fighter is not continued. It's a difficult call, balancing the exigencies of future wars against those of present ones. But as the Pentagon moves to shut the line down, I am unimpressed by this bit of reasoning from Fareed Zakaria:
The F-22 has a price tag of over $350 million per jet. The F-22 was built to fight enemy jets. But when was the last time a U.S. pilot was involved in a dogfight?
The paucity of recent dogfights, of course, is in part because no other nation wants to go up against a qualitatively superior plane such as the F-22. That calculus is likely to change as the F-22 becomes a dwindling resource. Unthinking extrapolation from past to future is poor punditry.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Sherpas in space

This is interesting: mountaineer and former astronaut Scott Parazynski, gearing up for an Everest climb, talks about similarities and differences between mountain and space expeditions. (Via NASA Watch.) Excerpt:

Preparing for a space shuttle flight or an EVA (spacewalk) is a very intense process. It's the physical training, of course, since going on a space walk is very physically demanding. There is also mental preparation and knowing your tasks. There’s knowing your equipment and how it works and how the gear might fail. Then there is the process of going through everything in your head, training runs - the things that you will be doing outside on a space walk. Going to Mount Everest is quite similar. You need to be getting your body ready, your gear, mentally preparing for the rigors of summit day and what leads up to it. It takes a lot of work.

I'd add that the team of guides and porters that took us through the Annapurna region last month was so hard-working and competent I began thinking they could do a Mars trek.

Radio note

I'll be on the Gabe Wisdom Show on Monday, April 13 at 7 pm Eastern to talk about my recent article "The Silver Crisis" and how my metallic namesake shook the financial world.

UPDATE: Actually we spoke about frontier markets.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Fine tune this

I've criticized various aspects of Reason magazine under its current editors. (See here and here, for example.) One thing I haven't gotten around to criticizing until now is the lame or nonexistent copy editing of its website. Consider this gibberish:

Victor J. Stenger ha
href="">The Life of the Cosmos. In this theory, our universe emerged from a black hole in a previous universe; moreover, each black hole in our universe (and other universes) generates yet another universe. Universes that produce lots of black holes therefore have more "progeny" than universes that don't. The laws of physics are reshuffled slightly with each black hole, and increasingly the multiverse is dominated by universes whose laws are "fine-tuned" to produce black holes.
That's how my July 1999 piece "Is God in the Details?" currently opens in its Reason web page, after a few thousand words have been omitted or garbled. There's a bit of an irony there in that part of what's been excised has to do with misbegotten analogies involving monkeys and typewriters. For an accurate rendition of the piece, see here.

This article, by the way, seemed to me after it first appeared to have had some success in deflating the boomlet of spurious anthropic reasoning in media and especially conservative-media circles. But the debate continues, even though as Jim Manzi notes, it's much ado about nothing.

UPDATE 9/3/04: At some point, the Reason piece got fixed. Thanks, guys.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Nepal, electricity, Battlestar

The Economist on Nepal. I can second that it's a poor and troubled country, albeit one with many wonderful people and amazing things to see. More to come, now that I'm back in the U.S.

Meanwhile, having spent a few weeks without full electricity, I am nonplussed to read that the U.S. electrical grid is larded with spyware from Russia and China. Also, one cultural dislocation of being back is that I've now sat through the crummy final hour of Battlestar Galactica.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The lure of the frontier

My current piece on frontier markets (not-quite-emerging markets) in Research magazine is here. More soon about Nepal.