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Friday, October 30, 2009

Unsolicited advice

Memo to my old boss Lou Dobbs: This bullet story isn't going your way. Change. Subject. Fast.

Cirque road show

Cirque de Soleil's Kooza, which we saw in NY a few months ago, is now playing on the West Coast and gets a justly glowing review from the WSJ's Joe Morgenstern, who like many was particularly impressed by the Wheel of Death.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Financial futures' past

My latest Research magazine piece, "Inventing Financial Futures," is about how Leo Melamed and Milton Friedman transformed what goes on in the Chicago trading pits. Excerpt:
Melamed was right to think he could use some help in overcoming doubts about the initiative. Futures trading had been used for agricultural goods since the 19th century, and some in the business were wary of trying to transplant it elsewhere. Meanwhile, there were some financial types who regarded the Chicago trading pits as déclassé.

“It’s ludicrous to think that foreign exchange can be entrusted to a bunch of pork belly crapshooters,” said one New York banker just before the opening of the Merc’s International Monetary Market in May 1972. Business Week ran an article titled “The New Currency Market: Strictly for Crapshooters,” saying the market would have great appeal “if you fancy yourself an international money speculator but lack the resources.”
UPDATE: I'll be talking about this article on the Gabe Wisdom Show on Monday, Nov. 2 at 7:30pm ET.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Libertarian mirror neurons

Still reading: Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, which is turning out to be excellent. I'm up to the part where Murray Rothbard breaks with her because he finds her followers to be a dogmatic cult, without noticing that his are too.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Astran projection

Maybe it's just me, but I find the posthumans in this speculative evolutionary forecast all look ridiculous. (Via Ryan Sager.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Consuming Space.com

Space.com, where I worked at the tail end of the roaring nineties, has been acquired, along with sister sites LiveScience and Newsarama, by something called TopTenReviews, which has a site that offers reviews of consumer products. I suppose if space tourism takes off, people will need reviews of Virgin Galactic versus Bigelow Aerospace, or something. Other than that, the synergies are somewhat mysterious, except that Newsarama includes comic reviews.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Halloween lawn

Just a typical night in northern New Jersey. Who needs Clinton Road?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Human spaceflight

The Augustine Commission space report is out (PDF). I will contemplate it serenely for a while, and then either write something or forget to do so. UPDATE: More soon.

UPDATE 10/23: At New Majority, I say: "Privatize Outer Space."

UPDATE 10/25: Paul Spudis notes some of what's missing from the Augustine report.

Romney comeback watch

Politico has an article on tensions between high-profile blowhards such as Glenn Beck and Republican politicians and operatives who want to draw on the blowhards' popular appeal without alienating the rest of the electorate. It's a daunting challenge, but one likely 2012 candidate (whom I didn't much like the last time around) seems to have the right idea:

Mitt Romney has purposely kept a lower profile and stuck to speeches on specific policy issues, in part to avoid the early trade-off between placating party activists and appearing presidential.
In 2008, Romney desperately tried to show that he's a hard-right type, contrary to his record. In 2012, he can come across more as the data-crunching business consultant/policy wonk he really is. It might work.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Biotech interview

My recent interview with Gabe Wisdom about biotech history is currently available here.

Planet 51 orbit

A mildly interesting publicity stunt:
In a bid to attract otherworldly buzz for its upcoming animated comedy "Planet 51," Columbia Pictures has arranged to have the film orbit the planet. The film won't be available on Earth until it bows in theaters on Nov. 20, but it is currently safely ensconced in the International Space Station.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Soup of darkness

Meanwhile in Germany, the EU's ban on incandescent bulbs has sparked a backlash, including hoarding and runs on stores. Expect much the same here. It reminds me of the opening lyrics from Imogen Heap's song "Tidal":

Before electric light,
You paddled through the soup of darkness as a crocodile,
Cherry picking in the river,
I would leave crisp note footprints at the Bankside

Watch it closely you will see it begin to move
Watch it closely you see it begin to flicker

OK, maybe that's not what that song's about, but it's at least open to interpretation.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Declining goddess

Current reading: Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. I've skipped to the chapters about her later years, which are kind of like watching an accident in slow motion.

Climate freak-out

At Scientific American, my friend Robin Lloyd has a good summary of an emerging (and confusing) controversy over whether deforestation might actually mitigate global warming as discussed in the forthcoming SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.For all I know, Levitt and Dubner have a point, but I've become a little more skeptical of them since I reviewed the first Freakonomics; it's odd that so many of their findings are hot-button counterintuitive things that help sell books.

UPDATE: More from Stand-Up Economist.

UPDATE 11-3: Quite a bit more from Ronald Bailey.

Future energy

Space solar power and algae biofuel make the list of "Five Technologies That Could Change Everything." UPDATE: More on space solar at, a bit oddly, ESPN.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Biotech radio

I'm slated to be on the Gabe Wisdom Show on Mon., Oct. 19 at around 7:40 pm ET to talk about the history of biotech and its political ramifications. On a related note, at New Majority, Tim Mak wonders about the mysterious deal, or non-deal, between the White House and Big Pharma.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tree in motion

Here's some excellent public art -- a computer video installation by Jennifer Steinkamp titled "Michael Kelly 1," currently on display at the Cleveland Clinic. Notice how it inspires people to stop, look and interact.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Light bulb conservatism

Personal matters prevented it, but I would have loved to attend this panel discussion on the future of conservatism:

Virginia Postrel produced a small quilted hatbox on stage, then opened it to reveal… an ordinary incandescent light bulb. Surely (she said) all strains of conservatism could agree that it was wrong for government to outlaw this bulb?

As a Princeton undergraduate, Virginia had sat in the very room in which we were speaking and been taught by some of the inventors of the cap-and-trade idea. They argued then that government should get out of the business of prescribing solutions to problems - like banning light bulbs to fight global warming - and instead set general rules that enabled people to experiment with the best solutions.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Financial wisdom

Gabriel Wisdom's book is out: Wisdom on Value Investing: How to Profit on Fallen Angels.

Gabe hosts a wide-ranging and thought-provoking show on Business Talk Radio, and has been kind enough to have me on frequently to talk about financial history. His thoughts on finding companies with high and unrecognized potential are well worth reading and hearing alike.

Friday, October 9, 2009

One face of Janus


Saturn's moon Janus, taken from the Cassini spacecraft. Just because.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ray Summer (1970-2009)

We mourn the loss of Ray Summer, brother of co-blogger Dan Summer; he was a good guy, and should have had a much longer life. Deepest condolences to the family.

Nobel prediction

Things are hectic and posting may be light. My prediction for the economics Nobel to be announced on Monday: with so much concern about monetary policy and its role in causing or resolving the financial crisis, the prize could go to a top expert on the subject, John B. Taylor, whose writings I've become more familiar with lately and have found very absorbing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

WH astronomy night

Unlike any number of other things President Obama has done, this is pretty good:

One hundred and forty lucky middle school aged students are headed to the South Lawn at the White House this evening for a night of star gazing with President Obama – but this time, the proceedings have nothing to do with Hollywood royalty.

Tonight's festivities will target a very specific age group, one that typically succumbs to peer pressure and tends to move away from science and technology. According to former astronaut Dr. Sally Ride, who was on the South Lawn for a preview and will be there this evening, 'this reminds them that science is cool, and tonight's event might let them hold onto that interest' going into high school and college.

The students from local middle schools in Washington, DC and Virginia who are coming to the White House tonight will be met by the 'Inflatable Dome,' a virtual universe that displays a realistic virtual show of the galaxies, as well as roughly twenty telescopes scattered about the lawn and pointed toward the heavens.

Goldberg v Battlestar

Jonah Goldberg, about whom what little I've written was not very positive, has an excellent article in Commentary about how Battlestar Galactica stank through its last couple of years (and he mercifully doesn't delve into its dismal finale).

Dalai Lama on hold

This is a consequence of having a weak U.S. president and a massive Chinese-held debt:

Still jet-setting at 74, the Dalai Lama has been in Washington this week to receive an award in Congress and attend a conference on meditation. But, for the first time since 1991, the Tibetan religious leader’s visit to the US capital has not included a trip to the White House.

Barack Obama, US president, is to make his first visit to China next month and any meeting with the Dalai Lama, which would doubtless raise hackles in Beijing, has been put on hold.

Visiting Dharamshala earlier this year, I was disconcerted by the ramshackle environs of the Tibetan government-in-exile. How could the Tibetans hope to engage in any kind of contest with China? Through the power of their ideas, and through U.S. support. Looks like they'll have to rely on their ideas.

Many conspiracies or just one?

Early this morning, at my New Jersey train station, there was a guy raving about 9/11 as inside job, chemtrails that cause us to think we have swine flu, and the discovery of another solar system that has some kind of sinister implications. For anyone who wants more of this kind of stuff, there's tonight's Debate at Lolita Bar.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Aging, awards

Off to Boston shortly for the Retirement Income Industry Association's annual meeting and awards dinner. I'll be introducing award winner Laurence Kotlikoff.

And if you're feeling long in the tooth and ready for retirement, the Nobel Prize has just been awarded to the people who figured out that telomeres are crucial in the aging process.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sagan video

Carl Sagan, sampled into electronic music. My favorite video in a long time. (Via LGF.)



My long-ago review of a Carl Sagan book is here. A somewhat later review of a Nick Sagan book is here. Hey, Nick--isn't it time for a reunion with your ex-Space.com friends? (Ex-Space.com, not ex-friends, I mean.)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Biotech history

My October Research magazine article, on the history of biotech, is now online. Excerpt:

The roots of biotech can be traced back over centuries, involving such precursors as the fermentation of yeast in beer production. The modern biotech industry, though, began on April 7, 1976, when biochemist Herbert Boyer and venture capitalist Robert Swanson founded Genentech to develop drugs based on the technology of recombinant DNA, in which genes from multiple sources are combined into a single molecule. Boyer and geneticist Stanley Cohen had pioneered such gene splicing earlier in the decade.

Genentech went public on Oct. 14, 1980, with 1 million shares offered at $35 each. Investors bid the price up to $89 in a matter of minutes, and the stock closed for the day at $70. The company, by the way, at this point still had no actual products, though it had achieved some important laboratory milestones, such as cloning human insulin.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Saturn winding down

So much for Saturn. (Not this Saturn or this one but this one.) Those of us who own, say, a 2007 Aura Green Line hybrid (a very good car, I might add) wonder what exactly our warranty will be getting us a bit down the road.

Space available

Where would I live if not New Jersey? Saturn Apartments.