Monday, January 30, 2012

Sci-tech links

Some science and technology-related items of note

-- Chris Mooney on why a WSJ op-ed likening climate scientists to Lysenko is so ludicrous.

-- David Frum takes the pro-robots stance on space vs. Newt's moon base. I'm a big fan of the robots myself, but they don't do everything worth doing out there. Frum criticizes Charles Krauthammer for saying we go to space not for practicality but for "the wonder and glory of it." On that I'm more with David, as I'm not one to argue we should target some space objective "because it's hard" or "because it's there." But the practicalities are hard to predict and hard to disentangle from more intangible motivations. Anyone who has any concern about energy or climate should not want to foreclose future availability of space-based energy options.

-- Rand Simberg asks some cogent questions of Mitt Romney about space policy. Some background by me on Obama's record on space commerce and how it compares favorably with his record on Earth.

UPDATE: Regarding the WSJ piece cited above, some of the critics are engaged in some weak counterarguments to the effect that the 16 signatories don't have real or relevant scientific credentials. For instance, a Grist rebuttal complains that "one is an astronaut," without mentioning that that one, Harrison Schmitt, is also a geologist. The problem is not that the people who signed that op-ed (I wonder who wrote it, by the way) lack good credentials; they have enough that their views deserve to be read. The problem is that once you read their argument, it doesn't stand up under scrutiny, such as with the "Lysenko" canard.

T.R. book

Finished reading: Colonel Roosevelt, and with that I've concluded Edmund Morris' trilogy, which I began maybe in the '90s if not before; original The Rise of Theodore Rooseveltwas published in '79. The third book was a worthy conclusion. I have some T.R.-related writing here and here.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mind items

A couple of intriguing items about mental capabilities and tradeoffs:

-- WSJ: "What's Wrong with the Teenage Mind?"

-- PLoS One: "Familial Linkage Between Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Intellectual Interests."

I've long been interested in that sort of thing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Drive Angry

I recommend this movie, at least to certain readers of this blog whose cinematic tastes I know: Drive Angry. It was a commercial and critical flop, but there's no denying its entertainment value, and unlike some films I've reported on, its makers seem to have had some self-awareness and humor about what they were doing.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The moon is not enough

If this election were largely about space exploration, I would vote for Newt Gingrich hands down. It would be wonderful to have a president who knows about space, cares about space, and is attuned to innovative ideas such as cash prizes for exploration milestones. But I also recall (from Robert Zubrin's Mars book) that Newt was talking about space prize legislation back in the '90s; and I don't recall any follow-through. More importantly, this is the same Newt who demagogued the "Ground Zero Mosque," and who flits among faddish ideas and management theories even while his own management style degenerates routinely into pure chaos. He's also the same Newt who flip-flopped on global warming out of political expediency. Plus, his personal life and character are not exactly confidence-inspiring. So, much as I'd love a moon base, still no thanks, Newt.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Warren predictions

My Research magazine "Political Monitor" column for February is now online, and looks at the political prospects of Elizabeth Warren: "The Warren Effect." Excerpt:
Will Warren win? More likely than not; the race is volatile and could go either way, but Warren should be considered the favorite. Massachusetts is a predominantly Democratic state, and her campaign can be expected to generate a degree of supporter enthusiasm that Brown would be hard-pressed to match. Brown’s chances depend on a high turnout by independents.
What impact would a Sen. Warren have? She surely would have some effect in pressing financial regulators to implement the rules of Dodd-Frank and other existing laws more aggressively. However, her ability to do this, or moreover to create any major new legislative initiative on finance, would be limited by a close balance of power between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.
The Senate’s current partisan breakdown is 51 Democrats and 47 Republicans. The 2012 elections put into contention 21 Democratic seats and just 10 Republican ones, and the 2014 elections involve another 20 Democratic seats and just 13 Republican ones. A Sen. Warren probably would be part of either a slim majority or a minority during her first term.
There is also a noteworthy potential for tension between a Sen. Warren and other Democratic legislators, particularly ones with heavy backing from the financial industry. In castigating Scott as a recipient of Wall Street cash, candidate Warren did not mention that topping the Forbes list she cited were New York’s Democratic senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Will Warren get elected president in 2016? This is improbable, as it would require not only beating a Republican, possibly an incumbent, but also first gaining the Democratic nomination against a field that may include far more experienced rivals such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. It would require a Sen. Warren to win over swing voters while keeping her base enthused, and to thrive on public dislike for Big Finance while keeping sufficient Wall Street support for the Democratic Party. Could she do all that? Not likely, though a few more financial crises and scandals would help.
Whole thing here.

SOTU ennui

For someone who's something of a political junkie, I've long been oddly indifferent to the State of the Union speeches. I've watched them only sporadically since probably sometime in the Clinton years, and rarely have I felt either that I saw something of great import or that I missed something big by not watching. This year I didn't watch, so of course won't comment, though I recommend this piece by Mickey Kaus, who at least read the speech.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Man of the moment

"In Newt Gingrich's World Rules Do not Apply to Him..." Could this be the secret sauce of his appeal? Certainly it gives him a basis to bond with quite a few New Jersey drivers, people who cut ski lines and other key suburban constituencies.

UPDATE: While contemplating the awfulness of a possible GOP nominee, it's worth remembering why it's so important to have a (reasonably) good one. See "Obama's Critics Are Right," by David Frum.

UPDATE 2: Speaking of criticisms of Obama, reasonable and otherwise, Conor Friedersdorf gives an astute assessment of what's behind the Gingrich phenomenon.

Friday, January 20, 2012

President Newt

I'm on the record as not being all that supportive of Newt Gingrich. Even when I defend him, it's probably not in a way he'd appreciate. But as he surges in South Carolina polls, I must admit I'm not all that exercised by the prospect of a Gingrich presidency. One reason is that I highly doubt it will ever happen. If he is nominated, Obama will wipe the floor with him in November, I expect. But even if somehow he's nominated and wins, a President Gingrich likely would be remarkably ineffective, shifting from one dubious idea to another and generating impassioned opposition for his style and substance both. Still, perhaps I'd apply to be a speechwriter in that administration. I'd send Newt this post to show I understand the tone he wants to set.

UPDATE: Unbelievable. 

UPDATE 1/21, as S.C. polls close: This sounds about right.

UPDATE, a little later: On the bright side, there is lunar mining.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Multicellular yeast and aliens

Tyler Cowen sees bad news in an experiment that showed it's not that hard for yeast to develop from single-celled organisms to multicellular ones. Cowen:
It suggests that “the filter” lies ahead of us rather than behind us.  The difficulties of producing multi-cellular organisms have been one of the main responses to the Fermi Paradox (“where are they?”).  If it’s not so hard after all, there must be some other obstacle to lots of self-reproducing von Neumann probes.
Maybe, but among the many possible answers to the "where are they" question are ones that put "the filter behind us": that single-cell life is extremely hard to get started in the first place, or that intelligence might not necessarily follow multicellularity. Of course, there's also the possibility that civilizations blow themselves up -- or let their government-funded health plans run amok.

UPDATE: The Atlantic has a fascinating interview with philosopher-of-physics Tim Maudlin that happens to veer into this topic, and Maudlin says something along the lines of what I said, albeit in a considerably smarter way:
I will make one comment about these kinds of arguments which seems to me to somehow have eluded everyone. When people make these probabilistic equations, like the Drake Equation, which you're familiar with -- they introduce variables for the frequency of earth-like planets, for the evolution of life on those planets, and so on. The question remains as to how often, after life evolves, you'll have intelligent life capable of making technology. What people haven't seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It's not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value. We tend to think, because we love to think of ourselves, human beings, as the top of the evolutionary ladder, that the intelligence we have, that makes us human beings, is the thing that all of evolution is striving toward. But what we know is that that's not true. Obviously it doesn't matter that much if you're a beetle, that you be really smart. If it were, evolution would have produced much more intelligent beetles. We have no empirical data to suggest that there's a high probability that evolution on another planet would lead to technological intelligence. There is just too much we don't know.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Evolving free will

Here's some interesting back-and-forth on the age-old question of free will. Biologist Jerry Coyne argues we don't have it. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci responds that Coyne's dismissiveness is premature and unscientific. Coyne then defends his view on various points, but more or less shrugs off a key point of Pigliucci's. Here's Pigliucci:
[W]hy do we have such a pervasive “illusion” to begin with? Apparently, he [Coyne] knew this was coming, and answered thus in the USA Today article: “where do these illusions of both will and ‘free’ will come from? We’re not sure. I suspect that they’re the products of natural selection, perhaps because our ancestors wouldn’t thrive in small, harmonious groups — the conditions under which we evolved — if they didn’t feel responsible for their actions.”

As far as I can tell there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support such speculation. To the contrary, we know of plenty of social animal species that seem to thrive very well indeed without requiring the illusion of free will to keep them in line. Certainly social insects don’t need to be fooled that way, and it is hard to imagine even species of social mammals, including most primates, needing to engage in deliberate reasoning before deciding how to behave toward fellow group members.
 Coyne's response:
Note that I said, “We’re not sure.” I really have no idea why we have the illusion of agency, and was just speculating that it may be an adaptation.  But it might not be—it could be an epiphenomenon of having complex brains.  By the way, our brains are far more complex than those of social insects, and we process many more inputs than those of, say, ants. A big ant could not function as a human being.  And we have no idea whether animals engage in deliberate reasoning, though this morning’s kitteh post suggest that cats can, and I certainly think that primates can.

But it doesn’t matter.  I have no idea about why we have the illusion of free agency, nor am I deeply invested in an evolutionary, much less an adaptive, answer.

Me: Given that Coyne's blog is titled "Why Evolution Is True" (and I believe it is true), it is notable to me that he can't mount more of a defense of his natural-selection-did-it speculation about the supposed illusion of free will. It's not just that "we're not sure," it's really that the logic of evolution seems to point in a very different direction. Wouldn't natural selection weed out those creatures that devote so much brainpower to maintaining an illusion? Wouldn't it give preference to the hominids that don't think they have free will and don't care? I'm not the first to ask such questions (philosopher John Searle has asked them for years), nor am I the first to suspect that maybe some kind of free will involving genuine indeterminism arose because it carries a survival advantage (such as by allowing an organism to act in ways that predators can't predict). Of course, lest anyone point out I'm speculating, I have to admit: we're not sure.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Scrubbing carbon

Recommended reading: "Why not scrub CO2 from the sky?" by John Rennie, whom I know from freelancing at Scientific American when he was editor in chief there. Taking proactive measures to engineer the planet, such as getting rid of some of the carbon that's been emitted, is an issue that is on a distant horizon today but is going to cause massive political turmoil and realignments in time. The fear of moral hazard -- that people will see such potential solutions as a license to emit -- constrains advocacy of such engineering at present, as do concerns about the unanticipated consequences (and recognition of the limits of what engineering can do, eg, how do you de-acidify the ocean?). Left-leaning science advocates such as Rennie are careful to bracket ideas about planetary engineering with cautions that it can't be a substitute for reducing emissions. I can imagine various environmentalists never warming up to such engineering, and various conservatives now in denial about the problem coming around to the idea that we have to do something as long as it's not about cutting emissions.

UPDATE: Also of interest: "Climate Proposal Puts Practicality Ahead of Sacrifice."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Creatively therapeutic

Dan Summer, periodic and eclectic co-blogger on this blog (see here and here, for instance), is a creative arts therapist with wide-ranging expertise in helping children and adults. His new website The Art of Playing explains his involvement in this innovative field.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Huntsman's point

Over at the Fiscal Times, Edward Morrissey expresses some puzzlement as to the point of Jon Huntsman's campaign. Morrissey correctly notes that Huntsman has a pretty conservative record and set of positions, notwithstanding his centrist image. However, Morrissey writes:
Huntsman never connected to the Republican base, for a number of reasons.  Conservatives, especially in the Tea Party, didn’t extend much trust to a man who showered praise on President Obama as a “remarkable leader” with “brilliant analysis of world events,” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as having “even more charisma than her husband!”  Nor did the manner of his leaving impress Republicans, having made it known that he wanted to challenge his boss for the White House before officially resigning from his post in the administration.
 If Tea Party conservatives didn’t warm to Huntsman, the feeling was undeniably mutual.  Earlier this week, Huntsman told Politico  that he hoped that the cycles of political thought “ultimately takes us to a sane Republican Party based on real ideas,” after supposedly “losing its equilibrium” in the Obama era....
I'll grant that Huntsman's praise of his onetime boss could've been less fulsome, and also that (as Morrissey elsewhere complains) Huntsman's jokes sometimes fall flat. Plus, Morrissey may be right to second-guess Huntsman's strategy of bypassing Iowa and placing so much political capital on New Hampshire instead.

But what I find manifestly true, and extremely important, is that the Republican Party did lose its equilibrium in the Obama era, and became a vehicle for various ideas and impulses that don't pass a sanity test. These range from birtherism to worries about "Kenyan anti-colonialism" to science denialism on climate change. (Note: there's room for debate as to what policies to adopt in light of climate change, but not for obstinately denying well-established facts that global warming is occurring and anthropogenic.)

A key attraction of Huntsman is that he won't succumb to that Obama-era fever. And if -- unlikely though not impossible -- he wins the nomination, he's far and away the candidate most likely to win the election. Steering the Republican Party away from its worst impulses, while maintaining a broadly conservative stance, and actually winning in the event that he is the nominee: that's the point of the Huntsman campaign.

UPDATE 1/16: Huntsman's out. Which means centrist types who won't vote for Obama can now choose between Romney and Kotlikoff.

Downsize Wall Street

New York Times: "Could Huntsman and the Democrats Ally on Bank Reform?" Explains how the idea of downsizing the biggest banks could win support on right and left, and could gain traction whether or not Huntsman himself is the nominee.

None of which would be a surprise to readers of my January "Political Monitor" column in Research magazine.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ron Paul speaks

“People who really hold the wealth, it’s mal-distribution because it shifts over due to the regulations that control the government.” Gibberish.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Frum on

David Frum has started blogging at The Daily Beast just in time for the New Hampshire primary. While I was sorry to see FrumForum go into storage, that loss is a big gain for Tina Brown & Co., and unsurprisingly David's off to an interesting and high-frequency start.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Table Mountain

One more Cape Town picture, Table Mountain with its "tablecloth" of clouds.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cape Town townships

One high point of our trip to South Africa was a tour of black townships. We visited Khayelitsha and, more briefly, Gugulethu, met some friendly people and saw some interesting places. From the highway it may look like chaos, and there is vast hardship and poverty, but there's also entrepreneurship and improvement.

Playing the xylophone.
Visiting a church/school.
At a house that serves as a small church.
Meeting the kids.

Vicky's Bed and Breakfast.
A well-appointed room at Vicky's.

Drinking homemade beer.
I highly recommend our tour guide, Thabang Titotti, who can be reached here.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Candidate Kotlikoff

Laurence Kotlikoff is a distinguished economist whom I met at a conference in Boston in late 2009, when I presented him with an award for retirement income research. There's a photo somewhere of him and me standing arm in arm. I later reviewed his book Jimmy Stewart Is Dead for the (soon-to-be-archived) FrumForum.

Larry now has decided to run for president, as a third-party candidate emphasizing "purple" ideas that appeal across red and blue ideological lines. He's never held public office, but he's a knowledgeable, innovative thinker who's advised institutions all over the world and deserves to be given a serious hearing. In fact, he's far more deserving of that than some of the people who have been taken seriously this year (I'm looking at you, Herman). I'll be watching with interest and likely will have more about the Kotlikoff campaign down the road.

UPDATE 1/10: See Kotlikoff's campaign site and a write-up by my colleague Gil Weinreich.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Save the Rhinos (and RINOs)

Note: I wrote the following for FrumForum this morning — just before learning that FF is closing down.

My wife and I attended a cousin’s wedding in Cape Town, South Africa at year-end and added some time to be tourists in a country we’d never visited. The sites we saw ranged from the black township of Khayelitsha (on a van tour led by a local), where brick houses are slowly replacing tin shacks, to the well-manicured grounds of an elite high school (where our cousin-by-marriage was one of the first two colored, or mixed-race, students upon desegregation in the early 1990s; he studied particularly hard to show academic standards were not slipping on his account, and became valedictorian).

We spent the trip’s closing days at the Aquila Private Game Reserve, a sprawling site two hours’ drive from Cape Town. There, amid many other animals, we saw the southern white rhinoceros in its native habitat. The five rhinos on the reserve were all females, the site’s two males having been killed gruesomely by poachers in August. Rhino horn, valued for putative medicinal properties, makes a lucrative illegal trade in China, Vietnam and elsewhere.

Now, as a FrumForum contributor, I have been called a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and even taken a liking to that term (while scorning the RINO-baiters’ presumption of defining who’s a Republican). The magnificence of real-life rhinos gives the RINO label a cachet that defeats its derisive purpose.

The rhinos’ plight, unfortunately, is a severe one. Africa’s western black rhino has been declared extinct in the wild, and East Asia’s Javan rhino is close to meeting the same fate. As formidable as rhinos look, they have little defense against poachers carrying weapons and chainsaws (to cut off the horns, often leaving the animals alive and in agony).

At night, from our cabin at the Aquila reserve, we saw distant headlights of the security patrols that follow rhinos to protect against poachers. It’s a dangerous business, in which the armed “anti-poachers” easily can be targeted themselves.

Private reserves such as Aquila have been a valuable supplement to Africa’s national parks; the latter have military protection but are vulnerable to budget pressures and corruption. The private reserves, though, need stepped-up security. In response to the August attack, Aquila launched an initiative called “Saving Private Rhino,” to develop funding and support for measures including high-tech surveillance systems; rewards for informants; GPS tracking of microchips in rhino horns; educational centers and more.

Defending rhinos through private property rights and innovative technologies is a cause that should appeal to the conservative imagination, and it’s one that resonates with the longstanding conservationist tradition of Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt. Let RINOs help protect rhinos and ensure their survival through the 21st century.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Political monitoring

My new column at Research magazine, "Political Monitor," aims to track political developments through the election year with an eye toward issues particularly relevant to the magazine's financial-advisor readership. The January column, "Target: Wall Street," is now online.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Back from South Africa

Rhinos photographed at Aquila Private Game Reserve, 2 hours drive from Cape Town. UPDATE: Also see Aquila's Saving Private Rhino initiative.

UPDATE: Much more.