Monday, December 30, 2013

GOP antievolution regression

I guess I'm not all that strict about not blogging before 2014. Here's some somber news about the state of antiscience in America today. The political divide over evolution has gotten worse.

I drew on the 2009 figures in my PhACT presentation on science and politics over a year ago. Those figures were bad enough, with 39% of Republicans saying humans had not evolved but rather existed in their present form since the beginning of time (presumably a few thousand years ago). For that number now to go up to 48% should dampen those arguments that left and right are equally bad when it comes to science. At the present phase in the evolution of the political parties, it just isn't true.

Some time ago, I gave a not-very-positive review to Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left. In retrospect, I could've taken a less snarky tone toward the book, as it has some legitimate points to make about left-wing antiscience. (In saying this, I am influenced both by subsequent Twitter dialogue with one of the authors, Alex Berezow, who seems like a nice guy, and by Megan McArdle's valid point that aggressive negativism in book reviews is too common these days; though I don't forswear it entirely.) But still, the data in the Pew poll rather forcefully make the point that something's changed, and for the worse, in the Republican Party in the last few years.

A couple of additional points: First, the poll also asked people (who accepted evolution) whether they thought it was "guided by a supreme being" or "due to natural processes." I have no quarrel with either answer to that question, which is a philosophical and not a scientific one; I would have given the latter answer to a pollster but I am not sure that the sharp dichotomy between the two answers would stand up to close scrutiny (why not a supreme being who is compatible with, perhaps the ultimate author of, or another way of describing, the natural processes?).

Second, I am not so naive as to think that the 67% of Democrats who think humans evolved over time are all knowledgeable about biology and have weighed the various lines of evidence carefully. Surely, much of their stance has to do with cultural affinity--feeling good about being on the side of smart, progressive people, or such. Whatever the limits of that, it's a lot better than proudly embracing ignorance, which is what many Republicans have done on this subject, and not only on this subject.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Book mention

I said I would only interrupt my blogging hiatus if something truly massive happened. The mention in the Wall Street Journal of Kevin Singer's novel The Last Conquistador clearly fits the bill. Readers may recall that they read about this once-little-known work here first.

And now we resume our planned interregnum.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Blog summary and hiatus

This blog needs a break, during which I can focus on other endeavors including my planned book about DeWitt Clinton and the Erie Canal. So, I'm going to plan on not posting anything before 2014. If something arises of great urgency, such that the world needs the Quicksilber perspective, I'll relax that policy. But it'll have to be something big, not polemical blather about Pajama Boy or the equivalent.

This blog has now been going on for just shy of six years. It has covered a wide, perhaps too wide, range of topics, and will resume its eclectic coverage early next year. For perplexed passersby who might arrive here via searches on topics ranging from Clinton Road New Jersey to the X Tax to "Obama whiskey" (whatever that was), I will explain that this is the blog of a politically minded centrist, a "deviationist apostle of the Frumian heresy" in one of my favorite self-descriptions, who works at a financial magazine, has spent some time in science journalism, studied economics and history and writes frequently on both and their intersection, and lives in northern New Jersey.

When I started this blog, I was a recent arrival in marriage and suburbia; since then I have also become a father, a baptized* Episcopalian and member of my church's vestry, a political moderate (and no longer a libertarian conservative or either part thereof); and more willing to reexamine ideological assumptions than I was in my younger decades. This blog has documented some of those interests and reexaminations. Thank you for stopping by, and special thanks to the friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues, ex-friends and interested strangers who've stopped by on a repeated basis, or at least more than once.

And below, an hour by car south of the Erie Canal, is the source of the Susquehanna River, taken on Memorial Day weekend 2013 before the canoe regatta named for Gen. James Clinton; the rock has a marker noting that Clinton's Dam was here. Here it was that a family history of watery projects began.

Otsego Lake at the source of the Susquehanna.
* - and confirmed

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Film note: The End of Time [never mind]

I like the idea of this movie, though I don't know if I'll like the movie itself.

This review suggests maybe not. Still, I'm sure I'll give it a try. Sometime.

Time is, very much, at a premium for me at present. Posting may continue to be light and unpredictable.

UPDATE 2:57 PM: A more positive review. I hope to post one of my own in due course.

UPDATE 9/14: Finally got my hands on a library copy of this movie. Turned it off about half an hour. What a bore.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Upcoming book encounters

A lot of interesting-looking material coming out from Encounter Books. I've requested review copies of the following:

The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, by Glenn Harlan Reynolds. I've been interested in Reynolds' work since before I commissioned him to write (for free per Lou Dobbs' dumb policy) an op-ed at long ago, in the pre-Instapundit era.

The Smart Society: Strengthening America’s Greatest Resource, Its People, by Peter D. Salins. I met Salins even longer ago, back when I was writing for City Journal.

Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress, by Charles T. Rubin. I'm not familiar with this author but have long paid attention to the "posthuman."

David's Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art, by Victoria Coates. My interest in art history has been piqued by many things over the years, including a federal jury duty stint in the late '90s.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Private pandacam

At the DC Zoo yesterday.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Who's bigger than Genghis Khan?

I had some doubts about this set of historical rankings at Time Ideas, "Who's Biggest? The 100 Most Significant Figures in History," particularly after I saw George W. Bush was ranked 36--ahead of Winston Churchill and Genghis Khan. I tweeted my skepticism to my friend Ryan Sager, who works at Time Ideas, and he tweeted back that G.W.B. was overweighted because he was president "when most of Wikipedia was written," data from that site being a factor in the algorithms used for the rankings.

The article does not give listings beyond the top 100, but the same authors, Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward, have a website of such rankings, with a search function and lots of lists and categories. I see the top people in history list there is a bit different. I also looked up DeWitt Clinton, who in historical memory has had his ups and downs. (Interestingly, his Wikipedia mentions have gone up lately.)

Here's Skiena and Ward's book:

Who's Bigger?: Where Historical Figures Really Rank.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Challenger Disaster curiosity [updated]

I found The Challenger Disaster very absorbing.

It also made me quite curious as to whether or how it differs from Feynman's account on which it's largely based. Years ago, I loved both of his memoirs, but for some reason passed over the long section in "What Do You Care What Other People Think?": Further Adventures of a Curious Character about Challenger. (As a space enthusiast, I always thought the shuttle much less interesting than a lot of other things about space.)


Now I'm reading that section. I also was fascinated to learn from the movie's end-note that Sally Ride was a crucial source of information to Feynman, as revealed in 2012, and I hope to find out more about that, though a cursory Google search does not tell much.

UPDATE 12/11/13: I've now read the book's Challenger section except for Feynman's report that appeared as an appendix to the Rogers Commission report; and overall, I find that the liberties taken by the movie were fairly modest as these things go. There were some things changed but it seems to me the spirit of what Feynman wrote was left more or less intact, though William Hurt gives Feynman a dourness that doesn't seem to be correct, even when the man was being very serious as with the Challenger probe. Also, and curiously, I still haven't found much about Gen. Kutyna's revelation that Sally Ride was a crucial source for info about the O-ring's performance (I find statements that he revealed it after her death last year, but I don't find anything where he actually makes the revelation). Perhaps he said or wrote something that's not online? Not everything is on the Internet, which is why I don't agree with the 52% who say they don't need public libraries "as they used to" (though I recognize the ambiguity of that wording). In any case, Sally Ride's reported role makes my high estimation of her even higher.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Film note: The Painting

The Painting is a very clever animated (mostly) film, which I happened to come across in the new movies section of my library. It's a story of social conflict and intellectual restlessness among figures in a painting, and what some of them find beyond the boundaries of the known. I recommend it to this blog's readers, especially Dan Summer.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Posting may be light for a while, as I make my way through a labyrinth of work.

Labyrinth outside a New Jersey library.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Entertainment value

Recommended reading: Virginia Postrel's new column, "Who Needs a Raise When You Have TV?" It's about how economic statistics don't fully capture the effects of expanding entertainment choices. As someone who looks forward each week to this, I agree.

I also recommend, for readers passing through who may have missed it, my recent review of Virginia's book The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Landscape thinking

Recommended: Spend some time in a landscape. It seems to encourage longer-term thinking, as Nicholas Carr notes. Carr, whose book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains I liked, also has an interesting piece in The Atlantic on how automation erodes human expertise. I was considerably more of a technophile in the 1990s or early 2000s than I am now, one of a number of ways in which I've changed my mind but not 180 degrees.

Anyway, here's a landscape.

Vischer Ferry, 11/8/13.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ruining William F. Buckley's clutch

"Call Me Bill." National Review has an engaging piece by James Panero recalling his time working as William F. Buckley's writing assistant in Switzerland. Excerpt:
So in Gstaad, while everyone else went on holiday, we made a novel. Bill woke up at 4:30 every morning. I drove up to the chalet, overlooking the mountain face of the Videmanette, at 7:30. Bill always lent his four-wheel-drive Peugeot to his young assistants. He handed me the keys our first day at the top of the hill and gave me a quiz about the route to get his morning newspaper. I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t drive stick. So I learned on the road from my hotel to the chalet, and promptly burned out the clutch.
Me: I could easily imagine not wanting to tell Buckley that you can't drive stick. On the other hand, honesty has a lot to be said for it. I'm reminded of an anecdote from Richard Brookhiser's memoir Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement in which Buckley asked an aristocratic but impoverished friend why he'd come by train second class, and the answer was "Because there is no third class."

Related posts: me on stick shift and Buckley.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book note: Octopus!

I've ordered this book: Octopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea, by Katherine Harmon Courage. Katie was a colleague of mine at Scientific American; I fact checked a number of her news pieces and found my checking was generally superfluous. I'm sure this book will be of similarly high standards, and the subject matter is of high potential, being as multifaceted as it is multi-legged.*

UPDATE: Added exclamation point to book title in headline.

* UPDATE 12/2: One of the very first things you learn in the book is that an octopus' limbs are arms, not legs.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Iran historical analogies

We seek to assess the difference between a smart column and a dumb column. As a control, we have chosen two columns that convey a position of skepticism about the deal between the U.S. and Iran.

One column, "In Iran, a bad actor gets a sweet deal," by David Frum, offers a historical analogy; excerpt:
Some in the Obama administration seem to have decided that Rouhani is an Iranian Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader with whom the West can do business. In this view, a "win" for Rouhani is important to the West, strengthening moderates against hardliners and opening the way to a broader detente. 
The trouble with this view, however, is that the evidence is strong that Rouhani is really the Iranian Yuri Andropov, the former Soviet secret police chief who preceded Gorbachev. Less doctrinaire and stupid than other Communist leaders, Andropov was no less hostile to the West. Rouhani led the long effort to dupe Western governments about Iran's nuclear program in the earlier 2000s.
There's every reason to fear that the "detente" he wants is one that allows Iran to obtain a respite from sanctions while continuing its development of weapons of mass destruction.
Analysis: One may of course disagree with the analogy of Rouhani to Andropov, but it provides a basis for consideration and debate. Its relevance to the current situation is clear, and there is a possibility a reader initially disagreeing with the author's position will reconsider in light of it.

Now, an excerpt from the other column, "Munich II," by James Jay Carafano, also dealing with historical analogy (indeed, more than one); note that "Munich" is a reference to the 1938 agreement:
The British think the deal with Iran makes sense. Then, again, it was a British government that believed Munich meant we could all get a good night’s sleep now. 
The Russians laud the deal. But it was a government in Moscow that believed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact solved all its problems.
Analysis: n/a.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ultra-mini review: Into the Mind

This movie was not very good.

What I saw of it, that is. Short on plot, character development, meaning. Take it as a cautionary tale on the limits of elaborate imagery that's lacking in substance.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A model for second-term recovery

Interesting piece by David Rothkopf: "What Would W Do?" Tagline: "Lessons in disaster recovery from Bush's underappreciated second-term rebound." Excerpt:
First, and perhaps foremost in terms of lessons that Obama ought to heed from how Bush handled his second term, is how the 43rd president re-engineered his cabinet. He didn't just change who was in top posts, but he changed the way his cabinet worked. This process began prior to Hurricane Katrina as he moved Condoleezza Rice from her post as national security advisor to secretary of state and asked her deputy, Stephen Hadley, to replace her in the national security advisor's corner office in the West Wing. As secretary of state, Colin Powell, like Rice and others, suffered during Bush's first term as a consequence of a national security process that was overly dominated by the close, sometimes process-circumventing collaboration between Vice President Dick Cheney and his former mentor, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rice told the president she was reluctant to accept the new post if it meant that she, like Powell, would end up being locked in permanent fights with Rumsfeld. This helped advance a process of retooling that was supported by having her onetime deputy at the National Security Council (NSC), not just because of the closeness between the two, but because of Hadley's skill as a manager and honest broker who knew the NSC's workings as well as any individual who had ever assumed the role.
Me: It's worth pointing out that Bush's "rebound" was really a question of getting substance right, or at least better, and not so much about rebounding in popularity and political clout. In any case, reminders of the uneasy interaction between Rumsfeld (and Cheney) on one hand and Rice on the other will, I think, bolster the latter's reputation, maybe with some implications for a few years down the road.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

On health policy analysis and jerks

I recognize that, in clicking on this headline, I was acting in accordance with a click-bait strategy: "Obamacare Shows How Americans Are Becoming Jerks." The Bloomberg company is under some financial stress at present so more such desperate-for-traffic headlines are likely to appear. Still, the piece, by Bloomberg editorial board member Christopher Flavelle, really is encapsulated by that headline. Here are the first two paragraphs:
New Gallup poll numbers show Americans increasingly dispute the idea that government has a responsibility to make sure everybody can get health insurance. It's tempting to see that as an indictment against Obamacare, but it might just mean more Americans are becoming jerks. 
What's clear is that the shifting views on health care predate the Affordable Care Act. The number of Americans who think health care is the government's responsibility hovered around two-thirds for the first half of the 2000s, peaking at 69 percent in 2006. Then those numbers started falling, hitting 50 percent in 2010 and 42 percent this year.
Me: Note the disingenuousness in the above (which persists throughout the piece). Flavelle refers repeatedly to "government" and "the government" without modifying that to say "federal" or "U.S." government. But when you look at the Gallup poll he cites, the question's wording was "Do you think it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health coverage, or that it is not the responsibility of the federal government?" Federal--it's there twice on one sentence. So, if someone thinks it's a responsibility of state government, they would fall under Flavelle's "jerks" category. Of course, there are many other ways to get into Flavelle's "jerks" category, such as thinking that it's highly desirable for people to have health insurance and thus that government (federal or state) should not enact policies that actually make it harder to get health insurance or that get you kicked off your current plan.

I am, as those who have previously visited this blog can attest, a Republican who has been critical of his own party a great deal in recent years. I strongly disagreed with the strategy, if you can call it that, of using the debt ceiling and government shutdown as tools for derailing Obamacare, and it certainly wasn't because I liked Obamacare; I think Obamacare was badly conceived as well as badly implemented. I also note that, even now, most of the public does not want a full repeal of the program; bear in mind that the status quo ante was not very good, and that it can't readily be returned to now that the insurers have revamped their systems and product lines to comply with the clunking contraption.

In other words, I think the insurance market is a complicated mess that the Obama administration has now made significantly worse. Seeing what has happened increases my pre-existing skepticism that the federal government should be tasked with ensuring that everyone has health insurance. So I would've been with the majority in that Gallup poll. Does this mean I want "government" at any and all levels to do nothing? No. I can imagine the states doing various things to experiment with improved healthcare delivery, and I can also imagine the federal government helping by, among other things, enabling some experiments with interstate commerce in insurance policies. I can imagine government, at various levels, making it easier--not harder as Obamacare did--for people to have more control over their health decisions through tools such as health savings and flexible spending accounts.

If that makes me a jerk, so be it. But congratulations, Flavelle, on getting some traffic.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Some Wikipedia history

"The Decline of Wikipedia." I only skimmed this, but then a lot of Wikipedia writers seem to only skim materials on the subjects about which they're writing. I look at Wikipedia often enough but never as anything more than a rough first draft, not to be taken too seriously. That attitude hardened a few years ago when I was informed, by a concerned colleague, that Wikipedia's section on the history of stock exchanges was a previously published magazine article written by me, and reproduced without credit. Some held suspicions that I had plagiarized Wikipedia rather than the other way around--but these were allayed by the fact that the material had been added to Wikipedia after my article had been published. I then added a footnote directing readers to the original. Kudos to them for at least keeping a record of how and when their pages are modified, but still it was not exactly a confidence-inspiring moment.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Antiscience update

The debate about who's more antiscience has flared up again. See these two pieces:

"The Republican Party Isn't Really the Anti-Science Party," by Mischa Fisher, The Atlantic.

"GOP is an anti-science party of nuts (sorry, Atlantic!)" by Sean McElwee, Salon.

I've written and spoken about this subject fairly extensively, and don't want to repeat myself. (Interestingly, the overall debate tends to repeat itself quite a bit, with the same statistics.) To make a long story short, my conclusion is there are problems of hostility and stupidity vis-a-vis science on both sides of the political aisle, and currently they're worse on the right. For more, start here and here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cosmic fine-tuning update

There's an absorbing piece in Aeon magazine on "The Calibrated Cosmos," subtitled "Is our universe fine-tuned for life, or does it just look that way from where we're sitting?" It's by Tim Maudlin, a physics-oriented philosopher at NYU, and deals with a topic that I wrote about in several articles over the years. Excerpt from Maudlin:
The problem of cosmological fine-tuning is never straightforward. It is not clear, in the first place, when it is legitimate to complain that a physical theory treats some phenomenon as a highly contingent ‘product of chance’. Where the complaint is legitimate, the cosmologist has several different means of recourse. The inflationary Big Bang illustrates how a change in dynamics can convert delicate dependence on initial conditions to a robust independence from the initial state. The bubble universe scenario demonstrates how low individual probabilities can be overcome by multiplying the number of chances. And homeostasis provides a mechanism for variable quantities to naturally evolve to special unchanging values that could easily be mistaken for constants of nature.
Me: I think he's right--it's not straightforward. Back in 1999 I first delved into this topic, in a cover story for Reason magazine (I link to a PDF since the article as currently posted on Reason's website has an editorial glitch) and my focus was on rebutting claims from journalists and conservatives that science had "found God" via supposed fine-tuning in physics. I returned to the subject in subsequent years including here and here. While I continued (and continue) to think the religion-from-physics case is weak, I also came to see some skeptics seeking to bat away the religious pitch as themselves being a bit too cocksure, about multiple universes and other cosmic speculations that bolstered their atheism. My 1999 article, I think, did a decent job of suggesting how little we know, cosmically.

My original piece, though, is a bit dated in that some of the physics has been added to or superseded. Maudlin has a good discussion about Alan Guth's inflationary model (which I'd cited) and the uncertainties that have developed about what it does or does not indicate about fine-tuning.

Finally, take a look at the chart below. It doesn't show a physics phenomenon but actually is what I got from Google's Ngram viewer (which tracks book mentions) when I plugged in "anthropic principle" for the years 1970 to 2008 (the most recent data). As you'll see, mentions of that phrase declined in the first decade of the 21st century. I suspect that's because the debate over whether physics had "found God" cooled down and the term lost some of its hot-button appeal. If so, I like to think I helped push the discussion into a less polemical and overwrought place. (If you have trouble viewing the chart, mea culpa and click here.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Along the Mohawk

Erie Canal/DeWitt Clinton research continues. Many thanks to Eric Hamilton of the Mohawk Towpath Scenic Byway for showing us around the Vischer Ferry area this weekend. (It was also good to attend the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway's gala for 2013.)

Nicely done aerial photo-based map.
One of many historic markers.
Classical Greek Revival house in Vischer Ferry hamlet.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Founders and technocrats

Interesting: "The Political Debate We Need to Have," by Bruce Thornton. With this tagline: "Today, we treat politics as a sport, but it's really a conflict between federalists and technocrats." (Found via Instapundit.) I'm broadly in concordance with this piece from the Hoover Institution, but what I find particularly interesting is that it characterizes the federalists, exemplified by Hamilton, as opponents of technocracy and big government. That's quite different, and I think vastly more accurate, than claims that Hamilton was some kind of authoritarian exemplar of technocracy and big government.

 On a related note: Myron Magnet's new book The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817 (I mentioned requesting a review copy here) is a very thoughtful guide to the lives of the founding fathers, including some discussion of their homes and what those tell us about their lives and thinking. The book has, to my mind, a favorable presentation of the federalist side of the 18th century political divide, with Hamilton and John Jay both presented positively while Jefferson and Madison are given a more mixed treatment, although one that in no way denies their genius. I recommend this book and see it as another sign (with the Thornton piece) of a salutary trend away from antigovernment purism in conservative thinking about the founders and what they founded.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Review: The Power of Glamour

I did not think I had a particular interest in glamour until I read The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel. As it turns out, I have a strong interest in glamour (at least certain types of it) and this book offers a fascinating and cogent analysis of what glamour is and why it is important.

I was drawn to the book by my long interest in Virginia’s work, dating back to the 1990s when she edited Reason magazine and I wrote some articles for it. (My involvement and post-Postrel break with the magazine are recounted here.) A decade ago, I reviewed her book The Substance of Style, which espoused a growing linkage of aesthetics and economics. (Subsequently, after marrying an architectural lighting designer, I gained some exposure to a field that exemplifies that connection.)

In her new book, Postrel distinguishes glamour from concepts with which it may blur, such as luxury, celebrity or charisma. She defines glamour as “nonverbal rhetoric” (typically conveyed by visual images) that “leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.” Glamour has, in her telling, three essential elements: “a promise of escape and transformation” (letting people project themselves into a desired situation); “grace” (hiding or removing flaws and distractions); and “mystery” (leaving some things to the audience’s imagination).

The Power of Glamour ranges widely across examples of its subject. Glamour can attach to a variety of people, places and objects—as diverse as people’s desires. Postrel examines various archetypes or “icons” of glamour, including aviators, princesses, superheroes, suntans, smoking, wind turbines, California and Shanghai. As this list suggests, things can become more or less glamorous over time; for instance, smoking and California have both seen more glamorous days (and nights).

Glamour has long been part of human experience, evident in Greek myths and Renaissance paintings (Postrel cites Lippi’s Vision of Saint Bernard as glamorous in encouraging the audience to project itself into a scene with the Virgin Mary). Yet glamour grew in importance in the 19th and 20th centuries, she argues persuasively, since it thrives on mass audiences and a sense of social mobility.

This book is to a degree a defense of glamour but it is no whitewashing of its complex subject. Often dismissed as superficial or decried as an advertising snare, glamour can spur positive change. Besides being pleasurable, glamour can inspire people to strive for a better life and world. But there is no guarantee it will be put to good uses, and in an extreme case to the contrary terrorists attract their recruits with an idealized promise of escape and transformation—in short, glamour.

Discussing mystery as an element of glamour, Postrel offers three subcategories of that element (not mutually exclusive), which she labels “shadow,” “sparkle” and “complexity.” Hats, veils and Paris in the rain have the mystery of things obscured (shadow); glittering jewels and fabrics fascinate and confuse with change and ambiguity (sparkle). The third type of mystery—complexity—Postrel describes thus:

This form of mystery hides information not through concealment or confusion but through complexity and depth. We don’t know what history or nature will produce; there are too many variables and too much detail to comprehend in a glance. Hence the mystery of rugged coastlines, verdigris patina, and twisting woodland paths. As a design element, such mystery appears in Alexander McQueen’s 2009 Plato’s Atlantis collection, with its phosphorescent sequins, opalescent beads, and jellyfish and reptile-skin prints. This is the mystery of the layered, the fluid, and the fractal: the mystery of complexity. [Italics in the original.]

Me: The above passage is what I particularly had in mind at the start of this review when I wrote “As it turns out, I have a strong interest in glamour (at least certain types of it)….” Reading Virginia’s passage above crystallized for me what is a significant aspect of what I like to write and read about, what sorts of art and design I tend to enjoy, and where I like to hike. I am an aficionado of the “mystery of complexity” and the glamour that stems from it. Until I read this book, I did not realize that about myself.

Tyler Cowen recently opined that The Power of Glamour is its author’s “best and most compelling book” to date. I agree, and highly recommend it.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Some pre-re-election thoughts re Chris Christie

I'll be voting for Chris Christie on Nov. 5, partly despite and partly because of my anger at much of the rest of his (and my) party at present. As governor, he's demonstrated a willingness to grapple with fiscal problems and entrenched public-sector unions. He doesn't kowtow to interest groups, including, importantly, the organized right wing, which he has offended through such means as not toeing a denialist line on climate change, and giving a warm greeting (but no hug, he says!) to Barack Obama.

His re-election as governor is, for all intents, a foregone conclusion. His possible entry into the 2016 presidential race has been much speculated upon, and is, I think, likely. Politicians don't work this hard at cultivating a national image unless they have some interest in capitalizing on it. For a while, Christie's bluntness helped win him support of many conservatives; they liked his style even if they did not see eye to eye with him on some policies. More recently, he's fallen out of favor with the right, even as the right has (rightly) fallen in popularity.

New Jersey is underrated in many ways, but it can be a rather rude place. The state's roads, for instance, have an unfortunately high proportion of aggressive, rude schmucks (let's call them what they are). For people in much of the country, New Jersey rudeness can be very off-putting, and surely the sharp edges Christie sometimes displays have some downsides for a national contest--but also some upsides. Even voters in gentler climes might be reassured to see a politician who tells people off who need telling off, and Christie in any case has demonstrated an emotional versatility that can surprise his opponents. His self-description as a "fighter, not a bully" seems to have hit a resonant chord with New Jersey voters.

A big question for 2016 is whether Christie, or any politician not of the hard right, can win the Republican nomination. I think the answer is yes, in that the Republican field is likely to be crowded at starboard with figures including Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, plausibly leaving a center-right type with enough space to carve out a substantial plurality of primary voters. Then it would be on to the general election, against a Democratic opponent who, whether of left or center-left, will be carrying some of the baggage of the Obama years. It's noteworthy how the recent gross GOP irresponsibility regarding the shutdown and debt ceiling has already started fading amid the glare of the Obamacare web fiasco.

I'd be attracted to a Christie 2016 campaign, though there are other possible candidates I'd look on favorably as well (e.g., Condoleezza Rice, Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman) in the event that there does end up being more than one hopeful in that center-right space mentioned above. In the event, though, that the nomination does go to some RINO-hunting denizen of the fever swamps, my guess (despite some scenarios to the contrary) is that the Democratic landslide would be of historic and lasting impact.

UPDATE 10/29 6:40 PM: A perceptive post by Seth Mandel at Commentary: "Why 2016 Talk Hasn't Hurt Christie's 2013." Also see this interesting Obamacare/Christie-related speculation by Tyler Cowen.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Ted Cruz's Spanish

David Frum has a post on "How Ted Cruz Can Win in 2016." It seems to be open to interpretation as to whether David thinks that would be a good thing, as readers' responses vary widely on that point. I suspect it was intended as a cautionary tale. But what particularly caught my eye was a commentor asking how Cruz learns Spanish between then and now. A quick Internet surf reveals that Cruz's 2012 opponent David Dewhurst pressed for a debate in Spanish, and that Cruz has described his own Spanish as "lousy." I have sometimes used the same word to describe my own Spanish, which is at a level where I can have a conversation with a patient person, but not win any debates (though I might get in a good zinger once in a while). Does Cruz's lack of full fluency hurt his presidential prospects--or possibly help him with some voters? And might he be taking some lessons even as we speak?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Who owns the Fed?

Cullen Roche's blog Pragmatic Capitalism has an interesting and worthwhile post on "Who Owns the Federal Reserve?" It can be taken as a debunking of the notion that the Fed is privately owned, though Roche's description of the system as a "public-private hybrid" still seems to me to overstate the "private" aspect. The private ownership of the Fed's regional banks is nominal--it involves private-sector banks being required to buy shares that are not tradable; and the system's profits being (mostly) remitted to the Treasury--and the Fed's Board of Governors is a government agency by any standard. Still, Roche does a decent job of veering the conversation into reality and away from Brad Thor's Hidden Order: A Thriller, which I fact checked here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Noticing misleading graphs

I recently attended Edward Tufte's one-day course "Presenting Data and Information." I recommend it for anyone with a strong interest in producing or consuming complex, information-rich graphics, articles or other presentations. (If the $380 cost is an obstacle, one could also consider just purchasing some or all of the four books that come with the course; Tufte's excellent presentation drew heavily on the books.) For me, I believe the course will be helpful in various activities, including my magazine job, this blog and the book I am working on. In any case, the course has definitely sharpened my eye for noticing when info is being presented in a misleading, uninteresting or otherwise bad way. Here via Quartz is an example of a not-very-informative chart, produced by no less an entity than Apple. Quartz's analysis is here.

Me: For resting on one's laurels, and obscuring one's lack of recent progress, a focus on a cumulative number will work for a while. (Of course, if things are really bad, that will become noticeable as the curve approaches flatness.)

By the way, one thing I didn't particularly expect was Tufte's enthusiasm for the work of Richard Feynman, especially his famous Feynman diagrams. But in looking into that further, I find that I worked on a Michael Shermer column at Scientific American years ago (either fact checking it or copy editing it--can't remember) that involved Tufte, Feynman and the latter's diagram-illustrated van. As a further aside, I'm pleased to see that this TV movie is coming out: "The Challenger Disaster" (originally "Feynman and the Challenger").

Monday, October 21, 2013

Flora and fauna of the firmament—Part 3

A hypothetical look at the life-forms that we might find on recently discovered exoplanets.

Kepler 62 e, an Earth-like exoplanet’s population boasts (almost) no sinners
Upon discovering this Earth-size world, astronomers happened on it just as its dominant life-form was ascending off the surface and dematerializing. They hypothesized that the inhabitants of Kepler 62 e were experiencing their version of Rapture. Close examination after the event showed only one individual left behind, establishing an astounding planet-wide righteous-to-sinner ratio of 99.99999 to 0.000001. The world now is now going through a cataclysmic breakup, although with the population on a higher plane, its preordained period of tribulation, Armageddon and Apocalypse is proving to be somewhat anticlimactic, and a bit of overkill, considering that world’s deity is wreaking all that fire and brimstone on one confused—and terrified—lapsed soul, whose only apparent mortal sin was failing to create a Facebook page.
Flora and Fauna of the Firmament is a satirical collaboration featuring illustrations by Ken Silber and captions by Michael Battaglia. Cross-posted at Quicksilber and Beige Matter.

Parts 1 and 2.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Sciam problem reaches critical mass

I recently wrote a post called "Trial by Blog Post," in which I denounced what I thought (and still think) to be irresponsible handling of an accusation of sexual misconduct. Now, there is a different set of accusations against a different person (albeit again a person with a connection to my former part-time employer Scientific American): Bora Zivkovic, editor of Sciam's blog network. I never met him though I did exchange a couple of emails with him in my capacity as copy editor/fact checker. These accusations--again, set of accusations--are different from what I discussed earlier in that they come from women who have given their names and details of what happened. They also give the lie to Zivkovic's initial response (after the first accusation of sexual harassment) that it was true but a "singular, regrettable" episode unlike anything he'd done before or since. There should at this point be a strong presumption that he is not fit for the position he has held at Sciam.

UPDATE 4:11 PM: The announcement of his resignation.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On voting against the GOP

I voted for Cory Booker this morning. Until recently, I was an undecided voter in that election, and even after deciding to vote against Steve Lonegan, I wrote that I was voting for Booker "with no particular enthusiasm." But my enthusiasm actually increased since then, as I saw (a) that the conservative DailyCaller was running ludicrous pieces supposedly debunking Booker's residency in Newark and his rescuing of a woman from a fire; and (b) that the House GOP madness continues.

As I've mentioned, my congressman Scott Garrett is one of the farthest-right members of Congress and one of the worst perpetrators of debt ceiling nihilism. Here again is a scene that still encapsulates what the conservatives in Congress have wrought.

So it goes without saying I'll be voting against Garrett next year, and more comprehensively I am on the same page as Rod Dreher in this statement in his piece "The Strangelove Republicans" at The American Conservative:
I cannot believe I’m saying this, but I hope the House flips to the Democrats in 2014, so we can be rid of these nuts. Let Ted Cruz sit in the Senate stewing in his precious bodily fluids, and let Washington get back to the business of governing.
Me: The Strangelove analogy is apt. Here's a scene that demonstrates the various strands of thought that interwove into GOP debt ceiling strategy.

Me: I'm a fairly conservative guy. I admire Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Alexander Hamilton and Prince Namor of Atlantis. And I've been a registered Republican for three decades. And as far as I'm concerned, this is what things have come to: The Republican Party deserves to be drubbed in congressional elections next year. Whether it's worth voting for in 2016 will depend largely on who it nominates for president and whether that's someone who can and will stand up to the party's conservative wing run amok. Next month I'll be voting for one Republican who plausibly fits the bill. But there's a long, hard road to rehabilitating the GOP from what it has done lately. And we very well may not yet have seen the worst of the current conservative disaster.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Ninth Gate of conservatism [updated]

This clip from The Ninth Gate pretty well sums up recent events within the Republican Party. Think of Frank Langella as Tea Party/conservative hardliners and Johnny Depp as relative moderates.

Also, here's an update from my congressional district, about which I wrote here.

UPDATE 10/14 9:30 AM: I'm beginning to think I may have understated the case with my analogy between current-day GOP and this film clip. At least, Frank Langella, once he's on fire, seems to realize his strategy was suboptimal.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The conservative bubble revisited

I wrote a piece early this year called "Who's Kidding Whom?" (appearing online as "Who's Kidding Whom on Bubbles?"), in which I discussed bubbles, both in the market sense (price bubbles) and in the information sense (living in a bubble). I argued, or acknowledged, that conservatives had been operating in the latter type of bubble, filtering out undesired information and believing dubious ideas transmitted mainly among themselves. I also argued that conservatives were not alone in living in such a bubble, in that Occupy Wall Street had its own insularity and that Wall Street itself also had such tendencies (including the financial advisors who were my targeted readership).

Subsequently, I expressed some optimism that conservatives were emerging from their bubble, rethinking their assumptions and perceptions, such as when I noted that even so staunch a conservative as Victor Davis Hanson was advising his readers to "beware the cocoon."

Well, I was wrong on the latter point. Such a reemergence may occur someday, but right now the trend is in the other direction. Conservatives are doubling down, embracing their worst and dumbest ideas with an unprecedented fervor. There will be a reckoning, for them and for the country.

The idea that the government can not raise the debt ceiling and then just reprioritize its payments so it doesn't default on debt or damage its financial standing is so wrong, so horribly misinformed, that it can only be a product of the most egregious self-delusion. The federal government sends out many millions of payments a day. Even if it could competently get its interest payments out while allowing other bills to wait, this would cause economic and legal chaos. Even the possibility that there could be a failure to raise the debt ceiling is rattling financial markets as we speak.

I can only look with appalled amazement at my congressman, Scott Garrett, whose stance in the current standoff over the shutdown and debt ceiling doesn't even make sense on its own terms. He recently--within a day--announced first that he'd vote against a debt ceiling deal unless it included a defunding or delay of Obamacare--and then that what he really required was entitlement reform, evidently bringing Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security into the mix. He will fight to the end for ... whatever pops into his head. The affluent Wall Street types who live around me in Garrett's district, among many others, will not be amused by the consequences of that bitter-endism.

The conservative bubble is thicker than I thought, and its bursting is going to be nastier than I expected.

Book note: Beyond the Pale

Review copy received: Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., by Ken Grossman, founder of the company. I've long been an enthusiast and aficionado of entrepreneurship, which is one reason I've long been a Republican. (For my current, growing revulsion at my party, see recent posts including this and this.) And I've long been interested in beer (with my usual moderation). To me, one of the most interesting parts of the Gillespie-Welch book The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (which by the way at present it cannot, I believe, referring to the subtitle), and which I reviewed here, was its chapter on how craft brewing went from underground activity to thriving industry. In any case, I suspect the Grossman book has some interesting material. As a side note, searching for it at Amazon Associates also yielded Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Studies on the History of Society and Culture).