Thursday, February 28, 2013

Book note: The Last Conquistador

One feature I always liked at the old FrumForum was the notice for "Books by Friends." Since I too have some friends (who write), I'm pleased to point to Kevin Singer's novel The Last Conquistador. Kevin is a friend and former colleague from my days at Scientific American and pharmaceutical/medical editing, as well as a talented writer. I look forward to reading this eclectic-sounding book.

UPDATE 3/18: Read it. Pretty freaky. Also now available in paperback for $7.01.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mini review: Beating Obamacare

Finished reading: Beating Obamacare: Your Handbook for Surviving the New Healthcare Law, by Betsy McCaughey. I think the book succeeds in concisely and clearly identifying substantial causes for concern about this legislation and what its impacts will be. I think it fails to live to up to its title and subtitle (the word "surviving," incidentally, is something I had to add, as it is on the book's cover but often not showing up online; did someone have second thoughts about the subtitle?). There is little practical advice as to what to do about the health care law, though in fairness that may be because there is little an individual or business can do. The thing is Big Government in action.

Among many disturbing aspects of the laws are: weakened privacy, including your specialists all being able to know about your psych treatment or whatever, and your household income now becoming transparent to employers; and arbitrary powers, such as the Secretary of HHS handing out waivers from legal requirements for politically connected unions and companies, and "Community Transformation Grants" to favored activists whose connection to health care is tenuous, such as anti-fracking groups.

You don't have to have overblown perceptions of "socialism" and "death panels" to be worried about Obamacare, and this book provides valuable insight into what really is wrong with this massive legislative sausage.

China's carbon tax: the video

Recommended viewing, as China enacts a carbon tax.

And remember the Obama administration is on record as opposing a carbon tax in the U.S.

Some more analysis here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Monday, February 25, 2013

Advanced aliens, and beginners

"Indeed, turning a galaxy into a massive supercomputer may be the last thing an advanced civilization wants to do." Some diverting speculations about extraterrestrials and their categories as measured by the "Kardashev Scale" at io9. I used to write about this kind of thing more--see here and here--and maybe will do so again.

Two things that caught my eye today

A very moving story. I believe I've met someone from this family.

At the other end of life, a post on how radically longevity has changed.

Bergen Record customer service

A note to the Bergen Record: When someone has stopped subscribing, and then receives multiple telemarketing phone calls asking him to restart his subscription--even after politely telling several of those callers that he would like to be removed from the call list--it's probably a sign that the subscription is not going to be renewed, and that the desperate efforts of your newspaper to stay alive are in vain.

UPDATE: We'll see if this works.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Political bubbles

From my March column at Research magazine:
Since the November election, there has been increased discussion of a “conservative bubble,” whereby pundits and activists on the right rely excessively on shared ideology and shared information sources. (This criticism sometimes uses other metaphors, such as “cocoon” and “echo chamber,” but these convey essentially the same point.)
Such a bubble seems to have shaped expectations among some conservatives that Mitt Romney was going to win—and even win in a landslide—despite polls indicating he was likely to lose. A conservative following grew around, a site that purported to uncover polling bias. “All the vibrations are right,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote just before the election, predicting a Romney win. 
At this point, I should make some disclosures. First, I too predicted that Romney would win, back in the August issue of Research, taking a position contrary to that indicated by polls and prediction markets at the time. My reasoning, that the October debates would give Romney a decisive boost, later seemed prescient, but not for long. 
Second disclosure: In retrospect, some wishful thinking surely was involved in my prediction, as I am a longtime Republican who voted for Romney. 
Third disclosure: During the Obama presidency, I have been one of those internal GOP critics—sometimes derided as RINOs or Republicans In Name Only—who argue for the party to move more toward the political center. A prominent proponent of such a stance is CNN and Newsweek commentator David Frum, with whom I’ve collaborated in blogging ventures. 
Having said all that (and, I hope, helped readers take my biases into account) let me now suggest that indeed it’s true: There is a conservative bubble, or tendency to disregard or distort information that doesn’t match conservative desires and expectations. Let me suggest as well that such a tendency is not unique to conservatives, but also afflicts people belonging to other ideological persuasions and interest groups.
There's much more, including about Occupy Wall Street and Wall Street itself both involving bubbles. The piece's target audience is financial advisors, but it has a broader relevance, I believe.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Find out how happy your state is, according to an analysis of 10 million tweets.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Overwarmed policy

James Pethokoukis puts forward some much-needed heresies (to the right) on economic policy: "No to the Flat Tax and Other Stale Ideas." It's a good sign this is getting published at National Review Online. Less encouraging (though not unexpected) are the comments, the overall gist of which is that these orthodoxies must never be reconsidered and who is this "kid" to do so anyway? (I don't know how old Pethokoukis is, but if he was at US News in 1997, he's not all that young, and it's a dumb "counterargument" anyway.)

UPDATE: Also see Ramesh Ponnuru's "Reaganism After Reagan," found via Justin Green, who points out that it's "obvious but needs to be said."

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Some anti-GOP stuff

I've linked, often favorably, to a lot of pieces about the GOP's problems and need to reform. I didn't always agree with the pieces, but thought they had substance worth considering. By contrast, here's one that's just empty sneering: "Scientology for Rednecks: What the GOP Has Become," by Michael S. Lofgren.

It's not really worth reading, but even with that headline, there was no way to be sure of that in advance. And as I'll discuss in my upcoming column, it's important not to insulate yourself from potentially disagreeable information. I've been surprised, occasionally, when people I thought appreciated that principle turned out to be unable to handle dissension, after all.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

GOP salvation watch

Recommended reading: "How to Save the Republican Party," by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner at Commentary. I agree with much but not all. Excerpt:
To acknowledge climate disruption need hardly lead one to embrace Al Gore’s policy agenda. It is perfectly reasonable to doubt the merits of pushing for a global deal to cut carbon emissions—a deal that is almost surely beyond reach—and to argue instead for a focus on adaptation and investments in new and emerging technologies. Republicans could back an entrepreneurial approach to technical and scientific investment as opposed to the top-down approach of unwieldy government bureaucracies offering huge subsidies to favored companies such as Solyndra. (See above, under “corporate welfare.”) 
Confronting climate change is important in and of itself. It is also important as a matter of epistemology, to show that Republicans are not, in fact, at war with the scientific method. Only then will Republicans have adequate standing to criticize junk science when it’s used as a tort weapon or as an obstacle to new energy technologies.
Me: This is a vast improvement over the currently pervasive Republican denialism and glibness ("government can't control the weather") on this issue. The policy approach is not exactly what I'd prefer. A carbon tax that includes imports (and thus pressures other countries to adopt carbon taxes or pricing) is far more feasible than a global agreement, and would be complement and spur to the R&D that the authors want.

There is much else in the piece of value, but I'm not sure the authors have entirely faced up to an implication of their analogy of today's GOP to Democrats of 1970-1992 and Labourites of 1970-1997. That is, it took a long time for those parties to reform themselves (whereas Gerson and Wehner, understandably, pivot to a discussion of 2016). On the other hand, maybe things move faster now.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Beige matter

New and noteworthy: for a combo of the space/science-related and the esoterically odd, see my friend and former Sciam colleague Michael Battaglia's Tumblr feed Beige Matter. (For some long-ago collaboration between Mike and me, see Heisenberg's Fun House.)


An art project dividing the U.S. into 50 equal-population states. (Question: Would the state lines be redrawn to keep them equal on an ongoing basis?) Michael Barone has an interesting column saying that this would have generated a Romney victory (due to urban clustering of Democrats). I wonder which state I'd most want to live in. Probably Shasta.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day links

Recommended: "Valentine's Day and the Economics of Love," by Betsey Stevenson & Justin Wolfers. Also: "Watching the Couples Go By," by Herbert Stein. And: "Valentine's Day under attack in Pakistan."

The limits of tech-savvy politicking

An interesting piece at the NY Times magazine: "Can the Republicans Be Saved from Obsolescence?" by Robert Draper (found via Justin Green's gloss on it here). My takeaway from it is to wonder whether the extremely important subject on which the young GOPers in the piece are focused--getting the party to be more digital-savvy in its campaigning--which I did mention is extremely important?--could also be a distraction from some other, not exactly unimportant, business of rethinking policy positions.

Rethink. And start with climate change. All the Reddit sophistication in the world won't make up for putting your head in the sand on that issue.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Worst lines [updated]

Worst line from Obama's speech: "And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms." It doesn't meed modest reforms; it needs substantial reforms. Also, Obama's been an opponent of modest reforms.

Worst line from Rubio's response: "When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather – he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air." As if trying to constrain carbon emissions were some kind of mad-scientist scheme.

Worst line from Rand Paul's speech, I don't know (having not seen it or read a transcript yet).

UPDATE: I've now read Paul's speech. Worst lines (a tie, I think): "To begin with, we absolutely must pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution!" and "The value of the dollar shrinks with each new day." A BBA probably would be ineffective at controlling spending, more likely setting the stage for future fiscal-cliff-type crises and gimmicks. And inflation is not a significant problem at present, so pretending otherwise is at best a distraction. On the plus side, Paul made some cogent points about executive overreach, and didn't (bother to) make denialist comments on global warming.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pre-SOTU note

I might weigh in on the State of the Union, sooner or later. Also, upcoming in the near future: a column having to do with political bubbles and the pitfalls of walling yourself off from unpalatable information.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Blizzard in NJ

Could be a while.

Right on Wall Street

One could spend a lot of time and energy in the next few years (and I expect I will--maybe too much) writing about fractures within the Republican Party. The Tea Party vs. Karl Rove fight is getting a lot of attention right now, including this interesting piece by liberal writer Josh Marshall: "Battle Joined." Excerpt:
Are there really moderates in this fight? Marco Rubio because he’s the Hispanic point man on immigration? But wait, he was a Tea Partier last year? What happened? Karl Rove? The layer of the party behind Rove seems very thin and brittle. They have lots of money. So that makes them consequential. But the Tea Party isn’t the fringe of the GOP. It’s actually most of the party. And a little discussed aspect of the post-2008 crash period (combined with the rise of Obama but distinct from it) is the rise of hard right ideology within significant sectors of the business community — especially Wall Street which used to lean relatively Democratic. 
Me: That part about Wall Street is a good point, and I've written about the huge shift of Wall Street money to the right. But a countervailing trend, which I've also delved into a number of times, is the simultaneous rise of anti-Wall sentiment elsewhere on the right. All of which makes for a pretty dysfunctional conservative coalition.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Climate politics snapshot

Recommended reading: "Is Marco Rubio a Scientist or Not, Man?" It has to do with Rubio asserting that there's "reasonable debate" about the existence of human-caused global warming. Excerpt:
Comparing Rubio's November comments on the earth's age with last night's on climate offers a couple interesting insights, in addition to his abrupt acquisition of scientific acumen. First, climate change appears even more of a third rail for conservative politicians than evolution and creationism. Rubio was able to split the difference on evolution, at once bowing to the science, nodding to his own faith, and offering a sop to religious conservatives who object to the teaching of evolution (he later explained that parents should be able to teach their children what they want). With global warming, there's no such split: Rubio rejects both environmental policy solutions and the scientific consensus. Case closed. 
Assuming that climate politics don't shift drastically in the next four years -- though stranger things have happened -- and the presidential field remains roughly similar, this sets up an interesting dynamic for 2016. In a Republican primary, Rubio might find himself squaring up against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose state sustained an estimated $29.4 billion in damage during Hurricane Sandy. Christie has said that man-made climate change is real. If Rubio won the GOP primary, he might find himself running against Democrat Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, which saw $42 billion in damage from the same storm.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Erie update

I will be doing some further Erie Canal research soon. For interested readers, see this blog post and my articles on DeWitt Clinton and family here.

UPDATE 2/5: Some books involving the Erie Canal, assembled during a meeting yesterday at headquarters of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.

Many thanks to Hannah Blake, the organization's director of planning and heritage development, for meeting with me and collaborator George Gruel to discuss some niches of Erie Canal publishing.

The experts speak

Since US News and World Report went digital-only, I've read it much less frequently. Perhaps I've missed some good stuff, but the piece I see via email this morning "The Coming GOP Revival," by Michael T. Walsh, is a case study in how to be unconvincing even when you're making a case to which a reader is receptive. Excerpt, with emphases added:

But Democrats realize that they succeeded
in making their way back to power
by moving to the center. And this led to
the rise of Bill Clinton, who defeated
Bush in 1992 and broke the Republican
hold on the White House. He did it by
avoiding ideological stubbornness and
zealotry. Many Republicans today see
Obama’s re-election in November as a
wake-up call signaling that the nation
is changing demographically and politically,
and the GOP needs to adjust.
They’re right, experts say. Forty nine
percent of Americans hold a negative
view of the Republican Party, its
worst negative rating since 2008, and
only 26 percent have a positive view,
according to the latest NBC News/Wall
Street Journal Poll. In contrast, only
38 percent hold a negative view of the
Democratic Party, and 44 percent hold
a positive view. Obama does relatively
well, with 52 percent approving of his
job performance.
Revival will be a long process, but experts
it’s probably a necessary one if
the Republicans are to remain a viable
national party over the long run.
I am very sympathetic to the need for the Republican Party to reform--meaning, change some if its positions and priorities, not just do better messaging--but "experts say" this and "experts say" that carries about zero weight. Who are these experts? Do all or most experts agree? Does the author have anything significant to add to what the supposed experts are saying?