Friday, March 29, 2013

Geek Friday

Noah Kristula-Green has started a column on David Frum's blog dedicating to reviewing computer, video and other games. My interest in that subject probably peaked about 15 years ago (after a somewhat baffled attempt to play this) but if anyone can get to me to read about it, it's Noah.

On a vaguely related note, here's an item about the NSA's declassification of archives of its arcane "Cryptolog" newsletter.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Climate qualifications (updated)

The Economist has posted an article on climate sensitivity that is likely to get much play. The piece points to uncertainties over how fast and far climate change will go, while disclaiming any suggestion that the overall issue is fake or trivial. I understand there's also a leader (editorial) on the subject that is not online (and which I will read; my copy of the print magazine should be arriving soon).

UPDATE 5:09 PM: I now see the editorial is online, and I find it quite sensible.

UPDATE 3/30: Some people, like Michael Barone, are claiming they were right all along to say climate change is not worth worrying about, though that's clearly not what The Economist article or editorial say or imply. I wonder, based on this triumphalist post by Steven Hayward, whether the joke might be on the deniers/downplayers; note Hayward's crowing about The Economist's "subtle signal of surrender," coupled with his own interesting concession of unspecified "difficulties": "The Economist goes on to provide a brief tour of new research that argues for a lower climate sensitivity, with upper bounds that would still present difficulties, but short of the blood-and-Gore catastrophe that as been the staple of the climate campaign from the beginning."

So, wait a second, you mean it's not a hoax after all?

For my part, I'd point out that some who raise "alarms" also have pointed out that there are uncertainties, which is why you need to hedge the risks, as was discussed in a noteworthy speech some time ago.

Tech and labor links

Some interesting items I found this morning:

-- "How the Internet is making us poor," by ex-Sciam colleague Christopher Mims at Quartz. The tech-driven disemployment he describes is unquestionably real and important, though whether being a tech person oneself is a great safeguard is debatable; being a technologically adept design person (I'm married to one) might be a better strategy.

-- "Gangs are not using the Internet to recruit new members or commit complex cybercrimes, according to a new study..."

-- Joel Kotkin on the "unstoppable rise of telecommuting." I've been doing it, on and off, for 20 years.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Recommended reading, and something I agree with, from David Frum: "Why Do We Need Marriage Equality?" Because...
For a conservative, the remarkable thing about the movement for same-sex marriage is that it is a civil rights movement that is less about claiming rights than it is about accepting responsibilities.
Marriage is a source of great joy. But - and I speak as one who'll celebrate a 25th anniversary this summer - it's also a solemn undertaking: an undertaking to care for another person, to nurse that person when ill, to sustain her or him in time of trouble, to raise children together, to provide for those children, to mourn when it comes time to mourn.
No agency of government can ever begin to do for anyone what loving spouses do for each other. The stronger our families are, of every kind of family, the less government we’ll need. 
 Whole thing here.

Political journalism downsides

Recommended reading: "Why Everything Is Politicized Even Though Most Americans Hate It," by Conor Friedersdorf. Excerpt:
If you're a political journalist, and you hear Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly or Lawrence O'Donnell or Mark Levin offend against basic human decency in an attempt to destroy an ideological adversaries, calling them out, especially if you're seen as "on their side." is going to make you the target of angry, profane attacks from their fans. Lackey bloggers are likely to publish blog posts that stop just short of actionable libel. You'll never be invited on the pundits' shows or possibly even their network when you've got a book to sell. And for your trouble, all you've accomplished is speaking up about behavior that people you care to reach already know to be wrongheaded. I have idiosyncratic ideas about the importance of a certain kind of public discourse, no ambition to work for an ideological movement, a social circle composed of friends who don't give a damn who I criticize, and an employer with the motto "of no party or clique."
And even I often find it an unpleasant hassle to make these criticisms. 
Sounds about right. Whole thing here.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Some science and environmental links

A few items of interest:

-- The best map yet of the early universe (more precisely, of the cosmic microwave background).

-- "Yes, conservatives can be environmentalists. Here's how." A look at the thinking of Jonathan Adler, who emphasizes property rights in protecting the environment.

-- "The Mechanics of the Pull-Up (and Why Women Can Absolutely Do Them)." My longtime favorite exercise finally getting some of its due.

UPDATE: One more: "The Heretic," by Andrew Ferguson at The Weekly Standard, reviewing Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel (a book I haven't read as of yet).

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Religion as we know it

At the Huffington Post, Gary Laderman of Emory University writes: "The Rise of Religious 'Nones' Indicates the End of Religion as We Know It." Excerpt:
I have seen the future of religion in America, and its name is "none." Yet another survey just recently published and publicized is emphasizing what is now an undeniable trend on the American religious landscape: increasing, if not historic, numbers of Americans are claiming no religious affiliation when asked to state their religious identity, and more and more are embracing "spirituality" as an alternative religious brand that is not tradition-specific, but is more in line with the democratic spirit of individual tastes.
Here's a UC Berkeley release about the survey: "Americans and religion increasingly parting ways, new survey shows." Excerpt:
Religious affiliation in the United States is at its lowest point since it began to be tracked in the 1930s, according to analysis of newly released survey data by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Duke University. Last year, one in five Americans claimed they had no religious preference, more than double the number reported in 1990.
And a chart, showing religious non-affiliation has gone from 5% to 20% over four decades:

For my part, I've bucked the trend, transitioning in the last few years from lifelong non-religionist to practicing Episcopalian. There are a number of reasons I did this, a story for another day. But I would like to take issue with some of Laderman's take on all this. I think the worthwhile story he tells, about religion in flux, is very different from the implication of his end-of-religion tone ("its name is 'none'"). Excerpts:
...popular culture in America rules our spiritual lives and is a more important source of wisdom, morality, transcendence, and meaning, than the traditional institutions like the church that used to provide these religious elements. Films, music, the internet, television, literature--these now are just as important, if not more important, than the teachings found in sacred texts and theological pronouncements for the younger generation as well as baby boomers. Reality TV and rap, Harry Potter and the Super Bowl provide Americans with moral dramas and existential ideals these days, and can make a profound impact on the lives of followers. Organized religion is clearly losing its authority and relevancy in the day-to-day worlds of Americans, and so those forces that predominate in our culture, such as new media, entertainment, and information technologies are now shaping spiritual sensibilities and sacred values.
...we are a nation of consumers and American desires for food and toys and clothes and healthcare and travel are finally refashioning the spiritual marketplace as well. "Have it your way," a famous jingle once used by a popular fast food joint is the mantra of the religious moment. If you don't want pickles or mustard on your burger, you can customize your order; if you don't want institutional ritual or dogma in your spiritual life, you can customize your own religious choices and activities. This is truly an expression of the democratic spirit undergirding so much of the American way of life. The individual is in this sense a spiritual entrepreneur who can be innovative, imaginative, and ingenious in her pursuit of creating a meaningful religious life. 
...the rise of the "nones" surely suggests it is the end of religion as we know it. Forget churches; forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally. What is sacred are no longer conventional objects like a cross, a singular religious identity like being a Methodist, nor activities like going to church or prayer. Instead, the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture. It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions.
Me: I've never liked the "as we know it" dodge. Of course things are always ending "as we know" them, which is very different from ending altogether. Moreover, isn't one way of "customizing" your religious practices by joining a religious body of some kind? After all, there are many different ones to choose from, as has long been the case in the United States, and the proliferation continues. And don't some people see being affiliated with a church as a corrective against some of the excesses and inanities of the popular culture? And haven't some churches been quite adept at using media and information technologies? And as the "nones" are on the rise, isn't it an act of nonconformity to break with their growing ranks?

In short, I think Laderman undervalues organized religion, and based on the comments from Huffington Post readers, in so doing he's preaching to the choir.

Conservative excuses

Noemie Emery writes cogently about "Excuses, excuses from the conservative wing." Excerpt:
Instead, against establishment types who were national figures, the conservative movement flung preachers and pundits (Pat Robertson, Alan Keyes and Pat Buchanan), has-beens and losers (New Gingrich and Rick Santorum), and others still worse (Herman Cain, for example), who on second thought lost even conservative primary voters.
When things worked less well for conservatives who lacked Reagan's luck and his genius, they decided their failure was explainable only by sabotage -- after all, how else could they lose? On the way, the Right developed a sense of entitlement (the Republican Party owed them a nominee of their liking); an embrace of victimhood; a habit of translating their tactical failure to win over more voters into a moral failure on the part of those voters for not sensing their value; and a belief that they can manage to win more elections by purging all factions (and people) not wholly in sync with their views.
I recommend reading the whole thing.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

'Scientifically untrue things'

Over at Reason, Ronald Bailey has a piece, "Why Do People Believe Scientifically Untrue Things?," that points to various antiscience tendencies on left and right. I think he's too kind to the GOP on guns (pressure to have the CDC refrain from studying gun violence has been a GOP cause, sadly), and I question whether nuclear power boils down to a science/antiscience or left/right issue as easily as he suggests (consider some libertarian thinking on the subject). But it's a worth-reading piece nonetheless.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday variety

While posting is slow here, there's a lot to read elsewhere (of course). For example, there's:

-- An analysis of the feud between pro-defense and small-government tendencies within the GOP, and how with the sequester, the small-government faction is winning. Found via this.

-- A discussion of whether it's worthwhile to be alive at all. One problem I see with such discussions is that we who are reading them are already in the world, not mulling our options from some nether-space. Found via this.

-- On a lighter note, some space travel posters.

UPDATE 10:50AM: One more piece, which I recommend highly: "Paul Ryan vs. the Middle Class," by Josh Barro. A few months ago, I met Dan Doctoroff (we share a hair stylist) and, having a chance to chat about opinion writers, pointed to Barro and Virginia Postrel as particularly strong contributors, who write things that aren't readily predictable or replicable elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

China military dreamin'

Three articles on front page of today's WSJ:

Some career advice for the relatively young: expertise in analyzing Chinese military and intelligence capabilities will be an in-demand skill for some decades to come.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Gold languishing

I wrote some pieces in 2010-11 expressing some skepticism about investing in (or basing monetary policy on) gold. See here, here and here. Events since then have not given me a whole lot of cause to change my mind. See Quartz: "Gold is the worst investment of 2013."

UPDATE: "How the US Dollar Staged an Incredible Comeback and Humiliated the Doomsayers."

Ancient Mars

Some interesting news from JPL: "NASA's Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars." Excerpt:
PASADENA, Calif. -- An analysis of a rock sample collected by NASA's Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.

Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon -- some of the key chemical ingredients for life -- in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month.

"A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "From what we know now, the answer is yes." 
Whole thing here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Himalayan hiatus

There may be some lightness to the posting in the near term. Pictured: Annapurna region, Nepal, 2009.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Friedman and Hayek

James Pethokoukis points out (rightly, I think) the folly of the GOP pressuring the Fed to tighten when inflation is low. (I've noticed, incidentally, that the gold commercials on Fox News are careful not to claim that there's an inflation problem now; only that there's a "rising threat" of inflation, or that gold is a hedge against "debt" and "instability.") Pethokoukis also argues that GOP monetary thinking should be shaped more by Milton Friedman, less by Friedrich Hayek:
If Friedman had the same intellectual standing with Republicans today as Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek does, the GOP might at least be aware of the possibility that (1) it was a tightening of monetary policy in 2008 that exploded a modest downturn into the Great Recession, (2) today’s low interest rates signal tight money, not loose, and (3) bond buying is exactly the right policy when interest rates are near zero, inflation quiescent, and the economy moribund. 
Friedman knew that while inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon, it isn’t everywhere and always a big problem. The year 2013 is not 1980. Instead of badgering Bernanke about inflation, Corker should have hammered him for his historically awful unemployment record, for letting nominal GDP collapse in 2008 and remain below trend since, and for a stop-and-go QE strategy that undercut the policy’s effectiveness in changing the expectations of consumers, businesses, and investors.
David Frum takes heart from the above Pethokoukis passage, saying "It's getting less lonely out here."

Much as I agree with them both on this particular issue, I would also recommend the interesting analysis in a book I've mentioned, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, which is basically an extended meditation on the idea that in the early post-World War II era, the right, as encapsulated by the Mont Pelerin Society and guided by Hayek, was more moderate and measured in its free-market enthusiasm than it became from the 1960s on when Friedman guided the Society and also became famous. That's somewhat counterintuitive to me (as I have always thought of the Austrian School as more "purist" than the Chicago School) but there may be something to it.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Friday, March 1, 2013

Book note: Extinction

In keeping with the "Books by Friends" tradition mentioned yesterday, I'm pleased to see the publication of Extinction: A Thriller, by Mark Alpert, colleague from my Sciam days. This is Mark's third novel, and an interesting-looking New York City Skeptics event with him and former Sciam editor John Rennie is described here.