Friday, May 31, 2013

Teen submarine

This is impressive: "High-school teen builds one-man submarine for $2,000." I once started sketching out a novel of which something very similar to this story would've been a plot element. Glad the real-life version is (also) happening in New Jersey.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book note: Murder at the Dacha

My friend and colleague Alexei Bayer's novel, which once carried the working title Meat, is now out as Murder at the Dacha.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: Men on Strike

Some time ago I mentioned that I'd be receiving a review copy of the book Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream - and Why It Matters, by Helen Smith (who was nice enough to come by and leave a comment hoping I enjoy the book). I then mentioned it again in reaction to a notable example of male-bashing that exemplifies the sort of thing that the book decries.

The book is now publicly available, and I see in my (never huge) traffic stats that some people have been searching here for more information, so I'll throw in my two cents. I should note that what I read is a galley copy of the book, which is what the publisher Encounter Books sent me. In my experience, galley review copies usually contain the exact same text as the final version, though there are cases where some last-minute editing has been done. I'll assume this book didn't morph into something different.

The book's basic arguments are: (1) many men are avoiding marriage, fatherhood and responsibility more broadly (this is presented more as a premise than a conclusion); (2) they are doing so not because they are immature slackers but because they perceive, correctly, that law and culture have developed strong anti-male biases; (3) men should "fight back," i.e. be more assertive and activist in countering such biases in various ways, by demanding better personal treatment, lobbying for new laws, etc.; and (4) "going Galt" (consciously boycotting marriage and other involvements) has some merit.

My own experience has been that getting married and becoming a father (both during my 40s) were the best things I ever did. Also, I am not aware of any discrimination I have experienced in the workplace or during my education on account of being male. (Being a co-worker of an ex-girlfriend for some time was awkward, though.) So I am not the target audience of this book. I am not, however, inclined to dismiss the concerns Dr. Smith raises. Men being treated badly in divorce court is not an unheard-of phenomenon, even if I would like to know more about how pervasive it is; and the casual assumption that men are nitwits is an unfortunate pop-culture staple, even if one notices that dumb blondes and other female stereotypes are not hard to find either.

Still, this book would have benefitted from more statistics to buttress its anecdotes. At one point, after discussing a few interviews of students she did, Dr. Helen asks: "Do the experiences of these four men represent the norm for young men arriving on campus?" Reading this, I readied myself for some survey data, but instead the next sentence is: "I decided that the best person to answer this question was Christina Hoff Sommers." What follows is an email interview in which Sommers offers her impressionistic account of what college is like for guys. Excerpt:
Few classes are mandatory except freshman writing seminars. Unless the student is well-organized (and what boy is?) he will be too late for the reasonable course offerings and end up in a class where he has to read chick victims lit like the Joy Luck Club or Girl Interrrupted. A nightmare for many boys.
Me: Stop kvetching. Also, isn't that bit about boys being disorganized a stereotype? Now let's move to an anecdote in the book about a genuinely serious matter. As quoted from a website called Parent Dish, a man writes:
I used to coach girl's soccer with my fiancee (now wife). I stopped because one of the girls (all of 8 years old) said:
"I don't have to listen to you. I can get you in trouble just by telling people you touched me."
The man goes on to complain that as a stay-at-home dad he gets "odd looks on the playground," and he laments that such knee-jerk suspicion could prevent him from being involved in sport and activities now that he has a child of his own.

But, instead of passively withdrawing in the face of the 8-year-old's threat, what if he had brought it up with school authorities and her parents? He would've been taking a risk of being falsely accused, but that risk was there in any event. In fact, quitting might have made the false accusation more credible. "Going Galt" isn't all it's cracked up to be, if it means retreating into your own bitterness.

There is much to like in Men on Strike. Dr. Helen's goal seems to be to get men and women to practice mutual respect and consideration. I hope its readers focus on that positive aspect.

What I'm working on

Schoharie Aqueduct, 5/25/13.
I'm writing a book involving the history and legacy of the Erie Canal and DeWitt Clinton, tying together national and family history and current-day observations. It will be illustrated with photos by George Gruel of Oddstick Studio that will be far better than the phone snapshot you see above, which I took this weekend at the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Fort Hunter, NY. I expect the book to be quite a unique thing, notwithstanding the varied existing literature on related subjects. It will also take some time to develop and finish, and this blog will offer further information down the road. (For a PDF of earlier related writings by me, see here.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fish pond

Chanticleer Garden, Wayne PA.

Taking a break. So is the turtle on rear wall.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Quick illustrations

Just testing my new Wacom Bamboo Splash graphic tablet. I don't know all the ins and outs of using it yet, but I do foresee that digital sketches and doodles will become part of this blog's raison d'ĂȘtre going forward. The above are (a) an alien being that might be discovered if the Kepler spacecraft is gotten to work again, and (b) a random guy that's not a self-portrait as I didn't have a mirror handy.

UPDATE 5/19: Posting may be light for a while.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

View from above downtown

Taken 5/13/13 from the New York Academy of Sciences, 7 WTC, 40th Fl.

Libertarian vices

Via a tweet, I came across a very interesting 2006 Tyler Cowen post, titled "The Libertarian Vice." Back then, I would've still called myself a libertarian, albeit with some qualification about being a libertarian conservative or fusionist. Nowadays, I wouldn't (centrist or center-right being my preferred self-descriptions, and I recognize there's some tension between those two). Some background here. Getting back to Cowen's post, his central point is here:
The libertarian vice is to assume that the quality of government is fixed.  The libertarian also argues that the quality of government is typically low, and this is usually the bone of contention, but that is not the point I wish to consider.  Often that dispute is a red herring. 
If the quality of government is fixed, the battle is then "government vs. market."  Not everyone will agree with libertarian views, but libertarians are comfortable on this terrain. 
But sometimes governments do a pretty good job, even if you like me are generally skeptical of government.  The Finnish government has supported superb architecture.  The Swedes have made a good go at a welfare state.  The Interstate Highway System in the U.S. was a high-return investment.  In the area of foreign policy, we have done a good job juggling the China-Taiwan relationship.  Or how about the Aswan Dam for Egypt?  You might contest these particular examples but I assure you there are many others.
Me: I agree that ignoring variability in the quality of government is a libertarian vice. I'm not sure I'd call it the libertarian vice, as I think there are others of comparable significance. Another libertarian vice, perhaps a cousin of the one Cowen describes, is to take the truth that government involves coercion and exaggerate it into a caricature--while pretending the private sector does not involve coercion. Consider this line from Brian Doherty's (overall very valuable) book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement:
For those who don't see the power of men with guns behind every law, libertarians say just wait and see what ultimately happens if you refuse to obey one, even the most picayune one.
Me: Actually, in practice, often nothing happens. But more to the point, what sort of thing happens if you don't meet obligations in a voluntary private-sector transaction--if you don't pay your restaurant bill, say? You're violating a law, yes, and men with guns might show up--but wouldn't that be true if the men were private security guards or officers of a private police force in an anarchocapitalist society? If you decide not to pay your landlord (or are unable to) how different is that from deciding not to pay your taxes (or not being able to)? In either case, people with guns may well get involved, and it's hard to imagine any society that would dispense with that contingency altogether. (A left-anarchist society that has neither government nor property rights would also involve coercion. Suppose I don't want the crops I planted to be used by the "voluntary" collective that's been substituted for private farming?)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


"Word of the Day: Quacksalver." I'd never heard it before. If I were worried about the brand identity of this blog, the similarity might not thrill me. Here's the definition of Quacksalver at
quacksalver \KWAK-sal-ver\, noun.
1. a charlatan.
2. a quack doctor.
(Found via this.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Robot overlords, etc.

Via Justin Green, here's Kevin Drum on machine intelligence. Excerpt:
This is a story about the future. Not the unhappy future, the one where climate change turns the planet into a cinder or we all die in a global nuclear war. This is the happy version. It's the one where computers keep getting smarter and smarter, and clever engineers keep building better and better robots. By 2040, computers the size of a softball are as smart as human beings. Smarter, in fact. Plus they're computers: They never get tired, they're never ill-tempered, they never make mistakes, and they have instant access to all of human knowledge.
And, Drum argues, while they may not try to kill or enslave us, they will cause massive unemployment. His piece is less lurid than some predictions, but I'm inclined to think there's a lot we don't know about intelligence, and replicating it is not going to follow the exponential path he aptly illustrates. A few of my relevant pieces from over the years:

"Are We Just Really Smart Robots?" Reason.

"Searching for Bobby Fischer's Platonic Form." TCS Daily.

"Masters of the Universe." Reason.

"Dear Posthumans." TCS Daily.

"Only Posthuman." Sciam Mind.

Screenshots of the news [Updated]

The and home pages. Screenshots taken simultaneously. Click to enlarge.

You might think they were covering different worlds.

UPDATE 4PM: Both sites have upped the ante, but a significant disparity persists.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cosmic mediocrity reconsidered

Recommended reading: "Goodbye Copernicus, Hello Universe," by Caleb Scharf, in Nautilus. Excerpt:
There is something very old, deep, and, yes, significant that might challenge the notion of our mediocrity.
It starts because you’re made of the cumulative stuff of the cosmos. A little more than 3.8 billion years ago some part of you came crashing to Earth. It might have been a handful of your carbon, oxygen, or nitrogen atoms, or some of the many hydrogen nuclei that now exist in your molecules. Primordial things are these, the remains of a hot Big Bang that took place 10 billion years earlier. Pieces of the one-in-a-billion tailings of a universe filled with annihilating matter and antimatter.

Your heavier elements passed through the digestive system of other stars. Cooked up by nuclear fusion in 10 million degree stellar cores. Hidden from sight under seething cloaks of plasma that could be millions of miles deep, these tiny clusters of matter were eventually dispersed to interstellar space in supernovae explosions that could momentarily outshine an entire galaxy. Cooling in the chill of space, they inhabited nebular clouds, eventually once again succumbing to gravity’s relentless embrace to fall inwards to the tumult of a youthful swirl of matter surrounding a growing baby star. Going through this process just once is enough to make a smattering of heavier elements if the star is sufficiently massive, but it takes multiple stellar generations to enrich the universe enough to build worlds like ours, and us. We are well down the family tree.
Too much to summarize but a lot of fascinating stuff about astrobiology, Bayesian reasoning, the anthropic principle(s) and more. Whole thing here.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

What to read: Phactum

Just received: the May/June/July issue of Phactum, the newsletter of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking. The newsletter is edited by Quicksilber reader-commentor Ray Haupt, whom I met when speaking to PhACT last year, and covers a fascinating variety of topics. The new issue, I see, deals with matters ranging from the Ape Boy of the Swamps, alleged to live in Philly's Heinz National Wildlife Reserve, to some sea serpent history (as it happens I just watched the excellent movie The Water Horse), to the deplorable connection of "psychic" Sylvia Browne to the Cleveland kidnapping case (I get a shout-out for calling that to Phactum's attention; glad to be of help, Ray).

Phactum's archives are online, but the current issue goes out by email and print first; more info here.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Psychic fallout

A lot of "psychic" advice is just harmless twaddle. Some is actually good advice, even if its provenance is fallacious. But some can be profoundly destructive. May Amanda Berry's reappearance put an end to the credulous attention anyone pays to "psychic" Sylvia Browne. Blog post: "Sylvia Browne is the worst person in the world," excerpt:
Like any parent, Louwana Miller was desperate for any news about her daughter, any tiny glimmer of hope. When all the authorities could tell he was that they were still hunting, she eventually turned to less orthodox sources for information and encouragement. A year and a half after Amanda's disappearance  Louwana Miller appeared on an episode of Montel Williams’ syndicated talk show with the self-proclaimed psychic, Sylvia Browne. In front of the live and broadcast audiences, Browne told Miller, "She’s not alive, honey." 
Miller was devastated  She took down her daughter's pictures, cleaned out her room, and gave away many of her belongings. When she died a few years later, her friends said it was of a broken heart.
Also see this article from 2004, just republished: "Amanda Berry is dead, psychic tells her mother on Montel Williams show."

What to do in NYC on a Monday night

Here are three events of note slated for this Monday, May 13, in New York City:

"Social and Emotional Learning: Preparing Our Children to Excel." New York Academy of Sciences, 7-8:30 PM. Moderated by Ingrid Wickelgren, my colleague for years at Scientific American Mind.

"Is America Over-Medicated?" Dionysium at Muchmore's, Williamsburg, 8 PM. Hosted by Todd Seavey, longtime organizer of a debate series in which I was a recurrent participant.

"Great Thinkers of Our Time--Alan Guth." Hunter, 7-8 PM. Distinguished physicist whose work figured in my long-ago piece here.

The times, as you see, overlap, but it's nice that people have lots of stimulating choices.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Economists' sex lives and long-term thinking

I'm unimpressed by Niall Ferguson's recent comments on Keynes' childlessness, homosexuality and putative disinterest in future generations; I'm glad Ferguson has apologized. Walter Olson has an incisive post here, and Andrew Sullivan a more forgiving take here. I'll just add that dubious sex-focused analysis has been deployed toward other economists over the years. An example comes from David Warsh's book Economic Principals : Masters and Mavericks of Modern Economics, which I reviewed two decades ago for Reason. Excerpt from Warsh:

For my part, I can attest that becoming a parent has made me more attuned to the needs and well-being of children in general. I also perceive that being a parent has made me short-term-focused much of the time--there's just too much to do. Certainly, some of the really long-term thinking I did back when I was in my late teens or early 20s--mulling over the next few millennia, or even accelerating to the end of the universe--is a luxury/distraction I would not be inclined to indulge now. That may have as much to do with having a mortgage as having a child, and whether it's an improvement or not I won't opine.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Subtle butterflies

Things are busy and many ideas are brewing. More posting in the not-too-distant future. Pictured: Butterfly conservatory scene at the AMNH, visited yesterday.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Space capsule 5-1-13

I wrote recently that keeping tabs on space was something I wanted to spend more time on, with this blog serving as a good vehicle for that purpose. Well, there's certainly more than enough material for a semi-regular blog "space capsule":

-- NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope narrowly missed colliding with a defunct Soviet-era satellite.

-- ESA's Herschel Space Telescope ran out of helium coolant, bringing its mission to an end, as expected. This was not a result of the current political wrangling over helium, as an idea once touted of giving the spacecraft a helium refill was actually a joke.

-- The Russians upped the cost of a seat to the International Space Station to $70 million, while NASA announced a delay on its plans of getting there via the private sector. The technical term for this is "having us over a barrel."