Friday, June 28, 2013

Book notes: glamour, genius, history

Review copy requested: The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel. (Pub. date Nov. 2013).

Review copy received: Divine Fury: A History of Genius, by Darrin M. McMahon. (Pub. date Oct. 22, 2013.)

Current reading: Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire, by Gerald T. Koeppel. This is an excellent history and valuable addition to my Erie Canal research.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Canal research - Cohoes

Erie Canal research continues. Many thanks to Ed Tremblay of the City of Cohoes and Tom Carroll and Michael Barrett of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway for arranging access to Locks 37 and 38 of the original canal, which are buried in an old utility tunnel and are the subject of an interpretive area now under construction aboveground.

Cohoes is doing an impressive job of making itself a destination for history-minded tourists and others. Just down the block from the Clinton's Ditch site is a lookout over the Cohoes Falls; circumventing it was a key purpose of the canal.

Some climate movement

A note on Obama's climate speech: Kudos. "Flat Earth Society" and other rhetorical swipes were amply justified. New rules on coal: a reasonable approach given a political climate that precludes carbon pricing. Submitting the Keystone pipeline to a test of whether it increases pollution: acceptable but probably has a significant element of arbitrariness; a thorough evaluation would consider not just whether the oil would move anyway, but tradeoffs between oil (even tar sands oil) and coal, and exploitation of North American fossil fuels (relatively easy to regulate, as well as better for national security) versus overseas resources.

Here's a different perspective, from Jennifer Rubin: "Obama's climate gift to Republicans." Excerpt:
At a time that Republicans are divided on immigration reform and the National Security Agency surveillance programs (although really only a few libertarian cranks oppose defending ourselves with technology overseen by Congress and the courts), President Obama delivers today a gift, wrapped in a bow, to Republicans in the form of his political and policy blunder, otherwise known as the “war on coal."
When Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, Obama could not get climate control legislation passed. That explains why he is now seeking to go around Congress to enact anti-coal regulations by fiat. 
The reason even Democrats balked on climate change regulations in the first term (it stalled in the Senate) is because it is economically debilitating, especially in energy producing states; politically unpopular in red states and among the vast majority of all conservatives nationwide; and useless (so long as China, India, etc. don’t follow suit it does virtually nothing for the planet as a whole – even if one buys the global warming hysteria).
Me: This passage actually underscores why a carbon tax would be a better policy--it could be applied to imports and put pressure on China, India, etc., and it would produce revenues that could limit the economic fallout in coal-producing states and elsewhere. I think the Obama administration is wrong to oppose such a tax, but there's no denying that the chances of passage would be slim; too many people (especially in Congress) think as Rubin does. As someone who believes in dealing with reality--political as well as climatological--Obama's half-measures look like a glass half-full, and his tough rhetoric has the virtue of calling those who deny there's much of anything to worry about on climate what they really are. Possibly, in time, that will look like anything but a gift to the Republicans.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cooling, but misstated, consensus

Will Wilkinson in The Economist writes about global warming not proceeding as fast as expected: "A Cooling Consensus." Excerpt:
We have not been awash in arguments for adaptation precisely because the consensus pertained to now-troubled estimates of climate sensitivity. The moralising stridency of so many arguments for cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and global emissions treaties was founded on the idea that there is a consensus about how much warming there would be if carbon emissions continue on trend. The rather heated debates we have had about the likely economic and social damage of carbon emissions have been based on that idea that there is something like a scientific consensus about the range of warming we can expect. If that consensus is now falling apart, as it seems it may be, that is, for good or ill, a very big deal. 
Me: The key consensus was, and is, that global warming is happening; is anthropogenic; and carries serious risks. Often, this has been expressed in terms of projected temperature ranges. It is not the case that we know how much warming there will be, and it is not the case that carbon taxes or other measures would only make sense if we did know. A great virtue of carbon pricing, in fact, is that it can be adjusted as new information comes in about the extent and effects of warming.

Wilkinson is right* that some people have overstated the certainty of disaster if we don't keep atmospheric carbon to certain levels (e.g., "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math"). But for years we've been hearing from the other side of the "debate" that global warming is not happening, not anthropogenic or nothing to worry about (hey, good for plants, even). Two of those propositions are false, and the third is still dubious. If, as many scientists believe, the oceans are absorbing much of the warming, with the result being rising sea levels, then a do-nothing policy is still dangerous. I'll add that the case for a carbon tax is not solely dependent on global warming but also draws on other environmental, fiscal and national-security considerations. Having said all that, you'll never hear me argue against adaptation as part of the strategy. Given the politics involved, we'll need it.

* UPDATE 1:23 PM: Rereading what I wrote, I'd amend the last paragraph to take out the opening words "Wilkinson is right that..." as the subsequent point, though relevant, is not something Wilkinson asserted.

UPDATE 6/23: These posts by Greg Laden make good explanatory points:
--"The Ocean is the Dog. Atmospheric Temperature is the Tail."
--"Why you sound so stupid when you say 'global warming has stopped'."

Ramapo twilight

A look at the Ramapo Mountains (or hills in this case) from the parking lot of The Mason Jar in Mahwah. June 16, 2013.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Dubious effort to contact aliens, only 99 cents

This caught my eye today:
It links to a story at my long-ago employer "New Project Will Send Your Messages to Aliens in Deep Space." Excerpt:
A group of scientists, businessmen and entrepreneurs are tired of waiting around for E.T. to get in touch.
Instead of passively listening for signs of intelligent life in the universe, the Lone Signal project is asking everyone with an Internet connection to help beam messages into outer space in an attempt to make our presence in the universe known.
When Lone Signal goes live late in the day on June 17, it will mark humanity's first-ever attempt to send continuous messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence, officials said.
 And there's a business angle. Excerpt:
The initial text-only message is free, but you can buy an unlimited number of text and photo messages that will be queued up and sent into space, officials said. After the first free communication, a text message costs one credit and a photo message costs three. Four credits can be purchased for $0.99.
CNN also has some coverage.

Me: There's long been a debate about efforts to contact aliens, or "active SETI." Here's what I wrote about it six years ago, reviewing Michael Michaud's book Contact With Alien Civilizations. Note the libertarian strain in my thinking then.
Should humans be sending our own signals to possible listeners out there? To a degree, this already occurs routinely, as radio and television broadcasts, plus military and civilian radar pulses, leak into space; such signals, though, may be too weak to detect at astronomical distances (depending on how sensitive their receivers are). There also have been a few efforts to send more detectable transmissions, as in 1974 when astronomers used the huge Arecibo radio telescope to beam toward a distant star cluster a pictogram showing our solar system, the DNA molecule, a human stick figure, and more.
Michaud is wary of such “active SETI,” noting that its goal is to elicit a reaction from aliens whose capabilities and intentions are unknown. Similar to many in the SETI community, he prefers listening to transmitting; the latter is costlier as well as riskier. Michaud also raises the possibility of requiring international consultations for any transmission above the signal strength of ordinary radio, television, and radar. The need for such regulation is dubious, however, given that active SETI is rare, its recipients may or may not exist, and they might already be getting American Idol and other programs.
Me: Not so confident now that I was right to take a laissez-faire approach to "shouting into the cosmos," as David Brin calls it. But I am confident that worrying about it is beside the point. Whether it's Lone Signal or somebody else, relatively detectable signals are going to get sent, sooner or later. The risks are unknown. The benefits are unknown. I was a bit surprised to find the SETI Institute tweeting about this project with seeming enthusiasm, but it turns out they've long been congenial to active SETI, even without engaging in it themselves. As Brin puts it:
"...the SETI Institute, based in California -- the field's acknowledged lead institution and operator of a dedicated SETI instrument, the Paul Allen Array -- has officially declared that it has no intention of engaging in "Active Seti." However, its leadership has expressed friendly support for these endeavors and -- more importantly -- has acted vigorously to block even mild efforts, through the International Academy of Astronautics, to ask that these groups meet international bodies first, presenting their plans and discussing repercussions, before acting unilaterally to make the Earth vastly more visible across the cosmos.
Me: Won't be participating in Lone Signal. A few more decades of listening and some better thought-out protocols for transmitting are the path I'd prefer. But who knows? Maybe we can help these R'ha aliens get away from the robots that are pursuing them (unless it turns out the robots are the good guys).

Sunday, June 16, 2013

NSA story turning into bad sitcom

The supposedly explosive leaks of Edward Snowden are turning out to include a lot of hot air. The Guardian is now reporting that the U.S. government eavesdrops on the Russian government (it would be worrisome if that were not the case) and that the U.K. listened in on delegates from various countries at a G20 summit (meh). C-NET reported, incorrectly, that the NSA had admitted to listening in on domestic phone calls without warrants, and then fiddled with its headline and added an update in an attempt to fuzz over the falsity of the original story. (Meanwhile, Scientific American, my former employer and C-NET's partner, maintains the original story and headline on its front page.)

Valid concerns about privacy and civil liberties are getting buried under a blizzard of ill-informed hokum and paranoid conspiracism of left and right, mixed with propaganda victories for the Chinese and Russian governments (and who knows what information Snowden is giving Beijing). The development of this storm of b.s. has been tracked adeptly at Little Green Footballs.

And of course, Rand Paul is still erupting with gibberish.
This doesn't surprise me. Paul is the guy who demanded the abolition of the Energy Department without having a clear idea of what the Energy Department does, and who brings up Hitler and hyperinflation without knowing what he's talking about there either.

UPDATE 6/17 12:17 PM: Recommended: "A Catalogue of Journalistic Malfeasance," by Joshua Foust at Medium. 
UPDATE 6/17 4:23 PM: Also recommended: "Snowden, Intelligence, and History," by John R. Schindler.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Upstate dinosaur

Taken May 27 at Petrified Creatures Museum, on Route 20 in Richfield Springs, NY, not far from Cooperstown. Incidentally, the establishment, located on a 5.5 acre property, is for sale.

Reptilian overlord commentary

A snapshot from one of the weirder websites I've seen lately. More info here.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

NSA update

I've been mostly quiet about the NSA/Snowden story. Early on, I expressed skepticism about efforts to downplay the revelations, but then when Edward Snowden revealed himself (and his whereabouts in Hong Kong) I started to have some skepticism about that earlier skepticism. See this and this for some reasons to doubt the accuracy of what Glenn Greenwald reported. Now, of course, it's entirely possible that Snowden and Greenwald are inaccurate and reckless (or driven by a malign motive) without any of this meaning that the NSA's data collection practices are justified or wise (or legal, though as far as I can tell, no clear evidence of illegality has been revealed). So on this issue (and not only on this issue) put me down as in the middle, trying to figure out whose claims match reality, or come close.

UPDATE 3:03PM: Rand Paul erupts with gibberish.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Alien robot rebellion

That's the short movie R'ha, now slated to become a long movie. Something to look forward to.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

'Detergent goes negative'

Via Walter Olson, I learn that the full archive of Spy magazine is now available online. Here's p. 32 from the March 1989 issue, including a cartoon by Mark Silber and me.

Historical background: the Bush-Dukakis presidential race.

Friday, June 7, 2013

No Such Agency

Nick Gillespie rightly grinds up a bunch of lame apologias (or half-hearted critiques) of the National Security Agency. The argument that its newly revealed collection efforts are no big deal because Facebook collects info on you too is so ludicrous that I would've thought even Slate wouldn't publish it. If there's a compelling national-security argument for why the government has to suck in all this information, we haven't heard it yet.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Number crunching in Trenton

New Jersey politics are going to stay interesting the next few years, well beyond the current Senate scramble and gubernatorial race. I think there's a pretty good chance Chris Christie will run for president in 2016--and no, contrary to the Althouse-Limbaugh conjecture, not as a Democrat. Christie has a 58% approval rating from Republicans, which given the likely awfulness of some of his prospective rivals, gives him a reasonable shot at the GOP nomination. Meanwhile, his 52% approval among Democrats (and same among voters overall) is just the kind of crossover appeal a Republican candidate will need to win a presidential election this decade. Bear in mind that the GOP itself currently has unfavorable ratings around 60% nationwide, so the thought of actually dismissing Christie outright might stir hesitation even among those conservative voters who don't enthuse over him anymore.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Keeping tabs on reform conservatism [updated]

There's been a lot written lately about "reform conservatism," such that even people who are interested in the subject might have trouble keeping up. Here are a few notes from me on recent developments and current trends:

1. David Frum has put his DailyBeast blog on indefinite hiatus while he focuses on family and personal matters. He will continue his weekly CNN column but, for the time being, cease being the prolific figure he's been on the punditry scene. I wish him well, look back fondly on my involvement with the earlier FrumForum, and fully expect he'll return to a highly active public role sooner or later.

One thing that was great about FrumForum was that it was informed by a common sensibility (in particular, a belief that the GOP and conservatism needed to renew themselves in some way) but also contained a considerable diversity of opinion on particular issues and priorities. How else could the site have had room for, say, both me and my friend John Guardiano, who is notably more conservative than I've ever been? (I will note, though, that one other person I knew through FrumForum later made a point of cutting his ties to me, and not explaining why, which suggests limits to that intellectual diversity.)

2. Ross Douthat recently itemized his idea of a conservative reform agenda. I was reasonably in tune with a fair amount of what's on the list, but was unpleasantly surprised to see that he explicitly excluded "a cap-and-trade bill, or any sweeping regulatory response to climate change," while citing the influence of Jim Manzi and linking to a piece by the latter rejecting a carbon tax. There's room for debate on what to do about climate change, but if the conservative reform answer is to do nothing, or to focus some limited effort on future technologies that may help someday, then there is a gaping political and policy weakness at the center of reform conservatism.

3. There's some fuzziness as to what constitutes reform conservatism such that some people frequently identified as reform conservatives disclaim that they are conservatives. This came up recently with regard to the fast-rising pundit Josh Barro, who describes himself as a "neoliberal" and adds: "But people might understand better if I just started saying 'moderate.'" I agree that "neoliberal" is a confusing label (all those free-market reforms outside the U.S. were also "neoliberal," for starters). For my part, I am happy enough with "moderate" or "centrist" and have stopped calling myself, as I did in years past, a "libertarian" or "libertarian conservative." But since such I'm-not-a-conservative admissions generate an enormous amount of crowing from the likes of adamant conservative non-reformer Erick Erickson, I would also like to point out that what counts as conservatism has changed again and again over the decades (see The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution, by Gregory L. Schneider for background) so I can easily imagine a future in which, say, Josh Barro is considered a conservative and Erick Erickson is considered what he is: a suitable partner for Lou Dobbs in discussions of biology.

4. I'm not quite as politics-focused as some of the people discussed above. Career-wise, I've had oars in multiple streams over the years, including financial journalism, science journalism and the Erie Canal. Quicksilber can be expected to continue covering eclectic subject matter, and there are even plans in the works for an artistic collaboration involving alien life. Still, at a time when there is some contention over where and among whom "real" conservatism and "real" reform conservatism can be found (and some hypocrisy about that, as Conor Friedersdorf points out), I consider my wide range of interests an asset, as reform conservatism will need input from people of varied backgrounds. I expect to continue paying attention, and occasionally weigh in, on this overall subject in the future.

UPDATE 2:10PM: Here's a reform conservative manifesto at Forbes, by Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry, in which the environment and science figure not at all. Man, this movement needs to broaden its agenda.

UPDATE 6/7: Welcome TalkRadioSucks members.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Monday alien

Another experiment with my Wacom Bamboo Splash, this time using Artrage 4 software. A lot of interesting effects, especially for field drawings of alien life in the galaxy.

Sunday, June 2, 2013