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.