Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nautilus launch

There's a new science magazine: Nautilus, which will have a different topic each month and a new chapter each week. It's already sparked some wariness in that it's funded by the Templeton Institute, longtime seeker of an intersection of science and religion. That doesn't particularly bother me, as long as the magazine is good, which I hope and provisionally expect it will be. The choice of a first topic, "What Makes You So Special," makes for a promising start.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Hermitage

Visited the Hermitage in Ho-Ho-Kus today, onetime headquarters of George Washington, house and wedding site of Theodosia Prevost and Aaron Burr. In the mid-19th century, architect William Ranlett was commissioned to expand it in Gothic Revival Style. The Rosengrant/Rosencranz family long owned the property, and final resident Elizabeth Rosencranz gave it to the State of New Jersey in the 1970s. It is now a museum and conference center (also available for weddings and other events).

How it looked in 1763.
The wrinkled tree in center dates to 1774.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Keeping tabs on space

Some space-related items:

-- There's a magazine called Space Quarterly. I didn't know this, even though I see it's been in existence a couple of years. Granted, that's partly a reflection on my attention to things extraterrestrial not being quite as focused as it was at some times past, but I think it also reflects that space these days just isn't getting the degree of attention it deserves. Maybe it's time for a space comeback.

-- "Not About Chechens: Future of U.S. Space Policy." Kudos to the Council on Foreign Relations for recognizing there are important issues to discuss "up there."

-- "Hubble Dreams: 1946 Paper Promoted Powerful Space Telescope." A notable example of big-picture, long-term thinking working out well.

-- "Bolden's Response to Late JWST Instruments: That's News to Me." Considerably less inspiring.

I've been thinking lately about the future of this blog. Quicksilber has, I think fair to say, a rather small group of regular readers, in most or all cases being people I know personally. Then it has gently lapping waves of traffic, as random visitors come in looking for particular, perhaps eccentric, topics, such as "Clinton Road New Jersey" or "five spiral crash." Then there are occasional big spikes in traffic, typically because someone with a major venue sends people my way.

This comes to mind in connection with the space links above in that I could imagine trying to keep some tabs on space as a purpose that this blog might undertake more regularly in the future. However, suffice it to say I have a broad range of interests and an open mind as to what Quicksilber's emphasis and purpose might come to be as the Earth undertakes its next few orbits around the sun.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Monday, April 22, 2013

DeWitt at Green-Wood

DeWitt Clinton research continues apace. Here is his monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, which I and a few of his descendants visited this weekend. There will be some Erie Canal traveling in the near future, as well. All of this is pursuant to a book project, about which more as things develop.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Slow tides

I think it would be fair to say this has not been a slow news week. This blog, however, may serve for the moment as a place of contemplative respite in our frenetically paced world, or just not get updated.

Galapagos, 2007

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Downton Newt

I've been pretty hard on Newt Gingrich (in what stands as the second highest* trafficked post ever on this blog) but his focus and comments on Downton Abbey have softened my opinion. May he show up as Lloyd George or, better yet, Churchill sometime in the next couple of seasons.

* The highest trafficked post ever on this blog is, of course, about Clinton Road.

Skewed tax history

Judge Andrew Napolitano has a piece in Reason titled "Taxation Is Theft." Much of it consists of an argument about Social Security that has a very weak connection, at best, to the headline. But one passage, which does have to do with taxation, is odder yet:
For 150 years, the federal government was run by user fees and sales of government land and assessments to the states for services rendered. It rejected the Hamiltonian view that the feds could take whatever they wanted, and it followed the Jeffersonian first principle that the only moral commercial exchanges are those that are fully voluntary.
This isn't true. The federal government for the first 150 years was funded primarily by tariffs, which are of course taxes imposed on imported goods. Look at the figures here. Also, there was no "Hamiltonian view that the feds could take whatever they wanted." Hamilton favored a whiskey excise tax, and Jefferson didn't, but the many differences between the two men did not include either believing that "taxation is theft." Jefferson, like Hamilton, favored tariffs, which being taxes are not "fully voluntary," and Jefferson also seems to have had some affinity for progressive taxes.

Judges should know what they're talking about. So should writers for Reason.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Space living

I've spent a lot of time over the years writing (and editing) articles about space--space science, technology, politics, history, commerce, you name it. I have been, and remain, a space enthusiast. Still, I can appreciate the skeptical and dubious tone of this thoughtful essay by Greg Klerkx: "Spaced Out" subtitled: "Living in space was meant to be the next evolutionary step. What happened to the dream of the final frontier?" What particularly resonates with me, though, is his ending, with its hints of optimism that maybe there is a future in space after all. Excerpt:
There might be arguments for living in space that resonate more fully with the concerns of our time. The explosion of a meteor over Russia this February has placed new emphasis on the early detection of stellar objects that threaten to collide with Earth: could human-tended stations or bases be part of the solution? It is unfortunate that suborbital civilian spaceflight has thus far been branded with the ‘tourism’ label, which diminishes its potential to embrace a wider audience. As it stands, civilian spaceflight is largely perceived as what wealthy individuals do when they’ve climbed Everest and want a bigger trophy. It’s understandable that companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR want to monetise their work, but they also need to demonstrate the potential for suborbital spaceflight to be meaningful, which means opening up a few seats for the hoi polloi. Transitioning human spaceflight from a military elite to a wealthy elite would hardly be progress.

There might also be resonance in applying the technological and psychological lessons of living in space to the challenges of living on an increasingly crowded Earth. The potential synergy between the design requirements of close living in space and close living on Earth could use more attention. Space Age buildings such as the Nakagin Capsule Tower  in Tokyo — built in 1972, and so retro-futuristic as to appear to be CGI — are more about form than function. Perhaps architects and urban planners should be offered berths aboard the ISS or Bigelow’s inflatable habitats.

Our drive to live in space has to serve human needs, not human fantasies. Since the days of my childhood space cruiser we have become, by and large, a more self-aware species. Maybe that’s a necessary first step towards a meaningful spacefaring future. Step two will be harder. The next Space Age will require more than humane starships and flashy technologies — more than roomier bunk beds and better rocket fuels. It will take new ideas that are compelling enough to convince us that this wonderful planet of ours isn’t the endpoint of human evolution, but just the beginning.

Bombing perspective

The power and limits of Twitter both become salient when there's a terrorist attack or other crisis. On one hand I found out about the bombings very quickly (actually from an office coworker who read it on Twitter, but I would've seen something there myself soon in any case); on the other, most of what then showed up in my Twitter feed in the subsequent hours was of little value. (I gather much traditional news coverage was not much better.) In any case, I recommend "The Boston Marathon Bombing: Keep Calm and Carry On" as a valuable perspective.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Gold in retrospect

How many people, many of them retirees, are seeing their savings devastated by the gold market's plunge today--because they followed the advice of Glenn Beck and other blowhards who have done so much to turn conservatism and libertarianism into political and financial suckers' bets?

Here's a quick tour of some of my writings of the past few years involving gold fever and the right:

"Beck Didn't Warn Me Gold Can Fall!"

"Still Sound as a Dollar."

"The Gleam of Gold."

"Who Wants Higher Interest Rates?"

"Ron Paul's New Book: More Exaggeration and Conspiracy-Mongering."

"'Pure-Strain Gold.'"

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Aurora watch

I've looked a few times tonight and not seen any aurora borealis here in northern New Jersey. We do, however, have this.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Carbon tax adjustments

Interesting piece: "The Carbon Tax Is Overrated," by Evan Soltas at Bloomberg View. Actually, the headline obscures the key point, which is that a carbon tax can be modified to reflect and adjust to uncertainties about the costs and risks associated with carbon emissions. It seems to me one might come away from reading this more favorably disposed to a carbon tax than one was at the outset.

Book note: Time Reborn

I see that Lee Smolin has a new book coming out: Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. I haven't followed physics in recent years as closely as I used to (and may again) but I'm confident this will be a highly interesting book. Smolin is an excellent writer and an intriguing, independent thinker on physics and more. I interviewed him back in 1999 for a Reason article and reviewed his book The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, also for Reason, in 2007.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Big Brain politics

There are reasons to be skeptical of Big Brain projects, even if you're generally an enthusiast of neuroscience or, for that matter, science overall. John Horgan adds an addendum to his argument that such projects are premature. Others raise similar concerns. In short, the Big Brain approach runs a risk of throwing centralized money at questions that are still ill-defined, rather than fostering creative thinking and multiple paths of investigation.

Being a science-minded Republican has been a source of frustration in recent years, as I have discussed amply on this blog and elsewhere. But a healthy desire to reassert the value and importance of science in conservative/GOP circles ought not to translate into quick acceptance of whatever high-minded, expensive Big Science project shows up on the D.C. agenda. Some areas of science, and some moments in science, are much better-suited than others to the running-the-moon approach.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Random notes

Items of interest:

-- Glenn Reynolds on asteroid defense, a subject I've been interested in since before they started making movies about it in the 1990s.

-- David Frum speaking on blogging at Bard's Graduate Center in NYC tonight; am unable to go but it is sure to be interesting.

-- Purchased a new book: The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor, by Marguerite Holloway, who worked at Scientific American before my time there. This is related, albeit tangentially, to my ongoing DeWitt Clinton/Erie Canal research.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Machiavellian vasectomy

I wonder if it's too late for Helen Smith's upcoming book Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream - and Why It Matters to include a mention of this new book Machiavelli for Moms: Maxims on the Effective Governance of Children*, by Suzanne Evans. I am thinking particularly of this repugnant passage, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal:
As peace and predictability began to prevail at home, I turned to Machiavelli's most infamous advice. Though often mistakenly recalled as "the ends justify the means," what he really says is subtler: that others will ultimately judge actions by results.

Either way, the maxim came in handy one night when my husband got into bed, pulled close to me and said, "You know, I'd really like to have another kid." To which I replied, "That's nice, honey, but what you're going to have instead is a vasectomy."

With our four boisterous young kids finally coming under control, adding another to the mix—an obvious threat to my hard-won dominion—was a result that I could not accept. My husband resisted this edict at first, but when I told him that until he accepted it he shouldn't expect any affection in bed, he quickly agreed to an appointment with a doctor.

Baroness Thatcher (1925-2013)

Rest In Peace Margaret Thatcher. It's telling that this movie was pretty good when it actually tried to tell your remarkable story and pretty bad when it presented the filmmakers' contrivances.

UPDATE: A very good post by Claire Berlinski: "Five myths about Margaret Thatcher." And a valuable point from David Frum: "Margaret Thatcher Sounded the Alarm on Climate Change."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Douthat on the elite

Recommended reading (and already extremely widely noticed): "The Secrets of Princeton," by Ross Douthat. Also see Justin Green's take on it and related links. I've never met Douthat but I did review one of his books once, and his wedding and mine happened to be on the same day.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Conservative heterodoxy watch

Recommended reading: "Conservatives Behaving Like Liberals," by Bernard Goldberg. Excerpt:
There was a time when I was invited by a well-known conservative magazine to speak on cruises that the magazine organized.  Conservatives from all over America paid good money to visit far away places and listen to the likes of me talk about how corrupt the liberal media had become. But one evening, while cruising the Caribbean, I said there was also a problem with conservative bias in the media.  The crowd literally hissed and booed and I was never invited on another cruise.
Me: Broadly sympathetic to what Goldberg has to say in this piece.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Robocall defense

Here's something that might help shield against that annoying call that opens with a blaring foghorn and voice saying "This is your captain speaking" and then tries to sell a cruise or something: "FTC Announces Winners of Robocall Contest," in which the government gives a $50,000 prize for blocking technology. Here's more:

Monday, April 1, 2013

Gold-linked crankdom

A couple of items of note:

-- "They may not sell gold coins as quickly and as well as excessive alarmism, but they have the inestimable advantage of being true." John Podhoretz noting a bad incentive contributing to much conservative rhetoric. Via this.

-- "David Stockman wants to pee in your cornflakes."