Monday, December 22, 2014

Quantum computers in finance

My January column for Research magazine looks at the implications for financial advisors of a futuristic technology. Excerpt:
Quantum physics, or quantum mechanics, is a scientific field focused on the behavior of subatomic particles. It is notoriously arcane, using math to describe phenomena that run counter to common-sense assumptions. Particles, for instance, can exist in a state of “superposition,” where such properties as location or speed are defined by a probability distribution rather than a single, definite number.
To illustrate that point, much popular-level writing about quantum mechanics has invoked “Schrödinger's cat,” an imaginary scenario (discussed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in the 1930s) in which a cat in a box supposedly can be both dead and alive, since its fate was determined by a particle process that yielded only probabilities.
Contrary to the impression one might get from reading some popular treatments, however, most physicists are not inclined to believe in dead-and-alive cats. Rather, they see superposition as a delicate state that is difficult to maintain in systems involving numerous particles (and effectively impossible in a large, active object such as a cat).
Such matters might seem far removed from the everyday concerns of financial advisors. But actually, quantum mechanics may end up being a subject of pressing importance in the advice industry. Whether that is the case depends on what happens with quantum computing, a technology that is now in its infancy but which—if its proponents’ ambitious visions are on target—could reshape finance and much else.
Read the full article: "Can Advisors Handle Quantum Computers?"

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Controversial messages to aliens

There's a discussion about seeking and contacting extraterrestrial intelligence this month at Cato Unbound: "Politics, Social Theory, and SETI." It includes some effort to connect the topic to libertarianism, this being a venue of the Cato Institute, but the main focus is on whether "active SETI" or "METI" (often called Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a good idea, with the balance of opinion so far being 'no' and Robin Hanson even throwing in a suggestion that we scale back radio astronomy as an activity that might send a relatively easily detectable message out inadvertently. David Brin's lead essay has a lot of interesting angles, though I'd tinker with his description of the math (the left side of the Drake equation is N).

I've long been interested in this overall subject, as with this review (which originally was planned for Reason but perhaps didn't have enough of a libertarian angle for them). I'm no enthusiast of METI, which strikes me as having less upside than downside; I would prefer that such activity be delayed until some time when we know more about what might be out there (but what that knowledge might consist of and how much of it we need is hard to say). Still, restricting METI, let alone radio astronomy that might reveal our presence, requires some very murky risk assessment. For all we know, it's only if aliens do know we're here that they won't use this solar system for some sterilizing experiment or such. If, notionally, the risk of extermination by aliens who pick up our signals is anywhere near one in a billion, then unlike Hanson I'd be happy to shrug off that risk.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Let us praise io9

Lest I appear, based on the entry below, to have given up on any hope for journalism's future, let me say a positive word for io9, which has impressed me not only with a good deal of its science and sci-fi coverage (and ability to straddle that line) but also with how it's largely avoided the sleaze and obnoxiousness that generally characterizes the rest of the Gawker empire. I'm impressed in particular right now by Annalee Newitz's apology and fix for running a one-sided piece about lab animals.

UPDATE: I should mention I came across above topic via Walter Olson.

TNR RIP [updated]

Opinion journalism is not what it used to be, and if I'd known what it was going to become, I would have been a great deal less inclined to become involved in it a couple of decades ago. I spent a lot of time reading The New Republic in the nineties, and while I was overall to the right of the magazine, what I read there definitely taught and influenced me in various ways. Admittedly, I found it less interesting in more recent years, but its prospective new incarnation sounds like a true descent into journalistic and business hell. A few recommended readings:

"Is There a Peter Principle for Investors?" by Dan Drezner, Washington Post.

"A Eulogy for The New Republic" by Jonathan Chait, New York magazine.

"The incredible imploding New Republic," by Kirsten Browning, Muck Rack.

"New Republic Staffers Resign En Masse," by Dylan Byers, Politico.


I'm also pretty amused by the seemingly upbeat tone of this tweet by an NPR reporter doing an early relay of the news; "punches the accelerator" indeed:
And as for Guy Vidra, the new guy in charge there who reportedly aspired to be a "wartime CEO," he seems to have gotten his wish.

UPDATE 2: Andrew Sullivan has a post that happens to have the same headline as mine.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Slowdown and baseball balloon

Quicksilber began in Dec. 2007 and has had some periods of fairly high activity and others of relative dormancy. I expect Dec. 2014 will not be a particularly active time on this blog. Meanwhile, work continues on my book, I continue to do a column at Research magazine, my Twitter feed is here, and my LinkedIn profile is here. Below is a giant baseball, inflated before Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Odds and ends: science, nukes, immigration

An informative and balanced post at Sciam: "New GOP Leaders Embrace Science but Don’t Hug Trees," about the implications of Tom Cole and John Culberson's appointments to science-relevant subcommittees. I'm pleased to learn the implications include brighter prospects for a Europa mission. I wrote about Europa some years ago for Sciam, and the ambitious plans I discussed then did not have much political staying power.

On a different topic: "China Going Nuclear." Excerpt: "China’s military capabilities are improving at such a clip that the entire western United States will be vulnerable to a Chinese nuclear attack within ten years, according to a new report." This surprises me, but what surprises me about it is I'd assumed it had happened long ago. Meanwhile, the U.S. is having its own nuclear arsenal problems, as discussed in this Bloomberg View editorial, though I don't see that what's discussed there impels the conclusion that the U.S. should downsize its arsenal.

And on immigration, I think Walter Russell Mead makes many good points here: "Obama's Big Miscalculation." To wit: the policy is debatable, the politics are bad.

In any case, we need more of this kind of immigrant (and I'm not making any ethnic point; I'm saying people this smart): "A Grand Vision for the Impossible."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Multiverse-canal connection

Here's a place where old canal history intersects with cutting-edge physics. From an article at Quanta: "Multiverse Collisions May Dot the Sky," by Jennifer Ouellette*:
In August 1834, a Scottish engineer named John Scott Russell was conducting experiments along Union Canal with an eye toward improving the efficiency of the canal boats. One boat being drawn by a team of horses stopped suddenly, and Russell noted a solitary wave in the water that kept rolling forward at a constant speed without losing its shape. The behavior was unlike typical waves, which tend to flatten out or rise to a peak and topple quickly. Intrigued, Russell tracked the wave on horseback for a couple of miles before it finally dissipated in the channel waters. This was the first recorded observation of a soliton. 
Russell was so intrigued by the indomitable wave that he built a 30-foot wave tank in his garden to further study the phenomenon, noting key characteristics of what he called “the wave of translation.” Such a wave could maintain size, shape and speed over longer distances than usual. The speed depended on the wave’s size, and the width depended on the depth of the water. And if a large solitary wave overtook a smaller one, the larger, faster wave would just pass right through. 
Russell’s observations were largely dismissed by his peers because his findings seemed to contradict what was known about water wave physics at the time. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that such waves were dubbed solitons and physicists realized their usefulness in modeling problems in diverse areas such as fiber optics, biological proteins and DNA. Solitons also turn up in certain configurations of quantum field theory. Poke a quantum field and you will create an oscillation that usually dissipates outward, but configure things in just the right way and that oscillation will maintain its shape — just like Russell’s wave of translation. 
Because solitons are so stable, Lim believes they could work as a simplified toy model for the dynamics of bubble collisions in the multiverse, providing physicists with better predictions of what kinds of signatures might show up in the CMB. If his hunch is right, the expanding walls of our bubble universe are much like solitons.
Me: I've long been attuned to odd connections between seemingly unrelated topics, but this one really stretches far. I'm impressed.

* - Fixed my misspelling of the author's name.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

U.S.-China climate … thing

A lot of our political discourse seems to be people playing their predictable roles without expending much thought. The debate about the U.S.-China climate announcement is a case in point. Democrats are hyping it. Republicans are denouncing it (seeing it as part of a "war on coal."). Neither side has much incentive to notice the considerable limitations on its significance; which are, however, sketched out in a post by Jack Goldsmith, a law professor. Excerpt (with emphases from original):
Here the two sides do not promise to, or state that they will, reduce emissions by a certain amount. Rather, they state only that they intend to achieve emissions reductions and to make best efforts in so doing. Whether and how the goals expressed in these intentions will be reached is left unaddressed, and one nation’s intention is not in any way tied to the other’s. Nor would it be a violation of the “announcement” if either side’s best efforts fail to achieve the intended targets. As we have seen with a lot with climate change aspirations, intentions are easy to state, and they change over time. The key point is that this document in no way locks in the current intentions. In fact it creates no obligations whatsoever, not even soft ones (except that, in a different place, both sides “commit” to “reaching an ambitious … agreement” next year, an empty commitment). It is no accident that the document is called an “announcement” and not a treaty or pledge or even an agreement.
Me: I've long thought some kind of U.S.-China arrangement could be important, given the centrality of those two nations to carbon emissions and international trade, and given how hard it is to get any kind of multilateral agreement. But still, what's been achieved here is nothing remotely like, say, a bilateral agreement to put a price on carbon emissions (not surprisingly, as something like that would require legislation on the U.S. side, however much it might be imposed by fiat in China). The back-and-forth over this deal (which Goldsmith plausibly puts in quotes: "deal") is more about people displaying their ideological identities than anyone actually having much reason to exult or despair.

UPDATE: A different take, from Christopher Flavelle: "Obama Outmaneuvers Republicans on Climate Change."

UPDATE 2: Tyler Cowen: "The announced deal is little more than a well-timed, well-orchestrated press release."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Climate solutions

"Conservatives don’t hate climate science. They hate the left’s climate solutions," by Chris Mooney. About a new study that gives more evidence of how views on science can change depending on the policy prescriptions offered (and which discusses gun control as well). And all the more reason to expect climate politics in the coming decades to look very different from how it does now. (After much time has been wasted.)

Brad Thor redux

I'm glad to see, in looking at this blog's incoming traffic, that Quicksilber ranks high (#3 currently) in search results for: brad thor conspiracy theorist nutjob. Here's the post that accomplished this: "Fact checking a novel: Brad Thor's Hidden Order." Apparently I'm not a fan.

Posting may continue to be light in near term.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Post-election reading

Recommended reading: "Why the GOP Blowout Is So Scary for Democrats," by Peter Beinart. Short answer: because a more moderate Republican Party is emerging. Excerpt:
...there is one big takeaway from tonight’s Republican landslide that should worry Democrats a lot: The GOP is growing hungrier to win. 
It’s about time. As a general rule, the longer a party goes without holding the White House, the hungrier it becomes. And the hungrier it becomes, the more able it is to discard damaging elements of party orthodoxy while still rousing its political base. Between 1932 and 1952, it took Republicans five election defeats to convince their partisans to rally behind Dwight Eisenhower, who accepted the New Deal. Between 1980 and 1992, it took Democrats three defeats to convince their base to get behind Bill Clinton, a former head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council who supported cutting taxes and executing murderers. 
In 2008 and 2012, Republicans couldn’t pull this off. Party elites backed John McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom had records of bipartisan achievement and ideological independence that might have made them attractive to swing voters. But McCain and Romney faced so much hostility from the GOP’s conservative base that in order to win the nomination, and then ensure a decent base turnout in November, they had to repudiate the very aspects of their political identity that might have impressed independents. McCain, who had once called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance,” made another such agent, Sarah Palin, his running mate. Romney, who given his druthers would likely have supported comprehensive immigration reform, instead demonized illegal immigrants to curry favor with the GOP base. 
This year has been different: GOP activists have given their candidates more space to craft the centrist personas they need to win.
Me: I hope that's correct. Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Social Security webinar note

Click here for information about a webinar I'm doing Nov. 5 with economist (and onetime presidential hopeful) Laurence Kotlikoff on "How to Work Social Security into Your Clients' Retirement Portfolios." That's in my capacity as senior editor at Research magazine, which is aimed at financial advisors (and which has no responsibility for Quicksilber, my personal blog).

One political note

Lack of time prevents me from spending much time blogging about the midterm elections (or much else) right now, but I will note that the congressional race in my (Republican-leaning) corner of New Jersey appears to be a real contest, with incumbent Republican Scott Garrett running ahead of Democratic challenger Roy Cho but not so much as to be assured of victory. In my area, it's easy to find lawn signs for either candidate, and the Cho campaign has wisely emphasized a message of "Moderate Republicans Support Roy Cho." I wrote about the objectionable Garrett here and here. Go Cho--and if you win, I strongly advise you to live up to those "moderate Republican" signs.

Friday, October 31, 2014

SpaceShipTwo implications

The crash of SpaceShipTwo in a test flight reminds me of these words a few years ago from Paul Spudis:
But what will happen to a commercial space tourism market after the first fatal accident? New Space advocates often tout their indifference to danger, but such bravado is neither a common nor wise attitude in today’s lawsuit-happy society (not to mention, the inevitable loss of confidence from a limited customer base). My opinion is that after the first major accident with loss of life, a nascent space tourism industry will become immersed in an avalanche of litigation and will probably fully or partly collapse under the ensuing financial burden. We are no longer the barnstorming America of the 1920’s and spaceflight is much more difficult than aviation.
Me: And this tragic failure of a suborbital test flight, of course, occurs even before commercial space tourism has really gotten anywhere. That industry has been slower to emerge than many expected a decade ago, and this sure isn't going to speed it up.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Paying for immortality

My latest at Research magazine involves how long people will live in 2030 and how long their money will last. I interview Joel Garreau about his four scenarios for longevity. Excerpt:
Small Change. In this scenario, technological advances have only modestly altered current trends in lifespans and health outcomes. Leading-edge baby boomers alive in 2030 are octogenarians and often infirm. Their kids who are in their 40s can expect to live into their 80s but face a familiar decades-long decline in health. Medical costs continue to skyrocket. According to Garreau, this is “the official Washington future regarding aging—the one many policymakers expect.” 
Drooling on Their Shoes. In 2030, under this scenario, technological advances have increased lifespans while doing far less to improve health in later life. Octogenarian boomers face decades of frailty and dementia; suicide rates among the aged have jumped. Health care costs are even more burdensome than in Small Change, increasing budget turmoil and intergenerational tension. 
Live Long and Prosper. Information technology has revolutionized health care while reducing its costs, in this 2030 scenario. Octogenarians remain active, thanks partly to what Garreau calls “Google Medicine,” a toaster-sized home appliance that analyzes spit samples to detect health changes. The first person who will live robustly to 150 is entering adulthood. Hospitals have become primarily for the less affluent, and tech-driven obsolescence threatens many health care institutions. 
Immortality. In his last scenario, Garreau raised the possibility of lifespans of indefinite duration. “Immortality is not as crazy as it sounds,” he wrote. Sufficient tech advances could boost life expectancy by one year each year, and “you have something that looks like immortality for some people.” Boomer octogenarians in 2030 have “too many hard miles on their chassis” to fully benefit, but younger people may have trouble imagining the onetime prevalence of sickness and death.
Whole thing here. My review of Garreau's Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human is here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Superintelligence, simulations, etc.

There's an interesting review of Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies at the website of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, by piero scaruffi (whose name appears in lower case). I haven't read Bostrom's book, though I have been keeping tabs on the subject (see here and here) and found scaruffi's skeptical take on the dangers of AI intriguing. I then went to scaruffi's own site, and from now I will no longer worry, as I sometimes have, that my own blog incorporates an unduly broad range of interests; it's nothing compared to scaruffi, and I say that respectfully.

On another Bostrom-related note, I was a bit disappointed by Seth Shostak's piece "Is Life an Illusion?" which is an uncritical take on Bostrom's ideas about living in a simulation. I would've expected Shostak, who's spent decades contemplating probabilities involving alien life, to have something more sophisticated to say about efforts to calculate whether we are characters in a computer game. Years ago, I expressed some reasons for skepticism about that subject, which strike me as still making sense. (I don't, however, claim to be up to date on the technical debate over the simulation argument, and I see that Bostrom in 2011 co-wrote a "patch" for his original case.)

UPDATE: "Elon Musk: Robots Could Delete Humans Like Spam." Strikes me as not a compelling analogy, given how difficult it is to get rid of spam.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Cosmic books

Current reading: The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities, by Caleb Scharf. So far it's quite interesting, and I have high expectations based on Scharf's work that I've read previously.

I also recently ordered and received Lee Billings' Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, something I ought to have done a year ago and was reminded to do now by Billings' winning of a 2014 AIP Science Communications Award.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Clinton history travels

Here are my son DeWitt and my wife Brooke at Fort Montgomery, in upstate new York, today, watching a reenactment of the battle where their direct ancestor James Clinton and his brother George Clinton fought against their distant relative Henry Clinton. Grant Miller, manager of the Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, is narrating the action.

Fort Montgomery 10-5-14
And back in August we visited the Syracuse area, where I continued my Erie Canal book research. Dan Ward, curator at the Erie Canal Museum, showed us around the museum as well as Camillus Erie Canal Park, which has impressive remnants of Clinton's Ditch as well as the Enlarged Canal. We also made a preliminary visit to the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum.

DeWitt Clinton portrayal at Erie Canal Museum

Sign at Camillus Park
1842 Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct, restored in Camillus Park
Dry dock at Chittenango

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Climate-related readings

Recommended: a Bloomberg View series of editorials on carbon taxes, summarized here: "Doubt Climate Change? Then Support Carbon Taxes." Also recommended: "How to love uncertainty in climate science," by Tamsin Edwards, a particle physicist turned climate scientist. And: "The Left vs. the Climate," by Will Boisvert, at The Breakthrough (published by the Breakthrough Institute). Also see: "The Musk Family Plan for Transforming the World's Energy," by Christopher Mims at WSJ.

We're in the early stages of the long-term climate politics turnaround I predicted some months ago. That's when the technological and market-oriented measures that would actually reduce climate risks become anathematized by the left as too large-scale and industrial, and are picked up--albeit all too hesitantly and reluctantly--by the right; I began scribbling out how an astute GOP politician might talk about all this a few years ago at the often-ahead-of-its-time FrumForum.

NJ Senate race revisited

Some time ago, I mentioned Jeffrey's Bell's emergence as GOP Senate candidate in New Jersey, expressing approval of his credentials as policy wonk but wariness of his apparent intention to advocate a gold standard and make it the centerpiece of his campaign.

He has indeed done so, as evidenced by this WSJ piece, "Jeff Bell Takes on Cory Booker and the Fed." If we were living in a time of high and rising inflation, such as the 1970s, I could understand the focus on extremely tight money and how to impose a straitjacket that could keep policy tight. Given that this bears no resemblance to the current situation, I can only see it as an example of a time warp in the thinking of some conservatives and free-market types. However, I take issue with Cory Booker's riposte that Bell "wants to take us back to the '70s," when as the same article points out the last vestige of the gold standard was abandoned in 1971.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Expecting more of Neil deGrasse Tyson [updated]

I'm a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and plan to be in the audience watching him speak at a conference in November. In the conflict of "conservatives vs.nerds," in which he is an extremely high-profile representative of the latter, I have stated my overall sympathy for the nerds. With regard to many of the recent complaints, mainly emanating from The Federalist, about inaccuracies by Tyson, I find most of the allegations of minor significance (about headlines involving averages, or exact numbers of grams discussed in some jury duty). But Tyson's evidently fake story about a supposed George W. Bush quote in 9/11's aftermath requires an explanation and, if it is fake as it strongly seems to be, an apology. Tyson's silence on this matter so far should be discouraging to anyone who admires him.

UPDATE: The video of the Bush story.

UPDATE 9/25: A crock of a piece by John Aziz at The Week: "Earth to climate-change deniers: Neil deGrasse Tyson's errors won't help you." Includes this gem of a "to be sure" statement:
To be sure, science is about facts, and a public advocate for science shouldn't play fast and loose with the facts, even in the interests of a snappy presentation. This will inevitably invite criticism. Tyson needs to check carefully, in the future, that the quotes in his anecdotes are factual and not a figment of his imagination. And he should apologize to those who he has misquoted.
Me: How nice. Followed immediately by this:
But at the same time, it should be said that none of Tyson's errors amount to methodological or factual errors in published scientific papers.
Me: It should be said! And what a fantastically low standard for well-known scientists to follow! And how does Aziz know that Tyson's Bush story was an "error" as opposed to a deliberate fabrication, especially when Tyson won't address it? A defense like this makes the defended look worse.

UPDATE 1:06 PM: And I just noticed this tweet from Aziz:

Which accentuates my view that Aziz's article is disingenuous posturing. When you "concede" something by wrapping it in an attack on the critics you're supposedly conceding to, and trying to downplay the significance of what you're conceding, you are engaging in the empty tribalism that passes for so much of political discourse these days.

UPDATE 9/28: An admission of error, to a degree, by Tyson, made in the comments of two Facebook posts. He says he "transposed" the quote from just after 9/11 to after the shuttle Columbia disaster. He doesn't mention that he changed the wording of the quote as well as its context and gave it a meaning it did not have. But it looks like this is far as he's going to go. A disappointing performance. Case closed.

UPDATE 10/2: Tyson's statement on this matter. While it still seems like an attempt to downplay it, there is an apology in there. It'll do.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Space mining update

Recommended: "Mining in the Last Frontier," by Glenn Reynolds, about a bill now under consideration, known as the Asteroids Act. Excerpts:
The Asteroids Act is short and simple. After instructing the president and all agencies of the U.S. government to use their powers to facilitate space exploration and exploitation, it provides that "Any resources obtained in outer space from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of federal law." In other words, if you mine it, you own it.
Things here on Earth aren't going so well at the moment, but we're actually in the midst of tremendous progress — most of it by private companies — with regard to human activity in outer space. The Asteroids Act is a significant step in taking things to the next level. I hope that Congress passes it.
Me: Here's hoping. I've been interested in this sort of thing for a long time, since well before this Reason piece I wrote in 1998. Sooner or later some broader framework will be needed (as I sketched out in Reason), when it comes time for, say, building hotels on the moon or other things that are not just about extraction and asteroids. Still, the Asteroids Act is a good step in the right direction (up).

UPDATE: For a different perspective (though not specifically about the Asteroids Act), see "Moon First—Mine the Asteroids Later," by Paul D. Spudis.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mideast hall of mirrors (updated)

Who knows if anything the Iranian government is saying is true? As in this:
Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking on Iranian state television, said his government privately refused American requests for cooperation against the Islamic State group, warning that another U.S. incursion would result "in the same problems they faced in Iraq in the past 10 years."
Or, to get it more directly:
If true, it's a failure for U.S. diplomacy, but also not very smart on the part of the Iranians. Not just because ISIS poses an obvious threat to Iran's interests, but because there's a whole other war waiting to happen sooner or later, and here was a chance to help avert it. Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry argued a few days ago that war between Iran and Israel is all but inevitable (and put the blame largely on the Obama administration, for its actions in Libya that showed that giving up your WMD is a mistake).

I don't tend to believe in things being "all but inevitable" but certainly that Israel-Iran war scenario is only made more likely by Iranian unwillingness to cooperate even against a common, profoundly evil enemy. It undercuts the "rational actor" theory that's offered for not worrying too much about Iranian nukes. Then again, who knows if anything the Iranian government is saying is true?

UPDATE 9/18: Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad, speaking in New York yesterday. I've only had time to watch part of it so far, and will watch more later.

UPDATE: Watched much of it, including the end. Many interesting things, but the ending wasn't particularly in keeping with his "new thinking" theme:

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The climate-foreign policy nexus [updated]

Here's some dreary news:
Levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose at a record-shattering pace last year, a new report shows, a surge that surprised scientists and spurred fears of an accelerated warming of the planet in decades to come. 
Concentrations of nearly all the major greenhouse gases reached historic highs in 2013, reflecting ever-rising emissions from automobiles and smokestacks but also, scientists believe, a diminishing ability of the world’s oceans and plant life to soak up the excess carbon put into the atmosphere by humans, according to data released early Tuesday by the United Nations’ meteorological advisory body.
Such information gets only a fraction of the attention it deserves, in no small part because many people have convinced themselves there's no problem. Amid the current international turmoil, climate change will probably get even less attention than it typically does. There is a tragic irony there, in that foreign policy problems and environmental problems are not unrelated; on the contrary, they are intimately connected by the nexus of fossil fuels.

Civilization's heavy reliance on fossil fuels is a key contributor to climate change, through the mechanism of the greenhouse effect--and at the same time is a key contributor to geopolitical trouble, through the mechanism of revenues to trouble-causing states and terrorist groups. Putin's Russia and socialist Venezuela are buoyed by fossil fuel revenues, as are numerous bad actors in the Middle East. (Fossil fuels also cause environmental and geopolitical problems in other ways, ranging from oil spills to the need to keep supply lines open by policing the Persian Gulf with aircraft carriers.)

Reducing fossil fuel reliance would make sense even if there were no climate change problem; and is an imperative given the climate issue. Lamentably, recognition of the interrelated nature of these problems is scant across the political spectrum. On the right, objection to supposed "alarmism" about the climate blinds many to fossil fuels' relevance to national-security threats that are otherwise perceived as pressing. On the left, environmental alarm is intense, but expressing concerns about fossil fuel revenues to malefactors tends to be avoided as so much saber-rattling. (The concern that climate change itself is a national security threat gets play instead, and while it is valid, it is by and large a longer-term consideration than what enemies are doing with fossil fuel revenues right now.)

Occasionally, there are hints of some concordance between "national security hawks" and "climate hawks," as they have been dubbed, but the friction of divergent world views has prevented anything like a meaningful coalition from developing. Such a coalition might press for a carbon tax and stepped-up renewable energy research, citing the full range of reasons such things make sense (including fiscal ones). Thirteen years after 9/11 and facing a new Middle East war, even as carbon continues to build up in the atmosphere and oceans, it's high time for such a coalition to take shape.

UPDATE: An interesting piece: "The Republican Party's Secret Stance on Climate Change."

UPDATE 9/10: Just came across this from a few days ago: “I don’t think we really want a commander-in-chief who’s battling climate change instead of terrorism.”-- Rand Paul. Note to self: Never vote for Rand Paul. UPDATE: All the more reason.

Foreign policy update

I read this Robert Kagan piece "America's Dangerous Aversion to Conflict" with initial interest, followed by growing boredom. Analogies to the 1930s are such a stock part of conservative foreign policy rhetoric that it's a wonder there's no app for them. Some wording about Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy being "fatalistic" also struck a tinny note. (That policy was in fact quite activist and creative, which is basically the opposite of fatalistic.) I recently expressed my disagreements with the ill-considered and poorly argued non-interventionism at Reason, but Kagan's essay is a good reminder that neoconservatism has its own formidable blinkers, as Jacob Heilbrunn points out.

What the U.S. needs is to be smarter than its enemies, or at least not manifestly dumber, and to have what's sometimes called, a bit pretentiously, "grand strategy." That strategy should include, sometimes, making common cause with enemies, against worse or more pressing enemies, and thus making judgments about which enemies can potentially be given a more benevolent status. Insofar as the U.S. is now working with Iran, or will do so, that reflects a belated recognition that sometimes governments that hate each other still have reason to work together. In the aftermath of 9/11, that recognition went by the wayside, with unfortunate consequences spilling down to the present.

Inasmuch as we do live in a period remotely similar to the 1930s, that's all the more reason why we need to be building up alliances, de facto and de jure, including in some cases with traditional enemies. If there's anything that's "fatalistic," it's assuming that this can't be done.

UPDATE: "Obama Should Play Nixon and Go to Iran."

UPDATE: "2014 Is Not 1931," though it is true, as has been noted, that Chamberlain wasn't PM in 1931 either.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Contemplating foreign policy at Reason

I've been reading the non-interventionists at Reason magazine, trying to assess what their preferred non-interventionist foreign policy would actually consist of. Here's Sheldon Richman: "Let's Have Some Honesty and Realism at the NATO Conference," explaining that the fault for the Ukraine crisis belongs to the U.S. and the West for having expanded NATO years ago, and concluding:
Yet another manufactured crisis — costing over 2,000 lives. It could be brought to a speedy end if Barack Obama would give the word.
Me: What word? What is Richman asking Obama to do? It's only implied, but apparently the answer is to expel Eastern European countries from NATO. Or is it to disband NATO altogether? (The latter would effectively follow from the former at this point anyway.) And if that means more countries would fall under the domination of an aggressive dictatorship, we should be willing to accept that, because--libertarianism. But how come a piece demanding honesty avoids saying any of that?

Also, here's Jacob Sullum complaining--rightly--that Rand Paul has flip-flopped on confronting ISIS. True enough, and one of the many dispiriting things about a Rand Paul presidency would be watching him engage in endless cartwheels between his father's positions (on domestic and foreign policy alike) and political expediency or, I would argue in some cases, sanity. Sullum states plaintively: "Paul still has not explained why the problem of ISIS is one the U.S. has to solve."

What exactly would have been involved in the U.S. deciding it wasn't going to participate in a response to that problem? (It's a strawman to complain the U.S. is trying to solve that problem singlehandedly, though admittedly some hawkish rhetoric plays into that misconception.) Let's see. In early August, the U.S. could have done nothing to help the Yazidis, beseiged and starving on a mountaintop, or to arm the Kurds, whom ISIS was attacking, or to prevent ISIS from controlling the Mosul Dam (and breaking it to cause a massive flood if they so chose). Humanitarian disaster on a vast and growing scale? Not our problem, because--libertarianism.

If that policy had been followed, perhaps ISIS would've been too busy slaughtering its local enemies to turn its attention to the U.S. anytime soon. Perhaps they would have refrained from murdering two U.S. journalists who were already in its captivity. Why is murdering Americans even a casus belli?, Sullum asks. I would suggest that every U.S. administration since that of George Washington, who warned against "entangling alliances," would regard it as such, though it is true that not every murder by some despicable group begets a U.S. military response. Some contextual thinking is required.

In this case, for example, we are talking about a terrorist group and rapidly growing self-declared state that is an even more brutal offshoot of a terrorist group that has already attacked the U.S.; and which controls a large swath of territory and has major funding, including oil revenues; and exerts an ideological appeal over alienated Western thugs and sociopaths and attracts recruits with each battlefield success. Imagine if, say, in 1944 some new Nazi movement had arisen, dismissive of Hitler as not aggressive enough, and retaken the Germany-France borderland after our troops had moved through. Would that have been not our fight?

And here's Nick Gillespie a few days ago:
Despite the claims of hawks and ISIL itself, the terrorist group is hardly an existential threat to the West any more than al Qaeda was. It can and should be contained and squeezed down everywhere as much as possible (this is not something that mandates either an interventionist foreign policy or expansive security state at home).
Me: How do you contain them and squeeze them down? The non-interventionist way of doing that remains unclear to me. And if they're not an "existential threat," are they some other kind of threat? And if they become a larger threat--with say multiple cells in the U.S.--will we then be hearing it's too late to do anything about it?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Fossilized dinosaur eggs or pebble bed nuclear reactor left by aliens?

Contractors laying down drainage beside our house (which is in northern New Jersey and was probably built in the 1940s) dug up hundreds of white spheres, each approximately 3/4 inch diameter.

They are of hard material and not easy to break, though we did split one with a sledge hammer. They seem to be stone, all the way through.

Folks at the Bergen County Historical Society were kind enough to give me an opinion, based on a photo and description, that these are white marbles. What do you think, Ray Haupt?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Troubled world watch

I suggested last March, as I had before amid growing international problems, that the U.S. needs a "foreign policy president," i.e., someone who knows what he or she is doing in foreign policy and who is highly focused on the subject. By 2016, I predicted, the world would be troubled enough that foreign policy will be a crucial factor in the choice of the next president.

My friend and colleague Gil Weinreich weighed in that America's culture and its academic culture in particular make it unlikely that such a president, however needed, will emerge. (Note: As always, here on my blog, I write in a personal capacity and not as a representative of any employer.) I thought he had an interesting point, but in any case I underestimated just how fast and far the world situation would deteriorate. As snapshots of such, I recommend Gil's article "U.S. Sleeps as 9/11 Approaches" and Anne Applebaum's "War in Europe Is Not a Hysterical Idea."

In fact, I have not seen the world situation ever look as dangerous and bleak as it now does, which is to say in decades. I can pinpoint the moment that I first started paying some attention to what was happening in the world: I was a kid who regularly read the sports and comics page of the New York Daily News, and then one day out of curiosity I turned to the paper's front to see what was there; it was an article about the U.S. Embassy being evacuated in Saigon.

As any readers of this blog can attest, I have not been a fan of my own party, the Republicans, in recent years, and I have tended to be averse to knee-jerk GOP criticism of President Obama. I was put off some days ago by William Kristol's complaint that Obama was doing "nothing" about ISIS when in fact Obama had ordered a bombing campaign against that metastasizing group of murderers and scum. However, in light of the vacillating and inept behavior of the president and administration in recent days (see here and here), on top of previous vacillation and ineptitude, it is evident to me that it's not just some spate of bad luck that has made the Obama second term a foreign-policy nightmare.

There can be little certainty about how things would have gone if something else had been done at some point in the past. It is an open question to me as to whether the situation in Iraq would have been better if the U.S. had negotiated an agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay in Iraq (how many troops? And would their presence have meant more--or possibly less--leverage over what happens there?). Arming the Kurds and working closely with them, our most reliable allies in Iraq, seems to me a key element of what was needed, and is very belatedly happening.

Moreover, here is a consideration that should have been obvious: Once you start bombing somebody, especially vicious terrorists such as ISIS, you don't then revert to your nuanced deliberations and take the pressure off. Obama's failure to kill those bastards on both sides of the Syria-Iraq non-border, and to do it fast and relentlessly, was a misstep that will have ample opportunity to evolve into a great tragedy. The lesson should have been that if you join those thugs, there will very soon be nothing left of you. This president, it is clear, acts when circumstances force his hand. May circumstances do so, now.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Glamour update

Some time ago, I reviewed Virginia Postrel's The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion. In the current issue of Research magazine, I interview Virginia on related topics for a Wall Street audience.

Monday, August 18, 2014

GOP future possibilities

A terrific article by David Frum in Foreign Affairs: "Crashing the Party: Why the GOP Must Modernize to Win." Read the whole thing if you're interested in U.S. politics and, especially, a Republican contemplating the future of your party. Excerpt:
Any aspiring center-right party hoping to succeed today must match its core message of limited government and low taxes with an equal commitment to be culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible. In the United States, with all its global responsibilities, there is an additional necessary component: a commitment to U.S. primacy that is unapologetic yet not bellicose. The passage of time will help Republicans get from here to there, bringing new generations to the stage and removing others with outdated ideas. Repeated defeat administers its own harsh lessons. But most of all, new circumstances will pose new challenges -- and open up new possibilities.
As David later points out, in a paragraph that opens with "Conservatism should be thriving in the United States" and lists several Obama administration failings:
Instead of market mechanisms to deal with climate change, the Obama administration has ordered up a new system of bureaucratic regulation of carbon emissions.
Me: Speaking of new possibilities, there would be, in Obama climate policy, a suitable target for the GOP if the party had not become so invested in denying there's a climate problem in the first place. Perhaps more Republicans will start listening to Eli Lehrer, whose advocacy of a carbon tax is the subject of a savvy Bloomberg View piece by Christopher Flavelle. Otherwise, we'll just have to see if the coming Naomi Klein phase of the climate debate helps center-right types define themselves against the hard left, or just gives hard-right types an excuse to continue dismissing the whole subject.

In any case, I highly recommend Frum's piece, including an apt point about Bob Dole's 1996 rhetoric.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Climate minus capitalism

Every once in a while I think there's some prospect that a reasonable degree of consensus will form on climate policy such that effective action can be taken. Such action, in my view, likely would consist of some combination of a carbon tax (accompanied by cuts in other taxes, but not necessarily revenue-neutral) and (partly as a consequence of that tax) stepped-up public and private research and development of advanced technologies that would reduce or counteract greenhouse gas emissions. Further, a combination of taxes on carbon-intensive imports, and international competition to be at the forefront of profitable new technologies, would spur international action along similar lines, in my hopeful vision.

Every once in a while I see signs that conservative and libertarian circles that have resisted such ideas are coming around to the imperative of taking action on climate change, as with the Energy and Enterprise Initiative and the Risky Business project. Resistance to climate solutions and to acknowledgement of human-caused climate change as a problem, is a prime reason why have I been a disaffected escapee from conservative and libertarian circles in recent years. Looking ahead, I have considered the possibility that climate politics will undergo a shift whereby the right is more willing to take action (and the left possibly becomes less willing to do so, though in my optimistic view I hope that reluctance can be overcome) as such action comes to include large-scale energy technologies and possibly geo-engineering.

But lest I get too optimistic, there's always some counter-evidence to suggest that human folly and ideology will persist far too long and far too strongly to enable the climate problem to be addressed with even a minimum of adequacy. Often, such counter-evidence comes from the right, but sometimes it comes from the left. Case in point is this post, "Everything Changes," by D.R. Tucker, which anticipates an upcoming book by Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Klein apparently argues, as her subtitle suggests, that there is a fundamental incompatibility between capitalism (or even more fundamentally, economic growth) and sound climate policy, and Tucker is excited to see her impact on the debate, with Klein set against people like Henry Paulson, Bob Inglis and Paul Krugman, who all take what we may call a "compatibilist" view. Tucker:
The question of whether the climate crisis can be resolved by fixing flaws in capitalism or fixing the flaw of capitalism is the most compelling political, ecological and economic question of our time. Only a debate between Klein and an advocate of the Krugman/Paulson/Inglis view can provide an answer. That debate will indeed change everything. 
Me: The "incompatibilist" view that to avoid climate disaster we must scrap capitalism and economic growth is not new (see for example this 2012 Grist post) but it is likely that Naomi Klein's book will give it a visibility it has not had previously. Probably this in turn will have some effect of hardening right-wing opposition to climate action on such grounds as "look, the greens have now acknowledged that their aim is to impose socialism and/or a reversion to a pre-industrial society without refrigerators."

Leaving aside its unfortunate impact on climate messaging, the deeper problem with the incompatibilist view is that it's wrong. It is wrong because it fails to see the disastrous record that non-capitalist and low-or-no-growth societies have compiled over the decades, centuries and millennia in managing their environmental impacts, from mammoth hunters in the Pleistocene to the Soviet treatment of the Aral Sea. It is wrong because it fails to take into account the human misery that would be involved in a deliberate suppression of economic growth, and how such a suppression would undercut prospects for remediation or adaptation in the face of climate change. (See Bangladesh.) It is wrong for thinking that a no-growth regime could be imposed by anything short of totalitarian methods and that it wouldn't ultimately be overthrown. (See Nicolae Ceaușescu.)

On a brighter note, the comments under Tucker's piece suggest that the putative incompatibilist Klein view and Tucker's provisional enthusiasm for it generated some healthy skepticism among readers at the liberal Washington Monthly, so maybe my optimism isn't misplaced after all.

Film note: The Unknown Known

This was a notably disappointing movie. Errol Morris thought he could make another The Fog of War and instead he got hours of Donald Rumsfeld saying basically nothing.

It's hard to imagine what's in the many hours of footage Morris didn't use. The filmmaker has said that he knew more about the decision to invade Iraq before interviewing Rumsfeld than after, which strikes me as plausible. I had a review of a worthwhile book about Rumsfeld here.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Film note: Captain Phillips

Got around to watching Captain Phillips, which had been on the list for some time.


I found it impressive, though I was wondering about historical accuracy. Afterwards, I was struck by the negativity of this New York Post article "Crew members: ‘Captain Phillips’ is one big lie." This History vs Hollywood piece helps put that in somewhat better perspective; besides the good casting (a lot of these people look like the actors), it seems that the film presented a reasonable picture of what happened, even if it underplayed some of the captain's failings and overplayed his virtues. Anyway, Somali pirates in reality seem to have jumped the shark, so fortunately there may not be too much material for future movies in this vein.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Libertarian moment again [updated]

A long and reasonably interesting piece in the NYT: "Has the Libertarian Moment Finally Arrived?" I tend to doubt it, and have written on the subject from the standpoint of a fairly disaffected onetime more-or-less adherent. See, in particular, "How Did Libertarians Lose Their Way?" and also "Libertarian Revolution? Not Exactly," along with David Frum's "Were the Founders Libertarians?" I have quite a few disagreements with the various strands of libertarianism today, and anticipations of a "libertarian moment" remind me of the old saying about nuclear fusion; that it's "the energy of the future--and always will be."

UPDATE: This Salon rejoinder "Ron Paul’s no Nirvana, and this isn’t the 'Libertarian Moment'" makes apt points that economic insecurity is not conducive to libertarianism and that there's no sense conflating libertarianism with disenchantment toward the two parties. Surely, some people are fed up with the Republicans because they don't like some of the more libertarian-friendly aspects of the GOP: the yearning for "hard money," for instance, or belief in making Kansas bloom with tax cuts.

UPDATE 2: Also see Chait, "No, America Is Not Turning Libertarian," which includes a dead-on rewriting of the original article's description of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

UPDATE 3: To get a sense of the repetitive and clichéd nature of "libertarian moment" prognostications, I recommend Googling "libertarian moment."

UPDATE 8/10/14: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then … well, I don't know that happens then. Here's Nick Gillespie on why non-libertarians shouldn't scoff:
It's because something new and different is in the air. You can see it in the bizarre, black-swan cashiering of politicians as varied as former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the sitting Democratic governor of Hawaii (who just lost his primary). You can see it in historically low ratings not just for Congress as an institution but in the way people feel about their own representatives. Mostly, though, you can see it in the way people are living their lives beyond the puny, zero-sum scrum of politics, where people as different as Glenn Beck and Glenn Greenwald are building new forms of media and storytelling and community. Whatever else you can say about politics as bloodsport, Obama sucking even worse than Bush, etc., this much is true: People are also getting on with their lives and building new businessess, communities, and worlds in ways that are pretty damn amazing.
Me: I am highly averse to my congressman, Rep. Scott Garrett, who was an enthusiast of debt-default confrontation. There's no clear basis for assuming that if people don't like their representatives, it's because the representatives are insufficiently libertarian. In my case with Garrett, the final straw was more the opposite. I don't admire either Glenn Beck or Glenn Greenwald, but their inclusion here strikes me as suggesting that a very wide range of phenomena are being adduced as evidence for a libertarian moment or era or whatever. Also, saying there's something "in the air" makes me snort.

UPDATE 8/11/14: I'll give the final words in this post to David Frum: "Why the 'Libertarian Moment' Isn't Really Happening." An excerpt:
Despite the self-flattering claims of libertarians, the Republicans' post-2009 libertarian turn is not a response to voter demand. The areas where the voting public has moved furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction—gay rights, for example—have been the areas where Republicans have moved slowest and most reluctantly. The areas where the voting public most resists libertarian ideas—such as social benefits—are precisely the areas where the GOP has swung furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction.

Nor is it the strength and truth of libertarian ideas that explains their current vogue within the Republican Party. Libertarians have been most influential inside the GOP precisely where they have been—and continue to be—most blatantly wrong, such as when they predicted that the cheap money policies of the Federal Reserve would incite hyperinflation or that the United States teetered on the precipice of a debt crisis.
 And another:
Like all political movements, libertarianism binds together many divergent strands. It synthesizes the classical liberalism of the 1860s with the human-potential movement of the 1960s. It joins elegant economic theory to the primitive insistence that only metal can be money. It mingles nostalgia for the vanished American frontier with fantasies drawn from science fiction. It offers three cheers both for thrift, sobriety, and bourgeois self-control and three more for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.  It invokes the highest ideals of American constitutionalism—and is itself invoked by the most radical critics of the American state and nation, from neo-Confederates to 9/11 Truthers.
Me: I could not agree more. You can't take the wheat with the chaff when the chaff has spread out of control. When I saw the continued and even stepped-up libertarian insistence on a gold standard in recent years in economic conditions that gave no indication whatsoever of the desirability of a gold standard, I knew that I was watching an ideology that had become divorced from "epistemological humility."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Odds and ends: AI, ISIS, DREAMers

Posting will continue to be light. This is a busy summer. A few items I've found interesting:

-- "Elon Musk Is More Dangerous Than AI." A fascinating piece in h+ magazine. It includes this cogent point:
Reality check: A machine that hunts and kills humans in large numbers wouldn’t need to be more intelligent than an insect. And yes it would be super dangerous to make such machines especially if we add in the idea of self replication or self manufacture. Imagine an insect like killing machine that can build copies of itself from raw materials or repair itself from the spare parts of its fallen comrades. But notice that the relative intelligence or lack thereof has little to do with the danger of such a system. It is dangerous because it has the ability to kill you and is designed to do so. The fact that this machine can’t play chess, converse in English, or pass a Turing Test doesn’t change anything about its ability to kill.
Me: For some background on this overall subject, see my recent piece "Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan?"

-- "Will the U.S. Help the Kurds Fight ISIS?" and "To fight the Islamic state, Kurdish and Iraqi forces need expedited aid." This is a moment when the deliberative, temporizing, conciliate-your-enemies-and-sell-out-your-friends approach to foreign policy is particularly inappropriate.

-- "Rep. Steve King Grabs Latina Woman's Wrist: 'You're Very Good At English' (VIDEO)," at TPM.  I have little sympathy for anti-immigration sentiment in the GOP (which is still my party, by the way) and I'm not a fan of either Steve King or Rand Paul, who in the latter case made headlines by rushing away at the first sign of confrontation with a couple of "DREAMer" activists. But reading the headline above and then watching the video reminds me of the smug tendentiousness of outfits like TPM. The Latina woman, handing King a business card and inviting him to rip it up, was not there for any kind of reasoned discourse but rather to goad him into an angry response on camera. Instead, he sought, vainly, to have a conversation with her. As for Paul, I can't blame him for leaving as he did.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Interstellar (nerd movie)

I noted this upcoming movie with anticipation before. After seeing the latest trailer, my expectations have gotten yet higher that it's going to be good.

Conservatives vs nerds [updated]

Here's a fight between two camps that I've been part of over the years. I refer to conservatives vs nerds, as exemplified in Charles C.W. Cooke's National Review piece "Smarter Than Thou," and Andrew Leonard's Salon rejoinder "National Review declares war against the nerds." Having written for National Review and various other conservative (and libertarian) magazines, I gradually became a centrist in recent years. Having freelanced at Scientific American and long written and edited on science, and having watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Neil DeGrasse Tyson's version, both with overall approval, I am indisputably a nerd, and that is a category that is hard to shed.

There's some truth to Cooke's complaints. The nerds do tend to assume that their science and their politics mesh more seamlessly than they do--that their politics are enlightened, as they see it, because of the same critical thinking that prompts scientists to rely on evidence and reject dogma; that liberal or progressive ideas are largely a function of intelligence and knowledge; and that science denialism is so manifestly a right-wing thing that any manifestation of it on the left is a minor mote by comparison.

But...I've spent a lot of time in recent years documenting how conservatives have played into the liberal stereotype of them as being dumb denialists in recent years. I won't rehearse all that here. See this and this and this, for starters.

Moreover, look at what Cooke identifies as one of the two distinguishing features of nerd culture: "the belief that one can discover all of the secrets of human experience through differential equations" (the other being the belief that they're smarter than everybody else) and then head over to this noteworthy interview of physicist George Ellis by John Horgan at Scientific American: "Physicist George Ellis Knocks Physicists for Knocking Philosophy, Falsification, Free Will." It's noteworthy above all because Ellis has many interesting things to say, but also because he's saying them at Scientific American, which I think one can fairly locate at close to the epicenter of nerd culture.

Ellis is making some of the same sorts of complaints that Cooke is--about what's sometimes called "scientism," a tendency to extrapolate scientific ideas and techniques beyond their applicability and to dismiss philosophy and other extra-scientific thinking as extraneous or obsolete. Surely, that's going to upset the sensibilities of anyone holding "the belief that one can discover all of the secrets of human experience through differential equations"--and yet there it is at Scientific American. Perhaps, nerd culture does have a considerable self-critical aspect to it, and thus potential for growth and change.

Can the same be said of the conservative movement at this time? It has had its internal critics, but they've largely become external in recent years, like me, or they speak sotto voce. The nerd culture has its flaws, but the conservative movement in its present state is ill-positioned to critique them.

UPDATE 8/1: Perusing the comments to Cooke's piece, I saw one fact checking point (I'm disappointed at not having caught it myself): Cooke describes Tyson as "director of the Hayden Planetarium at the New York Science Museum," which is incorrect and nonexistent. [Later: they fixed it.]

UPDATE 8/4:  A curious post by Ezra Klein at Vox: "Revenge of the conservative nerds." It reads like the opening of an interesting article, and then just ends. (I looked for the "next page" link after reading the line "His World of Warcraft guild could probably crush Obama's.")

One more UPDATE 8/4: Noah Smith:  "Cooke and the empire he serves are losing their battle against the advancing nerds, but they’re doing collateral damage as they retreat."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Cabinet memoirs [updated]

I mentioned recently that I was reading Hillary Clinton's Hard ChoicesContrary to my initial perception, it's not a dull book, even if it does have the caution one might expect of someone who's likely to run for president imminently. If I had been on her team of writers, I would have angled for something a bit more provocative, but nonetheless it's a worthwhile look at how a broad range of foreign policy issues developed during her time at the State Department. That the world is in such turmoil now cuts both ways in my assessment of her; clearly, for instance, the "reset" with Russia didn't achieve much; and some problems that have hit the headlines lately, such as the ascendancy of gangs in Central America, surely were festering under her watch. On the other hand, that things got worse after she stepped down from State suggests she was doing some things right.

Robert Gates' Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War has of course a different tone, coming from someone who seems to have no interest in further public employment, and his less diplomatic view of Washington workings makes for an interesting contrast with Clinton's book. Reading her book inspired me to turn to his, which I did while often cross-referencing between the two to see how they handled the same people and events differently. One noteworthy passage is his high praise of her, which may net her some votes among swing voters. As one might expect, Gates was highly focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during his tenure; indeed, he was critical of people in the Pentagon who suffered from "next-war-itis." That's understandable, and though Gates doesn't say so, Donald Rumsfeld showed some of the dangers of being too focused on what's ahead over what's here. Still, there's an obvious need for some balance of crisis management and advance planning, and this very interesting book would have benefitted from more discussion of where things are heading.

I ought to make it a trifecta by reading No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, especially given my suggestions that Condoleezza Rice just might have a step up or two yet to make in the career ladder. If and when I get around to that, I will report back.

UPDATE 7/28: I've now read Rice's biography of her pre-Bush administration years  Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family and started on No Higher Honor. I'll write something about both of those down the road.

UPDATE 7/30: Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family is certainly an interesting story; it was a good choice to tell her pre-Bush life story in the context of family. At times, the tone is a bit detached; in the discussion of 1963 strife in segregated Birmingham, I suspect that is because she was too young and/or too traumatized to remember it well. The step-by-step look at her rapid career ascent through 2000 is particularly striking when set against the backdrop of her early childhood.

I've now read about 100 pages of the 700-page-long No Higher Honor, going through 9/11 and its immediate aftermath. It's somber reading, and partly because one sees Bush administration mistakes as they form. In the bureaucratic fights described, my sympathies are very much with Rice and Powell, though that is largely retrospective wisdom. See by contrast this piece I wrote in 2003, which reads rather poorly in 2014. Besides war matters, her discussion of the Kyoto protocol and how the administration failed to provide an alternative response to climate change--without seeming to give it much thought--is disheartening. That she knows it was a blunder is to her credit.