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.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

South Dakota: uncrowded splendor

Living in the most densely populated state makes one all the more appreciative upon getting to the fourth-least densely populated: South Dakota.

Not New Jersey.

A week-long trip in the Black Hills, centered on a cousin's wedding, enabled visits to many and diverse attractions, including Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, as well as horseback riding and a jeep safari to see bison in Custer State Park.

Bison in Custer State Park.

Wind Cave.

Oglala Lakota grass dancer at Crazy Horse Memorial.

If you're in the area, also be sure to see Brulé, an excellent Native American music group that performs with a dance troupe.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Summer reading list

I've acquired the following books lately (some as review copies) and have found time to read parts of some of them, as discussed below. All conclusions are tentative, as I haven't completely read through any of them.

Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology, and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics, by Mark Buchanan. This is by a physicist and science writer, who writes at Bloomberg View and elsewhere. His critique of economics is caustic; I suspect a book on this topic written before the financial crisis would've had a more detached tone. He argues economists place too much confidence in markets being in equilibrium, giving too little weight to the causes and likelihood of crises. That seems plausible to me. Other than a Hyman Minsky book I read at some point in college, I don't recall delving much into crises, bubbles and meltdowns as an economics major in the 1980s.

Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, by McKenzie Funk. I skipped to the last part of this book, which has a fascinating discussion of geoengineering, a subject I have been following with growing interest. I was unaware, or at best dimly aware, of the company Intellectual Ventures' focus on the subject, which evidently got a fair amount of publicity a few years ago. On a related note, see this piece by my ex-Sciam colleague David Biello on "Engineering the ocean."

 The System Worked: How the World Stopped Another Great Depression, by Daniel W. Drezner. I have not had a chance to read enough of this yet to have even a tentative response. I've found Drezner often interesting as a blogger over the years.

Hard Choices, by Hillary Rodham Clinton. As I've become more of a centrist, the likelihood has grown that someday I would read a book by Hillary Clinton, and not just view it through the filter of the conservative press. I also think the growing disarray of Obama foreign policy in the past year and a half is a point in her favor, as it suggests she was helping hold things together until then. However, I have only read the first chapter (in which she agrees to join the "team of rivals") and saw some worrying signs that this is going to be a very cautious, and therefore dull, book; hope I'm wrong.

Note: As usual with this blog, the book links are to Amazon, and potentially could generate some share of revenues for me from transactions that occur after readers click through on them.