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?