Archive for January 2010

Thursday Brain Candy: In Flight Refueling Video of Surpassing Coolness

January 14, 2010

Don’t say I don’t think of you:

(I particularly like the scene beginning at :48)

Manzi Responds — and So do I

January 13, 2010

Jim Manzi, with impressive speed and more civility than I displayed in my original post, writes to object to my treatment of some of his remarks in his latest blog flurry.

In the comment thread to that post, he says:

Thanks for your detailed read of my article.

You say that:

“It sure is easy to make your case if you feel no compulsion to actually, you know, make it.”

The case I was trying to make in the article was (as you have included in your quote) that accepting that freer markets can drive faster growth “does not lead to the conclusion that we can or should continue on the deregulation-oriented path on which we find ourselves without considering the balancing consideration of social cohesion.”

You say that:

“The GOP approach to public life has not changed in a generation:  lower taxes, less regulation.  That’s it.”

(As an aside, I don’t speak for the GOP), but if this is meant to apply to my article, I think you ought to confront that 2 of the 4 recommendations I make are for: (1) re-regulating financial services along a moderninzed version of New Deal concepts, and (2) trying to pursue parent empowerment though competion within regulated public schools rather than trying to privatize them through vouchers.

Best regards,
Jim Manzi

Given his politesse, I thought it proper to respond here, rather than in a thread that readers might or might not see.

He notes, correctly, that in the second of the excerpts I took from his post, his parenthetical remark — “I…accept the advantages…” refers to proposals in the original  essay that sparked this whole food for two types of changes to our current regulatory regime — re-regulation of financial services and deregulation public education (in the context of his rejection of the alternative of private vouchers.

In that context, Mr Manzi objects that I criticize him inappropriately for his uncritical use of axioms instead of evidence, because despite that dependency he argues for a particular policy position seemingly antagonistic to his assumptions.

To be fair, there is something in that.  It shows that his beliefs are not wholly simplistic and doctrinaire: he at least admits the possiblity that there might be competing goods whose claims need to be balanced with his articles of faith, which is more sophisticated than a lot of the market fundamentalism out there — and I apologize for failing to note this aspect of his larger argument.

At the same time this misses my core point:  that while you can accept the notion that the world retains some complexity, as long as you retain your commitment to ideas as revelation, it becomes GIGO time:  garbage in produces garbage out.

So even if I agree with Mr. Manzi on the usefulness of an updated New Deal approach to financial regulation (and I might, though the devil is in details his original article does not address), and disagree with his characterization of the educational problem we face (though face one we certainly do), as long as this style of argument is accepted as serious policy thought, any position can and will be justified.

Not near good enough, at least not in the relentless fact-centered world I inhabit in my perch at a pretty good engineering school.

As to Mr. Manzi’s second complaint  that he does not speak for the GOP —  of course, that’s true.  But I never said he did.

Rather, I’ve picked him out for my screed below because I think he offers an interesting case study of the damage to be done by the intellectual sleight of hand used over and over again by those who more directly seek to advance the fortunes of the most failure-ridden American political organization of my lifetime.

That is:  I take him as the high-culture version of the kind of argument that asserts that any government action — lending with conditions to financial firms, say — is by definition socialism.  And as socialism is by definition bad….well you know how that goes.

Arguing from assumptions not in evidence is an old debater’s trick.  It can win a point or two.  It is not a substitute for serious thought, nor for actual engagement with the ground of reality needed to test ideas, nor in aid of the construction of policy that has a chance of actually doing some good on the ground.  It is in fact mere mental masturbation.

And while I have no problems with what adults do in the privacy of their own mental spaces — this is no way to propose to run a country.

Onward.  Back to the day job.

Image: Js. Gilray, “Uncorking Old Sherry” 1805

What’s wrong with right wing discourse in nutshell: Jim Manzi, pun intended dept.

January 13, 2010

Update: Manzi’s response to this post and my response to him can be read here.

Jim Manzi writes, in the midst of a blog fight with TNR’s Jonathan Chait that

the purpose of the article was not to provide an empirical demonstration that less regulated markets tend to provide faster economic growth under many conditions than more regulated markets….

and that

The purpose of the article was to describe why even though I (like many, many other people) accept the advantages that less regulated markets can provide, that this does not lead to the conclusion that we can or should continue on the deregulation-oriented path on which we find ourselves without considering the balancing consideration of social cohesion.

and that

I asserted (and also, once again, neither proved nor attempted to prove) that government direction of resources will tend to produce less economic growth and prosperity than freer markets under many conditions.

Emphasis all mine.

I think the problem speaks for itself.  It sure is easy to make your case if you feel no compulsion to actually, you know, make it.

Heaven forfend that a Serious Thinker™ actually must bother with the mucky business of gathering empirical evidence, nor come up with some reason to believe what even the most orthodox of market fundamentalists have come to dispute when it comes to de- or re-regulating markets.* And why not simply assert….hell whatever you want, which may be right and may be wrong, but will never, in the spotless perfection of such limpid thought, actually suffer the indignity of a confrontation with the real world?

This is why the GOP in its current state cannot be allowed to govern.  There is for them (are you listening, Massachusetts) no disaster so great that it can penetrate the armor of received wisdom that passes for the best of “conservative”  thought by our friends across the aisle.  If you don’t need to prove what you know is true, then there is no reason to check to see if the policies that flow from that “knowledge” actually, you know, work.

And in fact, that’s the point:  if the goal of political life is to achieve power, then policy thought, making life better in our country, is an impediment.  The GOP approach to public life has not changed in a generation:  lower taxes, less regulation.  That’s it.  But, as everyone with a pulse knows, we tried that for the Bush years. It left us, as we know, with a catastrophic economic crisis, an enormous transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich, wars dishonestly begun and incompetently managed and all the rest.

And that’s not going to change as long as folks like Jim Manzi are presented as the intellectual vanguard (author of “must reads” according to members of the Sullivan diaper brigade).

But in the real world, where choices of economic policy and regulatory decisions actually make a difference the kind of intellectual sloth demonstrated above — in the midst of an argument over whether one should take his ideas seriously, remember — is all you really need to know.  Manzi himself is a trivial thinker, if “thought” is the word to describe his channelling of received and comfortable wisdom.  And any intellectual movement that presents him as a leading member cannot be taken seriously.

And as a last note, consider this:

Yet the strategy of giving up and opting out of this international economic competition in order to focus on quality of life is simply not feasible for the United States. Europeans can get away with it only because they benefit from the external military protection America provides; we, however, have no similar guardian to turn to. We do not live in a Kantian world of perpetual commercial peace. Were America to retreat from global competition, sooner or later those who oppose our values would become strong enough to take away our wealth and freedom.

Note:  no ellipses, no cherrypicking.  This is the entire final paragraph of Manzi’s post, his credo, his words unmediated.  And boy are they dumb (and badly written).  Essentially, he seems to be saying, in the context of an attempt to claim that his fevered vision of “social democracy” will doom America, that specifically, it will constrain us in a putatively zero sum competition with China.  And that this competition demands military hegemony by us.  And that if we change our military posture, we will somehow abandon economic competition.  And that then those who oppose our values — in this context, I’m guessing this is a dog whistle for the Islamists — will come in and rob the store.

It doesn’t make any more sense now does it?

I’m not going to fisk this line by line — its assumptions not in evidence, its leaps of logic and frame and all the rest are (a) obvious and (b) just too damn tiresome to bother with.  I’ll note only two facts:  if you folks on the right with pretensions to intelligent debate want to defend this kind of drivel, go ahead.  And, just because I can’t resist making one factual observation (as horrific as that might be to the reality challenged Manzi and friends), I’d note that the whole point of assymetrical warfare — crotch bombing, e.g. — is that you fundamentally cannot “become strong enough to take away our wealth and freedom.”

Rather, and this is the point the bully-boys on the right perpetually miss, the more we wallow in our wealth and freedom, and the more we extend the ideas and responsibilities of freedom to our adversaries, the more we weaken those who oppose our values.**  But this is the crowd that would rather be Right than successful, so, should they regain power any time soon, I have no doubt that the decline of US power and influence will resume apace.

*See, e.g., this paragraph by Richard Posner, quoted by Robert Solow in the review linked above:

Some conservatives believe that the depression is the result of unwise government policies. I believe it is a market failure. The government’s myopia, passivity, and blunders played a critical role in allowing the recession to balloon into a depression, and so have several fortuitous factors. But without any government regulation of the financial industry, the economy would still, in all likelihood, be in a depression; what we have learned from the depression has shown that we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails. The movement to deregulate the financial industry went too far by exaggerating the resilience—the self-healing powers—of laissez-faire capitalism.

**See especially Aimai’s comment to this post.

Image:  Wendelin Rihel “Ship of Fools” 1549.

Chronicles of the Gutless, or When Did the GOP Become Such Cowards? Scott Brown edition

January 11, 2010

Just listened to the last debate in the MA Senate race and caught the exchanges between Scott Brown (R-Soundbite) and Martha Coakley (D).

Lots of stuff to notice — mostly that if I were a committed anti-abortion voter, I would  have no one to vote for in this election, as Scott Brown was for, against, and unsure of what he thought on the issue, especially around his proposal a couple of years back to permit hospital workers to refuse to inform rape victims of the existence of a morning-after contraceptive.  He sponsored the idea, then voted in favor of a bill requiring such information, and finally said he was for Roe v. Wade…or sort of.

I have no idea what he really thinks (and how he would vote), and I’m not sure he does either, but I do know that neither supporters nor opponents of women’s right to make their own medical decisions should have any warm and fuzzy feelings about the man right now.

I also liked the zinger that third party guy Joe Kennedy (obligatory no relation reference here) got off on Brown, noting how he’s against taxes now, but declined to support an anti-income tax measure in the run up to the last election.  I actually think that his was the right position at the time, but he sure is running as if he hopes no one remembers that moment of GOP apostasy now.

But all of that is just the secret sauce on top of what makes me think that Brown is truly in tune with the gutless heart of modern Republican “thought” (sic — ed).

That would be his stance on trying accused terrorists in civilian courts, as opposed to maintaining our version of a no-exit gulag beyond the reach of law.

He said, repeatedly, that he opposed trying such suspects in civilian court at — as he said over and over again — “taxpayer expense.”

The witlessness of that got me, of course:  these dudes aren’t a drain on the American public purse now, Mr. Brown?  You think that all those water bills and their three squares, Guantanamo style, come free?

But more deeply, when did the macho-er-than-thou “Mission Accomplished” GOP become so terrified of a handful of violent men (not to mention all those lumped in with the baddest guys who ended up there by accident, but that’s another story) that the mere thought that the rule of law might apply to their cases would send allegedly grown men and women reaching for their blankies?

That’s the rub, for me.  It has always seemed a fundamental mistake to dignify those who aim to blow up random children, women and men with the epithet “enemy” or “combatant.”

Our adversaries — at least  those who use overstuffed jockstraps as weapons — are not warriors. They are not soldiers to be dignified by any hint of equivalence with the men and women we have sent in harm’s way.  They are mere thugs, and they should be treated as such.

This isn’t mere semantics.

We have done nothing to serve the interests of al Qaeda or its kin as to acknowledge them to the world as enemies capable of inspiring fear.  What a recruiting tool, to enable some persuasive person to proclaim to young men that the world’s only superpower fears its “enemy combatants!”

Add to that the help we have given them as our leaders cowered and then masked their fear in the false bravado of torture.  Abu Ghraib was understood to be what it was: not an aberration, but an expression of the policy of the US government — driven by the fear evoked by the specter of global terror.

And now Scott Brown, with all the deep grasp of the issue that only service to Wrentham and posturing in the rump minority of the legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts can bring, comes along and tells us that torture, and indefinite detention, and the suspension of habeas corpus and all the rest remains the only way to deal with the existential threat posed by this bunch of thugs.

Maybe — if we were truly weak, if we were a  fragile, illegitimate rump state, dependent on every last dirty trick of security-apparats to push off  the throes of disintegration.

But we are not.  We are the United States of America, and if that means anything anymore, after all the broken faith of the Bush years, then it means we are capable of using the law to protect and to punish those who have earned the penalty.

Scott Brown doesn’t think so.  His 30 years of military service seem not to have endowed him with spine, or much of a sense of the Constitution he has sworn to protect.  He’d rather cower, and leave those he fears in the cells forever.

Gutless.

We need better in a Senator.  We need someone who is not afraid of shadows, one who understands that the equal application of the law is a defense against those who threaten the idea of America — and not now, nor ever, our weakness.

My Massachusetts readers:  don’t forget to vote come Tuesday, 19 January 2010.

Image:  Georgios Iakovidis, “Cold Shower,” 1898

He’s got a lot of nerve: George Will commits science wankery of high order.

January 7, 2010

Thanks (sic–ed.) to nutellaontoast over at Fire Megan McArdle (now there’s a blog to love…ed.) I clicked through to Will’s meditation (FSM, I hate it when you link through to the Post — ed.) on cosmic scales of space and matter-density…which led him somehow to solar system dynamics…which led him to the divinely ordered (sic) glories of the federal constitution and the very profligate divinity that achieves change in creation through mass murder.

Don’t believe me?  Then consider this:

…in 1787 other people — Americans call them the Founding Fathers — who were influenced by Newtonian physics and the deist idea of God as cosmic clockmaker, devised a constitutional system of separated powers, checking and balancing one another, mimicking what they considered our solar system’s clocklike mechanics.

Today, we know there is a lot of play in the joints of the Constitution and that every 40 million years or so asteroids more than half a mile in diameter strike Earth. Yet the Constitution still constitutes, and the fact that flora and fauna have survived Earth’s episodes of extreme violence testifies to the extraordinary imperative of life.

Uh, is it just me that wonders at someone who conflates events that transpire over a couple of hundred years with those that require tens of millions to play out?

I mean, if it’s all just numbers, let me assure Will of one thing.  In a few billion more years or so — maybe a hundred, perhaps fewer “generations” of asteroid-strike mass extinctions, following Will’s assumption — we may be sure that both Constititution and life on earth take a final bow.  And of course, if you use more sane measures, say median species survival time, it will be rather less — a few million years or so. (I couldn’t lay my hands on the right number fast, so I asked my secret advisor on all things biological if that’s the right scale, and with the caveat that it varies from group to group, I have dispensation for the claim. 😉

And so on. But why bother.  This is just freshman bloviating taking up space on what should be one of important arenas for public discourse  in the world.  The real message, the not even barely veiled subtext is one of Will’s usual themes.  Science is at best decoration — nice wallpaper to surround the serious thoughts of real intellectuals.

It is a terrible, destructive trope, this use of science as background music, and never an intellectual end in itself. Trope is too grand a word; it’s a trick, really.

Will knows just enough to recognize that science as an enterprise has a particular kind of authority, one eroded but not destroyed by the sustained attack he and others have led on the whole notion of expertise instead of ideology as a guide to statecraft.

He wants that authority; he and others who use the language and images of science to argue against its methods seek to appropriate it to provide cover for all the assumptions-not-in-evidence and teleological reasoning that passes for elite punditry these days.

And yes, all this is truly an over reaction to a lazy, mail-it-in piece of crap from a columnist long past his sell-by date.  The real story underneath Will’s desperate attempts to opine with and on technical matters is that he hasn’t a clue, and it shows.

Here, amidst his mumble of veiled climate change denialism (see, e.g. this: “The discovery, two decades ago, of a bed of dinosaur fossils on Alaska’s North Slope suggests that temperatures may have been warmer long ago, before there were human beings to blame for that…”) and the musings about asteroid strikes and a folksy account of the expanding universe (“Into what is it expanding? Hard to say.”)  what ultimately emerges is the realization that Will has heard about all this stuff somewhere, or an intern has come up with a half dozen or so BBC.com stories or the like, and Will merely mashed all this together into something he hoped no one would notice made no sense whatsoever.

And even if that’s the likeliest explanation for why this thing appeared, I’m still pissed.  We — and by this I mean everyone who tries to make sense of the worlds we live in, political, material, historical, whatever — have a duty of care.  And by everyone I mean all of us from your humble, though not pajama clad blogger to those titans who possess leasehold on irreplaceable media real estate.

You, me, and damn sure George Will are obligated, at the very least, to make sure we don’t leave our audiences stupider after they’ve read our stuff than they were before. Will routinely fails at this minimal task.  This is just one more example.

Image: Rafael, “School of Athens,” detail with Plato and Aristotle, Heraclites and Diogenes, 1509.

Why I Love the English Language…19th Century Prose Slinging Dept.

January 7, 2010

For reasons too uninterestingly tangled to explain, I recently found myself in the wee hours of the morning, reading Algernon Charles Swinburne’s biographical entry on Mary Queen of Scots in my copy of the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Swinburne was inordinately proud of this piece.  The 11th Edition’s compilers appended a note in which they quote from a letter Swinburne wrote in 1882.  In it, he wrote, “Mary Stuart has procured me…an application from the editor of the [9th edlition] Enclyclopedia Britannica…to me, a mere poet, proposing that I should contribute to that great repository of erudition the biography of Mary Queen f Scots.  I doubt if the like compliment was ever paid before to one of our ‘idle trade.'”

It is a marvelous example of both Victorian historiography/hagiography and of a certain kind of prose style.  Most of all, one thing that English/British writers in the nineteenth century really knew was the craft of the sentence.

I’m not sure that even I, with my blog-documented love of polyclausal sentences, could bring myself to attempt this kind of thing — and I don’t think what talent I have really runs that direction anyway.  But for anyone who loves the rhythm section in the music of English, check this out:

Elizabeth, so shamefully her inferior in personal loyalty, fidelity and gratitude, was so clearly her superior on the one all-important point of patriotism.  The saving salt of Elizabeth’s character, with all its wellnigh incredible mixture of heroism and egotism, meanness and magnificence, was simply this, that, overmuch as she  loved herself, she did yet love England better.  Her best though not her only fine qualities were national and political, the high public virtues of a good publc servant; in the private and personal qualities which attract and attach a friend to his friend and a follower to his leader, no man or woman was ever more constant and more eminent than Mary Queen of Scots.

Damn.  That’s some fine stuff.  And what’s wonderful, at least to me, is the match of content to sound and pace.  Not to mention the — I’m sure conscious — nod to the wellsprings of both Swinburne’s sentiment and at least some of his diction.  That “so shamefully her inferior in personal loyalty, fidelity and gratitude”….well think of my man Billy Shakespeare, and this, from Viola in Twelfth Night, act III scene 4:

“I hate ingratitude more in a man
than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness,
or any taint of vice whose strong corruption
inhabits our frail blood.”

We have a great instrument on which to play.  Writing, when it is not miserable labor, entrains such joy.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, “The Writing Master,” 1882.  I have a vague memory that I might have posted this one before — but I like it, so here it is.

The CIA Has Joined the Vast Climate Change Conspiracy.

January 5, 2010

Read this article in the New York Times.*

Here’s the gist of what it’s talking about in this effort to piggy back on national technical intelligence gathering tools (satellites, remote sensing, etc.):

The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests….In the last year, as part of the effort, the collaborators have scrutinized images of Arctic sea ice from reconnaissance satellites in an effort to distinguish things like summer melts from climate trends, and they have had images of the ice pack declassified to speed the scientific analysis.

The investigators tout the access to data that can be acquired in no other way; they note its economic significance (ice forecasts, aids to oil and gas exploration; and the article also notes that the CIA itself has perceived a national security concern in the prospect of climate change.

And with that, here’s the gist of what I want to talk about:

In October, days after the C.I.A. opened a small unit to assess the security implications of climate change, Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said the agency should be fighting terrorists, “not spying on sea lions.”

and

The program resurrects a scientific group that from 1992 to 2001 advised the federal government on environmental surveillance. Known as Medea, for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis, the group sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship.

It is unclear why Medea died in the early days of the Bush administration, but President George W. Bush developed a reputation for opposing many kinds of environmental initiatives. Officials said the new body was taking on the same mandate and activities, as well as the name.

Perhaps the problem is that the scientific opportunity was and is immense.  Among the most difficult elements of the climate system to study is the cryosphere — the ice covered portions of the earth’s surface.

Understanding ice dynamics, especially those of sea and polar pack ice, is an essential component in coming to grips with a whole range of important issues in climate change:  the rate at which it is occurirng, the sensitivity of the climate system to various forcings, the risk of rapid alteration in parts or the whole of the global climate system.  (See as one example among a ton of such research, this paper picked up at random through the magic of teh google.)

If therefore, your political advantage rests (a) with a denial of the usefulness of expertise, of verifiable knowledge combined with the training and skill needed to interpret the data and (b) with economic interests for whom the reality of climate change is costly, what should one do but shut down a cash and risk-free program that would help us grasp the predicament of the planet.  Better a joke about sea lions than inconvenient truths.

And by the way: for all those who say Obama is no different from the guy, consider this:

The Obama administration has said little about the effort publicly but has backed it internally, officials said. In November, the scientists met with Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director.

“Director Panetta believes it is crucial to examine the potential national security implications of phenomena such as desertification, rising sea levels and population shifts,” Paula Weiss, an agency spokeswoman, said.

Elections matter.  They matter in this country now more than ever.  And if you care about science — and I don’t mean just funding levels, but rather the ideal of science, the notion that living a good life includes notion that it is better to know what’s going on than to dream of sugar plum fairies — then the difference between the two parties in their approach to science is existential.

None of this “they’re all alike…I’ll vote for Nader” sh*t, in other words.  We have work to do this and every year.

*I dump on the MSM with reasonable regularity.  I’m working on one of my several thousand word screeds about the Times’ own David Brooks right now.  But it’s important to remember how big media institutions matter — and encourage them to do more of what the informal media can’t.  This is an example.  The article turned on a reporter’s ability to access both very high level science sources (Ralph Cicerone is a seriously good get, for those of you without scorecards handy) and with at least some kind of hook into the intelligence community.  That takes institutional support to develop sources and an understanding of your beat.  So kudos to reporter Bill Broad, one of the Times’ long lasting good ones, and to the great grey lady formerly of 43rd St. herself.

That kind of knowledge/access can be acquired from an independent base — but it’s very hard and it is what the big media at its best distinguishes itself by achieving.  If only places like the Times, and even the Post, long since returned to its roots as the house organ/gossip rag for DC, understood that the one real unique asset they have is reporting other people can’t do because they lack the scale and institutional memory to do so.  That’s a barrier to entry no amount of internet servers can bridge.  Go there, my friends.  We need you to do so, and you can make money there.

Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wreck in the Ice Pack” 1798.