URLs du Jour

2020-02-17

[Amazon Link]

  • UColorado philosophy prof Michael Huemer has the good news for people worrying about Trump getting re-elected: We Are Doomed. Make that "Doomed, Anyway".

    Obviously, humanity will at some future time be extinct. That goes without saying. That’s almost a metaphysical truth; nothing (of the relevant kinds) lasts forever.

    There is a fascinating Wikipedia article about the far future, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_far_future, which includes (among other things) many events that could extinguish life on Earth. The Sun will leave the main sequence (running out of hydrogen) within about 5 billion years. It will probably engulf the Earth within 8 billion years. Long before that, though, multiple other disastrous things are expected to happen. One item says that within only 600 million years, all plants that use C3 photosynthesis (99% of all plant species) will die. Another item says that the rest of the plants will probably die within 800 million years.

    I don’t think any people are going to live to see any of that happen, though. I think we’ll die of stupidity long before that. (Life will probably still continue without us, though. E.g., the bacteria will have hundreds of millions of years to flourish without us.)

    To adapt an old joke: "Oh, wait, did you say 5 billion years? Thank goodness I thought you said 5 million!"

    I hadn't heard that about C3 photosynthesis before. Sobering!


  • Mr. Kevin D. Williamson notes our changing times at National Review: Socialism Once Again the Left's Rallying Cry. And he makes an interesting point at the end:

    “All voting is a sort of gaming,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.” If we are to have something more than mere majoritarianism — if there is to be a truth superseding that “power of the majority” — then we are going to need those ideas that our populists and nationalists and self-declared pragmatists hold in contempt along with the kinds of minds that can produce them.

    “Oh, be practical!” you say? Survey the scene in 2020 and tell me with a straight face that it represents the flowering of some practical good. As the philosopher might have asked, “If the pragmatism you followed brought you to this, of what use was the pragmatism?”

    That's a … deep thought. Unfortunately, if you're not an NRPLUS person, it's probably paywalled.


  • At Reason, Ronald Bailey asks: What Happens to the U.S. Population If Immigration Rises Substantially or Halts Entirely? And the Census Bureau gives us its best guess.

    U.S. population could increase from 323 million in 2016 to as high as 447 million by 2060—or fall as low as 320 million. It depends on how many immigrants are admitted over the next four decades, according to new report from the Census Bureau.

    The report sketches out four scenarios for 2060. If current levels of immigration are maintained, the U.S. population will grow to 404 million by 2060. If immigration is cut in half, the population will rise to 376 million. If immigration increases by 50 percent, the population expands to 447 million. And if all immigration were to be halted now, the U.S. population would peak at around 332 million in 2035 and drop to 320 million in 2060.

    I will be 109 in 2060, so I'll be interested in that number.


  • The Google LFOD News alert rang for (of all things) the Bangor [Maine] Daily News, which puts on its nanny hat: Cleaning off your car isn’t the law, but it’s the right thing to do.

    It shouldn’t take a law for driver’s [sic] in Maine to respect the safety of others, and take those few extra minutes to clean their car off — even the sometimes hard to reach roof. And we understand that adding such a law could feel like a move toward a nanny state.

    Looking at our New Hampshire neighbors, however, we have to wonder: if the “Live Free or Die” state is willing and able to make this a requirement in the name of public safety, why shouldn’t Maine do the same?

    This is one of the rare cases where the Maine nanny-statists have failed to keep up with New Hampshire's. Shame!


  • And my district's current Executive Councilor, Andru Volinsky, is running for Governor, which means that people are scrambling to take his current position. For example, one Jay Surdukowski, who writes in the Concord Monitor about "Listening first". Among his points:

    Defending women’s health care: The council should not play politics with women’s health care. Having advised Planned Parenthood’s political arm for five years when they first set up their local PAC, I am steeped in knowledge of their work and one of the highlights of the 2012 election was welcoming then-Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards to my home to engage young people in the fight for reproductive health. I’m also proud to be publicly supported by three founders of New Hampshire’s first abortion clinic, which opened in 1974 – what is now the Equality Health Center.

    The council should not "play politics" with baby-killing. Just stand back and pay for it, I guess.

The Bomb

Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War

[Amazon Link]

Fred Kaplan gives the history up-to-now of America's policy toward the use of nuclear weapons.

Governments have always been pretty good at killing people; some, like the bad old USSR, Nazi Germany, and Red China, have been exceptionally good at murdering their own people.

But for the past 75 years or so, thanks to E = mc2, our governments have had the technology to "improve" their death-dealing technologies by (probably) a couple orders of magnitude. And while dealing death to civilian populations was once seen to be an off-limit atrocity even in wartime, it became an accepted (albeit controversial) tool by both sides in WW2. And since then it has become a given fact of life.

But wait, it gets better. By which I mean worse: the whole shebang can be set off by one person. And maybe by accident.

So it's an interesting, but also a scary and possibly depressing topic. This book discusses the history of how nuclear weapons policy has developed over the years: targeting strategies, escalation and de-escalation scenarios, arms control efforts, proliferation, risk mitigation, and so on.

As it turns out, our atomic war-fighting "strategy" for a number of years was pretty much "fire everything you've got at the bad guys as quickly as possible." With the near certainty that the bad guys were going to do the same.

The book is marred somewhat by the author's obvious partisanship. Pretty much all the Republicans are dimwitted, oblivious, or probably dangerous madmen. Democrats are on the side of the angels, but even when they're in power their peacekeeping efforts are continually getting thwarted by the Dr. Strangeloves and Jack D. Rippers who have a real yen for nuking the Commies until they glow.

And of course, Donald J. Trump, with his combination of willful ignorance, stupidity, and impulsive lunacy is probably gonna get us all killed. Or at the very least, a whole bunch of Koreans.

That's a slight exaggeration of the author's caricatures, but only slight.

Kaplan has done an impressive amount of historical research, digging into the declassified archives of the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, but somewhat understandably, nearly all his digging is into the American side of things; there's very little insight into what the Russians are doing concurrently. I suspect there has to be some reason why we made the decisions the way we did, but Kaplan's weak on that score.

It's a brand new book that I picked up at the library on impulse, I'll be interested to read some critical reviews.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This makes four out of last year's ten Oscar Best Picture nominees I've seen so far. Not too shabby. It didn't win Best Picture (booo!) but Brad Pitt got one for Best Supporting Actor, and it also got one for Production Design (which even I noticed was amazing). And it was nominated for seven more.

Just a quibble, though: Brad Pitt nominated for supporting actor? Come on. I think he had more screen time than Leonardo DiCaprio.

As an extra bonus, the New Yorker film critic calls this movie "obscenely regressive". No wonder I liked it so much.

Anyway: it follows buddies Rick Dalton (Leo) and Cliff Booth (Brad) in 1969 Hollywood. Rick is a fading action star: think Steve McQueen, if his career had fizzled after Wanted Dead or Alive. Cliff is his longtime stunt double, and personal chauffeur/gofer.

And Rick just happens to live next door to Roman Polanski's place in the Hollywood hills. Bouncy, bubbly, pregnant Sharon Tate is living there. And there are these filthy hippies hanging around, associated with (hey, that's Dewey Crowe) an aspiring musician named "Charlie". Oh oh.

It's a Quentin Tarantino flick, so there's a lot of swearing, smoking, and… surprisingly, not as much cynicism and violence as I would have expected. (Okay, there's a lot, but … just not as much as I would have expected.) QT clearly has a lot of affection for the time and place. And I had a lot of fun watching.

More from Less

The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources―and What Happens Next

[Amazon Link]

I was inspired to get this book from the author's appearance on Russ Roberts' EconTalk podcast last year. The good folks at the Interlibrary Loan desk at the University Near Here wangled a copy from Rivier U, just down the road in Nashua. (Which seems to do a better job obtaining books than UNH, just sayin'.)

Andrew McAfee, the author, is from MIT's Sloan School of Management, so he's no dummy, and his book is decent. His primary thesis is that for (roughly) the past half century, there's been an interesting economic trend toward "dematerialization": see the title, we're literally doing more with less. The large scale argument is that our prosperity is evolving away from moving huge amounts of heavy atoms (e.g., steel, concrete, hydrocarbons) around. Instead, we're doing "more" with electrons (very low mass) and photons (zero mass). Including the electrons moving around inside our heads (aka "human capital").

Cool! And very convincing, and optimistic.

There's more, though. McAfee is no Pollyanna. (It would have been a much shorter book if he had stuck to the Pollyanna stuff.) He's a big believer in Climate Change, hence he's all in on a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, basically whatever it takes. Also pollution (of all sorts), species extinction, alienation, deaths of despair, etc.

That's the bad news, but he's also willing to gore a few progressive oxen: he's all for embracing global capitalism, immunization, nuclear energy, glyphosate, and GMOs.

McAfee's style is kind of gee-whiz, USA Today-level. Although I enjoyed the book, it would also be accessible by a bright high schooler or a college kid. (Both of whom would probably benefit.)

Most interestingly, he's literally put his money where his mouth is: a series of bets at the (very cool) site longbets.org. (Example: "Over the five years leading up to 2029, the US will use less iron and steel than it did over the five years leading up to 2019, and the material will be more affordable to the world’s average person over the later period than the earlier one.") You can bet against him if you want. I wouldn't.


Last Modified 2020-02-17 1:33 PM EDT

Lady in the Lake

[Amazon Link]

This book, obtained from the Portsmouth Public Library, was on Tom Nolan's WSJ list of the Best Mystery Books of 2019. Four down, six to go. It's by veteran author Laura Lippman.

And, caveat lector, it's kind of a Chick book. It might even be a Jewish Chick book. It might even be a Feminist Jewish Chick book. I am none of those things, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit.

And, as a mystery, it's pretty unconventional. It's set mostly in mid-1960s Baltimore. The protagonist, Madeline Schwartz, is kind of unlikeable: she's self-obsessed, shallow, dishonest, and, near the book's beginning, abandons her husband and teenage son for a lifestyle more … what? Fulfilling, maybe?

Doesn't matter. She volunteers for a search party for a missing white girl, finds her corpse, corresponds with the suspected killer, wangles the response into a marginal gig with a local paper. She acquires a black cop boyfriend. And then gets involved in a second crime, the titular Lady, a black barmaid with vague ties to a local crime boss.

So the mystery bit is kind of a sideshow to Madeline's Quest for … whatever she's questing for. (A postscript lets us know how it worked out for her.)

Ms. Lippman's trick here is to break up Madeline's narrative with brief chapters narrated by (mostly) people she encounters along the way. This works very well. One of the narrators appears to be … ooh, spooky, the ghost of the murdered Lady, who very much wants Maddy to knock off her pesky investigation.

Aquaman

[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I was prepared to kind of like this movie, but… eh. I kept thinking "Underwater Thor".

Why is it that I can totally buy into Captain America or Batman, and get so blah about Aquaman?

Anyway: this movie covers Aquaman's origin story. Mom was a queen of Atlantis, Dad was a lonely lighthouse keeper. They found love when Mom, injured while escaping from her oppressive underwater society, is nursed back to health. And then Aquababy was born. But soon Atlantean thugs show up, Mom goes back to the water, Aquababy becomes Aquakid, confronts bullies at the aquarium (really, that's pretty cool), and then goes on to become the AquaDude himself.

Then the rest of the plot happens, but it's absurd and not very interesting. An extra star for the aquarium scene, though.