For those who care, I've changed over to weekly archives, rather than monthly. The monthly archive files were getting ridiculously large, and steelypips.org has been loading slowly recently, even for reasonable file sizes. (The hosting service is doing some upgrades, which are probably the source of the problem...)
The old monthly archive files (June, July, and August) will continue to exist, so any permalinks you may have used to link to me should still work, but the new links should download faster. If you care about that, update your links; if not, don't.
No Fun At All
The "blogosphere" sometimes bears a stronger resemblance to a game of "Telephone" than an actual discussion of ideas. You remember how it works from summer camp and all that, right? John Powers starts off talking about how The Nation isn't as much fun as The Weekly Standard, which Jack Shafer turns into an indictment of the journalistic left as more interested in "policing the movement" than trying to "persuade and entertain," then Glenn Reynolds turns it into an indictment of leftists in general as being no fun at all. By the time Ginger Stampley responds (and also Arthur Stock commenting on Matthew Yglesias's thoughts on the matter), we've gotten all the way from a comparison of two political magazines to an argument against the idea that there are no leftists anywhere who have any fun at all. After seeing Ginger's post, I looked up the original piece, and now I'm sort of scratching my head, asking how did we end up here? (Cue Johnny Dangerously clip...)
Of course, all the "leftists are no fun" arguments are stupid in one way or another, mostly because they're making invalid comparisons. The original article, contrasting the "gray and unappetizing as homework" Nation with the "We're having big fun over here on the right" message of the Weekly Standard is comparing magazines with two different goals. Powers's original observation that he reads The Weekly Standard more readily than he reads The Nation would be akin to an observation that I read a new issue of Rolling Stone almost immediately, but copies of Physical Review Letters tend to pile up. Well, duh. They're not even trying to do the same things-- one's a journal, the other's a glossy pop magazine. A more apt comparison would be between Rolling Stone and Physics Today, in that Physics Today is presenting a (slightly) more pop-level treatment of the subject. And you know what? I read Physics Today about as quickly as I read Rolling Stone. (Yes, I'm a geek. Bite me.)
Moving on, the next level of comparison is between people who are trying to be responsible journalists and serious thinkers and, well, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. This is transparently idiotic. Yeah, Coulter and Limbaugh are more entertaining than Barbara Ehrenreich-- that's because Coulter and Limbaugh exist solely to say outlandish things and get headlines, while Ehrenreich is trying to be a journalist, not a carnival freak. This makes about as much sense as slamming Media Whores Online for not being as serious and studious as William F. Buckley (which I'm sure the people who slam Ehrenreich for being less entertaining than Coulter would be happy to do...). If you want to make an analogy between Coulter and Limbaugh and somebody on the left, MWO's the obvious target. If you want to draw a valid parallel between Ehrenreich and somebody on the right, you shouldn't be rooting around in the sewer to look for candidates.
Finally, Instapundit's comparison involving "leftists" in general is pretty sketchy, as usual, but I suspect he's falling into much the same trap as Shafer was. Yeah, the libertoonian "blogosphere" is a lot more fun than Andrea Dworkin, but then they're not in the same game. Hell, they're not in the same sport. If you want to compare Dworkin's prudery to something on the right, how about party animals like the Reverend Donald Wildmon?
What's going on here is the usual game of defining the political left as the sum of all its most extreme members, while conveniently excluding the lunatic religious element from the definition of the political right. The religious prudes of the right are, if anything, less savory than the Dworkin/ MacKinnon variety on the left-- if you're going to hold everyone left of Limbaugh accountable for the views of Dworkin and MacKinnon, then the right bears responsibility for Jack Chick and Focus on the Family, and they're a real laugh riot.
(In the "Unfortunate Coincidence" department, a Google search to check the spelling of "MacKinnon" reveals that there's a Canadian singer/ actress named Catherine McKinnon (no "a"). It's got to be a real downer to get up on stage to sing "Both Sides Now," and find the audience expects "Pornography is Oppression"... Good thing I checked the spelling.)
In a similar vein, Matthew Yglesias points out that a large part of the problem is that the "fun" ideas that used to be the province of the "left" have been absorbed by the mainstream culture, and are no longer identified with a particular part of the political spectrum. I agree with this, too, but I think a larger part of the problem is the misdefinition of "left" and "right" to compare extreme leftists with moderate (or at least socially liberal) rightists. Extremists of any variety are basically no fun-- the apparent "priggishness" of the "left" is an artifact of defining the "right" so as to exclude its most extreme members.
The First Step's a Doozy
Charles Dodgson comments on my post about Bjorn Lomborg and the Kyoto treaty, pointing out that one of Lomborg's criticisms is that, despite the cost, Kyoto wouldn't help much. He asks, reasonably enough, why I think that compromising on a treaty that does less than the Kyoto treaty would've would do any good.
The point is that politics is an incremental process. In some ways, this is the same point that Lomborg misses with his criticism-- the Kyoto reductions were never intended to be an end unto themselves, and have always been thought of (at least by the people I know who spend a lot of time thinking about these issues) as a first step. A small reduction is better than no reduction, and if nothing else, it buys some time to work for further reductions.
If you're out in the woods, and lop your foot off with an axe, putting a tourniquet on your leg won't be enough to save your life-- you still need to get medical attention. However, the fact that you don't have a trauma team standing by is no reason to reject the imperfect solution of slapping on a tourniquet and trying to get to the hospital. In the same way, the absence of a perfect solution to the problem of global warming doesn't mean we should reject imperfect solutions-- whether they're Kyoto or something less. You do whatever you can right now, and hope that buys you enough time to find a better solution.
The biggest advantage of getting some sort of compromise reduction would not be the reduction itself, so much as the admission that working to reduce CO2 emissions is something that's worth doing. It would require an acceptance, however grudging, of the fact that dumping a huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere is probably not the best of ideas. Currently, we don't even have that-- the anti-environmentalist party platform has two planks: one is "human activity has nothing to do with global warming," the other is "Kyoto would wreck the economy and wouldn't help anyway." Some compromise reduction, however symbolic it might end up being, would weaken if not remove the first of those. That's progress.
(Note, too, that I don't really believe we're footless and bleeding in a forest, here. All the respectable science I've seen on the issue points to a warming trend, and suggests that human activity is partially to blame. However, the trend being observed is much milder than the more apocalyptic versions some activists would have you believe. Global warming is a problem that will need to be dealt with, but it's not a panic-time crisis, not yet. We need to find a solution, but we've got plenty of time to look for one, provided we start looking.)
The sensible approach would be to hammer out some sort of compromise, and get some reduction in CO2 emissions. And when that fails to wreck the economy, or cripple American industry-- and it won't wreck the economy, or cripple American industry-- then work on a further reduction, and so on. Get business and industry to agree that there is a problem, and start working on something to solve it. If nothing else, that gets the process started. And it should be made clear from the beginning that this is a process, and that whatever compromise is reached is only the first step in that process-- there isn't a one-step miracle cure, here, and it's important not to be seen as peddling one (if nothing else, that leaves you open to the attack Lomborg is using...).
(And who knows, when we force power plants and factories to actually reduce CO2 emissions, some bright businessman may find a way to make money off it-- turn the carbon into diamonds, or pencil leads, or nanotubes for superconducting wires, or whatever-- and improve rather than cripple the economy. Again, it's amusing to note that some of the same people who tout the unlimited power of free markets and technology to find an answer to the problem of running out of fossil fuels ("When oil gets short, other sources of power will become competitive, and we'll find another way to keep things running") turn around and become the next thing to Luddites when it comes to emissions. The cognitive dissonance involved in believing that technology will find a way to make energy production cheap, but can't possibly find a way to reduce CO2 emissions that won't be ruinously expensive is pretty impressive...)
The problem with the Kyoto-or-bust approach is that it allows the opponents to stonewall, and refuse to even admit there's a problem, let alone start the process of fixing it. So we've got a stalemate-- worse than that, really, because maintaining the status quo is a complete victory for environmentalism's opponents. A compromise from the Kyoto position would be only a partial victory for the environmental movement, but a partial victory is better than a total defeat, which is what Kyoto-or-bust is getting.
They Gots Allllll the Money
A few days back, I wrote up Carter Scholz's Radiance for the book log. It's a novel about fraud and chicanery at a nuclear weapons lab, and while a number of things about the book annoyed me, there are a few things it nails. The problem of funding is one of them.
Modern science is a horrifically expensive business. Since taking my current job, and beginning to set up a research lab, I've spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $45,000 on various bits and widgets, and you wouldn't really be able to tell where the money went from looking at my lab. A research-quality mirror and a mount to hold it will set you back over $100, and laser experiments need a lot of mirrors. A diode laser will run you $500, a current supply for that laser is $1000, a mediocre oscilloscope is $1500, and pretty soon, we're talking real money. I'm doing this research thing on the cheap, but $100,000 is regarded as "cheap" in the physics community.
The huge sums of money required to get things done force research scientists to put a great deal of effort into finding ways to get more money-- basically, by begging various agencies for money. Some money comes directly from your employer-- I got a large chunk of "start-up" money when I took my current job, and I got an internal college grant to pay most of the cost of the single most expensive item I've shelled out for (just under $4000)-- but to get the really nifty hardware you need to find outside sources of funding. In general, there are three ways of getting this money-- you can tie your work to an industry, and get money from big corporations; you can work directly for the government, and get your money from Congress; or, if you're an academic, you can write grant proposals. You'd have to ask Derek Lowe about industrial research, but I know a (very) few things about the other two channels.
Writing grants is another of those muddled, I-can't-believe-this-actually-works systems, like peer review, that outsiders are often shocked to hear about. Basically, you come up with an idea, marshal facts and references to show that what you propose is original, feasible, and interesting (a tough trio, that), send them off to somebody who has a lot more money than you do (the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, various other government agencies and private foundations), and wait. They, in turn, take this big pile of stuff, and ship it out to a bunch of other scientists in the field, and ask them whether they think the work in question is worth funding. Based on the responses from the reviewers, the constraints of the particular agency, the phase of the moon, and other less quantifiable factors, they decide whether or not to give you a big chunk of change.
(I once described the process to a bunch of students who were anxious for me to grade lab reports: "You know those big term papers you have for other classes that you come in here and ask for extensions on your lab reports to finish? Writing a grant is like that, only if I get an 'A', they'll give me fifty thousand dollars... I'll be a little late getting your reports graded.")
It's another area where the whole structure of scientific research relies upon the good will of those who do research for a living. The people who control the money generally aren't qualified to decide on their own who gets paid, so they need expert advice, which has to come from other scientists. Which is frought with potential problems-- some of the people who might be asked to review your grant proposal may be your competitors, and have a potential interest in seeing your work slowed or squelched, not to mention the mundane fact that reviewing grant proposals is a time-consuming process, and the people called upon to do it would often prefer to be doing something else. For the grant system to work, you need to count on scientists putting aside their personal interests, and providing a complete and honest review, for the good of the field as a whole. Somewhat amazingly, this works a lot more often than it fails.
Things get even screwier when you start talking about big government research, and research on the scale discussed in Radiance. My entire career could be funded from the money the weapons labs lose behind couch cushions, and as the level of funding goes up, the hoops you need to jump through to get the funding become more and more elaborate. When you're talking about funding a weapons lab, or even a smaller-scale program like the NIST labs, you need to get the money more or less directly from Congress (in the US-- your country may vary), and "capricious" doesn't begin to describe them.
I haven't ever worked on the really grand funding scale described in the book-- the closest I've come was my old group at NIST, which I jokingly refer to as the "Infinite Money Limit" because the budget (for five different experiments) could be counted in millions without requiring scientific notation. I was at NIST during the "Contract With America" era, though, so I've seen the contortions researchers sometimes have to go through to keep the money flowing.
At the Big Science level (or even the Medium-Size Science level), the game becomes "figure out how to spin things so as to make what you're already doing fit the trend of the moment." Large research projects have a certain momentum-- you acquire equipment and expertise over a period of years, so it's almost impossible to stop on the metaphorical dime and change to a radically new program. When the requirements for funding set out by Congress change, you can't really change your whole research program, so instead you find a way to make it sound like their new goal will be met by paying you to continue doing exactly what you've been doing for years.
A character in Radiance (who's a sort of Edward Teller analogue) says several times that "funding comes from a threat," and the best real-life examples closely parallel the sordid tale in the book. With the Cold War over, and the Soviet threat gone, "Star Wars" researchers scrambled to find a new justification for continuing their work. In the book, the new threat to justify spending billions on missile defense is asteroid impact; in the real world, it's the ever-popular "rogue states." The threat is different, but the proposed solution is exactly the same (though slightly less credible), and the work goes on as before.
At NIST the swings were somewhat milder-- when I first arrived, the mission being pushed was "directed research" and "partnership with industry." When the Gingrich Revolution took power, "partnership with industry" was derided as "corporate welfare" (largely because Ron Brown was the Secretary of Commerce (the department which controls NIST and NOAA), and trailed only Hillary Clinton inspiring loathing among the Republican majority-- the "corporate welfare" programs they were threatening to cut were set up by Bush the Elder), and we had to re-focus on the core mission of fundamental standards. When sanity returned in the wake of the government shutdowns caused by the stand-off between Clinton and Gingrich over the budget, things swung back to the middle a bit.
These shifts in mission caused much scrambling among the NIST administration, and a few worried group meetings, but through it all, the research goals never actually shifted. And, to be completely honest, nothing I did while I was in that group had any direct connection to either "partnership with industry" or fundamental standards. All that changed was the way we described what we did to the occasional visiting potentate from the Hill.
It's enough to make one sort of cynical about the process... So, despite never working for a weapons lab (where's Jim Hill when I need him?), I find the funding debates in Radiance all too believable.
Dropping back down to the academic level to wrap this up, there's a slightly similar problem in academic funding circles. Because the grant review process is dependent on reviewers from within the scientific community, it's somewhat susceptible to trends within the community. I once spent an awkward ten minutes listening to a rant by a collision physicist whose grant had been denied, which he blamed on "those damn laser people," laser-cooled atomic collisions (my field) being the trendy topic of the moment. The same basic game is played here, albeit for lower stakes-- you try to find some aspect of the project you're already doing that can be tied to something that's "hot," to make your proposal look more sexy.
Bose-Einstein Condensation is a hot topic at the moment, so there are tons of proposals for experiments to work with BEC. Quantum computing is another popular field. If you can figure out a way to use BEC for quantum computing in biological systems, then you can probably open the sort of money spigot that academic scientists can usually only dream of...
As for my own funding, one of the factors leading to this flipping great wodge of babble is the fact that I'm supposed to be re-working my own grant proposal. I got turned down last year, with a couple of reviewers expressing feasibility concerns (which I can readily answer). More troubling is the fact that a couple of other reviewers said, in essence, "this isn't that interesting." I'm not sure how to re-work things to fix that, though I have a faint glimmer of an idea, which needs to be left to mature in my subconscious for a little while yet. I need the money, though, so I'll come up with something or another, and come November, I'll be sending off another $50,000 term paper...
He Who Hesitates is Saved a Lot of Typing
I've been tempted to comment on the thoroughly loathsome "we must humiliate the Arab world to make them see reason" idiocy started by Nick Denton, but it's such an offensively stupid idea that it's hard to write anything coherent about, and anything I did manage probably wouldn't be any fun to read (see "McKinney, Cynthia"). It makes a nice hawkish wish-fullfillment fantasy (which can be awfully tempting), but ten or fifteen seconds of rational thought shows what a horrific idea it is-- as Ginger Stampley points out, the fact that the warblogger crowd adopted it as gleefully as they did pretty much rules out any non-ironic use of "anti-idiotarian"
Happily, while I dithered, Jim at Objectionable Content did the job, better than I would've (scroll down to "Stop hating imperialism or we'll destroy you!"-- Blogspot's archive bug strikes again). He very comprehensively demolishes the whole idea of "humiliation" as a policy goal-- further comment would be superfluous, so I'll shut up now.
The Hippest Hobbit
I don't really want to be Boing Boing Lite, but this link (to a whopping huge QuickTime movie-- consider yourself warned) was forwarded to me in email, and it's so, um, interesting that I need to pass it on. Misery, company, etc.
Sensible vs. Skeptical
Brad DeLong has a very good response to the recent Bjorn Lomborg piece in the New York Times. Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist has made him a darling of the right and a demon to the environmental movement, but his argument fails in a couple of key places, chiefly in his attempt to blur the distinction between "would" and "will." Lomborg writes:
In fact, for the same amount Kyoto would have cost just the United States every year, the United Nations estimates that we could provide every person in the world with access to basic health, education, family planning and water and sanitation services. Isn't this a better way of serving the world?
It's a lovely sentiment, but as DeLong points out:
He may well be right that the resources that Kyoto would suck up would do more for human welfare if spent creating a more human world by boosting public health and economic infrastructure--but that claim needs to be accompanied by a plan to make sure that these resources are devoted to their best alternative use in the global south. "Would" cuts no ice here. "Will" does.
DeLong's response is worth reading, and the comments also provide some interesting perspectives (though you may want to scroll past the bit where somebody spammed his comments section with the full text of a handful of anti-Lomborg articles). I'd only add one point to his comments on the original article: Lomborg is also implicitly assuming that reducing CO2 emissions and helping the Third World are mutually exclusive goals-- that if we spend money on cutting greenhouse gasses, we can't also spend money on clean water for developing countries. There's no real reason why we couldn't do both-- some public health issues in the developing world could be fixed for pocket change.
The really annoying thing about the ongoing global warming "debate," though, is the utter childishness of the whole thing.
On one side, we have the Free Market Uber Alles crowd, who loudly proclaim that the emission targets set by the Kyoto treaty would wreck our economy, often using the sort of rhetorical ju-jitsu that Lomborg demonstrates above to make themselves seem like good guys. On the other side, we have the hard-core Bunny-Huggers, proclaiming equally loudly that the Kyoto agreement is an absolute minimum first step, and nothing less is acceptable. Watching a few go-rounds of this leaves me with the strong impression that everyone involved should have their television privileges revoked until they're willing to behave like adults.
Is the world going to end if we don't immediately implement the Kyoto agreements? Of course not. Lomborg overstates his case, but so does Greenpeace. We don't really know what effect CO2 emissions will really have in the future, though it's probably a safe bet that the more apocalyptic predictions will turn out to be wrong. Will implementing the Kyoto protocols send the global economy into the toilet? Of course not. It'll cost a lot of money, but at the same time, it will almost certainly open up new opportunities to make money, for those clever enough to exploit them.
(Interestingly, some of the same people who vociferously oppose Kyoto on economic grounds are just as quick to argue that the entertainment industry is a lumbering dinosaur reflexively seeking to protect an outdated business model, and foolishly resisting inevitable technical progress. It wouldn't take a whole lot of work to cast the energy industry in the same light-- fossil fuels are the technology of the past, and by clinging to the current oil-and-coal-based model of energy generation, energy companies are missing a big opportunity, etc.)
The real problem, though, is a failure to negotiate. Kyoto's too much for the business community to take? Fine-- make a counter-offer. Pick some level of CO2 emissions that you think can be met with a reasonable expense, and let's do that. That's not enough for the environmentalists? Anything's better than nothing, which is what you're going to get if you insist on Kyoto or nothing-- make a deal, and when moderate reductions fail to ruin the economy, push for more. The second step is easier than the first-- make a compromise, and get the process started.
The bottom line is that there's a fairly plausible model to suggest that dumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere might have unpleasant consequences. We can't say for sure that it is, or that it will, but then again, we only get to run this experiment once-- when and if Bad Things happen, we don't get to start over. It's hardly Panic Time, but the sensible thing to do is to start making some reductions now, to at least slow the rate of things getting worse, and ease the pain should future science make it clear that more drastic cuts are needed.
Unfortunately, neither side in this catfight has any incentive to compromise. Continuing the status quo is a complete victory for the business side, so they hem and haw and trump up scientific dissent, and do anything at all but offer a compromise. A compromise would cost money right now which is bad for the stock price, while stonewalling is free, and the consequences of inaction won't show up for years (by which time current CEO's will be dead, retired, or in jail). On the other side, most of the high-profile environmental groups seem to regard global warming less as a technical problem to be resolved (by whatever means possible) than the object of a religious crusade. They're not willing to compromise, because they serve a Higher Purpose, and noble ideals ought to lift them above mundane concerns of reality.
So we muddle along doing nothing, with foot-stamping and name-calling and shoddy science on both sides. It's sickening, really.
Paging Dr. Sapir, Paging Dr. Whorf
I'm back from vacation, and more substantial blogging will follow once I clear a slight backlog of stuff at work. Coming off five days in Montreal, though, I do have a question for the assembled wisdom of the blogging community:
Why is it that speaking French all the time also leads to chain smoking and driving like a complete idiot?
If we could explain this, and also the American compulsion to take a place whose chief attraction is great natural beauty (say, Lake George, NY) and load it up with tacky tourist crap that completely obscures said natural beauty (Do people actually pay to go into wax museums? If so, why? And why would anyone think that the shore of a scenic lake in the Adirondacks would be a good spot for a wax museum?), well, the world would be a better place.