The Closet Moderate: September 2008

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

They're probably reading this right now...

Jesse Ventura is hosting a new TV show about conspiracy theories.

Sounds like some bullshit to me. If he was going to talk about real conspiracies, why would the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds even allow him on the air? The minute he breathes a word about who really controls the Swiss franc, Skull and Bones is going to take him down. Hard. He'll soon be cast from the highest whatever to the lowest whats-its, once the true masters of the universe find out about this.

My theory: he's really part of the conspiracy himself. By disseminating false rumors about 9-11 and the JFK assassination, he'll keep the public confused, unable to pierce the truth about who's behind it all.

Naturally, my fellow bloggards and I have long ago penetrated the secrets of the Bavarian Illuminati, but to reveal them here would be dangerous -- foolhardy, even. I'll just say this: if you've ever handled a two-dollar bill, you're already a part of it.

On the other hand, if Ventura turns up dead in the next few months, we'll know he was on to something. Watch your back, Jesse.


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Monday, September 29, 2008

Avast ye!

Today, we must take our attention away from our impending financial doom to address an equally compelling problem: pirates. According to the Washington Post, a publication notorious for its pro-piracy bias, Somali pirates have hijacked a cargo ship in the Arabian Sea. Its cargo: tanks. Not fish tanks, mind you, but honest-to-God Russian T-72 tanks.

This is the nightmare scenario, people. Pirates have always ruled the seas with their quick swordplay and judicious use of eyeliner, but now they could acheive land superiority as well. My advice: avoid the sea-shore until this crisis is resolved. And for God's sake, bury your gold and other booty in a secure location!

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The real winner of Black September

While people are busy calling Hank Paulson "the most powerful Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton" or just "Lord Paulson, Ruler of all Money", its worth noting that the person who's going to actually dispurse the 700,000,000,000 dollars that Paulson raises is the next Secretary of the Treasury, who will probably also be the most powerful Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton. So its probably worth thinking about who this person might be, so that any would-be Aaron Burrs can start their target practice with the appropriate pictures.

I can certainly tell you some characteristics he will have:
1) Really, intimately familiar with Wall Street. The main job of the next Treasury Secretary will be to dole out 700,000,000,000 (I just love writing it all out) dollars to Wall Street firms, so he'd better be able to tell his Goldman Sachs from his Sarbanes-Oxley. This is so important that I think it rules out a lot of the usual suspects on each side; Austan Goolsbee and Jason Furman are very smart economists, but as I keep reminding my relatives, economics != finance. Similarly, Meg Whitman and Carli Fiorina are sharp businesswomen, but they didn't work on Wall Street.

2) But not a Wall Street CEO. We're not going to get another repeat of Paulson (unless we actually get a repeat of Paulson, which is not completely out of the question); anyone involved in the making of this fiasco is right out.

3) At least somewhat non-partisan. This is especially true if McCain is the next president, because he is probably facing down 54 Democratic Senators to get his pick confirmed, and they are not going to tolerate some Phil Gramm bullshit here. Even Obama is going to feel some pressure to tap someone on the "competent" side of the competent-ideologue continuum.

4) Incorruptible. Handing out (here it comes) 700,000,000,000 dollars is going to make the next Secretary of the Treasury an EXTREMELY popular guy with a lot of extremely wealthy people. Its got to be certain that he won't misuse his authority, either because he has an unimpeachable reputation or because he's just one rich motherfucker.

So who knows Wall Street, but isn't OF Wall Street, is famously non-partisan, and has so much money he couldn't be bribed by God himself? Not to mention is about to run smack dab into some term limits?

This guy
. That's right: Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger.

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Betting on fail

This bloggard purports to explain the AIG problems.

I think I understood all this except for this line: "Here is where it gets interesting: anyone could buy a swap from AIG, whether he owned the bond or not."

Isn't that a little improper? With life insurance, you have to have an "insurable interest." I can insure myself, or my family members, or my business partners, but not just a random guy I think is going to die. That would be what's known in the industry as "morbid as fuck-all."

Are there similar limits in credit default swaps? Should there be?

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Happy New Year!

No, I don't mean Rosh Hashanah, although that's just around the corner. Today we're celebrating the first day of the year in the French Republican Calendar, which was in force in France from 1793 to 1805.

The calendar came into force during the decidedly immoderate rule of the Jacobins during the French Revolution. Unlike our American Revolution, in which we rebelled for a bit then settled down, the French Revolution just got wackier and wackier, until half of France had executed the other half. In the interim, they drew up a new religion and a new calendar more befitting of the post-monarchical world being created. There was also a new decimal time system, but that didn't catch on too well.
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Instead of a saint's day every day of the year, the French had a plant, except on certain days when an animal or farming tool was substituted. I've tried to get my blog-leagues to adopt this daily celebration of an ordinary foodstuff or antiquated tool, but they have ignored my pleas.
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But don't let that stop you! The first day of the year, as one might expect of the oenophile French, was the day of the grape. So celebrate today, 1 Vendémiaire CCXVII, by eating a handful of grapes, drinking a bottle of wine, or throwing a handful of raisins at someone less fortunate. Bonne Année!


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Saturday, September 20, 2008

If I were Brad DeLong, I'd call this a death spiral

I'd like to say I've been following the situation in Zimbabwe with great interest, but I've basically been getting all my information from Chris Blattman's excellent development economics blog. However, it does seem to me that you shouldn't, in the course of a single article, credit a man for "successfully negotiating peace resolutions in Congo, Sudan, and, most recently, Zimbabwe", and then immediately claim that he "earned ignominy ... for refusing to join other world leaders in condemning Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's brutal and ruinous rule", as if these two things existed in entirely separate, unrelated universes.

In this case, though, it might not be the Washington Post's fault exactly, but rather our stupid, stupid world for being a place where Mbeki has to take crap for resolving a crisis Zimbabwe when everyone else was standing around with their thumbs up their asses.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Rah-Rah-Rasputin

Over the past couple of weeks, the Russians have been up to their old tricks: helping Cuba build a space program, selling military technology to Iran and Venezuela, test-firing a new long-range missile, sending a fleet into the Carribean and claiming dominion over the North Pole. (That said, once you've planted a flag on the Arctic seabed it's all good.) Oh, right, and the whole "invading another sovereign nation" thing.

Edit: And their secret underground vodka pipeline. Seriously.

Russia's recent shenanigans prompted Secretary of State Condi Rice to scold the Russians at length for their military adventures and assorted ne'er do well tendencies. I particularly enjoyed this part:
Russia’s attack on Georgia merely proved what we had already known – that Russia could use its overwhelming military advantage to punish a small neighbor... Russia’s invasion of Georgia has achieved – and will achieve – no enduring strategic objective... their choices could put Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance.

In a display of appalling racial insensitivity, the Russians in the audience burst into laughter and began banging pots and kettles together while chanting "black, black, black." Let me put it another way: when people talk about America's diminished standing abroad, they are referring to our inability to use the limp noodles of international norms/law to chastise other nations (or get others to do so on our behalf with a straight face). What I'm getting at is what every IR nerd secretly loves about the Russians: they just don't give a shit. Human rights? Fuck 'em. Democratic norms? Don't care. Rule of law? Go take a flying fuck at the moon. Which we own.

The last Russian leader to actually give a shit was Gorbachev, and that didn't really work out so well for him. Point being, this is not a new line of Russian foreign policy. From Tsarist times through the fall of the USSR, Russia has always played bare-knuckle politics with the rest of the world, and is ideally positioned to do so in the next few years. The interesting question is why they've started up again, and while I'm no commie-ologist, I'll speculate a bit below.

1. Opportunity--For a long time after the fall of the USSR, the balance of forces was so lopsided that the Russians, with virtually no relevant institutional power (not in NATO, etc) was basically unable to successfully oppose US measures in Europe and the Middle East. What coalition did they have? As they would see in the march to Iraq, the UK would bugger itself with a harpoon to avoid pissing off the US, and while France and Germany weren't that extreme, their strategic interest coincided with US interest far more than it did with Russian interests. In short, they couldn't insert themselves into the Cold War old boys network, because that network was built for the express purpose of not including Russia. The US misadventure in Iraq means that our forces are insufficient to either deter or contain Russia's ambitions vis-a-vis third rate countries like Georgia. In the end, while Condi talks a good game, she's basically saying to Europe "we got shit, it's up to you guys."

2. Strategic Interest--The "color revolutions" and NATO expansion have sharply curtailed what was traditionally Russia's sphere of influence. While NATO is no longer explicitly a hostile military alliance, we can forgive Russian strategic thinkers for feeling a little bit hemmed in by nations of questionable friendliness. It turns out, one way of opening a region up is to take it over and build bases/install friendly leaders. Another way is by building friendly relations with other powers opposed to the dominant paradigm.

3. Nationalism--Inasmuch as the end of the Cold War was a victory for the USA, it was a defeat for Russia. Although many sectors of Russian society railed against the oppressive policies of the USSR, there was a profound sense of national humiliation that spread throughout the Russian Federation in the aftermath of the fall. I wouldn't posit nationalism as a cause of Russia's ambitions, I would say that the legacy of that humiliation means that Russia flexing its muscles on the international stage is unlikely to meet a great deal of criticism at home. In short, it functions as an enabler.

The real question is how the international community will respond to these provocations, but my feeling is that it's hard to punch someone while you're busy grabbing your ass with both hands, but we'll see. One of the problems with the current US-led order is that there's no #2 to hold the fort while we're busy fucking up half a world away.

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Ask the Tims: The Handcuff Kerfuffle

Dear Tims,
My daughter was home for spring break and her somewhat older boyfriend came to visit for the first time. After he left, I found two pair of handcuffs next to where his luggage had been in the living room—obviously left behind. This man is not a policeman. While he seemed to treat my daughter well, I'm not sure what to do with these items, and the incident has left me with rather unpleasant feelings toward him. Do I send him a note thanking him for the interesting hostess gift? He is British, but I don't think their customs are that different. Do I mail them with a note: "I believe you left these behind?" Do I throw them out? I'm somewhat at a loss here. What would The Tims do?

—Nervous Mom



Dear Nervous Mom,
Asking your daughter if she left her bondage gear at your home accidentally is not worth the embarrassment it would cause to either of you. Seriously. She'll buy new handcuffs. They're cheap. However, this is not the crux of the issue.

Your daughter obviously has a healthier sex life than you. This presents an opportunity for you to relate to your child, whilst spicing up your own life. Why throw out a perfectly good pair of handcuffs? Put them to use! If these are the kind with comfortable fuzzy covers to prevent chaffing, I recommend removing the covers, hand-washing them in Woolite (or similar detergent suitable for delicates) hanging to dry, and enjoy!

If these handcuffs are without delightful fuzzy covers, I suggest you make some. I have found them to be quite easy to knit or crochet! First timers should not try the cuffs without some padding, but hopefully as you get more comfortable, you won't need it at all.

- Tim


Dear Nervous Mom,
What makes you so certain they were his? You don’t mention whether you let them stay in the same room or not. Regardless, I’m sure they were making good use of those handcuffs every time you went to work or ran out to the store so you could make them yummy blueberry pancakes.

Let’s face it. You mentioned he is “somewhat older.” Since you did not mention what your husband thought, it is safe to assume your daughter grew up without an adult male in her life. She is clearly seeking a father figure to make up for what she lacked in her childhood. I blame you for this. If you don’t know how to deal with the handcuffs in this situation, chances are, the unlucky guy who inseminated you only made that mistake once and avoided another boring night with you.

Long before she desperately sought approval from this older man as he handcuffed her to the bed she grew up in, surrounded by her teddy bears and Backstreet Boys posters while you were at church, I’m sure you’ve written to a number of advice columns, seeking the wisdom to deal with the problems you caused. I can see it now, “Dear Abby, my daughter won’t eat,” “Dear Ann Landers, my daughter has these mysterious cuts on her arms,” “Dear Miss Manners, how do convince my daughter that calling her mother a ‘lonely, pathetic bitch’ is impolite?”

Now, to answer your question, simply throw them out. Neither of you want to deal with the awkward situation involved in returning them. They can easily purchase a new pair.

- Tim

Need advice? Send your questions to askthetims@gmail.com.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Balderdash!

My fellow bloggard, Waldorf, sent me this latest abomination from the New York Times. Is this what happens when William Safire retires? The Times just makes up new words and writes articles on them? "Staycation" was bad enough, but "glamping"? The learned author explains:
If the eco-friendly idea of falling asleep under the stars and roasting marshmallows around a campfire appeals to you, but the reality of pitching a tent and sleeping on bumpy ground does not, glamping [sic], the new term being used for upscale — or glamorous — camping, could be your ideal green vacation.
This offends me for many reasons. The idea itself is ridiculous; why not just stay in a hotel and leave the windows open? It would be equally glamorous and would not require the "glamper" to stretch the boundaries of his dictionary (and credulity) in attempting to equate the experience to camping.

Equally ridiculous is the idea that this "glamping" is pitched as a "green" option. That's not too surprising; everything is pitched as "green" these days. But seriously, how can this level of luxury honestly be called environmental? Behold, their logic:
“We call it nature on a silver plate,” Terre Short, Paws Up’s general manager, said. “I think glamping has really hit its stride this summer as the ultimate connect [sic] with nature.”

No, friend, the ultimate connection with nature would be a lot closer to actual camping. The ultimate connection to nature would probably not involve "king-sized beds and art on the walls, a personal butler and private master bath." Neither, I suspect, would it include "a games tent, a library tent, dining tents, lounge tents and a spa tent."

True conservation, if that is your thing, can't include all the luxuries of normal life. If you want to reduce your carbon dioxide output, the best option (short of killing yourself) is to use less stuff. If you believe in this green crusade, instead of driving to a glamorous campsite, stay the fuck home. Tend your garden. Compost something. Make something out of hemp.

Reducing your consumption of whatever resource you think we're running out of means actually reducing your fancy lifestyle. You can't have it both ways.

Also, I hate neologisms because I am cranky and don't want to buy a new dictionary.

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What's Your Palin Name?

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, and how you feel about Sarah Palin, I think we can all agree that she has a certain knack for naming her kids. There's Track, Trig, Bristol, Willow, and Piper. As a side note, I am interested in how two of her children were named after TV witches, but I digress. The point of this post, my friends, is to determine your own Palin name, with the help of this handy tool.

Mine is Ripper Shook Palin. Now that's a name!

t

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

For godsakes, stop touching your heads!

People have come up with many reasons for the economic catastrophe of late: poor government oversight, greedy investors, deceitful home buyers, wrath of God. But I have another theory - excessive head-touching by stock traders. I submit for your consideration:









I think we need to act quickly here and require that all traders to keep their hands and arms below their shoulders at all times. Perhaps a hands-in-pockets policy might be prudent for the rest of the week. Alternatively, we could insist that all traders smile, cheer and pump their fists, which seems to cause dramatic upswings in the relevant stock indices.




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Sports?

I'm not sure we're even planning to blog on sports, but I wanted to express the sentiments espoused at length in this blog: Fire Tony Kornheiser. That blog hasn't been updated in a while, but hopefully it will be.

Another blog seems to hate the whole Monday Night Football franchise. I wouldn't go that far -- I love Jaworski -- but three men in the booth is just too damn much chatter. I tried to listen to the local broadcast on radio, but the radio is about four seconds ahead of the HDTV broadcast, which means you hear the result of many plays before you see the snap. So, I sucked it up and contented myself with swearing at the TV.
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On a related note, do any of you tech-savvy internets-readers know how I can tape a radio broadcast and replay it four or five seconds later?


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Monday, September 15, 2008

Do you think you're better than me?

I've seen some thoughts percolating around these internets about the reasons people vote the way they do. It's certainly not a new question. Plenty of political works, such as V.O.Key's Southern Politics and, more recently Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, have addressed the question from some angle or other.

What got me thinking about it was this post on Megan McArdle's blog. For those of you who fear to click on the links, I'll excerpt the important bits:

I'm surprised--though I shouldn't be, of course--that any number of liberals who are (presumably) comfortable with concepts like unconscious discrimination and privilege when it comes to race, have not even stopped to consider that the same sort of thing might be operating here.

Let's be honest, coastal folks: when you meet someone with a thick southern accent who likes NASCAR and attends a bible church, do you think, "hey, maybe this is a cool person"? And when you encounter someone who went to Eastern Iowa State, do you accord them the same respect you give your friends from Williams? It's okay--there's no one here but us chickens. You don't.

Maybe you don't know you're doing it. But I have quite brilliant friends who grew up in rural areas and went to state schools--not Michigan or UT, but ordinary state schools--who say that, indeed, when they mention where they went to school, there's often a droop in the eyelids, a certain forced quality to the smile. Oh, Arizona State. Great weather out there. Don't I need a drink or something? This person couldn't possibly interest me.

This rang true to me, and to the many, many commenters on her blog. Then, I came across this, which was linked in a New York Times blog. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology, approached the question from an angle that was almost anthropological; studying Republicans the way people study jungle tribes with inscrutable value systems. I think he hits closer to the truth than most. You should really click through to the article, but here's the gist of it:

In several large internet surveys,[the authors] have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.

If it ever seemed like you were talking past each other when you argued with a partisan of the opposite party, that's probably accurate. And denying that the other side's foundations have value (or even make sense) doesn't really advance the argument. It just makes your own side seem more wrong. The Democrats have had this problem since they nominated that egghead, Stevenson, as this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Lady Lynn de Rothschild points out.

What neither of these essays propose is a solution. I think one exists, but the Dems aren't going to like it. The answer is: nominate more white trash. I know, you folks are hung up on the idea that only the smartest, best educated, most reasonable people should be President. Well, take a look at the only Democrat to win since the 70s: Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton is smart and well-educated, but it never seemed like he was throwing it in your face. He may have gone to Georgetown, Yale, and Oxford, but he was never a dick about it. Most of all, he never gave anyone reason to ask "you think you're better than me?" I grew up with a lot of Democrats who loved that guy, but they thought Al Gore was an asshole and Kerry was a stiff. They're not too crazy about Obama, either.

So there's the answer, Democrats. If you want to win, nominate someone who keeps it real, 'cause America likes her candidates a little on the trashy side.



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Tech note: RSS feed

If you are like me and you like the internets to come to you, just use our handy RSS feed:

feed://closetmoderate.blogspot.com/atom.xml

If you bookmark that, it will automagically update when there is a new post, so you don't have to spend all day hitting refresh and sending those tiny dump trucks back and forth, using up our most precious natural resource, electrons. 

-FSH


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Sunday, September 14, 2008

The hell with the LHC. Let's fix something in space!

You all have probably heard of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) by now. It's basically the mac-dad of all particle accelerators, and they just fired up the 8 gigadollar (-ish) French machine this week. There was a little kerfuffle (I am still bewildered that this word is in common usage...) when someone decided that they thought (for no particularly good reason) that it might make tiny black holes which would swallow the earth. So that's been in the news too, god help us consumers of mass media.

Thing is, the LHC was designed for one purpose: search and destroy. Wait, that's those Setinels from the Matrix. No, the main purpose of the LHC is to "bag the Higgs". This is cool-kids physics-talk for creating and measuring the Higgs Boson. I am no particle physics pro (unlike my namesake), but I've taken enough fancy classes to decode things from the Higgs wikipedia page, so you don't have to read about how it  "spontaneously breaks the electroweak gauge symmetry". 

One question  that has always irked people in particle physics is why particles have the masses they do. Each particle, each with it's own wacky particle physics name (can I interest you in a strange quark? How about a Z boson? An anti-tau lepton?) , has some mass, but it's never really been clear why. The standard model by which we understand how these particles interact, which got pretty well nailed down in the 60s and 70s, needs the Higgs field (of which the Higgs is a member) to lend mass to these suckers. Oddly, the mass of this Higgs particle itself is itself is not dictated by theory, but previous experiments have shown that it is above 2x10^-25 kilograms. Or 112 Giga( sure, go ahead and pronounce it 'jigga': it's an acceptable pronunciation , and you've earned it) electron-volts (GeV), if you want to chat up a particle physicist. We do seem to know from theory that it should be less than 1000 Gev (a TeV).

So here's the thing. The LHC should, over time, bag the Higgs. And the standard model will be complete. We'll finally know that the Higgs has a mass of 621 GeV (or whatever it is, but that's what I have in the office pool). Unfortunately, that's just not that interesting. Indeed, a result wherein we rule out the existence of the Higgs below 1 TeV would be much more interesting, shattering our understanding of how particle physics works and sending my snooty colleagues back to the drawing board. But nobody really thinks that's going to happen.

To be fair, the LHC is supposed to investigate a lot of things by smashing protons into each other - quark-gluon plasmas, dark matter, etc. But the fact that it's main goal is to put the capstone on the Standard Model should tell you, dear reader, that particle physics is kinda dead. The 20th century (again, in particular, the 60s and 70s) saw a huge number of gorgeous interweaving theories created and proved and a number of very beautiful and well-designed experiments carried out. I salute you all. But here in the future, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of interesting work being done in particle physics, perhaps because we just don't have the power to access yet higher-energy particles in the lab anymore. To get the Higgs is gonna cost 8 billion dollars (at least) - one can imagine what going to even higher energy (particle mass) will cost. The paper that publishes the Higgs discovery will probably have 1000+ authors on it, and while it will be an achievement to be sure, it may not capture the imagination the way Feynman and friends did all those decades ago with their cloud chambers, bongo drums and roguish good looks.

Fear not, my friends, Hubble Space Telescope to the rescue! I must admit, I was once a Hubble hater - my thinking at the time was that while it is a great telescope, it was just too expensive. A prof of mine once told me that by the time Hubble was launched and fixed it had cost as much of the rest of the history of Astronomy combined. That's right, as much as the mighty Keck telescopes + the Arecibo 305m radio antenna + however much money Tycho Brahe paid his psychic dwarf Jepp on his dystopian island in Denmark ( I am not making this up) + my summer salary hanging out in the basement of Princeton's astro department and then some. While this of course depends upon a lot of possibly inaccurate accounting, the fact that someone could even make this claim makes one realize how much it cost to put a fancy telescope in space and service it with astronauts. 

A few things changed my mind. A big one is that NASA would exist without it, and they'd just be doing more idiotic things in space otherwise. Dr. Lasswell and I differ on the purpose and value of manned spaceflight, but we don't disagree that NASA wastes a hell of a lot of money (on the scale of science, not on the scale of the DoD or healthcare) doing stupid shit, like, say, I dunno, the fucking international space station. I will save that rant for another post, but the point is money in space costs less because it's keeping our braintrust of aerospace engineers entertained, and we may need them someday to build an even cooler super weapon to blow up the moon, when we get into our next war with the ruskies. Or whatever. So they may as well get paid to make a cool telescope. 

Another thing that changed my mind is all the totally rad results that have come out of Hubble lately. There basically does not exist a field of astrophysics that hasn't been upended one way other another by a Hubble discovery. Dark matter, dark energy, galaxy evolution, extra-solar planets, dwarf galaxies, star formation, you name it. Other rad space telescopes have done some pretty sweet stuff (go check out Chandra and Spitzer, and their new buddy Fermi), but the unique capacity of Hubble to be upgraded has meant that it has always been on the cutting edge. So I gotta hand it to the good people at NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute - Hubble is one badass mahfahkie. 

One major difference between these two ~10 gigadollar experiments (the LHC and Hubble) is that Hubble is very, very multipurpose, and is accessible to a large chunk of the astro community. While some of the "experiments" done with Hubble were envisioned when the telescope and instruments were being designed, most of the cool observations that have been done with it came from small groups of smart people kicking ideas around the fax machine. That is the hallmark of a field in it's heyday. The LHC, on the other hand, is not that kind of party - it is designed to answer a small suite of questions, most of which (as I outlined above) are "How massive is the Higgs?". And if you haven't had your fax-machine chat with your fellow few-hundred particle physicists already, chances are you aren't going to get to run your project on the LHC anytime soon.

This brings us to my point. You should not get excited about the LHC getting switched on - it's not going to kill us, but it will probably kill the last interesting thing in particle physics. Instead, you should get pumped about Hubble Servicing Mission 4 (SM4), which is going to start on October 8th, last 11 days, involve numerous death-defying (we hope) spacewalks and be directed by Michael Bay. While I know many of you have policies against clicking on Micheal Bay's name, the attached video is some of the best NASA-porn I have ever encountered, and it is actually rather informative. You get to learn about all the stunts they are going to try to pull and a little about what kind of science gets done with Hubble. Although, I must admit I could do with a couple fewer "This is the fanciest X we have ever put on Hubble" and "This Y will look further into the Universe than we have ever seen before". The first is obvious and the second is pretty much wrong and not half as cool as the stuff they are actually going to do with the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and the fixed Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS).

So, cross your fingers and raise a glass to the astronauts and engineers who are going to put one of history's greatest science experiments back into the action! Huzzah!

-FSH


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A Modest Proposal

We have a teaching crisis in America. Public school teachers are underpaid but receive a great deal of job security in exchange; naturally, then, people who think they need job security end up becoming teachers, and one reason people think they need job security is because they know themselves to be poor workers. Thus, you end up with lots of low-quality teachers, which is bad in and of itself, but also means that public school teachers tend to be held in low regard as a profession, which further discourages high-ability people from becoming teachers and further lowers the quality of the profession as well as the regard in which teachers are held.

There are a couple possible solutions. Some namby-pamby types suggest we should weaken the teacher's unions and institute merit pay; others want to bring prestige back to the profession through organizations like Teach For America, which use a highly competitive selection process (this bloggard was rejected in his bid to enlighten the children of Las Vegas about prime numbers) to allow high-ability teachers to easily distinguish themselves from the low-ability herd; no one, to my knowledge, has suggested that we rerestrict women's occupational choices, forcing Meg Whitman, Hillary Clinton, and Venus Williams back into the classroom to use their powers to teach our children how to not eat paste, but that would probably work too.

I, however, propose a bolder solution. What we should do is start paying teachers more based on the size of their penises, maybe something on the order of 1000 dollars per year per inch. This will attract men with big dicks to the teaching profession, especially since large penises are not generally a characteristic you can get paid for (outside of a few obvious routes), and it will also attract men without large penises, since people will expect that teachers have large penises and men generally enjoy being perceived to have large penises. While this will not exactly restore "prestige" to the profession, it will increase the number of applicants for teaching jobs, allowing schools to hire generally higher-quality teachers.

Actually, this woud probably be best instituted as a quota or a penis-length average, since that would be cheaper, and would remove the perverse incentive for schools to hire applicants with small penises under the subsidy.

At any rate, I think this would handily solve our educational problems in America, while promoting the traditional American values of rugged individualism and large wangs.

STUDY QUESTIONS:
- Generally, subsidies and taxes work better than quotas. What makes a quota better in this case?
- What other professions could benefit from a penis-length subsidy?
- What characteristics, besides penis-length, could we subsidize for a similar benefit? Such a characteristic must be valuable to be perceived to have but non-monetizable, and casually unobservable but quantifiable and measureable.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

America junior

With all the hot air being expended over our Presidential content, it may have escaped some folks' notice that our northern neighbor will be holding an election this fall as well. Like their Thanksgiving, Canadians will have their election a month early, in October. Under their Parliamentary system, the date for an election is not fixed, so the timing is a political choice. The Conservative Party (currently in power) is running well in the polls, so now might be a good time for them. Also, if they had waited too long, the election would have been held in winter, which they apparently frown upon up there.

Like a lot of Americans, I find the fact that a political leader gets to set the timing of the election to be a bit unseemly. I like that ours are on a regular rotation, so no one side gains advantage.

On the other hand, calling the election the way they do ensures an abbreviated campaigning season, which is something that America lacks. This current election campaign has been going on since Obama was born, I think, and even a political junkie like me gets sick of it after a while. I don't see how we could impose the same restrictions under our system since (1) everyone knows the election is coming, and (2) there is no Constitutional way to stop people from campaigning before a certain date.

Despite the differences, I think the parallels will be interesting, especially since Canadians are dealing with many of the same issues we are, including an incumbent center-right government in a worsening economy. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent to our Vice President there, so there is no chance that we'll get to see how they deal with the choice between a sexy governor from the Yukon and a blowhard Senator from Prince Edward Island.

UPDATE: Kate Beaton has a cartoon about it.

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James Fallows On My Dick

James Fallows makes similar points, without the use of the Terminator. We are therefore reluctantly forced to regard his post as inferior. But seriously, read it. It's a good post.

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Ahoy!

I had planned to write an opening post explaining the purpose of this new blog, but my colleague, Statler, beat me to it by posting a substantive post. Well, that's life in the internets. I wholeheartedly endorse the Terminator analogy, as well.

Here, in any event, is my belated welcome to this new experiment in collaborative blogging. The name of the blog -- The Closet Moderate -- is of indeterminate provenance, but is believed by scholars to indicate that the authors wish to encourage thoughtful and reasonable reading and writing of blog posts, even when that might lead one to stray from his original ideas and principals.

The bloggers here are of varied political stripes, but that does not mean we intend to create a situation like that of cable news programs, where a leftist asshole and a rightist asshole talk past each other for thirty minutes. We, like most folks, don't always fit into the pigeonholes of American political parties, and we hope that the spirited conversations of the blogosphere will lead some of you, and some of us, to change your minds from time to time.

Perhaps two months before a Presidential election is not the most auspicious time to tell Americans (and those who observe the American political process) to step back from your barricades and embrace your inner centrist. But this is when we thought of it, so fuck it, let's do this.

On behalf of my fellow bloggards, welcome to The Closet Moderate.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Terminator (1984) Teaches Just War Theory

Now, anyone who's taught anything in a formal (in other words, graded) environment is intimately familiar with the expression on Sarah Palin's face when she's asked about the Bush Doctrine. It's the expression every student wears when they're asked a question they have no fucking idea how to answer. It's the facial analogue to the thought "Oh fuck, I'm fucked now. Time to look attentive and talk about something vaguely related to the question and see if I can salvage anything from this mess." We've all worn it, and we've all seen others wear it.

Still, seeing someone who could potentially be President of the United States of America wearing it when confronted with a fairly elementary foreign policy question does not inspire a great deal of confidence.

That aside, Sarah Palin's interview provides the opportunity for me to do one of my favorite things: explain irritatingly complex concepts in a simple fashion using pop-culture iconography. So, when Mrs. Palin is asked about the Bush Doctrine, her response is:

"Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend."

That statement actually makes a terrifying amount of sense, and is a position well-supported by international law and just war theory. It's a sane position to take. The problem is, it's not the Bush Doctrine. The Bush Doctrine is about preventive war, not preemptive war. The crucial difference is the idea of "imminence." Arnold Schwarzenegger will explain, in the thickest Austrian accent he can muster (you might want to read this section aloud for maximum enjoyment):

CM: So, Arnold, when you were sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, would that be analogous to preemptive or preventive war?

AS: That would be a lot like preventive war. You see, the goal was to terminate Sarah Connor in order to prevent John Connor from being born, thereby ending the threat he would later pose to Skynet as an adult leader of the resistance. Paradoxically, our attempt to kill Sarah Connor ended up creating exactly the situation we were trying to prevent. [ironic, vaguely threatening laughter] However, the situation was a little more complicated because of time travel--I had certain knowledge that John Connor would be a threat to Skynet because I came from the future.

CM: And why would that course of action be frowned upon in the international community?

AS: Well, you see, in a world as complex as ours it is hard to accurately project the costs and consequences of our actions over a long period of time. If a nearly omniscient and singleminded artificial intelligence and its time-traveling nearly-indestructible cyborg assassin couldn't prevent one measly human female from conceiving a rebel leader, what hope can there be for a disjointed herd of puny humans striving to accomplish a far more ambitious goal? And, in the meantime, I murdered a lot of innocent people who were only tangentially related to event I was programmed to prevent.

CM: You the terminator, or you the Governor of California?

AS: Yes.

CM [Nervously]: So, uh, can you give us an analogy or example of preemptive war?

AS: You will remember that scene in the nightclub when I am advancing on Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese is at the bar, and he shoots me with the sawed-off shotgun right before I shoot her with my gun? That is preemptive war. I am about to kill her, and Kyle has a limited number of options and a sharply limited timeframe in which to consider them. In other words, the threat to his charge is imminent. In this case, his application of force against my robust hyperalloy endoskeleton was his only hope for seizing the element of surprise and perhaps disrupting the otherwise imminent termination of Sarah Connor and thus protected under international and intertemporal law.

The next time you're hitting on a hot chick at an IR conference and she flips her hair and asks you what the difference between prevention and preemption is, you can refer back to this handy explanation and work your best Ahnold impression. And who knows? She might even overlook your flabby midsection, pasty skin and watery, nearsighted eyes and decide to go for it.

Nah.

[Crossposted to From the Balcony.]

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Delightfully Tacky, Yet Unrefined

Does Sarah Palin have "foreign policy experience?" Honestly, I can't believe this is even a question. Let's take a moment to savor some of the arguments advanced by the GOP and various talking heads.

1. Sarah Palin has FPE because Alaska is next to Russia.

2. Sarah Palin has FPE because Alaska is next to Russia. [Cindy McCain Trance Remix]

I'll address these two "arguments" together. I'm man enough to admit that from time to time I wake up sweating in the night, my sleep disturbed by a vision of Putin's long and sinister shadow obscuring the moonlight from my bedroom window. But let's be clear, that shadow is cast from Moscow and not Kamchatka. Alaska has as much to fear from the USSR Russian Federation as Los Angeles had to fear from the Boer War.

3. Sarah Palin has FPE because she is Commander in Chief of the Alaskan National Guard [Tucker Bounds: America's Strategic Schadenfreude Reserve]

As Campbell Brown so ably points out, overseas deployment of the National Guard is handled by the Pentagon, not Sarah Palin. And, as he was happy to clarify, the commander of the AKNG also has a fairly substantial say in what his men and women do with themselves.

4. Sarah Palin has FPE because she learned it through osmosis.

Learning through osmosis was my undergraduate euphemism for "sleeping through calculus class." To put this absurdity in perspective, a former roommate of mine has a Jindo that was bred in South Korea. Now, if we're going to subscribe to the "clouds of foreign policy expertise clustered around foreign hotspots" theory it would seem like we might reasonably expect there to be great roiling fogs of it throughout Korea. Seems like that dog ought to be up to speed on theories of deterrence, nuclear nonproliferation policy and the balance of power in Northeast Asia. Except, OH WAIT THAT'S NOT HOW SHIT WORKS! DOGS CAN'T TALK!

But seriously, I've spend a lot of time in planes, where the air is positively thick with aeronautical expertise. I still look out the window at the flaps and think "how quaint, the wings are moving." And I'm sure the world is just full of people who spend a significant portion of their days riding around in cars and have accordingly developed vast reserves of mechanical expertise. So let's be clear:

THAT BULLSHIT IS BULLSHIT.

[Crossposted to From the Balcony.]

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