Archives: 12/2015

Science Fiction Authors Lost in the Myths of the 1950s

I’ve been watching “Childhood’s End” on the SyFy channel this week. I remember the book, a 1953 novel by Arthur C. Clarke, being a big deal when I was in junior high school. My bookish friends and I all read it. But I had little memory of the plot, so watching the show is an entirely new experience. It’s well done, mysterious, maybe a little slow. But I noticed one thing that reminds me that it was written by a British author educated in the first half of the 20th century.

The technologically superior alien Overlords arrive, take control of earth, and impose their rule on us without any real challenge. They announce that they will end war, poverty, and injustice. And they do, just like that. Sure, a few cranks in the #freedomleague complain that we’re not free, but nobody denies the peace, abundance, and good health that the Overlords have delivered. Earthlings don’t even have to work any more. That is, the book and the miniseries don’t even stop to ponder whether absolute centralized government – terrestrial or alien – could deliver more peace, harmony, and abundance than a market system. It’s just taken for granted. 

And that’s a common theme in mid-century sci-fi. In his Foundation series, Isaac Asimov imagined a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory that could predict the future. Because human action, taken en masse, can be predicted for millennia.

And as I wrote on Ira Levin’s death, his wonderful libertarian novel This Perfect Day reflected similar assumptions about centralization and government planning. The novel is set 141 years after the Unification, the establishment of a world government guided by a central computer. The computer, Uni, provides all the members of the human race with everything they need - food, shelter, employment, psychotherapy, and monthly “treatments” that include vaccines, contraceptives, tranquilizers, a drug to prevent messy beard growth, and a medication that reduces aggressiveness and limits the sex drive. Everyone loves Uni, which gives them everything they could want, except for a few hardy rebels who just value freedom.

Venezuela v. Reality

Over a month ago — when Venezuelan’s were still living under the heel of Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist party — Ilya Shapiro and I had a very interesting meeting with the folks behind DolarToday.  As the Wikipedia article concerning it explains, DolarToday  “is an American [nota bene] website that focuses on Latin American politics and finance.  The company is more known for being an exchange rate reference to the Venezuelan bolívar, a currency which is not freely convertible.”

My reason for attending the meeting was obvious enough: Venezuela has recently been suffering from the world’s highest inflation rate, making the Banco Central de Venezuela, Venezuela’s government-owned central bank, the current poster-child for government abuse of fiat money.  Ilya, on the other hand, was there because, besides being a senior fellow in Constitutional Studies at Cato and editor-in-chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review, he’s a lawyer.

You see, the Banco Central de Venezuela decided to sue DolarToday for “destabilizing” Venezuela’s currency.  That is, it claimed that the website, far from merely reporting the bolívar’s deterioration, was to blame for that deterioration and also for Venezuela’s general economic decline.

But hold on: doesn’t Wikipedia call DolarToday an “American” website?  It does indeed, and quite correctly.  The site is both Delaware-based and owned by U.S. citizens, who started it back in 2010.  But that hasn’t stopped the Venezuelan authorities from trying to shut it down, by filing their suit in Delaware’s U.S. District Court.

Lunch with Richard Leakey

The first issue of the Financial Time’s FTWeekend in December 2015 featured its regular “Lunch with the FT.” Richard Leakey was Clive Cookson’s luncheon guest, and Cookson’s account was appropriately titled “From Fossils to Film Stars.” Yes, Leakey, an accomplished paleontologist and son of Louis and Mary Leakey, has, like his parents, made many headline-grabbing fossil finds. He has also rubbed elbows with plenty of film stars. Just last month, Angelina Jolie and Leakey were in London, where they discussed plans for a movie in which Brad Pitt will portray Leakey.

At 70 years of age, Leakey is still going strong. Among other things, he is busy building the Turkana Basin Institute, which he founded, into a world-class research center on the site in northern Kenya where the Leakeys made many notable discoveries, including an almost complete 1.6 million-year-old skeleton known as Turkana Boy. But that’s not all Leakey is up to. Recently, he was appointed by President Uhuru Kenyatta to chair the Kenya Wildlife Service, which Leakey founded and served as director-general from 1989-1994.

In addition to paleontology, Leakey has a passion for wildlife conservation. I learned of this during my first lunch with him in the spring of 1972. It was then that the anthropologist Neville Dyson-Hudson, an expert on East African pastoral peoples, and I broke bread with Leakey at the Johns Hopkins Faculty Club in Baltimore. I anticipated plenty of paleontology and anthropology, but those weren’t on the menu. The conversation quickly turned to the topic that most interested Leakey, and as it turns out, the reason why my former colleague Dyson-Hudson had invited me to lunch in the first place: the economics of natural resources.

Leakey had a vision of land use and wildlife resources in East Africa. His observation was that the East African savannahs were, in large part, common property resources. In addition, Leakey noted that the wildlife that roamed over these vast savannahs were fugitive common property resources. He concluded that, unless property rights could be established, both the savannahs and wildlife would eventually be destroyed. For him, this would be a great tragedy not only for the wildlife, but also the indigenous peoples living off the lands in East Africa.

Massive Natural pH Fluctuations Do Not Inhibit Marine Life in a Coastal Environment

According to four American researchers–(Baumann et al. (2015))–projections of ocean acidification, in which the average pH of the open ocean is predicted to decline by 0.3 pH unit over the next century, have “heightened the need to better understand the sensitivity of marine organisms to low pH conditions.” As a result, numerous ocean acidification experiments have been conducted on various marine organisms, producing a wide range of results. This “complexity of organism responses to elevated CO2,” continue Baumann et al., “appears to stem, in part, from insufficient knowledge and thus appreciation of the scales of natural pH variability experienced by marine organisms in their habitats.” Coastal environments, for example, generally experience greater fluctuations in pH than the open ocean. And since the majority of ecologically and economically important marine species spend a vast portion of their life cycles in coastal environments, the authors say there is a great need to “characterize [such] marine habitats in terms of their short- and long-term pH variability.”

In an effort to fill this knowledge gap, this team of researchers embarked on a journey to “characterize the patterns and magnitudes of diel [daily], seasonal, and interannual fluctuations in pH and dissolved oxygen (DO) in an undisturbed tidal salt marsh adjacent to Long Island Sound, using a multiyear, high-frequency data set.” Flax Pond (40.96°N, 73.14°W), a one square kilometer tidal salt marsh located on the north shore of Long Island Sound, served as the specific study site where data were collected between April 2008 and November 2012. And what did those data reveal?

As shown in Figure 1, large fluctuations in pH occurred at Flax Pond on both daily and seasonal time scales. The daily pH range varied from a low of 0.22 unit during the winter to a high of 0.74 unit in the summer. Seasonally, the highest pH values occurred in February (average of 8.19) and the lowest values (average of 7.59) occurred in August. Thus, average pH conditions in Flax Pond “decline from early spring until late summer by approximately 0.6 units” and “average diel [daily] pH fluctuations exceed 0.7 units and commonly approach one unit of magnitude in July and August.” Yet even more extreme fluctuations in pH were found to occur within a single tidal cycle. The right panel of Figure 1 presents a three-day record of detailed measurements that reveal a pCO2 fluctuation “between ~350 µatm and nearly 4,000 µatm within one tidal cycle.” Thus, within a few short hours, the marine life within Flax Pond was subjected to a pH fluctuation that reached values as low as 6.9, which is nearly 1 full pH unit below the predicted decline by the end of this century.

U.S. Military Should Do Less, Not Spend More

Much is said these days about the mismatch of missions and resources for the military. A recent Rand Corporation report warned that failing to deploy a large enough Army could “lead to a failure of the U.S. strategy and subsequent regret.”

But as I point out in National Interest online, “the solution is not to spend more. It is to reassess foreign policy objectives. Better to scale back an over-ambitious strategy than to waste scarce resources pursuing dubious goals.”

For instance, Rand pointed to 2007-2008, when the Bush administration decided to increase combat forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The report explained: “Unfortunately, insufficient ground forces existed to meet the demands in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Yet what was achieved by both of these wars? The disastrous Iraq invasion was misguided from the start. Little more has been achieved in Afghanistan after14 year of nation-building.

The problem was not too few troops. It was the wrong objectives.

Secret Policy to Ignore Social Media? Not So Fast

There is a supposed “secret policy” that prevented consular and immigration officers from checking Tashfeen Malik’s social media accounts where she wrote about jihad (possibly under a pseudonym or in personal messages).  If her statements were discovered then she would have been denied a visa, preventing the atrocity.  This is getting a lot of attention on blogs and Secretary Jeh Johnson responded by saying that there are certain limits that probably apply to personal messages although he’s unclear. 

After following this controversy, I heard from six different immigration attorneys that there is no such secret policy and their clients’ routinely have their social media accounts checked by immigration officials – or at least have heard of it happening. 

The Waste in Washington Never Stops

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) follows retired Tom Coburn in reporting on the ludicrous waste of taxpayer dollars in Washington with “Wastebook 2015: The Farce Awakens.” Alas, the waste never sleeps, despite the supposed austerity that we hear so much about.

For instance, the National Institutes of Health spent about $10 million on studies of monkeys on treadmills. The results are to help “address physiological responses of exercise in a marmoset model.”

The Agency for International Development dropped $2.1 million on tourism promotion for Lebanon. Last May the State Department issued a travel advisory urging Americans to avoid this neighbor of Syria “because of ongoing safety and security concerns.”

The National Institutes of Health used $5 million to convince “hipsters” to stop smoking. Parties were organized for and payments were made to persuade Hipsters to quit tobacco.

The National Science Foundation provided $5 million to figure out how long a “koozie” would keep a beer cold. Researchers instructed drinkers not to wipe off condensation drops, which would warm the drink.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse spent almost $1 million to learn that pizza may be as addictive as crack cocaine. At least to college students. Perhaps the Obama administration plans a War on Pizza?

The Department of Agriculture (known as USDA) devoted $119 million in 2015 to underwrite the tobacco industry. Whose prime product the government is paying Hipsters not to use.