Ramesh Ponnuru, a somewhat respectable conservative, has published a book titled “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life”.
I have nothing newsworthy to say about the claim that the Democrats are a party of death. What puzzles me is why Republicans think they should be considered opponents of a culture of death. I haven’t heard any leading Republicans criticize Leon Kass, who recently served as chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics under Bush, for statements such as:
the finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not.
See this article for a longer version of his argument that people ought to die.
I wonder if what Ponnuru really means is that the Democrats are a party of unnatural death, whereas the Republicans are a party of natural death.
A recent report says that switching from a meat-heavy diet to a vegetarian diet is as valuable for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions as switching to driving the right car. And that if you eat fish, switching from large fish to things like sardines and anchovies makes a big difference.
I’m unsure whether to believe the magnitudes of the differences, but the general idea appears right.
I went to an interesting talk Wednesday by the CTO of D-Wave. He indicated that their quantum computing hardware is working well enough that their biggest problems are understanding how to use them and explaining that to potential customers.
This implies that they are much further advanced than the impressions I’ve gotten from sources unconnected with D-Wave suggest is plausible. D-Wave is being sufficiently secretive that I can’t put too much confidence in what they imply, but the degree of secrecy doesn’t seem unusual, and I don’t see any major reasons to doubt them other than the fact that they’re way ahead of what I gather many experts in the field think is possible. Steve Jurvetson’s investment in D-Wave several years ago is grounds for taking them fairly seriously.
The implications if this is real are concentrated in a few special applications (quantum computing sounds even more special purpose than I had previously realized), but for molecular modelling (and fields that depend on it such as drug discovery) it means some really important changes. Modelling that previously required enormous amounts of cpu power and expertise to produce imperfect approximations will apparently now require little more than the time and expertise needed to program a quantum computer (plus whatever exorbitant fees D-Wave charges).
Book Review: When Genius Failed : The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by Roger Lowenstein
This is a very readable and mostly convincing account of the rise and fall of Long-Term Capital Management. It makes it clear to me how the fairly common problem of success breeding overconfidence led LTCM to make unreasonable gambles, and why other financial institutions that risked their money by dealing with LTCM failed to require it to exercise a normal degree of caution.
The book occasionally engages in some minor exaggerations that suggest the author is a journalist rather than an expert in finance, but mostly the book appears a good deal more accurate and informed than I expect from a reporter. It is written so that both experts and laymen will enjoy it.
One passage stands out as unusually remarkable. “The traders hadn’t seen a move like that – ever. True, it had happened in 1987 and again in 1992. But Long-Term’s models didn’t go back that far.” This is really peculiar mistake. The people involved appeared to have enough experience to realize the need to backtest their models better than that. I’m disappointed that the book fails to analyze how this misjudgment was possible.
Also, the author spends a bit too much analysis on LTCM’s overconfidence in their models, when his reporting suggests that a good deal of the problem was due to trading that wasn’t supported by any model.
Book Review: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris
This book is an eloquent but not entirely convincing diatribe against tolerating religious faith.
He correctly points out that Christian and Muslim beliefs, when taken to their logical conclusion, are both dangerous and illogical in ways that would provoke appropriate contempt in almost any other context. He concludes that it is unwise to leave the irrationalities of moderate religious people unchallenged.
But he fails to convince me because his argument depends on the assumption that religious moderates have enough desire for logical consistency about their religious beliefs to make their illogic dangerous. I suspect that dividing the moderates from the religious extremists is a more productive strategy than Harris expects, because moderates are more willing to be inconsistent about their religious beliefs than Harris realizes.
Harris claims that suicide terrorists are strong evidence of the dangers of religious faith. But he seems unfamiliar with the strong arguments by Robert Pape that similar terrorism comes from secular groups (e.g. the Marxist Tamils), and that the common denominator for such terrorists is a dispute over territory.
His view of the average citizen of Iran as a brainwashed hostage is potentially quite dangerous.
The author occasionally sounds like he has beliefs that are based on faith rather than reason. For instance, he says “you will definitely die at some moment in the future” and then repeats that that “is not open to any doubt at all”, but provides no hint of a scientific argument that would justify this unusual degree of certainty.
The books contains a number of interesting tidbits, such as the theory that the Koran’s alleged promise of many virgins in the afterlife really meant a promise of white raisins. But he also spends too much verbiage on some rather unoriginal diatribes against a rather arbitrary collection of Republican policies.