Computers V. The Human Mind

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 9:06 PM EDT

800px-Columbia_Supercomputer_-_NASA_Advanced_Supercomputing_Facility.jpg The race is on. Will computers able to make 1 quadrillion calculations per second convince us to make up our minds and do something about climate change?

Four of the brainiest centers on Earth* have received a $1.4 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to generate new climate models using new "petascale" computers that make ordinary supercomputers look like 90-pound weaklings.

"The limiting factor to more reliable climate predictions at higher resolution is not scientific ideas, but computational capacity to implement those ideas," said Jay Fein, program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

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Climate Crisis Needs Brilliant Minds

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 8:05 PM EDT

Aktivitaethinten.jpg The most brilliant minds should be directed to solving Earth's greatest challenges. So says Sir David King, former UK chief scientist, in remarks to the British Association Science Festival. He suggests we spend less time and money on space exploration and particle physics and more on climate change, reports the BBC.

"The challenges of the 21st Century are qualitatively different from anything that we've had to face up to before," he said. "This requires a rethink of priorities in science and technology and a redrawing of our society's inner attitudes towards science and technology."

His remarks come just as the UK is celebrating the Large Hadron Collider, the world's biggest physics experiment, deigned to understand why matter has mass. The UK has contributed $900 million to the LHC, the most ever invested by that country in a single science project. "I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilization is really crucial," he said.

A Liberal's Confession on Sarah Palin

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 7:32 PM EDT

After spending two days sheepishly defending the Lipstick Pitbull to women less liberal than myself, it's time to 'fess up: I kinda like Sarah Palin.

It's a shameful admission to be sure, far worse than an abiding love of Miracle Whip in the Slow Food Nation foodie heartland. But how can you not like a woman who calls herself a pitbull and makes it sound charming?

I'd been baffled by the drinkers of 2000, who for some reason thought W would be a fun guy to get a beer with, and that that was reason enough for the ill-prepared guv to lead.

But Palin's the Mommy Track'd equivalent, and I get it now. The woman has five kids, a full time job, and a sense of humor. Really? You don't want to at least sit down with her for a cup of tea?

Yes, I disagree with her on every issue I care about (and several I don't). No, I don't like her policy, her history, or her hairstyle—and I don't want her running my country. But I wouldn't mind her in my moms' group.

The Dems would be wise to make her look less charismatic somehow, and fast. Or at least stop yammering on about her parenting choices, so I can stop defending them.

Gaffe Watch

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 5:39 PM EDT

GAFFE WATCH....Sarah Palin, peeking out from a thicket of pre-scripted talking points in Colorado Springs, goes off message briefly and explains what went wrong in the home mortgage market:

The fact is, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they've gotten too big and too expensive to the taxpayers.

A gaffe! But how does it measure up? On a technical basis, I'd say it's impressive. Until now, Fannie and Freddie haven't cost the taxpayers a dime and their current problems aren't really related to their size either. This leaves only a few conjunctions and proper names as sensible parts of this sentence.

On artistic merit, however, the judges have to score this one for Palin. Nobody cares about the minutiae of how GSEs work, after all, and liberal attacks on this score are almost certain to backfire because (a) we're obviously harrassing her unfairly over trivia because she's a small town mom and (b) we're just trying to show off how smart we are. Besides, as Palin said, John McCain is in favor of "reforming things," so he's obviously the right guy to tackle whatever problem it is that Fannie and Freddie suffer from. For liberal critics, then, there's no there there.

Actually, what's really impressive about this is that even though Palin obviously didn't know what she was talking about, she managed to dig smoothly into the standard movement conservative playbook to say something pleasing to the base anyway. Got a problem? It must be government's fault! Something somewhere got too big and too expensive and conservatives need to rein it in. Nice work.

Anyway, I'm sure more like this will crop up soon. In the meantime, though, I'll be a little quiet for the rest of the afternoon because the U.S. Open is um, I mean, because I have some important research to do for an upcoming article. Yeah. That's what I meant.


| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 1:25 PM EDT

MEANWHILE....Over in Thailand, it's possible that a constitutional crisis will be averted because the prime minister also hosts a cooking program on state TV. From the Guardian's report, here's a sentence you don't see every day:

The cooking show, Tasting, Grumbling, a mix of tips on traditional Thai cooking and rants on subjects of his choosing, represents the most immediate threat to his power.

That's right. If a court rules that Samak Sundaravej's show violates the constitution, then he'll be out of office with no muss and no fuss. Perhaps we could import a similar system into our country?

Why Every Liberal in Your Office Is Depressed Today

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 12:58 PM EDT

A new USA Today/Gallup poll has McCain leading Obama 50-46 among registered voters and a stunning 54-44 among likely voters. USA Today points out, a bit incoherently, that the convention has seriously energized the Republican base: "Republicans by 47%-39% were less enthusiastic than usual about voting. Now, they are more enthusiastic by 60%-24%, a sweeping change that narrows a key Democratic advantage."

There are a number of reasons not to freak out, of course. A lot can change between now and November, polling isn't everything, Gallup isn't super-reliable, the debates are an X-factor, yada yada yada. I suspect that won't be calming a lot of fluttering hearts. Maybe this will: Obama still holds a decisive lead in the electoral college tally.

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The Expectations Game

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 12:30 PM EDT

THE EXPECTATIONS GAME....Time's Karen Tumulty says that Sarah Palin was very good in her 2006 gubernatorial debate and offers this advice:

That's why Joe Biden should be wary, especially since she will have expectations very much in her favor.

I know this is a dumb question, but why exactly should expectations be in her favor? It's true that she's going to be relying on four weeks of intensive briefing rather than a lifetime of experience, but high school juniors do this in debate competitions all the time. There's really not much reason to think that's a big problem. And all the other critiques of Palin (Bridge to Nowhere, Troopergate, book banning, tax raising, lack of vetting, etc.) have nothing to do with whether she's likely to be effective in debate.

Conversely, it's almost universally acknowledged that (a) Palin is a natural politician and a good speaker, (b) she has a nice folksy manner, (c) Biden has a lifelong habit of running off at the mouth, and (d) he's going to have to walk on eggshells to keep from looking like a boor who's hammering away at a poor little housewife from Wasilla. Given all this, why is the press once again playing the game of insisting that the Republican candidate will be the de facto winner if she merely avoids catastrophe? I mean, I know that's the spin coming out of Steve Schmidt's shop, but it's not really true, is it? The fact is that, all things considered, Palin is the favorite in this contest — though perhaps also a bit of a wild card since catastrophe is always a possibility for someone so new to the national stage.

In any case, this game ought to cease. There's simply no reason that Palin's expectations should be low for October's debate. If anything, it probably ought to be the other way around.

The Bailout

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 12:10 PM EDT

THE BAILOUT....So what would have happened if we'd just let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fail? I mean, we've got to draw the line somewhere, right? Tyler Cowen provides the nightmare scenario:

But let's say that the Treasury did not support the debt of the mortgage agencies. The Chinese bought over $300 billion of that stuff and they were told that it is essentially riskless. The flow of capital from them and from other central banks, sovereign wealth funds, and plain old ordinary investors would shut down very quickly. The dollar would fall say 30-40 percent in a week, there would be payments system gridlock, margin calls at the clearinghouses would go unmet, and only a trading shutdown would stop the Dow from shedding half its value. Most of the U.S. banking system would be insolvent. Emergency Fed/Treasury action would recapitalize the FDIC but we would lose an independent central bank and setting the money supply would be a crapshoot. The rate of unemployment would climb into double digits and stay there. Many Americans would not have access to their savings. The future supply of foreign investment would be noticeably lower. The Federal government would lose its AAA rating and we would pay much more in borrowing costs. The deficit would skyrocket.

Well, um, OK then. I guess rescuing them was the right thing to do. I'm still a little taken aback by the apparent fact that American banks are now almost flatly unwilling to make mortgage loans unless they're backed by Fannie or Freddie, but that seems to be the case whether it takes me aback or not. So rescue them we must. I suppose my next question is whether it's worth thinking about how to restructure the American home mortgage industry so that it can operate efficiently even in the absence of massive levels of government backup. Or is Fannie/Freddie style backup just the way the world works these days and there's no point fussing over it?

Biden Addresses (and Readdresses) Partition in Iraq

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 11:44 AM EDT

I wrote before Joe Biden was picked for VP that his endgame for Iraq appeared fundamentally at odds with Obama's. That has changed: Biden has softened his support for a plan to partition Iraq into three sect-based regions and has embraced Obama's plan to withdraw combat troops in 16 months. A Biden insider told Politico, "There's no daylight between these guys on Iraq now. None."

But things are not so simple in Joe Biden's brain. Asked to comment on the one-time disagreement, Biden spoke for 13 minutes and 20 seconds. ABC News has the full response. It's really something to behold, and touches on almost every aspect of the war in Iraq. The overarching point that Biden makes is, "Withdrawal by itself doesn't work. Partition by itself doesn't work. Staying the course by itself doesn't work. The situation is complex. I understand the complexity."

Sebastian Mallaby Has Had Enough

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 1:54 AM EDT

SEBASTIAN MALLABY HAS HAD ENOUGH....Sebastian Mallaby, not exactly a raging liberal, on the transformation of John McCain from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde:

McCain used to be a real straight talker. On campaign finance, spending earmarks, Iraq and immigration, he has fought bravely for his principles; and that record might have been a trump against an opponent who has taken almost no such risks. But we are now witnessing what might be called McCain's Palinization. McCain once criticized Christian conservatives as agents of intolerance, but he has caved in to their intolerance of a pro-choice running mate. McCain claims to be devoted to his country, yet he would saddle it with a vice president who is unprepared to serve as commander in chief. In the same sad way, McCain has caved in to his party's anti-tax fanatics. The man of principle has become a panderer. The straight talker flip-flops.

The question is: how many other people are going to finally notice this? The second question is: how many will care? Tune in a couple of months from now for the answer.