Aug 31, 2010

The Real War 1939-1945

That is the title of this amazing 1989 article from the Atlantic on the horrors of WWII:
What annoyed the troops and augmented their sardonic, contemptuous attitude toward those who viewed them from afar was in large part this public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war. The troops could not contemplate without anger the lack of public knowledge of the Graves Registration form used by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, with its space for indicating "Members Missing." You would expect frontline soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends' bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or Marine what hit him, you'd hardly be ready for the answer "My buddy's head," or his sergeant's heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain's severed hand. What drove the troops to fury was the complacent, unimaginative innocence of their home fronts and rear echelons about such an experience as the following, repeated in essence tens of thousands of times. Captain Peter Royle, a British artillery forward observer, was moving up a hill in a night attack in North Africa. "I was following about twenty paces behind," he wrote in a memoir,
when there was a blinding flash a few yards in front of me. I had no idea what it was and fell flat on my face. I found out soon enough: a number of the infantry were carrying mines strapped to the small of their backs, and either a rifle or machine gun bullet had struck one, which had exploded, blowing the man into three pieces -- two legs and head and chest. His inside was strewn on the hillside and I crawled into it in the darkness.
The finale puts the point on something I have long believed, but better than I ever could have:
One wartime moment not at all vile occurred on June 5, 1944, when Dwight Eisenhower, entirely alone and for the moment disjunct from his publicity apparatus, changed the passive voice to active in the penciled statement he wrote out to have ready when the invasion was repulsed, his troops torn apart for nothing, his planes ripped and smashed to no end, his warships sunk, his reputation blasted: "Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops." Originally he wrote, "the troops have been withdrawn," as if by some distant, anonymous agency instead of by an identifiable man making all-but-impossible decisions. Having ventured this bold revision, and secure in his painful acceptance of full personal accountability, he was able to proceed unevasively with "My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available." Then, after the conventional "credit," distributed equally to "the troops, the air, and the navy," came Eisenhower's noble acceptance of total personal responsibility: "If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone." As Mailer says, you use the word shit so that you can use the word noble, and you refuse to ignore the stupidity and barbarism and ignobility and poltroonery and filth of the real war so that it is mine alone can flash out, a bright signal in a dark time.
It's long, but riveting. Read the whole thing.

Peace Corps super bloggers

I wondered the other day if there are other people like me in Peace Corps who lavish what is probably too much attention on their blogs. I decided to comb through the Peace Corps journals site to investigate. I had to quickly improvise a crude standard to sort out the most prolific authors; there are thousands of Peace Corps blogs. So I set a bar of at least 250 posts with at least one in the last month. Not exactly precise but close enough. I also decided to let returned volunteers in, because hey what the hell. Here they are:

Matt's Samoa Blog
Letters from China
One Computer at a Time
Aaron in Azerbaijan
One Bloc East
Cooper in Cambodia
Belly Button Window
Innocent A-Blogged
Women and Geeks First!
Musings of a Super Hero
Lost in the Beauty of Everything Around Me
Craig in Moldova
Scooter in Mozambique
Foy Update
Peace Corps and Beyond
Continually Expanding an Open Mind, Inshallah

There were also a few discontinued blogs that had 250+ posts:
Jim and Emily's Guatemala
Into the Steppe
Cameron's Journal

I'm sure I missed a few but that seems like a decent list. From cursory inspection I thought I would have the most posts by far with 380 listed on the site, but there were several that beat me. Matt's Samoa Blog in particular came in with over 600, and Letters From China had over 400. However those sites have been up for more than one year, I should catch up by the end of my service. I don't mean to toot my own horn—this probably reflects my lousy service more than anything else. Not to mention that some of those sites are crushing me in traffic--Belly Button Window has like a million and a half hits.

But it's interesting to see other people's perspective from around the globe. I added a few of my favorites to the blogroll.

Why I don't like Megan McArdle

The people who were right can (and will) rewrite their memories of what they believed to show themselves in the most attractive light; they will come to honestly believe that they were more prescient than they were. This is not some attack on people who were against the war: I was wrong, they were right... They will also quite possibly simply be wrong about how they got it right; correct analysis often operates at a subconscious as well as a conscious level.

Unlike the people who were right, there is a central fact stopping [those who were wrong] from flattering themselves too much: things are blowing up in Iraq and people are dying. Thus they will have to look for some coherent explanation. To be sure, many of those explanations are wan and self-serving--"I trusted too much." But others of them aren't. And the honest ones are vastly more interesting than listening to a parade of people say "Well, obviously, I'm a genius, and also, not mean."
What's more, the reasons I opposed the war back then had very little to do with any recognizable thought process. I hated Bush and so did most of my friends, and trusted him about as far as I could throw him. An extremely wise position, as it turns out, but something of a coincidence. My parents had more reasonable arguments, but I don't think they influenced me much.
What a chump.

Aug 30, 2010

Book review: The Shackled Continent

Summary: this work from Economist writer Robert Guest contains a lot of the kind of free trade leg-humping one would expect. However his diagnosis of the current problems and the best probable solutions (drawn in very broad strokes) are fairly convincing.

This book purports to answer three separate but related questions: what are the problems facing Sub-Saharan Africa (hereafter referred to as Africa)? why does this area have so many problems? and what are the best solutions?

The answer to the second question is totally inadequate. Guest insists that colonialism is not the issue. He points to South Korea, which went from a post-colonial basketcase to a first-rank power in about fifty years, while most of Africa continued to languish in the dumps. He instead proposes that Africa has terrible leadership: inefficient, statist, corrupt, cronyist governments that provide an almost insurmountable barrier for anyone looking to start a business. Well, yeah. But why is the leadership so bad? It's just a coincidence that the most backward continent is also the one that was stomped into the dirt for 500 years? Guest mostly glosses over the fact of the Soviet Union providing real support for colonial victims, thus planting a few of the seeds of the statism he bemoans today, and doesn't adequately discuss racism or slavery.

But if you set those complaints aside, the rest of the book is pretty good. His account of riding around with a truckload of Guiness in Cameroon is particularly good. His proposal for solving these problems, basic free market sorts of solutions, are mostly reasonable. I've read a few critiques of this book (tracking with similar attacks on neoliberal economics generally) saying that "free trade" is just an thinly veiled program for convincing poor countries to liberalize their markets so heavily subsidized western companies can flood those markets with underpriced products. As far as neoliberalism goes, think that's largely true, but shouldn't be read as a problem with free trade itself. In theory, it should cut both ways, and USA corn subsidies are just as indefensible (or more so) than African tariffs. But Guest mostly avoids this problem, as he does go both ways—in addition to mentioning poor countries' tariffs, he also mentions the ridiculous subsidies rich countries tend to give their agricultural industries, which actively suppress those industries in poor countries.

One last thing: awhile back in a post on aid, I rather glibly said:
I think international aid is an area where well-intentioned people can do a lot of nothing (or even harm) by poorly thought-out donations. Obviously aid to governments is the worst offender, often skimmed by corrupt bureaucrats or warlords. I think aid to underdeveloped governments could stop tomorrow and there would be no great loss.
I learned from this book that the economy of Botswana, the most developed in Africa, was kick-started by international loans. So clearly such loans are not always bad; one just has to be careful who is getting the money and what uses it is going towards.

Collected links

Why does Heinz dominate the ketchup market?

A South African preacher says "Jesus had AIDS."

Untangling the Kochtopus.

Hipster Hitler.

Pete Guither performs a surgical, measured takedown of Mark Kleiman on medical marijuana.

UPDATE: Speaking of ketchup, there is not nearly the same uniformity here as in the USA. A lot of the "tomato sauce," or "tamatie sous," like the stuff they serve at Wimpy, is this watery pale stuff that is frankly inferior to good old Heinz 57.

Aug 29, 2010

Department of WTF, chemistry edition

Sorry for the blurriness of this shot, but you can see if you look close it's a bunch of chemicals I discovered the other day in an unlocked cabinet. It consists of two indicator solutions, some diethyl ether (which had of course evaporated), some mercury, some sulfuric acid, and some carbon tetrachloride. I'm not sure what I should do with them, but it is a bit troubling.

Aug 28, 2010

Guest story: Chairlift to Satori

[Front matter: this piece from my Dad is about a ski trip to Telluride, near where I grew up. He wrote it right after Bush II was reelected.]

There is no real equivalent in human relations to a ski lift ride with a perfect stranger. There will be 6 to 14 minutes of cheek-to-cheek proximity and few other givens. Verbalization is allowed but not mandatory. Touching, apart from what is necessary, is strictly forbidden, as in a crowded elevator. It is acceptable to be utterly oblivious to one’s seatmate. You can even mouth the words to whatever is on headphones and sing every other word of the chorus out loud. No one will object if you spend your moments together craning around in the seat and shouting to acquaintances below.

Should any party make the choice to interact, snow condition and weather are safe but relevant topics. Geographic origins are commonly used as an opening statement, as in; “I’m from Tampa and it looks like pretty good snow to me,” which serves to place an individual within some category about which one can make unwarranted assumptions. A chairlift ride as previously unaccompanied single is usually an exercise in postmodern, weightless human relations. Occasionally though, I have gotten off the chair knowing more about my fellow rider than I know about all four of my cousins in Kansas combined.

There seemed to be such a wide range of appropriate behaviors that I was mystified the other day when I seemed to be exuding some aura that was causing my chairmates to react to me in peculiar ways. A snowboarder on Lift 4 regarded me with such open hostility in the singles lane that I let him take his own chair. He then turned and glared at me till we passed tower 5. “Nice lip screw,” I said in the spirit of goodwill, as I passed him at the top. No reason to court animosity.

Shortly thereafter, a woman and her husband, whom I discovered were high school sweethearts from Houston, volunteered that they were happy to finally meet someone from Colorado who had “some sense.” Though faintly pleased, I was perplexed as to how they had made that determination. The very next ride a Phoenix realtor clapped me on the shoulder at the top of Prospect Bowl, with assurances that it was all “for the best” and skied off into a snow fence. What was going on here?

It wasn’t till lunch, when I was sitting at an outdoor table trying to hastily lighten my pack by one soggy sandwich and two frosty beers that I figured it out. I’ve got this sweat-stained corduroy ball cap that I favor on sunny days, because it has a big bill, isn’t a helmet, and doesn’t blow off when you’re going fast. There was a new stick-on fabric logo on in it that I hadn’t stuck on. “Viva Bush ’04,” it said. Ahah.

There can only be once source for such a devious practical joke. One or both of my own children, the twisted rascals. I laid my hat on the table and regarded it as I wolfed down lunch. What magical icon was this, that could so serve to define me? One piece of a small Chinese self-adhesive production run of 100,000 was obscuring the real person like a cloak of invisibility. Once this hat had served the promotional purposes of “Mulvaney Studio Services” but their name had been illegible for years. Now my flimsy headgear had become a thing of power. I finished lunch, decided there are certainly multiple paths, fixed the hat back on my head with the sticker still stuck on, and headed for the bottom of lift 6.

Our President was going to be re-inaugurated this very day and I was trying to shake it off. I had wanted to assume that there was something in the realm of human experience that was common to us all. There wasn’t. I know good people who had come down on the other side. In conversation it is a territory we don’t cover. There might be quicksand. The nation had decided. I was here to let the sun and rush of frigid air displace the feeling I had that this was the beginning of the end.

With an augmented friendliness, I discovered the guy in the right seat was from Connecticut and owned one of those log-majals under and around chair ten. In a decade’s worth of skiing here I have never seen a living person abroad in this neighborhood, except for the workmen building the next chateau, or shoveling the roofs as the existing ones. My momentary partner was a resident, as much of a foreigner as anyone from Zimbabwe.

“We’re putting George back in office today” I observe. There is only a brief silence. “I voted for him,” he says, without enthusiasm. My chairmate is a big fella, six four or five with a perfectly uniform tan. “I’ve always voted Republican,” he says, looking at the tips of his new Volkls, talking to himself. “Those poor bastards in Iraq,” he says, not specifying. “What a mess.” I must have been staring at him, one of the few violations of chair protocol. “Those guys are going have every diaperhead on earth out for our blood.” He’s shaking his head, I nearly snag a tip on the ramp. “I just don’t want to pay taxes,” he says as we dismount. I watch the back his one-piece cinnamon ski suit glide off down See Forever.

I survive the steep bumps in the gully at the top of Happy Thought. When the trail hits the first catwalk I decide I’m going to follow the fall line down to lift 4, seventeen hundred feet below, and let the rattle of these snaky little boards keep my attention. I need to focus. It’s a glorious day, indeed. Glorious. Across the Ilium Basin to the west rises the bulk of Mt. Wilson, the Rocky Mountain icon depicted on the Coors beer can, as just about anyone here can tell you. That makes it the most reproduced image of Colorado presented to the larger world. One drainage over, where I live, at this elevation you and I could see the auburn cloud produced by three of the world’s larger coal-fired power plants creeping up the valley of the Dolores River, the “River of Sorrows”. They want to build another plant nearby, on the Navajo Reservation, because clean air, emptiness and coal are what the Indians have to sell. The power plants are too poisonous to put close to population centers and out here, well, there aren’t very many of us. That’s democracy.

Out of breath, I get on lift four’s high-speed quad with three male members of the Colorado Springs First Baptist Church’s Young Adults group. Apparently, it’s something like a dating service. Feeling bold, I offer my comment about the propitious events of the day. An overture is all that’s needed. “We can’t know what the President knows,” says one. “We are blessed to have someone like him, who has studied the Scriptures.” Oh Lord. “Mr. Bush is too much of a diplomat to point it out,” says another, “but do you know how many Christians were killed in that tidal wave?” I don’t. “None,” he says. “None.” Pause. “The tsunami was God’s hand.”

I get this unshakeable image of the great Aztec pyramid at Tenochtitlan, the blood of thousands glistening down the stones, while a priest carves out another beating heart with an obsidian blade. The Gods must be repaid. It was the same gene being expressed that serves to make a Baptist, a Methodist or any of the thirty-one flavors of Islam. Perhaps that was the Darwinian purpose of it all along. Something will keep the population in check, be it starvation or disease, jihad or ritual slaughter.

If I’m not called to heaven, or somewhere, before we get to the top, I’m going to go hang out with the telemarking pagans over on lift 9. Give me some vertical, some clear space to traverse. The point of life is living, in teasing out the choice morsels from an offering of deadwood and thorn. I wish I’d waxed my skis. It’s pretty flat around the corner on the traverse to the town-side lifts.

There’s a single snowboarder in the maze and we’re chaired together. I point out that the snow is terrific and display my badge. He’s eating a Clif Bar and is too dry to speak for a minute. He’s an electrician from Montrose, maybe 26, taking the day off while the house in the Ranchos he’s working on is being plastered. “The bastards have pushed us around for ever, Bush finally stood up to them,” he says after a while. “It’s about time. That Kerry was a pussy.” He makes a gesture like he’s drinking tea with a pinkie stuck out to the side. “What’s he going to do, debate the fucking terrorists? And the ketchup lady, what a bitch. I knew this rich girl like her once. All hoity- toity and know-it-all. You know, like she’s got half a joint of conduit up her ass. What a pair. Reminds me of the owners I’m working for.”

It’s all right. We’ll either make it or we won’t - as a country, as a species. The cards have been dealt. I’m a citizen of the most obese, indebted republic in the history of mankind. Like the Pharaoh, the chief executive thinks he talks to God. That’s fine by most of us. Gravity has killed more freedom-loving Americans than all the terrorists in every flyblown, oil-soaked sand trap on earth. Perhaps gravity too is evil, but I’m going to let it suck me down this mountain before the armies march. The Plunge is a fairly steep run, which is groomed to the point that even middle aged duffers like myself can feel like the Herminator for a minute. I flog myself down, lungs burning, thighs aching, stopping only to gasp. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but for now I need to concentrate on oxygen transfer.

To the North, across the headwaters of San Miguel, at humbling vertical mile of rock, ice and snow rises in abrupt ramparts from the valley floor. Several dozen square miles of unblemished whiteness and depth hoar beckon from Bear Creek to the east. The worst kind of hypocrite is what I am. I’ve worked to gain this elevation enough times the right way, by my own exertion, to know that this is cheating. The only method of properly appreciating the San Juans is through hypertensive retinas at the end of a lung busting climb.

I love it anyway; the clear distance, the forbidding crags, the speed; those parts. You can keep the six-dollar hot chocolate, the fashion show and the rest of these toads. Ski company owners will soak the average vacationer nearly three quarters of C-note to spend a day here enjoying their public lands, which comprise most of the terrain. It is the priciest ticket in Colorado this year; in a tie with Aspen I’m told. And they wonder why growth in the sport is flat. Can you really wear make-up and call it a sport anyway? It is more properly the “ski industry,” I suppose.

Part of that sulfurous cloud creeping up the valley toward my house is a result of the power they must generate to keep the bull wheel turning on this creaking old triple that’s hauling my carcass up to one of the most spectacular vistas on earth. From the top of this lift you can see the black and white enormity of the Wilson massif etched on the western horizon like an outsized lithograph. Further on and north are the red deserts of Utah, the corseted peaks of the Monti la Sal. The earth curves away into a bright haze, spinning on. When it’s clear, which it is today on this particular side of Lizard Head Pass, you can see it all. That’s what you live for. That’s why we’re here. The rest of it, well, it will still be there when you come down.

Copyright 2005. No part of this writing may be reproduced without the prior written authorization of the author. Image credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Aug 27, 2010

My senator says hi

This is something I forgot to mention when it came several months ago. My home state senator is Mark Udall—the Udalls are kind of like the Kennedys of the Southwest. He has two cousins in the Senate.

I've actually met the guy, and my parents are fairly good friends with his brother Randy (I went down Grand Canyon with his family once), as well as his cousin Brad. Mark reminded me a little bit of the Reed College president Colin Diver. One of the better senators, though that's not saying much. Good on him for dropping me a line.

Richard Francis Burton

I've been writing a bit of fiction while this strike drags on. It's a kind of exploration story, and some research led me to this crazy guy:
Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890) was an English explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, linguist, poet, hypnotist, fencer and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations within Asia and Africa as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian, and African languages.

Burton's best-known achievements include travelling in disguise to Mecca, an unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights (also commonly called The Arabian Nights in English after Andrew Lang's abridgement), bringing the Kama Sutra to publication in English, and journeying with John Hanning Speke as the first Europeans led by Africa's greatest explorer guide, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, utilizing route information by Indian and Omani merchants who traded in the region, to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile. Burton extensively criticized colonial policies (to the detriment of his career) in his works and letters.

...he prepared to set out for the interior accompanied by Lieutenant Speke, Lieutenant G. E. Herne and Lieutenant William Stroyan and a number of Africans employed as bearers. However, before the expedition was able to leave camp, his party was attacked by a group of Somali waranle ("warriors"). The officers estimated the number of attackers at 200. In the ensuing fight, Stroyan was killed and Speke was captured and wounded in eleven places before he managed to escape. Burton was impaled with a javelin, the point entering one cheek and exiting the other. This wound left a notable scar that can be easily seen on portraits and photographs. He was forced to make his escape with the weapon still transfixing his head. [...]

Burton's writings are unusually open and frank about his interest in sex and sexuality. His travel writing is often full of details about the sexual lives of the inhabitants of areas he travelled through. Burton's interest in sexuality led him to make measurements of the lengths of the sexual organs of male inhabitants of various regions which he includes in his travel books. He also describes sexual techniques common in the regions he visited, often hinting that he had participated, hence breaking both sexual and racial taboos of his day.
Almost gives you hope for the world. Here you can find every book he ever wrote for free.

Aug 26, 2010

The cabbie slasher

Some guy allegedly stabbed a Muslim cabbie in New York City:
Two seemingly contradictory portraits are emerging of Michael Enright, the 21-year old aspiring filmmaker arraigned yesterday on hate crimes charges for allegedly stabbing a New York City cab driver because he was Muslim.

There's the Michael Enright who volunteered for an interfaith group, whose Facebook profile picture was with a young girl he met on his trip to Afghanistan, and who liked the book Angela's Ashes, movies like "Boys Don't Cry" and music by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Michael Enright that neighbor Alma Quinlan knew was a "great kid who is very sociable and attentive to his mother."

Then there's the Michael Enright who kept a personal diary filled with anti-Islamic rants, had a serious drinking problem and slit the throat of a cab driver while yelling "This is a checkpoint, this is checkpoint, motherf**ker, I have to put you down."

Enright's reference to a "checkpoint" likely stems from his trip to Afghanistan earlier this year. Friends say Enright definitely changed after getting back from the region, where he was shooting a documentary on a high school friend. [...]

By the time he was arrested on Tuesday in midtown Manhattan, Enright had a personal journal on him that was filled with pages of "pretty strong anti-Muslim comments," a police source told The New York Daily News.

His diary equated Muslims with "killers, ungrateful for the help they were being offered, filthy murderers without a conscience." A top Muslim American organization said the event shows the dangers of extreme anti-Islamic rhetoric.
This is the kind of thing I was talking about last year:
I usually describe this informally as the difference between knowledge and belief, or the difference between knowledge and understanding. Let me illustrate by way of example. An NGO volunteer that just left South Africa refused to teach anywhere but in white schools. "In the US, I'm not a racist," he said. "But here it's just true." That sort of privileged white liberal disillusionment in the face of an actual oppressed population is what I'm driving at. On an intellectual level, it's blindingly obvious that poverty and oppression have consequences. But on an emotional level, we'd rather believe that all those oppressed populations are helpless victims, like all the well-adjusted poor in a Disney movie.

The truth is that oppressed populations tend to be some combination of foolish, racist, and oppressive themselves (having learned from the best). This is too much for some liberals, who become overtly racist when confronted with the reality of an oppressed people. And I'm not trying to be condescending here--it's damn hard to hold on to those pie-in-the-sky theories about the brotherhood of nations and universal human rights when some sumbitch just ran off with your shoes.
I'm continually amazed at the depths to which American politics continues to sink. Every couple months, I say, "Jeez, we have to have bottomed out by now. Right? Right?!" Nope.

This mosque thing is deeply creepy. This time the Republicans may have unleashed more than they bargained for. See here for more.

Inflation in South Africa

Jesse piqued my interest in this post:
Workers are asking for an 8.5% increase in pay across the board, and the government has said it would only find 7.7% to be reasonable, as it feels anything higher would put a strain on government funds. [...]

The argument made by union leaders, SACP Deputy General Jeremy Cronin, and others is that if South Africa can spend well over 1 billion Rand on the World Cup, why can’t it give a moderate increase that matches historical inflation rates? Why build super-stadiums that may go unused when you can build better housing and improve schools and hospital facilities? I don’t understand much about the inflation of the Rand, nor am I an economist in any sense, but I do understand that inflation matters, as it effects the cost of items and the value of currency. Many historically disadvantaged black South Africans are making much less then their management is regardless of inflation being a factor, and almost 3 or 4 times less then white workers. In the end it all comes down to a system built on integrity vs a system based on patronage.
I got to wondering...what is the annual inflation rate in South Africa? Bloomberg says:
South African inflation slowed more than analysts expected in July, reaching 3.7 percent, adding to speculation the central bank will cut its benchmark interest rate for a second time this year.

Inflation eased from 4.2 percent in June, the Pretoria- based statistics office said on its website today. The median estimate of 18 economists surveyed by Bloomberg was 4 percent. Prices rose 0.6 percent in the month.
Here's a chart (source—interesting place).You can probably imagine my thoughts on this strike. I've been trying to avoid a long rant; suffice to say I'm deeply cynical. But here's a question answered.

Book review: Neuromancer

Up today: Neuromancer by William Gibson. Summary: this seminal text in the cyberpunk genre remains excellent but a bit of research is necessary to really appreciate its originality.

I've been hitting the science fiction hard lately, I realize. Actually, during our world cup trip I read a half-dozen normal books but haven't felt inclined to lay down my thoughts. But I make no apologies; I still agree with Kurt Vonnegut: "It seemed to me that science fiction writers were writing about the most important issues of our time, and that the mainstream writers and those most respected by critics were still dealing with the subtleties of human character and motivation and all that. Meanwhile, we've created these monstrous engines and social schemes and so forth which are having more influence on us than anything else. So I created Kilgore Trout to say 'maybe these guys can't write so well, but they're sure talking about what needs to be talked about.'"

Anyway, this is a weird book to read, because you have to be constantly correcting yourself about things that sound dated but in fact were revolutionary at the time. For example, Gibson invented the word "cyberspace." He used "matrix" in the computer sense for the first time (though calling a neural implant a "microsoft" didn't catch on). Basically he laid the groundwork of the cyberpunk genre and spawned dozens of imitators, so it's a bit rewarding to take a step back and consider just how stunningly original he was.

The book follows Case, a interface cowboy (computer hacker) who is adrift in the Japanese underworld. He previously tried to steal from his employer and they crippled his computer talent with designer toxins. He's hired by a man called Armitage, who offers to fix Case's damaged brain and another job as a cowboy. Armitage also has a woman named Molly working for him as hired muscle. Together Molly and Case discover that behind Armitage is a shadowy figure called Wintermute. Action ensues.

The writing and the plotting are exceptionally good. It's got a planed-down noir feel to it that works well, and the eventual resolution of the plot is well done. There are a few weaknesses, like some Rastafarians who help Case that are frankly ridiculous. The character development is thin at best.

But overall, it definitely earned its reputation. Highly recommended.

Aug 25, 2010

Diagnosing twentysomethings, ctd

Jamelle Bouie adds his perspective:
I finally got around to reading The New York Times Magazine piece on the aimless 20-something, and as a somewhat aimless 20-something, it strikes me as a little blinkered. For starters, outside of a few nods to the recession, there isn't much of an effort to understand why financial independence is so hard to find. But the truth is that the recession has wrecked havoc on job and career prospects for 20-somethings.[...]

That said, my main problem with the piece was simply the fact that there wasn't much of an attempt at making class distinctions. It delves into the "extended adolescence" of relatively sheltered graduates from major universities, but what about the mass of 20-somethings who either didn't go to college or pursued degrees at community colleges and local universities?
Amanda Marcotte chimes in, and goes nuclear on some Baby Boomer:
By casting the entire situation as a matter of desire and choice, the author missed the big picture, which is that people delay adulthood because the ability to be an adult requires a certain amount of privilege increasingly unavailable to young people. I tweeted about it at the time, noting the answer to the question, “Why don’t people grow up faster?” is incredibly, stupidly simple---because they are no longer any jobs for people in their early 20s that provide the means to be a full adult. Full stop. I don’t mean that entry level jobs only pay enough for a small apartment or a simple lifestyle. Often, they don’t pay enough to cover the rent on that small apartment---if they can find those jobs in the first place---and that’s why people move back in with their parents.

Which is why I saw red when I read this smarmy, self-righteous screed from some Baby Boomer. It’s a classic example of being born on third and thinking you hit a triple. She assumes that her ability to pay rent with her first job out of college is strictly because she’s so much more fucking awesome than you spoiled kids these days, and her parents were so much more responsible than the softies of today.
Dan Drezner:
As I think about it, here are the Millennials' foundational foreign policy experiences:

1) An early childhood of peace and prosperity -- a.k.a., the Nineties;

2) The September 11th attacks;

3) Two Very Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq;

4) One Financial Panic/Great Recession;

5) The ascent of China under the shadow of U.S. hegemony.

From these experiences, I would have to conclude that this generation should be anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism. Then again, I'm looking at this through my own irony-drenched Gen-X eyes.
More and more it seems like the article took a small change in US culture and blew it up into a seismic anthropological shift. As far as Dan Drezner's question, I can say he's definitely on to something, though I wouldn't say "isolationist." I do sympathize a lot more with paleoconservatives and other skeptics of intervention, though I still believe it is in some cases justified.

Perhaps I should just carry more stuffed animals.

A bouquet of awesome

Someone told me the other day that if I really want to be a writer, I need to start writing more original stuff and stop linking so much. Here's my response:

Hark! unto the Great Zucchini.

An oldie but a goodie on lobbying.

The world supply of helium might be running out.

This traffic jam in China will likely last until mid-September.

A defense of liberaltarianism.

Aug 24, 2010

Inception review

Summary: this mind-bender from Christopher Nolan was flawed but ultimately excellent.

I just returned from a trip to Kimberley to check out this flick, which I'm proud to say I watched twice. I think the first thing that must be mentioned about this movie is that it is cool. It exudes cool more than anything I can remember since Brad Pitt in Fight Club. The score, style, cinematography, editing, set and costume design all blended seamlessly. Perhaps the best example of this is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, who rocks a waistcoat better than anyone since the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

The plot is intricate but mostly solid. It's about a man (DiCaprio) whose trade is stealing ideas from people's minds while they dream. He shares lucid dreams with a team of people who break into someone's mind to either steal their secrets or trick them into revealing them; this is called extraction. Inception is planting an idea in the target's mind, as opposed to stealing one. There are a few logical holes here and there, but especially as the pace picked up to blinding speed in the second and third acts they could mostly be forgiven.

I did have a few complaints. There were the aforementioned logical holes. The first act drags a little bit. There were a few too many action movie tropes, like highly trained assassins who can't shoot for shit. It's a little too serious, and the writing a little clunky in spots. The dreams seem not quite weird enough—who wouldn't give themselves the ability to fly in "raw, infinite subconscious?" I suspect this has something to do with Nolan both writing and directing. Many parts were thought out extremely well, while others seemed neglected. Another mind or two working out the rough edges in the concept might have helped some.

But overall, I have to give Nolan major props for even attempting something this ambitious and succeeding as much as he did. The directing was excellent. This is Hollywood at its best: a giant, well-done entertainment with enough interesting ideas at its core to spawn some decent discussion. Much better than Avatar.

UPDATE: Another irritation I forgot. At one point they hire a chemist who is supposed to be able to design a custom sedative that leaves inner ear function unimpaired (psychopharm buffs: do normal sedatives actually shut down inner ear function?), and the dude's office consists of a bunch of dusty bottles filled up with murky amber fluid. No chromatography columns, no FT-IR, no gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, no NMR, not even a dang round-bottomed flask. I doubt that would bother most people though.

UPDATE II: I just downloaded the score, which was also superb. Hans Zimmer again.

Striking in Kuruman

Here you can see demonstrators marching on the local municipal headquarters. A bit tamer than the ones in Kimberley but still active.

Aug 22, 2010


Just caught this flick. Quick capsule review: awesome. More to follow.

Aug 21, 2010

Know hope

This is the new library. The librarian was helping the Grade One teacher read a book with the class; many of the books we got from biblionef are in Setswana. What's even more heartening is that I had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Aug 20, 2010

I get diagnosed by the New York Times

Psychologists, bless their black little hearts, have been inventing new terms for twenty-somethings who are getting jobs, a spouse, and settling down later than ever. It's called "emerging adulthood," apparently:
The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation. [...]

Jeffery Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is leading the movement to view the 20s as a distinct life stage, which he calls “emerging adulthood.” He says what is happening now is analogous to what happened a century ago, when social and economic changes helped create adolescence — a stage we take for granted but one that had to be recognized by psychologists, accepted by society and accommodated by institutions that served the young. [...]

Just as adolescence has its particular psychological profile, Arnett says, so does emerging adulthood: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic he calls “a sense of possibilities.” A few of these, especially identity exploration, are part of adolescence too, but they take on new depth and urgency in the 20s. The stakes are higher when people are approaching the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made. Arnett calls it “the age 30 deadline.”
I feel that this is the kind of thing people have been complaining about for about the last fifty years, and that a lot of the current problem can be laid at the feet of the worst economic crisis in eighty years. Still, I reckon there's something to Arnett's hypothesis. I'll only talk about my own situation, not just because I have no training in psychology. These kind of discussions always seem to lead to grotesque generalizations. Not that it's always wrong to do so—I know I'm as guilty of that as anyone—but I'm just not in the mood today.

When I graduated from college, the imperative in my mind was to find some kind of job that was at least interesting. I don't mean in an intellectually stimulating sense necessarily—one of the most interesting jobs I've ever had was working for minimum wage in a grocery store in Washington Heights. The normal imperatives to find a "good" job, wife, house, car, etc., have precisely zero attraction to me at the moment. Not that I find those things repulsive—in fact, I suppose I'd like to have them someday—just that I don't seem to care about them one way or the other. Conversely, I feel no shame (well, not much at least) at taking a job far, far "below my station," (according to society). I don't know what that makes me, besides self-absorbed. I doubt it's a representative sample. Maybe it's just typical aspiring non-productive, unhelpful writer behaviour.

Then again, perhaps it's because I'm part of the élite. Here are some of the suggestions for dealing with the twenty-something question:
Maybe we can encourage a kind of socially sanctioned “­rumspringa,” the temporary moratorium from social responsibilities some Amish offer their young people to allow them to experiment before settling down. It requires only a bit of ingenuity — as well as some societal forbearance and financial commitment — to think of ways to expand some of the programs that now work so well for the elite, like the Fulbright fellowship or the Peace Corps, to make the chance for temporary service and self-examination available to a wider range of young people.
That grates a little, but I suppose it's true. I don't come from old money (or new money, for that matter), but I went to a top-drawer college and did reasonably well.

I'm not so sure about the proposal for more institutions for helping twenty-somethings through their years of floundering around. Expanding the Peace Corps, Americorps, and other domestic and foreign service programs seems reasonable, but beyond that I suspect measures should be targeted more at unemployed or mentally ill people generally. Still, given that I'm one of the the slackers' looming overlords, perhaps I should be more generous.

Anyone else have a thought? I'm willing to be persuaded.

Department of WTF, orphan bureau

Would you like to rent an orphan? Just visit: "Creches in the South African city of Pretoria have been renting out babies left in their care to beggars who use them to elicit sympathy money from motorists."

The Iraq War revisited

Matthew Yglesias takes a look back to 2002 as to why he was wrong about the war. He comes up with four sober reasons: erroneous foreign policy views, elite signaling, misreading the politics, and The Threatening Storm. He adds:
You can, however, always get more psychological. I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk. Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite. My observation is that this kind of fake-dissident posture is one that always has a lot of appeal to people. The point is that this wasn’t really a series of erroneous judgments about Iraq, it was a series of erroneous judgments about how to think about the world and who deserves to be taken seriously and under which circumstances.
I still am stunned that fairly intelligent people like he and Ezra Klein were taken in by such hokum. But it's good of Yglesias to examine his past reasoning and try to learn from it. Though a lot of liberals would have him drummed out of the party for such an error, I'm willing to forgive. He was only twenty-one, for Pete's sake (Klein was only nineteen).

What's more, the reasons I opposed the war back then had very little to do with any recognizable thought process. I hated Bush and so did most of my friends, and trusted him about as far as I could throw him. An extremely wise position, as it turns out, but something of a coincidence. My parents had more reasonable arguments, but I don't think they influenced me much.

Aug 19, 2010

Some wry Wikipedia humor

"The ability to fly is not a simple question of weight ratios..." from the Argentavis magnificens article.

Namibia reax, ctd.

Noah chimes in. Something I left out:
One of the nicer stops along the way was a hot spring. Unlike the hot springs I went to in Hot Spring NC, you got to enjoy the spring from the source and it made all the difference in the world. Sure it was not that cold outside and the springs were scalding hot but the water was awfully nice on the aching muscles and sore feet. Sure it smelled pretty strongly of sulphur but the scenery outweighed the odor. And yes, we did run across a group of skinny-dipping college students but it made the experience much more primal.

Aug 17, 2010

A half-decent Republican candidate for president

Gary Johnson. He was governor of New Mexico when I was growing up in Colorado twenty miles from the border, so I remember him pretty well. I doubt I'd agree with his economic policies at all, but this guy probably wouldn't embrace Bush's civil liberties program (though, truth be told, I said the same thing about Obama).

More to the point, he's a candidate I wouldn't regard as president with howling disbelief. I see the possibility of the loyal opposition.

So his candidacy is probably doomed.

More on the Park51 mosque

Yglesias strings together some wise thoughts here:
The other thing is that over the weekend some kind of hair-splitting distinction opened up between the idea of publicly and forcefully acknowledging the legal and constitutional right of the organizers to place their community center at 51 Park Place in Lower Manhattan and supporting construction of the mosque. I sort of see what the distinction is. People have the right, legally speaking, to go stand on the sidewalk outside my office and scream obscenities at me when I go to lunch. But I really wish they wouldn’t do that, and I think sensible people would condemn the decision to behave in that manner.

But when it comes to matters of religion, I think this distinction gets a bit confusing. I’m after all not a Muslim. And if pressed, I’d have to say that I think Islam is a false doctrine. It’s not the case that there’s is no God but Allah, nor is it true that Mohammed is his prophet. If everyone collectively decided that nobody should ever build a mosque anywhere again, that would be fine by me. Which is just to say that people simply don’t actively support the construction of other people’s religious monuments. Yu don’t expect Jews to stand up and applaud the construction of new Mormon temples, but I do expect them to acknowledge the right of Mormons to build temples and to stand up to demagogues who would try to abridge that right. And this is what we have going on in Lower Manhattan today. A completely legitimate undertaking that’s being stymied out of a mixture of geographical ignorance, a slanderous attribution of collective responsibility for 9/11 to all Muslims, and political opportunism. On the other side are people standing up for non-discrimination and religious freedom.

Aug 16, 2010

Tobacco: snus, dip, snuff, and the PACT Act

When I was in high school, I was heavily into the anti-tobacco movement. It was a founding time for me, and though I don't regret those days (tobacco companies did and do things that are utterly reprehensible), my thinking has definitely evolved considerably since then. I think that what started as a legitimate campaign against sleazebag advertising and murderous delaying tactics of tobacco companies has gradually taken a sheen of moral disapproval of all tobacco use, smoking or no, and I believe free adults should be allowed to poison themselves in whatever way(s) they see fit. (It's an extreme view, I suppose, but lets set that aside for now.)

However, smoking still remains about the only form of drug use where one can passively kill innocent bystanders. Thus—though I think it has gone a bit far in some places—I understand and basically support regulations restricting smoking in public places. But that argument does not apply to non-smoking forms of tobacco like dip (chewing tobacco), snus, and snuff. (For the curious, snus is similar to dip, but a finer grain that normally comes in pouches that doesn't require spitting. It is also steam rather than fire-cured. Snuff refers to insufflated tobacco, even finer than snus.)

So when I was offered a pinch of snuff by some friendly Afrikaners at the end of our Namibia trip, I was game, if just as a joke. It was a rather painful experience, but certainly less so than smoking one's first cigarette. The very existence of the stuff made me curious. Who buys snuff, and where does it come from, how popular is it? A few hours later, I emerged from one of the more productive sessions of googling I've experienced. To wit—

Snus is mostly made and consumed in Sweden (and Norway to a lesser extent), but it is illegal in the rest of the European Union, purportedly for health reasons. This bizarre result—as smoking is legal throughout Europe—has the whiff of cigarette company rent-seeking about it. Regardless, Sweden has the lowest smoking and lung cancer rate in Europe and from the studies I've managed to track down (some of them probably funded by the snus industry, but still...good list here), it seems unequivocally less dangerous than cigarettes and probably quite a bit less dangerous than American-style dip. Common sense leads me to trust this conclusion, as smoke itself is filled with free radical products from partial combustion. I believe in harm reduction, and if Swedes can use snus rather than tobacco, that is a good thing relative to just smoking.

Snuff is less popular even than snus, though it is legal throughout Europe. It's such a tiny portion of the tobacco market that I reckon it hasn't caught anyone's attention yet, and there are not many studies about its risk. About the only one I could find concluded that though there was probably some risk of nasal and throat cancer, it was definitely less dangerous than smoking. I was also surprised at the price—several weeks supply for a regular user runs between $2 and $5.

Dip is probably more dangerous than either snuff or snus, though less dangerous than smoking. It is definitely associated with mouth and throat cancer, and probably associated with cardiovascular problems. Plus, it's gross.

This leads me to the PACT (Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking, pdf summary here) Act, which was apparently signed with no fanfare whatsoever this March. First, it requires all applicable taxes must be paid on internet-purchased tobacco, a stipulation aimed directly at the Seneca Indian Reservation, who were selling cheap cigarettes by the cubic meter in New York (as it has the highest cigarette taxes in the nation). Second, it forbids tobacco from being shipped via the USPS, which not only will seal the fate of the Senecas, but destroy the market for Swedish snus. American cigarette manufacturers have stepped in with their own version (Camel and Marlboro snus) but the product is quite different from the Swedish product (primarily in that they have very low nicotine), and one NIH paper I found speculated that they should not be called true snus, and are really designed to keep people smoking while creating a new expensive habit, similar to nicotine gum or patches. Philip Morris and the National Association of Convenience Stores supported the PACT Act, and once again I detect the distinctive odor of rent-seeking.

For more, see this interesting article on snuff in Wired.

Namibia reax

Kristen lays down her take here. I'd like to emphasize this part:
But then, after you’ve reveled in the gorgeous view and the general incompetence of your physical health, the fun part starts. That’s when you get to sprint down the side of the dune as fast as you can, yelling your lungs out and praying you don’t hit a firm patch of sand and faceplant. I was surprised by the amount of sheer exhilaration that can be gained from a mound of sand. It could have been the effects of physical exhaustion, but I’ll take what I can get.
Few times before have I experienced such unadulterated joy. No room is left for thoughts or worries, just keeping your feet under you and careening down the face in 10-meter bounds.

UPDATE: Ach! I just used meters without even realizing it!

The flooding in Pakistan

The flooding in Pakistan is almost too horrible to believe. Nearly a third of the country is underwater. This series of pictures from the redoubtable photography team at the Boston Globe is excellent and wrenching. I urge those of you with some spare change to donate what you can.

Aug 15, 2010

Quote of the day

"And just as an aside, there's something I've never understood about the right's standards for international comparisons. If the left suggests the U.S. pursue a public policy that's worked in, say, Germany, conservatives respond, 'They're trying to turn us into Europe!' But when Angle praises Pincohet's privatization scheme and suggests we emulate here, no one seems inclined to argue, 'Republicans are trying to turn us into a South American military dictatorship!'" —Steve Benen.

On different vacation styles

A few things have been stewing in my mind for the last few weeks since June. The World Cup trip was splendid, definitely ranking among my top five best vacations ever. It was rather the opposite from my trip to Eastern Cape last December, where we stayed in one place for nine days. This time we were booking it around South Africa at top speed, only staying at places for a day or two. Edward Abbey always railed against the road trip vacation, but there are things to commend about both methods.

The whirlwind tour version, though I often wished to stay and explore, gave me a new feeling for South Africa, a better sense of the grandeur and scale of the place than I had gotten heretofore. Also I was struck by the jarring difference between different biomes--from the skeletal spare desert south of Namibia to the Mediterranean wine country in northern Western Cape to the organized, safe and temperate Cape Town. From the stark, drenched Tsitsikamma and Port Elizabeth to the warm sun of Durban to the bitter cold of the winter Drakensburg. From the high riot of Johannesburg to the constrained wildness of Kruger to the cool fog of the winter highveld outside Nelspruit. A land of contrast, as my father would say.

Aug 14, 2010

Credit where credit is due

Props to President Obama for defending the Park51 mosque in lower Manhattan. Well played.

Carjacking in Johannesburg

I'm glad this didn't happen to us on our World Cup trip.

Visions from your dystopian future

First up, from the Wall Street Journal, an excellent article series detailing the ways online companies have been selling your personal information.

Second, something I've been predicting for years: the end of antibiotics.
Last September, Walsh published details of a gene he had discovered, called NDM 1, which passes easily between types of bacteria called enterobacteriaceae such as E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae and makes them resistant to almost all of the powerful, last-line group of antibiotics called carbapenems. Yesterday's paper revealed that NDM 1 is widespread in India and has arrived here as a result of global travel and medical tourism for, among other things, transplants, pregnancy care and cosmetic surgery.

"In many ways, this is it," Walsh tells me. "This is potentially the end. There are no antibiotics in the pipeline that have activity against NDM 1-producing enterobacteriaceae. We have a bleak window of maybe 10 years, where we are going to have to use the antibiotics we have very wisely, but also grapple with the reality that we have nothing to treat these infections with."

And this is the optimistic view – based on the assumption that drug companies can and will get moving on discovering new antibiotics to throw at the bacterial enemy. Since the 1990s, when pharma found itself twisting and turning down blind alleys, it has not shown a great deal of enthusiasm for difficult antibiotic research. And besides, because, unlike with heart medicines, people take the drugs for a week rather than life, and because resistance means the drugs become useless after a while, there is just not much money in it.
No new antibiotics means the end of transplant surgery and the return of appendicitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis as major killers.

This was inevitable, in the long term. Bacteria were always going to evolve past whatever blocks we put in their way. But it's undeniable that we have drastically shortened the effective window of current antibiotics through sheer neglect. It's been 65 years since the discovery of penicillin. These were gifts from the gods if anything was, and we chewed through them like a Hollywood starlet with an 8-ball of coke.

See the LA Times for a more optimistic take.

The Eye of Kuruman

 I visited this finally for the first time. It's a little park on the main drag of Kuruman, with lovely trees and big pond filled with fish. It's a great spot for a picnic; admission is R10—a bit steep for a small park, but worth it because it keeps out the tsotsis. Apparently the thing has produced about 20 million litres of water every day since anyone's been keeping track.
Posted by Picasa

Aug 12, 2010

Video poetry

NPR and Radiolab come up with what I can only call a video poem:

The New York mosque and the moon

Hendrik Hertzburg has the best commentary so far on the proposed Park51 mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan, fittingly in the New Yorker. I can't add anything to his analysis, only emphasize the irony of Republicans who otherwise loathe New York and constantly complain about how they're enforcing their "liberal values" on "real America" suddenly rediscovering the sacredness of New York ground and decreeing what shall and shall not be built there. You can almost hear the thought: "why is New York hogging all the terrorism?"

I caught In the Shadow of the Moon the other night. It was excellent, a moving look back at the greatest achievement in the history of the human race. (Michael Collins was the de facto star, as he's the funniest of the Apollo astronauts.) On looking back, though, the biggest feeling I get is irritation about our current situation. To me the moon landing period seems like an age of titans compared to now. It was a time of huge problems: racism, civil rights, war, and the moon for starters. But at least people tried—and succeeded, sometimes—to do something about those problems.

Now the problems we are facing, particularly climate change, are arguably worse. But we can't seem to muster up the will to even admit they're problems. When the banking lobby took down the foreclosure bill (cramdown) they not only killed the bill, they got billions in new bailout money. I'll be surprised if we leave Afghanistan while I am alive (we're still in Germany, fer chrissakes). And climate change? Nothing even attempted.

But what gets us up in arms? A mosque in New York, two blocks from Ground Zero. Run by a moderate Muslim, one of Osama bin Laden mortal enemies.

It's a miserably pathetic country.

A vision from your dystopian future

Aug 11, 2010

The Perseids!

It's meteor shower time! Tomorrow is the apex of the Perseids, which are most visible in the northern hemisphere sadly. I'm going to check it out, though we just had another cold snap here a couple days back.

Bang your head against the wall

"There's some debate over how well certain forms of stimulus "work." That is to say, whether a tax cut increases spending, which increases jobs, which increases total economic output. But there's no debate over what state and local aid does: It allows the continuation of programs that are already ongoing, the preservation of jobs that people already occupy, the protection of tax rates that are currently in place. It doesn't promote economic expansion, which is a somewhat uncertain business. It prevents economic contraction, which is a much more predictable project.

If states have to cut $120 billion from their budgets, that money -- and the things it does -- will just leave the economy. There will be fewer jobs, higher taxes, less financial aid. None of that is speculative. There's no theory in which it doesn't happen. This is a large economic contraction that we've decided to allow, because we would prefer to allow it than to put down the money -- much less money, incidentally, than it will cost to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich -- necessary to prevent it.

Of everything that's happened since the financial crisis, this is, to me, the most frustrating. It is a decision we, as a polity, are making to prolong our economic pain and slow our economic recovery. It is needless and senseless and largely the result of political, rather than economic, disagreement. And when it happens, we will all look around at one another and lament our slow recovery, and our terrible economy, and our inept political leaders, who have clearly done something wrong, even if we're not sure exactly what." --Ezra Klein

Aug 10, 2010

I'm bad at math

Bad news: this post should have read 500, not 400. Good news: I've written over 500 posts!

Quote of the day

"A well functioning financial intermediary system is important to a modern economy, but we've had a wee bit of proof over the last couple of years that our financial intermediary system is neither healthy nor much of a financial intermediary system. It's a giant casino industry with a side gig in banking, and that banking side gig has meant the government will always guarantee the house bets." --Atrios

Aug 9, 2010

Aug 8, 2010

Small town blogging

When people start talking about rural areas, the hackles on my neck tend to rise. Usually it seems to mean an exploitative jackass spewing what amounts to anti-urban bigotry (who often as not is from a city himself). The fact is that the vast majority of Americans live in cities, and that's as it should be. One of the lessons I took from New York was that the only way the world can sanely manage the number of people that currently exist is going to be in very dense areas like that. Moreover, rural areas tend to be hugely inefficient especially in terms of CO2 production.

But I come from a very rural place, and there are things I like about rural places. One can delve into that in an honest way without dogging stupidly on cities, and that's what Miranda Lambert does here in a piece of decent country:

Glenn Beck's gold scam

Check out this cool graphic from The Big Picture:

Infographic by The Big Picture

Aug 7, 2010

Happy 400th post!

Yay. It's likely that I blog more than any currently serving Peace Corps Volunteer. That's something. Good or bad, I'm not sure, but it's something. Let's celebrate with a music video about the new James Webb space telescope—the one set to replace the Hubble.

UPDATE 10/1/2012: For some reason this post has been getting a nutty amount of traffic. Lo and behold the video I used to have here had "expired." So here's a different video instead:

If you're curious, try a random post on the right.

I give up

Jon Stewart comes up with some political advertising I can believe in.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
I Give Up - 9/11 Responders Bill
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Aug 5, 2010

Free will, part II

This post is dedicated to Mark Bedau, my philosophy professor at Reed, a great guy and a wonderful teacher, by far the least pretentious philosopher I've ever met. He is responsible for this post only insofar as he sparked my interest in the subject; its many shortcomings are mine alone.

Who's ready for some unqualified philosophical rambling? I'm not going to do much more than summarize, as this is probably one of the five biggest problems in philosophy and the material quickly gets out of hand. Anyway—let's start with some terms, appropriately hefty philosophical ones. (I'm going to steal shamelessly from Wikipedia, as the free will article is very good.) Free will is "purported ability of agents to make choices free from constraints." Some call it the "ability to have done otherwise," but that definition runs into problems which I'll describe later. Determinism is the view that all events are caused by previous events, while indeterminism is the opposite. Incompatibilism holds that free will and determinism are mutually exclusive, and is divided into two camps, metaphysical libertarianism (free will = true) and hard determinism (determinism = true). Compatibilism holds that both determinism and free will are true.

On a side note, it's worth mentioning that determinism is false in a technical sense. Consider the view that, with sufficient knowledge (see Laplace's Demon), events can be predicted exactly. Quantum mechanics, by introducing a fundamental statistical nature to reality, measurable on very small scales, invalidated this view. Combined with the extreme sensitivity to of chaotic systems to initial conditions, this quantum indeterminacy might make large events fundamentally unpredictable. In any case, that has little to do with free will. As J.J.C. Smart said, "Indeterminism does not confer freedom on us: I would feel that my freedom was impaired if I thought that a quantum mechanical trigger in my brain might cause me to leap into the garden and eat a slug."

The standard argument against free will is fairly straightforward: "Either determinism is true or indeterminism is true. These exhaust the logical possibilities and have lead to two further contentions: If determinism is true, we are not free. If indeterminism is true, our actions are random and our will lacks the control to be morally responsible." This to me seems rather close to begging the question—defining free will out of existence in the premises.

Incompatibilists further propose that since determined things like a wind-up toy or rolling stone clearly have no free will, humans must not have it either. I find that totally unconvincing, but Carl Ginet has a rather more troublesome argument: "if determinism is true, then we have no control over the events of the past that determined our present state and no control over the laws of nature. Since we can have no control over these matters, we also can have no control over the consequences of them. Since our present choices and acts, under determinism, are the necessary consequences of the past and the laws of nature, then we have no control over them and, hence, no free will."

Early compatibilists like Thomas Hobbes argued that determinism was orthogonal to free will. What matters is that individual choices were not forced by external factors of some kind, as in the commission of a crime. "To be a compatibilist, one need not endorse any particular conception of free will, but only deny that determinism is at odds with free will." More recent compatibilists have bitten the determinist bullet and tried to show that sometimes even totally determined events can be the result of free will. (Take the example of a person Jones in a room about to choose between A and B. In another room Brown has a mysterious apparatus that can compel Jones to choose A if he looks like he's going to go for B. Jones in fact chooses A, making the machine unnecessary. He made the choice of his own free will, but could not have chosen otherwise.)

A lot of the problems of free will turn on the idea of the agent—trying to figure out just how a person acts in the world. I suspect personally that Egginton is right when he says a lot of the framing around the whole argument has led us astray:
In one set of experiments, researchers attached sensors to the parts of monkeys’ brains responsible for visual pattern recognition. The monkeys were then taught to respond to a cue by choosing to look at one of two patterns. Computers reading the sensors were able to register the decision a fraction of a second before the monkeys’ eyes turned to the pattern. As the monkeys were not deliberating, but rather reacting to visual stimuli, researchers were able to plausibly claim that the computer could successfully predict the monkeys’ reaction. In other words, the computer was reading the monkeys’ minds and knew before they did what their decision would be.

The implications are immediate. If researchers can in theory predict what human beings will decide before they themselves know it, what is left of the notion of human freedom? How can we say that humans are free in any meaningful way if others can know what their decisions will be before they themselves make them?


Imagine we suspend a steel ball from a magnet directly above a vertical steel plate, such that when I turn off the magnet, the ball hits the edge of the plate and falls to either one side or the other.

Very few people, having accepted the premises of this experiment, would conclude from its outcome that the ball in question was exhibiting free will. Whether the ball falls on one side or the other of the steel plate, we can all comfortably agree, is completely determined by the physical forces acting on the ball, which are simply too complex and minute for us to monitor. And yet we have no problem assuming the opposite to be true of the application of the monkey experiment to theoretical humans: namely, that because their actions are predictable they can be assumed to lack free will. In other words, we have no reason to assume that either predictability or lack of predictability has anything to say about free will. The fact that we do make this association has more to do with the model of the world that we subtly import into such thought experiments than with the experiments themselves.

The model in question holds that the universe exists in space and time as a kind of ultimate code that can be deciphered. This image of the universe has a philosophical and religious provenance, and has made its way into secular beliefs and practices as well. In the case of human freedom, this presumption of a “code of codes” works by convincing us that a prediction somehow decodes or deciphers a future that already exists in a coded form. So, for example, when the computers read the signals coming from the monkeys’ brains and make a prediction, belief in the code of codes influences how we interpret that event. Instead of interpreting the prediction as what it is — a statement about the neural process leading to the monkeys’ actions — we extrapolate about a supposed future as if it were already written down, and all we were doing was reading it.
Italics mine.

I've barely scratched the surface here, but I'd like to finish by touching on a few compelling subjects I haven't looked into as much as I'd like to. Neuroscience and psychology have some interesting results, but I'm not at all certain how to interpret them. I'm also interested in emergence ("the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions") and how that interacts with neurological theories. Consider the number of possible games of Go, with simple deterministic rules, and the number of neurons in the human brain.

Thoughts, advice, and reading suggestions welcome.

Guest post: Unemployment expected to remain high

[This is another Onion-style piece from my father.]

Dateline: Capitol Hill June 22 , 2010. A Parallel Universe News Service. Deliberations continued today in committees in both houses of Congress attempting to design legislation to combat the nation’s stubbornly high jobless rate. While recovery in the financial sector and stock markets has inched forwarding during the past months, the nations’ unemployment rate has remained essentially unchanged since January when it reached a 26 year high. Economic pundits disagree sharply with the recommendations of economic experts and economic analysts have produced an analysis that supports neither side. The preposition of these postulates has produced a prognosis that is anything but positive, and parties on all sides of the issue foresee continued high jobless numbers into the third millennium.

Undersecretary of Labor Mitch Dimeener said Tuesday at a press conference that the problem was obviously that there were more people than were actually required to get everything done but that the supply and demand balance that is usually the seen in relation to other products is completely absent concerning the production of human beings. “There’s just more of them all the time,” he said. He suggested the acceleration of a program designed to decouple the creation of new jobs from any actual need to have a task performed or service rendered. A new Bureau of Unnecessary Careers will be formed within the Department to stimulate the creation of new jobs that fulfill needs that no one has. Grants would fund, among other things, a University of Michigan “ring tone design” graduate program and “pet motivational speaker” training course open to recent grads.

“The simple fact of the matter is we just need to bring these numbers into line,” said Kenan Sharp of the executive vice president of the Unemployed Workers Union. “We will only consider a strike as a last resort but immediate action is called for.” Sharp pointed out that the economy must produce over three hundred thousand new jobs every quarter for the unemployment rate to stay the same. That’s how many people enter the job market. “The economy is like a shark that gets a little big bigger and has to swim a little bit faster every day. When it finally croaks, it should be really big.” Sharp said that a huge and massive federal spending program should be initiated now to defibrillate the economy which might have “years of useful life left in it.” An infusion of 18 to 20 billion dollars in jobs programs could give the economy “at least a chance to get its affairs in order,” he said.

Michelle Bachman (R- Michigan) called for President Obama to “abandon his socialist agenda and get to work providing every American with a satisfying job.” When a reporter in the audience pointed out that government responsibility for the employment of the citizenry was a feature of “communist” rather than “socialist” governments, Ms. Bachman replied, “Huh?”

Nevada’s Tea Party candidate for senate, Sharon Angle, stated that the US needs to prepare for the new global economy by banning all public education and beginning a program to offer advanced home schooling degrees in computer programming, particle physics and musketry. A new form of currency based on the russet potato would insure that all jobseekers would be well motivated. Ms. Angle pointed out that most of the former residents of the continent have been replaced by Americans and suggested that the unemployed look for opportunities to fill the niches other species have left vacant. “We could have a good sized herd of MBA’s grazing in the Black Hills,” she said.

The global slowdown has caused even greater depression in the employment rate in other regions. On the Arabian Peninsula the jobless rate among males under twenty five approaches 30 percent and the novel tactic of inducing a few of these disaffected jobseekers to blow themselves to smithereens in a crowed market has become commonplace. “It’s effective,” said Labor’s Dimeener, “but not likely to catch on here.”