Archive for August, 2005

Judge the water, not the well

I don’t really want to add anything further to what I’ve said about Iraq, but Christopher Hitchens makes a good point in the Weekly Standard, a point I have made myself in the past, directed at those who blame the current violence there on the American occupation:

“Anyone with the smallest knowledge of Iraq knows that its society and infrastructure and institutions have been appallingly maimed and beggared by three decades of war and fascism (and the “divide-and-rule” tactics by which Saddam maintained his own tribal minority of the Sunni minority in power). In logic and morality, one must therefore compare the current state of the country with the likely or probable state of it had Saddam and his sons been allowed to go on ruling.

At once, one sees that all the alternatives would have been infinitely worse, and would most likely have led to an implosion–as well as opportunistic invasions from Iran and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, on behalf of their respective interests or confessional clienteles. This would in turn have necessitated a more costly and bloody intervention by some kind of coalition, much too late and on even worse terms and conditions. This is the lesson of Bosnia and Rwanda yesterday, and of Darfur today. When I have made this point in public, I have never had anyone offer an answer to it. A broken Iraq was in our future no matter what, and was a responsibility (somewhat conditioned by our past blunders) that no decent person could shirk.”

I don’t whole-heartedly agree with him, especially when he concludes from this that “The only unthinkable policy was one of abstention.” First of all, that implies that the only form that intervention could have taken was what actually happened, which is a pretty limited and fatalistic view. And secondly, it is not inconceivable that we c0uld have continued to abstain from getting involved even if Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia all invaded together. Isn’t that another lesson from Rwanda and Bosnia? I know that Hitchens is basically making a moral case, but that doesn’t make “ought to” the same as “have to.” Nevertheless, his basic point that Iraq was heading for sectarian ethnic conflict and probably a civil war as soon as Saddam died or got deposed no matter what the conditions is pretty hard to argue with. In fact, the presence of American troops has probably had a unifying effect both on Iraqis opposed to and supportive of their presence, although that by itself doesn’t necessarily legitimate or make worthwhile the whole engagement. So those who argue that the Americans turned Iraq from a peaceful and orderly little haven into Palestine/Rwanda should definitely shut the fuck up.

p.s. I also like his similarly inarguable headline “Prison conditions at Abu Ghraib have improved markedly and dramatically since the arrival of Coalition troops in Baghdad,” although surely he would be the first to admit that that is not saying a whole lot.

RAND, Rand and Accelerando

Just a few things of interest:

  • Profits of fear — Boing Boing has Charles Platt’s story about Sam Cohen, inventor of “the most moral weapon ever invented”…the neutron bomb. A fascinating look at nuclear hysteria, the Cold War and (of course) the military-industrial complex.
  • Evicting Politics — JTK makes an interesting observation:
    I find it striking that Rand’s great protagonists were inventors and businessmen, yet her admirers tend to focus almost exclusively on rational evangelism. The most powerful model for collective action appropriate to individualists is business, yet business gets short shrift from libertarians as a means for curtailing the state – they tend to devote themselves instead to collective political movements.
    Josh brings up the usual objection in the comments: “you won’t get liberty if your neighbours want you to be enslaved, no matter the number of gadgets you have”, but Kennedy rightly points out that this argument doesn’t fly:
    Few people primarily want to enslave you, they want something else and they think enslaving you is the only or easiest way to get it. When enslaving you is more expensive than it’s worth they lose interest in enslaving you.
  • Accelerando — Charles Stross’ new novel is available for free download in a variety of formats with the blessings of his publisher. Both Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise were excellent and the first chapter of Accelerando, published separately as the short story “Lobsters,” is quite good as well, so I have high hopes for Stross’ latest effort (GR: definitely check it out). As in Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, one of the major themes of Accelerando is the social impact of a technological singularity, which is a fascinating topic.

    Incidentally, Stross is doing this as a “marketing exercise”; he wants to see what impact (if any) releasing a free version online has on his sales figures. Apparently the initial results “look promising.” In the interests of helping him to keep track of how many people are reading the free version (and, hopefully, to convince his publisher to allow him to offer future novels as free downloads), consider reading the HTML unless you really prefer plain text or PDF.

Street-level images + Google maps

Now you can not only find coffee shops offering free wireless internet on Google maps, you can see exactly what the coffee shop looks like before ever having to venture out into the cruel and unforgiving sunlight. In my post on Google Print I mentioned Amazon’s new block-level view for maps and expressed the following wish:

In fact, one can only hope that someone out there is working on combining Google Maps’ search flexibility and aerial photographs, Amazon’s street-level pictures, JiWire’s hotspot finder and the Gmaps pedometer into one world-destroying über-map.

Well, aside from integrating the pedometer into the rest, it’s been done. In a comment I mentioned MetroFreeFi, but that doesn’t give you the block-level view. Instead, just follow these instructions (ð: MAKE: Blog) and then search for, say, “wifi in philadelphia” on Google Maps. Like so (click on the C, D, or E pins to have the block-level view show up). Google’s using Wi-Fi-FreeSpot to find free WiFi hotspots on their maps, which doesn’t get all of them, but does get quite a few.


You may have noticed in my last post that I’ve been trying out a new (for me) form of footnote (if you couldn’t figure it out, that’s what the writing in the right margin is). I had started thinking, after my last footnoted post, about how the way I have been doing footnotes around here really wasn’t ideal from a user-friendly standpoint, nor, for that matter, from a writer-friendly standpoint.

From a reader’s perspective, footnotes on web pages or blog posts (especially long ones) are problematic because the footnote typically is placed at the very bottom of the page, which can be quite far from the text being footnoted. Hence, it can be a real pain in the ass to scroll down to the footnote, read it, then scroll back up and find where you had left off of reading the main text. This isn’t so much a problem in a regular book, because it’s usually easy to remember roughly where on the page you left off, but, unless you don’t have to scroll to see the bottom of a footnoted web page, it’s much more difficult online.

The standard solution to this problem, as exemplified by John Gruber’s post, is to make the footnote itself (i.e. the superscripted numeral) into a link to the footnote text at the bottom of the page, then provide a link at the end of the footnote text that sends you back to your place in the main text. This second step is actually unnecessary (you can just use the “Back” button in your browser), but this is a relatively good solution to the readability issue.

However, creating all these links is pretty time-consuming and leaves lots of nasty-looking HTML markup in your text, so it’s not so good from a writer’s perspective. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem terribly user-friendly to make your readers constantly click links back-and-forth through a single document just to be able to read it (and completely destroying the functionality of the “Back” button as a way to get back to whatever they were reading before coming to that document). So I started checking around to see if there were some better or easier solutions. Although there are a couple WordPress plugins that simplify the creation of footnotes, they don’t really address my readability concerns (which, as any web designer worth his salt will tell you, are the more important concerns).

Subconsciously, I think I already knew what I wanted: some sort of simple, frames-free implementation of the annotations to this version of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. Or, even more ambitiously, something like the notes to David Foster Wallace’s essay “Host” as they appear in the printed edition (which have been described as “hyperlinks in print”). Of course, subconscious desires require some sort of outside stimulus to rise to the surface, and I was fortunate enough to come across Peter-Paul Koch’s post.

Koch talks about some of the problems with footnotes on the web, links to some articles about footnotes, talks about how (oddly enough) footnotes don’t exist in HTML or XHTML and, most importantly, talks about how he thinks “sidenotes” are the way to go on the web. All I had to do was see the word “sidenotes” and thoughts of The Waste Land and the DFW article immediately came to mind. So the question became how to do them. Andreas Bovens and Timothy Groves also like sidenotes and Groves whipped up some javascript to make the process of generating the things pretty easy. Still, javascript isn’t really ideal, either, because lots of people turn javascript off in their browsers.

Fortunately, Beau Hartshorne posted links to his solution to the sidenote problem in the comments to all three of the above posts. His solution is, I think, the best of any that I’ve seen (and, with minor modifications, is what I’m now using); the sidenote is generated exactly at the level of the main text the note pertains to, it’s easy to implement with some simple CSS, and it uses the small attribute, which has been suggested as the “right” attribute for footnotes and has the side benefit of allowing even RSS readers and other non-CSS browsers to tell that the sidenote is not normal text, even though it may not be immediately obvious what it is. → It should be noted the “standard” footnote solution generates invalid RSS because relative URLs aren’t allowed inside content tags Hartshorne’s approach even makes it easy to make sidenotes on both sides of the text. Like so ← Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.

In an effort to avoid confusion, I’ve also been adding little arrows (→ and ←) next to the sidenoted text to indicate that that’s where the note is coming from, as well as a much larger arrow of the same sort as background to the sidenote itself to create a sort of visual link. Of course, it might be even snazzier to highlight the sidenoted text in various colors and then color coordinate the sidenotes to the relevant highlighted text (like in the DFW article), but I’m afraid that’s more work than I really want to do.

As it is, I’m pretty happy with how the whole thing’s turned out, but if you have any suggestions to make the sidenotes better, let me know. And if you hate them and want me to go back to footnotes, or even if you hate the whole idea of footnotes and want to implore me never to write another ever again, you can still let me know (though I may ignore you).

Black guys have names like Carl, white guys have names like Lenny…

First Felipe Alou decides to take on the role of spokesman for “Caribbean people,” now Scoop Jackson decides to explain the psychology of black people to Jeff Kent. As if any group could be reduced to a few stereotypes, racist or not. As if we were all the same. As if, as if, as if. Now I admit, I often make generalizations about cultural practices, especially since I have started to travel internationally quite a bit. But I always try to distinguish between a custom or social practice, which is an inherently general widespread thing, and “the way (French/Russian/British/Chinese/American etc.) people are,” which is never simply a factor of generalizable cultural factors. But these people that try to speak for the whole of “aggrieved” groups tend to promote the idea that the members of the group for which they speak have no individual identity, are just homogenous tabula rasas upon which are imprinted the identity of the group. This is probably a harsh exaggeration, but only because most people have enough sense to resist the ultimate logic of the generalizations.

p.s. There’s another almost equally baffling article on a somewhat related topic in about the firing of the U. Cincinnati basketball coach, Bob Huggins, where the author, Jason Whitlock, implies that the university administration is basically racist and is getting rid of Huggins because it thinks that all the underclass black players that he recruits tarnish its image. Which is probably true in a way, but there are probably also legitimate non-racist reasons why some of those players would tarnish the image of the school and not be desirable as students. But somehow the bit of the letter that mentions that “in a 16-year span, 21 of Huggins’ players had run afoul of the law in a signficant way, including three players/recruits who were scheduled to play at UC this season” doesn’t even register with him. Then again, from Whitlock’s perspective it seems to be the university’s fault if delinquent semi-illiterate players show up on campus and don’t become model citizens by the time they leave. He seems to view education as an essentially passive process where the student receives rather than (l)earns. Or like a commercial transaction where the barter is athletic skill and socialization and intellect are received in return, none being assumed in the player beforehand. Needless to say, doesn’t establish a very high standard on their side, and the level of success generally seems to correspond. Once again we must acknowledge the wisdom of Dalrymple, who concludes that the single greatest factor in the continued failure of the underclass is the propensity to put one’s own life and actions in a passive framework, and refuse to take any responsibility for them.

Opening up

If you haven’t checked it out yet, Paul Graham’s latest essay is quite good. He talks about what businesses can learn from the open source community and movement and identifies three key lessons that might enhance corporate productivity: professionalism is overrated, working in a traditional office sucks, and good ideas generally percolate up from the bottom rather than being handed down from above. On that last note, Graham makes a particularly astute observation (though not, admittedly, an original one):

Ironically, though open source and blogs are done for free, those worlds resemble market economies, while most companies, for all their talk about the value of free markets, are run internally like communist states. → I should point out that I’m not one of these open source zealots that thinks anything and everything involving the term is automatically good and that anything whose source is closed is bad, but, as Graham notes, there are certain unavoidable parallels to be drawn between open source and, to use Popper’s term, the open society

Graham goes on to note that, just as in a Communist state, traditional corporate employers have taken on a very paternalistic role these days:

Nothing shows more clearly that employment is not an ordinary economic relationship than companies being sued for firing people. In any purely economic relationship you’re free to do what you want. If you want to stop buying steel pipe from one supplier and start buying it from another, you don’t have to explain why. No one can accuse you of unjustly switching pipe suppliers. Justice implies some kind of paternal obligation that isn’t there in transactions between equals.

Most of the legal restrictions on employers are intended to protect employees. But you can’t have action without an equal and opposite reaction. You can’t expect employers to have some kind of paternal responsibility toward employees without putting employees in the position of children. And that seems a bad road to go down.

And, as he goes on to note, “[i]t’s demoralizing to be on the receiving end of a paternalistic relationship, no matter how cozy the terms. Just ask any teenager.” Note that what Graham has to say about “justice” not being a consideration in “transactions between equals” is equally applicable in other realms; the “fair trade” nonsense that continually arises in the context of the third world and much of the affirmative-action talk spouted by self-appointed saviors of the black race are just two examples.

Anyway, speaking of open source, Cory Doctorow had an excellent post yesterday explaining why open source DRM is impossible. He correctly points out that there’s a big difference between encryption like SSL (which certainly admits of open source implementation) and digital rights management:

In SSL you have a sender, a recipient and an attacker. The attacker is never supposed to be in possession of the cleartext. It doesn’t matter, however, if the recipient gains access to the cleartext. That’s why you can have open source SSL.

In DRM you only have a sender and an attacker, who is also the recipient. DRM relies on the attacker/recipient only gaining access to the cleartext while their machine is in the grips of non-user-accessible code that restricts what they can do with the cleartext (in particular, DRM seeks to ensure that the cleartext can’t be saved back to the drive while still in the clear).

And so, obviously, DRM implementations can’t, by definition, be user-modifiable. And there are probably a lot of people out there who ain’t gonna like it too much when they figure it out. Including, ironically, publishers. → see also: my rant, Adam Engst’s rant, Dan Burk’s paper (PDF) and Cory Doctorow’s classic rant.

Oh, and just for the record: whoa.

Spontaneous kindness is to hipsters…

as high beams are to deer.

The generation of ’47 strikes back

It is established that in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral one of the central themes is the way the broad events and currents of history buffet individual life. At one point he says of his protagonist:

“I began to contemplate the very thing that must have baffled the Swede till the moment he died: how had he become history’s plaything?…History…improbably, with all its predictable unforeseenness, broke helter-skelter into [his] orderly household…and left the place in shambles. People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.”

In this context, it is interesting to see in what an apocalyptic light a presumably good Jewish liberal casts the ’60’s. Perhaps that is because virtually the whole of the Jewish community identified with the centrist upper-class liberalism that was smashed perhaps irreperably by the ideological polarization of that era. Roth overtly compares his protagonist to JFK, and in the same paragraph as the passage quoted above places the events of the decade in suggestive contrast to the Revolutionary War, as if to portray them as the two bookends of the period of American growth. Whether this indicates a belief in the onset of the decline of America or merely of the Jewish community through a perceived identification with now out-of-favor political attitudes is not entirely clear. Or maybe Roth is either sufficiently culturally assimilated to America or solipsistically self-absorbed enough to believe the fate of the two to be identical.

One-dimensional man

I’ve been reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth, in my opinion by far the leading American candidate to win the Nobel Prize for literature and I believe even the most likely to win it this coming year. It’s easy to see why. He has that quality which is irresistible for prize committees, a sociologist’s view of personality. Charitably, I believe that this is the philosophical root of the obvious artificiality of his dialogue. There is no subtext in his dialogue, because his characters seem to lack interiority. They say whatever they think, and their thoughts seem wholly turned to their environment. He doesn’t heed Robert De Niro’s admonition: “It’s important not to indicate. People don’t try to show their feelings, they try to hide them.” All his characters do is indicate; there are no barriers between the mind and speech, between speech and the interlocutor. There is no autonomy for the affections.

In short, Roth’s characters seem mere instruments of their circumstances and surroundings. He has admitted as much in an interview with Die Welt: “History gallops into you in your living room like a crazy horse. You are completely helpless…In principle, one must be happy for every moment that history leaves us in peace.” His novels then are inherently political, which is also catnip for the Nobel committee. But it seems to me that one of the goals of art, and of life, is to create a moral and intellectual independence, to develop one’s personality so as not to be merely the sum of one’s circumstances. The notion of individuals as mere exemplars of the social trends that define them is an awfully pallid portrayal of humanity.

p.s. Not related, but in this discussion Dalrymple makes two excellent points that I have tried to make in a roundabout way in the past:

  1. “While in possession of transcendental religious and philosophical truth, however, it has not escaped notice that the Muslim world has fallen behind the rest of the world. Japan, China, India are fast catching up or overtaking the West: they have been able to meet the Western challenge. No Muslim country has managed more than a kind of parasitic prosperity, dependent on oil – the industry which no Muslim did anything to discover or develop. Even their wealth, then, is a reminder of the dependence. The whole of the Arab world, minus the oil, is economically less significant to the rest of the world than one Finnish telephone company.   The fact that Islamic civilisation was once exquisite, and in advance of most others, is in this context a disadvantage. It means that Muslims tend to think in terms of recovery of glory, rather than anything new. In Muslim bookshops, you can find books about the scholars and scientists who led the world 600 years ago or more – who are a perfectly legitimate subject of enquiry of course – but after that there is a hiatus. If there had been no Muslims for the last 300 or 400 years, the world would have lost no technical or scientific advance.”

  2. “The London bombings may have caused at long last people to examine their fatuous multiculturalist pieties, which I believe are fundamentally derived from the restaurant model: today we eat Hungarian, tomorrow Mexican, the day after Lebanese, and so forth. Clearly, this is possible and very enjoyable, but there are more important and deeper things in life than a variety of cuisines. Perhaps people will begin to see that some values are simply not compatible with others, and will now be prepared to stand up for those that we believe in.”

I have long contended that the main problem with devotion to Islam is not that Islam is in itself a bad doctrine but that in a Muslim context everything must be judged with reference to the words of Mohammed and the lives of the first four caliphs. It’s very fashionable and politically correct these days to talk about how advanced Muslim civilisation was during the Middle Ages, but Dalrymple points out that using this as a normative ideal reinforces the dangerous psychological tendency to think in terms of recovery of a past glory rather than creation of a better future. The belief that all righteousness is lodged in the authority of a single document and at a single point in the past is fundamentally at odds with the very notion of “modernity” and with open-mindedness. And as for point #2, I was saying to my brother just the other day that it is possible to have a successful multiethnic and even multicultural society, but what cannot work is a multi-ethical society. Clearly everyone is not going to agree on all moral values, but there has to be one basic ethical standard in society. Without that the conflicts will be interminable and insuperable, and perhaps worse than that the tacit sanctioning of moral wrongs.

Preservation vs. the plebes

So now someone wants to introduce large African animals like lions, cheetahs and elephants to North America (i.e. the U.S.). Feeling it my duty to provide the interpretation of maximum cynicism, I can’t help but see this as example #2 of Environmentalists Screwing Over the Poor. All the gameparks and wildlife reserves dotting Africa were set up on the premise that the economic loss suffered by those who forwent farming on this land would be more than compensated by the payoff of ecotourism by First Worlders who would want to visit these unspoiled natural habitats. But if you can see lions, cheetahs and elephants in Texas, do you suppose that tourists in any great numbers will continue to want to visit Africa, the poorest region in the world?