Archive for June, 2006

postscript to Dwyanu Wadibili

In the latest in its series of defending the indefensible. Slate magazine now tries to defend flopping itself. The premise seems to be that, without a little over-dramatization of fowls, we’d be stuck in the doldrums of the NBA or NHL circa 1996. But the NBA is a good example of why this is a huge over-simplification. The NBA (and, more recently, the NHL) made the game more exciting to watch by enforcing the penalties on the books and creating new rules to discourage defensive interference, not by letting offensive players invent their own fouls.

The main problem with diving is not that it’s dishonest, weaselly behavior, although it is. The main issue is that it completely disrupts the rhythm of play if players collapse when they have control of the ball and aren’t touched hard enough to actually bring them down. The author basically admits this by saying, “There is nothing more depressing than a player who goes to the ground when he might have scored.” But he gets around this by sort of redefining the term “diving,” confining himself to defending flops where there is legitimate contact sufficient to bring a player down but the ref won’t call a foul unless the foulee rolls around on the ground in apparent agony. I have nothing to say about those instances, except to say that if the officiating is that bad, maybe FIFA should think about, I don’t know, assigning more than one ref per game. Hey, it’s a big field, after all. So maybe FIFA and the NBA should actually enforce the rules they already have and stick to them, instead of letting players on the field decide when they want to be fouled. Maybe they should throw in a tough rule against diving too, like in the NHL. Then they’d have the best of both worlds, and as a side benefit, basketball stars might stop seeming so damn manufactured.

p.s. I admit that the disrupts-play argument applies less to the NBA, where the good floppers like Wade and Ginobili usually get “fouled” somewhere in the process of shooting and follow through their shots, but it still slows the game down a bit, and if less-skilled players start doing this I could see whole games degenerating into a succession of bricks and foul shots. Plus, it makes me hate whoever is doing it. The author also tries to criticize this visceral dislike of that sort of behavior by implying that everyone sharing this feeling is a chauvinistic racist, which is one of the most infuriating (and, unfortunately, increasingly popular) ad hominem argument strategies out there.  And anyway, hockey players are sort of the model of stoic toughness, and most of them (until recently, anyway) are French Canadians, for God’s sake.  If this were really just a construction of American nationalism, do you really think they would be the ones fit into that mould?

Conservative revolutionaries

The true revolutionaries in history lived in one world and stepped into a new one. We, born into some of the preconceptions and views that they established, often find baffling the assumptions of the society into which they were born and bred and which they usually had to respect to some extent even in making a conscious break with elements of it. This perhaps accounts for one of the seemingly obvious and yet curious characteristics of history, which is that the revolutionaries of our past often seem more conservative than radical in their attitudes. A correlary but not not identical observation is that the more influential they were the more conventional they are likely to appear, since they helped to establish a new orthodoxy. Hence the old saw about Shakepeare’s plays being full of clichés. Locke’s views on education and human rights are one of the preeminent examples of this.

But even beyond this, as radical as a person’s ideas may be, they are likely to retain some elements of their intellectual heritage. So Francis Bacon, whom I am reading right now, is known as in some sense the initiator of the theory of the scientific method and hence perhaps the closest thing to a founder of modern science as we are likely to find. And of course science is often viewed as the pre-eminent intellectual challenge to religion and supernaturalism in general. And yet Bacon’s own religious views were more orthodoxally Christian than probably the vast majority of people living today. Many people today think they are to some extent following Karl Marx when they denigrate materialism or the value of material goods in society. But Marx was probably one of the biggest worshipers of the value of material goods in history. Marxism is not more formally known as dialectical materialism for nothing. He wasn’t interested in transcending the craving for goods, just in distributing them in his view more fairly. It was precisely their value that made this endeavor worthwhile. Or, to take yet another example, Charles Darwin famously resisted applying his theories of natural selection to human society, notably the now-notorious Social Darwinism. He was a Christian and no innovator in the field of ethics, and not inclined to believe that morality just sort of sprang up from the ground, even if life did, nor that it mainly existed just to further the drive for survival and reprouduction.

What often seems to be the case is that when a concept like natural selection proves capable of explaining enough phenomena it at some point becomes a self-sufficient worldview, at least for some people. But the originator of the idea, knowing the process of assumption-making and inference that went into creating the theory, is not likely, so long as he is of a somewhat sober and rational disposition, to be able to see it as just a given, a fact of life, as the subsequent more superficial-minded students brought up with the theory do, even if he does live long enough to see all the predictive claims of the theory thoroughly vindicated, which does not often happen. Marx’s case seems a bit different; since Marxist theories, at least in America, have become more or less the province of muddle-headed English professors who think they are being thoroughly Marxist whenever they “interrogate” the assigning of value and hierarchical relations in capitalistic society, it is probably more a matter of falsely identifying oneself with a philosophy that shares a common enemy.

Lastly, it should not be assumed a priori that the caution of the originators of big ideas is necessarily more justified than the grandiosity of their disciples. Social Darwinism may have been premature and even repugnant, but the notion of applying evolutionary thinking to behavior and human society has been rather spectacularly vindicated through the growth of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and the rest. Bacon’s careful distinctions between the proximate natural causes of things and the ultimate divine causes are likely to seem rather Panglossian and greatly unnecessary to most people today. Einstein’s insistence that the concept of relativity did not apply outside physics was no doubt justified as it pertained to the bastardized and ill-digested notions of relativity that infected the humanities and popular culture.  But it nevertheless seems like an overly comparmentalized view of the world in the sense that a physical theory so fundamental is bound to have some implications on the universe as a whole and everything inside it, the problem being more that so few people really understand relativity that almost no one is in a position to say exactly what those are.  But Einstein’s disastrous verdict against quantum theory on grounds apparently as much philosophical as empirical showed that he was not always particularly forward-looking in his views. So perhaps we should view the innovators as particularly imperfectly assimilated the societal worldview of any era, or at least especially adept at convincingly making a transition from one to another.

Reformation or Renaissance?

I often hear people claiming that what Islam really needs is a Martin Luther or a Reformation. I wonder if they really know what they are calling for. In my opinion the so-called Islamists today in many cases have a lot in common with the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, for they were the major fundamentalists of that era (of whom, let us not forget, the Puritans were an offshoot). In terms of inter-confessional hostility often not a great deal distinguished the Protestants and Catholics of the era, and the Catholics certainly committed their share of heinous crimes: the Spanish Inquisition, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and the Spanish campaign of extermination in the Netherlands spring to mind, to say nothing of the atrocities perpetrated in the New World. But for the most part, except in Spain and the Balkans, where old conflicts with Muslim states continued, it was the Protestants who reawakened religious fanaticism and a spirit of sectarian rancor which had been largely absent since the days of the late Roman Empire. Of course the Protestants had legitimate grievances, but many of the abuses that they wanted to “reform” were of an opposite nature from those condemned by liberal society in religious fanatics today: venality, corruption and a conspicious lack of moral austerity. The Catholic Church had entered a decadent stage, and it is not hard even to identify the liberal Western society of today more with it than with the Protestant fundamentalists who challenged it. Indeed, Islamists often follow an analogous course: they deplore the corruption and venality of leaders of the Muslim world (although there is nothing analogous to the formal institution of the Church in Islam), they arrogate to themselves, not to the clerical authorities, the authority to interpret scripture, and they preach a general return to the austere holiness of the nascent days of the faith. The Reformation and the Renaissance arose from a somewhat similar revolt against ossified social institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, and a desire to bring power back into the fold of common humanity, but the viciousness of the religious wars and persecutions sparked by the Reformation vitiated to a considerable degree the achievements of the Renaissance in beating back dogmatism, and the Reformers returned an intransigent militarism to intellectual life. What Islam needs is not a Luther but an Erasmus, or better yet a Rabelais.

More hate

[Note: I composed the substance of this post while laying in bed this morning with a pillow over my face, but didn’t have a chance to write it down until now. I find it interesting that, in the intervening time, Curt came to essentially the same conclusion about Dwyane Wade, even if he did misspell his name]

On the plus side (upside, perhaps, in honor of everybody’s favorite spineless color man?), at least the NBA’s officials for Game 6 maintained consistency in calling fouls against the Mavericks for swiping at the ball in Dwyane Wade’s hands and completely missing everything, for standing there when Wade threw his body into someone and flipped the ball over his head, and for getting in the way of Wade’s forearm. On the down side…well, isn’t the downside pretty obvious? (And that doesn’t even get into the fact that both games 5 and 6 essentially ended on phantom foul calls; whatever happened to letting the players decide the game?)

The really sad thing about this whole debacle is that it’s made me start hating Dwyane Wade, one of the most likable players in the league. Intellectually I know that he’d be stupid not to flop, drive recklessly and throw his body into the defender if he’s going to get calls, but the less abstract layers of my brain see that and think about how much I’d want to punch the guy if he ever tried that stuff in a pickup game in which I was involved.

Of course, a good deal of the blame for my wanting to see Wade fail falls at the feet of Heat coach/GM Pat Riley for surrounding him with the likes of the smugly mercenary Antoine Walker and the utterly despicable Alonzo Mourning. Incidentally, when did the league decide that ‘Zo was free to throw his body indiscriminately into shooters so long as he makes a clean block up top? Has this always been the case? Despite the fact that there are at least four players on the Heat I like (Wade, Haslem, Shaq and Posey), I could never find it in myself to root for a team that prominently features Walker, Mourning and, of course, Riley himself, the man who almost singlehandedly destroyed professional basketball for an entire decade.

But, tempting as it is to blame Riley, the presence of he, Walker and Mourning only made me want to see Wade’s team lose; it took truly gutless officiating to make me hate Wade the individual. Which is pretty impressive, given that the whole scenario had me empathizing with Dirk Nowitzki, who isn’t exactly unaccomplished when it comes to flopping.

Dwyanu Wadibili

You can read a totally unconvincing argument that the officials didn’t throw the NBA championship to the Miami Heat here. The argument seems to basically be that if the Mavericks were championship-worthy they would have overcome horrible officiating. I’m not saying that Dallas was exactly world-beating, but come on. That’s like arguing that corruption in close elections is irrelevant because if the losing candidate were really worthy of victory they would have been popular enough to overcome it. Does that make Robert Mugabe a legitimate president? Miami won exactly one game against the Mavericks by more than three points. In Game 5 Dwyane Wade shot more free throws than the entire Mavericks team, and at least five or six of the fouls were complete bullshit. In Game 6 I saw Wade pull up for jumpers on three separate occaisons in the first half alone and collapse to the ground despite no Mav being within in three feet of him, and each time he got a call. I was too disgusted to even watch the second half (and probably any NBA game from now on), but it sounded like it was just as bad. You’re telling me that at least three completely made-up calls like that, resulting in a chance for six free points, in a game decided by three points, was not most likely decisive? And since the same applied to Game 5 and to a lesser extent Game 3, doesn’t that swing the series?

It’s not an open-and-shut case, because no one knows if the Mavericks would have played the same way had the Heat and Wade especially not gotten so many calls (and, to be fair, there were a few questionable calls in favor of the Mavs). Maybe they would have found some other way to lose. But the outcome is so tainted I don’t see how anyone could rest contented that they saw a series decided on its merits. And the refs did the same thing in the finals last year, except then they were only angling to make the series go seven games, whereas this year they were apparently bent on proving Mark Cuban right when he said (if he said) that the league is rigged. And I’m pretty dubious that the league will ever allow a team owned by him to win a championhip. Probably the worst thing about the whole series was seeing what happened to Wade. I used to think he was a really likeable player, because in addition to being extremely good he gets fouled and thrown around a lot and never whines to the refs (then again, why would he ever need to?). I don’t what happened to him before Game 6, but after last night, he’s become Ginobili, he’s become the Italian national soccer team, he’s become a damn flopper. So if that’s the NBA’s new Jordan, count me out.

p.s.  In short, the best way to state my point is this: the Mavericks didn’t play well enough to win the game as it was conducted; that’s pretty much redundant.  But since they scored more legitimate points in all but one of the games, that should be enough to win.

Curt Shonkwiler, supreme patriarch of the Freudisdumma order

I posted a quote from a leader of the Cambodian Buddhist community which seems to me to have a strong seed of truth above, but I realized that anyone familiar with my intellectual proclivities or who had read this article from which it was excerpted might find it a little inexplicable, since I am not known as much of an enthusiast for Buddhism and the quote only appears in the article in the form of a passing mention to alternative philosophies of mental health in contrast to Western psychiatric approaches. But on the other hand, Britain’s National Health Service is staking a hell of a lot of money (ostensibly) on the premise that so-called “talking” therapy (as opposed to pharmacological, or medication-based, therapy) can greatly improve the mental health of the populace, and while the authors’ tone is not uncritical, since they neglect to cite any pharmacologists or neuropsychologists this random Buddhist cleric is really the only external voice questioning the efficacity of solving mental problems by talking them out.

Make no mistake, I am no follower of Buddhist doctrine. Although I saw a study somewhere claiming that a group of Buddhist monks in Japan are quantifiably the happiest people ever recorded because they have the highest level of stimulation of a particular region of the brain which is supposed to always be stimulated in conjunction with peoples’ professed feelings of happiness or contentment, the normative goals of Buddhism seem to be oriented to anything but happiness. I’ve never been able to accept the premise that life=feeling and feeling=pain, and therefore the ideal state is some soporific state of detachment not perhaps too dissimilar from the sedation of a patient under heavy anesthesia or, better yet, a corpse. So in other words I am not very greatly enamored by the advice to just “don’t think about it” as a general principle. But when it comes to thoughts that make us unhappy or at least symtomize unhappiness, there may be no better way in life.

For I have rarely found, in moments of depression or discontent, that trying to directly work out an intellectual solution to that state accomplishes its end. As I have already suggested, I think very often these splinters of unease are no more than symtoms of an underlying, probably physical, unwellness. So in many cases the very concept of trying to “work out” such an affliction by addressing the ideas that seem to provoke it directly may be inherently absurd. Or to put it another way, perhaps one is no more depressed about something than one is ill about something.

Now, I remember writing once that when I can write about something, it no longer afflicts me. But if anything that serves to indicate that it was never the thought that was the problem, it was a mental condition that seized hold of some discouraging thought as a visible proxy. Cogitation can help one’s mental state, but not I think head-on. Thinking is a form of mental exercise, and just like physical exercise it improves one’s health if done proportionately. But one cannot directly fight a disease by exercising. I think one has more control over the mind, simply because the mind itself is the organ by which we exert feedback control over our bodies.  There is a mixture between the mentally manipulable and that which is beyond its control.  But the analogy I think at least serves to suggest a sense of the possible limitations. So I concur to some extent with the Buddhist patriarch’s advice of non-responsiveness to that which is painful. After all, is not the very goal of all of these psychological approaches to make it possible, if not not to think about unhappy thoughts at all, at least not to be possessed by them?

Wo war das hohe Gericht, bis zu dem er nie gekommen war?

It seems like I have had a discussion with just about every educated person I know about Kant’s categorical imperative at least once. I had another such the other day, and it happened to connect with a couple of other things I was thinking about. I have to say that for some time I have found the idea of a priori ethical systems a little arbitrary. When it comes to Kant, it is easy to be misled by his language into thinking that he is postulating a consequentialist or even quasi-utilitarian view of ethics. But this is not true, and his admonition about it being wrong to lie to a would-be murderer about the whereabouts of the person he is seeking to kill because lying is an unacceptable general moral principle should demonstrate that pretty convincingly. So instead there must be some intrinsic connection between moral imperatives like telling the truth and the good.

But if the goal of ethics is ultimately, as I believe, to try to maximize the happiness of the members of a group, or at least to make their individual desires capable of co-existence as much as possible, the categorical imperative manifestly fails to do so, as evidenced by that very example. The famous criticism of Kant by Schopenhauer that “everything is sacrificed to a rage for symmetry,” or in this case consistency, comes to mind. It seems to me that it is necessary to be flexible in one’s principles of action, and careful in balancing what is at stake, or one could find oneself giving directions to a murderer, so to speak. Even if deeds like telling the truth are on the whole the best policy in most cases, one cannot justify the instances in which they are not by reference to those in which they are.

“It’s all about purity, and peace, and tolerance, and…” “shut the fuck up”

A piece purporting to explain why soccer is now supposedly popular among American intellectuals. Yet the most obvious explanation is only barely hinted at in a single sentence: “Perversely, it seems easier for an American soccer fan to make common cause with Italian mobs, who might happen to be shouting pro-fascist chants, than with someone from Alabama, who might happen to be a Republican.”

I played soccer competitively through high school, and occaisonally on club teams in college, and for a while I was definitely very engaged as a spectator with international soccer. So I think I can say that at least personally a large part of the appeal was the snob factor–this was something that “sophisticated” Europeans were obsessed with, and one could consequently feel superior to all the American yokels that ignored soccer in favor of football, baseball and NASCAR. To be fair, many Americans have just as ostentatiously rejected soccer for ideological reasons, considering it the sport of wussy European socialists, so supporting it can have political connotations of a internationalist nature–opposing the “unilateralism” of the U.S. that also rejects the Kyoto treaties, the chemical weapons and land mines treaty, the International Criminal Court, etc. At the same time, watching soccer because of its indirect signalling of one’s political outlook definitely has a whiff of the pseudo.

So I am sympathetic to people that genuinely like the sport, having played it for a long time myself. But let’s be honest, it’s a fairly mediocre spectator sport: definitely more entertaining than baseball, but only about equivalent with basketball and considerably less so than football or hockey, in my opinion. And let’s be honest, given that many international clubs not only put big corporate logos right across the chest of their jerseys, which is something no American professional sports team does (with the exception of the tiny jersey-maker logos), but also outright sell star players to other clubs, without even making the pretence of trading for other players, which is pretty much de riguer in America, let’s just say that I’m skeptical of the argument that soccer is somehow purer and less governed by money and marketing than American sports.

Response to Google/China, 5 months late

In light of recent revelations, it’s amusing to look back at contemporary responses to Google’s decision to accede to China’s censorship in order to gain a toehold in the largest emerging digital marketplace in the world. At the time I intended to post a link to Neal Stephenson’s “The Kingdom of Mao Bell” as a rejoinder to Calacanis’ post linked above, but never got around to it. So there it is.

(Oh, and if you have the time, check Stephenson’s “Mother Earth, Mother Board”, which is excellent)

Finally putting that econ class to use

Via TeleRead I see that the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is inching ever closer to reality. For those that haven’t been keeping up, OLPC is a non-profit headed by Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of M.I.T.’s Media Lab. Originally known (at least colloquially) as the “M.I.T. $100 laptop project”, the OLPC’s goal is to produce cheap laptops to sell to third-world governments so that they can give them to poor kids.

Which is a fine idea. The American public schools are a joke, but American kids still have a leg up on third world kids in that they’re familiar and comfortable with computers and networks. Since such familiarity is an absolute necessity for success in the modern marketplace, giving third world kids computers ought to be an excellent way to prepare them to succeed in that marketplace. Of course, one could certainly make the argument that there are more pressing priorities in the third world which could be solved more cheaply and straightforwardly. Maybe so, but M.I.T. computer geeks probably ought to stick to their area of specialty rather than trying to tell people how to produce potable water or whatever Moreover, if that’s your goal, laptops are better than desktops because kids can take them to school and bring them home at the end of the day, rather than having to (perhaps fancifully) hope that their favorite desktop in the computer lab will still be there and functional the next day. Also, since electricity tends to be iffy in the third world, something that can run on battery at least part of the time is a necessity.

Anyway, the point is that I am, more or less, a fan of the OLPC project and wish them well. One aspect I’m not a fan of, though, is that they seem only to be interested in producing cheap laptops to sell to third-world (and therefore, practically by definition, corrupt) governments on the wishful premise that those governments will then give the laptops to malnourished but cute and bright-eyed kids. The key word in the above sentence being “only”. The OLPC doesn’t seem to have much interest in selling their laptops (current expectation is that they’ll cost about $130) to consumers, either in the first or the third world.

Which is, I submit, not very bright. Now, I understand they want to primarily devote production to third-world kids, but why not mark the things up to $150 or so, There is some talk on the OLPC website about selling their laptops to the first world for three times the price, but that’s a non-starter: for $400 one can buy either (a) a real computer with a hard drive, four times as much RAM and a bigger monitor or (b) a Nokia 770 which is in the same performance ballpark but a fifth as big. sell ’em to people like myself who’d be willing to spend $150 for an essentially disposable laptop and apply the profits towards giving computers to kids in countries which can’t even afford $130 computers? Actually, to put it more strongly, this isn’t a case of “Why not?” so much as “How could you not?” because if you don’t there are plenty of opportunistic types who will recognize an arbitrage opportunity and divert these laptops from their intended recipients to the grey market (to re-iterate: the plan is to sell cheap laptops to third-world governments which are, practically by definition, corrupt. What could possibly go wrong?). So if you don’t sell the laptops to the first world directly, the first world will just buy the laptops off the poor kids you’re making them for.

The OLPC recognizes that this could be a problem, but doesn’t seem to have figured out that the (rather simple) solution is to sell to consumers at a markup which is big enough to make it worthwhile financially while small enough to make buying on the grey market from corrupt governments unattractive. Econ 101, one would think.

Speaking of economic fallacies, I meant to post a while ago about Warner video competing with pirates by offering “The Aviator” DVDs in China for $1.50. Well, that’s not the economic fallacy. In fact, it’s a pretty intelligent business strategy, almost certain to be more effective than trying to get China to enforce any semblance of copyright law.

No, the fallacy lies with how the digerati responded to this news. You can see a sampling at the bottom of the above article in the “Blog community responds” section, but Real Tech News’ Michael Santo gives a typical reaction:

Hey, if it’s a question of the plastic DVD case costing me the extra $10 – 20 that I would pay for this video in the U.S. (depending on where I get it), sell it to me without it. I mean, half the time I replace the case with a better one (aftermarket) anyway. As far as the quote in the article of “a move likely to anger consumers in developed markets?, they’ve already got one such angry consumer — me.

Don’t hold your breath, buddy. DVDs are expensive because the studio has to recoup its expenses incurred from (a) making the movie (i.e. actor salaries, production costs, etc.) and (b) promoting the movie. The cost of the actual, physical DVD and its packaging is negligible. That being the case, by the time the studio is selling DVDs of a movie, all of its major expenses are sunk costs, meaning that it’s worthwhile for the studio to sell DVDs for any price above manufacturing and distribution cost. Obviously, the studio wants to charge as a high a price as possible, but the phrase “as possible” has different meanings in China and in the U.S. In China, where high-quality pirated versions of popular movies are readily and cheaply available, $1.50 is apparently as much as the market will bear. Here in the U.S., there are obviously a lot of people willing to spend $20 for a DVD. Thus, differential pricing.

Which is fine for a couple of reasons. First, it may be worthwhile for Warner to sell “The Aviator” in cheap cardboard cases for $1.50 (since the manufacturing and distributing costs are less than that), but a buck and a half a pop isn’t going to make much of a dent in Leonardo DiCaprio’s salary. It’s only because people here are willing to spend $20 for the same DVD that the studio could afford Also, let’s not forget that a successful movie like “The Aviator” has to subsidize all the less successful movies produced by the same studio. to hire DiCaprio as the star and Martin Scorcese as the director in the first place (I won’t argue whether having DiCaprio and Scorcese involved is desirable or not, but obviously a lot of people thought it was).

Second, people in the U.S. are way the hell more affluent than Chinese people. Chinese people can’t afford $20 DVDs; we can. Bitching about having to pay ten times as much for a DVD when you make ten times as much is pretty crass. I know, I know, it’s pretty harmless in this case. Who cares about Leonardo DiCaprio DVDs? But this same crassness is killing people in the third world, so I think it’s still worthwhile to point out.