October 31, 2003


Posted by shonk at 02:38 AM in Geek Talk | permalink | comment

In my analysis class today, the professor was lecturing on the Hann-Banach Theorem, which states that if you have a bounded linear functional defined on a subspace of a normed linear space, there is an extension of the functional to the whole space that preserves the norm. Don't worry, I'm not going to go into the theory or its applications, but I did want to comment on something the professor said in class, namely: "The idea of linearity is deeply ingrained in us". Now, he was specifically commenting on our natural inclination to try to deal with linear functions, since they're so much nicer to work with. For example, the first time we encounter something like (x + y)2 in algebra, we want it to be equal to x2 + y2 instead of the clumsier x2 + 2xy + y2. This reasoning, aside from conforming to our aesthetic sensibilities, is also founded on sound thinking, since mathematics has far more tools to deal with linear functions than other varieties.

However, I got to thinking about his statement and I think it may be more broadly applicable than he intended. The idea of linearity is, indeed, deeply ingrained in us. The most challenging books or movies are often those that reject the traditional linear forms of narrative; they are challenging in large measure precisely because they stray from that ingrained idea of linearity. The linearity that characterizes our perception of time makes clichés like "time flies when you're having fun" both memorable and slightly ridiculous. We like to think that time ticks inexorably by, each second lasting precisely as long as the last. This linearity applies to our perception of space as well: we see the earth as flat, we like our roads straight and our buildings upright, we figure distances as the crow flies.

In a way, we might see the 20th century as the century of non-linearity: the Theory of Relativity debunked the notion that time and space are linear or flat, quantum mechanics and chaos theory question the very possibility of linear determinism, writers like Joyce, Nabokov, Amis and Márquez explored non-linear narratives, as did movies like "Un chien andalou" and "Memento", networks and hyperlinks changed the ways we learned, read and interacted. Certainly, non-linearity wasn't unique to the 20th century - strong strains of it are present in Newton's (and Leibniz') calculus, impressionism, the work of Diderot and Sterne, etc. - but I don't think it's a stretch to say that it has been most prominent in the last century or so.

I admit that this isn't an important observation, but I guess I just find it fascinating that art, culture and science are all, seemingly in tandem, redefining themselves in non-linear terms. And I think that part of the reason the adaptation to these new terms is so difficult for so many is precisely because linearity is so deeply ingrained in us. Heady thoughts indeed for a Thursday afternoon analysis course.

Bookkeeping Note: I've added a new section to my links, "Literature Online". I've collected links to some of my favorite books and poems under that heading. Book titles are linked to full-text versions, novelist names to their biographies and poet names to a collection of their poetry. Enjoy.

October 30, 2003

The Liberators

Posted by shonk at 10:46 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

Do yourself a favor and check out The Liberators, my friend George Potter's latest story.

From Russia With Love

Posted by shonk at 03:46 AM in Language | permalink | comment

After a nice dinner with the parents, who were in town for a quick visit, and responding to my brother's objections to last night's post, I don't feel up to a real post tonight. Instead, might I recommend Paul Samohvalov's excellent work for your perusal?

Incidentally, did you know that Russian, Bulgarian and presumably most of the other Slavic languages have no word for "privacy"? For the doubters, I have it on excellent authority that the closest word in Bulgarian is "loneliness" and I've noted that this English-Russian dictionary translates "privacy" as "конфиденциальность"; my suspicion, based on aural similarity, that this really means "confidentiality" was confirmed by a Russian-speaking friend.

October 29, 2003

Postage, Language and Music: The New Synthesis

Posted by shonk at 02:46 AM in Politics | permalink | comment

Before I exit the arena for the night, I'd just like to recommend a few links. The first is to Wendy McElroy's excellent discussion of the postal monopoly, which does a good job summarizing the history of the USPS's monopoly on first-class mail, arguing that the purpose of the postal monopoly is "to control the flow of information by defining what is 'unmailable,' " a consideration that is relevant to the current situation, especially in the context of the affront to that control that encrypted electronic communications offers.

I'd also like to recommend From Genes to Words, a nice summary of current research into the role that genetics played in the development of language. It should be obvious that genetics must have played a role in that development; finally the first indications of what that role actually was are starting to be discovered.

And, finally, it is with sadness that I note that the new Napster, launching today, appears to have gone over to the dark side, as it appears their content will only be available in the intrusive and platform-dependent Windows Media Player format. I don't do the music-download thing, but if I did I would certainly choose the iTunes Music Store over the new Napster.

Lube, UL and Lawsuits

Posted by shonk at 02:31 AM in Politics | permalink | comment

In response to my Lubrication is not the Solution to Bad Law post, Curt has opined that a private issuer of security ID cards would have no economic incentive to make discriminating choices in who it issued cards to. I initially planned merely to respond to his comment, but I think it would be good to bring the discussion out into the light of the main page. Curt's case is well-reasoned, but ultimately, in my opinion, flawed. The root of his argument is this:

The ID card market would not exist in order to improve safety and security; rather that is what the security lines are for. The ID cards do not exist to improve security but rather to improve convenience, so in the market for ID cards the consumer is only purchasing increased convenience. So you have to see the two different functions, security and convenience, as two different markets.
I disagree with this claim that security and convenience are separate markets. A security card ceases to be convenient when it stops providing security. Andy makes the same point with reference to a concrete example:

Does that mean UL (Underwriter's Laboratories) doesn't have an incentive to reject the applications of unsafe products?

They do. Any ID Card company whose product becomes a joke loses future sales, as their cards have as much value as a novelty item printed at home.

To further explain this example, UL has a short-term incentive to give their blessing to all products, regardless of their safety. After all, there are surely many manufacturers that would be willing to slip them some cash in exchange for that little UL decal (this need not be under-the-table, incidentally; research grants serve can serve the same purpose as cash bribes). However, if they were to do that, though they might realize a short-term boom in revenue, people would quickly realize that the UL stamp of approval had no relevance to a product's actual safety and would turn to other means for appraising the product's safety. UL would quickly become irrelevant and, in the business world, irrelevant = bankrupt.

The same holds true for a private producer of security IDs. When people begin to realize that having Company X's card is no indication of security, people (e.g. airlines, office managers, etc.) will stop granting special privileges to carriers of those cards. With these special privileges gone, the cards become mere novelty items.

The other factor that would encourage X to actually screen people before issuing cards can be summed up in one word: lawsuits. The day after McDonalds lost the infamous hot-coffee-in-the-lap lawsuit, every McDonalds in the country was brewing coffee at 158 degrees (the day before, the official standard was 190). This was done without passage of a law and there were no health inspectors ensuring that coffee was dispensed at the lower temperature; McDonalds simply recognized a potential liability and took immediate action to reduce their risk. Now, one might argue that they should have sold cooler coffee all along, but I imagine McDonalds execs didn't dream that a customer could actually win a lawsuit (or even pursue a lawsuit) against them for spilling coffee on her own lap. Security ID card vendors are unlikely not to recognize their own potential liability in the same way, as the liability they face is much more obvious. Imagine, if you will, the sheer magnitude of the lawsuit that would be vigorously pursued if it came to light that X had issued a card to someone who ended up hijacking a plane. I imagine the contemplation of a hundred million dollar lawsuit would, shall we say, encourage X to exercise some diligence in their card-issuing procedure.

The threat of a lawsuit is a much stronger incentive for diligence than state regulation, in general, as lawsuits incur far greater financial losses than regulatory fines and tend to generate far more publicity. This publicity factor is not be be underestimated, especially in the case of a company whose sole selling point is their good name, such as an issuer of security IDs.

In discussing lawsuits here I am, of course, arguing from the current paradigm, but I will mention in passing that a lawsuit is really just a civil court action and that the entire civil law tradition in this country is descended from the English Common Law, which does not derive from legislation or a centralized state.

All of that is not to say that I endorse the particular private security scheme mentioned in my earlier post. My reasons for not doing so were, I hope, explained sufficiently clearly that I need not reiterate them.

Further discussion is, of course, welcomed.

October 27, 2003

Centennial Post

Posted by shonk at 02:51 AM in War | permalink | comment

Quick on the heels of a rocket attack on the hotel where Paul Wolfowitz was staying in Baghdad, there have been more bombings in Iraq. Colin Powell protests that "We did not expect it would be quite this intense this long," and goes on to marvel at the sophistication of these attacks. Which makes one wonder what exactly he was expecting. As Fred Reed says:

I don’t think that Americans quite grasp that countries don’t like having foreigners bomb them. We tend to justify our wars in terms of abstractions: We are attacking to defeat communism, impose democracy, overcome evil or, now, to end terrorism. The countries being bombed, devastated, and occupied usually think they are fighting invaders who have no business being there. The distinction is lost on many. I know aging veterans who to this day do not understand why the Vietnamese weren’t grateful that we had come to help them fight communists.
On a related note, check out The Liberators by my friend George Potter.

On the topic of Vietnam, the Toledo Blade has done a heroic job uncovering the story of Tiger Force, an elite unit of the 101st Airborne which committed probably hundreds of serious war crimes in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam in 1967 (thanks to George F. Smith for the link). Not that the fact that war crimes were going on other than those committed at My Lai should come as a great surprise to anybody, nor that they should be covered up so completely, but it's still rather discomforting to read all the details.

Quickly, I'd like to follow up my globalization post from last night with a link to this article on offshoring from CNET and point out this post on the frenchification of English.

On a lighter note (this is, after all, the 100th post to this blog), I am very grateful to Puerta del Sol Blog for two excellent links. The first is to this collection of greguerías by Ramón Gómez de la Serna. A greguería is, as Jonathan Holland at PdSB says,

...an aphorism that freely associates words, ideas, and objects, defined by their inventor as "metáfora más humor"; the form, which has been compared to Japanese haiku and Rilke’s Dinggedichte, is defined thus in the Diccionario Real de la Academia Española: “Agudeza, imagen en prosa que presenta una visión personal, sorprendente y a veces humorística, de algún aspecto de la realidad, y que fue lanzada y así denominada por el escritor Ramón Gómez de la Serna”.
They are tiny, beautiful and, unfortunately for most of my readers, written in Spanish. Still, if you know the language, I strongly recommend looking into them.

The second link is to whichbook.net, which will, based on input as to what sort of book you would like to read next, give you a list of books that might be to your liking and (if you're in the UK), tell you what local libraries have those books available. Please tell me someone is working on integrating this algorithm with Amazon's recommendations algorithm.

And, finally, thanks to Davezilla for linking to the county-by-county data for what people call soft drinks. As you can see, I grew up saying "pop", went to college where if it had bubbles and didn't get you drunk it was "coke" and now live in the land of "soda". This, my friends, is what we call deep and meaningful research.

October 26, 2003

Schnezhanka for All

Posted by shonk at 02:56 AM in Economics | permalink | comment

For those that think globalization is approximately as reprehensible as child-molestation, I give you the case of KFC and its scrumptious schnezhanka.

Lubrication is not the Solution to Bad Law

Posted by shonk at 02:53 AM in Politics | permalink | 1 comment

Court TV founder Steven Brill is starting a company to make security ID cards, which he claims will allow users to bypass long lines at security checkpoints like those in airports with a thumbscan. Once I got over the irony of "Brill" being the nickname of Gene Hackman's hyper-paranoid character in Enemy of the State, I got down to actually reading the article. The basic idea is that the card would be issued to those that pass a background check against, among others, the state's database of known terrorists. Bearers, certified not to be on any watch list would then, presumably, be less suspicious than others, thereby meriting less stringent security checks.

Apparently, Brill has been frustrated with post-9/11 security bottlenecks in airports and offices and decided the answer is not "millions of hourly wage, private guards going through the motions." According to the article,

The venture is intended, in part, to solve the problem without the implementation of a government-issued national ID card program, which Brill calls "unworkable" and "the worst kind of threat to our civil liberties."

"First, the potential for abuse by the government in having all this information is a real disaster for the country and the values it cherishes," Brill said. "Second, they would screw it up. The history of government and data and technology is a comedy act."

I agree with those points, but I'm curious how a privately-developed but state-sponsored ID card would be much of a difference. In order to be used at airports, Brill's company would have to be certified by the TSA, the FBI or the Justice Department (or all three) with heavy federal oversight almost assured. Given that the card would rely in large measure on federal databases and any technical changes would almost assuredly have to receive federal approval, I don't see how this plan solves any of the problems with a national ID card that Brill so aptly points out. In fact, I'm inclined to view this venture more cynically as an attempt to cash in on an as yet untapped state subsidy, much as I did Larry Ellison's "helpful" offer shortly after 9/11.

This whole issue is, in a way, a microcosm of the larger problem of excessive laws effectively impeding social interaction. Glenn Reynolds (of Instapundit fame) commented on this a couple of days ago:

There are too many laws — many of them contradictory or obscure — for any person to actually avoid breaking the law completely. (My Criminal Law professor, when I was a law student, announced to us that we were all felons on the first day of class. There were too many felonies on the books for us not to be: Oral sex in Georgia? Oops!) And given that many laws are dumb, actually following all of them would probably bring society to a standstill, just as Air Traffic Controllers and pilots can make air travel grind to a halt by meticulously following every safety rule without exception.
As Robert Clayton Dean asks,
Stop and think about that for a minute. What does it say about a society, when strict adherence to its laws would be an unmitigated disaster?
I leave the answering of that question as an exercise for the reader.

Reynolds goes on to point out two significant problems with this situation:

One is that although we regulate criminal trials pretty closely, the fact is that if everyone’s a felon in some way, the real power is at the stage of deciding whether, and what, to charge someone with — and that process is governed by “prosecutorial discretion,” which is almost completely unregulated.


The other problem is that law is like anything else: when the supply outstrips the demand, its value falls. If law were restricted to things like rape, robbery, and murder, its prestige would be higher. When we make felonies out of trivial crimes, though, the law loses prestige. As the old bumper stickers about the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit used to say: “It’s not a good idea. It’s just the law.”

So what's the solution? Even Reynolds the law professor admits that in some cases, "the best way to get a law changed is for people to ignore it." Which is a bit more palatable to me than Steven Brill's apparent approach of making enforcement of bad laws more efficient.

Iraq Redux Redux

Posted by shonk at 02:06 AM in War | permalink | comment

Paul Wolfowitz may be dodging bombs in Iraq, but that won't stop me from referring you to a couple of posts made by Mike Tennant over at the Strike the Root blog. In Iraq Redux, Tennant sends a message to Iran:

Memo to Iran: Stop trying to make nice with the neocons. It won't work. They don't operate under normal rules of logic, as in: (a) Please let the U. N. inspect your facilities; (b) You let the U. N. inspect your facilities; therefore, (c) We will leave you alone. Their logic is: (a) Please let the U. N. inspect your facilities; (b) You let the U. N. inspect your facilities; therefore, (c) We're going to "liberate" your country, too, for failure to comply with our wishes.

The best thing the Iranians can do is follow the example of the North Koreans: Get nukes, and get 'em now. When you can do real harm, the neocons will make nice with you. It's only when you're no threat that they'll threaten you.

At this point, North Korea is considering dropping its program in return for a US promise not to attack. You'll note that North Korea actually has nukes, as opposed to merely being suspected of having them, yet Bush and the state department are, basically, proposing a "written security guarantee" for North Korea while they threaten Iran. The moral of the story for all the countries out there is "if you don't have nukes, build them as fast as you can if you want to be treated like a sovereign state". Not that I'm big on national sovereignty or anything, but, then again, I'm not in charge of any countries, either.

In Iraq Redux, Cont'd, Tennant points out the duplicitousness of this CNN article, which says in the bolded first paragraph that Iran is turning over information on its nuclear weapons program, waiting until paragraph three to admit that Iran has consistently denied having a nucler weapons program. By using tactics straight out of the DoD's press conference strategy, CNN is blatantly manipulating readers to reach conclusions favorable to the official position. As Tennant points out:

The casual reader immediately gets the impression that the Iranians are trying to develop nuclear weapons. If he bothers to read further, he discovers that the Iranians claim to have no such intentions. Still, first impressions are the most powerful, so how many people will read this and come away believing that Iran has a nuke program?

Buried even further in the article is the revelation that the information that changed hands comprises an inch and a half of binder paper, which one can be sure the reporter and editors hadn't read before determining that it described a weapons program.

The lesson, as always: don't trust the media. Just as the myth of Supreme Court infallibility that Curt warned us against is dangerous, so too is the myth of journalistic impartiality.

What the Fuck?

Posted by shonk at 01:35 AM in What the Fuck? | permalink | comment

I admit, I'm speechless right now:

Alexey Lipatov's "Stalin vs. Hitler".

Makes you wonder how the author would have done on this personality disorder test.

October 25, 2003

This Site Certified 31% Evil

Posted by shonk at 01:38 AM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

Honestly, I was hoping for more evil.

On a related note, I'm apparently headed for the 2nd Circle of Hell, the level of the lustful. Who's coming with me?

The Fulton County School District thinks Rachel Boim is headed for the 7th circle. I'd comment further, but I think, by now, you should be able to anticipate my objections.

Also, I just want to state, for the record, that four months ago I was proposing exactly the sorts of "collaborative-filtering capabilities" discussed at the bottom of this article on aggregators to someone who was looking for a way to cash in on the blog craze. And I have a witness! Not that this was a particularly profound recommendation; the progression was so obvious that even a mathematician would call it "natural".

And, finally, if you have just happened upon my site and haven't yet seen the About or Photos pages, you'll be relieved to know that you could have correctly determined that I'm male simply by plugging this post into the Gender Genie (be sure to check out the New York Times article, the Nature article or Koppel and Argamon's paper).

October 24, 2003

The heart of things

Posted by Curt at 07:00 PM in Words of Wisdom | permalink | comment

By the way, there is a new assessment of Kafka by Zadie Smith in The New Republic this week. By itself this is a pretty unremarkable thing, but it is a lovely little reflection in its own way, and particularly remarkable I think is the perspective from which it operates. Smith has, obviously, a considerable parochial interest in the art of the novel, but, with no little amount of humility, instead of evaluating Kafka's achievements in relation to some pre-conceived ideal of the novel she suggests that Kafka's writing was actually too tremendous for the structure of the novel to support, and hence instead she measures the achievements of the novel in relation to Kafka's ideal of literature. She is clearly pretty indebted to Walter Benjamin, evidenced by frequent citations of him, but on the other hand I think of this rather as a strength, as Benjamin is commonly acknowledged as one of the supreme interpreters of Kafka. Her repeated insistence on the solitude and insularity of Kafka's worldview reminds me of my Kierkegaard professor's remark when we used talk together, which he repeated often enough as to make me think that he was gently and indirectly giving me advice, that "Kierkegaard's problem was that he needed friends," which despite its facile-seemingness is actually, in my view, about the final thing one can say about either Kafka or Kierkegaard.

Just a few things running through my head

Posted by Curt at 12:07 PM in Politics | permalink | comment

Two points. Although I agree in general with Clay's treatment of affirmative action, I think the relevant definition of discrimination in the dictionary entry he links to, at least in a legal and societal context, is the second one, "to make distinctions...without regard to individual merit." Thus in deciding not to go to an incompetent barber, you are discriminating in the wider sense of simply making a choice, but not in the legal sense, because you are clearly deciding on the basis of his individual merit or skill as a barber (or lack thereof). Thus I am not persuaded by the argument that "We all discriminate, so it's just inevitable." That may be true, but that does not mean that we ought to tolerate it, any more than we tolerate envy or any other invidious personality trait. The better argument, which he also makes, is that far from eradicating discrimination, affirmative action actually enshrines it, especially by its selective application, which is itself a form of discrimination perhaps. I think the relevant middle-ground position that, for example, the Supreme Court tried to grasp at but did not successfully articulate in the Michigan Law School and undergraduate school cases, is that while automatically according preferential status to applicants on the basis of race or culture, i.e. the point system, is discriminatory, incorporating these factors in a comprehensive evaluation of an applicant is not in fact discriminatory, because these factors may correspond, perhaps causally or perhaps not, to certain personal qualities that the school desires. For example, an applicant with a bi-cultural background may by consequence possess a more broad-minded understanding of culture generally than an applicant born into a single culture or a particular and valuable insight into the law by virtue of their background. That a school would seek these qualities out in applicants I would not consider discriminatory, because they are personal qualities, individual merits, not simply facts of life, so to speak. While it is true that not all applicants have access to the same type of cultural background and thus in a certain sense cannot compete equally in this regard, then again our personalities are shaped by a million environmental factors to which not even those of similar background are privy. As long the evaluation is ultimately of the recognizably personal qualities of the applicant, this in my opinion is not social discrimination, that is judgment without regard to merit. Now obviously this sort of individual evaluation is impossible under the race-preferential points-system used by Michigan's undergraduate program, which by taking race into account on an impersonal basis really does discriminate without regard to merit. This is the wholly defensible distinction which I think led to the double-issue, split decision in that recent Michigan case. To use a more personal example, at home by far the greatest part of my friends are foreigners. Now I would not consider myself ethnically prejudicial in my friendships, but I would be disingenuous if I did not admit that the effect of the background of my foreign friends on their personalities did not provide something not easily replicated without such a background. I think if only we looked at race and culture in this way, as a persistent but not unique in kind influence on personality, then I think we could end this hysterical Puritan dogmatism which wildly inflates the issue by either totally denying its legitimacy or worshipping it.

Other and totally unrelated response point: I too have noticed what Clay notes: the tendancy of science-fiction writers and other predictors of the future to overestimate the develpment of many technologies but fail to forsee the dominance of computers and a few other technologies. I would place this dichotomy in a wider formulation: we tend to overestimate the development of existing technology while failing to anticipate technologies that are wholly new or different in kind. This phenomenon not very difficult to explain, as the latter would require that the predicter actually conceptually pre-invent the still-uninvented technology, while the former simply requires an extrapolation from past trends. An example would be the obsession, especially during the '50s, with robots as the human surrogates of the future, while ignoring what now seem the more likely future human surrogates: genetically modified humans or clones. But of course the progression to human-like robots from cars, then planes, then nascent computers, would seem to represent a fairly logical chain of ever-growing sophistication in mechanical engineering. Of course robots have taken over many of the manual tasks of humans but, "The Matrix" notwithstanding, should we ever decide to construct a race of inferiors, an underclass to serve us in a specifcally human manner, genetically manipulated humans would seem more feasible today, simply because creating sentiency in machines looks to be considerably more difficult than simply copying it from the existing human template. But of course in the '50s to have extrapolated bio-engineering from the contemporaneous discovery of the structure of DNA in all but the vaguest conception would have required considerably greater prescience, so it is not surprising that most of the predicting punditry, being in the end fairly short-sighted like the rest of us, did not generally recognize its future importance in the ways that have actually become manifest. Of course, sometimes writers produce nonsense predictions that become validated in ways that the writer could surely never have supposed, such as the poem by Edgar Allan Poe which allegedly anticipates both the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. However, without a certain minimum level of specificity and clarity, I would generally ascribe these supposed prophecies to luck. Poe, crazed as he may have been, did not anticipate quantum any more than Dylan Thomas correctly predicted the attack on the WTC by writing something about towers blowing in a religious wind. Of course it is a disquieting thought that physics has become such an alien and counter-intuitive discipline that its findings resemble the rantings of Poe. Anyway, speaking of ranting, I've done enough for one day.

p.s. I know I've written a lot of entries that are more properly responses to entries by Clay and hence perhaps more properly relegated to the comment box, but in my defense I usually start out writing there until the entry spirals out of control and gets so long that the comment box would probably need extra memory, so instead I exercise my executive key to the main page. So there.

p.p.s. I promise not to use D.J. Shadow songs as headings for all my entries.

Affirm This!

Posted by shonk at 04:02 AM in Politics | permalink | comment

Maybe I've been living in a cave the last few years, but until today I'd never heard of Affirmative Action Bake Sales, which seem to me a good, thought-provoking way to point out the hypocrisies inherent in the notion of affirmative action. To be perfectly honest, I'm not 100% opposed to affirmative action under the right circumstances. If a school's admissions staff thinks they will improve their learning environment by admitting minority students with lower SAT scores over white students with higher SAT scores, that's certainly their prerogative. What galls me, though, is when such choices become law, as I don't think that's the proper role of law and government (which is rather a more involved topic than I'm prepared to delve into at this hour). What's also annoying is that many people refuse to acknowledge that affirmative action is simply another form of discrimination. Which isn't necessarily, in and of itself, a bad thing. Discrimination has become a bad word in modern times, but only because it's been used to categorize a specific type of discrimination. People discriminate all the time: employers discriminate against lazy or uneducated potential employees, employees, when applying for a job, often discriminate against overbearing bosses, I discriminate against bad barbers by not letting them cut my hair (okay, bad example; I've had plenty of bad haircuts) and none of these forms of discrimination is the least bit reprehensible. Every time we make a choice we necessarily discriminate. Once upon a time, it was actually considered a compliment to be said to have "discriminating taste".

Back to affirmative action, what really amuses and saddens me about the whole thing is the notion that it helps much of anybody. Since everybody knows it's going on, people assume that, say, a black doctor got into and stayed in med school because of an affirmative action program rather than his ability more than you might think. Which is wholly unfair to black doctors who earned their degrees on their own merits, but is entirely rational from the perspective of the consumer; he has no access to the doctor's transcript or MCAT scores. If there's even a slight possibility that a doctor isn't as qualified as he should be, a lot of people are justifiably going to risk their lives with someone else. In one fell swoop, a lot of people that were doing just fine (or would have done just fine) under the old system have their accomplishments viewed with suspicion.

I'm also amused by the fact that apparently only certain minorities need the "help" that affirmative action provides. Generally speaking, Asians are over-represented (relative to the general population) in higher-education in this country and generally aren't included in affirmative action programs. Which, if you think about it a minute, basically says that those compassionate folks that made the laws in the first place thought that black and hispanic people are dumber and more helpless than Asian people. So who are the racists, again?

(And don't give me the argument about how Asians aren't discriminated against like black or hispanic people are; aside from the rampant historical counter-examples, my own experience seeing Indians - that's people from the Asian subcontinent, not Native Americans - and Pakistanis get screamed at and called "ragheads" and "terrorists" by irrational xenophobes following 9/11 on my college campus convinced me that that is simply not the case)

As for under-appreciated minorities in the affirmative action sweepstakes, I'm just waiting for the "youth" affirmative action program, making sure that America's universities and corporations aren't discriminating against the young in their applications and hiring procedures. I mean, let's be honest, it's simply not right that I should be turned down for a tenure-track job simply because I haven't had enough time in my short life to complete a 5 year Ph.D. program. Fortunately, though, the young are too busy with totally baffling websites to be a big lobby.

On the topic of Indians and computers (and on an otherwise totally unrelated note), Srinidhi Varadarajan and his team at Virginia Tech (or VPI, for you Virginians) have built a new, cheap supercomputer that ranks in the top five in the world in a month. That's one month and five mil for an 8 teraflop machine that Varadarajan claims is only running at 50% capacity right now, which is pretty goddamn impressive. It was interesting to see that Varadarajan thinks Moore's Law is actually a bit dated and that 35% every six months would be more accurate. Not that anyone should be surprised, but, then again, it can't go on forever unless we wean ourselves from silicon sometime.

To be honest, whenever I get to thinking about supercomputers, Moore's Law, etc., I'm pretty astonished by how significantly and how quickly computers have made an impact on the world. Even aside from potentially profound areas like molecular biology and mathematics and important but more prosaic ones like air traffic control, there is so much you can do from a $400 computer attached to a phone line.

For example, are you concerned that the newcomer to your radical political group might be a fed or a Republican Party spy? Do you harbor secret suspicions that your neighbor like Pat Buchanan? Are you convinced that Ross Perot got Clinton elected in '92 or that Ralph Nader got GW elected in 2000 and want to harass all the people that supported them in your bowling league? In your stalking of the mayor's daughter have you come across suspicious-looking checks from people's whose names appear gravestones in your local cemetery? Then opensecrets.org's Individual and Soft Money Donor Lookup is the place to start. I have to admit, it's rather surprising to see how comprehensive and accurate this thing is (at least for the last few election cycles; results seem to be less accurate the further you go back).

Or, on the other hand, have you not had sex in several years, or never? Then you'll be sure to want to check out these startlingly realistic alternatives to your too-familiar right hand, vibrator or flesh light.

And, finally, if you're an overweight, white adolescent male with serious issues, well, now you've got an audience.

Really, the possibility of these sorts of things is just astonishing when you think about the world 100, 50 or even 30 years ago. Would your grandparents ever have dreamed that this sort of thing would even be possible? Do they realize it even now? The strongest indicator to me is that, if you read science fiction from a couple decades ago, you notice that, by and large, science fiction authors that were writing about times that have by now passed rather overstate the accomplishments of men in that future-past time in virtually every area except computer power. Flying cars, moon shuttles, ballistic ferries, hypersonic trains, matter replicators, you name it, a lot of the things people figured would exist by 2000 are still a long way off, but the computers (if mentioned at all) are consistently anemic compared to our own (aside from the voice-recognition and speech capabilities that proved exponentially more difficult than anyone expected). For example, I remember reading Heinlein's The Number of the Beast last summer and being unable to stifle a chuckle when Heinlein mentions that the Dora, a flying car capable of traveling in 3 dimensions aside from the ones we're familiar with, has what he presumably intended to be an impressively computer memory of 100 megabytes. And this was only written 20 years ago! Anyway, I think this is one of the overlooked benefits of older science fiction: not only does it instill a sense of wonder and joy in the universe, but a sense of wonder at what has been accomplished by man in the last few decades that vastly outstrips the imaginations of even the most wildly technophilic writers of previous decades.

I realize, now that I've more or less run out of things to say, that I've written about three posts worth of separate ideas all into the same post, staying up much later than I had expected to in the process. Ah, well. Such is life.

October 22, 2003

Gehry old man

Posted by Curt at 03:37 PM in Art | permalink | comment

I was thinking of writing a post in response about Gehry anyway, so when I was more or less invited to at the end of the column, who could resist? It is true that I have always really enjoyed Gehry's designs (yes, even the one in Prague). I would not say that I find them exactly beautiful in the strict sense, but I think that they do possess an immediate aesthetic appeal that is far more compelling than virtually all the modern buildings I see today, especially that of stilted theorists like Peter Eisenmann, who once designed a house with holes in the floor to create a "new interactional experience" with the living-space, or something like that--presumably breaking one's ankle being a part of that. I have been trying to define what exactly I find so attractive in Gehry's buildings, and I think in the end that it is the sense of exuberant possibility in their design (I know that clichéd phrase sounds about as far removed from what it is trying to describe as possible, but be that as it may). When one sees these vaulting, curving steel sheets soaring into the skies, one feels that all of the banal physical constraints that push us into a dreary grid of straight lines and low horizons have been abolished. Gehry's designs aren't at all like those architects that try to attack our aesthetic intuitions by baffling us with a lack of any order or coherence. Gehry makes us think not that everything we enjoy is a lie and an illusion, but rather that we could create so much more, and so many greater things, if only we followed our child-like intuition. That is also why I love Gaudí and consider him to be the greatest architect of the century: in contrast to virtually all of the modernists, even Wright to some degree, who really seem to have exposed an emptiness at the heart of the perfect symmetries that they created which is disquieting to say the least (I could not imagine living in the house that Wittgenstein designed, for example, though Clay might be interested to know that it now houses the Bulgarian Cultural Center in Vienna), Gaudí enacted these fantastic pseudo-mythologic shapes that many of us, subconsciously or not, abandoned all hope of experiencing in real-life after we left childhood, and on such a dazzling scale that we could almost hope to see fantasy once again in our often dull and flat little world. Most importantly, Gaudí's buildings seem to have personality in the sense that they actually do seem to be semi-organic beings inhabited by living spirits. It is in this sense, that of making life apparent in the lifeless and inanimate, that Gaudí is a reviver of mythology equal to Yeats, Tolkien and Stravinsky. This is why I think it so important that the Sagrada Familia cathedral be finished, for a project of such a scale and requiring such patience has not been seen in many a century, and the wealth of detail in sculpture and painting within and without the cathedral stands in stark contrast to the impatient simplification of modern architecture. However, this judgment in regards to Gaudí creates a rather unfortunate contrast with Gehry. For while what amazes me about Gaudí is how his fantasies grow even more intense in close detail, with pillars that look like elephant legs, windows that seem like insect eyes and sculptures that sometimes seem like hexagonal smoke-plumes, there is something undeniably cheap-looking about Gehry's buildings. At a distance the grandeur of the Guggenheim or the Disney strikes one (or at least me), but up close they actually look pretty drab. Look at the Disney's center's entrance hall--it looks sort of cheery and sunny, but in approximately the same manner as the foyer of an elementary school. Or that view of the concert hall itself which you can see in the post right below this: it really does not look like much of a step up from a college auditorium, let alone the great concert-halls of Europe. The shapes that Gehry designs are stunning, and have a primal power which is worth more than a thousand of the overly-subtle and theoretical-minded designs one sees today, but up close one sees that Gehry just does not have much imagination with the little details that seem relatively insignificant in the glossy photographs of the whole building but become dominant in the viewer's sight at two meter's distance. Close-up detail is obviously more important in the interior spaces than the exterior, which I think explains why in case of the Guggenheim so many raves of the building's façade juxtaposed with tepid review of the galleries, and I would not be surprised if the same proves true of the Disney center. At close range a building, especially a room inside it, has to have interesting and attractive non-structural elements, which is where Gehry seems to usually fail: there may be bizarre off-set windows all over the place, but the walls are bare and boring and constructed from cheap-looking materials. The reason for this characteristic failure, in my opinion, has already been off-handedly mentioned by Clay, though perhaps not with quite the right emphasis: it is not so much that Gehry has pretensions on being a sculptor, but that he really is one. The curious blankness and uninspiring quality of the close-up details of his buildings I think is somewhat similar to the effect if say, a five-foot tall sculpture were blown up to a thousand feet: there would be a lot of blank space with no interesting visual effect simply because it was not meant to be seen in those proportions. I think the spectacular lack of proportion in Gehry's buildings is intrinsic to their effect, as they seem to encourage us to the notion that our little private fantasies and dreams can become giant public realities, but that effect gets a little thin up close and even gives one the unnerving impression that these buildings were not meant to be appreciated by beings of our size and visual perspective. Since the author of the Slate article has already noted that Gehry seems to work with more discipline under constraints, perhaps he would work even better with the additional constraint of collaborative endeavor, perhaps working on projects with an architect whose main strength lies in well-designed interior spaces, so as to combine the limitlessness of Gehry's exterior designs with the greater richness of vision of an architect able to enfold people within an engaging and stimulating interior space. I know that I am babbling like a well-trained architectural-glossy sycophant now, but you get the idea. In any case, given that Gaudí built all his important builidings in Barcelona, I think it may not be entirely coincidental that Gehry first established his reputation in another city, Bilbao, which is also the capital of a formerly oppressed minority culture striving to create/revive an alternative artistic heritage in contrast to the dominant Spanish culture from under whose shadow it is just now emerging, because Gehry's work, like Gaudí's, seems to be about reclaiming our early dreams, in a way which is at the same time wholly new.

New Gehry Building - Slightly Better than the Guggenheim Bilbao

Posted by shonk at 02:19 AM in Art | permalink | comment

Frank Gehry has a new building opening this week, the Disney Concert Hall. Stylistically, the exterior looks relatively similar to his famous Guggenheim Bilbao, which is far from my favorite building in the world, though I have to admit that I tend to agree with the author of the article that the constraints inherent in building on a city lot had a beneficial effect on Gehry's design. As for the interior, though, I can't say I agree with the author's gushings. Of course, I haven't actually been there, so maybe I'd like it in person, but it just doesn't do it for me. And can you imagine ponying up big bucks for a side seat on opening night, only to get a crick in your neck from having to look over your shoulder at the stage?

Now, why don't I like Gehry? It's not because he was born in Toronto, but rather because he seems to forget half of the time that he's an architect, not a sculptor. He seems to forget that a building, ultimately, has to be lived in or worked in, not just looked at and admired. The forms that he uses don't flow from their function and, in some cases, actually impede their function. The Guggenheim Bilbao is more spectacle than museum.

Now, I admit, my views have been colored by those of my architect father, who's seen Gehry as an attention-seeker looking to shock people since his inside-out California residence and Norton residence from the late 70's/early 80's. The pointlessly offset windows in this offering would also, I suspect, raise my father's ire. "Edgy" though they may be, I think they just look stupid. Ultimately, I think that's my main beef with Gehry's designs, apart from their lack of functionality: I just don't think it looks very good. And before you accuse me of stodgy conservatism, I just want to point out that I'm a big fan of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Antonio Gaudí, so it's not like I can't deal with anything but straight lines and hopeless conformity.

Now, I know Curt doesn't agree with my opinion on Gehry, based on long arguments we've had. So I'm expecting him to respond with a completely different opinion. But keep in mind that he's a fan of this monstrosity (or, if you're really lazy, just look at the picture). I kid, of course. Curt has a good artistic sense; he and I just differ on this particular issue.

October 21, 2003

Class Reunions

Posted by shonk at 02:06 AM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

I've always thought class reunions are odd phenomena. I suppose the idea behind them is that, by attending, you get a chance to see all the people you didn't keep in touch with after high school/college that you wish you had. But I think that's the optimistic side of me talking. I suspect the bigger draw is the opportunity to see all the people you didn't like while you were in school, with the secret hope that they've been failures with their lives. I mean, it was common knowledge that the bully would turn out to be a criminal, rapist and child-molester, right? So why not go to the class reunion and see for yourself? Not to rub it in his face, mind you, because you're way too mature for that, but just to prove to yourself that you were right all along, that you were much better off not hanging out with him (conveniently ignoring the fact that you didn't choose not to hang out with him - nothing would have made you happier - but rather that you were too shy or uncool to try). Or maybe the appeal is just to reassure your permanently damaged psyche that, subconsciously, you knew that the whole "cool" thing was so shallow, again conveniently ignoring the fact that your insecurities were just as shallow.

At any rate, I guess what I'm trying to say is that the majority of us are constantly trying to justify our past behavior, even if just to ourselves, and that maybe class reunions are an exponent of that.

Now, I know that there are probably a lot of people that go with the sole intention of seeing the people they used to enjoy hanging out with, but not quite enough to stay in touch. Not having ever been to a class reunion, I don't know. And I'm sure there are others that are still friends with lots of old classmates and decide to go as a group, knowing that, at the least, they'll have fun hanging out together. But I have to imagine there's a strong desire among many to show people "I may not have been cool in high school, but look how successful I am now" or to see the mighty brought low.

Why am I rambling about class reunions when I haven't even passed the fifth anniversary of my high school graduation? Well, in the class news being circulated by Sewanee, I just found out that the most annoying person I've ever met is now engaged. Now, this is the kind of guy that would specifically send that information to the alumni office just to prove to all the people he graduated with what a successful guy he is, in graduate school and engaged to a sweet Southern girl. And I, for one, hope she's either very sweet or very crazy, because otherwise she's going to be miserable. Anyway, he's the guy everyone hated that would show up at a class reunion just to rub everyone's face in what a success he is (not that a master's degree from a third-tier school is going to impress much of anyone), which is what got me started on this rant in the first place.

So, you see, it's not all sports and pseudo-intellectualism; we try to round it out with some good old-fashioned gossip, too.

Beethoven Underground

Posted by shonk at 01:38 AM in Art | permalink | comment

I had some spare time today, so I made my Beethoven Underground pictures into a photo album. Another descriptive title might have been "College kids bored in Boulder with a digital camera", but that's not quite so snappy. Anyway, it's a pretty funny collection, so check it out.

October 20, 2003

Quote of the Day

Posted by shonk at 05:06 PM in Words of Wisdom | permalink | comment

Quote of the day from Jason Ditz:

[We] don't want to "privatize the voting system so Republicans can win", we want to eliminate the voting system so everybody wins.

October 19, 2003


Posted by shonk at 03:06 PM in Blogging | permalink | comment

In lieu of interesting (or not-so-interesting) posts, I've been making some minor upgrades to this site. My CSS now validates (though I admit that didn't take much work; the MT template was pretty close) and I've made the "Reading" head to the right a sideblog, so I don't have to modify my index template every time I start a new book. My question is, are there any other modifications you would like to see? For example, is this page too large? Should I only display the last week's worth of entries rather than the last month? Are there any other sideblogs you'd like to see added? (see dooce.com's "Thinking", "Feeling Guilty", etc. for examples of what can be done with sideblogs) Should I get rid of the little calendar-thingy at the top-right? Anything else you'd like to see either added or gotten rid of? Or is it perfect just the way it is?

October 18, 2003

Is the presidency re-Dean-able?

Posted by Curt at 02:35 PM in Politics | permalink | comment

Although we have left the issue of whether voting actually has any significance whatsoever unresolved, anyone taking even a passing interest in the current presidential campaign, even those on whom it has no direct impact at the moment (including myself, not being a member of either party and hence unable to vote in primaries), might want to take a look at this recent Dean article. The article essentially sets itself to refute some of the common fears about Dean's platform. It argues that far from being a Keynesian foreign policy naif who will bankrupt the government on costly social programs while fatally ignoring the rest of the world, he is actually a fiscal responsibility fanatic who will strive to cut the waste out of programs across the board, including Medicare and Social Security, to break the power of pressure groups like AARP and to eliminate the barriers to international free trade. Two things seem notable about the article: the first is that the statements indicating most of these positions, far from coming from campaign promises made by Dean himself, actually come from criticisms by other candidates exhuming Dean's political record and past statements. This is to say that while these positions seem very favorable in my eyes, they are clearly seen as exploitable negatives by other candidates in the primary and in fact as liabilities even by Dean himself, so that the fact that he is willing to admit to them and stand behind them indicates to me that they are probably much closer to the core of his beliefs than the average vacuous campaign promise, and more importantly that he appears to possess reasoned and undogmatic beliefs behind which he is willing to stand even when unpopular (although, to be fair, these are not necessarily wholly noble stands--as the article points out, the positions which count as liabilities in the primaries often count as advantages in the general election). The second point is that the author of the article, who so extolls Dean here, has in the past criticized Dean fairly harshly, in particular for his positions on national security and foreign policy, the aspects of national governance for which his previous executive experience has least prepared him. I have similar concerns about Dean, so the fact that one who shares those concerns now seemingly supports Dean so strongly means something to me. As I have said before, the only real value Bush seems to have at this point is acting as a block to Dean-type politicians from enacting irresponsible back-crushers like nationalized healthcare, but if that Dean-type candidate (like Dean himself, for example) turns out to be of reasonable and pregmatic turn of mind, and relatively principled to boot, there is hardly a decision to make. And while Dean's anti-war stance may indicate a "hostility or indifference to American military power," if that means that he kicks out all the ex-Trotskyites in the Pentagon trying to sow democratic revolution from above world-wide via the Comintern--er, U.S. military, we should hold a national holiday.

p.s. I feel the need to second Clay's assurance that this is not going to become a sports-and-politics blog, especially since that combination turned out so badly for Rush Limbaugh.

"I have ever distrusted idealists. They ought not be confused with the happy or the hopeful, for they are rather the unhappy and the misanthropes. Their preference for the vague abstractions in their minds to the vastnesses of immanent reality indicates a dissatisfaction, a loathing for the world, introversion surpassed only by hubris. The idealist seeks to reduce us all to the flickering shadows in his dreams."

--Tzhen Fun-Wei

Coffee Gets You Up

Posted by shonk at 12:24 AM in Sex | permalink | comment

Following up my Goin' to Pot post, new research indicates that coffee makes you more fertile by, get this, making sperm swim faster. Which was exactly the thing marijuana supposedly does to sperm which makes you infertile. Now, I'm told that I'm too skeptical and that it's probably just that coffee makes sperm swim a little faster, while pot makes them swim a lot faster so that they burn out too quickly, but consider this: Argentina grows coffee. Hence, the government there (which I imagine helped fund the research) has some financial incentive to view faster sperm in a positive light, since it might encourage more people to drink coffee. Buffalo is state-funded, and almost certainly has grants from the ONDCP or some other government anti-drug organization to study the effect of drugs on physiology, so they have a financial incentive to portray faster sperm in a negative light, since that might discourage people from using marijuana. I don't mean to say that these incentives definitely played a role in how the research was interpreted, but the possibility certainly exists.

October 17, 2003

Airline Scare

Posted by shonk at 07:53 PM in Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | comment

I was going to talk about the boxcutters found on two Southwest planes, but Andy beat me to it. What's weird about this is that, less than a week ago, I was (rather incoherently) telling Petya that it might be possible to sneak weapons onto a plane via maintenance or catering workers, which would seem the most likely way that these boxcutters got onboard.

Government Awareness

Posted by shonk at 03:21 AM in Politics | permalink | comment

In response to the recently defunct Terrorist Information Awareness program, the geeks at MIT envision a Government Information Awareness program, where citizens could exchange information about State activities. I applaud the idea, though I wonder how effective it will be in practice. In theory, it could be extraordinarily effective, but then, in theory, the Internet was supposed to spark a second Renaissance (although, to be honest, I think the jury is still out on that one; the rising swell of well-written and thoughtful blogs does seem to be stimulating a greater degree of conversation and debate. Revolutions often come, as Joyce put it, "on the due instalments plan"). As you'll note from the article, one thing that's sure to affect the GIA's impact is that the creators, fearing libel suits, have decided to make it a peer-to-peer thing, which has both positives and negatives. On the plus side, it's considerably more likely to evade legal shutdowns than, say, a server-based website or forum. On the other hand, popular as P2P networks are for movies and music, web-accessible interfaces are likely to reach greater numbers of people. I'm also unsure if people are ready for "serious" content via P2P; it seems like a more active filtration and interface system would be necessary than is currently available. But, then again, I'm pretty far behind the curve on P2P stuff and all the prerequisites may, in fact, already exist.

In any case, assuming this ever gets off the ground and makes some impact, it would provide yet another counter-example to the increasingly tired idea that so-called "public goods" cannot be provided absent state coercion. I've never really bought into that notion, to be honest. To me, a "public good" is one that hasn't been adequately provided yet (or maybe shouldn't be provided at all, in some cases), not one that can't be provided. My favorite counter-example, which has been oft-ignored but never very well refuted (in my opinion, obviously) is that of television programming. Leaving aside the issue of whether we might be better off without television, people obviously want to be able to watch television. Before the advent of cable TV (you know, back when people still used rabbit ears to pick up the signal), TV programming might well have appeared as one of those supposedly insoluble public goods. After all, a TV signal broadcast through the air isn't exactly excludable. One possible solution might have been to legally prohibit anyone but TV stations from selling television sets, or at least requiring TV manufacturers to pay a license fee to TV stations. In that way, the station could be compensated for providing this "public good" from which anyone with a TV set could benefit. According to the traditional conception of how to solve public goods problems, this would, in fact, be the only way to ensure that television programming existed. As we all know, though, that wasn't really what happened. Instead, the TV stations realized that, although they couldn't very well get TV watchers to pay them, they could get people to pay them to tell TV watchers about certain products. And thus were commercials born (and yes, I hate commercials as much as anyone, but I'd rather be able to watch Game 7 of the ALCS than live my life commercial-free). All of a sudden, there is no "public goods problem". (Of course, that's not really the chronology, since TV got the idea from radio, which got the idea from newspapers, etc., but the point is the same) Hence the reason I say that a "public goods problem" is one that we haven't figured out how to solve yet, not one that cannot be solved without state intervention.

The same, incidentally, goes for the related concept of a "prisoner's dilemma". The real world doesn't operate like a prototypical prisoner's dilemma, in which there is no history, no memory and no social status affecting things. The iterated prisoner's dilemma is a better approximation, but still isn't perfect.

The point is, whenever you hear people moaning and groaning about public goods and prisoners' dilemmas, it's probably a good idea to examine things a bit more carefully.

(If you haven't noticed yet, when I say "The point is...", I mean the point that I've come around to arguing, not the point I originally may have been trying to make. I've usually long forgotten what I was talking about in the beginning of a post by the time I actually get around to a point. Let's just chalk that up to a bit of artistic free association rather than the less inpiring "lack of organization" label, okay?)

October 16, 2003


Posted by shonk at 03:10 AM in Blogging | permalink | comment

Added "About" pages for Curt and myself (see links at right). Mine includes my scary student ID picture. Curt hasn't written his yet, the slacker. Other than that, I've spent the entire day writing topology proofs. And you thought your life sucked.

October 15, 2003

Goin' to Pot

Posted by shonk at 02:39 AM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

First off, some good news on the medical marijuana front. The Supreme Court declined to review a ruling that doctors can discuss medical marijuana with their patients. That doesn't mean the feds won't continue to go after growers and sellers, but doctors won't lose their licenses for discussing the possible benefits of marijuana with cancer patients.

From the article:

In their appeal, federal prosecutors argued that doctors who recommended marijuana were interfering with the drug war and circumventing the Government's judgment that the illegal drug had no medical benefit.

Which is, of course, correct. Just because the State says that a drug has "no medical benefit" does not mean the drug has no medical benefit, though I've long been of the opinion that the purported benefits of medical marijuana are vastly overblown by its supporters. I don't have any scientific data to support that opinion, but it seems to me unlikely that there aren't any other nausea inhibitors or pain-killers out there that could work. At the same time, I understand why supporters hype the medicinal aspects of marijuana, as medical-marijuana laws provide a foot in the door for the fight against the wholly irrational and indefensible Drug War.

Since I'm on the topic of pot, I figured I would point out a couple of the detrimental aspects of habitual pot use, since some people of my acquaintance seem convinced that marijuana is a consequence-free drug. First off, pot can render you infertile; it seems that, in addition to reducing seminal fluid volume and sperm count, marijuana makes sperm move "too fast, too soon" so that they run out of energy long before they can penetrate the ovum. This seems related to the fact that sperm apparently have cannibinoid receptors.

Also, and this might be more worrying to the adolescent males that seem to be the most committed pot-smokers, pot can make you grow breasts. This is probably a result of the fact that pot seems to reduce testosterone levels in males. As this relatively balanced site says:

In males, marijuana can decrease the testosterone level. Occasional cases of enlarged breasts in male marijuana users are triggered by the chemical impact on the hormone system.

The women will be disappointed to know that heavy pot use won't increase their cup size; in fact, as FADAA warns:

Marijuana use by females increases the amount of testosterone in the body, causing an increase in acne and such male characteristics as body and facial hair, and flattening of the breasts and buttocks.

Now, I don't like the ONDCP very much, but it seems like publicizing this stuff would scare teenagers much more than those hokey ads they currently use.

So there. How's that for redirecting the conversation?

And now for something not completely different

Posted by Curt at 01:46 AM in Politics | permalink | comment

Since I've started describing politics via symbolism in my comment to my October 10 post, I have another one, which I wrote a couple of weeks ago: American politics has a strong right wing and a feeble left wing, so when we try to fly we wind up going in circles.

October 10, 2003

The final word

Posted by Curt at 10:30 PM in Words of Wisdom | permalink | comment

As usual, I think we should let Bill Hicks have the final word on this subject. "I'll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here. 'I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs. I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking. Hey, wait a minute, there's one guy holding out both puppets!'"

Le naussee du processus democratique

Posted by Curt at 03:47 PM in Politics | permalink | comment

One final point about voting. The idea that Clay explores below, that the act of voting is simply an expression of preference, accords fairly well with the contention of the late Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter that elective democracy is essentially an economic market, in which candidates compete, like economic producers, for consumers, the voters. If this is so, the two-party system would seem to serve this model very badly, as it makes the political marketplace essentially monopolistic. The problem, in my opinion, is that electoral politics seem to be an area of natural monopoly, in which two or three parties will steadily come to dominate the political spectrum absent regulation, possibly because most voters are unable to truly decide among more than two or three candidates. This is upheld by the fact that in most functional democracies, certainly all the major European nations, even where the two-party system is less formally established than in the U.S., two or three parties more or less compete with each other, forming coalitions with smaller parties to outflank each other. Really only two basic differences I think separate European politics from American politics. One is that most major interest groups support their own parties, which are not formally absorbed by the major parties in the way that they are in the U.S. If American politics operated in this way the various interest groups that have been absorbed by the major parties in recent decades, the evangelists, say, or the civil-rights groups, would not actually vote for Republican or Democratic candidates but would vote for their own parochial parties and then gain power when the coalition with which they are associated gains a majority or at least a plurality. This would seem to be largely a procedural difference, as the end result is very often the same as in the U.S., i.e. paralyzing centrist coalitions. However, because the coalitions are more openly divided, with the smaller parties comprising them representing more fixed, unchanging constituencies and interests, the effect somewhat paradoxically seems to be somewhat greater flexibility. This is to say that under the European model the so-called paleoconservatives, for example, would not be irrevocably yoked to a lot of other interest groups with which they little in common, such as evangelists, ex-Trotskyite neoconservatives, etc. Of course they would have to make common cause with some of these groups in order to gain power, but if they ever had a parting of the minds they could disband the partnership and seek out another interest group with which they held more in common. The second main difference between the two systems, though it is only an empirical difference rather than a theoretical one, is that elections in Europe generally get a far higher voter turnout than in the U.S. I think this explains the robustness of the smaller parties, because the voter population is less dominated by the resolute partisans of the major parties. I suspect that the percentage of the American population in the Republican or Democratic parties in the U.S. is not that much higher than the percentage devoted to the Conservatives and Tories in Britain, say, or to the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany, but with a low voter turnout the partisans exercise a disproportionate influence over the results. I am certainly not extolling the merits of European politics, because, as I said, I think the result, due to the inherent nature of unregulated political parties, is largely the same as in the U.S., but I think that the greater viability of small parties there at least points toward a certain ideal. I am not exactly advocating sending in the trust-busters to break up the Republicans and Democrats, but if one really dislikes the vacuity and issue-lessness of big-party politics, I think at the least one ought to be aware that, just as is the case with public utilities, the so-called market solution will not end the monopoly. In fact, the failure of European states, which negates in actuality the substantive differences in their political systems from the U.S.'s, is that they actually do not go far enough towards ensuring viable third parties because, by not formally limiting the power of the major parties, they allow the rent-seeking of those parties to proceed apace, so that in the end they wind up with paralyzing centrist coalitions, albeit less stable ones, just as in the U.S.

One other thing that prohibits European democracy from realizing the kind of third-party political rejuvenation seemingly possible there is that there exists a heavy dose of statism in the European capitals that I think is unmatched even in Washington. The reason for this is suggested to me by the editorials in the international papers weighing in on the election of Schwarzenegger (side question-why the hell do Russians care who California's governor is?--then again California does have the fifth-largest economy in the world) which, with a few exceptions, universally sneered at the crudity and uncouthness of Californians electing a movie star over a "professional governor." Aside from the obvious questions (was JFK's appeal really so different?) it seems to me that one of the basic problems that our government will and has consistently run into in trying to export democracy overseas is that most people in the world do not seem to view politics and governance as a task for the common people (not that Schwarzenegger is one of the common people, but his supporters are--what experience is more populist, more communal, than the movies?). Of course, I have my doubts about our own commitment to self-governance, but the fact is that in Russia "professional politician" sounds more like the description of a social class than an insult, which is how it would be read in this country. This seems to me to be symptomatic of the tendency in many cultures to regard politics as a distinct profession and calling, something, like any other profession, best left to those most immersed in it and skilled in manipulating its workings. In America we glorify the outsider in politics; elsewhere entrusting politics to someone with no background in politics would probably be seen as similar to entrusting surgery to someone with no background in medicine. To grossly over-simplify the matter by polarizing the stereotypes, in much of the world politics is closer to being the birthright of the brahmins than the job for Mr. Smith to revitalize once he finally gets to Washington. I know that some will regard this as a vaguely racist claim not matter how one qualifies it, but the fact of the matter is that the system of government practiced in the U.S. is largely a cultural phenomenon, and no Iraqi constitution will erase in a second, on a piece of paper, thousands of years of divergent cultural development.

p.s. I hope somebody, either Clay or someone that reads this blog, will mount a defense of paralyzing centrist coalitions, as that seems to be often the situation easiest to live under but most difficult to defend intellectually, so I hope somebody will be able to explain to me my own disappointing and inexplicable comfort with living in such a situation.

Compassion and Coercion

Posted by shonk at 01:54 AM in Politics | permalink | comment

In my daily blog routine, I came across this post over at Catallarchy. It's an excellent analysis of what political compassion is. I especially liked this part:

Exactly who is being compassionate in the case of coerced charity? The giver certainly isn't; she doesn't have any choice in the matter. The taker isn't; he is simply doing his job. Is the politician acting compassionately when she votes for additional social welfare benefits? If the politician is acting as a representative of the voters, then her congressional vote is not compassionate; her act is no different than when the IRS agent does his job. Are the voters acting compassionately when they push for increased benefits?

Not if we understand this act according to the expressive voting model, which posits that voters are simply expressing support for one thing or another when they cast their ballots. Saying that you are for compassion is not the same as actually acting compassionately. Compassion requires a certain level of self-sacrifice for it to be truly meaningful, else it is nothing more than lip-service.

A society that socializes charity is not truly compassionate, because the choice of compassion has been taken away from the individual and turned into just another job for government bureaucrats, no different than delivering the mail or processing income tax returns. We no longer need to care for each other as friends, family and neighbors; instead, we can all treat each other as part of a larger statistic. I know I've done my part if I paid my income taxes; I no longer feel morally obligated to help my fellow man.

His last point is, in my view, especially strong. Curt and I have both touched on the issue of law serving as a surrogate for or replacement of reality, and I think this is another example of where that goes awry.

Thank goodness I managed to get in a halfway serious post tonight; this is likely to be my last post for a few days. I'm going to Toronto tomorrow and fully intend to make the most of my time there, which entails rather a different routine than my usual one. But fear not, I shall return sometime next week. Until then, Curt's in charge around here (let me tell you, those are words I never expected to come from my mouth...er...fingers, I guess).

P.S. Be sure to check out the "expressive voting" link above. It's really an excellent article and is highly relevant to some of the points I've been trying to make in the last few days.

Triumphal Return

Posted by shonk at 12:35 AM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

I'm back from Toronto after an amazing and very relaxing weekend. I'll try to post something later tonight. In the meantime, I've been informed that I ought to make an "About" page so that random visitors can acquire a stylized impression of who I am without reading through all the archives (Curt can have one, too, if he feels like it). Any ideas on what I should say about myself?

October 09, 2003

Voting in Droves

Posted by shonk at 03:01 AM in Politics | permalink | comment

After reading Curt's argument, I had planned to comment at length on his concern regarding "voting becoming (or being) irrelevant". Somehow, I got sidetracked into an analysis of Federalist 10. As it's late, I have a mid-term tomorrow, and I can't figure out where I was intending to go with this, I'll just post that analysis. Maybe someone will find it interesting in its own right.

In Federalist 10, Madison makes a strong case against pure democracy and in favor of a widespread republic. As Madison says:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.

In other words, if a majority of persons in a pure democracy agree to persecute a minority, that minority will have no recourse. I find this analysis pretty damning, but also have objections to Madison's solution: he argues that what is needed to prevent the oppression of "factions" is a republic. The advantage, supposedly, stems from the following two differences between democracies and republics:

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

In a large republic, Madison argues, the representatives will be more likely to be public-spirited, wise and just than in the small republic. He also argues that, because they must appeal to a larger number of people, the representatives will of necessity be more moderate.

All well and good, but Madison neglects to note two key facts. First, in a large republic, the voter has less incentive to be an informed voter, as his vote is much less likely to make a difference in an election. Second, the larger the republic, the more power the elected representative can potentially wield. Though Madison lived before Lord Acton's time, one would hope he could have recognized the wisdom of Acton's most quoted statement: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Though the power of the representative in a large republic may not be absolute, it is certainly relatively greater than that of the small-republic representative or, more importantly, that of the voter. With these objections in hand, we see that Madison's position is a bit of a pipe-dream based on a Utopian misconstruction of human nature.

October 08, 2003

Talking with their feet

Posted by Curt at 05:40 PM in Politics | permalink | comment

There seems to be some sort of libertarian philosophy to be teased out at the bottom of all of these schemes like the DoD's and Assassination Politics, which is that people generally consider their interests and the situation at hand much more rationally when their money or something equally immediately valuable is involved, simply because they feel much more is personally at stake for them. Therefore, their predictions will be more accurate when their economic well-being depends on it (from an entirely differenct perspective Richard Posner essentially made the same point by advocating the tracking and publication of the accuracy of public intellectuals' predictions; their money would not be on the line but their reputations would be). However, I think this fairly agreeable philosophy runs into the mile-wide problem that fair play in gambling requires the total separation of the gamblers from the event they are betting on. Obviously, Assassination Politics was relying on the corruption of that principle; I certainly hope the DoD is not. However, while people may be stupid and wayward, especially when they do not think that anything is at stake, I am not convinced that public opinion is actually inferior to that of any particular cultural elite. After all, Def Leppard's popularity may have been a stain on music, but popular taste was right about jazz against the sterility of modern classicism and right about the novel against the archaic lyric. So it is more true to say that public taste is not wrong, just behind the times. The Rolling Stones might be virtual parodies of the bluesmen they have spent their careers covering, but their popularity indicates that people at least recognized retroactively in some measure the superiority of those bluesmen over whatever pop drivel was popular in their time. I think it is the same thing with Schwarzenegger. Of course it is not a meritocracy: if I had to choose someone in California to get elected for something, I would pick Victor Davis Hanson. However, the people are right here in at least one respect: they know that their state has no direction, and that their governor has taken not to representing their interests but to pandering to them. The only people I have heard defending Davis and condemning his recall took the insufferable patrician attitude of horror towards the notion that people would take it upon themselves to violate the sanctity of the office of governor and actually, gasp, elect who they wanted to the office! No one actually tries to defend Davis' record. Again, the people are a little behind--California has had huge problems for years, and this is just a piffle that probably will solve nothing. At the same time, it is equally true that voters have been losing power for decades to bureaucrats and interest groups seemingly without doing anything about it, and now that they have discovered a weapon to correct the imbalance at least to some measure, it is they who are pulling the irredeemable snobs and dandys kicking and screaming into the future (all of these points are treated more elegantly here). As Posner notes in another book, the U.S. government was was essentially established as an elected aristocracy, and it would be almost superfluous to note that in a world that moves so much faster today the retention of 18th century perogatives of power (particularly term length) has concentrated power increasingly in the state's hands, even in the elected branches. So while the recall may confirm the criticism of democracy as an instrument of the stupidity of the people, it is directly at variance with the other criticism of democracy in America as window-dressing, an irrelevancy. Since I am concerned about voting becoming (or being) irrelevant and believe the public's concerns and desires in California at least to be far from stupid, I am happy that things have turned out as they have. Slow but on the right track they are. Maybe Hegel's faith in the verdict of history was not such an empty premise after all.

p.s. I am also quite aware that truncating an elected politician's term may serve not to bring power back to the people but rather simply to shift the power from elected officials, who come and go, to unelected bureaucrats. However, the only way that too can be counterbalanced is again through the electoral process, by electing politicians who will create legislation which makes it easier to hire, fire and otherwise hold unelected officials accountable for their performance. In any case, all of this depends first on softening the elected pols. and making them more responsive to popular mandate, which a recall does marvelously.

Rush Redux, II

Posted by shonk at 11:44 AM in Sports | permalink | comment

A quick update to my previous post. Courtesy of Off Wing Opinion, I learned that John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime and The Bias Against Guns actually did some research to determine whether Limbaugh's comments had merit. From the National Review article:

The evidence suggests that Rush is right, though the simplest measures indicate that the difference is not huge. Looking at just the averages, without trying to account for anything else, reveals a ten-percent difference in coverage (with 67 percent of stories on blacks being positive, 61 percent for whites).

We also collected data by week for each of the first four weeks of the season on a host of other factors that help explain the rate at which a player is praised: the quarterback's rating for each game; whether his team won; the points scored for and against the team; ESPN's weekly rank for the quarterback's team and the opponent; and whether it was a Monday night game. In addition, I accounted for average differences in media coverage both in the quarterback's city and the opponent's city as well as differences across weeks of the season.

Accounting for these other factors shows a much stronger pattern. Black quarterbacks' news coverage is 27 percentage points more positive than whites. And that difference was quite statistically significant — the chance of this result simply being random is the same odds as flipping a coin five times and getting heads each time.

Though I often tend to agree with the old saw about how "statistics lie, and liars use statistics", I have to say that I respect Lott as researcher, so it appears that I may have to eat my words.

Heart Palpitations

Posted by shonk at 03:03 AM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

Two minutes ago, I was screaming and cursing, convinced I'd accidentally obliterated the preceding post by closing the wrong window in my browser. You can't imagine my relief when I realized that I'd already saved it.


Posted by shonk at 02:52 AM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

The Policy Analysis Market is back on-line, this time supposedly "free of government involvement". The site, suspiciously, gives no real information on what will be legitimate to place bets on, probably as a hedge against media reaction (you may recall the uproar surrounding the initial launch of this DARPA brainchild*). Despite the claim of no government involvement, I imagine you might find yourself in a world of hurt if you accurately guessed a big, unforeseen disaster. Of course, I'm a cynic. And, incidentally, I have a hard time thinking this thing is likely to provide much useful information, but it is interesting to note that, in promoting this program, DARPA is essentially admitting that the state's information channels are for shit. Not that that should come as a big surprise.

People I know likened the original PAM to Assassination Politics, the brainchild of the currently-incarcerated Jim Bell (needless to say, most journalists and politicians had never heard of AP). The basic idea of AP is to establish a secure online venue to "bet" on the date of a politician's death. As in, you put in $10 on Senator X dying on October 13, 2003 and then, if he actually does die on that day, you and the other people who bet on the day split the pot. The trick behind AP is that you can buy multiple "shares" so if, for example, you plan to kill Senator X on October 13, you would buy as many shares as you could afford in order to get as big a piece of the pot as possible. The goal, of course, is to encourage hits on politicians, which Bell was (maybe is?) convinced would revolutionize politics. Of course, Bell was also convinced that Assassination Politics would be "perfectly legal". Most sane people, of course, agree with Bell, but think a working AP system (which many dispute is even possible) would revolutionize politics in the direction of totalitarianism rather than minimizing government. I'd link to some articles, but, honestly, the whole thing sickens me. Anyway, the point is, the fact that DARPA was and sort of still is trying to institute a similar (though not identical) program suggests that the doubters had a more realistic assessment of AP's likelihood of success.

In other news, I'm sure you've all noticed by now that Ah-nold will be the next governor of California. My girlfriend was incredulous ("i can't believe it!" were her exact words), but I have to admit that this registered about a 0 on my Shock-O-Meter. Let's face it, popular politics only has value as entertainment, anyway, so why should it be a surprise when an entertainer (and, given Arnold's net worth, an extremely popular one) succeeds in politics. Not that this is a new phenomenon. Look up Sonny Bono or Ronald Reagan for precedent.

I know some of you object to the first part of that last statement, but it's true. Let's face it, in any election that anyone gives a damn about, your vote ain't worth squat. The odds of your vote being the deciding one in a gubernatorial or presidential election are significantly less, even in a hotly contested election, than the odds of your dying in a car crash on the way to and from the polling booth. And, as was demonstrated in Florida three years ago, if the vote ever gets that close, the thing will ultimately be decided by courts, not voters, anyway. The point is, your vote and your interest in "the candidates" only has utility as a function of entertainment (or, I suppose, assuaging your misplaced guilt), so it should be no surprise when people vote on the basis of entertainment value rather than that mythical "civic responsibility" they beat us about the head with in high school.

This probably isn't the time to go into my critiques of democracy as an idea, but I'll just point out that, if the whole Arnold thing pisses you off, it's merely an example that the majority isn't always right. Whenever someone waxes sentimental to me about democracy, I'm reminded of a Chevy commercial from the early '90's (I can't remember for which model; the Lumina or the Cavalier, I think. Let's assume it was the Cavalier): the ad glorifies the sales volume of the Cavalier, concluding with the slogan "20 million people can't be wrong." Well, I got news for you: yes they can. The Cavalier was your classic piece-of-shit car, purchased only by idiots and xenophobes. So, yes, 20 million people can definitely be wrong. Incidentally, "Kevin Miles" says the same about Def Leppard; needless to say, he's wrong, too. If that anecdote doesn't convince you, I recommend a healthy dose of public choice economics.

Lest anyone confuse my point, I'm not saying there's no place for the democratic process, merely that it's not the panacea that it's so broadly assumed to be. What really amazes me is that such a broad range of people who make this assumption: radical communists, social democrats, moderates, conservatives, neo-conservatives (remember part of the justification for invading Iraq was to "bring democracy to Iraq", as if democracy automatically entailed freedom) and libertarian/Constitutionalist types.

* Although the new PAM is supposed to be less specific, you can see what the PAM website looked like by downloading this reconstruction. These screenshots show possible multiple-event trading, market interface and supportive entry.

Update: I've just noticed that the white supremacists have just started up their own version of Assassination Politics. Actually, it's really not. It's just a website with a bunch of "enemies" listed and some not-so-subtle recommendations to add these people to the "ash heap of history".

October 06, 2003

Leaves in the autumn wind

Posted by Curt at 03:20 PM in Literature | permalink | comment

Ever since I learned to read, and at least up until the last couple of years, my favorite book of all, without even any close competition, was unquestionably "The Lord of the Rings." Now it has been a few years since I have read it last, although I think I have read it at least nine times all the way through, and countless times I have dipped into it whenever I need a moment of comfort, like Faulkner with his "Don Quijote." However, the world has changed for me, and I no longer feel as close to the absolutely idyllic (in an imaginative rather than moral sense) world I felt connected to in Middle-Earth, and indeed I have my doubts now as to whether I will ever encounter a place like it in my future life. Indeed, my usual formulation in describing the matter is that as a child Middle-Earth was my private ideal into which I could retreat at any point, but since I have become burdened, with the onset of maturity, by a sense of the loss of private fantasy, I have become very much taken with the work of the proto-existentialists like Kafka and Kierkegaard who I think express this spiritual longing most acutely of any modern intellectuals ("The Hunger-Artist" might be the supreme symbolic evocation of the condition). Yet in reading this archived Salon article I was struck by an observation which had never really struck me consciously before, that in fact Tolkien expresses everywhere in his writings an angst or sadness about the passing of the beautiful and the good out of the world just as poignant and acute as those authors. As much as "The Lord of the Rings" captures for me the world of my longing, it is more than anything a lament for its end. As Andrew O'Hehir says in the article: "Few if any heroic quests have had such a sense of human frailty and weakness...Even the victory wrought by the Ring's destruction is a sad affair, in many respects closer to defeat." Just think of the parting of the company after the victory at the end of the last book, when the immortals and Frodo depart from the world on the grey ships. The tone is almost unbearably mournful, very much in the spirit of those great Middle English poems that Tolkien translated, "Pearl" and "Sir Orfeo." And let us not forget that Frodo does in fact fail in his quest and tries to take the Ring for himself in the end. But Gandalf is wise enough to realize that his mercy in saving Gollum, the most depraved and conflicted character of all, was perhaps the true defining moment, which makes "chance, or divine grace" possible. In any event, I must have been shaped by this sensibility from the start, or else I have always been of a similar disposition and simply responded to the expression of a similar spirit I detected there, just as I was later pulled to the temperament of Kafka and Kierkegaard. I find it at the very least revealing that perhaps the most popular novelist and poet (and, I hope by coincidence, my personal favorites) of the modern age are Tolkien and his kindred spirit, that other great advocate of mythology, W.B. Yeats, both of whom responded to modernity by an absolute spiritual rejection of it.

p.s. My only insatiable cultist quibble with the story itself is that the premise behind the existence of the Ring and its destruction do not, as far as I can tell, make any sense. I have been muddling over that little conundrum since I was eight years old, and I have yet to piece together a coherent explanation for how the Ring is supposed to actually work--I have come to the view that there isn't one. However, while it may be metaphysically inexplicable, there is no question that within the story it is the perfect symbol for corrupting power.

October 05, 2003


Posted by Curt at 09:02 PM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

Recently I was looking over the mass of papers I wrote while at Italian school this summer, forbidden to speak English or otherwise communicate except in writing. Here is one remark I jotted down in an idle moment:

A philosopher in any other age would not be a madman or a saint, but rather a lawyer, and a very silly one who does not even take payment for the services he enters into--perhaps more a loving prositute, then.

Your daily political scuttlebutt

Posted by Curt at 01:22 PM in Politics | permalink | comment

Far be it from me to start up a colony of Iraq commentary here like bean plants in a cabbage patch, but have no fear, my sentiments are actually rather simply stated: what the fuck? I think it must have been about a month ago that I stopped trying to defend the Bush administration from lying about this entire business. I still think that that is an unfair accusation, because one cannot lie about what one does not know: the government cannot be proved liars for being of the opinion that Iraq had WMD's when they could not know that they did not exist, just as they could not be applauded for telling the truth had WMD's actually existed. So while they may be exonerated of the charge of actually lying, this is becoming an increasingly meaningless distinction as they increasingly prove themselves guilty of an equally dishonest moral hypocrisy. It is one thing to launch a war on a false premise, it is another to continue to repeat over and over and over that that premise has been validated or at least not invalidated long after everyone else on the face of the earth has realized its falisity. That they continue to repeat this mendacity about WMD's and al-Qaida agents in Iraq, etc. indicates that they have realized what one journalist called the diminishing consequences of repeating falsehoods, or as Hitler called it, telling a lie 100 times until it becomes the truth. And interestingly, while I was intellectually against the war from the beginning, insisting on the sanctity of nation-states, the unjustifiability of unprovoked invasion, etc., in my heart I always felt that, principle and consistency be damned, a great evil had been removed from the earth by our soldiers and a great service rendered to Iraq. Would the Bush administration simply stop the disingenuity about nukes, terrorists, and the rest and simply emphasize this side of the matter, I think a surprising number of people would find ourselves morally compelled to see the justice of that. Of course, Tony Blair has essentially been making that argument for months, and he is being politically buried in Britain, so perhaps not. Still, I do believe in his argument to an extent, despite my suspicion of idealists, while Bush's is clearly an absurdity. Now that Afghanistan and Iraq have been liberated I don't see any clear reason why Bush ought to continue in office any longer; I think he was brought into office under bizarre circumstances, like Churchill in 1940, to manage those wars, and just as the people of Britain did not want Churchill to remain in office afterwards to block de-colonization, I don't think Bush will serve the world well in the much messier affairs of reconstruction and negotiations with other nuke-wielding states. Well, perhaps he would serve some good as a place-holder in office blocking Democrats from rescinding the tax-cuts and instituting a state health-care system, but after a year and a half of continuous lying and scandals, that is no longer sufficient compensation, and in any case if Congress remains under Republican control there is nothing a Democratic president can do to pass these measures.
Which brings me to one other point. While it may seem ridiculous to talk about a president's ability to block legislation as a principal legislative asset, that is in fact technically his only legislative asset. It seems to me that ever since Roosevelt each successive president has presented himself more and more as a legislative activist, so now even a seeming Reaganite like Bush can preside over the greatest expansion of the government under any president since Roosevelt, because the public seems to have the false impression that a president, like a king, can enact their own legislation. They can of course propose legislation, but so could my grandmother if a Congressman would sponser it. Granted, a popular president can apply considerable political pressure on Congress, and cause fools like John Kerry to make, well, fools of themselves for years afterwards by trying to justify voting on issues in ways that they later regret, but their only actual power lies in vetoing legislation. I don't understand why Congressmen/presidential candidates can get away with creating the impression that they will somehow be able to propose legislation in some mystically effective way that they could not have in Congress. If someone like Dick Gebhardt wanted a national health-care program, he could have sponsered a bill at any point in the last 14 years and summoned his cohorts to vote for it. Granted it would have been headed for an inevitable veto, and as president he probably would not veto his own legislation, so in that sense a president has the ability to not stand in the way of his ideas being passed, but I feel that the increasingly regal tone that the executive branch has assumed in recent years stems largely from the public's tacit investiture of increasing legislative authority in the White House.

p.s. One final point about Iraq. One of the many reasons why this talk about reconstruction, while noble (aside from the crony capitalist contracts being doled out), is so futile is that the accepted standard of reconstruction seems to be Germany and Japan, whose reconstructions constitute two of the greatest economic miracles of the capitalist epoch. Aside from peculiarities of culture and the fact that Japanese and Germans were not continuing a guerrilla-warfare campaign against the reconstructors, Iraq is not a fifth as socially or economically developed as either Germany or Japan. Even at its modest peak Iraq was still only a relatively prosperous third-world country, and that was two decades ago. Of course some infrastructure was damaged during the war, although the much greater damage seems to be that qualified personnel are either too underpaid or too associated with the old regime to get back to work, but essentially the United States would have to annul 20 years of deterioration to make the country a functional state again. Why the administration would stake its credibility on such an unlikely achievement escapes me.

October 04, 2003

Limbaugh Redux

Posted by shonk at 10:59 PM in Sports | permalink | comment

Now that the dust is starting to settle a bit from the scandal surrounding Rush Limbaugh's comments last Sunday on NFL Countdown, I thought I might add a thought or two before the issue becomes totally passe. For those that don't follow football, NFL Countdown is ESPN's Sunday morning pre-game show. In the off season, ESPN hired Limbaugh and Michael Irvin, the outspoken former Cowboy's receiver, to join Chris Berman, Steve Young and Tom Jackson in an attempt to inject a bit of excitement into the show and goose ratings. The format, basically, is that Berman and the three former players sit at the main studio table, talking about highlights, dissecting schemes and making predictions for the upcoming games, while Limbaugh sits off to the side and occasionally issues a "Rush Challenge" whenever he disagrees with something said or wants to argue. Or rather, I should say "sat", as Limbaugh resigned in the wake of his comments and on the eve of a coincidentally-timed prescription-drug scandal. Anywy, the idea was that Limbaugh, who is knowledgeable about the game but by no means an expert, would serve as a surrogate "average fan", objecting to analysis that didn't make any sense. Having watched the show once or twice, I thought that Limbaugh interrupted the flow of the show more than he added to it, but he did improve ratings, so he gave ESPN what it really wanted in hiring him in the first place.

Anyway, on to what Limbaugh said about Donovan McNabb, Eagles quarterback and Campbell's Soup pitchman:

I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team.

Now, needless to say, that raised a few eyebrows. It's been the prime topic of conversation over at Off-Wing Opinion all week, was analyzed by Peter King and inspired a lengthy rant by Ralph Wiley, among many, many others. Even John Kennedy over at No Treason got into the act (and again, and again). As one would expect, not too many people were rushing to Rush's defense and I don't particularly plan to, either. I don't disagree with Limbaugh that McNabb is overrated, but I think the claim that he is so because of his race is dubious. The Barra articled linked by Kennedy and Off-Wing Opinion makes the best argument for Limbaugh's case: Barra claims, based on a statistical argument, that if McNabb were white, he would be less well-regarded than the perpetually mediocre Brad Johnson, but I think there are several important reasons why McNabb might be more highly regarded among the media and the average fan than just his race.

First, as "MaineCoon" opined in the comments on Barra's piece,

The fact is, it's much more likely that if McNabb is overrated it's because he plays a dynamic and attractive style of game that happens not to be as effective as one might think. But this explanation doesn't require one to make massive, unverifiable, implausible assumptions about liberal conspiracies, and so would of course not appeal to Limbaugh.

McNabb, whatever his shortcomings, is exciting to watch. He's fast, throws hard, has the ability to evade, make something happen out of nothing. Johnson has none of these talents; he may be more accurate, but reputations, in this day of slow-motion replay, are made more on the basis of spectacular highlights than consistent competence. McNabb has the highlights, Johnson doesn't, so it should come as no surprise that McNabb garners more Sportscenter time than Johnson. I'd also point out, as noted at Off Wing, "Johnson has played in offenses far more talented and dynamic than McNabb has ever enjoyed", so comparable statistics indicate greater ability on McNabb's part.

Second, though related to the first point, McNabb has far more potential than Johnson. McNabb is one of the best athletes in the NFL, which is high praise indeed; it's comparable to saying Bill Gates is one of the richest software writers in the world. Johnson, on the other hand, though surely a better athlete than you or I, looks about as stiff as a shirt soaked in starch all night. McNabb will always receive more favorable attention, if only because he has the physical tools to be a great player, even if he never capitalizes on them. McNabb may very well be overrated in large measure because of the potential for greatness that he has. This has nothing to do with race, as one can quickly confirm with even a momentary perusal of the career of Jeff George.

Third, and this may be even more important than the other two factors, McNabb is a very charismatic person, a quality rare among athletes. His omnipresence in commercials is a testament to this fact, as are his oft-aired interviews. McNabb is well-spoken, intelligent and relatively attractive, an ideal combination in this television age. Reporters are notoriously drawn towards quotable personalities and people who look good on TV, if only because good copy, good soundbites and appealing interviews sell newspapers and advertising. Hence, it should come as little surprise that the telegenic McNabb would be favored by the media over the stiff and awkward Johnson.

Finally, I would just point out that McNabb plays for Philadelphia, which means he's on the beat for Philly writers and only two hours away from New York and Washington, D.C., the two biggest media outlets in the country. Johnson, on the other hand, has had most of his success in Minnesota and Tampa Bay (failing miserably in Washington, by the way), both of which places are far from the centers of East Coast journalism that set the tone for media treatment.

These four points should make it clear that, black or white, it is only natural that McNabb would be more popular among the media than Johnson. In other words, overrated. Whatever factor his race may or may not have played in his being overrated is certainly hard to quantify and, in the presence of another bit of evidence, hard to give much serious credence. As Bill Simmons said:

I still think Limbaugh should have resigned from the show, not because he's racist but because he made the dumbest argument in the history of pre-game football shows. How can you argue that McNabb was overrated because of his color, when Steve McNair -- a black QB, last time I checked -- has been the most unappreciated superstar in the league for two straight years? Seriously, who's better than McNair right now? If you had to win one game, is there anyone in football you would take over him?

Peter King, incidentally, alludes to a similar point. Now, certainly, part of the reason McNair is underappreciated is that he plays in Tennessee, not Philadelphia or New York. Also, his value is, in large part, based on his grit and determination, rather than fancy highlights. Whatever the case, the point is that there certainly doesn't appear to be a media agenda to pump up black quarterbacks because of their race. When I made this point over at No Treason, Kennedy astutely pointed out that "There's a difference between an agenda and a common predisposition", but, supposing a common predisposition, it still doesn't make sense that it would benefit McNabb and not McNair.

That all having been said, I guess I can't completely discredit Limbaugh's opinion. Reporters tend to be more socially-conscious than most, and I'm sure many do want a black quarterback to succeed to confirm their particular social agendas. Some of that desire may even manifest itself in their writing and in their choices of who to interview and who to quote, though I suspect that this is primarily subconscious. However, even if we stipulate that, the ultimate arbiters of someone's "overratedness" are the fans who, in the case of football, tend to be more conservative than average ("progressive" types disdaining the wanton violence and commercialism of professional football). If McNabb is overrated, it is because he is overrated in the minds of the fans.

One final comment before I go: despite all this, if McNabb is overrated in part because of his race, I don't particularly see it as any more of an affront to decency than any of the examples of certain white athletes who have obviously benefited from their race. The most egregious example in recent memory is that of Jason Sehorn, who had one good year but benefitted massively from the fact that he (a) played in New York and (b) was the only white starting cornerback in the league (he's now playing safety in St. Louis, I believe). Sehorn remained popular long after his skills had eroded solely on the basis of his race (and, I suppose, the fact he slept with Angie Harmon). Other examples that spring to mind would be Jeremy Shockey, Brian Urlacher and, much as I like the guy, Ed McCaffrey. Were any of these guys black, they wouldn't get half the endorsement deals and screen time that they do. Moving out of the realm of football, we should surely add Keith Van Horn to this list, as he's been nothing but mediocre since the day he entered the NBA, yet still got compared to Larry Bird solely on the basis of his race. So, if McNabb does gets preferential treatment because of his race, let's not forget that he's not the only one. Warren Sapp may be one of my least favorite athletes, but he may be right about this:

Do we not have anybody that understands that there's way more scrubs in this game that are Anglos than there are black ones that are being pumped up? Trust me, it's not even close.

October 03, 2003

Quicksilver Review

Posted by shonk at 08:24 PM in Literature | permalink | 1 comment

I've spent most of my free time in the last week reading Neal Stephenson's latest book, Quicksilver. Here's a short review:

Stephenson's style is obviously maturing, as he demonstrates more of an ability to capture moods, attitudes and thoughts than in previous work. Also, he experiments a bit throughout Quicksilver with different stylistic techniques and ways of telling a story that make the book more interesting and fun to read (it seems clear that he's trying to take some cues from Joyce at times, though, fortunately, not aggressively so). Another sign of his writing maturity is that, though he's telling stories separated by half a century, as in Cryptonomicon, they tend to be more plausibly connected than in Cryptonomicon (which, though I enjoyed, was frustrating to the extent that there was no explicit connection between the two timelines aside from familial relations and subject matter; Quicksilver doesn't suffer from the same flaw).

Now, as to the story itself, it's an interesting one, though, predictably, as this is the first book of a planned trilogy, much of the book is devoted to background and exposition, setting the stage for future books. The dustjacket blurbs say that this is a book about Newton and Leibniz, but, though they do play a strong role in the book, this is, to some degree, the story of the entire scientific and political atmosphere of that time (specifically between the Interregnum and the Glorious Revolution). It's not so much about Newton, say, as about the people around Newton. Really, I found it fascinating, but I'm having a hard time summarizing the plot, because it's so obvious to me that the plot is still underway and won't fully resolve itself for another two books.

One of the major strengths of the book is it's solid grounding in the "Natural Philosophy" that most of the main characters are so heavily involved in. In a way, this is a story of the human aspect of the birth of modern science, so it's quite gratifying that the science is good. Which isn't to say that you need to know anything about calculus or astronomy or chemistry to appreciate it, but that sort of knowledge doesn't hurt (this is in the same sense that you don't need to know anything about mathematics or cryptography or computers to appreciate Cryptonomicon, but it certainly doesn't hurt). Also, some of the critiques of science voice by various "serious" characters are either wrong, but for interesting reasons, or very good, which just adds to the enjoyment.

One warning, though. Do not get this book on the assumption that it is another Snow Crash or Diamond Age; it's not. The high-tech is three centuries old and terms like cypherpunk, or even democracy, would be anachronisms. This is a historical epic and, as such, is pretty slowly paced. Act accordingly


I won't be giving away anything major, but you may want to wait to read the following until after you've read the book.

Okay, you've been warned.

That all said, I do have a couple of complaints. First, I've never been a fan of the episodic style weaving multiple plotlines, where each chapter or section tells a bit of one story, then the next chapter tells a bit of the next, then the next goes back to the first (or perhaps on to a third, or whatever), though this "cliffhanger" style does have its advantages. Anyway, this is how Stephenson tells the story, which I find slightly annoying, but I guess it's hard to tell multiple stories-within-a-story another way, and he does do a pretty good job of making all the plotlines interesting and not making the jumps too jarring. Second, I wish he'd stuck with the Daniel in 1713 plotline for longer, as I found myself looking forward to the next installment while it was going on, and missed it once it dropped off. Presumably, the main thrust of the trilogy will be in that plotline, with the 17th century stuff primarily serving as intersting background material, so losing track of that timeline seems silly. But maybe I'm misreading where this thing is going. Third, within the scope of the trilogy, when it's completed, it may make sense not to mention Jack Shaftoe after he leaves Europe, but within the context of the book, it's frustrating, especially since it's so obvious that he'll be back at some point (and Stephenson drops a few hints to this effect as well). Fourth, though I applaud Stephenson for his stylistic experiments, some of them simply fall flat. The dramatic interludes serve as good commentary on how everyone is playing a role, even Daniel, but they simply aren't that good from a dramatic perspective. Stephenson seems to be taking a cue or two from the Circe section of Ulysses in these segments, but, if that's the case, he really ought to have cut loose a bit more. Fifth, and this is more a general critque of Stephenson than of this particular book, some of the coincidences are pretty over-the-top. Maybe he's making some commentary on history or psychology or genetics or whatever, but it's a bit hard to swallow that the same two families played important roles Cromwell's accession, the Glorious Revolution, World War II cryptography and modern data havens (those last two come from Cryptonomicon). But maybe that's just me. Finally, as usual, Stephenson doesn't write much of conclusion or climax to the book (his best attempt at ending a book is, in my opinion, in The Diamond Age, but even there there's too much that's unexplained going on), but, since the end of this book isn't really the end, is, in fact, intended not to be a conclusion at all, but rather to point towards the rest of the forthcoming trilogy, this isn't really a drawback.

Despite those complaints, I definitely enjoyed the book and would strongly recommend it to anyone.