Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

MoJo on auto credit

Via cshalizi's delicious, Mother Jones comments on auto industry lending practices. It turns out that sleazy salesmanship w.r.t. the cars themselves isn't the half of how auto dealers screw consumers.

On the bright side, the article says that 900 car dealerships will fail over the next year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Pandora for disconnected operation (an open letter)

Dear Pandora executives:

I hear that your business model's in jeopardy because of increased licensing fees for streaming Internet audio. I suggest that you diversify your income stream by licensing your database for media players, enabling them to dynamically construct playlists using the player's local collection.

Most modern music devices have the capability to construct dynamic playlists based on ID3 tags (for the less technical in the crowd, ID3 tags are how your iPod knows the artist, album, etc. of a music file that you download). The problem is that although ID3 tags include features such as release year and "genre", these don't suffice to construct a cohesive sounding playlist. Pandora's dynamic playlist construction based on musical qualities handily beats construction via arbitrary categories like genre.

Conversely, although people increasingly own rich media Internet devices with unlimited data plans (like the iPhone and the G1), WWAN Internet connectivity is still not pervasive enough to provide a seamless streaming radio experience.

Meanwhile, the cost of storage (both hard drives and flash memory) is falling so dramatically that people can save both encyclopedic music collections and a fairly substantial database of metadata about those collections on local storage. (Any worries about "giving away the store" by letting people cache slices of your database locally should be alleviated by the realization that people will require periodic updates, as the music industry — despite their insistence that digital piracy is strangling them to death — continues to produce an avalanche of new music every week.)

There is a window of opportunity here. By providing a mechanism for good dynamic playlist construction, you could get a licensing fee on every player sold. And since you'd be providing metadata about songs, instead of the songs themselves, you would pay no streaming fees.

Alternatively, you could at least write software that opportunistically plays a song from the local device when available, instead of streaming, thereby reducing streaming fees and improving audio quality on such devices. (When someone listens to a station long enough, chances are that the user will already own a nontrivial fraction of the songs that come up.) Notice that if you write this app, then it is a tiny, incremental step to simply disable the streaming engine and play songs from the local device only. This would be less dramatic than caching the Pandora database itself locally, but it would reduce network bandwidth to an RPC to the Pandora server on song switches (and again, you'd avoid the streaming fee).

Once you have Pandora cached locally, you should take a page from Wikipedia and Delicious and allow people to collaboratively tag music with your attributes. (There's a potential spam problem here, but there are defenses which I think would be fairly effective.)

It seems likely that you've thought of these ideas. Maybe you've even found good reasons not to implement them. But just in case you haven't, I thought I'd suggest them.

Cheers, Cog.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

3 observations prompted by overnight air travel

(Attention conservation notice: Hastily written to pass the time in Charlotte NC airport between a red-eye and a connecting flight. Adjust your quality expectations accordingly.)

1. One of the most important pieces of information when walking through an airport is the current time. Yet in a surprising number of airports one can walk for many minutes without seeing a clock in one's line of sight. (Long digression on central planning & incentives nipped in the bud here.)

2. I always thought of the PSP (PlayStation Portable) as a niche device principally used to play games (at least in the US).  However, the young woman sitting to my left and the guy sitting 2 seats to my right each had one, and were using them exclusively to watch movies and listen to music respectively. Evidently Sony has been doing better selling these than I thought, and people have succeeded in using them for more purposes than I would have expected. I know that these devices can play video & music, but the experience of acquiring content, managing your collection, and loading it onto the device is hardly seamless; but maybe this deters people less than I thought. (Demographic note: the guy was also reading a novel of the obvious pulp fantasy nature called "Vorpal Blade".)

3. See the attached image for your amusement. Offered with the sole comment: What would you think of this ad if you didn't know that colds were caused by a type of virus called a "rhinovirus"?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Vocabulary PSA: loin and groin

In the past month or so, I have had two conversations wherein people did not understand the literal meanings of the following words, as applied to human anatomy:

loin
The meaty part of your lower back and sides, below your rib cage and above your pelvis.
groin
The crease where your torso meets your legs, running from the side of your pelvic bone (at your hip) to between your legs.

Due to the excessive use of these two words as euphemisms for genitalia, many people seem to be under the mistaken impression that both of these words refer literally to genitalia or the genital region. In the case of loin, it's pretty egregious, because your loins are nowhere near your genitalia. In the case of groin, it's simply annoying, as there's no other word that refers to that specific part of the anatomy.

This has been an Abstract Factory public service announcement.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Two possible bailouts

A comment on my previous post suggested that I'm not considering the impact of throwing hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of people out of work during a recession. Actually, I'm sympathetic to some auto industry employees, namely the ones who have no influence over retail operations. Due to accidents of geography and economics, a lot of Midwesterners got sucked into a career in an industry that has no future. But it's not necessary to save these pernicious companies (and the clowns who manage them) in order to help their employees. Consider the following two possible bailouts.

Bailout One: Give the automakers $25 $34 billion in low-interest loans and pat them on the back. This is the mainstream bailout plan that's emerging from Washington. Yesterday morning, they shook loose $15 billion from taxpayers' pockets by diverting money temporarily from a fund for environmentally friendly cars, but this won't be the end of it.

If we do this, what will we get for our money?

Well, GM has a net annual income of negative $10 billion (extrapolating optimistically based on 2008q3 performance; in fact, extrapolating from previous quarters yields a much worse figure). Giving GM, say, $20 billion means kicking this corpse of a company roughly 2 years down the road, at which point you will have to kick it again.

This is not an accident. Here is a fundamental truth about the global market for automobiles: there is currently more automobile-building capacity in the world than there is demand for automobiles. As a consequence, no combination of innovation and smart business practices can sustain all auto companies at their current size. Either (1) some automobile manufacturers somewhere in the world must go out of business or radically reduce their capacity, or (2) governments all over the world must sink money into automobile subsidies indefinitely. Notice that (2) amounts to a welfare program for auto employees, and an extremely inefficient one: some of the money that would go directly to paying for peoples' food, shelter, etc. instead goes towards building a pile of cars that nobody wants. (Meanwhile, those cars will be unloaded on the market at artificially low prices, which will lead to a greater than economically optimal level of automobile use, which leads to more traffic jams, smog, CO2 production, etc.)

So we're back to (1). If some auto companies somewhere in the world have to radically downsize or go out of business, the optimal outcome is that it be the most dysfunctional, wasteful, and stupid ones. Can anyone guess which companies those are?

Bailout Two: As of their last SEC filing, GM has 252,000 employees. For $25.2 billion, I propose cutting every employee of GM a $100,000 tax-free check and telling them to go make a new life for themselves. Meanwhile, force GM into Chapter 7 bankruptcy (i.e. liquidation, or the sale of GM's productive assets to companies that can make more productive use of those assets).

Ford employs 224,000 people, and we could offer similar terms ($100,000 to each employee) for $22.4 billion total, while sending the company into Chapter 7. Chrysler, having recently been bought from Daimler by a private investor, does not have current SEC filings, but Wikipedia claims that it employs 58,000 people, making it a comparative bargain at $5.8 billion overall.

Note that with a well-managed Chapter 7 selloff, the plants, equipment, technology, etc. will turn a profit for the buyers and continue to contribute to the economy of the region. (With an ill-managed selloff, the value disappears down a black hole; but if you assume bad management, then lending the companies money will be a disaster too.)

The total cost for bailout two, for all 3 automakers, is $53.4 billion, or $178 for every U.S. citizen. For this price, every employee of the Big Three receives a one-time tax-free bonus of roughly twice the annual median household income in the U.S. I contend that if you can't make a new life for yourself with that transition fund, then you're beyond help.

I'm not an economist, but I don't see how bailout one is obviously superior to bailout two.

Of course, bailout two is just a crazy idea of mine, and nobody who matters is considering it; nor would they if it were suggested to them. For reasons that are not entirely apparent to me, opinions on this matter have coalesced rapidly around a narrow range of alternatives, all of which involve lending massive sums of money to companies with a track record of destroying economic value instead of creating it.

I'm not saying my bailout is actually a good idea. I'm saying that it's not demonstrably true that Washington's bailout is any better, and yet it's gradually becoming more and more obvious that Washington's bailout is inevitable.


Incidentally, it's been interesting watching all the liberal blogs come around gradually, albeit begrudgingly, to a pro-bailout stance over the past few weeks, despite the absence of evidence that Congressional Democrats have the backbone to demand adequate oversight or other conditions. It's like the prelude to the Iraq War: all the Thoughtful Liberals agree that Something Must Be Done and so everyone piles onto the bus, even though the driver doesn't show any indications of being able to get it right. Maybe people think that if you're on the bus, at least you'll be heard. But that's a totally false assumption. Thomas Friedman's War was not George Bush's War; guess which one we got? Likewise, Paul Krugman's Bailout will not be Barney Frank's Bailout; guess which one we'll get.

I can't help but think that political calculus has played a role in these liberal blogs' turnaround. If you destroy the Big Three, then you cripple the UAW and anger people in Midwestern swing states at the dawn of a period of Democratic governance. It's understandable for politicians to think this way. People whose jobs do not depend on being elected, however, should advocate for what is good, rather than for what is politically expedient; because by advocating for what is good, you make it more likely that someday the good will be politically expedient.


UPDATE 5:36 PST: OK, for the record, here are two reasons why Cog's Grand $100k Giveaway wouldn't be sufficient even if you could get everyone to agree to it. (a) It does nothing for employees of the Big Three's upstream suppliers. (b) It leaves the automakers' huge pension obligations unfunded, which leaves the pensioners in the lurch. The proposal was less in the vein of "Let's do this now!" and more in the vein of "Look, this is a lot of freaking money and we haven't even begun to consider whether this is really the best way to spend it."

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Why I hate auto manufacturers

Consider this: Almost every car company forces you to deal with that semi-sociopathic middleman known as the car salesman.

The function of a car salesman is to use information asymmetry to introduce inefficiencies into the market. By using deception, social engineering, and emotional manipulation, the salesman attempts to get you to irrationally pay more than the true market value (which used to be a total mystery, but which you can now find on the Internet; of course car companies hate this). Instead of selling cars based on their actual worth, the car salesman enables the company to price discriminate based on how uninformed, impatient, and manipulable you are, which of course correlates strongly with your social position, access to information, etc.

Here is how a rational car market would function. First, instead of car dealerships, there would be third party "test drive centers" which kept models of every recently released automobile for you to drive. When you were serious about wanting to buy a car, you would go to a test drive center, pay a hundred bucks, and test drive as many cars as you want. At the end of the day, you would sit down at an Internet terminal and order the car that you liked best. There would be staff at the test drive center, paid on a livable salary, not on commission, to help you sort through the information if you wanted. Every manufacturer would simply have a sticker price, which would be true prices instead of today's farcical "sticker prices" because auto manufacturers would have to compete with every other manufacturer on a transparent market.

Needless to say, auto execs would not reorganize the market this way if their mothers' lives were hanging in the balance. They prefer to force all their customers to sit through a several-hours-long soul-corroding encounter with a man who you know, you know is lying to your face. Encounters like these are social pollution: they sully the population's common stock of faith in humanity. And car companies feel that this social pollution is absolutely vital to their bottom lines, and so they cultivate it.

It maddens me to think that my tax dollars will be going to these people. Liquidate the executives, liquidate the plant workers, especially liquidate the dealerships, but in any case liquidate these companies. Kill the companies dead, carve up their assets, scatter the pieces to the winds. And let Midwesterners find a way to build things of value without deceiving people and grabbing handouts from the public till.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Stop eating bluefin tuna

...if you haven't already, that is. Details at Time and BBC. See also World Wildlife Fund press release. While you're at it, you may wish to see the MBA's seafood watch guide for more advice.

To be honest, outcomes like the ICCAT decision just make me scratch my head. Everyone knows that overfishing leads to depleted stocks, which leads to reduced catch, which leads to impoverishment for the fishing industry. But nobody can agree to reduce fishing to a sustainable level. This is textbook Tragedy of the Commons, and everyone knows the outcome, yet it seems that human beings cannot reliably construct the social institutions which would handle this situation gracefully.

Lest the free-marketeers in the audience cry "property rights!", note that I said "reliably construct", not "recognize". About which several things can be said...

First, as far as I can tell, the ICCAT licensing regime is a property rights system. There's a cap on the total tuna catch and there's some mechanism whereby parties are allocated rights to fish or process a portion of the tuna catch. I assume those rights are transferable, at least in the sense that interests in the boats and other facilities with such licenses can be sold/leased/etc.

Unfortunately, it's a property rights system which does not produce good incentives. Constructing a property rights regime in the tuna fishery — where, for example, it is not practical to tag every tuna and assign it and its spawn an owner — requires more than the mere recognition that this is a property rights problem. It is critically important to construct and enforce the correct regime, which is tricky.

(Aside: in fact, it seems to me that the rights regime that produces the maximum incentive to grow the tuna fishery stock, and enforce compliance, would be one where a single body possessed property rights in the entire tuna population, sold rights to catch fixed amounts of tuna, and spent part of its money on hiring armed men to enforce its rights. Note that this looks suspiciously like a government monopoly, and not a very sophisticated one. It would have been perfectly recognizable to a feudal lord.)

Second, plenty of ostensibly capitalist companies in recent years have been hell-bent on destroying their long-term futures to produce short-term gains for certain individuals who run those companies. It is not clear to me that even a well-constructed property rights regime could stand up to sustained assault by the same type of people who just burned down Wall Street.

Third, a property rights regime with appropriate incentive alignment may have led to more responsible management of tuna stocks. But this raises the question of why free market ideology does not have enough persuasive power to win over the relevant parties, even in a textbook scenario like this one. Part of the reason is the caveats that I note above. But another part is that fishermen in European nations have enough political power to thwart the best arguments of the well-intentioned. Their livelihood is on the line, and free-market ideology has no comfort to offer them.*

At this point, many libertarians just throw up their hands and say "Bah! Politics! If only people read more Ayn Rand." But there is actually a hard and serious problem here, and it's futile to hope that more ideological indoctrination will save you. America's been exporting free-market ideology for decades. At a certain point, you have to accept that deploying more missionaries is not by itself sufficient.

From a political scientist's point of view, these fishermen are simply exercising their rights. Their aims may be misguided, but their claim to political power is not illegitimate. They didn't execute a coup; all they have are votes and lobbying, the same mechanisms that any other group uses to influence a democracy. Therefore, the hard question is this: how do you construct a political system that possesses the markers of legitimacy — the consent of the governed, transparency, accountability, etc. — and that will not be hijacked by people like these fishermen? And, having constructed such an institution once, how do you reliably and reproducibly construct new institutions (or modify existing ones) in response to crises?

So, in summary, every road leads back to the inability of humankind to construct well-functioning institutions: answerable to the concerns of those who take part in them, but also robust against subversion.

Incidentally, this whole business does not make me optimistic about a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide. An emissions tax seems preferable.


* Note that a socialist planner with sufficient will could just repossess the boats and relocate the fishermen to a different sector of the economy. A benevolent socialist planner would give them a compensatory stipend and job training; a malevolent socialist planner would just say tough cookies, make a new life. Either way, socialism has an political solution to the problem of ornery fishermen. It is interesting to ponder what would happen if the Mediterranean were located in China.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How to recognize a "green" concern troll

When someone says that we need to develop nuclear power instead of rather than in addition to other kinds of alternative energy technology, it's a strong sign that person is ill-informed, gratuitously querulous, and indifferent to the environment, and writes on the subject principally for the emotional gratification he gets from believing himself to be skewering the pieties of left-leaning greens.

Either that, or he is simply negligent about language to the point of being unintelligible.

The proper way to reward this behavior is to subtract a few points from your estimate of Tabarrok's credibility. I suggest that all Marginal Revolution readers do so.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Remarks on Chrome shoulder bags (and others)

1.

Of late, these bags have been appearing on assorted hipster shoulders around SF. I got one free via work about a year ago. For a long time, it seemed like just another "fashion" messenger bag: sturdy, but otherwise unremarkable, and exuding a viscous aura of hipster poseurish asshattery (which, of course, did not stop me from using it, shameless asshat that I am).

However, about a week ago, I acquired a couple of folding bikes & started biking around the city, and I can now report that the Chrome bag is, in fact, better for cycling than most shoulder bags. For example, I have a Trager shoulder bag, which is by far the best laptop bag I've ever used for walking and travel; but it does not, even when cinched to maximum tightness, sit as securely on my shoulder and back while cycling as my Chrome bag.

I also spent about half an hour sorting through all the "messenger" bags at REI yesterday and did not find any that were better. So, color me surprised. Chrome bags are high-quality and uncommonly well-engineered for their ostensible function.

Note also that even the trademark Chrome seatbelt-style buckle, which at first looks like a silly and purely cosmetic affectation, is actually useful. When removing the bag while wearing a bike helmet, you need not wind the strap awkwardly over the bulk of your helmet; just grab the upper strap in one hand and click the buckle release with the other. (Given the preponderance of suicidally helmetless idiots in publicity photos on the manufacturer's website, it is not even clear to me that this is an intentional design feature rather than an accident; but either way, it's a success.)

For further corroboration, this review is absolutely accurate.

2.

Incidentally, most "messenger" bags are, as far as I can tell, total bullshit, failing at least one of the following criteria:

  • It should not require two hands to tighten or loosen the strap.
  • It must be possible to tighten the strap sufficiently so that the bag does not slip longitudinally (along the axis of the strap).
  • The strap must generate enough friction not to slip either laterally or longitudinally. In practice, this means the strap must be sufficiently wide and grippy at weight-bearing points.
  • The juncture of the strap and the bag body must be shaped so that the bag does not flop away from the body. In practice, the only way I've seen this work is when there's a diagonal panel which moors the bag's entire edge to the strap, rather than just a single point.

Of course, I have no doubt that back in the day, when "bike messenger" was merely a profession and not a fashion idiom, Real Bike Couriers made do with what they could get, floppy shoulder bags with skinny nylon straps or whatever. But progress marches on, stuff gets better, and when I'm coasting down Nob Hill I am very happy to have a well-designed bag on my shoulder.

3.

In case this consumer navel-gazing about some expensive glorified purses should seem trivial and/or out of character, Bruce Sterling's widely-linked Last Viridian Note contains some sage advice about material possessions, which I hereby deploy as ideological armor against your potential skepticism:

It's not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.

Do not "economize." Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It's melting the North Pole. So "economization" is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less. Voluntary simplicity is, furthermore, boring. Less can become too much work.

The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don't seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects. It's in your time most, it's in your space most. It is "where it is at," and it is "what is going on."

It takes a while to get this through your head, because it's the opposite of the legendry of shopping. However: the things that you use every day should be the best-designed things you can get. For instance, you cannot possibly spend too much money on a bed – (assuming you have a regular bed, which in point of fact I do not). You're spending a third of your lifetime in a bed. Your bed might be sagging, ugly, groaning and infested with dust mites, because you are used to that situation and cannot see it. That calamity might escape your conscious notice. See it. Replace it.

Sell – even give away – anything you never use. Fancy ball gowns, tuxedos, beautiful shoes wrapped in bubblepak that you never wear, useless Christmas gifts from well-meaning relatives, junk that you inherited. Sell that stuff. Take the money, get a real bed. Get radically improved everyday things.

The same goes for a working chair. Notice it. Take action. Bad chairs can seriously injure you from repetitive stresses. Get a decent ergonomic chair. Someone may accuse you of "indulging yourself" because you possess a chair that functions properly. This guy is a reactionary. He is useless to futurity. Listen carefully to whatever else he says, and do the opposite. You will benefit greatly.

As they say, Read The Whole Thing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dinosaur Comics on pareto optimality

Enjoy. Har har. I believe I shall henceforth call it "Utahraptor's criterion".

p.s. If the foundational math of distributional justice interests you, I suggest this as a starting point for further reading. I took an undergrad course with S. J. Brams, one of the authors, a long time ago. Truthfully I hated it. Brams is not a great lecturer, and he seemed to be teaching to the pace of the median undergraduate, which bored me sometimes literally to unconsciousness. On the other hand, it's one of the few undergrad courses whose content I have a nontrivial memory of, and I still have this book on my shelf, so in retrospect maybe it was a good course.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Root causes of crises & bailout under capitalism

1. An economy is an information network.

2. Capitalism is the system that maximizes free flow of information (capital) through this network.

3. Networks built by the free action of humans always result in heavy-head, long-tail distributions. (I'd say power law but C. Shalizi would smack me.)

4. Thus it is inevitable that massive economic power ends up concentrated in the hands of centralized actors who lack the capacity to manage this power efficiently.

5. When these entities inevitably fail, their centrality to the network generates irresistible political pressure to bail them out using the instruments of coercion (i.e. the government).

6. Thus capitalism contains within its nature the very seeds of its undoing.

Discuss.

(Composed on Muni 38 from downtown to J-town using my G1.)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How it felt

I was at work when I saw that even Fox was calling Ohio and Pennsylvania for Obama and I realized how this would all end. About an hour later, I was in the basement of the Cantina in downtown San Francisco, among friends and strangers, having walked in shortly after all the networks called the nation.

We drank; we cheered; we watched McCain's unexpectedly gracious concession and Obama's rousing declaration of victory, and I am reasonably certain that by the end there was not a dry eye in the room. The pictures above were taken on my mobile phone, and although one of the people I was with had a better camera, I took these anyway because I think these images capture our subjective experience of the speech better than more optically faithful ones.

Of course, if you've been reading my writing recently, you know that a substantial part of me remains guarded and skeptical as to whether this election will truly turn the nation around, rather than merely arresting its precipitous decline. And these blurry pictures work in that sense as well: we glimpse the future only dimly and through a glass.

But still — tonight, for the first time in years, what we glimpse might not horrify us.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

I am not worried about Election Day

About a week ago, I moved on to worrying about what happens after.

We face astonishing problems. The scale of the missed opportunities and bumbling mistakes and grave moral sins our nation has committed since 2000 boggles the mind. When I think back to how America felt in 1999, when I was graduating from college, how full of thrilling promise and possibility, and when I consider where we are today, I wonder if some colossal prank has been played upon me by the universe. Welcome to adulthood, boy; now watch this bright and shiny world of your youth rust and rot with corruption from top to bottom.

So, eight years later, here we are. But where is that? On the net, I see pictures and videos of massive cheering crowds; everywhere I read of hope, and a barely contained undercurrent of relief, sometimes exultation. Suppose that the election goes as all these people wish. What's going to happen, really?

In all likelihood, the Democrats will hold not only the Presidency, but both houses of Congress. And K Street and Wall Street have seen this coming for some months now. Meanwhile we see the Republican Party both discredited and divided against itself, abandoned by virtually all those who would provide it either the moral fiber or the intellectual rigor to reform itself. I suspect it will be a long time in the wilderness for Republicans.

And far from being exultant, I am stone cold sober about what this means. It means that anybody who wants to have power or influence for the next few electoral cycles already knows that they need to get close with the Democratic Party. It means that the fate of the nation will hang on how well the Democratic Party's immune system neutralizes the parasites drawn by that power: the legions of influence-peddlers, along with amoral narcissists of all stripes burning with ambition and nothing else. Does this make you optimistic? If so, you haven't been paying attention to Congressional Democrats for the past two decades.

Meanwhile, consider what will happen to the Republican opposition. For nearly half a century, the plutocratic Republican leadership has been carelessly cultivating the jingoistic, theocratic, and crypto-racist elements of American society for political advantage. What has emerged is a stupid, snarling, egotistical beast, twenty-odd percent of the electorate that is confused, bitterly angry, fearful of change, utterly disconnected from reality, and boastful of a national patrimony that it sees as exclusively its own. I find it hard to imagine what this beast will become as increasing political marginalization and economic upheavals feed its resentment. The twenty percenters will not shrivel up and die; they will stew in the juices of their rage. How will that rage transform them?

All in all, I fear that we will soon witness some truly ugly times in American politics, of which the current campaign is only a foretaste.

Now, my fears are not predictions. I'm merely stating possibilities. I still hope that all my anxieties are misplaced. But nonetheless these are the anxieties that plague me. If you're worried about the election, put those worries aside; they're hardly worth the trouble. Far bigger potential problems lurk beyond it.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Another word I never want to hear again

"Maverick."

I mean, come on. How many times can you use the same damn word to flatter yourself before somebody revokes your license? It's not only self-aggrandizing, it's monotonously, vacuously, and conspicuously self-aggrandizing:

  • It is monotonous because they repeat it way too often. (Obviously.)
  • It is vacuous because repeating the word makes a claim as a substitute for marshalling evidence for that claim.
  • It is conspicuous because normal human beings simply do not use this word — certainly not in everyday speech, of course, but not even in erudite discourse. When was the last time you read the word "maverick", not in reference to John McCain, in a novel, an essay, a newspaper article, or even a nonfiction monograph or scholarly paper or blog post or fortune cookie or anything at all? In fact, the only other occurrence of this word that I've ever read, heard, or watched is in an 80's gay romantic comedy starring Tom Cruise.

It's become like a cartoon character's catchphrase. "Doh!" "Hulk Smash!" "Good grief!" "We're mavericks!" Somebody buy these people a thesaurus. For the sake of my sanity, if nothing else.

p.s. Gwen Ifill is (still) terrible. Still spends half her questions recycling D.C. press memes. Still incapable of asking a probing factual followup to a pile of talking points.


(Previously: other words I could do without.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Judgment Day for Capitalism draws ever-closer

A little less than four years ago, I wrote:

The industrial Communist nations fell, so everyone assumes that Capitalism proved its merit and won. It seems more accurate to say: Communism fell, and Capitalism is still awaiting judgment.

The particulars of my observations at the time were only tangentially related to the current financial crisis, but the larger point about capitalism's fate seems to be proving correct. It's becoming reasonably clear that (a) the United States is nationalizing a significant chunk of the financial engine that makes it the center of the world economy, and (b) if we didn't do this, then our economy would come apart at the seams, taking down a significant chunk of the world economy as well.

It seems possible that the 21st century's dominant species of economy could be the weird technocratic cousin of crony capitalism that's being improvisationally invented before our eyes this week. It's a form of central planning which leaves the details to markets, but periodically stages massive interventions whose ripple effects dwarf the entire economies of most socialist nations.

But then again, maybe it's not so new after all.

(& now I'm off to a friend's birthday dinner)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

What the Vice President does every day

I bear no affection for the wingnut train-wreck, but I found that one statement reasonable, and perhaps even irreverently witty.

I mean, everyone knows that the Vice President has no day-to-day Constitutional* powers whatsoever. The VP's tie-breaking powers are rarely called upon — Cheney and Gore did it once every year or two. As for assuming the office if the President dies, that hardly counts as something for the VP to "do every day". And that's the end of the list of enumerated powers. As far as I can tell, the only reasonable argument that the Vice Presidency should even exist is that it discourages political assassination by an opposition party that controls the House of Representatives.

Basically, what I'm saying is: I, too, wonder what exactly a Vice President does every day. Modern Presidential administrations have generally crafted a meaningful role for the VP, but it's never been written into law. It seems technically possible to discharge the office of the Vice Presidency while lying on the beach sipping margaritas, waiting for your party to page you for a tie-breaking vote once a year.

There is, of course, the minor matter of that other page, which is the main reason you want someone who's qualified. But if you were a politician who wanted to accomplish things — and especially if you wanted to do so on your own terms, rather than as a surrogate or adjunct for a President with whom you may frequently disagree — it seems entirely reasonable to refuse the Vice Presidential nomination on the grounds that it's a powerless office. Politicians have done it before (most famously Daniel Webster, whose rejoinder "I do not intend to be buried until I am dead" is a favorite of history buffs, and which all politics junkies know nowadays because it was quoted by John Hoynes on The West Wing).

Not that Palin evinces any such instincts. She accepted the nomination.


* The fact that Cheney has unconstitutionally assumed all sorts of other powers is an entirely different matter.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Against video

Is anyone else out there annoyed that an increasing proportion of web content — particularly on political blogs, although the disease seems to have spread more broadly — consists of embedded videos or links to video files?

As a communicative medium, video on the web:

  • Runs on Flash, and therefore looks lousy.
  • Runs on Flash, and therefore is flaky on any platform where Flash is flaky.
  • Runs on Flash, and therefore cannot easily be saved offline for future reference.
  • Cannot usually be watched muted (no subtitles).
  • Cannot be easily quoted, re-edited, or linked-to. Note the large number of people who embed or link to a video and say "watch for 0:28" or "the relevant bit starts at 4:37" (argh). Again, this cuts against the spirit of the web. Video on the web — YouTube comments and "video replies" notwithstanding (har har) — is not a medium of conversation, the way that text or even images can be. We need the <blockquote> and <a href> tags to work with video.
  • Cannot be scanned, skimmed, or watched at greater than 1x speed (again, usually no subtitles); so in order to watch a video, I have to sit there for however long the person responsible thought was an appropriate amount of time. This is perhaps the worst scourge of all. I probably read word-for-word no more than 10% of the stuff I look at on the web. On any given page of text, mostly I read the title and then skim for interesting phrases; I only Read The Whole Thing for the rare article that appears to be worth the time. Video makes this behavior impossible: the viewer has to suck the content through the narrow straw of the video player, one paltry second's worth of content in any given second. In three minutes I can read a 200-word blog post and skim 5 more; or in three minutes I can watch one video containing, often, about 200 words of contentful speech. What a waste of my time. (Audiocasts are no better.) To make things worse, many web videos are poorly and amateurishly edited. And those which are professionally edited are often no better, as they have often pointlessly long intros/outros (musical, animated, or both) which are frankly holdovers from a pre-Web era where video producers had to do all branding via interstitials instead of overlays or surrounding dressing (that is, time-division multiplexing branding with the content instead of space-division multiplexing). Just cut to the chase already!

Seriously, for any given video I run across on the web, there's roughly a 99% chance that I'd get just as much or more out of a textual transcript. But video seems to be so damn popular and honestly I don't understand it. Is it just because it's campaign season and everyone feels like reposting ads? Or is it something deeper? My previous post was about how video game fans mistakenly seem to think video games aspire to the condition of cinema. Is it possible that the web has the same mistaken inferiority complex with television? But television seems worse in almost every way. I mean, video's fine for carefully hewn narrative works of entertainment — I like The Wire as much as the next guy — but as a medium of online conversation I find video sorely lacking.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Video game apologists: Looking for art in all the wrong places

Alright, I can't take it anymore. For the umpteenth time, a video game fanboy has tried to substantiate the claim that video games are art by pointing to Final Fantasy and a bunch of in-game cinematics. Gaaah. Somebody is wrong, and I must speak.

Video games can be art, but not for the reasons these guys think.

First of all, Roger Ebert was so transparently wrong to begin with that it's almost ridiculous that gamers got defensive about it. Ebert's claim was, in short, that games cannot be high art because they require the participation of the player. By this standard, architecture, sculpture, and installation art are not high art, since full appreciation of those works requires the audience to navigate a space established by the work's form. But that's ludicrous. Any definition of art that excludes these forms is silly on its face.

I mean, come on. Are you telling me Roger Ebert knows more about "art" than the MOMA and the Guggenheim Foundation? There's just nothing to prove here. Don't even bother trotting out your favorite games; it's wholly unnecessary. This claim can be disproved a priori.

On the other hand, as the foregoing analogy illustrates, the other art form that video games most resemble is not cinema; it is architecture. A large contingent of video game apologists, eager to prove that their favorite form deserves the cultural capital endowed by the label "Art", have latched onto the cinematic properties of video games. This is probably because, in our day and age, cinema possesses a cross-product of high-culture respectability, low-culture accessibility, and economic influence that no other art form comes close to matching.

But likening video games to cinema is a fundamental error. Video games may borrow the aesthetic language of cinema, in the same way that architecture can borrow painterly or sculptural gestures, but the nature of a game is that it is an abstract state space through which the player moves. Indeed, video games, like computer code in general, can be viewed as simply the abstract version of architecture.

And so it's not surprising that, although games have come a long way, the games that currently try hardest to be "cinematic" almost always end up being unsuccessful as art. My definition of successful art is this: an artifact that provokes a powerful and seamless aesthetic reaction in the viewer. A good art work seduces us into believing wholly in the world that it proposes, whether that world consists of the abstract geometries of a Mondrian painting or the intricately braided themes of a Beethoven symphony. "Cinematic" games like Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, etc. foolishly attempt to create a game world by mimicking the conventions of mainstream narrative feature film. And they fail — because mainstream narrative feature film centers on interactions among people, and today's computers are incapable of producing even vaguely convincing simulacra of human beings.

Walk up to a character in a typical "cinematic" computer game and say hello. Then say goodbye, turn around in a circle, and say hello again. Chances are, the conversation will go exactly the same way. You can do this a dozen, a hundred, a thousand times, and not once will the character notice that you're acting a little strange. And let's not even get into the painful stiltedness of dialogue trees.

Now, traditional narrative art forms like fiction, theater, cinema, and comics are all unrealistic in numerous ways. But this doesn't matter; our brains are wired to forgive many infidelities in representation, so long as human interactions follow a logic that is recognizably human. Or, at least, as in David Mamet plays, that they follow a course that's deliberately crafted for aesthetic effect. By contrast, conversations in computer games are not deliberately crafted to be stilted, artificial, limited, and repetitive; they just are, because of technical limitations, and an attentive audience can never escape this realization.

Thus, most so-called "cinematic" video games can be highly effective entertainment, but they can at best be middling art.

So when do games succeed at being art?

I can't lay out comprehensive criteria, but I can give a few examples. It seems to me that the following games actually succeed at creating experiences that are both seamless and aesthetically powerful, although in different ways:

  • Geometry Wars Retro Evolved. Yes, you heard me: Geometry Wars (UPDATE 2008-10-26: note that this video does not use the in-game soundtrack). It's the ecstatic love child of Stan Brakhage and a techno music video, in video game form.
  • Shadow of the Colossus. This is the rare example of a game that achieves seamlessness despite being relatively cinematic in presentation. Pay attention, and you'll see how this game succeeds where other games fail: you're practically the only living human being in the whole game. Almost everything else that moves is either an automaton or an animal. The experience is nearly wordless. The aesthetic texture (the visuals, the sound) is breathtaking, but also exceptionally stark. If Shadow of the Colossus were a film, it would be an art film; no mainstream Hollywood studio would greenlight it. And within the dream logic of its lonely world, everything fits together. I could write a great deal more about this game and how it speaks to me, but that's a subject for another day.
  • Echochrome. An abstract exploration of spatial perception and motion with immaculate visuals and music. Would not be out of place installed in the MOMA.
  • flOw. If you like Mark Rothko paintings but not flOw, then I claim that you are a hypocrite.
  • Katamari Damacy. This game is not exactly my bag, but both as a work of absurdist aesthetics and as a cunningly crafted explorable state space, I cannot deny its success.

Now, to the above list, I can add a very long list of games that succeed wildly at being entertaining, and have some merit as art, but don't fully succeed at the latter. For example, BioShock, Okami, and the Half-Life 2 episodes achieve higher quality, both as entertainment and as art, than 99% of television shows or movies; but you can see the man behind the curtain a little too often for them to be wholly successful art works.

Lumines is the video game equivalent of pop music, and roughly as artistic.

And then there are games like Civilization, which manage to be tours de force of complex state space design, but aesthetically barely rise above the level of a board game. If Civilization IV were a work of physical architecture, it would be the New York subway system.

And so on, and so forth. Basically, many video games succeed as entertainment; some of those manage to be less-than-great art; and a very small number manage to achieve a unity of presentation and gameplay construction as to be really good art. And given how far the circle of "art" has widened in the past century and a half, only the most blinkered kind of fool would claim otherwise.

But please, please, stop trying to convince people that games are like the grown-up little brother of cinema (or, even more nonsensically, of literature). They're not. I mean, really.


p.s. I have deliberately elided all mention of multiplayer games, which deserve a whole other analysis. To what extent can collective experiences be art? The Fluxus movement's answer: plenty. Presumably computer-mediated participatory group activities can in theory be art as well. My major uncertainty is that I don't think I've ever played a multiplayer game that I'd describe as a "seamless aesthetic experience". One thing's for sure: listening to a thirteen-year-old bitching into his headset mic does not qualify.


* People familiar with the world of academic game criticism may recognize the distinction I draw as one of "narratological" versus "ludological" game appreciation, with the position I take being roughly ludological. I don't entirely buy into this distinction, mostly because I find "narratological" to be a terrible misnomer. The visual or aural properties of a game are sensory; they are not necessarily narrative.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Stop X11 from launching xterm (Mac annoyance Saturday)

In short, type the following at a command prompt:

defaults write org.x.X11 app_to_run /usr/bin/true

Wow, it's so intuitive! Mac UI genius scores again.

Via this macosxhints.com thread, although the recipe at the top is broken, at least in Leopard. The suggestion at the bottom of the thread is the winner.

(I'm going to start posting my Mac annoyances on Saturdays. From my experiences so far with Mac, I think my only problem will be limiting myself to one per week.)

Friday, June 20, 2008

No, fuck *you*, Barack Obama

Fuck you, Barack Obama. And fuck your staff with a rusty tent pole for throwing this out with the Friday trash so that it wouldn't get much news coverage.

Fuck you, Nancy Pelosi. Fuck you, Harry Reid.

I know you don't care about my vote, so perhaps this will make a bigger impact: you can say goodbye to the $2300 checks I was going to write for this election cycle. Of course, you probably don't care about that either, because you're going to get more and bigger checks from the telecom companies.

Fuck it all, the Republicans can burn down this country and piss on the ashes for all I care, because clearly you chickenshit assholes have nothing better to offer us.

As is often the case, Mark Pilgrim has the most astute reaction.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Random notes on four version control systems

From 1996 to 2002, CVS was the only version control system I used. For that matter, it was almost the only system that anybody used, at least in the Unix world. (Well, a few nutty holdouts still used raw RCS...) In odd corners of the Internet, there were rumblings about other systems, but none of them had much mindshare or seemed worth the switching costs.

But somehow, over past five years, the version control universe seems to have opened up dramatically. CVS's competitors got more mature, and projects actually switched to them: Linux went to BitKeeper and git, KDE went to Subversion, etc. I'd occasionally use these systems to checkout and build source code, but I still didn't use them for actual development. Then, in 2006, I got a real job, where we use Perforce with some local wrapper scripts. More recently, I converted some of my personal codebases to Subversion and git, and started using them for real. So over the past two years, I've learned more about version control systems than I did in the previous eight.

Conclusions:

  • There's no reason for anyone, anywhere, to use CVS for new projects. Subversion is stable; it has a strict superset of CVS's abilities; it requires almost no change in your mindset if you're coming from CVS; it runs on every platform that you're likely to have on your workstation or laptop; you can get hosting from a wide variety of providers; and its frontends are roughly as good as CVS frontends. (I use KDE, and kdesvn is only slightly less polished than Cervisia.)
  • CVS to SVN import is pretty good, but not perfect. It will introduce some spurious entries into revision logs, for reasons that I find obscure, and CVS tags won't be seamless.
  • Perforce is a very nice version control system, and has done a lot to change my mind about using proprietary software development infrastructure tools. I particularly like Perforce's ability to prepare a "changelist" from a subset of files modified in your local copy, and perform actions at changelist granularity (e.g., mailing out the CL for review). My major annoyance going from Perforce to Subversion was the fact that svn commit submits all your modified files to the repository, unless you select a list of files manually; and you can't prepare that submission list in advance. (BTW, gvn is probably going to fix a lot of these problems.)
  • The ability to do really lightweight local branches and commits in git is pretty awesome. git will probably be my weapon of choice for solo projects in the future.
  • git seems to have two sweet spots: (a) solo development, where you use it as a sort of glorified Filesystem of Forking Paths, and the unstructured nature of its repositories doesn't matter so much; and (b) hugely distributed development, like the Linux kernel, where speed matters a lot and tending a centralized repository might be intractable to manage anyway. The in-between space where most collaborative projects live --- where you want a medium-sized, canonical, gatekeeper-controlled central repository with a well-defined tip-of-trunk to which everybody syncs and submits --- seems better suited to Subversion or Perforce. (Yes, you can build that workflow style with git, but you have to do the intellectual labor of setting up that workflow, whereas with Subversion or Perforce the wheels come pre-greased.)

Lastly, I've seen some debates about the merits of fully distributed versioning systems like git vs. centralized systems like Subversion or Perforce. I find this analysis fairly insightful. Workflow matters more than your VCS. Think through your desired workflow, and then build a system that supports it; your VCS will be only one part of that workflow system.

At work, we have an automated process for auditing commits, and an awesome code review tool to support that process. After about a year and a half, I'm now addicted to that process. I would find it deeply disturbing to be building "solid" software (as opposed to personal hacks) in an environment where people can commit to the repository without code review. It also seems retrograde to have people perform code review by mailing around patchfiles and having developers eyeball them, or manually apply them to their local trees. And it's obviously not scalable to have a small pool of "committers" through whom all patches must be funneled.

Yet, as far as I can tell, most open source projects run this way: a carefully tended tree with a small number of dedicated committers, who eyeball and then commit patches from the wider community. Craziness.

My ideal repository workflow system would probably be two-tiered:

  • The central repository is where you keep the canonical tree. From the trunk of this tree, you build release binaries, run a centralized continuous build/test farm, etc. The repository is divided hierarchically into modules. All developers can commit directly to this tree; however, each committed patch must be code reviewed and approved in advance by an owner of the corresponding module.
  • Individual developers keep distributed repositories, which work like git. They can manage their own branches, commit at will, etc. When a developer's ready to submit a patch to the central repository, (s)he prepares a changelist in his/her local repository, then submits it as a patch to the central repository. The central repository keeps the patch, but doesn't permit it to be merged into to the trunk until it's reviewed and approved.

Today, you can build an approximation of the above with a Subversion + git workflow. You can buy Subversion hosting from any number of providers, and you can run git on your own workstation without getting anybody else's permission or hosting resources. I suppose the missing piece is the workflow support system, but I doubt the open source community will leave this void unfilled forever.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Soft word wrap for long lines (Wednesday Emacs blogging)

The short story: Use M-x longlines-mode.

The long story: longlines-mode is a minor mode that enables "soft wrap" for Emacs text. In longlines, lines will be displayed wrapped on word boundaries, as under most word processors (but not most text editors). This is useful for editing certain textual formats like HTML or wiki markup.

longlines comes bundled in FSF Emacs 22, but for earlier versions (or XEmacs) do the following:

  1. Get longlines.el, from the longlines Emacs Wiki page.
  2. Copy longlines.el somewhere on your load path. (To add a directory to your load path, add a line (add-to-list 'load-path "/path/to/directory/") to your .emacs)
  3. Add (require 'longlines) to your .emacs.

longlines-mode is a minor mode, and does not automatically hook itself into any major modes. You can hook longlines automatically in the standard fashion:

(add-hook 'html-mode-hook
          '(lambda () (longlines-mode)))

Alternatively, you can simply do M-x longlines-mode to toggle the minor mode manually, as I suggest above.

Once you get started with longlines, you'll probably want to customize its settings to taste. For example, by default the word wrap width won't automatically adjust to the window size. To see all relevant customizable settings, use M-x customize-group [enter] longlines [enter].

Incidentally, this feature is astonishingly obscure and late to arrive to Emacs, given that it's been a standard menu item in crippled brain-dead text editors like Windows Notepad for over a decade. Yet another example of how open source software development is not rationally optimized to serve the needs of the user.

Monday, May 19, 2008

SML hacking tip: installing on Ubuntu x86_64 by manual transfer from i386

Note: Narrowly targeted Google-food. Skip if you do not program in Standard ML.

Update 2010-05-05: As of Lucid, SML/NJ is now available on 64-bit. So you should probably just upgrade.

Ubuntu x86_64 does not have smlnj (the Standard ML of New Jersey (SML/NJ) distribution); nor does SML/NJ currently build out-of-the-box on Ubuntu x86_64. I elide here a long, dull story about trying to build it --- using 32-bit libraries, etc. --- and cut to the chase: ultimately, I installed it on a 32-bit Ubuntu box, and then manually transferred the files over.

In general, I almost never install software on my Linux box unless it's either (a) completely managed by my packaging system or (b) can be removed by simply rm -Rf /some/directory. Fortunately, SML/NJ more or less satisfies (b).

Assuming you have both a 32-bit Ubuntu install and a 64-bit Ubuntu install available, the transfer process is straightforward. The only trickiness is that there's no simple way to get all SML/NJ packages and libraries at once, so you'll have to apt-get several times if you want a "batteries included" installation.

Steps (unless otherwise noted, perform all these commands on your 32-bit machine):

  • sudo apt-get install smlnj
  • Optionally, do apt-cache search smlnj and install as many of the resulting lib*-smlnj libraries as you want.
  • Optionally, install the following extra packages:
    • ml-lpt ("language processing tools"; includes ml-ulex and ml-antlr)
    • ml-yacc (ML-Yacc)
    These are particularly of interest because probably 90% of ML programmers are also programming language hackers of one stripe or another. (Note that, annoyingly, these packages do not have smlnj as a substring of the package name. And, of course, apt-cache search ml yields a huge fusillade of results because "ml" is a common substring. Couldn't they at least use sml-* or better yet standard-ml-*? Blech.)
  • cd /usr/lib
  • tar -czvf smlnj.tar.gz smlnj
  • Copy the tarball smlnj.tar.gz to your target machine of choice and untar it under /usr/lib
  • pushd /usr/bin && tar -czvf ~/smlnj-scripts.tar.gz `dpkg -L smlnj smlnj-runtime ml-lpt ml-yacc |cut -b 10-` && popd
  • Copy the tarball smlnj-scripts.tar.gz to your target machine, and untar it under a binary directory on your PATH. (I have $HOME/bin in my PATH for user-local executables, so I put it there.)

As far as I can tell, everything works.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

SML hacking tip: fix uncaught exception BadAnchor

Note: Narrowly targeted Google-food. Skip if you do not program in Standard ML.

If you use the Standard ML of New Jersey (smlnj) compilation manager (CM), then you will sometimes get error messages like this:

[bad plugin name: anchor $y-ext.cm not defined]

uncaught exception BadAnchor
  raised at: ../cm/paths/srcpath.sml:436.16-436.25
             ../cm/util/safeio.sml:41.55
             ../cm/util/safeio.sml:41.55
             ../cm/util/safeio.sml:41.55
             ../cm/parse/parse.sml:502.47
/usr/lib/smlnj/bin/sml: Fatal error -- Uncaught exception BadAnchor with 0
 raised at ../cm/paths/srcpath.sml:436.16-436.25

make: *** [default] Error 1

This is CM's way of telling you that it encountered a line in your *.cm that has an extension that it does not understand. In this case, it's a file with a .y extension.

The fix is to correct the file extension (if it was a typo), or perhaps to update to a version of CM that understands the file extension you're using.

In my case, I had been hacking with an ages-old version of SML/NJ, and recently updated to the version in Ubuntu 8.04 (a.k.a. Hardy). Apparently non-ancient versions of SML/NJ expect ML-Yacc files to be named with the extension .grm instead of .y. I renamed my Yacc file, updated sources.cm, and all was well.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

+1 for dnsmasq

If you use Ubuntu, and you spend too much time staring at "Looking up www.something.com..." in your browser's status bar, this hack is really worth the 5 minutes.

Actually, the above writeup is out of date (although it contains some additional details if you care to understand what's going on). On Ubuntu 7.10, it's even simpler:

  1. sudo apt-get install dnsmasq
  2. Uncomment the following line in /etc/dhcp3/dhclient.conf:
    prepend domain-name-servers 127.0.0.1;
  3. Restart your network connection. (I do this using the KDE system tray icon; ifconfig works too.)
  4. If cat /etc/resolv.conf turns up a line containing nameserver 127.0.0.1, you're done.

Background: I have Comcast, and its DNS servers are completely terrible. They can take minutes --- minutes! --- to respond to a lookup query for a pretty popular hostname like www.blogger.com. Equally often, hostname lookups fail entirely. I don't know what Comcast's doing wrong --- running DNS servers is, in Internet terms, an ancient problem --- but anyway, it's really frustrating. I am strongly considering switching to DSL, but that will probably take weeks for me to finish researching and setting up, because I don't have a land line (ugh).

In the meantime, dnsmasq caches DNS lookups on my local machine, making subsequent lookups to a given hostname after the first one almost instantaneous and perfectly reliable. This doesn't really fix the underlying problem in Comcast's DNS servers, but it does mitigate the pain I experience because of it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Enhanced Interrogation" approved in detail at the highest levels

If you're reading this, you're probably not someone who tends to give this Presidential administration the benefit of the doubt; but just in case you are, watch this Daily Show segment discussing the recent ABC news revelations on how our leaders were intimately involved in the details of planning torture sessions.

Look at the expression on Rice's face when she answers the reporter's question at the end, and ask yourself whether you can call this thing that speaks a human being, rather than some lower order of fleshy automaton.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Slackenerny: gainfully employed

For me, the hilarious thing about this is that somehow I didn't see it coming, and yet it seems so obvious in retrospect.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Jim Henley: War Is Bad.

While I'm doing Saturday quickies, CT points to this golden post by Jim Henley on why he got the Iraq war right. The entire post delivers a high laugh-to-paragraph ratio & is therefore worth reading, but I will spoil the ending for you by quoting the conclusion he arrives at:

. . . you didn’t have to be a libertarian to figure out that going to war with Iraq made even less sense than driving home to East Egg drunk off your ass and angry at your spouse. Any number of leftists and garden-variety liberals, and even a handful of conservatives, figured it out, each for different reasons. . . .

What all of us had in common is probably a simple recognition: War is a big deal. It isn’t normal. It’s not something to take up casually. Any war you can describe as “a war of choice” is a crime. War feeds on and feeds the negative passions. It is to be shunned where possible and regretted when not. Various hawks occasionally protested that “of course” they didn’t enjoy war, but they were almost always lying. Anyone who saw invading foreign lands and ruling other countries by force as extraordinary was forearmed against the lies and delusions of the time.

In short, War Is Bad. Its badness is, very rarely, the only alternative to something even worse, but you can get pretty far in life and in foreign policy by simply avoiding violent conflict, and especially avoiding initiating violent conflict. This rule of behavior is devastatingly simple, and therefore available to anyone with two brain cells to rub together, including e.g. the ubiquitous "Dirty Fucking Hippie" of left-blogger rhetoric; which, of course, means that it's intolerable to people whose self-image — and even professional survival — hinges on being more sophisticated than the unwashed rabble. But, ultimately, it's a good rule.

War Is Bad. Shout it from the rooftops, and one day you too may be as right as Jim Henley.

Hillary in 2012

So, allegedly, if you do the math and look at the polls, there is no way that Hillary can take the nomination with pledged delegates unless Obama has some unprecedented meltdown. There is, of course, a simple explanation for her present behavior: she believes that she can beat John McCain's re-election bid in 2012, but she does not believe that she can beat Obama's re-election bid.

While I'm at it, I'm pretty sure I picked the worst possible time to subscribe to Tim Lambert's Corrente feed. It's been nothing but anti-Obama seething for the past two months. Come on man, I can deal with the fact that you disagree with me, but write about something else for a change. I unsubscribed.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why I Do Not Trust The Economist

Today Crooked Timber points to various reasons not to trust The Economist. CT's been down this road before; see this 2006 post, which highlights an instance of The Economist's astonishing cluelessness about American politics:

This piece on the demise of Mark Warner’s and George Felix Allen’s respective president hopes is a case in point. Most of the article is pretty unexceptionable. The peculiar bit is this summation of the current state of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But whatever the reason, [Warner’s] retreat has created a vacuum. He had positioned himself as the centrist alternative to Hillary Clinton, the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination and the darling of the party’s liberal activists. Southerners, Westerners and moderates are now shopping for a new candidate, perhaps Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico or Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana or former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the vice-presidential nominee in 2004.

So Hillary Clinton is apparently the "darling of the party’s liberal activists." ... [deletia] ... Equally bizarre is the suggestion that centrists might want to gravitate towards John Edwards. This could just be the result of sloppy thinking that telescopes “Southerners, Westerners and moderates” into a unified category, but to the extent that Edwards might appeal to Southerners and Westerners, it’s not because he’s a moderate. It’s because he’s running the most economically populist campaign that a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination has run in recent history. These claims don’t seem biased to me so much as clueless.

Now, if this magazine, whose primary readership is the educated upper middle class in the US and UK, cannot understand basic facts about politics in the US — an English-speaking nation with an open, internationally distributed press, and where 47% of its readers live (cite) — how can you believe anything they say about, say, Kyrgyzstan or Qatar or China?

Brad DeLong rounds up some reactions to the above CT post. A few months earlier, of course, he had called new Economist editor John Micklethwait possibly the stupidest magazine editor alive.

Then there's this James Fallows piece in The Atlantic from 1991.

So basically The Economist is unreliable. It is frequently both biased and clueless, and if you read it, then it is very hard to tell when they are being one or the other or neither or both. (Note that merely biased, but not clueless, would be far better, because then you might be able to mentally correct for that bias.)

When a publication reaches a certain threshold of unreliability, reading it becomes less like improving your image of the world than like adding white noise to the image. Individual points may be perturbed closer to reality, but overall you'll just end up with a fuzzier image. Has The Economist has passed that threshold? I honestly don't know enough to say for certain, but given how annoying I find its tone and its politics, I'm not terribly motivated to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

On banning prostitution (of a particular sort)

So, this Spitzer thing. Much commentary from male writers on the broader issue of prostitution and the merits of legalizing it; you may fruitfully begin your traversal with Ezra Klein or T. Cowen or even A. Tabarrok (whom I usually find odious).

My comment is simple and not at all original. There are many different ways of exchanging money for intimacy — physical or otherwise — that are not only legal, but mostly socially accepted, as long as one does them discreetly.1 Here are some of them:

  • It is legal to pay someone to go out on a date with you, and even be physically intimate with you (hugs, kisses, cuddling, etc.), as long as there is no explicit quid pro quo w.r.t. genital contact.
  • It is legal to pay someone to give you a sensual massage, as long as the massage does not involve direct prolonged genital contact.
  • It is legal to pay someone someone to strap you to a bench and strike you with a whip for your sexual satisfaction.
  • It is legal to pay someone to take off their clothes and dance in front of you for your sexual satisfaction.
  • It is legal to pay someone to perform arbitrary sex acts on camera with you, and then either sell or give away the video.
  • It is legal to have sex with someone who would not be having sex with you if you did not buy them many gifts and support their lavish lifestyle. (Fun personal note: I have a (female) friend who knows a girl who once said, quite frankly, "I am not going to sleep with a man until he has spent at least a thousand dollars on me." See also this Valleywag post. See also all four characters on Sex and the City, none of whom ever dated a $25k-annual-salary social worker as far as I know.)

The upshot is that everything is permitted, except the straightforward transaction of exchanging a modest sum of money for someone else to privately give you an orgasm by applying friction in the genital area. If you're sufficiently rich, or if your particular sexual kink does not require penetration, or if you like to have sex on camera, prostitution is legal for you. Laws against "prostitution" — which is to say, one very narrow subgenre of sexual commerce — are a hypocritical, hairsplitting exercise in moral hysteria and a massive waste of law enforcement resources.

Finally, I want to point out one more thing. The argument that (one narrow flavor of) prostitution should be illegal because it's closely linked to organized crime and human trafficking is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Prostitution" is undoubtedly tied to organized crime in part because society frowns upon it so much that respectable businesses don't want to be involved in it. Organized crime is fundamentally inefficient, due to unprotected property rights, unenforceable contracts, illiquidity of capital, and all the other standard problems that come with operating a business without the protection of a well-run modern government. If a business like McDonald's or Starbucks ran brothels, they would drive organized crime out of the market pronto. People like Nicholas Kristof heap opprobrium on "prostitution" and then bemoan the inevitable results, namely that women and girls get exploited by criminals.

This is roughly equivalent to the scam whereby Republicans get elected and trash the government every couple of decades, and then point to their own incompetence as proof of their ideology that government doesn't work. It is like pissing on the rug, and then complaining that the rug stinks of piss.2


1 Bonus link: The Purchase of Intimacy, by Princeton sociology professor Viviana A. Zelizer, has been on my to-read list for a long time. Perhaps I will finally order it.

2 In fact, I hereby coin a new term for this fallacy of reasoning, akin to "poisoning the well" or "begging the question": "pissing the rug". To piss the rug is to endorse a course of action which leads to a bad outcome, and then blame those who disagree with you for the bad outcome. The grandest example of pissing the rug in recent times is, of course, the Iraq War apologetic wherein liberal war opponents are blamed for the bad consequences that would follow withdrawal. Oh, wait — Kristof did that too. Maybe we should just call it the Kristof Maneuver.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The story of "fractal wrongness"

Once upon a time, there was this annoying, pretentious, insufferable, know-it-all egotist who got really angry about arguments people had on the Internet. Sometimes, he would get involved in those arguments, and he observed that they basically never changed anybody's mind. This was frustrating. Why couldn't people see the plain truth, viz., that they were wrong, and he was right?

One day he read a Neal Stephenson novel called Cryptonomicon, wherein there appears the following passage (p. 61 of the 1st hardcover edition):

[Randy] had now, he realized, blundered into some serious domestic weirdness involving Andrew's family. It turned out that Andrew's parents were divorced and, long ago, had fought savagely over custody of him, their only child. Mom had turned into a hippie and joined a religious cult in Oregon and taken Andrew with her. It was rumored that this cult engaged in sexual abuse of children. Dad had hired private dicks to kidnap Andrew and then showered him with material possessions to demonstrate his superior love. There had followed an interminable legal battle in which Dad had hired some rather fringey psychotherapists to hypnotize Andrew and get him to dredge up repressed memories of unspeakable and improbable horrors.

This was just the executive summary of a weird life that Randy only learned about in bits and pieces as the years went on. Later, he was to decide that Andrew's life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.

This turn of phrase bounced around his skull for about a year, whereupon a number of bits were flipped and the spelling transmogrified into a slightly different phrase. This altered phrase happened to resonate in particular with certain strains of the guy's character, and he was compelled to make up a definition for it:

fractal wrongness

The state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. That is, from a distance, a fractally wrong person's worldview is incorrect; and furthermore, if you zoom in on any small part of that person's worldview, that part is just as wrong as the whole worldview.

Debating with a person who is fractally wrong leads to infinite regress, as every refutation you make of that person's opinions will lead to a rejoinder, full of half-truths, leaps of logic, and outright lies, that requires just as much refutation to debunk as the first one. It is as impossible to convince a fractally wrong person of anything as it is to walk around the edge of the Mandelbrot set in finite time.

If you ever get embroiled in a discussion with a fractally wrong person on the Internet--in mailing lists, newsgroups, or website forums--your best bet is to say your piece once and ignore any replies, thus saving yourself time.

For years, this phrase lay dormant, propagated very occasionally to other fora by random visitors who had come across his site looking for something else. But on the Internet, an excuse to dismiss people who disagree with you as morons cannot go ignored for long. There are simply too many uses for such a device. And lo, the word spread.

There is some merit to the idea. There really do exist arguments that do not make observable progress no matter how long they run. There really do exist people so stupid or clueless or fundamentally broken in the head that one can point out an obvious faulty syllogism, and be greeted with nothing more than another ten faulty syllogisms in reply.

But at the same time, it's incredibly dangerous to have this phrase in your mental vocabulary. How can you be so certain that you aren't simply misunderstanding the argument? How can you be so certain that you are right and they are wrong, especially given the practically endless human capacity for thickheadedness and confirmation bias? It's nearly impossible. Giving people on the Internet a reason to dismiss the arguments of their opponents is like giving free lifetime supplies of Nyquil to a bunch of narcoleptics. Truthfully, if the aforementioned egotist had an ounce of sense, he would have hesitated before releasing this term into the wild.

And yet, I have to admit, the advice to "say your piece once and ignore any replies" is probably a fine strategy in most cases for arguing on the Internet. And then, too, the rare person who habitually errs on the side of being too charitable to his/her opponents may benefit from cultivating the ability to recognize fractal wrongness.

So maybe it's not all bad — that is, the phrase is not itself fractally wrong, but is more like a rather dangerously pointy tool of standard Euclidean dimensionality, demanding careful handling but well-suited for some uses.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Surprisingly, Definitely, Maybe is not bad

This past Friday I was, er, persuaded to see Definitely, Maybe. I won't endorse it as a good movie but I will say that it significantly exceeded my expectations. Maybe that says more about my expectations than about the movie, but I'll go out on a limb here and say it's not bad. ("I've had this thing as a 'triple sell', and I am upgrading it right here, right now. I think this thing could even go as high as a — 'don't buy'!") If you are in a social situation where you must see one of several recent chick flicks, this is the one to see.

One nice touch was the careful attention to both local color and period detail. The movie is set in New York City in the 1990s, and to me it captured something authentic about that time and place, although in retrospect I find it hard to say exactly what. Call it the accumulation of small details, tugging at long-dormant memories, a barbed net trawling through dark waters teeming with silent fish.

Or maybe I've just been gulled by nostalgia. Whatever. I liked it.

There are some other virtues as well. First, the characters are well-written, well-cast, and well-acted, and therefore the romantic chemistry both works when it needs to, and goes wrong when called for. Second, the plot is, for the romantic comedy genre, atypically unpredictable and grounded. Third, there are some genuine laughs to be had.

Finally, in such a thoroughly Hollywood movie, it's a pleasant surprise to see character arcs where relationship to work appears as more than a shallow gesture or plot device. The lead character Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) moves to New York to work on Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign, and later becomes a political consultant. The evolution of Will's relationship to his career in politics is deftly threaded through the movie and (again, going out on a bit of a limb here) deepens his character in a way that romantic comedies usually do not even bother to attempt. Likewise, two out of the three female leads make career decisions, at different points in the movie, that mark a significant revelation or development w.r.t. their characters.

Romantic comedies typically use career and dedication thereof as window dressing. The only struggle that matters is the struggle to couple. Where career appears, it's usually an inverse MacGuffin: a meaningless object that only matters insofar as it obstructs romantic progress in the second act.

But most people spend at least a third of their adult lives working; the choice of how to spend one's time, energy, and talent is one of the most important life choices one makes. And in one's twenties and early thirties (the typical age of romantic comedy protagonists), one's relationship to work looms particularly large. Work reflects one's ideals and values. In life, work and character are deeply intertwined. I don't want to overstate Definitely, Maybe's case here, because it's not wholly successful, but the fact that it attempts to weave career and character together, with some limited success, seems to me a point in its favor.

Now for the bad. Major weaknesses of the movie include (a) far too much screen time spent on the cloyingly sentimental father/daughter storytelling framing device; (b) far too little development of the Emily character (Elizabeth Banks); (c) the lead never seems quite as devastated by love gone wrong as is called for; and (d) the final scene succumbs to Hollywood's allergy to ambiguity and irresolution, and thereby disappoints when it could have been really good and true.

These are significant flaws, and ultimately this movie can't stand up to the really great modern romantic comedies like Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally. But, as I've said, it's not bad.

("We had it as a 'don't buy'. Let's bump it up to 'risky'!").

Friday, February 29, 2008

99% of all Craigslist RnR posts

You! Yes, you, [member of group that I do not belong to]! In [situation] you failed to read my mind and, instead of behaving exactly the way that I want you to behave, you decided to behave in some different way! Allow me to enumerate the ways that this makes you a failure as a human being:

[Long-winded attempt to be amusing.]

(Optional:) Actually, come to think of it, there may be a reason you behaved the way that you did, instead of the way that I want you to behave! For example, [reason]. But that reason is a bad one, because it leads to an outcome that I dislike, and I am the center of the universe!

I am just trying to help here! Come on, [member of group that I do not belong to]! In the future, please be better at reading my mind and conforming to my desires!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My experience with Passage

My feedreader this morning leads me via Terra Nova to Passage, an arty indie game whose (warning: spoilers) creator's statement shows a thoughtfulness and purpose that's rare in game design.

So, I downloaded the Linux tarball, unpacked and built it (and its shared library dependencies; some sudo apt-get install required), and started it up. Whereupon I was greeted by, er, something other than the life I was promised:

In short, there was no maze to the south, and there was no path by which I could avoid acquiring a wife. Instead of a tradeoff between exploration and treasure, or between a life of lonely freedom versus married bliss/grief, I was given a single, unbroken line of treasure. Evidently Passage's message for me was that I would inevitably live a long, repetitive life where female companionship and riches would be lavished upon me without my ever having to make hard choices or challenge myself. In short, I would be an investment banker.

Epic fail, as the kids say. Some trivial bug — maybe the random number generator, maybe the maze generation algorithm — squashed this game's designs on greatness (ADDENDUM 2008-02-24 10:45 p.m.: ...on my platform, of course).

I suppose, however, that even the buggy game has a message, and one that could even be appropriate depending on the audience. Truthfully, all things considered, my life has been pretty easy. It seems all too plausible that I could just continue muddling through as I have been and end up in the silent water.

Monday, February 04, 2008

I will vote for Obama tomorrow.

Warning: Upcoming exercise in rambling self-justification that tells you almost nothing you don't already know, and comes far too late to make any difference to anyone.

I was going to vote for John Edwards.

Early in the campaign, Edwards was the only one of the three major candidates who seemed to fundamentally understand that you cannot defeat toxic Republican policies except by opposing them forcefully and with conviction. You cannot defeat them by offering the public watered-down versions of Republican policies; you cannot defeat them by offering the public the sheer force of your charisma; you can only defeat them by fighting them until you win: by convincing the public that your opponents are wrong.

Edwards was also the only candidate who, I believed, was motivated by genuine outrage about the suffering of poor people in America. I'm not poor — in fact, I'm so socially insulated from poverty that nobody I know is genuinely poor (note that I don't count grad students who could get decent jobs if they chose) — but I know that the default setting of politics is to serve the well-to-do, and any counterweight in the other direction seemed like a welcome change.

But Edwards dropped out of the race last week. So I had a choice.

I had been strongly leaning one way for a long time; the direction will surprise nobody who knows me. Recently, however, I was almost dissuaded by Obama's very real badness on health care reform — consult Krugman and Ezra Klein for details.

But ultimately, for me, the candidates' differences in individual policy positions are overwhelmed by structural differences in their relationships to political power. Clinton is far more in thrall to existing power structures in Washington, both financial and rhetorical. Clinton not only understands how Washington works, as she boasts; on some basic level, she agrees with its basic premises. And therefore, in the year 2008, electing President Hillary Clinton would be a vast improvement over the status quo, but also a disappointment.

Last Thursday, I ducked out of work to see Lawrence Lessig speak at Stanford. The talk was billed as his final speech on Free Culture, but he spent the last quarter hour speaking about his new focus: the corrupting influence of money on politics, via lobbyists, PACs, etc. When policy chases the median dollar instead of the median human life, human happiness is not the optimized variable. To make public policy work for human beings, therefore, one must actively fight against money's influence.

Lessig argued, furthermore, that unless a significant bloc of voters makes this issue non-negotiable — he said it must be a "litmus test" — then change will never occur. (Note that he carefully avoided stating the converse proposition that change will occur if voters do make it a litmus test. Lessig is an idealist, but he is not an optimist.)

Clinton's campaign has been, to a large degree, powered by the influx of lobbyist and PAC money. No surprise, therefore, that Lessig endorsed Obama early; he has a new video up tonight reiterating his support (in his widely-imitated and wildly effective slideshow style, about which more later).

Anyway, I'm no more optimistic than Lessig about the possibility of pruning the influence of money from politics, but it seems like it's worth a shot. We'll never weed the money out completely, but Lessig made it seem tantalizingly possible that we could dramatically reduce its influence in the foreseeable future.

Lessig alone didn't sway my vote, but I walked out of that lecture confirmed in my conviction that the structural differences between Obama's campaign and Clinton's were reason enough to overcome my feelings about particular issues, even those as important as health care.

With luck, therefore, for once in who knows how many election cycles, California will play a meaningful role in choosing the next President of the United States. And with luck, it will be Obama.

p.s. Incidentally, one of the most interesting moments in Lessig's talk came afterwards, when someone asked him about running for Congress — a question perhaps prompted by rumors floating around the Bay Area. Lessig's answer (approx.): "This was supposed to be the last Free Culture talk, not the first running for Congress talk." I don't hear a denial there. Note also that Lessig's famed slideshow style has evolved from the grunge P22 Typewriter-on-black he used in the Free Culture days, to a more refined serif font on a slate-gray background, which looks (to my eye) more "Washingtonian" somehow.