25 May, 2006


About 64 million people voted in last night's "American Idol" final thingy-dingy.* Probably a certain percentage of these were people who voted more than once, but we should assume that this sort of thing is limited; people only have access to so many phones, after all. This is well below turnout in the last Presidential election, 122 million, especially when you consider that the voting-eligible population is much larger, and it's much easier to vote by phone than it is to show up to a polling station. It's also just slightly behind turnout in midterm elections, which in 2002 was 80 million. So we need not worry; while it's clear that Americans will turn out en masse to participate in utterly meaningless elections, slightly more Americans will turn out to participate in slightly less meaningless elections.

* I did not vote - I was watching the season finale of Lost, which is much more important.

At least a few votes must have been cast by cats who accidentally trod on the telephone keypad. If you do not believe this is possible, ask me sometime about the incident in which my cat deleted the contents of my hard drive.

23 May, 2006

Radios play this remix

The latest bin Laden tape (transcript here) is excellent reading. The official U.S. response was that he is merely trying to demonstrate his awareness of current events, a statement which insults all of us. I've never been one to write bin Laden off as a frothing madman - a murderous fiend he may be, but one can't dismiss his words as mere provocation. He is the representative (and, I might add, a fairly cogent one) of a philosophy that still has considerable currency. There's lots of talk about how bin Laden has failed - both the Sudanese government and HAMAS repudiated his messages on their behalf in April of this year. But there's still plenty of mujahideen in the world, and we ought to assume that, even if he doesn't speak for them, he speaks like them. I don't see how it serves us (Americans) to pretend that their ideas don't exist, or are no more meaningful than baboon screechings. Then again, our strategy seems to be pretty single-minded: "Keep firing, assholes!"

I canceled my subscription to 'People'

Today I happened to discover (while wasting time following a chain-of-links from BoingBoing) that the dude Mike Doughty has a blog. I suppose I should be well past the point where I'm surprised by the fact that famous people have blogs, but for some reason I'm still not. At any rate, it prompted a lazy half-thought on celebrity, which I piss out here for you to nonchalantly ignore.

That (celebrity) is one of the more disgusting commodities that's produced and marketed these days. It's a pretty addictive and powerful substance, and as an industry its influence on our culture is probably unmatched. It elevates, and even celebrates, the lives of frivolous and almost entirely unimportant people, to the point where they attain almost demi-godlike status. The occasional glimpses we, mere mortals, are given into their Valhalla are wonderfully soporific in their effect. Ah, gods DO exist, and we may even worship them in our own rudely-constructed shrines, assembled out of clippings from Cosmo and GQ. And humans, of course, draw inspiration, form aspirations, on the basis of what they worship. We all wish to become our own gods, whether they are terrible or beautiful, just or jealous, etc. In this case our demigods lead us not towards noble virtues celebrated by our cultural antecedents (say, the love of wisdom shown by Socrates, or the humility of St. Francis), but towards things so utterly mundane that they barely even extend deep enough to touch skin. "I've got to look good in these hot pants," says the pre-pubescent girl, examining her butt in the mirror. "After the perfect pecs, next, the washboard abs," is the determination of the high-school junior.

This is thoroughly disgusting. It's also the product of a carefully maintained separation. The screen on which the spectacle plays is not always visible, but it's still there, once we walk out of the theater. It's still there on the bus, in our kitchen, in the air between us and our friends. And figures are drawn on that screen quite deliberately by calculating minds. This might represent a kind of artistry, if only the artifice weren't so carefully hidden away, if only it didn't dodge around our ability to separate the fantasy from the reality. Who, after all, is Tom Cruise? What we know about him is given to us by those interested only in piquing our apetite for more: they feed us what's most salacious, those salty bits that make us crave to be fed more. It need not even be true.

The celebrity blog seems like a rare hole in the screen. One can look through and catch a candid glimpse of the individual on the other side, without the addition of any artifice. No one has carefully applied any makeup to make Angelina's cheekbones higher or her lips look more lush. This is exciting, because we should have the ability to perceive the world (and the people in it) as they really are. Maybe there really ARE demigods out there, and if so, they'll shine through in any case. But false gods will crumble and fade once their masks are removed. Here's to that.
[Raises imaginary stein.]

CEI follow-up

Curt Davis, lead author of one of the studies advanced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in their pro-CO2 ad campaign I mentioned, is, not unexpectedly, upset about how his research is being misused.

20 May, 2006

Home security system

Lousy contractors try to plug drafts by feeling for them and plugging them with caulk and foam. Good contractors pressure-test a house to see whether running the HVAC will make the building suck (see #9). They then strategically plug holes in both the ducts and the house's "pressure boundary" (which isn't always the same as the house envelope) so that air pressure in the house remains close to that outdoors. Magic -- no more drafts.

Hibiscus, in comments, has speculated for hundreds of words about the whether Mexican truckers are bringing off-the-books migrants into the USA. I don't much care about the mechanism of travel -- by train, plane or surfboard, they come. Stopping Nafta trucks is like plugging holes with caulk. The only way to change migrations in the long term is to equalize the pressure inside and out of the borders.

A wonderful, if unfootnoted, essay on what motivates the Minuteman Project includes this paragraph:
The most significant cause of migration of Mexicans to the United States is not the "pull" factor, the lure of relatively well-paying jobs in this country. Far more significant is the "push" factor: the devastation of the Mexican economy that has made it nearly impossible for many Mexican families to secure their livelihood within the borders of their home country. The implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in effect since 1994, has been a main contributing factor to the devastation of the Mexican economy, and the collusion between big business and both the US and the Mexican governments in realizing NAFTA is undeniable.
Dude -- she said Nafta. Heh-heh. (That's an unfunny joke. See, Beavis and Butthead snort-laugh when people say one of the dirty words you can't say on television.)

But I thought Nafta was supposed to reduce migration! Would Warren Christopher lie to us?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: In the longer term, the problem of illegal immigration is importantly related to the success of the economy in Mexico. If they have a vibrant economy with good jobs in Mexico, it will remove one of the principal factors causing illegal immigration. It's not the only one, to be sure. The question of family ties, cultural ties, other things tend to draw Mexicans to the United States; but I think a major factor in reducing illegal immigration to the United States will be the improvement of the economy in Mexico. I think that NAFTA gives a great opportunity through the free trade, which will improve their economy as well as ours, to reduce the push factor.

I saw a piece in the Los Angeles Times this morning that estimated that there would be a dramatic reduction in illegal immigration to the United States, or immigration to the United States, after ten years' operation of NAFTA. I think that is the promise of NAFTA as far as reducing the push factor in illegal immigration.
Problem is, those push factors persist:
Prior to its entrance into NAFTA, and as a condition for entering into the terms of the free trade pact, the Mexican government came under pressure to reform laws and even constitutional provisions that had supported key sectors of the Mexican economy, especially an agricultural sector that was bolstered by policies designed to meet the food needs of the domestic population. In the wake of these reforms, Mexican agriculture has been hit by a wave of privatizations, cutbacks in credit to small farmers, the removal of tariffs and price supports that had encouraged the production of staple crops, and the deterioration of the ejido sector, small farms whose land had been held collectively by communities. As a result, there has been a growing wave of campesinos who have lost access to the land that had provided for their subsistence, to wage-labor opportunities in the agricultural sector -- a sector that provided a full one-quarter of all employment as of 1990 -- or both.
Given my perspective, you can understand why I think borders are a waste of time and energy. Maybe I shouldn't have spent so long in the HVAC.

19 May, 2006

Everyone can stop worrying about that asteroid impact, I've found my umbrella!

Without CO2, we couldn't enjoy the miracle of dandelion puffs.
Hedgehog points me to a pair of commercials produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute*, which, incredibly, seeks to rehabilitate carbon dioxide emissions. "Carbon dioxide - they call it pollution. We call it life." I kid you not. Their selling point is that carbon dioxide isn't so bad because we breathe it out. Who doesn't like choking on their own waste gases?

The second of these commercials refers to some studies in Science that it suggests contradicts the recently publicized message that ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are shrinking, and that we therefore shouldn't worry about sea level rise (but should instead breathe in some of that wonderful carbon dioxide). The first of these studies was Johannessen, et al., "Recent Ice-Sheet Growth in the Interior of Greenland". The second was Davis, et al., "Snowfall-Driven Growth in East Antarctic Ice Sheet Mitigates Recent Sea-Level Rise". Both of these are from mid-2005. CEI might be correct to complain about the sensationalist nature of science reporting. I've griped about this in the past, and I've been annoyed in the past few days by the spate of bestiality-tinted stories about David Reich's paper about the speciation history of chimps and humans, with headlines like "Did early humans and chimps interbreed?". But it's just plain wrong to present these papers as a counter to the idea that ice sheets are shrinking.

First, these studies (both of which rely on European radio satellite (ERS) data), while perfectly reasonable, are focused on subsets of Greenland and Antarctica. The former concludes that on average between 1992 and 2003, the ice sheet in Greenland increased on average, based on their observation of an increase in high-altitude (1500m +) regions. However, more recent analysis has demonstrated that glacial flow is accelerating - rapidly - and that this increasing flow of ice has dominated in the past five years.

The latter study discusses increased snowfall deposits in East Antarctica, which amount to about -0.12 mm/year of sea level rise. If you'll recall from my last post on this subject, the West Antarctic ice sheet is decaying, producing a gain of about 0.4 mm/year of sea level rise. It's pretty well agreed that the latter is definitely the dominating effect. At any rate one should still be alarmed by the fact that you're getting increased snowfall in what was previously so cold it was the driest desert in the world.

These are not settled questions, by an means, of course. But one should at least find the very reasonable prospect of these observations being correct, and the concomittant catastrophe they imply, terribly frightening. Unless, that is, one happens to be a shill for the ostrich-like powers-that-be, desperately clinging to that source of power no matter what the consequences. We (the rest of the world), however, have no reason to consider ourselves beholden to fossil fuels. No reason to cling to the past, is there, "Competitive Enterprise" Institute?

* Yes, that is me biking in the rain in that second commercial.

I have it on good authority that next month the CEI is planning on releasing a series of commercials encouraging us to rethink our attitudes towards urine. "Isn't it about time YOU had a Golden Shower?"

16 May, 2006

Not eccentric enough.

There's a lot of talk about "eccentric billionaires". In fact, "eccentric" is almost a standard modifier for the word "billionaire", so that one takes it for granted that if you're a billionaire, you must, indeed, be eccentric. I think this is rubbish, however. Billionaires are boring!

The last truly eccentric billionaire we had was Howard Hughes, who was not so much "eccentric" as "completely insane". These days there are, according to Forbes, 793 billionaires, worth a total of $2.6 trillion. This is a lot of money, you'll note. What are we getting in return? Bupkis!

In ages past, egocentric eccentrics used their vast coffers to build ridiculous monuments to themselves which have served as some of the finest examples of architecture and sculpture in human history. And, after their deaths, they were frequently appropriated for the public good. Royalty is probably the prime example of this (e.g. the Louvre, Versailles, Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal, the Forbidden City, the Great Pyramid).

But our modern billionaires have given us nothing. Gormless glass buildings we can work in, maybe. Mansions for themselves off where we can't find them (not built to last, of course). Not a one has used their wealth to enrich the lives of their fellow citizens in some absurd, fabulous way. Who is paving the sidewalks with marble? Building kites the size of a house and flying them over the city harbor? Hiring an acting troop to dress up as gnomes and skulk around in alleys? Why isn't there a giant glass fish half-buried in the middle of the Charles River? Et cetera.

Boring, I tell you.

I give her a week

Tonight, Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who did more than her share to stir up the Iraq war, emerged from Upper East Side seclusion to tap out a lengthy story for a medium that fits her proclivities: the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

It surprised me. First, it had assertion after paragraph of information that lacked direct attribution. "Reportedly" is a word that some editors forbid.

Second, she didn't spend any ink defending herself.

Third, she suggested that neocons would have "sabotaged" diplomatic efforts to stop Libya's nuclear program. What happened to BFF? Or is she just publicly distancing herself from them?

And finally, the story. It explains for the first time how the U.S. convinced Libya's leaders to give up their nuclear bomb program.

It touches only briefly on current events, mentioning that the former head of the CIA's covert side, who is now up for reappointment to the agency, was a hero in the Libya situation. (These lines reek of payback to me -- I would bet an Iraqi dinar that the dude was a source of hers, if not an employer, at some point) and doesn't once mention Iran. If anything, the story is a nice little allegory, pointing out that even the Bush administration can deal more or less wisely with pretty hard-core despots and prevail over their nuclear programs. The differences between their treatment of Libya and of Iran is pretty stark.

That said, I can't see her staying out of current events. She'll be out soon enough with some big story about Iran's valiant resistance, or about some new atrocity there, or about the time she was in Iran and someone did something really horrible to her. It will likely be true, though we have no guarantees. The only guarantee is it will make her look smart and worldly (she's both) and also like an innocent observer (she's not). I give her a week.

12 May, 2006

One verbose thought on what is to be done

For the past eight months, since spending time in Washington DC, I have become increasingly aware that the $2-trillion U.S. government is an empty shell. For all the machinery and manpower its money buys, few of the machines work and few of the workers support its mission -- if they can even identify it. There's a reason why do-it-yourself culture routinely outperforms bureaucratic culture, from Firefox vs. Explorer to blogs vs. NY Times to terrorists vs. armies.

So I say it's time for more DIY government. What do we need from a government? Physical protection (writ large to include everything from firehouses to clean water and child welfare), a conflict resolution system and a system of democratically selecting decisionmakers. I'm sure I'm forgetting something here but those are, to me, the crux of it. They can all be done better by grassroots than by our current tottering, incompetent systems up top.

Some of the most desperate needs are in child care, emergency preparedness, schooling and policing. All of these tasks could be better performed by democratically controlled grassroots groups than they are by the state. Just to take schooling as an example, a lot of rebellious types pull kids out of public school and either send them to private school or home school. If all these people got together and pitched in the same amount of money they currently throw at the problem, there might be a whole range of much more effective schools that would have room for even more kids.

For disaster preparedness, what if instead of disaster insurance, people all pitched in to prevent disasters?

For policing, many people are loath to call cops, either out of a "stop snitching" mentality or out of direct experience with the useless idiocy that passes for a criminal justice system. If there were an alternative number to call, one that would bring out conflict-resolvers who could overpower a violent person but wouldn't end up destroying that person's life out of spite, that number might get dialed fairly often. I think it would be particularly attractive for domestic violence street fights where the criminal prosecution system is particularly ill-suited to helping the various victims involved.

I think with the central government in the U.S. so widely hated (Bush's approval in the 20s as of this week, Congress' in the teens), it would seem a good time to start such systems locally. If they worked out, they could team up into confederations, federations, alliances, whatever, and take on ever-more-ambitious projects.

The ostensible reasons for a central government -- national defense and management of international trade -- are being so effectively mangled by our current government that it would be hard to have a less functional system, at least for regular schmucks who don't happen to own a maquiladora or some United Technologies shares on the side. Plus, in the modern world, defense is better accomplished through a combination of cooperation (in normal times) and non-cooperation (in war) than through any resort to violence. And trade? Again, a motivated and well organized citizenry will be a more formidable trading partner than any rank of bayonets.


09 May, 2006

Keeping it real

The Organic and Natural Food Association of the United Kingdom said th'other day it was "displeased" that the export of wooden gallows was to be prohibited while the export of radioactive waste, firearms and toxic rhetoric continues to be promoted by the Blair government.

They should try moving to a civilized country like Sweden, which exports semi-lethal projectiles composed entirely of sustainably harvested timber.

Happy Victory Day!

As some of you may know, this is the anniversary of the day Nazi Germany surrendered to the Red Army. V-E day, May 8, is the day celebrated (sort of) in the U.S., which was when people first learned that the Germans had surrendered unconditionally (which happened the previous day, May 7) and rushed pell-mell into the streets, kissing and such. But since the Russians are basically responsible for defeating the Nazis*, it's probably more appropriate to follow their lead and celebrate on May 9. My boss, who is Russian, tells me he might be on the phone for a good portion of the day, as this is still a major holiday there, and it is customary to call up veterans to wish them well.

* By which token we should consider the Normandy invasion in 1944 one of the first salvos in the Cold War.

08 May, 2006

03 May, 2006


In comments on Hedgehog's Mayday-related post there's a fair bit of grumbling about why we should take the demands of illegal immigrants seriously. I don't usually make moral arguments here; I tend to assume that I'm talking into my own hat anyway, so there's no real purpose. But in this case I think it's probably best to make such arguments explicit, for myself as well as for everyone else involved.

The crux of this debate was captured by my very own J3 (in, I believe, his inaugural comment on this blervgh), who makes the following, and in my opinion, false, statement:
Ultimately (most) countries make their laws to promote the interests of their citizens.
This apparently harmless sentence turns out to be a pronouncement of bottomless profundity. Because, indeed, how does one determine what constitutes the "interests of their citizens"?

At the very outset we must admit that there can be no coherent, unifying interest of the citizenry. Getting any two individuals to agree on a single thing is usually a lost project. And in a body as large as a country, there's no hope of reaching consensus on what that interest is. At best, we might satisfy a majority of the individuals, or perhaps satisfy the most sagacious, or the most vocal, or the most violent, or the most powerful. But interests, by and large, will collide. So, whose interest is it that we're speaking of?

Consider: from whence doth this notion of a 'country' proceed? While we're being honest with ourselves, we should admit that this is a more or less derelict notion, the product of nineteenth-century nationalism. Ostensibly countries are bound together by some common sense of identity or shared history. Most of the modern borders in the world were drawn by colonialists, though, with little regard for ethnicity. Countries were defined by the edge of a river or a ruled line on a map; no matter that it trisected a certain people into separate states or forced bitter rivals into the same one. Modern nations are either the remnants of old agglomerations of power - principalities and later nationalities - or their haphazard conqests.

And why should we allow a particular transient historical circumstance to ossify into a permanent entity? Human history has always included migration and change - Mongols replacing Huns replacing Goths replacing Celts. Some people may have had the delusion that the little they had seen in the brief span of their lives reflected the world as it always had been, that the immediate reality they perceived, of race, of language, of culture, represented something timeless. The modern perspective on history is considerably expanded from this myopic nineteenth-century vision.

Similarly for shared history, which by no means implies shared interest; for a relevant historical example we can look to the French Revolution.

At best, we might agree that nations serve as organizational conveniences. This particular set of people in this particular place is governed by this particular set of laws - not for any cogent reason that we can lay out. It's simply historical accident. There's no particular reason not to let it persist, so long as it hurts nothing.

Some people, however, have adopted the viewpoint that these arbitrary boundaries DO hurt. These people espouse the philosophy that they should be able to move where they like and do what they like more or less unconstrained by the idiosyncracies of local laws. And to the extent that it's possible they've made considerable effort to break down borders, going where they please and more or less eradicating the notion of independent nation-states governed by their own, separate laws. They wish to leave in its place a borderless world, an internationalized world. I think someone might even have coined a term to describe this...

You can probably tell where I'm going, here. But before you get your dander up and start puffing out your chest and squawking, take the idea seriously. Capitalists have, via globalization, made real efforts to eradicate borders for themselves. And in many ways, they've succeeded.

The relevant example in this instance would be the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was wildly unpopular in the U.S., opposed by the majority of people throughout the effort to pass it, despite the approval of talking heads and politicians. It was finally pushed through, wrapped in a generous helping of pork, even though a majority of Americans felt it was not in their "interests" to do so. However, it was in the interests of a particular subset of Americans, viz., the ruling class. And so we get maquiladoras below the border and American corn dumped into the Mexican market, impoverishment of campesinos and the enervation of the American manufacturing sector. None of this was at all in the "interest" of the millions of people it affected.

So it really behooves us not to continue considering borders to represent the edges of some sacred circle any more. Capital doesn't. The rest of us continue to do so at our peril.

I'm not suggesting that the interests of upper-middle-class people like ourselves are necessarily bound up with those of working-class people. We may, if we choose, continue sucking at the teat of capital, and likely we can grow very fat there, until such time as someone determines it's time we were bled, dressed, broiled with a nice lemon glaze and served for Christmas dinner. But argumentum ad bureaucratiam? That we've been standing in line the longest in this charade? That's not at all compelling.

History, culture, economics, mores, geography - all of these obviously matter, and who gets to partake of this bountiful bouquet is well worth debating. And we should each certainly consider our interests - along whatever axis we think those lie. But the borders themselves mean nothing.

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