30 November 2012

Moral intuition

Infamous Brad describes an argument over fundamental ethical principles.

My relative is firmly of the opinion that it is flatly never acceptable to place your own moral judgment above that of anybody in authority over you. Ever. Not only is it never acceptable, it's never moral. Not only is it never moral, it is never even legal, he insisted. Not only is it illegal, but it's a sign of a sick mind; only the most twisted and psychopathic and immoral of perverted reprobates says that their moral judgment is more reliable and more trustworthy than that of any authority figure over them. If someone in authority over you tells you that something is moral, then either that settles it, or you're the kind of criminal monster sicko that guys like my relative have sworn to protect society against. And when he got that across to me, I lost my temper even bigger than he had. I reminded him of the Fourth Nuremberg Principle, as I'd been taught it all the way back in first grade: “I was only following orders” is not a defense, it's an indictment.

I presume that you can guess where I stand on this one.

29 November 2012

Thomas Jefferson on intellectual property law

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody.

Zillionaires' feelings

I really ought to pick up Chrystia Freeland's book The Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else because everywhere I see her talking about it is terrific.

I first caught on to her through that New Yorker article that a lot of folks forwarded a little bit ago which centered on billionaire Leon Cooperman's long open letter to Obama. Then I saw a lively roundtable with Freeland, Matt Tiabbi, and Bill Moyers about plutocrats.

And now I'm thinking of her again because I just found her talking to Ezra Klein in the Washington Post and it's full of great stuff. It starts out with her saying interesting stuff about the election.

There’s a great joke on Wall Street which is that the bet on Romney is Wall Street’s worst bet since the bet on subprime. But I found the hostility towards Obama astonishing. I found the commitment to getting him out astonishing. I found the absolute confidence that it would work astonishing.

Then she goes on to talk about the mindset of the zillionaires.

First, they’re absolutely convinced that they’re not asking for special privileges for themselves. They’re convinced that it just so happens that their self-interest coincides perfectly with the collective interest. That’s where you get this idea of the “job creators”. The view is that to seek a low tax environment or less regulation, that’s not special pleading for yourself, it’s not transactional politics. It’s that this set of rules is the most conducive to economic growth for everybody. It will grow the pie. Now, it also happens to be an incredibly convenient way of thinking.

Then she goes on to examine the implications in detail. Great stuff.

28 November 2012

Comic serif

It's a real font, and the best solution I've yet found to the problem of making text in sketchy sketches look, well, sketchy while still legible. Honestly, I wish there were a bold and italic version available.

The Bear Jew

I think Inglorious Basterds is a demonstration of Tarantino's genius and relevance. It's a great film, period. There's a lot to be said about the picture and maybe someday I'll say it but at the moment I'm thinking about the scene which I think is the heart of the film: Eli “Hostel” Roth as Sgt. Donny Donnewitz, “The Bear Jew”, threatening the German captives with his baseball bat.

It's a powerful scene in part because it very deliberately plays with the relationship between the cinematic violence as a source of cathartic pleasure, cinematic violence as source of cathartic horror, and the enjoyment of cinematic violence as a politically troubling aspect of culture. The sequence very deliberately takes an audience back and forth between pleasure at let's beat up the Nazis and discomfort with the callous nihilism that implies. The scene is by turns scary, exciting, and disgusting, shifting tones more quickly and more often than I would have believed possible. Amazing enough that it takes us from horror, to excitement, to horror again ... but it actually brings us back to pleasure and excitement again repeatedly, dragging us back there from disgust, and then once more back to disgust, again and again. Tarantino manipulates the hell out of the audience with an unmistakable purpose. Watching it made me discomforted by my own reactions.

Which is the point.

Not for nothing does that scene end on a horrifying note. Is this what you want? Tarantino asks us. Because I will give it to you. The movie in the movie theatre at the end makes the indictment of the audience's complicity even more explicitly, but it's there throughout the film.

This gets an added frisson from knowing that Tarantino and Roth have both made careers of making films that appeal to our bloodthirstiness.


So we were talking about movies over lunch at work the other day.

I'd been talking about how Punch-Drunk Love makes explicit the strange rage and frustration which drives Adam Sandler's screen persona, and then a bit later was describing my theory about Basterds. Some wag suggested that Tarantino should have cast Sandler instead of Roth as Donnewitz ... but as we talked about it, we concluded that this wasn't just a silly idea, it would have worked.

Well guess what? In an interesting interview, Eli Roth let slip that this actually was the original plan.

27 November 2012

Sister Harridan

A friend recently pointed me at the kickstarter campaign for Saint Harridan, a project to start up a line of suits for dapper women.

Saint Harridan is of the community, for the community. We listen. We developed our designs using a focus group; we work with real-life models. Going forward we want to hear from you. Should our next item be a vest? A suit with a different cut? Casual dress pants? Sweaters? But, FIRST, we must hear from you that this is a good idea. If we don't meet our Kickstarter goal, we won’t have enough evidence that this business can work and we cannot produce the suits. We believe Saint Harridan’s time has come. If you agree, don’t wait. Pre-order your suit today!

I'm not in their demographic. (Okay, I'm a Dapper Q reader, but I'm a fella and I already have suits I'm happy with.) But admiring the project and being a sucker for a kickstarter, I threw them a couple of shekels and linked the project on Facebook, knowing I had friends who would be interested.

On Facebook Whiskeypants, a friend of a friend, objected.

I have a bone to pick with them. They aren't getting a cent from me.

  1. They claim that they want to make suits for all body types, but they really only wanted women who looked like men. It didn't even occur to them when looking for community models to measure breast size.
  2. They never admitted that they only had two suit patterns and lacked the capacity to make more. Those suit patterns only work for women who are shaped like men.
  3. They rejected more femme looking women because of some really fucked up views about what role femme women play socially, and because they didn't want press to focus on “pretty”.

So basically all they are doing is making suits that their models could already have found everywhere, while totally neglecting the people who really do need suits made for their body types.

I saw all of this firsthand. Also, my friends were involved in the model search.

Had they owned it from the beginning and just said, “we have limitations, this is what we can work with right now as the start for what we hope will be X thing”, I would have had much more respect for them. Instead, may I suggest you support Tomboy Tailors.

You can also, if you like, quote Mary Going from St. Harridan, who — in an email — said stuff like “Frankly, women have been portrayed as feminine. They have not been portrayed like we're portraying them. We didn't want that to get watered down.” —which not only completely destroys the spectrum between so-called “butch” and so-called “femme” women, it completely ignores the multitude of reasons that “femme” women might want to wear a suit. I know some very femme women who look amazing in drag, for example.

I don't want to stick my nose into a question I don't have a real stake in, but my nose is already interposed by virtue of having spread the link. Vexing.

So I offer this with the caveats I don't know either Whiskeypants or the Harridan folks, though I can report that Whiskeypants is the trusted friend of a stylish friend. On the other hand, a friend I know to have good judgement is acquainted with the Saint Harridan crew and reads the project more positively.

A conservative for Keynes

Apostate conservative Bruce Bartlett has a piece up on The American Conservative, Revenge of the Reality-Based Community, about how movement conservatism has become detached from facts. It's a good description of the phenomenon by an insider.

Make no mistake, Bartlett is a real conservative.

My first real job out of graduate school was working for Ron Paul the first time he was elected to Congress in a special election in 1976. (He lost that same year and came back two years later.) In those days, he was the only Tea Party-type Republican in Congress.

After Paul’s defeat, I went to work for Congressman Jack Kemp and helped draft the famous Kemp-Roth tax bill, which Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1981. I made important contributions to the development of supply-side economics and detailed my research in a 1981 book, Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

....

I went to work for the Heritage Foundation, but left in 1987 to join the White House staff.

....

Afterwards I worked for the Cato Institute and the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank based in Dallas. I wrote regularly for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review, and other conservative publications. For 12 years I wrote a syndicated column that ran in the Washington Times, Investor’s Business Daily, the New York Sun, and other conservative newspapers.

The article is interesting all around, but I'm blogging it because of a striking observation in the middle. Again, recall that this is from one of the architects of supply-side economics.

I thought I had two perfect examples that fit my model of the rise and fall of economic ideas: Keynesian economics and supply-side economics. I thought at first I knew enough about the former to say what I wanted to say, but eventually I found the research I had previously done to be wanting. It was based too much on what academics thought and not enough on how Keynesian ideas penetrated the policymaking community.

I hit upon the idea of ignoring the academic journals and looking instead at what economists like John Maynard Keynes, Irving Fisher, and others said in newspaper interviews and articles for popular publications. Recently computerized databases made such investigation far easier than it previously had been.

After careful research along these lines, I came to the annoying conclusion that Keynes had been 100 percent right in the 1930s. Previously, I had thought the opposite. But facts were facts and there was no denying my conclusion. It didn’t affect the argument in my book, which was only about the rise and fall of ideas. The fact that Keynesian ideas were correct as well as popular simply made my thesis stronger.

I finished the book just as the economy was collapsing in the fall of 2008. This created another intellectual crisis for me. Having just finished a careful study of the 1930s, it was immediately obvious to me that the economy was suffering from the very same problem, a lack of aggregate demand. We needed Keynesian policies again, which completely ruined my nice rise-and-fall thesis. Keynesian ideas had arisen from the intellectual grave.

....
For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman.

Emphasis mine.

26 November 2012

Addiction to computer games

Via Christina Wodtke I find Daniel Cook's article My Name is Daniel and I am a Genre Addict. Wodke gives us a provocative quote from it.

Let's be blunt. Games are drugs.

His point is that most computer games deliberately generate an addiction response, and he's right. When I was in the biz myself people routinely talked about addictiveness as a positive good and a sign of quality.

I would argue that a significant dose of game addictiveness is part of the cocktail that makes a good game good. Last year I went through a Plants vs. Zombies phase, and the addiction response to my progress at learning the skill of the game was part of it. But the addiction of PvZ isn't the only good thing about it; there's also the charm of the art, the pleasure of developing an understanding of the game, the progressive reveal of little puns and jokes, and more.

Plants vs Zombies isn't quite great art, but it's very good art. I notice that my niece loves it despite being too young to actually understand the game. She's not having an addiction response, she's just enjoying the animations and the sensual satisfaction of the interactivity. And I submit that computer games are a medium capable of great art, though the examples are precious few.

So I don't want computer games reduced to and defined by their addictiveness. That's at least a waste of the artistic potential of the medium and at worst a real social problem. That's why I object to games of the Zynga model, which are designed to be not fun but nothing more than addiction triggers, as Ian Bogost tried to show with Cow Clicker, his game satirizing Farmville. (Jason Tanz has a terrific long Wired article about Cow Clicker, and Bogost mocks “gamification” with a recent post about cow-clickification.)

Unhappily, the addition factor is arguably the main force shaping the computer game industry. Cook offers a really illuminating discussion of the business and artistic implications.

Reconstruction

Corey Robin has a terrific post at Crooked Timber about problems with Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, primarily the absence of Black characters with their own voices. Where is Fredrick Douglass?

Toward the end of the post, Robin brings up something else which I've never quite understood and brings it into focus.

It was not the constraints of history or genre, in other words, that produced this film; it was the blinkered vision of Steven Spielberg.

And, I’m sorry to say, the blinkered vision of [screenwriter] Tony Kushner. If you think my pre-Civil Rights claim above is unfair, consider this statement that Kushner gave to NPR, which Aaron also found and pointed out to me:

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.

I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a “tragic era”—and error—in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimized (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness. When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.

Yet here we have one of our most esteemed playwrights—a Marxist no less (and whose effort to reclaim an honorary degree from CUNY, which he had been denied, I steadfastly organized for)—essentially peddling the same tropes.

Whoa. I've heard echoes of the Dunning School reading of Reconstruction before, but didn't know much about it. In the comments, Robin follows up on a commenter who rises to Kushner's defense.

Here’s what you wrote:
I rather agree with Kushner: part of the outcome of the Civil War and Reconstruction was to produce a society of three castes with mutual hatred for one another: White Americans, Southerners, and Negroes. It was about the worst way one could have proceeded to get rid of slavery and reincorporate the South, short of killing all the Negro slaves (or all the Southerners). Kushner’s remarks, as quoted above, have nothing to do with Dunning and company’s romantic claptrap. Rehabilitating the Southerners and ex-slaves would have been very expensive and tedious; much more fun to exploit them in their weakness. The Klan and so forth were the natural result of wrecking the South and then leaving its people mostly to their own devices as long as they formed no political threat to the national ruling class of the day.
Starting with the last sentence: the Klan didn’t result from the North leaving the South to its own devices; it was the cause of the North leaving black southerners to their own devices. Reconstruction lasted 11 years, officially, and longer, unofficially. From the very beginning white supremacist terror groups formed (as early as 1865/66) in order to stop blacks from exercising their newfound political agency, which they did. Because of the costs that the Klan imposed upon the project of black equality, the white North eventually gave up. It was in fact an extremely expensive effort, and not all white northerners were behind it. But it was an effort that was made, and the white racist south made it all the more costly. The recriminations and hatred that resulted were not because a real Reconstruction wasn’t tried; it was because it wasn’t allowed to succeed. You want to bake that failure into the design but it really was the outcome in which white racism, especially though not exclusively in the South, must bear the lion’s share of responsibility. But that last sentence of yours is a real howler. That’s why I suggest you read the scholarship.

I wish I had known this.

And behold, it's another demonstration that one should reflexively doubt any reading of history that tries to salve the hurt feelings of the South.

Cory Robin also recommends Aaron Bady's article about Lincoln over at Jacobin.

25 November 2012

Beautiful web maps

A set of nifty maps on the web designed with a range of visual styles for a range of purposes. The watercolor style is particularly lovely.

Greek text

Greek text in Greek! Handy for interface mockups where you want to make clear that you're not showing sample text.

Update: Greek text also available in excited Latin, Riker, William Gibson, industry bullshit, hipster, Whedon, and postmodern, Back to the Future, online dating, plus a tool that will provide techobabble, marketing speak, and more. Plus a huge variety of other variations.

I will never need ordinary lorem ipsum again!

Update update: MeetTheIpsums.com is an even bigger collection of greek text solutions!

24 November 2012

Skyfall

The latest James Bond outing, Skyfall, delivers the goods.

The action is just right: gripping, entertaining, and cheerfully implausible without crossing the line into cartoonishness. It's also a great-looking movie with luscious photography, spectacular locations, and well-designed sets. Indeed, the production design is one of the quiet victories of the film, including star turns by a desk tchotchke, a couple of sexy dresses, some rack-mounted servers, and a car which got my audience's biggest round of applause. (So I'm a design nerd. I know it.) The story is smart enough, and the dialogue smarter still.

Best of all, it proves my rule that You Have To Get Good Actors For The Genre Stuff. Daniel Craig continues to impress with a mix of crafty line readings, physical acting, and cinegenic magnetism that completely sells the absurdity of James Bond and makes him feel as real as he could. The movie finally gives Judi Dench a lot to work with as M. Javier Bardem delivers a star turn as a deliciously creepy villain. The supporting cast is also terrific: Ralph Fiennes seeming to enjoy acting more than ever now that he's not absurdly handsome, Ben Whishaw's as a young computer geek Q managing not to read like the usual Hollywood geek minstrelsy, Naomie Harris as sly as she is lovely, and Albert Finney standing in for another actor (you'll know who) and doing so well with it that I wound up glad they couldn't get that other guy.

As usual, Lance Mannion has a thoughtful review/commentary that I recommend. He observes that the movie obviously comes from a great love not only of James Bond but of movies.

Mendes even stakes his claim that it’s as good a movie as or at least deserves to be judged alongside highly regarded films of very different sorts by alluding to or quoting directly from: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (of course), The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, The Thomas Crown Affair (Pierce Brosnan Edition), Silence of the Lambs, No Country for Old Men, Rear Window, Blade Runner, Straw Dogs (I think), and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The reference to Harry Potter I thought I caught might just have been my fevered imagination at work.

But there are probably others I’ll pick up on when I see it again.

Indeed. I'm surprised that he missed a big wink toward The Prisoner in there.

It's not pretending to be a great movie but it's a very good one. Joe Bob says check it out.

20 November 2012

Israel blogging

David Atkins at Hullabaloo describes the futility of blogging about the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

  1. Incoherent, hateful backlash.
  2. There are no good guys here.
  3. There's nothing we can do about it.

Certainly the Facebook discussion around my previous blog post bears this out.

18 November 2012

A deceptive map of the history of the Levant

So there's this image I have seen floating around Facebook the last few days because of the fighting in Gaza right now, trying to demonstrate why the Palestinians in Gaza have a legitimate beef with Israel.

I fear that this post will make me sound like a defender of Israel in the current crisis. I'm not. The Palestinians in Gaza do have a legitimate beef with Israel. I am mortified by the turn which Israel has taken in recent years, with this attack on Gaza as the exemplar of ruthless oppression of the Palestinian people.

But.

This map bothers me. I find that I cannot let it pass without comment. The map is not a lie, exactly, but perhaps worse than a lie it is bullshit, fact presented in a way designed to mislead and confuse.

This collapses a notoriously complex historical process into a simple measure of territory. By only showing the region which is now Israel it excludes history essential to understanding what happened. And most significantly, it has this green region labeled “Palestine”.

What does that label mean, exactly? If you don't know the history well — a category which includes most people — one would assume that there was once a nation-state of Palestine has progressively been displaced by Israel. And that's not what has happened.

To understand what did happen, it's useful to roll back the clock to about half a century before the first map in that series. What is now Israel was part of the vast Ottoman Empire. European Jews were looking at the development of the modern nation-state — a wrenching consolidation of power which produced such bloody conflicts as the Civil War in the US a generation earlier — and many came to the conclusion that Jewish ethnic survival required the creation of a Jewish nation-state. The proponents of this idea, that there should be a nation-state which serves as the homeland for Jews, called themselves “Zionists”. These Zionists debated where such a state could be founded. In the deserts of the Great Plains states in the US, as the Mormons had done? Somewhere in Europe? Where? Some Zionists bought land in or near the places of Biblical stories and early Jewish history, which was then part of the vast, decaying Ottoman Empire. Those communities would become the germ of what the first map calls “Jewish land”.

Between early Zionism and 1946, when the story of the maps begins, we have the two World Wars which focused Zionist energies on the land that would eventually become Israel.

The First World War shattered the Ottoman Empire, with the nations of Europe dividing it up between them; Britain controlled not just what is now Israel but also what is now Jordan, Israel's biggest neighbor to the East (plus of course much more).

At that point the Zionist Jews living under Britain's Palestinian Mandate had nationalist ambitions but the Arab Palestinians mostly did not; their political consciousness was mostly focused around local leadership. (That wasn't true of Arabs everywhere; a nationalist movement resulted in Egypt's political independence in 1922, for example.) The British Balfour Declaration at the end of the First World War expressed British interest in seeing part of this territory devoted to a Jewish homeland as the Zionists wanted.

Then in the wake of the Second World War the old European colonial empires around the world began disintegrate and the Nazi concentration camps gave credence to the Zionists' claims that a Jewish nation-state was necessary and justified. The UN discussed how the territory of British Palestinian Mandate would be converted to independent nation-states.

Looking at the map above you can see why some Israeli hard-liners say that there already is a two-state solution the conflict they face, apportioning both a Jewish Israel and an Arab Palestine; they say that the Arab Palestinian state is called Jordan.

There were great population migrations immediately following the founding of Israel: Jews throughout the Middle East moved to Israel, and Arabs in Israel moved elsewhere. Critics of Israel — like me — rightly remind us that Arabs leaving their homes in Israel often did so in the shadow of Israeli guns. At the same time, the converse was often no less true of Jews who moved to Israel fleeing oppression elsewhere in the Middle East.

The second panel shows us a 1947 map with a proposed Palestinian nation-state in green. But that state never actually existed, and was not regarded as legitimate by Arabs (Palestinian or otherwise). The following year, 1948, Israel faced an invasion by all of its neighbors, who sought to destroy the new nation. The places marked “Palestine” on that map would not know independence; most of the territory in the West Bank would become part of Jordan, the Gaza Strip would become part of Egypt, the rest part of Israel, without any nation-state of Palestine at all.

The ’50s and ’60s saw an endless series of border clashes. The third map shows the borders of Israel as they stood on the eve of June 1967, when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan (supported by troops from several other Arab countries and the PLO) would make their biggest attack on Israel. The brief war which followed ended with Israel having captured more territory than they held before the attack.

Israel would go on to return the big Sinai Peninsula to Egypt under the Camp David Accords in 1978, but retain the other occupied territories, including the Gaza strip.

I don't want to dismiss or diminish the injustices experienced by the Arab Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They have been under Israeli military occupation since 1967, with all of the application of force which that implies. Israel has created numerous settlements of Israeli citizens in the West Bank in the intervening years; in places there is now a third generation of Israeli Jews living on the West Bank in violation of international law. But I notice that we hear a great deal about the Palestinian people disenfranchised by the Israelis, but almost nothing about the Palestinians disenfranchised by the Egyptians and Jordanians.

When the Oslo Accords of 1993 (followed by the Gaza-Jerhico Agreement of 1994) gave (partial) sovereignty to the Palestinian National Authority, the interleaving of the Israeli settlements into the disputed territory produced the fragmentary territory of the Palestinian National Authority which you see in the final map in the sequence.

What we see in Israel is the process of the nation-state of Israel being born from a place where there was no nation-state before. I don't want to blink from the often bloody injustices which this process has produced. But I also don't want to pretend that Israel is unique in this kind of history. Nation-states are always born of injustice, always dismiss the interests of peoples who do not recognize the legitimacy of the newborn states. When we look at the land held by the peoples who lived in these United States before the coming of the nation-state of the USA, we see the same pattern.

I recognize the injustices which the Palestinians have faced, the oppression they experience today, and I call for their liberation. But let us not pretend that the Palestinians have been dispossessed of a nation they once had. Let us not pretend that this is a special injustice, in which the Israelis have a kind of blood on their hands that no other nation has.

Liberty vs democracy

Peter Theil, famed zillionaire who founded PayPal and wants to build an offshore libertarian utopia, has a little essay published by the Cato Institute about the evolution of his libertarian ideals. Here's the money quote:

I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.

I'll keep that in mind.

17 November 2012

Dictionary search tool

In case you need a sophisticated search of the English language, I have the RegEx Dictionary right here.

Don't look at me like that. I need this tool.

16 November 2012

Content

Michael O'Hare at the Reality Based Community asks with rising panic how we will pay for content in the future.

We are like Wile E. Coyote running in the air and not realizing what’s already ordained
....

The big problem here is the divergence between the cost of quality content and the price it should be sold for. The former is as high as its ever been, maybe even a little higher because of Baumol disease, but the instant content moved to the web the right price became zero. Trying to sell it for a price that covers average cost means enormous waste, and may not even be possible, even though the total value it would create is vastly greater than its cost.

Nonprofits giving grants, underpaid writers doing their work for love, and the rags we still call newspapers give the illusion that we’re just going through an awkward adjustment period, but it’s an illusion. We are in big trouble. Content is the most important thing in the world; if we don’t figure out how to pay properly for it, we won’t have it.

....

We have solved this problem before: outside my house is a sidewalk that cost something to make and that I don’t pay to walk on. Information is a little more complicated, because while the city does well enough deciding what to make the sidewalk out of and how wide it should be, I don’t want it choosing my content (or keeping track of what I’m reading). But whining about how content is property, or yelling “socialism” at a public goods scheme for distributing content free and paying for it according to how much it’s used, is infantile behavior and profoundly dangerous for everything – everything – that makes life worth living.

Student debt

I can think of no argument why this is good policy.

15 November 2012

Orrery

The information designers of Dynamic Diagrams have created a gorgeous online orrery showing the motion of the planets switchable between geocentric and heliocentric modes.

Among other benefits, it's a good work of propaganda for Copernicanism.

14 November 2012

Petraeus

OK, so there's this media storm of fractal scandal weirdness going on right now — it seems to turn out that if you look at any part of the scandal closely it contains another scandal, which in turn contains other scandals, turtles all the way down — and I'm not above finding that amusing in an unwholesome modern media way. But I don't want to write about that. Plenty of that going on.

I want to get into a meta-story here. We have seen a sudden torrent of critical journalism circulated about David Petraeus unrelated to the sex. Prior to this scandal he had been a media darling. Now I see circulated a powerfully damning Buzzfeed piece and a good little PBS piece calling him a “paper tiger”. I've been reading Pecunium's obscure blog for years; today his incisive comments about why Petraeus probably belongs in prison for violating operational security has been picked up by A-list blogger Lindsey Beyerstein.

Vice has a critique of Petraeus by a guy who served under him. That piece is less serious, calling the General out for cheap ambition rather than serious crimes. But there's a very important observation by the author before he tells his tale.

I’ve tried writing about him for a decade, but nobody seemed to listen. He was bulletproof back then—not so anymore. Now’s the time for me to tell you all about this self-serving shithead ....

Now isn't that interesting. It takes a sex scandal for our media to finally start getting some journalism in front of people. Spencer Ackerman has a long mea culpa in Wired about how he was complicit in this. Somehow I doubt that many other people in news media will do the same.

09 November 2012

Fair prices

A good little observation from Mark Thoma at the Fiscal Times from an article about price gouging.

If income inequality is very low and monopoly power is largely absent, then most people can consume most goods and services if they are willing to sacrifice enough. In this case, people are tolerant of allowing prices to dictate who gets what.

But as inequality grows and people are priced out of markets, when there are more and more things that a large fraction of society cannot obtain no matter how much they are willing to give up, and as more and more people feel they are being taken advantage of by a system beholden to economic or political power, the support for the price allocation mechanism – the heart of capitalism – begins to erode.

It makes me think that laissez-faire fundamentalists tend to mistakenly imagine conditions of low income inequality.

07 November 2012

America is not a center-right country

But there is a much more important proposition that, I think, was proved false last night: that America is a center-right country. This belief is one that we conservatives have cherished for a long time, but as of today, I think we have to admit that it is false. America is a deeply divided country with a center-left plurality. This plurality includes a vast number of citizens who describe themselves as moderates, but whose views on the issues are identical or similar to those that have historically been deemed liberal.

That's from a post entitled The Meaning of Yesterday's Defeat from John Hinderacker of Powerline, Time magazine's first ever “Blog of the Year”, an A-lister in the conservative blogosphere.

It is exactly correct. I'm pretty sure it's the first thing I've ever read from Hinderaker that I have ever agreed with, and may well be the last.

If you know anything about conservative culture, this challenges a fundamental article of faith. I feel stunned reading it. It was Hinderaker who inspired Digby to say this:

Movement conservatives are getting ready to write the history of this era as liberalism once again failing the people. Typically, the conservatives were screwed, as they always are. They must regroup and fight for conservatism, real conservatism, once again. Viva la revolucion!

There is no such thing as a bad conservative. “Conservative” is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives’ good graces. Until they aren't. At which point they are liberals.

Get used to the hearing about how the Republicans failed because they weren't true conservatives. Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed by weak-minded souls who refuse to properly follow its tenets. It's a lot like communism that way.

If Hinderaker doesn't forget that he said this as soon as it becomes inconvenient for him, he ought to read one of my favorite articles about American politics, Living on the edge, but still taking up way too much space by Cervantes at Stayin’ Alive.

Almost everyone in Fishtown claimed to be a conservative, and expressed scathing contempt for liberals. So what were some of their conservative ideas? This was the time of the Arab oil embargo and (gasp!) gasoline at a dollar a gallon. Many of Fishtown's rabid conservatives advocated nationalizing the oil companies. Other popular conservative ideas included government sponsored health care, a higher minimum wage, stopping the developers who were deliberately creating blight so they could buy up large tracts for upscale development, massive investments in public transportation (the Kensington Ave. trolley was a foretaste of hell), cleaning up the air pollution -- all kinds of radical right wing ideas. They were mostly Catholic and went to church, but I can't remember anybody giving a shit about abortion or keeping people on life support.

Now, actual real conservatives have an iron grip over all three branches of the federal government. In public opinion polls, many more people label themselves conservative than label themselves liberal. But a majority of people also tell pollsters that they are willing to pay more taxes to protect the environment, improve the schools, and do other good things; that they want universal health care; that they want curbs on development to protect communities and the environment; that they favor keeping Roe v. Wade (that one's not even close -- 65% to 29%). 82% of Americans opposed intervention in the Terri Schiavo case by the Congress and King George. In other words that particular maneuver was less popular than legalized wife beating. And oh yeah -- the majority favor sensible regulation of gun ownership.

Now the US does have a large minority committed to a perennial American political / cultural tradition that we currently refer to as the “Republican base” or the “Tea Party”. Hinderacker is one of them. These folks think their philosophy is what America stands for, what all true Americans believe in their hearts. They think they are the only real Americans.

Over the last forty-five years, the Republican party has succeeded in bringing them under a single party banner for the first time in our history, making a big voting bloc their own. In so doing, the party has bound itself tightly to those folks. And maybe that wasn't such a good idea for the GOP. They are a large and vocal minority, but they are only about one in four Americans.

Because while many more Americans like the idea of conservatism, and like calling themselves conservatives, mostly they don't like conservative policies. Survey after survey shows it. (There is one key conservative idea that these “conservatives” care about. I'll not spoil the surprise if you cannot guess what it is; click through and let Cervantes lay it out for you.)

The Republican party has managed to build a strong party through rhetorical seductiveness of “conservatism” despite Americans' sentiments. But if Hinderacker can see the cracks in that edifice, maybe it really will fall.


Ooh. I got linked by the mighty Digby herself! Check out what she says, as she is more astute than I am.

Barack Obama

A friend of mine found this photograph of the President a while back, and observed that it made him look like Lincoln. It also reminds me of the sculpture of Spartacus by Denis Foyatier I saw at the Louvre years ago, vibrating with cool, pensive determination in the face of enormous challenges.

I try not to get carried away by too much romantic nonsense about leaders, but a measured dose is healthy. I don't want to forget how in some ways the Obama administration doesn't just disappoint me, it horrifies me. At the same time, I think that we have seen that Obama has the capacity for greatness.

In the last Presidential election I had hoped that we might elect one kind of hero. Today I hope we reëlected the guy in this picture.

There's work to do.

Update: That same friend has found another.

04 November 2012

The city of the future of the past

The UC Berkeley Library maintains a little online museum about San Francisco bay area bridges full of renderings of the bridges before they were built and photographs of them under construction.

This is interesting enough, but most fascinating is the Unbuilt Projects section, detailing bridges that were never built, including Frank Lloyd Wright's famous SF-Oakland span ... and some plans I'd never heard of to use systems of dams to turn most of the bay into freshwater lakes, waterways, and habitable land. Such plans would never pass environmental impact review today — and that's probably for the best.

And that makes me think of Jake Coolige's marvelous BART map for the completed BART system as it was imagined in the 1950s, ringing the Bay. The science-fictional-looking people who launched BART in the '70s seem like they might have been capable of building such a thing.

I marvel at the ambition of an earlier time, an ambition which we seem to have lost.

03 November 2012

NASA Mission Control

Ars Technica has some amazing stuff describing the details of NASA's Mission Control Center. There's a long overview plus details of what each console is for.

Several of the consoles, though, are absolutely brimming with authentic Apollo panels. Sy's console in particular, the Electrical, Environmental, and Communications position, or “EECOM,” is one that approaches Apollo-era authenticity with its smorgasbord of buttons and lights. Being not made of stone myself, I leaned in and pressed buttons and controls as we walked, flicking back and forth the “ABORT REQUEST” toggle on the Flight Dynamics Officer's panel and toggling non-functional displays. There are no touch-screens here—the buttons are heavy and take a couple of pounds of pressure to depress, and they bottom out with solid metallic “CHUNK” sound.

As it should be.

Omni

Via io9, I learn that the Internet Archive has PDFs of Omni magazine.

So cool.

02 November 2012

Joint branding

Since I was a teenager I've have been hearing urban legends about how big tobacco companies like Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds held the trademarks for brands like Acapulco Gold™ and Mary Jane™, in preparation for the day that marijuana finally gets legalized.

Drug policy expert Mark A. R. Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community argues that this wouldn't make sense for those companies. He projects a different future:

I think we can count on developing a set of specialty marijuana companies with the same careful respect for the truth, the same deep concern about their customers’ health, and the same delicacy about interfering with the regulatory process in their business as the tobacco giants display in theirs.

Pretty much.

The only question remaining, then, is whether Marvel Comics will be willing to allow packs of cigarettes featuring Spider-Man's girlfriend on them.