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'!").