Thursday, November 25, 2004

Random thoughts on capitalism

As we head into the weekend that traditionally inaugurates our year-end orgy of consumption, our thoughts inevitably turn to the nature of capitalism. I woke up this morning with the following three thoughts in my head (like most before-breakfast thoughts, these are hardly novel, but nevertheless I am taking this occasion to contemplate them):

  • As far as I can tell, from reading newspapers and economists' blogs, the current world economy is supported by Americans' buying the world's goods on credit, and thereby accumulating unsustainable amounts of debt. Yet if Americans were to stop buying goods on credit, and start paying down this unsustainable debt instead, the resulting hit to the Asian export economies would drag the whole world economy into depression. Conversely, if Americans don't pay down their debt, then eventually either Asian banks will stop extending their credit lines, or America will default on its debt, either of which will also be a disaster. I'm not an economist, but something's wrong with this setup.
  • The theory of free markets is a beautiful collection of mathematical constructions, but the conditions under which markets are maximally efficient --- e.g., high symmetry of information, low transaction costs, low barrier to market entry, low network effects --- have, in practice, only been achieved under highly artificial (highly regulated) conditions.
  • Central economic planning is nearly-universally acknowledged to be a disaster. However, as far as I can tell, a nontrivial fraction of the American economy is centrally planned by Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart is a spectacular success by all the usual capitalist measures.

I think what I'm suggesting by the sum of these thoughts is that there's something rotten in the state of markets. 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.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Gmail POP and SMTP: yee-haw.

My previous recipe for filtering/forwarding/archiving using gmail is now obsolete. Gmail now supports both POP (for receiving) and SMTP (for sending), including TLS-encryption for the connection, for free. I had asked for POP/SMTP support, and even said that I'd be happy to pay for them. Google just raised the bar again for free email providers.

Monday, November 22, 2004

A Proposal: The Peer Review

Briggs Seekins describes the incestuous, careerist nightmare that is the current poetry publishing scene. Now, Seekins sounds like a rather unpleasant individual to be around (how many alcoholic depressives with inferiority complexes aren't?); and as for Dan Schneider (the owner/operator of the site publishing Seekins's essay) --- well, just look at his site's front page. Still, the dysfunction in the literary community seems real.

As an ersatz scientist, I can't help but observe that one of the major problems with the poetry business ("PoBiz") is that there's no effective system to encourage publication based on merit instead of nepotism. Therefore, I propose a new poetry journal: The Peer Review.

Editorial staff: Unlike today's poetry journals, the Peer Review will not have an editorial staff as such. Rather, the Peer Review will be run by two entities: a general chair, who is responsible for administrative matters, and a program committee (or, as we call it, a PC) that is responsible for substantive editorial judgments. The PC shall be led by an individual, called the program chair, who shall be responsible for twisting the arms of PC members to get their reviews done and such (see below). The composition of the general chair and program committee shall rotate from issue to issue; serving on the Peer Review shall be considered a service to the poetry community. PC members may not serve on the committee for two consecutive issues.

Rules for submission: Work by PC members or their current students shall be barred from submission to the issue over which they preside. Works shall be submitted with the author's name attached, but these names shall be concealed from the program committee throughout the review process. Authors must disclose any personal or professional relationships with program committee members.

Review process: All PC members shall be responsible for at least skimming over every submission. Additionally, each submission shall have no fewer than three written reviews by PC members (the PC chair shall distribute the burden of writing reviews equitably among PC members). Each review shall be several paragraphs long, discussing the work's merits and weaknesses, and recommending "accept" or "reject". Once all submissions for an issue have been collected and reviewed, the whole program committee shall arrange to convene in person, over several days, to discuss the relative merits of each poem. The program chair and committee shall cooperate beforehand to discover conflicts of interest between poems and committee members (poems written by former students, etc.), and committee members with a conflict of interest shall be asked to leave the room while the rest of the committee discusses those poems. If a committee member fails to disclose a conflict of interest, and a poem gets in regardless, then that member shall be shunned from the Peer Review forever after and he or she shall be pilloried within the poetry community.

Author notification: Along with notification of the program committee's decision, the written reviews shall be sent back to the poets in full, promptly and predictably after the program committee meeting.

In case it's not obvious: to someone coming from the world of scientific conference publication, all of the above is utterly boring and standard. But someone coming from the world of literary journals, considering the above measures, will probably be caught somewhere between laughter and tears. Anonymized submissions! Rotating editorial staff! Program committee members and their students barred from submitting! Disclosed conflicts of interest, and procedures to eliminate them! Prompt and transparent notification of acceptance or rejection! If only the world could be so fair and bright!

Would the Peer Review work? There are practical concerns: a poetry journal receives an order of magnitude more submissions than a top scientific conference; poets may not be able to afford to fly off to a program committee meeting several times a year; since the poetry world doesn't have a tradition of "professional service", it may be difficult to convince people to serve on program committees. I think these obstacles and others could be overcome by someone with determination. I just doubt that anyone with influence in the poetry world would actually be willing to try it.

Excerpt from an email sent to a friend yesterday

Right now I think that if I could get some kind of low-stress job coding four days a week and write free software in my spare time, I could be happy. I mean, why do I think I should do anything more anyway? It's because I have some belief, well-founded or not, in my abilities, and it would therefore be a waste to do something like that. But the vast majority of humanity doesn't use its talents to the utmost. They get jobs that pay the rent, put food on the table, and sometimes they buy little baubles and toys to keep themselves entertained. I could do that kind of job while hardly even trying. I could find some adequate woman (no need to be burningly, passionately in love; a comfortable and domestic sort of love would suffice for this purpose) and get married and raise a family. It would all be terribly easy. I've had every advantage --- I'm genetically gifted with intelligence and good health, and I come from a comfortable socioeconomic stratum of the most powerful nation on Earth, with all the educational and vocational opportunities that implies --- and the American dream, which for the vast majority of people suffering throughout all of history would have approximated paradise, would be trivial for me to attain. But here I am, sweating myself half-mad over a paper that, ultimately, may or may not advance the world's understanding of my abstruse field by some small increment. I add one more stone to the cathedral, because to do otherwise would be a waste. This is my life.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Eduardo Porter on wealth, religion, and America

Today's Times Week in Review has an article by Eduardo Porter on the relative prevalence of religion in America, vs. other wealthy industrial democracies. Porter questions the standard assumption that religiosity decreases as prosperity increases:

In economic terms, demand for religion drops as its perceived benefits diminish compared with the cost of participating. Or, as stated by the famed anthropologist Anthony Wallace in the 1960's: "The evolutionary future of religion is extinction."

The industrial democracies in Asia and Europe seem to bear this out. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project two years ago, only 20 percent of Germans, 12 percent of Japanese and 11 percent of the French say religion plays a very important role in their lives. In a 1991 multinational survey, a quarter of all Dutch said they were atheists.

"If you take the United Nations' Human Development Index and look at the top 20 countries, 19 of those are very secular," said David Voas, a demographer and sociologist of religion at the University of Manchester in England.

But this line of analysis cannot account for the most modern and rich country of them all. According to the Pew survey, 60 percent of Americans said religion had a very important role in their lives; 48 percent believed that the United States has a special protection from God; 54 percent said they had an "unfavorable" view of atheists.

The article goes on to quote some sociologists who are concocting "supply-side" theories of religious devotion:

That is, Americans are more churchgoing and pious than Germans or Canadians because the United States has the most open religious market, with dozens of religious denominations competing vigorously to offer their flavor of salvation, becoming extremely responsive to the needs of their parishes.

"There's a lack of regulation restricting churches, so in this freer market there is a larger supply," said Mr. Finke.

The suppliers of religion then try to stoke demand. "The potential demand for religion has to be activated," said Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University. "The more members of the clergy that are out there working to expand their congregations the more people will go to church."

Mr. Finke notes that this free-market theory also fits well with the explosion of religion across Latin America, where the weakening of the longstanding Catholic monopoly has led to all sorts of evangelical Christian churches and to an overall increase of religious expression.

The supply-siders say their model even explains secular Europe. Europeans, they argue, are fundamentally just as religious as Americans, with similar metaphysical concerns, but they suffer from a uncompetitive market - lazy, quasi-monopolistic churches that have been protected from competition by the state. "Wherever you've got a state church, you have empty churches," Mr. Stark said.

The free-market argument is not absolutely watertight, however. Islamic states, for instance, have very strong quasi-state churches and high religious participation. And some European sociologists argue that there is much more religious competition in Europe than the supply-siders acknowledge.

And in the United States, the most religious states and counties are those most dominated by a single denomination -Mormon, Baptist or Pentecostal- not those where there is most competition, Mr. Voas said.

But Porter never asks the obvious question. Forget all these fancy-ass hypotheses about "supply-side religion" and "competition among denominations". The alleged anomaly of America's combination of religiosity and prosperity can easily be explained by something much simpler. Unlike the other prosperous industrialized democracies, America is both a wealthy nation in aggregate and home to massive income inequality, widespread poverty, economic insecurity, and a relatively weakly state-subsidized higher education system. The bottom quintile of the American population lacks adequate housing, health care, and access to education. America's religiosity parallels that of Latin American nations and Islamic theocracies because, as with those nations, there are lots of poor people. Conservative Christianity may be strongest in America in regions dominated by single church denominations, but it probably correlates even more strongly with regions where there are lots of poor people.

This alternative explanation seems blindingly obvious to me. It's parsimonious, and it explains available data points well, including data points that are anomalous under the "supply-side" model. That doesn't mean it's right, of course. Perhaps the "supply-side" model advocates have a good rebuttal, but we never find out from the article. It seems to me that a reporter writing about the effect of economics on religion ought to (1) be familiar with basic economic facts (like, say, that American poor live qualitatively worse lives than the poor in other developed nations), (2) think critically, and (3) ask the obvious probing questions. But for Porter, America is "the most modern and rich country of them all", and that's enough.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Bruce Schneier, David Dill on e-voting

It's the 15th again, and November Crypto-Gram contains several good short essays on voting technology. Worth reading.

After you've done that, go to UW-CSE's Information Technology & Public Policy course Fall 2004 lectures archive and check out the David Dill lecture on electronic voting from Oct. 14. If you're using Windows and have a fast connection, you'll probably want to install WebViewer so you can get synchronized slides and video.

Actually, if you're at all interested in IT and public policy, you'll probably want to watch all the course lectures. Ed Lazowska, one of our profs and our former dept. chair, has teamed up with UC Berkeley's Steve Maurer to plan a really terrific syllabus (course home page). By the time the course is over, there'll be about 30 hours' worth of lectures.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Paul Freedman analysis

Last post of the night: Paul Freedman's Slate article, which I've already sent to some of you, breaks down more numbers on the cause of the election. His principal conclusion is that there was a "terrorism gap", wherein more voters trusted Bush exclusively than trusted Kerry exclusively to handle the terrorism problem. Which, basically, I consider even further evidence for my working hypothesis that many Bush voters were not operating in reality.

Bob Herbert: Ignorance, not "values"

Bob Herbert has long been my favorite Times Op-Ed columnist. In his Monday column, which I originally missed, Herbert makes the point that Bush supporters were simply not in touch with reality:

I think a case could be made that ignorance played at least as big a role in the election's outcome as values. A recent survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that nearly 70 percent of President Bush's supporters believe the U.S. has come up with "clear evidence" that Saddam Hussein was working closely with Al Qaeda. A third of the president's supporters believe weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. And more than a third believe that a substantial majority of world opinion supported the U.S.-led invasion.

This is scary. How do you make a rational political pitch to people who have put that part of their brain on hold? No wonder Bush won.


You have to be careful when you toss the word values around. All values are not created equal. Some Democrats are casting covetous eyes on voters whose values, in many cases, are frankly repellent. Does it make sense for the progressive elements in our society to undermine their own deeply held beliefs in tolerance, fairness and justice in an effort to embrace those who deliberately seek to divide?

My interpretation of the election results was basically the same. The victory of the Republicans was built on deception and ignorance, not on any policy stance or rhetorical device worthy of emulation. The Democratic Party should disregard calls to move to the right on social issues. Not only would this be asinine, cowardly, tactically ineffective, immoral, unprincipled, and inconsistent with the Constitution; it would also be a non sequitur: you don't cure ignorance by embracing bigotry.

Item #187273 on the "It would be funny, if it weren't so depressing" list

I'm somewhat late to the party on this one, but via Atrios comes Salon's "Down with the Kerry Haters". Many choice bits therein, but the one that bothered me the most was the following:

"I'm definitely gonna vote for him," [22-year-old Ohio resident Nick] Karnes said of Bush. "Because he's been the president for four years and nothing bad has happened since Sept. 11. He's kept me alive for four years." If Kerry becomes president, he said, "We'll be dead within a year."

Now, I was living in uptown Manhattan in September 2001. I have never viewed the threat of death from terrorism as an abstract fear. The fear is quite specific. I recall sleeping fitfully through the night of September 12, waking every so often to the boom of thunder --- from the lightning storm wrought by smoke and dust from the smoldering ruins --- and wondering whether this time, this time it was a bomb.

Most of my family lives in the New York metro area; my brother still lives in Manhattan itself. Al Qaeda has struck New York twice (1993 and 2001), and Washington, D.C. once. They clearly intend to hit America where it hurts most, which means the centers of American economic, political, and cultural power: New York, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago. Seattle, which is where I live now, might make the list only because it's a major port city.

Columbus, Ohio? Get real.

And this is not mere Northeastern regional snobbery (although I harbor no guilt about feeling snobbish towards the likes of Nick Karnes). The invocation of the terrorist menace since 9/11 has always bothered me, for a variety of reasons, and I have never been able to articulate them all completely. But when I read the paragraph above, one of those reasons became clearer: for most Americans, the fear of terrorism is an abstract and nebulous fear. 9/11 was something they watched on television.

I don't believe that residents of Columbus seriously think they will be hit next, rather than New York, L.A., or D.C. They feel afraid, and their fear is genuine, but at the same time, on some conscious or half-conscious level of awareness, they also feel safely insulated from the truest, keenest danger. And so when people like Karnes invoke the threat of terrorism, I can't believe they're really being honest, rather than using terrorism as a rhetorical club to beat their political enemies.

Furthermore, I can't help but think that the spectatorial abstractness of their fear is partly responsible for the ease with which they embrace abstract solutions: a distant war whose rationale bears only the most tenuous relationship to our national security; a President whose cheerleading and manly "resolve" supposedly strikes some vague, paralytic fear into the hearts of terrorists; the embrace of torture to extract unspecified information from unidentified persons for inscrutable objectives.

Who cares about the nuts and bolts of securing Russia's loose nuclear material, or training a new generation of intelligence operatives and analysts conversant in Arabic language and culture? Bruce Willis would never do any of that. He would go out there and kick ass. The terrorists might scoff at his humble everyman attitude, but pretty soon he would be impaling them on meat hooks and electrocuting their genitals (not that he would enjoy any of that, mind you, though he would have some punchy one-liners to mark the occasion). Who cares if rules get bent or even broken? Who cares whether all the death and cruelty even accomplishes a recognizable concrete policy objective, by any credible logic? It's enough that America kick swarthy heathen foreigner ass. The inexorable plot mechanics of action movies dictate that the toughest man inevitably wins. Since the War on Terror is an action movie, it is enough that we be "tough" (whatever that means) in order to prevail.

Is this a caricature of Bush supporters? Yes, but not by much.

And given the seriousness of the consequences, the laziness of this thinking borders on criminal negligence. It makes me furious. If the attack comes, will it be Nick Karnes who dies? No, it will be my brother. And yet I and my brother live at the mercy of Karnes, his fellow-idiots, and the bungling, dishonest President whom they elected.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Mass hysteria

The emerging buzz seems to be that the Democratic Party needs to re-examine itself. A lot of commentators think that the Democratic Party needs to figure out how to pitch its message in a more religious way. Some observers, including some whom I respect, even point approvingly to Amy Sullivan's nonsensical blathering about the Democratic Party's alleged hostility to religion.

The outcome of this election was determined by mass hysteria and insanity. People who cited "terror" as their top issue voted for the President who refused to testify before the 9/11 Commission under oath; and who, when he ultimately appeared before that commission, needed Papa Cheney to hold his hand. People who cited "moral values" as their top issue voted for the adminstration that winked at Abu Ghraib, and that commissioned memos defending torture as a matter of principle. I define insanity as belief incompatible with consensus reality. Bush voters acted from inside a collective hallucination.

Red America is Winston Smith, strapped to the table. Red America is seeing O'Brien hold up four fingers, which transmogrify on command into five. And as the music announcing our glorious military triumph plays from the telescreen, a bullet is entering Red America's brain, a tear is trickling beside its nose: Red America loves Big Brother.

The Democrats' job is not to pander to this insanity, but to help cure it. The way to cure it is not by figuring out how to walk and talk like the sanctimonious assholes on the other side of the aisle. It is to bring reality back to the voters --- at least, to those voters who are not so far gone as to be unreachable (I happen to think that much of the evangelical Christian population is, in fact, gone past the point of no return; we'll just have to wait a generation for them to die, and hope their children rebel).

Also, it is worth pointing out that when people talk about "religious" voters, they mean white rural and suburban Protestant voters. Black Christians vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Jews vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Muslims voted, in this election, overwhelmingly for Democrats. I don't know for sure, but I would venture a guess that Buddhists, Hindus, Rastafarians, etc., vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Even Catholics still vote Democratic more than Republican. So we are not talking about "religion", but about one particular religious bloc which doesn't even constitute a majority of the population anymore (the current CIA World Factbook says that 52% of Americans are Protestants; white rural and suburban Protestants must necessarily be a minority).

And in calling these voters the "religious" bloc, we reveal an underlying assumption that this minority demographic somehow has values that are more genuine, more worthy, more really religious, than anyone else's. Nonsense. Our message reaches every other religious demographic just fine. The question is not how to make our message more religious. The question is, why does this one demographic bloc have beliefs (about both reality and morality) that diverge from those of every other religious bloc? Which is a good question.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Though they go mad they shall be sane/Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again

It is at times like these, when all else fails, that poetry alone can speak. The second stanza of Dylan Thomas's "And Death Shall Have No Dominion":

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Prediction: 284-254

It is time to nail one's colors to the mast, if only for the fun of gambling. Ex post, I will probably look dumb, but ex ante my decision procedure's no worse than anyone else's, given that nobody really knows how things are going to land.

I am, however, still hoping for a 311-227 blowout, which I think is not out of reach. Call it faith in the American people; or, anyway, the citizens of Iowa and Ohio.

On the third hand, there's always Jeb's Surprise.