Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pretty close to how I feel about human social interaction these days

The symbols differ but the sentiment is similar.

The strange thing is that I really like all my friends and co-workers but I still have this strange and inescapable distaste for "people" as a category.

Oblique reaction to an ending

From Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo, pp. 181-182:

"The group broke up. We no longer exist as a group. Of course there wasn't any real hope once you left. Still and all it's frightening. Nobody was really prepared for it. But it happened. We no longer exist in the old sense."

"As of when?"

"I heard it on the radio coming in from the airport. When I left L.A., things were still in flux. Nothing was decided to the point where we could come out and say we've reached a decision. But I guess we broke up because I heard it on the radio.  It sounded pretty official.  Who has final word on these matters?"

"The radio," I said.

"A lot of it was my doing," he said.  "I got heavily involved in black music.  Not performing or producing.  Just listening.  That old showcase stuff with everybody in shiny clothes and pomaded hair. Brushed drums, piano, sax breaks.  'Baby don't you know that I love you so.'  I'm into that sound, Bucky, and I can't get out.  After all these years I realize that's the only sound I really love.  So I neglected the band and now we no longer exist as a group.  The little dance routines they do.  Hands flashing out, feet gliding, bodies whirling so smoothly.  Romantic soul music done by immortal groups. The Infatuations.  The Tailfins.  The Splendifics.  'It's a hurtin' pain you give me, babe, but I'm fightin' for my love.'  It's all love and sorrow, Bucky, and it just about destroys me emotionally.  The crude dumb emotion, it's so incredibly beautiful.  Sorrowful ballads with occasional falsetto passages.  And even when I'm just listening to records I can see them moving on stage, doing the little whirls and gliding steps, flashing out their hands.  Shiny bright hair.  Custom tuxedos.  Fantastic teeth and fingernails.  And the cheap emotion behind the lyrics just wrecks me.  The Motelles.  The Vanities.  The Willows.  The Renditions.  The Flairs.  Nate Pearce and the Hydromatics.  'Baby can't you see how you're upsettin' me, shoo-eee, shoo-eee.'  Everything is there, Bucky.  There's nothing else I want or need."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Busting prostitution: An efficient use of police resources

So, today I ran across this from A. Lapite (original source at Gotham Gazette):

Robert Pinter, a 52-year-old gay man who was arrested for prostitution at the Blue Door in the East Village on Oct. 10, spoke at the town hall meeting. He said a young man — a 29-year old undercover cop who, Pinter said, looked even younger — cruised him in the store. He was "charming and persistent, and we agreed to go home for consensual sex, but as we were leaving he said, 'I want to pay you $50 [to have sex].' I didn't respond, but I thought it was strange," Pinter recounted. As the men left the store, Pinter said, a group of men who did not show police identification pushed him against the wall.

"I thought I'd been set up by a gang," he said. "I asked them why they were doing this to me. I was totally clueless. They handcuffed me and said, 'Why the f--- do you think we're arresting you — loitering for the purpose of prostitution.'"

and this, also via Lapite (read the whole thing, it's short):

It was Rocio Palacios who first noticed the woman who appeared to need help.

It was 8 a.m. when she and her husband, Erasmo, dropped their 6-year-old daughter off at school and had picked up their 22-year-old daughter to go out for breakfast when they saw the woman waving her arms at 53rd Street and Kedzie Avenue last November.

The Palacioses, of Chicago, claim the woman approached their car, parked outside Manolo's restaurant, leaned in to the passenger side where Rocio was sitting and asked Erasmo if he wanted oral sex for $20 or sex for $25.

The couple laughed, realizing this wasn't a woman in distress after all.

But within seconds, Chicago police swarmed the family car, hauling Erasmo Palacios out in handcuffs. He was charged with solicitation of a prostitute.

So, in case you haven't guessed by now, the title of this post is sarcastic.

Now, these two incidents don't prove anything by themselves. But both stories suggest that the police departments in question had adopted questionable policing strategies; and note that the NYPD and CPD are the two largest municipal police forces in nation, and doubtless among the best-funded in the world, with budgets of roughly $3.9 billion and $1.2 billion respectively. If the vice units of these highly professionalized forces are doing stuff like this, what happens elsewhere?

Decriminalizing prostitution may be politically unrealistic, but it seems to me that we ought, at a minimum, to be focusing enforcement effort on its genuinely pernicious aspects: coercive trafficking, prostitution-related violence, and underage prostitution. But, of course, busting a trafficking ring requires hard investigative work, whereas paying an individual undercover cop to "solicit" a consenting adult requires minimal skill and energy.

(Which — sigh — is exactly why we should legalize prostitution itself, and criminalize that which is genuinely harmful. Police have a finite budget of time and will allocate that time efficiently by arresting those lawbreakers who can be most easily apprehended. I'd argue banning prostitution per se makes life easier for trafficking rings by giving vice cops something to do besides busting trafficking rings. But whatever, I'm shouting into the wind here. The gates to prostitution decriminalization are guarded by the three-headed dog of social conservatives plus radical feminists plus the large majority of people who simply find prostitution "icky" and I'm pretty convinced that nothing's ever going to fix this problem in the U.S.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

On honesty and interpersonal relations

So, a friend of mine has embarked on a project that involves a lot of dating, and on her most recent outing the man told her this:

I said, "So, Colombia, are you full of shit or what?" After a long pause, he looked me straight in the eye and said (seriously), "I've lied to women, but I've never lied to a lady."

Does this sort of line actually work? Because my immediate thought on reading this was, "Wow, hope he never decides you're the wrong kind."

Honest people are not honest because they think you deserve it; they're honest because it hurts not to be.

But, of course, we don't usually want to be around those people. Lying is an essential social skill. People who are very bad at deceiving others tend to cause awkwardness and don't get invited to many parties.* The unvarnished truth of human existence is that we are agents competing for scarce resources and our interests never align perfectly with those of other people. Lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters — to say nothing of friends or acquaintances or strangers you meet socially — all are engaged in a tug-of-war over who does the chores, who gets Dad's approval, who gets the girl, who's the center of attention at the party. Social life is a war for priority in the eyes of other people. Lies are the lubricant which allows us to pretend otherwise.

To genuinely forego participation in this game takes unusual will, perversity, obliviousness, narcissism, or some combination of these.

(As for me, I basically play the game, however ineptly, and I think this is what is turning me into a misanthrope.)

*Note that the converse is clearly not true: people who are socially awkward are not necessarily more honest. I think my friend's skepticism at her date's smoothness betrays a false belief that if he were more awkward, then he would be more trustworthy. Actually, I knew her ex; he was pretty awkward and he wasn't trustworthy at all. Most often, people are socially awkward simply because they lack the skill to be otherwise. P. Graham has interesting things to say about this, although I would add that Graham is being both too self-congratulatory and too optimistic: being socially deft does not require the sacrifice of one's intelligence; and as far as I can tell, success in the adult world seems to be most positively correlated with being integrated into the social networks of power, not with objective achievement in some discipline.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Iranian elections (random thoughts prompted by)

I don't have much of value to add to what other, better-informed people are saying about the Iranian election, but I strongly recommend keeping your eye on this continuously-updated HuffPost roundup.

I also want to record some random thoughts that occurred to me as I was sitting at the coffeeshop waiting for my laundry —


While watching the protest footage, I was suddenly reminded of a moment, long ago, while I was traveling in Greece with a bunch of college classmates. Our Greek tour guide was saying something along the lines of "Ancient Greece had the first democratic government. Of course, you may wonder how the birthplace of democracy could keep slaves, but..." etc. There was no hint of irony in her utterance of this sentence. One guy in our group leaned over to me and said, in a low voice, "Does she realize she's talking to Americans? Slavery at the birthplace of democracy? Isn't that how it's done?" I surmised later that the tour guide's patter was probably designed with pan-European audiences in mind.

I don't know what exactly about the Iranian elections made me think of this, except possibly that both remind me of how thoroughly imperfect real-world democracies are, and how many different pieces have to fit together just exactly right to make this form of social organization function to modern standards.


I usually find Huffington Post annoying, but their post seems to be a better guide to what's going on than anything else I can find right now. This sort of real-time but human-curated index synthesizing links to news"paper" stories, blog posts, Twitter posts, and embeddable user-uploaded videos really does seem quite powerful.

It is also a type of media object which traditional outlets are currently ill-equipped to create (and possibly even ideologically opposed to creating). Compare the HuffPost article with the NYTimes equivalent: the latter has less variety, slower updates, and more focus on "official" sources. And this makes the NYTimes version worse, not better.


If Obama determined American foreign policy by listening to everything Joe Lieberman says and making sure to never, ever do that, then he would have a pretty good foreign policy.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Review: Dell Mini 12 with Ubuntu

A few months ago, my old Thinkpad T42 died after 4 years of faithful service. I realized that I usually buy a $2000 laptop every 3 to 4 years; and as an experiment I decided to instead buy one between 1/3 to 1/4 of that cost, and see if it would last me over a year. I also wanted to switch from a 5-pound laptop to something lighter. So, I got a Dell Mini 12 with Ubuntu for about $550 (1.6 Ghz Atom processor, 80GB hard drive); including the second battery I spent $700.

After a few months of regular use, I feel ready to render a verdict.

  • The keyboard is OK, but not great. Most of the keys are fine, but the comma, period, and slash keys are half width, which is pretty annoying for a Linux-using touch-typing programmer. I've retrained my fingers to adequate speed under this arrangement (I now hit all three of these keys with my ring finger), but it took some time to get used to, and I'll never be as fast as with a full-sized keyboard.
  • You will hit the touchpad accidentally while you're typing. This is impossible to avoid. The touchpad is astonishingly sensitive. I could swear that it picks up tracks when my palm's not even touching the pad.
  • The screen is 1280x800, glossy, and about average quality for a notebook screen (which is to say, inferior to a Thinkpad or Macbook Pro screen, but fine for most uses).
  • Performance is not impressive. This is an ultralight with compromises. You can't watch Hulu videos full-screen with this computer, and there's noticeable lag when switching among multiple Firefox instances. Lately, however, I spend most of my mobile time either checking email/RSS feeds, or hacking LaTeX and OCaml in emacs while running Pandora in the background. For these purposes, it's perfectly adequate. (I suspect that if I were running Eclipse or some heavyweight development environment I'd be much less happy.)
  • Having a super-light computer is a definite pleasure. One of the most underrated human-computer interfaces is the one between your bag and your shoulder. The Mini 12 and its power adapter together weigh about 3 pounds. It feels qualitatively different from, say, a Macbook Pro or Thinkpad T-series.
  • This computer runs cool enough to both (a) stay in your lap indefinitely and (b) not require a cooling fan. The hard drive is extremely quiet as well. As a result, the computer's almost perfectly silent. YMMV but I find this extremely pleasurable. I don't think I've ever used a computer this quiet.
  • I got the model with preinstalled Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron). It's a huge bonus for me that I didn't have to reformat or repartition my hard drive and install Linux myself — something I've had to do with almost every computer I've bought in the past decade. Wireless networking, sound, Flash, sleep-and-resume, etc. all just work. The Mini 12 comes with the dell-lpia architecture Ubuntu distribution, rather than x86, but it mostly behaves like any other Ubuntu. (Exceptions: (1) when I first got my Mini, it would occasionally crash under heavy load, but recent kernel updates seem to have fixed the problem; (2) a few packages, such as smlnj, aren't yet compiled for dell-lpia, but this hasn't been a deal-breaker.)

So, the bottom line is that when I don't need to be on my employer's VPN, I throw this thing into my bag more often than my Macbook Pro from work. Take this with a grain of salt, of course, keeping in mind that I'm a fairly atypical computer user. But I, at least, am fairly happy with the purchase.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Shorter Tyler Cowen

"If you adopt a fringe philosophical view on interpersonal versus intertemporal welfare comparisons, then everybody who disagrees with me about health care is wrong."

Cowen enjoys this kind of rhetorical maneuver, I suspect largely because there's nothing that pleases his ego more than to think of himself as not only smarter than liberals, but smarter in a much more unconventional way than liberals. By this standard, Cowen's post of this morning probably caused him to spontaneously ejaculate on his keyboard.

But anybody with an iota of ability to connect abstract ideas to the real world should intensely question a definition of welfare by which a "typical 23-year-old lower-middle-class immigrant has a higher real endowment than does Warren Buffett". In fact, I think you can find this sentence in the dictionary under reductio ad absurdum

And yes, I know what Cowen's referring to when he talks about McKerlie and egalitarianism. I do not find McKerlie convincing. It's the height of arrogance for Cowen to blithely assume that those who disagree with him are either confused about his argument, ignorant of the background, or irrationally rejecting a sound argument for emotional reasons, rather than simply disagreeing about the highly arguable philosophical conjecture which provides the foundation of his argument. Cowen's usually worth reading, but every once in a while all of his personal and intellectual flaws come crashing together in one horrible post that makes me want to get him banned from every restaurant on the planet.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Supreme Court 2009: the big picture

No particular opinion about Sotomayor. She'll most likely replace Souter, Republican whining notwithstanding, and actually that's not very interesting. Souter's a liberal; Sotomayor's a liberal; the balance of the court will be unchanged.

At the risk of being excessively morbid, here's what matters, in roughly increasing order of importance:

It's a cliché by now to remark that the most enduring political successes of Bush 41 and Bush 43 were their Supreme Court nominations. Thomas, Roberts, and Alito are not only uncompromisingly hard-right conservatives; they're all 60 or younger and will probably stay on the court into the 2020s. The ascension of Alito to replace O'Connor was a particular disaster. Gonzales, Meredith, and Ledbetter were only the beginning. We're going to see many more ugly 5-4 decisions in coming years.

But if Obama gets re-elected in 2012, there's a non-negligible chance that he'll get to nominate five or six justices to the court in total, swinging the balance back to a liberal majority — maybe even a 6-3 majority.

Of course, that's assuming a number of coins all come up heads. It's far from certain that Obama's going to be re-elected; it's far from certain that Senate Democrats won't lose the majority or simply cave to Republican demands for conservative nominees; and I wouldn't be surprised if Scalia manages to hang on by his fingernails until he's 110. But the point is that it wouldn't take a miracle for such a dramatic transformation to occur within Obama's Presidency.

Is this surprising? Upon reflection, not especially. On, the recent 1994-2005 stretch stands out as an unusual period of stasis — as J. Toobin remarks in The Nine, it's the longest interval the court's ever had with the same nine justices. But when justices stay together for a long time, it means that they're also from the same age cohort**, and therefore that they'll also reach retirement age together. O'Connor's retirement and Rehnquist's death were just the leading edge of a generational turnover that will run its course over the next decade or so. And since both parties are now savvy enough to nominate young justices, we can look forward to another relatively long period of stasis after that.

Incidentally, this also means it would be wise for the other liberal justices — Breyer, Stevens, and Ginsburg — to follow Souter's lead and retire as soon as possible, while it's certain who will be nominating and confirming their successors. But reading Toobin's book has convinced me that Supreme Court justices aren't unusually wise, so it's anyone's guess what they'll actually do.

*OK, time for the caveats. Mean life expectancy at birth is a misleading measure for seventysomething Supreme Court justices. Causes of "young death" like infant mortality and teenage driving accidents and AIDS significantly reduce mean life expectancy at birth, but have no relevance to the life expectancy of people who have passed those filters; so the life expectancy of a 73-year old is considerably higher than the life expectancy of a newborn. Furthermore, Supreme Court justices have an excellent government-funded health care plan, and disagreeing with the politics of the President who would nominate your successor to the Highest Court In The Land is a strong motivator to look after your health. And the probability that Scalia would leave the Court not in a coffin while there's a sitting Democratic President is basically nil. All in all, I suspect that at least one of Scalia or Kennedy will stay on the court past his 80th birthday. So 6-3 is a long shot. 5-4 doesn't seem too unlikely though.

**OK, excluding Thomas, who was an outlier on the Rehnquist Court in more ways than one.

Monday, June 01, 2009


...for every GM employee. R. Reich says we've sunk $60 billion into GM. Divide by 235,000 employees as of 2009q1 (according to Google Finance) and voilà.

Last December, I modestly proposed a $100K per employee bailout, for the more meager cost of $25.2 billion in late 2008*. But this is getting ridiculous. How many new small businesses, back-to-college tuition fees, and cross-country moves to more favorable labor markets could GM employees buy with $255K apiece, tax-free? There are places in the country where you can shelter and feed a family of four for the better part of a decade with that sum. I don't subscribe to the notion that uncoordinated masses of individuals axiomatically spend money more effectively than government all the time, but the orderly winding-down of a failing car company doesn't offer a propitious outlook for government management, not least because management of any kind seems essentially futile when you're dealing with a car sailing off a cliff.

Oh, why do I bother.

The car link was sort of fun to dig up though.

* GM had more employees back then.