Thursday, July 30, 2009

B. DeLong: Arnold Schwarzenegger was right about one thing

DeLong writes:

Changing sedentary, high-cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar fat people into more active, low-cholesteral, normal blood pressure, normal blood sugar fat people certainly does improve their health.

The governor of California is incompetent at budgeting, but these words of his are well worth listening to:

This exercise is extremely effective for your lats[issimi dorsi] and your upper back. Stand with your feet on either side of an open door and grasp the doorknobs with both hands. Slowly sink away from the door so that your back jackknifes and your arms extend fully and lock. Now pull yourself back up to the starting position. Let your arms, not your legs, complete the motion. I will count out thirty repetitions. Beginners should do 10, intermediates 20, and advanced the full amount. LET'S DO IT! 1... 2... 3... 4, AND STRETCH YOUR BACK!... 5... 6... 7, DON'T USE YOUR LEGS!... 8... 9... 10... 11... 12... 13... 14... 15... 16, JUST USE YOUR ARMS!... 17... 18... 19... 20... 1... 2... 3, CONCENTRATE ON YOUR BACK!!... 4... 5... 6... 7, THREE MORE!... 8... 9, AND NOT LAST ONE!... 30... WE'RE DOING FIVE MORE!!... 31, 32... HA! HA!... 33, 34, 35. Next we have in our program a wonderful leg exercise, the lunges. This exercise develops the front part of your thighs...

Hard to argue with.

p.s. Maybe this goes without saying, but M. McArdle is a completely intellectually irresponsible dingbat, and if DeLong doesn't convince you, T. Levenson and E. Klein are here to perform intellectual garbage pickup.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A business model for reporting

I would pay $50 a year for Seymour Hersh's reporting alone.* So, suppose I did that. Then suppose that there are twenty thousand people in America like me; this does not seem farfetched. That's a million-dollar budget just to fund one man's reporting. Aside from paying himself, he could easily fund travel, online distribution, and a handful of apprentices and assistants out of that budget. So I would not be funding Seymour Hersh, the individual; I would be funding the Seymour Hersh news team.

There are a handful of other reporters — off the top of my head, Elizabeth Kolbert, James Fallows, and Matt Taibbi come to mind — for whom I'd pay a similar amount. In fact, I can probably afford to spend a thousand dollars a year to patronize twenty journalists whom I actually respect. This is considerably less than I donated to miscellaneous humanitarian organizations last year. I say this not to brag about my personal charity, which is actually below median for my income, but to remark that once normal people get jobs in the professional class, they start donating this rough magnitude of money to charity.

So, suppose that there are one hundred reporters in America like Hersh. That is a one hundred million dollar domestic industry dedicated to pure reporting.

Notice that this industry would be mostly unconstrained by the need to seek eyeballs. I do not want to give Hersh money because I think his articles will get more page views than the latest article on trends in reality television (the center article on Sunday's NYTimes front page). I want to give him money because he discovers things that I want discovered.

This seems like a much more rational business model for news reporting in the public interest than the current one, where news is funded by supermarket coupons and advertisements for department stores and used cars.

Note that you can generalize the model. I picked 20,000 people donating $50 a year because that's roughly what I'd pay. Clearly, you can stretch the model in either the direction of higher prices or more people. At one extreme, there's the individual-patronage model: Bill Gates can just pay a million dollars a year to his pet journalist. At the other extreme you could fantasize about charging twenty million people a nickel a year. (This seems dubious to me. Due to transaction costs and coordination issues, I think it's much easier to wrangle larger sums of money out of smaller numbers of people. On the other hand, ideally you'd want a large enough cadre of donors so that no individual has too much pull with the reporter.) If you look at the whole spectrum, it's hard to believe that there's no working point on that spectrum. Maybe it's 4,000 people donating $250 a year. (That's about as much as a family membership to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or a medium-sized pledge for the local NPR affiliate.) Maybe it's something else. The point is that there are three hundred million people in this country and for a nationally recognized journalist it's not hard to imagine that there's enough patronage out there to fund his or her work.

Now, no doubt there are many practical challenges one would have to overcome in order to reorganize the news industry as a whole along these lines. And the details definitely wouldn't work out exactly as I've painted it**. But revolution's never a sure thing. I, for one, would love to see someone try it.

*On the other hand, I would not pay any amount of money to support Thomas Friedman*** or David Brooks. It is a curious artifact of the current newspaper industry that I cannot give money to writers whom I respect without also subsidizing hacks. The distribution of my news dollar to people who write stuff is determined by the whims of people like Bill Keller and Marcus Brauchli. These guys do not, as far as I can tell, try to produce a product which describes reality; they aim to achieve "balance" as defined by the political sensibilities of their social networks. In fact, it is not clear to me that they even understand the difference between these two things.

**Random guesses: (1) journalists like to be around other journalists, so individual teams would rent offices or share coworking space together; (2) the economics of risk would lead to agreements to share revenue and other resources among teams. The end result might be something like a current newsroom but with more distributed authority and a different revenue stream.

***Actually, I would pay negative money for Thomas Friedman. That is, you would have to pay me to read Friedman regularly, and I would probably pay you money if you could credibly offer to stop Friedman from writing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

An objectively incorrect Buddhist belief

Pratītyasamutpāda states that

A human being's existence in any given moment is dependent on the condition of everything else in the world at that moment, but in an equally significant way, the condition of everything in the world in that moment depends conversely on the character and condition of that human being.

For "world" substitute "universe". But, of course, we know that this is false. One's condition can be affected by, and can conversely affect, only objects within one's light cone, not everything else in the universe at that moment. More generally, two objects only affect each other insofar as their light cones intersect.

Given everything else that's arbitrary about Buddhism, and religion more generally, it may seem sort of random to quibble with the details of this corner of Buddhist metaphysics. But this is just one minor example of how religion gets all kinds of stuff wrong — not even in the things that most people will notice, or that have much practical impact on the practice of the religion — just stuff that's casually wrong, wrong in the way that people will be wrong when they make stuff up without modern knowledge and modern standards of evidence. Religion is fractally wrong, and so when you turn over any random rock you'll probably find something wrong under it.

Buddhism is often portrayed as the most rational of religions. This is probably true, but that's a bit like saying that the pika is the least rabbity lagomorph.* It may not be very rabbity, but there are plenty of things even less like a rabbit.

Squeezing truths from religion is like studying the ruins of collapsed ancient cities to learn how to build skyscrapers. In the ruins you'll find a lot of interesting history and occasionally some genuine beauty, but when you want to get stuff built, you'd do much better to just study modern architecture.

*OK, this is a terrible analogy, but I wanted to link to a pika because pikas are cute.

What do polyamory and hexadecimal have in common?

The title of this MeFi post reminded me of two related linguistic curiosities: both polyamory and hexadecimal are hybrid mashups of Greek and Latin roots.

"Poly" is Greek for "many"; but Greek for romantic love is "eros". "Amor" is a Latin root. A more fiddly linguist would have coined the term polyerotics (Greek) or multiamory (Latin).

Likewise, "hex" is Greek for "six"; but the Greek root for ten is "deka". "Decimal" is Latin. In this case, more consistent coinages would have been either hexadecadic/deca-hexadic (Greek) or sexadecimal (Latin).

Interestingly, in both cases, at least one of consistent formations (polyerotics*, sexadecimal) is more sexually suggestive to the modern English speaker than the hybrid coinage. Coincidence?

*Actually, "polyerotic" seems to have been adopted by online polyamorist communities as a designation for specifically sexual polyamorous relationships. This is OK, I suppose, although I think the Greeks had it right that romantic love and sexual desire (which they denoted with the same word) cannot be cleanly cleaved in two.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The other pie in My Blueberry Nights (a correction)

So, I've been slowly working my way through all Wong Kar-Wai movies, and tonight I watched My Blueberry Nights.

It's not a great movie. In many ways it's not even a good movie (although considered purely as a visual artifact, nobody who appreciates film could fail to be seduced). In many ways, it would work better as a long-form music video, and at times that is what it becomes. If you want to read a more considered opinion of the movie, then Dana Stevens's Slate review is reasonably astute. But I'm not posting this to review the movie per se. No, I have more serious business.

I have run across a couple of articles online suggesting that Jeremy (played by Jude Law) is eating a lemon meringue pie while Elizabeth (Norah Jones) is eating her titular blueberry pie. And since nobody appears to have corrected this*, I suppose it falls to me.

Does that look like lemon meringue to you? It is topped with an elegantly browned meringue no doubt, but the base cannot possibly be lemon jelly. No, this is a fruity filling of a more chunky consistency. Although it is definitely a yellow fruit.

Given that this is a Wong Kar-Wai film, the pie in question is clearly a pineapple meringue — Wong's sly, anorakish way of tying Jeremy explicitly to the protagonists of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels (both of which are far superior films, and among my favorite films ever).

Thus endeth the lesson.

Oh, all right, one more thing. If you ever get the chance, watch the scene with Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) from this movie in a format where you can really see her face.

There's something about her slightly off-kilter line readings — "maybe you're just sen-ti-mental" — that suggests a whole history. You can hear the barbs of old emotions, catching at the rhythms of this character's speech even though she won't say them in words. Of course, who knows, maybe that's just how Chan Marshall talks. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into the awkward performance of an inexperienced actress. But regardless, the readings transcend the clunkily metaphorical lurch of the screenplay's lines here, and I'll remember this scene long after I've forgotten everything else about this movie but the pie.

*Note that Stevens herself is careful merely to aver that it is a "meringue" of unspecified provenance. Bravo.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sarah Palin's career: A concise explanation

As with so many other things, the answer can be found in Bill and Ted.

She was a deeply thoughtless and incoherent woman, but she was briefly the anointed representative of a tribe; and amidst her incoherency, she occasionally uttered the ritual phrases of her tribe; and for these things they blessed her.

(This is the last thing, I hope, I will ever write about this person. But see Dahlia Lithwick's astute Slate piece if you really crave more.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Matt Taibbi on "everyone else was doing it"

Taibbi's article on Goldman Sachs has been getting a lot of attention. Today, he struck back at some of his critics in a most excellent fashion:

. . . even if it is true that “everyone else was doing it”: so what? Who cares? To me this response is highly telling. We published a piece accusing Goldman Sachs of systematically ripping off pensioners and other retail investors by sticking them with rafts of toxic mortgages it knew were losers, of looting taxpayer reserves to cover its bad bets made with AIG, of manipulating gas prices to massive detrimental effect, of helping to explode an internet bubble that caused over $5 trillion in wealth to disappear, and numerous other crimes — and the response isn’t “You’re wrong,” or “We didn’t do that shit, not us,” but “Well, Morgan did the same stuff,” and “Why aren’t you writing about Morgan?”

Why didn’t we write about Morgan? Because we didn’t. Because it’s your turn, you assholes. Maybe later someone will tell the story of the other banks, but for now, while most ordinary people are only just learning about the workings of the financial innovation era that blew up in their faces last year, the top dog in that universe is going to be first in line to get the special treatment. That might be inconvenient for Goldman, but it doesn’t make the things I or anyone else say about them untrue.

I find Taibbi's analysis uneven sometimes, but his writing and reportage are consistently excellent, and you should be reading his blog if you aren't already.

Japantown, SF, 08:36 a.m.

Friday, July 03, 2009

On "listserv"

Hypothesis: usage of the word "listserv" to mean "mailing list" generically is a shibboleth for non-technical Internet users of a certain age.

LISTSERV was the first mailing list management software, so you'd think that everybody who used the Internet before 1997 or so would call mailing lists "listservs". However, I don't think I've ever heard a programmer use the term "listserv" in the generic sense — at least not since the 90's, when LISTSERV itself was still in widespread use. Even back then, I think programmers and sysadmins mostly restricted its usage to mailing lists managed by LISTSERV specifically (as opposed to majordomo, lyris, mailman, or a plain sendmail alias).

(Speculation as to the reason for this distinction: non-technical users have a greater tendency to conflate general classes of software or protocols with specific instances of them. Example: the belief that a blue "e" is the icon for the Internet.)

Conversely, of course, kids who started using the Internet after web-based social software supplanted email and Usenet obviously don't even know what a "listserv" is. Unless/until they start working with some old fogies who use the term, I suppose.