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Ask Zompist, or a Zompistlike Persona, Questions of Your Choosing in Hopes of Receiving Answers. From Zompist.

What's going on here? You ask questions, I answer them. In fact, if that's not good enough, ask questions of any of the characters mentioned on the site, from Bob to Adurise to Agtobot to Fuschia Chang or anyone else you can dig up.

Include "Ask Zompist" in the subject or text so it's clear whether it's personal mail, or a submission for this feature. Best to sign it, too, so I know who to attribute the mail to.

More to come... if you keep those cards and letters coming!

New entries are here, over at the blog.

To just see Ask Zompist answers use this category.


27 May 2008: Stimulation

Hey Agtobot,

George Bush done stimulated my package. What damn fool thing should I blow the money on to save the economy?


Agtobot replies:

...Well, I was going to say something else, but Cathy Vaginal Ointment stopped me dead.

31 Oct 2007: Nobel's other mistake

I wonder what you think about Al Gore getting the Peace Price now for his work for the enviroment. I think that, considering he was Vice President under Clinton and did hardly anything positive, his later lecture/movie tour, and the small steps he's proposing, I don't think he deserves a price for his small contributions, esp. considering there are many other people in the enviroment movement who did/do much more, but simply aren't as prominent. However, I've heard the opinion that the VP of the US is very limited in his actual power, so Gore couldn't do more.

I understand that the awards commission wants to set a sign, and might therefore use a prominent political figure as a slap in the face of other politicans, but I still think they should've chosen a more deserving candidate.

What do you think?


To put this in some perspective, this is the same prize that's also been awarded to Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger. An alien scanning the prize list might be forgiven for assuming that Gore won the prize for causing climate change and then backing off later on.

I think there's no question that the Academy likes to send a signal, and hopes sometimes to draw attention to an issue rather than to recognize overwhelming achievement. Is Gore less accomplished than the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (1995 laureate)? It's also clear from the list that the prize isn't so much for peace as for humanitarianism— cf. the awards to Mother Theresa, the ILO, Martin Luther King, and the Red Cross.

If it's half as dire as some folks say, global warming is the story of the 21st century, and those who draw attention to it early are more important than almost any local war.

By the way, I learned today that the Swedish name for the prize is the fredspris, which sounds like Fred's Prize. (And in fact 'Fred' is a cognate.)

And while we're on the Nobels, let me just complain how embarrassing it is that the literature prize has gone to Giosuè Carducci, Halldór Laxness, and William Golding, but not to Mark Twain, Vladimir Nabokov, or Jorge Luis Borges.

This just in: David Dunn wrote in, making a point good enough to quote in full:

What almost everyone loses in the conversation is that Al Gore only won half the prize. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was the other half-winner. Our state climatologist (Phil Mote) is a member of IPCC. (So I can say I've met a Nobel Prize winner. Cool!) He gave a presentation to our agency last week summarizing the science behind global warming. He finished up the presentation talking about the Nobel Prize. The IPCC won for compiling the best science about global warming, Gore won for his role in disseminating that information.

So, yes, the Academy picks well known figures to capture attention, but so does the media. It is much easier to attack (or support) Mr. Gore rather than think or talk about the hundreds of dedicated scientists who work on the IPCC. In many ways, these behind the scenes players are more deserving of the prize than Mr. Gore, and the Academy did recognize them, but most media consumers don't know that they exist.

12 Aug 2007: Ron Paul

How come I can't seem to get away from Ron Paul on the internet even though he's only polling 0-2% in the Republican primary polls? (And, as an aside, why is Ron Paul so insane?)


I'm guessing you frequent a lot of sf and/or IT sites? Those areas attract a disproportionate share of Libertarians.

Paul gets some points for being willing to criticize other Republicans, especially over the Iraq war. But this is a monster that he helped create (e.g. by leading the state delegation to nominate Ronald Reagan in 1976, or returning to Congress in 1996 because he found Republican control of the House congenial). Libertarians hoped to use the Republicans for their own purposes, but the Repubs have been much cannier in using the Libertarians for their own.

12 Aug 2007: Cheap map programs

You have a small tutorial for drawing maps. Well, because I'm trying to get into actually doing something with a conworld (as opposed to letting it rot to death in my brain), I checked that and trolled the bboard forums.

So, the question I wanted to ask (which might be completely redundant): what program(s) would you use to create a map without a graphics tablet? Just for reference's sake, I tried AutoREALM (open source), but I got tired of its relative "instability" (in lack of a better word) and decided to switch to GIMP.


Tablets are not a matter of programs, but motor control. You just can't control you entire hand the way you can your finger; and pressure sensitivity is needed to use the airbrush properly. If you care enough about your maps to be reading my tutorials, you'll do way better by buying a graphics tablet.

If the question is really "Is there good free graphics software?", then yes, I've heard great things about GIMP. It has layers and nice brushes, which are the most important features you need. Some quick Googling suggests that it's a hassle, but doable, to get it to work with the pressure sensitivity of the tablet. Paint.NET is also free and looks like it would do the job.

AutoRealm looks pretty horrible; the sample outputs I've seen look like computer graphics of vintage 1990.

12 Aug 2007: Stupid pro-war arguments

What is a good, quick response to the pro-war argument: "If we weren't fighting them there, we'd be fighting them here." You can include other snappy answers to stupid pro-war arguments if you've got 'em.


If you want to be snarky, you could point out that Bush has got about the same number of Americans killed as al-Qaeda, but it cost him over $500 billion to do it. It's a pretty expensive way to move the battlefield.

The deeper problem is that this "pro-war argument" just makes no sense. How does getting into a war in Iraq prevent terrorists from attacking us here? It's like saying that you'll protect your mother's house in Arizona by leaving your car unlocked in New York.

If there hasn't been another 9/11-style attack here, it's because of things like increased airport security, as well as the logistics (Madrid and London are easier to get to). And it's worth pointing out once again that al-Qaeda proper, the organization behind 9/11, is not who we're fighting in Iraq.

And who knows, maybe Bin Laden hasn't attacked us in the US out of gratitude. Thanks to Bush, terrorists have the run of Iraq, Hamas has expanded its power in Palestine, nuclear-armed Pakistan could easily be taken over by fundamentalists, Iran's oil income has gone up, our allies distrust us, and the bad guys know we're over-extended. And of course in six years, he's failed to get his hands on Bin Laden. Heckuva job, Bushie!

12 Aug 2007: Allegory

Dear Bob,

One of the striking things about J.R.R. Tolkien was his marked dislike of allegory; whereas his contemporary, C.S. Lewis, has allegory thick enough to build houses with. A lot of modern fantasy and science fiction seems to be very heavy-handed allegorically, to the point that it's unreadable if you disagree with the author. What's your opinion on the use of allegory in fantasy and science fiction?


Bob replies:

It'd be fascinating to hear the two old boys debate the issue, wouldn't it? Tolkien would have been well aware of his friend's scholarly study The Allegory of Love as well as his fiction from The Pilgrim's Regress to the Space Trilogy to Narnia. It's hard not to suspect that Tolkien's comment wasn't in part directed at Lewis.

Not to be too postmodern, but Tolkien's insistance that LOTR had no "inner meaning or 'message'" doth protest too much. I think there are plenty of messages in LOTR (and David Brin finds even more).

Tolkien and Lewis's works are each their own best arguments. Despite my protestations above, I think LOTR is greatly improved because its messages are subtle, so much so that they can easily be ignored. And Lewis's success as a propagandist is remarkable in part because it's nearly unique. Didactic fiction has a well-deserved reputation as tiresome and forgettable. (Even the best of it... does anyone read The Jungle twice?)

Lewis was at least writing about religion, which can actually come alive in fiction. Politics is a much more intractable beast. George Orwell may be the only one who's managed to write good fiction to establish a political point. And that only worked because he was writing about what was happening, not about what he'd like to happen. Science fiction and fantasy are perfectly useless for explaining a political philosophy— precisely because the author makes up everything. Of course it goes the way he wants it to.

23 Jun 2007: Local Englishes

After reading your essay about Asimov's Foundation series I had two ideas:

A) Everyone in America that watches television can speak Mid-Western Standard. We don't speak Brittish Standard mostly because we don't watch a lot of British Television.

B) Even though most Americans watch television and can speak Mid-West, my wife and I can have a conversation in Brooklynese that would be completely unintelligible to someone from say... Honolulu.

So my question is: In 1500 or so years do you think that Brooklyese and Los Angelino will be completely different languages and everyone in the US will still be able to speak what Mid-Western will evolve into?


First, I'm afraid I have to contest point A. Though it's a common belief, we don't speak to match the voices on TV. This can be easily seen by noting that Southerners, blacks, and non-rhotic Easterners (e.g. people from New Yawk or the South Shoah heah in Bahston) watch TV too and don't speak General American.

And while we're at it, people don't speak like their parents, either. We can see that by the fact that children of immigrants (whether from other countries or other regions) learn the local accent, not that of their parents, when it's different.

Who do kids speak like? Their peers. If you went to school with Mississippi blacks, as a white NU classmate of mine did, you'd grow up speaking perfect African-American English Vernacular.

Why does it seem like everyone speaks General American? Because of rampant social mixing. General American is in part a generalization of the middle East Coast dialect, but also a result of the mixing of settlers from all parts of the US. Distinctive accents have survived only in areas that don't get a lot of immigration.

(People can imitate accents they're exposed to, of course, to a greater or smaller extent. Thanks to Monty Python, I can approximate a British accent, though not well enough to fool a native.)

Now, on to your question. It all depends on whether that characteristic American social mixing continues. My siblings and I, for instance, live in four different states; throw in my cousins and you get half a dozen more. The most advanced economies are moving toward more, not less social mixing— it's happening in Europe and China and India now as well.

Local varieties will arise; but whether or not they keep developing depends on how preserved they are from social mixing. E.g. blacks still mostly speak AAVE because they still associate, especially as teenagers, mostly with other blacks.

17 Jun 2007: Arafat not so phat

Hi Zomp,

The Verdurian word for "terrorism" indicates that you have a somewhat low opinion of Arafat. Given that things in Palestine have become dramatically worse since he left the scene, do you think it's time for a re-assesment?


Nah. It's hard to think of a modern leader who did so poorly for his people. He neither got them a nation, nor ended their oppression, nor brought them any prosperity, and he left them with little hope for the future. The current warlordism in Palestine is his legacy, not his vindication.

Just about every strategic decision Arafat made was tragically wrong. First he hoped (with the other Arabs of the time) to get rid of Israel; then he decided on a campaign of terrorism that withered any chance of US support; then he accepted Israeli support in hopes of becoming a local warlord, and spent all his money on guns; then he rejected peace treaties without a counter-offer. And then he couldn't even keep up with events: the first intifada caught him by surprise; the '90s wave of terrorism and the rise of Hamas were out of his control.

Both sides have spent the last 40 years on gambles that never paid off: the Israelis, that someone would come along they could offer land to in exchange for peace, on their terms— too bad for the people living on that land; the Palestinians, that someone would come along and destroy the Israelis, letting them return home without being tempted by new lives rebuilt elsewhere. But the Israelis at least have a country where a more or less normal life can be carried on; the Palestinians have almost nothing.

3 Jun 2007: The meaning of life

This is a question mainly for all Ask Zompist characters except for yourself, allthough of course you can add your two cents if you want to.

What is the meaning of life?


Agtobot replies:

I am swollen with love for all humanity. Or malaria. Tests aren't back.

It all comes out in the wash, lad! Now free your mind, throw off the chains of patriarchy, and let me see if I can jimmy this pisswidget into your spoor-hole.

Adurise replies:

Some people go by fame points, some by quests completed, some by number of septims. A mansion filled with followers and magic items is impressive and pleasant. But will any of these help you when next you face a Lich, a Spider Daedra, or a Knight of Order? I therefore place the highest value on my inherent attributes and what I can carry in my inventory.

Jeerio replies: Life is about advancing Good in the universe, at every moment, and resisting Evil. You have to be careful because though it's usually pretty obvious what Good is, sometimes it's not what you might expect. You will want to look into that. It helps to have a job so you are not just sleeping all day, and you can concentrate on fighting Evil on your days off. Logarithms will help too. Also friends, and dogs. But if you put your money into means of transport, and you don't know where you are going, they probably don't either.

Fuschia replies:

Love. Also, not being a fucktard. Simple enough, but there are many ways to love, and even more ways of being a fucktard.

A ktuvok replies:

I am pleased you ask, human. By strength and cunning to win the largest possible chrem, encompassing the choicest swampland and the largest number of hominid slaves, to strike fear among lesser conspecifics and yet by negotiation and largesse to win their favor: this will have fertile females outswimming one another to raise your fry, passing on your genes rather than your rivals'. All else is vanity.

3 Jun 2007: (G)emma


Does one have to have read Flaubert's Emma Bovary in order to read & appreciate Posy Simmonds's Gemma Bovary? Or is it worth picking up the latter even if you've never read the former?


Bob replies: Well, hey, It's been about 30 years since I read Emma Bovary, and I barely remember a thing.

I'm sure it would seem cleverer if you'd just read Flaubert. On the other hand, maybe Flaubert is improved if you've just read Simmonds. That's the great thing about civilization... you can really start anywhere and machete out your own path.

3 May 2007: Lesbian apes and Verdurians

I noticed on one of your Rants you mentioned lesbian bonobo sex being the most common form— first, did you mean it's more common than even heterosexual sex; and secondly, part of me wants to believe this was the inspiration for Verdurians being more tolerant of young lesbians in that true?

— Dan Butler

It's not, because of timing— I only learned that bit about the bonobos this year (from Wikipedia, I'm afraid). And yes, the idea is that lesbian sex is observed more frequently among the bonobos than heterosexual sex.

The Verdurians have pretty much always been tolerant of lesbianism, back to when I first devised Verdurian sexual terms in the 1980s.

1 Mar 2007: Bible politics

Why did American bible-thumpers turn away from issues of social justice (abolitionism) and switch over to mote-in-thy-neighbor's-eye politics (prohibitionism and so forth, not that that hadn't been there before) and prosperity theology?

— Best, Ihano Esëřo (John Minot)

Great question. It'd take a historian of religion to really get into this— to see if there's a set of precipitating causes. But I suspect the answer is simple though not very satisfying. It's essentially Brownian motion.

It's not so much a change in Christianity, as an alternation between perennial currents. On the one hand we have:

And on the other we have: Both strands, of course, go back much farther, all the way to the Gospels— the Pharisees are a perfect portrait of today's right-wing Christians: zealous about external morality, militant about placing burdens on outsiders, happy admirers of power when it supported their own and fierce opponents when it did not. Jesus is almost a hippie: contemptuous of religious authorities; a radical voice for the poor and disenfranchised; a scandal to the priests with his acceptance of the sexually immoral. Throughout the centuries Christianity has equally inspired great oppressions and great revolts.

Both strands can even coexist in the same person— Paul, Wesley, and Bryan are all examples.

I suspect it's largely historical accident which strand is predominant in each era. There's also an alternation of backlashes to be expected. We're still reeling from the 1960s. On the other hand, the '60s themselves were a revolt against the excessive tightness of the '50s. Fundamentalism reacts against rapid change; but people eventually rebel against too much repression, too.

15 Jan 2007: Underrated things

Hullo, Mark! Now that you have given us the ten most overrated things, could we have the underrated ones too?


Sure, why not. I'll use the same categories as last time.

Leaders: Seretse Khama. Who, you ask? Exactly. He was the first president of Botswana, perhaps the only African nation to have remained a democracy since independence; in the last forty years it's moved from one of the poorest to one of the most properous sub-Saharan nations. Plus, he married a white Englishwoman, an act that led to racist prosecution from his own family and from the British governors, both of which he defeated.

Movies: I think many Americans underappreciate The Fifth Element, largely because they expect it to be like Star Wars or Blade Runner. A little humor is OK, but we expect our sf/fantasy films to take themselves seriously. But The Fifth Element is essentially French sf comics brought to the screen; and les BD prefer to go over the top, brimming with astonishing design and satire that verges into grotesquerie. Besson captures the genre perfectly.

Science fiction: The great sf author people seem least likely to have read is Tim Powers. The Anubis Gates may be the best time travel story ever written— to say nothing of the shape-changers and evil clowns. Among the classic writers, I'll cite Alfred Bester, especially for The Demolished Man, which boasts one of the few sf futures that doesn't look oversimplified next to our own times.

Animation: I used to go to those yearly animation wrap-ups, and I still fondly recall Will Vinton's shorts— especially the one with the dinosaurs, which had me laughing throughout. Strangely, he seemed to get lost just as he made it to larger awareness with the California Raisins commercials; and then he was overshadowed by Aardman.

Painting: During a trip to Paris I fell in love with the paintings of Marie Laurencin; and she seems to be nothing but a footnote in the art books. (She also appears, drunk, as a walk-on in Gertrude Stein's autobiography.)

Inventions: The foundation for European prosperity was arguably laid by what Jean Gimpel calls the medieval industrial revolution. Without much fuss, the medievals took technology well past the levels achieved by the Romans— better yokes, ploughs, mills, and more. The explosion of the Renaissance was just when the changes became hard to miss.

SF inventions: I'd like one of the genetically modified human bodies from Iain Banks's Culture novels, please. Mental control over your own hormones and nerves, plus a digestive system bypass.

Books: I have to put C.S. Lewis into this category. I wouldn't have thought him inaccessible; but he's a great writer dismissed by most people for purely ideological reasons. The other day I ran into a review of Narnia which called Lewis's religious views "wacky", as if he was some kind of Scientologist. Dude, his "wacky" views are called "Christianity", and they were the dominant worldview of your own culture for two thousand years.

Lewis is an exceedingly clear writer, with a dry satirical streak, enormously learned (how many writers on 16C literature would provide translations of the French, Italian, German, and Latin into 16C English so that the contemporary English quotes don't look out of place?), generous of spirit, and above all sensible. I've learned a lot from Lewis, including how to learn from cultures or time periods conventional wisdom considers beneath it.

Comics: Almost anything Bob reviews deserves more attention than it gets. Though I should highlight a few creators I haven't been able to do justice to: Joe Sacco, Garry Trudeau, Paul Chadwick, Walt Kelly, and Pete Bagge. And I'm sorry, but I have a soft spot for Lynn Johnston.

Food: Let's apply the Cuisine Saturation Ratio, found by dividing the excellence of a national cuisine by the number of restaurants in driving distance. I'd say the standout is Vietnamese.

Events: The demographic crisis of the Catholic states of Europe in the 1700s: over the century their population increased 50%, as opposed to 75% in the Protestant northern states. The trend continued into the next century. More than any of the political events and wars of the time, this doomed France as a major power, and set the stage for Germany's bid for superpowerdom.

Linguistics: I'm going to annoy everyone and say Noam Chomsky— though he could go on the overrated list too. Especially among conlangers, I see a lot of unearned contempt for Chomsky. He'd be noteworthy for his takedown of Skinner alone; but his enduring achievement was to focus attention on syntax— arguably the most complex portion of language. Someday, I swear, I'll explain syntax and syntactic argumentation to you folks. In the meantime, if you haven't read any of his books on syntax, at least Syntactic Structures, then best to keep quiet about him. (And while we're at it, of course he knows languages besides English— Hebrew and French, at the least.)

Hard science: Quantum electrodyamics, I think: one of our strongest and most reliable theories. People focus on the sexy new ideas, like string theory and dark matter, even though these are a theoretical mess, difficult if not impossible to test. The other problem is that people keep hoping that quantum mechanics will turn out not to be true— they find it philosophically offensive. But there's no real hope that it's going to go away.

12 Dec 2006: Overrated things
Hey Zompist,

A while back I read an interesting article in which the author listed his opinions on what were the top 10 "most overrated things" of the 20th Century. Since you seem to be well-educated in the goings-on of the last 100 years, I was wondering, what are some of the historical events / leaders / inventions / whatever that you feel get way more credit than they deserve?

—J.J. McCullough, Canada

OK. I'm going to set some ground rules here:

Leaders: Ronald Reagan. And Yasir Arafat, for never rising above the mentality of a gang leader.

Movies: The Maltese Falcon, disappointingly cheesy, especially compared to either Casablanca or the original book. It's a Wonderful Life for its unchallenging aren't-we-special spirituality. On the arty side, 8 1/2— too long, too much of a Rorschach blot.

Science fiction: Isaac Asimov: better read him before you're 16 or you'll notice how mediocre he is. The Silmarillion... I'm sorry, I'd like to like it, but I found it way too artificial and uninvolving.

Animation: Mickey Mouse, basically an undead artefact propped up by Disney's relentless publicity machine. And the entire modern CGI industry, except for Pixar.

Painting: Abstract expressionism— as visually constipated as the academic art it supposedly rebels against.

Inventions: The food processor, the first in a long line of kitchen appliances you don't really need and will barely use. Micropayments: say, if I could get everyone on my bulletin board to pay me a quarter, I could quit my day job for one day! Wikipedia: the free high school term paper anyone can edit, and does.

SF inventions: The humanoid robot... why does anyone actually need one?

Books: Gertrude Stein, maybe so ahead of her time that no one can read her yet, or maybe just unreadable. Samuel Beckett, while we're at it: Qu'est-ce qu'il a donc, faut être un peu relaxe, non?

Comics: Chris Ware. And Astérix, a rather jingoistic joke extended about twenty albums too far.

Food: Fancy steaks: if I want to assault my arteries, ribs are a lot tastier. And Cantonese food— as my friend Jim once said, why did they hide Sichuan from us for long?

Events: The moon landing: basically a stunt, as can be seen by the fact that we haven't been back in forty years. Before the space aficionados write in, consider that it may actually have been counter-productive: it pointed our space program at pizzazz rather than profit, and thus retarded the commercial exploitation of space, which is the only way to make it sustainable.

Linguistics: Mass comparison, which despite its ability to get linguistics into the papers, tells us nothing of actual interest.

Hard science: String theory, which so far seems to be untestable and thus barely science at all.

12 Dec 2006: Cerebus: Do I gotta?

I just finished reading Dave Sim's High Society, and enjoyed it. Is it worth going back (and do I need to go back) to volume one— which I know you enjoyed, but which others say is sub-standard, and which you didn't seem to like as much as later volumes — or can/should I just go on to Church and State?

And while I'm on the topic, did you ever read past Minds? If so, what did you think of the later volumes?



Bob replies:

You're in the sweet spot of Cerebus now, and you might as well enjoy it. Yeah, definitely read the first volume— Sim is only middling at Conanesque adventure, but he's unsurpassed at Conanesque comedy.

I read through Rick's Story, which translates to issue 231, or 77% of the series. I've glanced at the later stuff without being very tempted. Sim would be a fascinating, even shattering artist to study if I didn't know English. The graphic experimentation, the evident obsessiveness, would seem like genius if I couldn't actually find out his meaning— in the way Guido Crepax blew my mind when I couldn't read any Italian. But since I can read Sim, I end up wondering why this intense detail is lavished on a character whose level of appeal, action, and acuity approach zero, and on religious tirades that only make sense to me as pathology.

On the other hand, Guys (book 11) has a lot of fun bits... if you only read one book past #4, make it that one.

12 Dec 2006: A word for your senators
For Agtobot,

In my state of residency this election season, two senators were slinging mud and feces at each other like it was going out of style. What did you think?


Agtobot replies:

Hook a couple of soup cans up to a galvanometer and badda bing, you can charge rich retards $20,000 a pop to hear you retell old Uncanny X-Men plots.

16 Nov 2006: The Gipper and the GIMP
With the relatively older ones among your editorials and opinion pieces, such as your large essay about the 20th century or your relatively older reviews, do you have any afterthoughts or additions?


Hmm. A few of the earliest editorials are, shall we say, a little optimistic. It seemed to me that if people looked at the facts and some well-chosen arguments, mistakes like Reaganism could be avoided.

I still don't feel I completely understand the shift toward conservativism in this country. I have a lot of partial explanations, and perhaps they all add up to cover the phenomenon, but I worry that I'm missing something. On the other hand, I distrust too-neat, single-cause explanations of historical events. It wasn't just one thing that caused the fall of Rome, either.

As for the reviews, I think they improve with practice, which is another way of saying that the earlier ones aren't so good. At least it's not so clankingly obvious as with my drawing skills.
What do you think about Linux?

OK, since you've always been a Mac user, since you seem to make enough to afford them without troubles, and since you're a gamer, I can see why it's not for you. But what do you think about it aside from that?


I'm glad that it exists, but I'm bugged by some of its theoretical pretensions. Now, I have a bias, because I write software for a living. But that's the core issue, really: I don't see how it improves the world if the products of creativity are free. I like being paid to write software. I wouldn't want software to be like writing, where only a tiny minority make a living at it, and I think that's what we'd get if the open-source thinkers had their way.

I don't follow Linux closely enough to really critique it, though I think it's telling that Jamie Zawinski has given up on it, because of the endless bugs and hassles. I think a corporation is more motivated to create an acceptable level of interconnectivity and reliability than a consortium of narcissistic amateurs.

There's some things open-source can do well. Wikipedia is an example both pro and con. I despair of it ever being an authoritative source on languages or history, for instance; but it and other wikis really excel at documenting pop culture. I don't think open-source could create a great game like Civ or Oblivion, but once they exist, open-source is better than the developers at creating add-on content.

16 Nov 2006: Reagan's dark side
I'd be curious to read your views in more detail on the presidency of Ronald Reagan in an editorial or rant? I've been doing a lot of reading about him recently and want to get a good feel for all the opinions. Recently you wrote in a rant...
“I never thought a later US President would start to make Reagan look good. Though Reagan has much evil to answer for, he did have the sense to be satisfied with merely theatrical machismo— the only country he invaded was Grenada, population 100,000, and I don't recall him repealing habeas corpus and making torture into US policy.”

So, the main question is, what evil does he have to answer for?


Primarily, the conservative movement wouldn't have taken over without him, and I blame them and him for the now decades-long assault on the middle class and the poor. For half a century America distributed its ever-increasing productivity to everyone: the poor declined from 40% of the population around 1900 to 15% eighty years later, and the middle class steadily increased in wealth, stability, and leisure. And since Reagan, the poor and the middle class have stagnated, and the well-off simply keep the country's productivity gains for themselves.

A single person isn't responsible for all of this, even a President; but Reagan provided the signal— the firing of the striking air traffic controllers— that war on the workers was now government policy, and could be fully indulged by business as well.

Reagan's deficit spending destroyed the Republicans' previous reputation for fiscal competence, which set up Bush's fiscal recklessness, which will be a millstone around our necks for decades to come.

Reagan also ushered in the age of denial. Global warming didn't exist, pollution was caused by trees, welfare was a handout to Cadillac drivers, there was no oil crisis, just because he wanted to believe so. He also showed that there was no immediate political downside to denial— quite the opposite, in fact. But the cost of ignoring problems is that they come back in a more acute form years later.

As I said, Reagan knew when to control his macho impulses; but his support for dictatorships continued the US's shameful history in Latin America, perpetuating misrule, death, and poverty for millions of people. Lies are always paid for— though not always by the liars, unfortunately. Thanks to the civil war he pursued, Nicaragua remains the poorest country in the Americas outside Haiti. His careless funding of "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan, one more bit of Cold War games-playing, helped create the Islamist threat that would kill thousands of Americans here and abroad twenty years later. And his sunny self-confidence led directly to the unteachable apocalyptic mindset of George Bush, which has created failure in Iraq, global isolation, and the wilful abandonment of our Constitution.

And more subtly, Reagan's success meant the destruction of responsible conservativism. America gets on best when it alternates between the center-left and the center-right. Reagan's Republicans threw out their own center. A republic that turns to extremism is like settling a domestic dispute by taking out a gun. It gains a lot of attention and temporary power, but it empowers emotion over brains and greatly increases the chances of disaster.

5 Nov 2006: Is it just Korandom?
The Pope was recently in hot water for quoting Manuel the second of the Byzantine Empire. After perusing the Koran I'm inclined to agree with the Emperor, most religons, even Buddhism, have parts that can be easily manipulated into 'slaughter the unbelievers'. It just seems that Islam has more than the others. Irshad Manji in "Whats wrong with Islam" lists key points in the Koran that can be construed as 'love thy brother' no matter what or how he thinks. These seem to be rather thinner than other religions. What's your take?


No softball questions, huh? Can I have Agtobot answer this? No?

After 9/11, people were naturally shocked, and wanted to know why someone would do such a thing. And one easy answer is Islam.

A good intellectual ought to have a toolkit of bullshit detectors, and one of the best is a wide historical view. If something's been around for a thousand years, we need to evaluate it using data from the whole time period. If our judgments hold only for the last decade, that's a pretty good sign that they only apply to recent events, not to the thing's milennial nature.

Go back a hundred years; did it seem that Islam was inherently or particularly violent? It would have been pretty hard to maintain when Westerners were busy with two world wars and exporting colonialism and communism. If anything, Arabs were seen as quaint but heroic figures, thanks to T.E. Lawrence.

Or go back a thousand years. Any objective observer in A.D. 1006 would have had to conclude that Islam was immensely more prosperous, powerful, civilized, and tolerant than Europe. Muslims were already integrating their knowledge with the ancient Greeks and Romans; they had cities and Europe barely had villages; real medicine was practiced in the Caliphate, quack butchery in Europe; Christians and Jews lived peacefully among the Muslims, while no Muslims were allowed to live in Europe. See this old rant for more.

Of course, other time periods would show Islam building huge empires. Well, so did everyone, and Europeans did the best of all, and indeed conquered every bit of Muslim territory. (There's a sort of imperial anthropic principle: whoever you are, you are likely to be the cultural descendant of imperialists.)

So, I see no connection between incendiary statements in the Koran and Islamist terrorism, because such a connection just doesn't hold for all of Islamic history.

As a check, look at the Bible and Christendom. Is there something inherent in Christianity that necessitated the fall of the Roman empire, the bloody wars of religion, slavery and colonialism, the French Revolution, or the creation of communism and fascism? Just because evils are done by Christians doesn't mean that the evil comes from Christianity, much less the Christian scriptures. And of course it's hardly fair to look only at the negatives of Christendom; we should talk as well about the monasteries, the Renaissance, science, religious freedom, democracy.

The 1400 years of Islam are not irreproachable, of course. It could certainly be argued that Islam's treatment of women has been pretty uniformly wretched. But even that doesn't say much about its potential for change. Christendom has been hard on women too, but it's managed to transform itself.

This doesn't mean that Islamic fundamentalism isn't dangerous. It just means that it isn't dangerous because of what's in the Koran.

You may well ask: OK, so why do so many Arabs support Islamic fundamentalism and the use of terror? It's a long story; but some good answers are found in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, by Fouad Ajami. In a nutshell, Ajami argues that the Arabs tried everything else— monarchy, liberalism, communism, nationalism— usually according to the best advice from the First or Second World. And it all failed. Fundamentalism seemed like the one thing that hadn't been tried. We may have to wait for it to fail too; the one country where fundamentalism has been in place for a generation, Iran, is also the most ready for change.

29 Oct 2006: Teacher! Leave those kids alone!
Dear Zompist,

In a recent post to the ZBB thread "Prescriptivism, the French Academy, and reality" you made these provocative statements:

Now, the smartest people teach themselves; but for everyone else, there's education. I tend to think this is a mistake— the classroom is one of the worst ways to learn, except for a small fraction of people.

What makes learning in a classroom ineffective? How should we educate people instead?


Let's start with on-the-job training. I've noticed that taking a class in some aspect of programming isn't enough; I have to use the information. I never learned COM properly, for instance, because I really never had to write COM objects. But when I started a new job that required C#, I learned it quickly— I had to, I was using it daily.

There's more: every programmer knows, I think, that you can't learn a programming language by reading a book. The book may give you a feel for it, but you don't know it till you've written programs in it.

Now, I simply think that kids are the same way, if not more so. Illinois, where I grew up, requires classes on the Constitution in 8th grade. That's utterly absurd— there's zero practical use for that information at that age, so almost everyone is simply going to forget it. Sample program output from Alan Kaye's students

The apparent success of schools is an illusion, due to several factors:

You might guess that I didn't do well in school and resented it. Not true; I did very well. But 80% of it was a waste of time. The knowledge that's stayed with me, from languages to geography to history to writing to programming, is all stuff I learned on my own.

How would I educate kids instead? Through learning by doing. School is supposed to prepare kids to live in a technological capitalist society. So a high school could be organized as a company to develop, produce, market, and sell real products. Accounting needs mathematics; marketing needs language skills; production uses all kinds of skills. Developing a video game, for instance, would require algebra and trigonometry.

Other possible projects: write and produce a movie; run a farm; build a working robot or a sailboat; put out a magazine; plan and take a trip to a Mexico using only Spanish. Ideally the kids themselves would choose from an array of possibilities. Loners wouldn't be forced to join in; they might be given an individual project such as creating a conworld with conlangs, or creating an animated cartoon, or learning how to read manga in Japanese. These wouldn't be side projects; they'd be the curriculum.

Kids can do amazing things if they're really interested. The illustrations at right are from two 15-year-olds allowed to play around with Alan Kay's pioneering Smalltalk development environment at Xerox PARC, back in 1977. At the top are two frames from a simulation of helicopter; the bottom shows a program for drawing circuit diagrams.

A possible objection is that some kids would want to sit around and do nothing. I doubt it, really; I think everyone has some buttons that can be pushed. I knew a guy in high school who was a complete burnout, didn't like any of his classes— but he was passionate about music. Well, let him spend all his time learning to write, play, and produce music. He might not learn sociology or biology, but he wasn't learning those things as it was anyway.

22 Oct 2006: Read gothy comics!
Dear Bob,

How's about reviewing some of the stuff Slave Labor puts out, like Lenore or Johnny or something?


Bob replies:

Come to think of it, I don't know why not. I have reviewed some Slave Labor comics— Elizabeth Watasin, Sarah Dyer, and Evan Dorkin— but looking throught their catalog, I see that I've read very few of them, and that this may explain why I'm not goth. Rex Libris, crusading librarian, definitely looks like something I'd like to check out. I'll look at Dirge and Vasquez as well.

22 Oct 2006: Starship Stormtroopers
Have you ever read Starship Troopers? If so, what's your take on the underlying theme of a moral code based solely upon personal survival to be suborned only when the survival of the greater whole was at stake? Is it a justifiable philosophy, applicable to some of today's sticky problems? Or merely a thin veneer to justify neo-fascism?

—Christian Crawford

Heinlein is a great writer, and almost always makes me want to throw his books against a wall. Bottom line: has there ever been a ruling class, of whatever the composition, which brought justice and prosperity to those excluded from power? The powerful always oppress the powerless. And Heinlein is hardly the first to consider that his favored class is superior morally to the plebes.

Science fiction is wonderfully suited for raising interesting questions, including political ones; it's lousy for answering them, because the writer just can't resist cooking the situation. Where an actual political thesis would have to prove its points, Heinlein can simply assume them: states with universal franchise collapsed— “they paid for their folly”; Heinlein's state simply “works better” and suffers no revolutions.

Rico's instructors are bullies who dress up their political propaganda as “an exact science”. And as in a Chick tract, the apparent discussion is a sham: the challenges the know-it-alls beat down are all softballs.

Rule by a no-nonsense technocratic elite was a common meme among '50s sf writers; Heinlein created another version in “Gulf”; compare also C.M. Kornbluth's entertaining but fascist “The Marching Morons”; Poul Anderson's time cops; A.E. van Vogt's weapon shops; even Asimov's Second Foundation. It's a pretty weird idea to have popped up in America just after defeating one totalitarian empire and while resisting another.

On the other hand, it was a time when science was still exhilarating, technology was transforming everyday life, and engineers could be seen as the invisible, underappreciated midwives of a new world. Nerds were smart and felt like they were surrounded by dumb people. Since they didn't read history or literature, it didn't occur to them that this is how any elite has thought of the commoners. Tocqueville, a hundred years earlier, was more observant: the common people are transformed by education.

I know, Starship Troopers doesn't enfranchise the nerds, but those who fulfill national service. A passage about “bleedin', profiteering, black-market, double-time-for-overtime, army-dodging, unprintable civilians” makes me wonder if Heinlein's system doesn't derive from rage toward those who didn't adequately contribute to the national project of WWII. In any case, if anyone agrees that national service builds “stable and benevolent government”, I invite them to move to France or Germany, which require it of all their young men.

“I have never been able to see how a thirty-year-old moron can vote more wisely than a fifteen-year-old genius,” says Heinlein, with the mild sarcasm that helps a nasty-minded provocation pass for something obvious. For one thing, he's shamelessly pandering to his juvenile readers, flattering their sense that, at 15, they're masters of the universe rather than pimply undersocialized geeks. And on Heinlein's own level, I might respond “I have never been able to see how a Vietnam War veteran would vote more wisely than Martin Luther King's supporters in Montgomery, or those who served in the Peace Corps, taught in the inner city, or worked out the formulas of modern physics.”

As for the ethics, like any moral teacher, Heinlein loves paradox. Basing his system on “the blind, brute struggle of the individual to stay alive” makes it sound tough and macho, the opposite of the “do-gooders” he's opposing. Again, there's a wide streak of wannabe barbarism in '50s sf. But a moment later, he's talking about self-sacrifice, duty, and responsibility— which are other-centered, self-abnegating virtues. Personally, I think any way moralists can motivate virtue is worthy: if a war story makes people excited about duty, fine. But the supply of virtue isn't so high that we can throw out bits of it as unscientific. Compassion was a good starting point for Jesus and Buddha, and I don't apologize for preferring them to Heinlein.

22 Oct 2006: SWHC for me, see?
OK, since you once pointed out that nobody has (had?) ever asked you this, I'll go ahead:

What's a zompist?


That comment is a bit outdated... I've answered this question a few times over on the ZBB. But Agtobot didn't get any questions this week, so let's see what he says:

I mean, yeah, he was nuts before, but I mean he's really nuts, you know? like BZZT BZZT TWEET-TWEET HONK HERE COMES THE AXE MA crazy


14 Oct 2006: Consie Paucity
You seemed quite surprised in your review of the Reader's Survey when only 7 "out-and-out conservatives" responded. What was the source of this confusion/suprise..ed..ness?


I figured most of my readers were oriented toward linguistics and/or conlanging, along with some who appreciated the comics and sf stuff. None of that, it seemed to me, correlated with political stances.

So either those interests do correlate with non-conservative politics, or conservatives don't end up as serious enough fans to answer the survey. :)

14 Oct 2006: SWHC for me, see?

Dear Agtobot,

Whatever happened to the SWHC?

—Creepy Spinnwebe Nerd

Agtobot replies:

I kinda like the cottony, swirly feeling that serious confusion brings

14 Oct 2006: Put on your inventin' boots
Hey Zompist,

Ok, so the question goes something like this. I was bored one day and wasting my time on the internet, when I landed upon a nice blog entry by some author about piracy and stuff. (Hmm, think it was Max Barry. Don't remember.) He said something along the lines of, “Well, the publishing industry is the only one that has an anti-piracy device without knowing it. Nobody likes to read books on monitors. Hurts the eyes. Font gets scratchy. Spacing may be a bit messed up.”

Do you think that, eventually, something will be invented to change all of this?


PS, I was the one who suggested this idea ;)

(Checks mail...) Hey, so you were. Thanks for the idea, Chris! If it fizzles out, we know who to blame.

Your question reminds me of an old Isaac Asimov piece, where he enumerates characteristics of an ideal reading machine:

You've probably guessed the end, the ideal reading machine: the book.

And for high-intensity reading, I think he's right. E-readers of various sorts seem to be trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist. To read a novel, for instance, it's really hard to improve on the book.

For many uses, however, a superior alternative to the book already exists; it's called the Internet. I have the OED on disk, for instance, and I'd never buy the 20-volume print edition, for a simple reason: books have no search function. Wikipedia sucks in many ways, but I think there's no question that paper encyclopedias are outmoded technology. They're too big, and even if you own one they're probably not right to hand when you need it.

Farther on, I think we'll figure out ways to mix up brains and computers. In a thousand years you'll consider your in-brain computer to be just standard human parts.

14 Oct 2006: No, really, SWHC
I loved reading the SWHC, and really miss it. You're still posting Swatoons, so I know you guys are still hanging out on, will the SWHC ever be updated again? Although I'm really glad for Tieboy that his Half-Life comic is so successful, I'm not familiar with the game, so I don't get it, and I miss his writing. Add that to Spinn's decision not to update A1, and I'm at a serious loss for ways to waste time!


There, Raven, are you reading this?

Rave did want to publish some of the newer logs, but certain wusses got worried about the self-incriminating, salacious, or slanderous material that might be unleashed on an unready world. But maybe this will be the outside clamor needed to get something happening.

I think the titles alone make great reading:

"Awww, shit, dude, someone sewed her mouth shut!"
Remind me to remove everything on my desktop that says 'Hitler'
Everything I Know About Quantum Physics I Learned From Watching SciFi Network
Maybe they can chow on anything else that plops out of her
I would so pay $14.95 to watch Lore in a room full of moths for an hour
A blow job in 1942.
In hell, I will only talk about drywall
"Hello, Mister Bond. I'm Hoebag Badonkadonk."
I Can't Believe It's Not Otter Cock!
This is like 1001 decorating ideas using only your pecker and common objects from the junk drawer
Lugnut and Wheatabix and Poonjuice and Ax and Piggy and Wallet and Scumbo and Monad and Half-Tard and Poopants and Mr. Britches and Peggy
"Triscuits! TRISCUITS!! for the love of GOD why don't you BUFFOONS have your own TRISCUITS"
"I accidentally commited bukakke."
The Fraternal Order of Some Dumb Wussy Farming God
His fur is the color of suffering
Ask for them by name!