\ Zompist's Rant Page

Zompist's Rant Page : 2001

So it turns out I like commenting on the affairs of the day. Many of these rants will be political, but I'll put up other stuff, too-- comments on books or movies, jokes or aperçus that don't need a page of their own, perhaps some comments from readers. We'll see how it goes. The newest entries will be at the top.
New entries are here, over at the blog.

Rants for 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008

11 Dec 2001: The package metaphor
There's a naive view of language that goes something like this: Fred has a meaning sitting in his head, which he wants to share with Murgatroyd; but meanings can't be communicated directly. Rather, the meaning has to be encoded in a statement, which he can then utter or write down. Murgatroyd hears or reads the statement, then decodes it. Now she has the meaning in her own brain, identical to Fred's except for possible errors in transmission.

This is a serviceable metaphor if we're talking about "The cat is on the mat", but seriously breaks down if the message is, say, War and Peace.

A nice demonstration is the Chomskybot, a little program that randomly rearranges sentences from Noam Chomsky into an incoherent whole. As John Lawler says about it,

[I]t just hovers at the edge of understandability, a sort of semantic mumbling, a fog for the mind's eye.... [Its] most interesting effects are in the mind of the beholder, especially since its output not infrequently induces a strong feeling of inferiority in the unsuspecting, a sense of 'I just don't get it, so I must be dumber than I'd thought.'
In terms of the earlier metaphor, it's as if Murgatroyd's brain goes into overdrive, seeking to find a meaning that simply isn't there. And yet it seems so close, bubbling along under the surface. (The Sokal hoax does the same for deconstructionism.)

When we read such fake texts, we are obviously manufacturing any "meaning" we find ourselves, based on hints and suggestions in the text. But if we do that, how can we be sure that this isn't what we're doing when we read a real text?

Or consider implications, inferences, and connotations. Take a simple sentence like The king is here. Various logical deductions are possible: the king exists; the speaker believes the king to be legitimate; the king is nearby; the hearer will be interested in the king's presence. Pragmatically, the statement might be a warning, an proclamation, a reminder, a disgusted acknowledgment. Connotations will differ if the speaker is an American (to whom kings belong to foreign countries or to fantasy) or a citizen of an actual kingdom, such as Sweden. In classical Arabic, the sentence might imply a certain disparagement: a malik was a foreign or pagan ruler, unlike God's servant the caliph. The simplicity of the statement has a stylistic effect. In context, the statement will suggest various responses, from "No he isn't" to "I'll be going, then" to "OH MY GOD!"

Which of these (very simple) connotations, implications or effects are part of the meaning, part of the package explicitly encoded by Fred, and which are deductions, guesses, or assumptions imported into the understanding process by Murgatroyd?

My view is that the package metaphor is wrong-- that there isn't any shiny, solid meaning in either Fred's or Murgatroyd's mind. Fred intended some of the cloud of possible inferences-- some consciously, some quite unconconsciously. Murgatroyd generated her own cloud of conscious and unconscious inferences, which may or may not much resemble Fred's.

This view seems to me to explain much better why we so frequently have trouble in understanding each other-- in the package metaphor, this can only be ascribed to imperfect (de)coding-- as well as how things like stories and speeches work, and why they affect different people differently. (For more, see Sperber and Wilson's Relevance.)

11 Dec 2001: When Republicans Rule
It doesn't take long, does it? Remember when government was the problem? Remember when every move of the Attorney General was subjected to years of backbiting? Now we find that we need government bailouts, an unlimited power of secret detention, and trials without Constitutional protections. The Freedom of Information Act is to be limited, so that no one is ever accountable for any of this. And criticism is equated with unpatriotism.

Related to the last rant, want to know what it would take to get peace in the Middle East, and why it won't be soon? It's all in this fine interview with Israeli author Tom Segev.

3 Dec 2001: Attack. Attack. Repeat.
What is wrong with Ariel Sharon?

Nasty terrorist strike on Israel. Responsibility has been claimed by Islamic Jihad and Hamas. So what does Sharon do? He bombs Arafat's headquarters, and blames Arafat: "Arafat is responsible for all... He's the biggest obstacle for peace and stability in the Middle East... Arafat brought us to this situation as a result of the strategy of terror he's adopted."

Sharon is doing his best to ride the post-9/11 bandwagon-- to make his country's persecution of the Palestinians part of the war on "terrorism". It's a bad, bad strategy.

First: it plays right into the hands of Bin Laden and friends. What they want is for the West to demonize every Muslim. The terrorists want the West to declare war on Islam and blatantly side with Israel. Sharon is handing them a recruitment poster. And you know, now that the terrorists are targeting the US too, I rather resent that.

Second: the Israelis need someone to talk to. You can't simply declare 4 million people to be terrorists; you also can't keep them as second-class citizens in Bantustans, or hope they all move to Jordan. Arafat is not an "obstacle for peace"; he is the route to it. The Israelis need him. With him, there is a faint chance of achieving peace; without him, none at all.

Dark green: Palestinian control
Yellow: Partial Palestinian control

Now, I haven't liked everything Bush has done since 9/11, but on the whole I think his head is screwed on straight. The US found good evidence that tied Bin Laden to the attacks, and gave the Taliban a chance to give him up. It found global and local allies, built bridges to Muslims willing to condemn the attacks, pressured the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down together, tried to avoid civilian casualties, and seems to intend, this time, to help rebuild Afghanistan once the Taliban goes away. All this is way better than either of the alternatives that have been pushed from right or left: either a) kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out, or b) hope that Interpol kind of issues a warrant or something.

Sharon is evidently stuck on option a) as well. I wonder, on his planet, how are things supposed to work? What does he think will happen if Arafat, the Moriarty of Terror, died tomorrow? Does he think the Palestinians would call off the intifada?

This isn't to say the Palestinians' strategy is good. The Palestinian atmosphere right now glorifies suicide bombers-- really; they write pop songs about them; kids dream of being selected for a mission; there's a waiting list. This is a sad, cruel, desperate strategy, which ends up playing into Sharon's hands. Nothing can really be said for it, but we might understand it a bit more if we try to think about the Crusades from the Muslim point of view: the West, thanks to Muslim decline, managed to occupy a crust of the Muslim heartland for awhile; but revitalized Muslim states eventually shook them off.

As for Arafat himself: he staked his reputation on making an accommodation with Israel; he finally realized, I think, that it was his only hope of moving up from leader of a band of commandos to actual presidential dude. I believe him when he expressed dismay over the 9/11 attacks and donated blood: he understood that Bin Laden had virtually destroyed his hopes for statehood. His reaction to the suicide bombings in Israel must be ambivalent: he knows that they're the work of his enemies, but no doubt he hopes that they'll exert pressure on the Israelis. But I don't think he could stop them if he wanted to.

26 Nov 2001: Islam: What up with that?
Pundits everywhere have been scrambling to learn something about Islam. I'm no exception; I'm reading a couple of books by Bernard Lewis, whose formidable scholarship-- he reads deeply in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, as well as several Western languages-- makes him a better guide than the usual news reporter recycling the opinions of his interpreter.

The Clash

It seems to be fashionable to think about the world as a clash of civilizations, meaning religions... this allows Islam to take the place of Scary Foreign Menace previously filled by communism, drugs, and Japan. To be effective, the scaremongering must make Islam seem alien and merciless-- a milennial, inscrutable enemy of modernity which has never renounced jihad. And don't forget to use the line "Islam isn't just a religion-- it's a way of life."

If your religion isn't a way of life, it's not much of a religion. The key to understanding Islam is that it's very, very much like Christianity-- not the watered-down kind that offers singing and sleeping twice a year, but the systematic ideology that wants to convert the world to The Way-- "the" here indicating that there is no other Way to worry about. And if you think that "jihad is inherent to Islam", go ask an evangelical about the Great Commission.

There are differences, of course. Historically, for instance, Islam has been much more tolerant. Christian Europe barely tolerated the Jews and suffered no resident Muslim communities at all; Islam gladly accepted resident Christian and Jewish minorities. (Lewis suggests that this has to do with timing. A later revelation can to some extent incorporate an earlier one-- but it will resist one that's later still. Islam hasn't been so accepting of, say, Baha'iism.)

Some commentators like to say that Islam never "separated church and state". This is misleading to the point of uselessless-- for a thousand years Christianity and Christendom were just as inseparable. Indeed, that's why (Tales of Deep Irony!) we have the separation of church and state. Islam never had a 'church'-- it has no priestly hierarchy, no sacraments, no vicar of Muhammad-- so its divisions never turned into schisms, much less the wars that ultimately convinced Europe that state religion was a bad idea.

That old-time medicine

The key point, perhaps, is that for a thousand years Islam saw Christendom-- with a good deal of justice-- as a forgettable pile of barbarism. As one vivid example: a 12th century writer mentions how a Crusader baron summoned a local, Syrian physician when some of his followers were ill. The doctor found a knight with an absess on his leg; he applied a poultice, the absess burst, and the man felt better. He also examined a woman with a "mental disorder"; he prescribed a mild diet. A "Frankish" (European) physician declared that the Syrian obviously knew nothing of medicine. For the knight, he prescribed amputation-- by axe. The amputation took two blows; the second killed the patient. The woman with a mental illness was said to have a devil in her head; he shaved her head, inscribed a cross on it, pulled off the skin to expose the skull, and rubbed it with salt. She died immediately.

Another telltale: Colin McEvedy's map of European cities in 737 shows just two towns with as many as 15,000 inhabitants, neither of them Western: one was Muslim Toledo, the other Byzantine Salonika.

The natural question is, coming from such a trough, why did Europe pull ahead? The old answer would be, because of the Renaissance-- i.e., the rediscovery of ancient learning. But this hardly accounts for the difference: the Muslims had that ancient learning themselves, long before Europe rediscovered it.

A deeper answer might be a differing attitude toward knowledge. In Muslim (especially Sunni) belief, God's authority passed not to a person but to the Muslim community as a whole; (Muslim) tradition is therefore to be respected, and "novelty" (bid`a) is to be distrusted-- if it's not what we've been doing, it's probably unfaithful to God. Once Muslim scholarship had digested the bolus of ancient learning, and careful judgment had answered all the outstanding problems of theology and law, it saw little need for more inquiry. An Ottoman scholar, Kâtib Çelebi, writing in 1655 about Christianity, relies chiefly on previous works from half a milennium before, and thus carefully tells the story of the Nestorians, and nothing about Protestantism or even the Catholic/Orthodox split. (Science fiction fans may recall the scholars of Asimov's Galactic Empire here.)

The future and how to get there

And why was Europe so (relatively) curious? One reason may be that, for a milennium, it faced a considerable threat in Islam, which had quickly gobbled up half its territory, and as late as 1683 was capable of besieging Vienna. Being number two is a powerful motivation for change. Muslims, by contrast, were the world's leading civilization; they saw little to learn from barbarians and infidels.

They've been awakened since, of course, and now their dilemma is to find a way forward. Fundamentalism is only a fifth or sixth attempt at an answer-- not a very good one, we might say; but look at how long it took the Spanish to learn to calm down after the Reconquista.

(Hint to other pundits: That's a good test case. If your deep insight into Islam would apply to Catholic Spain in 1500 but not today, maybe it isn't as inherent to the faith as you thought.)

19 Nov 2001: Beyond the desktop
Saw an interesting article on new computer metaphors today-- replacements for the hoary old desktop metaphor, which dates back nearly 30 years.

Curiously, I don't like any of the suggested alternatives. The guy advocating the chronological approach has a point-- the files you've worked on last are very likely the ones you'll work on next-- but he seems to think that people work on just three files a day. He's off by at least an order of magnitude. (Plus, just look at that screenshot-- most of the screen taken up by a display of 15 items; for four of these, the only visible info is identical.) Note also that Windows and MacOS already allow you to view the most recent files you've used, or view a directory by mod date.

The "star tree" is horrid. It violates a key principle of UI design: don't overwhelm the user with trivialities. Anyway, whenever you need a site map, it's because your site design is a failure, anyway.

The "3-D gallery" is kind of pretty, but I think it'd be impractical. It takes up more screen real estate than a folder, doesn't help with text-oriented things (like, say, almost everything I work with), and looks a lot harder to rearrange or navigate than standard windows. (Quick, how do I transfer five of these ten files to a room on the other side of the virtual building?)

Other ideas I've seen fail so badly that I have to wonder if they only appeal to certain brainstyles. Scott McCloud, for instance, proposed a computer book that was a single enormous two-dimensional space-- you'd zoom in to see any one thing. His website is organized this way, in fact-- but, tellingly, abandons the metaphors by adding extra links-- a "what's new" link, for instance.

If there's any lesson here, it's that having just one metaphor is bad. There should be various ways to get at your information.

9 Nov 2001: You Heard It Here First Dept.
I suspect the anthrax guy isn't part of the global terrorist network-- he's just an opportunistic domestic nutcase. It just doesn't strike me as what a major outfit would do.

Early reports talked about the difficulty of getting hold of weapons-grade anthrax. But as an article in this week's New Yorker makes clear, it's not that hard to do. The anthrax itself came from a university sample in Iowa, and they used to send samples out to virtually anyone who asked. Weaponizing it is harder-- but not beyond the means of a single researcher.

4 Nov 2001: Art school daze
An art professor in this week's Reader informs us that it's "no longer possible to make ambitious paintings that simply show the world." One of his students, indeed, says "I think of myself as a frustrated landscape painter."

Well, why doesn't she paint landscapes, then? Maybe people wouldn't buy them? Surely not; a few weeks back the New Yorker, in fact, profiled a painter who's become a rich, franchised industry. He mostly paints sentimental landscapes.

No; the obstacle turns out to be the professor. To paint art with obvious subjects or admitted beauty, he says, is "too easy."

Actually, what's easy is to go along with what you're taught.

1 Nov 2001: The robber barons
I just finished Matthew Josephson's The Robber Barons, a book dating to that far-off period when titles didn't have colons in them. Fascinating stuff.

The foundation of the barons' wealth was a frank land grab: Congress distributed huge swaths of land for free to railroad builders, who turned around and sold the land at a premium to settlers. Existing towns were blackmailed into donating prime land for stations and rights of way, and bonds for construction; Los Angeles paid 5% of the assessed value of the town's property. The California railroad ring made sure the law was in their favor by writing it: one of their members, Leland Stanford, was the governor; and millions of dollars were spent to get the ring's way in Washington.

Rockefeller's oil trust was based on restraint of trade: an illegal secret agreement with the railroads to transport his cargo for less, which was then used to force the sale of other refiners' businesses at a fraction of their value. The laws against restraint of trade, serenely violated by the trusts, were used against the unions when they tried to organize the workers.

The tycoons generally came to terms among themselves; but at intervals the rival rings erupted into war. In 1868 Vanderbilt wanted to take over Fisk and Gould's Erie Railroad; the Erie simply responded by diluting the shares-- Jim Fisk declared that Vanderbilt could have all the shares he wanted, "if the printing press don't break down". Vanderbilt got the law of New York State on his side-- whereupon Fisk and Gould, one step ahead of the deputies, dashed across the Hudson and barricaded themselves in a hotel in Jersey City. (P.S.: They won.)

A later battle, in 1901, was more civil but just as spectacular, as E.H. Harriman and J.P. Morgan battled over the Northern Pacific. This event ruined a good number of speculators, who had sold the stock short in hopes of making a killing when the bubble burst. But since the shares were needed for the fight over control, there were almost none on the market: in one week the price rose from 110 to 1000. The rest of the market crashed as the speculators unloaded everything they had in order to fulfil their obligations to buy.

We were taught in school that the Anti-Trust Laws tamed the combinations, but Josephson isn't impressed by them. Where there was a rare attempt to enforce them, they were easily evaded.

Libertarians have attempted to blow smoke across this era, denying for instance the power of monopolies, or arguing that they benefitted the consumer. It's true that enormous combinations enjoyed economies of scale; but the tycoons aimed frankly at monopoly control and extortionate rates. As just a couple of examples. when the steel trust was formed in 1901, steel rails, which Carnegie had produced for $12 a ton and sold for $23.75 a ton, were immediately raised to $28 a ton. Pennsylvania railroads, a monopoly under Morgan, charged $.003 per mile per ton to transport coal, ten times the rate Carnegie charged on one of his lines. The railroads bought up steamship companies, to make sure that they couldn't be undercut by sea transportation. Some disgruntled citizens once calculated that it would be cheaper to ship goods around the word from New York to London to San Francisco rather than across the continent by rail.

It's also true, of course, that we got a railroad system out of all of this, and the world's largest steel and oil industries. But the process ensured that both citizens and investors paid inordinately. Railroads were overbuilt, for instance, inamuch as a standard tactic was to encroach on someone's monopoly by building a spur, which the monopoly would have to block or buy up. Citizens were squeezed twice by the railroads, first by the grants to the builders, next by monopolistic rates. Investors were bilked by flagrant overcapitalization. And by paying low wages, the tycoons ensured that their only major customers would be each other (and the government).

One might well ask, if the robber barons weren't a Good Thing, what does account for the prosperity of the US? It's a long story; but it starts with free land. It spurred on development, resources were there for the taking, and workers couldn't be overly exploited while they still had the opportunity to pack up and move west. As well, the new country had no powerful neighbors, was the darling of foreign investors, and completely avoided the big struggle of 19C Europe-- the defeat of the aristocracy by the mercantile class. In a sense, it would have been hard to mess up the opportunity.

22 Oct 2001: No one is safe, unless they produce a LOT of oil
There's a very disturbing article in this week's New Yorker. Based on telephone taps, it looks like the Saudis are in up to their necks in supporting Islamic fundamentalism, including al-Qaeda. They've also refused to do background checks on the suspected hijackers from Sep. 11; and to relieve political pressure at home they've allowed fundamentalists control over education and the press-- both of which are harshly anti-U.S.

Will Bush's pledge to confront any nation that aids terrorists extend to Saudi Arabia? I doubt it, somehow.

17 Oct 2001: Life as a first-person shoot-em-up
I happened to read Eric Raymond's reaction to the events of Sep. 11; what struck me was the resemblance to Noam Chomsky. For the ideologue of any flavor, whatever happens is simply a reinforcement of their particular hobbyhorse. And as it happens both of them have the same pet target: the U.S. government.

Raymond (a libertarian, among more respectable avocations) believes that obvious lesson of the tragedy was that everybody should be able to take guns on airplanes. Boggle. Sure, Eric, it should be easier for terrorists, nutcases, and angry drunks to shoot up airplanes.

I remember reading a book by Benjamin Netanyahu on terrorism; his advice to civilians was to get the hell out of the way. Real gunfights don't work like the movies, where the heroes never get shot. In a deadly situation the professionals need everything going for them, and one aspect of that is to know that anything moving and shooting on the plane is an enemy, not some "helpful" 2nd Amendment loon.

Oh, but things changed on Sep. 11. Yes they did, but not in any way related to guns. Netanyahu's advice was based on the assumption-- true up to that morning-- that the terrorists were after attention and monetary or political reward, that the episode would end with most or all of the passengers safe though shaken in some Third World airport. Everything follows from this. The logic changes dramatically if we know that the terrorist is planning a suicide mission. The passengers on the fourth flight understood this immediately.

The problem with the gun fantasy-- blowing away the bad guys-- is that the dreamer thinks that the bad guy is one step behind him, instead of two or three steps ahead. Typical example, from a book on a serial killer: a man in bed hears a noise, and in fact it's the killer entering his bedroom. He reaches for the gun in his bedside table. But it's not the movies: the intruder is watching, and shoots the homeowner dead. Similarly: Airport security was designed to stop political hijackers, and despite Raymond's contention that it's "useless", it's not-- hijackings worldwide dropped from nearly 90 in 1969 to under 10 in 1998 (and domestically, from about 25 to 0). The Sep. 11 hijackers had a new and nastier idea than any the security people were prepared for. Does Raymond think that, if airport security is abolished and citizens can take handguns on board, terrorists will somehow stick to box cutters? Does he plan to fire a few rounds at the bombs in the cargo hold and at the anthrax in the galley?

(This isn't to say that guns have no place in the air, only that gun fantasies don't. Air marshals are a good idea; and as one security expert points out, it'd be a good thing if terrorists had to assume that pilots were armed.)

13 Oct 2001: Is Islam bad?
In punditland, it's now open season on Islam. The (consie) National Review thinks it's a dangerous "falsehood" to say that Islam is a religion of peace, and yammers about "the Islamic threat"; the (liberal) Salon explains that terrorism and jihad is "inherent" in the religion, because Islam doesn't separate church and state.

Can you imagine the artery-popping outrage if similar things were written about Christianity? Yet they easily could be. Christianity has plenty of evil to answer for (do I really need to make a list?), and the separation of church and state is historically a rather new idea-- and one that still isn't accepted by Christian fundamentalists.

The National Review even has the gall to criticize Islam for its treatment of women-- as if American conservativism hadn't spent the last thirty years pouring scorn on the "feminazi" idea that women are men's equals.

The Salon guy claims that "Islam does not have a religious history apart from its political history"-- which is simply untrue. Muslims have often been ruled by non-Muslims-- for centuries, in the case of the Mongol empire, China (which has had a native Muslim minority, the Hui, for a milennium, as well as an intermittent empire in Turkestan), India (under Marathas and British), Dutch Indonesia, the Russian and Soviet empires. Algeria was ruled by France from 1848 to 1962; Egypt by Britain from 1882 to 1951; Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lybia, and Iraq by Europeans between the wars. Spain still rules a few cities in Morocco.

Just about any general statement about "Islam", to say nothing about what's "inherent" to it, is going to be foolishness. We're talking about 1.3 billion people on three continents, speaking hundreds of languages, with 1400 years of history. Again, is it really that hard to make the analogy with Christianity? Fundamentalists, Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians, and unbelievers-- to say nothing of Americans, Latin Americans, Europeans, Ibos, Lebanese, Filipinos, and Koreans, or medievals vs. moderns-- might find it hard to agree on what is "inherent" to the religion.

I have to wonder if the people talking about the "Islamic threat" miss the simple binary world of the Cold War, with its electric ideological air and global scope. We worried terribly about whether Laos or Tanzania would go over to Them. It's worth remembering that most of our effort on these now-forgotten countries was wasted or even counter-productive. As Cecil Adams pointed out, we'd have done better in Vietnam to simply distribute all the money we spent on the war directly to the Vietnamese, to spend on consumer goods.

It seems to be strangely comforting to fret about an implacable, violent, alien "Islam". But it's more enlightening to think, instead, about Islamic fundamentalists-- because, after all, we have fundamentalists of our own, not terribly different from them. Right-wingers who wonder how people can resentfully reject modernity only need to ask their own allies; while left-wingers hoping to find oppressed peoples who also deplore US policy would do well to remember that these potential allies are conservative theocratic fascists.

10 Oct 2001: Handyman
I've been doing some projects around the house lately. The following general rules seem to apply.

8 Oct 2001: Bombing what's left of Afghanistan
Someone on Salon (back when they wanted readers) mentioned that every day Bush held off on attacking increased his respect for him. I tend to agree: this is a battle that requires intelligence, both in the sense of "spies" and the sense of "smarts". A quick attack means that we're skimping on both.

George Lakoff has a pointy-headed but interesting article on metaphors for the attack and its aftermath. The key question: were the attacks a crime or an act of war?

Many people think they should be treated as a criminal matter. The advantage is that we take a long-term, low-key, deliberative approach and don't threaten civilians. The disadvantage is that this is essentially what we've been doing for the last decade, and, as we saw on Sept. 11, it's not enough. The crime metaphor doesn't lead people to make sacrifices or re-evaluate policy.

The problem with war, of course, is that it can cause massive death and destruction, and may not even accomplish anything... though I don't share the usual progressive attitude that it's always the wrong choice. It seems, for instance, that Reagan's attacks on Libya calmed Ghadafy down considerably; and sanctions were not enough to stop Milosevic's war against the Kosovars.

The other main danger is that war makes people stupid. To fight a war you don't need nuances and second thoughts... in fact, they get in the way. But to fight a war against terrorism, you need extra intelligence... of both types.

The most essential bit of intelligence, of course, is knowing who you're fighting. We can't (and shouldn't) fight 1.3 billion Muslims. Bush has tried to make it clear that the enemy is terrorism and regimes that support it... and I can only hope that is not too broad. Bush reportedly declared the Chechens to be "terrorists"-- presumably, giving a free hand to Putin was the price of Russian support-- and the miserable Ariel Sharon keeps trying to classify Arafat (and by implication all Palestinians) as terrorists.

Americans have a deep and regrettable urge toward unilateralism and isolationism. (And yet we have a deep need to be liked, as well. Somebody needs to put this whole country on the couch.) It's about time that we learn that these attitudes are unaffordable luxuries. The US likes to undertake some snappy little foreign project, and then get out and forget about it. Afghanistan, for example: we armed and trained them during their war against the Soviets; as soon as they won, we abandoned them. We might live in a different world today, if we'd helped them rebuild their country instead.

The noises we hear from Washington about secrecy and unity are disturbing as well, for the same reason: we need to know what's going on. Giving the CIA a free hand is not the answer; unchecked and unwatched, they work against democracy and free enterprise. Where do you think Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Noriega, the Iranian mullahs, and other bad guys come from? The enemies of the moment often have a CIA past, or else are rebelling against a CIA coup of a generation back.

It's not just Americans who could do some thinking. There's a good article in the New Yorker about educated opinion in Egypt. Many Muslims justify just about any attack against just about any Israeli; and the recent assassination of the Northern Alliance leader shows that it's now open season on Muslims who happen to stand in some fundamentalist's way. And Bin Laden has destroyed the dream of a Palestinian state for a generation, and instigated a war on Afghanistan. Muslims as well might ask themselves if an action that satisfies the urge to retaliate is really in their own best interests.

1 Oct 2001: The train remains insanely lesser than the plane
Now that people are a bit skittish about planes, and check-in time is increasing to two hours, isn't it the right time to consider building bullet trains?

To get from Chicago to New York you can now figure an hour's ground transportation, two hours checkin, two hours flying time, and an hour or more at the other end-- six hours total. A bullet train or TGV could get there, city center to city center, in 4.5 hours-- and a whole lot more comfortably. (And that's just using average shinkansen/TGV times. With top speeds, make it three hours.)

Personal update: I start a new job Wednesday. I'll be working on test scoring algorithms, in C++. Thanks to those of you who've asked about my job search!

23 Sep 2001: Any mail experts out there?
Here's the problem: My computer crashed (bad computer!) while downloading mail. And now it won't download mail anymore. It gets an error: "A filtering error occurred. An error has occurred (-199)." This is during the "checking mailbox" phase.

The local client is Outlook Express 4.5, on an iMac running MacOS 9.0. It's connecting to a POP server on a Unix box at my ISP somewhere. I can log into the Unix server and read mail there OK. I can still send mail from the iMac.

Presumably the crash left something open or locked somewhere, or a file corrupted. But I have no idea where to look, or even whether the problem is in Outlook Express or on the Unix side.

Any ideas...?

Update: Kudos to Tony Delgrosso for sending me an idea that worked (trashing the account configuration and re-creating it). Thanks, Tony!

20 Sep 2001: One week later
Today's disgusting moment: finding insect larvae in the rice. And in the other rice (we had several types), and crawling on the shelf. Eeeewwww. (Entomological note: they had discrimination, these beasties. They found every bag of rice on three shelves; they weren't in anything else.)

Other insect minds: the dangerous bozos who killed a Sikh and a couple of Muslims. I've talked to some folks on IRC who are almost as broad in their anger and eagerness for retribution; but that's just talk. It takes a special kind of stupid to go out and shoot a gas station owner because people entirely unrelated to him, 12,000 miles away, are terrorists.

Which leads us to: Operation Infinite Justice! From CNN, it looks like Bush is planning on a bunch of bombs, followed by a long covert war. This is probably a good plan, except for the bombs.

Salon has had some good articles on what might go wrong invading Afghanistan. This is not something anyone's had any success with since Genghis Khan. The terrain is unforgiving, the country hasn't got a modern infrastructure left to bomb, and the people are very good at guerrilla warfare. Some people talk about "levelling" the place... this might vent the bursting testosterone glands, but a) there's no use destroying a country that's already been destroyed by 20 years of war; b) what sympathy we've garnered would be immediately lost; and c) the terrorists would just slip over the border into Pakistan and chuckle at our stupidity. Oh, and d) killing 25 million people would make our name live in infamy.

The situation reminds me of a Peruvian movie we saw a few years back, La Boca del Lobo. It was about a small army company sent far into the Andes during the war against Sendero. The terrorists predictably commit some atrocity, and then melt back into the mountains. For a good part of the movie we see and share the frustrations of the soldiers... what do they do? There's nothing to hit back at, except huge green mountains and surly villagers. They eventually decide on the latter.

Does that mean we shouldn't act? No, it means we should act with brains. That movie could almost have used an ironic footnote: Sendero's leader was found, not in a cave in the mountains, but in a middle-class house in the suburbs of Lima.

Well, let's try to end on some upsides.

15 Sep 2001: More agitated thoughts
First, today's Most Disgusting moment: a bunch of downstate gas stations raised their price to $5 a gallon. This is not supply and demand-- there is no gas shortage-- it's simply some guy sitting down and deciding that a national outrage is a good opportunity to jack up profits.

Runner-up was Jerry Falwell blaming the attack on-- wait for it-- God. Jerry's theory: this is God's punishment for paganism, homosexuality, feminism, and the ACLU. Apparently, God is offended by some pagans dancing naked in an Oregon forest, so he smites a bunch of financiers in New York. Note to Jerry: read the Bible; don't try to write it.

My personal peeve over the last few days has been folks who think it's a good time to indulge partisan politics, or anti-Americanism. It ain't the moment. If Muammar Ghadafy can be nice for a week, so can you.

Same goes for jingoism. I saw some spam today that complained about how everybody picks on America and it never gets any thanks and helps everybody out and no one helps us back. This is mighty insulting to the countries that have helped us, have thanked us, who supported us in our wars, who lost their own citizens in New York this week.

That said... I also believe that everybody is allowed to say something stupid this week. Nerves and emotions are going to be running raw. Some people are trying to be as high-minded as little deities; that's as out of place this week, I think, as blaming the ACLU or yelping about imperialism. They're not being judicious, but self-righteous-- and that easily descends into hypocrisy, as with the wiseacre who took the time today to send me hate mail about my last rant. He decided that the proper response to (what he considered) hateful words was a bunch more hateful words-- and congratulated himself for it.

What else... ah, strategy. Is Bush wrong to be talking about "war"? So far I can't say that he is. Osama Bin Laden declared war on us years ago. Frankly, we didn't take him seriously. That, I think we can fairly say, was a mistake.

This is part of why the worriers about American imperialism are wrong. If we didn't oppress everyone in the world, this wouldn't happen, all that shtick. To my mind this is a racist argument-- because it implies that only Americans, or only Westerners, are moral agents. Americans make choices and have to be responsible for our actions; but apparently no one else does. I don't agree: I think terrorists are responsible for their choices as well. If they have chosen the path of war, then they are responsible for the consequences, including the likelihood of retribution, the end of the dream of Palestinian independence, and increased prejudice against Muslims.

Someone sent me an editorial from an Arab newspaper which made this point:

The Palestinians, it can be said, are already in danger, even though no Palestinian group had the ability to carry out such slaughter and destruction. Ariel Sharon is even now busy trying to garner the maximum profit from what has happened -- full of sympathy and offers of help. If a Middle East angle is proved, all the reins will be off him. He will be able to do what he wants in the occupied territories, and America, even Europe, will let him get on with it. The peace process will be dead for years to come, possibly forever.

Does the talk of war mean we're going to stop thinking and start bombing? Not necessarily... notice that the government is not bombing, in fact, it's thinking. I think the war talk is mostly a recognition that the situation is now serious, and will demand much more of the country.

What will we do, exactly? I have no idea. Some people are going to want to bomb Afghanistan... here, an Afghan explains why that might not be so good an idea.

I'm also reminded of the war against Shining Path in Peru. Gung-ho kill-em-all tactics did little but add government terror to the miseries of the country. It wasn't an option to just bomb Shining Path-- there was nothing to bomb. What crippled Shining Path was taking out its leader, and that was accomplished by Gen. Vidal's good old-fashioned detective work. That, of course, would require that we put our resources back into human intelligence. A (now scarily prescient) New Yorker article some time back noted how hard it is to infiltrate Mideastern terrorist organizations... Russia, by contrast, was a piece of cake. (To begin with, your average American spy doesn't look that different from a Russian.)

Another Salon article makes a similar point... but goes too far, I think. It advises treating the bombing as a criminal case (but isn't that how we've treated terrorism so far?), and maybe softening American policy to make Muslims happier (but did facilitating peace talks and leaning more on Israel make an iota of difference to the fundamentalists?).

This is like saying that Peru could have defeated Shining Path by spending a little more on agro colleges, or something. That might be a good idea... but it completely misses the point of Shining Path. They weren't fighting for better conditions for the peasants; they were fighting for a Khmer Rouge-style revolutionary dictatorship. They killed people who were trying to make the current system better-- from their perspective, they'd rather have more peasant misery, not less; it gave them more support.

Well, I hope we have the equivalent of Gen. Vidal, someone who can find the least dangerous response...

11 Sep 2001: Everybody loses
Man, I am reeling today, as you can guess.

Perhaps the most disgusting bit on TV was the shot of Palestinians celebrating in the West Bank. Man, these people have the political and moral intelligence of fish. What are they thinking? "Oh boy, a bunch of people are dying that had absolutely nothing to do with our cause! Neat-o!" Even from a stupidly personal point of view, do they think that this is somehow good news for them? If the culprits are Muslims, they can kiss a Palestinian state goodbye for a generation.

Lots of Americans are going to want to nuke something... Mecca, maybe? I know, the Saudis are our pals, but as John McCain said, this was an act of war, and the enemy should know that they have something to lose too.

Of course, the Israelis have been massively retaliating for terrorism for decades, and what has that gotten them? What's it gotten us? Today, some unknown number of innocent people dead.

Good quote from a news article: "I guess we're at war now. We just need to figure out with who."

3 Sep 2001: Or not to have a mind at all
Some people insist on making themselves stupid about politics. A striking demonstration is currently on view in sci.lang: a guy who seems fairly curious and intelligent about languages, but whose mind snaps shut when it comes to politics. He likes to utter smirky, calumnious little one-liners about "liberals", and thinks that any mention of Hillary Clinton is devastating.

As an example, he lambastes feminism for taking inconsistent positions over the last hundred years. Maybe that's good enough for talk radio, but in a science newsgroup, couldn't we recall that all words change in meaning, and that all political movements are an explosion of viewpoints and changes, especially over as long as a century?

He also declared that "liberals are against" the right of self-defense, which is nonsense. When talking about (say) the Chinese language, would he consider it appropriate or useful to simply make up his data?

Here's a hint: when you find yourself reeling at the contradictions and self-evident idiocies of your opponents, it's your own brain that's underclocked. And if nothing else, if you misunderstand and underestimate your opponents, they're likely to beat your pants off.

The best antidote to this sort of self-inflicted ignorance I know of is the linguist George Lakoff's Moral Politics. (Elsewhere I cover this and about everything else under the sun.)

28 Aug 2001: How can you lose a hundred billion dollars?
I haven't said much about Bush, mostly because, unlike Reagan, he's been predictable. Reagan's brand of ultra-rightism was surprising; that Bush is the toy of the ultra-rich is just not news. But the budget fiasco deserves comment.

It seems that the $300 billion or so that was projected (only a few months ago) as the surplus for this year has half evaporated. According to Time, about $46 billion was lost to the poor economy; $42 billion to the tax cut, and $28 billion to an accounting trick to make next year's budget look better. There's still a surplus, but it's entirely taken up by the Social Security trust fund. The Medicare trust fund is already being raided for day-to-day government programs.

I guess Dubya is the first slacker president. Nothing wrong with going into debt, right? When the government runs out of money, it can just switch credit cards, or maybe hit up the old man for a tenner.

24 Aug 2001: So that's what's wrong with management
I was reading this book on what's messed up with American management-- Slack, by Tom DeMarco, on how downsizing, overwork, and the culture of fear destroy innovation, burn out employees, and invite litigation. And my wife was reading a book on sociopaths-- not merely the ones that get locked up, but the ones who thrive in the middle of ordinary society.

She made the connection: management is screwed up because it's the sociopaths who are rising to the top.

That would explain why (say) present-day managers can't understand why increasing the work day to 12 hours is a bad idea. Sociopaths don't have any empathy. And it explains why Wild West cutthroat competition is the only business model they know. That's how sociopaths think; they only know how to use people, and they're good at it.

(Or perhaps overwork was the one thing American companies were willing to learn from Japan? I got news for you: even the Japanese are sick of it.)

12 Aug 2001: This is pro-life?
I'm probably about the only liberal around who has qualms about abortion. I think it's wrong to outlaw it; but there's something skeevy about using it routinely. (Of course, I also squarely blame the sticky residue of Puritanism for America's high abortion rate. Neurotic hangups about sin lead to more sin, not less.)

Anyway, stem cell research has some of that skeevy quality. There's enough material there to keep a think tankful of ethicists squawking for a month. So it's interesting that Bush's decision on stem cells so squarely manages to make no political, moral, or scientific sense.

The problem is this: the embryos used for stem cell research are created in fertility clinics. More are created than are used. That is, some of them grow into babies; others do not. Bush's idea is evidently that, rather than use these excess embryos for health research, they should be thrown away.

The consistent anti-abortion position would be to shut down the fertility clinics, so that human embryos aren't sacrificed at all. Bush's policy of banning stem cell harvesting, by contrast, saves not a single embryonic life. (Did you get that part above? Those embryos will be thrown out instead.)

So what exactly was the point?

10 Aug 2001: Try to understand this
Why is it that, when there's an argument on Usenet, people insist that they're being "misunderstood" when what's happening is that they're being disagreed with?

I may feel that people misunderstand me, of course; but since I think of myself as a writer, I tend to take responsibility for misunderstandings-- it's my job to be clear. Plus, I don't like gratuitous rhetoric. I think a personal assault ("You misunderstood me!" "Can't you read the English language?" "Only a moron could think...") is counter-productive: in a public debate, to be visibly angry is to look desperate and foolish.

9 Aug 2001: Ghost World
I just saw Ghost World, the movie... I thought I'd write down some impressions while it's still fresh in my mind. (Here's my review of the comic.)

It's really good. It takes a lot from the comic, but the mix is different; it's like a shuffled version of the lives of the same characters. It nails Enid and Becky's simultaneous disdain and fear of the world, and Thora Birch is marvelous (and adorable) as Enid.

The biggest change, of course, is the introduction of Seymour, a middle-aged record collector with a bad back (could there be a connection to the middle-aged record collector with a bad back who co-wrote the movie?). It's a good move, though, because it adds a time dimension that was lacking in the comic. This, it implies, is what happens thirty years later to people like Enid who just don't fit in. (Well, unless they become reasonably happy cartoonists, like Dan Clowes.)

There's a subplot about a remedial art course that doesn't quite work; it's too much of a mixture of tones... the art teacher is variously portrayed as a freak, a jerk, a ninny, and a hero... since Dan Clowes passed unhappily through art school, I suspect we're getting a super-compressed other movie's worth of experience here.

The relationship between the girls is subtly changed in the film... in the comic, Becky is alienated by Enid's thinking about going to college; in the film, the problem is that Becky, for all her echoing of Enid's scorn for the world, realizes that she has to live in it and is willing to take the first steps-- getting a job and an apartment-- and Enid isn't. Enid is in fact rather more messed up in the movie (but perhaps this only makes the ending, which is the same as the comic's, more understandable).

At the showing we were at, almost the whole audience seemed to be young people on dates. I wonder if they enjoyed it. I don't think this is a movie for well-adjusted people-- people who enjoyed high school. They're going to be baffled and annoyed at the causticity flung in their direction. Me, I spent much of my time in high school mocking everything in creation with my friend Jim, so I feel right at home with it...

1 Aug 2001: Dreaming games
While we're on the subject... if I've been playing a game too much, when I go to bed, my mind gets into a half-dreaming state where it's still playing the game. When it was Minesweeper, I'd close my eyes and see rolling fields of Minesweeper grids... for Civ2, I'd be building a civilization right there in the bedroom. Sometimes I'd get really alarmed, because I had only one city, about two feet down the bed. Better start one ASAP over by my wife's head...

31 July 2001: What makes a game playable?

I was thinking of this while revising my Almean scenario for Civ2. When I first got the game, I was enchanted with many scenarios that came with it-- with new graphics and modified rules, it seemed like a dozen new versions of the game. Yet not many of them are really good to play, and some don't really work the way I think their creators intended. The New World scenario, for instance, is intended to simulate the era of colonialism. But overseas colonies are a particular weak point of the game's AI; so what usually happens is that only the human player colonizes the New World, and the "Eurasiatics", who are supposed to be a kind of neutral background noise preventing eastward expansion, dominate the game because of their great number of cities.

Playability is tricky to achieve. For some reason SimCity 2000 had it-- I used to spend days developing cities-- but SimCity 3000 did not. It's awfully pretty, but I've spent perhaps two evenings on it. I'm not sure why, but it seems less challenging and less customizable than SC2K.

Games don't have to be complex to be engaging... I used to waste incredible amounts of time on Minesweeper (and programmed one for the Mac so I could play it at home). I suspect that its addictiveness derives largely from the low payoff. A really satisfying ending would lead you to put it away for the night, happy. The vaguely disappointing ending leads you play it again in search of something more.

22 July 2001: Dïkkat, okuyun ve saklayin!
This was an enclosed little paper in a toy that came with some candy a friend gave me. Such festivals of multilingualism are familiar from some European products-- but not with this particular selection of languages.

Kinder Surprise pic

22 July 2001: We all scream for tofutti
I've been making my own ice cream lately-- often enough, frozen tofu. It's good. Really. I'm not a big fan of tofu in general, but with a cup and a half of real fruit purée, the taste is fruity.

But that's just context... the thing that amused me was a note in our ice cream book that says tofu used to be marketed as "vegetable cheese".

Man, does that sound horrible.

13 July 2001: Why lawyers get a bad rep
There was a news item the other day about a class-action suit against some doctors and drug companies for "overdiagnosis" of ADD.

There probably isn't a worse method (except maybe gunplay) to address a public health problem. Courts and lawyers think in terms of morality and liability and certainty; medicine thinks in terms of scientific theory and treatment options and probability. You can't make doctors think like lawyers. You can make them more nervous and cautious and order more tests, but you can't make them give the morally right diagnosis. There is no morally right diagnosis-- only the correct one, in those rarish cases where tests short of autopsy exist, or the most likely one, if they don't.

Similarly, you can't establish the right educational methods by laws and lawsuits. Not long ago people in California managed to make bilingual education illegal; at almost the same time, studies came in showing that students did better in bilingual programs than in total-immersion programs. You can't decree what the best way for kids to learn is. You have to find out by trying.

6 July 2001: Three Rant-ettes

21 June 2001: Road Rage
The one time when I clearly see the need for the 2nd Amendment is when I'm being tailgated.

I wouldn't actually fire, though, except at the jerks who need to tailgate when I'm going just as fast as the guy ahead of me.

It just doesn't make sense. I'm not going to drive like an idiot to please jerks. And even if I did, it wouldn't get either of us to our destinations any faster, 'cos there's no place to go. We're still limited by the speed of the guy ahead.

18 June 2001: QueryInterface, AddRef, Release!
One of the annoyances of looking for a computer job: tests. I've been given about four so far.

This is a fine idea in theory. I've been on the other end of this process, too: it's hard to evaluate a candidate's expertise, so it's tempting to write a test that sees if they really understand why you make your destructors virtual and how to manhandle multiple inheritance into working.

The problem is, these tests don't match how people actually work. What task ever depends on your having memorized what three methods every COM object must support? Why the need to know ahead of time what controls you'll find on the other tabs in the ODBC Data Sources dialog? Is it really part of C++ knowledge how to begin a debugging session of a distributed remote ActiveX object? In practice, you have command completion, you have manuals, you can click on the damn tab. I don't even think it's a good idea to memorize all this trivia. You want to keep as much knowledge as possible in the world (that is, in the sources of information at your fingertips). The world is better at it, for one thing.

And isn't it more important to know if candidates document their code, if they spend a moment thinking before writing their first {, if they've ever written reusable code that's actually re-used, or if the maintenance programmers that come after them curse their names?

What really bugs me is the thought that these idiocies can stand in the way of getting me work.

Update: The recruiter thought I did fine on the C++ test. Well, if she's happy, I'm happy. Still, I thought you should know: in addition to ranting, I went out and bought a book on SQLServer. It can't hurt.

17 June 2001: How not to score points with me
I recently got mail from both leftist and rightist readers, each of whom decided to bolster their points with personal insults.

The left-winger's grenades included "pseudo-liberal" and "masculinist"... dark and theory-sodden epithets you'd have to wade through shelves of postmodern criticism to even decipher. Still, the aggression and disdain come through. The odd thing is that at some level the guy seemed to expect me to get enlightened and make some changes. Somehow I'm not inclined to do so.

The rightist was simply scurrilous; he suggested that the only reason I might want to "defend Clinton" was that I was a sexual offender myself. When I gave this the kissoff it deserved, he whined that all I had to do was refute his accusation. Nope; I have no obligation to give civil answers to insolence.

I've seen worse on Usenet, of course. But Usenet newsgroups are public forums, where invective plays to the gallery if nothing else. Private e-mail removes even that dubious purpose; all the insults can do is degrade both the sender and his cause.

6 June 2001: Zompist pisses off the music community
I heard someone from the Electronic Frontier Foundation on NPR today... some blather about 'what happens if the music industry gets its way' and 'we should decide what sort of place we want the Internet to be'...

Now, it may well be the fault of NPR's editors, but as an intellectual argument, this makes no sense at all. It's basically an idealization of adolescent craving: stuff should be free, 'cos, you know, we want it.

Copyright is there to encourage artists and discourage exploiters. Without it, artists starve and pirates make all the money. With it, artists can make a living and therefore more art. Being an optimist at heart, I believe that people still understand this in general, and don't steal books, sign other people's paintings, and rip off other people's websites. But music is apparently an exception. Hey, d00d, Metallica already has enough money, right?

As for the hegemonic power of the industry, man, apply the lesson of the Web... which is the same as the lesson of punk rock. Screw the industry-- make your own music and put it on the web. (What's that? You want to make money at it? After rejecting the idea of paying money for other people's music?)

At the same time, it's obvious that the music industry, rather like the pre-1789 French aristocracy, is pissing in its own bed. Why is it working so tirelessly to alienate and criminalize its customers?

30 May 2001: Gambit and Kissoff
Ooh, I'm getting out of the habit of ranting. Let's try to ease back into it...

In Ringworld, Larry Niven mentions the God Gambit: folks from an advanced civilization pretend to be gods in order to scam a living from superstitious locals.

It occurred to me that the primitive locals have (or had) their own version of this game: the El Dorado Kissoff. Tell the conquistadores that, yes, there is a fabulously wealthy city whose streets are paved with gold; only it's not here, it's out a safe distance thataway.

It doesn't work forever; but hey, neither does the God Gambit.

7 May 2001: Near-Earth Orbit on $4 million a day
So Russia sends up the first space tourist, and NASA has a bug up its ass and doesn't want him to go. First thought: That's good cheap irony. NASA wants to run space in a technocratic, totalitarian way; Russia lobs hunks of metal into space held together by gum and quick thinking, and sells seats to the highest bidder.

Second thought: What are they thinking? Does NASA want people to be excited about space or not?

Looking at pictures is all very well, but dammit, thousands of us want to go there. Why not facilitate that, especially if you can rake in a few millions by doing it? The only hope that we'll actually get moon colonies and all that, after all, is if we find a way to let private enterprise pitch in most of the money.

Of course, there's some risks (e.g., early death). But you know, risks are all right, if they're faced willingly and knowingly.

2 May 2001: Oh yeah, another example
Here's another example of an unfalsifiable hypothesis (see entry below): Chomksy's Principles and Parameters theory.

The idea is that our brains contain a single, hardwired Universal Grammar, with a set of "switches" that allow us to learn the grammar of whatever language we end up speaking. E.g. a Spanish-speaking child flips the "pro-drop" and "adjectives after nouns" switches, while an English-speaking child does the opposite.

All known languages follow this Univeral Grammar. Is that remarkable? Well, no, because if any new language turns up with a grammatical feature that doesn't fit, we just add another switch. Until a few years ago, for instance, it could be assumed that subject-object order was part of UG; but now we know that there are a few languages with object-subject order. No problem! It's just another switch!

There may be other reasons to accept (or reject) the theory, but this aspect of it is decidedly dodgy.

17 Apr 2001: Heads you lose, tails I win
There's a nice paradox of belief: the more impregnable you find your system of thought, the more likely it is that it's completely bogus.

Many people obviously expect that, if their ideology has an answer to everything, that's a proof of its correctness. But it's quite the opposite, really, because if nothing can possibly disprove your beliefs, they're unfalsifiable-- and thus have no particular relevance to reality.

An example is Dave Sim's views on women-- basically, that they're brain-sucking Voids devoid of creativity. Normal people would protest that there are creative women; but Sim responds that they simply have the Male Light. So, if women aren't creative, that proves his point; if they are creative, that proves his point.

Sim can never test his theory, because nothing will ever come up that can disprove it; and a successful prediction can never validate his theory, because there's no possibility that a prediction won't work out.

Another example is Edo Nyland's hilarious attempts to trace the meaning of every word in virtually any language back to Basque. He divides up the word into syllables, looks up Basque words that contain those letters, and tortures those into some sort of explanatory phrase. E.g. enumerate becomes enu, ume, era, ate, which he relates to enulkeria 'sedentary', ume 'offspring', erakuskari 'sample', atez-ate 'door to door', producing "Go door to door to sample the offspring at home." Edo's methods are laborious, but they're Edo-proof. He can always make something of the syllables he comes up with, so he can work from now till Doomsday without ever finding any evidence to make him question his theory.

A scientific theory, by contrast, can be falsified. It makes a prediction you can test, and if it fails the test, the theory is wrong. E.g., if you think that (say) Basque is related to English, you use the comparative method. You may find correspondances that confirm the hypothesis-- or you may not. The hypothesis is genuinely at risk-- which makes it meaningful if it passes the test.

12 Apr 2001: Mrs. Wilson's washing machine
August Wilson tells a story in this week's New Yorker about his mother. There was a trivia contest on the radio, in the '50s, where the prize was a new washing machine-- something she sorely needed. She knew the answer, called in, and won the prize. But when they learned that she was black, they wouldn't give it to her. They proposed giving her a gift certificate to the Salvation Army instead; she could get a used machine there.

That's the racial problem in a nutshell, I think. The deck was stacked against blacks; if they won anyway, the rules were changed so they'd lose anyway.

The ongoing problem, fifty years later, is that they still won't give Mrs. Wilson her washing machine. This is true literally and also (stay with me here) metaphorically-- for the machine, substitute "affirmative action", or "reparations", or "quotas", or any other recognition that the game was rigged and some of the players were ripped off.

The consie position used to be that it was all right to stack the deck (and if necessary cheat). Now it's a promise that the next game will be run more honestly (but no verification, please). And that's just not good enough.

9 Apr 2001: You're not watching the right films!
Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has a book-length rant out, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See. And before we get going on that, I'd like to rant about book titles with colons, like this one. The idea is apparently that a title needs a catchy part and a descriptive part; but the convention has gotten tedious, especially when the catchy part, as here, is itself dull.

Anyway, I haven't read the book, and that's largely because I've read plenty of Rosenbaum, and from what I hear, this isn't the occasion that he's thrown off his particular brand of tunnel vision. Rosenbaum seems never to have accepted that the majority of people just don't like the same films he does. He is certain that if you just gave Abbas Kiarostami a chance, you'd love him. And his new book apparently maintains that Hollywood and the major critics conspire to keep you and Abbas apart.

Now, I have a certain sympathy for this point of view-- in comics. People think that comics are nothing but Garfield and Superman, and so they miss all sorts of good stuff they might like. I figure people just don't know about most of this stuff, or perhaps they're just afraid to go into those scary, testosterone-fogged comic book stores.

But with movies... if they were dragged kicking and screaming to one of Rosenbaum's favorite subtitled foreign flicks, I think most Americans would say: Bo-o-ring. They'd find them slow, talky, and depressive, and the subtitles do get in the way. (That's why Europeans have films dubbed.)

This isn't to say that I'm happy with Hollywood, or even that I think they're really really good at providing what the public wants. I skip most Hollywood movies, and go see things like Yi Yi and Being John Malkovich and Irma Vep. But-- unlike Rosenbaum, so far as I can see-- I recognize that these are minority tastes, and I don't believe there's a single standard of "good movies."

But is there a conspiracy, blah blah blah? Well, sure, of course. The big movie companies want to promote their own big movies; the big critics are self-selected to be the sort who are willing to promote them. The question is, would the world look much different if this conspiracy ceased to exist? Would people be flocking to see Robert Bresson instead of Bruce Willis? Not a chance.

27 Mar 2001: Getting butterflies about ballots
We learned a lot last year-- too much-- about ballots. For stupid reasons (the election of a president hinged on it), this became politicized; Republicans now find it part of party doctrine that ballots cannot be recounted and that errors are the voter's own damn fault.

I'd prefer to see this in user interface terms. Most people, when they find machines or documents confusing, blame themselves.

This is a bad habit to get into.

Blame the machine (or the document). Or more accurately, blame the designer. It is your VCR's fault that it's impossible to program. It is your refrigerator's fault that you can't figure out how to make the fridge colder while keeping the freezer at the same temperature. And it is the fault of the ballot, the voting machine, and the election commissioner if they've complicated the simple task of indicating who you want to blame for the country's problems for the next four years.

To exit this rant, please press Ctrl-Alt-X while humming "Suwanee River".

21 Mar 2001: Bags to the Future
Articles on U.S. military policy often mention the enormous fear of casualties. The idea is apparently that, since the Vietnam War, Americans simply can't bear to see soldiers coming home in body bags.

Some of the lessons learned in that war-- such as having civilian support and having some notion of how to win-- are good, but this one strikes me as outdated. We have a volunteer military now. Anyone who joins the armed forces knows perfectly aware that death is a possibility. They have alternatives, and they're knowingly taking on the risk.

Maybe we need a warning label on the army. Caution: Other side may shoot back.

21 Mar 2001: It's a small world!
I was just reading about Lori Berenson, an American imprisoned in Peru, accused of being an MRTA terrorist. (More info is available at the Free Lori Berenson site, the Peruvian embassy, and for a rare balanced story, The Nation.)

I was struck by one thing: Berenson says she had no idea that her housemates belonged to the MRTA. She just happened to end up in a house filled with MRTA militants, and just happened to be arrested along with the wife of MRTA's leader. Hey, it's a small world!

And no, it's not like she was an unsuspecting tourist; she spent several years working as a left-wing activist in El Salvador, and was working in Peru for a couple of lefty magazines.

Now, it's clear from the Nation article that the government blew her role way out of proportion, invented some charges, and tried her unfairly; my wife, a Peruvian, thinks that their anger was inflamed by anti-Americanism. But Berenson's story is an insult to our intelligence. Someone with her connections and ideals doesn't just accidentally wander into a nest of revolutionaries.

The pro-Berenson sites simultaneously buy her story, and insist that it doesn't really matter if it's true or not. E.g., from the Anti-Capitalist Discussion Forum:

We can imagine the difficult situation where, if entirely hypothetically, a prisoner has committed a revolutionary act but is making a defense of not having actually done it. Revolutionaries would certainly still state support for the act. Revolutionaries would not be avidly interested in whether the prisoner was guilty of this act.
This attitude doesn't exactly help her cause with non-revolutionaries, however.

Or from a letter to The Nation:

I don't care if she's a country club Republican or an Uzi-toting terrorist's moll. She's a human being and an American, and she must come home.
Because, you know, the planet is America's playground. Americans can do anything they want, even commit "revolutionary acts", and then they get to go home afterward.

That's the insufferability of the left, really: We Know Best. Another letter on the same page informs the Nation that its writers know nothing about Peru-- though the letter writer is American and the article in question was co-written by a Peruvian investigative journalist.

16 Mar 2001: The dark side of the productivity revolution
So our mortgage company sent us a nasty letter. They claim we're in default.

We didn't miss a payment; we sent it in, and they sent it back. Twice. Why did they send it back? Because we didn't pay the escrow* portion. Why not? Well, 1) because the company had already sent us a letter saying they were not paying property taxes this year, so we'd have to; and 2) because we'd asked the escrow account be waived. And our request was granted. Over a fricking year ago. They never removed the escrow account, and never responded to our increasingly angry letters.

Why are they so messed up? I think I know why: too much computerization.

Obviously, the departments aren't talking to each other. Collections doesn't know that Accounts Receivable is sending back our payments. Neither knows that Escrow Waiver is changing our payment amount. Nobody knows about those letters.

I suspect that virtually none of this has involved actual human beings at all. The nasty letter was probably automatically triggered by some computer program: no payments recorded, call letter( nasty = true ). Probably no human saw it, except to put it in an envelope. (It's not even signed.)

So, that's the downside of the information revolution. ABN AMBO is so efficient that most likely they're going to get sued for breach of contract, or else lose the mortgage (if interest rates go down again, I'll refinance just to get the account away from them).

* (For foreign readers: the bank collects money, called 'escrow', to pay property taxes and home insurance on your behalf. It collects the money well before these payments are due; so if it does this for thousands of accounts, it has a bunch of money on hand and collects interest on it. That's why they don't make it easy to not have an escrow account. Why they don't remove it when they say they will, however, is just incompetence, rather than out-and-out evil. I think.)

12 Mar 2001: A linguistic puzzle
Ivan Derzhanski sent me this little item, which was a recent contest puzzle for Russian high school students. Do it without checking my numbers collection!

The Nenets language has been under the influence of Russian for centuries, and as a consequence the meanings of most of the number names have changed. Here are four numerals with their old and new meanings (not in order).
jonar" njaxar" jur" njaxar"
njaxar" ju" njaxar"
njaxar" jur" Nopoj
sidja ju" Nopoj

19, 21, 30, 33, 244, 301, 975, 1303

  • What number is called xasoju" (lit. `Nenets ju"') in Modern Nenets?
  • Reconstruct the old name of the number 1000 in Nenets.
  • What Nenets number names have not changed their meanings?
  • A hint: this problem may seem difficult at first glance. But it has the nice property that it's self-verifying. You should have no trouble knowing that you've gotten the right answers.

    Need another hint?

    8 Mar 2001: Arafat. What up with that?
    There's an article in Salon about lockjaw. Gah! Who wants to hear about that? Read about Arafat instead.

    It's not bad as reporting; it's amazingly, head-shakingly bad at analysis. It wonders why Arafat "walked away from generous Israeli peacemaking proposals". Well, duh. According to those generous proposals, if Israel didn't delay them indefinitely as usual, Arafat would get a patchwork of disconnected bantustans on the West Bank-- Israel would keep sovereignty over the entire road network. What if, you know, the Palestinians wanted to build a road across their territory, like a normal nation? Would any of the pundits who are astonished by Arafat's intransigence suffer their own country to be similarly divided up?

    As well, Arafat might have run into some trouble if he'd come home with an agreement that signed away Arab neighborhoods, gave up Arab claims to the homes they'd been kicked out of, and kept his new state as an undevelopable desert locked out of Israel's economy. Man! How could he pass that up?

    This isn't to say that Arafat is at all thinking of the long term. As the article indicates, he's a master tactician-- that's why he's survived so long-- but a rotten strategist. If the Israelis are not ready to seriously contemplate real peace, neither are the Arabs.

    I recommend The Dream Palace of the Arabs, by Fouad Ajami, on this. Ajami notes that virtually no Arab scholar has bothered to even think about what normal, peaceful relations with Israel might look like-- they all hope that the 'problem' can be made to go away.

    (I also find it interesting that the Arabs are still pissed over the loss of Andalucia, 500 years ago. (It comes up often as a metaphor for the loss of Palestine.) Not, of course, that this makes them empathetic to the peoples they took over, or nostalgic for the tolerant sophistication of Arab Spain.)

    7 Mar 2001: Conservativism kills
    More school shootings. Expect many handwringing articles about video games, role models, bullying, and insufficient Jesus. I'll add another culprit to the mix: conservativism.

    Teenagers don't care much about tax cuts and big government; but other conservative ideas can easily percolate down to them: the glorification of the already successful; intolerance of eccentrics and outsiders; the ridiculousness of empathy.

    Of course, consies will also resist any attempt to keep guns out of the hands of the embittered. That's nice, I guess.

    Teenagers can be brutal all on their own, of course; but authorities can either fight or support this. C.S. Lewis noted that he found the army easier than attending British public schools-- partly because teenagers are nastier than adults, and partly because no one pretended that life in the trenches was anything but a nightmare. The bullying at the schools, by contrast, was supposed to be good for you. Builds character, you know, and prepares you for public life.

    1 Mar 2001: Bad guys ascendant
    The corporate masters are winning.

    I have no joke here. I just find all this depressing.

    Might as well add: one of the first bills passed by the new House was to make it harder for people to declare bankruptcy (which they have an alarming tendency to do in face of, say, catastrophic medical bills). Astonishingly enough, this was just what was wanted by Bush's biggest corporate donors, banks and finance companies.

    27 Feb 2001: Viewer Mail!
    Mark Wise, who writes "I'm fascinated by languages though I have no language skills whatsoever (I am British, after all)", sent in some additions to the collection of oddities from real phrasebooks.

    He included these phrases from An Easy Guide of Conversation Armenian-English (Beirut, 1980). I didn't include them on the page since I don't have the Armenian, but enjoy these Useful Idioms--

    he has a noble disposition
    I am sick at my stomach
    he has become a dotard
    Cut short your discourse
    don't whip me over another's back
    it is on my tongue's end
    he always finds something to say, never gives up beat
    and these Proverbs:
    women's jars breed men's wars
    in a field of melons tie not thy shoe under a plumtree
    all is well that ends well (but look to the final end)
    And tieboy had this smart remark:
    consie. consie. I don't think that's a word, Sam.
    You bust me up, little buddy!

    25 Feb 2001: The origins of the conservative disorder
    A longstanding puzzle in conservativology: why does every generation of conservatives believe that things were better in the past, that modern times are a stew of decadence and perversion?

    Of course, there's a lot to be said for decadence. Periods when a culture is on top of the world-- the times of Julius Caesar or Charles V or Louis XIV or Lenin or Eisenhower-- are apt to be rigid, bellicose, ideological, and in general way too butch. Times of decadence, on the other hand, are more comfortable and more tolerant, and the art is incomparably better.

    But the consie feeling has nothing to do, really, with whether the culture is ascendant or not. After all, they're still apoplectic today, when the country has never been richer, its power has never been more unchallenged, and the rebelliousness of the sixties has been in full retreat for two decades.

    The target golden age these days seems to be the '50s-- you know, before those damn hippies, when men were men and women were docile and pregnant. Of course, the consies of the time were up in arms over the New Deal, communism, uppity blacks, and the horrors of Picasso and Freud.

    What I think happens is that conservatives idealize the times of their own childhood-- and they don't remember the nasty elements of those times precisely because they were children then. When they grow up and discover the evils of the world, they project this realization outward: instead of a change in themselves, they perceive a change in the world.

    25 Feb 2001: Why we're glad our houseguests are leaving

    We had the bright idea, a few months back, to let a young couple from Peru live in our house while they got settled in the US. After nearly three months, we're pretty sick of them.

    Basically, it's like having a couple of adult teenagers in the house... and not having their cute years as a compensating memory. The husband, Miguel, is surly, uncooperative, and full of himself. He's still no good at English, and yet resists attempts to improve it. He insists on doing things his own way-- e.g. looking for a sysadmin job in the Spanish-language papers, or going to the airport expecting to find cheap tickets* -- and he's offended if you try to tell him that his methods won't work. His wife is nicer, but so subjugated to him that she's unable to have an opinion or make a decision on his own. Neither understands that educated immigrants almost always have to take a step down, or several, to get jobs here. And worst of all, they seem to expect us to orchestrate their future for them, as if hosting them for free for three months weren't help enough.

    * (There are no Spanish-language sysadmin jobs, and prices are three times higher at the airport. Another of his misconceptions: he was thrilled to find that his English tutor speaks Spanish. So, in his weekly sessions, they chatter away in Spanish, and he's still incapable of taking a simple phone message in English. "Miguel, can you tell my wife I'll be home in an hour?" "I'm sorry... she... aren't... isn't here.")

    I feel like a conservative when talking about them... lazy kids don't want to work these days... it's too bad, but that's the way the world is... got to take responsibility for yourself grumble mutter...

    13 Feb 2001: At the lower end of the boom
    A contractor I know had an arrangment with a recent immigrant: he'd pay him $150 per week, work or no work. This sounded good for the occasional week with no work; but when there was work, it might be six-day weeks and 10 hours a day... which works out to $2.50 per hour.

    And that, gentlemen, is why I'm not a libertarian.

    When allowed free rein, employers do not turn into Randian heroes, but into vile little exploiters, who don't consider it their problem if their workers don't make enough to live on.

    I don't think that American libertarians want to impoverish the country; rather, since their eyes are only focussed upward, on the lofty position they feel they deserve, they simply are not aware of what happens down at the bottom end of capitalism.

    Thanks to liberalism, the Dickensian horrors are restricted to a marginal underclass. The libertarian fantasy is that income distribution remains a comfortable bell curve under a laissez-faire regime. It doesn't: as in Latin America, poverty becomes the norm.

    13 Feb 2001: Ein Land, Ein Sprach, Ein Volk = Ein Headache
    The Palestine-Israeli problem has been reinforcing my conviction that nationalism per se is a big mistake. Here's a posting I made to sci.lang last year explaining why.

    In article <39d947ce.12211153@news.powersurfr.com>,
    John Savard <jsavard@fNrOeSePnAeMt.edmonton.ab.ca> wrote:
    >It is true that many people in the world use more than one language.
    >But this is almost always due to abnormal circumstances: abnormal, not
    >because they are necessarily rare, but because they are unhealthy.
    >It is not good for people to live in a country where the government
    >and the economy are dominated by an ethnic group other than their own.

    This is probably going to be like arguing with the Esperantists, who don't take well to challenging their basic assumptions, but... you're basically advocating nation-states, states inhabited by people of one ethnicity and language. And that's a bad, bad idea.

    The problem is that human beings are not arranged neatly in groups. So, where do you stop? Wilson redrew the map of Eastern Europe after WWI to create nation-states; what was supposed to happen to the remaining Germans in Czechoslovakia, the remaining Hungarians in Romania, the remaining Poles in Lithuania? What do you do with the 10% of Serbs who live in Kosovo, or the Slavic Macedonians in Greece, and so on, and so on? What happens to the Gypsies, scattered over all of Europe? When nations are defined by ethnicity, all these people become permanent problems.

    If you insist on homogenous nation-states, the only solution is Stalin's: take the excess people and move them elsewhere. Or kill them off.

    And though you may admire monoglot nations, I don't. I think the most sophisticated and innovative cultures have always been the multi-ethnic ones. 18th century Vienna had more éclat than Berlin; 1st century Alexandria was more interesting than Rome; 10th century Andalusia was more vibrant than either Castile or Morocco.

    12 Feb 2001: Do-it-yourself alien autopsy!
    OK, I'm not doing a blog, but here's a neat web page anyway: Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?. A couple of FX people tell exactly how to make the kind of "alien autopsy" that was shown on Fox a few years ago. The debunking is fun in itself, but even better are the fun facts to know and tell about how rubber bodies do and don't behave, how to make scalpels produce blood, and how pathologists hold their scalpels.

    Is there any mass hallucination that's more lame than the now-stereotypical alien, completely humanoid but more neotenous (flat features, bald, big eyes)? Why should aliens look at all like humans? Aliens in sf look like humans because of the low budgets of '50s movies and '60s TV shows.

    The only creatures that look like us on the one inhabited planet we know of (that would be the Earth) are monkeys-- a handful out of a million species. Forget other planets: when we find a new, isolated Earth habitat, such as Australia, the animals look strikingly different from the ones we're used to. Another intelligent species should look at least as different from us as, say, a kangaroo does from an antelope.

    There's plenty of evidence for UFOs, of course. There's also plenty of evidence for gods, ghosts, and witches. It seems just a bit suspicious that just as religion gave way to science as the most presigious belief system of our culture, sightings of the supernatural gave way to sightings of the science fictional. Perhaps just as we industrialized, so did the spirit world?

    The real question, to my mind, is why aliens haven't come dropping by... not to draw pictures in wheat and scare yokels, but to trade and colonize. And I don't just mean in this century. Surely it's just random luck that we happened to evolve in this hundred-million-year epoch. Why didn't any spacegoing race happen upon this very hospitable planet during that time, and take it over?

    My answer to this isn't very exciting, I'm afraid-- it's just that the old sf assumption that intelligent races are interested in colonization is probably wrong. When the European nations were busy colonizing the rest of the planet, it seemed likely that the process would keep going, out into the galaxy. But they stopped, for various reasons we might explore some other time. And those reasons probably apply all the more to space, where the distances are orders of magnitude more daunting.

    I think we're left alone because the species that can do it consider colonization uneconomical or unethical or both.

    (Final cynical thought: If those two adjectives don't ultimately refer to the same thing.)

    23 Jan 2001: If they gave a progressive party, would anyone come?
    I usually don't pick on the Left, because... well, why bother?

    But, there was this letter in the Chicago Reader the other day... some lefty was complaining that the Republicans wanted to cut taxes for the rich, and the Democrats for the middle class... neither would help the poor, who gave the money in the first place, and are now reduced to begging on street corners... So, anyway, he wants to start a third party.

    The guy is stuck in the 1840s. Back then, it made some sort of sense to say that the masses-- the majority of the people, the laboring classes-- created the wealth of the country, and were left out of the political realignment that brought the bourgeois into power.

    But, y'know, times change. The US is a middle class country; what benefits the middle class does benefit the majority. The laboring classes are middle class; and if they're ruled by rich white businessmen, it's their own fault for voting them in. The problem of today's poor is not that their contributions are stolen; it's that they are almost entirely marginal. They're a minority-- 12% of the population in 1999-- and they hardly get to make contributions.

    What's going to help them? Well, there are plenty of good ideas, if anyone cares; but a third party is not one of them. Get every single poor American behind you, and you can quadruple Ralph Nader's showing-- that is, you can massively lose the election, weaken liberal candidates, and strengthen the Republicanos. Wow, good plan!

    Lefties have a choice: stay true to their beliefs and achieve nothing; or (ignoring the churning of their stomachs) ally with the middle class. What do you suppose they'll choose...?

    22 Jan 2001: The playing fields of New Haven
    There's an interesting article in the New Yorker this week about college athletics. One factoid that surprised me, though it makes sense when you think about it: athletic scholarships are a much bigger factor at small liberal arts colleges than at big state universities. The reason is that the number of athletes is about the same. The small college, however, may be admitting 25% of the class under athletic scholarships, while at the state mega-university it's 3%.

    There are some hand-wringing questions about whether it's a Good Thing or not that the gentleman scholar-athlete of the '50s is gone; kids now specialize in a sport and position in grade school, and are aggressively recruited from high school, not only in high-profile sports but in squash, badminton, or whatever. (The article wisely decides that this is really fine... if athletics can't be justified pragmatically or financially, well, neither can Korean lit or linguistics or ethnic studies.)

    The real kicker is the light shed on affirmative action. Conservatives get terribly upset-- and reach for their lawyers-- over the fact that universities admit more blacks and Hispanics than they would if they looked only at test scores. I've yet to hear a consie, however, bemoaning the rising tide of athletic scholarships... or for that matter being outraged at the low-scorers admitted just because they're children of alumni.

    So, b'god, chums, we can't depart from the meritocracy that's been a cherished tenet of conservativism for dozens of months. --What's that? You say the Fighting Poobahs are 0-11 for the season? Get the chancellor on the line!

    18 Jan 2001: The French! (pause for laughs)
    Comedians have the concept of a "joke town"-- a town that gets laughs if you just mention its name. (It differs by city; the national joke town is probably Cleveland.) There are also joke nationalities. Ours used to be the Poles, but who has any real feeling against Poles any more? Now it's the French. Those rude, dirty, horse-eating, Jerry-Lewis-watching, Derrida-reading frogs!

    Much of this is based on the usual misunderstandings. Notice, for instance, that Nicolas Duvernois' French culture test doesn't even mention Jerry Lewis; I've never met a French person who likes him. (I haven't met anyone who likes him.)

    You hear people complaining that the French are rude. My experience is the opposite... last time we were in Europe, if anything it was the Spanish who seemed rude. There is no one more polite than a French shopgirl. (Yeah, I know French, which helps; but my wife doesn't, and she felt the same.)

    What happens, I think, is that (generally, well-off) Americans go over and treat the waiters and clerks like they'd treat "service workers" at home... that is, as people who only exist to fulfill their whims, however extreme. But the French are, frankly, more democratic at heart. A French waiter is not just holding a day job on the way to a show business career, nor does he consider himself your inferior (or your pal). He's exercising a respectable profession and expects to be treated as such.

    In the intellectual realm, however, there's definitely something... one of the side jokes of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler is that all the literary works parodied are foreign. Italians know that they're a small nation in a wide world. French books, by contrast, may be satisfied to cite only other French works.

    Who else could be that insular? Well how about Americans?

    I think the real reason the French come off as arrogant is that Americans are arrogant. Pride is most offensive to the proud. The French are about the only other Western culture with our self-absorption, the only other ones who mentally divide the world into reasonable civilized people and foreigners, the only other people who aren't flattered when someone butchers their language, the only other Western nation that tends to disdain emigration. (We could even add, the only other nation that treats the countries to the South as its personal backyard.)

    I shouldn't be unfair here... they're really not as bad as us. Films from any country, for instance, can win Best Film at Cannes; the only Oscar they can aspire to is "Best foreign language film." And a lot more countries play baseball than play in the "World Series"...

    12 Jan 2001: What half of you voted for
    Some events to watch for from the Partido Republicano Institucional:

    Sounds like I'm reading The Nation, doesn't it? No, this comes from the Wall Street Journal (from an article by Albert Hunt).

    Across from this article is a screed on how conservatives are in favor of 'responsibility'. I guess this means that, when a big contributor calls up his government, he expects a response.

    Hint for the Nenets puzzle: Don't worry about the exact form of the Nenets words. When I did the puzzle, I replaced the Nenets words with symbols; e.g. I wrote them as 0njn, nin, njN, siN. It doesn't really change the problem, but somehow it makes it easier.

    Another hint?

    11 Jan 2001: People be stoopid
    One possible objection to that last rant: people are stupid, aren't they? Three answers:

    8 Jan 2001: Internet called evil, shut down; film at 11
    Well! After I posted the last rant, as if called forth by some demon of relevancy, Caleb Carr issued forth these words on Salon:

    The Internet should therefore cease to be governed by such undeniably loose rules and instead be overseen by an agency that would more closely resemble the FCC but have even broader power, specifically the power of prior restraint. Many would argue that this violates the First Amendment, but it is time for an open recognition that not only is the Internet an information delivery system of unprecedented power, it is also many other things -- and serves many other purposes. It therefore requires unprecedented attempts to assure the veracity of the content it purveys and to protect those who use it. And if that means suspending full First Amendment protection from the Internet, so be it.
    Like all Internet alarmists, Carr begins by invoking the shadow of child molesters; but his real agenda turns out to be: fact checking. He wants the government to ensure that "supposed research presented on the Internet is factual", with penalties assessed even for unwitting errors.

    Carr has obviously not thought this one through. Just for starters, how much would it cost for government fact checkers to sift through every one of the billion or so web pages in the world? Where will they get the experts to check the pages on (say) Taino, or Godzilla, or Frank Zappa? How can they regulate foreign sites? And without completely falling at the feet of Derrida, can't we worry a bit about appointing someone to be the arbiter of what are "facts" and what aren't? Especially the government?

    (Pause to wonder how Carr's fact police would handle my site. Would the government be kindly disposed to a page detailing its past transgressions abroad? Would I be allowed to keep the purposeful mistranslations in the Zompist Phrasebook? Can I post my numbers in 4500 languages list before the government researchers have verified every byte? And how do they verify statements about fantasy worlds; or is fantasy simply disallowed?)

    Well, not to worry, Carr's proposal isn't going anywhere. The real point is that Carr is living in the old world-- the print world, the world of editing. He's disturbed by the idea of just anyone being able to post just anything. For the rest of us, that's just what makes the Internet such giddy fun.

    Ultimately Carr is afraid of free thought; which means, he's afraid of people-- and contemptuous of them, since he thinks that people can't figure out bullshit on their own.

    2 Jan 2001: The unexpected diversity of human weirdness

    By now probably everybody has plumbed some of the depths of the Web (if you haven't, Portal of Evil is a good, er, portal to the evil), and realized this: people are weird.

    But it goes beyond that. The Web allows uncensored, unedited publication by almost anyone... which means that, being used to the highly edited media that preceded it, we're seeing human diversity as we've never seen it before.

    As a personal example, when I put up the Language Construction Kit, it was a very personal project; I never expected it to interest more than a handful of people. Yet it's gotten enough hits in the last two years to populate a small city. Yay for the Web and all that; but what interests me, here, is that all those tens of thousands of people with a potential interest in language-making must have existed before the Web; they just were lost in a sea of people with more mainstream interests. Those people must have thought they were unique freaks; but now we can see that this particular interest is pretty common.

    Of course, cranks used to self-publish their impenetrable tomes, such as the anti-relativity rant our library for some reason has on its shelves (principal argument: what Einstein says is just absurd!). But that took money; now you can publish your thoughts for free on how Chomsky is a war criminal, or how all languages are tedious anagrams of Basque, or why interstates are evil, or what you do in the dark with your stuffed animals.

    Nobody's really made anything of this insight yet, but it seems to me to have ramifications for philosophy, for psychology, for art, for politics. Basically, all of these endeavors have assumed that human beings don't diverge very widely from a rather narrow norm. But now we know that they do.

    Of course, outmoded ideas can persist for ages. But if people start coming to grips with real divesity, the effect could be revolutionary...

    29 Dec 2000: There is no racism in America. Eat your oatmeal

    An article by Sally Satel in this month's Atlantic Monthly nicely illustrates the contorted conservative position on race described in my essay on the last century's politics.

    Satel has a new book out, P.C., M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine. (That's a warning sign right there; "politically correct" is meaningless. It's just a signal that someone is about to congratulate themselves for attacking minorities.) Satel's bugaboo is physicians paying attention to race or sex. There's "little evidence" that minority patients do better with minority doctors; and to make sure that no evidence turns up, she wants to ban studies of the subject, and keep medical schools from admitting too many minorities.

    This isn't to say that Satel doesn't have a point. She highlights a 1999 paper that found evidence for bias in referrals for a cardiac procedure. Some statistical sleight of hand resulted in media reports that blacks had a 40% lower chance of referral than whites; a closer look at the data showed that black men had the same referral rates as whites-- 9 in 10-- while black women were referred at a 8 in 10 rate (11% less). Bad academic! No wine and cheese!

    So far so dull. But here's the interesting bit: she goes out of her way to mention past oppression in medicine: the Tuskegee experiment (where 399 men, all black, were promised treatment for syphilis, then deliberately denied it so the progress of the untreated disease could be observed), segregated hospitals that provided unequal treatment till the mid '60s; medical schools that prohibited black students; male doctors' promotion of unnecessary mastectomies and hysterectomies.

    So the conservative position is basically this: yes, there was sexist, racist, unequal treatment... but it disappeared at some undefined time, for some undefined reason (presumably unrelated to the work of activists, the civil rights movement, and feminism, since these things are all bad, especially if they're still going on).

    That's all, folks!

    Hint 2: Look at the meanings (19, 21, ...) and try to figure out which might correspond to a Nenets number in the new (Russianized) system. I.e., what does 0njn correspond to? This is one of the self-verifying parts. Once you've done that, you'll have 4 numbers left-- the values of the same Nenets numbers in the old system. You'll have to think a bit to figure out what the relationship could be.

    Get me outta here!