Zompist's Rant Page : 2002

New year, new rant page, same shtick: political tirades, comments on books or movies, jokes or aperçus that don't need a page of their own, great thoughts from readers. Newest entries are at the top.

Rants for 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007

28 Dec 2002: More on good & evil jobs
It took me awhile to get back to this, but here's the feedback I got on what careers are good and evil, with brief explanatory comments. Thanks to everyone who wrote!

The arts ("hard for any kind of cliquish high school mentality to take hold")
Programmer ("politics was something Managers did")
Lawyer ("litigators are judged first and foremost on how well they do in court")
Programmer (petty politics only from outside the department)
tech-level population biologist/researcher (mostly rational, but degree needed to advance)
flunky at a consulate (judged by "ability and accuracy")
Pizza driver ("60% ability... 40% humoring cheap-ass manager")

Grade school teacher ("competence is irrelevant")
Grad student ("Non-egoists need not apply")
University instructor ("a lot of backstabbing")
University instructor ("politics and stupidity are of the essence")
a Crown Corporation ("stupid and nasty")

17 Dec 2002: When pundits go bad
I'm rapidly losing respect for Christopher Hitchens. He devotes a whole column today to mocking demands for "multilateralism". He suggests, as if it were a answer, that everyone simply support the U.S.; then our actions would be "multilateral".

Now, Hitchens has decided that war on Iraq is a good thing, and even self-importantly resigned from The Nation in order, somehow, to underline this. And a case for war on Iraq can be made. Unfortunately, Hitchens isn't making it; he's playing word games instead.

Hitchens carefully erects a straw man: the critics want all U.S. actions at all times to be "multilateral". But missing the point isn't clever. The criticism is that when the U.S. proceeds in contemptuous disregard of the rest of the world, it's usually either wrong, or about to get itself in big trouble. Whether it's Vietnam, global warming, pollution, Israeli settlement policy, the Cuban trade embargo, or opposing universal health care or the metric system, we're just not at our best when we're most alone.

Maybe he has an argument why Bush is right in this case... but then he should make it, not attempt to belittle the general principle.

Columnists have their off days-- but this isn't the first time Hitchens has decended to this level. He wrote a very similar column mocking the idea that we might be suspicious of people calling for war who, in their day, managed to avoid ever serving in one. Does he really see no validity at all in this complaint? Does he, in general, think that experience is irrelevant to making decisions? Is it just foolish to expect that people asking others to make sacrifices know what they're asking?

What's annoying about these columns is that the opinions are so obviously calculated-- without saying so-- just to support his views on Iraq. Did criticisms of unilateralism or chickenhawks ever bother him before? And instead of worrying about these relative trivialities, why not confront the real issues: whether we should undertake another war when al-Qaeda is still unbeaten; whether a new regime in Iraq will be an improvement in five years; whether outraging world opinion will really keep Americans safe. You don't answer these concerns by bullying people to just trust us.

9 Dec 2002: Wonder if Andy Rooney covered this
Customer service phone lines have discovered a new way to suck: voice recognition software. It feels mighty stupid to be talking out loud to a machine, but wait, there's more! You can have conversations like this:

Machine: Please give the patient's birthdate.
Me: 8, 18, 25.
Machine: Please say the patient's birthdate.
Me (wondering which part it can't understand): oh-8, 18, 1925.
Machine: Please say the patient's birthdate.
Me: August 18th, 1925.
Machine: Is that August 1st, 1925?
Me: No.
Machine: Your call cannot be processed without the patient's birthdate.
--sound effect of me tracking down the programmer and ripping his lungs out--
Didn't it occur to anyone that a system that understands "eighteen" as "one" is not ready to be put into production? Would it have killed them to explain whether to say month names or numbers, or whether ordinals are understood? Who thought it was better to go through this half-minute rigmarole rather than take two seconds to type out the birthdate using the numeric keys conveniently provided by the phone company?

Of course, having worked in the software industry, I know the answer to all these questions: it didn't matter what anyone said; management loved the idea when it was PowerPointed at them, and would never have to live with the consequences. And it may not be coincidence that it was an insurance company, which in the short run is perfectly happy to discourage customers from getting service.

13 Nov 2002: Good vs. evil careers
Comparing notes with my wife, I sometimes think that our different career areas are staffed from different species, or at least separate cultures.

She's worked in editing and education, and in both areas she's run into lots of politics and stupidity. Competence is usually measured by what degree you have, and the interpersonal dynamics are strictly high school-- cliques, cool and uncool kids, and all.

I'm a programmer, and despite the headaches of the field, I've always found it blessedly free of politics. Competence has nothing to do with schooling, everything to to with how well you can do the job. Programmers generally don't care who's cool, though they like to geek out on what's cool.

I'd like to see if this is true generally. So, send me mail telling me what field(s) you've worked in, how much they were dominated by petty politics, and how competence was measured. When I get a bunch of responses I'll summarize the results.

6 Nov 2002: Big stupid loss
Well, this time it's clear: the electorate wants budget deficits, handouts to the rich, drilling in Alaska, and war in Iraq. Or, more precisely, it doesn't much care whether these things happen or not.

Some folks are offering excuses, but to lose a midterm election in the middle of an recession isn't just bad luck. I think Joe Conason is right: Democrats have only themselves to blame. They're not saying anything that resonates with the changeable middle 20% of the electorate that decides elections.

In fact, it's hard to detect that they're saying anything at all, besides some low-level griping. And has the Democratic Party ever been at such a loss for recognized leaders? I personally hope Al Gore doesn't run again; he not only lacks the charisma to win, but lacks any substantive vision, and he stands in the way of any more substantial candidate.

1 Nov 2002: Half-century report
Current politics is always dismal; it always looks like the bad guys are about to win. The best way to get some perspective is to look at something from half a century back. I've been rereading a book of essays by George Orwell, and it's perked me right up.

Even after all this time, Orwell is a singularly perceptive observer of both left and right, and entirely free of B.S. He's a demonstration that it is possible to write about politics (and everything else) with a clear head and without jargon. The only jarring note is an occasional bit of unexamined ideology-- e.g. he says at one point that "only socialist armies can fight efficiently". (Curiously, elsewhere he doesn't give in to this bit of wishful thinking; he knows that fascist armies, such as the one he fought against in Spain, can be very efficient indeed.)

What's remarkable, and rather reassuring, is how much better the world is than it was sixty years ago. Orwell wrote at a time when to believe in democracy was to be as isolated and irrational as Don Quixote. The intellectuals were mostly communists of the most irresponsible sort; the upper classes were solidly and stupidly reactionary; and Europe was caught in a totalitarian nightmare-- and worse yet, the totalitarians seemed immeasurably more practical and successful than anything the free world could come up with. (Despite Tolkien's protestations, the atmosphere of near-hopeless confrontation with near-omnipotent evil in LOTR was very much of the times.)

And at home, Orwell's country was so comically misruled and class-ridden that it wasn't hard to conclude that only a revolution could improve the lot of the average person (though if you were Orwell, you knew that the chance of a revolution actually doing so was dismayingly low).

Orwell's political insight is always good, but his economic understanding doesn't always stand up. Perhaps his biggest mistake is his supposition that British prosperity depended on "exploiting the coolies". There's no doubt that England misruled her empire (Orwell was there and saw it for himself), but it's now seen as more likely that the empire was a net financial loss. The problem in today's world is not that the First World gets rich off the backs of the Third; it's that the Third World is tragically irrelevant to our prosperity.

The Third World has been transformed even more dramatically than the West. Orwell describes a visit to Morocco, where it seemed that nothing had ever changed nor ever would, and where white people had difficulty even noticing human beings with brown skin. We're far from having universal justice or prosperity, but the Third World is no longer a medieval wasteland; it's full of skyscrapers and superhighways and corporations, and the simple sickening racism Orwell describes is simply no longer possible.

All this would surprise Orwell less than one might imagine; he himself points out how much better his world was than Victorian England.

25 Oct 2002: Your teapot weather report
Did Harry Belafonte commit an unpardonable error in calling Colin Powell a house slave? Andrew Sullivan thinks so, and ends up demonstrating the foolishness of getting upset over name-calling.

Sullivan thinks Belafonte should be ostracized for "playing the race card"-- in other words, he should be shunned for his language. Yet Sullivan has no problem himself calling Belafonte "racist", "a bigot", "reactionary". By his own argument, shouldn't he too be "ostracized" for these words (which also "play the race card")?

Despite his criticism of the left, Sullivan is following one the left's chief idiocies: mistaking words for deeds. It sounds noble to say that no one should utter hurtful words; but it only creates hypocrisy, and demeans real oppression. It's not that words can't sting; but racism is not a matter of stupid jokes and mean names; it's a matter of being denied housing or jobs or education or the vote, being killed by vigilantes, being harrassed by the police, receiving second-class service for the same money. And above all it's a matter of power. Belafonte doesn't have the power to oppress Colin Powell.

4 Oct 2002: Blue and Gray, 137 years later
I just read a fascinating little book, What They Fought For, by James M. McPherson: an analysis of what soldiers on both sides of the Civil War thought they were fighting for, and what they thought about slavery, based on their letters and diaries. (Somewhat disturbing historical note: that was the last of our wars when such communications were uncensored.)

In general, the Southerners were fighting for independence and against "a dastardly, plundering, oppressive, and cowardly foe", as one of them put it. Northerners felt that they were fighting for the preservation of republican government: if "traitors be allowed to overthrow and break asunder ties most sacred-- costing our forefathers long years of blood and toil," then the world would conclude that self-government was impossible; the 'United' States would collapse into anarchy, leading to "a long night of tyranny."

It occurred to me, after writing that libertarianism rant, that the Civil War is still relevant in our politics. Northerners were satisfied that they achieved what they fought for; but Southerners could not have been; they had to rejoin that "nation of thieves and robbers".

As Garry Wills has noted, anti-federal sentiments predated the Civil War; but it may well have cemented them for half the country-- indeed, the half that's still more anti-Washington.

20 Sep 2002: If the poor can eat, the terrorists have already won
Move over, Cadillac-driving welfare queens; the right has an even better scare story now: the welfare-abusing terrorist! Yes! Slate's Mickey Kaus is pushing the notion that welfare causes terrorism, based on the observation that one "Muslim extremist" manages to make a living from welfare-- in Germany. (Coming up next: anti-pollution laws cause terrorism! Taxing the rich causes terrorism! Dirty movies cause terrorism!)

Now, to his minimal credit, Kaus doesn't seem to advocate that all poor Americans be thrown out onto the streets because of the thoughtcrime of some Syrian in Hamburg. He only wants to deny welfare benefits to immigrants. Well, sure, look at all those Puerto Ricans who were implicated in 9/11.

(By the way, Osama bin Laden is a multimillionaire, so perhaps Kaus should also conclude that inordinate wealth causes terrorism.)

Of course, it is fun to pick on atavistic European attitudes toward immigrants. Europeans used to look down on American racism; now it looks like we're better at assimilating immigrants than Europe is.

20 Sep 2002: The drunk and the lamppost
The best thing I've read on Iraq lately is an article by Nicholas Lemann in last week's New Yorker. Most of the media has simply been complaining that Bush hasn't made a case for invading Iraq. The experts Lemann quotes have a better point: it's foolish to start a war with Iraq when we haven't yet won the war against al-Qaeda. As Stephen Van Evera says:

There are large risks in a war against Iraq. There could be a lengthy, televised public slaughter of Muslims by Americans. A wide imperial rampage through the Middle East-- what do you do after you win? We're not out of Bosnia and Kosovo yet, and Iraq is much bigger. It's a huge occupation and reconstruciton. We aren't good at this.
Al-Qaeda has been weakened, but not destroyed, and the campaign in Afghanistan shows the limits of American power-- and resolve. Despite the World War rhetoric, Bush committed fewer troops in Afghanistan than Clinton stationed in the Balkans. Al-Qaeda fighters slipped through our fingers at Tora Bora and the Shah-e-Kot Valley, in part because of an unwillingness to expose American troops.

We obviously have the power to take over Iraq-- but if we don't know how to rule it, we may end up with less security, not more. Destroyed states like Afghanistan or Sudan are natural havens for al-Qaeda. So is much of Pakistan, which is one military strongman away from giving nuclear capabilities to Muslim fundamentalists. It might help if, say, the US removed tariff barriers against Pakistani textiles, but this hasn't been done. Bush also suspended funding for programs to secure and dismantle ex-Soviet nukes.

After 9/11, Americans wanted to go after somebody. And so we should, but instead of just fighting someone we think we can beat, we should go after the people responsible for 9/11. They're not beaten yet, and a war on Iraq is a distraction from that unfinished business.

17 Sep 2002: Tympani and big baboons
I like primatology. Not to actually do, of course. I want someone else to go and sit in the savannah all day long for twenty years, then tell me what happened. One of the best such reports (and probably the only funny one) is Robert Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir.

What I found most curious about Sapolsky's baboons is how different their personalities were. Among successive alpha males, for instance, some were tyrants who terrorized the troop; some were dithering incompetents; one got to the top and didn't seem to care for the post, leaving to spend more time with his kids. One approached the American ideal of leadership: he was tolerant and never provoked a fight, but beat the hell out of anyone who challenged him. (Note for foreign friends: I said "ideal". Like Abe Lincoln, or Bugs Bunny.)

Anyway, it gives me some hope for our own primate species. We don't have to be ruled by jerks.

1 Sep 2002: How I create
I noticed the other day how I create things for Almea, at least these days. I look for patterns-- spurious ones, if necessary-- and extend and rationalize them.

For instance, last night I needed to organize the Cuzeian invasion of the Plain. I had the names of the four chief nobles, and a rough chronology for the Atlas, but little idea how to proceed. I noticed that the chronology covered about 125 years, which would make about 5 generations. Dividing the chronology into 25-year generations, and matching the nobles with the mini-states that were created, suggested a pattern: initial conquest; consolidation, loss of the central areas to the Cadhinorians (which suggested a tale of corruption among the Cuzeians), civil war, and final union.

Another example: I've been working on the language of the elcari (a dwarf-like species that lives in the mountains), basically starting from one word, nmurthankh, the name of one of their enemies. Long ago I created an etymology for this: 'those who deny elcarin solidarity and are ugly, too', analyzed as n- agentive + murth 'community' + -ban 'anti-' + -kh deprecative.

This was mostly jocular, but I started working out what the language might look like if that was a typical word. I created a few more single-phoneme prefixes and suffixes, noted that the affixes were in reverse order from English and decided that it must be a VOS language, and divided murth in two: mur 'cooperation' + -th habitual.

Another word I already had was ebdunmak 'excavation-stealer'; the n looked like the same agentive, so that suggested that nmak was the 'stealer' part, and ebdu was 'excavation'. That in turn suggested that either e- or -u was a nominalizer (I went with the latter).

This is probably why it's hard to get started on the history of Arcel, the other major continent... it's so open-ended that there's no little hooks to play with.

1 Sep 2002: How we look to them
At Border's tonight I found something really strange: a book on how to draw bishoujo-- manga-style pretty girls-- from around the world. The instructions on drawing "Mongoloid" girls are interesting (to make girls look Chinese you slant their eyes; to make them look Korean you give them slim necks), but what's truly frightening is the artist's depiction of a "Caucasian" girl.

I've looked, but I can't find a scan on the web... suffice it to say that what Hikaru Hayashi considers to make up a pretty Caucasian girl is, to Western eyes, more what makes up a witch: sharp face, long nose, V-shaped mouth, small-pupilled eyes, lots of sharp nasty little penstrokes.

His black girls are also odd-looking, though not scary. They're allowed to have a teensy bit more lip, and Hayashi advises making their skin look "shiny".

Artistic conventions are fascinating... to my eyes manga (especially in comparison with traditional Japanese art) already makes the girls look Western. To find Asian girls that look Asian you have to look in Western comics. (Relatively modern ones... not too long ago, it appears, Asians looked ugly to Westerners. Go figure.)

30 Aug 2002: Iraq 'n Roll
So. You think we're going to invade Iraq? The cute news here is that a number of Republican honchos either oppose an invasion, or suggest that the administration is going about it wrong, or hasn't made a case for it.

There's plenty of quibbles to make. We could certainly take over the country, and perhaps it doesn't matter to anyone if Saddam gasses our troops or the Israelis or his own citizens along the way. The real problem is, what to do with the place afterward? The U.S. has a pretty poor record actually managing the countries it's intervened in. Saddam and Osama, after all, are U.S. clients gone bad, and the Iranian regime is a good example of what happens when the U.S. overthrows democratic regimes and installs friendly dictators.

Unfortunately, I don't even think the administration is really doing geopolitics. Rather, it's a rite of passage for Republican presidents to invade somebody, somewhere... coupled, in this case, with Dubya's apparent need to undo what was widely perceived as his father's mistake in not taking Baghdad.

Reagan at least maximized the theater and minimized the actual event, taking an island of 100,000 people in the Caribbean. Bush Jr. has a chance to do some real damage.

This has been on Bush's plate for a long time, but the timing of the current news blitz is interesting: just in time to distract attention from the continuing recession and accounting shenanigans in the boardrooms. However, Bush has probably studied his father's mistakes enough to schedule the actual invasion for (say) fall 2003, so he can sail into primary season with Baghdad (if not Saddam) under his belt.

26 Aug 2002: UI Wars
Salon had a few pages of letters from angry Apple readers castigating some woman who had the effrontery not to be immediately delighted with her Mac.

The litany is "The Mac is so much easier to use." Well. That was true up to about 1995. Since then, Windows has been comparable. The Mac has an edge in some areas; but Windows has made a few respectable UI improvements. E.g.:

Of course a similar list could be made for the Mac. But the point is, at some point the idea that "Macs are easier" became primarily religious. Which is a pity; I'd be a lot happier if the Mac had stayed ahead.

I've programmed for both (tho' not for the Mac for years), and I've always preferred programming Windows apps. Once you get used to it, it's much more consistent and object-oriented. (That doesn't go for COM tho'. That's a horror.)

26 Aug 2002: Crash different
Man, Apple's list of reasons to switch to the Mac annoys me. Especially the one about crashing.

Now, I love Macs. Also hate them. I got my first Mac in 1985 or so, back when it was still insanely great. It had that tiny little screen, but it had fonts and graphics at a time when if you wanted to draw a box on a PC you had to use a set of special characters.

Eventually, Windows came out, which only increased the scorn of the Mac community. I got a Centris in about 1993; it cost less and did a hell of a lot more than my first Mac, and still easily outclassed Windows. A couple of times it did destroy the System, but I managed to restore it from disk.

I got the iMac in 2000, and it promptly crashed. It crashes once a night, on average. By contrast, my Windows 2000 Pro machine at work almost never crashes-- when it does, it's because I'm programming something evil, and not (as on the iMac) browsing or writing. I haven't got the Blue Screen of Death in ages, though I've gotten the Unhappy Mac often enough. And I dread adding hardware to the machine, since it's sure to screw up one of the other USB devices.

The Apple ads say that you can share files with PCs, but don't mention the hassles-- e.g., I can't use Word 2000 because it hangs, so I still use Mac Word 5.1, which of course can't read most PC files. I can't download PC Civ3 games. It's also tiresome to wait an extra six months for Mac versions of good games. And the gamma thing is extremely annoying. Somehow the ads don't spend much time on that.

On the plus side... well, it's nice not to have to worry so much about viruses...

5 Aug 2002: Over on the consie planet
A National Review column by John Derbyshire has a list of reasons why conservatives should always be depressed. It's a humor piece, but sometimes humor functions as a disinhibitor-- it allows people to recognize, with an embarrassed laugh, beliefs that they'd be ashamed to state seriously.

As such, it's a fascinating excursion into the conservative mind. For instance, despite the Right's brandishing the occasional J.C. Watts or Clarence Thomas, it's still fundamentally racist ("nobody will ever be able to devise a test of knowledge or understanding on which groups with different population-genetic histories all record identical statistical profiles"). Ultimate virtue, in fact, lies only with "Anglo-Saxons"; Europeans (a category which presumably excludes Scots and Irish, but not actual Saxons) don't know how to "do democracy".

Weirdly, to be a "true conservative", you have to believe that the world is always going downhill, and that "poverty and hardship build character". Surely these can't both be reasons for gloom, since the worse things get, the more character gets built? (And if poverty builds character, shouldn't we elect our poorest citizens to public office?)

Consies love to feel beleaguered: Derbyshire thinks the Ronald Reagan of 1980 would be "unelectable" today, because "every medium of mass entertainment and mass information" has been preaching against conservatism for twenty years. With a stroke of his quill pen, Derbyshire has eliminated a billion-dollar conservative media industry. He's also forgotten that a conservative, one George W. Bush, came awfully close to being elected President a couple of years back.

24 Jul 2002: These guys are starting to piss me off
Somewhere, someone is writing a tortured explanation of why Israel hasn't itself embraced terrorism. A couple of days ago, Israel executed an F-16 airstrike on a Palestinian residential neighborhood, killing one terrorist-- plus his wife and three children and 10 more people-- and wounding 150 more. Ariel Sharon considers this operation a "great success".

The last Palestinian terror attack, by contrast, killed 8 people; the one before that, 3.

The point is not that war is messy. The point is that any defense applies to the Palestinians as well. If it's OK to kill Palestinian civilians because of mumble-mumble, then it's OK to kill Israeli civilians as well. If it's OK to fire missiles at Palestinian cities, then it's OK to fire missiles at Israeli cities.

16 Jul 2002: Advice for young writers
Often young people with an artistic bent come to me, with their berets and their long hair and their absinthe, and ask old Uncle Zomp about writing. I pour myself a cigar, light up a J.D., and launch into a diatribe about the blindness and corruption of the publishing industry. And then, when they've fallen asleep, I offer this advice.

OK, that's it for now. No, I don't want to see your manuscript. Scram.

8 Jul 2002: Punishment for Vietnam
The great mystery of the last century in America is why wages rose across the board from 1950 to 1970, and only for the rich after that. (From a wider perspective, the return to robber baron economics is not so surprising; but then the mystery is the postwar period of liberalism.)

A partial explanation occurred to me today: the attitudes of the wealthy changed in light of the previous wars.

World War II was ostensibly fought for freedom, against an enemy that explicitly championed racial purity. It would be a bit embarrassing if the people who had successfully fought for their country returned to the traditional poverty and disdain. The mood of the country was thankful: the returning soldiers were given access to cheap loans, affordable housing, and rising wages. There was a feeling that the whole population had sacrificed, and everyone should benefit.

A generation later, the elite saw no need to be grateful for the actions of the young-- quite the opposite. The young were hairy and rebellious, and if they bothered to go fight our wars at all, they lost. So, why help them out? The elite shrugged and got down to increasing its own pile and no one else's.

The present generation of the elite has little reason to resent the young; but the wars we've fought recently, and those we're likely to fight in the next decades, will be small-scale actions, nothing like the mobilization of the whole population seen in WWII. So in the near future we'll probably see some relaxation of robber barony, but not a return to a wide-scale sharing of the wealth.

6 Jul 2002: An open letter to the Nigerian Scam writers
Dear esteemed sirs,

It is my great pleasure to inform you that your missives are pearls among spam. They are original, eccentric, well written, and always contain a story worthy of the time of any reliable person recommended to you by the chamber of commerce of your country.

Nonetheless an unfortunate difficulty presents itself. My story is this. At present I, though in no way associated with Nigerian State or Democratic Republic of Congo, receive approximately three Nigerian Scam letters per business day, offering me stakes of more than US$132,000,000 total. I have received letters from all surviving family members of former President MOBUTU as well as those of Gen. Sani ABACHA excepting two uncles and a grandmother.

I urgently recommend, for greater credibility, that scam letters be dispatched no more than once per business week.

I will highly appreciate it if my request is given utmost priority and consideration.

Best Regards,

26 Jun 2002: Farther and farther from peace
Like the Middle East itself, Bush's speech on Palestine contains a couple of worrisome contradictions.

Related news: William Saletan defends the new Israeli policy of taking land after each terrorist attack as a logical consequence of the "land for peace" idea. The idea is that in return for peace, the Palestinians will get land; the new corollary is that in return for war, the Palestinians will get less land.

Who knows, it might work. Although I think Sharon doesn't know what the hell he's doing, I think it's foolish and unrealistic to expect Isreal to simply give up, leave the Palestinians alone, and let them come over and bomb Israeli civilians.

The Palestinian rejectionists have been given too much power by both sides. The Palestinians (and allied states) arm and glorify them; and Sharon and Bush have given them a veto over any move toward peace. It's become clear that sending over envoys doesn't take care of the problem; and delaying peace (which has been discredited among the Palestinians anyway due to the absence of economic progress) doesn't lead to any understanding that terrorism is counter-productive. But reoccupation might.

The obvious objection is that it could make things worse. Well, it could lead to war, and war is hell. But war sometimes teaches people lessons that long-simmering standoffs don't. The Israelis could stand to learn the cost of trying to rule the West Bank permanently-- and they might also see whether they can do any better than Arafat at suppressing violence. And the Palestinians might learn that terrorism was a bad strategy, and try fighting a legitimate war of independence instead.

Back at home-- a quote from Paul Krugman:

It's interesting to note that the planned Department of Homeland Security, while of dubious effectiveness in its announced purpose, will be protected against future Colleen Rowleys: the new department will be exempted from both whistle-blower protection and the Freedom of Information Act.
So much for limited government. You know, you consies, someday you won't be able to steal an election, and Janet Reno will be in charge of this unanswerable structure you've created.

18 Jun 2002: A mess of Potterage
Spoilers ahead, so if you haven't read the Harry Potter books, off with you. Shoo!

I spent much of the weekend catching up with Harry. The books are really a lot of fun... Rowling is wonderfully inventive, and often very funny. There's the standard Dark Overlord to defeat, but so far this hasn't required a single quest. (A little like Jaime Hernandez, Harry Potter's world is refreshingly everyday. Voldemort Shmoldemort, there's homework to do.)

To most Americans, the boarding school portion of the story is just as exotic as the magic... judging from some web reviews, though, it gets Brits thinking about class and privilege and the Empire. There is a feeling sometimes that time stopped in the wizarding world around 1920. I don't think much should be read into this; if nothing else, it fits the logic of Rowling's world. Why do you need cars if you can teleport using old tires?

As well, it's silly and annoying to assume that a fantasy world is a conscious or unconscious expression of the author's wishes or ideals. Authors write to entertain, and wishes and ideals are rarely entertaining. (Try reading Looking Backward sometime.)

Even sillier is to object to Harry Potter because it "promotes witchcraft". It's quite clear from the books (and even more so from interviews) that Rowling writes as she does precisely because she doesn't believe in the occult. The magic is used purely for play. The author's serious beliefs come out in the books' rather subtle sense of morality. Good and evil may be unmixed, but people aren't; and where Tolkien was content to show the shading within his good characters, Rowling applies this also to the dark side. (Voldemort is murderous and power-hungry-- but he treats Harry with a sort of courtesy, and as Tom Riddle he is a good deal nicer than, say, the nasty little Draco Malfoy. Voldemort may have been bored, pretending to be a sympathetic confidant to an 11-year-old girl-- but he was capable of it; one can't imagine Sauron even trying.)

From this point of view, one of the most intriguing characters is Professor Snape. Harry has to learn anew each year that the ugly, unpleasant Snape is not the ally of Voldemort. In the fourth book the mystery deepens (and in structure the books are really more mysteries than fantasies): we learn that Snape once was a supporter of Voldemort-- but the headmaster, Dumbledore, trusts him, and so far as we can see, with reason: Snape does not respond to Voldemort's summons-- and Voldemort takes that sort of thing very seriously.

There are few weaknesses in the books; one, perhaps, is that the foreign schools introduced in book 4 have very little character; indeed, despite the multiculturalism of Hogwarts itself (Harry's romantic interest from book 3 on is Chinese-- though she's barely given a dozen lines), Beauxbatons and Durmstrang give off a whiff of traditional British xenophobia: decadent, untrustworthy French; rigid, tyrannical Germans/Slavs.

This hasn't kept the French and Germans from enjoying the series as well... the French version even translates some of the names to make them more accessible: Hogwarts becomes Poudlard; Prof. Snape is (unimaginatively) Rogue; Muggles are moldus; the four houses are Gryffondor, Serdaigle, Poufsouffle, Serpentard; the Sorting Hat is (and this one is clever) le Choixpeau.

5 Jun 2002: More on Civ3
Whew... finally I've got a good game going, and I can almost convince myself that I've learned some stuff.

Complaints: it still bugs me how useless artillery is; and I hate losing a Wonder with a couple turns to go. I also lost a UN vote once, which strikes me as a worthless feature, no better than Random Dice Roll Win would be. And the missing customizability bugs me-- I'm already a little sick of most of the leaders and city names.

On the other hand, I see that Play the World will include a dinosaur scenario, which should rock... that was the best scenario in Civ2.

3 Jun 2002: New fundamentalisms
For some reason I've been running into new species of fundamentalists lately. There was an incursion of Hindu fundamentalists into sci.lang, demanding that the Mahabharata be taken as sacred truth, and objecting to any form of archeology and linguistics that didn't have the Hindu religion and caste system in place (and speaking classical Sanskrit) 9000 years ago.

And the other day I got mail from someone who described himself as a shaman, and suggested that historical linguistics be thrown out, replaced with conferences of "shamans" from the cultures involved. These "shamans", however, could only hold beliefs compatible with his own; if the peoples involved had some other religion, too bad-- they had no magical insight into their own origins.

In at least one case fundamentalist mythology is written into US law: when pre-Columbian human remains are discovered, they're required to be handed over to Amerindians-- to the closest tribe, if no other identification is possible. The presumption is that a tribe has existed in its area since the beginning of time. (This is impossible, except, theoretically, for some folks who might have never left Africa's Rift Valley.)

It seems that all fundamentalists want to opt out of one part or another of science; quaintly, however, they sometimes show an exaggerated respect for the rest. They love to cite any bits of physics or archeology that go their way. If you really believed that science had gotten some major point completely wrong, wouldn't it be more coherent to distrust it even in areas you have no problem with?

3 Jun 2002: More Punic facts!
I think I have a public duty to provide more factoids from the Punic Wars.

You know about Hannibal and his elephants... the reality, however, is that the elephants never did him much good, and arguably lost him his last battle. Only one elephant survived the crossing of the Alps, though he got some reinforcements later. They frightened the Romans the first battle or so, but the Romans soon learned to chase them off with a shower of javelins. And the elephants very easily panicked and ran off any which way-- often enough into their own lines. Hannibal's one failure, the battle of Zama, was confused by just this-- he might well have won it if it weren't for the elephants.

It's hard not to root for the Carthaginians, especially since Rome essentially started all three wars, and was particularly duplicitous and vindictive during the third one. True, Carthage did have this thing for infant sacrifice; but Rome itself, at one particularly bad moment, resorted to some human sacrifice to please the gods.

Cato, the Jesse Helms of his day, ended every one of his speeches with Carthago delenda est-- "Carthage must be destroyed." (This was when Carthage was already reduced to a harmless rump state. In addition to those damn Carthaginians, he blamed Rome's problems on decadent Greeks.) This sentence illustrates one of my favorite bits of derivational morphology: Latin verb + -nd- forms a participle meaning "which needs to be verbed": delenda, that which must be destroyed (deleted); agenda, things which must be acted upon; legendum, that which must be read.

If you want more, I recommend the book I read on the subject: Adrian Goldsworthy's The Punic Wars.

30 May 2002: Punish us all that way!
A factoid from a Michael Kinsley article on Slate: the total compensation in 2000 for the CEO of Halliburton, a certain Dick Cheney, was $36 million. (Net income for the same year was $501 million; revenues, $11.9 billion.)

First, a quiet whistle of amazement. Executive compensation isn't just out of control; it's big enough to impact the company's stategy and bottom line. $36 million is enough to buy a small company or build a factory... it's just absurd as a payment to one man.

And on top of that, I get mail from consies who talk about how taxes "punish" the rich and destroy their incentives. I really have to wonder what it looks like in their heads... I suppose, like October 1917, with the Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace and worthies forced to bury their jewels in the birch woods. In the real world, meanwhile, the rich have never enjoyed such rewards nor been so secure in their political control of the country.

Also in Slate this week, Joe Klein is writing about France. Or, ostensibly about France: he seems to be a reverse Baudrillard, using foreign travel as an excuse to navel-gaze about his own country. So when he says that France's treatment of Arab immigrants and the implosion of the Socialist Party resembles the U.S. of the 1970s and the eclipse of the Democrats, I have to wonder if he's making a valid observation, or just projecting.

I also wonder how much analysis you can really do through an interpreter. Even if the interpreter is tireless, interviewees aren't. I'd expect it'd be an invitation to trot out a miniature public statement, a suitable nuance-free cliché

24 May 2002: Carthago legenda est
I've been reading about the Punic Wars, and learning all sorts of interesting things-- such as how Hellenistic warfare worked, and why Rome won, though an outside observer in 270 BC would have considered them an upstart underdog-- but one of the most fascinating things is how much of our political vocabulary derives from this little Italic tribe.

We still use the names of Roman officials-- consul, dictator, tribune, magistrate, senator. A "triumph" was originally the top celebration that could be accorded a general-- though we no longer paint the victor's face red. We use the next rank of celebration too: an "ovation". It's not too old-fashioned to talk about plebeians and patricians, to wonder if an event augurs well, or to invoke legions and cohorts.

The one personality from the war who seems to be immortal comes from the 'enemy': Hannibal. How many people are still named after the corresponding hero on the Roman side, Scipio?

(Oh, and why did Rome win? In a nutshell, because they took war, and themselves, far more seriously. Hannibal convincingly defeated them on their own turf-- in a battle still studied in military academies. By all the conventions of Hellenistic warfare, the Romans should have sued for peace... exactly as Carthage did, in fact, when it was similarly threatened in Africa. But the Romans refused to negotiate, and essentially waited him out. (It helped that one of the most difficult things in Hellenistic warfare was to capture a city. Hannibal had the run of the countryside, and found some Italian allies, but couldn't take any cities by direct assault.) The Carthaginians had some brilliant individual generals, but were unable to mobilize the entire state in the way the Romans could.)

14 May 2002: Oh Lord, not Israel again
Two fascinating and strangely complementary articles in The Atlantic. The first is one by David Brooks on the pervasive glorification of suicide bombing among Palestinians, and should leave you feeling depressed. It's hard to imagine how any progress will be made while this attitude prevails; and only the Palestinians, I think, can change it. Their victimization does not in any way excuse terrorism; and we can only hope they realize soon that the terrorism prevents anything being done about the victimization.

Then, Bruce Hoffman tells an amazing story: how the PLO, in the mid-'70s, managed to defuse a terrorist unit which had served its purpose and now posed only dangers. One rather expects some scheme to massacre them-- but no; the high command assembled a hundred beautiful Palestinian girls, invited the terrorists to a mixer, and promised a total of $8,000 and an apartment to any couples that settled down and had a baby.

The plan succeeded spectacularly: without exception, the terrorists married, and settled into their new lives so thoroughly that they wouldn't even accept non-violent assignments abroad, for fear of being arrested and losing their wives and children.

Now that's nonlinear thinking.

6 May 2002: Creationism vs. science
Here's a nice demonstration of the difference between science and "creation science." Some creationists make this striking claim:

Since 1836, over one hundred different observers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the U.S. Naval Observatory have made direct visual measurements which show that the diameter of the sun is shrinking at a rate of about .1 % each century or about 5 feet per hour! ... one must conclude that had the sun existed a million years ago, it would have been so large that it would have heated the earth so much that life could not have survived.

That's from http://www.watchmanmag.com/0204/020415.htm; other representative instances can be found at http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-082.htm, http://www.answersingenesis.org/Docs/2760.asp, http://www.harvestbaptistministries.com/creation/youngearth.htm, http://www.angelfire.com/mi/dinosaurs/earthage.html. (At that last one, the name of the institution has been permuted to the Boyal Observatory.)

Now, this scientific-sounding factoid happens to be wrong. The sun is not shrinking 5 feet per hour. The original report was flawed; it now looks like there's an oscillation involving slower rates of growth and shrinkage. You can see the full story here, or a summary. (There's also the troubling matter of extrapolating far into the past; extrapolation is about as reliable as entrail-gazing.)

The real point, however, is in the different ways the scientific community and the creationists handled it. The scientists puzzled over the report (which was presented as a puzzle, not as solid results), investigated further, and discovered that it was wrong. The creationists seized on it and repeated it with no curiosity and no caution. 23 years later, they're still chanting it without modification.

In a sense the creationists are practicing standard medieval sort of scholarship: you seek out and list things that support your position, and all the better if they're in a respected published source. However, you can never find the truth that way. Truth requires skepticism and investigation-- and you have to be especially skeptical of the data that seem to go your way.

24 Apr 2002: Why I hate editorial cartoons
Here's a recent Pat Oliphant cartoon on the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church; here's a CNN story on the Pope's discussion with the cardinals. Notice any discrepancy?

Let's make it a little clearer. Oliphant is accusing the Pope of hostile indifference to cute, abused little tykes. In fact the Pope has strongly condemned the abuse ("by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God") and made it clear to the cardinals that abusers could not be hidden in the priesthood. Notice any discrepancy?

This is why I don't like editorial cartoons... especially when they're well done. Oliphant's cartoon is masterful-- just look at those massed blacks, the way the ominous power of the Papacy, as well as the creepy half-hidden priest, looms over the helpless, crying kid. The evil Pope is drawn with subtlety-- no fangs or exaggerated jowls; just a massive presence and a darkened profile suffice to suggest his power and menace. Every tool of the art is used to support a simple and powerful message which is also a lying crock of shit.

Editorial cartooning has long moved past those silly illustrated allegories (stereotypes labelled LABOR or BRITAIN or CIVIL RIGHTS). The best practitioners are experts at reducing issues to a single, obvious moral point. And that's precisely the problem. No major political issue needs to be reduced; they need to be expanded, put in context, the complications explained. An op-ed piece is rarely long enough for this; indeed, if you haven't read a book on an issue, your opinion on it is probably not worth listening to.

The priestly abuse scandal is no exception. Oliphant's position here is not courageous: everyone is against child abuse. But then what? It's not so easy as saying that the Pope should listen to the cute little boy (and turn the damn light on). The sort of emotion Oliphant is stirring up will demand immediate action and witch hunts. That's not such a hot idea... remember the "recovered memory" epidemic from a decade back or so? Much of that was mass hysteria, which ruined reputations with false allegations. Children are very suggestible, and investigators who hound them for stories of sexual assault are themselves abusers of a rather nasty kind.

The Catholic Church also has this idea that people can repent and be forgiven. As it happens, in the case of sex offenders, most psychologists disagree-- they consider it incurable. That's tricky, and not least because psychology has a way of changing its mind. Unfortunately for the Oliphants of the world, evaluating treatments and diagnoses takes a long time and a cool head.

The only editorial cartoons I find redeemable are multi-panel ones that do some research and present some actual facts; examples are Tom Tomorrow, Doonesbury, and my pal Greg Peters's Suspect Device.

22 Apr 2002: The Finance Minister's Guide
Forget trifles like the crisis in Israel; the really big unanswered question is, how does a country develop into a modern nation?

There seem to be about three major models:

Now, there's more to it than that; but it's odd that almost no one promotes the last model-- despite it being the only one, historically, that works. The major reason for this, I think, is that neither outside investors nor finance ministers find bicycle repair shops sexy. They like factories. There's money to be made bringing in that Sony plant, even if it does nothing for the country as a whole.

(For more on all this, see Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations. I think there's also some synergy with Hernando de Soto's The Other Path. And for lots of interesting stuff about foreign trade, see almost anything by Paul Krugman.)

19 Apr 2002: In the news
There's a nice article in Slate by Robert Wright explaining why Arafat wasn't crazy to reject Barak's "generous" peace deal.

And while we're surfing the news, I wonder why Italian authorities are insisting that the crashing of a plane into a Milan skyscraper was "an accident". There were reports of trouble with the landing gear; I'm no pilot, but in that case, wouldn't a responsible pilot with 30 years experience fly, like, away from the city? How likely is it that he crashed into the country's tallest building, barely six months after 9/11, by chance?

17 Apr 2002: The robber barons today
Robber baron capitalism isn't dead; it's just moved south.

In 1994, the inhabitants of the Villa San Miguel shantytown in Cochabamba, Bolivia, started digging a well for fresh water-- a pressing need in most of the Third World. They had to go down 350 feet, but in three years of work (by all the residents, plus foreign volunteers) it was completed, and the neighborhood had relatively cheap water.

Then, in 1999, following an IMF-dictated privatization plan, the Bolivian government sold the city's water system to a European company, International Water. Private water systems such as Villa San Miguel's were simply expropriated and given to International Water; the company could install its own meters-- at the residents' expense-- and charge residents for the use of the well they'd built. As if that wasn't enough, the contract guaranted the company a 15% annual return.

In a sense, the story ends happily: the people of Cochabamba organized and resisted, and the company was chased out of town. But the local water utility doesn't have money to extend the system, and the US may declare the breaking of the contract an "expropriation", which would choke off outside investment. (Naturally, it didn't complain about the original expropriation from the residents of Villa San Miguel in favor of International Water.)

(For more on this story, see the New Yorker for April 8. For why the world is back in the hands of them what has the gold, see my essay on the last century.)

15 Apr 2002: And there's hamburger all over the highway in Mystic, Connecticut
Checking on referrals today, I found that my numbers page was linked by Phil Proctor. This is a thrill. I've been a Firesign Theatre fan since before I could understand the jokes.

1 Apr 2002: The Evil Empire
Found this in an article on CNN today:

Like most software companies, Microsoft has worked hard to make its Windows system as compact as possible, Enderle said. By intertwining code to minimize overlap, he said, Microsoft makes a product that saves valuable disk space but becomes difficult to segregate.
To which my considered response is BAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

The idea that any software company tries to minimize disk space is pretty humorous; and that goes double for Microsoft. Let's see, Visual Studio takes up 880M on my computer. That's nearly a gigabyte for a glorified C++ compiler. Office takes up another 142M. The OS itself takes up 950M. By contrast, Netscape takes up a mere 30M. (Lotus Notes seems pretty bloated at 242M.)

IE itself takes up only 1.5M, which I suppose means that they've successfully "intertwined code" to shove most of its functionality into the OS. Not that I believe for a moment Microsoft's slimy protests at how they can't make a version of Windows without IE. Of course they could, in an afternoon. They know, after all, which Windows DLLs are used only by IE and which aren't.

Still, despite all the scumbagitude shown during the antitrust trial, I can't entirely demonize Microsoft. On the whole I like Word and Visual C++, and the Windows 2000 Pro machine I use at work is ten times more reliable than the iMac I use at home.

Mini-Civ3 update: The AIs are definitely smarter. Something rather interesting in my current game: the AIs ganged up on Zululand and all attacked it together. I never saw anything like that in Civ2. However, they're still not very good at capitalizing on a victory: I was able to step in and occupy most of the Zulus' territory.

23 Mar 2002: Civ3 - More thoughts
Main impression so far: Civ3 is much harder than Civ2. I'm playing Warlord, and though I'm now pretty safely ahead, it's almost impossible to get any Wonders, or to beat even a third-rate power. (I just spend about two hours building up my forces, under Democracy; I then tried a little war, and the citizens gave me about two turns before going up in flames. Gah.)

Sometimes it feels like Sid & Co. decided to do away with everything that made wars easy to win in Civ2. Thus, artillery, ships, and planes have been nerfed (as a friend engagingly put it); E-Z World Conquest Mode, a.k.a. fundamentalism, has been removed, and Communism greatly weakened (e.g. it doesn't eliminate corruption); espionage arrives in the game only very late and very expensive; wonders can't be rush-built; you have to worry about the loyalty of conquered cities.

This is frustrating; but there are compensations. Just last night the English sneak-attacked me, and my strongest units were all on the other side of the empire. I lost one small city, but took the opportunity to knock off three of theirs-- and their conquest rebelled and returned to the fold. Best of all, the war was wrapped up before the citizens got too discontented. (Continual war just isn't a Good Thing in Civ3.)

I also found a neat strategy: the English destroyed a number of Aztec cities-- whereupon I sent in some settlers and took over the abandoned territory (and took over one more with propaganda). Result: they did the dirty work, and I reaped most of the benefits.

But at the moment, frankly, I'm discouraged. Civ2 was the perfect balance of building and fighting. I don't just want to fight; if I did I'd play shoot-em-ups. But just building (à la Sim City) is tedious. I don't want to run a civ the way I want the real world to be run.

(This just in: I finished out this game, and won on points. I did get about five turns of war around 2042; this is still terribly painful under Democracy, but it was a bit easier this time since I'd built some police stations. (I missed Universal Suffrage by a few turns... I never got Leaders when I needed 'em!) Also, I was ahead in science just by virtue of size, so I had Tanks and no one else did. Bombers and battleships are moderately effective in bombardment-- though the damn things still can't take out a Rifleman on their own. Noticed another anti-barrelling feature, too: you don't get a movement bonus from the enemy's railroads.)

18 Mar 2002: Civ3 - First thoughts
I finally got my hands on the Mac version of Civilization III, and spent most of the weekend playing it. On the whole it's a well thought-out and very handsome game. Though the look is updated and very different, a lot of the changes are subtle improvements to gameplay, obviously the work of people who played the old game a lot.

They've gotten rid of most of the tedious bits of Civ2, especially trade caravans, city micro-management, pop-up windows, and unit upgrades. (That was the main reason I almost never went for Alpha Centauri: managing 70-odd cities in a peaceful world was just painful.)

The AI seems quite a bit smarter, though I've only played at an absurdly low level... maybe it just didn't have the resources to waste its minions on suicide attacks, as it loved to do in Civ2.

I like the implementation of culture and nationality. Though I was hoping to win over some nearby towns with my awe-inspiring culture, and it hasn't happened yet. (And when the damn Germans rebelled, that was a bitter blow...)

I'm probably (like Civ2 addicts are supposed to do) misplaying a lot. The SSC strategy didn't seem to pay off as well-- I got all the science wonders, and yet the game is almost over and we're still only halfway through the industrial era.

My biggest complaints so far:

14 Mar 2002: Darth Vader as a corporation
Last year I ranted a bit about people who expect to get all their music for free. I found that silly, but not evil. You want evil, you have to look at the music industry. Here's Jamie Zawinksi explaining the rules for broadcasting:

In case you're unclear on how RIAA, ASCAP, BMI, etc. work, it's like this: everyone who comes anywhere near any kind of music is expected to pay them. They'll sue you into oblivion if you don't. Then, regardless of what music you were playing, they take your money, keep most of it for themselves, and then divide the rest statistically based on the Billboard charts. That means that no matter what kind of obscure, underground music you played, 3/4ths of the extortion money you paid goes to whichever company owns N'Sync; and the rest goes to Michael Jackson (since he owns The Beatles' catalog); and all other artists (including the ones whose music you actually played) get nothing.
As if that weren't enough, Courtney Love (no, I never thought I'd be quoting her) notes that the RIAA snuck a provision into the latest copyright law allowing them to treat music as "work for hire". If you're not familiar with the term, this is legalese for WE 0\/\/NZ J00.

Books, by contrast, are copyright by the author. The publisher is basically a service provider, and the author can sell only restricted rights, and for a restricted period. Publishers' main suckiness is in not publishing things of obvious quality and worth, such as my stuff. But they're not evil.

The music industry, though? Evil.

This issue does point up the bad and good sides of libertarianism, though. Bad: It's hard to see how someone can look at the music industry and not see that corporations can't be trusted and property rights can be abused. Good: whatever schemes they come up with to control the distribution of music will be circumvented by anarchist hackers somewhere.

12 Mar 2002: Prepare to be mocked
The SpinnWebe folks like to make fun of things-- especially, things found on the web. Sometimes the targets notice, and don't like it. I have to wonder if people really get this pesky newfangled "web" thing.

Livejournals, for instance. Do you people really understand that this is going on your permanent record? In ten years, you know-- heck, in two months-- you yourself may regret that you explored your teenage angst in public and told Kristin and Jamie exactly what you thought of them and defended creationist nutcases and went over your latest arrest.

And earlier than that-- say, at 2:15 this afternoon-- we might come by and amuse ourselves reading your journal, your poems, your cartoons, etc. We can do this because you've published them to a public place. When you invited the world in, buster, you didn't just set yourself up for adulation and those little bevelled "award" links, you also get your fair share of criticism, argument, and the occasional snorted guffaw.

For some reason, the loudest squawks seem to come from people whose own web offerings boast a high vitriol content: the guy who wrote satirical poems about his IRC opponents, the chick who drew angry cartoons about her bosses and customers, the Livejournal users who fantasized on-line about beating up his ex-friends.

This isn't to say that anything goes-- there's an etiquette to mockery, and without wit it's simply simian-- but you can't reasonably expect to post things out in the open and get only warm fuzzies in return. If you don't want any bad reactions, keep the damn stuff private.

(What's that? You want to make fun of zompist.com? Have a party.)

12 Mar 2002: Forgetting the beer
Thomas Friedman has had an excellent series of articles in the New York Times on Arab/Israeli conflict. He has the ability, rare these days, to serve as a two-way information conduit: explaining Arab rage to Americans, and at the same time asking the Arabs hard questions (e.g. why the Arab press spotlights every Israeli attack on Palestinians, but downplays hundreds of Muslims killed by Hindu mobs in India; or why nominal U.S. allies encourage U.S.-bashing in the schools, mosques, and media).

As if to make up for this, William Safire channels Ariel Sharon, explaining that Ehud Barak's Bantustan plan was a "surrender", that Arafat "launched the terror war", that the Arabs can be "defeated" by "pre-emptive action and fierce counterattack", that Benjamin Netanyahu knows how to "pulverize terrorism", that the U.S. should threaten to withdraw "much-needed American protection" from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia if they squawk at a new war on Iraq. It's quite a shower of testosterone.

Actually, that last bit is pretty amazing; is Safire really unaware that getting U.S. troops out of the Muslim homeland is perhaps Osama bin Laden's number one concern? Does he really want to hand the 9/11 terrorists that victory?

Safire should really have paid more attention to his old boss: Nixon jacked up the testosterone in Vietnam and failed, and tried the peace route in China and succeeded. (Of course it's fashionable to worry about China again; but this doesn't diminish Nixon's achievement: our wary alliance with China helped weaken the Soviets, and paved the way for the capitalist revanche of Deng Xiaoping.)

I found more sense in a posting from one "Uncle Davey" on sci.lang: speaking of why the Germans don't hate Americans, he wrote: "As anybody knows, the way to get anybody's respect and love is to whop their arse and then give them your hand and go and have a beer with them."

There's a place for ass-whupping; but the key point here is the free beer. Safire and Sharon forget that part, and that's why no matter how much Israel fiercely pre-empts and attacks and pulverizes, it always ends up in more danger, with no security in sight. Sharon has nothing to offer the Arabs, no free beer. Without it, the whuppee just limps home and plots revenge.

Safire tries to defuse calls for evenhandedness by noting that "only the Palestinian side is targeting civilians". That's not quite true-- Israeli retribution often does target civilians, and there are Israeli terrorists too-- but it's mostly right (and it's the Palestinian side's greatest mistake). But Safire forgets that only the Israeli side is occupying the enemy's land. Because of this, Israel cannot hide behind the "war on terror". Sharon is demonstrating, more clearly every day, that the Israelis cannot, practically or morally, rule the Palestinians. And no amount of testosterone will allow them to do so.

3 Mar 2002: More on pranownsing Inglish
A correspondent notes that he has his own transcription system for English. Here's his example; can you say what dialect he speaks? More interestingly, can you guess what his native language is? (I'm not sure you can-- but you can try!)

Ai met à travlà from àn antîk land hû sed: tû vâst and trànklàs legz àv stoun stand in dhà dezàt. Nià dhem, on dhà sand, hâf sànk, à shatàd vizij laiz, hûz fraun, and rinkàld lip, and sniàr àv kould kàmând, tel dhat its skàlptà wel dhouz pashànz red, wich yet rimein, stampt on dhîz laiflàs thingz-- dhà hand dhat mokt dhem, and dhà hât dhat fed. And on dhà pedàstàl dhîz wëdz â kâvd: "Mai neim iz ozimandiàs, king àv kingz! Luk on mai wëks, yî maiti, and dispeà! Nàthing bisaid rimeinz. Raund dhà dikei àv dhat kàlosàl rek, baundlàs and beà, dhà loun and levàl sandz strech fâr àwei.
Answer coming. Just a minute more. Hold on. OK, here.

27 Feb 2002: Linguistry for everyone!
The chat group was chewing over the word "irregardless" the other day, and turned to me for Expert Linguistic Ammunition. I doubt that I made anyone happy, and I think linguists haven't got their position across very well.

People know about descriptivism; but they seem to interpret this as meaning that there are no rules; or, realizing that language change is inevitable, they figure you shouldn't even try to write properly.

In fact languages do have rules, and plenty of them-- more even than your high school English teacher dreamed of. (Take a look at James McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English: 800 pages about English syntax, and it's an introduction to the subject).

The thing is, though, this applies to any language variety, not just the standard. Black American English has just as many rules; they just happen to differ from standard American English in some obvious and many un-obvious ways. People like to say that a nonstandard construction is just "wrong", or nonstandard vocabulary "isn't a word"; this is just foolish from a linguistic point of view, but we will allow you to say that a construction isn't standard English.

And it does matter whether you use the rules of standard English-- not for linguistic but for social reasons. Sociologists will talk about (say) clothing conventions much as linguists talk about language varieties; but they'll still advise you not to show up for the interview in jeans, or a Batman costume, or nothing at all. Similarly, standard English is a variety that you should be capable of using when necessary.

As for language change-- sure, it's inevitable, but so is death, and most of us don't run to embrace that. If you misuse a word, the error may eventually become correct usage-- but linguists of the future may make fun of you, just as we point to the medieval nitwits who came up with "pea" as the singular of "peas". ("Peas" was a collective, like "rice"; it does derive from a plural, ultimately Latin pisa; but the singular of that was pisum.)

21 Feb 2002: Bad news for Islam
The U.S. government will soon be starting up a 24-hour Arabic radio station, the Middle East Radio Network, based in Dubai, offering a mix of Western and Arabic music as well as news which won't equate America with Satan.

The irony is, this is precisely the sort of cultural projection that so annoys the Islamic fundies. So, a direct consequence of their attack on America is that they'll get more of what they were trying to get rid of.

Other interesting news: Thomas Friedman in the New York Times (catch the link while it's free) notes that Saudi Arabia is now a poor country. Since 1980, the population has boomed from 7 million to 19 million, and the per capita income has fallen from $19,000 to $7,300-- with worse to come, since 40% of the population is under 14.

In the long run this could be good news: resource-based riches never last, but while they do, real modernization is put off. But in the short term it's bad news for everyone, since it can only increase the sense of helpless rage that's widespread in the Middle East. It's not good when young Arabs grow up with little to do but go down to the mosque to hear harangues about America.

4 Feb 2002: Zompist's Law
The physics in an sf story or film may be fairly accurate; the biology will be B.S.

This seems to be a corollary of a general illiteracy in biology. A friend was telling me, for instance, about some creationists who suggest that Noah took not dogs, wolves, and foxes on the ark with him, but only one animal which after the flood generated all the species of canines. This is actually stupider than simply saying "God just did it; don't ask questions." It seems to come from a worry that, after all, canines do seem to be genetically related; but then it sweeps away the genetic relationship to felines, primates, birds, chordates, etc.

Oh, that's just those wacky fundies, you think. But Larry Niven, who'd commit hara-kiri if he got his orbital dynamics wrong, commits exactly the same whopper, in Protector: he supposes that humans were transplanted to this planet a few million years ago. I think he may do some hand-waving to take care of the chimpanzees, but that leaves our mammalian heritage. (Niven fans: molest me not with the 3-billion-year-old genetic programming folderol; it's hopeless.)

28 Jan 2002: Lord of the Films
I finally saw The Fellowship of the Ring, and was fairly blown away. Just about everything in it is right.

I was a bit bothered by seeing orange carrots and fields of maize, neither of which could have existed in the legendary past; but this is arguably in the spirit of Tolkien, who cheerfully fed his hobbits potatoes, tobacco, and coffee. Much the same could be said of the film's use of English for written text-- a bit jarring, but Tolkien in fact is one of the few authors to really face up to the linguistic problem of characters in a foreign world. The usual expedient is that they speak English, yet have un-English names and signage. Tolkien decided that if they were to be represented as speaking English, the names and other expressions had to change too, including expressions in related languages. E.g. since the language of Rohan resembled the ancestor of the Common Speech, Tolkien represented it with Old English.

I've also been re-reading the books, which is a lot of fun. One surprise is how fast it goes-- each volume takes only a day or two. I could've sworn this was a big book. :)

As you can imagine, as a world-builder myself, I admire Tolkien immensely, perhaps most of all for the beauty of his languages, and for the fullness of his creations. When his characters refer (as they frequently do) to legends or ancestors or writing systems, you feel that these really exist-- and no doubt they do, somewhere in his notebooks.

Tolkien crankily warns against allegory, but it's clear enough what he's against, besides Eeevil: the book is a long complaint about modernism. One sure sign of an evildoer in Tolkien's books is industrialization. This is obviously tied in his mind to greed and waste, but even more directly to ugliness and the wanton destruction of the natural world.

(He evidently loves the pastoral world, represented by the Shire, but never quite addresses the fact that this sort of landscape is also a transformation of the wild world, requiring the wholesale destruction of forests and forest creatures. Perhaps it's all right if the chopping was done half a milennium ago, or if the end result is still beautiful.)

In other areas as well Tolkien prefers medieval ways; he's a conservative in the best and a few of the more questionable senses. (Though I hope he would disapprove of American consies, who scornfully reject conservation and are in general allies of Saruman.)

That's medieval, not classical; Tolkien seems to love the forms and personal loyalties of feudalism, rather than (say) the rights-based citizenship of ancient Rome; and his mind seems to pass quickly over ages of glory, and lovingly dwell on long periods of decline that look back to them. (His pal C.S. Lewis shows more interest in the classical era.) And though (unlike Lewis) he hides his Christian theology, so that Middle Earth seems curiously free of religion and even explicit references to God, the very absence of pagan elements and competing belief systems is reminiscent of the medieval universality of Catholicism.

(Something else that seems quaint these days, though it's not medieval but Victorian: LOTR is a book almost entirely without sex, even in the larger sense. When women appear, they're almost always lustless nature goddesses; so far as we can see every one of the Fellowship is a virgin. The movie compensates for this, perhaps inadvertently, with some almost homoerotic expressions of male friendship.)

Every successful genre engenders a reaction, so it's probably unnecessary to point out that the real medieval era was nasty for almost everyone, and by modern standards unhealthy and dangerous for the privileged few who could enjoy the honors and beauties that Tolkien admires. What worries me a bit more is the black-and-white worldview... or perhaps I should say grey-and-black, since Tolkien is keenly aware of the mixed morality of his good characters, though the evil ones are unalloyed with virtue. This is part of our Christian inheritance-- Christianity divides the world into saved and unsaved, but warns the saved to remember their own sinfulness-- but its absolutism, in a complex world, itself leads to evil. It's unwise and unuseful to see anyone, even an enemy, as nothing but evil, an unredeemable orc-like being that the good can destroy without mercy.

As a corollary, I don't like Tolkien's biological determinism. I don't object to the elves, creatures nobler than men: as Lewis said, there's nothing wrong with the admiring glance upward. But I don't hold with the idea that some families of men are inherently stronger, taller, and nobler (in his mythology, the Númenoreans), and there's something ugly about the fact that darkness or 'sallowness' of skin, and even slanted eyes, to say nothing of living too far south or east, are invariably associated in Tolkien's world with evil.

But fortunately these things are entirely marginal, and indeed contradicted by the storyline, in which the world is saved by a nobody who appears nowhere on the genealogical charts of Gondor or of Eressëa.

17 Jan 2002: Fundies be fundies
There's one point where I venture to disagree with Bernard Lewis. He doesn't like calling militant Islam "fundamentalist":

The protest of the so-called Muslim fundamentalists is not against liberal theology or scriptural criticism [but] against the entire process of change that has transformed a large part of the Muslim world during the last century or more, creating new structures and proclaiming new values. The reformers... have seen these changes as a process of modernization.... For the fundamentalists, these changes are evil and destructive: Their values undermine Muslim morality, and their structures subvert Muslim law. Those who promote and enforce such changes are infidels or the tools of infidels.
Lewis isn't wrong about the Muslims; he's wrong about the Americans. Christian fundamentalists are not just worried about "liberal theology"; they have, in fact, exactly the same objection as their Muslim counterparts to the modern world, which seems to them profoundly immoral, disruptive of the natural order of things, and contrary to the will of God. They agree on wanting government to be explicitly based on religious law, and want education to include and conform to religious teaching.

The Christians do not generally call for death for their enemies, but this is more a matter of preferred tactics than of principle. Even armed resistance to the state is by no means a fringe doctrine among the religious right; and their long war against Clinton was as defiant of democratic legitimacy as any ayatullah from Qom.

14 Jan 2002: Media bias
Returning from a trip to England some years ago, I brought a few newspapers home, and was struck by the judgments expressed openly in the news articles. An article on the English equivalent of NAMBLA, for instance, talked about "these perverts". News on politics similarly made the reporters' opinions clear. American newspapers, by contrast, are excruciatingly neutral, even (as in the NAMBLA case) where the judgment would be shared by 90% of the population.

I commented on this to a friend of mine, and was surprised to find that he found the American pose of objectivity to be completely false. This was my first introduction to the consie complaint about "liberal media".

We argued two days and didn't convince each other. Part of the problem, I now think, is that there are really a multitude of issues, and it's important to disentangle them.

On the other hand, who knows? The starting point for lit crit these days-- one due to (misguided) leftists, in fact-- is that total objectivity isn't possible. You can omit the surface judgments, but your underlying assumptions will still come through; and a friendly critic will be less likely to notice them than a hostile one. (I don't completely agree with this, but it at least shows that objectivity isn't self-evident.)

And as Michael Kinsley points out-- supposing the main news sources are biased; what then? Should there be an affirmative action program for consies in the media?

Would consies stop whining if the New York Times made even more effort not to favor liberals or conservatives? Somehow I doubt it; I think what they really want is more right-wing media. And it's their right to create them if they want them. And their obligation. No one but conservatives will or should provide news slanted to the taste of conservatives.

But besides making partisans happy, do we need biased news articles? The English papers aren't much of an advertisement for the practice. Adding in those judgmental adjectives is an exercise in self-congratulation, and pretty much ensures that no one outside the intended party will take you seriously. I'd rather papers be more like the NYT than more like Pravda.

11 Jan 2002: Don't be a penecabeza
Saw a site the other day that purported to give insults in dozens of languages. Sample: they translated "Kiss my ass" as Besito mi asno.

OK, if you liked that, stop there. Otherwise I'll explain and draw lessons and stuff.

A besito is a kiss-- that is, it's a noun, not a verb. An asno is a donkey. This is what happens when extremely monolingual people pick up a dictionary and attempt to use it as a codebook. (Even Babel does better-- it actually produces a valid Spanish sentence-- though it too gets the wrong sense of 'ass'.)

Oh, and don't trust all the sites out on that pesky Web. (A telltale on this particular site: prominent appeals for more entries. Editing is good.)

4 Jan 2002: Argentina faw down go boom
A quick question while watching Argentina go down the tubes:

Is there any nation which has increased the median standard of living following the dictates of the IMF?

12 Mar 2002: More on pranownsing Inglish: Answer
Pretty much everyone who responded realized that the writer is aiming at RP (Received Pronunciation, the British standard).

Guesses as to his nationality included German, anything Germanic, French, anything Romance, Albanian, Indian, and Gullah.

In fact the writer is a French correspondent of mine, Frank Legros. The biggest clue is orthographic: all the diacritics used in Frank's spelling system are found in French, though not with their French values (he devised the system for use with French typewriters). I'm not sure that there's any good phonetic clue, except perhaps that Frank uses the same symbol (à) for short u (sunk) and schwa (lifeless).

Get me outta here!