Sunday, November 30, 2008

The reality of time and a doodle of me

My mom blogs our post-Thanksgiving trip to a Madison cafe:

Others may read about metaphysics. Me, I'm making a puppet out of the sugar packet drawing on the recycled-paper-brown napkins...
If you look at a closeup of the photo in that blog post, you can see a doodle she drew of me:

doodle of John Althouse Cohen by Ann Althouse

She adds:
The question arose: Is time not an illusion?
That was spinning off an essay I was reading called "Some Free Thinking About Time"* by the philosopher Arthur Norman Prior. He makes this pithy argument:
All attempts to deny the reality of time founder, so far as I can see, on the problem of explaining the appearance of time's passage: for appearing is itself something that occurs in time. Eddington once said that events don't happen, we merely come across them; but what is coming across an event but a happening?
That's why he "believe[s] in the reality of the distinction between past, present, and future" -- "that what we see as a progress of events is a progress of events, a coming to pass of one thing after another, and not just a timeless tapestry with everything stuck there for good and all."

That seems so trivially true -- why would anyone deny it? Well, certain scientific types will say that the theory of relativity shows that our common-sense view of time is simply mistaken. Prior has an elaborate response to this -- I can't get into the details of his argument here, but I'll just say I love how he concludes by cutting the Gordian knot:
We may say that the theory of relativity isn't about real space and time, in which the earlier-later relation is defined in terms of pastness, presentness, and futurity; the "time" which enters into the so-called space-time of relativity theory isn't this, but is just part of an artificial framework which scientists have constructed to link together observed facts in the simplest way possible, and from which those things which are systematically concealed from us are quite reasonably left out.
By the way, isn't Prior a perfect name for someone who thinks about these questions for a living? Reminds me of the scene in The Office where Michael reveals that Dwight was lying about having to leave work for a dentist appointment:
Michael: What’s his name?

Dwight: [long pause] Crentist.

Michael: Your dentist’s name is Crentist ... huh. Sounds a lot like dentist.

Dwight: Maybe that’s why he became a dentist?

* The essay is in the anthology Metaphysics: The Big Questions -- you can see it in the photo.

Friday, November 28, 2008

"Is there a God?" And what's wrong with punching a robot? And can an atheist truly enjoy Thanksgiving?

I agree with just about everything Robert Wright says in this excellent discussion of whether God exists:

That's Robert Wright -- whom I've blogged repeatedly -- and Joel Achenbach, who writes the Achenblog.

Here's a transcript of the whole conversation, via Bloggingheads.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Something to be thankful for: the looming prospect of an economic meltdown.

The law-and-economics jurist Richard Posner sees plenty of good in the impending depression:

The longer the world economy went without a depression, the worse the collapse would be when it finally, inevitably, came. The saving grace of catastrophes is averting worse catastrophes....

The fall in [oil prices] seems to have been due primarily to a worldwide reduction in demand for oil caused by the global depression. The combination of low prices with low demand is optimal from the standpoint of U.S. (and probably world) welfare. The low demand reduces the amount of carbon emissions, thus alleviating (though only to a slight extent) the problem of global warming. The fall in the price of oil has reduced the wealth of the oil-producing nations—a goal that should be central to U.S. foreign policy because of the hostility to us (Russia, Iran, Venezuela), or the political instability (Iraq, Nigeria, Algeria), of so many major oil-producing nations.

By undermining faith in free markets, the depression opens the door to more government intervention in the economy and eventually to higher taxes (though probably not until the economy improves). These are not necessarily bad things. Obviously neither the optimal amount of government intervention nor the optimal level of taxation is zero. There are compelling arguments for greater government intervention to deal with the threat of global warming, to improve transportation and other infrastructure, to reduce traffic congestion, and to protect biodiversity. Though in principle the money needed for such programs could be obtained from cutting wasteful government programs, that is politically infeasible.

So taxes will have to rise. Federal taxes as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product are no higher today than they were in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—periods of healthy economic growth. The marginal income tax rate reached 94 percent in 1945 and did not decline to 70 percent until 1964 (it is 35 percent today). A modest increase in marginal rates from their present low level would increase tax revenues substantially, probably with little offset due to the distortions that any tax increase is bound to produce. Taxes should not be increased during a depression, but as we come out of it they can be raised modestly to finance infrastructure investments and other investments in public goods, such as reducing carbon emissions.*

The anxiety, reduced consumption, and reduced incomes during a depression are real costs and very heavy ones, but on the other hand the excessive borrowing that precipitated the depression enabled, for a period of years, higher consumption than the nation could actually afford. Thus the current drop in consumption is in part an offset to the abnormal level of consumption earlier. Indeed, since people loaded up with cars, fancy dresses, etc., while times were good (illusorily good because the nation was living beyond its means), the current reduction in the purchase of durables, while hard on sellers, may not be a great hardship to consumers. (Nevertheless, people quickly get habituated to a high level of consumption, and a decline from that level is very painful.)
And there's more...

* For the sake of transparency, I should point out that I fiddled with some of the paragraph breaks here to make it more readable.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Mumbai, India attacks of November 26, 2008

Right now, the top story on the New York Times homepage is, of course, about the attacks, which are still happening as I'm typing this:

Dozens Reported Dead in India Attacks
Terrorists Aim at Sites in Mumbai
Some reports set the death toll as high as 80 in coordinated terror attacks aimed at luxury hotels, a train station, a movie theater and a hospital.
Just to make sure their evil couldn't be denied, they attacked a hospital.

From the Washington Post:

Witnesses said the gunmen initially asked for British and American nationals. About 10 Americans and Britons were believed to be trapped in the Taj Mahal hotel late Wednesday.

A previously unknown group calling itself the "Deccan Mujaheddin" sent e-mails to news organizations claiming responsibility for the strikes. Intelligence officials said they had no information about the group, and it was not immediately possible to assess the validity of the claim. The purported group's name apparently refers to the Deccan Plateau, an area that spans eight Indian states and covers much of the central and southern part of the country.

Since May, a wave of bombings has rocked several Indian cities, killing more than 200 people. Some of the bombings were claimed by a group calling itself the Indian Mujaheddin. The term "mujaheddin" refers to Islamic holy warriors. ...

A 34-year businessman, Ashish Jain, said in a cellphone interview that he was having dinner with friends at the Taj Mahal hotel's rooftop restaurant when the attack began.

"When I paid the bill and tried to leave, the hotel staff said there were terrorists in the lobby and that we could not leave," Jain said. "There were 150 of us on the rooftop, including some foreign nationals. . . . It was really alarming to be trapped there for over four hours. We could feel the building shake with the explosions. We could see the smoke and the fire. People were panicking and crying. And finally the army and the police came and secured the fire escape exit and we could get out."

Among those barricaded inside the Taj Mahal hotel were several European lawmakers who were visiting Mumbai ahead of a summit meeting of European Union and Indian leaders.

"I was in the lobby . . . when gunmen came in and people starting running," one of the lawmakers, Sajjad Karim, told Britain's Press Association news agency by telephone from the basement of the hotel. "A gunman just stood there spraying bullets around, right next to me. I managed to turn away, and I ran into the hotel kitchen."

I was struck by the group of "European lawmakers ... visiting Mumbai ahead of a summit meeting of European Union and Indian leaders." It could easily be a coincidence, of course, but I wonder if the terrorists knew they were going to be there. 

I previously blogged Peter Beinart's important commentary from the aftermath of the September 11 attacks-- that the terrorists' goal is not "the Palestinians' right to a state or the Iraqis' right to medicine," but "a Muslim's right not to live with a non-Muslim." In other words, they're not militant proxies for Western liberals fueled by some trenchant critique of American foreign policy; they're morally opposed to the very idea of an increasingly interconnected world where people from different cultures happily live and work together. So whether or not it was actually intended, the symbolism of the European leaders getting ready to meet with Indian leaders would be perfect for the terrorists.

A few more quick points:

1. Most Americans probably weren't aware of India's earlier mass murders from the last couple years. Yet walking down the street in America this evening, you can hear people talking about the latest attacks, even though more people died before than have reportedly died tonight. How are the people dying in these attacks any more important than the people who died before?

2. It's often said that "there hasn't been another terrorist attack" since September 11, 2001, which shows that "Bush has kept us safe." I've always hated this formulation since it implies that "we," the Americans, are the only ones who matter in the supposedly "global" war on terrorism. But even those who think Americans are the only ones who matter can no longer say "we haven't had another terrorist attack."

Oh, "but not on American soil." Well, it's nice that our domestic security seems to have been pretty effective since 2001. But I thought terrorism was supposed to be a broad, global problem, not a narrow, domestic one.

More importantly, I doubt the American tourists in Mumbai who have been killed or held hostage tonight will be consoled to know that it's happening on insignificant "soil."

[UPDATE: A day after the attacks started -- they're still going on two days later, though they're apparently "winding down" -- Victor Davis Hanson gave an example of this kind of obliviousness: "As for Bush’s legacy, it will be left to future historians to weigh his responsibility for keeping us safe from another 9/11-like attack for seven year..." Even without knowing who was responsible for the Mumbai attacks, I don't see how it's not "another 9/11-like attack," unless you conveniently define "9/11-like" just narrowly enough not to include any of the terrorist attacks that have happened since 9/11.]

3. Cliff May writes:
Terrorists like these would be thrilled to pull off a similar attack in the U.S. Aggressive surveillance and other tough policies will be necessary to prevent them.

Let's hope the incoming administration fully appreciates that.

Martha Stewart, Snoop Dogg, and Paul McCartney show you how to make mashed potatoes.

But not all together.

Snoop + Martha:

I hadn't thought about the "Parkay" voice in years.

(Via my mom, via Metafilter. My mom's tags: "cognac, Martha Stewart, potatoes, Snoop Dogg.")

Paul's are much healthier:

"...which isn't wonderful..."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

2 sets of statistics that startled me

1. Obama's "army of small donors" was barely any change from 4 years ago:

[O]nly 26 percent of the money [Obama] collected through Aug. 31 during the primary and 24 percent of his money through Oct. 15 came from contributors whose total donations added up to $200 or less. ...

Those figures are actually in the same range as the 25 percent President Bush raised in 2004 from donors whose contributions aggregated to $200 or less, the 20 percent Senator John F. Kerry collected from such donors and Senator John McCain’s 21 percent from the same group. -- NYT

2. $700 billion has suddenly turned into $7 trillion:
The U.S. government is prepared to provide more than $7.76 trillion on behalf of American taxpayers after guaranteeing $306 billion of Citigroup Inc. debt yesterday. The pledges, amounting to half the value of everything produced in the nation last year, are intended to rescue the financial system after the credit markets seized up 15 months ago.

The unprecedented pledge of funds includes $3.18 trillion already tapped by financial institutions in the biggest response to an economic emergency since the New Deal of the 1930s, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The commitment dwarfs the plan approved by lawmakers, the Treasury Department’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. Federal Reserve lending last week was 1,900 times the weekly average for the three years before the crisis. -- Bloomberg

Monday, November 24, 2008

Blacks and same-sex marriage

This is one of the most appallingly prejudiced things I've read in a while.

The author of that L.A. Times editorial, Jasmyne Cannick, is writing about the exit polls that provocatively revealed that "black voters in California voted against gay marriage by more than 2 to 1" -- in contrast with the electorate as a whole, which voted the same way (for Proposition 8) but only by 52%.

Her position: blacks have been right not to support same-sex marriage.

Now, she doesn't quite say she's against same-sex marriage; she carefully leaves open the possibility that she supports it but just sees it as such a low priority that it's not worth devoting any effort to. But she doesn't have a word to say in favor of it even in principle.

How does she justify blacks' role in undoing same-sex marriage in California? She says (a) there are just too many other problems facing black people, and (b) it's hard to see how same-sex marriage would help black people. 

A few points:

1. It's a very convenient excuse, anytime you don't want to take an issue seriously, to point out the existence of other problems that should be taken seriously. Apparently there's a pretty stringent limit to the number of issues we're allowed to think about.
2. Every paragraph of the article says basically the same thing: that blacks should see a clear dividing line between "white" and "black" in American society, and exclusively focus on the problems facing the black side. (As is so often the case, other races aren't even part of the discussion.)

Well, imagine if everyone decided to put that principle into practice. That is, everyone only cares about what's good for their own group. There's no loftier goal than securing benefits for your own side. Would that principle be good for blacks, in a democracy where they're only 12% of the population?
3. Some of her specific examples are inadvertently comical. She says: "The right to marry does nothing to address the problems faced by both black gays and black straights. Does someone who is ... suffering from HIV but has no healthcare ... really benefit from the right to marry someone of the same sex?"

Would someone who's suffering due to a lack of health care be helped by being able to marry the person they love? Um ... yes! Health care does have something to do with being allowed to legally marry!

Another one: "I don't see why the right to marry should be a priority for me or other black people. Gay marriage? Please. At a time when blacks are still more likely than whites to be pulled over for no reason ...." Actually, a lot of people would be more upset about losing the right to marry than they'd be about being randomly pulled over. It's far from clear that racial profiling is a more important issue than same-sex marriage; the idea that it's so dramatically more important than same-sex marriage that the former should somehow eliminate same-sex marriage from consideration is just nutty.
4. There's a meme out there that liberals need to "get religion" (literally) if they want to be politically successful -- that there needs to be a religious left to counteract the religious right. Excuse me if I'm not exactly gung-ho about this idea after reading something like this:

White gays often wonder aloud why blacks, of all people, won't support their civil rights. There is a real misunderstanding by the white gay community about the term. Proponents of gay marriage fling it around as if it is a one-size-fits-all catchphrase for issues of fairness.

But the black civil rights movement was essentially born out of and driven by the black church; social justice and religion are inextricably intertwined in the black community. To many blacks, civil rights are grounded in Christianity -- not something separate and apart from religion but synonymous with it. To the extent that the issue of gay marriage seemed to be pitted against the church, it was going to be a losing battle in my community.
5. A blog called The Republic of T. (which has the tagline, "Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.") has an excellent response. Here's a brief sample (click through to the post if you're interested in his links to back up the facts):
Mikki Mozelle and Lisa Kebreau, a Black lesbian couple — among those for whom Cannick thinks marriage equality isn’t a priority — who were also one of the plaintiff couples in Maryland’s marriage lawsuit, spent upwards of $6,000 on legal documents to give their family a few protections, and with no guarantee that their documents will be recognized.

In the Maryland County where I live, a $55 application fee gets you a marriage license and the 1,049 benefits and protections that come with it. So heterosexuals pay about $0.05 per protection/benefit. Mozlle and Kebreau (and other Black gay couples) pay hundreds of times more than heterosexuals for less protection and fewer benefits....

Wesley Mercer, a gay Black man, died on September 11, 2001, while helping evacuate the World Trade Center. His partner of 26 years, Bill Randolph, also a Black gay man, struggled to get equal recognition for their relationship. Morgan Stanley, Mercer’s employer, gave him $700 to cover immediate expenses, and later a check for $10,000. Though Mercer supplied half the household income, Randolph does not receive Social Security benefits, workers’ compensation, or Mercer’s 25-year army pension. Only spouses are eligible.

Randolph has spoken up about what he faced as a gay, man losing a partner on 9/11, without the benefits and protections of marriage. I doubt he believes he or any of the Black gay couples who were plaintiffs in the state marriage lawsuits — Corey Davis & Andre LeJune (CA), Mikki Mozelle & Lisa Kebreau (MD), Alvin Williams & Nigel Simon (MD), Takia Foskey & Jo Rabb (MD), Alicia Heath-Toby & Saundra Toby-Heath (NJ) — would agree that that inequality is a “secondary issue.”

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sarah Palin and the Thanksgiving turkey slaughter

My mom has a perfectly apt post about Palin giving an interview with slaughtering going on in the background. Here's the post in its entirety:

HuffPo is aghast that turkey-killing doesn't faze Sarah Palin.
Font size
Deal with it, you candy-asses. If you eat meat, something like that is going on in the background for you too.

I followed her link to HuffingtonPost and noticed that the post has an amazing 4,000+ comments. And based on skimming through some of them, it looks like HuffPo's commenters are more intelligent than HuffPo's writers.

One good point from the comments section:
Newsflash: Farmers kill animals. Then they sell them. Grocery stores package them. Meat-eaters buy them and eat them. Apparently people in the Ivory Tower think meat just appears, much like manna from Heaven. This is odd, considering their general distaste for all things religious--especially Christian.

And here's one more (slightly edited):
You people don't understand Alaska.

If you've ever been there, it really is America's last frontier populated with rugged people.

Actually seeing the reality of the facts of life and death (whether human or animal) is NOT uncommon there as it is in the lower 48. I think this is mostly a good thing. Here in Brooklyn, there's lots of people who eat chicken every day, but have never seen a live chicken running around the yard. You just go buy it at the supermarket. Not good.

Sarah grew up in Alaska and is used to these things. I'll give her that. Alaskans probably laugh at the lower 48's squeamishness.

Friday, November 21, 2008

On women, men, and bodies

I wouldn't normally highlight a specific woman's body proportions, but Megan McArdle is someone who's been unusually explicit about hers. As she says in this Bloggingheads clip, she's 6'2" and 145 pounds, yet she can't shake the admittedly irrational belief — which she says "every other American woman" also holds — that her life would be better if only she lost 5 pounds:

She also says (as you can see in the video clip):

If I were an actress, I would have to lose 15 pounds, probably, to keep my jobs. And I'm really pretty skinny. . . Almost no one looks like me, and almost no one can look like this over the age of 19. I'm not saying that I'm amazingly gorgeous. In fact, I think that being that thin isn't really particularly attractive — to men. Women think it is.
I remember seeing a study in one of my textbooks back in college. It found that men's views of the ideal female body type is, on average, about average. Women, of course, viewed the ideal female body type as much skinnier. You can find similar conclusions by Googling around (example: PDF). I wish I still had that textbook, though, because it not only stated the findings but also included realistic color illustrations of two women — one for men's ideal and one for women's. I wondered: if every woman in America could see these illustrations and absorb their significance, wouldn't we be living in a saner world, where the goal isn't always to keep losing more and more weight?

I don't mean to imply that women should only care what men think and not want to be attractive for themselves. It would be different if women were satisfied with a more realistic range of body types and men were the ones who wanted to see women get as skinny as possible. But since the opposite is the case — men are the less oppressive ones — I think it's fair to assume that something has gone wrong.

Where do women's misperceptions come from? The easy, politically correct answer is that "society" bombards women and girls with unrealistic images of supposedly ideal women. You know the drill: models in advertisements, Barbie's body proportions, etc.

First of all, speaking of unfair expectations, I think it's unfair to expect a doll to have proportions that would be realistic if they were blown up to the scale of a real adult. Isn't it possible that on a purely aesthetic levels, exaggerated proportions work better on a tiny scale?

More to the point, though, the "skinny models" explanation can't be true. Can it? Or at least, it's leaving a whole lot out.

Here's the problem: pick up a copy of Details magazine and look at the male models. Even though the articles are about macho topics like whisky, meat, and the military, the models are extremely svelte. I'm pretty skinny, but I'd have a very hard time if I were to try to conform to those body types.

At the other end of the spectrum, what about male action figures? People love to gripe about Barbie, but what about the dolls for boys? No one would argue that He-Man's muscles are a realistic, healthy standard for boys to aspire to.

We don't expect boys/men to be incapable of thinking through for themselves whether these are really the right standards. Yet it's considered the enlightened position to suggest that women are mere passive victims, hypnotized by whatever images the big bad "media" or "society" puts in front of them.

An aside: many liberals/feminists will rail against female genital mutilation — as well they should. But how many of them are upfront about the fact that it's primarily practiced by women? (One person who isn't upfront about this is Eve Ensler, who included a long piece in her famous play The Vagina Monologues about female genital mutilation, but oddly never mentioned who actually does it.)

Liberals/feminists will also rail against unrealistic female body ideals — as well they should. But could it be that the crux of the problem is women going after other women?

When I think about what kinds of body types straight guys really consider attractive, I think about two random exchanges I've had with some friends (both of these were situations where young guys were the only people in the room):

1. Four of us — old friends who had gone to college in different cities and were back home for winter break — were catching up with each others' lives. One of them was telling us about his new girlfriend. He said that she has a nice "medium" body, and that he's never been specifically focused on skinny girls. Two others said we felt the same way. The fourth guy disagreed, saying he's mainly just attracted to skinny girls.

2. Three of us were watching the movie Ghost World. (Aside from me, these were different guys than the ones in the previous exchange.) Thora Birch isn't overweight by any means, but she's definitely curvier than the typical Hollywood actress in that movie. Two of us thought she was extremely attractive, but the other guy couldn't really see that.

That's the real world. Two-thirds of us (4 out of the 6 guys) didn't have a strong preference for especially skinny women.

Of course, this is completely anecdotal and unscientific, so I have no idea if my "two-thirds" conclusion is statistically accurate. But when I think about those conversations in light of the sociological studies, I have to conclude: most men are not fixated on skinniness as an essential criterion for female attractiveness. This isn't to deny that most men do find plenty of skinny women attractive, but just to say that it's not a requirement.

Of course there are some men who really do have an overwhelming interest in skinnier-than-average women. And that's just fine. There are also some men with an overwhelming interest in heavier-than-average women. That's fine too. But most men's tastes aren't so austere, in either direction.

Although, as I said, I make no moral judgment of men who are attracted to a relatively narrow range of body types, I do feel sorry for them, just as I feel sorry for women who insist on only dating men who are over 6 feet tall.

I don't object to the superficiality. Everyone cares about looks. Everyone is superficial. This isn't about trying to enforce some kind of rule that we have to be earnestly respectful toward "plus-size" women — which is doomed to be a joyless affectation if it's done out of a sense of duty. I just think that finding curvy women attractive is more fun for everyone concerned.

I'm writing this because it's on my mind, not to boost anyone's self-esteem. In fact, based on my experience, there's not much I can say to convince women that life isn't a contest where the goal is to be as skinny as possible. Whether women have that perception is not going to be affected by what I say. And it can't fairly be imputed to that imaginary scapegoat known as "society." The only one with the power to convince a woman she does have a beautiful body is the woman herself.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Suicide by court

The New York Times' version of this Associated Press article has an ominous URL:
The article itself never uses the phrase "suicide by court," or even the word "suicide." But that's what it's about: death-row inmates in the United States who choose not to contest the death penalty, thus passively committing suicide.

How often has this happened? 131 times since we reinstated the death penalty in 1977. That's 12% of defendants who've been sentenced to death. The most recent such inmate is going to be executed tomorrow.

The article focuses on the ethical anguish of the lawyers:
Attorneys are required to follow the client's wishes or have themselves removed from the case, said Michael Mello, a Vermont Law School professor who teaches ethics and death penalty law.

''Their hands are pretty well tied,'' Mello said. ''These are the cases that haunt you. This is the most hideous of cases.''

That's how Gus Cahill felt when his client, Keith Eugene Wells, told him he wanted to die. Wells was convicted of beating a couple to death in 1990 in Idaho. He went through the mandatory appeals, then decided to waive any remaining legal options and was lethally injected in 1994.

''I really liked Keith,'' said Cahill, a public defender in Boise. ''You're just thinking, 'Oh, my God, I feel so sorry for being part of what Keith wanted to do.'''
It's understandable, of course, that anyone would feel queasy about being helpless to save a human being from death.

But shouldn't this also cheer up criminal defense lawyers, or anyone who's morally opposed to the death penalty?

Dogmatic opposition to the death penalty would seem to only make sense if execution is -- at least for the person executed -- a really bad thing. Not just garden-variety "bad," but truly awful.

Doesn't the fact that 12% of people who receive death sentences actively prevent their lawyers from fighting it suggest that it's not so awful?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"The United States economy has never been in better shape. ... Monetary policy is spectacular." -- Arthur Laffer, 2006

My mom blogged this YouTube clip of Peter Schiff from 2006 through 2007, predicting the whole recession and financial crisis while all the other "experts" ridiculed him:

Note that the first wrong pundit in the clip is Arthur Laffer, the famous Reagan adviser associated with supply-side economics and the eponymous Laffer curve.

Aside from the relevance to our immediate situation, the clip is also instructive in demonstrating how to look like you're obviously right when you don't know what you're talking about. 2 key tips:

1. Be vehemently optimistic about whatever you're in favor of, and put down any expression of pessimism. (This can also work at the other extreme: be vehemently cynical about whatever you're against, and put down any optimism as being ridiculously naive.)

2. Heartily laugh at whoever disagrees with you, completely regardless of whether anything funny has been said. (Watch at 3:40.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

"You're at Vassar College! The world is your oyster! There's nothing you can't do! Learn Chinese, you idiot!"

This is the best discussion of the racial significance of the election of Barack Obama I've seen:

That's John McWhorter and Glenn Loury.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I repeatedly blog about Eliot Spitzer without having much of an opinion about him one way or the other.

So, my previous post was just blogged by my mom. Typical thing that happens with blogging: I'm suddenly exposed to potentially hundreds of people as someone who's taking a strong stand about the need to get Eliot Spitzer back into power -- which is weird, since I essentially have no actual opinion about him.

On top of that, this wasn't the first time I've blogged about Spitzer. My mom posted this post in the aftermath of the Spitzer scandal based on my point (which she credited me for) about how Spitzer's record of prosecuting prostitution cases might actually explain his behavior. I also suggested the title of that post:

From penetrating the world of prostitution to penetrating the prostitute.
It makes sense -- read the post!

Speaking of Spitzer and prostitution, my mom added this commentary to my post about getting Spitzer into the Senate to replace Hillary Clinton if she becomes Secretary of State:
I know. I know. It's not just adultery. It's prostitutes. And hypocrisy. But they're all hypocrites, and there will always be prostitutes...
Of course, it's true there was prostitution and hypocrisy involved. But unless you think all politicians who have affairs should be banished from public life, then I don't see the relevance.

It's easy to say, "Oh, it wasn't the adultery itself -- it was all the other stuff." But isn't just about any adultery going to look extra lurid if you look at the specifics of what happened? Think about the most notable political adulterers in the U.S. who've been discovered in the past 10 or 15 years: Clinton, Edwards, Gingrich, Giuliani, McCain. None of them just had a generic one-night stand and then went back to their normal lives. No, in each case, there was layer upon layer of sleaze. Lying, hypocrisy, sex with subordinates, cheating on a terminally ill or seriously injured spouse, questions about whether taxpayers foot the bill for any of it, and countless other disgusting details I'm happy to have forgotten (and a few I wish I could forget).

In fact, out of all the ones I've named, couldn't you argue that Spitzer's adultery was the most innocuous? At least he kept it "professional" and didn't drag another person's whole emotional life into it.

To be clear, I'm not trying to defend any of that behavior. It was all profoundly immoral because of the consequences for the families involved. But should it have consequences for me or you as American citizens? I don't think so. Tragically, adultery is so common that barring adulterers from public service is just not a good plan.

Come back, Eliot Spitzer!

We need your help!

Yes, you cheated on your wife, thus making it clearly necessary for you to be replaced by someone who, uh, cheated on his wife.

And it's certainly gracious of you to say -- while laying out your vision for how the federal government should tackle the financial crisis -- that "mistakes I made in my private life now prevent me from participating in these issues as I have in the past."

But can't we just say you had a really humiliating "time-out," and all's forgiven?

If Hillary Clinton becomes Secretary of State and you're appointed to replace her (as proposed in the first link), you'll hardly be the first or the last philandering Senator.

In fact, there's one particularly famous Senator who cheated on at least one of his wives, and possibly two. You know who committed adultery? You might never know ... that one!

UPDATE: "I repeatedly blog about Eliot Spitzer without having much of an opinion about him one way or the other."

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why does every great, long-lived rock band lose their greatness?

The phenomenon seems too widespread to deny: if you're a great band/artist who plays any kind of rock or pop music, and if you stay around for more than a few years, at some point you're going to lose your greatness. You might keep playing fantastic shows for decades, but only by heavily relying on your old material.

Just a few examples: the individual Beatles after the first couple solo albums from John, Paul, and George. Stevie Wonder after Songs in the Key of Life. Prince after Lovesexy. U2 after Achtung Baby. The Smashing Pumpkins after Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Nine Inch Nails after The Downward Spiral.

And there's an alarming number of great bands from the current decade whose most recent albums have exhibited a dramatic drop in standards: Death Cab for Cutie (Narrow Stairs), The Arcade Fire (Neon Bible), Rilo Kiley (Under the Blacklight), Dresden Dolls (Yes, Virginia), Spoon (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), and — I know some people strongly disagree with this — Radiohead (In Rainbows).

I would have added Of Montreal to that list when Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer? was their most recent album. But they have a new one out, Skeletal Lamping.

You can hear a full Of Montreal concert, with lots of songs from the new album, by going to this article and click the "hear the concert" link near the top of the page.

I love this band, so I was excited to see they had a new concert online. But looking over the set list (available at the same link), I was disappointed at how few songs they played from their 3rd and 4th most recent albums, The Sunlandic Twins and Satanic Panic in the Attic. You can hear the songs from those albums — which in my opinion are the highlights of the concert — by skipping ahead to these points:

  • 4:40
  • 32:30
  • 43:50
  • 1:02:00
  • 1:41:30
As of this posting, you can hear Of Montreal's new album, more or less in its entirety, for free at their MySpace profile (tracks 1-15).

Their last two albums have a lot of the qualities that are all too common in past-their-prime rock bands: the music is, if anything, slightly more accomplished on a technical level, but it sounds like they ran out of ideas and tried to make up for it by doing a really good imitation of themselves.

As one example, "A Sentence of Sorts from Kongsvinger" (from Hissing Fauna...) sounds like they decided to scrounge through their previous album (The Sunlandic Twins) looking for hooks to piece together into a new song. (You can hear the song starting at 1:28:50 in the concert.) It's not bad, but it's sort of disillusioning, like watching a documentary on how they did the special effects in a movie.

So . . . what happens? Is it that the pressure of success makes them too self-conscious to come up with spontaneous ideas? Or is there just a certain age when rock musicians lose their magic, and one day, all they can come up with is well-intentioned fluff like . . .

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mark Bittman on how America's relationship with food has gone wrong

Every American should watch this entertaining 20-minute talk by Mark Bittman:

My favorite point:

I'm not a vegetarian.… Now, don't get me wrong — I like animals. And I don't think it's just fine to industrialize their production and to churn them out like they were wrenches. But there's no way to treat animals well when you're killing 10 billion of them a year.… That's just the United States.… Kindness might just be a bit of a red herring. Let's get the numbers of animals we're killing for eating down, and then we'll worry about being nice to the ones that are left.

Monday, November 10, 2008

3 thoughts on Election Day 2008 (with photos of the Obama family watching the results)

(All these photos are from Obama's election night Flickr set.)

1. Considering that I've been supporting Obama since he announced his campaign in early 2007, I was surprised that my own reaction on the night of Election Day was muted. I had to tell myself, "You should be really excited." 

Maybe this is because I assumed he'd win, so I'd already gradually absorbed the news. 

Maybe it felt wrong to be gleeful about how America is transcending its history of prejudice on a night when California, of all states, deprived people of their right to marry who they want regardless of gender.

Maybe it's that Obama has such a facility at making you feel like you really know him personally that seeing him win was like seeing your friend become president. Sure you'd be happy for them, but you'd also be nervous about all the things that might go wrong.

Barack Obama and Michelle Obama watching election returns

Obama family - Barack, Michelle, Sasha, and Malia - watching election returns

2. Naturally, conservatives are debating what caused McCain to lose. This conversation between Jonah Goldberg and Ross Douthat -- taped a few days before Election Day under the assumption that Obama would win -- is a particularly thoughtful example.

How can they possibly figure this out? Wouldn't you need to run numerous experiments to determine what really caused the outcome? But since the circumstances of this election are unique, there's no way to perform even an approximation of a controlled experiment.

If you want the GOP to stay tethered to the right, you'll say McCain lost because of his history as a centrist maverick, which cast a shadow over any of his attempts to position himself as more traditionally conservative. If you'd like the GOP to become more moderate, you'll say he lost because he played too much to the Republican base; he should have just been his old self. You can avoid critiquing McCain in either direction by blaming it on all sorts of other factors -- the Bush administration's incompetence, the financial crisis, Obama's dastardly scheme to get young people excited about participating in democracy...

How can you choose between these theories in an intellectually honest way? Exit polls? But even those are flawed and offer only hints about how voters actually made up their minds.

People love to feel like they know why things happen. But can you really assume this when minds are involved?

Barack Obama and Michelle Obama watching election returns

3. No one again will be able to seriously doubt that America is ready for a black president -- or a female president.

Oh, people will make the same old, tired complaints. They'll say it doesn't count because he's not a "real" black person, whatever that means. And they'll play up Hillary Clinton's defeat as a crushing blow for women.

So let's remember that Obama won a decisive victory including would-be deep-red states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana. This happened despite massive race- and religion-based attacks on Obama that make the Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis in 1988 seem dignified by comparison. (I'm including not just the official McCain campaign but also outsiders' campaigning that McCain tolerated.)

Obama family watching McCain concession speech on TV

As for Hillary Clinton -- if you believe in treating women as adults who are the equals of men, then please give her enough respect to say she failed. She wasn't a passive, helpless victim. Out of the whole field of 20+ presidential candidates, who were mostly white men, she came in 2nd or 3rd overall. That's no injustice -- that's just the rough, adult world, where you try really hard and risk failure if you make too many mistakes. 

There are still groups that probably can't expect to have a fair shot at the presidency for a while -- gays, atheists, etc. But in the future, when a woman or a black person runs for president, we can fairly assume (without knowing to an absolute certainty) that the candidate himself or herself is the one who's responsible for the outcome, whether it's bad or good.

And this one's pretty good.

Happy Barack and Malia Obama hugging on election night before victory speech

Friday, November 7, 2008

Music Friday: Girly edition

I've recently been obsessed with new, synth-heavy pop with female singers. They tend to be British, or at least non-American.

I've already blogged a few artists of this ilk: Goldfrapp, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Imogen Heap (Frou Frou).

Here are more from around the world:

From the United States: Uh Huh Her (the only Americans mentioned in this blog post). This is "Not a Love Song":

From Wales: Jem. "They" has instrumental backing straight out of Bach:

From Australia: Decoder Ring. I can't stop listening to "Fractions":

From Norway: Kate Havnevik. "New Day." How timely.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama !!!

Time to feel good about America again.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Why I'm voting for Obama

A few weeks ago, I did a series of posts called "How Obama lost me." The basic premise: I was a big fan of his during the primaries, but during the general election I came to realize that he's not a particularly better candidate than any generic Democrat would have been.

Some people who read that series seemed to think it was important for me to also explain why I was still voting for him or why I was so supportive of him in the first place. I disagree — I don't think it's very important for me to explain why I'm voting for him. There's no shortage of newspaper and magazine endorsements of Obama, and there must be thousands of blog posts extolling his virtues. But if one more blogger's reasons for voting for Obama don't matter much in the grand scheme of things, then I might as well give them.

First, let's get McCain's negatives out of the way. Here's what I said at the conclusion of my "How Obama lost me" series:

Every candidate has a slew of flaws, and I think McCain's are worse. There are the staggering self-reinvention and flip-flops, which dwarf anything I've seen from Obama. There's his refusal to admit that invading Iraq turned out to be a bad idea. There's his painfully shallow understanding of economics. There's his "How dare you question my integrity or righteousness — I was a POW!" attitude, which makes Bush look humble by comparison.

And yes, there's his age. Of course I think people in their 70s can handle serious jobs. I have no problem with, say, an 80- or 90-year-old judge, as long as they're able. But being president is a uniquely stressful and demanding job, so I do have a problem with an 80-year-old president (which is what McCain will be if he has a full, successful presidency). The idea that this is somehow offensive or taboo is ludicrous. The stakes are just too high to worry about offending people.
Now onto Obama's positives. Since this is pretty well-tilled soil, I'll mostly rely on snippets from other people's endorsements that happen to reflect my thinking:

The Economist (which has endorsed Democrats and Republicans for president):
Merely by becoming president, he would dispel many of the myths built up about America: it would be far harder for the spreaders of hate in the Islamic world to denounce the Great Satan if it were led by a black man whose middle name is Hussein; and far harder for autocrats around the world to claim that American democracy is a sham. . . .

A man who started with no money and few supporters has out-thought, out-organised and outfought the two mightiest machines in American politics—the Clintons and the conservative right. . . .

In terms of painting a brighter future for America and the world, Mr Obama has produced the more compelling and detailed portrait. He has campaigned with more style, intelligence and discipline than his opponent. Whether he can fulfil his immense potential remains to be seen. But Mr Obama deserves the presidency.
The Chicago Tribune (which has endorsed Republicans since Abraham Lincoln and had never endorsed a Democrat until now):
We have known Obama since he entered politics a dozen years ago. We have watched him, worked with him, argued with him as he rose from an effective state senator to an inspiring U.S. senator to the Democratic Party's nominee for president. We have tremendous confidence in his intellectual rigor, his moral compass and his ability to make sound, thoughtful, careful decisions. He is ready. . . .

We know first-hand that Obama seeks out and listens carefully and respectfully to people who disagree with him. He builds consensus. He was most effective in the Illinois legislature when he worked with Republicans on welfare, ethics and criminal justice reform.
The Washington Post (which seems to mostly endorse Democrats for president, but also supported the Iraq war):
Mr. Obama is a man of supple intelligence, with a nuanced grasp of complex issues and evident skill at conciliation and consensus-building. At home, we believe, he would respond to the economic crisis with a healthy respect for markets tempered by justified dismay over rising inequality and an understanding of the need for focused regulation. Abroad, the best evidence suggests that he would seek to maintain U.S. leadership and engagement, continue the fight against terrorists, and wage vigorous diplomacy on behalf of U.S. values and interests. . . .

On most [foreign] policies, such as the need to go after al-Qaeda, check Iran's nuclear ambitions and fight HIV/AIDS abroad, he differs little from Mr. Bush or Mr. McCain. But he promises defter diplomacy and greater commitment to allies. His team overstates the likelihood that either of those can produce dramatically better results, but both are certainly worth trying. . . .

Mr. Obama's temperament is unlike anything we've seen on the national stage in many years. He is deliberate but not indecisive; eloquent but a master of substance and detail; preternaturally confident but eager to hear opposing points of view.
The New Republic (which always endorses Democrats for president, but endorsed McCain in the 2000 primaries and supported the Iraq war):
Obama will work to achieve an ambitious agenda but will revise his opinion when the evidence dictates a different course. He is a sincere liberal but without the temperament of an ideologue. His health care and environmental plans are broadly progressive but make concessions to the free market and do not fit the platonic ideals of the left. He doesn't intend to create a single-payer system (alas) and expresses openness to nuclear power. His recent education rhetoric has incorporated the best of the reform movement.

In the middle of this recession, the national mood will run raw. Major policy changes, now inevitable, will exacerbate the anger. . . . Fortunately, Obama has a fetish for data and the company of social scientists, as Noam Scheiber has shown in his reporting. And, just as important, he has the soothing demeanor that might calm tempers and the gift for language that could make necessary, but not necessarily popular, policies more palatable.
Individual Slate editors (each paragraph is an excerpt from a different editor's explanation of why they're voting for him):
I'm a liberal person and I usually vote for Democrats, and while I'm not proud of being a totally predictable voter in this election, I don't mind admitting it. Any further justification would be post facto reasoning for a decision I made by default a long time ago.

As for the accusation that he doesn't have enough experience: No one has enough experience. Nothing prepares you for the presidency. Nothing can. But Obama has the temperament and the humility to surround himself with smart people and let them do their jobs.

It's important not to ratify failure, and the current Republican administration is a failure.

I'm choosing Obama for one main reason: He's the smarter candidate. I don't just mean he's got smarter policies, though he does. I mean he seems to have the higher IQ. His books and speeches suggest deep intellectual curiosity—a calm, analytical, rational mind of the sort we haven't seen in the White House in years.

Obama seemed an implausible candidate when he first announced because he was so short on experience. But . . . Obama's disciplined and level-headed campaign style and his commonsensical grasp of domestic and foreign policy proved his mettle. It doesn't hurt that along the way he gave at least one speech that my grandchildren will study in school. Obama ain't the messiah, but I think he'll be a good president and maybe a great one.

I admire Obama's quality of balance: between attention to details and grasp of ideas; or to put that somewhat differently, between politics and ideals. Beyond that quality of balance, he has demonstrated in action an impressive ability to keep his balance through two challenging, stressful campaigns, for nomination and election.

I like his obvious inner calm. It suggests that his decisions will come from somewhere other than expediency, anger, or fear.

For his charisma, his cautiousness, and his cool. In a time of high stakes, we need someone who can sort out the best course of action without bridling in anger. A candidate who actually nods when his opponent makes a powerful counterargument—as Obama did several times during the last debate—is a rare bird.
Fareed Zakaria:
Let's be honest: neither candidate has past experience that is relevant to being president, except that they have now both run large, multiyear, multimillion-dollar, 50-state campaigns. By common consent, McCain's has been chaotic and ineffective, while Obama has run a superb operation, and done so with little of the drama and discord that usually plague political machines. . . .

I admit to a personal interest. I have a 9-year-old son named Omar. I firmly believe that he will be able to do absolutely anything he wants in this country when he grows up. But I admit that I will feel more confident about his future if a man named Barack Obama became president of the United States.
Well, I don't have much more to add to all that. A few more points, though:

You might notice that some of these excerpts cite superficial qualities like his "style," "cool," and "charisma." But wait — shouldn't we be focusing exclusively on "the issues" instead of superficialities? I don't think so. The superficialities matter too.

Does anyone really cast their vote based on reading the candidates' bullet-pointed position statements on "the issues," subjecting them to rigorous intellectual and empirical scrutiny, and finally tallying up the strengths and weaknesses of each candidates' policies to see which one is stronger overall on "the issues"? Kudos to you if that's how you make your decision, but I don't think people are that rational.

I wish I could figure out how to solve the credit crisis, but I just don't know enough. None of us really knows enough to cast a fully informed vote. So we have to focus on what we are capable of perceiving. It's easier to perceive character, habits, and personality than to predict the consequences of whatever legislation the president might end up signing by extrapolating from the promises on the candidates' websites.

So, what traits do I care about? Intelligence. Open-mindedness. Cautiousness vs. recklessness. Humility vs. arrogance. Pragmatism vs. dogmatism. Is there any serious doubt that Obama trumps McCain on all of these traits?

The president isn't just the top bureaucrat or policy wonk. Our president is the equivalent of Britain's Queen and Prime Minister smooshed into one person. The president needs to encapsulate the spirit of the nation and speak for all of us.

Don't you feel like we don't quite have a leader right now? Don't you feel like our country is missing its voice? It's not a very good feeling, is it?