Thursday, January 31, 2002

They're going to tango for debt relief! That's right - anti-globalization protesters will sway and swoon the souls of the plutocrats by making fuzzy bunny paper-mâché dolls, singing old, hackneyed, and boring protest songs, and by dancing the tango at New York's Finest Riot Control, Inc. It makes me sick. It really does - heartsick, because there are, believe it or not, valid issues that the anti-globalization movement has been raising. Development is a two-edged sword. It isn't a bad two-edged sword - it just ought to be used more like a scalpel than an abattoir. The rotating knives.... But this kind of protest is self-indulgent vanity. A bunch of teenie-tweenie-boppers (yeah, I'm 26, shut up.) go out into the streets outside major media event, what Dan Boorstin calls "a pseudo-event," to leverage the press coverage of that event. Yeah, social protest theory, mobilization strategies, march, blah, blah, blah, parsnip. The only problem is that it doesn't work anymore. Oh, it works on the Olympian minority of righteously pissed-off 'progressives' who hyperventilate themselves into a tumor. It works on the Spartacists. It works on the people who read Z-Mag for its incisive political criticism. But it doesn't perform the crucial function of any social mobilization event - it doesn't move the majority onto the side of the protesters. This isn't Selma, 1963. This isn't even Chicago '68. God help me, it isn't even Little Rock 1991. It is, for want of a better comparison, 'Cape Canaveral 1996,' where the protesters go and protest an abstract thing and look vaguely stupid and gratuitously offensive. You don't get sympathy that way! You don't ride the wave of popular inevitability! You just look dumb and tedious. And you're costing the city overtime. Do some grassroots organizing, guys, and some honest policy research, and find smarter short-slogans to spout. Because Waltzing to the Waldorf does no fucking good at all.

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

This morning, I watched an middle-aged woman drive her Toyota SUV the length of my block to mail a letter in the corner mailbox. My street is six houses long; running from the northwest to the southeast, it terminates at a creosoted wooden sea-wall nine feet tall. The Atlantic Ocean is one hundred and fifty feet south of that wall.

I live on an island; nowhere does Absecon island rise higher than twenty feet above sea-level. Two hundred years ago, this barrier island was covered with grass-cloaked dunes, and it sheltered one of the most productive East Coast coastal estuaries. Today, this island is gridded with asphalt streets, sprinkled with tourist shops, casinos, and vacation beach-houses. Four causeways link this island with the mainland; they funnel road traffic, water, and electricity in, and pump garbage, sewage, and wasted labor out. The Great Egg Harbour estuary is now protected: migratory birds nest here; sportsman fish the fecund waters from gaudy powerboats; clammers palpate the bottom silt for quahogs with their feet. There is no significant natural difference between the developed barrier islands, mainland, and causeway-blocked estuary of Great Egg Harbour, and the similar uninhabited natural complex twenty miles northeast, at Little Egg Harbor and Great Bay, designated the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge. Only the accident of development and the persistence of non-development determined which region would be paved, and which would be preserved.

Unrefreshed by persistent flow of stream-carried silt and sand, Absecon island suffers severe wind and water erosion at its margins – each winter dredgers make their doleful way up the diminished coastline, chewing up the ocean bottom and dumping it on shore. Over my life, the beach has shrunk. At high tide in Ventnor and in Atlantic City, the ocean reaches the concrete sea-wall, above which hotels and villas perch. Storms, irregular high tides, and strong winds encourage the water to encroach uncomfortably close to the edge of the neighbor’s property. In winter, nearly every lavishly-appointed house less than two blocks from the shore is empty; they are second homes owned for summer recreation. Yet all homes are heated and, at night, lit – a pantomime of human presence. This place became a tourist destination because of its natural features, and later, because of the infrastructure that was installed to enable humans to appreciate those natural features easily and cheaply; finally, now, people go to Atlantic City ignorant of the beach – poker and slots have superseded sand, sun and surf.

Atlantic City, the other towns of Absecon Island, and the rim suburban communities of the mainland perfectly encapsulate the unstable relationship between modern development, individual material consumption, and the punishments and rewards of living in close proximity to a gracefully degrading natural environment. These communities exist because of Promethean vanity (the natural adjunct of the modern industrial and commercial economy) and individualist aesthetics (handmaiden to laissez-faire consumption). Corporate hospitality and real-estate developers took the pulse of material demand, and harnessed the power of economic demand to remake this landscape. The communities instituted extensive municipal government to channel and regulate the remanufacture of the marshes.

Here, nature is objectified, quantified, subdivided and packaged for human use, as it has been everywhere and everywhen people have lived:

Man’s world is imperfectly programmed by his own constitution. It is an open world…it is a world that must be fashioned by man’s own activity….Man must make a world for himself. The world-building activity of man, therefore, is not a biologically extraneous phenomenon, but the direct consequence of man’s biological constitution. Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion

This island, this crafted world, produces the venom that is destined to strangle it. The profligacy and waste of energy, water, and other raw materials used to construct and maintain this community provoke environmental damage; human-caused global warming, and the expected two meter rise in sea level that will follow, will end this place. If the seas do not rise, the increasingly energetic ocean storms that lash the shoreline will destroy property and life. The insatiable demand for fresh water, coupled with runaway suburban sprawl on the mainland, will divert and deplete available fresh water sources; already, development has constrained and poisoned the run-off from which the estuary feeds.

How can this fate be reconciled as product of what is understood to be an unalloyed human good: pleasure and enjoyment of the physical word? People live here because they take pleasure from the human community that lives here and the natural surroundings. I enjoy this place because of the salt breeze, the crashing surf, the golden dawns, and the warm, welcoming Jewish community. How can I condemn the existence of this place?; how can I conceive that this human place might better be if it were not? I can’t. This warm, large house by the shore is pleasant and I want it. I want everything that it implies – I want abundant physical culture; I want the products of our industrial/technical society. I want the freedom to travel at whim. My wants are the wants of the vast majority; Their denial, for the protection of “the natural world” (a product of an alternate value system) will fail, because people want, and they vote their want with dollars, and dollars build beach houses and Bradlees’.

It was disconcerting to go walking out on the beach this morning - a conjunction of sun-moon gravity, high-pressure, and I think a whirlpool Sargasso sea-monster sucked down the water level about two feet; the beach gained a lot more margin. Of course, it could also have been this winter's heroically proportioned beach erosion. But then, I live on the barrier islands of the Jersey shore, and these are the wages of vanity and technical hubris.

Wednesday, January 23, 2002

TNR Online | Bored of the Rings by Richard Jenkyns (print) I have a fish-bone, or two, to pick with Senhor Jenkyns. He's right about so many things, and wrong about so many more. More later.

Monday, January 21, 2002

World-Wide Curries Oh, dear god, this is brilliant. Now I only need the spices.

Sunday, January 20, 2002

Just so Gary Farber doesn't faint from ignored despair, I blog him now. Go visit Gary's amygdala, and revel in the link-filled ditso-blatso Internet-fantasyland that Gary so kindly maintains. There's a comment I could make about the videos I watched in Jim Maas's* PSYCH 101 lecture, in which a cat had wires implanted in its tiny little table-spoon sized brain's amygdala. The poor thing got periodic shocks which excited it into a state of homicidal, self-abusive violent fury. But I only get that way when I listen to the BBC's coverage of the Middle-East. [jerk] And I used to think that Eric Shapiro, Honorary Little Yiddle Napoleon, was nuts for pushing the CAMERA and FLAME propaganda broadsheets into my adolescent hands. No longer. Bush House delenda est. [Especially since they cut shortwave broadcasting to North America and Australasia, apparently so that they could climb on the skyrocketing bandwagon of satellite digital radio, internet streaming audio, and local affiliate FM rebroadcast. Dumbasses.] About the BBC decision:I have several insert-a-coin-and-receive-rant-number-twelve calm lectures about the decline and fall of community radio, commercial classical radio, and the miserable butt-wipes at Pacifica (to whom I will not link, because I want them to be ignored, and I also hate Amy Goodman (I'm being oppressed! See the violence inherent in the Pacifica Foundation trustees) and Juan Gonzales.). I will not bore you with unabridged rant-12. It would be sufficient to observe that there are some forty million shortwave radios sold in the English speaking media markets of North America and Australasia in the last decade, and that saturation shortwave broadcast of the region cost several hundred thousand dollars per year. Audience potential: millions and millions. It's like the BBC found two insightly hairs on its hips, and proceeded, like Hermes, to shave its legs off. *(he's a famous, student-molesting Ivy-League psychologist; she's a wide-eyed first-year grad student with a passion for middle-aged Men of Power - together, they fight crime!)

Monday, January 14, 2002

Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners do not merit protection as POW's under the Third Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War. I've been looking for the strict US statement on how it viewed the Taliban; it seems that in all statements regarding the Taliban, the US government has jumped through hoops to avoid recognizing them as sovereign, in any rhetorical way. Bush's statements on the war, made on Sept. 20 to the joint session of Congress, and the speech made at the outset of the campaign on October 7, seem to be official US policy on the Taliban and al-Qaeda. While he did refer to them as a regime, that did not imply that they are a government - in fact, he explicitly described them as "controlling" not "ruling". Rhetorically, the US treated the Taliban as a non-sovereign organization in control of territory, not as a state. There were no real substantial differences of kind in the rhetoric discussing the Taliban and that describing Al Qaeda. This is important - it addresses the first problem: that the Taliban are not one of the High Contracting Parties to the Third Geneva Convention on the Treatment of prisoners of war: ARTICLE 2 In addition to the provisions which shall be implemented in peace time, the present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them. Since the Taliban or Al Qaeda are not high contracting parties, it was important to describe them as not even being a sovereign - a Party to a conflict or a Power - so that paragraph 3, art. 2 would not apply: Although one of the Powers in conflict may not be a party to the present Convention, the Powers who are parties thereto shall remain bound by it in their mutual relations. They shall furthermore be bound by the Convention in relation to the said Power, if the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof. Having defined the Taliban and Al Qaeda as not-sovereign, Art 2 vanishes. Having dealt with Article 2, we now move on to Article Four: the definitions of POW, which raise further problems. Art 4, Section A [definition of POW] (1) Members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict, as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces. The Taliban was not a Party to a conflict [see par. 2] and therefore did not have regular forces or militias or volunteers which could be treated under this part. Now, for the part of the definition that attends to informal combatants: (2) Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfil the following conditions: (a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; One can argue that no coherent chain-of-command established legal martial discipline in the irregular Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces. A collection of the forces of warlords and formless rabble do not an army or a movement make, nor do they comprise a chain of command. In other words, Taliban officers were not agents of the sovereign, and could not have been. (b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance; No Taliban or Al-Qaeda combatant carried distinctive insignia. They do not meet the conditions of this standard. (c) that of carrying arms openly; They threw their weapons away when threatened with capture, or disposed of them to avoid being recognized as armed agents of the Taliban or Al Qaeda. They do not meet this condition. (d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war This goes completely without saying. They *could* *not* have carried on operations according to the laws of war because the first three restrictions are part of the Rules of Land Warfare and the Hague Conventions. (3) Members of regular armed forces who profess allegiance to a government or an authority not recognized by the Detaining Power. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda possessed no *regular* armed forces, under the strict definition (see Hague Convention Annex "REGULATIONS RESPECTING THE LAWS AND CUSTOMS OF WAR ON LAND SECTION I ON BELLIGERENTS, Chapter One, Section One, Article One). They do not meet this standard. By definition, then, Taliban and Al-Qaeda irregulars cannot be considered prisoners of war. Under the standard of 3rd Geneva Convention, Part One - Article Five, those prisoners are being held according to the provisions of the Convention, at the pleasure of the USA, until the operations of competent tribunals. Which, according to the UCMJ and the international conventions on war, are perfectly legal - in this specific circumstance. Notwithstanding this point, for resident and non-resident civilian aliens in the United States - such military tribunals can *not* operate legitimately.

Wednesday, January 09, 2002

Economic Simulations I found this neat game last year when I was down with double-barrel pneumonia - I wasted a goodly number of hours on the shareware version, and I decided to upgrade last fall, to see the full extent of the simulation. It's the best computerized stock market game I've ever seen. There are random events, stock prices very by corporate returns, and the whole thing, considered as a market simulation, is reasonably coherent. It doesn't subscribe to the rational markets theory, so there are no inexplicable random walks. It's even rather zero-sum airtight as these things go, so there aren't any singularities that allow one to smoothly and painlessly get lots of cash fast. However, like every other game out there, there are ways to break it. And I found how. And how this game is breakable is an interesting commentary on business ethics, economic models, and American culture. The game separates companies into three categories: 1)joint-stock enterprises that invest in productive capital in 33 different industry categories. Over-investment drives down returns per dollar invested, while underinvestment means high returns, so companies enter industries. They can own stock in anything, borrow money, issue bonds, stock, and they can go bankrupt. 2)insurance companies - allowed to own stock and they write insurance policies - something that the game has not implemented -- so they are a non-important feature of the game. 3)banks - they lend money to the enterprises in the game, and they can borrow money from the Federal Reserve (this is where the game is broken, among other places). One strategy for making lots of money is to go into a stagnant industrial sector, consolidate the industries in that sector into two roughly equivalent companies, one of which controls the bank that holds the other's loans. Then, one buys the other, loads it down with unpayable debt, sells out before the market notices, buys the competitor, and proceeds to call in the loans. The other company liquidates, and the RoI of the first company shoots through the roof, raising its stock price. Conspiracy in restraint of trade? Nonsense! Ethical American business practise! Laudable cleverness. The other strategy involves leverage. Once you have enough money in the game, you can play silly marbles with bank loans. It goes like this: you have a safe cushion of cash. You buy a cheap company, transferring part of your safe cushion into it - enough so that when you borrow all the money possible against it, you're borrowing enough money to endanger the lending bank should the company default - something like a 1.5 - 3 multiple of the bank's net worth. Then this company buys a second company (cheaply), transferring all of its cash into that company, which borrows all the money it can, and so on and so forth. Make sure that your bank isn't one that gets borrowed from. You'll end up with trillions of dollars in a couple of end -of-string patsy companies, loaded up with enormous debt and completely invested in depressed sectors. Let's spend three trillion dollars on the railroads! 'Rut-'ro 'raggy! The Railroad sector is in an unparalleled depression! No problem, you're supposed to lose that money anyway. You will begin to lose the first companies to defaults - crashing the banks that hold those companies' loans, which borrowed the money for those loans from the government. The government diddles around for a while, and then nationalizes and re-capitalizes the banks, wiping out bank liability. You buy the banks when they are resold into the private sector, at very low prices. The banks shoot back up to their market value. Instant 6000 percent profit. We have just profited at the expense of the American taxpayer. Did I mention that this game is used in b-schools to train the Executives of Tomorrow?

Friday, January 04, 2002

The Great American Umbrage Machine Some months ago on Usenet, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Kevin Maroney, Martin Wisse, and I discussed an article by Jonathan Rauch in the April 2001 edition of the New Republic. (Go a-googling an' if ye wish for the thread, Usenet is like blog-space, but faster). Rauch was writing about the ubiquity and power of the 'unwritten rules': the net set of uncodified rules for thinking, interaction, opinion, and arbitration. Rauch explained,

Such tacit codes are most conspicuous in the economic sphere, where they avert or settle property disputes, and in the honor codes that allocate communal duties (for instance, serving on a condominium board). Coexisting with those are what you might call "Main Street Codes"--the rules governing how "decent" people behave in a civic context. ("Decent" people help the cops, welcome new neighbors, don't let their lawns or kids run wild.) Then there are the much less talked-about, but no less important, "Old Wives' Rules" that regulate conduct at a more personal level. Written on the bones of every hausfrau or yenta, these rules--such as the requirement that a man marry a woman if he gets her pregnant--are the main regulators of love and romance.

Underlying all of those are the craftily balanced regimes of hypocrisy that dissolve the most insoluble conflicts, the issues of deepest moral disagreement: what I call Hidden Law. "Law" because these codes are as widely observed as rules in a statute book; "Hidden" because to make them work people must often pretend they don't exist. The trick with Hidden Law is to make social bargains whose terms include an agreement to deny that there is any such bargain.

A prim and proper answer to this earth-shaking revelation is, essentially, 'duh'. But hold the 'duh' back for a second: it's a powerful point. We live in a rational and varied culture of laws, leading us to the assumption that the explicit boundaries of permissible action are those contained in the laws. Stupid us. It's never that free, and never so simple. In the referenced piece, Kinsley described the 300lb boa constriction of discourse squeezing the cognoscenti since the eleventh of September: the desire not to piss the majority off, and the fear of being publically humiliated for saying stupid things. Pundits are little Enrons in the fungible marketplace of current-events interpretation. Interpreters of the news, political trends, and advocates of particular political ideologies, their currency is audience. Say something "interesting" in collision with the overwhelming trend of public discourse, and voila, presto chango the credibility of $pundit approaches the null set. Not because of some vast conspiracy, mind you, but because once a rhetorical consensus is reached, it is not fragile, and it is the audience rejecting the pundit*, not the reverse. This is a bad thing, because self-censorship reaches further than the official bureacratic brand of censorship. Kinsley is right: What gets suppressed when you're watching what you say is not formal political dissent or important revelations about government malfeasance. Those things you say with care in any event. It's the lesser criticisms of our government and our leaders, the odd speculative comment that you're not even sure of yourself, the joke that may fall flat. But these are important too. My New Year's resolution for 2002 is to stop listening to my Inner Ashcroft and to be less careful about what I say. How about you? * Love the OED - here's its etymology of 'pundit': a. A learned Hindu; one versed in Sanskrit and in the philosophy, religion, and jurisprudence of India. b. A learned expert or teacher. 1816 ‘QUIZ’ Grand Master III. 73 For English pundets condescend Th' observatory to ascend. 1862 Sat. Rev. 15 Mar. 296 A point upon which the doctors of etiquette and the pundits of refinement will differ. 1896 SAINTSBURY Hist. 19th Cent. Lit. v. 213 honoured pundit and champion of the Whig party. 1924 C. E. MONTAGUE Right Place xiv. 222 To say things and try to believe them, just because some aesthetic pundit or critical mandarin has said them before. 1938 R. HUGHES In Hazard ii. 37 First, this was developing into a true hurricane; and, second, it was not at all where it was thought by the pundits to be. 1941 C. H. WADDINGTON Scientific Attitude iv. 51 The architect who wished to build for a scientific and sceptical age had to..find out what was left when scepticism had done its worst. The pundits would say that nothing was left. 1957 Listener 5 Sept. 338/1 The British holding its 119th annual meeting... The pundits have gathered at Dublin. 1976 Times 30 Sept. 8/7 Though frowned upon by some pundits as out-of-date and middle-class, Swallows and Amazons and its many sequels remain immensely popular with children. 1977 J. I. M. STEWART Madonna of Astrolabe iii. 51 Here is what some pundit calls the phantom aesthetic state.

Wednesday, January 02, 2002

I named this - my new log - after a clever little book of the same name by Uwe Pörksen, published by Penn State Press. The book was given to me by a good friend (the copy editor who vetted the English translation) because of my interest in the Taylorization and subversion of language. At the time, I was translating into English LTI: Notizbuch eines Philologen (Lingua Tertii Imperii: the Philologist's Chapbook) by a German-Jewish literary philologist named Victor Klemperer, who kept a private journal during his internment in Dresden during the Second World War. He tracked the changes in meaning of words, like fanatisch and phrases like Cleves, Workshop of Good Childrens’ Shoes; without Klemperer's research and diaries it would be that much harder to peek inside the Chinese room of German fascism. Words changed meaning there with unseemly political haste; so it is now. I should have started logging in September - in October when bombs began to fall - in January, when Eddie Haskell was inaugurated Presidente - at the precise moment in time that the words began their mutation of meaning, and the shibboleths of discourse changed their paths. So, I start now, midnight, January 2nd, year of palindromes and aerodromes.