Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Coming to Terms

Today I woke up at 1:15, having missed the talk I had been looking forward to for days. I also got my contracts and civ pro grades. Just lovely. If God is going to make someone so worthless, he should at least blind him to all of the good things he will never accomplish.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Life Update 6: I am Ireland

So I don't have internets in my apartment. Actually, I do, but my computer isn't set up properly for wireless. I'm running Ubuntu, and I just haven't figured it out. Anyway, I'm updating at work, when I should be working, so brief post, just a few things to complain about.

First, my previous post looks messed up. I'll try to fix it when I have time.

Second, Tom Friedman has a ridiculous op-ed today in the New York Times. Here are a few words that explain Ireland's success: free riding. Ireland is a net recipient of EU taxes and has free access to Europe's markets. If the rest of Europe weren't there, all the globalization in the world wouldn't have given it the phenomenal growth it's enjoyed. Ireland is basically the Delaware of Europe, and no one should confuse Delaware with New York.

Finally, why is it that I can flip on the TV and not find an episode of Law & Order? There was a time, not long ago, when 4 stations would broadcast Law & Order in its various manifestations, and the probability of finding it playing was close to 1. Now I have to expend valuable resources searching for it. I fast forward through the commercials, though, so I guess I should shut up and take what I can get. I'm the Ireland of Law & Order.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

We Also Count

Regan sent me a link to this site, which appears to be legitimate. The motto of the Census of India seems to be "We Also Count People in India." Either they have a good sense of humor, or they have a giant chip on their shoulder.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Animal Combat

To follow up my post on the norms of warfare, just a quick point, courtesy of Helen. "I find the non-military alternatives to war to be way more interesting. It's like displays of plumage." Precisely! Animals sometimes engage in costly displays of strength and health to establish which one is superior (usually for mating purposes). The animals could theoretically fight, but even when they do, they usually take care to do no permanent damage (of course, I'm talking about intra-species fights, not predator/prey fights). The point is, when signalling is an important aspect of the activity (as it can be in fighting), there might be stable equilibria in which limited fighting is the best strategy for all parties involved. A low blow might win you the fight, but it loses you the war because you have failed to demonstrate actual superiority of strength. This, I think, is the driving force behind the behavior I identified in my "Norms of Warfare" post.

Make Lemonade

I was walking down the street yesterday and I saw a little girl operating a lemonade stand. She was very bold, loudly informing me that she had "ice-cold fresh-squeezed lemon-lime juice." She was also adorable. Of course I bought a cup, and at 25 cents, it was actually kind of a bargain.

As a quick side note, the lemonade was not ice-cold, not fresh-sqeezed, and I have my doubts as to whether there was any lime in there. That makes me proud, though; it's good to know that our youth have the shameless mendacity they'll need to make it in this country.

Anyway, I was careful to treat the whole thing as a business transaction, though of course the real product I was buying was the entertainment. Kids selling lemonade are just adorable. The problem is, at some point kids become aware of the jokes being made (roughly) at their expense. At some point that little girl will realize that her parents helped her sell lemonade not because it is a good way to make money, or even to teach her a lesson about business, but merely because they think it's ridiculously cute. Which it is, of course.

The trouble is distinguishing cases in which this is okay from cases in which it isn't. Halloween seems like something that is okay, although clearly the main purpose is to share the adorableness of kids with the entire neighborhood. Maybe the really tricky areas are when kids get to the verge of self-awareness and start to realize what's going on. The difference is between a third-grade school play, which is almost entirely cute, and a high-school play, which is typically a decent production on its own merits. I guess things like the third-grade play are okay as long as the kids have a good time and don't sense the real nature of the entertainment.

I'm sensitive to this stuff because, as a kid, other people got a lot of mileage out of my naivete and overall ridiculousness. I guess they still do. And it really sucks to realize that all the encouragement you're getting is insincere, and in fact is meant to elicit more ridiculousness on your part.

The Norms of Warfare

This post is motivated by a few observations and an idea that might connect them together. Unfortunately, I don't feel equipped to pursue this idea, but if you have any suggestions or contributions, please let me know.

First, the observations. In many instances, alien armies have shown up in an isolated region and dominated it. Many things contribute to this, including technological differences and the differential immunity to disease. Another factor, though, is the ruthlessness of the invaders. As an example, when Cortes conquered Mexico, the Aztecs had several chances to kill him (and his compatriots) in battle. They didn't, though, in part because they would rather capture him. In India, meanwhile, temple construction was used as a proxy for political and military power:

"All, except subsidiary shrines, were in part intended as expressions of royal paramountcy designed to impress subjects, remind vassals, and challenge rivals.

"Hence 'the construction of a temple, Buddhist or Hindu, was an important political act,' indeed 'as much an act of war as it was an act of peace.' It could, though, be misconstrued. As new Islamic challengers ventured across the deserts of Sind and over the Hindu Kush, India's dynasties appeared to be woefully indifferent as they lavished all available resources not on forts and horsemen but on flights of architectural fantasy. In fact they were meeting the new threat by a gloriously defiant assertion of self-belief in their superior sovereignty."
(India: A History, page 179, by John Keay, internal citations ommitted)

So here's the idea. War is (among other things) a way of asserting political control over territory and people. This control yields wealth, in the form of taxes or tribute. Leaders compete for territory and subjects, and naturally sometimes this competition takes the form of war. War is, however, a negative-sum game, meaning that one side always wins less than the other loses. No one wants to play that kind of game unless he's likely to win, but of course you don't always get to choose whether or not to fight.

Imagine, though, that there is some technology that allows you to determine the winner without huge loss of life. Different technologies will vary in terms of cost and accuracy (single combat seems inaccurate but very low-cost; see David and Goliath). These technologies might be adopted as social norms among the various tribes or kingdoms in a region. The idea is that once a clear winner and loser have been identified, further loss of life hurts everyone to no purpose (this was the theme of the letter sent from General Grant to General Lee toward the end of the Civil War). The norm can therefore save lives.

Why adhere to the norm? I'm not sure, but I would guess that departing from it would be seen as a sign of weakness. For instance, if the norm is to capture rather than kill your adversaries, only a desperate leader might not have the resources to guard the captives. He would kill them, but this would be a sure sign of his own weakness, so he simply surrenders. The norm would have to make surrender less awful than defeat, but not by much.

The norm of temple-building might be a decent proxy for wealth and manpower. Thus, rather than engage in wasteful fighting, Indian leaders could achieve the same result by pouring their resources into monumental temples. Of course, this might also be very wasteful, but it wouldn't have the painful and disruptive effects of open warfare.

So then invaders show up who have no use for the local norms. By using the tactics of total war, they sweep through and easily defeat the restrained natives. This demonstrates that the norms, while stable over a certain range of conditions, are not universally stable.

So where are we today? I think we're mostly in a situation where life-saving norms have disappeared. Perhaps things like the Geneva Convention can be seen as an attempt to replace them with law. Anyway, I think all of this would make a great paper or something, but as I said, I have neither the historical knowledge nor the sociological training to write that paper. If I get really foolhardy, maybe I'll try anyway.

[UPDATE: fixed typo]

Monday, June 13, 2005

Outsource Me

I always assumed that, as a lawyer, I would be protected from outsourcing by the fact that laws are different in other countries. This was pretty stupid in retrospect; there's nothing to keep Indians from learning American law and bidding down our salaries, as this article makes clear. I guess this is a good thing, although it might have a bad effect on the Indian justice system if their best lawyers study American, rather than Indian, law. It would be pretty funny, too, if Indian law started slipping into American legal briefs, then into American opinions, and then into American constitutional law. Pretty soon the Supreme Court will ban monkeys from D.C., and then where will Congress convene?

But I'm a Creep

So Brad and Hitesh accuse me of being creepy (see my last post) . I can't really deny it; there's something inherently creepy about suggesting that you ARE someone else. Note that this makes Jesus creepy as well.

Note also that some of the best songs are called "Creep." To name two that come to mind, both Radiohead and the Stone Temple Pilots have good songs with that name. Also, Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President was called CREEP, and as Republicans have reminded us in the aftermath of Deep Throat's identification, Nixon was a patriot wrongly taken down in his prime.

So nice try, guys, but you're going to have to come up with a better insult. Being a "creep" is something I refuse to be ashamed of.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Not So Unique

Whatever else you could say about me, I like to think that I'm a fairly unique person. Or at least, I used to think so. Now I'm not so sure. Konica recently observed that we are, contrary to expectations, quite similar to each other. The only differences I've come up with are that Konica likes to dance, and that she hasn't blown the entire lineup of the St. Louis Cardinals. I have a hunch that one of those differences is about to disappear, leaving only... the other one.

This undermines the notion that there is anything special about me. Or does it? Consider this: you've never seen me and Konica in the same room. True, we have separate blogs, but the posts are almost identical in style and content. We both go to the same school, live in the same building, and have the same friends. We even had the same Bigelow. At some point "coincidence" stops being an adequate explanation; the sheer statistical unlikelihood of all these things being true is astounding. The conclusion is inescapable. We are the same person.

This breakthrough has many consequences, which I'm still sorting through. The big one, though, is that we should all go get a mango lassi. Again. Because we are the same person, and we love mango lassi.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Who's Looking Out for You?

So Bill O'Reilly says a lot of things, many of them stupid. Some people take him seriously, but for the most part you know what you're getting: the over-confident assertions of a blowhard.

The problem is that some idiots, though they have smaller audiences, are taken way more seriously. The example that motivated this post is Francis Fukuyama, who wrote The End of History and the Last Man. I haven't read that book, but its title should give you an idea what a clown this guy is. Still, you might say, his point surely wasn't that history has realy ended. That would be too stupid. He must have a more subtle point.

Don't be so sure. Consider this gem of a paragraph, from a dialogue on Slate in which Fukuyama participated (note that this was a written dialogue, so this was not off the cuff):

You say that you are a utilitarian, which generally means that the good amounts to maximizing happiness, health, economic well-being, or some other readily measurable good desired by human beings. But human beings pursue incommensurable forms of happiness: Some, like the CEOs recently in the news, seek to do it by making hundreds of millions at the expense of shareholders and employees, while others, like the firemen who ran up the stairs of the World Trade Center—or Mother Teresa, for that matter—do it out of service to others. I presume you wouldn't say that you were indifferent to the virtue displayed by the fireman or Mother Teresa, even if the CEO had a "happier" life. But if you aren't indifferent, it means that you believe that there are moral goods in some way divorced from the subjectively experienced sense of happiness.

Where to start. The problem is that Fukuyama could mean many things, none of which makes any sense.

1. He could be confusing utilitarianism with hedonism. Utilitarians want to maximize overall happiness, hedonists want to maximize their own happiness. His example demonstrates this confusion, because he doesn't see why a utilitarian would praise Mother Theresa but not a greedy CEO. Aren't they both maximizing their own happiness? Mightn't the CEO actually be happier? Needless to say, it's deeply disturbing if Fukuyama doesn't know what utilitarianism is.

2. He could be asking what utilitarians seek to maximize. This is a fair point, and this is where I thought he was going at the beginning of his paragraph. His example only obscures his point, though. Properly speaking his question is whether, other things being equal, we should value happiness from wealth the same as happiness from service to others. He goes out of his way, though, to make other things not equal. It's like asking, "Which do you prefer, short doctors or tall rapists?" Whatever your answer, it won't say much about your height preferences.

Now consider the way he ends the paragraph: " if you aren't indifferent, it means that you believe that there are moral goods in some way divorced from the subjectively experienced sense of happiness." This is flatly wrong; I might prefer Mother Theresa's virtue to the CEO's treachery because on balance her life created more happiness than the CEO's. This could be true even though the CEO experienced more happiness than Mother Theresa.

So there are really only two possibilities. One is that Fukuyama doesn't understand the difference between utilitarianism and hedonism. The other is that he hopes his readers don't know the difference, and he thinks he can confuse them with a tendentious example. Francis Fukuyama doesn't have a show on Fox News, but he does have a seat on the President's Council on Bioethics. The question is why.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Tragic Things

So I'm going to take my contracts exam in a bit. I went and got coffee and muffins to sustain my mad rambling mind. On my way back from the cafe, I had this disturbing thought.

Some women are just made for sex. Not only for sex, or even primarily for sex, but definitely for sex. The really unfortunate thing is that I will never have enough time to have sex with all or even most of them. It's like realizing that I can't read all those books, except more painful, because books aren't good until you're already read them.

Of course it's not just appearance. It's a carefree attitude and a quick wit and a shared taste for something. Ideally, it's a willingness to listen to me ramble on about India endlessly.

Meanwhile, as I've been having all these thoughts, I've had a sharp pain in my back that causes me to emit groans every now and then that must sound like erotic outbursts.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Thank You India

So, I've noticed that countries get varying amounts of respect for fairly stupid reasons. There was the weird France-hatred a few years ago (not to be confused with everyday, perfectly rational France-hatred), an anti-Canadian thing a bit before that, and of course in the late 80s the anti-Japan thing. Leaving aside that kind of group-think, individuals have very idiosyncratic ways of judging countries. I told a foreign economist that Japan gets a lot of respect in the US, particularly among young people, and he was astounded: "Their GDP has barely grown in 10 years!"

More interesting, from my perspective, is why India is newly respectable. I'll make a few guesses, but feel free to comment if you have any other suggestions. My ideas are:
1) India has a large and thriving high-tech sector, which Americans automatically respect.
2) India is very different, but in largely comfortable ways. They speak English, they like Western culture, they don't seem to have ambitions of killing us. This doesn't explain why they didn't get respect, say, 10 years ago, though.
3) Nuclear weapons. India has "joined the club" and proven its abilities in the one area that counts diplomatically: the ability to vaporize large numbers of people in a very short amount of time.
4) India is a country with a nice set of Tata's.

Sorry for that last one. Please comment if you have any ideas.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Beyond Viagra Analogies

Matt Miller wrote an op-ed today calling for truth telling by both parties. Novel idea. Anyway, he declares that Democrats "must stop pretending that mandates on business (for health coverage, say) are 'free' ways to get social results Democrats like - when such mandates impose costs ultimately borne by workers or consumers." Literally, that's right, although he doesn't explain why workers and consumers, rather than stockholders, end up footing the bill.

Importantly, though, there are good reasons to impose mandates on employers. One reason has to do with asymmetric information. Health insurance is cheaper to buy for a large group of people randomly chosen from the population than it is for an individual. That's because healthy individuals buy less insurance, so insurance companies know to charge more than they would for the average person. On the other hand, with a large group aggregated for non-health reasons, such as a corporation, this problem doesn't exist and insurance is cheaper. Mandating health insurance can thus be an efficiency-improving policy. This means that we're not just shifting costs onto consumers and workers - we're actually creating wealth. This isn't exactly "free," but it's a relatively painless way to overcome market failure.

The real point is that Miller hasn't thought very hard about the things Democrats need to face up to, or he is just too scared to point out a real problem in the Democratic party. Before you can speak truth to power, you have to both grasp the truth and stand up against the powerful. Miller would rather make Viagra jokes.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias piles on.