Pur Autre Vie

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

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Church and Aesthetics

Non-Christians get angry when I claim certain values as uniquely Christian. It goes something like this:

Me: Christianity has its problems, but it's good because it promotes love.
Non-Christian: Other religions promote love too.
Me: Okay, but Christianity values forgiveness.
Non-Christian: So does my religion.
Me: Well, Christianity won. So go fuck yourself.

Anyway, I guess my real point is that the Church gets the aesthetics right. A Christian wedding is beautiful (thought we borrowed it from the Romans, and I hope we borrow the elephant idea from the Indians at some point). Services are lovely too. The stories, the bread, the grape juice, the stained glass, the hymns. The creed is stunning. If memory serves:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of Heaven and Earth.

And in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died, and was buried.
On the third day he rose from the dead,
He ascended into heaven,
Where he sitteth at the right hand of God the Father,
From whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic* church,
The communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.

*"catholic" means "universal"

See? Succinct but graceful.

The reason I thought of all this was that I was trying to sleep, and I was feeling depressed. More on that, later, maybe. Redemption and hope may not be uniquely Christian, but my experience of them has been most vivid in Methodism. That's what I'm feeling now, the hope that my potential remains, the assurance that the future is not yet written. My confidence probably comes from my early indoctrination, which by the way was also probably the source of one of my favorite quotations ever: "I still believe in a placed called Hope."

Enforce the Law

So I saw something today about a plan to build a fence along the border with Mexico. Some liberals oppose the fence, but I actually think they're wrong on this one (assuming the fence is effective and cost-justified). If you think more immigrants should be admitted to the US (which by and large I do), then you should support increasing the legal limits. If you can't achieve your desired policy through direct politics, it's not okay to undermine law enforcement to suit your preferences. The only exception I can think of is civil disobedience, but that's not at issue here.

The same thing happens with taxes. Republicans can't get taxes as low as they want, so they like to slash the budget of the IRS and make it easier to cheat. The analogy would be gutting the budget of whoever guards the border as a way of undermining immigration policy. Either way, it's underhanded and wrong.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Computer Games As Literature

So my brother gave me Civ IV for Christmas. It's a fun game, although I can't really write a thorough review yet. It did remind me of something I've advocated before, though, which is the concept of computer games as an art form.

The most obvious case is Myst, and that leads to the central question. Are computer games art only when they incorporate traditional artistic elements, like beautiful scenery? I think the answer is no. To adress the issue rigorously would be difficult, so I'll just assert that games like Super Mario 3 are an important part of the American aesthetic experience. Games freely borrow from (and augment) traditional art forms, such as music and cinema, but the games constitute art regardless of these elements.

Computer games are different from paintings and movies, obviously. One interesting aspect is that, while everyone might view a painting differently, many computer games are necessarily unique experiences. No two games of Civ IV are alike. This leads to a second point, which is that computer games are much more interactive than other forms of art (an exception might be Andy Kaufman-esque projects where the audience is part of the performance). The quality of the art hinges not only on the skill of the artist, but the skill and intelligence of the player/viewer.

This leads finally to my last point, which I just realized as I read back over my post. The properties that I identified as unique to computer games are in fact present in all art. No two people see the same thing when they look at "Guernica." Likewise, the quality of art comes in part from the intelligence and tastes of the audience. If I think of any ways in which computer games are actually unique, I'll post them. In the meantime, I'll be engaged in the important artistic exercise of conquering the world as Louis XIV.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

India Shining

So this New York Times article gives the basics about a corruption sting in India that resulted in 11 MPs being forced out of office. Unfortunately the Times piece doesn't quite capture the glorious absurdity of the events. Basically, the politicians were given cash bribes to ask certain questions in Parliament. Here are a few sample questions, from Outlook India's account of the sting:

Whether the Railway Ministry has placed any order for purchase of the Yossarian Electro Diesel engine from Germany? Is the ministry aware that the Tom Wolfe committee report in Germany has halted its induction into the Euro Rail system?

Whether the Government has given sanction for the seed trial of Salinger Cotton of Monsanto? If so, has a report been prepared on Catch 22 cotton so far?

The man behind the sting operation, Aniruddha Bahal, commented (again from Outlook India):

"And now, that I have paid homage to Yossarian, I am a little upset that Major Major and Milo Mindbinder got left out. But I am happy that the Yossarian brand name has infiltrated the German market in spite of strong opposition from Tom Wolfe thanks to the foresightedness of the Indian parliamentarians. As for the Catch 22 and Salinger cotton strains I hope they are tremendously profitable for farmers and that the lifting of the bans on Hemingway, Thomson and Kesey, long due and deserved, will lead to a tremendous fillip to the publishing industry in general."

So when people ask me why I love India, this is the kind of thing I wish they could see.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Concentrated Information

This paragraph, from an interview with Patrick Cockburn about Iraq (not Alex Cockburn - and I found the link at Yglesias's blog) has so many interesting ideas that I'll just paste it into this post and highlight the ones that jump out at me. Read the whole interview, though, it's amazing:

The Iranians clearly are the winners so far, and this will probably continue. In 1991, fear of benefiting Iran was a prime reason why George Bush Senior ended the war so quickly. Khalilzad, the present American viceroy in Baghdad, who was then head of policy planning in the State Department, warned at the time that if the us, after winning its victory and getting Saddam out of Kuwait, went on to overthrow him, the real victors would be the Iranians. Today it’s pretty bizarre that the one place where optimistic announcements by the White House regarded with derision by the rest of the world—that the Iraqi elections are a major turning point, that the referendum is a terrific success, that the Constitution is a solution to the problems of Iraq—are immediately applauded is in Iran. The us occupation is opening the door to a regional Shia government, and a Shia government which sees its identity as Shia, rather than Iraqi. This is much in Iran’s interest. It now has a weakened Iraq on its western border, in which the Americans have a big stake. If the US puts too much pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme, it can squeeze the Americans in Iraq. It’s much more in Iranian interests to fight the US in Baghdad than in Tehran. They know how vulnerable the Americans are in Iraq. So I think that they have clearly been the beneficiaries. Supposing that the invasion had been a tremendous success, and there were a rock-solid pro-American regime under the control of the us in Baghdad, then the Iranians would be very nervous, caught in the pincers of Washington’s control of Afghanistan on one side and Iraq on the other. They now seem much more confident.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Upper Echelons

So a few comments about this New York Times piece on NSA surveillance of telephone calls within the US. First, there's apparently a judge in DC who sits on the "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret Washington court that deals with national security issues." Career Services definitely never told me how cool being a judge could be.

More importantly, though, the article makes it seem as though this is a new, limited program. In fact, the Echelon program has been operating for over a decade. If I remember correctly, it records every phone call made in an English-speaking country and then uses computer software to scan for certain buzzwords. Human monitors then listen to the conversations the computers pick out. The system is run out of the UK and is a cooperative venture among the intelligence services of the major English-speaking countries.

I didn't read the whole article, because it's long and boring, but I don't think it makes mention of Echelon. Instead, it has lines like this:

"While many details about the program remain secret, officials familiar with it say the N.S.A. eavesdrops without warrants on up to 500 people in the United States at any given time."

In fact, of course, Echelon eavesdrops without warrants on up to 300 million people in the US at any given time. The data isn't admissable in court, I presume. It's intended for the actual prevention of terrorism and assassination.

So I guess one of 2 things is true. Either the NY Times is credulous and naive, or this is a clever bit of counter-intelligence, or both. In any case, don't be fooled. Echelon is listening.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Sullivan Gets it Right

So I'm not a fan of Andrew Sullivan's style - lots of assertions, lots of indignation, not a lot of calm reasoning. Still, occasionally he gets it right, as in this post on Eugene McCarthy and Richard Pryor (a Peoria native). This is excellent:

"The great and too-often missed achievement of Western freedom is the way in which it allows true, eccentric, inspired individuals to rise."

Again and again, it's the eccentric people who advance humankind. Mendel comes to mind, although in a sense his eccentricity wasn't allowed to flourish. John Cleese and Douglas Adams also strike me as examples of this. Anyway, we live in a culture that celebrates and cultivates weirdness, to our credit and our advantage.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Updating Barry

So Andrew Sullivan posted a letter about Dave Barry's view of politics. Basically, Democrats are nice and incompetent, and Republicans are mean and competent.

Sullivan fails to note that this dichotomy doesn't have any explanatory power when it comes to the Bush administration. You can argue all day long about how nice or mean Bush is, but I don't think anyone accuses the Republicans of being ruthlessly efficient these days.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Eat It DHS

So, in an otherwise sad story about an apparently mentally ill man who was shot in Miami today, the New York Times has this sentence:

"A Department of Homeland Security spokesman, Brian Doyle, the suspect is a 44-year-old male American citizen. He would not confirm whether the suspect is dead."

Read by the conventional rules of English grammar, this means that Brian Doyle, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, is the "suspect" in this case, and he won't confirm whether or not he is dead. So I guess my advice to the DHS is to hire spokesmen who are less ridiculous.

[UPDATE: The article has been modified. It now seems that Mr. Doyle is not the suspect. All the humor has gone out of the story.]

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Eat It INS

So I guess technically the INS doesn't run immigration anymore, the Department of Homeland Security does. They administer a test to screen immigrants for knowledge about the US. I got all this from an article in the Wall Street Journal, called "Would-Be Citizens Will Face New Test, If It's Every Written." I would link, but the WSJ is subscription only.

Anyway, it's time to get down to brass tacks, people. Here are a few of the questions they ask:

#1: What are the colors of our flag?
#13: Who is the President?
#72: Name the amendments that guarantee or address voting rights.

Let's be clear. I'm a law student, and I don't know the answer to #72. Anyway, the test has a 97% pass rate (you have to answer 6/10, plus a minimal literacy section). My question is, why administer the test at all? Do we really want to screw over the 3% that badly? It seems like a dick move, especially since they're probably just the ones who got asked #72.

Alfonso Aguilar, head of the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Citizenship, is supposed to be coming up with a new test, and he doesn't want it to be "something an al Qaeda agent could breeze through." This is easily the stupidest thing I've ever read. Immigration tests aren't meant to screen out terrorists. It's not even remotely possible that the immigration test could keep out a determined terrorist. Imagine it. "I'm willing to strap explosives to myself and set them off, but I can't be bothered to learn the colors of the American flag."

Of course the real point is to make sure that new immigrants understand a few basics about the United States. I think that whatever we spend on the test would be better spent showing them episodes of Seinfeld and the Daily Show. That will teach them about American culture and the 1st Amendment, which is really all most of us know anyway.

Easy Amusement

Sometimes truth is stranger, and funnier, than fiction. If you have some time and want to be amused, see this page of Mary Rosh quotes. Mary Rosh is the pseudonym adopted by pro-gun scholar (or "scholar") John Lott to praise his own work and attack his critics on various websites. He even wrote positive reviews of his book on Amazon. The really crazy part is that he taught at a bunch of reputable schools, including the University of Chicago. He's accused of much more serious misdeeds, but nothing as funny as his Mary Rosh stuff. Check it out.

"Saving" Christmas

A piece in the New York Times explains how groups are advertising Alito's support for Christmas displays on government property. Fair enough, but some groups are also taking aim at businesses that don't use the word Christmas.

This is bizarre to me for several reasons. One is that Christmas isn't a very good holiday for Christianity. It celebrates commercialism and materialism, as well as emphasizing the existence of a supernatural being known by adults not to exist. Its timing and its trappings are pagan. Reminding everyone that Christmas is a Christian holiday is thus counterproductive. It's as if we tried to increase American popularity in India by promoting the slogan, "Yay for Union Carbide!" Evocative, yes; of the right emotions, no.

Another weird thing about this movement is that it's hard to see how it has any impact at all. Is anyone unaware that the prominent holiday in late December is Christmas? Has anyone missed the Santa Claus's in the mall, the candy canes and Christmas trees, the annoying fucking music? (It so happens that the only worthwhile Christmas music is actually religious Christian music; maybe the groups should pressure stores not to play shit like "Jingle Bells.")

Finally, it's just a little weird to spend so much effort rubbing people's faces in the fact that Christians run this country. "Taking back" Christmas means asserting the political and cultural power of Christians, not advancing any particular Christian value. I would have much more respect for these people if they used the phrase "taking back Christmas" to mean abandoning commercialism and bland well-wishing, emphasizing instead the spiritual significance of the holiday. They would rather co-opt all that selfish crassness for their own political purposes, and that is both strange and vile.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Get a Life

So an article in Slate is driving me nuts. It's about music downloads. The basic argument is that not all songs should cost 99 cents. That's fine with me, but he goes on to suggest varying the price of a song with the number of downloads. He calls this "a real-time commodities market that combines aspects of Apple's iTunes, Nasdaq, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Priceline, and eBay." He also claims his idea is "a pure free-market solution—the market alone would determine price."

What he doesn't explain is that the mechanism by which his idea determines price wouldn't reflect the same thing that, say, NASDAQ does. Automatically raising the prices when a high volume is demanded isn't necessarily efficient at all. Of course, it might be - I can imagine an argument for it - but the point is that when you throw around words like "pure free-market solution" and "the Chicago Mercantile Exchange," you should be able to back them up with real analysis. The fact that prices change in response to consumer demand doesn't by itself make a system "free market" or efficient.

He also ignores the interesting details of the situation. The Post Office doesn't expend the same effort on every letter, but it charges the same amount to send a standard letter for simplicity. It would also be very unclear to a potential iPod customer how much her desired library of music would cost ahead of time (this is distinct from the point he makes about Steve Jobs, which is that cheap songs help sell iPods).

It might be in the music companies' interest to charge different prices for different songs, but there's no reason to think they would use his simplistic algorithm. I guess what upsets me is that he's taken an interesting idea (the algorithm by which companies can maximize their profits) and turned it into an annoying exercise in pseudo-economics. Get a life!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Good Restaurants

My last post reminded me, I'm not a huge fan of expensive restaurants. In my experience, perhaps skewed by my vegetarianism, I tend to enjoy an ethnic restaurant much more than I enjoy a fancy one. The food is just better. Also, I miss Back Yard Burgers. I see that New York has none, while Little Rock has at least three. Do the math.

The Good Things in Life are Inefficient

It was pretty uncomfortable for me when I realized that some of the greatest things in the world were built by slaves. Monticello, for instance, is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, but it was built by slaves. I don't know if the Taj Mahal was built by slaves, but I'm sure it was built on the orders of a monarch with no real accountability to anyone.

Expensive restaurants, meanwhile, thrive by exploiting principal-agent problems. Effectively, people eat at expensive restaurants when someone else is paying. This might be a client, a pharmaceutical rep, a lobbyist, whatever. The person who picks the restaurant and orders the meal is distinct from the person picking up the bill. If people were spending their own money they would often choose somewhere cheaper.

This is important because it means that society might not benefit from the existence of these restaurants or these beautiful old buildings. It's nice to think that the world is better off because the Taj Mahal exists, but there's no good reason to believe so (if you take into account the burden of building it in the first place). This is in stark contrast to, say, your local Wal-Mart, which demonstrably serves human needs in a cheap, efficient way. The incentives are basically right in the case of the Wal-Mart (occasionally there may be negative externalities on traffic or the environment). The incentives are almost guaranteed to mess things up when you have decisions about the allocation of resources made by people who don't own those resources.

Maybe it's good, though, that we can't look at beautiful things without wincing a little. Nothing in life should be so simple.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Institutional Design

So I took Secured Transactions this quarter. I highly recommend it, it's very logical. It also makes you think a lot about institutional design. As usual with me, once I got that concept in my head I saw it everywhere. I've been thinking about how certain social institutions work, whether there are flaws and whether we get what we want out of them. Let's start with dating.

Of course, the structure of dating isn't determined by a code like the UCC. It has evolved without a conscious designer (though aspects have been engineered). Still, it purports to fulfill human goals in a system flawed by human shortcomings. Close enough for me.

So the thing about dating is that you need two willing participants. I suspect, though, that there is no real shortage of potential compatible couples. The problem isn't scarcity of willing people, it's an information problem. People need to identify the other people who are interested in them.

In particular, at least in my experience, communicating interest to someone is very difficult. Essentially, you have to use a formal system of signalling that everyone understands. This means that you have to use the word "date" if you want to make sure that you both have the same expectations about spending time together. It reminds me of the formal requirements for a contract back in the day: a seal and melted wax. It was arbitrary and cumbersome, but the point was that there was no mistaking it for anything else. Similarly, the word "date," while awkward, indicates something that is unmistakable: romantic interest.

One consequences is that, however much you try to spread out the process of getting involved with someone, it still comes down to that moment when you pull out the seal and wax (figuratively, for most people; for me literally). So you can ask someone to have coffee, but everyone knows that's the same as asking for a date. The process always collapses to whatever unmistakable signal you choose to send. People try to get around this with probabilistic signals, ambiguous statements or actions that hint at attraction. I don't think this works at all, but I could be wrong. I'll come back to that issue in another post.

The problems with this system are pretty serious. First, the signals are arbitrary and thus not obvious to people unfamiliar with the culture. More importantly, though, the collapse of the signal-sending down to one moment makes it very difficult to time it right. You can't let the moment come too early, or the person you're interested in won't know enough about you to give a good answer. If it comes too late, though, you can miss the opportunity, become "just friends," or the person will think you're not interested. If the process were truly gradual, timing would be less crucial.

Of course, dating isn't a necessity. In fact, increasingly people seem to have no interest in dating. They can get their sex and their companionship elsewhere, so what's the point? This is fine, except that a good system of dating, like a good system of secured transactions, facilitates mutually beneficial interactions. Some people can't get sex outside of dating. Others would just like a stable relationship. As our flawed system limps along, a lot of these people are simply frustrated and lonely.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Study Break

So I need to do some shopping. Anyone want to come with me? I'm going downtown plus I'm going to take the L up to Lincoln Park. It'll take a while I imagine but it should be fun. I'll probably go Saturday.

Meet my Friends Part 2

So, I'll continue with my profiles of friends. I'm going in order of those whose names mean holy water, followed by those named after camera companies.

Konica and I first bonded when we realized that we both hate everyone, especially Dave. Later we realized that we are both very lazy and hate law school. We bluffed our way through OCI and do our best to support the struggling alcoholic beverage industry. Konica was named after the Konica Minolta company, which provides imaging products such as cameras and printers.

Konica's great virtue is that she makes everyone feel like part of the group, welcome and at ease. Konica can create a group dynamic that isn't based on exclusion, but is simply based on having fun. When you're around Konica, you feel as though you're at the center of the world. It must be a little like being Tony Blair or Jack Straw.

Lately we haven't hung out much, perhaps because Konica moved up north and I moved to Woodlawn. Another thing that's come between us is that I am beginning to suspect that Konica doesn't hate everyone after all. Hey, Konica, if you want to be my friend you're going to have to hate me.

There's probably more to say about Konica, but I'm buzzed on scotch and tired. If you want to know her better you'll just have to introduce yourself and kick a dog or something. That cracks her up every time.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Evolution of the Runny Nose

So, for starters, if you're one of those people who pretends to be grossed out when people talk about certain subjects, I hate you. If you say, "Too much information!" a lot, I hate you. By the way, I don't know when it became acceptable to use "TMI!" as a joke. Someone will say, "TMI!" and, inexplicably, other people laugh. If you really aren't comfortable hearing something, say so in an adult way. Don't make people pretend to be amused when you pretend to be grossed out.

Now, why do our noses run in the cold? I'm not talking about actually having a cold, I'm just talking about walking around outdoors when it's cold out. I have three theories.

1. Actually, the runny nose is a by-product of extra tear production meant to protect the eyes. Warm tears help keep the cold temperature from damaging sensitive eye-tissue or something.

2. Same idea, but the fluid is meant to protect the nasal passages.

3. The fluid in the nose acts as a heat-exchanger. The body needs to conserve heat in the cold. Every time you breathe, you expel warm air and bring in cold air. Fluid in the nose heats up when you breathe out and then transfers this heat to the incoming air when you breathe in. This way the air entering the lungs is warmer than it would otherwise be, and energy is saved. Water would be good for this because it can spread out over the surface area of the nostrils and because it has a high specific heat (it takes a lot of energy to heat a given amount of it up by a given temperature, and likewise it releases a lot of energy when it cools).

Of course, all of these could be true at once, but my favorite is #3.