Friday, February 19, 2016

Once again awaking from my blogmatic slumber

A while back I made the life-affirming decision to stop writing serious things, but the current election cycle is just too good, and there's just not enough people I know who are interested in talking about this shit.

And so I will start this thing back up, I think.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Disneyland, Chinatown, and "Suspending Belief"

It's just like the major motion picture Chinatown (1974)!
When experiencing something visceral, beautiful, or out of the ordinary it's common to respond to it by joking that it looks just like the simulated version of that thing as it appears in a video game, movie, or theme park. "It looks like a screensaver!" someone might say in response to a stunning tropical beach; "It feels like Disneyland," someone might say, with a touch of wonder in their voice, as they stroll through the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans.

The usual pivot is some kind of commentary along the lines of how sad it is that our lives are so thoroughly mediated by pop culture and electronic media that our baseline of experience is not the natural, lived world but the representations of it we have been inundated with since birth. When we see the thing itself--the beautiful forest, the famous building--we become disoriented bleary eyed Neos, pitied by all nearby Morphiouses who intone that we feel like that because we are using our eyes "for the first time."

But I would like to construct an alternative telling. It is true that we live in a visually, audially, and spatially doubled world--one in which there is the place we are in, and then the world within that world as depicted by the video games we play, the movies we watch, the theme parks we visit, and even various public and commercial spaces, with their chintzy faux architecture and ambient music. If we live in urban or suburban spaces, the immediate world is often lackluster and functional, designed to make you work or shop or usher you into a far more exciting and beautiful inner world. A movie theater in Van Nuys looks like hell, screams at you to pay no attention to it--but the screens inside contain infinite beautiful multitudes.

The appreciation of beauty, then, occurs not typically in our experience of the immediate world--with its asphalt and Burger Kings and street lights and Target employee uniforms--but in the mediate world that has mostly been constructed by artists. We appreciate the beauty of an image of a model or movie star, the beat in a song, the interactive robustness of an environment in a video game, the attention to detail in a multi-episode plot arc. We appreciate the vastness of Los Santos in GTA5, the detailed window scenes above the stores in Main Street, the controlled transformation of Walter White over five seasons.
Sherman Way, the quintessential dreary commercial corridor

For most of us, we don't think about the girl down the street, but the girl on the magazine cover. We don't look at Sherman Way, we look at Tatooine. We have been trained--by habit, by architecture, by the imperatives of consumerism--not to look at or pay attention to that which is not explicitly designed to be consumed.

Now, I don't know if this is good, bad, tragic, or weird. It could be any of those things. But supposing it is true--that it does describe the kind of animals we now are--we modern urban animals--I think there is a way to invert it in such a way that we can once again wring awe, beauty, and the rest of it out of the immediate lived in world.

The crucial loophole in this crushing logic of media consumption is that the immediate world--the present, lived in world--is no different than an infinitely detailed theme park. This theme park has actors who are on the job 24 hours a day; it has back alleys and secret doors that let you in to fully realized environments; it contains an infinite variety of narratives and story lines that
criss cross each other and stretch back in time to the very beginning.
Always do the opposite of what an in-world sign says

If you can somehow suspend your belief that you are in the regular mundane world, then you can enjoy an environment like San Francisco's Chinatown with just as much relish and energy as you would a particularly well-done section in Disneyland. While waiting in line for Indiana Jones, think of how much attention you pay to the effort made, the detail--the sculpted rocks, the sound effect tracks, the bric-a-brac on the drafting table, the interactive props--and that adds to the experience. Well what if Chinatown had been constructed by Imagineers? What if every alley had been meticulously drafted? What if the people swishing Ma Jong tiles and smoking cigarettes were animatronics? What if you could--were encouraged, even, by the designers--to try the door or wander up those stairs? Is that graffiti some kind of clue or Easter egg? Does it relate to that piece of paper over there?

We are trained to appreciate the world only when it's a world that has been designed for us to appreciate. But if we can fool ourselves into thinking that our world has been designed for us to appreciate--well then, I'm living in a theme park that makes Disneyland look like the Northridge Mall. Maybe?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Won't a US default be way worse than 2008?

It has often been said that in the event of a US default, the
economy would be as bad as in 2008. I don't really understand that much about economics and finance, but from what little I do know, it seems to me that a US default would actually be far, far worse than what we saw in 2008.

In 2008, falling housing prices revealed that the world financial system had configured itself into something of a house of cards: huge institutions had placed leveraged bets on the idea that housing prices would not fall, and other huge institutions had in turn placed leveraged bets on the idea that those other institutions wouldn't lose money on their investments. When the prices did fall, the institutions found that that the "assets" side of their ledgers dropped lower than the "liabilities" side, and all simultaneously began to sell off their assets to reduce their liabilities. But since everyone was selling at the same time, it flooded the market and prices of those assets dropped further--which made everyone's balance sheets look even worse.

The dynamics of a classic financial panic had set in--but the thing that eventually ended it, and prevented the Great Recession from becoming a second Great Depression, was the US federal government--or more accurately, the world's faith in the US federal government to be solvent and responsible. The panic had caused investors to want to move their money to a "safe" investment--and the safest one they could find was US dollars, or US debt. When the US government eventually bailed out the financial system it did so with borrowed dollars that were extraordinarily cheap to borrow--the interest rate was close to zero (in fact if you factored in inflation, the real interest rate was negative). The US being able to borrow large sums of money so cheaply and easily contributed to the confidence of the financial world that the system could be saved, and so in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the system was saved. The downward spiral of assets losing their value and being sold off was interrupted and though the world economy was in terrible recession, at least the financial system was once again sound.

If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, the US will default on its debt obligations, which means that all those investors who have placed their money in US Treasuries will be stiffed when it comes time for the US to pay the interest on them. The real damage, however, isn't so much that the investors will miss out on a few payments--it's that such an event would shatter confidence in the US Treasury as a safe investment. Everyone will suddenly want to get rid of their US debt, and--just like in 2008--the mass, simultaneous selling off of US debt will cause the value of US debt to plummet, suddenly throwing everyone's balance sheets into the red. Just like in 2008, the revelation that something widely held to be safe and valuable is, in fact, not safe and not valuable, will trigger a panic and a downward spiral of sell-offs and insolvency.

Only this time, if it's the US federal government itself that has triggered the crisis, who then will play the role of the savior and rescue the financial system? When a panic occurs, the only way to stop it is to get a player big enough to interrupt the positive-feedback loop of sell-offs and insolvency. The player needs to be in a position to amass an overwhelming amount of money to do this. By consensus, the financial system had with its loans anointed the US to play this role. But do we know who the backup will be if the US fails? Will it be the EU? Will everyone sell out of their position in US debt and buy German debt instead? Or will there be no bottom to it, like the Great Depression?

The other thing is that it seems to me that however critical those mortgages ended up being to the financial system in 2008, US Treasuries are far more critical. They seem to be the cornerstone of the world financial system: governments back their currencies with US dollars and debt, financial institutions stay solvent with them. I don't understand what would happen if those assets suddenly plummet in value. I'm morbidly curious to find out, but, honestly, I really don't want to live in that world.

I hope the Republicans come to their senses soon...

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Why the Democrats cannot negotiate over the shutdown

It's a simple point: if Democrats make concessions to Republicans on health care, then they will set the precedent that a party that controls just one house of Congress can nullify the duly passed signature legislation of the party in power--and it can do so without making any policy concessions of its own. I don't understand how such a system can be sustainable over time.

Of course it's perfectly legitimate for Republicans to be opposed to Obamacare and to desire its repeal, but the proper method to achieve this goal is to win elections and pass a law. That is the way that Democrats got Obamacare enacted; that is the way that Republicans will have to get Obamacare repealed.

If the Republicans truly believed their own arguments--that Obamacare is a disaster--then they would do well to take steps now to increase the democratic accountability of Congress by striking a deal to abolish or reform the filibuster and return the Senate to majority rule, rather than the current practice of requiring 60 votes to get anything passed. This will make it easier for them to pass a repeal or reform of Obamacare in the coming years.

Of course, it would also make it easier for Democrats to pass legislation that strengthens Obamacare or any one of a number of scary liberal things. But that's how it should be: elections should matter. And as a liberal I would be more than willing to defend Obamacare in a fair fight at the ballot box.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Principles are a tool to help us moralize

The point of making principle the master of morality rather than, say, intuition or tradition, is that we can guard against our own cognitive frailties. Whereas our intuitive sense of morality is malleable and easily influenced by our own interests, biases, and psychological needs, rule-like objective principles are outside of us and not subject to these pressures. Principles therefore act as an outside point of reference that we can use to navigate the murky swamps of our own minds.

When we find that we support a position that cannot be satisfactorily justified by principles, it is a clue that we have succumbed to one cognitive frailty or another, and that we need to step back and reassess our position. Though we like to think that an unprincipled position is one that is automatically and necessarily wrong, in practice an unprincipled position is one that is merely highly suspect and invites further reflection.

Note that on this view it is not the case that morality is intrinsically rational. Principles--rational thought--is something separate, a tool that helps us moralize by allowing us to overcome various cognitive biases and blindnesses. Metaphorically, principles are a scaffolding we build for ourselves to give us a view on the moral landscape that we otherwise would not be able to attain.

But the use of rational thought to aid our moralizing can fool us into thinking that morality has properties of rational thought that it doesn't necessarily have. We tend to think, for example, that morality provides an answer for every moral question, and that it is merely a function of wisdom that determines if we find that answer or not. We also tend to think that morality is consistent, and that if properly applied it will tell us that a moral proposition is either true or false, but not both.

But I don't think that morality need be consistent, nor does it necessarily provide an answer for every moral question. Moral dilemmas are not difficult problems with a correct solution, like some kind of mathematical postulation, but rather instances where morality cannot yield an answer. In the same way that our limbs are limited in their movement and cannot bend certain ways, our morality is limited in its application and cannot answer certain questions.

If morality is not intrinsically rational--a set of objective rule-like guidelines that determine right and wrong--then it begs the question of what morality is, exactly. I think the best way to look at it is that morality is something humans do that is a part of their essential nature, like how we eat and love and sing. And like those other idiosyncratic activities, morality is irregular and organic and naturally resistant to logical codification and reductive rules. We can try to create such principles and rules so as to reflect our morality as closely as possible, but we can never abandon our morality to the rules--people make moral decisions, not rules.

In the same way that holding a position not supported by principle is a clue that there is something wrong with the position, relying exclusively upon principle to arrive at a decision is a clue that something has gone wrong with one's moralizing capacity. To be doctrinaire is to be in denial of the moral consequences of one's position: it is a retreat, a willing blindness. An exclusively principled stance means nothing if it is not accompanied by charity, empathy, kindness, and true understanding. Principles are a tool, but to apply principles blindly is like using a tool absent some larger goal. It's like hammering nails into a board for no reason.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Obama on NSA spying: "Was that wrong? Should I not have done that?"

An amusing thing about this NSA story is Barack Obama's response that he "welcomes" a debate about government surveillance. He has also said, "[w]e're going to have to make some choices as a society."

But of course, precisely the problem with the NSA program is that there could be no public debate because the whole thing was steeped in secrecy. The only reason we're having the debate now is because the whole program was leaked by a whistleblower--a whistleblower that Obama will almost certainly prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.

The whole thing reminds me of when George got busted for having sex with the cleaning lady at work.

True grit

For a long time I've had the concern that the primacy of the standardized test in American education, while perhaps doing a good job of identifying the most analytically intelligent, might also have the perverse effect of admitting a certain unfavorable personality type into the nation's elite academic institutions. The personality type I have in mind is that of the sort of person who does well at standardized tests: intelligent and thoughtful, yes, but also obedient, seeking validation from authority figures, and conformist.

What is problematic about this for society is that since elite academic institutions feed our public institutions, there gets to become a culture of groupthink that can lead to disastrous institutional failures. If you have a newsroom culture that systematically defers to authority, then the government can get away with waging a baseless war. If you have an office culture in a financial firm in which dissent is punished or ignored, then the firm will go bankrupt investing in a housing bubble.

What is required to run the world is not just intelligence, but grit--the courage and the will to place one's own principles and dignity above money and status and the rebuke of authority figures. But a person who spends a lifetime dutifully completing school assignments and taking exam prep courses is not likely to have the history of failure, rejection, and hardship that builds character.

So I was not too surprised to see that the leaker of the NSA spying programs, Edward Snowden, is not a graduate of an elite university but has had something of an uneven history:
...he never completed his coursework at a community college in Maryland, only later obtaining his GED — an unusually light education for someone who would advance in the intelligence ranks.
Even if you disagree with Snowden's actions on the merits, I think everyone can acknowledge that risking his entire life and giving up everything for something he believed in was an act of courage, an act that requires true grit.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

What kind of surveillance state do we want?

A bald eagle on a fucking KEY
In a very interesting post, Mike Konczal points to a paper by some Yale professor that

provocatively argues that “[t]he question is not whether we will have a surveillance state in the years to come, but what sort of state we will have.”

The professor distinguishes between authoritarian and democratic surveillance states:
What do authoritarian surveillance states do? They act as “information gluttons and information misers.” As gluttons, they take in as much information as possible....But authoritarian surveillance states also act as misers, preventing any information about themselves from being released. Their actions and the information they gather are kept secret from both the public and the rest of government.

What would a democratic surveillance state look like? Balkin argues that these states would be “information gourmets and information philanthropists.” A democratic surveillance state would limit the data it collects to the bare minimum.... A democratic surveillance state would also place an emphasis on destroying the data that the government collects.
I think this is a pretty interesting approach to the problem. For example I've long thought about how the de facto decentralized surveillance enabled by the widespread distribution of video-capable phones has been overwhelmingly beneficial for our security--used against not only criminals, as in the Boston Marathon bombings, but also against our own government, as with the countless instances of police brutality that have been captured on video. Expanding in this direction seems to me a way of making a surveillance state compatible with democratic principles.

Critique of authoritarian surveillance
To me the sole advantage to be gained from the authoritarian model of the government keeping what it knows a secret is cases in which bad guys unwittingly divulge information because they don't know they are being spied upon. But to the extent that bad guys are suspicious of the government and careful not to communicate sensitive messages using technological means, that sole advantage is nullified. And meanwhile there are HUGE negatives with this approach, starting with the potential for abuse and blowback that occurs when the abuse is inevitably discovered--not to mention the moral issues of privacy and democratic accountability involved.

In the end, I don't think that waging a secret spy campaign is something that makes sense for America to do; it is simply not the kind of fight that suits the nation, its goals, and its ideals. An analogy might be made here between checkers and chess. In checkers, the goal is to destroy the opponent's pieces; in chess, it is to trap the opponent's king. With a "daylight" model--or democratic surveillance state--where the US makes the extent of its spying publicly known and accountable, the enemy would know exactly the capabilities of US spying and would therefore avoid certain kinds of communication. But while this would make them difficult to apprehend, it would also significantly inhibit their ability to wage terrorism. So though we may not be able to eliminate them from the board, we could still "trap" them into a limited space, capabilities-wise.

Rather than making the primary goal eliminating terrorists, we would be focusing on making terrorism hard to do. And we would get to keep the legitimacy of our government in the bargain.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Risking it all for a souvenir

Recently I've read Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose, which follows the exploits of a company of the 101st Airborne through Europe in World War II. Now I'm reading All Quiet On the Western Front, which is a novel written by World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque that details the traumatic experience of German soldiers in the trenches.

In both books, a strange behavior of the embattled soldier is described: he will undergo extraordinary risks to his personal safety for the seemingly trivial reason of nabbing a "souvenir" from the battlefield.

In Band of Brothers--which is a nonfictional account--soldier Donald Malarkey suddenly bounds out from behind his cover during an assault on a German position, because he thinks he can see a Luger on the body of a dead German soldier. He runs out to the body, finds that it is not a Luger after all, and scurries back to his position unharmed. The only reason he is not shot dead is because the Germans assumed he was a medic.

In All Quiet on the Western Front, soldiers risk their lives scavenging No Man's Land for silken parachutes to send home to their wives and girlfriends as sewing material:
The parachutes are turned to more practical uses....Kropp and I use them as handkerchiefs. The others send them home. If the women could see at what risk these bits of rag are often obtained, they would be horrified.
Ruminating on this, Stephen Ambrose quotes Glen Gray, a war veteran (and, later, philosopher at Colorado College), who speculates that
[p]rimarily, souvenirs appeared to give the soldier some assurance of this future beyond the destructive environment of the present. They represented a promise that he might survive.
I suppose that is one plausible theory. To me, though, it seems that at least part of the explanation must have something to do with the fact that soldiers in those circumstances have trained themselves to disregard risks to their own personal safety in general. Being in denial about the extreme physical danger of a battlefield makes it possible to charge headlong into machine gun fire to assault the enemy, but perhaps a side effect of this denial is that a soldier will also take extreme risks for lesser, even trivial goals.

In any case, though, this is a very surprising and interesting behavior exhibited by soldiers in battle.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Let's end the music industry's monopoly powers

Here is a problem that capitalism presents us with: if there is something that people want that requires scarce resources to produce, then we can apply the various tenants of capitalism to devise a system that efficiently produces that thing and satisfies demands. However, the creation of this system invariably leads to the establishment of various institutions and interests that depend on it, and who strive to exploit and perpetuate the system for their own gain. But if technology advances, or some other progressive change happens, that obviates the need for the system--if, for example, technology renders the product virtually costless to produce--then there arises a conflict between what is best for society (dismantling the system or replacing it with a different one) and what is best for the incumbent institutions and special interests (taking measures to perpetuate or reinforce the system).

A very concrete example of this is the impact of the internet and personal computing on the music industry. Before these technologies, the recording and distribution of music was a costly process: it required special studio equipment, playing time on limited radio bandwidths, and the pressing of vinyl records (or later, cassettes, then CDs). And so a system needed to be devised such that the costs of making and distributing music could be recouped by the producers. This was accomplished by granting the authors a monopoly on the distribution of music: with monopolistic pricing power, the authors could recoup the costs of recording, marketing, and distribution.

This system worked well initially because technological constraints happened to enable enforcement of the monopoly power of the authors: it was infeasible to copy vinyl records, and so people were forced to buy them from record stores. Later with the emergence of cassete tapes copying was easier but the quality degraded with each copy. Later still, CD's enabled perfect copying fidelity, however a person was still limited to copying the CDs that friends happened to own. Violations of the author's--or content owner's--monopoly of course occurred, but not to the extent that the recording industry could not thrive.

But this changed with the emergence of the interent, which now enabled the virtually cost-free distribution of monopoly-protected music to anyone, anywhere. There was no longer a technological constraint that kept people going to the record store as their source of music. And as internet use became adapted by more and more of society, the record industry's revenues plummeted.

What had happened, though, was that the original economic rationale for the music industry had been obviated: before the internet and affordable, high quality recording equipment/software, recording and distributing music was very costly, and required scarce resources. But post internet, anyone with an okay computer and an internet connection could produce, and distribute for free, studio-quality music. The costs had been so dramatically lowered that it no longer made sense to perpetuate the legal regime (the granting of monopoly powers) that the music industry is predicated on.

Of course, by the time this technological revolution had occurred, the special interests and institutions collectively referred to as "the music industry" had been firmly entrenched. And so rather than dropping away and being replaced with a new, more fitting system, it fought aggressively to take extreme steps to perpetuate itself. It asked for extreme powers to infiltrate and compromise computing systems to prevent the duplication of music files. It asked that extreme penalties be enforced to deter duplication and distribution of music files. It publicly campaigns that unauthorized duplication and distribution of music files is an immoral act, tantamount to stealing physical objects from a store.

These policies, arguments, and actions should be rejected because technology has advanced to a state where the system they are meant to preserve is no longer relevant. Granting monopoly powers--and, therefore, monopoly pricing power--to large companies for the production of an incredibly low-cost product is unnecessary and anticapitalistic, and stifles both the production of creative arts and their consumption. The music industry, once spawned as a means of recouping the costs of music production and distribution, now serves no societal purpose. It is a rentier, parasitic entity.

One alternative to the current system would be simply to abolish the granting of monopoly or any other exclusive powers to the authors of content. The signature benefit of such a system would be its simplicity and the fact that it would not require any invasive laws to enforce: people would be free to create and exchange bits as they saw fit. However, there would also be significant drawbacks to such a system. For one, there could arise a problem of truth-in-authorship: even if no monopoly powers were at stake, artists would not want someone else falsely claiming authorship of a piece that they created. The artist would want artistic credit and public praise for his or her works. So some legal framework may be required to give a plagierized artist legal recourse to claim ownership of the work, even if just for non-monetary reasons. Moreover, there is the issue of compensating artists for their work, under the rationale that they deserve to be materially compensated for worthy works of art, so that they may continue to contribute such a valuable thing to society. Some schemes are compatible with a free model that could result in ample revenue for an artist: for example, an artist can have a Kickstarter-like scheme where the next work of art will not be produced/distributed until enough money is raised to recoup costs and provide a living.

However, such schemes are not a realistic source of revenue for most artists, especially ones who are not already established with their own following. Such a scheme can work for Radiohead or Louis CK; but an unknown or marginally popular musician is unlikely to be able to raise any money this way. A better system is required.

One such system could be this: society decides in advance, in terms of GDP say, how much material resources it wants to divert to the musical arts. This chunk of money represents the pie from which all artists will receive a slice. The size of the slice for each artist can be determined in a number of different ways. One way could be the allocation of government grants by an esteemed panel who decides who is worthy of compensation, and how much. Another, perhaps more democratic scheme could be the printing of virtual money that all citizens can then use to "buy" works of art, with this money then being translated to a percentage of the overall arts pie. Each citizen would be granted an equal amount of virtual money at the beginning of every year. Unused virtual arts money would be voided, increasing the "purchasing power" of the rest of the virtual money actually in circulation. In this way, the selection mechanism of a free market would be replicated, though the total "revenue" for the "arts industry" would have been a fixed amount previously agreed upon my democratic fiat.

Some economic shenanigans could arise from such a system: for example, a market would naturally arise in the buying and selling of virtual arts money. However, it is difficult to see what harm there would be in this. Moreover, steps could be taken to hinder such a market, such as not enforcing contracts involving the sale of virtual arts money, and making the arts money non-transferrable by disabling this ability in its technical implementation.

What do you think?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Years of obstructionism has destroyed the GOP in California

A common state politics nerd tattoo
There's been a lot of Republican soul-searching since the election, mostly focusing on how the party needs to rethink its xenophobic approach to Hispanics. No where is this more true than in California, where Hispanics comprise around 38% of the population, which is about parity with whites. Romney lost here in a landslide, and at the state level Republicans fared no better.

Columnist George Skelton in the LAT ticks off a list of Republican defeats:

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein drew only token Republican opposition and won by 23 points. 
Democrats, at last count, were gaining four congressional seats in California.
The stunner was the state Assembly, where Democrats apparently achieved a historic supermajority to match the party's similar feat in the Senate.

I think what you're seeing here--total Republican irrelevance in California--is the inevitable result of what has been poisoning California politics for decades, namely the conversion of the legislature to a supermajoritarian body on any law involving budgets and revenue. By requiring a 2/3 majority in the legislature in order to raise taxes, the state constitution has effectively granted the minority party the power to control the political agenda via obstruction. This has led to gridlock and insolvency over the years, and to what almost everyone agrees is a dysfunctional state government unable to make hard budgetary choices.
But it has also atrophied the Republican party, rewarding anti-tax extremists with real power and removing any incentive for striking deals and compromises. Ideologues thrive in this environment as they are able to portray themselves as heroic last lines of defense--and show results--but moderates are gradually purged from the party, their ability to make deals useless so long as the party is successful with obstructionism. Over the years the Calfornia GOP has evolved into an institution optimized for obstruction, very good at ideological purity and solidarity but completely clueless when it comes to bipartisan compromise and the art of cobbling together an ideological diverse constituency to support it.
Now--due to a combination of growing alarm at dysfunctional state government, rejiggering of district boundaries, and the continued demographic shift away from "establishment whites", Republicans find themselves completely ousted and on the wrong end of a Democractic supermajority that they can no longer obstruct, and that no longer needs to seek their bi-partisan acquiescence.
In a way this will be healthy for the Republicans, as now they will once again have the political incentive to make bargains and extract concessions from inevitable Democratic legislation. I predict a move towards more moderation and deal-making in the state legislature in the coming years--and far more functional government than we've seen over the last few decades.
I hope that in addition to solving California's eternal budget problems, both sides come to see the harm of supermajoritarian requirements in the legislature and return to the days where a budget--or a tax increase--can be passed with a simple majority, subject to the subsequent approval of the citizens come election time. That's how it's supposed to work.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: The Beach

A few months ago I decided to take a break by watching The Beach, which someone had put on in the common area of the hostel I was staying at in Thailand. The choice was apropos: the movie is all about a young traveler Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) who visits Thailand but spurns the commercialized experience and boorish, ugly-American behavior of the typical tourist.

Playing the familiar archetype of an idealistic young man discontented with the world and seeking the authentic, Richard rails against the "cancers" and "parasites" that spend their time in Thailand binge drinking out of large plastic cups and whooping and shouting obnoxiously. He does this in a self-important, monotone narrative that cinematic convention--from classic noir to Apocolypse Now to Terminator 2--has deemed the appropriate way of conveying a cynical protagonist's world-weary pronouncements about the human condition. Helpfully, in the world of The Beach, figurative ugliness and beauty are reinforced by the actual, physical kind: the good tourists, who are either basically decent or amiable eccentrics, are invariably good looking (Richard, his French friends, most of the inhabitants of the commune), whereas the bad tourists, who are seldom seen without a drink in hand, nonsensically shouting, are invariably plain or cartoonish (the surf dude interlopers, the various shots of revelers). At one point the beautiful DiCaprio looks with disgust at a fat, hairy tourist as a Thai masseuse forcefully massages his buttocks. An ugly American indeed! The audience is all but asked to shake its collective head at the shame of it.

Eventually Richard finds himself on a real adventure: mysterious map in hand he sets out to find a paradise, a rumored island with surpassingly beautiful beaches, ample supplies of marijuana, and--most important of all--no tourists. When he gets there he finds that in fact there is a community of like-minded travelers who have settled there and have, over the years, created a sort of hippy-commune for themselves, where they frolic and do hedonistic things during the day, along with a healthy dose of chores like hunting for fish, doing carpentry work around the commune, and light gardening. However, interestingly, Richard himself recognizes that this utopia, for all its alternative-lifestyle trappings, is in substance no different than the sort of mainstream tourism he despises. It was, in the end, "just a beach resort--for people who don't like beach resorts". And throughout his stay, he only refers to his life in the commune as one dedicated to "pleasure" and "fun"--there is no overriding pretense of anything more important going on, either religious/spiritual or ideologically (the place is not connected with environmentalism, for example). For Richard, we are led to believe that--while certainly an improvement over the obnoxious drunken hordes of Koh Phangan, and an interesting and unique enough experience in itself--it has not satisfied his search for the truly authentic and meaningful travel experience. Our protagonist, surprisingly shrewd, has retained his cynicism.

All of which makes what follows so baffling: for even though Richard has admitted the underlying frivolity of his supposed utopia, he goes ahead and jettisons all notions of morality and common decency in order to preserve it. It begins with his indifference to the painful cries of a member who is denied permission to leave the island to visit a dentist, and who has the tooth forcibly removed by the commune's carpenter; and accelerates quickly as he passively allows the murder of four innocent tourists, and soon after goes ahead and deliberately murders an injured man in cold blood by suffocating him. All of these actions, to one degree or another, are motivated by the desire to keep the secret of the commune from leaking--for the commune can only exist in isolation from the hideous tourist-industrial complex that has ravaged the rest of Thailand. His actions--cold blooded murder to preserve what he himself refers to as mere "fun"--render him a monstrous character who ought not to have a shred of the audience's sympathy; yet the movie continues to treat him as the same credible narrator who not long ago encouraged us to judgmentally leer at a tourist merely for receiving a massage in a tacky bathing suit.

This is where I have trouble with The Beach. At first it seems to treat the problem of tourism, of authenticity in travel, with a surprisingly subtle handling: we are hit over the head with the awfulness of the typical drunken partier only to have this complicated by the observation that even the antithesis of this--the alternative life-style hippy commune--is morally no better, both being exercises in vapid hedonism by Westerners who are incurious about and insulated from the authentic native culture they are purportedly there to explore. But Richard's reaction is not to reject the commune and continue his search for the authentic, perhaps by, I don't know, interacting with some locals--no, instead he abruptly leaves the commune and runs around like an idiot in the jungle for a while. What is he doing in there? It is difficult to say. Sometimes it feels like he has rejected all of society in a contented Robinson Crusoe sort of way; other times it feels as if he has reverted to some kind of Rambo-style Vietnam commando mode that the audience had not previously been informed about. Watch him slowly eat a bug! Watch him unblinkingly track his human prey! He even sets a rudimentary jungle booby-trap that seriously maims a druglord's henchman. It is, to me, a nonsensical mish-mash of various Vietnam/jungle tropes that don't connect with the first part of the story.

Eventually he wends his way back to the commune, where--after the aforementioned cold-blooded, first degree murder of a fellow member--he collects the original friends he arrived with and flees the imploding mini-world he had killed to defend, as the druglords run them out by force and their charismatic, murderous-psychopath leader is exposed as a murderous psychopath. Time passes, and we end on a winsome, sentimental note: back in civilization, presumably Bangkok, Richard is checking his email (with the improbable user name "Richard"--but we'll look past that), and has received a photo from his friend he had gone to the island with: it is a group photo of everyone in the commune, jumping and cheering in merriment. The movie insanely asks us to sigh along with Richard at those great times they once had, even though one of the pictured men was killed by a shark and another one was murdered by Richard himself. The movie shows no sign that it is aware of this startling juxtaposition; there is neither wink nor nod, at least that I can detect.

So for me The Beach begins promising but ends in frustration, seeming to fall into thematic incoherence just when it starts getting interesting. Interesting problems are posed, but not only is no remedy or resolution forthcoming, but the latter part of the movie doesn't even seem aware that the problems were posed in the first place. Lame.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Science, theism, and different types of belief

Thomas Nagel has a review in the New York Review of Books of Alvin Plantinga's latest, Where the Conflict Really Lies. Nagel says the book's overall claim is that, quoting Plantinga, "there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism."

As Nagel explains, Plantinga justifies apparent contradictions between empirical, scientific claims and theological ones by distinguishing between different "basic types" of warrented belief--perception, memory, rational intuition, induction, and some others--each of which is sufficient by itself to give us what can rightly be called knowledge, without any evidentiary support from the other basic types. So for example, if I remember that I took a shower this morning, then I can safely say that I know (in the epistemological sense of the word) I took a shower, without any further appeal to any other authority than memory, a basic type. With this in place, Plantinga goes on to argue that theistic claims--e.g. that there is a God--is another basic type of warrented belief alongside all the others, and as such does not require any further appeal to perception or rational intuition in order to be warrented.

Now, I'm not sure if I'm understanding or summarizing that correctly, and I haven't read Platinga's book, BUT I like the general approach of trying to distinguish between types of belief,  and the attempt to find compatability between scientific and theological beliefs by arguing that they are both primitive types, ultimately on equal epistemological footing.

However, to me it's interesting to note how very different the two types are in terms of the role they play for humans. The basic types of belief entailed by science and naturalism--perception, induction, maybe others--are in some sense a mere means to an end, for all we're really interested in when we perceive and make inductions and so forth is to get to a point where our actions make sense and have efficacy in the world around us. For example, if I'm in a room and I see a sofa against the west wall, what matters to me isn't whether the sofa is on the east or north wall or whatever--what matters is that the belief is true, whatever wall it might be, so that if I decide to go sit down I don't fall on the floor, and if I decide to move about the room I don't go stumbling over it. So these scientific beliefs are just messengers, and if we're uninterested in the message--for example, a precise description of the downtown area of Canton, OH--then the messenger, the set of beliefs about downtown Canton, are quickly dropped from our mind entirely, and we care little whether or not the beliefs were true or false. So our scope of interest in scientific beliefs is a function of what we're interested in, what our future plans and intentions are, what are goals are. Certainly, for example, the city developer in Canton will be very interested in the downtown schematics, because of his particular set of goals and interests.

Theological belief, however, is entirely different: we don't need them as a means to move around and enact our will on the world, but rather to fill some spritual void in ourselves that, for whatever reason, needs filling. Thus what matters for these beliefs isn't whether or not they are "true", but whether the subtance of the belief itself is spiritually fulfilling. Unlike the sofa, the actual physical position of which was arbitrary to us--and in which our only concern was simply that, whatever the coordinates of the sofa, they were the correct coordinates--in theological belief the substance of the belief itself is the crucial, important point--does God love me? Does he forgive me?--for simply the act of believing these beliefs is sufficient to get what we want from them, for the beliefs to serve their purpose as spiritual relief from existential dread. And similarly to scientific beliefs, the area of interest in theological questions is a function of our spiritual deficits, our dread, our need for meaningfulness in our lives. In the same way that we are uninterested in the description of downtown Canton because it has nothing to do with our future plans, intentions, and goals, we are also uninterested in, say, whether God prefers the Dodgers, because that question is of no spiritual significance to us. However we are very interested in things like being loved and being good and there being some significance to our lives, and those are at the very core of theistic belief systems.

Another way to put it is to ask: what makes this type of belief fail? For scientific beliefs, the point of failure occurs when our will gets frustrated when we've based our actions on those beliefs--for example, tripping over the couch. That's a result of a misperception of where the couch is, and what you need is a different perceptive belief, specifically, the one that is true and will therefore not lead you to trip on the couch.

For theistic beliefs, however, the point of failure is if you are in a state of misery, existential dread or boredom, or some other thing like that, having based your lifestyle and worldview on those beliefs. So for example if you are a Christian and find your life lacking meaningfulness, then that's like misfaith, or a bad theistic belief. Similarly if you are an atheist and are suffering from a profound sense of amorality in the world, then it seems that you would need to toss out those beliefs and find a different set that sets you to spritual rights.

I acknowledge that this sounds something like the argument you hear from atheists, which is that, "Look, if having religious beliefs makes you feel better, then by all means have those beliefs", reducing religious belief to something exactly like a placebo pill--something that essentially fools the person into feeling better but has no real efficacy in the world. However, I think this really misses the point, for it merely applies the standard of scientific beliefs to theistic beliefs and reasserts the central premise of materialistic naturalism, which is that the only things that exist are those that are described by science.

But I think that, really, the epistemological space opened up by scientific belief and the epistemological space opened up by theistic belief are separate spaces, and they hang together, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes with much dissonance, an organic part of our strange, fragmented animal selves--and it is unclear to me by what standard or criteria you can metaphysically rank one space above the other, and say the one is real and the other is not, as the materialistic naturalist argues. We're animals that need to eat and move around and plan ahead and sit on sofas, but we're also animals that need meaningfulness in our lives and sundry other spiritual salves, and to each of these needs there must be a way of deciding if the need is satisfied, and it is to this end that beliefs, at the most general level, are used. Maybe the best way to think about ourselves is as many different animals crammed into a single vessel, all existing in parallel, each one complete with its own metaphysics. We are large, we contain multitudes....

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Casablanca quotes in the style of The Wire

I have a good idea. Let's divide up Casablanca into sections, and then select a quote from each section that would be the quote shown in the beginning of an episode if Casablanca was made in episodes like The Wire. Got that? Let's go:

  • Introduction
    "We hear very little, and we understand even less." - an Englishman
  • The arrival of Major Strasser
    "Everybody comes to Rick's." - Captain Renault
  • The letters of transit
    "I found myself much more reasonable." - Ugarte
  • A 10,000 Franc wager
    "Yvonne, I love you, but he pays me." - Sacha
  • The arrest of Ugarte
    "Are my eyes really brown?" - Rick Blaine
  • The arrival of Victor Laszlo and Ilsa
    "Play it, Sam." - Ilsa Lund
  • Rick gets drunk
    "...if it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?" - Rick Blaine
  • Flashback to Paris
    "We said 'no questions.'" - Ilsa Lund
  • Laszlo comes in for questioning
    "Even Nazis can't kill that fast." - Victor Laszlo
  • The black market
    "...the Germans have outlawed miracles." - Ferrari
  • Rick does a beautiful thing
    "Oh, he's just like any other man, only more so." - Rick Blaine
  • The Marseillaise
    "Your winnings, sir." - the croupier
  • Ilsa plies Rick for the letters of transit
    "...a story without an ending." - Rick Blaine
  • Rick and Laszlo have a chat
    "Since no one is to blame, I demand no explanation." - Victor Laszlo
  • Rick sets up to leave Casablanca
    "I shall remember to pay myself." - Ferrari
  • Rick turns on Capt. Renault
    "I suppose you know what you're doing, but I wonder if you realize what this means?" - Captain Renault
  • Rick reveals his intentions
    "...soon, and for the rest of your life." - Rick Blaine
  • Conclusion
    "Round up the usual suspects." - Captain Renault

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Where is all the money going?

Here's a chart showing that America spends way more per capita on health insurance than any other country:

What I don't understand is: where is all this extra money going? Who is profiting from this? Big insurance companies or something? Then wouldn't these companies have gigantic revenues, like ExxonMobile or WalMart or something? I don't understand it very well.