Sunday, April 26, 2015

Some allegorical thoughts on the anniversary of the massacre of Armenians that may or may not be a genocide, depending on whom you ask

Scene: Kiev, 1933. It is the height of the Holodomor. Two Ukranian men, Aleksandr and Dmitriy, both lie hopelessly prone on the side of a road. They are emaciated to the point of looking like skin-covered skeletons. They are, in the words Solzhenitsyn used to describe many similar people in Russian prison camps over those and subsequent years, 'last-leggers'.

Aleksandr: Dima, I don't think we have long for this world.

Dimitriy: I suspect you are right, my friend. I can scarcely move, and haven't eaten for weeks. I fear this is the end.

Aleksandr: Before we go, there is one question I have been pondering in my delirious state, and it will sadden me if we die before we get an answer. Might you help me puzzle over it a while?

Dimitriy: Of course, Sasha. What breath I have, I give to you.

Aleksandr: I have been trying to figure something out. Why did Stalin do this to us?

Dimitriy: Do you mean how can such evil exist in the hearts of men, and how can God let such misery go on?

Aleksandr: No, not that specifically. I mean, what precise feelings and motivations do you think Stalin had in his heart of hearts at the time he issued his orders to murder us? Do you think his aim in this massacre might have been one of... racism?

Dimitriy: Perish the thought, Sasha! We are all Slavs, so there is clearly no racial component to the mass murder by Russia of three million odd Ukranian souls.

Aleksandr: But there surely is at least a national angle to it, which makes it racism in the loose sense that people use the word these days, no? The murders show a clear intent to kill a large part of our nation, for no motivation other than hatred of us as a people.

Dimitriy: You worry too much, my friend. Stalin's policies of deliberate farm collectivisation and punishing reduction in rations to targeted areas, which will clearly result in mass starvation as predictably as the laws of thermodynamics continue to operate, do indeed cause our bellies to be distended in a grotesque manner as we rapidly approach a miserable death. But assuredly Stalin's actions are merely due to a desire to stamp out excessive civil unrest in Ukraine, and to stem potential protests aimed at the continuation of his unjust and barbarous rule. While there is a related question as to whether these actions may indirectly constitute racism if the uprisings he is crushing can be described as being due to Ukranian nationalism, I feel this is merely misdirection. Stalin would have gladly done the same thing to groups of Russians who acted the same way. Not only would, come to think of it, but did! It's all in the Gulag Archipelago. Exactly this same kind of starvation is going on as we speak in the gulags all over Russia for all sorts of people of many nationalities who may or may not have posed a similar remote threat to Stalin's rule. Given such context, this makes his actions here in Ukraine merely mass murder, and nothing more.

Aleksandr: Oh, thank goodness for that! Because if I thought that this agony I am experiencing were due to sufficiently racist motives that historians of the future might label it as genocide, I sure would feel a lot worse right now.

Dimitriy didn't answer, as he was dead.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sentences not normally uttered in these pages

A really excellent column by David Brooks today, entitled 'The Moral Bucket List'.
But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be okay. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys.
True indeed.

It seems to me that the main time you hear the concept of 'character' being used these days is when ironically describing some unpleasant experience as being one that 'builds character'. It is rare to hear it talked about as a set of moral virtues that one ought to spend time contemplating and working on.

This is a great shame. The enormous rise of narcissism in our society is in some sense the receding shoreline that gets exposed when the other higher purposes and virtues that people used to live for are all stripped away. We only think of ourselves, about ourselves, and in the interests of ourselves, because there is no longer anything else worth aiming for.

The good news is, this ennui is fixable.

The bad news is, changing yourself is hard, unsparing work.

The good news is, the work itself has its own joy, and is most of the solution to the ennui you'd been feeling.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

First World Problems: Immigration

There exists a continual tension among respectable social scientists when trying to understand what influence culture plays on the world. One must navigate between the Scylla of assuming that only that which is easily measured is real, and the Charybdis of seeing nothing but the unmeasured everywhere.

The Scylla is that of the uber-economist who denies that ideas like culture are meaningful, testable, or important. Human behavior is pretty much reducible to incentives. If he’s feeling a little bit expansionist in his gaze, said uber-economist might admit that psychological biases and market frictions sometimes prevent the proper response to incentives. But other than that, there’s very little else important that determines variation in human behavior. Social changes are best understood as merely changes in technology, cost structures, and resources.

One version of this, which sounds almost like a straw man (but I assure you is not), is that policy should treat people as wholly economic units. When setting immigration policies, there are no differences whatsoever of any importance between a thousand laborers from El Salvador, a thousand laborers from Sudan, or a thousand laborers from South Korea. The variation in visa requirements for nationals from such countries to enter the US suggests that the powers that be do not appear to wholly share this view. The fact that, notwithstanding setting policy based on the presumption of some differences, nobody in any position of authority is willing to publicly assert the existence of such differences, let alone elaborate on exactly what they are, tells you everything you need to know about how policy in this area ended up in such a mess.

The Charybdis, by contrast, is the non-economist, who sees only cultural decline and progress. This can take a variety of forms. There is the progressive who sees nothing but the glorious march of social justice in every economically deleterious policy from affirmative action to the rise of public sector unions, for instance. But there is also the cultural conservative who sees nothing but a steady rise in depravity and degeneracy in modern culture, often to the point of almost rhetorically waving away the enormous increases in material welfare and life expectancy over the past several centuries. Both the progressive and cultural conservative agree, however, that if we could only get people to hold the right beliefs, nearly everything could be fixed in the world.

Between these two extremes, the man of judgment must navigate a path that best approximates his understanding of reality. I vary day by day on much I lean towards each extreme. My training is that of the Scylla, but my personal reading is that of the Charybdis.

One aspect that tends to get largely ignored all around, however, is the interaction between the two ideas. How often, for instance, does technological or economic change end up driving cultural shifts? Or indeed the reverse?

As one candidate phenomena that may have a depressingly economic cause (from the cultural conservative’s perspective), consider the problem of mass illegal immigration of third world populations to the west. Whether in Europe or America, there appears to be a complete inability (and unwillingness) to enforce the border against arbitrarily large numbers of incursions from illegal third world economic migrants. The blindness of the modern left to the potential problems of this phenomena is a source of both incredulity and immense frustration to reactionaries and conservatives alike. As I have written before in these pages, the west has taken an enormous bet that it can resettle large numbers of people from countries that share very little in the way of common culture, language, or values. Moreover, it wagers that from this it can somehow produce a society that retains the strengths that made it a desirable place for people from the third world to move to in the first place. Let us take it as given that the outcome of this bet is not yet written. What, would you say, are the odds though?

Of course, if this problem were merely political stupidity by blank slate cultural Marxists in positions of power, then it is at least conceivably soluble by convincing enough people in positions of power of the potentially disastrous consequences, then the mistaken policies can be reversed.

But what if the big increase in illegal immigration is driven by mostly economic factors? Then, dear cultural conservatives, we have a larger problem on our hands.

I have to conclude, rather depressingly, that I think it is.

Why were the populations of Europe mostly stable for thousands of years? Other than the occasional invasion which radically upset the cultural and genetic balance, there’s a reason that 23andMe can say with a high degree of certainty whom your ancestors were. It’s because they mostly stayed as a culturally homogeneous group in a fairly circumscribed area.

Okay, so why did they stay in a single area, when today we move all around the place? Is it because of a firm cultural value that one should mostly mingle with one’s extended kin and clan? Partly. But I think it’s far more to do with the fact that it was both technologically infeasible and economically prohibitive for the vast majority of people to move very far from their place of birth.

In the case of seafaring voyages, this is easy to understand. Sailing any large distance was risky and difficult, and when you arrived you’d have absolutely nothing but what you brought. If the place you landed was inhabited by people who were hostile to you, they’d probably try to kill you, and they’d probably have the advantage of resources, numbers and local knowledge. Faced with that choice, you’d probably just stay put in your village too. But even travelling large distances over land created similar problems. Someone else is already on that land, you can’t speak their language, and they probably won’t be glad to see you. A single family just packing up and moving to a wholly alien land was extraordinarily unlikely.

The point is, societies in the past simply didn’t have to think about how they’d treat the problem of mass immigration. The only form of mass immigration was a military invasion, and the desirability of averting that didn’t have to be explained to people. The issue of how one should treat an influx of culturally different foreigners who came to work probably didn’t even arise to the level of philosophical speculation. I’d guess that lots of people spent their whole lives never meeting any foreigners.

The simple fact, however, is that the west is caught in a pincer movement between two economic forces. First, technological improvements in transportation have made the cost of long-distance travel get cheaper and cheaper over time. And second, the rising wealth of the third world, even when starting at very low levels, has put this journey in reach of more and more people. It’s the same question as with nuclear weapons. If they can be developed with technology and wealth available in America in 1945, sooner or later lots of countries are going to cross that threshold.

In the case of immigration, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to enforce the border as a western country. Israel does it quite successfully, for instance. But it does mean that the cost of doing so, in both dollar terms and political will to take actions that will strike some as uncharitable, continues to rise. It is perhaps not surprising that many countries no longer have any meaningful national will to enforce their borders.

Costs and practicality also explain why the countries with the most sensible immigration policies are the ones for which geography still presents non-trivial cost obstacles to illegal immigration. Australia continues to be hard to get to illegally (New Zealand even more so), and Canada is a long way from anywhere in the third world (and most need to cross the US to get there, at which point in the journey they’ll probably just stay where they are).

If you’re a progressive, this is all great news. We’re on our way to our cultural Marxist multicultural utopia, whatever that proves to be like in practice.

But if you’re a conservative, there isn’t much uplifting news to be had. Illegal immigration is primarily a problem of wealth and technology, and neither of those look like abating any time soon.
The only grim solace is that cultural conservatives are at least well used to depressing news by now. It’s not for nothing that John Derbyshire’s book was titled ‘We Are Doomed’.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

British Travels, Part 2

Sometimes when I travel, the things that are striking are the absences compared with my home (adopted, in this case). America is very much the land of convenience. When one wants something, one wants it immediately, available exactly where one is standing. Anything else is an affront, an imposition from bad design and customer service. If you want to see this, next time you’re in an airport from a different country, take note of how far you have to walk to find a bathroom from the moment that you decide you have to go. In nearly every US airport I’ve been to, it’s rare to have to walk more than 50m, usually more like 20m. In Frankfurt (and in Perth, I recall) it was at least 100m as the median.

The other one is rubbish bins out in public. In most major US cities, they seem to be spaced about 10m apart, so that if one has the urge to get rid of something, the cost to putting it in the bin instead of on the ground is essentially zero. In London, bins in public don’t seem to exist at all. I got handed a ‘certificate of climbing the London monument’ as I exited, and immediately looked for a place to throw it out, but there wasn’t one. Because I viscerally hate the idea of littering, it became the equivalent of a stone in my shoe for the rest of the day, having to be fished out and put back in each time I wanted to get my wallet or phone. For this daily hassle, we can thank the repulsive IRA, under whose bombing campaigns all the bins were removed and never replaced. Just when you thought you’d seen every way that that contemptible organization had managed to make the world a worse place, they find another way to surprise you.

Related to the previous post, the place that is similarly as inspiring as St Paul's Crypt is the National Portrait Gallery. Because this is forced to display parts from different eras, you can see the relative pathetic state of Britain in sharp contrast. The main benefit, however, is that this makes it much better as a museum experience. To wit, the rubes are all in the modern section looking at paintings of Paul McCartney, so you can enjoy the Tudors, Stewarts and Victorians in relative peace and quiet.

I was interested to find that the big driving force behind the museum was the great Thomas Carlyle, the most fascinating of Victorian political philosophers, and the biggest influence behind Mencius Moldbug, the most fascinating of modern ones. It’s always nice to find that your interests and views independently align with people whom you admire, to avoid the conclusion that you like the same stuff as them simply because they told you to like it.

The National Portrait Gallery is my favourite place in all of London. It is one of the very few museums where the subjects of the paintings are of considerably more interest than the artists, making it essentially an art museum dedicated to history. What a splendid idea! Take my advice, start with the Tudors and Stewarts and end with the Victorians to feel inspired for the day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On London's greatness past

It is interesting to compare the fate of two St Paul’s Churches. The one in London was famously and mercifully intact and mostly unharmed after the German bombing during the blitz. Which was a pretty darn lucky outcome:

The Paulskirche in Frankfurt (which I wrote about here), however, was bombed out, and rebuilt hurriedly afterwards in a deliberately modern style to strip out nearly all of the original church elements. As a result, it’s a bland whitewashed circular room, where the only parts of interest are the flags from different regions and an organ at the front. It’s as if the post office were charged with building an assembly hall.

St Paul’s in London manages to capture both the glory and tragedy of Britain. The glory is in the rich history from when it was a world-bestriding empire. The tragedy, of course, is that the modern version of Britain is a shriveled, diminished entity, squatting in the remains left over from when it was still a serious country. Instead of Winston Churchill or Pitt the Elder, we have David Bloody Cameron. Put briefly, there is almost nothing good in Britain – institutional, architectural, cultural, literary, even for the most part scientific - dating from after 1945. Ponder that, if you will. Even the graffiti these days is worse. Consider the relative elegance of the lettering on this carving inside the stairwell of St Paul's.

But if you want to see what Britain once was, look at St Paul’s Crypt. What an inspiring monument to great men! The statues and plaques tell you what the society at the time valued. Most of them are tales of heroism, sacrifice, and leadership. Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington are justly revered, as are a number of military figures who died securing what was ultimately a victory. There is a large proportion of people from military backgrounds, but important people from other walks are represented too – Joseph Turner, John Constable, Christopher Wren, William Blake, Samuel Johnson. The only category of greatness that seems relatively underrepresented, for some reason, is science. If you are any kind of historian, it won't escape your notice that some of the accounts tend towards hagiography – you probably didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Lord Kitchener or General Gordon, for instance. It also becomes apparent that the men were drawn largely from the nobility. But rather than this fact being a source of embarrassment, as it would be today, it was a source of pride. This was how things were meant to be – nobility meant the requirement to perform acts of valor and leadership, often (in the military context) ending up killed in the process. These are not the tombs of kings or idle nobility. These are the tombs of citizens who were beloved enough by their countrymen for their deeds to warrant a place in the halls.

To take one random example that made my Australian heart glad, I was pleased to see the memorial to our former Governor General, the great Viscount Slim:

What kind of testimony does such a person produce from his contemporaries?
George MacDonald Fraser, later author of the Flashman novels, then a nineteen-year-old lance corporal, recalled:
"But the biggest boost to morale was the burly man who came to talk to the assembled battalion … it was unforgettable. Slim was like that: the only man I've ever seen who had a force that came out of him...British soldiers don't love their commanders much less worship them; Fourteenth Army trusted Slim and thought of him as one of themselves, and perhaps his real secret was that the feeling was mutual."
Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely has recommended Slim's memoirs (Defeat into Victory) (1956) describing Slim as "perhaps the Greatest Commander of the 20th Century"

Military historian Max Hastings:
"In contrast to almost every other outstanding commander of the war, Slim was a disarmingly normal human being, possessed of notable self-knowledge. He was without pretension, devoted to his wife, Aileen, their family and the Indian Army. His calm, robust style of leadership and concern for the interests of his men won the admiration of all who served under him ... His blunt honesty, lack of bombast and unwillingness to play courtier did him few favours in the corridors of power. Only his soldiers never wavered in their devotion."
That, my friends, is what greatness looks like.

But you will notice, if you look closely, a subtle change in the recent memorials. The last monuments to specific heroism date back to World War 2. Society is now so pathologically egalitarian that greatness often makes us uncomfortable. The only modern military memorials in St Paul's crypt are for groups, not individuals – lists of the dead from wars. What is celebrated is their sacrifice, not their achievement. And this is why all the dead are listed equally, as is common and indeed appropriate to war memorials. But St Pauls Crypt was formerly not primarily a war memorial, whose function was solemn remembrance of loss and sacrifice – it was a triumphal place of individual greatness and heroism. And that is something we no longer do. The only individual greatness we celebrate any more is athletic, and to a lesser extent, commercial (Steve Jobs, for instance). But neither would appropriately be described as fields of heroism. Instead, heroism, to the extent that the now-devalued term is used, is identified with actions mostly formed on compassion, rather than on achievement. Today's "heroes" are more likely to be people caring for the unfortunate, or looking after a sick or dying relative. That is noble, and praiseworthy, and admirable. But it is not heroic.

One view you might form is that such heroism no longer exists. But it does. If you doubt it, read at random some of the recent awardees of the Medal of Honor or the Victoria Cross. We simply do not celebrate it.

Doubt it not, if St Paul's had been destroyed during the London Blitz, whatever version they rebuilt would have never had most of the current monuments inside, if they included any at all. It seems more likely that they would have scrapped the whole idea altogether.

More shame us.


As if to emphasise the contrast, here's a modern individual memorial they are willing to include:

Working for nuclear disarmament, eh? How's that going? How would you compare that with, say, the Battle of Waterloo?

Are you, like me, embarrassed on behalf of modernity?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Notes from Heidelberg

-If you want to see how long-lived civic effects can operate, just compare Mannheim and Heidelberg. Both have quite famous universities. One also has the BASF chemical factory next door, and hence was bombed flat in World War 2. The other one is fairly well preserved. Hence, 70 years later, one is a kind of ugly but functional university town, and the other is chock a block with Japanese tourists. The relative price of old German buildings got a lot higher after WW2.

-Regarding the above, the spectre of the war still hangs heavy over the country, with little reminders like this everywhere you go. I well understand the rationale for why the towns were bombed, brutal though it was. If you don't believe me, read Paul Fussel's arrestingly-titled 'Thank God for the Atom Bomb'. Still, when you see how pretty Heidelberg is and how ugly Mannheim is, it made me sad for how much of German history was lost in WW2. But then I realised how much I was doing exactly what the War Nerd skewered so well in his great column on why Sherman was right to burn Atlanta:
But there does happen to be one demographic—an arguably insane one, indeed—which does not accept that war is cruel: the bitter white Southern neo-Confederate one to which Leigh belongs. For them, war was wonderful when it was just brave Southern gentlemen killing 360,000 loyal American soldiers.
That was the good war, as far as they were concerned. War became “intrinsically cruel” for them when that dastardly Sherman started visiting its consequences on rural Georgia, burning or destroying all supplies that could be used by the Confederate armies which had been slaughtering American troops for several years. Oh, that bad, bad Sherman!
You know what’s worse than a little girl asking “Mister Soldier” not to burn her house? Getting your leg sawed off by a drunken corpsman after a Minie ball fired by traitors turned your femur into bone shards. Or getting a letter that your son died of gangrene in one of those field hospitals where the screaming never stopped, and the stench endured weeks after the army had moved on. 
Of course, this is all lost on the Phil Leighs of the world, who—for reasons that cut deep into the ideology of the American right wing—always take burnt houses too seriously, and dead people far too lightly. To them, burning a house is a crime, while shooting a Yankee soldier in the eye is just part of war’s rich tapestry. So their horror of messing with private property joins their sense of emasculation, and their total ignorance of what war on one’s home ground actually means, to form a sediment that could never have been cured, even temporarily, except by the river of armed humanity Sherman sent pouring south and east from Atlanta on November 15, 1864. That cold shower woke them for a little while, at least—long enough to quicken the end of the war and save thousands of lives.
He's right, of course. In the context of the horror and atrocity of World War 2's 50-odd million dead, it is obscene to be worrying about lost buildings. The lost buildings, however, are salient and visible. The mountains of corpses, by contrast, are long gone.

 -I was talking to a German man, age early 30s or so. He was saying how his grandfather lived in Leipzig, which was also heavily bombed by the incendiary fire-bomb method. But the thing that his grandfather figured out is that the way these bombs worked is that they were just a flammable gel dropped into the house - the effects came because they set other stuff on fire, but only once they'd had a chance to get the blaze going. Of course, this always happened, because people hide in their basements during bombing raids. But the guy's grandfather decided instead to keep large piles of sand and buckets of water on all floors of his house. He put his family in the basement, and when a bomb went through the roof, he extinguished it. When the bombing raid was over, every other house on the street had been burnt to the ground, except his.

-Walking up the steep hill to the castle in Heidelberg, it gives one a strong sense of the wisdom of Sun Tzu's observation that 'it is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill'. I would not like to advance up that road while fighting hand-to-hand combat with swords and getting showered with arrows.

-For a reactionary like me, there is something quite stirring in seeing a castle with statues of kings from hundreds of years in the past. The tradition hangs thick in the air, in a way that is hard to describe. We indeed live in a kingless age.

-From the castle, I watched the sun set for the first time in quite a while. Because of the fog/smog/haze, the sun was a deep red while still relatively high in the sky, and actually faded into nothing before reaching the horizon. The last time I remember seeing this, incidentally, was 15 years ago in Munich. Perhaps there's something about German sunsets.

Bun Arbitrage

It is left as an exercise to the reader to show that, under the law of one price and the absence of arbitrage, the market-clearing price of a hamburger bun in Heidelberg is zero.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Thoughts from Frankfurt

-I never tire while in foreign countries of seeing the subtle differences in appearance of people. German men often have a certain demeanor about them that always seems very recognisable - soft-spoken, small wry smile, horn-rimmed glasses, well-dressed with clothes that are cut a little tighter than American or Australian fashion. I actually was reminded of it just by the clerk at the front desk of the hotel when I arrived. It's a different look from, say, the Danes, where I've spent a bit of time. Of course, a good part of this is probably just the power of suggestion - recognising Germanness once you know the nationality is a lot easier than being able to guess German heritage based on appearance alone. Based on the number of questions I've received in German while walking through the streets, apparently I don't look sufficiently Australian (or American, as some might argue is more relevant these days) for me to be identifiable as a foreigner.

-Another contrast between Frankfurt and Copenhagen is the nature of the public squares. Both cities share the same narrow, walkable streets common to cities designed before the automobile. But in central Copenhagen, huge swathes are filled with gorgeous old architecture from centuries in the past. Frankfurt, by contrast, had the misfortune of being bombed flat in 1944. No, really:

File:Frankfurt Am Main-Altstadt-Zerstoerung-Luftbild 1944.jpg

This, as it turns out was doubly unfortunate. Firstly, being bombed flat is bad news at the best of times. But the mid-1940's was far from the best of times aesthetically, because it meant that the city was being rebuilt just as the west was getting into some of the most ghastly forms of architecture in history. Hence even in the Frankfurt squares with old-looking buildings, not only are they noticeably of recent vintage, but they're next to horrible 50's and 60's looking square concrete and glass monstrosities. A shame, really. Wars have consequences, that's for sure. At least things improved with the modern skyscrapers, which are much nicer. I got to see the Commerzbank Tower up close, which I remember from a desktop photo on my old computer years ago, where the shape made it look like it was only half finished with bits sticking up off the top.

Commerzbank Tower

-I wrote last time from Copenhagen about the pleasures of walking idly through foreign cities. I can't improve much on those notes, except that since then I learned that the French have a term for this kind of activity - Flânerie, with me taking the role of the Flâneur.

-For a recovering introvert who occasionally enjoys relapsing into his natural state, it is glorious to be a monolingual English speaker in Germany. Nearly all the service staff here speak English, so you can order whatever you want (when you're trying to spend money, most people will find a way to figure out what you want). In addition, the museums are courteous enough to put nearly all their explanations in English and German (there was even a public statue of Goethe that had a translation of the plaque in English too - not sure what Goethe would have thought of that). But more than that, it is an active pleasure to not speak German. Especially in museums, most people's conversations are inane and distracting. When they're in a language you understand, you can't help but listen, even when it's annoying. But when it's just unintelligible German, you observe the people at a pleasant sociological distance, and their conversation is just the linguistic curiosity of different sound combinations than what you're used to.

-I went to an Impressionist exhibit at the art museum here, helpfully titled 'Monet' in huge letters. Of course, at least half the paintings weren't actually by Monet, but the museum folks know what sells. Just show the rubes some paintings and call them all Monet, they won't know the difference! I imagine Cezanne and Degas are spinning in their graves, but hey, what are you going to do?

-There was one aspect of the Monet exhibit that was really striking. In some of the side rooms, they displayed some contemporaneous black and white photographs of some of the areas being depicted in the paintings - men in row boats on rivers with cypresses next to them, Parisian street scenes with horses and carts. The effect was really quite shocking. The photographs looked incredibly drab and mundane. All these glorious scenes that one had simply imagined to be like the beautiful paintings instead looked like everyday stuff that you would walk past. Of course, they looked old, but in a vaguely dirty and primitive way, not in a romantic way. The effect was rather similar to when one sees photos of famous celebrities without their makeup on, and they look ugly and ordinary. It struck me that Impressionist painting does a similar job to makeup and a soft focus lens - brushing out the details that make the world imperfect and familiar. No wonder people like it, especially when they have very little sense of what the original source material was.

-In the Paulskirche church, they have a fascinating history of German politics during the 19th century. The building was the house of the first German Parliament, after the Germanic states started to unite once Napoleon no longer ran the place. The stories of the politicians really emphasise the Moldbug point about how much the world has moved left over time. Back then, the 'radical far left' believed that there should be democracy under universal (male) suffrage. The far right wanted the restoration of rule by hereditory aristocrats. Worth bearing mind next time someone talks about how 'extreme' the modern Republican party has become. What was also remarkable reading the stories is seeing right wing movements actually win for once. And decisively, too - the German parliament was shuttered. Take that, modernity! Of course, seeing where this increased nationalism ended up puts a bit of a dampener on the whole thing. But it depends where you finish the line - if you chart things up to World War I, the Allies hardly come off looking more civilised or just in their cause than the Axis powers. If you see German politics as a continual line from the mid-1800s to the Nazi party (which I suspect most modern Germans do), then it's a lot more problematic. Then again, the continuation from socialism to Communist atrocities is hardly edifying either, but somehow the left never seems to lose much sleep over that one. Cthulu swims left, after all, except for a hundred odd years in Germany.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Thirty-Something Single Man's Ghost of Christmas Future

Part 1, from Junot Diaz - The Cheater's Guide to Love. If you take out the infidelity part (which, ultimately, is only a plot opener for the real dynamic of a great love lost by one's mistakes), the rest sounds rather believable.

Part 2, from SMBC, which is unambiguously the best comic in existence today:

On the myopia of macroeconomics

On matters of macroeconomics, I am mostly an agnostic in the classical sense - one who is unsure where everyone else (in the original, stupider people, but that seems presumptuous) seems to be sure.

Of course, the fact that everyone else is sure and manages to come to wildly different conclusions is always puzzling. Should the Greek government be spending more to grow its way out of debt, or spending less to pay off the existing debt? I confess, dear reader, to not being very confident in my answer to this question. Partly this may be because I'm an idiot who didn't learn enough macroeconomics. The latter is certainly true. Although the chances that I know less macroeconomics that half the idiots spouting off about austerity on facebook is also quite slim.

Every now and again, I'm struck by a sense that a lot of macroeconomics seems rather unimaginative, in the sense of focusing only on the current set of institutional arrangements that we have, rather than contemplating very different sets of arrangements and figuring out whether they might be an improvement.

This is fine, if you think that the current arrangements are the product of extended scientific experimentation. But given that a lot of them seem to have come about mostly by historical accident, it's hard to be so confident that we live in the panglossian best macroeconomic world of all macroeconomic worlds.

For example, everyone who's anyone knows that the optimal way to run a money system is to have all currency printed by a central bank on special pieces of paper. These pieces of paper should have a fixed face value, and be backed by nothing but the central bank's presumed desire to avoid too much inflation.

Be honest, how confident are you that all of these assumptions are optimal?

The paper aspect is surely not optimal. As I've said before, we exist on a 'paper standard' - the real money is the electronic dollars recorded at the bank, and people have the notional ability to convert all of these to pieces of paper. Which they do occasionally, for a small amount of their dollars, and over time will do less and less. But already, it would be totally feasible to convert all currency over to electronic forms without too much effort. Should we do it? Should it have already happened?

Once you start doubting, it makes you wonder how sure you are of the rest of it.

What would happen if the US switched to a gold standard? Let's take it as given that the loss of monetary policy would be a problem. But how big, exactly? If you had to forecast the stock returns on the day the policy was announced out of the blue, do you think you could come within +/- 5%? I'm not sure I could. Are you also equally confident that the gold standard wouldn't have any offsetting benefits to at least partly counterbalance the loss of monetary policy?

This ambiguity is especially true when you ponder things like Bitcoin. It's still going merrily along - Stripe now lets you accept it easily as a payment form. Sure, both search volume and price are lower than a few years ago - it seemed like there was probably a bubble at the time.

One way to look at this graph is to think 'Ha, look at how far it's fallen! The increasing scandals and decreasing interest surely herald the end for Bitcoin.'

The other way to look at it, which I think is more relevant, is that Bitcoin is still going after almost 4 years, even though very few academic economists can explain its existence at all.

To wit, the standard requirements for money is that it is a unit of account, a mechanism of exchange, and a store of value. Bitcoin has the first two, but not the third - there's nothing inherently valuable about certain mineable bits of information, hence nobody should be willing to hold it. Yet they are. And in response, few respectable academic theories seemed to have evolved much beyond 'people are idiots' and 'you can't short it'. At some point, this is a bit unsatisfactory. Shouldn't you at least consider the possibility that the third requirement is not actually 'store of value' but rather 'belief that the next guy will accept it'? In which case 'store of value' is just a way of getting there, and Bitcoin seems to be on the way to being accepted without it. And once something becomes widely accepted, this belief becomes self-fulfulling.

The reason that I think it behooves one to have a little modesty in one's own theories here is that I am almost certain that if you took academic economists from 100 years ago and told them that instead of trading gold-backed currencies, people will be entirely comfortable accepting otherwise worthless pieces of paper issued by the government, and nobody will think this odd, they would say you were crazy. And frankly, they'd have a point. After the fact, economists will be around to tell you that the key thing actually is that the bits of paper have a reliable value as a way to pay tax bills. But doesn't this sound like a rationalisation? It's certainly a lot flimsier than 'it's tradable for actual gold', and yet a) here we are, and b) people are now saying that any further decline in the inherent value of currency is absolutely unthinkable, notwithstanding the huge decline we've already made.

There are tons of examples. Central banks themselves were a random populist intervention that economists took decades to even begin to rationalize. So was deposit insurance. These schemes both predated our formal understanding of why they seemed to work.

Given all this, I think it's okay, and probably even desirable, to have pretty darn flat priors about macroeconomic policy. You probably don't want massive deflation, to jack up interest rates to 20% overnight, or to permanently spend more than you earn. But you're a braver man than I if you think our current institutional arrangements are close to optimal.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thoughts from New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, 2015

-One of the most striking things about New Orleans during Mardi gras, oddly enough, is the attitude of the police. (Okay, lest you be questioning whether red blood still flows through my veins, there are other striking things too, noted below, but this one was perhaps the most surprising). I’ve never seen police so chilled out in my whole life, entirely unconcerned by the debauchery around them. I spent a while watching them trying to figure out if this was

a) the fact that nothing surprises them anymore, having seen all this nonsense thousands of times,

b) part of a brilliantly devised ‘small footprint’ strategy whereby they let small infractions go and concentrate only on the big stuff, as the debauchery is important for the city and police antagonism will mostly make the situation worse, or

c) whether they were in fact wholly nonchalant about crime, and simply didn’t give a flying @#$%.

It’s probably a little of all three, but I ended up putting more weight on the latter option than I had initially. Part of this came from hearing various stories from locals, including seeing a cop in uniform light up a joint, someone trying to alert police to a man passed out on the side of the road and receiving a shrug as the official response, and of course the murder rate of 57 per 100,000 which would make the Republic of New Orleans the second highest murder rate country in the world.

-Related to strategy b) above, New Orleans really reveals the absurdity of open container and street drinking laws. Who would have thought that people can actually take a beer from a bar out into the street and society doesn’t collapse around them. Instead, the focus is on more practical thing like having all drinks served in plastic cups to minimize the risk of broken glass. You’d think that this kind of sensible example would catch on around the western world, but only if you’d never seen the absurd moral panics that society gets attached to. Giving people a ticket for having a beer in public is contemptible and unworthy of a free society.

-Having a passing familiarity some of the extant literature on the subject, there was actually less public nudity at Mardi Gras than I expected. Which is to say, there was some, but it certainly wasn’t ubiquitous. Never underestimate the power of good editing to create a very unrepresentative sample. As well as being more clothed on average, the crowd was also older and blacker than the literature would suggest. The fact that editing would hide the first fact is unsurprising, the second fact perhaps more so.

-In the annals of ‘curious facts about male sexual preferences’, the odd fascination with public nudity is definitely up there. This is put into sharp relief when you have on Bourbon street multiple strip clubs which will show you highly attractive fully nude women at a moment’s notice for not very much money. But instead, during Mardi Gras people seem far more interested in the possibility of a one second flash from some who isn’t a stripper, and usually doesn’t have a stripper’s body. Never underestimate the appeal of the illicit, of seeing what is normally covered up, and overall the aspect of slight reluctance. Seeing someone get convinced by a crowd to flash appeals to the male brain in ways that a girl on stage willingly taking off her clothes never quite captures. Male sexual preference is odd indeed, especially when it comes to strip clubs

-Mardi Gras attracts a large number of very earnest Christians out to try to save the souls of revelers. I find these people fascinating. Say what you will about their beliefs, it takes some serious cojones to stand in the middle of Bourbon Street carrying a huge cross and yelling about Jesus to the potentially antagonistic drunks all around you. Most of us never believe anything with that kind of sincerity (for better or worse).

-The fact that Mardi Gras is associated with the Catholic traditions around Lent is always hilarious to me. People seem to have taken the idea of penance and renunciation for Lent and instead transformed it exclusively into a time-series shift in debauchery while keeping the total amount either constant, or more likely increasing it in total. Even funnier, the tradition of increasing sordid behavior before lent stuck around long after people stopped following the other part of piety and giving up pleasures. Substitution effects are tricky things.

-Bourbon street is another example like the Vegas strip of the unusually strong power of network effects. There is very little architecturally, visually or resource-wise to set apart Bourbon street from nearby streets. But one of them is packed when the others are nearly deserted. Truly, people like being around other people.
-I went to the Orpheuscapade Ball, which was awesome. I only found out about the various balls because one of the girls in our group had grown up in New Orleans, and knew that this was the thing to do (while the tourists all go to Bourbon Street). There were thousands of people in black tie, watching the floats go through the New Orleans convention center. I really enjoyed seeing the old Southern High Society. You never hear about them much – I kind of thought the Civil War had routed most of that old tradition, but it still lingers on. All you hear about the South is the rural white trash side, but never the rich upper class white side. Especially the Southern society girls. Smoking hot, rich, conservative – what’s not to love?

-Related to the above, the ball had as its main musical act a guy who was apparently a big country star. I’ve been in this country more than a decade now, which is long enough to lull me into the sense that I’ve pretty much got the hang of the place. And then I’ll hear a country music concert and get reminded how there’s a huge side of America than I just about never see. To make matters even stranger, a lot of the country music crowd would probably vote in a more similar way to me (if I were inclined to vote, which I’m not) than the people I live around. Though if you broke it down issue by issue instead of shoe-boxing everyone into one of two parties, the overlap would certainly become smaller. While the crowd here was a long way from the standard rural Republican voting set, the enthusiasm of the crowd for a wholly alien musical genre was a bit of a reminder of the extent of the country that is essentially invisible when you live in big coastal cities.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A good heuristic for a certain type of BS

One phrase that in practice means almost the exact opposite of what it claims is the expression 'scientifically proven'.

I have known a good number of scientists, both social and physical, and I've never once heard them use this expression non-ironically to describe either their own, or anyone else's work. Mathematics proves things, by formal theorems. Science, on the other hand, provides evidence that supports some hypotheses and which rejects other hypotheses. But even when a null hypothesis is formally rejected, knowledge in the sciences is contingent. At any time, your theory is making falsifiable predictions that are so far consistent with the data, but which might be overturned at any time.

And even in places like economics, theory models, which do use formal mathematical proofs of particular ideas and thus may loosely be justified in terms of speaking of 'proof', almost never use the term when referencing the broad idea they're trying to advance. Economists will say 'I solve a model which shows how information asymmetry affects trading volume', not 'Information asymmetry is scientifically proven to decrease trading volume'. What has been solved is one particular model, but there are many other competing models that may be consistent with the data too. Nobody would dream of saying that science proved their theory result.

'Oh sure', you might say, 'we understand that there's a distinction among the finer points of philosophy of science. But in practice, saying science has proved something just means there's lots of evidence consistent with it. Why be such a purist?'

A good question, since you asked.

The reason my heuristic works, however, is that most people who perform actual science do understand the distinction, and are likely to use the right language. By contrast, people who like the phrase 'scientifically proven' are almost always sneaking in an appeal to authority in order to paper over either a) their lack of understanding of the complexity of the issue, or b) the annoyingly inconclusive evidence for the particular proposition that they think it would be politically desirable for more people to believe.

The claim in the above paragraph, of course, is a hypothesis. In the name of science, we should see whether the evidence supports the hypothesis or not.

To check, here's the top 5 results that come up when I type in the phrase 'reject the null hypothesis' into Google News:

1. Do Teams Undervalue European Skaters in the Draft?
2. Hypothesis Testing in Finance: Concept & Examples
3. Culture war in the deep blue sea: Science’s contentious quest to understand whales and dolphins
4. WaPo Climate Fail on Missouri
5. Using a fund manager? You'd get the same results at a casino

So that may not sound stellar, but they're all somewhat related to formal evaluation of evidence for and against ideas in the social or physical sciences. Now compare it with what comes up for 'scientifically proven':

1. Scientifically proven herbal aphrodisiacs
2. Writing Exercises Scientifically Proven To Redirect Your Life
3. 10 scientifically proven ways love can heal!
4. Emojis Are Now Scientifically Proven To Help You Get Lucky
5. Ryan Gosling’s Face Has Been Scientifically Proven To Make Men More Supportive Of Feminism

In other words, worthless clickbait. Colour me shocked.

The results, while not subjected to formal statistical testing, directionally support the hypothesis that 'scientifically proven' is a brain-dead appeal to authority by lazy English majors who wish to unjustifiably associate their claims with the patina of scientific credibility.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Legal institutions are sticky things, often stupidly so

I cannot for the life of me understand why courts still award alimony.

Not child support - that still mostly makes sense in principle, though in practice it has its own problems , like the fact that it can be spent on any number of things other than care for the children. There also particularly revolting versions like California's paternity arrangements whereby a man who is duped into believing that someone else's child is his own has only two years from the birth of the child to challenge paternity, otherwise he's stuck paying child support forever, genetic testing be damned. And even if he files in time, the court may still decide it's not in the child's interests - the man's interests, having been the subject of a vicious con that is the male equivalent of rape, are of less importance.

Where was I? Oh yes, the basic principles of child support are reasonable.

But what in the name of all that is holy is the justification for alimony in this day and age? When you marry someone, apparently you are entitled to a certain standard of living from that person in perpetuity. Phrased this way, it is bonkers.

For the feminists on this blog, here's a story a friend of mine told me today. His brother in law was married to a woman, and they had a child. The woman was a lawyer, but decided she wanted to stop working. She wasn't actually involved any more than the man in raising the child - they had nannies to take care of the child. Instead, the woman just lived a life of leisure, and never returned back to work. At some point she got bored, began an affair, and divorced the man. She claimed alimony, which she was awarded, based on the lifestyle she had before. She could still go back to her legal career now, obviously, but why would she? The man will be stuck paying alimony unless the woman decides to remarry. Of course, since there's now enormous financial disincentives against her remarrying, the smart money predicts she'll just move in with her new boyfriend and never remarry, so as to keep the cash flowing.

How on earth did we end up with such a bizarre arrangement? It seems obvious that nobody in their right mind would design this monstrosity today. But it's a holdover from the years long past when
a) women couldn't work outside the home, so couldn't support themselves short of remarrying,
b) divorces were only granted by fault, so if the man wanted to just pack up and leave, he would be slugged with alimony, but if the women was having an affair and the man sought a divorce, bad luck for the woman.
c) the social pressure on people to remarry the subject of their affair after the divorce was large, hence 'alimony until remarriage' was a reasonable estimate of the length of financial hardship.

It's pretty clear that none of this holds any more. There is a very limited grounds for alimony when a woman has given up several years of a career to raise the family's children. But once the children are at school age, it's hard to know why courts should subsidise permanent leisure. And between nannies and daycare, there are plenty of ways for both parents to go back to work within a length of time that won't be massively disruptive to a career, certainly for the one point something children that the average couple has.

There are good policy reasons to make sure that a non-working partner doesn't get totally left in the lurch, particularly when children are involved. But remember, even without alimony most of the time the non-working partner is going to get a significant fraction of the assets, so they're not going to be totally broke. And if there are still reasons to grant payments under a limited form of alimony, it seems that they should be something like unemployment benefits - payments for a limited number of time while the person finds a new occupation. Why one should get alimony indefinitely without working is beyond me. And if there are no children involved, it is absolutely inconceivable what the justification for alimony is. Get a damn job!

None of this will happen, of course. Feminists like alimony because they live in a Stalinist 'who, whom' universe, where extracting resources from beta male schlubs is an end in itself.

The only chance whatsoever for alimony reform is that as women's incomes start rising, the number of cases where lazy men are claiming alimony from their working ex-wives is on the rise. That might finally strike feminists as being unfair and deserving of reform, but just about nothing else will.

Speaking of which, in that story I told you, I did alter one minor detail. The main protagonist was actually my friend's sister-in-law. The lazy parent who stopped working, began an affair and successfully claimed alimony? That was the husband.

And you know what? The absurdity and injustice is exactly the same.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On Jordan

So Jordan is in the news recently. A Jordanian fighter pilot who had been captured by ISIS was burned alive on camera. So Jordan executed two prisoners whom ISIS had been purportedly talking about trading for the pilot.

Whatever you may think of this in terms of the rule of law (and let's face it, it's not exactly optimistic in terms of your likelihood of getting a fair trial if you commit terrorist acts in Jordan), this is definitely sound, if grim, foreign policy. Doing nothing in response to foreign provocations (such as, ooh, I don't know, Benghazi) looks weak and contemptible. Invading a country in response, however, seems more like throwing good money and lives after bad. This is an escalation, but not a big one, and a payment in kind. It sends two messages - one, that brutality will have consequences, and two, that we will not be squeamish about how we choose to retaliate. Both of which are pretty reasonable messages to send to ISIS in response to this kind of thing.

As far as Middle Eastern countries go, Jordan is pretty damn good. They've got a fairly stable government, which seems to be reasonably popular - at any rate, they managed to ride out the awful Arab Spring without the massive disruption of nearby countries, suggesting a certain level of popularity for the King. They made peace with Israel two decades ago (which was sensible) and gave up claims to the Palestinian territories (which, given they subsequently turned into basket case hellholes, was doubly sensible). Plus they have a totally hot Queen, and the neoreactionary in me is cheered by seeing a monarchy getting some good PR, even if for dubious reasons.

Look, Switzerland it ain't. I wouldn't want to try to run a newspaper there, nor find myself on the wrong side of their police force. But as you may have noticed, there aren't a whole lot of Switzerlands in the Middle East, certainly among the Arab Muslim countries.

Do you know the thing that recommends Jordan to me the most?

You don't hear much about Jordan.

And believe me, in that neighbourhood, that's a pretty damn good outcome. The same is true about Kuwait, incidentally. But in the case of Jordan, they happen to share borders with Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Be honest, can you imagine a list of countries you'd less rather be next door to in terms of promoting stability in your own country? Three of those places are essentially failed states, for crying out loud.

You may not like the country at an absolute level, but short of zombie Lord Cromer coming back to run it, it seems pretty likely than the Jordanian government is about as good as you're going to get any time soon from a government in that region. The perfect ought not be the enemy of the good.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Brecher on Boko Haram

The number of people who write interesting, nuanced pieces on Islam is shockingly low. Either all Muslims are crazy, or all Muslims are peace-loving, but it's got to be one of the two. More importantly, to the extent that anyone resiles from this position, it's as a wholly dishonest token ass-covering method that simply emphasises by comparison the main sentiment. In other words, you'll read either 'Of course, not all Muslims are crazy terrorists, but [implicitly they are nearly all terrorists]', or 'Of course, there are a tiny number of Muslim terrorist fanatics, but [implicitly they are nearly all peace-loving]'.

If you want to test whether a given piece has any nuance, you can check whether it makes any attempt to distinguish between different groups of Muslims. In other words, if there are 'a tiny number of terrorist fanatics', to me it seems mightily interesting as to how we might diagnose which ones are which. Bangladesh, for instance, produces relatively few jihadis. Neither does Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Yemen, however, produce quite a lot. But how often do you hear about that distinction? Or how we should set policy as a consequence?

Gary Brecher, however, is one of the best sources of actually informed, disinterested commentary on the subject. The standard problem, as he puts it, is thus:
A few days ago, a suicide bomber got on a luxury commuter bus in Northern Nigeria and blew himself up, along with 60 people who were heading home from work.
It didn’t get much publicity. African casualties rarely do, especially when there’s a depressing religious angle. The suicide bomber came from the Northern Nigerian Islamist group “Boko Haram.” The name is interesting: “Boko” comes from the English word “book,” as pronounced by the Hausa, the biggest northern ethnic group. “Haram” (“forbidden”) is an Arabic word, the Wahhabis’ favorite word of all. When people talk about “Northern Nigeria” they mean “Muslim Nigeria.” There are three big divisions in the country: The Muslim/Hausa North, the Christian/Igbo South, and the Yoruba West. (The Yoruba are the only big group that’s mixed, with Christians and Muslims). Boko Haram blew up those buses because the people on them were going to an Igbo/Christian neighborhood of Kano, a Muslim/Northern city.
That’s already more than most squeamish Westerners want to know. “Ah, it’s religious…” is about all they need to hear before settling back into their comfy stances. Conservatives figure it’s just one more proof that all Muslims are crazy. The left mumbles “Islamophobia” and tries to change the subject to Palestine. So from left to right on your radio dial, there’s not a lot of what my social-studies teacher called “hunger for knowledge.”
 I challenge you to argue that he's wrong.

Here's his latest piece, describing the disingenuousness of people who are suddenly interested in Boko Haram as a way of distracting attention from Charlie Hedbo.

It's awesome. Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Imitation Game

I recently saw 'The Imitation Game', the new Benedict Cumberbatch movie about the role of Alan Turing in solving the Enigma Code in World War 2. Some thoughts thereon:

The movie managed to get a fairly even-handed description of a lot of the important parts of Turing's life and work. It managed to hit on artificial intelligence, computers, the general problems of encryption and information leakage, and the question of how much to act on information from the cables so as to not reveal that you've broken the code.

That may seem like an easy thing, but it's actually surprisingly hard. Compare it with, say, 'A Beautiful Mind', which covered the life of John Nash. That movie barely touched on what was Nash's singular contribution, the Nash Equilibrium, and when they did, they managed to completely screw it up. In the game of 'do we all compete for the hot girl at the bar and crowd each other out, or target the plain ones?', they depict the answer as 'everyone goes for the plain ones, thus we all get paired up'. That's not a damn Nash equilibrium! If everyone else is going for the plain ones, the dominant strategy is to go for the hot one. But apparently the concept of randomisation was a bridge too far. So by that dismal standard, The Imitation Game is practically a cryptography textbook.

The movie also made me think curious the question of who gets credit for big accomplishments like breaking the Enigma code. Doubt not that Turing was brilliant and a huge part of it. But did you know that a lot of the early work that made it possible was done by several Polish cryptographers before the war? I will go so far as to wager quite confidently that none of my readers has ever had cause to use the world word 'Poland' (or its derivations) and the word 'cryptography' (or its derivations) together in any sentence they have uttered or thought, ever. Even after the story gets popular, they are forgotten. And in terms of geniuses who will never, ever be remembered, the movie made me wonder about who designed the Enigma machine in the first place. Though it was eventually cracked, it is an outstanding piece of cryptography. You will never hear about the Germans responsible for its creation. Brilliant German scientists were only famous once they had been succesfully rehabilitated - Wernher von Braun was a genius when he was designing rockets for the Nazis, but it was only possible to acknowledge this brilliance in hindsight once he'd also used it to land Americans on the moon.

I was rather impressed with the quite sensitive way that they tackled Turing's homosexuality. They resist what I imagine would have been a tendency in a lot of treatments of the story: to make homosexuality the central part of his character, and his whole raison d'etre. Given the extent of Turing's intellectual achievements, such as basically founding computer science as a discipline, a movie that simply made him a gay activist or martyr would have deeply missed the point about his life. But this is exactly the kind of depressing mistake Hollywood tends to make. This is particularly so, given the tragic treatment he received at the hands of the authorities in in being convicted of indecency and chemically castrated, which probably contributed to his eventual suicide. Rather, they show quite sweetly the scenes of a lonely Turing at school developing a romantic friendship with another boy, but one that never has an actual physical aspect of sexuality in any form. This depiction actually meshed very well with the way Robert Graves describes such things in 'Goodbye to all that':
"G.H.Rendall, the then Headmaster at Charterhouse, is reported to have innocently said at a Headmasters' Conference: 'My boys are amorous, but seldom erotic.' ...
Yet I agree with Rendall's distinction between 'amorous' (by which he meant a sentimental falling in love with younger boys) and eroticism, or adolescent lust...

In English preparatory and public schools romance is necessarily homosexual. The opposite sex is despised and treated as something obscene. Many boys never recover from this perversion. For every one born homosexual, at least ten permanent pseudo-homosexuals are made by the public school system: nine of these ten as honourably chaste and sentimental as I was.
"The school consisted of about six hundred boys, whose chief interests were games [sports] and romantic friendships."
The extent to which they manage to capture this atmosphere, without simply transforming it into modern ideas of what being gay involves, was a pleasant surprise.

The other idea that I really enjoyed seeing depicted was the old sense of Britishness - restraint, propriety, a stiff upper lip to the point of being emotionally distant. You could see how the British were able to run a huge empire for so long, and win World War I. The most memorable scene in this regard was when Joan, the female cryptographer and one-time fiance (Keira Knightly) sees Alan (Benedict Cumberbatch) after his conviction and chemical castration. Turing is close to a breakdown and starts crying. Joan gently encourages him to sit down, and rather than talk through his problems, suggests that they do a crossword puzzle. I found this scene oddly touching and heartbreaking. It is a hallmark of the lost Britain that you only see today in the elderly. As Theodore Dalrymple recounts:
No culture changes suddenly, and the elderly often retained the attitudes of their youth. I remember working for a short time in a general practice in a small country town where an old man called me to his house. I found him very weak from chronic blood loss, unable to rise from his bed, and asked him why he had not called me earlier. “I didn’t like to disturb you, Doctor,” he said. “I know you are a very busy man.”
From a rational point of view, this was absurd. What could I possibly need to do that was more important than attending to such an ill man? But I found his self-effacement deeply moving. It was not the product of a lack of self-esteem, that psychological notion used to justify rampant egotism; nor was it the result of having been downtrodden by a tyrannical government that accorded no worth to its citizens. It was instead an existential, almost religious, modesty, an awareness that he was far from being all-important.
I experienced other instances of this modesty. I used to pass the time of day with the husband of an elderly patient of mine who would accompany her to the hospital. One day, I found him so jaundiced that he was almost orange. At his age, it was overwhelmingly likely to mean one thing: inoperable cancer. He was dying. He knew it and I knew it; he knew that I knew it. I asked him how he was. “Not very well,” he said. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” I replied. “Well,” he said quietly, and with a slight smile, “we shall just have to do the best we can, won’t we?” Two weeks later, he was dead.
Do you, like me, feel a great sorrow when you think of what once was, and how far we have fallen?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Thoughts of the Day

"Thus, posterity's jest. Pre-war Europeans would never have entertained for a moment the construction of mosques from Malmö to Marseilles. But post-war Holocaust guilt, and the revulsion against nationalism and the embrace of multiculturalism and mass immigration, enabled the Islamization of Europe. The principal beneficiaries of the Continent's penance for the great moral stain of the 20th century turned out to be the Muslims — with the Jews on the receiving end, yet again."
-Mark Steyn, with context at the link

"There are 2500 British war cemeteries in France and Belgium. The sophisticated observer of the rows of headstones will do well to suspect that very often the bodies below are buried in mass graves, with the headstones disposed in rows to convey the illusion that each soldier has his individual place...
Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot. The Second World War offers even more preposterous ironies. Ostensibly begun to guarantee the sovereignty of Poland, that war managed to bring about Poland's bondage and humiliation. "
Paul Fussell', "The Great War and Modern Memory"

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A conversation in two parts, lightly edited.

Part 1.

CC: I'm off to see that movie, Selma, tonight.

Shylock: Here's a prediction for you. I'll bet you that at absolutely no point in the movie do they ever mention that George Wallace was a Democrat.

CC: I'm sure they do. If they do, you have to go watch the movie.

Shylock: Betcha they don't. We'll see.

Part 2.

CC: So I watched Selma - as I so wisely predicted, they did mention party affiliations. Implicitly. So now you have to watch the movie like you promised.

Shylock: "Implicitly?" You mean they never say Wallace was a Democrat? Well colour me shocked.

CC: Well, there wasn't an explicit line in the movie where they said that George Wallace is a raging Democrat. But there were definitely a few scenes where he was talking very intimately with LBJ in the way that only party comrades do. It was totally obvious.


CC: Listen, it is totally possible that they said he was a Democrat and I missed it.

Shylock: "Dishonest biases of liberal filmmakers correctly predicted in advance by cynical reactionary, pundits astounded, full report at 11".

CC: If people who watch the film are so obtuse that they don't know that LBJ was a Dem, then I doubt explicitly stating anything was going to make a difference.

Shylock: Put it this way - can you think of any way they could have told the important facts of the story with any LESS emphasis on party affiliations than they actually did?

CC: Yes, I can think of many ways. Not emphasising LBJ and George Wallace as characters at all. Or revising history, and making them all Republicans.

Shylock: How's Birmingham, AL, doing these days? I'm guessing that doesn't get mentioned much either.

CC: That's besides the point. And I don't know - great food, strong family values? Doing as good as it ever was, I assume.

Shylock: Of course it is. We took away the racist institutions, and yet somehow now it looks like the third world. There are lots of possible explanations, but it's at least a puzzle, no?

CC: It's very hard to me to jump to the conclusion that Birmingham had become *a third world country* because of the enfranchisement of a minority. More likely has something to do with the decline of agrarian agriculture or whatever.

Shylock: If Birmingham were a country, its 2012 murder rate of 67 per 100,000 would make it literally the second highest in the world, behind Honduras. In 1951, the rate was 13 per 100,000. Probably agrarian agriculture. Or whatever.

Shylock: And personally, I'm in favour of universal disenfranchisement, but that's a separate issue.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On the Charlie Hedbo killings

It's taken me a while to write about the Charlie Hedbo killings. It takes me a while to write anything anymore in this august journal, but it wasn't just that.

I felt genuinely stirred by one thing, first and foremost. The Charlie Hedbo staff had some pretty damn enormous stones. Drawing original Mohammed cartoons, under your own name, when the location of your office is publicly known, after you've already been firebombed once for doing so? That, my friend, is some serious commitment to thick liberty of speech. The ghost of John Stuart Mill is applauding the glorious dead of Charlie Hedbo. They paid the ultimate price to insist that the right to speak one's mind exists not only as a theoretical construct, but one that you can actually exercise. Behold, the roll of honour:
  • Cabu (Jean Cabut), 76, cartoonist
  • Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), 47, cartoonist, columnist, and editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo.
  • Mustapha Ourrad , 60, copy editor.
  • Tignous (Bernard Verlhac), 57, cartoonist.
Alas, I fear we will not see their kind again soon.

The whole #JeSuisCharlie show of support was a mixed bag. I was at least heartened by the extent of explicit public solidarity, though I was inclined to agree with the various commentators who noted that there is a definite strain of false bravery by association in the hashtag, at least compared with the stupendous bravery of the actual Hedbo staff. But this is relatively minor.

One odd and yet somewhat positive result to come from this affair is that it finally, surprisingly dragged a number of US publications kicking and screaming into publishing some kind of depiction of Mohammed. They were for the most part unwilling in initial reporting to show any of the original cartoons that provoked the ire of the killers. They were certainly unwilling to print absolutely any of the Danish Mohammed cartoons a few years ago, to their great disgrace. 

But when the cover of the next edition of Charlie Hedbo was released, it seemed to finally shame some fraction of the American media into growing some balls, no matter how tiny and shriveled. Partly I suspect this was out of sympathy for their fellow journalists, partly because they perhaps sensed that they'd have enough of a justification and safety in numbers. Still, credit where diminutive credit is due, a surprising number at long, long last were willing to show something. According to the Daily Beast, the Washington Post ran photos of the cover, while USA Today and the Los Angeles Times put photos on their website. Even the BBC, to my astonishment, put a picture up, in one online story (which seems to be the the 'trial balloon' option, since you can take it back down again if you suddenly get scared). But of course, cowardice continues to win the day at CNN, ABC, AP, The New York Times, and so on. If you're unwilling to even reprint a cover specifically related to the story, whose depiction of Mohammed is not only mild and inoffensive, but which even contains the words 'All is Forgiven' above it, you'd sure as hell better not claim that you, too, are Charlie.

You can bet your ass that even the current crop of the recently less craven won't run more Mohammed pictures again soon. But the current reversal was made possible by the fact that for a short-lived time, a good number of the usual suspects who would ordinarily trumpet how free speech shouldn't include the right to say anything that might hurt the feelings of (certain chosen) religious minorities were at least temporarily shamed into silence. As expected, it didn't last long. It never does.

From this point on, alas, the story had mainly disappointment for me. 

With the distance of a few days, what strikes me the most about it is the fact that the only approved, socially acceptable response is sadness, and a "show of support", whatever that means. (Of course, half the left can't even muster that, going only for mealy-mouthed equivocation of "I support free speech, but..".).

But even take the #JeSuisCharlie people, whose solidarity I'm still glad to have. What exactly does it get you? You can have candlelit vigils in Paris. You can have hashtags. You can "show support", as an individual, and you can even assemble an impressive number of world leaders to do the same.

But then what?

What, exactly, does anyone plan to do in response? What, if any, policies or actions will change as a result?

The men who invaded the Charlie Hedbo offices were willing to trade their own lives, with very high expectation, to make sure that the people who drew and printed Mohammed cartoons were brutally and publicly killed. They were willing to die to send the message that if you create and distribute pictures of Mohammed under your own name, you will eventually be hunted down, even if you have police protection.

Will future such men be deterred by your hashtags? 

Will they be frightened by your "support"?

It is worth asking whether the killers succeeded in their purpose. Depressingly, I have to conclude that they did.

If you were a cartoonist, what would you learn from all this?

I'd learn, if I didn't already know it, that if I wrote a Mohammed cartoon, there's a strong chance I'd get killed. I might also learn that there's a reasonable chance I'd get a sympathetic hashtag going afterwards. How do you think that bargain strikes most cartoonists?

You don't have to guess to find out. Have a look through The Australian's gallery of cartoons drawn in the aftermath. I see a strong sentiment that the pen is mightier than the sword. I see a distinct lack of new drawings of Mohammed. 

I don't mean to single these guys out as cowards. They've just performed exactly the calculation that the terrorists wanted them to perform: if you draw a cartoon about Mohammed and publish it in such a way that we can identify you, you may be killed. Eli Valley drew about the dilemma quite poignantly here. It ends with the depressing conclusion: "The only context for me is this: call me a coward, but I want to continue to be alive." Not exactly stirring, is it? But then again, what have you done lately that's equivalently brave as what you're asking of him?

Mr Valley is absolutely right in his calculation of the stakes. Doubt not that this is deadly serious. Ask Molly Norris, a Seattle cartoonist in hiding since 2010 after death threats were made to her over her cartoons during 'Everyone Draw Mohammed' day. This is happening in America too. The only difference is that very few got printed the first time around, so there's fewer people to threaten.

Hence, the current implied scenario. Reprinting someone else's otherwise respectful depiction of Mohammed probably won't get you killed. Drawing your own anonymous Mohammed cartoon won't get you killed. Owning up to your public drawing quite possibly will.

Is there any serious doubt that of the people in the west who were, i) willing to publicly put their name to pictures of Mohammed, and ii) were set to run such cartoons in a major print publication, a large fraction were killed last week?

This is why the the terrorists succeeded.

So let's take it as given that "support", while better than opposition, will not in fact diminish the chances of future attacks occurring, nor will it significantly reduce the likely deterrent that the current attacks provide against new people drawing pictures of Mohammed. On its own, support, in other words, won't achieve anything. We return to the question from before. What, then, does anyone propose to do?

There is a very good reason that sadness is the only socially acceptable response. Anger, by contrast, requires action. When people are angry, they might actually do something. Is there anything that current political opinion will actually allow to be done?

The terrorists who perpetrated the act are already dead, so aside from cathartic displays equivalent to hanging Mussolini's corpse, there is nothing to be done there.

And since since we are loudly informed by all the great and the good that such attacks are representative of absolutely no wider sociological phenomenon but are merely the work of a tiny number of deranged madmen, apparently there's nothing to do directly to anyone else either.

So what if one's anger were turned towards the question of how we might ensure that this doesn't happen again, what might acceptable opinion consider?

Various Deus Ex Machina type answers get proposed. Better surveillance! Stop the flow of weapons to terrorist groups! Convince more Muslims to embrace free speech!

Very good. How, exactly, should this be accomplished?

The only one that might have any chance is the first. At least in America, we tried that. It was called The Patriot Act. While it is hard to judge its effectiveness, when the very name of your policy has effectively become shorthand for 'knee-jerk response to terrorism that permanently eroded important civil liberties', you may see why 'better surveillance' is not in fact an ideal policy response.

As for the second option, if anyone has the vaguest idea about what policy France might have implemented that would have succeeded in preventing the terrorists from having access to the weapons they had, I'm yet to hear it.

As for the third, nobody in any position of political power seems to have much of an idea how to get radical Muslims to love free speech other than 'be scrupulously nice to Muslims, insist that they're all peace-loving, don't discriminate against them, try not to offend them by depicting pictures of Mohammed...'

Give or take a few hiccups, it seems to me that this is the policy we've already been trying, no? This, in other words, is what brought us to the current position. Even if one were to think that we haven't done enough in this direction (like communism, true outreach has never been tried!), it surely seems worth at least considering the possibility that this policy actually does not work, and then what else one might do.

The West has collectively taken an enormous bet. It has bet that it can allow mass immigration from certain Muslim countries and successfully include such people into society in a way that doesn't compromise the West's own core values or result in permanent social conflict.

Maybe that bet is right. Every fibre of my being hopes that it is right. But Gnon cares little what you'd like to be true. It care only about what is.

However, the West, and the left in particular, cannot back away from its bet, no matter how high the stakes, no matter what evidence piles up. Because something much bigger is at issue. To acknowledge the possibility that the policy of large scale immigration from certain countries might have been mistaken would be to contemplate the notion that radical egalitarianism is false; that, much as we may hope it to be true, people are not all the same, and cultural systems are not all equally valid.

This will never be given up by the left. Never, ever, ever. 

Muslim immigration was never the cause, it was only ever the symptom. The cause was always our iron belief in radical egalitarianism. 

And this is why, in the end, we come to the conclusion that we knew all along. 

What, exactly, will the West do in response to all this? 


It will do nothing at all.