Sunday, September 30, 2012

Things that make me feel patriotic

I was in an English-themed pub on Friday night (in the US of A), watching the Australian Rules Football Grand Final. I don't know why, but it seems to be a regular trend that random sporting events in the US, of whatever sort, are screened by British pubs, usually with British proprietors (this guy was from Liverpool).

As those of you who watched know, it was a great game (I'm a Dockers man, so I didn't really care about the result, but it's rare to see such a close finish). The crowd was quite Aussie-heavy, and it was enormous fun to be reminded of the subtle cultural differences between Australia and the US. Things started well when some player had been knocked down after failing to prevent a goal, and some guy yelled 'Get up, you wuss!'.

Anyway, what warmed my heart greatly was that at some point, the camera flashed to a picture of Julia Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister, in the crowd. At least three quarters of the room booed loudly.

What a refreshing change from the bogus choreographed boosterism and cheering of the US national conventions! Julia Gillard is deeply unpopular, but the irritation went deeper than that (and I suspect that the fraction of the room booing was considerably larger than the fraction that would have voted for Tony Abbott at the last election) Indeed, I'm quite confident that if you'd been in that room in previous years, the response would have been very similar for Kevin Rudd, John Howard, Paul Keating or any other Prime Minister.

Australians tend to regard their politicians with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. This holds almost equally for the ones they vote for and the ones they don't. And this seems to me to be a far healthier attitude for a free citizenry to have towards the people that want to rule over them.

I remember when Barack Obama got elected in 2008, and they had the huge victory celebration in Chicago. Such a spectacle would be inconceivable in Australia - the whole idea simply wouldn't pass the laugh test. I'm meant to spend my night turning up to cheer for a politician? If you held it, nobody would turn up.

When politicians turn up at non-political events of national enjoyment, such as the AFL Grand Final, Australins tend to resent the intrusion. The whole 'man (or woman) of the people' nonsense is recognised for the contrived and artificial performance that it is. Meanwhile, the whole vibe given off is of a monarch enjoying the privilege of swanning into prime seats at major sporting events by virtue of their position.

And none of this needed to be explained to anybody in the room. This healthy disrespect of government authority was entirely spontaneous and widespread.

In a free country, elected officials may get your vote, but they ought not get your cheerful subservience. The message, which politicians everywhere need to be reminded of, is clear: we tolerate your presence out of a conviction that voting is superior to dictatorship, but we do so reluctantly and grudgingly. Do not mistake this for a desire to be ruled.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Reply Paid Arbitrage

What charities say on their reply-paid envelopes:
Your stamp on this envelope adds to your gift!
What charities should say on their reply-paid envelopes:
You could put a stamp on this envelope to save us money, but why not donate an extra 45 cents and let us pay the postage, since our charitable institution reply-paid rates are much lower than what you'd pay?
That way our charity gets more money, the post office gets less money, you get a bigger tax deduction, and the government gets less money to start foreign wars and hire meddling bureaucrats to make your life hard!
I guess the people that think hard about  how to arbitrage the government don't tend to end up in the charity fundraising business.

Postal reply arbitrage does have a somewhat checkered past, but I think it's now time to rehabilitate its reputation.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A tale of two UN Speeches

Barack Obama recently made a speech at the UN talking about the recent attacks on the US Embassy in Benghazi, and the anti-Islamic film that may or may not have sparked the whole thing.

The line that got a lot of attention was the following:
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.
Taken at face value, this is a deplorable and pathetic response to this whole sordid mess, sounding like a combination of apology and pandering.

But as Ken at Popehat points out quite eloquently, the context of the line does make it somewhat less unpalatable. Taken as a whole, the speech is actually a fairly good defense of free expression, which you can read over at Popehat. Even the 'The future does not belong to Islam' line is part of a repeating rhetorical device:
The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt – it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted “Muslims, Christians, we are one.” The future must not belong to those who bully women – it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons. The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country’s resources – it must be won by the students and entrepreneurs; workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the men and women that America stands with; theirs is the vision we will support.
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, and that is the vision we will support.
Meh. "Targeting" (i.e. murdering) Coptic Christians is not at all equivalent to making a crappy movie about Islam. And the atheists would dispute even the narrowly defined claim, as they would argue that Islam, like all religions deserves ridicule and contempt. Still, if you were to weigh up the sum of all the sentiments expressed in the speech, it's not too bad.

But here's where things get murky. As one of the commenters, Tarrou pointed out, the line about not slandering Islam is the only thing that most people will ever hear from the speech. And what should you make of that? As I wrote over in the comments section:
I guess it comes down to whether you think that the speechwriters put that line in knowing that it would be the only thing that gets quoted. I could see it going either way, but the the way you interpret the overall speech seems to vary a lot based on the answer to that question.
On the one hand, if you write speeches for a living, you've got to know that one wrong line means that that will be the only thing that gets quoted. You might assume, therefore, that they write speeches accordingly, and the line was thus deliberately chosen knowing it would be quoted (but in a context where they can point to the rest of the speech and say "see, we were defending free speech!").
On the other hand, I can also imagine that it would be immensely frustrating to be a speechwriter and know that the vast majority of people will never read past the headline if you happen to put in one infelicitously chosen remark. If it was just a slip, then they'd be sharing Ken's frustration that nobody is reading everything else that was said, which does indeed defend free speech quite robustly.
And there's the rub. I tend to favor some part of the former interpretation - that line was deliberately chosen to sound like a highly quotable passage of appeasement in a speech that generally wasn't appeasing. Weigh that accordingly, but these guys are pros, writing for a worldwide audience.

In other words, it's a mistake to assume that everything in a political speech represents the balance of exactly what the politician means. More often, it's just designed to have a specific effect on the various parts of the audience.

So should you give Obama most of the credit for a reasonably good defense of free speech, with the remark about Islam merely a way of getting the Islamic part of the audience onside by showing he respects their religion? Or should you be skeptical that the Islam line was the deliberately chosen, quotable part of the speech, and the rest was just a way of insulating himself against criticism?

I dunno.

The whole thing reminds me somewhat of what Glenn Reynolds said during the 2008 election about Obama's anti-free-trade rhetoric while Austan Goolsbee was singing a different tune to the Canadians:
When it comes to things like NAFTA, there seem to be only two possibilities. Either Obama's anti-NAFTA talk is a ruse to fool the rubes, or his coterie of distinguished economic experts is a ruse to fool a different batch of rubes.
On the NAFTA one, thankfully, it seems that he was actually listening to Austan Goolsbee and not the unions. On this one, I guess we'll see.

So much for the first UN speech. What was the second one?

Via Half Sigma, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's UN speech about, among other things, the coming 12th Imam. Yes, really.
Mr. President, Friends and Dear Colleagues,
Creating peace and lasting security with decent life for all, although a great and a historic mission can be accomplished. The Almighty God has not left us alone in this mission and has said that it will surely happen. If it doesn't, then it will be contradictory to his wisdom.
-God Almighty has promised us a man of kindness, a man who loves people and loves absolute justice, a man who is a perfect human being and is named Imam A1-Mahdi, a man who will come in the company of Jesus Christ (PBUH) and the righteous. By using the inherent potential of all the worthy men and women of all nations and I repeat, the inherent potential of "all the worthy men and women of all nations" he will lead humanity into achieving its glorious and eternal ideals.
-The arrival of the Ultimate Savior will mark a new beginning, a rebirth and a resurrection. It will be the beginning of peace, lasting security and genuine life.
Even supposing you believe this (and lots of people do), it's a rather strange thing to throw into a speech to the world's leaders. Say what you will about the specific claims, you have to agree that it's pretty straightforward - you're not left in enormous doubt trying to parse the subtle political meanings. As Half Sigma noted, expect to read about this exactly nowhere.

As part of his visit, he also apparently wanted to meet with the Occupy Wall Street folks, but that didn't seem to actually happen.

So cheer up, conservatives! You could be ruled by Ahmadinejad instead.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Six Degrees of "Germany Should Pay"

Every time I hear EU politicians speak (other than a few hilarious exceptions), I like to mentally play a game called 'Six Degrees of "Germany Should Pay"'.

A la 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon', the prediction is that from the initial premise of the argument, within six steps of the chain of logic will come the conclusion that German taxpayers ought to be contributing more money.

For instance, here's one I heard a little while ago:
-Different European banks currently face a variety of different regulatory regimes, so...
-To overcome the discrepancies in liquidity and solvency that this creates, Europe needs a central banking regulator, so...
-As part of having a central banking regulator, there will be the need to have a central bank deposit guarantee, so...
-This will mean the need for a fund to bail out insolvent European banks, so...
-Germany should pay!
Here's one I didn't prepare in advance, taken from a random Google search of 'EU Politician Proposals'

EP President Schulz Proposes Economic (Bubble) Zones for Greece under EU Control

Let me merely number the quotes taken directly from the article, with the verbiage removed

Growth-Plan: Special Economic Zones to rescue Greece
[1] Greece has enacted a rigorous austerity program, but the country also needs a strategy to get the economy back on growth track.
(blah blah, boilerplate about creating growth)
[2] Cuts alone would not bring growth, Schulz said in a SPIEGEL interview, “so I’m looking for a special economic zone in Greece.”
[3] For it, a “Growth Agency” should be created, Schulz demands.
[4] In this agency, European and Greek politicians should jointly identify promoting eligible projects and control the cash flows.
(blah blah PR nonsense)
[5] Prerequisite for this SEZ is a commitment to the euro in Greece, a willingness to reform in Athens and investment allowances for companies that invest in Greece. And so... (drumroll)...
[6] Germany should pay!
And that's being generous with what counts as a step.

Try it with a few others and see how often I'm wrong.

As I've said, the $1 trillion question is when German taxpayers are going to get sick of of their designated role as  the chumps at the table week after week buying dinner for their friends who mysteriously keep forgetting their wallets. Let's kick that horse a little longer and find out!

There's a related EU politician game of 'Six Degrees of "Europe Needs Greater Centralisation"', but that's less fun to play because the number of degrees rarely exceeds two.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Stars

One of the things I miss the most by living in an urban environment is the fact that you don't get to see the stars in the evening.  Sometimes you see a few, but you never see the full grandeur of the Milky Way. To get that, you need to be away from light pollution, and to get that, you need to be away from civilisation.

It's unfortunate. Not just because of the lost beauty. But I think it contributes ever so slightly to the relentlessly increasing narcism of modern youth. When you seen the enormity of the galaxy spread out in front of you, it's hard (for me, anyway) to not be reminded of the puny insignificance of one's problems. On the properly appreciated scale, your entire existence is so utterly inconsequential that it really doesn't make sense to get too worried about things. As A.E. Housman put it:

Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is, and we were young.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Point, Counterpoint

Point:



Counterpoint:
"I tried all in my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for twelve years I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind: It would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came, and now it must go on till the last man of this government falls in his tracks, and his children seize the musket and fight our battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for independence, and that, or extermination we will have."
Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy - 1864

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Whack That Mole!

Over at Hacker News comes another story of patent trolls at PersonalWeb trying to use the legal system to extort money out of a company that actually produces something of value - Rackspace.

Rackspace describes the hilariously inept lawsuit:
To explain, this suit claims that Rackspace infringes the PersonalWeb patents “by its manufacture, use, sale, importation, and/or offer for sale of the following products and services within the PersonalWeb Patent Field: Rackspace Cloud Servers and GitHub Code Hosting Service.” It’s apparent that the people filing the suit don’t understand the technology or the products enough to realize that Rackspace Cloud Servers and GitHub are completely different products from different companies. By now, it’s widely known that GitHub is hosted at Rackspace, but beyond that, there is no other connection between the two.
In other words, they named both Rackspace and a client of Rackspace as both being things sold by Rackspace.

But don't let this kind of pathetic 'failure-to-google-even-basic-details-about-the-tech-industry' ineptitude fool you - these guys are technology pioneers, and its crucial to protect their right to innovate for ... well, nobody knows quite what fig leaf they're even claiming.

Rackspace in its post describes legislation they're supporting to try to combat this problem.
The next legislative effort will likely center around what is known as the SHIELD Act, which has been introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). This bill would require plaintiffs to pay defendants’ legal costs if the suit is unsuccessful. Under current law, the patent trolls don’t have any meaningful risk in bringing litigation. The defendants, on the other hand, are subjected to enormous legal expenses and discovery costs. The SHIELD Act is designed to level the playing field and take away the trolls’ unfair advantage. We encourage all of our customers, partners, open source collaborators and friends to support Reps. DeFazio and Chaffetz in their effort to discourage these abusive patent troll lawsuits.
I applaud this effort, but it seems to miss the forest for the trees.

Tree #1 - patent trolls keep filing lots of frivolous lawsuits, extorting money out of technology company. This needs some sort of specific remedy, such as making unsuccessful plaintiffs pay the defense's legal costs.

Tree #2 - Unscrupulous junk science trial lawyers keep suing doctors for enormous amounts of money over any perceived problem, driving up the cost of malpractice insurance and healthcare. This needs some sort of specific remedy, like capping damages for pain and suffering in malpractice lawsuits.

Tree #3 - Thugs desiring to silence public debate file lots of lawsuits to bankrupt opponents. This requires some sort of specific remedy, such as an Anti-SLAPP statute to help stop egregious discover processes and make unsuccessful plaintiffs pay the defense's legal costs.

What is the forest? The fact that America refuses to implement an across-the-board loser pays system of civil proceedings.

The great reasons why unsuccessful patent trolls should pay the other side's legal costs apply to everybody - lame unfair dismissal claims, Americans with Disabilities Act gold-digging lawsuits for trivial breaches of building codes, frivolous claims that you slipped over on somebody's sidewalk, etc. etc. etc. You can get rid of the whole lot of them, all at once, by just making the losing party pay the legal fees.

The lawyers will howl that this will discourage people from filing lawsuits.

Exactly. There are far, far too many lawsuits in America. A big part of the reason for this is that filing a lawsuit when your own counsel is operating on contingency (as lots of plaintiffs have) gives you a call option - your payoffs are zero or positive. And people are surprised when lots of people load up on call options?

If you simply made plaintiffs bear some of the costs, in expectation, that they impose on society through their lawsuits, you wouldn't have to screw around with a zillion other makeshift fixes for the enormous numbers of problems that this underlying legal deficiency creates.

Is this going to happen any time soon?

Sadly, no.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

You've Got To Be F***ing Kidding Me

What a disgrace. What a complete, disgusting disgrace.

Ken at Popehat points out, correctly, that this guy has potentially violated his parole terms by using a computer when he wasn't supposed to, and using an alias to secure funding for making this movie. So they have some notional reason for arresting the guy.

My question is this - don't you think that the matter has escalated a little way past the point where the question is one of violating parole terms?

Let's put it this way - it is incredibly unlikely that the Islamic world is going to view this arrest as indicating 'Wow, those US guys have a firm and unwavering commitment to free speech, but boy do they sure take parole violations seriously!'.

When it suits their political purposes, the Obama administration has no problem whatsoever using executive orders to waive prosecutions for violations of federal law by hundreds of thousands of offenders.

And when it suits their political purposes, they will throw absolutely every law in the book at you if you make a movie insulting Islam that happens to cause political embarrassment for the government.

This is a craven, cowardly surrender to mob violence, and absolutely no good will come of it.

Predictions...

From a few days ago:
In the likely event that no serious military response is forthcoming, let me advance the following prediction: Expect more fatal attacks on US embassies, and sooner, rather than later.
Well, that didn't take long:
At least seven people were killed on Friday in demonstrations over a film made in the US that mocks Islam - as protests spread around the world.
 So what are we up to? Yemen, Egypt (again), Sudan, Tunisia, Lebanon...

I was implicitly wrong in one respect - while the attacks so far have been fatal, they haven't been fatal to any US embassy staff. I think this is in line with the comments that Lopez was making in the previous posts, that Benghazi seems to have been unusual in the extent to which it was an enormous clusterf*** of a security situation. At least we've seen that most embassies are better defended than Benghazi (between much better internal defenses, plus more support from local authorities in some of these places, perhaps because they have a better idea of the stakes).

But is there any series doubt about the claim from Pax Dickinson:
The West lacks the will to defend its own embassies.
Bingo.

It was earlier reported that the US Ambassador in Cairo had refused to permit the Marines guarding the embassy to carry live ammunition. The Pentagon later denied the claim.

But here's my question. How come you don't see a policy statement like the following being issued immediately after Benghazi:
'US Embassies are the sovereign territory of the United States. Any attacks on them will be met immediately with deadly force towards the individuals involved. Should the evacuation of any embassy prove necessary due to the hostile actions of locals, the United States will consider itself at war with the country in question.' 
I understand why you may not want to jump to collective punishment of entire cities after the fact in Benghazi.(I would, but I'm saying that I can see the reasons against it).

But this is very different from raising the stakes in advance, and threatening retaliation against people who haven't yet attacked you. Wouldn't this seem like a reasonable precaution?

It won't happen, of course. It would be just as credible as claiming that the embassies will be defended by dragons and goblins and shining armour. Nobody would believe it, no matter what you claimed.

The stated policy of the US is that the killers of Ambassador Stevens will be hunted down and held accountable. As far as I know, that's the only retaliation planned.

The violence in the last few days indicates that the mobs in these other countries either
a) didn't believe them
b) didn't care, or
c) didn't feel that was a sufficiently scary threat to stop them attempting the same thing as in Benghazi.

You can't blame them, really. Hands up, anyone, who thinks that more than a fraction of the people involved in the attack at Benghazi will actually face justice?

Can you see why the rest of the world jumps to the conclusion that the US is a paper tiger, unwilling to defend its embassies?

Once upon a time, the West had the confidence to put tiny, indefensible bits of its territory in potentially hostile countries, knowing very well that the locals wouldn't attack them because of the correct apprehension of enormous pain that would follow.

Once upon a time, my hypothetical policy statement above didn't have to be made, because it was well understood by all concerned that that was already the policy.

We've maintained the tradition of keeping them there, even though the confidence that justified them has long since disappeared. This internal contradiction is now resolving itself on the world stage.

Any embassy that you're not willing to defend with deadly force shouldn't be there in the first place.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Going to War Over A Few Embassy Officials

Athenios writes to disagree with my previous post:
"Sometimes, your posts are pure genius."
 Thanks!
"Other times, they are laughable."
Up yours.
"Your last post about Libya belongs to the latter category."
Well, you win some, you lose some.
"If you suggest going to war over a small-scale terrorist act, you just don't understand international relations very well. "
I understand that there was a time when sovereign nations considered the treatment of their citizens abroad to be a matter of serious importance. To be a proper test case, we'd be looking for
a) mistreatment of a consul and a subject of the sovereign nation
b) indifference or hostility by the local government, where
c) the sovereign nation had recently supported the independence of said nation.

Interestingly, history furnishes us precisely such an example, when Great Britain dealt with mistreatment of a consul and subject by no other than Greece itself in the Don Pacifico affair back in 1850.
The Don Pacifico Affair concerned a Portuguese Jew, named David Pacifico (known as Don Pacifico), who was a trader and the Portuguese consul in Athens during the reign of King Otto. Pacifico was born in Gibraltar, a British possession. He was therefore a British subject. In 1847 an antisemitic mob that included the sons of a government minister vandalised and plundered Don Pacifico's home in Athens whilst the police looked on and took no action.
...
In 1848, after Pacifico had unsuccessfully appealed to the Greek government for compensation for his losses, he brought the matter to the attention of the British government.
In 1850 the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, a philhellene and supporter of the Greek War of Independence of 1828-1829, took decisive action in support of Pacifico by sending a Royal Navy squadron into the Aegean to seize Greek ships and property equal to the value of Pacifico's claims, which had been decided by British courts, and were exorbitantly high. Palmerston did not recognise Greek judicial sovereignty in the matter, as the case involved a British subject. The squadron eventually blockaded Piraeus, the main port of the capital, Athens
.... 
The blockade lasted two months and the affair ended only when the Greek government agreed to compensate Pacifico.
That, my friend, is what a serious foreign policy looks like. You think I'm crazy to threaten military action over an embassy invasion? These guys actually went through with it over a civil case! And yes, in reply to your suggestion, I understand very well that that's not how the west rolls any more. More's the pity.

Back to Athenios:
"Hint: US embassy officials have been killed by Greek terrorists in the recent past. Does this mean that the US should go to war with Greece?" 
I presume you're referring to this. Should the US go to war now to avenge murders from 20-30 years ago? No, that would serve no purpose at all. Should it have done more at the time? Perhaps, I don't know the full details of how that went down.

But yes, in answer to the point, a firm message needs to be sent that killing US officials will result in disproportionate pain.

A large part of the question in international relations terms is whether the local government is a) supporting the actions, explicitly or implicitly, or b) powerless to stop them.

If the government is going to seek out and punish the offenders themselves, there is less of a need. I'd still want to see something done to make a strong point, but if it turns out that some nutjob shoots at the US embassy in Ottawa, no, the US shouldn't nuke Toronto. If I didn't say that, it's because I thought it was obvious.

But in the case here, you had the local police looking on as the mob attacks. That's a little bit different, no? In the case of Iran, the actions were carried out by the representatives of the new revolutionary government, which is very different. It is, in other words, a declaration of war. And there is no principle in war that one only attacks the enemy in the same manner and extent that he attacks you first.

If the local government is powerless to stop them, then the US has the responsibility to avenge the attacks themselves. A government that does not control its own territory may be a government de jure, but it is not a government de facto.

To return to the Greek 17 November organisation, I understand that the Greek government at the time hated the group too, and was working to eradicate it. Greece was, and is, an ally, and an important one at that. Libya is at best neutral, and may turn out to be actively hostile, and its entirely unclear how much support the government has for the objectives of those who attacked the embassy.

But in the end, there's more to it than realpolitik. A self-respecting country ought to consider it a personal attack on the dignity of the country to have its embassy stormed and its ambassador killed. Maybe you're willing to just throw your embassy staff to the wind as a cost of doing business. Maybe you've disavowed any aspects of collective punishment, and think that unless you can isolate the punishment down to the exact individuals involved, you should err on the side of doing less (or nothing at all).

But the symbolism you send to the rest of the world is atrocious. And the world pays attention to symbolism. You may think it's unimportant, but Osama Bin Laden didn't. Don't be so sure that you're saving lives in the long run by not responding with firm force. Other countries thought twice about trying to push around British subjects after 1850.

Lord Palmerston (who, I have it on very good authority, was England's greatest Prime Minister), had this to say, in defence of his actions in the Don Pacifico affair, and his foreign policy more generally:
"As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say, Civis Romanus sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong."
Exactly.

I hope that's still true.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Some Thoughts Regarding The Repulsive Slaying of American Consular Officials in Benghazi

So this is  where "democratic" revolution in Libya has gotten us. Some nobody in the US makes a film months ago saying nasty things about Islam. Newly liberated Libyans decide that the anniversary of September 11th is a grand old time to respond by sending a mob to butcher US consular officials. Local authorities are either complicit in this, or powerless to stop it.

So we now have in Libya a society where the important decisions are being made by the terrorists - thuggish, humourless religious fanatics who are on hair-trigger alert for anyone, anywhere saying things that might hurt their delicate and precious feelings (or their supporters). Either the government supports this, or the government is unable to stop this. I loathe the old butcher as much as anybody, but I am at a loss to hear the explanation as to how this state of affairs is a clear improvement over Gaddaffi.

We've also got the same trend going on in Egypt, causing the US consulate to make cringeworthy statements attacking US free speech trying to defuse the mob on its doorstep. Another triumph for democracy! Things were so boring and predictable under Mubarak.

Look, I understand why US embassy officials might say cowardly things to try to save their skin when an angry mob is on their doorstep. The bigger question is, why did the Cairo embassy staff feel that they were on their own, and the only way out was appeasement?

It's somewhat a trick question. Embassies are always at the mercy of the locals, at least in the short term. What protects them is the threat of the sovereign might of the country. Sometimes this registers with the mob directly. More likely, it registers with the local country officials, who rein in their citizens instead of letting them murder foreign diplomats.

So the real question becomes this - why did the mob (and the local governments) feel that they could violate US sovereign territory and murder US citizens with impunity?

This is why. This is why.

Gary Brecher had some strong thoughts on what a real response to the Iranian hostage crisis might have looked like. I wouldn't want to take it as far as he suggests. But there's a whole range of possible options that would have sent a clear message of deterrence for future embassy looters. You can bet, however, that the appropriate response sure as s*** didn't involve sending in 8 helicopters in some hare-brained rescue scheme doomed to failure.
Beckwith had no choice but to scrub the mission right there in the desert. All because Carter only authorized eight lousy choppers.
When Nixon heard about it, he had a great comment: "Eight? Why not a thousand? It's not like we don't have them!"
Clinton, meanwhile, sent a firm and fearsome lesson by bombing a camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Yeah, they got that message loud and clear.

This time around, everyone, from the consular officials, to the mob, to the local government, predicted that the US certainly wouldn't do anything beforehand, and likely wouldn't do anything afterwards either.

So far, they've been right.

In the Iranian hostage crisis, at least, the US was under the moral blackmail that any strike on Tehran would likely cause the deaths of the US consular officials.

Well, that ship has already sailed this time. The question is what the US is going to do.

We've got a thousand choppers now, too. Are you holding your breath for a military response? In election season? I'm sure not.

If the US isn't willing to strongly punish countries that violate its embassies, it has no business putting consular officials in hellhole countries in the first place.

In the likely event that no serious military response is forthcoming, let me advance the following prediction:

Expect more fatal attacks on US embassies, and sooner, rather than later.

A Memo to United Airlines

George Gershwin is rolling in his grave every time you play your sh***y bastardised adult contemporary version of 'Rhapsody in Blue'. There's a good reason that the original song didn't just have one small section of the melody looped repeatedly with an easy-listening drumbeat in the background.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lifestyles of the Not-Quite-Rich-and-Famous

Athenios and I sometimes frequent the restaurant Fogo De Chao. It's one of those all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouses. They give you a coloured token where green side up means 'keep bringing me more succulent meat!' and red side up means 'now please bring a nurse specialing in patients at risk of coronary emergencies'.

The piece de resistance is always the feeling of self-loathing and extreme fullness at the end of the meal. It is, after all, the gastronomical equivalent of binge drinking.

What's funny though is that you often see a certain clientele at these places that seems at odds with the description above. Namely, slightly thugged-out guys, often somewhat dressed up, on dates with their girlfriends (who are always in cocktail dresses). The beverage of choice tends to be name brand champagne, consistent with the conspicuous consumption vibe that they give off.

And all this seemed odd to me, because it's a place that, notwithstanding it's expensive price, I'd be rather embarrassed to bring a girl, certainly for a one-on-one date.

I rarely see these kinds of couples at the other nice restaurants I go to. So what's the story? Obviously they're trying to impress their date with a fancy meal, but why this place?

My guess is that Fogo De Chao is essentially the poor person's idea of how rich people would eat. Start with an item at the expensive end of restauarnt menus, a steak. Then jack up the price and quallity. And finally, consume it in enormous quantities, since that's clearly how the wealthy live.

Of course, the wealthy distinguish themselves by their thinness and their meager consumption of food. If they are going to eat a lot, it has to be spread out across lots of tiny courses and given a fancy name like 'degustation'. In addition, it has to be healthy, and made from fresh ingredients. Eating a meal comprised entirely of meat would seem horribly gauche. You might be able to sell it in other contexts as some spin on the Atkins diet, but that's a harder claim at the all-you-can-eat restaurant.

In other words, other than the price and quality of the meat itself, this is entirely a low-brow eating experience. The wealthy are more likely to be eating a salad at the raw food restaurant, or checking out the Michelin recommendations in their city.

It might seem, then, that the signalling of these guys would be a failure, since no rich person is going to be impressed by this kind of consumption. Indeed, it seems possible (and likely) that many of the people in question aren't aware of how high class people would perceive it. But realistically, they aren't actually signaling to these people - the signaling is all done for the girl. And if she shares the same conceptions of what wealth looks like, it will probably be successful.

Still, it's a funny business model alright - the high-brow go there to feel low-brow by their huge consumption, and the low-brow go there to feel high-brow by how much they're spending

Monday, September 10, 2012

Thought of the Day

The great David Foster Wallace, describing the mindset of the suicidal:
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn't do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”  

Friday, September 7, 2012

Bach's Little Fugue in G Minor (BWV 578)

If I had to submit a candidate for the category of 'music video that adds most to the underlying song', this would have a very good chance of victory.

Which, given the song, may seem odd at first, but being able to visualise the different voices is incredibly interesting.

On Roombas

Great sentences from Steve Sailer:
Robot & Frank raises the metaphysical question of what makes something human. Can simulacra easily manipulate our emotions? Can we actually care about things that can only pretend to care back?
The answer is yes. For instance, people who buy Roomba vacuum-cleaner robots frequently develop parental feelings toward their faithful—if often inept—servitors. Why do humans feel more warmly toward their Roombas than toward their dishwashers? The key emotional triggers are that Roombas move on their own, try hard, aren’t very bright, and they need much guidance and grooming. They’re like small children who love doing their chores.
Ha!

The specific emotional response isn't the same from person to person. I call my Roomba 'The Cleaning Lady', and tend to get irritated when it inevitably gets caught on clothes or cords on the floor.

But the level of emotional involvement is indeed much higher, exactly as Sailer notes. The satisfaction from not having to do the vacuuming is way higher than the satisfaction from having to clean the dishes.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Defence of Wasted Food

There was a CNN article on Hacker News recently complaining about the amount of wasted food in America today.
Forty percent of food in the United States is never eaten, amounting to $165 billion a year in waste, taking a toll on the country's water resources and significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council released this week.
The group says more than 20 pounds of food is wasted each month for each of 311 million Americans, amounting to $1,350 to $2,275 annually in waste for a family of four.
While wasted food is certainly not aesthetically satisfying, I find myself somewhat in the minority by viewing this as rather cheerful news. 

The main reason is that this is a huge celebratory victory lap in the quest of human beings to overcome what was the central problem of their existence from roughly 1 million B.C. until about 1950-ish: namely how to secure enough calories to stay alive.

Doubt not this fact - people waste food only because they know that there's plenty more where it came from. If there were some enormous, prolonged civil emergency in America where the food supply became insecure and sporadic, you can bet your bottom dollar that hungry people would very quickly revert to eating everything still in their refrigerator, tasty or not, out of expiry code or not. 

The definition of "wasted food", or even "food" in general, is something that varies with how desperate the economic condition is. There's a reason that people eat brains, kidneys, tripe, etc. in much smaller quantities than they used to. You know why? Because back then, meat was so scarce that you had to eat the whole animal. But now, cheeseburgers are delicious and cheap. If you go back to, say, the Battle of Stalingrad, people got so hungry that they would eat literally anything that contained a calorie. They would boil old leather boots - leather is skin, and has calories. Lipstick, made from animal fat, became a dessert. Even those bemoaning food wastage probably don't boil their shoes when they've worn through them.

The other problem with this view of the world is that it ignores the fact that food has a significant option value. When I do the shopping, I don't know exactly how many times I'm going to be eating at home in any given week. Maybe dinner plans will come up, and I'll go out. Maybe I'll have a big lunch and not be hungry. Maybe I'll just not feel like cooking.

When I'm buying food with a short expiry date, I'm buying the option of eating it later. The nature of options is that they sometimes expire unused. This doesn't mean the option wasn't worth something, it just means that something better came along. 

The types of foods that tend to have short expiry dates (and thus are more likely to be wasted) are fresh foods - fruit and vegetables, milk, meat, cheese. If all you eat is baked beans and spam, you'll probably have not much wasted food. But you'll be eating less healthily. I imagine that wasted food is probably also correlated with aspirations (unsuccessful, perhaps) towards healthy eating. You buy the broccoli thinking that you'll eat it. Maybe you go for a hot dog instead - hyperbolic discounting springs eternal. But if you never bought the broccoli, you would have eaten the hot dog with certainty.

I figure you always want to keep an eye on what the counterfactual is. Wasted food is generally fresh food. It would be nice if the counterfactual were more efficient consumption of fresh food. But it's probably just more processed food instead. Be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Whole Foods Doesn't Want My Money

In many ways, I would be a natural demographic for Whole Foods, grocers to crunchy yuppie mums everywhere, to market to. I like high quality fruit and vegetables. I'm fairly price insensitive. I live in an area where they are located fairly close by. I could be upsold on a bunch of other random interesting food items.

But I don't go there very often, except for certain specialty items. I certainly don't do my regular shopping there.

And why not?

Because they don't sell any Coca-Cola products.

Now, I'm not saying this means I boycott them on principle.

But rather, it means that if I want a regular supply of Coke Zero and want to buy their fruit and vegetables, I now have to visit two stores per shopping cycle*, instead of one.

And you know what? There are closer substitutes to Whole Foods high quality fruit and veg at the povvo supermarket than their are substitutes for Coke Zero among the gourmet artisan Mexican soft drinks, or whatever junk it is they have instead.

The thing I find so funny is that there is no chance that a small amount of shelf space devoted to Coke wouldn't shift some product. Hell, they'll devote entire aisles to ridiculous placebo pills and potions for every conceivable ailment, real or imagined. You're telling me that the fifth brand of echinacea sells more than Diet Coke would in the same shelf space? Don't make me laugh.

So why do they do it?

Simple. Because Whole Foods knows that they're marketing themselves to the demographic of wankers. These people pride themselves in part on not buying soft drinks because they're "bad for you", but clearly that's not enough. Not only do they not want to buy it themselves, they also don't want you to be able to buy it there either. They think that the presence of Coke would somehow taint their wholesome organic good-for-you vibe. With all of the puritan fury they can muster, they're eschewing patronising anyone who sells Coke products because ... well, frankly I've got no idea why. Insert crappy modish cause here.

The people running Whole Foods are no fools, of course. They seem to have estimated that there's far more money to be made appealing to the Anti-Coke puritan crowd than there is to be made appealing to me.

That's fine. It's a free country, they're a free company, and I wish them the best of luck.

But I'll take my low brow dollars somewhere that isn't too pompous to sell me a Coke Zero, and avoid the professional shopping-cart busybodies.

Which is a shame, because they have really good fruit. So it goes.

*The phrase 'shopping cycle' is used under advisement. The original draft read 'week', but then a fit of honesty compelled me to admit that the actual frequency is less than that.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Nice ' n ' Smooth Exponential Discounting

So I managed to be perhaps the last person in America to watch 'The Dark Knight Rises'. It reinforced everything I've thought about the fact that seeing movies when they first come out is just hyperbolic discounting on stilts. I got to see it in IMax, in the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday, at a really centrally located seat, and without having to queue up days in advance.

Now I just need to go back to Reddit from six weeks ago and read all those 'Good Guy Bane' memes that I was deliberately avoiding.

The one plot twist that I thought was going to happen (and would have been really excited to see) was when Bane took over the stock exchange. I was hoping that they'd put up fake data saying that the NYSE had fallen 80%, T-Bills had fallen 40% and that the entire economy was collapsing. That would definitely have had a huge destructive effect on markets around the world, and may have had persistent effects even after the truth was known. Sadly, they didn't do that direction.