Saturday, August 27, 2011

On the edge of the storm

Satellites are astonishing: right now it's merely cloudy, but I can see that the clouds here are at the edge of the giant storm. My father is one block away from the NYC evacuation zone, so he may be heading out of the financial district and to my grandmother's place in upper Manhattan as I type.

Economic disasters are harder to see, especially if everyone involved has a motivation to pretend it's not coming. But if you pay attention, you can see some of those coming too... like the collapse of the housing bubble in Australia, perhaps finally about to arrive.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Lessons of War

I've been reading Beatrice Webb's autobiography, "My Apprenticeship", and came across this astonishing quotation she includes from Charles Bradlaugh, who wrote this in 1872:

"These bodies which now we wear belong to the lower animals; our minds have already outgrown them; already we look upon them with contempt. A time will come when Science will transform them by means which we cannot conjecture, and which if explained to us we would not now understand, just as the savage cannot understand electricity, magnetism, steam. Disease will be extirpated; the causes of decay will be removed; immortality will be invented. And then the earth being small, mankind will emigrate into space and will cross airless Saharas which separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. The earth will become a Holy Land which will be visited by pilgrims from all quarters of the universe. Finally, men will master the forces of Nature; they will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds. Man will then be perfect; he will be a creator; he will therefore be what the vulgar worship as God."

She explains however that this religion of science is no longer conceivable: "In these latter days of deep disillusionment, now that we have learnt, by the bitter experience of the Great War, to what vile uses the methods and results of science may be put, when these are inspired and directed by brutal instinct and base motive, it is hard to understand the naive belief of the most original and vigorous minds of the 'seventies and 'eighties that it was by science, and by science alone, that all human misery would be ultimately swept away."

And yet, this "naive belief" survived well into the 20th century among Science Fiction writers. Are SF writers just behind the times? Personally I suspect it's more that so many of the writers were Americans, and the impact of World War I, and later World War II, was never really felt in the same way in the US. Wikipedia suggests almost 10 million combat casualties in WWI of which only 116,000 were Americans; if the US had some proportion of casualties to population as the rest of the combatants, it would've been more like a million US casualties, ten time as many... and that's even before civilian deaths.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A bunch of quacks

Kragen hates object-oriented ducks:

"The problem with examples like `Duck extends Bird` is that it gives you no understanding of the kind of considerations you need to think about in order to decide whether the design decisions discussed above are good or bad.

In fact, it actively sabotages that understanding.

You can’t add code to ducks.

You can’t refactor ducks.

Ducks don’t implement protocols.

You can’t create a new species in order to separate some concerns (e.g. file I/O and word splitting).

You can’t fake the ability to turn a duck into a penguin by moving its duckness into an animal of some other species that can be replaced at runtime."

Monday, June 27, 2011

Oh dear

The always excellent "Behind the News" interviewed Yanis Varoufakis a few weeks ago on the crisis in Greece (the second half of the show). Short story: if Greece leaves the Euro, bank runs in other periphery countries on expectations of devaluation (e.g. Ireland), and Germany will leave the Euro so it doesn't have to bail them out; the Euro monetary union will be gone within days. At that point Germany and other surplus countries will have a deep recession as their new currencies appreciate and their exports become expensive.

More at Varoufakis' blog.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Arithmetic, it is hard

From the Massachusetts Association of Realtors®:

When REALTOR® members were asked about what they thought was going to happen with interest rates in the next 12 months, 67 percent responded that rates would either increase significantly (1 percent) or increase slightly (66 percent). Thirty-six percent thought interest rates would stay the same and four percent thought interest rates would drop slightly. None of the respondents thought interest rates would drop significantly in the next 12 months.

67% + 36% + 4% = 107%. Obviously there are too many Realtors® in MA...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Political question of the day

Does being associated with an unpleasant substance like santorum impede one's ability to run for President? How do you fight back against what you feel is a smear campaign, especially when you can't call it that?

Rick Santorum's solution is to complain about a double standard of incivility. My proposal: double down with more comparisons of homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia and then choose a new campaign slogan: "More civility, less civil rights." The conservative base will love it.

On the other hand, I've seen some conservative blogger who dislikes Santorum because he supports food stamps. So maybe the faction of the Republican party that hates poor people more than it hates gay people will kick him out in the primaries and the interwebs will have to stop making horrible puns.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Poem for Thomas Friedman

The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song
as our victorious heroes step up to the plate
their hearts aflame with desire
to eat the calamari of freedom.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Nitwit Narwhal

I installed the new Ubuntu, and of course the new UI is terrible. In particular, you have to guess: unless I knew from previous experience where menu bars and scroll bars ought to be, I would never know they existed. Likewise, unless I knew that previous versions of Ubuntu had control panels, I would never know that such things existed. I'm sure the list goes on.

Friday, April 1, 2011

They care!

NYTimes: "The White House and the Democratic Party are banking on voters focusing not on the unemployment rate, but on a trend of job growth."

Actual jobs are, of course, far less important than the perception that the unemployed might possibly get their jobs back in 2016. After years with no income, degraded skills, and a resume with a giant hole, and... how's that supposed to work again?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Liberating the world, block by block

From the Guardian:

Ayman Abdullah, a 43-year-old teacher, said he regards [Tahrir] Square as liberated territory.

"This is the first piece of the new Egypt. Mubarak does not rule here anymore. Suleiman does not rule here. We will rule here and will rule all of Egypt," he said.

Which reminded me of the Temporary Autonomous Zone:

Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom? Are we reduced either to nostalgia for the past or nostalgia for the future? Must we wait until the entire world is freed of political control before even one of us can claim to know freedom? Logic and emotion unite to condemn such a supposition. Reason demands that one cannot struggle for what one does not know; and the heart revolts at a universe so cruel as to visit such injustices on our generation alone of humankind.


Let us admit that we have attended parties where for one brief night a republic of gratified desires was attained. Shall we not confess that the politics of that night have more reality and force for us than those of, say, the entire U.S. Government? Some of the "parties" we've mentioned lasted for two or three years. Is this something worth imagining, worth fighting for? Let us study invisibility, webworking, psychic nomadism--and who knows what we might attain?

And from Ken MacLeod:
In Tahrir Square last week thousands of people stood up to a counter-revolutionary mob and fought it back, yard by yard over a long day and night, with sticks and stones. In those few hours they proved in practice that the human being's conscious will can change history. They brought the human subject and human emancipation back into politics. Whatever the immediate outcome in Egypt, this consciousness will not go away. We can all go back to being human. That doesn't mean we will all love each other. It means we can fight each other for good reasons.

As someone said on Twitter: 'Yesterday we were all Tunisians. Today we are all Egyptians. Tomorrow we will all be free.'

Monday, February 7, 2011

Can we just shoot Javascript and pretend it never happened?

The Gizmodo/Io9/etc. complex has switched to a new design which is astonishingly, stupidly unusable. And slow. It's like it was designed by some sort of idiot savant who had to invent scrollbars from scratch because he'd never heard of them. For comparison, they still have a variation on the old, sane interface.

I'm sure it works adequately on an iPad though, and that's what really matters, right?

Update: A coworker with an iPad tested it for me, and I was wrong, it's completely broken there.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

King in Council

Some of the best classes I took at the Harvard Extension School were the World History series with Prof. Ostrowski. Two points he emphasized have stuck with me. The first, the importance of a sufficiently high threshold of evidence. For example, there is no contemporary evidence that Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door, nor is it ever mentioned in his own extensive writings. Somehow, everyone has still heard this apparently fictional story.

The other point was that a ruler is very seldom an unrestrained, all-powerful dictator. Instead, a much more common model is the King in Council, where the ruler is the balance point between various factions of the elite, who advise him and constrain his actions.

"On the Durability of King and Council: The Continuum Between Dictatorship and Democracy" is quite possibly the academic paper he was inspired by. Certainly it seems like a good discussion of the subject:
Abstract. In practice one rarely observes pure forms of dictatorship that lack a council, or pure forms of parliament that lack an executive. Generally government policies emerge from organizations that combine an executive branch of government, ``the king,'' with a cabinet or parliamentary branch, ``the council.'' This paper provides an explanation for this regularity, and also provides an evolutionary model of the emergence of democracy that does not require a revolution. The analysis demonstrates that the bipolar ``king and council'' constitutional template has a number of properties that gives it great practical efficiency as a method of information processing and as a very flexible institutional arrangement for making collective decisions.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Two thoughts on Egypt

  1. The first historical comparison that came to my mind was 1848, but I've seen at least one writer compare the street protests to 1989 in Eastern Europe. The revolutions of 1848 were related but separate, and they mostly failed, or were undermined soon after... but the people remembered, and eventually democracy won (more or less). 1989 was the collapse of an empire, with local governments' weakness in the periphery demonstrating the fragility and lack of power of the Soviet Union in the center. If this is 1989, then the empire that is weakening is the United States.
  2. If Mubarak goes, quite possibly the Egyptian cooperation with Israel's Gaza blockade will also go; I suspect it's not popular with actual Egyptians. Relations with Israel would deteriorate. Separately, this would increase the chances of Israeli military action in Gaza. Relations between Israel and Egypt would deteriorate further.