Zompist's Rant Page : 2007

Another year of something that looks like a blog and sounds like a blog, but it's actually a rant page.

Rants for 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008

31 Dec 2007: Dark matter and dark materials
I just finished Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Except for the last hundred pages, it's great. It's wildly inventive, uproariously fast-paced, and bubbles with characters that could each have been given a book of their own.

The closest comparison is with C.S. Lewis's Narnia series and Space Triology-- ironically, since apparently Pullman hates Lewis. But both authors have multiple worlds, talking animals, wise professors and wiser children, good and evil semideities, a devotion to Oxford, and a philosophical agenda. The Gallivespians owe much to Reepicheep. They even both have a similar view of war: they find it a terrible thing, yet look most admiringly on noble and powerful warriors.

As for that agenda... Lewis and Pullman aren't as far apart as they might think. What with the manifested souls, exaltation of consciousness, angels, life after death, and references to the Bible and Milton, this is hardly an irreligious view of the world. It's deeply anticlerical, certainly; but you could say the same of Jesus, whose harshest words targeted the organized religion of his day. The repressive anti-joy Magisterium is a parody of the Papacy, but its theology is not Catholic but Calvinist. And I can't abide Calvinism myself; there's something really nasty-minded in its determination to abolish free will.

The last volume is unsatisfying, however. The great temptation for authors (and comic writers) is, I think, to fall in love with their characters. They stop making mistakes; the other characters fall in line behind them, protecting them from harm; and here, they even fall for each other. It's particularly disappointing here because both Lyra and Will start out as sympathetic antiheroes: Lyra is a lying half-savage; Will is a loner with blood on his hands. They end up separated, but this is pure authorial fiat; Pullman has simply imposed an annoying restriction on them, one which contradicts the main themes of the book. Wasn't this a book about getting into the wider universe and rebelling against arbitrary rules that prevent human happiness?

The movie, by the way, is fun and lovely to look at, but largely just illustrates the book, without adding much character of its own. It moves so quickly that there's barely time for many of the characters to register.

13 Oct 2007: The Right's noseplant
Thanks to Agto for pointing this out: a fascinating article by Sara Robinson on how Christians have become a noisome smell in the collective nostril. A Christian organization, the Barna Group, polled 16- to 29-year olds, and found:

As Robinson points out, the authoritarian reponse to bad news is to become more authoritarian, more radical, more uncompromising. But this survey is one of several signs that this reflex has become counter-productive.

And here's more good news: the super-rich are abandoning the Republicans. One clue: Democrats are raising more funds than the Republicans: $390 million to $290 million in the first half of 2007. Commonly cited problems: the bungled war in Iraq, fiscal irresponsiblity, and poor disaster management.

People are stupid... they may yet decide they want Rudy Giuliani as president. But just maybe, the country is finally getting sick of bottom-crawling judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and incompetence.

4 Aug 2007: Good and bad Orientals: 1943
The ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive has a fasinating Dispatch From Disney's from 1943, detailing how Disney was contributing to the war effort.

Lots of interesting art; one striking bit was this pair of portraits from Hank Porter:

What fascinates me about these pictures is how subtle and how propagandistic they are at the same time. The Chinese guy is noble and yet innocent-- he obviously needs Uncle Sam's protection, but he won't let us down once he gets it. The Jap is by no means as caricatured as in other wartime images, but he's clearly a villain. And nearsighted. I would really like someone to explain to me why the WWII stereotype of the Japanese was that they all had bad eyes.

Also worth a long lingering gander: a geographical depiction of the pull of major league baseball teams. (The magnification UI is also pretty cool.)

12 Jul 2007: Our purple country
I ran into this fascinating map while researching election results. It's a cartogram of the 2004 presidential election, coloring each county by its proportion of blue (Dem) or red (Bush) votes, and sizing each county by population

The map comes from Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman of the University of Michigan.

Compare to this map of the 2006 House election. But this map shows even more spectacularly where exactly the blue and red are: blue in the big cities, red in the rural areas, purple in the suburbs.

What it highlights even more is how much of the population is urban and suburban. You can see all our mid-size cities as purple islands floating in a net of red , and of course our biggest cities as honking big blue areas.

Also worth a look: Newman's cartograms of some basic world data.

8 Jul 2007: Moore bitter blues
Last week my wife dragged me to see Sicko. I'd never seen a Michael Moore film, and I didn't have high expectations. But in fact it's a remarkable film and you ought to see it. Even you half-dozen conservatives or libertarians who read this site.

Moore's case is almost entirely anecdotal, and that has pluses and minuses. On the plus side, anecdotal stories are pretty much undeniable as individual cases. The people who tell their stories to Moore have been screwed over by the health industry.

'Anecdotal' is almost a swear word for academics, because individual cases don't prove a trend. But they can suggest one; the question is, are Moore's cases isolated? The fact that he received tens of thousands of cases when he asked for them suggests that they're not. The wider test is whether Moore's stories will resonate with the public. I think it will. It certainly does with me; I'm not spectacularly unhappy with my health plan, but it's expensive, and an enormous worry in periods between jobs. I'd switch in a minute to the universal plans Moore highlights.

Moore plays a little dumb in his interviews, affecting astonishment that there's no hospital bills in France and Britain. This may hide the fact that he actually does respond to the obvious counter-attacks: the film points out that our life expectancy is lower than in countries with universal health care; that national health doctors don't live in poverty; that health bureaucracy is worse in the US than with universal care; that the higher taxes don't prevent a comfortable middle class lifestyle, and even facilitate it, by eliminating major classes of expenses. Compared with France, the US in effect taxes the young, burdening young couples with university loan repayments, child care, and health care costs.

There's an interesting clip in which Richard Nixon approves the "incentives" in the original HMOs— that is, HMOs are supposed to combat people's apparently irresistible urge to go to the doctor all day long, and we'll save on health care. If that's the idea, it fails, since we pay more than countries with universal care. But if you're talking incentives, let's look at the perverse incentives in our own system. As Moore points out, people are paid bonuses in our system to prevent people from getting health care. Insurance companies see it as their mission to collect money and not pay it out. Someday we'll be smart enough to see this and make them reform or disappear.

Health is unlike other sectors of the economy in that costs have little relation to individual choices and values. Health is pretty much a lottery: you don't choose to get cancer, or break your leg, or lose your hearing. That makes it singularly unsuitable for market forces. The rational approach to this sort of expense is not to make the sick pay the most; it's to spread the risk out as broadly as possible.

(Aren't some health costs subject to our control? Sure: stop smoking and eat less. Again, Moore's film suggest that this sort of thing is handled better, not worse, under national health plans— they can concentrate more on preventive medicine.)

Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. Universal care hasn't seemed possible in this country for years. Moore has done a great service, I think, by making it seem possible. He's not asking for a utopian dream; he's asking for something other countries have had for decades.

What he hasn't done is to have the last word. Sicko certainly doesn't prove that nationalized health care is the best system. But it makes it a lot harder to justify the current system, which is inefficient, unjust, expensive, and out of control. If you have another way to fix it, I'm happy to hear about it, but contentions that it's not broken are off the table.

20 May 2007: More on authoritarians
Alert reader Butsuri points out that Bob Altemeyer's book The Authoritarians is available online. It's very much worth reading, perhaps even more so than Dean's book. A few key factoids about authoritarians not covered below:

After reading Altemeyer, I'm tending to look for these personality types all over. E.g. in the recent film The Lives of Others, which is about the East German Stasi, the main character, an emotionally frigid observer, is clearly an authoritarian; his bosses are social dominators. (Authoritarians gravitate toward the right wing, but of course in a communist state they identify with the communist authorities.)

3 May 2007: Conservativism conquered from within
For years I've wondered about two things: 1. Where did all these conservatives come from? 2. And what the hell is wrong with them?

John Dean answers both questions in Conservatives Without Conscience. Dean is a Goldwater Republican himself, and offers a somewhat critical history of the conservative movement from its ancient origins, circa 1951. (Dean shows that attempts to find earlier antecedents are largely mythologizing.)

As he presents it, conservativism is a fairly reasonable philosophy, all of whose grand values— small government, fiscal responsibility, restrictions on the executive, states' rights, respect for precedent and for institutions, skepticism about utopian schemes— have been repudiated by the Republican Party to the point of mockery.

How did this happen? Dean illuminates his political history with Robert Altemeyer's theories of personality. In particular, Altemeyer identifies two types, the Right-Wing Authoritarian (RWAs) and the Social Dominators— and Dean describes how they have taken over conservativism and the Republicans.

These are not ideological positions but social types. Indeed, RWAs can be identified in nursery school: they're the children who are inhibited, conformist, intolerant of ambiguity; the little girls are in addition neat, shy, and compliant, and the little boys are moralistic and unadventurous, and enjoy telling others what to do.

RWAs are natural followers— though they only follow leaders they approve of, which explains why the right worshipped "Our Leader" Bush while never respecting Clinton. They are highly conventional; they consider themselves very moral; they don't think very critically; they view the world as a dangerous place where only their leaders can be trusted. And they're easily moved to aggression against outsiders, if their leaders advocate it.

Social Dominators are not just leaders, but people who seize every opportunity to control other people. They are strongly inegalitarian, value unfeeling toughness, and are frankly immoral.

Leaders, even conservative leaders, don't have to be Social Dominators. Goldwater wasn't; Reagan wasn't. But the Social Dominators have taken over the party: Bush, Cheney, Rove, DeLay, Gingrich, and the rest— ruthless people with no scruples. And the RWAs support them uncritically.

All this should be appalling not only to liberals but to principled conservatives and libertarians. And for that matter anyone who values effective government. As Joshua Marshall points out, these things are connected:

The president's critics are always accusing him of law-breaking or unconstitutional acts and then also berating the incompetence of his governance. And it's often treated as, well... he's power-hungry and incompetent to boot! Imagine that! The point though is that they are directly connected. Authoritarianism and secrecy breed incompetence; the two feed on each other. Governments with authoritarian tendencies point to what is in fact their own incompetence as the rationale for giving them yet more power.

20 Mar 2007: Bond overdose
I just finished Simon Winder's The Man Who Saved Britain: A personal journey into the disturbing world of James Bond, a good book that would have been an even better essay. His basic point is suggested by the title: it really really sucked to be Britain in the 1950s. Britain had won the war but lost the peace... it was poor, its manufacturing dribbed away, it was falling behind Europe, its empire was lost, and with it its self-image. James Bond and the Beatles made it cool to be British again. Best of all, Bond invented a way to not compete with the US and still feel superior.

Winder points out that Bond is a puffed-up portrait of Ian Fleming himself: an upper-class twit who demonstrates unexpected competence in the world of espionage. His larger thesis is that Bond expresses an old Tory's annoyance over Britain losing its position in the world— a loss vaguely blamed on Labour, though Britain really had no resources to preserve it.

This got me interested in the Bond novels, and I picked up a couple of them. I had read only ever read part of The Man with the Golden Gun, and thought that the books would be full of tedious anti-communism... but in fact the politics is marginal in Casino Royale and Doctor No. I'd even say that the obligatory Russian spies bored Fleming; his writing comes alive only as soon as the realistic espionage is left behind, and he can concentrate on luxury, diving, and psychopaths.

Casino Royale has one of the strangest plot structures I've ever encountered. The villain is soundly defeated 2/3 of the way through the book. The remainder is taken up with a doomed love story— the doom has been foreshadowed from the start; and the denouement isn't even triggered by Bond. (And though it's set in a casino, it's not even Monte Carlo— the whole book is set in a third-string town in Normandy. Winder tells us that with postwar travel restrictions, this was exotic enough for Fleming's first readers.)

I've also been watching some of the movies again— the Connerys, of course. There's not much to say about them, except to note that, besides Bond, one of the best things about the films is the music. Who couldn't be a glamorous secret agent with that soundtrack? (If "secret" is the word for an agent who almost never bothers with an alias.)

The latest movie, by the way, is perhaps the best since the Connery Bonds. It was about time to sweep away the camp.

11 Mar 2007: The Hot Gates
So, Jeffrey treated us to a showing of 300 during work hours... largely because most people's wives weren't interested in it. 300 is about the diametric opposite of a chick flick. (Though one female co-worker went with us and enjoyed all the sweaty pecs on display.)

Miller, a little twerp of a cartoonist, has a thing for extremely red-blooded heroes; he sometimes seems just a couple steps away from fascism, though he does make sure his villains are at least twice as nasty as his heroes. Ancient Sparta is right up his alley.

No matter; it's a great story, and so long as you're not expecting Hamlet it's a great movie. One review I read suggested that its nuanceless glorification of war is tone-deaf when the country is at war. That seems pretty silly; the comic was published in 1998, and celebrates an event that's been justly famous for 2500 years. The Persians were by no means great villains— note that in the other ancient literature we all know, the Bible, they're presented very benignly, as they allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem— but their massive invasion of Greece is indefensible, and we have reason to be thankful that the Hellenic city-states preserved their freedom.

Some factoids about the war or the Spartans, gleaned mostly from Wikipedia and from Herodotus:

19 Feb 2007: Touting my brother

My older brother Terry has a website now, showing off his beautiful and painstaking paintings. They're mostly water scenes, from North Carolina or Maine. Check it out and buy three or four.

Don't miss the slideshows, which include pictures from his years in the Peace Corps serving in Ethiopia. Under "Coastal Scenes' you can even find a picture of a rather younger Zompist.

4 Feb 2007: What kind of ape are we?
Frans de Waal's Our Inner Ape is a good read. His main point is that people misunderstand both Darwinian evolution and our place among the apes— in both cases emphasizing aggression and violence. Backing up this view are the chimpanzees as we now know them: dominated by powerful males, and not above meat-eating, infanticide, murder, war, and rape.

This isn't a balanced view of the chimps, but the main contrast de Waal draws is with the bonobos, who are like the Berkeley version of apes. They are matriarchal, relatively peaceful, and jaw-droppingly promiscuous— they use sex as social glue, using it to cement alliances, reconcile after a fight, even to express high spirits on discovering a food source. Both male-male and female-female sex is observed— indeed, the latter is the most frequently observed.

Our natural inheritance, therefore, is not limited to animal aggression; it also includes co-operation, empathy, and reconciliation. We are equally related to chimps and bonobos; yet our nature is not a middle point, but overlaps both ends. We can be more aggressive and warlike than the chimps as well as more pacific and empathetic than the bonobos.

Read enough studies of animal behavior and you may get a very poor impression of males— often brutish, murderous, and frankly caddish with their females. Both in nature and among humans, females can seem to be more peaceful, more level-headed— really the ideal citizens of the future. De Waal offers an observation to balance this picture: among monkeys and apes— including humans— males are much better at reconciliation. Females are peacekeepers: they go out of the way to avoid fights; but once they fight their relationships may be sundered indefinitely. Males are peacemakers: they fight very easily, but also reconcile quickly, restoring wounded relationships.

Another good book for widening one's perspective: Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, by Olivia Judson, a survey of unusual sex practices from all of biology. There are some very strange behaviors out there; few generalizations about males and females hold for even all mammals, much less all animal life.

7 Jan 2007: More mistakes in Iraq
Kenneth Pollack has a great article on what went wrong in Iraq. It's an excellent summary, and adds up to a devastating indictment of the Bush administration.

Much of it has will be familiar to those who have read George Packer's the Assassins' Gate, but two good points were news to me:

The worst tragedy of Iraq is that almost every mistake was avoidable. At every point the Bush administration had access to key knowledge and chose fantasy instead.

Get me outta