Friday, March 30, 2007

Killer of Sheep

I won't even try to link to all of the amazing reviews that have been pouring in from all sources for Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, a 1976 film that never had a theatrical release but nevertheless has been nearly universally acclaimed as a lost masterpiece, one of the best American films ever made, and required watching by anyone the least bit interested in cinema. I, of course, have never heard of it. So Google it. That's what I had to do.

But -- that doesn't mean that I am not stoked about its restoration and re-release, and will do everything I can to try to see it either in NYC or, if I am so fortunate and a print manages to migrate its way down I-95, here in Philadelphia.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

That's Right -- Star Wars!

The BBC reports that binary solar systems are a lot more common than we thought. And they totally lead with a picture of Luke Skywalker!

What's more astonishing still: while I'm always interested in new astronomical discoveries, I mouthed the words of my title above before I even saw the link. The RSS feed only says: "Many planets could have twin suns: Planets with twin suns may be common in the galaxy, according to data from the Spitzer Space Telescope."

It's like the BBC and I are like this. (crosses fingers)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Black Eye

A fantastic tease of a story, complete with new photos, about a 1976 fistfight between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. I want more.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Alexandria, Together

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a nice audio interview (welcome to the digital age, CHE!) with Brewster Kahle, who heads up the Open Content Alliance, a consortium of university libraries who want to digitize out-of-copyright material in their stacks and make it freely available. Google, on the other hand, while more Herculean in their ambition, is just a little bit evil when it comes to this sort of thing.

On the other side of it, the scale of the Open Content Alliance, as well as decreasing technology costs, are making it much more affordable to make great digital copies of old books, down to 10 cents a page. That's cheaper than a color copy! And it's digital, bitches -- that's like a million copies! Text-searchable, too!

I still think there has to be some sort of grand alliance between Google, the nonprofits, and universities to make these older texts available. Universities have the texts, which they can better preserve and promote if people can get them digitally; Google has the storage, the interface, and the public platform, which they can use to win over whole generations of users and tie in to their other offerings; and the nonprofits have the public mission, which is to get this to the people for free.

There will probably have to be other considerations -- maybe Google works with the universities on course-management and communication apps, maybe the nonprofits take over some of the specialty heavy-lifting on scanning out-of-print/out-of-copyright works. But if this could work, everyone will win -- especially readers.

Monday, March 26, 2007

You Know, Technically, Both Ethanol And Wind Power Are Solar Power Too

Great interview on energy policy, or the lack thereof, in Foreign Policy with the Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown. Highlights:

LB: An industry that was once solely dependent on the ethanol subsidy had to go through the fiscal process each year, so someone controlled that. But it’s gasoline prices being around $3 that has really sparked this investment frenzy in corn-based ethanol. So no one’s in charge anymore. The licensing of distilleries is done at the state level, and the governors in all the Corn Belt states want as many distilleries as they can get. And there’s a very strong lobby here in Washington because every Corn Belt state has two senators. They’ll trade off all sorts of things to get what they want in this particular area because it’s so big for them. And just as there’s nobody in charge at the national level, there’s no one responsible at the international level either. There’s no U.N. agency or office to mediate the competition between two groups that are competing for the same resources: the 2 billion poorest people in the world, many of whom already spend half or more of their income on food, and the 800 million people in the world who own automobiles.

Like the rest of us, those 2 billion poorest people in the world eat a lot of corn: Brown references this year's in Mexico that protested rising corn prices (caused by, you guessed it, increased demand for ethanol).

Brown also gives the best, most succinct story I've ever heard describing the untapped potential of wind-generated energy:

FP: If wind-generated electricity is so great, what’s holding it back?

LB: Certainly not supply: We have enough wind energy to run the whole economy and not even come close to striking the full potential. In 1991, the Department of Energy did a national wind resource inventory that showed that three of our 50 states, North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas, have enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs. We know that was a gross underestimate because it was based on wind turbine technology in 1991. Advances since then enable larger turbines to operate at lower wind speeds and convert wind to electricity more efficiently, so they’re harnessing a much larger, stronger, more reliable wind regime. And I haven’t even mentioned offshore yet. We have plenty of wind.

Monday, March 19, 2007

My Turn is Coming, My Turn is Coming

Read this:

Ahmed took two taxis to the Green Zone, then walked the last few hundred yards, or drove a different route every day. He carried a decoy phone and hid his Embassy phone in his car. He had always loved the idea of wearing a jacket and tie in an official job, but he had to keep them in his office at the Embassy—it was impossible to drive to work dressed like that. Ahmed and the other Iraqis entered code names for friends and colleagues into their phones, in case they were kidnapped. Whenever they got a call in public from an American contact, they answered in Arabic and immediately hung up. They communicated mostly by text message. They never spoke English in front of their children. One Iraqi employee slept in his car in the Green Zone parking lot for several nights, because it was too dangerous to go home.

And this:

On the morning of October 13th, an Iraqi official with U.S.A.I.D. named Yaghdan left his house in western Baghdad, in search of fuel for his generator. He saw a scrap of paper lying by the garage door. It was a torn sheet of copybook paper—the kind that his agency distributed to schools around Iraq, with date and subject lines printed in English and Arabic. The paper bore a message, in Arabic: “We will cut off heads and throw them in the garbage.” Nearby, against the garden fence, lay the severed upper half of a small dog.

George Packer's "Betrayed," in this week's New Yorker, describes how the American government failed virtually every Iraqi who welcomed their coming and was willing to work with the Americans to build the country. With the possible exception of Seymour Hersh's exposure of Abu Ghraib, I think it is the best piece of reporting I have ever read about Iraq.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Real Story of Daniel Pearl

Details of Pearl's death, from a May 2004 article in the UK's Telegraph, via Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish. Simultaneously horrifying and somehow human.

The New Default

There's a good article in the New York Times by Teresa Tritch called "Helping People Help Themselves," about the influence of behavioral economics on public policy. (It's TimesSelect, but if you've got an .edu address, that's no longer a problem.) In particular, Tritch looks at the 2006 pension reform bill:

A key provision of the 2006 pension reform law allows an employer to automatically enroll employees in the company’s 401(k) retirement plan, rather than requiring them to sign up.

The idea for “auto-enrollment” came from research in behavioral economics showing that status quo bias is prominent among the factors that keep non-savers from participating fully in 401(k)s. The tendency to continue doing what one has always done — such as spending one’s paycheck rather than saving a portion of it — is often stronger than the rational arguments in favor of joining the 401(k). Procrastination only magnifies status quo bias.

Automatically enrolling all employees circumvents status quo bias — but not, it’s important to note, by usurping choice. Employees are free to opt out if they don’t want to participate. Once enrolled, however, status quo bias works for — not against — the goal of bigger nest eggs, because saving a part of each paycheck becomes the new norm, helping to ensure that workers stick with the savings program.

Tritch also describes “loss aversion” (where people feel perceived loss more acutely than gain) and "endowment effect" (a kind of fetishization of our own money because we have it). Both of these, along with "decision paralysis" (where we avoid decision in favor of the default), typically hinder us from making the calculation that 401(k) contributions are a good idea. Instead, we hold onto our money like it's, well, money.

But if our default position is to opt-in rather than opt-out, we're much more likely to do it. It's less work, for one thing; and it's easier for us to rationalize pension contributions as one more thing that's taken out of our check, whether we do anything or not. It becomes the new default -- we could choose to opt out and do something else with our money, but in the absence of strong economic pressure or an usually market-minded mindset, we probably won't.

Tritch generally avoids coming down firmly on any policy prescriptions apart from the pension law, opting for open-ended rhetorical questions instead. But she does approvingly quote the following general principle, from economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein:

Mr. Thaler and Mr. Sunstein point out that in situations where it seems that no one is making a controlling decision, it is usually because “the starting point appears so natural and obvious,” it is taken as a given. Automatic enrollment, however, is a different choice that establishes a different default position. Is steering the employee in the direction of participating objectionable? No, especially since the employee is free to opt out.

Which leads to their second point in the search for a middle way between hands-off government and the nanny state. If no coercion is involved, there is no justification for rejecting government interventions out of hand.

There are two policy areas that I immediately thought of when I read this, each of which would push the status quo in opposite directions.

The first is health care. Most employer-based health care begins with a default position, the plan chosen by your employer; however, you can choose to opt out, getting a lump sum that you can put towards shopping another plan (or if you already have coverage through a spouse, pocketing the difference).

Why wouldn't this work for government-paid health insurance as well? The default plan would enroll everyone in one (or perhaps a mercifully small selection) of national health care plans; if you don't like any of those plans, or don't want to have health insurance, you could petition to get your money back. It wouldn't kill the private health insurance industry, but would definitely transform it; you could easily imagine higher-priced boutique insurance (the equivalent of private prep school) and cut-rate catastrophic care plans (the equivalent of just-legal liability-only car insurance). It would be much closer to a genuine free market than what we have now -- and by default, everyone would be covered.

The other policy area is K-12 education, where the default position is (rightly, in my opinion) automatic enrollment, but which is currently by Thaler and Sunstein's standards a tad on the coercive side. In most cases, you're required to enroll in the neighborhood public school, or, if you opt for private school, you get nothing back to offset the increased tuition. The auto-enroll + anti-coercion position pushes you towards a real school-of-choice program plus private school tuition rebates/vouchers. Which is, conveniently, the position I find myself supporting most of the time.

I'm not sure how I would feel about allowing children/parents to go off the grid entirely, for either home-schooling or non-education altogether. Again, my typical position is that mandatory education exists in part to protect children from the choices of their parents, and get them to the point where they can make economic, political, educational, and personal decisions for themselves. You have to remember, for every parent who wants to home-school their child so they can teach them about Jesus, there's a drug-addicted or alcoholic parent who would be more than happy to have their kids drop out if it meant a few extra thousand dollars in income.

This is the other point, which is that economic choice requires some basic level of government regulation. You can't have a fly-by-night insurance company making off with people's health insurance money and either refusing to pay out or making off with it altogether. Likewise, if the money is being routed through the federal government for the purpose of education, schools receiving this money should submit to some regulation to meet standards for their educational mission. If private schools weren't willing to submit to any regulation, they could continue to operate the way they do now, totally subsisting off tuition, donations, and endowment. No federal education money.

To me, this seems like a much saner approach to both health care and education than either the current status quo or the utopian dreams of either a totally-market-based or totally-socialized approach. But surely, even with my refined intellect, there's something here I'm missing. Any thoughts?

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Sow That Eats Its Own Farrow

A reprinted classic from Slate on the amazing Saint Patrick, about whom everything you know is false and everything you don't know is much more impressive.

The money line calls Patrick "the Irishman who didn't rid the land of snakes, didn't compare the Trinity to the shamrock, and wasn't even Irish." But is this last observation really a surprise? Just as Gavin once noted that the English always change out their kings when they get to be too English, virtually no Irish heroes are throughgoingly Irish. Either they were born someplace else (Patrick, John Kennedy, The Beatles), or if they were born in Ireland, quickly moved away and/or died in shame (Parnell, Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, Yeats). Someone born in Ireland, who lived a heroic life, and died in Eire well-loved by the people around him could never be an Irish hero. He would just be an Irishman.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sometimes, College Pays Off

Peep this, from the New York Times:

TimesSelect is now free for University Students and Faculty.

If you've got an .edu address, click on the link to make it happen. I had problems verifying my email, but I'm counting on it to work out eventually.

Hello, Frank Rich!

Reading In A World Of Your Own

There's an article in Newsweek on "Baby Boomers and Books: A Love Affair." The author, Malcolm Jones, tries -- somewhat half-heartedly and unsuccessfully -- to clear the boomers of the charge of narcissism through their reading. Instead, he shows that the books most important to his circle of boomers were written and published during their lifetimes, were targeted to them in particular, and were disproportionately sappy and/or escapist.

The best literature written during the boomers' lifetimes, and which largely accidentally wound up shaping boomers' literary tastes, was neither written by nor for them. On the Road, Howl, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Catcher In The Rye -- all of these books were written by and for the generation of G.I.s, the young men (mostly) born in the teens and twenties who came of age in the forties and fifties, who fought for their country and came home to go to school, make art, fight for change, and create a world of sexual, social, and artistic freedom, sometimes in cities, sometimes in small groups, sometimes completely on their own.

The Kennedys were of the G.I. generation; so was Martin Luther King, Jr. (slightly too young for WWII), Thurgood Marshall (slightly too old), Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan, Dick Leitsch and the other early organizers for gay rights, and virtually all of the other political figures we associate with the 1960s.

In literature, the GI generation includes Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright (a little long in the tooth with this group), Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Flannery O'Connor, Norman Mailer, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Elizabeth Bishop. In short, virtually every writer we associate with substantial achievement in postwar American literature. Even Phillip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Sylvia Plath were born in the 1930s. Calling them boomers is like calling the Harlem Renaissance and young modernist generation GIs.

The only unifying cultural experiences for baby boomers, and in which they led the charge, were the anti-Vietnam movement, 1960s rock and roll, and 1970s cinema. There has been no substantial contribution of the baby boomers to art or literature on anywhere near the scale of the generation preceding them. The rest is narcissism and intrigue.

Friday, March 09, 2007

More Real Than Reality Itself

Jean Baudrillard died on Tuesday.

His obituary in the New York Times is surprisingly sympathetic -- certainly much better than the early Le Monde obit for Derrida -- even if it gets a few things not quite right and needlessly gives more publicity to the intellectual hoaxters Sokal and Bricmont, quoting a passage that probably has nothing to do with Baudrillard. (At least no one seems to be reading Sokal and Bricmont's book.) This might be because either more people in the media understood Baudrillard (writing about their own terrain, not the history of literature and philosophy) or because they didn't understand him at all. You can read the obituary either way.

The next day, it seemed almost as though Baudrillard had played some kind of Bunuelian joke from beyond the grave. Here was the NYT headline from the 7th:

Jean Baudrillard, 77, Critic and Theorist of Hyperreality, Dies

Then, on the 8th, this headline, featured as the lead image on the Times web site:

Captain America Is Dead; National Hero Since 1941

And story after story, announcing his "death," without any mention in the headline that he is an (ostentatiously) fictional character...

Baudrillard would no doubt find this funny, charming, and appropriate. Of course, he would say, my media "death" is no less fictional. Like the Gulf War, it never happened. The only surprise for my death, unlike Captain America's, is that it is news at all.