Wednesday, March 30, 2011


I'm quite impressed with Google Books' scanning technology. But occasionally it makes little mistakes, like reading "finally conquered" as "Anally conquered." Cases in point:
The French occupied Pignerol, threatened Turin, and Anally conquered Savoy.

It was not until between the years 1273 and 1307 that the Welsh were Anally conquered by Edward I, son of Henry III, and grandson of John, the Nero of English kings.

He Anally conquered the Byzantine portion of Asia Minor and gave it to Suleiman to rule over.

The religion of Constantino achieved, in less than a century, the anal conquest of the Roman empire.

American Exceptionalism

Apparently pro-Ghadhaffi forces have started leaving land mines behind when they retreat. If only the United States were in a position where it could credibly condemn such actions as immoral and outside international norms. But, no, even President Obama insists that we should let sleeping dogs lie on this issue and not ratify the land mine treaty. Presumably getting the Pentagon to swallow cuts to the nuclear arsenal, conventional forces, and give up anything that looks like a land mine was just a bridge to far. Nonetheless, compromises have consequences.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Do The Right Thing

The Atlantic's Chris Good flags a reason for Mike Bloomberg to be embarassed. From a DOJ press release:

In 2005, the Division filed suit against the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority for its policy forbidding employees from wearing religious head coverings with their uniforms, affecting Muslim and Sikh bus drivers, subway operators, and other employees who believe their head coverings are religiously mandated. The suit alleges that a stated no-hats policy has been applied inconsistently, with employees permitted to wear various secular hats and head coverings. We continue to vigorously litigate this case, and recently defeated the MTA's motion for summary judgment. ...

The DOJ lawsuit was filed six years ago. Even the US Army now allows Sikh's to wear turbans. How is this still in court today?

Today in "Shit Not-Quite Presidential Candidates Say": Newt Gingrich

Ladies and gentlemen, the intellectual heavyweight of the Republican party, thrice-divorced and disgraced former Speaker Newt Gingrich.
In a speech to Texas evangelicals, Gingrich also took up the theme over the weekend, warning that unless America is saved, his grandchildren “will live in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
Can anyone explain to me how this would work?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Oh Lord

One of the section headings in this Fortune Magazine piece on unpaid labor is "The challenges of hiring and managing modern day serfs." I've never been great at detecting irony, but the whole thing reads more as cheery and matter-of-fact than as sarcastically criticizing something unfair.

Happy Birthday Nancy Pelosi

And yes, this is her high school yearbook picture.

As readers might have noticed, I'm on a big Libya kick. (It's just a fascinating situation to try to understand -- so many different interesting factors coming together to produce an outcome that will shape the lives of millions.) If you're wondering about her position on that, it's what you'd expect from someone in the Democratic leadership -- supporting Obama's intervention. But I'm pretty sure this was a pretty easy position for her to take, given her generally awesome support for human rights under authoritarian governments.

Iraqi Insurgents: Often East Libyan. East Libyans: Rarely Iraq Insurgents

Let me respond to Matt Thompson (via Kevin) and Andrew Exum (via Matt), just because what they're saying was picked up by dissenting voices in my interior monologue before becoming a supporter of the Western intervention to help Libyan rebels. The fact that East Libya was a major source of insurgents causing trouble in Iraq doesn't tell us a whole lot about the rebel movement that mostly comes from there. In particular, there's no reason to conclude from this data that the rebel movement will be virulently anti-Western or that the rebels will start up some kind of awful Al-Qaeda-hosting woman-oppressing government.

Bear in mind that the raw number of foreign fighters coming to Iraq from Libya was pretty small. Thompson's top chart is nice here -- it points out that you had 18 Libyan foreign fighters in Iraq per million people who live in Libya. Even if they're nearly all East Libyans, that's a hundred guys. I realize that the idea here is to extrapolate from the few who actually make the trip to Iraq to a possible many who have awful political sympathies. But in general it's unwise to extrapolate from a hundred people who do something crazy to the million-plus people from their region, and it's especially unwise here.

Take a look at the diplomatic discussion from Thompson's post, which is available to us thanks to Wikileaks. As a US diplomat recognizes that the insurgency has a lot of East Libyans, suggests that America help to reduce poverty in East Libya, and says after being rebuffed by his Libyan counterpart, "The policy of deliberately impoverishing the east to ensure political quiescence has not worked." East Libya is where the poverty is, because Gadhafi enriches his power base in the West and tries not to let the East get too strong. If you're a thuggish young dude in the West, maybe you become a Gadhafi thug, or if you don't have quite enough thug skills, maybe you get a job serving coffee to Gadhafi's thugs. But in the East there's not enough thug jobs or coffee jobs, so you have nothing to do and you go off to live the thug life in Iraq. But this doesn't tell us much of anything about the political views of East Libyan businesspeople and farmers and moms.

Really, if you want to see what the new government is about, the best way is probably to learn more about the leadership. It's hard to learn more about the NTC, because lots of them got what little internet presence they have from being on the NTC, and others are afraid of being killed if they reveal themselves. I guess the one guy who I should be able to find out more about is Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni, because he actually has papers on SSRN. Maybe I'll do a post on this soon. Oh, and if any of you know what the deal is with that two-finger thing that the rebel trainees are doing in the picture, tell me.

Victory On Ajdabiya's Crossroads

With the help of international air support, Libyan rebels have retaken Ajdabiya from Gadhafi.

The strategic significance of this victory is partly depicted in the map at right. The only major road going from Banghazi to Tripoli (which is west of the depicted region, along the coast) is through Ajdabiya. In fact, if you go due south of Ajdabiya, Google Maps doesn't display another road at this level of resolution in the rest of Libya. So this dramatically enhances the ability of the rebels to control territory in North Libya, which is where the vast majority of people live. The rest of the country is mostly empty -- it's the Sahara Desert. Also, Ajdabiya is an oil town.

The Libyan endgame I imagine is one in which victories like this continue until Gadhafi has little more than Tripoli. At that point (if not before), the entities in Libya that care most about being on the winning side will join the liberation movement. As Juan Cole writes, "The million-strong Warfalla tribe appears to have flipped allegiance twice already in the past month and could easily do so again. The tendency to quick switches in allegiance also make it less important that the rebels have so few trained troops."

That last bit, I think, is a good response to Kevin Drum and others who worry that rebel forces are in trouble because right now they have only a thousand trained soldiers. Libya is a momentum game in which more people join your side as you win more. We saw this earlier when it looked like the rebels were going to win in an Egypt-style popular uprising, and then Gadhafi looked like he was going to brutally crush the rebel movement with tanks and bombs and massacres. (I think those were the two Warfalla switch moments.) Right now there's a likely path to rebel victory, and it's hard to see what cards Gadhafi could possibly play to switch the momentum back to him.

Everybody Gets Promoted In Libya

This is a wonderful mad dictator thing to do:
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is promoting all members of his armed forces, Libyan state television said on Friday.

"(The) brother leader of the revolution has issued a decision to promote all members of the armed people who are currently drafted in his various military units for their heroic and courageous fight against the crusader, colonialist assault," Libyan state TV said in a written announcement.

"The promotion includes all members of the general security and police."

Libyan TV did not specify exactly how the promotions would work or whether personnel would receive extra pay.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Juan Cole, Making Me Optimistic

Juan Cole has a lot of credibility with me both because he knows a whole bunch about the Arabic-speaking world and because he was such an intense opponent of the Iraq War. I'd say that he's probably the voice that did the most to make me optimistic about operations in Libya. And he's keeping the optimism going in a post on the achievements of recent Western intervention. The concluding paragraph:
The liberation movement at the moment likely controls about half of Libya’s population, as long as Misrata and Zintan do not fall. It also likely controls about half of the petroleum facilities. If Benghazi can retake Brega and Ra’s Lanouf and Zawiya, Qaddafi soon won’t have gasoline for his tanks or money to pay his mercenaries. Pundits who want this whole thing to be over with in 7 days are being frankly silly. Those who worry about it going on forever are being unrealistic. Those who forget or cannot see the humanitarian achievements already accomplished are being willfully blind.
Well, let's hope that all works out.

A Good Excuse To Cancel Class

I like this story:
Tarhouni, who teaches economics and finance at the University of Washington, returned to Libya a month ago after more than 35 years in exile to advise the opposition on economic matters.

The rebels' national council appointed another U. S. educated academic, Mahmoud Jibril, to head the interim administration.

As the top financial official for the rebels, Tarhouni will also oversee oil affairs. He said oil is not an immediate issue because the only significant yields are coming from the Sarir and Sidra fields, which amount to roughly 130,000 barrels a day, a relatively small total.

"Right now, there is no immediate crisis kind of need for cash. We have some liquidity that allows us to do the basic things," he said, such as paying salaries and immediate needs.

He added that many countries have agreed to provide credit backed by the Libyan sovereign fund, and the British government has agreed to give the rebels access to $1.1 billion that London did not send to Gadhafi.

Tarhouni, who began teaching at the UW in 1985, has opposed Gadhafi for 40 years, a news release from the university said.

James Jiambalvo, dean of the UW's Foster School of Business, said in the release that he and Tarhouni's colleagues are "proud to have one of our longtime faculty members playing a significant role in Libya's transitional government."

This is partly weird identity politics since I'm an academic, but I feel more confident in the nascent rebel government with this guy as Finance Minister rather than some local banker whom I'd be more likely to suspect of corruption.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cautious Optimism On Libya

I really like the general idea of dramatically cutting the military budget and devoting the money saved to humanitarian causes. (Another plug for War or Car, which I really want you to see if you haven't.) And I'm happy to see people making this point with regard to the Libya situation -- Matt writes that "supplying clean water to the population of Congo would cost about 100 Tomahawk missiles."

But I don't think this is the best way to understand the merits of military action in Libya, specifically. It appears that there's a relatively well-defined short-term mission that the United States can perform, and which would be a decent use of money. It just involves using our air power to destroy Gadhafi's air strike capacity, and smashing any tanks that are moving towards rebel-controlled territory. I'm sure there's better things that could be done somewhere in the world with the available funds, but that goes for just about any expenditure of money made by any human. I'm not going to make the perfect the enemy of the good here. I can't be certain about this, because I don't understand the rebels well enough, but the world would probably be a better place if Gadhafi couldn't fly planes or send tanks after them. Money spent achieving this outcome would be reasonably well spent.

The real place to make the cost/benefit point would be with regard to our other big ongoing wars -- Afghanistan and Iraq. I feel like that's really what people on my side want to talk about when they're talking about Libya. But everything has to be hung on the peg provided by the foreign policy crisis of the day. So instead of talking about the hugely cost-ineffective Afghan War or the fiscal and moral horror that was Iraq (which I hope we're getting out of in a timely manner -- I don't really know how to check on this), they have to talk about Libya, which isn't, as far as I can tell, a very good case for the important point they're trying to make.

At this point my attitude towards the Libya operation is one of cautious optimism. I'm hopeful that smashing Gadhafi's war machine will make the world a better place, that we can accomplish it, and that the Obama Administration will have the good sense to declare our work done when they've accomplished that. I don't have a great idea how to evaluate our chances with respect to the first and second goals, but the third, at least, is in the hands of our leaders. The thing to do now is to make sure they understand the goal that way.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Learning With Pictures!

There's a nice SEIU graphic, too big to copy into this post, detailing the ways that unions have worked to reduce fire and explosion deaths after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 100 years ago.

And of course, here's the xkcd radiation graphic that everybody's been passing around on facebook.

Thinking About Libya

Like many other people, I'm trying to figure out what to make of this whole Libya situation.

In foreign policy commentary, there's a strong tendency to see everything in terms of the last major conflict, which had people thinking that Vietnam was World War II or that the Iraq War was Bosnia. I'm trying to avoid that mistake. But I think War or Car got a universal truth about wars right -- even if they have good consequences, they're usually terribly cost-ineffective ways of achieving those consequences.

I guess the best optimism-raiser about Western intervention that I've seen was from Juan Cole -- partly because he was an intense Iraq War opponent. I guess I'm going to be looking at what happens through the lens of his "How the No Fly Zone Can Succeed" post from now on. The kind of intervention described there sounds like the kind of thing I'd be okay with, but I don't know if it's what our policymakers have in mind.

The two big questions I have are (1) how likely is it that allied airstrikes will successfully push back Gadhafi's forces? And (2) what happens in rebel-controlled territory? I don't have enough of an understanding of the military situation to understand the first, and I don't know enough about the rebels to understand the second. If things work out halfway with (1), you could end up with two brutal figures ruling halves of Libya and fighting a long civil war. That would probably be the worst way this could end up.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Today in "Pop Culture Reference Other Bloggers Missed": Reflexology

Matt Yglesias blogs about reflexologists in New York State attempting to form a state-enforced cartel.

I provide the appropriate pop culture reference that he didn't (NSFW, language):

Do you agree with Travolta or Samuel L.? Why? Discuss.

The Politicization of Everything

70% of the public supports the no-fly zone, but only 50% approve of Barack Obama's handling of the situation in Libya.

In case it wasn't obvious, we're now at a point where to identify with the opposition party means even if you approve of the specific action a President takes, you say you're opposed to the action if it's attached to the President's name.

What this bodes for the body politic, I cannot say. But it surely means we are in a different era than when Reagan and Tip O'Neill had drinks together.

Operation Blow Shit Up

One of the many ways in which modern warfare has been sanitized for a public that has less direct experience with the military is the euphimistic, pleasant-sounding names for operations. In contrast to "Operation Oddessy Dawn", which sounds either like a secret project in the next installment of the  Metal Gear Solid series, or  a romantic comedy starring Julie Delpy, here are the names of some WWII operations:
  • Torch
  • Overlord
  • Menace
  • Foxchase
  • Canned
  • Boarding Party
  • Dracula
  • Sabre
  • Matador
While the goal of enforcing the no-fly zone ideally involves not a single explosion, by and large the use of military assets implies that stuff is going to be destroyed. We shouldn't hide this fact, unpleasant as it is.

Donate For The Next Crisis

I agree with Felix Salmon's "Don't Donate Money to Japan" post that everybody jumped on because of the headline. If there's something you can do to help people affected by the tsunami / nuclear meltdown in Japan, please do it! But donating more money probably isn't such an act.

The major bottleneck in well-publicized disaster scenarios usually isn't money. It's the ability to actually get stuff to the people who need it. In Japan, the government is going to be the group on the scene with the most logistical resources, and it's better funded than any relief organization. While relief groups usually have a larger role to play in third world countries whose governments can't do very much, Japan isn't a country of that kind. GiveWell says, "At this time, we believe that the relief and recovery effort does not have what we call "room for more funding," i.e., donations are not likely to improve the effort."

What GiveWell suggests is giving money to Doctors Without Borders (Felix gave $400), since they're excellent at dealing with the next catastrophe, and the one after that. I've given them a fair amount of money myself over the past few years, particularly on the advice of some people who'd been to disaster areas or other places where humanitarian aid was being offered. The consensus is that they do a good job.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ann Coulter Goes Nuclear

I'm now on the "bizarre performance artist" side of the "Is Ann Coulter trying to be a serious political commentator or some kind of bizarre performance artist?" debate. Not that there was ever reason to think she'd count as a serious political commentator in any well-functioning community, but I'd wondered how she thought of herself. When someone comes out and argues in an article and on TV that "radiation is good for you", so people in Japan will be okay, that kind of helps you answer the question.

Money And Influence In The Republican Party

Ezra: "the theory that Republicans were extremely responsive to the health-care industry was part of what led to the Obama administration’s effort to secure the support or neutrality of every major health-related interest group. Similarly, their sense that the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups could drive Republicans was important while they were constructing the stimulus. As it happened, they largely succeeded on winning industry neutrality both times, but that meant they ended up giving away a lot of good policy away in return for corporate support that led to approximately no Republican votes."

I'm curious whether it led to any Democratic votes. While there's a large number of Democratic Senators who would've voted for any comprehensive health care reform package anyway, and who would've been even more excited to vote for a better one, there are plenty who could've been influenced by the insurance industry, or more likely, the drugmakers, hospitals, or doctors. If we got any votes, it's from these people. (They're the kinds of Democrats we'd like to replace, but if they're Kay Hagan or somebody like that who's useful for keeping a NC Senate seat in Democratic hands, we might have to live with them. The worst Democrats are like Republicans who can be bought, which means they're better than actual Republicans.)

As for the Republicans, I think the money plays pretty important role here, even if (as Ezra says) it isn't direct. Conservative interest groups and donors, like the Koch Brothers and the Chamber of Commerce, spent a lot of money promoting an ideology that the right-wing base absorbed. Having done that, they could offer their official neutrality on health care legislation as a bargaining chip while the institutions they'd funded and Republican primary voters forced any wayward GOP Senators to take a hard line against the legislation. It's not like right-wing think tanks looked at trade industry organizations and decided that they should be neutral or supportive of Obama's plan. The Tea Party wasn't going to calm down just because PhRMA got on board.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Inflation: It's Real Debt Reduction!

If you're in debt, inflation is your friend. While the nominal value of your debt stays the same, its real value decreases, since what you owe is worth less and less. For similar reasons, deflation is your enemy. It makes the real value of your debts increase.

This is one of the many things that I'd like to tell people who are worrying a lot about the national debt. If you think one of the big problems America faces is that we're in trillions of dollars of debt, inflation is your friend! Of course, if bond investors expect higher inflation, they may demand higher interest rates. But if our debt takes a while to roll over, we get the benefits of low interest loans that we can pay back with easy money for that time.

Suppose the Federal Reserve decided to get on board with the inflation-promoting agenda, and let inflation run 4% above where it'd otherwise be. And suppose it took about 5 years for our debt to roll over so that the higher rates of inflation affected the interest rates we were being charged. 1.04^5 = 1.217, so we'd end up with a currency that was 21.7% more inflated and (dividing by that number) 17.8% less real debt. For a debt of $14.2 trillion, that's a $2.5 trillion savings.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Once You Go Singapore, You Won't Hate Big Buildings No More

As you know, I'm with Ryan Avent on how there should be more people living in tall buildings. But unlike him, I don't give arguments for this conclusion. I just post pretty pictures of Singapore! For our new readers, there's a previous installment of this Donkeylicious blog feature here, including the Marina Bay Sands, the triple skyscraper with a boat on top.

First, this smooth-looking structure is The Sail, where my colleague Ben Blumson and his wife live on the 31st floor. The left tower is 63 stories, the right tower is 70. I go to Ben's place on National Day and look down at the fireworks.
Do you want to see a Marina Bay Sands infinity pool photo? Of course you do!
And finally, one of Singapore at dusk:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bradley Manning

Is the right way to understand the gruesome treatment of Bradley Manning just that the people who control what happens to him don't want to see any more leaks, and they're doing this to deter others?

In any case, if you haven't seen the gruesome video of American attack helicopters machine-gunning a group of Iraqi civilians (two of whom are journalists whose cameras are mistakenly assumed to be guns), you should. I believe it's one of the things he leaked. It's especially horrifying when other civilians appear in a van and decide that they're going to take the injured people to the hospital... and the soldiers in the helicopters start machine-gunning them too.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Radical Islamic Extremists Snowboard Into US Embassy

In (dis)honor of Peter King's anti-Muslim hearings, I'll point you to an excellent short Onion article from a while ago.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Monogamy II (Now With Thai Migrant Workers)

Thanks to Monica Potts, TBogg, Scott Lemieux, and everyone else who liked my post describing how things wouldn't have gone as well for me if I'd tried to follow Ross Douthat's ideal of monogamy. Especially as the post went into a bunch of personal details of my life, I appreciate the warm response.

As I mentioned, I spent yesterday evening with my girlfriend. She knows a lot of Thai migrant workers who came to Singapore to do construction jobs. (This was related to her Masters' research -- she also lived in Thailand for a few years and speaks Thai fluently.) Last night she was telling me about the ways migrant worker couples deal with separation. Some couples are constantly anxious about infidelity. One of the guys she knows suspects that his wife back in the village is having an affair. He had an affair himself a few years ago, and my girlfriend was telling him that he should just accept it and work out an arrangement with his wife. He seemed personally open to the idea, but was very embarrassed about how people on the village would regard him if he did that.

Other couples do make these sorts of arrangements -- one wife packed condoms in her husband's suitcase before he flew back to Singapore.

One response that came up a couple times in comments to the original post was that we should prefer economic arrangements that don't require people to move around like migrant workers or me. That sounds good! But pushing monogamy first before we know what kind of economy we're getting into is a completely backwards way to do these things. If people will have to live apart, giving them ideals they can't satisfy that way is going to be a very bad idea.

Some values will lead you to a good life no matter what kind of economic situation you're in -- for example, caring about the other person's well-being and respecting their choices. These are the ones I'd be more interested in promoting.

Today in "Shit State Legislators Say": Feelings

Brian Beutler at TPM flags the story of a New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O'Brien (R) trying to keep whippersnapper college kids from voting, on the grounds that "They don't have life experience and they don't have life experience and they just vote their feelings and they're taking away the town's ability to govern themselves, it's not fair."

First of all, the idea that students should not be enfranchised in the place they spend 75% of the year, if not more, is a bit odd. They're more likely than not to feel the effects of state & local services, and considering the number of college graduates who take up residence at or near school, paying more than zero interest to the political desires of students seems prudent.

Second, Speaker O'Brien seems to object to the idea of voting behavior based on "feelings". I suppose he thinks that all adults elect candidates based strictly on a rational assessment of their self-interest. He's obviously wrong on this account, but even if he were correct, what's wrong with voting based on feelings? It seems the ultimate success of a prosperous democracy that voters can make decisions without thinking purely of their own wants and needs.

Alan Simpson Is Old

You're probably going to think he couldn't have said this, so there is video.
“This is a fakery,” Simpson said on Fox News. “If they care at all about their children or grandchildren, and sometimes I doubt that – I think, you know, grandchildren now don’t write a thank-you for the Christmas presents, they’re walking on their pants with the cap on backwards listening to the enema man and Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dogg, and they don’t like them!”

Who is the Enema Man? Ben Adler and Brian Beutler have converged on what I agree is the right interpretation - Eminem. My first thought was that he had somehow gotten 'Enema of the State' by Blink-182 into his head, and Beutler thought it was Method Man, but obviously those are too obscure for Simpson. It's kind of odd how Simpson managed to ass-ociate both rappers with butt-related things, though.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How Did Ross Douthat Want My Life To Go?

He writes: "there are different kinds of premarital sex. There’s sex that’s actually pre-marital, in the sense that it involves monogamous couples on a path that might lead to matrimony one day. Then there’s sex that’s casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered." The rest of the column is about how happy he is that less of the last two kinds of sex is going on these days.

My life right now is wonderful. Being a philosophy professor at the National University of Singapore is a great job. They give me plenty of time to do my own creative work, and I have a lot of good students who are fun to teach. (Grading lots of papers can be a chore, but if that's the worst ten percent of your job, you've got a good one.) 30 is a young age for a philosopher, and there's this vast open life ahead of me that I can fill with the best work I'm capable of.

The path here was a winding one. I graduated from high school in Raleigh, went to Harvard, and did my Ph.D at the University of Texas except for one year in the middle developing awesome metaethics skills as a visiting doctoral student at Michigan. Jobs as a philosophy professor are really hard to get, so I sent off 99 job applications to all corners of the globe. I got two offers -- a three-year deal at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and a tenure-track gig at the National University of Singapore. And that was very fortunate. Maybe if I hadn't gotten those jobs, I would've been able to find some kind of short-term gig in some random part of America and try the job market for another year, but the financial crisis hit next year and academic job openings were being canceled left and right.

I don't think it's reasonable to expect a smart lovely lady to just follow me all across the country and to the far end of the world. For the most part, the women I've been attracted to have had their own awesome plans. Maybe it could've happened at some time in the past when women didn't have any opportunities besides attaching themselves to a man, but just like I don't want to own slaves, I don't want such monstrosities to obtain for my personal benefit. And especially, you don't hope for someone to end up with you because an unjust world crushes their dreams.

I didn't think this way at the time, but looking back, it looks like the path to matrimony and the path to having an awesome job like this one were a "choose only one" kind of deal. I'm really happy with how things turned out! And part of why I can be so happy is because of sex where neither of us expected that we'd get married -- sex that Ross would probably call casual and promiscuous.

It took me until age 23 to lose my virginity. Longtime readers will know that the circumstances were unusually bizarre (see 5). Before that, I used to get depressed a lot. Often if I got to thinking about girls I'd liked and how things had gone badly again and again and again, I'd sink into this stupor where I'd just sit in one place and not be able to move, even to do something that I knew would distract me. On the upside, my abject loneliness led me to write Possible Girls, and creating something beautiful out of your pain does something to redeem it. But the fact that misery can lead to great art isn't much of an argument for misery.

Even a completely screwed up first sexual experience did a lot to make me happier and psychologically healthier. The depression hit much less often, and in the late afternoon I didn't need to dread the dark cold spirit that waited for me on lonely nights. Then at age 25 I had a four-month relationship with an amazing woman -- one in which we agreed in advance that there was no chance of things going long term -- and that cured it for good. (This isn't just a way men feel about sex, by the way -- I think Nice Jewish Girl tears a hole straight through the bulls-eye on that issue. Thanks, people at Unfogged, for the link.)

If you ran simulations of my life starting at the beginning of grad school, there's a couple ways it could've fit Douthat's ideals. Sure, in some really lucky ones I hit the jackpot and end up marrying an awesome woman and we can both get great jobs in the same place! But it's more likely that I find myself a long-term partner and restrict my employment horizons to where I'm in a mediocre job with bad students and no time to work on my own creative projects. And there's probably plenty of outcomes where I'm happily employed but I passed up my chances with the women I described above and the sweet young lady I met in line caucusing for Obama and... well, anyway, I wonder how good I am at fighting off the late-night catatonic depression in that story. I think the bad outcomes where I'm left with nothing but my commitment to only having sex in a monogamous relationship outnumber the great ones. I don't really want to think about those.

But that's not where I am now. Tomorrow I'm having dinner with a very smart young lady I met a few months ago. Her life story is more or less like mine, starting in the States and following her interesting interests around to Southeast Asia. I don't think it's likely that we're going to end up together in the long term, just because we're prepared for our various callings to pull us apart. But I'm really happy that I'll get to be with her for a little while! And when I look at the kind of life where I'd live up to the ideals Ross sets out, it's probably not nearly as good as the one I'm living.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Party Schools, East And West

Last week a bunch of my Singaporean colleagues were criticizing people who graduated from party schools. By this they were referring to Chinese colleges that train future Communist Party leaders and functionaries. For example, there's one that seems to be called the "Central Party School of the Communist Party of China." Apparently the Chinese party schools produce dogmatic defenders of orthodox communist views.

The American usage of the term, of course, is different. I'm sure that if we brought the graduates of Chinese and American party schools together, it'd be a cultural revolution for everyone.

Mubarak's Pinstripes

Take a look at Hosni Mubarak's pinstripes, which are formed by his name over and over again in tiny letters. This is one of the times when the expression "looking pimp" is appropriate, as he has in fact used the profits from exploiting others to clothe himself in a flashy and impressive manner. You can click the picture for a larger view.

His first name is spelled "Hosny" here, which I assume is an alternative spelling or perhaps some kind of nickname he likes. I'd hate to think that some poor tailor got executed for misspelling the dictator's name.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Brandon Davies And Bad Rules

It was looking like a great season for the Brigham Young University college basketball team -- ranked 3rd in the country with a 28-2 record. Unfortunately, their leading rebounder, Brandon Davies, got kicked off the team for having consensual premarital sex with his girlfriend. Like drinking alcohol and coffee, premarital sex is forbidden by the University honor code. They promptly lost their next game by 18 points to an unranked team.

It takes effort to instill discipline in people and get them to follow rules. It's a real shame when that effort gets wasted on arbitrary or harmful rules. In an era of condoms and the pill, preventing eager young athletes from having sex with each other falls squarely into the arbitrary and harmful category.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

You Can Hurt A Campaign With Gaffes If You're Sarah Palin

I've mostly been converted to the Douglas Hibbs view of what wins elections -- it's all about raising people's real income over the last year and not getting too many of our fighting boys and girls killed in war. How well does this simple two-factor model predict election outcomes? Pretty darn well -- see the graph at right. The two biggest outliers, 1996 and 2000, look less problematic if you recognize the influence of third party candidates. Give Nader's 3 points to Gore in 2000 and of Perot's 8% to Dole in 1996, and things look really tight. So I agree with Yglesias and Bernstein on the general point they're making (gaffes by candidates aren't that big a deal), and on the specific issue of whether Huckabee's 'Obama grew up in Kenya' gaffe will hurt him (it won't). By the way, you can click on any of the graphs in this post to see them in larger form.

Let me speak for the other side a little, though. If your gaffes are so horrendous (and/or your damage control is so crappy, and/or your enemies are so effective) that they can turn you into a complete joke to swing voters, they can hurt you. And this is where Sarah Palin is right that the usual rules of politics don't apply to her -- she's one of the few people disastrous enough to sink a presidential campaign.

At left I've got the graph by Richard Johnston and Emily Thorson showing Sarah Palin's influence on the 2008 election. (Some of you will have seen this a year or two back.) The top chart is the Obama ticket versus the McCain ticket, the middle chart is of people's ratings of the economy, and the bottom chart is of how people rated all 4 candidates with Sarah Palin in bold. The second vertical line that they've drawn through the graphs is a pretty amazing one -- that's where McCain's share of the vote in the polling averages begins to drop about 4%, even as opinions about the economy and McCain himself hang steady. What changes? People achieve their maximum level of horror at Sarah Palin, and she loses nearly 10 favorability points.

So: elections are mostly about the economy, but candidates can hurt themselves with a series of horrible gaffes if they're as ridiculous as Sarah Palin.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Physicist Democrats: Listen To Nick And Run For Office

You guys are awesome and we need more of you.Rush Holt, formerly of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, just beat Watson at Jeopardy.

Also, if you didn't catch it last year when it happened, Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu used gamma rays to save the planet. I guess that's a lot more consequential, but the Jeopardy thing is cool too.

Bill O'Reilly And The Palm Trees Of Wisconsin

At about the 14 and 27 second marks of this Bill O'Reilly clip of people acting badly, supposedly at the protests in Wisconsin, you can see some interesting vegetation in the background.
Wisconsin readers can confirm whether palm trees are common in the Madison area. I don't remember any vegetation like that from my visit to Madison five years ago. Maybe climate change is hitting Wisconsin hard! Or maybe Fox News is using videos of somebody else behaving badly to make false accusations against the Wisconsin labor people.

I don't usually post clips of Bill O'Reilly's show being ridiculous, since this blog isn't really about preaching to the choir. But this is short, simple, and perfectly dishonest.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Anecdata on Kids Today

Do the kids today watch movies that aren't current? Here's my data point.

I took a new job in December, and my new team has a 23-year old whippersnapper. He hadn't seen The Matrix, which was for a certain class of nerds The Most Important Movie Of Its Time. It also didn't feel like it came out that long ago, but of course by the time he had graduated college it was ten years old.

To see if this was unusual, I looked up the top grossing films of 1992, as well as the top rated movies on IMDB. There's no direct analogue to The Matrix on either list, but of the action/nerd/scifi-ish movies I had seen Batman Returns, Wayne's World, Dracula, Reservoir Dogs, Sneakers, and Army of Darkness but not Lethal Weapon 3, Unforgiven, Patriot Games, Under Siege, or Alien 3. So, 6 out of 11.

Obviously my anecdote here is by no means authoritative. I assume that with more media sources generally, there's more dispersion of media consumption. But I'd guess that the Kids These Days are still watching "old" movies, just with a wider variety. Surely there's a Masters' thesis lurking in here somewhere.