06 July 2015

More on the T word

Or at least what there is of it. 

I will note there are major problems with the public debates surrounding terrorism.

Lots of things that probably aren't terrorism and some things that probably are don't get counted properly. We end up with a lot of fighting over what is and is not actually terrorism and not much acknowledgment that such attacks, in the US at least, are quite rare. To me this resembles the fighting over mass shooting incidents, which are pretty rare, and ignoring the hundreds of "ordinary" homicides (and suicides) per month from gunfire. Which seems to me to be a much bigger societal problem with more obvious causes and methods of ameliorating. If terrorism is pretty rare in the US, but is pretty common in other places (various Middle Eastern countries), one should be able to figure out why that is. As a hint, it doesn't really have much to do with the nature of Islam. That's an exacerbating factor fanned by religious zealotry, and probably not a causal factor. Terrorism has had pretty standard causes for generations and these are little different; asymmetric warfare against an occupying or perceived occupying/oppressive force, violence against political enemies and rivals in the contest for power in a political vacuum, etc.

We instead like to engage in a lot of pointless finger waving. Such arguments are exceedingly tedious in any forum for which they pop up (eg, Christians/atheists arguing about Hitler/Holocaust who to blame these on). The arguments over who is to blame probably have more to do with what sorts of penalties and processes we are willing to tolerate in the legal and international realm, but very little to do with actually reducing the incidence of violence. Many gun control debates end up in the same place, with pet causes trotted in rather than pragmatic effects debated. Nevertheless these tedious arguments over who is and who is not a terrorist or what is counted as an act of terrorism take up a considerable amount of the volume of the debate. I have previously advocated they should largely stop by making a classification of "terrorism" more rigorously empirical as a definition if possible (the definitions used by academics for instance) and not looking over every rock and cranny to find more sources of it through the public forum. As the public forum is very unlikely to have a firm grasp over what is or is not terrorism and is very likely to be exploited to graft more sources into it for political purposes.

"Extremists" is an even worse term that gets thrown around that we should be careful about. Political radicals have been both a necessary and sometimes unpleasant reality of US (and world) history in pushing for various kinds of change, including reactionary varieties like those tended to be pushed for by Islamic radicals or racists. The idea is to do so without violence however where possible. Since violence has a pretty low track record of working to institute such changes. There are many people who hold what are conceived of as abhorrent or unacceptable views. I probably hold some myself given the proper audience for my views as I can be fairly opinionated. This is not an argument for silencing such ideas, or broadly investigating those who hold them without suspicion that they are involved in acts of aggression and violence and advocating for such actions. This is a problem that afflicted investigation of right-wing groups in the 1990s, and Muslims over the last 15+ years in our general response to acts of violence is to see potential sources of danger everywhere where there is disagreement and unfamiliarity in our culture.

The actual events of terrorism in the US are exceedingly rare, and often include some rather spectacularly failed plots, indicating that not only is the impetus to commit acts of political/ideological violence pretty low, but that the wherewithal to carry them out is fairly limited in many cases. This goes unacknowledged often that the societal problem we are discussing is very, very rare. More to the point, isolating individual actors who a) have some sort of political/ideological grudge against the US and b) the ability to carry out acts of violence against mass innocents is pretty likely to be pretty easy to do in many cases. Where it succeeds in carrying out an attack, we are tending to overlook things. For instance, political right-wing fringe violence gets overlooked in a haste to look for any suspicious Muslim/minority, or leads from otherwise reliable sources go unfollowed up. For instance, clerics in American mosques used to report people to the FBI who advocated for violent extremism (they do not now because the FBI has effectively caused several plots to occur and themselves placed extremists in their midst, in basically a textbook case of how not to do police work and how to aggravate a community that you could get cooperation from. In several cases, a person who was reported to the FBI turned out to be someone paid by the government). Presumably some Christian religious organisations have done the same, and both often expel such people from peaceful religious gatherings. This suggests that there's a serious flaw in the direction of intelligence operations.

Which is probably a bigger problem than the actual terrorism is our public response to it. The intelligence community has seemed to demand a huge haystack to sort through and root through millions and millions of people's data, and so they are therefore at risk of not dedicating these "haystack" resources that could be used to actually collect information on suspicious people. The way we might with a typical criminal or intelligence operation go in and gather information on a specific target. The argument has been that this method of haystack gathering helps the US identify targets, but there's little or no evidence to support that assertion and by now plenty of misses to suggest it has zero utility for that purpose.

What this line of argument (my argument at least, not theirs) is suggesting is that we're spending a lot of time focusing attention on arguments about terrorism in order to justify very large and potentially invasive programs. Note that the NSA through the FISA court has defied a district court ruling AND a Congressional legal change suggesting its dragnet activities are illegal and not sanctioned by the government and is still doing them anyway. And nobody is getting punished for that decision, nor is it likely to be reversed in the near future. FISA interpreted that the NSA was given a few months extra to scale back by Congress, basically, instead of having to stop immediately if no law was passed or no time was given to do so. This was similar to when the NSA interpreted a Congressional change to the privacy of medical records to specifically exclude these from NSA searches without a warrant to indicate that the specificity of medical records in law now paradoxically allowed such searches without a warrant). It is largely unclear to me what use such programs and routes of investigation should have, particularly without warranted searches looking for specific named or at least roughly identified targets. I can imagine lots of nefarious purposes, but my main guess is that they don't have any better ideas that they think they can actually do. Conducting intelligence with the goal of a "zero terrorist incident" is impossible as a task. Simply reducing the net amount of terrorism would be a very difficult goal. So instead they seem to have selected a very large program on the theory that it will be easier to defend what they are doing. Paradoxically some of the "better" defenses of that program have involved the fact that it has identified that the potential for terrorism in the US is very small. Something that most people could have told you prior to 9-11 without invasive monitoring programs.

Some thoughts
1) Stop arguing so much over what is or is not terrorism, at least in the public sphere. Look for common causes if you can find them, but don't expect much. Radical fringe persons willing to engage in violence for political ends are unlikely to be closely tethered to many people in the US. I would hasten to add that people find political causes and ideas that are convenient to their ideological ends more so than that they hue to a particular ideological end. "States' rights" or the prospect of "jury nullification" are, like most political concepts, not inherently evil and vile things but have been used for some very vile political ends in the past (typically racism and racist violence). Not everyone who thinks they might be useful is likely to be inherently evil and vile in their intentions toward other people. Jury nullification and states' rights via federalism may be ways we end up with a winding down drug war, for example. I view that as a positive goal. Even if some states have moved to other extremes in how they prosecute the drug war, several have moved to legalise or regulate the distribution of various substances.

We should recognize that our societal problem to resolve is violence first. Not ideological conflicts. Ideological conflicts leading to violence is fairly rare, even on the international stage. Most of our violence problems as a country are pretty ordinary by comparison and may have pretty ordinary, if difficult, solutions.

2) Recognize that this thing we apparently fear is exceedingly rare and very unlikely to impact most of us. If we do not live in NY or DC in particular. Obviously since media hubs are in NY and DC, we should expect the media to get pretty excited about it. But we don't have to take them as seriously. CNN just wasted several minutes of time last week reporting on an "ISIS" flag in London during a gay pride parade. That was pretty obviously covered in dildos as a parody. When things like this happen, I should take it as a sign that the media believes it has an incentive to drum up cases of exciting violence and danger over and above actual reporting. Which means we want to believe there are cases of exciting violence and danger afflicting us. This is, generally speaking, false. There are specific people who may suffer threats and enhanced risks of violence in the US, but very little of that has to do with terrorism. Some small percentage of racists or other assorted forms of bigots, and some small percentage of anti-abortion advocacy focuses in this way, and small group of anti-corporate/"environmentalist" movements. As examples. Unfortunately we live in a society that overall believes crime is rising when crime has been falling steadily and rapidly in most parts of the country for over two decades, and virtually every crime story I see mentions this fact at some point. It may be difficult to convince significant numbers of people to stop taking terrorism that seriously. More dildo flags being taken way too seriously by supposedly serious newscasters as evidence of extremist violence at our doorstep and we might have a chance. Keep at it CNN. If we throw enough sex toys at the media problem at least it will be easier not to take this as seriously. At some point more people will take seriously the idea that zero tolerance of terrorism is an impossible goal and be willing to look for more pragmatic solutions to resolve the problem rather than just trusting whatever we are doing must be working.

This is one of the paradoxical problems of counter-terrorism policy (and actually it applies to criminal justice more broadly). If terrorism is pretty rare, the government can plausibly claim that whatever it is doing must be working. Since terrorism is pretty rare, this is what it does. But it also has a stake in hyping up threats, which then turn out to be more like duds or problems caused more by things it was already doing, otherwise the public takes a closer eye to the methods and equipment and decides, "hey, why do we need to be doing this again?". Which is the appropriate place to start when trying to alleviate fear (it would be better to start by recognizing the fear as unreasonable, but most people aren't going to do that). If it doesn't actually work, or doesn't actually help get rid of the sources of our fear, it's of no utility and is theatrical rather than needed.

29 June 2015

Some thoughts on public policy, global warming edition

I've been fairly well persuaded over the years that this is a) a serious problem for the flourishing and survival of future human generations, b) a serious problem for which human action is both responsible and possibly needed to ameliorate if not reduce or prevent it and c) a political problem.

What I am finding from discourse is that it often seems that many of the people capable of explaining and understanding the science involved very quickly assume that strong central government controls will be needed to resolve this, and that this agenda is often, let's say, poorly received and reflects upon the capacity of people to accept the underlying scientific information. One problem I think that's involved here is that many scientists are not public policy experts. They do not study economics. They do not study political movements. They just see a (very large) collective action problem and assume a certain set of policy interventions must be needed. It's possible they may be correct in some elements, but they've overlooked something: politics is messy. People disagree and rent seeking interests can easily prevail over disparate action needs. We ended up with corn ethanol subsidies and sugar import restrictions as a consequence of politics. Both of those are net contributors to the problem rather than sources of resolution. We could very well, by relying on the political process solely or largely, end up with something much worse, or much less efficient than what we have now even. I worry about this as a probable effect given what we have seen so far as a response at the policy level is often not encouraging.

But I'd also say that observing the more quasi-libertarian response, if it even takes this seriously as a problem (which is itself a problem), we aren't going to get very far that way either. Suppose we say that if we removed government and its distorting subsidies, we could get reasonably cheap and cleaner sugar-ethanol instead of burning corn, we could stop subsidizing coal and oil production and infrastructure production (more roads), or make it easier to set up smaller scale hydroelectric power or nuclear, or stop subsidizing water for agricultural production in what amounts to deserts (in California or Arizona or Nebraska), and push agriculture into more water friendly arable parts of the country (the SE for example). Many of the more-free market approaches have an undeniable appeal toward pushing toward cleaner energy production because there are still costs associated with fossil fuels (pollution for example) that aren't associated with wind or solar in the same way. But all of these approaches still rely on fixing the existing political process first or at least the political process associated with these interests. This seems unlikely. Popular support for agricultural subsidies is still overall around 50%, much less industry support with a concentrated political voice. We are not going to succeed in sweeping away these problems as theoretical concerns when the arrayed interests are against it. A cost needs to be imposed to make those interests less concentrated and action more possible.

Where I think we are probably better served as a model is, strangely enough, observing how the rights of homosexuals have dramatically and swiftly been altered. It was barely a decade ago that it was legal to criminalize private sexual behavior at the state level and to invasively police such conduct. Now not only is that legal, but the rights of consenting adults who wish to do so with an intimate partner can have this recognized if they wish to do so as marriage, complete with the variety of set rights available to "ordinary" marriages. This change did not in fact happen in just a decade. It happened over many decades. And it had a number of cultural markers and markets in which to compete over time to change hardened minds, make it easier for same sex couples to announce their affections to each other and to family and friends, no longer have this treated as a form of psychological deviancy, and so on. Almost none of those changes involved changes to underlying and easily available empirical information on the nature of homosexuality in human beings. Almost all of these changes were perception changes, and necessary steps to make other changes available later. They snowballed into an avalanche of social change to the point that a majority of the country now recognizes that civil same-sex marriage should just be "marriage", not a distinct civil institution. This culminated in a series of civil actions and court rulings recognizing this change, and a few ballot initiatives that were supportive in a very short period of time.

For global warming policy advocates, this suggests that there's a path forward for change, but it's unfortunately slower. That there are lot of individualist appeals to conservation and charity that should be made and which will appeal to many Americans but that people may have to learn to speak in a slightly different language to make what governmental changes are needed palatable and possible. Information should still be communicated, but also an understanding of what can be done at the local or personal level.

For more free-market advocates, what I think this highlights is the improbability of using the "get government out of the way" mantra as a club for defeating arguments of what government is or is not doing. For the case of marriage rights, a popular argument often circulated that "government should get out of marriage". At a practical level however, marriage doesn't exist without government. At least not as most people understand it with the complications of immigration status, medical visitation and living will rights, inheritance and tax policy, and so on. Each of these rights and benefits extended to marriage contracts by governments would have to be argued down and eliminated as a casual default benefit rather than a simple "get government out of it" arrangement as is commonly argued. The problem for such arguments in climate change policy is to say "there is a problem, and government isn't helping by making it worse", and to then focus attention on places where government policy should be abolished or diminished in making it worse. This is even easier if such policies have other distorting effects.

With that in mind I would propose a few policy and cultural priorities

1) Phase out the home mortgage interest deduction. This is heavily distorting to the housing market, mostly flows to upper-middle class incomes and realtors (by inflating housing prices), adds a level of decreased mobility to residents of cities and metropolitan areas alike, and is an inefficient way to help poorer people to provide themselves with either income mobility or housing, and even distorts K-12 education and policing strategies (more aggressive in poorer more isolated communities). That's before getting to the global warming problems: it is anti-densification (dense urban areas would be more efficient to power and provide with water and food than suburban and exurban sprawl promoted by the HMID), does not help public transit, helps fund inefficient highway construction, wastes time and fuel on commuting, increases production of automobiles needed for said commuting, and so on. There's not much support for this as a policy measure, but I'm not sure there isn't a more damaging environmental policy we conduct presently as Americans and it comes with a complete package of other fucked up effects. It must end as a result for us to continue to flourish as a country.

2) Push for more recycling or food waste collection methods. Ideally push for less waste generation (especially with food), but start with these. There are many otherwise cultural conservative people where this has a certain appeal, crunchy cons or granola conservatives so to speak, who accept the general notion of leaving the Earth in better or no worse condition for their children and grandchildren as a steward of the planet argument even if they don't accept the science of global warming. One problem here is waste disposal. In dense urban areas, probably the most efficient method available right now is incinerating garbage. This is probably not something we'd like people to be doing from an environmental perspective, but it's almost certainly better than the alternatives that are being used (trucking or shipping garbage hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to landfills in other states or countries). Convincing environmentalists to get people to accept marginal improvements rather than total scorched earth improvements is also a problem here as it is typically environmentalists that oppose building garbage incinerators on the theory that "people must recycle" instead. They could do both.

I'd also advise doing things like cleaning up the "Pacific garbage patch" (the massive floating island of garbage in the central Pacific Ocean). This is a collective action problem with a variety of solutions (including innovative technical research and private market actors) that will provide a good model for other more severe problems with the environment.

3) Avoid pushing mostly localvore solutions. These are typically less environmentally friendly than buying cheaply produced groceries from halfway around the world. Chief among some of the environmentalist movements problems is that it often gets wrapped up (by opponents) as anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist. If you want this to be resolved, you're not going to get there by alienating powerful elites who depend upon on globalisation and capitalism for wealth and prosperity. Where you have to annoy such people, it should be because the methods being promoted would actually improve the environmental situation unequivocally (such as by increasing the price of burning coal or gasoline, say). And not by doing things that make the situation worse by forcing agricultural production in less than productive areas of the globe. This would also mean endorsing and supporting at least some forms of GMO production for agriculture for similar reasons. This too is a too common environmentalist rant is to oppose scientific tinkering with the food supplies. "Organic" and "natural" are useful marketing terms but their automatic relevance and connection to environmentalist causes seems suspect at best. Gardening is a recreational hobby that can be encouraged, but large scale farming for local purpose seems unlikely to be a positive net gain for the environmental problems we are facing. GMOs offer another way out of that problem.

4) Push for broader immigration reforms. One of the problems is that we will probably encounter a number of amelioration needs even under optimal policy responses. Since we aren't getting optimal policy responses, more aggressive ameliorating methods will be needed. One of these will be the ability of people to flee countries where the effects of drought, flooding, coastal sea water rises, and general poverty or inability to respond to such problems are most severe. Providing aid and assistance if it will buy time and ease suffering in the meantime through charity and foreign aid is certainly advisable also. But some number of countries and their residents and citizens are basically fucked if we do nothing, or even if we do the barest minimum to help them in the meantime. They will have to be able to pick up and leave to go somewhere better off if they wish. This will be vastly cheaper than making them stay where they are because of a national boundary. The US in particular should be prepared to accept as many as 100 million immigrants over the next 50 years (~2M/year), if not more. EU should be in a similar circumstance, and Australia or Canada should probably look forward to potentially doubling its population. Developed countries have the resources to provide some levels of adaptation and accommodation with environmental problems that extremely poor countries do not. There are hundreds of millions of people at risk here therefore living in places that may not functionally exist as countries (much less landmass) in 100 years and something will need to be done about that. Ideally peacefully.

5) Allow for some amount of geo-engineering tests, particularly by the scientific community to examine these as options. These are potentially problematic in that they would produce their own negative effects and may conceal problems rather than solve them. But if they will help buy time until more effective policy and market solutions come online, and we may need time for such things to happen, we should endorse it as a short-term solution.

6) Push for phasing in a basic carbon/energy tax. This could be done in a "net zero" fashion to encourage both businesses and individuals to reduce coal or gasoline consumption and also make the price of solar or wind (or nuclear) power more attractive without distorting subsidies. I'd also favor doing this over regulatory schemes (which could be overturned by unfavorable court rulings or blocked by Congressional action, or receive inefficient carve-outs), a carbon trading scheme (sources of carbon are difficult to price in the way most industrial pollutants are and don't seem to produce a favorable reduction over general energy reforms), fuel efficiency standards for automobiles (fuel efficiency will rise if low efficiency cars are less popular because the costs of fuel are too high), and so on. This would also require more monitoring of things like fracking, to determine any leakage of carbon fuels for example.

7) Push for more market prices on water. A basic water allowance for living needs could be made, but this would increase the price of water use in agriculture, or lawn care, such that irrigation and water forcing to shift water hundreds of miles would be more and most costly and less and less profitable. There is no automatic reason that farmers and farming interests in California should be producing rice, cotton, almonds, broccoli and so on in large amounts. Parts of the state this may be more viable than others. Some parts however, not so much. There's similarly little reason that people living in West Texas or various parts of the American Southwest should demand lawns and pools and other extravagances. If they can afford them fine, but the price of water should reflect its relative scarcity. It would remain pretty cheap in the Eastern part of the country. It's pretty dry in much of the west however.

8) Take into account adverse regulatory effects. I do not mean just the cost of enforcing and complying with a regulation, though that may be a concern. I rather mean that if a state or local government applies a certain regulation, business or local concerns wishing to construct something will probably take their money (and pollution/energy/water demands) elsewhere rather than nowhere if it's otherwise a productive economic venture. If people want to build a lot of stuff in California to make cars or computer chips, or to live in homes there, let them, within reasonable strictures. California's mild climate is pretty good for that. West Texas or Arizona is not. Forcing people to move their interests into environmentally unfriendly or undesirable areas is not a good idea. I say "forcing" not because the regulatory compliance costs are too high, but because often there's a court ruling saying they can't build it there at all in NIMBY fashion, and a concern or housing development gets built somewhere else instead. Pyrrhic victories are not helping.

9) Make individual signaling about the environment more efficient. Example. People often buy solar panels and display them on the street side of their homes even if that does not receive much sunlight. Make it easier to signal that you are doing really cheap environmentally friendly things: installing insulation, designing a home that provides for good air circulation for heating and cooling, buying energy efficient appliances or automobiles, etc. One of the problems I think is that many individuals seem to be presuming that this is or has to be a collective action problem, but that the actions are mostly to be undertaken by other people. Make it easier for local communities to find ways to compete to reduce waste or energy consumption or suburban sprawl into forests or wetlands and signal and casually enforce these as communal values.

21 June 2015

Days to commemorate something

Over the last many days, my social media feed has been inundated with people celebrating. Birthdays. Graduations. Father's Day.

Most of these are perfectly valid reasons to have a party and gather friends and family.

I however don't (or at least didn't want to) celebrate any of these things. I've very rarely enjoyed being a center of attention for a birthday. Graduating from anything doesn't feel like an achievement where things were done that were of difficult note. It's more like an endurance test for putting up with other human beings long enough to get through high school or college. Celebrating one's parents would in large part require that one must first celebrate their own existence. And I'm fairly resolved by now having observed other tiny humans that the production of tiny humans is not something I wish to undertake, so no one else will be celebrating this feature in my honor either.

I wrote at some length about depression and social anxieties related therein last year. I would remark that not much has changed in circumstances or social position that my situation feels any different, better or worse. Some days are difficult. Some days are full of a minor but sufficient purpose (to complain about something, if nothing else suffices). I have however, in my powers of introspection noticed some elements.

Depression's primary attribute is to turn any feeling of triumph into immediate failure. As a minor social attempt, I have attended trivia gatherings with a small group of acquaintances (rarely would anyone carry a nomenclature of friendship, I think this number is never higher than about 5-8 people in my life. My last post should make clear that I'm really slow to apply labels to much of anything). I spend most of the downtime afterward fretting over those handful of questions I somehow missed rather than exulting that the group clearly finds my broad set of random knowledge of otherwise useless facts useful.

I write quite a lot of words on many topics. Some of this is that I know a little bit about many things. Some of this is that I feel compelled to comment in the effort to feel like I did something that day, or at least because the cause itself requires it. This is not however coming across to myself as a depiction of myself as a skilled writer and communicator. Some small number of people read things I write. Some number of those people receive from this a vague perspective into my odd notions of politics and reality, as best I am able with my tool set of communication skills to provide at least. I had at various points believed this writing task was something I am good enough at that it should be a modest form of living. This is not something I believe is likely today. I don't put in enough practice at it, and have a disdain for symbolism in my writing that makes anything symbolic difficult to do. Which makes it less clear for others and less likely to translate into entertaining forms of speech. But it's also difficult to see that anything I've written has had a significant impact on other people, their modes of thinking or appreciation for complex topics. Which makes it difficult to see as purposeful other than as "just something I need to do that day to get through the day".

Depression's main attribute also makes maintaining communication with other people more challenging. Other people, in my view, are always very far away. We know them, even in our most intimate relationships, only slowly and with great difficulty. We are complex beings. We get used to what other people might do or have to do with us, but the great swells of feeling, pain or pleasure, are difficult to share in. Lots of things that other person enjoyed or endured and how or why they did so remain undisclosed to us or only come out in very close friendships, and probably with a lot of mind-altering substances involved. When someone else dies, in our loss and grief we have to condense what is lost into a set of stories and memories we have about that person and our experiences with them. That is enough for our purposes to have a set of treasured memories (and sometimes some not so treasured), but it isn't a good and full depiction of who that person was. It's a piece of a puzzle that is now missing most of the pieces, some of which are carried by others who knew that person as a child, or as a student, or a teacher, or a friend, or a lover. Or an enemy or a rival or a bully. As such, maintaining close ties to people that care for you, or that you care for, are of a vital task for a lifetime project. You get to carry some of the pieces for someone else's life and represent to others that person and that person's impact on yourself and your experiences. That's a crucial and special thing in life. You help humanize other people. No matter how terrible others think they are or how wonderful others think they are. They are only people.

But it's a lot harder if you feel like your existence is an added task for them. A burden. Something they have to put up with rather than a full person to treat on equal footing. Essentially what you find is that all other people get to know is the depressed and incomplete version of yourself. Maybe there are other pieces in there, but they got swallowed up and might be missing. A lot of time and energy is spent searching for this missing "utility function". Because if it can be recovered even partially, it's kind of like a life boat in a storm. If other people still see value in your existence, why can't you? What are you missing? Or is it possible they're just confused, clinging to a memory of someone you used to be, that they used to know. And that person is gone? Introverts have this mask on already to deal with a world that is heavily social. This becomes a different level of one. Depression is a different identity. It's a mask that gets put on to disguise its existence at best. Or it is a darker and heavier presence that feels like it must be sucking the life out of all around it. It's also an identity that never fully goes away, unlike a mask that you could just take off (as with the introverted state of being, one can retire to their books and games in peace and tranquility, free of the demands of others for a while). It pursues constantly, looking for gaps in the often futile attempts to rid oneself of its weight and presence.

A third feature is that a large quantity of people simply don't expect this to be the state of being for other people, or worse, don't tolerate its existence as any sort of problem. There are moments where it must be shoved aside. Where the obvious pain and grief and suffering others is heavier and more important than your own. An acquaintance of mine, a friend of a friend, recently lost her teenage son. In what little I can do in the aftermath of this, I have made appearances to listen (mostly to my friend, but really anyone speaking), to (in small doses) help watch tiny people who remain active and rambunctious beasts in need of moderating tones (which I mostly do not provide, as an "uncle" it is my sworn duty to subvert parenting attempts and let kids be corrupted by the freedom of childhood), to eat food, to make beer runs, maybe make a few jokes, and generally keep track of objects that are placed down as people move about their homes or make mental lists for people whose minds are understandably more scattered than mine. I've mostly avoided discussing my somewhat odd notions of death, and my perhaps creepy comfort with death as a facet of life and existence, out of a somewhat reasonable concern that they're not something that may be necessarily helpful right now. None of this seems particularly important. That's the depression part.

And yet it is favorably compared to others who haven't made any appearance at all, or who have provided too many pushes that don't give room for grief to work its way out when needed. I observe that the patience we have as a society, as families or friends even, with what is actively and obviously a painful experience, losing a loved one, is very, very short. Some of this is our own discomfort with grief. Many people are not so comfortable in seeing death and they will not wish to be confronted with the knowledge that others are having to be more comfortable than they would wish.

But if our patience is this thin with death, where we will not let others pause to gather themselves when needed, what hope is there to have patience with those who are stricken with a bout of depression on a particularly grim-faced day? To whom should we be able to disclose this ill news? From whom is there aid and comfort? How can this oppressive sensation be dealt with if it is to be ignored or treated unseriously? Death is not so complicated and difficult to understand. The nasty business of living is the trickier part, and it includes among its resume the prospect of dealing with unpleasant experiences, with suffering, and the suffering of others. Sometimes at our own doing, sometimes through the hands of our friends or family or others of those closest to us, sometimes through events out of our own control. This is not unusual. It is common. But it isn't very likely to be talked about.

It is hardly something to be celebrated if one's existence consists mostly of providing small aids and comforts to others, spilling lots of ink onto pages and calling it words and writing, and knowing strange things and attempting, rather poorly, to convey this knowledge to others in the hopes they will be wiser from it. But it is a thin premise around which a life is formed. That is enough for most days.

Is it the T word?

While there's been quite a lot of air time wasted on Faux News attributing an obviously racially motivated attack to hammer into a narrative about otherwise non-existent violence against Christians in the US, there's a side debate of more interest going on. Whether the killings in Charleston were an act of terrorism. I've noticed several features to this debate

1) People who "refuse to call it terrorism" must be willfully blind/racist, largely because they're liable to identify some similar (or even some ineffectual act) when done by a Muslim, say, as terrorism. I myself am pretty slow to call much of anything "terrorism", when done by any persons of any racial or religious basis, for reasons that I'll examine in a moment. Meanwhile our broader culture, media culture, political culture and largely within mostly white segments of the population, throws this word around frequently to identify actions by groups of people they don't like (while excusing the actions of individuals similar to them as deranged lunatics or bigots rather than part of some common cause event). This dichotomy I find curious in its own way. Clearly I am using a very stringent definition of "terrorism" or others have lost all sensible purpose for the word.

2) There's some interest in identifying the action as racist or a hate crime. Which seems obvious and correct from the motivations expressed publicly by the killer and his victims. This is not necessarily the same thing as "terrorism". But it isn't mutually exclusive with it either.

What I think these two components mean is that after 9-11, our culture tended to take any activity less seriously unless it was in some way broadly related to an action like 9-11. Namely, that it was what we typically associate as "terrorism" (mass targeted killings of civilians for political, religious, or other ideological reasons, designed to inspire fear in a designated group of people, a country, race, religion, political movement, etc). If something could be described as "terrorism", it evoked for many people these images of destroyed skyscrapers and the violent deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people. Actions which aren't in this category could nevertheless be associated as more serious concerns for millions of Americans to consider as problems worthy of their time and attention.

Fear is a powerful motivator to get people to go along with whatever you can then claim must be useful for keeping people safe. And so the idea that there must be all kinds of terrorists and terrorism just around the corner from which we must be protected has proliferated. I think this is a lazy and overused political trick. As a result, I am very slow to identify much of any action as the actions of a terrorist, the cause and actions worthy of the political and legal penalties associated with that terminology. I've seen this phrase used to describe: fairly ordinary murders committed at least in part for unsavory reasons (bigotry, religious intolerance), organised campaigns to intimidate people involved in abortion clinics, pretty much any activity by a Muslim, the distribution and production of various narcotics, attempted plots to attack some target of people more or less set up by the FBI (rather than detected and foiled by them), attempted plots not detected by police and FBI which are carried out and kill or injury a large number of people, and so on. And of these, many are attempted, or succeed in publicly tying themselves to: atheists, Muslims, Christians, right-wing political movements, left-wing political movements, libertarians, individualists, mental-illness, weapons that aren't used in the commission of these actions of violence (or commonplace acts of violence like murder or assault).

And this brings me to the social problem with the legal and cultural definitions of terrorism. They're constrained by political considerations or the dominant/prevailing culture of a society rather than some empirical definition of what constitutes an attack which qualifies. They are inherently likely to spawn arguments about what is and what is not an act of terror, or who is and who is not a terrorist, and inherently likely to be wrong about what actions and what types of people end up on either side of those lines. And much of this will ignore what the appropriate responses for a society to take should be because we will be confusing one thing for another, or ignoring causes and agents that can be dealt with separately or distinctly, and so on.

There's a similar debate like this concerning "genocide" in international relations. Actions like the those of the Ottoman government against Armenians or USSR against rather a lot of people rather than a handful as we are discussing now, are often referred to variously as either acts of genocide or not acts of genocide. Rather than talking about what actually happened, who was killed, forcibly moved, or otherwise harmed and attacked by the actions of nation-states and the societies they nominally oversee, there's a lot of argument about whether it qualifies as some arbitrary definition. These are actions involving several hundreds of thousands of deaths at a minimum. In the USSR case, there's probably several million such deaths caused deliberately in the 1930-1950 period alone. These we would think would not lend toward ambiguity in a way that killing a dozen people, or trying to kill a couple of very specific people doesn't obviously seem like it must or must not be an act of "terrorism". And yet much of time when these subjects come up, it's in the context and contest over whether it is or is not some sort of international crime against humanity rather than stacking up what happened, or telling the story of the people(s) who were being slaughtered and annihilated.

When something awful happens, and some number of people are killed or maimed by heinous actions. I'm not very interested in what we call this action. I'm not even that interested in who does it. Because it rarely seems to be a repeatable set of circumstances that led to some violent being acting upon other human beings with malicious intentions toward a dozen or more people in some way that it could be very easily prevented without a lot of taxing effort on social or culture change. But I am interested in who was killed. And maybe why that happened is of notice and attention. Maybe, how they lived might be more interesting though. I wish we would cover this more often. Deaths caused by murder and mayhem are the ending of what are usually interesting lives to the people who loved and knew this person. They're full of mystery, intrigue, achievement, failure, familiar stories to all of us. One of the successful points to the Fruitvale Station film was that it didn't depict Oscar Grant as some sort of angel to be avenged. He was depicted as a human being, a screwed up person just like the rest of us. And his death was both unnecessary and tragic in spite of this supposed flaw of being a kind of problem child, as most of us are wont to do. When we are deprived of this fuller story that someone's life and lived experiences can tell us, that is a story we should seek out. The ending of that story isn't liable to be as interesting without pausing to see what came before it.

I would point out a few things at this point

1) I am quite certain the motivations of the Charleston killings were racial in nature. The attack coming as it does in a church seems quite incidental. If anything, the selection of a church depicts a level of familiarity with the culture the killer sought to attack, but it does not depict some level of hostility with religion.  Black churches were for a long time banned and burned to the ground throughout the antebellum South. This wasn't because racists and white supremacists of that time hated church. Church bombings in the 1960s occurred because that's where the human targets of hatred and oppression bound up in racist motives were most easily found clustered together and thus killed. So it is now.

2) "Guns in church" is a humorous Carlin bit, but it has little to do with the safety of pastors and worshipers. George had two words for you all who think it might: "Disgruntled worshiper". Pissed off and determined people with guns can cause all kinds of problems even if someone manages to shoot them down during or after the fact.

2a) Neither would most of the more popular proposed forms of gun controls be that helpful here. (Some might have helped, but not most).

3) I'm not sure there's anything wrong with referring to something like this, a racially motivated attack killing or attacking a large number of people, as an act of terrorism. Go ahead if it makes you happy. I don't actually disagree on this point. To me, the biggest question mark isn't what we call it. It's how we respond. Given that I feel how we've responded to terrorism is generally awful and horribly unproductive as a society up until now to establish a poor track record, I'd rather we call it something else just to avoid this clumsy overbearing response that isn't likely to produce a fruitful result. Racism for instance. We respond poorly and unproductively to that also, but it is a subject that is apt to produce slightly more thoughtful effort than people running and scurrying around in fear and in this instance, with the motives of the killer exposed for examination and publicly declared, and the actions so horrifying, there will be relatively few people prepared to declare that this was not a racist acting out the hateful and terrible conclusions to their beliefs. People aren't going to be able to successfully argue this comes into some grey territory.

4) South Carolina is liable to pursue (and get) the death penalty, to demonstrate they take the murders of some number of its citizens "very seriously", without reference to "hate crime legislation" or "terrorism" statutes. This is fairly easy to do because ordinary murders don't take the lives of a sitting state Representative or some number of church pastors, or even just a large number of people all at once. In truth, of late South Carolina has actually been a beacon of "racial progress" in so far as it has dealt swiftly and somewhat harshly with police brutality and violence toward its citizens on this basis of race based bias and violence (yes, that South Carolina).

A number of shootings in the state by police have had the officers fired or dismissed from the force, nearly immediately, and charged with various degrees of murder or assault (in the occasion that the unfortunate victims of these shootings did not die of their wounds). This is to be applauded relative to, say, Ohio and its local governance. Which all but ignored the John Crawford killing, which occurred a few miles from my home. And has done little to nothing with Tamir Rice's killer. It sends a pretty powerful symbol to the community that indiscriminate and inappropriate violence by anyone, even those charged with enforcing the law, is not to be tolerated when the state seeks to punish police officers for inappropriate and indiscriminate violence that takes the lives of its citizens, and an equally powerful symbol when that violence by police is ignored or papered over. Racism isn't border limited to former Confederate or slave owning states. It isn't even border limited to "the USA", for that matter.

4a) South Carolina can remind us of that fact in both directions. Take down that fucking flag. You lost the war that you started on extremely morally suspect grounds (to defend the ability to oppress large numbers of human beings by declaring them property, devoid of agency and ability that is not provided for them to do). Stop trying to pretend you're still fighting for this cause. Apparently some number of your citizens are convinced enough to take up arms, and a larger number are convinced enough that they think they're being oppressed. The latter somewhat reasonably.

15 June 2015

More GoT thoughts

1) The Cersei perp walk was well executed, especially the return of the smirk face at the end when she got to the Red Keep and Qyburn was there. But it was a bit more gratuitous than needed (though not that much really either). The best parts of the walk were the initial bit (it is important to know she's naked, but not so important to keep focusing on it), then the sequences of her face as people shouted and spat at her and throwing all manner of filth, food, etc, and her feet bleeding from the tiles and distance covered. One of the secrets of storytelling is less is more, letting people fill in the blanks. Same with acting I suspect. Game of Thrones has sometimes learned this lesson but this wasn't quite in that league. This season has been fairly uneven in this respect, trying to focus more on spectacles than stories. It's really unclear still how the Sparrows/Faith Militant are this powerful in King's Landing, or why nobody is that resistant.

2) The way the Dorne subplot for the season trickled out, and the way the Stannis subplot felt rushed (though good), I'm not very optimistic about future adaptations where the writers go off "script" as it were. They still have some of the same pacing problems that they've always had in adapting Martin's material (sprawling as it is). But where in Season 4 some of the off-book changes (Brienne and Sandor Cleagane fighting, Tywin's expanded role) were good, these were all rushed and felt forced.

Stannis had been built up as a devoted father, religious fanatic but pragmatic leader. People had started to finally like the character. Then they went and had him off his daughter in a human sacrifice... and then he fights a futile and losing battle, and then gets (presumably) killed in the aftermath of the rout. That's a plot that needed a couple more episodes to unfold. It doesn't feel paced out. We don't care about the outcome very much because the "wounds" from Shireen screaming in agony are still very fresh. That sacrifice feels rushed as well. Stannis has a reputation as being pretty stubborn, and it doesn't give the impression that he's that worried about the men he commands, which isn't very much like a noted field commanded that he's supposed to be either. In the books, he is very concerned because of the sellswords and possibly mutinous troops from Northern lands and this impacts his decisions in pragmatic ways. It's still likely Shireen is killed in the books (this hasn't happened yet), and that Selyse kills herself after. But for different reasons that either would "make more sense" than what appears to be a pretty incompetent command effort to retake a valuable city after Stannis has had several very competent military moves that only fail because of bad luck (Tyrells/Lannister army shows up for example).

The Dorne plot was just all around useless and terrible. The book plot had intrigue within the Dornish court as there were several plots afoot. Myrcella is attacked, then schemed to be placed as a rival queen to Tommen, there's no Bronn/Jaime around, the Sand Snakes are still arrested as being rebellious, but one of them (not in the show) is involved in trying to use Dorne's unusual gender politics within Westoros to their own advantage rather than just standing around and acting ridiculous in order to up the boob to screen time ratio. I don't get what all that fuss was about to deal with a threat to Myrcella, who then unceremoniously ends up dead. So Jaime could have 15 seconds of "dad time"? There wasn't even any hook on which Jaime could "rebel" against Cersei, such as it is (as he does in the books). The fighting, such as it was, for this plot stopped being well scripted and believable after Bronn/Jaime's fight on the beach and the entire ordeal was boring except for that one fight and Bronn's singing. If that's the productive value of future writing, then we may have a problem moving forward here.

If it's more like the Hardhome/Jon Snow sequences, then we're fine. (Though even there, it doesn't make sense for Thorne to let him in with hundreds of wildling refugees and then stab him afterward. Just kill him or leave him out there to freeze).

3) I was on board with the changes to Arya's plot line, but they've basically turned her into another psychopath with the last two episodes. Boring. She's a killer in the books and she's still "off-book" within the House of Black and White, but she's not a psycho. I'm hoping this can be repaired with more faceless assassin training. Even if it does often have the feel of "wax on, wax off" Mr Miyagi in sandals and a dirty robe telling her to sweep floors and poison people.

4) I'm unclear where the Sansa plot was supposed to go. It's great they condensed somewhat (rather than fake Arya, we get real Sansa, this is a fine choice for a TV show as you don't need to pay another actress to be a new character), but this too felt mishandled. So she escapes (or possibly kills herself, but more likely escapes), where is she heading? What allies does she think she has? Reek/Sansa as a buddy cop travel show is probably not going to go so well with Ramsay around either.

We don't know this from the books yet either based on the plot line they have borrowed. But there there's a possibility of "safety" with Stannis, or perhaps Jon.

5) Pretty much nobody believes Snow is actually dead in the books given the way it is depicted and the moving pieces available around him to keep him around as a character. I remain dubious of this in the show as well (again, moving pieces are available, though not as many). Either they think they can kill him off and have just created a major book spoiler, or they think they can keep scenes of Kit filming for Season 6 under wraps somehow. They have kept certain things secret, such as the Shireen sacrifice scene, or the White Walker reveal at the end of Hardhome (everyone who followed the show probably knew it was coming, but the way it was depicted...). But that's different than "hey here's this well recognized actor filming in a place where we have been shooting Game of Thrones episodes". *One possibility would be having a different actor play Snow in the future also. Although that could be odd. Another would be that they just decided to off one of the more popular show characters (in a divergence from Martin's plans for the character in the books?) But this isn't likely to generate the same level of interest from fans as a return they got from Ned's beheading and the Red Wedding episodes. And it writes them into a corner if so where they favored an event over the stories surrounding and driving that event.

11 June 2015

Sets of doomed conversations

Gun control debates: Nearly always take place between people who have guns, enjoy having guns, and don't see a problem with people having guns as a result and people who are afraid of guns and don't think people should own guns. No progress between these groups can be made as the discussion rarely moves beyond the two sides' fears and into facts or considerations of various forms of legislation or constitutional matters. One side is afraid guns will be taken away, the other is afraid people have guns. I rarely see facts that are clear and decisive pushed forward, and very, very rarely see plans of action that could be considered under current legal interpretations and put into action, or would even work (eg, "assault weapons" bans, which are useless).

Theological debates: nearly always take place between religious people who are unschooled in theology (or philosophy/logic) but attached to their beliefs and secularists who enjoy pointing this flaw in lacking knowledge and well-thought-out reasons out. This is not because secularists can not or will not debate people who actually know something of theology. It's that there aren't very many people who know something of theology (or logic). Most people appear to believe things that they're told to rather than digging into it very deeply or credit subjective experiences and interpretations/perceptions very highly as evidence rather than dogma. Arguing about dogma therefore is a waste of effort for most such discussions as a result. The logical pretzels are very stale and can be seen coming from miles away. I get very tired of seeing Pascal's Wager come up. Pascal is an idiot on this point.

Libertarians vs other libertarians: Lots of holier than thou digressions occur. Various sources of internal worship are established and battle lines are firm. Most of the discussions are pointless anyway since most people are not very libertarian in their political thinking or political philosophy and it results in a lot of theory over reality. Very little of pragmatic advice will emerge that can be sensibly applied to the real world as it is right now (as opposed to the dream world where libertarians somehow rule over a world with various problems willed away as having been fixed somewhere). Libertarians should basically only talk to "normal people" and learn how other people think as a result (probably wise counsel for any political grouping is to talk to people that aren't in much agreement and find out why). I admire some of the theoretical work of libertarian political philosophy. I don't admire the "steal underpants - ??? - profit" mentality at times as an approach to political reform.

What I would define as a doomed conversation:
1) A conversation that will not change either participant's mind. Nothing can be learned (by either party) and no opinions will be amended.
2) A conversation that follows a certain predictable script of "here's point A that always comes up, here's point B".
3) If it follows a certain script, nothing will be learned, no minds will be changed, and anyone can go look for the very first example of it on wikipedia at this point to see what the argument is. We don't need to replay it in order for bystanders to know what's going to happen. So why bother playing it yourself. It's not even good practice for argument and debate. It dulls rather than sharpens the wit and mind.

I used to have a temptation to look down the conversational chess match and see the next 5 moves. If all of them will be taken exactly as predicted, there isn't much point in engaging further, and it's very easy to see where it starts from anymore that I just don't feel a need to be bothered with certain topics. People might learn they are making bad arguments that are easily and predictably swatted down and that following a certain playbook that everyone involved already knows isn't very useful as a result. But this is really unlikely. People involved will most likely disengage angrily, or at least dismissively with something like "well that's your opinion" or "agree to disagree".

That leaves the audience. And the audience is probably bored by the lack of movement/action or considers these too esoteric to bother with a firm opinion that would require investigation. Most people aren't libertarians. Most people aren't theologians or philosophers. Most people aren't gun policy advocates (one way or the other). Ergo, most people don't have much of a stake in the outcome.

Note: abortion isn't on the list. I think this is because there's more wiggle room. More people care at least a little about it, but don't know enough to feel they have a firm opinion. As such, people are often tempted to go for whatever and whoever has made the most compelling argument recently (hence we get a lot of ill-formed and poorly conceived anti-abortion legislation).

I'd also note one reason these debates aren't that interesting is that they're overrun by emotional reactions and stories rather than reasoned arguments.

10 June 2015

A free speech primer

I see a lot of debates online about what free speech means, or what it should or should not apply to in legal terms, or confusion about what constitutes "speech" and what constitutes an action (menacing, harassment, etc). I will just park this here so I don't have to write about it again for a while.

1) Free speech does not mean that you have the right not to be disagreed with. If other people (even other people working in some level or branch of government) have called you an idiot/bigot/racist/sexist/asshole for what you have said, this is not censorship. This instead means they don't like what you had to say. For various reasons. Free speech also doesn't mean you have a right to be listened to or can compel other people to listen by commanding air time or internet op-eds that others will have to publish. It's called "free speech". It's not called "everyone has to listen to what I say and agree with it!, for I am of the belief that I am wise and know all things about which I speak!"

2) If other people are offended by what you have to say, this does not mean they should have the right to use legal force to silence you. It might mean that you should think more carefully about what you are saying, or whether what you are saying contributes meaningfully to some intellectual discourse or other going on into which you have strayed and presumed to contribute. Or that what you had to say was in fact sexist/racist/idiotic or otherwise deliberately insulting (as with ad hominem arguments). Or it could mean your interlocutors don't know what they're talking about or are easily offended, or have misread or misinterpreted your arguments. Meaning you should still think more carefully about what or how you communicate.

But it doesn't mean that anyone should have the power to use the authorities to compel you to be silent on this or some other topic. "PC policing" is not the same as using actual police. It's neither as rigid and inflexible as involving the state nor as likely to have permanent consequence on your behavior and freedom.

What it most likely means is some (increasing) number of people will find you annoying and be less and less inclined to listen carefully to what you have to say.

Note also that nothing involved in being an annoying or offensive person implies that the other person has some right to commit acts of physical violence and intimidation to prevent you from speaking further upon some topic or other. They do not. Inciting or commanding others to riot or acts of violence in a directly involved way and "fighting words", direct personal insults of a vaguely defined and extremely rarely invoked legal terminology, are not protected. Being generally offensive or even bigoted is however, perfectly legal.

3) Being an asshole online is still a protected form of speech (so far). Hyperbolic threats are a commonplace routine, among other forms of repugnant methods to try to either intimidate others into silence or to signal some degree of ludicrous seriousness over some topic or other. Just because these are legal, does not make them wise or even morally sound to use. Sometimes being an asshole is important. And sometimes communicating a point matters more. The level of judgment involved in many blog comments, blog posts, op-eds, social media threads, and otherwise internet flame wars is typically bordering on little to none.

"True threats" are not protected (they are considered a form of action by causing others to reasonably fear for their safety), but what constitutes these in the digital realm is as yet being worked out still. Some people have very thick skin and still do jobs online and comment widely on the internet in spite of actual threats to their safety (and a host of hyperbolic nonsense). This does not mean the behavior of casual threats is appropriate simply because someone like me would simply shrug with indifference to them. Others are not so lucky or suffer a far greater volume of threats or suffer more serious and determined attempts to silence them through fear and intimidation.

There is a level where this crosses into firmer legal territory than the true threat doctrines; harassment or stalking for example. Restraining orders for specific offenders may be an option rather than blanket protections. Ban hammers on specific commenters or blocking on social media are also options.

4) "Hate speech" is not a legal term. It is highly unclear and uncertain what it would mean if it were ever attempted to be such, and unlikely to be well maintained in some agreed upon manner of what it constitutes. It's very unlikely in my view to be used in a manner that in some way protects oppressed people and more likely to be used to defend existing power structures (blasphemy laws in other nation-states are a prime example). At best this would be a "we know it when we see it" routine that has the same vague protocol as obscenity laws (a variety of state restriction that I do not see a clear purpose for either). Vagueness of law and legal terminology is better to be avoided such that the public understands clearly where the lines may be found. "We know it when we see it" is not a clear and unified standard as what we see and perceive varies widely.

5) Defending the right of someone's use of free speech to air opinions in public is not the same as defending the content of that speech. One does not have to endorse the content or quality of speech (Je suis Charlie style), in order to defend the rights of others to speak in public about topics, even offensive or insensitive topics. In general I prefer having at least a few people around with which I disagree about perhaps many different things. This does not mean I must endorse and agree with everything they say, at any time, or in any setting, and on any topic. What it means is I may argue with them if, when, and where I disagree. That's a central point of having a right of free expression is you may go right ahead and use it back.

6) "Shouting fire in a crowded theater" - is not an argument for restricting speech. Indeed, it isn't even an argument the legal system seems to want to use anymore, given as it was during a wartime repressionary fervor and publicly long-since divorced from its initial meaning ("shouting fire falsely" for instance is rarely included in the quote). Don't use it. It's like the Pascal's Wager of free speech discussions. It's tedious to keep encountering it given how ineffective and useless to any discussion it is.

7) A separate piece of advice, not related to any doctrines of free speech in legal or political philosophy terms, would be to try to leave room for people to change their minds and not nail people to the wall automatically for offensive or nonsensical speech, particularly speech made years or decades ago and not returned to again. This is because we ourselves change our minds over time. We should be recognizing this fact about ourselves in others.

Concurrently, we should not assume that someone's disagreements over some topic would imply to be that they do not care about the topic. It's very likely they might but that they care about different facets or are not as informed, or simply oppose what it is that you subscribe to as a course of action, seeing it as incomplete, incoherent, or ineffective.

08 June 2015

On Game of Thrones

This will be some comments on changes from the book versions.

"Dance of Dragons", the book within a book in the last episode, isn't just about the horrible futility of choosing sides in a civil war between family members. It's about a couple of things:

a) The lengths people go to to achieve and maintain power, even sacrificing and fighting with their family members (hmm, wonder why that was in there with Shireen reading it).

b) The fallout from the civil war included a change to the gender politics of the Game of Thrones universe; namely that women were partially cut out of the line of succession, where sons would precede them as kings instead of queens. Regardless of whether they were better suited or not for ruling a kingdom.

One additional reason that matters: The Dornish subplot in the books includes, rather than an attempt on Myrcella's life (though that's implied too), an attempt to place her on the throne instead of Tommen. We've already been shown that the Dornish don't have the same sexual and gender politics as the rest of the kingdoms through the relationship between a prince of Dorn (Oberyn) and a bastard girl (Elleria), for instance. This could still manifest in the show though it doesn't appear to be about to so far. It would have made the usually tedious and ill-shot sequences in Dorn a lot more interesting (Bronn's singing is about the only viable portion of these).

We are seeing that women are just as capable of being quality rulers and just as deluded about their ability to do so. A contest between and within the Lannister family tree over proper claim to rule would be an interesting subplot. Even as their grip on power slides rapidly out of control without this, it would hasten the demise and provide more background to the "history doesn't repeat, but it rhymes" mentality of the show, or as Dany calls it, the wheel grinding through the land.

We've also already been shown Cersei's life quest for power and then how poorly and incompetently she exercises it. And we've already been shown Dany's quest for power and how inexpertly she exercises it when she has it (Tyrion's line about killing and politics not being the same thing still matters), but also how well she learns various lessons about power, and the destructive ends that people go to wield it and whether that is appropriate or not (she tends toward not so much).

The show version just showed us the destructive ends that Stannis is willing to go to, and there are hints that this was somewhere the book version will end up going too. This isn't that far-fetched. He's being told by a set of religious fanatics that he's the one true hope for mankind, and just won a decisive victory at the Wall some weeks earlier to help cement that claim. What lengths wouldn't someone in those circumstances go to? He's been burning people alive throughout the show ever since he first appears (burning people at Dragonstone). Including Mance in the first episode of this very season. It's like people forgot this fact about him that was still in the background because he was correcting grammar and appeared to be a good (but stern) father for a few episodes after playing a badass finally by winning a battle that appeared lost. He can be terribly pragmatic and logical, but he's very single minded where his ambitions and purported destiny are concerned. "Thousands (will die)" at the Blackwater, he says during that battle. It is of no concern if the ends are met.

I'm generally very confused where people end up blaming the show runners (D&D to the internet) for things that are basically what Martin intended to do with the same material. All of this was built up throughout the season as Stannis' supposed redeeming quality, and a quality that he would have to sacrifice, and was told he would sacrifice by Melisandre to claim what is his. All they did here was heighten the emotional stakes for something terrible, as happened with the Red Wedding, and the Sansa's/Ramsay marriage and the assaults involved on her (instead of some nameless character). This is more or less what we'd expect a TV show to do.

Where I think they can be faulted is by submarining some of the other plots rather than by doing things that were always hinted at or intended. They've been touching on the gender politics of this world, but often very clumsily and without the overt signals of the past world to provide hints or clues to say that they're (probably) about to be overturned once again. They also buried the rise of some of the more egalitarian groups like the Sparrows (it's not made very clear how a bunch of religious fanatics would have amassed that much power in King's Landing even with Cersei's help), or the R'hollor worshipers, like Stannis, in the wake of a lot of violent political upheaval. We saw how horrible the road was by following Arya and the Hound around, but we haven't really seen how bad it is for regular people that they'd be turning to religious fanatics to protect them. I suspect these subplots concerning the plight of the regular folk matter quite a bit to Martin's themes, which is why several characters's POV arcs mostly consist of wandering around. These are naturally condensed because they're likely boring to portray on screen (Dany's season 2 arc showed us this), but they shouldn't be totally cut out either. That balance hasn't always been well-maintained.

Second bit I'd point out is that as much positive press as last week's episode got for delivering up fan favorite chats between Tyrion and Dany, and the half hour ice zombie slaughterfest, complete with a giant smashing wights and Jon's "I guess I've got one of those swords" look with the White Walker, the episode was not a positive one throughout or in its ending. Tyrion's "advice" to Dany mostly consisted of him telling her how wise she was in one breath and then telling her it's all going to come to a poor conclusion in the next, and the battle at Hardhome, though the crucial characters escape with their lives, is a total catastrophe. This is not a show (or a set of books) that's calculated for people to come away from an episode thinking the world they are watching is about to be spinning in the right way any time soon. It's a subversive show about the problems of both governance and the fantasy genre. And that means that happy ending scenarios are going to be few and far between.

If you think something awful is about to happen, you should be preparing for it if you're going to watch this show. Book readers have experienced this throughout, knowing that not only is some awful thing about to happen, but they know more or less what it will be, and only now are getting a few major twists and surprises.

03 June 2015

This probably explains a lot of why neoconservatives sound like they don't know what they're talking about

The fact that almost none of this is right probably explains a lot of why neoconservatives today sound so unintelligible.

1) The German regime wasn't that dissimilar to the British in its general organisation: both were constitutional monarchies at the time. There wasn't some rigid ideological conflict at stake between the two sides as a result. Frum pretends there was one. There are particulars that differ certainly and the war created more of them. But however awful the Kaiser was, this wasn't a Nazi or a Stalinist regime against which we were being pitted. The ideological gap was distinct but not unbreachable. More importantly the triumph in war or even the ability of the Germans to fight to a position of favorable armistice probably reduces the problem of the rise of the Nazis as a dangerous European political agent in the first place (but not necessarily Stalin, and may have caused issues in the UK and France politically if they were defeated or failed to win favorable terms).

Political upheaval within Germany is still a likely factor. The war was won and lost primary on the exhaustion of both sides of their ability to make either guns or butter. But a more stable German elite/military would put it in a position to suppress too much radicalism. It would still be jingoistic, but would already control or have substantial influence over most of the territory it sought with portions of Africa and most of Eastern Europe. Further expansion and expansionist desires might be possible but consolidating and governing these territories would take time and treasure.

2) "The British and French would have looked to the US for protection" The British wouldn't have needed it (they still had a large navy and colonies) and there's no particular reason to believe we would have offered it. The US nearly went to war with the UK twice in the 20th century and a third time late in the 19th century, I would argue we weren't that close of allies, other than WW2, until about the 1980s. And as it turned out, the British and French needed our protection anyway.

Had they lost, the British and French might have issues with Soviet internal rebellions or political movements, but these seem unlikely to have gone anywhere without extremely punitive fiscal considerations as part of the peace accord. Even in a defeated and humbled Germany the communists never really got a foothold (in part because other ultra-nationalist political movements superseded them and blamed communists for the defeat and subsequent misery). More liberal pro-market France and UK of the time seem especially unlikely to be overturned by Communist sentiments.

There's also little reason to assume the Germans would have automatically interpreted an American neutrality stance as hostile and started some sort of cold war with us. They definitely would have been a substantial world power. But this still would have been a multipolar world in which the US would have substantial advantages in strategic distance and industry and technology even with a rival power in Germany existing and could use other powers like the UK to help check this if it was seen as problematic for us. This is basically what we did with the Soviet Union is offshored our strategic duties to the Europeans and protected them with strategic power (nuclear weapons and naval and air superiority).

3) The Austrian and Ottoman regimes were teetering on unstable even before the war. Both were unlikely to survive even if the Central Powers had won unless the Germans were willing to expend a lot of treasury and effort to sustain them. Effectively most of Eastern Europe would be a colony for Germany. The colonies of France and England were (eventually) to expensive to maintain. Ditto Russia in the same locations during the USSR era. It is doubtful they'd be any better off in this respect.

4) Several of the independent nations listed were carved out of Russia (Finland, Poland, and the Baltic states). That could have happened anyway. Indeed, I'd suspect the Germans wouldn't want the Soviets getting that powerful, or even care if the Soviets stayed in charge after the war and would have created territorial concessions with more friendly governments as a buffer against Russia, if not actively sought to suppress the Bolsheviks as the US and UK did.

I'd state that Hungary would have split off for sure, and very likely the Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, and some variety of the Balkans would have emerged in the post war era with national sovereignty anyway regardless of the victor. All we'd be arguing about who they were friendlier toward. Since Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and even Finland all ended up fighting on the German side in WW2, the declaration that these could or would be peaceful and nominally democratic regimes with an allied victory seems already flawed.

5) The victorious Allied powers weren't any more charitable toward the defeated foes than Frum paints the Germans as being likely to be. There's not much evidence to suggest German demands would be unreasonably strange.

6) Iran is nowhere near as powerful or influential as Germany of the early 20th century. Germany already was a world power at the time and effectively one of 3 or 4 superpowers (the 4th being the US) capable of influencing events continents away through trade and war and diplomacy, as well as science and culture. Iran is regional power. They can only influence events elsewhere, outside that region, the extent that we allow them to. Which is to say not at all (unless we over-react to their abilities and do silly things). That they keep getting trotted out as a comparison to the perils of Germany on the world stage at the height of its power gets hilarious at first but tedious after a short while.

Academic speech blotter

I've seen versions of this argument cropping up a lot over the last several months, most notably Jon Chait's article. While I am sympathetic to the cause of academic freedom and freedom of speech involved, I'm not sure there is a case being made that this is actually being stifled or not. I see or hear a lot of anecdotes, not much data. What's actually going on? Who is being stifled? What is being shut down in debate? Where is this concentrated or occurring? Is it even new, or is it morphing to affect new disciplines from before, etc? Is this a representative sampling of students at large causing problems with academic discourse or a chosen few rebels? Not much of that is being reported in a comprehensive way. It's all haphazard stories of "this happened here, and that happened there" without someone actually looking at the dots to see if they connect in this way. So I don't know if I should take this seriously as a problem or not, whether to take the Chicken Littles as accurate that the sky has fallen or whether they have suddenly decided tin foil is a sensible fashion choice, or something in between that remains as yet undefined.

It's kind of like the rape on campus crisis. There the statistics being used are awfully suspect if not deliberately and hopelessly flawed that it is difficult to interpret what is going on. There's a lot of complex variables at work, sexual predators, issues of consent and sexual communication being vague, alcohol and drug experimentation, etc. I'm not immune to the idea there is actually a significant problem in either or both cases, and indeed am sympathetic to the idea of reducing the incidence of rape and increasing the academic liberty of students and professors, but nobody's actually proved the scope and scale of the issue yet and the proximate causes and dimensions remain unclear as a result.

It's also unclear what this means for actual behavior once students graduate. If this is a disturbing trend for feelings and identity over discourse, what does that mean when they hit "the real world"? (I'm not very concerned about the professors in the intermediate space versus the outcomes for students in the longer term, perhaps I should be more worried about their job security, but I'm not). There isn't any evidence put forward that this current generation is less comfortable or less tolerant of ideas than others before it once they complete their studies. I haven't found this talking to younger people at least. They're just as capable of being cynical and disreputable as their elders I usually find. Just in different spaces than before.

This for example: "Under such a conception, people become more concerned with signaling goodness, usually through semantics and empty gestures, than with actually working to effect change.", doesn't seem like a new problem with this generation over the previous 2-3 and there's little evidence put forward to suggest that it is so. Most of the people I talk to about politics/policy who are older also care more about signaling concern than effectiveness of policies. Indeed, one could argue that's the entire basis behind Prohibition and the Drug War, neither of which started with the current college student.

There's already been a fire burning for decades and apparently people are only now beginning to smell the smoke? What gives? What are this?