November 16, 2008

Better sell your tri-level in the suburbs now

Via Slow Home, an interesting piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

We are witnessing the beginning of the end of sprawl. Like much of the rest of the country, the overproduction of automobile-driven suburban development at the fringe of the Atlanta metropolitan area has reached its limits. The combination of outrageous commutes, environmental degradation and the increasing number of consumers preferring a “walkable urban” way of life have combined to start the end of the geometric increase in land consumption of the past half century.

Christopher Leinberger is reprising his lengthier article for the Atlantic which came out back in March. His arguments make a lot of sense. When you combine high fuel prices, disillusionment with long commutes, and government policies that are dispersing violent crime from the inner city to the suburbs, it's hard not to think that the post-WWII migration to the suburbs may have started to reverse itself.

If this is correct, I don't think there's any doubt that this will be good for the country's urban centers. Philadelphia and Chicago, your decades-long decline may be over. It'll be good for the environment. Whether it'll be a good thing for our rural areas is not clear. The only losers will probably be property owners in the outer suburbs, which may turn into the slums of the the 21st century.

November 11, 2008

In american politics, it's urban vs. rural

It's amazing what you can learn with a good map. The standard map of red and blue states suggests that the U.S. is politically divided between the coasts and the interior, or between the north and the south.

These geographic divisions don't, however, explain my own experience. For example, I can go to almost any rural part of Oregon or Colorado, both of which are "blue" states, and starve before I find anyone who voted for Barack Obama. What gives? We may be only 200 miles from Denver, but it feels as if (politically speaking) we're in Alabama.

Fortunately for us, Mark Newman of the University of Michigan gives us better maps:

What's striking about Newman's maps is how divided we are between urban and rural areas, with urbanites going Democratic and rural voters preferring the Republican. The really exceptional areas of the country are the backwoods regions of Wisconsin and New England, and the big cities in Texas. Pretty much everywhere else, the urban/blue, rural/red divisions hold up.

June 05, 2008

Obama, the Chicago guy

Via Michael Froomkin comes this great piece from Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. Anyone doubting that we've made some progress in race relations should read some of these letters written by white Chicagoans during the civil rights era. Read their letters, feel their fear. (And note, please, how often their racism was defended by appeals to "property rights" and "freedom.")

Our history of racism makes it delicious that Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President. But his nomination is delicious for more reasons than just race. After so many years of ceding the nation's political culture to candidates who feel compelled to identify themselves with rural Texas or Arkansas or some other Southern locale, I'm thrilled that Obama's acknowledged political home base is the city of Chicago. And after so many years of ceding our political culture to the rednecks, it's refreshing that Obama is obviously an intellectual who couldn't bowl his way out of a paper bag. It's about time! Of course, all of this is useless if Obama loses to McCain, but I'm still hopeful that that won't happen.

Now, I shall set forth upon my cultural rant -- apologies in advance:

Start with politics. The free-market and social conservativism that dominates our political discourse needs to be checked. Our long love affair with conservatism has led to the middle class disappearing, our bridges collapsing, our cities drowning, and our civil liberties evaporating. Our military is in Iraq on false pretenses, waging a war of choice, and may now be settling in for the very long-term. These depressing political developments have been aided, if not caused, by a political culture that has privileged the yahoo and the redneck over the erudite, urbane, and intellectual.

What do I mean by that? Consider that for decades, politicians won by ridiculing "effete intellectuals" and more recently, "latte liberals." Reagan the Rancher beat Mondale the Minnesotan. Bush 41 beat Dukakis in part because the latter seemed more urbane, and thus more wimpy -- mostly because of that unfortunate tank helmet, but also because Dukakis looked like the product of civilized Massachusetts. Clinton turned the tables on the Republicans by being more rednecky than both Bush 41 and the witty but non-redneck Bob Dole. That Gore and Kerry both came close to beating the most anti-intellectual president ever suggested that our national infatuation with yahoos continued, but that it might have limits.

Conversely, I challenge you to name a successful national politician who won by casting his opponent as an uneducated redneck. Who mocked his opponent's Ford F150 with the gun rack. Who held up his Starbucks proudly while denouncing his opponent's preference for Diet Coke and fries.

I thought not. Intellectualism hasn't fared too well in American politics of late.

I'm not saying that the right wing doesn't have its share of intellectuals. In fact, the left has long envied the academic output of the partisan right even as they denounce the specific arguments for endless tax cuts as ideological extremism. Despite George W. Bush's appalling lack of curiosity and aggressive anti-intellectualism, the real damage of this presidency has been done by the highly-educated David Addingtons and John Yoos in the administration who use their skills to push pernicious policies: the "unitary executive", the GWOT, signing statements, deregulation and tax cuts. These days, everyone across the political spectrum wants their own Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation.

What I'm saying is that as we've been seduced by the politics of the right wing, we've also been seduced by the culture of the redneck. I don't think this is a coincidence. They often go hand-in-hand. The pejorative term "redneck" conjures up images of people more zealous about the literal truth of the Bible than about their own reason, more attached to their pickup truck than to the health of ANWR, more committed to their hatred for gays than to their appreciation of diversity. These are the cultural markers that right-wing Republicans have been celebrating for decades.

Moreover, these cultural markers are sadly much more visible in rural areas than they are in big cities. This site stereotypes the difference too much, but there's a core of truth to the general claim that liberalism flourishes in big cities and withers in the hinterlands. If you doubt this, look at the map: there aren't red and blue states; there are red rural areas and blue cities. John Kerry won every city in the country with more than 500,000 people.

Republican campaign success over the past twenty years has hewed more or less loosely to the formula: praise the the rural and the redneck, villify the educated and and the urban. Thankfully, things are changing. We'll have to see how Barack Obama does in November, but this time around, my money's on the intellectual guy from Chicago. Delicious.

June 01, 2008

Why old white working-class people voted for Hillary

After eight years of George W. Bush, almost all of us want some kind of change. Unsurprisingly, then, Barack Obama’s campaign theme of change has been more successful than Clinton’s theme of experience. What surprises me is the number of Democrats who have voted for Hillary Clinton nevertheless. One frequently-offered explanation for why these voters have preferred “experience” to “change” is that they remember that things were better for them when Bill Clinton was president, and that their experience of change over the last decade has been mostly painful. This really doesn’t explain much, because many of Obama’s supporters can be described in exactly the same way.

Reading Richard Sennett’s book today, I found an explanation for Hillary’s appeal that makes more sense. It also suggests what Obama must do to appeal to many of Clinton’s supporters.

Sennett describes the new corporate culture that has exercised a disproportionately large influence on the rest of the economy and on politics. This celebrated “new economy” (so familiar to readers of Richard Friedman) puts a premium on short-term relationships and eschews continuity and stability. The days of lifelong employment at General Motors are gone, and with them any expectation that you can count on your employer for a pension and for health care. Firms that try to operate this way are ridiculed by investors as old-fashioned, and are the frequent targets of hostile takeover attempts. The goal for apostles of the “new economy” is to rebuild old stolid companies as a nimble, quick-footed enterprises that can respond quickly to changing markets, and are not weighed down by excessive commitments to particular products, workers, or worker benefits.

Older workers have experienced the transition from the old world of lifetime employment and generous pensions to the new world of temporary employment and no job security. These workers have moved over the course of a few decades from a world of mutual commitment between themselves and their employers to a world where there is no long-term commitment and stability is ridiculed in favor of fast-paced evolutionary change. These workers hear “change” and they don’t think merely of a change from the policies of George W. Bush; they think of the loss of stability and predictability that the new economy has unleashed. What these people want, and rightly so, is to slow this destructive change and to protect a world governed by commitments and characterized by long-term stability.

Younger workers, and to a large extent workers from the professional class who have tended to vote for Obama, haven’t had a similar experience. Either they’ve lived their entire work lives in the context of the new economy, or they’ve worked in jobs that haven’t yet been affected to the same extent by the new economy’s upheavals as the blue-collar jobs have been. For them, Obama’s call for change is nothing less than obvious -- of course we have to change what we’ve been doing under George W. Bush!

The question becomes whether Obama can make himself more appealing to Clinton’s older, whiter, more blue-collar supporters than John McCain can. I think he can if he decides to use the language of stability, safety, commitment, reliability, and trust in the context of the government’s relationship to them. He should remind voters that the Republicans are the ones most eager to extend the culture and values of the new economy into the public realm. The Republicans want to privatize Social Security. The Republicans want to make each individual fend for themselves when they get sick and need health care. The Republicans want to remake government in the image of the new lean, efficient, nimble, but commitment-free modern corporation that has so successfully shed jobs and pension commitments in the name of competitiveness and quick profit.

Obama obviously isn’t going to turn the clock back to 1955, but neither is Clinton. John McCain most certainly isn’t going to do it. Obama must persuade Clinton’s appalachian supporters that he values the kind of stability they’ve lost, and that he’s more likely than John McCain to preserve the reliability of the federal government and its ability to competently perform basic government functions.

May 23, 2008

Another civics lesson

Glenn Greenwald says he used to be a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. But he doesn't need that background to make the following obvious point:

. . . a court striking down a law supported by large majorities is not antithetical to our system of government. Such a judicial act is central to our system of government. That's because, strictly speaking, the U.S. is not a "democracy" as much as it a "constitutional republic," precisely because constitutional guarantees trump democratic majorities. This is all just seventh-grade civics. . . .

Point taken, Mr. Greenwald. But to pick a small bone: seventh-grade civics like this died a quiet death sometime in the late 1970s.

May 14, 2008

Barbara Ehrenreich gets the gender thing right

Hey Mom, look at this!

(I call out my mom because I always have my best discussions about gender differences with her. I'm pretty sure my mom will actually agree with this piece by Barbara Ehrenreich. Even if I'm still not sure whether she supported Obama or Clinton for the Democratic nomination.)

Hillary's Gift to Women

. . . . Biology conditions us in all kinds of ways we might not even be aware of yet. But virtue is always a choice.

Hillary Clinton smashed the myth of innate female moral superiority in the worst possible way -- by demonstrating female moral inferiority. We didn't really need her racial innuendos and free-floating bellicosity to establish that women aren't wimps. As a generation of young feminists realizes, the values once thought to be uniquely and genetically female -- such as compassion and an aversion to violence -- can be found in either sex, and sometimes it's a man who best upholds them.

February 09, 2008

Modern infantilism -- does Benjamin Barber have the solution?

The subtitle of Benjamin Barber's latest book hints at his dislike of consumerism. Frustrated with the ubiquitous glorfication of "the market" in our current political discourse, Barber asks the following almost rhetorical question:

"After all, when religion colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, we call the result theocracy; and when politics colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, we call the result tyranny. So why, it might be asked, when the marketplace -- with its insistent ideology of consumption and its dogged orthodoxy of spending -- colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, do we call the result liberty?" [219-220]

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July 26, 2007

Lost bird

"Lost: tame bird. Will not bite! Cannot defend itself from dogs or cats. Please call for reward."

Flyers with this announcement went up on almost every lightpost and street sign in my neighborhood last week, accompanied by a black-and-white photo of a small bird with a longish beak. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the bird, and that makes me sad.

The silver lining in this lost-bird story is that people are capable of missing their pet bird. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the person who went to all the trouble to post all those reward flyers actually loved that little bird. People can be self-absorbed and destructive, but they can also be loving -- and it's probably a good thing to remind ourselves of this every once in a while.

So I thought about love as I walked home. I started thinking about those of us who are so convinced of the non-equivalence, moral and otherwise, of people and birds that they would interpret this love for a missing bird as evidence that people sometimes misplace their emotions, or (more generously) that people have such a surplus capacity for love that they can afford to squander it on a being that isn't somehow intrinsically worthy of it. These people might say that humans alone can validate another person's love and can sometimes compel it, but a mere bird can only be the indifferent target of irrational emotion.

Surely you know people that think like this. You might even think this way yourself. After all, it does make instinctive sense to think of human beings as special in many ways, including perhaps their "appropriateness" as objects of our love.

But how can we know enough to be sure of this? If we can be confident about anything in the world, I think that we can be most confident about our ignorance. Religions, it seems to me, exist because at some level we're aware that we have no idea what the hell we're all doing here, or why, or what the point of it all is. Religions exist because we humans feel profoundly uncomfortable with this ignorance, and we mostly prefer faith -- just a belief in something we're not logically or empirically compelled to believe in -- to raw blubbering ignorance. We're uncomfortable not knowing what happens to us after we die, so we make up a story and believe in it rather than live with uncomfortable ignorance. We don't know why we're here, so we put our faith in a religious story that tells us why we're here and what we're supposed to be doing.

I'm not arguing against faith. I'm just saying that I think the ideas and stories we have faith in, that we believe without compulsion, are things we create and are not given to us by God. No, scratch that. I'm saying that even if there's a God that has given us anything, it's too difficult to distinguish which of our many yearnings and wishes and beliefs are God-given and which are conjured up by ignorant people just like ourselves. We have to remember that although faith may be a good thing, it's definitely not knowledge.

So what does this have to do with a lost bird? Even if many of you would agree with me that faith isn't knowledge and that we're ignorant about a lot of things, I'm surprised how many of us will act as if they know that loving a bird is a slightly foolish thing to do. But if it's a noble thing to love another person, why is it foolish to love a bird? Or to put the same thing a different way, if loving a bird is foolish, then aren't we just as foolish when we love each other?

It seems to me that in the dark of our ignorance, we could be a bit more generous than that. As far as I know, love is a wonderful thing, and it doesn't have to be hoarded up as if it were in danger of running out. Moreover, birds are wonderful too, and there's no evidence that we squander our love if we give some of it to a bird. So for all you humans-are-the-only-worthy-beings people out there, you can put a cork in it.

I don't believe you.

June 22, 2007

Home cooking

Driving back from a trip to Kansas City the other day, we passed through Des Moines, Iowa, around lunchtime and started looking for a grocery store.

We looked, and looked some more. No grocery stores hove into view. We did see a lot of fast-food places on every commercial corner -- Boston Markets and burger places and mid-level suburban ubiquities like Appleby's and Carrabbas Italian Swill. But no grocery stores. There were single-family homes for blocks in every direction. Did the people who lived there never cook for themselves?

Finally, we stumbled into a neigborhood where a few "european-style" lofts were going up, and lo! A foofy grocery store appeared before us . It was the kind of place that hosts Rick Bayless of Topolobampo fame for a cooking seminar on Mexican food, and charges $120 per person for the privilege of attending. Evidently, enough of these people who live in trendy lofts still cook for themselves to support a local grocery store with an in-house fromageur who will apologize -- appropriately -- for the store's unfortunate inability to stock burrata.

It made me wonder: has home cooking become a fetish of the moneyed class? Does everyone else just buy their food indirectly from the megadistributor Sysco, via the line cooks at Macaroni Grill?

June 21, 2007


"In our everyday economic behavior, we seem determined to discover whether we can live alone on earth."

This article made me very, very sad.

June 16, 2007

The wedding industry

From the Washington Post:

"If a bride has been told, repeatedly, that it costs nearly $28,000 to have a wedding, then she starts to think that spending nearly $28,000 on a wedding is just one of those things a person has to do, like writing a rent check every month or paying health insurance premiums. (Or she prides herself on being a budget bride and spending a mere $15,000 on the event.) She is less likely to reflect upon the fact that $28,000 would have more than covered a 10 percent down payment on the median purchase price of a house in 2005 and would cover the average cost to a family of a health insurance policy, at 2005 rates, for a decade. The bride who has been persuaded that $28,000 is a reasonable amount of money to spend on her wedding day is less likely to measure that total against the nation's median household income -- $42,389 in 2004 -- and reflect upon whether it is, in fact, reasonable for her or for anyone to spend the equivalent of seven and a half months of the average American's salary on one day's celebration."

April 09, 2007

What else are we missing?

From the Washington Post, one of the best articles I've read in a long time.

"If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?"

November 27, 2006

Economic thinking

It's hard to resist an article with a lead like this: "There’s a case to be made that the single most intellectually and politically influential neighborhood in the United States is Chicago’s Hyde Park."

And it's a strong case, too -- Hyde Park is home to the BonJour Cafe's delicious belgian rolls, which have been winning the whole world over with their yummy goodness. But this article, surprisingly, is really about the Chicago School of economic thought, which has made the world's elite its bitch.

Fortunately, this isn't another paean to the ideological yumminess of free markets. Instead, the author says, "[f]or Thomas Friedman (and, indeed, [University of Chicago economics professor] Allen Sanderson), people can’t “disagree” with neo-classical economics. They can only fail to understand it." Which is the pithiest way of criticizing the Chicago school that there is.

All in all, this is a good read. Even if I am tired as all get-out from a long ER shift, and with sore feet to boot.

August 30, 2006

Europe's Christian roots?

I read Without Roots alongside Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism because they seemed to exemplify two common responses to the problem of cultural intolerance and violence. Appiah's book describes the familiar liberal response: we can avoid violence by recognizing that most differences between people aren't as serious as they seem, and by treating the differences that remain as irrelevant to the practical problem of living together. The book by Pera and Ratzinger promised to argue for some version of the cultural conservative's response: stable toleration requires that we all recognize some fundamental "moral essence" of humanity; the Christian tradition of Europe recognizes this moral essence; therefore the foundations of a stable, nonviolent society must somehow embrace our Judeo-Christian roots.

I'm not very sympathetic to the accretions of right-wing opinion that cling to the religious traditionalists like barnacles, but on one point at least, they're more effective than the liberals. The conservatives say that there are moral values that we must recognize as universal and superior to all others. Otherwise, our efforts at peaceful toleration will allow hideous evil to flourish. Toleration based on relativism rather than on absolute moral standards cannot recognize the evil of regimes like Mao's or Stalin's.

Liberals, of course, recognize that murder can't be tolerated, much less genocide. The problem is that liberal arguments aren't usually very good at explaining why. A morally crippled person, reading Kwame Anthony Appiah's arguments, might easily fail to see why a society or regime like Stalin's ought to be one of the "losers" when it conflicts with a regime or society that prohibits torturing political opponents in gulags. Appiah certainly doesn't give compelling reasons; he simply says that there will be winners and losers when irreconcilable values conflict, and that the losers won't be happy about it. The closest Appiah comes to actually giving a reason is when he says that some values (like not hurting others) are actually shared almost universally; the defenders of Hitler are not very numerous. But even if this is empirically true, Appiah can't give a reason why it's a good thing that this is true.

The problem that most liberals face, no matter how morally upstanding they may be, is that reasoned arguments are the most subtle and difficult means of distinguishing good from evil. I don't know whether there's a philosophical consensus about whether it's even possible to reason about the concepts of good and evil without resorting to non-rational discourse, such as the language of faith. But one thing's for sure: it's much, much easier to talk about good and evil in the language of faith and religion than it is to talk about these things using rational arguments. That's why most people who aren't moral philosophers in fact look to things other than reason when they make judgments about morality. Something's evil because the Bible or the Koran or their priest or their mother says it is, or beause it just is, period. No reasoned arguments necessary (or possible?).

This is why the conservatives are more effective than most liberals, at least on this question. Joseph Ratzinger can explicitly appeal to faith in order to say "this, my friends, is evil." Appiah perhaps ought to do this too, but his attachment to reason and fear of un-reason lead him to make hand-wavy gestures at the point when he wants to argue that some things just shouldn't be tolerated.

Ok, so on that much I think Without Roots is a better book than Appiah's, because it's more straightforward and honest. But what about the rest?

Pera and Ratzinger: Saving the world by invading Iraq and outlawing gay marriage

Joseph Ratzinger is, of course, the Pope, but he wrote these materials when he was merely one of the most influential thinkers high up in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Pera is an Italian politician, and one of the most interesting things about this book is to see how Ratzinger keeps his distance from politics, preferring to discuss ideas and issues in the abstract or in historical terms, while Pera is more willing to apply these ideas to practical policies. This dynamic is fascinating. Ratzinger alone is very measured, interesting, and even compelling. One can't help but admire his historical knowledge, and his tone is scholarly and pleasant. It's easy to simply think along with Ratzinger, but when you read Pera's contributions, you can no longer be a curious spectator. With Pera, you have to declare yourself as an ally or an enemy. And since Ratzinger nowhere says that he disagrees with Pera and often claims to agree with him, you realize that if ideas have consequences you'd better be either for Ratzinger or against him.

Here's what Ratzinger says: the history of Europe is a long, slow process of moving religion out of the public sphere -- Ratzinger wants to bring it back. The initial moves of this long process were good ones. In the Western Roman Empire, temporal power was divided from spiritual power, with the former resting with kings and the latter resting with the Pope. This was good because human pride makes absolute power too dangerous. It's not clear where along the road to the modern secular state Ratzinger thinks Europe ran off the tracks, but he certainly thinks it has done so by now. Today, Ratzinger says, Europe's "broad Christian consensus" is threatened. The modern European state has succumbed to a "hollow" belief in technology and progress as a secular substitute for spiritual values. Totalitarianism and dictatorship remain a real threat because the relativism that permitted the regimes of Stalin and Hitler is stronger than ever.

The proper response to this sorry trajectory is to ensure that any future European Constitution protects fundamental human rights as "values that take precedence over the jurisdiction of any state." Modern abominations such as cloning, "trafficking in organs for transplants," and gay marriage would be stopped in their tracks.

I'm sympathetic to Ratzinger's worries about an unbounded faith in technological progress. And he's surely right that without some absolute moral values that limit the permissible uses of new technologies, we will again have to confront massive horrors of the sort that we saw in the 20th century. I'm thinking here about, you know, mass genocide and nuclear annihilation. That's why it's so lame to end, as too many conservative screeds against secularism do, by trotting out organ transplants and gay marriage as the sort of horrors that should motivate us to change essential aspects of modern state power. Unless you're a believer in a very particular interpretation of a very particular bit of religious scripture, the threat of gay marriage is not going to chill you to the core.

It only gets worse when you read Marcello Pera's pieces. As a practicing Italian politician sympathetic to Ratzinger's views, Pera allows himself greater license to talk about specific political controversies. The war in Iraq is the best example. Pera praises the Bush Doctrine generally as a shining example of what a leader with moral convictions can do, and he praises the invasion of Iraq specifically as something Bush and the U.S., but not the hollow and hopelessly secular European states, had the courage to do. If it's true that Ratzinger's brand of moral absolutism would be reliably translated by politicians like Pera into policies like George W. Bush's, then I know where I stand. I'm against it, full stop.

Kwame Anthony Appiah's liberalism leads him to belittle people's cultural and religious convictions, but Pera and Ratzinger's religious convictions lead them to all but explictly reject toleration. We can believe in whatever we want, so long as we submit to the authority of leaders espousing the Christian (and specifically Catholic) religion. What else can Ratzinger mean when he chooses such a particular "evil" as gay marriage to condemn? It would be fine if, like Appiah but without Appiah's hemming and hawing, Ratzinger had espoused absolute moral values that could at least pretend to be universal.

Reading both of these books, I get the sense that any solution to the toleration problem is a fine balance between Appiah's toleration and Ratzinger and Pera's convictions. But I'm not optimistic that any one author or theorist will get it right. If we manage to achieve it in practice, it's going to be because both sides check each other's excesses.

August 22, 2006

Fear of a Mexican planet

Daniel Larison's post sets out, clearly and pithily, the reasons why we should worry about Mexican immigration.

I've linked to it because I'm not worried about the Mexicans, and it's because I don't think any of Larison's reasons give cause for alarm.

  • Assimilation just isn't the problem Larison thinks it is. How exactly do we suffer if Mexicans remain "unassimilated?" i'm sure this doesn't hold true for Mr. Larison, but for many opponents of immigration, "assimilation" is a code word for not having to hear Spanish spoken on the street. One faces this problem in Europe, so it cannot be that this is a threat to our "European culture." What else can "assimilation" mean? That Mexicans won't soon be driving SUVs and shopping at WalMart like the rest of us? Even if this is true, which it isn't, both of these behaviors are salutary.
  • Mr. Larison fears that large numbers of Mexicans won't adopt the "habits of the natives." Well, in some cases, that would be a bad thing -- but only when those habits are good ones. For neutral habits, like the preference among 50-something whites of European heritage for lime-green Izod golf shirts, or bad habits, like the preference among native 20-somethings to sit on their ass all day complaining about how no employer worthy of their great talent will hire them, rather than going out and getting a job, the refusal of Mexicans to adopt the local habits will benefit our great Nation.
  • The most bizzare part of Mr. Larison's post, though, is its worries about democracy. I want to believe that it's saying this: that large numbers of immigrants unaccustomed to democracy threatens our own democratic traditions, which depend upon a cultural assumption that it's democracy or the highway. But it would be so much easier to read the post this way if there wasn't all that stuff in there about the new immigrants' self-interested preference for left-wing politics. If you're worried that the bill of rights and the protection of minorities will be trampled, that's one thing. But lovers of democracy, even "liberal democracy" (which I generously take to mean a democracy that preserves basic human rights), have nothing to fear from people of any background that prefer left-wing policies and candidates for office. The only people who have anything to fear from these are people that prefer right-wing policies. Don't try to misdescribe this as a fear for "liberal democracy."
  • Even if everything Mr. Larison says about Mexican immigrants were true, these threats pale against the threats to our democracy and culture from other sources. The chief among these being, of course, globalized trade, the de facto rule of multinational corporations, and the strictly industrialist mindset that goes with this. It wasn't Mexicans who deprived Ms. Kelo and the citizens of New London, Connecticut, of their private property. It was a state apparatus bent on catering to the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Show me a concrete case where Mexican immigrants have eroded our respect for private property as much, and I'll reconsider my criticisms.
Most of my friends who are sympathetic to my agrarian tendencies are also opponents of immigration from Mexico. Perhaps I'm dense, but I still fail to see any crisis here.

Cosmopolitanism's limits

Last winter when I was in Hyde Park to interview for a residency spot, I stopped in at 57th Street Books and found two books on the front table. One was Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. The other was by Italian politician Marcello Pera and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), entitled Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam.

I thought it would be fun to read them together. One offered "cosmopolitanism" as an antidote to the inevitable conflicts that arise in a globalized "world of strangers." The other saw a threat to "tolerance and civility among peoples of diverse convictions" in Europe's "apostasy toward . . . the spiritual roots of European civilization" as George Weigel's preface puts it. Nonviolent coexistence demands some degree of toleration, and toleration seems to demand that we embrace some kind of relativism. Could one really argue for a renewed commitment to religious values on the grounds that this apparent absolutism is more conducive to toleration than some form of relativism? This post addresses Appiah's book; I'lll talk about Pera and Ratzinger separately.

Anthony Appiah: Virginia Postrel on steroids

I admit that the comparison might not be entirely fair, but for the sake of brevity I'm going to call Kwame Anthony Appiah the thinking man's Virginia Postrel (or perhaps Thomas Friedman, if you prefer).

Appiah argues that we can't be cosmopolitans until we give substantial weight to our shared humanity, relative to the weight we give to our shared identity with our co-religionists, countrymen, or ethnic group. The "golden rule of cosmopolitanism" according to Appiah is something like the Roman playwright Terence's "I am human; nothing human is alien to me." When it comes to culture, we ought to recognize the empirical reality that there is no such thing as cultural purity. Every culture has been "contaminated" by others, whether by trade, migration, or Hollywood movies. "We do not need, have never needed, settled community, a homogenous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron."

This does not mean that there are no differences among peoples. In fact, the threat of cutural imperialism shouldn't be overstated, because even when the same television show is seen worldwide, different peoples have different reactions to it. Even when Coke is marketed around the world, local people often prefer local beverages when they're available. "And whatever loss of difference there has been, [people] are constantly inventing new forms of difference: new hairstyles, new slang, even, from time to time, new religions."

But if homogenization isn't a problem, why do so many people think that it is? According to Appiah, it's because they don't like change. "So why do people in [the world's villages] sometimes feel that their identity is threatened? Because the world, their world, is changing, and some of them don't like it."

Well, duh. It isn't that people don't like change per se; they don't like change that threatens their identity. The problem with all of this breezy talk about sources of conflict that, illusory or not, lead people to kill each other in mass numbers, is the same problem that Postrel and Friedman have also failed to solve. Appiah never takes the proper measure of the non-cosmopolitan's objections to our modern circumstances. You can see this when he equates threats to a person's identity with a mere distaste for change in general. These are clearly problems of a different order of magnitude. We can't conjure away the problem Postrel-style by describing millions of people who feel the need to kill or be killed in a war against modernity as merely stubborn.

Appiah also sets up an all-too common straw man to represent those who argue that elements of our tradition should be preserved. He speaks as if all these people simply want to foreclose choice, and force everyone to be small farmers. For instance (p. 103-4):

Above all, relationships are changing. When my father was young, a man in a village would farm some land that a chief had granted him, and his [family] would work it with him. If extra hands were needed in the harvest season, he would pay the migrant workers who came from the north. . . . Nowadays, everything has changed. Cocoa prices have not kept pace with the cost of living. Gas prices have made the trasportation of the crop more expensive. And there are new possibilities for the young in the towns, in other parts of the country, and in other parts of the world. Once, perhaps, you could have commanded your nephews and nieces to stay. Now they have the right to leave; in any case, you many not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family has gone; and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as some of the American family farmers whose lands are being accumulated by giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with them. But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture; and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.

This is simply modern superstition thoughtlessly repeated. The economy (conceived of as a natural "force" for which we are not responsible) has made it impossible to pursue a way of life that has sustained many generations of people. Despite the economic impossibility of pursuing the old ways of life, the abandonment of these old ways and the adoption of the modern ways is glorified as a "choice" that young people freely make. Appiah doesn't recognize the contradiction, perhaps because he's so eager to condemn those who would "force" their children to remain on the farm as enemies of free choice. But who are these people? We here a lot from Anthony Appiah and Virginia Postrel about these family-farming tyrants, but we're never told who they are. It's just assumed that they exist. But I haven't met one, or read their articles or books, or seen any of the draconian stay-on-the-farm laws that they're trying to pass.

I suspect that, if we were really more concerned about "freedom" than about defending modernity as such, we'd be willing to acknowledge that much of what young people do when they leave the family farm is done because there isn't any other real choice to make. Economic realities, to the extent that they make the family farm unprofitable, make moving to the cities a necessity and not a choice. Appiah (and Friedman) can argue that the family farm doesn't make economic sense, but they can't have it both ways and simultaneously claim that the abandonment of the farms is a glorious example of personal freedom.

The fact is that the modern economic realities that are condemning family farms in favor of global agribusiness are not natural events. We subsidize global agribusiness, not family farms. Much less do we subsidize "thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity," whatever that might mean.

Appiah does discuss more serious sources of conflict than changing hairstyles and new slang. He points out that the conflict in the United States between people who favor and who oppose legal abortion is not a conflict over fundamentally incompatible values. Instead, it's a conflict over how the shared values of life and freedom ought to be applied in a particular case. The conflict between observant Muslims and observant Jews wouldn't be as fierce if they didn't both share similar beliefs about the importance of Jerusalem. The resistance to British colonization of Ghana was fiercest among the most Westernized Ghanaians, who shared with the British the values of nationalism and self-determination.

Appiah comes close to acknowledging that when people disagree like this, reason will often fail. These differences don't arise because people aren't being reasonable. There are going to be winners and losers, and the losers will be very angry, and they may respond with violence. But I suspect that to just say this and stop would be to admit the defeat of cosmopolitanism, and Appiah is unwilling to do this explicitly. Instead, he turns quickly away from a discussion of winners and losers to a discussion of habit. He acknowledges the limits of reason: "I have learned in a life of university teaching and research that even the cleverest [why not simply "most intelligent"?] people are not easily shifted by reason alone. . . " The point of conversation and cultural interchange isn't to arrive at a consensus about values. "...[I]t's enough that it helps people get used to one another." End of chapter.

Sure, living with someone different teaches us about them and makes them less unfamiliar. But if Appiah wants to suggest also that it makes us more tolerant of them, he leaves it as merely a suggestion. Who wants to kill Iraqi Sunnis? Iraqi Shiites, not Alabama Baptists. Who routinely killed Irish Catholics? Irish Protestants, not Buddists in Japan. Will cosmopolitan cultural interchange lead to a safer and less violent "world of strangers?" Appiah doesn't argue convincingly that it will.

June 11, 2006

Employers, and the employees who grovel before them

This story in the NYT made me realize that if I had to hire someone, I wouldn't hesitate to Google them if I had the time and the curiosity. If I found out that the candidate had a myspace page that typically looks something like this (sorry, Shelby, I just needed an example and your page came up), I suppose I'd flush their resume down the toilet too. Not for doing drugs or posting immature shit online (that's none of my business), but for being stupid enough to act as if they think the things they put online are private.

The one thing that troubled me about the NYT article, though, is the way employers are getting access to Facebook information:

Facebook, though, has separate requirements for different categories of users; college students must have a college e-mail address to register. Personal pages on Facebook are restricted to friends and others on the user's campus, leading many students to assume that they are relatively private.

But companies can gain access to the information in several ways. Employees who are recent graduates often retain their college e-mail addresses, which enables them to see pages. Sometimes, too, companies ask college students working as interns to perform online background checks, said Patricia Rose, the director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.

In other words, new employees sell out their former classmates to their employers.

If the Facebook posters think what they've put online is any less private than a myspace page, they deserve what they get. But it's still disappointing to know that employers can co-opt their new employees so easily.

One of my supervisors during my law school years (who shall of course remain nameless) was a bit put out when I refused to use my summer Westlaw and Lexis passwords to do job-related legal research. I'm not usually a stickler for the rules, but I'd clearly agreed that I wouldn't use my personal summer access to Westlaw for my employer's benefit. I would have been even more reluctant to use my Facebook access (if I'd had it) to help my employer run background checks. That kind of thing feels groveling and supine to me. But there's no guarantee that even I -- hard as it may be to believe -- would always say no to these kinds of employer requests. What if I liked my boss and hated my ex-classmate? Then it'd be, "Sure, I'll dig up this guy's Facebook page for you. Heh heh."

The moral of the story, again, is if you don't want the whole world to read it, don't put it online. There's always an old classmate out there who's too eager to say "yes" to their boss.

June 09, 2006

First they put RFIDs in the immigrants. . .

Corporate leaders are excited about a new "guest worker application" that will "help the U.S. with its current immigration crisis." In other words, they're looking forward to implanting radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs) into Mexican guest workers.

But there's really nothing to worry about here. “First and foremost, a VeriChip is not a locating device. VeriChip technology has no GPS capabilities whatsoever." That's a relief.

"It is simply a voluntary passive identification device that is only “awakened” by a proprietary scanner within a very short range of a few inches.” Well, when you put it like that, it doesn't seem so bad. In no time at all we'll be using them in our children (to prevent abductions), our employees (for employment-related uses only) and ourselves (to make things more convenient).

Nothing to worry about.

May 30, 2006

I'm a YouTube fan now

I heard about YouTube for the first time yesterday in an article from I forget where. Today, I went to the YouTube site and found this wonderful introduction: the Matt Hughes vs. Royce Gracie fight from UFC 60.

Spoilers below the fold.

Continue reading "I'm a YouTube fan now" »

May 29, 2006

Musical taste

Remember those days in the schoolyard, when the little girl would show you hers and you'd reciprocate by showing her yours? That's a lot like the recent revelations of what's in Hillary Clinton's, George W. Bush's(by far the best list), and Condoleeza Rice's iPods. Faced with these titillating revelations, some people have graciously responded in kind.

It seems, too, that a lot of people feel the need to take sides in the Beatles/Stones war. I've never really cared much -- "norwegian wood" is great, and so is "street fighting man." I define my musical allegiances in other ways:

  • Elvis Presley over Elvis Costello
  • Bananarama over Cyndi Lauper
  • Alice in Chains over Nirvana
  • Real jazz over "smooth jazz"
  • Phish over the Grateful Dead
  • Dixie Chicks over Toby Kieth
  • Neil Young over Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Neil Diamond over Barry Manilow
  • Rush over Yes and Genesis (why people ever group these bands together is beyond me)
Let me reemphasize: Rush is more like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin than Yes or Genesis. Get with the program, people.

UPDATE: Heidi points out that I linked to the wrong list for our Prez. I knew it was too good to be true. Try this for George W. Bush's iPod.

April 19, 2006

PowerPoint: Less is More

On the interview trail for an emergency medicine residency spot, I was hit with a cold realization. My three blissful years of law school are coming to an end. It's time to go back to the world of medicine, and this means returning to an arena in which virtually every formal presentation is likely to be accompanied by PowerPoint slides.

I'm yawning with anticipation.

At the University of Michigan Law School, professors lecture with all the lights on, and they almost never use PowerPoint. This might surprise all those academic physicians out there who don't think it's possible to convey information without dimming the lights and firing up the projector. Dispite what many doctors seem to think, PowerPoint is not a required teaching tool. My roughly 400 or so classmates who've learned a lot of law over the past three years can all testify to that.

Lawyers do, occasionally, use PowerPoint in the courtroom. But the good ones don't let PowerPoint use them. TaxProfBlog has a post about how trial lawyer W. Mark Lanier -- the guy who persuaded a Texas jury to award his client $252 million in Vioxx suit against Merck -- hired a guy named Cliff Atkinson to help him with his PowerPoint slides. Atkinson is trying to do something about what he calls "PowerPoint fatigue" and TaxProf calls "the deadening sameness of Microsoft Corp.'s commonly used presentation software." This kind of language should rings a bell for a lot of emergency physicians and residents out there (for my sake).

My only worry is that Atkinson might not be quite radical enough. Sure, he talks a tough game. On page 14 of his 5 ways to reduce powerpoint overload (pdf), Atkinson says:

When you think you’re impressing people by putting everything you know on your PowerPoint slide, you’re actually doing the opposite by shutting down their cognitive processing. And when people are sitting there bored, they’re likely not thinking positive thoughts. When it comes to PowerPoint, less is more. . . ." (Emphasis mine.)
Atkinson is absolutely right, which is why I wish he'd gone on to say, "hey, do you ever think of just getting up and talking? Without any PowerPoint at all?" But I suppose that wouldn't be great for his consulting business' bottom line. Even though he says that less PowerPoint is more, Atkinson doesn't actually advise us to use less PowerPoint. And that's kind of sad and wimpy.

February 23, 2006

Protectionism and national security

Via Prof. Bainbridge, Dan Oesterle distinguishes between national security and protectionism:

The argument against the Dubai acquisition is old fashioned protectionism in the guise of national security. National security is a legitimate concern and we should be able to block acquisitions in the name of national security but national security can also be a false front for raw protectionist sentiments. At issue here is, first, whether the national security concerns are legitimate and, second, the government's mechanism for deciding such cases [emphasis added].

When Prof. Oesterle asks whether the national security concerns are legitimate, he misses exactly half of the question. The other half, of course, is whether the protectionist concerns are legitimate. Oesterle seems to think that our national security is always consistent with global free trade, or at least that the two have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. But to assume that the sources of our goods and services and the way we distribute these goods and services among us is irrelevant to to national security is to define "national security" much too narrowly.

President Bush himself takes a larger view of national security when he acknowledges that our dependence on foreign oil should be resisted. His call for fighting our addiction to oil is a national security argument. But it's also, simultaneously, a "protectionist" argument. Unfettered global trade, unbalanced by any prudent "protectionism" whatsoever, threatens our national security by leaving us utterly dependent on others for necessary goods and services.

Wendell Berry asks the questions that Oesterle doesn't:

We thus are elaborating a direct and surely a dangerous contradiction between our militant nationalism and our espousal of the the international "free market" ideology. How are we going to defend our freedoms (this is a question both for militarists and for pacifists) when we must import our necessities form international suppliers who have no concern or respect for our freedoms? What would happen if in the course of a war of national defense we were to be cut off from our foreign sources of supply? What would happen if, in a war of national defense, military necessity required us to attack or blockade our foreign suppliers? We have already fought one enrgy war allegedly in national defense. If our present policies continue, we may face wars for other commodities: food or water or shoes or steel or textiles [The Failure of War (1999)].

February 22, 2006

Economic incentives made me do it!

Back in the middle ages, we were fond of explaining every problem by attributing it to God's will. That era is over, but we haven't abandoned our love of universal knee-jerk explanations for everything.

The New York Times has an article about the medical "misdiagnosis crisis" that resorts to our era's equivalent of God made me do it. Of course, I'm talking about "economic incentives."

Under the current medical system, doctors, nurses, lab technicians and hospital executives are not actually paid to come up with the right diagnosis. They are paid to perform tests and to do surgery and to dispense drugs.

There is no bonus for curing someone and no penalty for failing, except when the mistakes rise to the level of malpractice. So even though doctors can have the best intentions, they have little economic incentive to spend time double-checking their instincts, and hospitals have little incentive to give them the tools to do so.

While there may be some truth here, let's not forget that doctors are motivated by things other than money (although they sometimes make it difficult to convince others of this).

February 15, 2006

Moderation in all things -- including your diet

Last week, a major study demonstrated that eating a low-fat diet doesn't lower the risk of heart disease and cancer. Greg Critser describes the health and dietary age that he hopes this study has helped to end:

In a sense, "the era" was neo-Galenic, by which I refer to the 2nd century physician who believed that all bodily ailments could be righted by balancing bodily humors with the right foods, bleeding and herbs. Such is the function — if not the stated intent — of our focus on finding and popularizing perfect dietary content. Right food, right bodily reaction, right health.

What does Mr. Critser hope will replace this neo-Galenism?
Bring back an old era — the Renaissance. And forget the tights and floppy hats. Let's look at how elites in another period of abundance and change thought about eating.

February 08, 2006

From the things-are-getting-better department

Ezra Klein's got a good post about what he's calling "reverse-Dowdism": intelligent and highly-educated men choosing to date women who are their intellectual equals.

Like Ezra, I'm not sure where this trend leads, and I'm not sure of all the effects. It would seem to open up a lot more dating options for intelligent women, though.

February 07, 2006

The cartoon controversy

There's so much to say about this piece that I'm going to say very little, at least for now. Read it for yourself and see what you think.

Much of what's said here is complete bullshit, but the closing lines are spot-on:

I would not have drawn nor published these cartoons, but when the lines are drawn, I stand with Western freedom against traditional authority. I write these lines over a Carlsberg and shall drink no other lager until the boycott of Danish product ends.

February 03, 2006

The big bang

I grew up listening to Rush, so naturally I was interested in this LA Times piece about the disappearance of the rock drum solo.

February 02, 2006


Cass Sunstein has an interesting post about what happened in Boulder and Colorado Springs when citizens got together in each city to deliberate about three controversial issues: affirmative action, a treaty to control global warming, and same-sex civil unions.

Basically, deliberation decreased diversity among the participants, and it increased their extremism. Citizens in Boulder became more liberal, and citizens in Colorado Springs became more conservative.

(Note: I read Sunstein's post to distract me from the paper I'm trying to write about Wendell Berry and liberalism, so I'm sure that's why the post made me think of . . . liberalism!)

These worrisome-at-first-glance results force us to interrogate our faith that deliberation is always a good thing. Are moderate positions at a deliberative disadvantage in comparison to extreme positions? Do people's pre-deliberation beliefs sometimes make deliberations more or less valuable? Is the "best" democratic political outcome more likely if we deliberate before voting, or if we're just polled without a lot of discussion amongst ourselves?

We still need a lot of clarification about just what the experiment measured (E.g., how was "extremism" defined?) Already though, it prods us to think about the "ought" and the "is" of liberal democratic theory. We sometimes talk about liberalism, in which autonomous agents deliberate with each other in freely-chosen associations, as both an idealized picture of the way society ought to be, and as a description of the way real democracies actually operate. We ought to act this way (some liberals say) because it's the best way we have of finding the most legitimate or the "truest" answers without violence and bloodshed, and we in fact operate this way (some other liberals say) because citizens actually do limit their deliberative appeals to "public reasons."

If the deliberation in this experiment were indeed of the liberal sort, does the fact that they promoted extremism count as an argument against the value of liberal deliberation? If these deliberations didn't conform to the liberal ideal, how anomalous are they? Does this experiment suggest that we simply don't deliberate reasonably as often as some liberals think we do?

(Ok; back to Wendell Berry...)

January 29, 2006

School problems

This article from the LA Times points out that almost half of the students entering Birmingham High School in Van Nuys don't graduate. The article goes on to ask: "What happened to the class of 2005? It is a question, not just for Birmingham, but for all American schools."

Whoa, wait a minute.

Before we assume that this is a "school problem" -- and open up the tired debates over parents failing to send their kids to school "ready to learn," teachers failing to motivate the laggards, kids watching too much TV instead of doing homework, and the state failing to provide enough money -- we ought to ask if this abysmal graduation rate is more than just a school problem.

We're fond of pointing out the miserable fate that awaits high-school dropouts, and the lesson we take away from these facts is that kids shouldn't drop out. That's fine, as far as it goes, but isn't there another lesson?

Consider: what does it say about our economy that even though half the kids in high school drop out without graduating, the good jobs that require a high-school education and much more are being filled nicely, thanks. There's no shortage of well-educated workers corresponding to the excess of kids who drop out of high school. Our economy is humming along, getting more efficient all the time. From an economic productivity standpoint, there's no problem at all.

Conclusion? Well, if I didn't know better, I'd have to say that we're suffering from an efficiency problem. The information economy doesn't actually need very many people, so we're going to have to think of something else to do with all these kids. Hmm, thinking, thinking.... Aha! I've heard the army is stretched a bit thin right now.

January 18, 2006

Technology superstitions

David Ignatius quotes Elizabeth Kolbert from her New Yorker piece: "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

The fact (and I think it is a fact) that most people believe technological sophistication somehow leads us to make wise decisions ought to make us wonder: why do people think that?

What connection is there between technological know-how and wisdom, or even basic prudence? Answer: none at all.

January 16, 2006

Writing about Wendell Berry

One of the best things about writing a paper on Wendell Berry, which I'm doing now, is having to read Berry closely. It's really a joy.

Perhaps the biggest rhetorical strength of Berry's essays are also their biggest rhetorical weakness: they're very poetic (or impressionistic,or allegorical). They're not particularly analytical or explicit. On the one hand, this makes them very inspiring for someone like me who reads Berry sympathetically. On the other hand, someone who isn't inclined to give Berry the benefit of the doubt is likely to dismiss his work as devoid of solid argument and evidence.

What I'm finding, as I work on my paper about Berry's relationship to the political philosophy called liberalism, is that a close, analytical reading makes his essays really sparkle. There is really a lot of solid argument in them, but those arguments are delivered poetically, which means the reader has to contribute a lot of himself if he's going to see what the argument is.

For example, I think Berry makes a powerful argument that the modern way of seeing the world makes it very difficult to take responsibility for our actions, and because of this it's dangerous. Of course, what exactly this "modern worldview" is takes some teasing out. Think of the uncritical enthusiasm for technology, the myth that pursuit of self-interest benefits the community, and the belief that the future will be better than the past. The modern worldview has historically led us to denegrate the merely local. It has encouraged hyperspecialization over generalization. And these two things -- globalization and hyperspecialization -- prevent us from even knowing the effects of what we do, let alone taking responsibility for them.

It's a profound critique of the way we aspire to live, that I think is largely correct. Puzzling through all of this is really, really fun.

December 09, 2005

Old folks and young folks

Blogging here hasn't been the top priority lately, as you can tell. I've been busy with end-of-semester work and with interviewing for residency programs. I'll be able to blog more regularly after about another week or so.

Even though I'm busy, I must point you to this article from the LA Times about day-care centers that care for children and the elderly both. It's pretty amazing that something like this would warrant a big newspaper article at all, but we've been sequestering people by age for quite a while now. A lot of us have forgotten what old people can do for the young, and vice-versa.

When I worked on an ambulance, we would often get called to these huge assisted-living complexes which felt to me like warehouses for old people. Those places were predictably depressing. I suppose we do it because it's more efficient, but it sure as hell isn't very joyous. The same thing is true, I suppose, of other communities segregated by age. Like, say, the neighborhood where I live in Ann Arbor. Everyone here's a young adult, so it's a more hoppin' place than some of those big retirement communities in Denver were. Even so, I think it'd be nice if we had a few more retirees living among us. For one thing, the neighborhood would almost certainly look less dumpy.

Anyway, the article made me smile, and I hope you'll take the time to read it.

November 20, 2005

Entitlement mentality

Good manners are rare these days, says George Will, and I agree.

Maybe it's just easier to notice bad manners than good manners, but when Will talks about people with cell phones and iPods who act as if they're completely unaware of other people around them, it sounds familiar to me. Even more annoying than the iPod solipsists Will mentions are the folks who gather in groups of two or three or more for a leisurely conversation -- right in the middle of a narrow sidewalk, or in a crowded doorway. I used to commute to my job at a bookstore in Denver along a bike path downtown, and during the lunch hour there'd always be clusters of middle-aged office workers chatting it up as they sprawled out across the middle of the bike path. "Excuse me! Coming through!" Fucknuts.

So I agree that much with George Will, but no further. When Will gets around to the reasons for today's bad manners, I wonder if he's put his brain on autopilot: "But today's entitlement mentality, which is both a cause and a consequence of the welfare state, manifests itself in the attitude that it is all right to do whatever one has a right to do."

Hmm. The welfare state?

In Colorado Springs where I grew up, I met a lot of people who suffered from an "entitlement mentality." But they weren't all recipients of welfare state largesse like food stamps and Section 8 housing assistance. Most of the "entitled" people I met were the folks who complained the loudest about the "welfare state." The retired Air Force colonels with RVs in the driveway who felt entitled to be insulated from all the noises of rambunctious neighborhood kids, but who seemed to have forgotten that they'd chosen to live in a kid-friendly subdivision rather than on 50 acres of farmland. Or the local entrepreneur who owned an office-supply store and felt entitled to pay no taxes whatsoever because he'd earned that money "himself." Never mind that the stable and peaceful community that was a prerequisite for his store's flourishing depended upon social programs that went beyond just fire trucks and armed police officers to arrest shoplifters.

I don't think that people who talk too loud in restaurants or who congregate in doorways always do so because they feel entitled. But Will may be right that an "entitlement mentality" is to blame for people's unwillingness to take account of the people around them. What Will can't seem to recognize is that rabid conservatism can leave one feeling obnoxiously entitled, too.

November 15, 2005


That is the autumn sound of yellowed maple leaves falling from the tree and settling on the forest floor 50 feet away. It is a sound you've never consciously heard. More to the point, it is a sound you didn't know you could hear.

It sounds faintly like nature giving itself a gentle round of applause.

Read this LA Times essay.

November 10, 2005

Creed or Culture?

Via Political Theory Daily Review, this fascinating essay asks: what's really at the root of our national identity?

Yet the patriotism of indignation and fear can only go so far. When the threat recedes, when the malefactor has been punished, the sentiment cools. Unless we know what about our national identity ought to command admiration and love, we are left at our enemies' mercy. We pay them the supreme and undeserved compliment of letting them define us, even if indirectly. Unsure of our national identity, we are left uncertain of our national interests too; now even the war brought on by 9/11 seems strangely indefinite.
The author attacks the idea (which he attributes to Samuel Huntington) that the culture of Anglo-Protestantism is the "dominant strain of [our] national identity." He argues instead that our "ideology" or "creed" (universal principles such as those of the Declaration of Independence) is much more fundamental.

I think the essay's criticism of culture-centrics like Huntington is right. (Nick R., is this where we disagree?)

I do quibble with the author about what, exactly, the American creed consists of, but I'm much more comfortable with these disagreements about creed than I am with Huntington's elevation of culture as the most important element of our national identity. That road, I think, inevitably leads to the doorstep of racism, xenophobia, fascism, and all the other evils I've ever accused Pat Buchanan of flirting with.

November 06, 2005

The Next Generation

Michelle rounds up the great characters that made "Star Trek: The Next Generation" so memorable. Also the not-so-great characters. You know who I'm talking about. Counselor Deanna Troi.

So so far as I could tell, her sole job on the ship was just to look generally fleshy and available in a variety of low cut (and often unfortunate) spandex outfits, and to be imperiled when outside influences take over her mind and cause her to lapse into a coma, which Dr. Crusher would invariably diagnose with her beep-beep-beep cell phone-looking thing and treat with some variant of the neck spray.
Troi should never have been allowed on the bridge.

October 27, 2005

Good news, bad news

The world is going to hell in a handbasket. The Arctic oil drillers keep trying, and they only have to win once. The Vice-President is openly supporting torture. The drug companies are trying to scare us with written-to-order novels about poisoned Canadian drugs.

On the other hand, the Chicago White Sox have won the World Series for the first time in 88 years. Things are still OK.

October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks has died at age 92. She lived a full life, but of course we'll never forget her dignified refusal to give up her seat on the bus.

What a poisonous system that was:

On Montgomery buses, the first four rows were reserved for whites. The rear was for blacks, who made up more than 75 percent of the bus system's riders. Blacks could sit in the middle rows until those seats were needed by whites. Then the blacks had to move to seats in the rear, stand or, if there was no room, leave the bus. Even getting on the bus presented hurdles: If whites were already sitting in the front, blacks could board to pay the fare but then they had to disembark and re-enter through the rear door.
How long ago did this happen in the United States? 1955. Not very long ago at all.

Our country is poisoned by this evil history, as Katrina reminded us. We will continue to be for a long time to come. The fact that we've made the progress we have is a blessing.

October 22, 2005

Police state?

Sometimes I think the definition of a "police state" just means a country where the government is just a little bit more intrusive than ours. The beauty of this definition is that the USA can never -- by definition -- be a police state.

The New York Times reports that internet access providers are being required to "upgrade" their systems so that the government can monitor online communications:

If law enforcement officials obtain a court order to monitor the Internet communications of someone at a university, the current approach is to work quietly with campus officials to single out specific sites and install the equipment needed to carry out the surveillance. This low-tech approach has worked well in the past, officials at several campuses said.

But the federal law would apply a high-tech approach, enabling law enforcement to monitor communications at campuses from remote locations at the turn of a switch.

It would require universities to re-engineer their networks so that every Net access point would send all communications not directly onto the Internet, but first to a network operations center where the data packets could be stitched together into a single package for delivery to law enforcement, university officials said.

I'd like to know a bit more about what this turning of switches means. The article makes it sound like every packet of internet data will be routinely sent to a government "network operations center" and that we'll have to trust the government not to turn any switches until it obtains a court order. If that's true, will there be any way to monitor the government's behavior? Will anyone be able to tell when the government is listening in?

This sounds like a setup for abuse. If all it takes to intercept emails is a "turn of a switch," I'll bet a dollar to a donut that the government won't always bother with the court order. The best we can hope for is that we can catch them when they cheat.

October 16, 2005

"Financial decadence" leads to cancellation of prom

Kenneth Hoagland, the principal of swanky Kellenberg Memorial High School in New York, has cancelled the prom:

"It is not primarily the sex/booze/drugs that surround this event, as problematic as they might be; it is rather the flaunting of affluence, assuming exaggerated expenses, a pursuit of vanity for vanity's sake -- in a word, financial decadence," Hoagland said, fed up with what he called the "bacchanalian aspects."

My first reaction is, "good for him!" It's about time someone makes a moral protest against something other than sex, booze, or drugs.

October 06, 2005

Is the University of Chicago "socially irrelevant"?

Crescat Sententia's Sudeep Agarwala cites approvingly to a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell in which the University of Chicago is described as "socially irrelevant":

Should our goal be to select a student body with the highest possible proportions of high-ranking students, or should it be to select, within a reasonably high range of academic ability, a student body with a certain variety of talents, qualities, attitudes, and backgrounds?” Wilbur Bender asked. To him, the answer was obvious. If you let in only the brilliant, then you produced bookworms and bench scientists: you ended up as socially irrelevant as the University of Chicago (an institution Harvard officials looked upon and shuddered).

I'm not sure what exactly this is supposed to mean. I'll ignore for the time being that it isn't at all obvious that Chicago has been more obsessed with "brilliance" at the expense of other qualities than Harvard has -- if anything, the opposite is true.

But it can't possibly mean that Chicago is societally irrelevant. Its extraordinary influence in economics is well-known. No one can say the free-market slant of "Chicago school" economics hasn't had a profound effect on domestic politics and policy, and on the policies of foreign nations (especially in latin america). Is Chicago's influence in the physical sciences "irrelevant?" Have you heard of self-sustaining nuclear reactions, and their possibly influential role in the development of nuclear weapons?

Perhaps Sudeep means to say that no one would make a movie like Legally Blonde where the main character goes to law school at the University of Chicago. Yeah, yeah; that must be it.

October 02, 2005

Health care priorities

Health care resources, as we all know, are scarce. How has our country chosen to distribute these resources?

In Michigan, family medicine is "dying" as medical students are lured away from primary care.

More than a quarter of Michigan's 12,700 primary care physicians are at retirement age, according to a recent report from the Michigan State Medical Society. At the same time, today's medical students are being lured to specialty fields that promise better pay, more manageable hours and the chance to work with flashy new technologies and treatments. (Via Kevin, M.D.)

At the same time in California, EM physicians are finding it harder and harder to find specialists who will care for their patients:

Hospitals are paying $600 million a year to ensure that on-call physicians are available - and still some communities are having problems finding specialists," Emerson said.

Kivela said that if a patient shows up at the emergency room with a broken jaw and has no insurance, the emergency room physician has a dreadful task of finding an oral surgeon willing to come in and take the case.

"I'll have to call eight or 10 different doctors," he said. "I'll spend two hours making these calls while a bed is taken up in the emergency room while sick patients wait." (Via Symtym.)

This may be absurd, but it's not chaotic. We have a system that draws money and talent away from the most cost-effective fields of primary care and into the less cost-effective specialties, while this same system also makes it more and more difficult for a patient to gain access to those specialists. It's no wonder that our country performs so poorly on virtually all measures of public health like life expectancy and infant mortality.

Of course, we haven't gotten here by accident. We've chosen to endure these piss-poor public health results because we don't want to disturb our unquestioned ability to provide the world's best high-tech medical care to those patients who can afford to pay for it themselves.

We've chosen to lower medicaid and medicare payments to primary care physicians because we're both unwilling to bear the tax burdens of these redistributive public health programs, and we prefer to spend what tax revenue we do collect on the development of high-tech medical treatments. These high-tech solutions are favored by the private sector because they're a lot more lucrative than low-tech primary care. We've chosen to funnel our finite amount of health care resources into the pockets of pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, hospitals, and specialist physicians who primarily treat the wealthy self-insured. This has been at the expense of cost-effective primary care and low-income chronically ill patients.

Is this a good thing? Some of us think not. More of us -- at least to the extent that our policies reflect our democratic preferences -- think it is.

September 19, 2005

Liberals? Conservatives? Pah! I'll take the agrarians.

Wendell Berry has a new essay this month in Orion magazine; here's the abridged web version.

I'll be the first to agree that Berry can sound like an old curmudgeon sometimes. His writing is never as sexy as even the most pedestrian essays at, for example, Tech Central Station. But I'd ask you to give Berry some of your time and attention, and see if afterward you don't agree with me that he gets it basically right.* Many of his essays are on the web somewhere; here's one, and here's another.

If for some strange reason you don't agree with me, all the better. Then we'll have a lot to discuss.

* And Tech Central Station? Yeah, they basically get it wrong.

September 09, 2005

Hiding from bandits, and from the cops

As the disaster of Hurricane Katrina recedes into the past, most of the vivid stories we've been hearing from the survivors will slowly be distilled in our minds into just a few parables. We'll forget the exact details of what may have happened, but we'll remember the lessons of the events. That's why it's so important to listen closely to all the stories now, before "Katrina" and "New Orleans" have solidified into a shorthand for simple maxims that may or may not be helpful.

For example, the lessons we'll draw from the violence of some of the refugees depends upon what we're hearing about that violence right now. Apparently, much of the national media have described a situation where most law-abiding victims of the flood were at constant risk from their fellow refugees who couldn't resist shooting, raping, and stealing as they waited for rescue. This may just be one side of the story.

A reader sends me this story from two visitors to New Orleans who were among the thousands of refugees stranded in the city after the flood. They endured far more threatening behavior from officials worried about looters and bandits than from actual looters and bandits.

Unfortunately, our sinking feeling
(along with the sinking city) was accurate. Just as dusk set in, a
sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at
our faces and screamed, "Get off the fucking freeway." A helicopter
arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy
structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our
food and water.

Once again, at gunpoint, we were
forced off the freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared
threatened when we congregated into groups of 20 or more. In every
congregation of "victims," they saw "mob" or "riot." We felt safety in
numbers. Our "we must stay together" attitude was impossible because
the agencies would force us into small atomized groups.

In the pandemonium of having our camp
raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group
of eight people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school
bus, under the freeway on Clio Street. We were hiding from possible
criminal elements, but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the
police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill

I don't know what we'll learn from this disaster about the likelihood of poor black people to resort to criminal violence when a natural disaster cripples the local police force, but I hope we won't go jumping to any premature conclusions.

September 08, 2005

It's about time someone asked this question

When did "incentivize" become an acceptable synonym for "motivate"?

September 05, 2005

Glorfindel's review of undergrad fashion trends

Here we are at the University of Michigan, where seemingly limitless numbers of undergraduates have recently returned to campus and are ready to embark upon another year of reading, writing, and binge drinking.

From this vantage point, we are well-placed to observe and comment on this year's fashion trends among the adults-under-25 set. We can see if the passage of time has led to any fresh innovations in the way young adults dress, and we can see which, if any, elements of last year's faddish clothing have followed the unfortunate trajectory of the mid 80s' hottest style: nylon parachute pants.

You may, for example, harbor some idle curiousity about the fate of the most universal rule for young women's fashion since the beginning of the George W. Bush administration. I'm referring, of course, to mandatory midriff exposure, the sine qua non of every hip American woman under the age of 45. Love handles? Let 'em see 'em, in all their stretch-marked glory. Belly-button piercings? They're not worth the $150 you spent if we can't see them in Sociology 305: Topics in Popular Culture. Only 13 years old? You exemplify the fast-paced American lifestyle; I wouldn't be surprised to see you driving a brand new Audi when you turn sixteen!

So let's look around the Michigan campus and try to see whether any time has passed (in the fashion sense) since last year. Let's walk up Hill Street on a Football Weekend, past the frat parties and the sorority houses spilling beer and drunk undergrads across their sidewalks. Let's have a latte in the Starbucks on South U. and watch the college students order one sugar-free raspberry non-fat decaf latte after the other, turning down the volumes on their iPods so they can hear the clerk announce when their drinks are ready.

Let's do all this with an eye for the exposed midriffs that were mandatory last school year. Are they still the hippest thing out there?

Sure seems like it.

How about Butt Shorts? Them, too. Still hip.

Velour pants? Yep.

Gotta love our commitment to innovation and our passionate embrace of individualism!

August 30, 2005

Apostrophe abuse

Dear Colorado State Parks Webmaster,

I'm from Colorado, and and I'm very proud of the state's park system. That's why I was so disappointed to see such an egregious misuse of the apostrophe on the Colorado State Parks website, at the following URL:

This is the offending text: "Come see nature’s canvas in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado. Gold’s, red’s and orange’s guide your tour from Colorado Springs to Buena Vista."

Obviously and painfully, the apostrophe should not be used for the plurals "golds," "reds," and "oranges." Any well-educated fifth grader (a rarity these days) could tell you that there isn't any doubt about this.

Please, spare all of Colorado's residents the acute embarassment of such egregious apostrophe misuse, and edit this website immediately.


Carey Cuprisin

August 27, 2005

Timothy Treadwell: the Grizzly Man

A little while ago I said I needed to say a few things about the Werner Herzog documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear in Alaska. The film is full of Treadwell's footage of bears, so of course I recommend it highly. How can you resist a good bear movie? On the other hand, the film is mostly about Treadwell, and as a documentary about a rather extraordinary human being, I wasn't ready to give it the thumbs-up. After listening carefully to the arguments in Grizzly Man (and to Herzog's credit the film makes these arguments explicit) that Treadwell was a well-meaning but deeply misguided and confused man, I felt like I needed a second opinion. What I wanted was for Jon Krakauer to write the same kind of book about Treadwell as he did about that other controversial fellow who met his death in Alaska, Chris McCandless.

Sadly, there's no Timothy Treadwell book from Krakauer yet, but there is a fair bit of stuff on the internet. It ranges from the angrily contemptuous ("its simultaneously nauseating and mind-blowing to see a human being with so little regard for his own life and so little respect for the animals he claims to love") to the respectfully deferential ("Timothy proved, like we have, that there's a lot more room for bears in our world").

Reasonable people can differ about Treadwell, but I think some of the charges against him are plainly wrong. First, the claim that Treadwell just didn't know how dangerous bears really were seems absurd. He repeatedly emphasized that what he was doing was very dangerous. He routinely pointed out that any of these bears might decide at any time to kill and eat him. When he was in a particularly self-aggrandizing state of mind, Treadwell did claim to be a "gentle warrior" with an expert knowledge of how to avoid bear attacks. If this is an exaggeration, it's not much of one. He lived among grizzlies for thirteen years without being attacked -- surely he had accumulated some kind of expertise at staying alive. At the very least, it does seem odd to credit the criticism of people who've spent far less time with bears than Treadwell did. Relative to most of us, Treadwell had all the expertise.

I also don't agree with the argument that Treadwell was actively suicidal. If he was, then so is virtually everyone who engages in high-altitude mountaineering, where the chances of dying on each climb are real and significant. Good climbers die on a regular basis trying to climb K2, but somehow we seem to want to glamorize their deaths, and not condemn them as freaks like many of us condemn Treadwell. We forgive climbers their dangerous activities on the grounds that they just love the kind of life that requires taking big risks. No reason we shouldn't do the same for Timothy Treadwell.

In my opinion, a much more successful criticism of Treadwell is that he made it more dangerous for the rest of us by conditioning bears to human beings. By actively seeking close contact with grizzlies, Treadwell helped to break down the bears' natural wariness of people that we all depend upon when we travel in Alaska. But even though this argument makes intuitive sense, I'm not sure how true it is. We're still just assuming (without any real evidence) that Mr. Chocolate or Cupcake or any of Treadwell's bears would be less reluctant to approach humans other than Treadwell. I'm not aware of any evidence for this, and until I see some, this criticism is (at most) tentative and provisional.

But all of these arguments are just beating around the bush. The real question that Grizzly Man poses is why people's reactions to Treadwell, positive or negative, are so strong and passionate. The people that criticize Treadwell seem to really loathe him, and his supporters seem to love him. Why?

At one point in the movie, Werner Herzog says bluntly that he disagrees with Treadwell's view of the universe as essentially harmonious and full of love. Herzog says instead that he believes the universe to be a place of chaos and brutal violence. Whoa! Those seem to me like fundamentally opposed and irreconcilable philosophical positions, dude. Reasonable people can disagree about what behaviors are too risky, but disagreements about the fundamentals of life can start wars. Killing unborn fetuses is wrong -- or not. Human freedom can only thrive in the free market -- or else the unregulated marketplace will eventually enslave us to the few lucky oligarchs that win the game.

Folks who subscribe to Treadwell's view of life would probably see his life as a powerful argument for their own position. For a man to live so close to powerful and dangerous grizzlies for thirteen years demonstrates that when you send out love, you get love back. Even from wild carnivores. (Sure, he was eaten by a bear, but it was an old, starving bear that Treadwell didn't know very well.)

On the other hand, folks who side with Herzog about the fundamental violence of the universe would probably think Treadwell's story proves the exact opposite. The naive nature-boy was destined to die, because bears can't love anyone and are only willing to let you alone when they're well-fed, and then only sometimes. (The fact that it took Treadwell thirteen years to be killed and eaten just means he was extraordinarily lucky.)

Of course, most of us probably believe that the universe is a kind of place somewhere between the two extremes described by Treadwell and Herzog. For us, it's obvious that both men's views are so extreme that we wonder how either of them can possibly say the things they do with a straight face. We sit in the theater, incredulous at some of Treadwell's more utopian pronouncements, and then our jaws drop open when we hear Herzog's equally extreme pronouncements from the opposite side.

Grizzly Man provokes such passionate responses because it addresses fundamental views about the universe, and it provokes passion from everyone for different reasons. Bottom line, it's not about the bears. It's about whether you're a blue-stater or a red-stater, philosophically speaking.

Ok, maybe I misspoke. This movie has bears in it, so it is very much about bears. (By definition, if there's a bear in a movie, it's a bear movie.) We all owe Treadwell thanks for his spectacular footage of grizzly bears, which is just the best I've seen. None of his detractors would ever have the guts (or the lack of sense) to get these kind of shots.

The controversy surrounding Treadwell's sanity could have a profound impact on the way human beings deal with grizzly bears. Bear enthusiast Doug Peacock has pointed out that public policy towards bears is often made on the basis of a single case of predation. If the "only safe bear is a dead or absent bear" view wins out, we might be a bit more careful about staying out of the bears' way, and/or we might be more eager to kill them wherever they still lurk. If Treadwell's story inspires us to think about bears more as fellow-travelers than as wilderness monsters, we might be more willing to protect their habitat in the lower 48 states where they still live, but we might also become more careless in bear country. The publicity surrounding this movie will almost guarantee that Treadwell's story will lead to some policy changes.

Doug Peacock's response to Timothy Treadwell's life and death seems to me to the most sane response I'm aware of. Treadwell's death isn't shocking; he did live right on top of the the bears. His research and his film footage, though, will probably turn out to be enormously helpful for understanding wild grizzlies better. It would be a shame if Treadwell's death increases the influence of those whose idea of good wilderness management means reducing all risk to a minimum by keeping people and wildlife entirely separate. A little risk is good for us. A little loss of control. As Peacock sums it up, "Timothy Treadwell was not in control: [h]e had a great run of luck that lasted more than a decade, and it ran out. In the grizzly business, it happens.

August 24, 2005

F as in Fat

Once again this year, the Trust for America's Health has released a state-by-state study of obesity in America, called "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America."

Just like last year, Colorado is the least obese state. It's also the least fat state, when you combine the percentage of obese and overweight people together. Presumably this is due in part to Coloradans' higher level of physical activity, although the study doesn't try to explain each state's ranking.

Mississippi is the fattest state, and every Southern state except Florida is among the fattest in the country. Florida is ranked 38th. Again, the study doesn't presume to explain this, but most readers might reasonably conclude that culture is part of it: sedentary habits are less frowned upon in the South than they are in Colorado.

However, Colorado shouldn't pat itself on the back too much over this. It, along with 48 other states, are fatter than they were last year (Oregon is the only state that stayed the same). As the study points out, there are plenty of ways that state governments can act to combat obesity, but most states aren't doing very much. They're not doing much to fight suburban sprawl, or to close the urban grocery gap, or to ensure that school lunches are nutritious.

If we weren't all collectively paying for the obesity epidemic in higher health care costs, I suppose we could forgive state governments (like Colorado's) for acting as if this were all just a matter of the free market -- people like the suburbs, they prefer to drive instead of walk, and they want to sit on their ass all day watching TV and eating potato chips. But of course obesity and related conditions like diabetes affect all of us, and appropriately so. We all pay higher health care fees, taxes, and insurance premiums to ensure that the obese among us are treated when they suffer heart attacks or when their blood sugar gets out of control. That's why they call us a civilized society, as opposed to a barbaric one.

States very much ought to be in the business of reducing the rates of obesity by encouraging people to get off their ass. They could start by encouraging the creation of neighborhoods where people can walk to stores that sell healthy food, rather than encouraging developers to build thousands of homes that are many miles and several eight-lane highways away from the nearest Wal-Mart. Shit, if I lived in one of those neighborhoods I'd find it hard not to slowly blimp up, too. We shouldn't have to depend on just the willpower of hundreds of millions of Americans to lose weight.

Governments need to get up off of their ass just like the rest of us, and stop pretending that this public health crisis is an unavoidable consequence of "free markets" or worse, a reward for our high standard of living. These days, the poorest of us, who are least able to enter the market and buy health-club memberships and $3000 racing bicycles, are the fattest people around. They're often subject to government policies that lead to inadequate education and limit their food choices to highly-processed swag. They aren't victims, and they're responsible for their own cable-TV-watching habits, but just like the rest of us they have to live in a community that makes some choices seem easier than others.

The problem is, our community has collectively decided to encourage behavior that leads to obesity. That's why we're a nation of porkers. Colorado shouldn't pat itself on the back just because a whole lot of runners, cyclists, kayakers, and climbers with a little extra cash decided that dry air, bright sunshine, and big mountains made it a good state to live in.

June 29, 2005

Kiddie rides

Last weekend I got a huge dose of nostalgia when I climbed aboard the old-fashioned carousel at Chicago's navy pier. As the carousel turned and the horse I was riding went up and down, I could see the Wave Swinger -- Navy Pier's only real "adult" ride -- swinging people up, down, and around much faster and much higher than that old carousel horse ever could.

I suppose the carousel is pretty tame compared to the Wave Swinger. Most people would just call it boring, and they'd be right. We expect so many more thrills and chills from amusement park rides now than we did when the carousel was at the leading edge of ride technology. Even as a kiddie ride, the carousel doesn't seem to have as many fans as it once did. All the little kids want to ride the Wave Swinger, and if they don't it's usually only because they're still too short.

Why, then, did I really like the carousel? Why did I like the Rocking Horse, when all that did was rock back and forth as the attendant shifted her weight? Nostalgia was part of it. It brought back clear memories of when I was so small that climbing up on the carousel horse was a real accomplishment. I went around in circles and remembered how that exact same motion thrilled me when I was little, and how fun it was to watch everything pass by me again and again as I went around and around. It also helped that there was a little boy sitting on a horse in front of me with his father sitting next to him, and the father seemed to be having so much fun watching his little kid have fun. I bet the kid was enjoying the ride even more when he saw his dad enjoying it. The fun was infectious.

So I suppose it wasn't just nostalgia; it was also the feeling of doing a fun thing with other people, and choosing to believe that the thing was fun. I'd bet that when a kid's parents tell him that the carousel or the rocking horse is boring, that that's as much or more of a buzzkill than experiencing more thrilling rides and becoming jaded. Our expectations make a thing exciting or boring. I always tell people that if I ever don't want to look out the window of the airplane when it takes off or lands, then they should just shoot me, because I'm burnt out on life. Maybe that's a bit too zealous, but the point is that you're going to choose whether to get excited or not. I'll choose, if I can, to get as much fun out of life as possible. Even if it's mostly nostalgic.

June 12, 2005

"Transhumanist" confusion

I'm only about halfway through James Hughes' Citizen Cyborg, but I've read enough to know that the guy is a bit confused.

It isn't that he's a proponent of any and all technology that allows us to manipulate human biology. Manipulation, after all, is one of the things that man does best. Nor is it his enthusiastic use of hideous terminology -- transhumanist, bioLuddite, and futurology are grisly examples. Hughes is much more of a technological optimist than I am, but that's not why I think his book is so confused and awkward.

The real reason I can't wait to heap scorn upon this book is that Hughes doesn't show any sign that he'll recognize any distinctions between "technological pessimism" and "human racism."

Hughes seems to think than anyone who's ever made an argument against the rapid development of cloning, nanotechnology, or germline genetic engineering is also, necessarily, on the wrong side of the debate over whether citizenship should be tied to consciousness and self-awareness, or to some biologically essentialist definition of humanness.

Huh? If you're confused, join the club. What do these two disputes have to do with one another? It's true that Hughes' bete noire Leon Kass sometimes writes as if the reason we should be wary of certain biological technologies is because these technologies might blur the distinctions between the human and the non-human. Because some social conservatives like Kass seem to think that democratic rights of citizenship depend upon one's biological humanness and not upon one's degree of conscious self-awareness, this technological blurring of biological boundaries would present, for some conservatives, some very difficult political choices. But this biological essentialism obviously isn't the only reason why people might be wary of technologies that would make us immortal.

For example, you might disagree with Hughes about how obvious the equivalence between human immortality and human happiness really is. You might be skeptical of Hughes' assumption that enhancing our physical prowess with cybernetic implants and nanotech brain implants will inevitably make us happier. You might even disagree with Hughes' fundamental claim that "control over our lives" is always positively correlated with happiness. Any of these reasons would be enough to make you less optimistic about new technologies than Hughes, regardless of your position on the question of where liberal democratic citizenship rights come from.

But I'm only halfway through this book. I'm willing to keep reading to see if Hughes will finally specify what it is he's arguing against, but I'm not holding my breath.

May 02, 2005

Caesar's Bath

Heidi and Julie have passed me the Caesar's Bath meme: list five things that people in your circle of friends or peer group are wild about, but you can't really understand the fuss over. To use the words of Caesar (from History of the World Part I), "Nice. Nice. Not thrilling . . . but nice." Unlike Heidi, I take the nice-but-not-thrilling part seriously. None of these things are thrilling, but they're all nice.

1) The Beach. I never really understood why so many of my peers love the beach. Sure, there's the ocean, and sometimes sand, or tidepools with little sea anemones and crabs in them. Nice, all of that, but for real thrills I'll always head for the mountains.

2) Liberals. The nicest thing about liberals is that they don't like Tom DeLay or George W. Bush, and vice versa. So they're OK with me. Liberals miss the boat on too many issues, though. The liberal position on consumerism, for example, amounts to the belief that nothing so fundamental to human happiness should ever be restricted to the rich alone. This is why the liberals haven't been able to make any compelling stands against the homogenization and bureaucratization of society, or against globalization's destructive effects on local comunities. To the extent that these things improve efficiency and boost production, the liberals must concede that they're intrinsically desirable, and they must confine their criticism to questions about implementation. If I want to be thrilled, I'll take Wendell Berry or Russell Kirk over the liberals any day.

3) Spicy food. Nice, but above a certain level of spice you stop tasting your food and merely feel it.

4) Golf. I think golf is too sedate. Besides, if I'm going to do something sedate outside, I'd rather not do it in a completely artificial landscape where every hill, lake and tree has been plotted, built, and planted by some guy who wears polo shirts.

5) Polo shirts. Nice for wiping the grime off your mountain bike after a long ride in the hills.

I'll pass this one on to Sarni and the Ulterior Epicure.

April 19, 2005

Habemus Papam*

I'm not a Catholic, so my thoughts about the new Pope count less than a small hill of beans. But since all the liberals seem dismayed over Joseph Ratzinger's elevation on the grounds that he's "anti-modern," I thought this might be a good opportunity to speculate about what it would mean to be anti-modern and anti-conservative at the same time.

I read about the new Pope Benedict XVI's refusal to defer to contemporary trends and opinions and I'm heartened. Yes, I think, there is no reason to think that the way we do things today is always better than the way we did things yesterday, and it's refreshing to know that at least one of our world leaders won't turn every public speech he gives into an homage to "progress" or "the future."

On the other hand, when I read about the things that Cardinal Ratzinger has defended against "progress," I'm reminded of why I'm not a conservative, much less a Catholic. The opposition to the ordination of women seems to me to be to be a frank rejection of the idea that women are fit to hold power -- especially when this position is defended by the head of a Church that tries so hard to protect the authority and power of its clergy. The Church's opposition to homosexuality is simply unnatural and bigoted. Both positions fetishize irrelevant gender differences. There's nothing about these doctrines that would ever lead me to accept them, apart from the sheer fact that they're traditional.** But to rely entirely on tradition is as big a mistake as the modern habit of disparaging tradition as having no intrinsic value at all.

At first glance, it might seem that 'rejecting modernity', whatever that might mean, commits us to embracing some kind of conservative ideology. After all, can anyone really point to an influential anti-modernist that wasn't profoundly conservative? If people can name any anti-modernists at all, they usually point to people like Russell Kirk or Richard Weaver (or John Paul II). Liberals and other leftists seem to want nothing to do with any criticisms of progress. The most left-wing among us choose to describe themselves as "progressives." It hardly seems that there's much hope for a good critique of modernity from that quarter...

I'd like to think that we might all recognize the wisdom of Joseph Ratzinger's insistence that some good things are timeless, and that change can as often lead us away from the good as it can lead us towards it. Why should conservative dogma be a prerequisite for recognizing this wisdom? Must they always go together?

April 16, 2005

Saved by technology?

Buried in this interesting article about the World Barista Championships in Seattle and U.S. champion barista Phuong Tran's preparations for the competition is some interesting news about Starbucks. Spokeswoman Lara Wyss says that the chain is planning to install automated espresso machines in all of its locations. This means that all a Starbucks "barista" will be responsible for is pushing a button and steaming milk. We'll never be able to experience the abilities of a top-notch barista like Tran at a Starbucks ever again.

I wonder, now that they've dumbed down the job considerably, whether wages and benefits for the "baristas" at Starbucks will start to look more like those other button-pushers, the "cooks" at McDonald's. But I don't want to give the impression that I think automation is an entirely bad thing.

From now on, you'll probably never get a badly-drawn shot of espresso at Starbucks (not that any of you who order foo-foo drinks like decaf nonfat sugar-free lattes would ever notice). If there's really no more room for the virtuoso barista to ply her trade at Starbucks, at least the stoned-out slackers that constitute a distinct minority of the workforce won't be able to screw up your espresso.

Now if only the Starbucks on South University here in Ann Arbor could install an automated system to do something much simpler than draw espresso shots: take the scones out of the freezer in the morning. Twice in the last week I've gone in there around 8 am looking for my morning fix, and the employee blithely told me that all the scones were still frozen solid in the back. If Starbucks ever wants to try out a completely automated store, that one on South U should be it. Quality would improve.

I wonder whether, in the end, automation is more effective at preventing human beings from screwing up, or is more effective at keeping human beings like Ms. Tran from exercising her virtuosity. Sadly, I suspect the latter is most likely true. It may be easier to stamp out human excellence than it is to protect ourselves from human stupidity.

April 12, 2005

Blame the local press?

Nicholas Kristof describes the current public distrust of the media:

Since 1973, the National Opinion Research Center has measured public confidence in 13 institutions, including the press. All of the other institutions have generally retained a good measure of public respect, but confidence in the press has fallen sharply since 1990.
Certainly FoxNews and, for conservatives, the New York Times can take some of the blame for this, but I suspect that local news media are at least as responsible as these national outlets are for the dwindling public respect for the press.

Think about the encounters that you or someone you know have had with the press as the subject of a news story. Most of us will have had interactions with the local press if we've ever "been in the news" at all. Now think about whether you thought the journalist you spoke with or who reported a story about you acted fairly and professionally. My guess is that many of you will say "Ick, no way, that guy was a slimeball."

Sadly, I don't have any juicy anecdotes of my own to share. I can only point to friends and relatives of mine who've felt slighted by the local press. It is a surprisingly common impression, though: everyone I know who's ever been interviewed can come up with a few choice four-letter words for the reporters in question.

If I haven't been living in some weird slimeball-local-reporter vortex, I suspect that much of the distrust of the press might be due to the pervasive lack of professionalism in the local news media.

April 09, 2005

Overheard at breakfast

Waitress to customer: "I don't see why people need to go overseas. I mean, America has everything. Upper Michigan is beautiful; I don't see why anyone would need to go anywhere else." [True enough, if you don't like Colorado.]

Waitress, continuing: "The South has great cooking. Lots of grits. That's all they eat down there, grits."

No comment.

March 31, 2005

No, not dead yet...

I got an email from a friend of mine yesterday asking whether I was still alive.

I'm assuming he was worried because I hadn't posted on my blog in a while. Well, I want to assure everyone that I'm not dead. Instead, I've been working hard at learning to shoot and run at the same time.

Although this fantastic game for the PS2 hasn't killed me, it may have put me into a PVS...

March 18, 2005

Pretty lights

Since I don't watch TV very much, I think I consciously notice a lot of things about a show that I'd just take for granted if I watched more often.

For example, this morning I had the opportunity (misfortune?) to catch a bit of FoxNews at the local coffeeshop where I did a bit of studying.

It's a very distracting way to get your news. First, there's a lot of cutting between scenes and speakers. You never spend too much time continuously with one person or place or thing. Next, you're often trying to listen to one guy while watching a cool video clip and reading whatever's scrolling across the bottom of the screen. Third, the producers often make the distraction worse by splitting the screen up into three or four little boxes, one of which shows the host, another shows the guest, a third shows a cool video clip, and the fourth (the background) shows some moving graphic or series of shifting colored lights. Add in the scrolling words across the bottom and it's a really pretty thing when seen from a distance. Pretty, but distracting.

It's been said before a million times, but it seems obvious that a medium like this would have a very hard time conveying anything that required sustained concentration to understand. "Man dies. President speaks. Defendant convicted." Stuff like that might survive all the pretty lights, but what about an argument about Social Security? No way would anything other than "private accounts good" or "private accounts bad" seep through all the distractions.

How many hours do people spend watching news shows on TV? How many people get their news primarily from the TV? I'd like to see a study relating people's understanding of political controversies to their relative dependance on TV news shows. My suspicion is that the more TV news we watch, the less we understand what we're watching.

March 10, 2005

Rise to xoxo's defense!

Prof. Volokh has the right response to another law professor's suggestion that the managers of "clean up" the pre-law discussion board's content.

Yes, there's a lot of ugly and racist comments on that board. But as a formerly active participant on xoxo, I can say that the people posting such statements are thoroughly and routinely ridiculed as complete idiots by the majority of posters.

That doesn't seem to happen as often at some of the other places where these racists hang out online. Censoring the racism won't make it go away; it will shift it to other places where it's harder to see and where it might find a more hospitable reception.

As for this other law professor's suggestion that it might be a good thing if the xoxo participants were "encouraged to move to the more mature and civil prelaw sites," I say no way.

Before I started law school, I posted on the former incarnation of xoxo (which was then run by the Princeton Review) because it was a wide-open and mostly unmanaged discussion. In one sitting I could have the most sober and serious conversations as well as the most silly and immature bullshit sessions, all with the same group of people. The other, more "mature" boards were by comparison intellectual wastelands, partly because they were so "sober" and "mature." All the really smart people shunned those boring boards in favor of pr (now xoxo).

Bottom line: don't be messin' with my xoxo board until you really understand it. (Because when you do, you'll love it and won't want to change it much. Unless you're a rancid TTT.)

UPDATE: Anthony Ciolli and Jarret Cohen of have responded, and Volokh has posted it. A taste:

The very reason our student-run community has been so much more phenomenally successful than all of its competitors, in its single year of existence, is that it respects the merits of the free, uninhibited exchange of ideas. In fact, one finds overall a much deeper and much more mature level of insight in a community where the ugliest depths of human opinion are confronted, rather than ignored. And the majority of the school-related content on the site speaks to that fact. That is our community; take it or leave it.

March 09, 2005

The problem with "progressive"

As the right flexes its muscles in Washington, putting the screws to the American middle class, the left is still wondering why so many working families in the heartland continue to support Republican candidates. As a left-wing agrarian, I offer some modest commentary upon the failures of the American left.

Berkeley scholar Lillian B. Rubin (via A&L Daily) rejects the "Thomas Frank" approach, which she says blames voters for their failure to understand their own interests. (On Frank, see Steve Sanders.) Instead, Rubin explains the left's failure with what I'll call, perhaps unfairly, the "Joe Lieberman," the "DLC," or the "David Brooks" approach. Basically, the left is in the weeds because of its insistence on political correctness and its unwillingness to listen carefully to its critics.

Rubin's piece is much better than I'm making it sound. She is correct that the left's infatuation with political correctness (if not with identity politics generally) has been crippling. She does not, as do Brooks and Lieberman and others of their ilk, suggest that the left should back away from its fundamental positions and compromise with the fundamentalist right.

However, I do think Rubin fails to explain why the left has been so ineffectual. After all, the right has made the exact same mistakes, but it has not been made to pay for them. Why? The right's pet mantras inaccurately describe reality (just like the left's), and the right-wingers have perfected the art of selective deafness to citizens' concerns (perhaps more so than the left). I'm looking to solve the symmetry problem here, folks: I want an explanation of the left's failures that explains why the right's identical behavior hasn't led it into the same trap.

Here's my own best guess. We start by assuming that the majority of people want stability first, and improvement second. No sense putting the cart before the horse, we say.

Continue reading "The problem with "progressive"" »

February 21, 2005


Mondays are busy... But not nearly busy enough.

You are Mayor Wilkins:

"Remember, fast and brutal. It's gonna be a whole new world come nightfall, don't want to weaken now. And boys? Let's watch the swearing."

What "Buffy" Character Are You?

(Via Julie Saltman.)

January 31, 2005


I love blogs. Somehow, though, I think that if I had been introduced to blogging by taking Eszter Hargittai's class, it would have, you know, killed the buzz.

I'll stick with the PBR

Bartender, Pour Me Another Cup
Perhaps Inevitably: Caffeinated Beer

By Peter Carlson

America's largest brewing company, Anheuser-Busch, released its latest product last week -- a beer that contains caffeine.

Obviously, this is a monumental cultural milestone and it raises important questions that we as a society must answer. For instance: Is adding America's favorite stimulant to America's favorite alcoholic beverage the greatest scientific breakthrough of the 21st century? Or the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it? Or what?

. . . "It tastes like a citrus-flavored Red Bull," says Rhonda Kallman, creator of the caffeinated Moonshot, which has no ginseng or fruit.

Beer is like coffee. The more extra stuff you put into it, the bigger the risk that you'll just mess it up.

January 04, 2005

Dumb and dumber

Majikthise links to this hilarious compilation of stupid tattoos. Check out #4. The tattoo isn't all that bad; the hairstyle and the pot belly are hideous.

Transmogriflaw gives us a link to some photographic evidence which tends to support the thesis that women are smarter than men. Smart guys will counter with Tattoo #10, above.

December 11, 2004

Wilderness for the wealthy?

I got a new NOLS catalog in the mail today. Something about the pictures in that thing make very happy. No matter what else I'm doing or where I am, the catalog reminds me that the world's a stunningly beautiful place. And fun. Cold and wet, too, but that only adds to the sense of adventure.

The NOLS catalog has gotten more luxurious. It's thick enough now to need a squared-off binding; and it's printed entirely on glossy magazine paper. When I took my last NOLS course in the late '90s, the catalog was folded over with staples and printed on lighter-weight paper. The tuition has gone up, too. The Yukon Backpacking course is just a hair under three thousand dollars. The Semester in the Rockies costs around $9500. The Semester in New Zealand? $11,136.

There are scholarships available for students who can't drop that kind of cash, but I'm sure they're not easy enough to get. Many non-wealthy people are probably lucky just to hear of NOLS. Most students probably begin their NOLS adventures with a trip to the career office at schools like Bowdoin or Pomona. I wonder how many of the seductive catalogs are readily available at the local community college? I hate to think that wilderness adventures should be a perquisite of wealth. The earth, you see, belongs to all of us, but sometimes it seems that you need to be a millionaire to see it in the rough.
EDIT: a reader phones in to point out that the Boy Scouts get people into the wilderness for a lot less money than NOLS does. Good point. But there are still differences: the Scouts are for kids. What's a 30-year-old of limited means to do?

December 07, 2004

Bad writing is not surprising

I stumbled across two discussions today that highlight two different kinds of horrifically bad writing. I think both kinds can be blamed on our modern consumer culture.

Brian Leiter's post cited a NYT article describing how corporations were spending billions to provide remedial writing instruction to their employees. Some of the examples in the article seem to implicate a basic illiteracy traceable to chronic instant messaging:

hI KATHY i am sending u the assignmnet again, i had sent you the assignment earlier but i didnt get a respond. If u get this assgnment could u please respond . thanking u for ur cooperation.
In addition to simple illiteracy, corporations are plagued with bad writing of a sort that seems a bit more insidious. PTDR links to a BBC article that provides a few good examples of "corporate gobbledygook." This kind of bad writing is probably due less to illiteracy and more to the corporate toleration (encouragement?) of hyperbole, obfuscation, and clich:
The combination of Gerry Anderson's creativity and state-of-the-art high-definition animated production and production facilities, Sony's global strength in providing a one-stop global solution to develop Captain Scarlet product iterations across all media platforms, ability to define and launch a business management strategy leveraging Sony's market strength in each category and our ability at TriMedia to converge the film and music worlds independently with vertical and street marketing expertise will prove to be of great benefit for all involved.
In other words, "we've got a plan to sell a lot of shit and make a lot of money."

The Business Roundtable may complain about bad writing, but the business community may have brought it upon themselves. Both kinds of bad corporate writing--illiteracy and gobbledygook--may have a common source in our marketing-mad consumer culture. Illiteracy is encouraged when multiple advertisers ceaselessly compete for tiny fragments of our attention with soundbites and slogans. This environment might help to boost sales, but it also discourages the kind of sustained attention that is a prerequisite for the development of good writing skills.

Corporate gobbledygook is merely the other side of our society's dependence on advertising. Businesses of all kinds are constantly trying to sell themselves on the basis of hyperbolic slogans. Much of the English we're subjected to every day is the kind of bloated gobbledygook that is the meat-and-potatoes of business-to-consumer communication. It's no wonder that many of us can't help but imitate this style when we try to write something ourselves.

EDIT: My own bad writing is due entirely to that Jonathan Franzen novel I read a few years back.