Monday, January 28, 2008


Climate Debate Daily is a consolidator website for articles on both sides of the AGW debate. On first inspection, what turns out to be most interesting is not the gulf that divides, but rather the seamless scientific consensus uniting all right thinking people. I learned that:

Antarctic sea ice has shrunk and expanded. Thankfully, that expansion does not constitute charging off in the wrong direction as the uconcensused would mistakenly conclude; rather it is "... broadly consistent with what the climate models predict." Antarctic sea ice isn't going the wrong way; rather, "[it is] well behind what the models project ..." Thereby, of course, confirming those models.

2007 was the warmest year on record. However, poor 2007 must have been a busy, busy year, because it was also tied with 1998 for the second warmest year in a century But wait, there's more, because 2007 is also the seventh warmest year since record keeping began. And the fifth. Apparently, so long as 2007's ordinal is a prime number, it is broadly consistent with climate models.

2008 is forecast to be cooler than any of the last seven years, which must be broadly consistent with an irrevocable 90 years of warming ahead of us.

Global warming bears some responsibility for last years massive fires in the US. Fire is apparently broadly consistent with the doubling likelihood of floods over the next 100 years.

The consensus is even more striking in other areas. Completely consistent with climate models, denying climate change is comparable with the 19th-century racist denial of the need to abolish slavery and climate change deniers cause even more damage in terms of racism and relations between peoples than do Holocaust deniers.

Finally, I learned that the unconsensused don't think CO2 is anything to worry about; unfortunately for the poor deluded dears, "beyond this, their views are not always consistent...

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Oh the Humanitarity!

I think we're stretching the definition of animal cruelty a little bit here:

MARSHALL, Texas (AP) - An animal protection group on Friday rescued more than 200 animals, including 26 hissing cockroaches and two bearded dragons, from an eastern Texas home.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said the animals were still being counted Friday night.

The group was acting under the authority of the Harrison County Sheriff's Department and had gone to the property on a warrant regarding medical neglect.

Besides the cockroaches and bearded dragons, the animals included 68 dogs, 16 rabbits, 15 guinea pigs, 13 gerbils, seven doves, two dwarf hamsters, two hedgehogs, an opossum and a pink toe tarantula.

I can understand the concern for the dogs, the rodents, and even the opossum. But should we really be saying it is cruel to allow cockroaches to wallow in filth? Isn't that what they live on? Shouldn't it be considered cruel to remove them from this home?

The White Man's Burden

The wheels of the white guilt industry are madly spinning away in Berkeley, as demonstrated by this dubious scientific assessment of the debt owed by the developed nations to the developing nations with regards to the environmental costs of, well, existing:

The environmental damage caused to developing nations by the world's richest countries amounts to more than the entire third world debt of $1.8 trillion, according to the first systematic global analysis of the ecological damage imposed by rich countries.

The study found that there are huge disparities in the ecological footprint inflicted by rich and poor countries on the rest of the world because of differences in consumption. The authors say that the west's high living standards are maintained in part through the huge unrecognized ecological debts it has built up with developing countries.

"At least to some extent, the rich nations have developed at the expense of the poor and, in effect, there is a debt to the poor," said Prof Richard Norgaard, an ecological economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study. "That, perhaps, is one reason that they are poor. You don't see it until you do the kind of accounting that we do here."

Using data from the World Bank and the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the researchers examined so-called "environmental externalities" or costs that are not included in the prices paid for goods but which cover ecological damage linked to their consumption. They focused on six areas: greenhouse gas emissions, ozone layer depletion, agriculture, deforestation, overfishing and converting mangrove swamps into shrimp farms.

The team calculated the costs of consumption in low, medium and high income countries, both within their borders and outside, from 1961 to 2000. The team used UN definitions for countries in different income categories. Low income countries included Pakistan, Nigeria and Vietnam, and middle income nations included Brazil and China. Rich countries in the study included the UK, US and Japan.

Striking disparities

The magnitude of effects outside the home country was different for each category of consumption. For example, deforestation and agricultural intensification primarily affect the host country, while the impacts from climate change and ozone depletion show up the disparity between rich and poor most strikingly.

Greenhouse emissions from low-income countries have imposed $740 billion of damage on rich countries, while in return rich countries have imposed $2.3 trillion of damage. This damage includes, for example, flooding from more severe storms as a result of climate change.

Likewise, CFC emissions from rich countries have inflicted between $25 billion and £57 billion of damage to the poorest countries. Increased ultraviolet levels from the ozone hole have led to higher healthcare costs from skin cancer and eye problems. The converse figure is between $0.58 and $1.3 billion.

The team publish their results today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We know already that climate change is a huge injustice inflicted on the poor," said Dr Neil Adger at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich, who was not involved in the research, "This paper is actually the first systematic quantification to produce a map of that ecological debt. Not only for climate change but also for these other areas."

"This is an accounting tool that allows you to say how much the high-income world owes the low-income world for the environmental externalities we impose on them," he said.

The team confined its calculations to areas in which the costs of environmental damage, for example in terms of lost services from ecosystems, are well understood. That meant leaving out damage from excessive freshwater withdrawals, destruction of coral reefs, biodiversity loss, invasive species and war. So the researchers believe the figures represent a minimum estimate of the true cost.

"We think the measured impact is conservative. And given that it's conservative, the numbers are very striking," said co-author Dr Thara Srinivasan, who is also at Berkeley.

I'd run a short contest for the Daily Duck readers to correctly identify the basic underlying flaw in this assessment, but it is so glaringly obvious that it would not be much of a contest. The study is looking only at the expense side of the income statement. There is no attempt to assess the revenue side. Only by weighing the monetary benefits that trade with and development assistance from the developed world brings to the undeveloped nations and then subtracting the costs can you gauge a true net balance of wealth transfer between the two.

The second glaring flaw is that the authors imagine they can calculate the alternate historical scenario of a world without industrial development to use as a baseline against which to compute an economic delta. How much income would the average Nigerian be making now had the Industrial Revolution never happened? He might have less skin cancer from ozone depletion, but he might also be dead from polio or some other disease that Western medicine can prevent him from contracting now.

And how do you calculate the difference that the Green Revolution has made on the wealth of the developing world? There are an estimated one billion people alive today that wouldn't be had this intrusion of western cultural imperialist technology never been foisted upon these hapless victims of development. Even at the low levels of third world wages, that's a huge economic benefit, to say nothing of its benefit to humanity, which the studys authors don't seem to want to address.

But if you must indulge in white guilt, take heart in this one fact. We are paying back this debt, literally. There is a massive transfer of wealth taking place as we speak, from the West to the East and South. You can see it in the trade deficit. We are borrowing money from the developing world in order to purchase their manufactured goods and natural resources. Everything evens out in the end.

Monday, January 21, 2008

I have seen the future of Canada, and it works (for the government)

Mark Steyn, proving that Canada's major export industry is comedic wit, skewers his former homeland in his own impeccable style. Asked to speak on the future of the Canadian economy, he opines:

I WAS A bit stunned to be asked to speak on the Canadian economy. “What happened?” I wondered. “Did the guy who was going to talk about the Belgian economy cancel?” It is a Saturday night, and the Oak Ridge Boys are playing the Hillsdale County Fair. Being from Canada myself, I am, as the President likes to say, one of those immigrants doing the jobs Americans won’t do. And if giving a talk on the Canadian economy on a Saturday night when the Oak Ridge Boys are in town isn’t one of the jobs Americans won’t do, I don’t know what is.
As we know from 9/11, the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia use their oil wealth to spread their destructive ideology to every corner of the world. And so do the Canadians. Consider that in the last 40 years, fundamental American ideas have made no headway whatsoever in Canada, whereas fundamental Canadian ideas have made huge advances in America and the rest of the Western world. To take two big examples, multiculturalism and socialized health care—both pioneered in Canada—have made huge strides down here in the U.S., whereas American concepts—such as non-confiscatory taxation—remain as foreign as ever.

My colleague at National Review, John O’Sullivan, once observed that post-war Canadian history is summed up by the old Monty Python song that goes, “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m OK.” If you recall that song, it begins as a robust paean to the manly virtues of a rugged life in the north woods. But it ends with the lumberjack having gradually morphed into a kind of transvestite pickup who likes to wear high heels and dress in women’s clothing while hanging around in bars. Of course, John O’Sullivan isn’t saying that Canadian men are literally cross-dressers—certainly no more than 35-40 percent of us — but rather that a once manly nation has undergone a remarkable psychological makeover. If you go back to 1945, the Royal Canadian Navy had the world’s third largest surface fleet, the Royal Canadian Air Force was one of the world’s most effective air forces, and Canadian troops got the toughest beach on D-Day. But in the space of two generations, a bunch of tough hombres were transformed into a thoroughly feminized culture that prioritizes all the secondary impulses of society—welfare entitlements from cradle to grave—over all the primary ones. And in that, Canada is obviously not alone. If the O’Sullivan thesis is flawed, it’s only because the lumberjack song could stand as the post-war history of almost the entire developed world.

Today, the political platforms of at least one party in the United States and pretty much every party in the rest of the Western world are nearly exclusively about those secondary impulses—government health care, government day care, government this, government that. And if you have government health care, you not only annex a huge chunk of the economy, you also destroy a huge chunk of individual liberty. You fundamentally change the relationship between the citizen and the state into something closer to that of junkie and pusher, and you make it very difficult ever to change back. Americans don’t always appreciate how far gone down this path the rest of the developed world is. In Canadian and Continental cabinets, the defense ministry is now a place where an ambitious politician passes through on his way up to important jobs like running the health department. And if you listen to recent Democratic presidential debates, it is clear that American attitudes toward economic liberty are being Canadianized.

John Kennedy exhorted Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." But that was at his inauguration, after he had the job. The stiff competition among candidates for that job increasingly has them indulging American's desire to have their country do something for them. I'm beginning to think that it is inevitable for every democracy to travel down that road. Why wouldn't it? Aren't people basically cautious and conservative when it comes to their own security? Isn't a guaranteed "bird in the hand" governmenmental benefit preferable to the uncertain riches of two birds in the economic bush of competitive business? And since we ask the people every two years what they want their government to do, isn't it inevitable that their willpower to resist government largesse for the discipline of self-government eventually erode?

Steyn exposes some of the sadly humorous and unexpected consequences of treating the state like a cargo cult:
In the province of Quebec, it’s taken more or less for granted by all political parties that collective rights outweigh individual rights. For example, if you own a store in Montreal, the French language signs inside the store are required by law to be at least twice the size of the English signs. And the government has a fairly large bureaucratic agency whose job it is to go around measuring signs and prosecuting offenders. There was even a famous case a few years ago of a pet store owner who was targeted by the Office De La Langue Française for selling English-speaking parrots. The language commissar had gone into the store and heard a bird saying, “Who’s a pretty boy, then?” and decided to take action. I keep trying to find out what happened to the parrot. Presumably it was sent to a re-education camp and emerged years later with a glassy stare saying in a monotone voice, “Qui est un joli garcon, hein?”
I drive a lot between Quebec and New Hampshire, and you don’t really need a border post to tell you when you’ve crossed from one country into another. On one side the hourly update on the radio news lets you know that Canada’s postal workers are thinking about their traditional pre-Christmas strike—the Canadians have gotten used to getting their Christmas cards around Good Friday, and it’s part of the holiday tradition now—or that employees of the government liquor store are on strike, nurses are on strike, police are on strike, etc. Whereas you could listen for years to a New Hampshire radio station and never hear the word “strike” except for baseball play-by-play.

In a news item from last year, an Ottawa panhandler said that he may have to abandon his prime panhandling real estate on a downtown street corner because he is being shaken down by officials from the panhandlers union. Think about that. There’s a panhandlers union which exists to protect workers’ rights or—in this case—non-workers’ rights. If the union-negotiated non-work contracts aren’t honored, the unionized panhandlers will presumably walk off the job and stand around on the sidewalk. No, wait...they’ll walk off the sidewalk! Anyway, that’s Canada: Without a Thatcher or a Reagan, it remains over-unionized and with a bloated public sector.
The third difference is that Canada’s economy is more subsidized. Almost every activity amounts to taking government money in some form or other. I was at the Summit of the Americas held in Canada in the summer of 2001, with President Bush and the presidents and prime ministers from Latin America and the Caribbean. And, naturally, it attracted the usual anti-globalization anarchists who wandered through town lobbing bricks at any McDonald’s or Nike outlet that hadn’t taken the precaution of boarding up its windows. At one point I was standing inside the perimeter fence sniffing tear gas and enjoying the mob chanting against the government from the other side of the wire, when a riot cop suddenly grabbed me and yanked me backwards, and a nanosecond later a chunk of concrete landed precisely where I had been standing. I bleated the usual “Oh my God, I could have been killed” for a few minutes and then I went to have a café au lait. And while reading the paper over my coffee, I learned that not only had Canadian colleges given their students time off to come to the Summit to riot, but that the Canadian government had given them $300,000 to pay for their travel and expenses. It was a government-funded anti-government riot! At that point I started bleating “Oh my God, I could have been killed at taxpayer expense.” Say what you like about the American trust-fund babies who had swarmed in to demonstrate from Boston and New York, but at least they were there on their own dime. Canada will and does subsidize anything.

Fourth point: The Canadian economy is significantly more dirigiste (i.e., centrally planned). A couple of years ago it was revealed that the government had introduced a fast-track immigration program for exotic dancers (otherwise known as strippers). Now as a general rule, one of the easiest things to leave for the free market to determine is the number of strippers a society needs. But for some reason, the government concluded that the market wasn’t generating the supply required and introduced a special immigration visa. To go back to President Bush’s line, maybe this is one of those jobs that Canadians won’t do, so we need to get some Ukrainians in to do it. Naturally, the exotic dancers are unionized, so it’s only a matter of time before the last viable industry in Quebec grinds to a halt and American tourists in Montreal find themselves stuck in traffic because of huge numbers of striking strippers. What governmental mind would think of an exotic dancer immigration category?

I would normally follow this up with a libertarian style rant about how we are slowly being strangled by a statist tyrrany, but I'm beginning to believe that the majority of the people in the world really don't want radical political and economic freedom in the American style:

A century ago, Russia had more political theory-mongers than any other country in history. It was infested with many varieties of anarchists, it had socialists beyond number, and there were armies of radical Christians, Tolstoyans and Communists. Stirred by all this progressive thinking, Russia shed an ocean of blood in the service of Karl Marx's theories.

Remarkably, that didn't make much of a difference. When it was all over, Russia ended up with a czar. Vladimir Putin, the 21st-century czar, may be nicer than Stalin or Czar Alexander III (who reigned from 1881 to 1894) and brighter than Nicholas II (1894 to 1917). But he's still a czar, with a czar's sense of infinite entitlement. Putin believes he deserves to rule Russia, and it appears that most Russians see things his way. Freedom of speech, for instance, is no more important to Putin than to Alexander III or Stalin -- and only a small minority of Russians appear to care.

Nina Khrushcheva was talking about these issues when she visited Toronto last week to appear on TVOntario. She's a political science professor whose scholarship is deepened by personal contact. Teaching graduate students at the New School in New York, she speaks with the unique authority of Nikita Khrushchev's great-granddaughter.

He was a czar, too, until the politburo fired him in 1964. When his great-granddaughter lists Russian despots, she doesn't omit him.

She has nothing but contempt for Putin but knows her fellow Russians don't agree with her. The typical Russian, whom she calls "the lazy Russian Ivan," adores Putin. Russians believe their country should be regarded as a great nation and that Putin is winning back the respect it deserves. If his behaviour scares the West, all the better.

What is the future of freedom in the 21st century? Will peoples vote more for freedoms to or freedoms from?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

I have seen the future, but how do I get a piece of the action?

Accoding to Max Borders, Croquet is the technology wave of the future:
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it," Alan Kay is famous for saying. That's largely how he and his team came to the conclusion that they would have start from scratch with a new DNA for computing. Kay got together with an evolutionary biologist (Julian Lombardi), a grid-computing guru (David P. Reed), a Web 1.0 wunderkind (Mark McCahill), a Squeak developer (Andreas Raab) and 3D worldmaker (David Smith). The result has been a collaboration that can only be described as Copernican.

Right now, Croquet is more a platform than a world. The consortium built around Croquet is accreting interest and resources much like the HTML standards consortia of the past did early on. Military eggheads with loads of cash are perking up, too, of course. But like Arpanet (a precursor to the Web) eventually spread like a fungus into our homes and offices, Croquet may become our homes and offices.

But what is it, exactly? As Louis Armstrong said of jazz: "if you have to ask what it is, you'll never know." Croquet is a thing immune to elevator pitches. But let me try:

Croquet is a development platform that allows for radical collaboration in immersive online environments. "Online" is charitable, because Croquet will absorb the Internet eventually. The technology is scalable and an open (non-proprietary) standard like Mosaic was, but this time for a networked 3D future. Our human ability to handle information in tidy 2D hierarchies is pretty good, but it pales compared to our capacity to negotiate in the 3D environments we evolved in. Learning to live, work, collaborate and share information in co-creative worlds will help us find as many Archimedean points as stars in the sky.

Croquet is thoroughly peer-to-peer in both its application and its architecture. So it is not vulnerable to the limitations of hierarchy - either conceptually, or technically. It is a platform for networking just about everything. Mac? PC? Linux? It doesn't matter. Croquet is built on a "virtual machine", which means it transcends the boundaries of both operating system and geography alike, like some encoded blueprint for the space-time continuum. It not only can it scale to the level of the imagination, it will eventually look cooler than any game dreamt up by 20 geeks at Sony - and we will all participate in its creation.

I hope my clumsiness in elevator pitching was offset by my sense of awe. Because I've seen Croquet in action. And once you see Croquet operate, your understanding of this world, and all those possible worlds, will never be the same.

If you missed out on the PC revolution, then the GUI operating system revolution, then the Internet revolution, then the housing boom, well just hang on for awhile, because there's bound to be a next big thing. It might be Croquet. But can one of my more technically savvy contributors give me a clue as to what it really means for the future?

The Meaning of Conservatism and the Republican Crack-up

If anyone was wondering why the volume of posting on the Daily Duck hasn't picked up with the New Year, as promised, then one explanation is that I've been spending a lot of time debating Joe Carter and others at Evangelical Outpost over the conservative bona fides, or lack thereof, of Joe's candidate Mike Huckabee, and what it means to call oneself a conservative.

Joe started with an attempt to identify some original, defining event in conservatism which we could all turn back to to measure our own conservative principles against:
Herein lies another difficulty: Too many of us believe that conservatism began with Goldwater and ended with Reagan. Although these men were indispensable towering figures of the "conservative movement", they are not the sole actors that have shaped our heritage (indeed, one of them wasn't a conservative at all).

As for the "leading conservative thinkers", most of us are wholly unfamiliar with Edmund Burke, Richard Weaver, Abraham Kuyper, T.S. Eliot, or Erick Voegelin. Instead we learn about "conservative thought" from talk radio(!).

To which I replied:
Joe, there was no "original meaning", just a series of interrelated theories and opinions through time. Conservatism wasn't handed down on carved tablets from God.

Funny that you would include Richard Weaver. Weaver thought that the decline of the West began with the triumph of Nominalism over Realism, going back to the days of William of Ockham. So all the accomplishments of western science and learning that developed in its wake is a sign of decadence. He pegged the downfall of music with Beethoven, not jazz or swing. You don't get any more paleo than that. His ideal for society was the antebellum South. So how do you reconcile such a figure as Weaver, who had no problem with slavery, with your family first conservatism that takes the dignity of every human being as a first principle?

Joe is posting his thoughts on other brands of conservatism, including Family First Conservatism, Waughian Conservatism and Sullivanism.

I don't think you can define conservatism as a particular political philosophy, but more as a philosophical temperament. It can't be defined out of the context of the social and political values that one chooses to conserve. Likewise Liberalism. One temperament looks to limit change, one seeks change as an end in itself.

As many people have observed, when such temperaments are expressed in their extreme measure they tend to resemble each other. Take the example of the extreme paleo-conservative that I identified with respect to Richard Weaver above, who wrote the book which many consider to be the conservative Bible "Ideas Have Consequences". His strain of anti-modern traditionalism is reflected in the Agrarian School, and their contemporary offspring, the Crunchy Conservatives.

Weaver's conservatism is not so much a desire to preserve the status quo as it is a call to restore a past tradition that has been lost. But overthrowing the status quo to restore a past order is a revolutionary, not a conservative, act. It's a "back to the future", or more accurately a "forward to the past" scenario. So it isn't surprising to notice how much the Crunchy Con Manifesto resembles the liberal litany:
1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.

2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.

3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4. Culture is more important than politics and economics.

5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship—especially of the natural world—is not fundamentally conservative.

6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.

7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.

8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.

9. We share Russell Kirk’s conviction that “the institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10. Politics and economics won’t save us; if our culture is to be saved at all, it will be by faithfully living by the Permanent Things, conserving these ancient moral truths in the choices we make in our everyday lives.

Which brings us to the present crack-up of the Republican party. The much vaunted Reagan Coalition of Neo-Conservatives, Religious/Social Conservatives and Economic/Small Government Conservatives and Libertarians has run its course. The early Republican primary successes of Mike Huckabee, a Social Conservative/Populist in the Crunchy Con mold, and John McCain, who is more like a Scoop Jackson Democrat than a Reagan Republican, forebode a major reordering of the political landscape for conservatives. The political pundits, by their abysmal failure to predict the rise of Huckabee and McCain, as well as their total cluelessness in calling the results of the early primaries, have underlined the magnitude of the shifts in the political landscape that are underway in this election cycle. The results will be interesting, but as the ancient Chinese wise men knew, living in interesting times is no blessing.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Happiness and its enemies

H L Mencken famously defined a Puritan as someone with a haunting fear that somewhere, someone might be happy. One wouldn't think that such a dour attitude would hold many adherents today, but as I described in my critique of Ronald Dworkin's book "Artificial Happiness", there are many people who see the spread of happiness as something to be feared and attacked.

One more voice against happiness, also with a book, is English professor Eric G Wilson, whose book "In Praise of Melancholy" is excerpted in the Chronicle Review:
Ours are ominous times. We are on the verge of eroding away our ozone layer. Within decades we could face major oceanic flooding. We are close to annihilating hundreds of exquisite animal species. Soon our forests will be as bland as pavement. Moreover, we now find ourselves on the verge of a new cold war.

But there is another threat, perhaps as dangerous: We are eradicating a major cultural force, the muse behind much art and poetry and music. We are annihilating melancholia.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy. The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

My first question upon reading this is "what is this guy smoking?" Perfect contentment? Does any sane person really think that we are on the verge of such a state? Even if you are willing to grant Wilson's fear even the slightest bit of truthfulness, it is a very strange kind of alarmism he is peddling. "The sky isn't falling!"

Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?

Surely all this happiness can't be for real. How can so many people be happy in the midst of all the problems that beset our globe — not only the collective and apocalyptic ills but also those particular irritations that bedevil our everyday existences, those money issues and marital spats, those stifling vocations and lonely dawns? Are we to believe that four out of every five Americans can be content amid the general woe? Are some people lying, or are they simply afraid to be honest in a culture in which the status quo is nothing short of manic bliss? Aren't we suspicious of this statistic? Aren't we further troubled by our culture's overemphasis on happiness? Don't we fear that this rabid focus on exuberance leads to half-lives, to bland existences, to wastelands of mechanistic behavior?

I for one am afraid that American culture's overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society's efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life's enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

Anyone who has any personal experience with depression could never write that happiness breeds blandness while sadness brings variety and color. The opposite is the case. One of the defining qualities of depression is that one's mental state is locked into a monotonous sameness of worry and despair, and is not capable of reacting appropriately to external stimulii with a range of emotional responses.

Wilson makes a token effort to differentiate between clinical depression and his preferred term melancholy, but only blurs the distinction later in the passage:

And I'm not romanticizing clinical depression. I realize that there are many lost souls out there who require medication to keep from killing themselves or harming their friends and families. I'm not questioning pharmaceutical therapies for the seriously depressed or simply to make existence bearable for so many with biochemical disorders.
Of course there is a fine line between what I'm calling melancholia and what society calls depression. In my mind, what separates the two is degree of activity. Both forms are more or less chronic sadness that leads to continuing unease with how things are — persistent feelings that the world is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil.

So he's willing to condemn a person to a life of persistent sadness as long as it doesn't lead to total breakdown and suicide? That's big-hearted of him. But why would anyone take mental health advice from an English professor? Does anyone seriously believe that there is some magic barrier between melancholy and depression that keeps the former from falling into the latter? How much imagination does it take to see that persistent, low level sadness, left untreated, can lead to deeper sadness and finally clinical depression? Who is watching out for these troubled but romantic melancholics to make sure that they don't accidentally drop into depression?

My sense is that most of us have been duped by the American craze for happiness. We might think that we're leading a truly honest existence, when we're really just behaving as predictably and artificially as robots, falling easily into well-worn "happy" behaviors, into the conventions of contentment. Deceived, we miss out on the great interplay of the living cosmos, its luminous gloom, its terrible beauty.

Here Wilson tips us off to the agenda behind his worship of suffering. As I've pointed out on other occasions, such people worship suffering for aesthetic reasons. Note the use of the honest/artificial value judgment. Its about authenticity, that elusive chimera that every aesthete hunts with a passion, but it is a prey that always escapes the moment one thinks he's caught it.

Wilson goes on to tell the story of John Keats, his life of suffering, and of course the magnificent poetry that resulted from it all. But if one wishes others to suffer in order to enjoy the benefits that might accrue thereof, or begrudges another's happiness because it gives one no aesthetic pleasure to behold, is not one merely objectifying the other? Isn't that a particularly selfish and inhuman attitude?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

My Next IT Purchase: 12 Gauge Shotgun

I am familiar with Winboxes, having used them extensively during my previous lives that involved software engineering. However, at home, perhaps due to that familiarity, we have Macs.

Recently, though, the man child has been lobbying for a computer of his own. He loves internet strategy games, and since there are vanishingly few games available for the Mac, that means letting a Winbox into the house. On the upside, he would be able to download whatever games he wanted and I wouldn't have to worry about the rest of the machines getting trashed; and, as he has shown some proclivity for things computer, it would be the perfect platform for teaching him Visual BASIC.

Consequently, I took advantage of the Comp USA fire sale to pick up an HP Pavilion 6200. Decent specs, with upgrade capacity. Came pre-loaded with Vista. The salesperson assured me that was no barrier to gaming.

As !@#$%^& if.

The man child was duly thrilled when he discovered his new computer on Christmas day.

He was far less thrilled when Oblivion wouldn't load. In roughly three seconds, I concluded the saleshoser was either lying, or ignorant. Either way, he was lying. It took rather more time to conclude there are no Vista drivers to be had for the game.

Meaning: buy XP and install it.

Having to buy an operating system immediately after buying a new computer with an operating system is strongly correlated, at least for me, with waves of hypertension.

After wiping the blood from the corners of my eyes, I clicked on "Add to my Cart" and plunked down $140 on XP Pro SP2. Several days later, it hit our front door.

Since his computer has a largish hard drive, I figured to create a dual boot configuration, and spent a couple hours researching how to make that happen.

Before starting, I was careful to make a system recovery disk. You know, just in case, in the highly off-chance, one in a whole bunch kind of thing, something might not go completely, absolutely, right.

At first, things went according to plan. Right up to the moment when XP tried to boot, whereupon the whole process turned hard left and dove straight into a ditch. OK. No problemo, we will just insert the system recovery disk. go to square one, and try again.

As !@#$%^& if.

Now we are in something of a pickle. For reasons known only to HP and Microsoft, and having heck-all to do with customer satisfaction, the computer does not come with Vista on a CD-ROM. Thus, if the system restore disk won't, there is no way to boot from the CD drive and, if necessary, re-format the hard disk and reinstall.

Nor will XP boot from the CD drive.

The only thing left is to take the computer, which I am beginning to regard with real, visceral, loathing, to the local computer fixer.

HP Pavilion a6220n computer, $600.

XP Pro, $140

Get the computer running again: $120.

Pleasure from seeing my son finally getting to use his Christmas present: Who the hell knows?

As it turns out, there is no putting XP on this !@#$%^&*! computer, since HP doesn't provide XP drivers for it.

Lucky for me, WalMart is a few miles a way, rather than next door. For if it was, I would have not walked, but run, there for a shotgun to blast the thing to pieces so I could spit on the wreckage.

The place where I took the computer sells used machines; all of which are less expensive than what I got, and a couple looked clearly superior in every way except mass storage. So I wondered if the guy would make me an offer on the HP, and I would pick up one of his offerings.

Well, no. He won't touch a Vista machine with the mucky end of a barge pole. I can understand why. It takes a small epoch, and a fair amount of control panel fiddling about, to establish an internet connection, every time. Windows Explorer crashes -- no exaggeration for rhetorical effect -- roughly every third time it runs. Right out of the box.

So, absent some clues (hello, AOG? Mike?), I am left with trying to unload a virtually brand new computer and an uninstalled XP, while buying yet another computer.

More waves of hypertension.

Perhaps I should get an eye bolt, 70 feet of chain, and a buoy. Tossing that piece of Winbox crap into a lake to use as a boat anchor won't be as emotionally satisfying as littering the landscape with its guts. But it will be a lot cheaper, and by the time this is all said and done, that may be all I can afford.

Oddly, setting up a Mac to dual boot Windows Nameit is a doddle.

Perhaps more oddly, Microsoft is still peddling Vista. It has been on the market a year. Yesterday, I saw this illuminating, but for my purposes very tardy, teaser on the cover of a Winbox oriented magazine:
23 Tweaks to Make Vista Tolerable

Vista: a new way to say POS in polite company. EG, "My last car was a Vista."

Monday, January 07, 2008

The good old days ain't what they used to be

What's a curmudgeon to do? The more we slip-slide into an abyss of godless moral decay, the better things get. Even for progressives, who look forward to a better tomorrow, the present leaves little to improve upon:
Progressive ideology relies on the capacity of human beings to live fulfilled lives in a just and co-operative society. That people whose beliefs imply optimism seem to spend most of their time wallowing in pessimism is one reason that leftists sometimes lack personal credibility (another reason being that egalitarians so clearly enjoy being very well-off). But miserable idealists need to make a New Year resolution to look on the bright side. Pessimism is becoming an impediment to progressive politics. It is 50 years since J K Galbraith coined the phrase "private affluence and public squalor"; today, the dichotomy is between private hubris and public pessimism.
And yet. There is a different story to be told about our world. It is a story of unprecedented affluence in the developed world and fast-falling poverty levels in the developing world; of more people in more places enjoying more freedom than ever before. It is a story of healthier lives and longer life expectancy (obesity may be a problem, but it is one that individuals have more chance of solving than rickets or polio). Think of how we thrive in the diversity of modern cities. Think, in our own country, of rivers and beaches cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. When you read the next report bemoaning falling standards in our schools, remember the overwhelming evidence that average IQs have risen sharply over recent decades. If you think we have less power over our lives, think of the internet, of enhanced rights at work and in law, or remember how it was to be a woman or black or gay 30 years ago.
The old collectivism is dead or dying. Its characteristics - hierarchical, bureaucratic, paternalistic - are no longer suited to the challenges or the mood of the times. The institutions of the new collectivism must be devolved, pluralistic, egalitarian and, most of all, self-actualising.

For all the talk of the decline of social capital, people are doing more stuff together. Twenty-five years ago, with falling audiences, commentators assumed that the cinema and live football were dead: we would all rather stay in the safety and comfort of our new, hi-tech living rooms. But then the multiplex, the blockbuster, the all-seater stad ium and foreign players showed the problem to be no deeper than the failure to keep up with modern tastes and expectations.

Self-actualisation is the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is evidence that more of us are trying to climb that hierarchy. It is in the crowds at book festivals and art galleries, in ever more demanding consumerism with an emphasis on the personal, sensual and adventurous. We want to enjoy ourselves, to be appreciated and to feel we are growing from the experience.

Sound familiar? Taylor is describing Oprah-ism. We're now looking to our political leaders to actualize us. Almost makes you yearn for the bad old days.

But if that didn't convince you of the linear progress of Mankind, a look at the pre-historical record will change your tune:
The first farmers were less healthy than the hunter-gatherers had been in their heyday. Aside from their shorter stature, they had more skeletal wear and tear from the hard work, their teeth rotted more, they were short of protein and vitamins and they caught diseases from domesticated animals: measles from cattle, flu from ducks, plague from rats and worms from using their own excrement as fertiliser.

They also got a bad attack of inequality for the first time. Hunter-gatherers' dependence on sharing each other's hunting and gathering luck makes them remarkably egalitarian. A successful farmer, however, can afford to buy the labour of others, and that makes him more successful still, until eventually—especially in an irrigated river valley, where he controls the water—he can become an emperor imposing his despotic whim upon subjects. Friedrich Engels was probably right to identify agriculture with a loss of political innocence.

Agriculture also stands accused of exacerbating sexual inequality. In many peasant farming communities, men make women do much of the hard work. Among hunter-gathering folk, men usually bring fewer calories than women, and have a tiresome tendency to prefer catching big and infrequent prey so they can show off, rather than small and frequent catches that do not rot before they are eaten. But the men do at least contribute.

Recently, though, anthropologists have subtly revised the view that the invention of agriculture was a fall from grace. They have found the serpent in hunter-gatherer Eden, the savage in the noble savage. Maybe it was not an 80,000-year camping holiday after all.

In 2006 two Indian fishermen, in a drunken sleep aboard their little boat, drifted over the reef and fetched up on the shore of North Sentinel Island. They were promptly killed by the inhabitants. Their bodies are still there: the helicopter that went to collect them was driven away by a hail of arrows and spears. The Sentinelese do not welcome trespassers. Only very occasionally have they been lured down to the beach of their tiny island home by gifts of coconuts and only once or twice have they taken these gifts without sending a shower of arrows in return.

Several archaeologists and anthropologists now argue that violence was much more pervasive in hunter-gatherer society than in more recent eras. From the
!Kung in the Kalahari to the Inuit in the Arctic and the aborigines in Australia, two-thirds of modern hunter-gatherers are in a state of almost constant tribal warfare, and nearly 90% go to war at least once a year. War is a big word for dawn raids, skirmishes and lots of posturing, but death rates are high—usually around 25-30% of adult males die from homicide. The warfare death rate of 0.5% of the population per year that Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois calculates as typical of hunter-gatherer societies would equate to 2 billion people dying during the 20th century.

At first, anthropologists were inclined to think this a modern pathology. But it is increasingly looking as if it is the natural state. Richard Wrangham of Harvard University says that chimpanzees and human beings are the only animals in which males engage in co-operative and systematic homicidal raids. The death rate is similar in the two species. Steven LeBlanc, also of Harvard, says Rousseauian wishful thinking has led academics to overlook evidence of constant violence.

Not so many women as men die in warfare, it is true. But that is because they are often the object of the fighting. To be abducted as a sexual prize was almost certainly a common female fate in hunter-gatherer society. Forget the Garden of Eden; think Mad Max.

Constant warfare was necessary to keep population density down to one person per square mile. Farmers can live at 100 times that density. Hunter-gatherers may have been so lithe and healthy because the weak were dead. The invention of agriculture and the advent of settled society merely swapped high mortality for high morbidity, allowing people some relief from chronic warfare so they could at least grind out an existence, rather than being ground out of existence altogether.

Notice a close parallel with the industrial revolution. When rural peasants swapped their hovels for the textile mills of Lancashire, did it feel like an improvement? The Dickensian view is that factories replaced a rural idyll with urban misery, poverty, pollution and illness. Factories were indeed miserable and the urban poor were overworked and underfed. But they had flocked to take the jobs in factories often to get away from the cold, muddy, starving rural hell of their birth.

Eighteenth-century rural England was a place where people starved each spring as the winter stores ran out, where in bad years and poor districts long hours of agricultural labour—if it could be got—barely paid enough to keep body and soul together, and a place where the “putting-out” system of textile manufacture at home drove workers harder for lower pay than even the factories would. (Ask Zambians today why they take ill-paid jobs in Chinese-managed mines, or Vietnamese why they sew shirts in multinational-owned factories.) The industrial revolution caused a population explosion because it enabled more babies to survive—malnourished, perhaps, but at least alive.
What's more, the famously “affluent society” of hunter-gatherers, with plenty of time to gossip by the fire between hunts and gathers, turns out to be a bit of a myth, or at least an artefact of modern life. The measurements of time spent getting food by the !Kung omitted food-processing time and travel time, partly because the anthropologists gave their subjects lifts in their vehicles and lent them metal knives to process food.

In 100 years people will look back at us and cringe at how difficult a time we had self actualizing ourselves("you mean they had to do it all by themselves?") I'm sure they will have found a higher level on the hierarchy of needs by then.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

We are all Oprah-ites now

Future historians may well cite the Iowa presidential caucus of 2008 as the beginning of the end for American civilization. They may write that it was the key reversal point, the moment when the forces that would lead America into decline crystallized out of the cultural solution and took form. That form has a name, and it is Oprah.

As we all know, Oprah Winfrey stumped for charismatic Democratic upstart Barack Obama, and led him to a stunning victory in the caucus last Thursday. But the Democratic party has long been the natural home for Oprah-itis, even before the spirit of Oprah took human form and began her gentle assault on American culture. But Iowa represented the triumph of Oprah-itis over both parties, as the once sober and sensible Republican caucus fell prey to the soothing charms of evangelical preacher and former disc-jockey Mike Huckabee, a man whose foreign policy vision is to make America into the popular kid in high school. Oh Oprah, what hath thou wrought?

Peggy Noonan sums up the method behind the Huckabee madness:
What we have learned about Mr. Huckabee the past few months is that he's an ace entertainer with a warm, witty and compelling persona. He won with no money and little formal organization, with an evangelical network, with a folksy manner, and with the best guileless pose in modern politics. From the mail I have received the past month after criticizing him in this space, I would say his great power, the thing really pushing his supporters, is that they believe that what ails America and threatens its continued existence is not economic collapse or jihad, it is our culture.

They have been bruised and offended by the rigid, almost militant secularism and multiculturalism of the public schools; they reject those schools' squalor, in all senses of the word. They believe in God and family and America. They are populist: They don't admire billionaire CEOs, they admire husbands with two jobs who hold the family together for the sake of the kids; they don't need to see the triumph of supply-side thinking, they want to see that suffering woman down the street get the help she needs.

Help? Like a NEW CAR!! Straight from the Oprah playbook. Opraism is the newest of the great religions, and like all things new it is as old as the hills. It is a cargo cult, pure and simple. For the last three decades one of the mantras of the Religious Right has been that leftist redistributionism and nanny-ism is a symptom of a secular populace bereft of a connection with God, and therefore dependent on the state to fill its spiritual void with a security blanket of material goods. Those who were right with God, we were told, do not need the security blanket of worldly materialism, because they were secure in their eternal relationship with God.

It was a lie, of course, a lie forced upon religious populists by their shotgun wedding to traditional free market, small government conservatives under the Reagan coalition, when southern religious "social" conservatives left the Democrat party, a party that rewarded them gladly with redistributed cargo via the New Deal, over the Democrat party's abandonment of traditional social conventions in the 1970s. It is a lie that has been exposed by Huckabee's victory in Iowa, due largely to the evangelical vote.

It should be no surprise that deeply religious people would prefer cargo cult statism over free market government minimalism. All religions are in a sense cargo cults. The evangelical faith puts special emphasis on salvation as a totally unearned gift from God, so the idea of getting something for nothing is psychologically ingrained in the faith.

The other important aspect of Oprah-ism that is evident in the Obama and Huckabee victories is the idea of "connecting" with the people. The devotees of Oprah don't want merely to be informed or entertained by their host; they want to be personally validated. They want to see a reflection of themselves, they want their pain to be felt, their insecurities acknowledged and shared publicly. They want to be hugged. For evangelicals, the Iowa vote for Huckabee was one big group hug. But Huckabee has shown a knack for connecting to people beyond the walls of the evangelical identity compound. He talks about being a former fattie who was addicted to french fries. He shares how he was the unpopular, unathletic kid in school who was ridiculed in gym class. He comes across as likeable and "real". On Jay Leno he said that people want to elect a person that reminds them of someone they worked with, instead of reminding them of someone who laid them off.

That's all well and good, but likeable schlubs don't have a good track record as national leaders. Jimmy Carter was likeable, once, and he was probably the worst American president of the 20th century. And Carter looks like Machiavelli compared to Huckabee. How much do we really want to pay for our personal validations? Isn't it enough that we have a whole industry devoted to that very need? Can't we be satisfied with our daily Oprah fix without needing to have our narcissism drive our decisions on governance and national security?

George Will points out the dark underside of the politics of likeability:

Huckabee told heavily subsidized Iowa -- Washington's ethanol enthusiasm has farm values and incomes soaring -- that Americans striving to rise are "pushed down every time they try by their own government." Edwards, synthetic candidate of theatrical bitterness on behalf of America's crushed, groaning majority, says the rich have an "iron-fisted grip" on democracy and a "stranglehold" on the economy. Strangely, these fists have imposed a tax code that makes the top 1 percent of earners pay 39 percent of all income tax revenues, the top 5 percent pay 60 percent, and the bottom 50 percent pay only 3 percent.

According to Edwards, the North Carolina of his youth resembled Chechnya today -- "I had to fight to survive. I mean really. Literally." Huckabee, a compound of Uriah Heep, Elmer Gantry and Richard Nixon, preens about his humble background: "In my family, 'summer' was never a verb." Nixon, who maundered about his parents' privations and wife's cloth coat, followed Lyndon Johnson, another miscast president whose festering resentments and status anxieties colored his conduct of office. Here we go again?

Huckabee fancies himself persecuted by the Republican "establishment," a creature already negligible by 1964, when it failed to stop Barry Goldwater's nomination. The establishment's voice, the New York Herald Tribune, expired in 1966. Huckabee says "only one explanation" fits his Iowa success "and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people." God so loves Huckabee's politics that He worked a Midwest miracle on his behalf? Should someone so delusional control nuclear weapons?


Although Huckabee and Edwards profess to loathe and vow to change Washington's culture, each would aggravate its toxicity. Each overflows with and wallows in the pugnacity of the self-righteous who discern contemptible motives behind all disagreements with them, and who therefore think opponents are enemies and differences are unsplittable.

Lets leave our fantasies with Hollywood and elect adults to look after our business in Washington.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

367 days early

My prediction of $100 oil, that is. The day that Orrin said would never come came yesterday.
NEW YORK -- Crude oil prices briefly passed $100 a barrel Wednesday for the first time amid an unshakeable view that global demand for petroleum products will outstrip supplies.

Violence in Nigeria helped give crude the final push. Armed bands invaded Port Harcourt, the center of Nigeria's oil industry, on Tuesday, attacking two police stations and a major hotel. Word that rough weather had closed several Mexican oil export ports added to the gains, as did a report that OPEC may not meet its share of global oil demand by 2024.
Light, sweet crude for February delivery rose $4.02 to $100 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, before slipping back to settle at a record close of $99.62, up $3.64.
At the pump, gasoline prices rose 0.6 cent to a national average of $3.049 a gallon, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Gas prices, which typically lag the futures market, have edged higher in recent days.

I, for one, welcome our new petrocratic overlords!

Mission Accomplished

The deed is done. The house closing went through on time, despite a few last minute worries. The move is complete, despite a marathon session that ran nonstop from Saturday 6:00 AM to Sunday 7:00 PM, in sub-freezing temperatures. The 50 year old back and knees held out, barely. But minus one house and a quarter million dollars of debt, I can finally sit back and breathe a sigh of relief.

It will be awhile before the new reality sinks in, when I can sit in front of the computer and not be nagged by guilt that I am putting off some prudential task of home maintenance. A few tasks remain - mainly that of organizing and disposing of the mountains of residual stuff that once accumulated in the various closets, rooms and basement nooks of my former four bedroom abode, now inelegantly piled in my apartment like some tectonic upheaval, whose only evident organizational principle seems to be the necessity to leave a single narrow lane free for travel between the garage door and the bedroom. But the clock is ticking on its demise. It will melt away in the coming months as surely as the winter snows. And I will be free!