Wednesday, March 30, 2011
But not me. I'm going to take a more pragmatic approach.
So without further ado, here are the top five Mad Men characters for the cutting room:
5. Roger Sterling - I probably should have said top four Mad Men characters for the cutting room, because I really, really want to keep Roger. His drinking and his quipping and his general congenial scumminess is Mad Men, even more than Don. But if you'll think back to the very first season, you'll recall he's already two heart attacks deep. The show implied way back then that the man was living on borrowed time. Since that point, he's managed to remarry, get rich(er), and generally carry on as if nothing had happened. Sorry dude, but it's time to pay the piper. You're clearly living under a star, and as a result your world-weariness is starting to feel a bit... put-on. How to cut him: The heart attack thing is too obvious, and it doesn't leave him very many opportunities to croak out one final, wry quip. So it's up to Jane to do the dirty work. Look at her and tell me she's not capable of putting rat poison in his drink. Tell me she's not.
3. Harry Crane - Boring, boring Harry Crane. Harry "Nice Guys Finish Last" Crane. Harry "I Do the Actual Business of Selling Ads So Everyone Else Can Drink and Screw" Crane. Harry "We Married Him Off So You Don't Have To Watch Him Have Agonizingly Dull Affairs" Crane. Harry "Wait, Aren't You Just a Less-Funny Paul Kinsey?" Crane. How to cut him: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce changes offices, forgets to tell him. Six months later, construction workers recover his skeleton.
2. Don Draper - I'm not just trying to be controversial here. At one point, Don absolutely belonged at the center of the Mad Men universe. Don Draper was a man of his time, and also, a man who transcended it. He fit neatly into the regressive world of the Sterling Cooper office, but you always got the sense that he had a transgressive streak that was absent in his colleagues. Despite his many, many flaws, Don had secret reserves of brilliance, or insight, or competence, or something, that he could fall back on in times of crisis. It's what made him an effective ad man, and what made the scenes where he sold his pitches so compelling: you saw a man glimpsing truth through the murky veil of the present. Even after the secret of his identity was resolved, there was always an air of mystery to Don -- the sense that he was holding something in reserve. Don is a large part of what made Mad Men more than historical-reenactment-in-the-key-of-soap-opera. Without Don, every character reverts to form. Don's unpredictability and inscrutability was the chaotic element in the system, forcing the characters in unexpected directions.
But the end of Season 4 changed all that. Now, some might say Don's abandonment of Faye in favor of his approximately-fifteen-year-old secretary was exactly the sort of sudden left turn we'd expect from the guy. But not really. Instead, it was Don becoming Roger Sterling. The end of Season 4 seemingly quashed whatever je nais se quoi Don possessed that allowed him transcend the dictates of his station. He became just another alcoholic executive with an affinity for pretty faces. Maybe that's more realistic. Maybe that's even the point: nobody can escape the gravitational pull of social and class norms. But if that's the case, it also forms the logical end of Don's character arc. Who wants to watch a show where everyone behaves exactly as you'd expect? I'll just read a book about 50s gender politics instead. Besides, we already have one Roger Sterling, we don't need two, and if we have to choose, I'd rather stick with the original, thank you very much. How to cut him: Well, he drinks himself to death, obviously. Someone has to eventually.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
My upstairs neighbors were evicted approximately a month ago. Since then, their apartments have been supposedly deserted. But somehow, a fiendishly clever hobo has found his way into one or both of those apartments, and has quickly made himself at home.
I'm sure you want evidence, and I have lots.
First: I heard him. At six AM, someone bumped around in the upstairs apartment. There is not supposed to be anyone in the upstairs apartment.
Second: My stuff keeps disappearing. Most notably my underwear. I noticed this when I began having to do my laundry with increasing frequency. I used to be able to wait weeks between loads of laundry. Now, I'm lucky to make it five days. It's not just underwear, though. Food too. Nothing huge, but a slice of bread here and a frozen Roma pizza there. Almost certainly enough to appreciably supplement a hobo's diet, if not sustain it altogether. And just the other day, my scarf vanished.
Third: He has a key to the house. I know this because, for a span, we were forced to leave a set of them in the mailbox (one of the roommates had lost his pair). And then that set of keys disappeared, too. Two days later, it reappeared, for no discernible reason, back in the mailbox. Why would anyone steal a set of keys for only two days? There's only one conceivable explanation: someone copied them, and thus obtained unlimited and prolonged access to our house.
I'm sure this sounds perfectly ridiculous, but I assure you it isn't. If you think it through, every element of his plan makes sense. It's complex, but when you put the pieces together, it becomes apparent that this man is something of a tactical mastermind. He's the Rommel of squatters. He is an individual of tenacious intellect, crushing problems with cold, calculating detachment. He's proving to be a formidable opponent.
Why, for instance, does Hobo Rommel refuse to steal something truly valuable, like the Xbox, or television, or a computer? To a lesser mind, those would certainly appear to be more attractive options. But stealing a major item would also instantly reveal his presence, and he would be forced to choose between flight or capture. Fencing a laptop would be hard, and risky, and would earn him, at best, a few hundred dollars. That buys a lot of MD 20/20, but it would also kill the golden goose. As things stand, he has access to comfortable living quarters, hot showers, and unlimited clean underwear for the foreseeable future. In the harsh Minnesota winter, those things are surely more valuable than consumer electronics. Being a master tactician, Hobo Rommel knows when to roll the dice, and when to opt for predictability over short-term gain.
It's also worth pointing out the manner in which Hobo Rommel has avoided victimizing anyone in my apartment besides me.
Some among you might say that this is implausible. But it's actually the most devious part of his scheme. Like any good field marshal, Hobo Rommel is well-versed in the strategy of divide and conquer. By limiting his depredations to me and me alone, he knows he can isolate me from the pack. He can take more from me while arousing far less suspicion among the majority of the apartment's occupants. And though I have, of course, noticed that something strange is afoot, there's simply no way for me to relay my plight without sounding slightly crazy. And he knows that too. If you're thinking I sound paranoid now, think about it a little harder: your suspicion is only a testament to Hobo Rommel's genius. I sound paranoid because he's targeting me, and he's targeting me to make me sound paranoid. And you -- you're a pawn in his game.
At present, we're in a stalemate. My antagonist can't show his hand, and neither can I. If he discovers that I'm aware of his existence, he might opt for the smash-and-grab, taking everything I own, loading it into my car, and driving to Mexico or Canada. But for his part, there's no way to step up the game without betraying his presence. There is no clear path forward for either of us.
So here I am, future uncertain, locked in a battle of wills and wits with this interloper. Soon it will surely come to a head. I may not have asked for this fight, but fight I must. Friends, wish me luck, and god willing, I'll see you on the other side.
Monday, March 28, 2011
The answer to both questions is clearly no. The timeline of events preceding the Libyan airstrikes should make clear that intervention was the result of balanced interests. In the weeks preceding the attacks, the cost of intervention declined. More and more international support built behind the idea, including UN support and Arab support. Qaddafi presented clear military targets that could be destroyed from the air. It seemed increasingly obvious that Qaddafi could marshal very little support from the Libyan people themselves, and was forced to rely on mercenaries hired with oil profits. A number of nations seemed willing to commit forces. Meanwhile, the benefits of intervention increased. The rebel cause seemed more and more hopeless. The stakes were raised from Libyan liberty to many Libyan lives. The revolutions across the Middle East continued and even accelerated, and governments were increasingly emboldened to respond to those revolutions with force. Finally, the balance tipped.
Of course, this multifactorial approach leaves open the question of precedent. The answer is admittedly unclear. It doesn't seem like any consideration trumped all others, which is reasonable enough -- if leaders adopted a blinkered, one-dimensional doctrine for intervention, the free world could find itself dragged into otherwise untenable conflicts. But as any law student knows, balancing tests are difficult to predict. Which conflicts will we intervene in in the future? It's hard to say.
But that's not entirely a negative.
One of the clear advantages of intervention in Libya is that it proves that there is a line in the sand that dictators shouldn't cross. It demonstrates that killing one's own people might have consequences somewhere down the road. That's useful in the immediate future -- Qaddafi most assuredly isn't going to be the last Middle Eastern dictator with the opportunity to conduct a massacre this year -- and further down the road.
This is an objective which benefits from a certain degree of ambiguity. If the UN or NATO or the US were to lay out some explicit set of preconditions for military intervention, a dictator could try to carefully walk that line, killing just few enough people to avoid an international response. Doubtlessly, some will still try to do so. But fuzziness over where, exactly, the line lies will hopefully create an incentive to err on the side of caution. And there's something to be said for any ambiguity which makes kings and tyrants think twice about unleashing fighter jets on crowds of peaceful demonstrators.
Now, there's no doubt that president and others should account for the cost of the war when weighing the pros and cons of military action. But it's unreasonable to expect any good to come out of some sort of national conversation about fiscal priorities, particularly in this context.
You have to keep in mind that the president and the Democrats -- correctly, in my view -- believe that small adjustments to the discretionary budget have a negligible impact on the nation's long-term finances, which are basically threatened by the growth of entitlement spending and little else. But that's not a point that many Americans intuitively grasp. Indeed, the reason the GOP's cut-cut-cut politics have taken hold is that Americans generally don't understand the dynamics of long-term budgeting. They most certainly don't understand the scale of America's finances; a billion dollars sounds like a lot of money to most people, but it is, of course, an absolutely minuscule fraction of what the national government spends every year. With that in mind, it would be completely irrational and utterly self-sabotaging for the president to somehow explicitly prorate the cost of intervention in his speech or elsewhere, because A. that's a dramatic oversimplification of spending issues that unduly emphasizes inaction, and B. there's no chance that anyone else in the political universe would dream of similarly explaining the consequences of the initiatives they support, making it impossible for Americans to choose between, say, a $50 billion tax cut for the wealthy and the lives of tens of thousand of Libyan rebels. Why should the president endorse exactly the sort of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking that he believes motivates his opposition?
It goes beyond that. In all honesty, I'm pretty furious at the amount of attention being paid on Capitol Hill to the fiscal cost of Libyan intervention. In the scheme of things, the amount of money being spent on Libya is minute. Virtually every political actor involved has farmed tens of billions of dollars into vastly less-deserving causes, be they tax cuts or agricultural subsidies or any number of other interest-group driven payouts. It's laughable for these same people to decide NOW is the time to start fussing over a billion here and a billion there. There's a thousand places they could find the money if they were so disposed; as such, it's very telling that none of these fiscal hawks seems to be reckoning with the value of, say, corporate tax breaks vis-à-vis the lives of Libyans. It'd be one thing if they were saying that our current spending priorities trump the value of intervention in Libya, but that's not a determination anyone seems to be making.
And that's because none of them actually care about the national finances in this context at all, they just know that the specter of US bankruptcy scares Americans, and therefore makes a useful political bludgeon against the president. It's concern trolling, through and through. Cost is always a consideration, but it's safe to say that anyone who treats cost as dispositive in the Libya debate is either seriously innumerate or seriously dishonest.
So yeah, frankly, I think the president is making the right decision to not publicly engage on the topic. The result would invariably be distorting and play directly into the hands of the self-serving political interests of his Congressional opposition.
EDIT: I was challenged on this point by someone who said that you can't gloss over the price of intervention because nonetheless, "all the little bits [of the deficit] add up to the whole." To which I would respond that, yes, this is true. But no one wants to talk about the other, much larger bits. That puts the relatively cheap Libyan intervention at a major political disadvantage compared to them.
(Full disclosure: this is an edited version of a comment I made on another blog.)
In the meantime, new law schools are opening every year, presumably because they're reliable cash cows, bringing in students willing to pay twenty to forty thousand without a second thought.
The dynamics are clear enough: the cultural cachet of having a law degree has overwhelmed the ability of law school applicants to make realistic choices about whether to attend law school, and more specifically, where to attend law school. This market failure has been exacerbated by the schools themselves, which have consistently overstated or misrepresented their employment statistics (for instance: the University of Minnesota apparently claims to have ninety-nine percent employment nine months after graduation over the past five years; speaking as an UMN student currently pursuing employment, I'd sooner believe that Barack Obama was raised in Kenya as a sleeper agent). Convinced of their ability to pull in six-figure salaries -- often unavailable to students even at the best law schools -- applicants can't be dissuaded from attending lousy programs, often graduating with hundreds of thousands in loans.
I'll admit it's a problem that holds a particular fascination for me. Beyond the obvious effect that the development of the legal profession has on my life, there's a trainwreck quality to it all that's hard to ignore. There's something just so unbelievably sordid about the way business is done at lower tier schools: admit unqualified students with promises of prestige and wealth, kick out a good third of them after a semester or two (no refunds, of course), and then throw the remainder out into a jobless environment two years later. Laugh all the way to the bank. The very worst law schools, at this point, seem like little more than well-run pyramid schemes, taking in millions from hopeful investors in exchange for an unfulfillable promise of financial success. The people running these schools understand the importance of image and salesmanship in driving students into law school; that's why, for instance, they farm so many of their ill-begotten dollars back into impressive-looking facilities. Like this eight-story steel-and-glass monstrosity, including a law library that resembles the bridge of the Enterprise, airy spiral staircases, what appears to be some sort of indoor nature conservatory, and -- I'm not kidding -- rooftop terraces overlooking San Diego.* How could a school with a building like that not be prestigious? How could its alumni not be wealthy? But it certainly isn't, and they're certainly not. It really is naked charlatanism.
Legal education likes to cloak itself in an aura of history and gravitas. Nothing quite rips off that cloak like the realization that around one-third of current law students are being more-or-less defrauded as we speak. No matter how high-minded their intellectual pursuits, all the luminaries of modern legal education are splashing around ankle-deep in a sewer of straightforward exploitation. Still, given all the hoopla around the top fifty-odd schools, it's little wonder that everyone forgets (or would rather forget) that there are one hundred and fifty more, pulling in thousands upon thousands of students, and often intent on draining those students of every last drop. After all, if you're in a position to address the problem, you've probably managed to avoid it altogether, and as far as you're concerned, you're of a different breed than the graduates of Thomas M. Cooley School of Law. In a lot of ways, you're right! Your understanding of what legal education does and how it works is totally different than it ever will be for many of these people. But it nonetheless seems to me that the time has come for something to be done. Even if you believe that the plight of vulnerable students is not worth addressing, the respectability of the profession is being threatened. While the best law schools today will likely always be the best law schools, it's becoming increasingly apparent that they're simply the best of a very seedy pile.
So what is being done? Not enough. I'm going to save my thoughts on solutions for another post, but suffice to say, the most popular approaches seem to be more geared towards insulating schools from blame than towards actually preventing students from destroying their lives. Unless we want "buyer beware" to become a maxim of legal education, we've got to find a new direction.
*If I sound a little bit jealous, well, check out OUR rooftop terrace. Keep in mind that this is among the most well-lit and architecturally interesting parts of the school.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Americans prefer their wars to involve overwhelming force, applied on a strict timeline, accompanied by a plausible exit strategy, so as to achieve a satisfactory and stable end-state. Obama's Libya mission in contrast has been labelled "poorly conceived", "muddled", etc. But here's the problem: while in general, it's probably a good idea for a president to explain his or her war goals to the public, too rigid an adherance to the decisive force/clear mission/clear exit strategy set of parameters can be counterproductive in terms of actually accomplishing a stable status quo. It neglects what ought to be a rather key conceptual principle behind any intervention: it's not about us. ("Us", because I'm writing here as an American). Or rather, it might be our blood and our treasure, and hopefully our national interest, but it's some other country's factions, some other country's dynamics, some other country's agendas. Our main hope in intervention is to influence the actors to behave in a way that suits a larger goal, and in the mean time, provide as much disincentive as possible to slaughter civilians.
It's much longer than that, go read the rest.
Friday, March 25, 2011
Thursday, March 24, 2011
I'm finally at a place where I can talk about this: the tow rope is the most frustrating mode of transportation ever devised
Nine-year-old passing at thirty miles per hour: "Are you okay mister? Do you need me to help you up?"
"Don't pay attention to them. Everyone had to learn at some point. Okay, hang on harder this time. Not that hard, you look ridiculous. Don't bend forward like that! NO DON'T LEAN BACK NO DON'T CROSS YOUR SKI NO"
Nine-year old being towed into some idiot's fallen body at thirty miles per hour: "OOMPH"
"Sorry! Sorry! No, no, it's fine, just wait until the operator starts the lift again. Roll out of the way. No, that's not working. Okay, just crawl. Thumbs up to the operator. Really, everything's fine! Ha! Ha! But seriously, maybe you should just walk the rest of the way to the top."
Oh, I know how this game is played. Presidential elections are determined by the economy and little else. Whoever wins either party's nomination has a decent shot of actually winning the presidency. It doesn't matter who that person is or what they're like. That's why you can't cheer for people like Sarah Palin to get the nomination: because if they did, you might actually end up with a President Palin.
But I just can't help myself this time. Bachmann 2012, baby.
Michelle Bachmann = Palin Ultra Deluxe. She's like if you took the snow and the hick out of Sarah Palin, and then filled her up with crazy Ron-Paul-Alex-Jokes-Joseph-McCarthy ideas about how Islamomarxists inside our own government are out to bankrupt America for the glory of the New World Order, and then put the snow and the hick back in, at which point she is so full to bursting that she literally is unable to close her eyes like a normal human and has no choice to gaze out at us in total buggy insanity.
We have to recognize this for what it is: an historic opportunity. First and foremost, an opportunity for the single most entertaining political campaign ever, anywhere. Potential highlights: She gives her acceptance speech while packing heat. She carefully explains to cameras how Obama embedded Marxist symbols in the ten-dollar bill. Her campaign ads feature her actually patrolling the Arizona border in a dune buggy, cuffing Mexican children and hauling them to Joe Arpaio's office. During a televised debate, she accuses Obama of literally selling state secrets to China. The possibilities are essentially endless.
And it's an opportunity to pretty much hold a referendum on America. The ballot would read like this:
O Barack Obama (D)
O Michelle Bachmann (R)
but you might as well read it like this:
Let's face it, all that political science jazz only goes so far. Economy shenonomy -- if this country votes in President Bachmann, it's time to upgrade and move to Vancouver. Or Tripoli, for that matter. Oh sure, ideally, she'd flame out spectacularly, and drag down half the Republican ballot with her. But if she didn't? I'd mourn the dearly departed United States, I really would... but if you're a citizen of the world's largest practical joke, wouldn't you rather know about it sooner rather than later?
This is fated. This is what it's all been building to. Palin? O'Donnell? Trial runs. The third time's the charm. Michelle, destiny is calling. History is watching. Your country needs you. Godspeed, you complete and utter wackjob.
Monday, March 21, 2011
There's a similar dynamic today, except everyone is finding some reason to criticize the action in Libya. But just like none of the justifications for Iraq quite gelled with each other, neither do many of the criticisms of Libya. What exactly is the problem here? The whole concept of humanitarian intervention? That it might not work? That it's too little, too late? That Obama didn't get proper authorization? That the episode could balloon into something bigger? That it's too expensive? I'm not saying one or more of these critiques might not end up being right, but just looking at the range of them, it's hard not to get the sense that, once again, a lot of people have settled on their favored conclusion and then worked their way back until they found an argument they liked.
Why do I think that? Put as simply as possible, I don't see how the intervention makes anything worse. Almost every negative consequence that could occur after our intervention -- collapse into tribal warfare, slaughter of civilians, destabilization of the region, Qaddafi winning anyway, Qaddafi retaliates against the West, the end of the so-called Arab Spring -- could also occur in the absence of intervention.
I think you have to keep that basic range of possibilities in mind when you analyze the potential consequences of military action. A lot of the war's opponents aren't doing that. For instance, earlier, I heard Dennis Kucinich talking about how forestalling Qaddafi's advance might create a haven for anti-American extremism in Eastern Libya. He's right! It might! But that was also true two weeks ago, when everyone thought Qaddafi was days away from falling. And yet somehow I doubt that, two weeks ago, Dennis Kucinich was hoping that the dictator would stage a comeback.
A lot of stuff that I've been reading about Libya from respectable sources (Dennis Kucinich is, admittedly, an easy target) relies on a similar slight-of-hand: now that the US has intervened, the author complains about a downside risk, without mentioning that A. the exact same risk existed prior to intervention, and B. very often, the risk is one that would accompany the author's preferred outcome; i.e., the rebels winning. There's this weird sense that now that we've intervened, Qaddafi winning would not be such a bad outcome, so no one could blame any of the ensuing badness on us.* But up until very recently, everyone seemed convinced -- and I don't really know anyone who disagreed on this fundamental point -- that post-Qaddafi chaos was a risk worth taking, just to be rid of the guy. I don't see why that calculus has suddenly changed for a lot of people, other than an irrational desire to avoid any ethical stake in the outcome. A failed intervention doesn't make the rebels any more dead, but a successful intervention has the potential to save a lot of lives.
And of course, there's my one enormous caveat: this is only valid so long as the American role in war doesn't significantly escalate. That means that the intervention doesn't last months or longer, and the US (or to a lesser extent, its allies) doesn't actually land troops. For various reasons that I might cover later, I think both outcomes are fairly unlikely (though hardly impossible). But if either of these conditions changes, my logic for supporting the war changes completely as well, because downside risks grow dramatically (American soldiers dying, major backlash in the Muslim world, dramatically higher costs, etc.). Right now, however, with no American feet on Libyan soil, it seems to me that the Pentagon and the administration always have the option of simply pulling up stakes if everything goes south. It wouldn't be pleasant, but the outcome wouldn't likely be tremendously worse than what could have happened otherwise, either.
*Update: here's one example I just ran across, from the Time Swampland blog:
Moreover, the rhetorical focus on the crazy things Gaddafi might do obscures the debate America should have before intervening: does the value of preventing possible war crimes against Libyans outweigh the risks to America's national security that come with intervening?It's not quite explicit, but when they say "risks to America's national security that come with intervening," they apparently mean stuff like al Qaeda exploiting "the power vacuum that will come with a weak or ousted Gaddafi." Does that mean if America ultimately decided that the power vacuum was worse for its national interests, we should actually consider helping Qaddafi? Again, where was Swampland when everyone was cheering for the rebels two weeks ago? What's changed?
Obama and his aides know they are taking a big risk. "It's a huge gamble," says the senior administration official. The administration knows, for example, that al Qaeda, which has active cells in Libya, will try to exploit the power vacuum that will come with a weak or ousted Gaddafi.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
With that in mind, I've noticed a lot of people analogizing our intervention there with a number of recent conflicts. It seems to me that these analogies are universally bad. Libya differs from other recent military engagements across several dimensions.
-First of all, there was already a war in progress. War is an inherently destabilizing state of affairs, from which all sorts of unforeseen consequences can flow. That's a pretty strong case for not starting them: unpredictable violence frustrates attempts to game events or control outcomes. But here, the outcome was already in doubt, and, as best as anyone could tell, rapidly trending towards the worst-case scenario (or close to it). Attacking Qaddafi only introduces a little more randomness into an already chaotic system.
-Libya is a very small nation, population-wise. Iraq has about thirty million people in it. So does Afghanistan. Libya, by comparison, has six million. Moreover, every indication so far is that Qaddafi has minimal support outside hired mercenaries and his tribal allies. The war in Libya might be similar in kind to past wars, but it's different in scale, and scale matters. Unfortunately, I think there's a tendency among a lot of analysts to use mental categories that overemphasize qualitative similarities while ignoring quantitative differences.
This is important because ability and capacity are two separate questions. To use a quick-and-dirty analogy: somebody who is unable to bike one hundred miles might be able to bike twenty miles with ease, or they might not know to ride a bike at all. Have Iraq and Afghanistan, et al, been failures of ability or failures of capacity? I'm not sure we know.
-There appears to be genuine international cooperation occurring. It's impossible to know at this juncture what form that cooperation is taking, whether it'll last, and who is pushing whom into the fight, but all reports so far suggest that the UK and France are taking a leadership role. This strikes me as relevant for a couple of reasons: first, it of course helps defray accusations of quasi-imperial motivations like those that hounded the war in Iraq. Second, it forces the United States' hand a little bit. While it doesn't exactly sound like the US military was dragged into Libya, pressure from close allies (who, importantly, are themselves committing significant resources) changes the diplomatic calculus of military commitment. Compared to Iraq and Afghanistan, the question for American leaders seems less about whether a conflict is going to take place, and more about the role that Americans will play in a likely conflict. This reduced role does have some advantages: because it has less initial political investment in the war, and because it's more the cajoled than the cajoler, the US seems less likely to be left picking up the pieces alone, should things go badly south.
-The humanitarian concerns are immediate and pressing, not prospective. The pending slaughter seems to be a near-certainty, and is, at best, days away. Yes, as many, many people have pointed out, there's some hypocrisy in this justification, because Libya's hardly the only place in the world today where innocents are getting murdered by a dictator. But I don't think the situations are comparable; whatever is happening in Yemen, it hasn't deteriorated into civil war yet. By comparison, Libya is already ripping itself apart, and Qaddafi has more-or-less explicitly promised a massacre. Libya's rebels and protesters might not be better off after intervention, but it's also hard to imagine that they would be worse off.
-Oh, and there's Obama's promise to not put troops on the ground. Will he stick to it? I have no idea.
Obviously, there's a lot of reasons for skepticism here as well. Wars are expensive. Qaddafi may well try funding terror attacks against his persecutors. Even if we win, nobody knows what comes after Qaddafi. And we might not win.
There's also the one really big concern I have, which is that the mission will eventually require an actual invasion. The timeframe is just extremely problematic -- it seemed to me that the correct moment for action was before Qaddafi recaptured half the country. Air power and cruise missiles might have been able to stop his eastern advance but I don't understand how they're going to liberate occupied cities. The longer Qaddafi was locked in Tripoli while his government defected and the revolution fermented outside, the more likely it seemed he would be forced to flee, or that some frightened underling would just finish the job. But at this point, protecting innocents, the war's ostensible aim, seems to necessitate some sort of incursion into Libyan towns.
Like I said, I'm pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. And I'll fully admit to playing armchair general here. I don't know much about military conflict, nor Libya specifically, nor international diplomacy. On the other hand, if there is a lesson to be learned from the last few wars, it's that when it comes to wars, even the actual generals always get everything wrong. Ultimately, I guess I'm just left in the same place as everyone else: worried, but hoping for a quick end to the violence, a quick end for Qaddafi, and a better future in North Africa and the Middle East.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
I just noticed that the Minnesota Wild have a really neat logo. This had never occurred to me before, because it was cleverly disguised by a truly putrid color scheme.
Looking more closely, the whole forest-and-sun-and-trees-and-river-and-bear thing, it's pretty nifty.
But those colors! The forest has apparently caught fire while the river has frozen over, some sort of meteor is streaking across the daytime sky like an ill omen, and all the while a hot desert sun is pitilessly beating down on the whole apocalyptic scene. It doesn't evoke Minnesota so much as it evokes the friggin' End Times. Or maybe unchecked global warming. Or maybe just a really pukey Christmas.
I guess Minnesotans want to downplay their state's reputation for being a frigid wasteland! I suppose that's at least understandable, even if an ice hockey team seems like the perfect context to play up the whole ice-and-snow thing. Sure, their color scheme might inspire nausea, but at least it doesn't say "This place is uninhabitable six months out of the year," right? After all, playing into the worst stereotypes of the state would be sort of stup...
So there you have it, I guess. Minnesota, land of vomit bears and 10,000 lakes of solid arctic ice. Bring a coat.
As I discovered earlier, the new version has one advantage (for Facebook, anyway): you can't download other people's pictures from it. Go ahead, try it. Right click > Save As. It's not there. Annoying!*
Why would Facebook do this? Well, it does yield small privacy benefits, for starters. Your friends can look at your pictures, but they can't pass them around. No one can download those pictures of you chugging vodka from a frying pan and send them to your boss. Or your mom. With that said, anyone who posts seriously incriminating pictures on Facebook is still obviously tempting fate.
But I'm also sure it's not lost on Zuckerberg and his minions that this change forces people to rely on Facebook to a huge extent.
It's cloud computing with an evil twist: once files are in the cloud, they're hard to get off the cloud. Nobody has the option of collecting pictures for themselves and keeping them offline. Instead, anyone who uses Facebook to share pictures is then railroaded into sticking with Facebook, as long as they want to access those same pictures.
In a sense, I think this might be one of the most aggressive steps by Facebook thus far. For the most part, Facebook's metastasis into our daily lives has been voluntary: the site provided services, and users opted to take advantage of the services. But what they've done here is to actually remove functionality, with the effect of making Facebook even more indispensable a portal into our own lives. They have us over a barrel, and they know it.
*There are workarounds. PrtSc, for one, although that requires you to futz around in an image editor to an obnoxious degree. Also, Right Click > Reload brings up the old interface, from which you can Save As normally. This does seem like an oversight, however, and I'd expect it to disappear eventually.
I've seen this a few times today: people (mostly older journalists, mostly newspaper reporters) mocking the paywall's opponents as hippy-dippy free culture activists who aren't thinking hard enough about the financial realities of the newspaper business.
But that's exactly the point: there's no evidence that paywalls are profitable for the publications behind them. Their readerships fall dramatically, ad revenue likely falls dramatically, and ultimately the whole enterprise is reduced in stature for very little or no financial gain. The paywall's opponents are not saying that because they think information wants to be free, or because they're all Lawrence Lessig fans, but because that's what all prior experience has taught us.
The mocking tone of paywall supporters is easy enough to explain -- they've turned the whole thing into a morality play. Greedy internet readers are taking advantage of faithful subscribers, and now the free-riders are getting their comeuppance! The NY Magazine article above is the worst of the lot: dripping with contempt at the fickle internet audience, which, it points out, knows nothing of old-fashioned virtues like loyalty. It's actually quite funny, because the moralizers (as always) are also self-appointed defenders of Cold Economic Realities.
Well, here's the cold economic reality. I don't have that much money. The Times does a lot of quality reporting. But so does the BBC. So does NPR. So does the Washington Post. I like the Times better than all of those outlets. But do I like it $200 more, annually? No way. And presumably, a lot of readers are in the same boat as me. Like, millions of them.
The Times is looking out for Number One. So are the fickle, faithless internet readers that will desert it. There's a collection of bitter journalists who want you to believe that people who refuse to pay for the Times are somehow morally deficient. But don't buy it. The Times just hasn't given those readers anything worth paying for yet.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
The Times paywall strategy:
-Make the people most likely to subscribe pay less.
-Make the most popular parts of the site free.
-A very high monthly fee.
-Set the number of free articles so high that only a handful of people will ever hit the paywall.
In sum, the primary effect appears to not be on very casual readers, but on people like me, who read regularly and often link to the site, but don't subscribe, and really can't afford to subscribe. I won't be doing that anymore if I can help it -- not out of principle, but because A. it's dangerous to link to a site that may not accessible to all readers, and B. I won't be using up my monthly allotment finding interesting stories on the site anyway.
The biggest loss will be the blogs -- primarily 538, in my case -- which I will be essentially incapable of reading. Of course, far more than other articles, blogs completely rely on crosslinking and open exchange of ideas. FiveThirtyEight and its ilk will now be participating in the online conversation from atop a high wall. Frankly, I would expect nothing less than a dramatic collapse of their traffic.
From a less personal perspective, all-in-all, the paywall was always and remains a horrible decision for the Times. As with Felix up above, I don't see any way that gained revenue from the tiny percentage of current traffic that will subscribe will eclipse lost revenue from a rapid slide in the paper's online stature. Not only will it lose its position as the go-to source for straight reporting, I would expect the paper to take a reputational hit commensurate with its diminished role. Ultimately, it's this second-order effect that has the potential to do the most damage. As the paper's status as the authoritative source for news drains away, people will stop linking to it and visiting it, not because doing so is impractical, but because they simply prefer other sources. Unlike other readers lost to the paywall, this a readership that cannot be easily restored, and the process is self-reinforcing.
It might be noted that the Times tried putting up a paywall of sorts before, and it was a disaster. Apparently, the people in charge felt that the problem wasn't with the concept of the paywall, but that it wasn't implemented right. Bluntly, I don't know of a single reason to believe this is true. It's difficult for me to swallow the idea that careful mechanical tinkering can reverse this failure instead of just ameliorating it.
It's worth surveying the attitudes that created this mess. I'm not surprised that the NYT management seems to think their dominant position in the news world is unassailable; right now, they certainly don't have any real competitors. But the fundamental mistake seems to be rooted in a couple of cognitive errors. First, there seems to be an assumption that there is something intrinsic about the Times that sustains its reputation, and makes it worth paying for while most other publications are not. Quality-wise, the Times is a newspaper without peers, don't get me wrong. And maybe during an era when all news came at a cost, the quality of the Times was, alone, enough to elevate it above competitors. But its indispensable quality today is largely a reflection of the degree to which its content is universally available. The paper publishes thousands of articles a month, and making them only available to people willing to pay a $200 yearly fee means that the great majority of its content will pass by, completely unnoticed. No matter how great that content is, it does not have some aura of inherent worth and desirability that will somehow project itself past the paywall and influence non-subscribers who never read it.
The other problem is a misunderstanding of the changing role of the news industry. The NYT is a big company, but it's not that big of a company, relatively speaking. This isn't Apple we're talking about. Obviously the paper needs to make enough money to cover operating expenses, but its most valuable asset isn't income through subscriptions or even ad revenue, but its centrality to the political and cultural dialogue. If the Times yearly revenue doubled because of the paywell (fat chance), but 90% fewer people read the paper, could anyone really consider that a success for the company? Paying customers come and go. The paper's stature and respectability have the potential to ensure it a certain permanence in the American intellectual firmament. We'll see how long that lasts.
I guess this is what happens when executives, trained in a world where maximizing subscribers was the path to success, end up in charge of what is essentially an Internet company. After all, the Times print operation is basically vestigial at this point. It's little more than a best-of collection from the website, published long after the most important or interesting items have been thoroughly disseminated through linking and browsing. But the Times, like so many other print operations, seems to see the website as a competitor to or -- in the best case -- supplement to the print edition. For them, the ideal website is one that functions in a way, and fills a role, that resembles a print newspaper as closely as possible. If you start with that premise, a paywall that cuts off large amounts of anonymous traffic in exchange for a handful of paid subscribers seems like a winning move.
Someone needs to disabuse them of this notion, and hopefully do it before the Huffington Post is the last man standing. And in a way, this Times fiasco might be the perfect opportunity. If the Times -- with its $40 million Paywall To End All Paywalls, its century-old reputation, and the best and most diverse content available anywhere in the world -- can't make it work, than surely nobody can. Surely media execs everywhere will have to rethink, and maybe embrace new, more Internet-friendly models. Surely they would have to realize that people in the business of writing for the public should first concern themselves with the business of getting the public to actually read their writing.
So for the time being, I guess I'm cheering against the Times. The faster and harder the paper crashes, the happier I'll be. Burn, Grey Lady, burn.
Because Facebook is the greatest archive ever made. It's millions of lives recorded in a standardized format, in text, picture, video, with all the connections between people explicitly spelled out. It absolutely has the potential to be the greatest asset to the social sciences in all of human history.
Now obviously, for it to live up to its potential, some researcher out there would have to get his or her hands on the archives. (Privacy schmivacy, this is science we're talking about.) But as long as those archives are around, there's a non-zero chance they will escape, or some portion of them will escape. And the longer they're around, the higher that chance is. If experience with physical archives has taught us anything, it's that everything gets out eventually.
With that in mind, when you let people rewrite their comments, you're also letting them rewrite their history. In a sense, it's even worse than deleting comments, because it actively distorts what came before. Sure, realistically, most edits would probably be of typos. But it's also a mechanism for smoothing over the most honest, embarrassing thoughts, or reworking anything that might seem out of line with social norms. Fundamentally, editing is a tool for image management. There's nothing wrong with a person putting on a public face. But when Facebook hands them a tool with which they can completely delete anything that might clash with that image, and, post hoc, substitute in a carefully constructed facade (over and over again, if they want!), it subtly cheapens the record and diminishes its value. It lets people put their best self forward, forever, and unfortunately, that's anathema to a social scientist's work.
Okay, standing alone, it's all pretty minor, really. But it still makes me uncomfortable. This all feeds into a much broader problem with digital archives. And here's how.
You have to go back a few years, back to when all record-keeping involved stuff actually written on a piece of paper. Physical records were a pain to make, but they have a lot going for them, academically speaking. There are two reasons why. First, written records are durable. Unless you're a B-17 over occupied Europe, it takes a lot of effort to destroy a bunch of physical objects. Second, when written records are neglected, they tend to disperse. You find old deeds in attics. Private letters end up in the wrong hands, and 200 years later, someone puts them in a yard sale.
In a way, the exception proves the rule. It's extremely rare to find instances where almost all physical records relating to a subject were completely wiped out, but they do exist. During the Irish Civil War, the Irish Public Record Office burned down, erasing forever the a huge chunk of Irish history.
The destruction of the Public Record Office was a tragedy, but it was a tragedy that could only happen because of unusual circumstances. Namely, all records were centralized in a single location (a big thanks to British imperial administration for that), a location that then happened to, well, blow up. That's a risk with bits of paper, but a small one.
In theory, centralization-as-a-threat-to-preservation is a problem that digital archives are uniquely suited to address -- you can make virtually infinite copies of any record, with a minimum of effort! But in practice, at least in regards to private archives like Facebook, I worry that it's a problem that digital storage only exacerbates. Digital storage lets private entities keep all their information under lock and key, indefinitely, subject to little or none of the gradual entropic dispersion that affects physical objects in a warehouse.
I have a second concern. Like I mentioned, physical records can't be easily destroyed. But it's not for lack of trying -- history is full of people trying to cover their tracks, destroy the evidence. And yes, there are plenty of less sinister reasons for keeping information under wraps -- business records, for instance. But even in these more sympathetic cases, as time passes, the calculus of preservation changes. Should a private record still be private after 70 years? Or could it do more good if it were opened to the public? But of course, human beings are short-sighted and self-interested. People don't spend much time in the present thinking about how to preserve the historical record for the future.
And as more and more information moves online, that information can be deleted, permanently, without a trace, with greater and greater ease. Incredibly rich archives can be erased in a technical mishap or on a whim. For all we know, Zuckerberg has a giant red kill switch on his bedroom wall, and if he finds himself in a spot of legal trouble -- BAM, a comprehensive record of millions of lives is instantly gone. I'm not comfortable giving small groups of people more power to put the past out of reach for future generations.
Okay, sure, there are ethical issues here. I understand the privacy concerns: my search history, for instance, is basically a window into every dumb thought I've ever had, and I think I'd rather get my teeth drilled, Marathon Man style, than let anyone ever read it. And so maybe we want Facebook and Google and the rest to keep their records in stasis forever. Or maybe business ethics simply trumps academic concerns.
Well, maybe. But I'm fairly convinced that the inherent porousness of physical archives is a feature, not a bug. It's hard to critically analyze someone or something when you're only allowed to see what The Man wants you to see. If we don't want history books reading like press releases, we have to be allowed to peek behind the curtain now and again. It's still not clear to me how well the digital age is going to adapt to that process -- digital storage certainly seems to have eaten away the middle ground between "total blackout" and "full disclosure," for starters.
But that's an open question right now. And until we figure it out... hey, everyone. Let's not go rewriting our Facebook comments willy-nilly, okay? Deal?
OH AND ALSO: I am aware the Facebook may very well just keep archives of all edits. In fact, I suspect they do, because most of these internet companies have a (in my view, admirable) mania for record-keeping. But I think the broader points are still valid, and in the meantime, I'm going to leave my comments alone, just to be safe.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Monday, March 14, 2011
So remember Evan Bayh, ex-Senator?
Evan Bayh, who, as a conservative Democrat, fell quite close to the center of the Senate's partisan spread, is exactly the sort of person that Washington believes to be a Serious-Minded Politician. He's the kind of non-ideologue that Washington reveres, who might lean left on social issues, but who is also very deeply worried about the deficit, a concern he expressed by taking difficult stands -- oh, how it pained him so! -- against important progressive causes. Really, guys, he wants to help, he really does, but he can't vote yes, not until you've cut a few billion here and a few billion there. Political journalists and the Washington Post eat it up: sober-minded Evan Bayh and his ilk doing their best to scrub out from progressive legislation the taint of progressive innumeracy. Those wild-eyed spendthrift liberals have probably never even heard of a budget, much less lived on one, but don't worry, Daddy's here, and his name is Evan Bayh, and he's going to sternly remind us all that we need to live within our means, and although it will be difficult for all of us at first, in the end, we're better people for it. And thus, through Evan Bayh, in which the heart of a liberal and head of a conservative are united in the very image of Moderate Bipartisan Centrism, optimal policy is achieved and America is led to greater glories. Evan Bayh, rising star. Evan Bayh, potential VP candidate! Evan Bayh, future president?
Anyway, turns out Evan Bayh was a scumbag all along. Surprise!
Keep in mind that he could have stayed in the Senate more-or-less forever. He wasn't voted out and he probably wasn't going to be voted out. He just quit. He just didn't want to be a Senator. We're left with little choice but to assume that all Evan Bayh ever really wanted was to get rich working as a lobbyist and a Fox News commentator. He's a debased figure, and his politics, beloved by so many Washington notables, were chosen precisely because they were beloved, and carefully tuned to evoke fiscal sobriety. Did his ideas actually make sense? Evan Bayh probably didn't know and probably didn't much care either.
Anyway, although I obviously dislike Evan Bayh (see: the title), this post isn't really about him. There will always be opportunistic jerks like Bayh, and that's okay. That's just how people are. What bothers me about Evan Bayh is how close he came to the highest offices in the nation, all the while spouting ideas that should have sounded positively idiotic to the left and the right. And for that, you have to blame the media.
Journalists and pundits aren't trained to evaluate ideas, they're trained to evaluate how ideas sound. When a guy comes along who looks and feels like a serious politician should, they assume that he is one, because they rarely have the faculties to judge him independently of the image he creates for himself. It's a problem we pay for time and time again.
Friday, March 4, 2011
Of course, to be fair, Republicans always do refer nebulously to "shared sacrifice" when they talk about cutting spending. So what are they talking about, anyway? If sacrifice in this case means "getting less money," and we're all sharing it... well, that sounds like an economic problem to me.
Okay, so I lied when I said this is something I don't understand. Because I think I do, a bit. It comes down to a national economic policy that's rooted in a Home Economics worldview. Moderation is good, and won't be punished. But we must pay penance for our past profligacy. A person who subscribes to these ideas will quite logically settle on the otherwise fairly irrational notion that spending less will make us better off, but only after a good bout of shared suffering.