Friday, September 30, 2005

Hypothetical Virtue Shortage

If William Bennett had been aborted

Seriously, why is someone like Bennett, who if you made him up in a novel would be too ridiculous a hypocrite to be beliveable, still spilling out nonsense on the news shows? OK, that was a rhetorical question.

Attention seeking

So here's an Atrios post where he chimes in on a dustup between blogger Richard Cranium (who was instrumental in drawing media attention to a missing non-white woman) and columnist Noel Weyrich (who thinks bloggers are callow attention-seekers).

He hits on Weyrich's version of the Prime Pundit Fallacy- since he's in it for the attention and media adulation everybody who ever puts themself out there is in it for the same reason. ... what should be obvious is that people who blog behind pseudonyms aren't, in fact, doing it for fame and fortune (why anyone thinks one who desires fame generally would turn to blogging I do not know). The main reason people start blogging is that they want to, in some small way, occasionally have an impact on the public discourse.

So here's the dilemma, for an obscure blogger like myself -- to have an impact on discourse or anything else, you have to get some attention. Not necessarily from the MSM, but at least from people on the nets. So blogging becomes a mix of high and low motives, or idealistic and cynical -- there's the social goal, and then there's the selfish goal.

I am not naturally an attention-seeker, in fact I seem to have a talent for not getting attention and credit for things I do, but every so often I find myself forced into scrabbling for it. In the blog world, that means shameless linkwhoring and generally advertising yourself. Definitely goes against my nature, but sometimes it's good to go against your nature.

Just about any action is going to have this mix of motives, and navigating the mix is one of the jobs of moral philosophy and political philosophy. Some people who can't handle complexity become Randroids and loudly proclaim their devotion to selfishness exclusively. Most of us muddle through, using our embeddedness in real-world social networks to guide our actions so they aren't exclusively self-seeking.

I am suspect of my own motives in writing this blog. Am I trying to change the world, or just barking at it? I don't have a social agenda, although I'm as much in favor of truth, justice, and the real American Way as anybody, not to mention turning the Republicans out of power as soon as possible. Mostly what I'm trying to do is unclog my brain, by forcing me to organize and externalize the clound of random ideas that flit through it. Whether this does me or anybody else any good remains to be seen.

BTW Atrios and Cranium are clearly right in this particular case -- a blogger had a clear social goal, went ahead and did something about it, achieved some success (and attention), absolutely nothing wrong with that, Weyrich is indeed a wanker.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Social crapital

In the world of social network theory, much is made of the idea of "social capital" -- the notion that the network of social ties constitutes an important and productive form of wealth. This is a totally believable idea, but tends to mask the equally important truth that social networks can be used to do harm as well as good.

This is hardly a new idea -- if you watch any long-running police show like The Wire (best thing on television BTW) you will see the cops making social network graphs of criminal organizations, usually on a funky pinboard, and the better-equipped cops in real life have software to do the same thing. And the concept of netwar has been around for a long time, although apparently the lesson is just now penetrating the heads of our leaders, who, when faced with an distributed asymmetrical enemy, decide to invade a nation because that's what they know how to do.

So, that brings me to the inspiration for this post: the sudden outburst of cronyism, or more accurately, of awareness of cronyism. This started building with various Jack Abramoff-related news, peaked with Michael Brown, and is now climaxing as Tom Delay gets indicted, Bill Frist gets investigated, and other exciting news.

Cronyism is the soft form of criminal conspiracy, but it's also not that far removed from the groovier, more celebrated forms of social networking. The much-vaunted networks of Silicon Valley are a crucial form of capital, but they are also crony networks with the attendant downsides of insider deals and quid pro quos for the connected.

Oh hell, I have nothing original to say about this topic except that I coined a lovely phrase to describe what's going on here -- social crapital -- the tool by which the kakistocracy retains its death-like grip on the nation's mechanisms of power. Does not appear in Google so you heard it here first.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Singularity

There is a nifty variant on wikis called TiddlyWiki that I hadn't seen before. Here, it's being used by singularity-obsessed SF writer Charlie Stross to organize his worldview in what he calls
Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds

I am more impressed with the JavaScript than the content in this particular instance, but his SF is very definitely worth checking out. Living through the singularity doesn't have to be dreary.

Keywords: singularity, hypertext, writingsystems

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Does God have something against oil rigs?

The weather gods are playing skittles with gulf oil rigs. Damn, there are a lot of those things sucking at the fossil fuel teat.

Thanks to Ken Restivo for the link.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Everything God Is Bad For You

RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

Wow, who'd've thunk?

Actually the thing that stands out from the original article is that the US is off the charts in both variables -- far more homicides and other social dysfunction than other first-world countries, combined with far more religiosity. American exceptionalism, indeed.

Homeland insecurity

Jeeze, that's encouraging. The object/relational mapping of death.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The doom/boom continuoom

In a fit of inspiration, I extended the simple binary choice described in my previous post to a more fuzzy-logical view of the doom/boom or apocalypse/utopia continuum, and rate a bunch of books according to this scheme. -10 is doom, about as bad as it can possibly get, while +10 is some sort of utopia where we are all enjoying the unimaginable cornucopia of technofruits.

The selection of books is pretty arbitrary. It's mostly nonfiction though I threw some SF works into the mix. I couldn't think of much in the mid-range of the positive side of the axis; although I guess there are many reasonably sober books about near-future technology that would do.

Note that two of the books are so extreme that I had to go to -11 or +11. Also note that both of these were written by physicists.

Additions, adjusments, and corrections welcome.

-11: Martin Rees, Our Final Hour. Covers a variety of possible disasters, but earns the coveted last spot for mentioning the possibility that a physics experiment gone wrong could disrupt the fundamental structure of matter and space: "a hypothetical strangelet disaster could transform the entire planet Earth into an inert hyperdense sphere about one hundred meters across". And that's not even the worst scenario he offers.

-9: Oil depleteion leads to complete collapse of industrial civilization. Billions die, and the remainder are living a stone-age existence. Referenced by Kunstler as people even more gloomy than he is.

-7: James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency. Oil depletion leads to a radical restructuring of society, mass dislocation, political shifts including the possible breakup of states. Lots of suffering, but culture continues in the form of self-sufficient local communities.

-7: Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead. Cultural decline, we forget everything that makes us a civilization and revert to a starving peasantry.

-6: Kim Stanley Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain and its sequels. Global warming leads to heightened sea levels and geeral environmental collapse. The gulf stream stops but maybe it can be restarted.

-4: Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague. Self-descriptive. This book is ten years old and maybe I should have used Mike Davis' new book with the even more panicky title.

-0.5: Steven Leavitt, Freakonomics. Actually this overhyped book is not very freaky and doesn't make much in the way of prognostications, but the author is here in honor of a blog post that basically says, peak oil will lead to a small price rise in oil, and the market will adapt, there's really no problem at all. Stands in for your typical detached-from-reality economist.

5: Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age. Nanotech makes material goods basically free, but people are still people and social systems still have problems.

10: Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near. Converging exponential trends in technology will result in an explosion of capabilities in AI, nanotech, and biotech wil make us all immortal, possibly reincarnated into immensly powerful computational hardware.

11: Frank Tipler, The Physics of Immortality. Not only will there be a singularity, but somehow the insanely powerful AI will resurrect everybody who has ever lived and grant them immortality and no doubt wings and a harp. Considered to be the worst science book written in recent years by an actual scientist, although I suppose some of the Intelligent Design crowd may be providing competition.

The opposite of doom

So I went to a talk by Ray Kurzweil last night, feeling somewhat obligated since I had been joining in the light mockery of his new book. He's not a great speaker -- he sort of drones on and on about the wonderous world of the future and shows an endless series of exponential curves, interjecting notes about what he's done or invested in. If he's right, the world will be changed beyond comprension within our lifetimes. Neat stuff yet somehow it fails to move me to the appropriate state of geek rapture. But I don't want to run my mind on a trillions-of-times-faster-than-biology supercomputer! Or maybe I do, but I worry about who'll do the backups. The disconnect between this vision and the actual state of computer systems (in which my laptop can't even figure out how to go onto standby when it gets shut down, let alone design its replacement) is vast.

Anyway, I'm alternating Kurzweil with Kunstler, which is not unlike the Finnish custom having a good sauna and then running outside and rolling around in the snow. Given the radically different visions of the future they offer, I'm trying to figure out which to believe. I'm afraid Kunstler is more believable, but I'm starting to think that both books are flawed in similar ways. Relentless pessimism is as unconvincing as relentless optimism. Realism won't sell as many books.

Keywords: antidoom

Friday, September 23, 2005

Doom, doom, and more doom

One of the numerous(*) readers of this blog has posted a review of James Kunstler's The Long Emergency. Summary: we're fucked, and the solution is to hunker down, start a commune that grows its own vegetables off the grid.

A blog called Rhinocrisy comments on a lecture by Richard Heinberg, who also seems to be a long-term commentator in this space. This one is particularly sad because it lists all the lost opportunities, over the last 25 years, where we could have done some realistic preparation for the current situation. Oh well.

How to not get completely depressed: I've been hearing predictions of dooms since the 70s (back then it was overpopulation) through the 80s (Reagan: the bombs fall in five minutes) and beyond. Nothing lasts forever, so someday a doomsayer will be right, but the odds of any one particular one being on the money are small.

Also, a lot depends on the ability of the economic system to adapt, vs. the speed of any troubles. Kunstler seems to take the view that we've infrastrured ourselves into a corner -- the suburban lifestyle can't work at all without cheap gas, and as soon as we peak everything collapses in a hurry. Thus his title. Contrast that with the cheery optimism of proclaimed genius freakonmicist Steven Leavitt, that everything is peachy because the market will simply adapt to higher oil prices. This seemed to be a really perfect example of blinkered thinking -- yes the market will adapt, but how fast, and with what cost (human and otherwise)? The comments on that post contain some good discussion.

(*) numerous == it is a set and it has a cardinality

On second thought I concede

Anybody who can write a lengthy post that starts out:
Basically, I spent five years of my life, eighteen and a half thousand pounds of my own money, and probably the same again of the British taxpayers and more from my parents, on being educated by the British university system. And by God are you lot going to suffer for it. The current post is intended to discuss sports psychology, ergodicity, broadcasting rights, the von Neumann/Morgenstern axioms in economics, Turing Machine incomputability, the Rand Corporation, medieval alchemists and option pricing. Although it may end up digressing ....
is clearly more important than me, and I humbly yield.

I seem to be getting drawn to the world of erudite blogging political economists, where I am in way over my head. But this is a big step up from what net discourse was like in the old days, where every political argument devolved into a debate between simple-minded libertarianism on one side, and everything and -body else on the other.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

No, this is the most important blog in the world!

I'll see your Kurzweil and pony and orgasms and raise by you get an entire circus worth of elephants plus you get to be the deity of your own universe, simulated on massively parallel nanogoo with sufficent bandwidth to spontaneously evolve a convincing religion dedicated to worshipping and placating your every mood.

There can be only one most important blog in the world. Race you to the singularity.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Best practices

The industry buzzphrase "best practices" has long annoyed me, and I think I know why -- it's code for "let's do what everybody else is doing, because we (a) aren't very good at thinking up our own solutions, and/or (b) are just risk averse". In other words, it's a way to be proud of mediocrity. There's a lot of mediocrity around, so this buzzphrase is quite popular -- 120M Google hits today.

On the other hand: maybe I'm wrong. Best practices are an acknowledgement that industry (the computer industry in particular, although the phrase and this argument apply to many others) has network effects, that things work more smoothly when people adopt the same practices. So it's really just another form of standardization or platform.

Best practices are great for the large-scale group but bad for innovation, which is a result of non-standard activity.

The discourse surrounding "best practices" is pretty similar to that around "design patterns" (which I also find annoying, for similar reasons).

Here's a real economist making a similar argument. He says, "I'm a weirdo, I get discriminated against, but I'm willing to acknowledge that the people who discriminate against me are acting rationally."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Economist and generally interesting person Robin Hanson has a short piece up on the paradoxes of cynicism (and idealism), and their expression. Like a lot of work where economics-style thinking is extended well past where it really applies, it can be fascinating but also infuriating.

Cynical beliefs are either that people have relatively "low" motives, or that people are hypocritical about their motives. (Even when "high" motives dominate conscious thoughts, the cynic can claim that low motives better explain overall behavior patterns.) Similarly a cynical belief about a social institution is that while it may claim to serve high functions, it actually serves low functions.

A cynical mood is rude, unhappy, and complaining, presumably about low motives and functions. Cynicism is contrasted with idealism, a good-natured emphasis on sincere high motives and functions.

There is a lot packed into this very short piece, and a lot of comments come to mind. Here are two:

First, isn't the usual word for those who believe that people act from "low" or self-interested motives economist?

Second, I suspect Robin Hanson may have missed the sixties.

Let us first notice some patterns about cynical moods. The young tend to be more idealistic, while the old are more cynical.

A defect of this analysis (which I suppose can be excused in something that's a page-and-half long) is that it presupposes that people are uniformly cynical or idealistic. In my experience, forged in the crucible of my youth (in the seventies, but close enough) is that young people back then were extremely cynical about their elders in power, but extremely idealistic in their goals and about themselves.

From what I can tell, successive generations have retained the cynical part of this and jettisoned the idealistic part.

People can remain idealistic their entire lives about social institutions that they know little about, but those who know an institution well tend to be more cynical. Leaders and the successful in an area tend to be less cynical than underlings and failures in that area.

Wait, does this mean that leaders and the successful know their institutions less well than the underlings and failures? I mean, maybe, but it's not exactly intuitive.

Well, since I have a cynical mood but an idealistic explanation for it, I'd better shut up, as the article advises me to (last paragraph).

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Religion and Science: Peace in Our Time?

I've been wanting to say something here about the evolution wars, since God only knows there isn't enough debate going on in the blogosphere and elsewhere on that topic. Something vaguely in the vein of Stephen Jay Gould's manifesto for giving religion and science their separate spheres of influence, truce instead of war, etc. Maybe I'll get to that someday. In the meantime, the Dalai Lama has published a book on science and spirituality in which he apparently is prepared to accept that science can trump religion:
"My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims."
-- His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as quoted in an article by Michael Shermer

Well that's a good start then. Actually his approach is much different from Gould's, though both are aiming at stopping the incessant strife between religion and science. Gould divides up reality in to what he calls Non-overlapping Magisteria, separate territories in other words. The Dalai Lama seems more intent on exploring a single reality by different means.

Update: George Johnson at the NYT does a mostly favorable review.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

We're all doomed

Global warming may have reached an irreversible tipping point.

Executive summary: ice has a high albedo and reflects most sunlight hitting it back into space. Less ice means less light reflected, more energy absorbed. Arctic ice is in a melt/refreeze cycle, but recently warming has meant less ice refreezing (18% below the long-term average). At some point this enters into a domain of positive feedback and:

Current computer models suggest that the Arctic will be entirely ice-free during summer by the year 2070 but some scientists now believe that even this dire prediction may be over-optimistic, said Professor Peter Wadhams, an Arctic ice specialist at Cambridge University....

Sea ice keeps a cap on frigid water, keeping it cold and protecting it from heating up. Losing the sea ice of the Arctic is likely to have major repercussions for the climate, he said. "There could be dramatic changes to the climate of the northern region due to the creation of a vast expanse of open water where there was once effectively land," Professor Wadhams said. "You're essentially changing land into ocean and the creation of a huge area of open ocean where there was once land will have a very big impact on other climate parameters."

But don't worry, the mega-engineers are on the job.

So, Schelling asked, how much would it cost to increase the Earth's albedo by enough to offset the damage from increased greenhouse-gas emissions? The necessary change involves a fraction of a percent of incident solar energy, not enough to be observable without precise instruments. Some apparently minor changes might do the trick: slightly degrading the performance of jet aircraft engines could put more carbon black into the statosphere. A higher-tech solution would be to put lots of reflective mylar in low-earth orbit; a lower-tech solution would be to scatter lots of ping-pong balls in tropical waters; an extremely cute solution, if practicable, would be to stimulate the formation of cirrus clouds over parts of the Pacific Ocean.

So we replace the Arctic ice with ping-pong balls, problem solved!

We are gonna be living in a science-fiction world, like it or not. But it's more Bruce Sterling and Kim Stanley Robinson than Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein.

Keywords: doom

Halfbakery: the space of web media

I'm trying to figure out why I'm blogging and how it relates to what I'd really like to be doing, whatever that is. What I mean is, blogs are all very well but generating topical chatter is not a big priority for me, also I feel it's pretty useless since there are plenty of other (better) places to get stuff like that.

What I have is a bunch of linked interests and occasionally original thoughts, mostly half-baked, which I want to force myself to write down somehow, mostly so I can keep track of them but I also wish to share them with the world. Someone out there might give a rat's ass. I am at heart a frustrated intellectual who has never been able to pour my thoughts into the standard forms (articles, books, fields, careers) and this new webby world is perfect for me to vomit forth thoughts in whatever half-digested mass I feel like.

This leads me to a half-baked thought on web media which I will present as a handy table, if blogger lets me:

ChronologicalBlogsGroup Blogs

Dunno why this table is coming out so funky. Anyway, the point is that what I've always wanted for myself is in the ??? space -- something to keep track of my various topics, let me organize and weave them into something coherent. This all hearkens back to Ted Nelson's call for a decent writing system, from 30 years ago:

As far as I know, there is still not a Decent Writing System anywhere in the world, although several things now come close. It seems a shame that grown men and women have to rustle around in piles of paper, like squirrels looking for acorns, in search of the phrases and ideas they themselves have generated. The decent writing system, as I see it, will actually be much more: it will help us to create better things in a fraction of a time, but also keep track of everything in better and more subtle ways than we ever could before.
[Where is Ted now? According to this page, he's "currently undergoing reinvention".]

So do we have a decent writing system? Not really. I still shuffle piles of paper around. Google and desktop search tools make it easier to find what you have written. There are a variety of outliner and mind-mapping tools that are supposed to help get your thoughts in order, but I've never found them that useful. Maybe it's time to try again, or maybe some synthesis of these tools with the blog/Web 2.0 software world would produce something interesting.

Keywords: web 2.0, hypertext

Thursday, September 15, 2005


The golden age of web hackery has produced some very useful tools and some very silly hacks.

Telemarketer revenge at a new level

The Telecrapper 2000 Telemarketer Interception System

The technology is, for now, being used defensively and in a good cause. I can also see it used offensively as a sort of automated prank call generator.

Disaster voyeurism at a new level

MSN has created a site that matches before and after aerial photos of New Orleans. (Warning: doesn't quite work from Firefox; use IE). Very impressive; it has a Google maps drag/pan style interface that operates on the parallel views.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Link Gumbo

I'm still feeling out this blogging medium. Here are a bunch of random yet worthwhile links:

Excellent kids-say-the-smartest-things story, and this guy wins the I-wish-I'd-thought-of-that-blog-title-and-especially-the-subheading award.

Speaking of I wish-I'd-though-of-that, I did think of the idea of having a website that tried to build social networks around books, reviews, and book chat. Never got around to doing anything about this fairly obvious idea, but somebody finally has.

I'm discovering all sorts of wonderful blogging/tagging/etc sites. It's a Cambrian explosion of software out there, and I sure don't have time to keep track of it (fortunatly there are plenty of others who do). Here is one that I like a lot, Tagcloud, which gives you a sort of terminological overview of what's going on in your personal blog collection. Here's mine., and here's another of mine that's built around the more technical/scientific blogs I read.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A river runs over it

I did read John McPhee's great article Atchafalaya on attempts to keep the Mississippi river from doing what it wants to do, which is shift course entirely, several hundred miles upstream from New Orleans.

The river goes through New Orleans like an elevated highway. Jackson Square, in the French Quarter, is on high ground with respect to the rest of New Orleans, but even from the benches of Jackson Square one looks up across the levee at the hulls of passing ships. Their keels are higher than the AstroTurf in the Superdome, and if somehow the ships could turn and move at river level into the city and into the stadium they would hover above the playing field like blimps.
If ever an article called for extensive maps and diagrams, this is it. Unfortunatly it doesn't have them. McPhee is good at describing complex geographies in words, but still. It would be a neat project to have the web collectively generate a visual annotation. Here's my contribution (well, somebody else's, I'm just linking to it). More pictures at the link.

Update: A detailed map of the Old River Control Structure, which figures prominently in the McPhee article and is what is supposed to keep the Mississippi on its present course, but is hampered by the fact that it's kind of hard to push a big river around when it doesn't feel like cooperating.

Four years after

Four years after 9/11. I don't have much to say, but the NYT has a good article by Mark Danner, Taking Stock of the Forever War

"We have taken a ball of quicksilver," says the counterinsurgency specialist John Arquilla, "and hit it with a hammer."
And it's a good opportunity to point to the almost creepily apposite Auden poem that everybody knows by now. As they say, read the whole thing, but these lines resonate to the point of shaking the building apart.

The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief :
We must suffer them all again.


All I have is a voice
To undo the unfolded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky :
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone ;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police ;
We must love one another or die.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Snafu principle

The term "snafu principle" was coined some thirty years ago to identify a particular type of organizational disfunction:
"True communication is possible only between equals, because inferiors are more consistently rewarded for telling their superiors pleasant lies than for telling the truth." -- a central tenet of Discordianism, often invoked by hackers to explain why authoritarian hierarchies screw up so reliably and systematically. The effect of the SNAFU principle is a progressive disconnection of decision-makers from reality.
It should come as no surprise to find this principle manifesting itself in the Bush administration. He's the CEO president after all.

I wonder if good CEOs have ways of combatting the snafu principle, and somehow breaking through the encrustrations of yes-men that inevitably adhere to power? There are all those stories of kings disguising themselves as peasants and wandering among the people to find out what's really going on (a practice still engaged in by the King of Jordan, apparently).

The Kitsch President

Do bad taste and bad politics go together?

Matthew Yglesias:

And nothing's less classy than a pervasive aesthetic of kitsch, which is more-or-less what you get from this administration. It's the faux-populist posturing of clearing brush in 100+ degree Texas weather even though nobody would ever actually do that. It's lying about what kind of cheese the president takes on his Philly cheesesteak during the campaign to score some obscure political point against his opponent. It's the mock-profundity of declaring that we will make no distinction between countries that harbor terrorists and the terrorists themselves, when everyone knows perfectly well that we have no intention of invading Pakistan

The larger question is whether kitsch or false consciousness or something like that is an endemic, built-in feature of US political culture. We love to be entranced by images, and Republicans have just been better at image manipulation than Democrats.

The esthetics of mass culture is improving, somewhat, as Martha Stewart and Target bring at least an aura of good taste to the hoi polloi. Will that translate to a more critical mindset, or is it just another image to follow?

Friday, September 09, 2005

Blame game

Belle Waring dishes out the blame rather fairly.

Coordination is a big mystery to me. Corporations and other entities seem grossly inefficient, from what I've seen, and it's amaziing that the work of an industrial society gets done at all. We take it for granted most of the time that all these huge agglomerations of people will succeed in providing each other with food and cell phones and roads and such. The machine staggers, takes wrong turns, screws people over, but it seems to work for some definition of work.

Until it doesn't.

Put aside questions of individual incompetence as described in the linked posting. What were the organizational failures? Read this article in the NYT. Instead of action, we see bureaucrats sitting around in meetings trying to figure out who is responsible for what, who should be in control, what the rules are, who is supposd to communicate with whom. This is extremely typical behavior for dysfunctional and semi-functional organizations.

As criticism of the response to Hurricane Katrina has mounted, one of the most pointed questions has been why more troops were not available more quickly to restore order and offer aid. Interviews with officials in Washington and Louisiana show that as the situation grew worse, they were wrangling with questions of federal/state authority, weighing the realities of military logistics and perhaps talking past each other in the crisis.
Then there is the almost comic:

"I need everything you have got," Ms. Blanco said she told Mr. Bush last Monday, after the storm hit.

In an interview, she acknowledged that she did not specify what sorts of soldiers. "Nobody told me that I had to request that," Ms. Blanco said. "I thought that I had requested everything they had. We were living in a war zone by then."

So, essentially the army was held up because the governor failed to fill out the right form, nobody told her what form to fill out, and for some reason she couldn't establish communication to figure out what needed to be done. People dying because of red tape.

So, let the heads roll as Belle suggests, it will make people feel better. But the real culprit is the extremely dysfunctional system of bureaucratic organization, laced with toxic politics.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Rotisserie League Government

Here's a nifty idea: form a progressive shadow government, and use the web to organize and involve people. Similar effort here, where they also have done an astonishing amount of work replicating the top of the federal orgchart and doing research on the current occupant.

I'd support Amory Lovins for Secy of Energy, although Andrew Weil as head of HHS or Ramsey Clark at State is just getting silly.

Courtesy of HuffPo.


Other people are picking up on the story about tribes, notably Billmon , who deftly weaves in the puerile commentary of David Brooks and the cheerful elitists of New Orleans, who say
"Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way, demographically, geographically and politically." (emphasis added.)
Yeah. A little ethnic cleansing and Disneyfication would do wonders. Read Billmon.

Welcome to Earth 2.0

Living in America means being isolated from reality in so many ways. Poverty is invisible, for the most part. Nature is beautiful and disneyfied. Technology provides us with an endless stream of toys. The past has a shallow grip; our culture is one of endless escape and reinvention, and we get to think of history as a series of triumphs and progress. Evil and suffering happen out there, on other continents.

That's why 9/11 was such a shock -- people aren't supposed to hate us, and they certainly aren't supposed to attack us here. And New Orleans -- which I don't think we've processed yet -- is a similar shock. Nature isn't supposed to intrude on our lives in such a dramatic fashion. There have been plenty of previous hurricanes and other natural disasters, but we've always been on top of them. Not any more.

Bill McKibben has more on this theme

Our rulers have insisted by both word and deed that the laws of physics and chemistry do not apply to us. That delusion will now start to vanish. Katrina marks Year One of our new calendar, the start of an age in which the physical world has flipped from sure and secure to volatile and unhinged. New Orleans doesn't look like the America we've lived in. But it very much resembles the planet we will inhabit the rest of our lives.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Solidarity and its opposite in New Orleans

One of my many amateur fascinations also happens to be a (perhaps the) fundamental question of sociology, political science, economics, and management: how do people organize themeselves into groups and coordinate their actions? There are enough approaches to this question to keep a real scholar busy for a career, so you won't find the answer here. Economists talk about Collective Action, management types talk about Coordination (and many of them are looking at the Open Source movement with a slavering grin, seeing as it represents a brand new and largely unstudied mode of coordination).

But today I am attracted to the old-fashioned and leftist-tinged term solidarity, which captures the psychological/emotional/spiritual side of the question. Nobody uses this term except hard leftists, Polish labor unions, and Richard Rorty. Being in solidarity means seeing other people's interests and very being as aligned with your own. The connotations of the term go beyond narrow economic calculations though. For example, if I am selling my house, the realtor and I have a common interest in getting the best price for it, but nobody would say we have solidarity. Teams who work on projects together develop solidarity, if the team is any good. The military has explicit techniques for building solidarity at the platoon level (they call it "unit cohesion"). If my community is working at all I have some solidarity with my neighbors and will trust them and help them out if necessary, and vice versa.

The open-source movement has solidarity (which is why they can call themselves a movement), in part driven by a collective dislike of Microsoft and proprietary software in general. Aligning against a common enemy is great way to build solidarity.
Solidarity is linked to one's sense of self. You can see yourself in an atomized, alienated way, or as sharing interests and existence with others.

Which brings me to what I wanted to point to in the first place, this report from New Orleans which is both heartening and heart-rendering, in that it illustrates both solidarity and its opposite. A bunch of random individuals thrown into survival mode is another great way to build solidarity. People do have this drive to take care of one another which is, amazingly, revealed in the most stressful circumstances

What you will not see, but what we witnessed,were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters.

So these people under conditions of extreme stress and danger manage to form some kind of makeshift community, and take care of one another. Solidarity. Perhaps it isn't so amazing -- people will do what they need to survive, and a functioning community is a hell of a lot more survivable than scattered individuals in a dangerous situation. As Ken Kesey said about love, solidarity isn't an emotion, it's just good sense.

On a larger scale, the citizenry display a high level of solidarity in terms of their concern, willingness to donate to charity and house refugees. This extends beyond the US to the world at large. We're used to this, but it's still rather amazing.

Contrast this with the second part of the story, though, when the makeshift community is trying to leave New Orleans on foot:

As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions. As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation...We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City. These were code words for if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans.

When I first read this I was disgusted and ashamed of my country. How could people treat each other like that in the face of catastrophe? How could officials deliberately add to the burden these survivors have already born? Now I've calmed down and tried to think about it, and I realize that this is a pefect manifestion of the opposite of solidarity, a rift in the human commonality, a particular anti-solidarity that has infected this country since before it was born. I'm talking about racism of course.

Actually if you look at it more closely racism is a form of limited solidary or pseudo-solidarity. It's built on solidarity within a group and, in opposition, hatred of other groups. This is the dark side of solidarity. Imagine a Klan meeting in the woods -- these white racisists have solidarity, are building solidarity. Imagine prison gangs. I don't really want to apply the label solidarity to these phenomenoa, but they are undeniably a form of group identity, with people banding together to pursue their shared interests, seeing the common humanity of the ingroup (and denying the common humanity of the outgroup). Ingroup solidarity is at the root the various genocides and slaughters of the 20th century (and no doubt others). It's an essential element of war.

So let's say there are two separate and very different forms of solidarity. Ingroup solidarity promotes group bonding at the cost of hostility to outgroups. Unbounded or humanistic solidarity is solidarity based on a perceived shared humanity, period. The latter is the proper thing to aspire to, although the former is almost always easier to generate.

If you want to judge a political intellectual, see which form of solidarity they are promoting.

America's purpose

One of the things I like to think about is the relationship between goals and groups, or collective purpose. How do companies, teams, communities, etc, figure out a joint purpose so that people can work towards a hopefully common goal? In fact I have a long post on this issue that I haven't finished. In the meantime, it's nice to know that a lot of important people are having a conference right now to determine America's Purpose. Glancing over the agenda, it seems like our main purpose is fighting off terrorists. I wonder what it was prior to 9/11? The presentations are online but I don't have time to watch them now.

Keywords: goals, groups, politics

Monday, September 05, 2005

Water and Risk

Continuing on the theme of reality-based urban planning in flood zones, here's an excellent post comparing the Dutch approach to flood control and land reclamation with the American variety.

This line:

A society accepting much greater risks is built upon the expectation of quicker returns on investment. To those without a penny to invest it means risk without returns.

leaped out at me because it directly links to another article I read recently and wish I had time to reply to in detail: Paul Graham's latest piece, Inequality and Risk, which (to oversimplify) argues for more risk and economic inequality as the only way to spur economic growth. This article is more nuanced and better argued than the usual libertarian blige, but still pushes my buttons. I'm usually an admirer of Graham but sometimes he goes horribly wrong and I think this is one of those times. But what do I know, I haven't made a fortune yet. Aside from the merits of his argument (later on that), it's a pretty disingenuous move to argue in favor of risk when you personally have already moved to a risk-free economic level.

Keywords: katrina, risk, libertarianism

Anarchy and mutual aid

The emergence of tribes in state-free New Orleans (from Boing-boing)

NEW ORLEANS — In the absence of information and outside assistance, groups of rich and poor banded together in the French Quarter, forming "tribes" and dividing up the labor.

As some went down to the river to do the wash, others remained behind to protect property. In a bar, a bartender put near-perfect stitches into the torn ear of a robbery victim.

While mold and contagion grew in the muck that engulfed most of the city, something else sprouted in this most decadent of American neighborhoods - humanity.

"Some people became animals," Vasilioas Tryphonas said Sunday morning as he sipped a hot beer in Johnny White's Sports Bar on Bourbon Street. "We became more civilized.

While state-sanctioned violence continues in cruder forms than usual:

Police came through commandeering drivable vehicles and siphoning gas. Officials took over a hotel and ejected the guests.

An officer pumped his shotgun at a group trying to return to their hotel on Chartres Street.

"This is our block," he said, pointing the gun down a side street. "Go that way."

They say disaster uncovers real social relations (presumably, by overturning the everyday structures of survival and forcing people to spontaneously create new, crude, temporary ones where the mechanisms are more obvious).

Meanwhile California is stepping up (and presumably many other locales and individuals are doing the same).

Keywords: anarchy, self-organization, human nature, katrina

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Out of the ashes

I've been dubious that New Orleans should be rebuilt, at least in the same location. It's an accident waiting to happen, having a major city sitting underneath a lake with only a pile of dirt between it and catastrophe. The Mississpi is trying to change course and can't be checked forever, etc. On the other hand, it's almost impossible to imagine it not being rebuilt, given the emotions of people who want to return to their home, and the fact that NO, destroyed or not, is still at the center of a massive amount of transport and energy infrastructure.

This issue is politically sensitive, to say the least. And I'm hardly an expert, so I should probably shut up about this (and many other things, but what's a blog for?)

Anyway, here's an article by someone who actually might know what they are tallking about that suggests that a rebuilt New Orleans could be a showcase/laboratory for green development. Can something positive be reclaimed from this tragedy? Who knows, but it's encouraging to see this direction of thought. As one of the commenters said:with climate change, we're all gonna end up living in the flood plain.

Update: here's a more hardnosed-engineering sort of take on the same issue.

And, linked from the comments there, here's someone discussing the Mississippi's attempt to switch channels. Apparently this is happening way upstream from New Orleans, so if it happened the problem for N.O. would not be floods but a sudden lack of a river. Time to read John McPhee's The Control of Nature.

You're either on the bus or off the bus

The photo in this article by Mark Kleiman is a nice visual summary of the absolute failure of planning in New Orleans.

These are city-owned buses that could have been part of an evacuation plan. Obviously, that didn't happen.

The question is going on about who deserves the blame. The linked article cites Lousiana's legendarily corrupt local political culture. But obviously FEMA bears a share of the load. Incompetence up and down the line, in fact so widely shared that there is unlikely to be much in the way of retribution -- where would you start?

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Being poor

I thought I wouldn't fill this blog up with posts just linking to other things -- what's the point? But, wow. John Scalzi describes what it means to be poor. I'll join in the chorus of linkers.
Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.

Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.
Wonderfully accurate, timely, and necessary.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Blogging software

I was dithering around with the idea of starting this for a very long time, then eventually just did it. Now I'm wondering if I started it right. I'd (in theory) prefer a hosted system that I could hack and customize, but in fact I don't have time for that, and the point of this is to communicate, not be yet another endless hacking project. So maybe Blogger was the right choice. Anyway, somebody thoughtfully complied a table of choices. Unfortunately it isn't dated so who knows if it is still useful. Anyway.

Things I'm already wishing for:
-- tags (for that folksonomic goodness). Actually that's it.
-- trackbacks? Not sure it supports it in either direction.

Things I like: this editor is wonderful, compared to the state-of-the-art the last time I tried this (a couple years back).

Collected Rants

A lot of writers are making the same basic point: we have a failed government that has blithely let a city die, and left thousands of its inhabitants at risk of dying. I'm not going to bother, but here are some:

Steve Gilliard

But the utter lack of imagination here is astounding. The things Special Opeation Command does is quite suited for New Orleans. But no one seemed to realize they could be used en masse. And one of the things they could have done is shore up the police, who are deserting in large numbers. They have just lost their nerve. No food and no communication can do that to you. Special Forces could have provided the professional support needed and aided in rescues. Instead, people are still waiting.
Paul Krugman

I don't think this is a simple tale of incompetence. The reason the military wasn't rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn't get adequate armor.

At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.

Kevin Drum
It took days for this to start happening despite plenty of warning from the weather service and disaster experts and despite the fact that these are the well-understood requirements for almost any large scale disaster. At least, this was all well understood before FEMA got privatized, downsized, and staffed with political hacks. Now all they're left with is pathetic excuses.
And many more...

What he said

Tom Tomorrow

If you live in a major American city, you better pray there's never a terrorist attack of this magnitude. Because this is the best these fuckers can do with several day's notice before the disaster hits and 90% of the city having had time to evacuate beforehand. So unless the terrorists are kind enough to give advance notice, you are well and truly fucked.
Time to hit Costco and lay in a store of canned goods. And thoughts of guns run through my head, although I am the least heat-packing type of person imaginable.

"Government is the enemy until you need a friend."

A Republican said that, believe it or not. E. J. Dionne brought it up today.

OK, it was the kind of republican who could serve as defense secretary under Bill Clinton. Boy, wouldn't it be nice to have that kind of Republican around today? I'm at an age where I could really go for a fiscally-conservative, good-government, chamber of commerce type. As opposed to the incompetent destroyers we have there now.


I've had CNN on in the background most of the last few days. Yesterday, there briefly appeared the mayor of San Antonio, Phil Hardberger. He impressed me: with a dignified bearing, he expressed sympathy for the victims of the flood and welcomed them to his city. I'm not sure why but I had a very immediate and positive reaction to this Texas politician, as opposed to a certain other one who serves as preznit.

Bush is a mystery to me. Everything about him screams "small man". His incompetence, not just in real matters (like funding disaster relief) but in the symbolic role of leader. Strumming a guitar while a city is destroyed? He's been compared to Nero, but he doesn't have the stature for that. He's just a boob. But how did such a boob get elected president, twice? Is boobdome really so appealing for such a large swathe of the country? Well, yes, sorry, that's a stupid question.

Oh well, I think his time just passed. It may have taken the destruction of a major American city and the loss of thousands of American lives, but I think people will start to wake up. When even Peggy Noonan starts to question, ever so slightly, the competence of a Republican president, you know something has shifted in the great quivering American collective consciousness.

We are so fucked

Welcome to the third world. Refugees, dead bodies floating down the river, armed gangs controlling large parts a terrifying urban landscape. Ineffectual government devoted mostly to looting the treasury and lining their own pockets. A growing gap between rich and poor. Corrupted elections with farcical leaders.