Saturday, July 30, 2011

National greatness and its opposite

Took the kids to see the Bay Model in Sausalito, a huge scale-model of the hydrological systems around San Francisco Bay, built a long while back by the Army Corps of Engineers. They are refurbishing it so it was empty of water, which somewhat diminished the experience. It's also a bit fusty around the edges since it is no longer needed for its original purposes, having been replaced by computer models. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is an incredibly important and incredibly fragile piece of California's infrastructure (a good part of it is under sea level and protected by old, fragile levees, likely to collapse soon even without taking climate change into account). The Bay Model doesn't much go into the politics of water in California, although anyone who's seen Chinatown (or better, read Cadillac Desert) knows how much the two are linked.

But this post isn't about water, it's about a side-exhibit there on the Marin shipyards which used to be on the site where the model is located, which were thrown together in WWII and began churning out Liberty Ships at a rapid rate (one of the films shows that as one ship was being launched, they were already lowering part of the keel for the next one into the construction bay). People were drawn into the area from all parts of the country and all walks of life, with housewives being trained as welders overnight, black sharecroppers pouring in from the South. It was an incredible coordinated effort. It took a mere three months from deciding where to site the shipyard to starting lay steel in. Hard to imagine today.

I couldn't help contrasting the spirit that animated this effort with the current deadly stagnation in Washington, where even raising an arbitrary numerical limit seems to be impossible, let alone actually doing something. There is not even a hint of a shared national spirit, some grand project that could get people working together on the vast scale seen during the war. The calls to mobilize seem to fall on deaf ears.

Of course the war efforts were unencumbered by environmental constraints or much respect for individual rights. And while national greatness sounds a lot better than national stagnation, it seems as if it's usually a byproduct of war, the most destructive and wasteful thing in the world. Greatness may not be worth it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance

Awhile back I suggested that the only solution to our economic problems was a Biblical jubilee, and pointed to some economists who were talking semi-seriously about it. Now here's another one, with a twist that could make it work: rather than have one every 49 years, do it probabilistically, with a 2% chance in every year, so people don't game the system.

I wonder if a non-global jubilee would work. What if you only forgave the debts of a randomly-chosen 1/5 of the economy every ten years, or something?

I don't suppose something like this would ever happen; there is a built-in bias against random processes in government, perhaps because of its inevitable extrapolation. There used to be a draft lottery, and some public goods are distributed that way (such as slots in desirable schools in San Francisco), so it's not inconceivable.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The potato chips did it

Bennett's ontology is also perhaps the first to make room for potato chips: 
In the case of ... potato chips, it seems appropriate to regard the hand's actions as only quasi- or semi-intentional, for the chips themselves seem to call forth, or provoke and stoke, the manual labor 
And further: 
˜To eat chips is to enter into an assemblage in which the I is not necessarily the most decisive operator™ (p40)...eating does not mean conquering raw material and assimilating it to ourselves, as Leon Kass holds (p47). Instead, the food-actors with which we engage constitute our individuality...
From a review by Graham Harman of Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, apparently the state-of-the-art in neo-vitalism.

I was trying to make a clever post title, somehow inverting "I ate the potato chips" where the chips are the subject's hard to do! "The chips made me eat them" expresses the idea but retains traditional grammar roles. We need a new verb, like "The chips eta me". Which is just to say that our ideas about agency are very solidly embedded in language and it requires quite a heroic effort to get around them.

Monday, July 04, 2011

There's a fine line between independence and alienation

Posting has been light, so in lieu of new thoughts here's a different UI for the old content courtesy of Google and HTML5.

I see the Republicans are still playing chicken with the economy. I'm in one of my anti-political moods though, our institutions seem deeply broken and there's not a lot I can do about it. There are bloggers with 105 more readers than me, and they can't do anything about it either. The thing to do, borrowing a term from the software industry, is to remain agile.