Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

Did you believe in Dow 36,000? Don't give up hope! By 2021, it should be true. Buy some of those remainder copies of Glassman and Hasset's book off Amazon (as low as 1 cent plus shipping) and have them sent to your friends. Let's light a real fire under this market, which just hit a new high!

These guys are pants-on-fire liars, of course. They specifically said Dow 36,000 would materialize in 3-5 years. Now they are saying they weren't wrong overall, they were just a leetle off in some very minor detail. They can't even get it right about the stock market today--the Dow Jones hit a new nominal high, but not if you adjust for inflation. The other indices (arguably more reflective of reality) are still down from their bubble-era highs.

As long as I'm here, I hope you will all buy my forthcoming book, "How to Make a Million Dollars Before You Graduate from College". It's really pretty easy. You just put off going to college, and take a regular job, save every penny, then go to college after you've made a million dollars. And the best part is: you can save money on college costs because, after you've got a million bucks, why even go to college? (Besides, you'll be sixty years old, easily.) There's more to it than that, of course, but buy my book for the step-by-step breakdown.

Richard Feynman, computer designer?!

Who knew? Well, I didn't. Danny Hillis' eulogistic tribute to Feynman's contributions at the now-defunct Thinking Machines corporation has so many quotables that I won't even try to pick the best one. Read the whole thing. Here's a teaser:
We tried to take advantage of Richard's talent for clarity by getting him to critique the technical presentations that we made in our product introductions. Before the commercial announcement of the Connection Machine CM-1 and all of our future products, Richard would give a sentence-by-sentence critique of the planned presentation. "Don't say 'reflected acoustic wave.' Say 'echo'." Or, "Forget all that 'local minima' stuff. Just say there's a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out." Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated.

Getting Richard to give advice like that was sometimes tricky. He pretended not to like working on any problem that was outside his claimed area of expertise. Often, at Thinking Machines when he was asked for advice he would gruffly refuse with "That's not my department." I could never figure out just what his department was, but it did not matter anyway, since he spent most of his time working on those "not-my-department" problems. Sometimes he really would give up, but more often than not he would come back a few days after his refusal and remark, "I've been thinking about what you asked the other day and it seems to me..." This worked best if you were careful not to expect it.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Just arguing semantics again

I have another essay out at The Space Review: When Politics, Semantics and Reality Collide: the "space tourism" debate.

I can give you a money-back guarantee that you'll greet it with delight, loathing, or total apathy.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Oh no ... "serial polygamy"

A question crossed the SWET list today: what is "serial polygamy"? This term caused a major snyaptic traffic jam in parts of my brain that I prefer to use for weightier matters, like deciding whether to take a nap or waste time searching the Web for Neologisms from Hell.

Having never heard of serial polygamy before, I checked Wikipedia. (Yes, this was after my nap.) There I was told that some conservative Christians prefer this term to "serial monogamy". I think their reasoning, such as it is, might go something like this:

- Polygamy is bad.

- Serial anything is worse. ("Serial killer", "serial rapist", etc.)

- Monogamy is good. So using that word in "serial monogamy" can only
confuse people. It makes holy matrimony sound like it can be both good and very, very bad. (Gosh, nobody who's actually been married would ever think that, would they?)

- ERGO: be sure to call it "serial polygamy" so that people are in no doubt whatsoever that divorce and remarriage are bad.

- BONUS: "Serial polygamy" is kinda cool because it sounds worse than just "polygamy". We don't want to make plain ol' polygamy sound too bad, and adding "serial polygamy" provides a backstop. Plain Ol' Polygamy was, after all, practiced by some Old Testament prophets who channeled the Word of God. Yeah, Solomon had a lot of wives, but there's a critical distinction here: can you find in Scripture any indication that he divorced even one of these wives? Didn't think so. He was a polygamist, but at least he wasn't (*shudder*) a serial polygamist.

"Serial monogamy" -- avaunt, you demons of cognitive dissonance! Back to choral harmony!

Google turned up several supposed Children's Encyclopedia entries for "serial polygamy", all claiming heritage from Wikipedia, when in fact there is no current Wikipedia entry for the term. I gather that, for one brief, shining, highly moralistic moment, there was some such entry, before the Demons from Cognitive Dissonance descended upon it, shrieking "WTF?!", as is their wont, those profane minions of Satan.

UPDATE: Anthony Burgess, who cannot be accused of innocence with regard to the English language, used the term somewhat seriously, but still tongue in cheek. He said that the American pattern of divorce and remarriage would seem to Europeans a kind of "serial polygamy". From the context, however, I think his remarks would invite great scorn from conservative Christians.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Why We Read

Why do we read anyway? As a communications technology, writing has pretty obvious utility. But that's not why we read Dave Barry, Robert Ludlum, Paul Krugman. Ever since audio tape, we've potentially had the option of listening. Of course, we do like to listen--the enduring popularity of radio (and TV when we're not directly watching it) are proof of that. But if recreational reading were about wanting to be told stories, why didn't electronic audio supplant text for most purposes long ago? Isn't it less effort to listen than to read? And what is it that makes audio books less appealing? I might love Meryl Streep's voice, or Anthony Hopkin's, in a voice-over. For some reason, though, listening to them read an entire book to me seems a lot less appealing.

I don't think I have all the answers here, but I think I do have a partial-explanation theory I can't remember committing to writing before. (If you've seen it elsewhere, earlier, please write me.)

We listen when we want to be told things. We read when we want to love the sound of our own voices--perhaps to love our voices more than we have any right to, but nevertheless to love our own voices all the same.

I can hear the objections already. "I read authors because I love the sound of their voices!" Well, yes, that's true as well. But it's after the fact, I will argue. "I hate my voice when I read something aloud and listen to a recording of it! Don't you?" No doubt. I know the feeling. But I'm not talking about your real voice. I'm talking about your own voice as it would be most loved by you.

Studies of the psychology of reading have shown that we all subvocalize when we read. Forget speed reading. (I love Woody Allen's old joke about that, about reading War and Peace in two hours in a bookstore: "It's about Russia.") Even if you don't move your lips when you read, slight subliminal vocal muscle movement is recorded, correlating with what you're taking in.

So here's my theory: all text you read is merely support for a kind of fiction, in which you take on the author's voice, and in that way, slip into the author's persona. Reality has nothing to do with it. As Mark Twain said, fiction must be believable, but reality is under no such constraint. We continue reading because of a willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary-delusion self-flattery that we are saying things as well as the writer, that we are capable of the writer's imagination. This doesn't preclude a certain sense of distance from the text, from which we can also admire the writer as a writer. But the main impetus for moving from one sentence to the next is to get this feeling: "I'm saying this. I'm telling the story." When we say we love a piece of writing, we're mainly reporting on the (admittedly false) experience of being the story teller ourselves.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Ah, I used to really read ....

Toby Litt's Cult Choice -- almost as much fun as the books he reviews. Not to mention a great cheat-sheet if you ever aspired to minor cult classic yourself, and still have ambitions along those lines.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I'm SO confused ....

We're not staying the course. "We've never been 'stay the course'". (No matter how many times we've said it was, and even slapped reporters for not writing it exactly that way.)

It's now "adapt to win". Except when it's not. Or something like that.

The White House has got to be hoping the Religious Right doesn't dimly perceive some Darwinian subtext in the New Newspeak. After all, "adapt to win" does sound like a pithier version of "natural selection of random mutations." Notwithstanding fundamentalist theological objections, maybe Rummy's pet Revolution in Military Affairs will get an injection of transgenic treatments for our GIs -- they'll grow their own armor, leap tall sniper-infested buildings in a single bound, jump out of range of IED explosions faster than a speeding RPG. They'll adapt to win!

Tell me how it's gonna be, George. Tell me again how it's gonna be.

The Green Tunnel of Rot

Perhaps it's something in the air--the accelerating decay of the situation in Iraq, the midterm elections, East Asian rumblings over North Korea, but I was reminded of a passage from The Soccer War, by indefatigable Polish correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski, a collection of stories about his Third World travels through coup-ridden, revolution-scorched nations in the 60s. Here's the passage, from a fragmented chapter entitled "Plan for a Book that Could Have Started Right Here", part of a section about his experiences in the Congo.

At daybreak we start towards Stanleyville: a thousand kilometres of muddy dirt road, driving the whole time through a sombre green tunnel, in a stench of decomposing leaves, entangled branches and roots, because we are travelling deeper and deeper into the greatest jungle in Africa, into an eerie world of rotting, proliferating, monstrously exaggerated botany. We are driving through a tropical wilderness that fills you with awe and delight, and every so often we have to pull the Ford out of the rust-coloured clay or out of a bog overgrown with brownish-grey duckweed. Along the road we are stopped by gendarmerie patrols, drunk or hungry, indifferent or aggressive--the rebellious, undisciplined army that, gone wild, has taken over the country, robbing and raping. When stopped, we push our driver Seraphim out of the car and watch what happens. If he falls into an embrace with the gendarmes we breathe easy, because that means Seraphim has come across his tribal kinsmen. But if they start punching his head and beating him with the butts of their rifles, our skin crawls, because the same thing--or worse, perhaps--awaits us. I do not know what made us want to keep going along that road (on which it was so easy to die)--was it stupidity and a lack of imagination, or passion and ambition, or mania and honour, or our folly and our belief that we were obliged now to do it even though we had imposed an obligation on ourselves?--and as we drive on I feel that each kilometre another barrier has come down behind us, another gate has been slammed shut, and turning back becomes more and more impossible. After two days we roll into Stanleyville.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

All Your Space Are Belong to U.S.

Go, USA! America claims the right to deny access to space to any nation it considers a threat to its national interests.
The United States considers space capabilities -- including the ground and space segments and supporting links -- vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will: [...] deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests ...
One could argue that it's academic, that it's just a forthright clarification of a space hegemony established at least as long ago as the end of the Cold War. Not only has space been latently militarized by ICBMs for many decades, ICBMs may be the only reason why we have space programs at all. Basing missile launchers on the ground, on aircraft and on submarines is simply the most convenient and cost effective mode of deployment. If there were some reason why they would be better based in orbit, or on the Moon, we'd be doing that.

What's a little scary is that "if necessary" part. (Not to mention "national interest", which is much broader than "national security".) It was necessary, we were told, to go into Iraq to deny Saddam his WMD capability, to disrupt his cooperation with al Qaeda. Oops. Now we're told it's necessary to establish freedom and democracy in Iraq rather than have our oil supply in the hands of terrorist sympathizers.

Are you worried about North Korean nukes and missiles? Well, so am I. A little. Maybe I should be: I live in Tokyo, in a little firetrap ryokan. A nuclear tipped missile from the North would be a distinctly non-peaceful use of outer space. But I'm actually more worried about Condoleezza Rice, who asserts that North Korea is still acting "belligerent" because, when she was in Beijing being briefed about North Korea by the Chinese, they made no mention of Kim Jong Il apologizing for his nuke testing and saying he wouldn't do it again. Well, duh, Condi: maybe your Chinese hosts just assume you read the papers? It sort of reminds me of Dubya finally getting clear on why he should care about North Korea at all--Saudi Prince Bandar (of all people) had to explain to him that, if North invaded South, a lot of people would die quickly, including U.S. troops stationed there. Bush had been complaining that his people had been giving him these long, seemingly pointless, briefings about the history and significance of North Korea. Maybe his briefers just assumed, reasonably enough, that he knew what the Tripwire strategy was about already, and wanted more background.

"Deny, if proven necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national security" -- that's language I might be able to live with. But that's not what it says. What it does say is troubling. To a lot of people. When a UN resolution called "Prevention of Outer Space Arms Race" came to a vote, only the U.S. voted in favor. There were only two abstentions: Israel, and the Federated States of Micronesia. If these two virtual dependencies of the U.S. couldn't even bring themselves to vote yes, you have to wonder what the rest of the world must be thinking.

Autism Causes Television

Well, if people can say television causes autism only because there's some correlation, why not the other way around?

Ever notice how the talking heads on television use such exaggerated facial expressions? Sure, there are exceptions, but how many people actually watch McNeil-Lehrer? Usually it's some newscaster who looks like she's going to pull some muscles around her mouth. It's articulation as X-treme Sport. And that's just the news. What about popular fictional TV series? As Sigourney Weaver once said, dismissively, of most TV actors: "They're not acting. They're ... indicating." I love watching 24, but it almost works with the sound off, because they spend so much time overexplaining plot elements to the audience in lieu of actual lines. Daytime talk shows? Don't even get me started about Geraldo. Even Steve Colbert employs body language reminiscent of a cardboard-cutout conservative rationalizer in This Modern World. Johnny Carson had a little subtlety, but now we have Jay Leno, who looks like he was genetically engineered to have a face you could recognize from 100 yards off. It's almost as if, in addressing the television audience, they are talking to people with ... with .. with some kind of social-clue deficit disorder.

Genetic studies suggest that there may be 20 different genes involved in autism. If only some of them are active in people who are not quite clinically autistic, those people might watch more television, might have children with people who are similarly impaired, and have kids that sit in front of the tube a lot in infancy because their parents are. They aren't getting much exercise and they are eating crap, so that have lousy immune systems and digestive systems, common symptoms in the full-blown autistic. Which leaves them ever more couch-bound, and watching ever more television.

Autism Causes Television.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Battling Body Counts

I've only skimmed Iraq Body Count's initial incredulous reaction to the recent Lancet study. What strikes me is the emphasis they put on politically-motivated violence, as if that were the only likely source of a dramatically higher male death rate in Iraq.

Iraq is awash in guns--perhaps one per household, probably higher than in Saddam's time. Iraq has very high unemployment rates--60% is what I read--a substantial indicator of the kind of male despair and rage that can lead to higher rates of suicide and interpersonal (nonpolitical) homicide. Iraq has a very high crime rate as well, as you'd expect in a nation that is having trouble organizing its police forces, and that troublingly high unemployment rate.

I have some reason to believe that Arab countries dramatically underreport their suicide rates. The statistics defy belief. Can Jordan's really be zero? Can Egypt's really be 0.3 per 100,000 of population? Russia's is 70, and that might be underreporting in itself. I haven't been able to find recent numbers for Iraq.

In the U.S., there are 1.6 times as many suicides as homicides. Homicide itself (obviously high in Iraq) can be a motivator for suicide. Grief over any kind of death often is.

Consider accidental gun deaths as well. Merely having a gun around the household increases the chances of death at home considerably. Add the fact that people in Iraq are understandably jittery over violence, including mere criminal violence, and you have a multiplier effect. The mere availability of guns (and the somewhat greater male attraction to them, and the glorification of them in militia hands) increases the chance that a young boy or young man is likely to kill himself with a gun only by accident.

Iraq Body Count is strongly focused on politically motivated killing in Iraq. There's a place for that. The Lancet Study looks at something more: excess deaths since the invasion. That's important, too. Perhaps more important. Why? Because when you go to war, you go with idea is that it's a temporary, necessary evil that will make things better in the end. If it hasn't, you've failed. And this might explain another mystery pointed out by Iraq Body Count: how the central government's statistics for death rates could be so much lower than the numbers implied by the Lancet study. If there's one shred of legitimacy that the current Iraq government wants to hold onto, it's the perception that they are better than Saddam ever was. And that sort of desperate grasping pose can pose moral hazards in government statistics collections. Could the collections process be corrupted by politics? Why would that be surprising? It's not as if purity in government is widespread in Iraq--Transparency International ranks Iraq somewhere near the bottom.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Beijing to stamp out bad English

I knew communist dictatorship had to be good for something. My favorite on the list so far: a sign saying "Question Authority" indicating a help desk.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Lancet Study controversy: an Iraq numbers game

Among the better of many bad arguments against the new Lancet study on the lethal repercussions of the invasion of Iraq is one I found clicking around from Little Green Footballs (yeah, yeah, I know: what the hell was I doing at a hate-speech site anyway?) Here's the gist:

One strike against the Lancet study is that it bases “excess deaths” on what seems a rather low pre-invasion death rate. America's death rate (said this source) is about 10 per 1000, Hungary's about 13--nearly what the Johns Hopkins researchers claim now for Iraq. How could Saddam’s subjects have suffered only 5-6 per 1000? Whether you’re with Ramsey Clarke about the tragedy of the sanctions, or with the neo-cons about what a genocidal monster Saddam was, or both (they aren’t mutually exclusive), your picture of sanctions-period Iraq is one of continuous funeral processions.

But let’s do some math. Maybe Gulf War I killed 50,000 Iraqi soldiers outright, and maybe the Republican Guard's retaliation against the uprisings in the Shi’ite south and the Kurdish north added up to 350,000 on top of that. What if years of Ba’athist killings and sanctions-related public health failures carried off an extra 10,000 per year for a decade? That adds up to about half a million. Chilling. However, against a population of about 25 million, over 10 years, that’s maybe 0.2% per year, or an extra 2 deaths per 1000 added to Iraq’s ordinary death rate–whatever “ordinary” means in a country like that.

Well, what would “ordinary death rate” mean in a country like Iraq? Do we have comparison cases? Yes. Sort of. There’s The Other Ba’athist State, Syria, funding public health under more peaceful conditions but out of much lower oil earnings. They come in at 4.8 per 1000 according to the CIA factbook. Maybe Iran is a better point of comparison–second largest oil supplier in the world, but very large population too, and more poverty. They’re at 5.55 per 1000. Triangulating a little, take a look at Kuwait, a very rich petrostate indeed: 2.41 deaths per 1000.

How biased could Iraq’s figures be, if they were based on Ba’athist sources? Two propaganda agendas might have canceled each other out: the need to complain to the world about the inhumanity of the sanctions, versus a need to be touting the merits of Ba’ath socialism in providing for public welfare (which of course helped justify taking lives among Saddam’s state enemies in the name of lives saved by the Saddam’s benificent rule). Iraq certainly had the medical means for the latter, as well as the conditions for the former. It’s not well known, but for a while, Iraq was a mecca for those desiring cheap kidney transplants, not only because impoverished Iraqis were willing donors, but also because Iraq had, and still has, many skilled physicians. So I’d say it had war-and-sanctions-related public health disasters largely offset by good public health measures.

What explains odd discrepancies like a rich U.S. with 10 per 1000 death rates but a strapped, war-torn, dictator-saddled, sanctions-bound Iraq with something like half that rate? One is age structure. Almost 40% of Iraq’s population is under 15 years old, and only about 3% is older than 65. Amazing as it might seem to anyone with an energetic teenage boy in the household, the young aren’t likely to die as soon as the aged. Japan’s death rate is around 9 per 1000, even though this is a much safer country than Iraq in terms of public violence, and most people ride the train to work rather than driving. But Japan also aging fast, and the birth rate is well below replacement rate. I suspect another factor pushing up some death rates is automobile use combined with alcohol abuse — Iraq is very much a car country (gas was around 5 cents a gallon in Saddam’s time, a price that the Occupation decided to perpetuate) but alcohol-related traffic accidents were probably rare. I don’t know what traffic conditions were like, but one feature of police states is that they are very well policed. It’s said that Saddam used to don a fedora and take a junker out on the roads of Baghdad as camouflage, after he concluded that an escort of black bullet-proof limousines, even with decoy units, made him still too much of an assassination target. Would he have done that if he thought driving around in Baghdad was more dangerous than driving around in Rome, Athens, or (shudder) Bangkok? Hungary, with its 13 per 1000 death rate, is probably a case of age structure (almost the same number of people over 65 as under 15) and what might be called Post-Soviet Syndrome: chronic male alcoholism. (There are about half as many Hungarian men as women in the over-65 age cohort, a strong indicator.)

In short, I don’t find a sanctions-period Iraqi death rate of 5-6 per 1000 so incredible, even under the worst assumptions made about Iraq in the sanctions period. Nice try. But no cigar.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

YouTube - eGroups Redux

The buzz around Google's acquisition of YouTube will die down soon. For now, I invite you to consider a precedent: Yahoo's acquisition of eGroups.

How could eGroups have been worth $432 million to Yahoo? That was about $25 per eGroup member--it would take a long time for Yahoo to recoup based on ad impressions. Well, eGroups wasn't worth that much--but I think both sides knew that going in. Yahoo bought eGroups for $432 million in Yahoo stock, which was considerably overvalued in June 2000 ($50-$60/share, down from a bubbly peak over $100). Yahoo is still overvalued, if you ask me, at P/E's of 45-50.

When I heard figures like $1.6 billion for YouTube, I figured it would be a stock-swap deal of some kind. After all, Google is also overvalued. And again, I think both sides know it. It was just lottery ticket swapping among friends. Google will never monopolize search, and thus it will never monopolize the ad-related revenue streams from search. Yes it does dominate search, and maybe it always will. But Intel dominates CPUs, and think of what we'd have to pay for CPU chips if it weren't for AMD, and the occasional "fabless" upstart that briefly (but signally) threatens what would otherwise be an Intel/AMD duopoly. Think: anti-trust. Tech is hardly immune from that. Right now, quite a few firms are focused on SEO and SEM, and improving bang-for-buck on ad impressions, and a lot of them focus solely on Google Adwords optimization. But price competition will enter when hypergrowth ends, and Google doesn't have a lock on this market. Portals are still strong. And the DoJ will still be in business when all other businesses today have succumbed to creative destruction.

P/Es will eventually go below historical norms as the Baby Boom retires. Google earnings will eventually be cut by price competition as online advertising matures. YouTube might be a copyright litigation tarpit, or it might be the future of television. But even if YouTube is the future of television, that doesn't mean it will ever be as profitable as television was at its peak, nor does it mean that it will be the only television network.

And speaking of stupidity

A lead story about NoKo Nukes in the Int'l Herald Trib says that the Nihon Keizei Shimbun (Japan's New York Times or Wall Street Journal, depending on how you look at it) compared the impact of North Korea's nuclear test on Japan to that of 9/11's impact on Americans.

Well, if they mean that bars and restaurants emptied out, all flights were cancelled, and the Japanese are now spending 10 hours a day glued to the tube, weeping, calling friends ... No. In fact, nobody here has even mentioned it to me. If Nihon Keizai Shimbun said anything like that (the IHT's reporting on Japan is often so-so), it's probably because somebody at that paper never quite got in touch with how 9/11 hit Americans.

The Aum nerve-gassing of Tokyo subways had a much more dramatic impact on Japanese.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Dumb and dumber

Q: What could be stupider than a cockroach-eating competition?

A: Animal-rights groups complaining about it. Or maybe that that Yahoo puts it on its science news page.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Better Living through Neologism Googling

Try it. It's fun. Though disappointing in a way. Nine times out of ten, other people, people more annoyingly clever than you could dream of being, have already snatched the ball. Worse, they've run with it some distance as well, in directions you'd never think of. Googling on homespun neologisms will disabuse you of the notion that inventing a new word is really so easy.

"Panglossolalia" - the Goddess of the Infomercial. ("I knew that!", I hear you snapping in irritation).

"Webopticon" - ubiquitous surveillance via the Internet ("Well, of course!", you say, "But nobody knows I got there first!")

"Ontocracy" - thirty hits already.

Ah, but "Ontopreneur". Don't even think about jumping my claim, pardner. At this point, it's perhaps only an Engish typo on a Russian web that's possibly just reporting an MS Word spellcheck error. But maybe it's coming soon to a management pundit's forebrain perilously near you, as the Semantic Web goes through another hype cycle. Maybe I should register it?