Beauty of Gray

Friday, March 29, 2002

A darkness came upon the land

So it begins. I can't see any other course of action for the Israelis, but their assault still leaves me filled with sadness and dread. Somehow, the spilling of blood today, Good Friday, seems appropriate, but I fear that there will be no clean resolution, no solution to this cycle of death in three days, or thirty, but simply more blood and sacrifice. I hope this assault is the first step on the road to some sort of resolution, that removing Arafat might allow a new path to be found, but I'm afraid there is too much hate on the part of the Palestinians, too many all around the Arab world that benefit from the war there, for it to end anytime soon.

27] And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him.
[28] But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.
[29] For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.
[30] Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.
[31] For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?
Luke, 23

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:48 AM

Thursday, March 28, 2002
Camels, Germs, and Steel

I ran across the following fascinating throwaway passage in my current reading material, Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II [Vol I, p. 96]

They are two quite different animals; the camel, originating in Bacrtia, is unaffected by cold or height; the dromedary, from Arabia, is an animal of the sandy deserts and warm zones. It is practically useless for climbing mountain paths or withstanding low temperatures…

The ecology of the two animals is of capital importance. A fairly large frontier zone separates their respective habitats…Very roughly, this zone is the Iranian plateau, cold during winter. The dromedary did penetrate this zone, of course, and participated in the active caravans that in the sixteenth century centered around Ispahan. The dromedary even penetrated as far as India and fetched prices there equal to or slightly higher than the horse, proof it was something of a stranger there. In fact, neither the plateau of Anatolia nor the Iranian highlands were really open to it, and if the Arab conquest failed in Asia Minor, if it was never very assured in Persia, the reason is largely to be sought in the inferiority of the dromedary.

This remarkable insight, if true, does explain a question I had wondered about—why the explosive expansion and conquests of the Arab Moslems took place across North Africa but did not similarly expand to the north and east. And also why it was the Turks, nomads from Central Asia, that toppled the Byzantine Empire, rather than the Arabs.

This sort of interplay between biology and history is also the type of thing that Jared Diamond’s book, Guns Germs, and Steel could have delivered if Diamond had actually been a talented historian rather than a biologist intent on cramming all history into the mold of his one simple, deterministic idea. Diamond’s book (which inexplicably won the Pulitzer Prize) fails in part because of this lack of detail—he never digs beneath the surface to get more than the broadest brush treatment of history, and so he misses out on many really interesting cases, such as the one described above.

It also fails in its implicit goal, which was to explain why Europe, rather than any other continent or civilization, became pre-eminent. The problem is that the biological factors Diamond identifies were only of crucial importance in prehistory. By the late middle ages, when the world civilizations were starting to come into contact with each other, the key factors were economic, technological, and cultural, rather than biological.

Actually, if you were looking for important biological or geographical factors to explain the rise of Europe, one area to check (which Diamond didn’t mention) would be the relative abundance of water power. The widespread use of water mills in Europe prepared the way for the industrial revolution, since the mills utilized many of the machines and engineering that would later be developed with steam power to provide the impetus to the industrial revolution.

From at least the Renaissance onward, European engineers were able to design and build (usually out of wood) numerous wonderfully intricate machines as is documented in folios from the period. I don’t know about other regions, but this is, I think, one significant advantage Europe had over the Middle East, and also over the Andean civilization of the Incas. (However, Europe was well on her way to dominance before the Industrial Revolution, which consolidated and confirmed her position of superiority. So even the water power explanation is of questionable value in explaining Europe’s rise.)

Update: If anyone is interested, my own ramblings on the rise of Europe can be found here,here, and here.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:10 PM

Their freezer must look like mine

Somehow, this doesn't make me feel more confident about homeland security.

A pharmaceutical company has apparently just discovered that they had 90 million doses of smallpox vaccine lying around in their freezer. How do you miss that? When there was a vaccine scare a few months ago, surely somebody should have had at least a vague recollection of getting, oh, 90 million doses. This is just truly bizarre. I'm glad they found them, but am flabbergasted that something like this could be lying around and nobody even knew about it.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:03 PM

How many Claudes is this worth?

I’m shocked, shocked, to find out that a Republican administration would write policy based on the recommendations of big corporations, while ignoring consumer and environmental concerns. Seriously, is there anyone out there that is surprised to find out that Cheney’s energy task force took many recommendations from energy companies, and basically told environmentalists to bugger off?

I have a few reactions to this report. First, I think a distinction needs to be made between the product and the process here. The energy plan, the result of the task force’s effort, should stand or fall on its own merits. It could have been generated by Cheney spending $3000 on phone calls to Mistress Cleo. That wouldn’t change the actual merits of the plan. An examination of the process can point out areas to look for flaws in the generated report—in this case it would suggest that the result might be one-sided in favor of corporations (not that it took Sherlock Holmes to figure that one out.) I happen to think that the plan should have given a much greater emphasis to developing future energy sources, as well as conservation efforts, but that's a different argument.

Second, it seems to me that this is a signifier rather than a scandal. It’s certainly not a scandal that Cheney and the task force spent a lot of their time meeting with energy company representatives and getting their input and suggestions. Of course they did, it was the energy task force, after all. Their job was to meet with the interested parties and take their input.

What is does do is signify where the Bush administration’s priorities lay and what its policies are. The administration places great emphasis on corporate interests and does little more than pay lip service to environmental concerns. But this is not evil, or a priori wrong, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention for the last 20 years. It’s the Republican Party position. They were elected to ignore environmentalists; many who voted for Bush would expect nothing less. This report is simply a reminder of this fact, and a reminder that underneath Bush’s moderate rhetoric and his talk of being a new kind of Republican, that in most areas he’s not really new in anything but his marketing and PR.

This report also shows why the administration was dragging their feet on releasing the papers—they were busy deleting thousands of pages of documents; why remains unclear. It’s hard to see that the substance could be worse than the suspicions which are raised by their deletion. Perhaps they’re setting up a gotcha!, where opponents will wage a high profile court fight to release the documents, and after all that there will be nothing incriminating in them. Or perhaps this is just another example of the administration’s disturbing arrogance and love of secrecy. “We’re the administration. We can do whatever we want and we don’t have to tell you anything! Now go back to your little offices, stop bothering us, and let us big boys take care of things for you.”

I’m guessing they also wanted to avoid having these documents released while the Campaign Finance reform debate was going on, since the meetings would undoubtedly have become a primary exhibit of the influence of money used by Democrats looking to cast a little dirt the president’s way. This article tries to do the same, emphasizing how much money some of the companies in question donate, although it’s hard to see how this is relevant. It might be, but you’d have to really do an analysis to see if big donors were more likely to get their proposals adopted. As I said above, of course the task force met with these companies; whether they were contributors or not, they were the interested parties. And the WP article also neglects to mention that many of these companies probably donated big bucks to Democrats as well.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:05 AM


Today's out of touch, poorly thought out name award goes to the state of Virginia, which has actually named its standardized tests for kids the Standard of Learnings exams. Or, as they are called, the SOL exams. I'm sure the kids get a kick out of that, although it is a bit ominous. The BFD results will be released later this fall, followed by the statewide GMAFB compliance report next year.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 7:39 AM

Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Japan and the Middle East

Steven Den Beste at the USS Clueless had an excellent post a couple of days ago comparing the contemporary Middle East with the situation in Japan prior to WWII, suggesting that a similar dramatic defeat might be necessary to reconcile the Arabs to the modern world.

In the time following the September 11th attacks, and before I learned just how unpopular the Taliban were in Afghanistan, I had similar thoughts about that country, and thought the US might need to completely occupy it and rebuild it from the ground up.

Anyway, to investigate, I got an excellent book on the Japanese occupation, Embracing Defeat, which I’d highly recommend. I think postwar Japan was a unique enough situation that the historical parallels don’t work in detail, so reading the book might not shed that much light on possible futures in the Middle East. But the book is still fascinating in its own right and for the light it sheds on the development of modern Japanese society.

The book also highlights some of the potential problems with an Imperial US policy, and the disconnects and hypocrisy that can occur when the necessities of occupation governance conflict with idealistic rhetoric. How can one combine the promotion of democracy with the occupation of another country and imposition of rule on them? These sorts of broad questions are still equally relevant today.

All in all, a very good book, and very deserving of the awards it won.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:03 PM

Monday, March 25, 2002
Ridiculous List

Book magazine (who?) tried to make a list of the 100 best fictional characters of the 20th century. Their list can be found here. It's a very poorly done collection, betraying all the stamps of the middlebrow determined to be perceived as highbrow. (No accident that the list was featured on the NPR website, huh?) You can tell many of the characters made it just because they were supposedly in great works of fiction. Anyone who would choose Marcel as the greatest character from Remembrance of Things Past probably hasn't read the book. Of all the major characters in the novel, the narrator is without a doubt the least interesting.

And the numerous selections of multiple characters from the same novel are also ridiculous. I mean, in all of world literature, you're telling me that 3 of the top 100 characters of the entire century came from To Kill a Mockingbird? Two from Catcher in the Rye? Did the makers of this list actually read anything not on their high school curriculum? And Big Brother? Big Brother wasn't even a character. At least they know their arthouse movies, as the numerous selections from the fashionable contemporary novels that were adapted to cinema attest.

Certainly, any attempt to make such a list is hopeless, and there are bound to be many disagreements. But you ought to be able to do a better job than this sorry attempt. I can't believe anyone who loves books could look at this list and think, "Boy, we really nailed it. Let's go to press!"

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:26 PM

Competition and Envy

I ran across this fascinating article via the Insolvent Republic of Blogistan. It details an economics/psychology experiment carried out by researchers in England. It unfortunately doesn't give very many details, so it's hard to be exactly sure what the procedure of the game was.

Basically, they gave a bunch of people a small amount of money and then let them bet it. At the end of the betting rounds, players were allowed to spend some of their own money to destroy some of the gains of other players. The ratio varied up to a maximum of 25 cents lost for every dollar of someone else's money destroyed. The researchers expected very little of this "burning," as they called it, but were surprised to find quite a lot of it going on.

The article emphasizes the "fairness" aspect of some of the burning--that people targeted the best off who they perceived as having gotten an unfair accumulation of wealth. This might be a partial explanation, but it doesn't explain why those who had won a lot of money themselves would also choose to attack others' pots.

I think the missing piece in their analysis (or at least the analysis in the article) is the idea of competition. Most people measure their own success and wealth not on an absolute scale, but in reference to those around them. Status and felt wealth are hierarchies rather than absolute scales. And wealth is only partly accumulated for it's own sake--it's also pursued because wealth gives power and status. And since status is measured against your peers, what you want isn't just the most money possible, but also more money than anyone else.

Now, when you factor in this competitive desire for status--for beating the Joneses, then it's easy to see why people would choose to spend some of their own money in order to take away even more money from an opponent.Your own utility is a combination of the amount of money you have and the relationship of your own pot to those of other players. The "burning" of others' money will be a net utility gain if you increase your own relative status enough for it to be worth the cost to your absolute status.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:01 PM

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