Battlepanda: September 2006


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, September 29, 2006

May the force be with meow

Meet Tarzan, the Jedi Cat.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Now, I actually know this cat. He belongs to my friend A., the proprietress of Other Side of the Planet. No politics. No current affairs. A lot of good pictures. On the feline theme, A. and I went to a bar where the owner keeps nine cats right there in the bar. A big bottle of Taiwan beer and the oldies hits that keep on coming on the stereo took the edge off the odor rising from the litterboxes and we had a merry night trying to keep the cats from tipping over our increasingly epic games of Jenga.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

In which I'm a better libertarian than Jane Galt

Toward the end of a piece in which she professes doubts about the guilt of Kenneth Lay and Jeffery Skilling, Jane Galt has this to say about using prison for criminal punishment:

As for number three, I agree with Mr Delong that deterrence and retribution are legitimate questions of justice--but I also think that jail is lousy, immoral, and highly inefficient way to achieve them.

Lousy because jail makes the criminals cost us money. Yes, courts cost money . . . but what costs money is the troublesome process of sorting the innocent from the guilty. We're spending money on the blameless, not the perpetrators. Once they're convicted, we know (as well as frail humans can) that they're guilty. Why should we spend money to punish them, when they could be making money, or hey, just entertainment, for the society they've wronged? Fastow's skills may not be much, but stick an ankle bracelet on him and set him to painting overpasses or something.

Lousy, I'll grant. Immoral, possibly. And those are both problems with using prison.

And she's right, it's also inefficient. But, as software marketers say, that's not a bug, it's a feature!

Indeed, given that 22% of state and federal prisoners in the year 2000 were doing time for drug crimes, which shouldn't be crimes at all, the problem with imprisonment would seem to be that it doesn't cost the government nearly enough.

The lower the price, the more of the good is purchased; this applies to criminal punishment just as it does to ice cream. So if the price of criminal punishment (to the government, that is) is lowered -- by more cost-effective prisons, or by switching to public whipping, or by selling the organs of executed criminals -- more criminal punishment will be purchased.

The marginal prisoner is a lot more like Tommy Chong than Charles Manson: do we really want the price of punishment to drop?

(Via the mysterious knzn, who has become my favorite econ blogger, even though he's on the wrong side of this issue.)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Making up her mind

Hack journalist quotes hack scientist. So what else is new?

Nevertheless, this takedown of Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, demands attention. Remember, David Brooks, who quoted her extensively in a column about how women just talks too damn much, is published in the New York Times while Brizendine is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. In short, both are in positions that commands respect in our society, yet they seem to be passing on numbers plucked out of thin air in a cavalier fashion that should shame the classier trolls in any given comment thread. From Language Log's Mark Liberman, professor of phonetics at UPenn:
I looked through the book to try to find the research behind the [claim by Brizendine that women and men speak 20,000-vs.-7,000-words-per-day respectively], and I looked on the web as well, but I haven't been able to find it yet. Brizendine also claims that women speak twice as fast as men (250 words per minute vs. 125 words per minute). These are striking assertions from an eminent scientist, with big quantitative differences confirming the standard stereotype about those gabby women and us laconic guys. The only trouble is, I'm pretty sure that both claims are false.

With respect to the speech rate claim, I've just run a script on a corpus of 5,202 transcribed and time-aligned telephone conversations, involving native speakers of American English with a wide variety of ages, regions and backgrounds. The average speech rate for the males was 174.3 wpm, and the average speech rate for the females 172.6 wpm. I assume that Brizendine didn't just concoct her figures about male vs. female speech rates out of thin air -- she must have gotten them from a study that someone did somewhere, sometime, or at least from some other author plugging another work in the flourishing genre of pop gender studies -- but let's say, at least, that it ain't necessarily so. I'll post something more about Brizendine's striking speaking-rate and words-per-day claims as soon as I can figure out what evidence she based them on. [More on female and male speaking rates is here, and more on the number of words men and women typically speak per day is here.]

Liberman's Boston Globe article, well worth reading, places Brizendine's claim as the latest in wave of claims that have just about as much validity as the old saw that the Eskimos have howevermany different words for "snow".
Over the last 15 years, a series of books and articles have told us that women talk a lot more than men do. According to Dr. Scott Halzman in Psychology Today, women use about 7,000 words a day, and men use about 2,000. On the other hand, Ruth E. Masters, in her book ``Counseling Criminal Justice Offenders," tells us that ``Females use an estimated 25,000 words per day and males use an estimated 12,000 words per day." And according to James Dobson's book ``Love for a Lifetime," ``research tells us" that God gives a woman 50,000 words a day, while her husband only gets 25,000.

A bit of Googling easily turns up at least nine different versions of this claim, ranging from 50,000 vs. 25,000 down to 5,000 vs. 2,500. But a bit of deeper research reveals that none of the authors of these claims actually seems to have counted, and none cites anyone who seems to have counted either.
Can't the "women talk soooo much more than men" camp not at least come up with one figure they can stick to as a group?

This is not the first time David Brooks have been caught playing Neuroscientist, and gotten called out by Liberman. The sad thing is, Brooks columns are so much more widely distributed than the rebuttals that most people who read Brooks over their coffee are going to remain with the impression that his columns are based on actual science. In fact, the whole thing reminds me most of small-time credit card scammers who use one card to pay off another and so obtains increasingly large amounts of credit from nothing. This is a credibility scam in which a source of little credibility gets quoted by increasingly prestigious sources until it becomes ensconsed in that vast body of ossified knowledge we call conventional wisdom.

Trouble in Authoritarian Capitalist Paradise

Like everybody else practically, I bought into the myth of Singapore as the super-elite city state -- a lean, clean capitalism machine. However, according to this piece of Abstract Nonsense, we might have all had a little wool pulled over our eyes:

The first impression most foreigners get of Singapore is that it’s a harsh but successful state, dictatorial but developed and ultimately good for its people. One of the unspoken objectives of the ruling party, the PAP (People’s Action Party, no connection to communism) is to create an illusion of a first-world state by keeping the areas where there are tourists and Western expats clean to concentration camp standards.

Western conservatives, who have largely swallowed that illusion whole, keep talking up Singapore. To believe what they say, its educational system, its economy, its cultural policy, all the envy of conservatives who only wish democracy didn’t fear with their plans, work nearly perfectly.

In fact, that illusion is about as true as the illusion that the Soviet Union kept cultivating among Western socialists in the 1930s. The only way Singapore looks good is if you skew statistics to fit your agenda, which the PAP is not above doing. A few facts that Lee Kuan Yew, the de facto king, won’t mention in his interview, are:

- Singapore’s level of inequality is the highest in the developed world, except possibly for Hong Kong’s. Its bottom quintile is the poorest in the developed world except for Portugal’s.

- Only 25% of Singaporeans aged 16-17 go to junior college, the equivalent of high school. The rest don’t participate in the international reading and math tests; that’s how Singapore always places number 1 on these tests.

- Singapore’s per capita military spending is second only to Israel’s, even though Singapore is not at war nor will it ever be. That last fact doesn’t prevent the government from engaging in a propaganda campaign aimed at convincing the citizenry that it is.

- The combination of low wages, no social safety net, and a social security system that has no redistribution of wealth at all means that lower-class people often have to work into their 70s and 80s to survive.

- Singapore’s literacy rate is 92.5%, just above this of Palestine and just below this of Thailand.

- Despite the country’s cult of economic growth, its GDP per capita has stagnated since 2000.

- Despite draconian sentencing laws for violent crime, Singapore’s crime rate remains far higher than Japan’s.

Westerners who live in Singapore or who are familiar with it in passing usually complain about the small things, like the low-level censorship of movies, which, while heinous, at least doesn’t impoverish the population. Everything else - the systematic destruction of the livelihood of the poor, the impoverishment of the middle class, the plundering of the treasury - doesn’t even register in their minds, or gets rationalized.

O.K., a few of those items above are rather trivial (Singapore's got a higher crime rate than Japan, well, doesn't everyone?), but Alon Levy got his point across. Singapore glitters, but all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It's a girl!

Oh, she may look little and cute now, but wait till she's all grown up. She'll be powerful, vicious ... and cute!

(Full story at CNN.)

Once again, I conform to stereotype

An interesting article in the L.A. Times on the Republican Party's "Voter Vault" contains this tidbit:
In their search for voters, Republican strategists can quickly pull up information not only about voting histories, age, address and marital status, but also consumer habits, vehicle ownership, magazine subscriptions, church membership, hobbies, major purchases — even whether a household prefers bourbon over gin. (Bourbon drinkers tend to be Republican; gin is more often a Democrat's drink).
They've got me pegged. Now I'm going to go mix myself a martini.

(Via Kevin Drum.)

Update on Cory Maye

Before we start getting too excited about Cory's new hearing, let's remember that its just that -- a new hearing. His life, though no longer condemned, still hangs in the balance. Here's Radley Balko, the man who broke this story wide open:
I'm not going to project false modesty here -- if Cory may does walk free one day, it'll likely be the highlight of my career. Still, my contribution to this has been relatively easy. I found a story that leaped off the computer screen as an outrage, and I wrote about it, and I have since continued to write about it. I've put a lot of time and effort into this case, but it's time and effort that, had I not been spending on this case, would probably have been spending on some other drug war idiocy. I should also credit my employer, which has been really supportive of my spending time on this case.

I think the bulk of the credit should go to Cory's legal team, all of whom have worked tirelessly -- and without compensation -- for months. The Covington and Burling firm deserves a ton of credit for its generosity, but I think particular credit should go to Bob Evans who not only lost a paying gig as public defender in direct retaliation for his decision to represent Cory, but every minute he spends on Cory's case is a minute he could be spending on his private defense practice, with paying clients. Bob's doing this because passionately believes in Cory's innocence. But it doesn't change the fact that representing Cory is undoubtedly costing him money.

All of that said, Cory's life is far from saved. Thursday's ruling was certainly a victory, but we're still a long way from real justice in this case. There's still the possibility he could be again get death at the new sentencing trial. I think odds are against that happening, for reasons I'll get into later, but it's still a very real possibility.

I'm also a little concerned that should Cory's sentence be reduced to the death penalty to life in prison, his cause will lose some momentum. Life without parole doesn't carry nearly the same sex appeal as a looming date with the death chamber. I hope that doesn't happen -- I hope the people who've done great work promoting this will case continue to write about it and call attention to it. An innocent life spent in prison isn't a life saved. Cory's two kids will still grow up without a dad. And a good guy will still wrongly waste away his life in a jail cell.

Thursday brought wonderful news. But there's still a long, long way to go.
I'll be updating my Cory Maye blogswarm post again due to the recent increase in attention caused by the hearings. If I miss you, pop a note in the comments. Let's hope that this hearing leads to really good news.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Meet Xellessanova Zenith

I posted about Second Life tangentially here. I don't think it's really on the radar of most folks in the political blogisphere (except perhaps for Mark Warner's Second Life appearance.) But make no mistake, it's a growing phenomenon with the potential not just to be another game that comes, gains popularity and goes, but some kind of a paradigm-making breakthrough (and yes, I did hate myself just a little for writing the previous three words.)

For an example of the possibility out there, meet Xellessanova Zenith.

"Ms. Zenith" is a college friend of mine. Except of course back in college she did not used to walk around holding skulls while sporting slinky eveningwear and talon-like nails. I mean, she might have like to. I don't know. But it would have been ridiculous. But in Second Life, that's just the kind of gal she is.

This is a PDF copy of the in-world magazine she has helped make. The website of the magazine is here, but frankly I found the PDF form much more professional and interesting.

I think we can tentatively file this under "everything they predicted about the future came true, but in a completely unexpected way." For those like my friend, who immerses herself in Second Life for up to eight hours a day (yes, I do worry a bit about her), virtual reality is already here. Except it's got nothing to do with wraparound visual monitors and gloves with sensors so that you can pick things up and put them down somewhere else.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Damn! DAMN!

That's some awesome, awesome news!
Cory Maye will not sleep on death row tonight. Nor, for that matter, any night for the foreseeable future.

At the conclusion of the hearing today, Judge Michael Eubanks ruled on two of the defense team's battery of arguments. Both rulings from the bench tonight dealt with Rhonda Cooper's competence. Judge Eubanks found that Ms. Cooper was competent for the trial, but incompetent for the sentencing.

I have my quarrels with that ruling, obviously. But in the short run, it means that Cory will at the very least get a new sentencing trial. And until and if that happens, he will no longer be on death row -- and for the moment is no longer condemned to die.
I guess we can all go to sleep tonight feeling that one iota better about our criminal justice system. It might have conducted a midnight raid on an innocent man's home based on the testimonies of a loonified bigot and put the said innocent man in death row for shooting at whom he thought was an intruder in self defence, but at least we didn't end up killing him!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Something there that wasn't there before*

Now, I might not be a high-quality woman**, but somehow I managed to find myself a mate. We met online before meeting online was cool. In fact, this was back in 2002, when 'meeting online' seemed distinctly 'sketchy'. I've always thought that this was an unfair characterization. I sifted through a bunch of profiles, exchanged emails for a while and generally got a pretty accurate feel for the kind of guy Gene turned out to be. Now thanks (or no thanks, depending on your view on marriage), to Spring Street Personals, I am a married woman. I wonder if I can get a sponsorship deal or something. Or at least get them to redeem the rest of my husband's credits, since he never got to use them.

Online dating, I think, got the job done a lot more efficiently than traditional method of finding someone. 'Sketchy' as it is (or was, I think the acceptability level has definitly gone up with time), it's a lot less sketchy than the nightlife scene, and also yields a lot more information about your potential partner. As for dating friend and aquaintances, that might be fine if you have a large social circle, but if you have a small, tightknit group of friends, that's just not an option -- the cost of it not working out at any stage is just too high.

If you think meeting online in a dating service is out there, how about meeting online in a massive multiplayer game like Ultima online or Everquest? Nick Yee has a detailed survey of the phenomenon that I found quite interesting. It seems that, pace Bowling Alone, people who are increasingly more atomized and self-contained in their real physical lives are seeking social networks and even end up meeting life-partners through a different format. One door closes and another opens. The paradigm-shifting Second Life is not even a game at all, but just an "environment" where people can exist, create and interact. I have a friend who is help making an in-game magazine in Second Life and getting paid for it (though it is a pitifully small amount at this point). They are getting advertisers like a real magazine, writing articles for it like a real magazine and getting it laid out like a real magazine. The interesting thing is, my friend only knows her collaborator's online identities, and even has to guess at their ages based on their voice.

*Yes, the title of this post is bought to you by a song from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast". What can I say. I was a little girl once.

** Since I completely missed out on visible-breast-outlinegate, I just thought that I'd belatedly throw in my bitchy two-cents on JMPP's "Get behind me, Losers" post. Yes, it was obnoxious and obnoxiously attention-grabbing. But it was also obnoxiously attention-grabbing in a particularly geeky way. Almost every item on her list is backed with a statistic. She even boasts that here IQ is "three standard deviations above the mean". An interest in science fiction (she goes to conferences, you know) is mentioned as a positive. Either Jaqueline knows her audience very well (she blogs for a living), or she's right and she really is a geek's dream girl.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

When Pandas Attack

(From CNN.)
A drunken Chinese tourist bit a panda at the Beijing Zoo after the animal attacked him when he jumped into the enclosure and tried to hug it, state media said Wednesday.

Zhang Xinyan had drunk four pitchers of beer at a restaurant before "stumbling to the zoo" nearby and stopping off at the pen holding a sleeping 6-year-old male panda, Gu Gu, on Tuesday, the Beijing Morning Post said.

"He felt a sudden urge to touch the panda with his hand" and jumped over a waist-high railing down into the enclosure, the newspaper said. "When he got closer and was undiscovered, he reached out to hug it."

Startled, Gu Gu bit Zhang in the right leg, it said. Zhang, a 35-year-old migrant laborer from central Henan province, got angry and kicked the panda, who then bit his other leg. A tussle ensued, the paper said.
Don't mess with a panda, that's all I'm sayin'.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Stop taxing work, start taxing gas-guzzling

I'm a big fan of revenue neutral measures. Let's face it -- the budget is a great big hulking many-headed beast. It's no shame to admit that one's liable to be confused by it. In isolation, many, if not all of the well-intentioned spending measures sounds good. Who can be against more education or more museums or subsidized kibbles for diadvantaged hamsters (OK, I made the last one up)? Yet on the other hand, every single tax increase sounds bad. How can you put more pressure on working families? Or young people? Even the estate tax is decried by many, because of the terrible burden it places on rich, dead, people.

Revenue neutral proposals allow us to cut through a lot of the noise and confusion by holding one variable (the revenue) constant. It's a modest tool -- it doesn't seek to find the optimal solution. It just allows people to compare two paths in a somewhat apples to apples manner.

Al Gore, it seems,
have come up with a doozy of a revenue-neutral measure: Abolish the payroll tax, and replace the lost income with a carbon tax in a revenue-neutral manner. Audacious, yes. But also smart and I think sellable, if it can be shown that the average working family comes out ahead in this exchange. Let's not be afraid of bold measures. If we manage to get this proposal through it will be a win-win-win situation for the liberals. First, this measure will do what no amount of switchgrass and hydrogen initiative will do -- it will drive the demand for petrochemicals down in this country tremendously by tying it so strongly to how much cash the consumers will have in his back pocket at the end of the day; secondly, it gets rid of the rather regressive payroll tax; and lastly, it will break the specious connection between Social Security and the payroll tax. No other government program is expected to "pay for itself" or can be declared "bankrupt" in isolation.

The eagle-eyed among you are probably already tapping out a scathing comment as you read this, so let me assure you that I am well-aware of the irony -- that social security itself was sold to the public with a revenue-neutral proposal. That is, a new tax (the payroll tax) will be created to pay for this new expense in a way that leaves the rest of the budget unaffected. However, that was more than 70 years ago. Since then, the Social Security act have proven its worth over and over again. It's a rock to lean on in our old age that Americans count upon. And it won't ever go away unless we decide to stop paying for it -- how we choose to pay for it now, be it the payroll tax, carbon tax, out of the general fund, is completely irrelevant.

So yeah, revenue neutrality: great way of deciding whether or not to try something new. However, it need not leave a network of "if...then" relationships in its wake in the budget. For instance, Ezra worries that the proposal if put into action would work too well and carbon use will drop to such an extent that the economy is caused to contract too much. That sounds to me like one of those diet ads on TV that warns you about not trying XXX if you're just trying to lose a few vanity pounds because it might work too well!. If I turn the volume knob up too high on my sound system, I dial it back. Similarly, if the carbon tax is doing too good a job of reducing carbon usage, it's not an admission of failure to dial it back partially. This, of course, would leave a hole in the budget. How to fill it? Of course we can always bring back the payroll tax to some extent to fill the hole. But there is no reason why we have to do it this way -- there's no actual reciproical relationship created between the two taxes. It's like if I decide to get a bag of cherimoyas at the grocery store to try instead of my usual bag of apples. However, if I then decided that I both love the tropical flavor of the cherimoya and the satisfying crispness of the apple, then I can buy both fruits at the grocery store next week. Forgoing a magazine or a glass of wine can cover the expense just as well, if I decided that I'm just that much of a fruit lover.

Monday, September 18, 2006

"This is Baghdad today"

Anne Garrels for NPR:
Their Sunni family was afraid to go and pick up the bodies at the morgue. The morgue, you have to understand is now controlled by radical cleric Moktada al Sadr and his followers. Sunnis are terrified of going there, because Sunnis who have picked up bodies there have been shot as they left. So Sunni women contacted Shiite women in their tribe for help. They delegated two Shiites to pick up the bodies. But it didn't work. When the two men got there the guards said "What? You're here to pick up the bodies of two Sunnis who killed five Shiites?" A gunfight broke out. Shiites fighting Shiites. This is Bagdad today.
Just goes to show that offing a bad guy does not necessarily make the situation better. Oh, but purple fingers, right?

By the way, I don't know if I'm somehow infringing on NPR by quoting their stories extensively without purchasing their transcript, or whether they welcome the links. Either way, NPR is a gem floating in the cesspool that is the American media scene, so please contribute to your local station when they have one of those godawful fund-drives. Or even when they're not so maybe they can make the godawful fund-drives a little shorter.

Why voter intiative suck

Bait and switch.
Prop 2 and three other initiatives in the West would stop this practice. The Kelo decision has been the focus of the campaigns. Check proponents' Web sites, and several show a suburban house with a huge backhoe shovel looming overhead.

But there's more to most of these initiatives than eminent domain. Check the fine print and you'll find part two of the proposals. It's patterned after a measure passed in Oregon two years ago. It delivered a severe blow to Oregon's statewide land-use planning system. This provision says that, if an ordinance decreases the value of someone's property, then the owner can file a monetary claim against the government.

I think Kelo is wrong, but to slip something so much more wide-ranging and dubious in merit along with an anti-Kelo proposition is dishonest. If voter initiatives are to be any good at all, this practise of paperclipping or piggybacking or whatever it is must be stopped.

Retroactive anonymity

Those of you (if any) who clicked through to the article I linked to in my previous post and read the byline might find a surprise.

In the light of my change of employment, I've decided that it would be prudent to start blogging "anonymously". Obviously, you don't have to tell me that this is nothing more than a fig leaf, and a slender one at that. Not only do y'all know who I am, but the google cache is there forever. But I don't want to stop writing about Taiwan-related issues in an opinionated manner and I don't want to get in trouble. So here's my extremely half-assed compromise. I might also stick one of "These be personal statements not reflecting the views of my employer" statements in ol' sidebar at some point.

So, do I regret blogging non-anonymously? Yes and no. Yes, because then I wouldn't have to do this ridiculous tapdance now. But on a deeper level, no. I think real-name blogging keeps people honest -- you know you're accountable for what you write on a deeper level even after you turn off that laptop.

Diebold voting machine "security"

The latest revelation about the "security" of Diebold voting machines: the access control panel can be opened with a standard office furniture key, which can be purchased online.

(Via BoingBoing.)

Pride, Taipei style

Usually, I think of Taipei's mayor Ma Ying-jeou as a bit of a hypocritical prettyboy. But on Sunday at the opening of Taipei's annual gay parade events, he was right on:
"Tolerance is a necessary virtue for any world-class city," Ma said. "Homosexuality is a natural phenomenon that cannot be suppressed away nor spread beyond its natural bounds. Gay rights are a part of human rights. We want Taipei to be a multifaceted city filled with love, peace and tolerance,"
The opening took place in front of the Taipei City Hall. They even raised a rainbow flag. Then a couple of city councilors joined the crowd in doing a choreographed pompom dance set to "Go West" by the Village People. With rainbow colored pompoms, natch.

It's ironic because Ma and the organizers obviously links being a more tolerant society with being a world-class city, using photographs of gay meccas around the world, including two in the United States, but at least part of what they're doing is so much more radical than what would be considered acceptable in the States. Ma is a serious contender for the 2008 presidential elections. Can you imagine his counterpart in the U.S. saying what he said in a public forum? The parade even got public financial support -- 1 million NT in city cash (about 30,000usd), though that's to be slashed in coming years.

One group in Taiwan is not happy about the festivities. Can you guess which?

(By the way, I'm not saying that Taiwan is some kind of gay paradise where there is no prejudice. Just that the society here is surprisingly liberal in this respect. Gays still can't marry, and people face lots pressure from their families in this respect)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Gen. Odom Speaks, you listen

Really. Literally. It's an NPR interview, m'kay? Here's some nuggets I've transcribed for a taster:
(General Odom on sectarian violence) I don't see that you can do anything about it without taking sides. If you take sides, you make it worse. This is one of those situations where you've lost money in the market, it's sunk cost. You can't get it back by putting more money in. [snip]

Now, I've been saying this for two, three years. And every time I'm told, oh, we can't let the sectarian violence go on. Well, we've been there, and the sectarian violence has grown. What evidence is there that our being there reduces it? There's a lot of evidence that our being there incites it and makes it greater.

(Odom on "Precipitous Withdrawal") It's not the stomach to stand a long commitment, it's the wisdom to not to continue to allow your enemies to bleed you. By going in we have so enhanced Iranian power in the region it's hard to exaggerate.
Listen to the whole curmudgeonly thing.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Zubr Trooper

I have to say, I'm not really terrified by those new hovercrafts that China is ordering from the Russians. Sure, they look pretty badass, but six of them is hardly out of line for a large country like China with extensive coastlines.

Maybe it's because Taiwan has been in the crosshairs for so long, I feel rather fatalistic about how much/little arms capabilities China has. Think of it this way, the population of the whole of Taiwan is roughly the same as that of the greater Shanghai metropolitan area. They've got something like 600 missiles aimed at us right now. They probably don't need no stinking hovercrafts if they are determined to overpower Taiwan.

I think whether or not Taiwan can stay independent depends less on the arms in China and more on the attitude of the Taiwanese. We need to demonstrate the intention and ability to defend ourselves -- to make a possible invasion costly to the PRC both economically and politically costly. That, combined with the fact that the PRC leadership, while repressive and despotic, does not seem to be actively insane, ought to keep the issue of the hovercrafts mostly moot.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Book Blogging: Xenocide and Happiness

Misleading post title. Psyche. Of course, what I mean to say is that I have two book reviews for you today: Xenocide and Stumbling on Happiness.

Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

I gobbled up both Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead fairly voraciously. But Card only barely kept my attention for this one. The proportion of half-baked philosophical-religious noodling to plot and action is too high for me. This book is also weakened by being one of those bridge books that neither truly begins nor ends the action, but sets things up for the next book. I've mentioned before that Card's personal beliefs are fairly odious. But it's not until now that enough of that have shown through to mar his books for me. He write plenty of strong, complex female characters, but annoys me with his increasingly schematic theory of the sexes and how the male and female tendencies must be melded for civilization to result. The characters Grego and Quara (until their reformations towards the end of the book) seems to be caricatures of the untempered male and female instincts -- to empathize too little in the case of Grego, and too much in the case of Quara. I also found it a little bit lame that Card spent what seems like most of the book savagely attacking a religion he made up without hardly turning any of that withering attention to Catholicism, which also features prominently in the book. I'm also deeply suspicious of the "philodes" business, which seems to be leading up to some seriously lame musings about how we're all connected and the divine nature of the universe. No wonder this guy is a big fan of intelligent design.

Am I going to read Children of the Mind? I don't know. I think I like the series enough to finish it out. But I'm certainly not going to pay full cover price for it.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
My co-blogger already reviewed this one, and all in all I agree with his assessment. Very amusing, and valuable for presenting a series of interesting psych studies in one place.

Is it just me, or have we been seeing a mini-wave of breezily clever non-fiction books that seeks to dazzle and inform? Is this "101 Counterintuitive Stories: Psychology edition"? If so, good. I challenge philosophers, historians, entymologists, sociologists and linguists to get in on the act so that I may be well-informed on any topic at any cocktail parties I may be invited to in the future.

How does the rich sleep at night?

Very well, apparently.

As you can see from this graph, poor people spend more time in bed, but rich people take less time to fall asleep. As a result, the haves catch more winks per night on average compared to the have-nots.

The main question is, did those researchers count time spent watching TV in bed as "time in bed"? If they did, then the whole study is rather useless and predictable. If they didn't, then the findings are genuinely interesting.

(One way or another, I wonder how long before David Brooks cites this paper as an explanation of why the income gap is growing -- Whip Apnea Now!)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

When it rains, it pours

It's been one of those ridiculously, ungodly rainy Taiwanese days. It's pouring so hard that my schnauzer has steadfastedly refused to set a paw outside the house. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 protesters wearing red (presumably for anger) has gathered at Ketagelan Avenue to call for the resignation of President Chen Shui-Bian.

I feel like the protest movement in the United States could do with a talent like Fan Ke-shin (范可欽). A advertizing professional, he has generated a series of stunts for this campaign to dispose of Chen, some of which have worked out (the red shirts), some of which have not (the plan to seat the protesters in the shape of a giant compass). All of them gathered tremendous amount of publicity. If protester in the U.S. wishes to find their lost relevance, they can do worse than to take a few pages from Fan's book. First of all, get centralized. One humungous demonstration announced well in advance is a lot harder to ignore than lots of smaller, impromptu ones that does little more than let the participants vent. Secondly, get unified -- by rallying behind one message, one sign (the 'thumbs down') and one strongly identifiable item of clothing (the red shirts), the protesters made their point clearer and their presence stronger. I wasn't at Ketagalan avenue. But I've seen protestors on the MRT in their red shirts. Finally, and most importantly, control your publicity because ultimately the perception of your protest is alot more important than how the protest itself. I think that Fan has been mostly successful on all counts, despite having caught much flak himself as being too gimmicky.

So, what has Chen, or A-Bian as he is popularly known, done to deserve this popular wrath? Plenty. To be fair, a lot of the most serious charges are aimed not at him but at his family. His son in law has been indicted on insider trading charges. His wife most probably took inappropriately lavish gifts of jewels and gift certificates. As if influence-peddling relatives aren't enough, A-Bian himself have failed to account properly for funds in his National Affairs budget. To me the last is the most serious charge, although the amounts involved are smaller and did not necessarily go into his own coffers. Added to this melange of unseemly behavior is the fact that he came into power on a pro-democracy anti-corruption ticket. Oi.

However, despite my disgust at Chen, I'm not rushing out to sit on Ketagalan avenue, nor have I donated my $100nt. Frankly, I don't think that this movement is productive. Chen has already made it clear that he intends to serve out the rest of his term come hell or high water. Having survived the initial pressure of the breaking scandal and the recall effort by the opposition, I think the smart money is on Chen hanging tough. And if the anti-Chen forces did force him to resign, a bad precedent would have been set of defeating an opponent not at the polls, but at Ketagalan avenue; of disposing of a badly-behaved president not through the courts, but through a mob.

On the plus side, maybe ruling politicians of the future would think harder before slipping that hand into the cookie jar.

Land of the conspiracists

So, 43% of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein is personally responsible for 9/11. Meanwhile, 36% suspect the U.S. government of either promoting the attacks or allowing it to go to completion on purpose, rather than out of incompetence.

Now what we need is a poll showing how much overlap there is between the two groups so that we can figure out what percentage of crazy our country is.

(BTW, it should be noted that my own husband is among those who, while not among the "the gummint planted the explosives in the basement" crowd, does think that something fishy has been going on. "Why were they playing war games featuring that exact scenario on the morning of the attacks?", he intoned darkly, "we don't know all there is to know about this yet."

Oh dear. I think I might have to restrict his consumption of Air America Radio.)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Duelling Islamofascists

So, contrary to what 46% of Americans still think after all this time, no. Saddam Hussein is not responsible for 9/11. In fact, he was so far from being in cahoots with Al Qaida that he tried to locate and capture Zarqawi, as the recent senate report revealed.

But hey, they're both Islamofascists, right? Start differentiating them, and the terrorists would have already won.

I think this is a good time to review a post from Yglesias from a few days ago:
Talk of a unified Qaeda/Iran/Hezbollah/Syria menace is nonsense as a casual scan of actual Sunni jihadist views will make clear. As Fred Kaplan notes, if Churchill and FDR had operated with the Bush mentality, "they might not have formed an alliance with the Soviet Union (out of a refusal to negotiate with evil Communists), and they might have therefore lost the war."

It's worse than that, though -- they might have proposed attacking the Soviet Union in the middle of the war because Bolshevism and Nazism were both species of Eurofascism.

So, why didn't Churchill and FDR make Bush's mistake? It's all too easy to reach for the snide answer and say that FDR wasn't a moron like Bush or something like that. But I think that even if G.W. was the Commander in Chief during the Second World War, he wouldn't have made the same mistake that he did with Iraq. The reason is simple -- Germany was serious threat the way Al Qaida and all the other "islamofascist" factions we can't be bothered to sort out have never been and probably could never be. That's why we have the luxury of lumping them all together lazily and thus strengthening their hand instead of playing divide and conquer. We might talk as if our enemies are 10 feet tall and crazy, but the desultory way we're fighting them suggests that, deep down, we know they're jokes. When it comes to this war on terror thing, our rhetoric is as hysterical as our execution is sloppy.

Despite the weakness of our enemies, "war", "hysterical" and "sloppy" in the same sentence seldom bode well for the future.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Use it or lose it, circa 1776

At the risk of sounding like old Betteridge in The Moonstone, who is always on hand with a quote from Robinson Crusoe, I really think that there must be a apropos quote from The Wealth of Nations for every occasion.

It seems that Old Adam has anticipated the work of scientists like Elizabeth Gould in his observations of how the poverty of environment and experience enervates the mind:

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of
the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the
great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very
simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the
understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed
by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent
in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are
perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion
to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in
finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never
occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion,
and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible
for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders
him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any
rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or
tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment
concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.

The Adam Smithian solution? Public education!
[The common people] have little time to spare for education. Their parents can scarce afford to
maintain them even in infancy. As soon as they are able to work they must apply to some trade by which they can earn their subsistence. That trade, too, is generally so simple and uniform as to give little exercise to the understanding, while, at the same time, their labour is both so constant and so severe, that it leaves them little leisure and less inclination to apply to, or even to think of, anything else. But though the common people cannot, in any civilised society, be so well instructed as people of some rank and fortune, the most essential parts of education, however, to read, write, and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations. For a very small expense the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education.

File under "Why Adam Smith is right and the Adam Smithians are wrong".

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Non-Monday bookblogging -- The Soong Dynasty

According to my count, I've read 34 books so far this year (I've blogged about most, but not all of them). Seeing as how there's only 15 weeks left, in the year, it seems I am about three or so books behind. Not an insurmountable deficit.

The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave

Just as the portrait of Mao still hangs over Tiananmen, the giant bronze of Chiang Kai-shek still sits in his otherwise-hollow memorial hall in Taipei. Both men were first-class sons of bitches who are widely despised in private estimations in both countries, yet retains their officially-sanctioned veneer of respect. In China, of course, the Communist party still rules with an iron fist. It's easy to explain why they find it convenient to leave Mao on his pedestal -- to knock him off would undermine their own legitimacy, such as it is. It's much harder to explain why, even after he is long dead and the monolithic power of his party dissapated, Chiang still beams from every Taiwanese coin. At least they got rid of his image when they updated the paper currency.

Of course, since long before I picked up this book, I've known that Chiang Kai-shek was a awful despot whose reign in Taiwan is now called the "White Terror" era. What I didn't know was that Sun Yat-Sen, a figure honored on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, especially in Taiwan where he is called our country's father, was such an impotent, bumbling incompetent. The historical accounts I've previously been given always glossed over why he gave power to Yuan She-kai so soon after the successful eleventh revolution (which as it turned out he didn't even have much of a hand in.) Now I know. He had no choice. Yuan had him by the short and curlies.

O.K., now I've probably already you guys off this book by making it sound like some arcane text concerning Chinese/Taiwanese history. It's not. At least, it's not just that. What it really is is a juicy expose "reads like a novel" as one reviewer puts it, but is even better because it is all true. The Patriarch Charlie was an astonishing rags-to-riches story, but it was his kids who siezed the levers of power in China. Of the three sisters, the avaricious Ai-ling became, in the authors words though I paraphrase, probably the richest woman to have put her fortune together through her own cunning. The idealistic Ching-Ling struggled bravely but rather ineffectually as a voice of moderation, refusing to be co-opted by either side. The power-hungry May-Ling married the Generalissimo and dazzled the Americans on his behalf with her barnstorming red-baiting good-versus-evil rhetoric. Their brother T.V. was the financial wizard who, initially at least, fought hard to give China's currency concrete standing before Chiang made it clear that he wanted his finance minister to be nothing more than a rubber stamp.

Chiang Kai-shek's despotic rule did not come to an end when he lost China to the communists. Instead, he transplanted his regime to Taiwan, where he continued to claim with increasing absurdity that he is the legitimate ruler over all of China proper. The White Terror continued. Taiwan was under marshal law. Pro-Democracy dissidents were crushed ruthlessly -- shot in demonstrations, snatched in the middle of the night, left to languish in jail cells or executed. After Chiang's death he was suceeded by his more moderate, enlightened son Chiang Ching-Kuo who finally set in motion the democratizing reforms that resulted in today's multi-party democratic system. After the move to Taiwan, the Soongs lost influence, though they still remain very very very very rich.

Against all the sins of Chiang can be set one redeeming counterweight -- he kept Taiwan from falling to the communists. Taiwan's growth rate accelerated, and even now, when the "Taiwan Miracle" is deemed over and the economy seems to be in the doldrums, it is still a prosperous country. For some, that is enough to let sleeping dogs lie and his head on the coins.

The regenerating brain

This is one of those awesome articles which contain so many angles that one rushes to open up a blogger window right after reading it and realize that it's hard to decide which facet of the article to blog about: The awesome Elizabeth Gould who overturned the entrenched scientific paradigm (dogma, really) that the brain does not regenerate itself? The fact that there are researchers out there who are reversing parkinsons (in lab rats, so don't get too excited) based on Gould's discoveries? Did you know that the way Prozac works (according to the neurogenesis perspective) has nothing to do with serotonins at all? How about the fact that, at least in lab animals, the blander your environment, the less your brain bothers to develop new neurons?
The naturalistic habitat that Gould has created for these marmosets is essential to her studies, which involve understanding how the environment affects the brain. Eight years after Gould defied the entrenched dogma of her science and proved that the primate brain is always creating new neurons, she has gone on to demonstrate an even more startling fact: The structure of our brain, from the details of our dendrites to the density of our hippocampus, is incredibly influenced by our surroundings. Put a primate under stressful conditions, and its brain begins to starve. It stops creating new cells. The cells it already has retreat inwards. The mind is disfigured.

The social implications of this research are staggering. If boring environments, stressful noises, and the primate’s particular slot in the dominance hierarchy all shape the architecture of the brain—and Gould’s team has shown that they do—then the playing field isn’t level. Poverty and stress aren’t just an idea: they are an anatomy. Some brains never even have a chance.
The human brain, it seems, is both fragile and resiliant -- an unfortunate start in life can result in long-ranging neurological repercussions that affect the individual into adulthood and beyond. But those repercussions are also not irrevokable. All in all, the emergance of the field of neurogenesis seems to be an optimistic development.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Pat Buchanon, still batshit insane

I continue to be impressed with Pat Buchanon's unexpected and cogent voice against wars in the mid-east from Iraq to Lebanon. So it's easy to forget that he's such an awful bigot. No matter. It's good to be reminded that people are not cartoons whether they are on your side or the other side -- that good sense and horrible believes can co-exist in the same individual.

The Father Speaks

What do you say to a father whose son was killed in the final countdown before the end of the pointless Israeli/Lebanese conflict.

In lieu of anything to say, maybe we can listen.
Uri was a very Israeli boy. Even his name is the ultimate Israeli, Hebrew name. He was the quintessence of the Israeli I would like to see. The kind that has almost been forgotten. The kind that people today consider a curiosity. At times, I would look at him and think that he was something of an anachronism. He and Yonatan, and Ruti, too. Children of the 1950s. Uri with his absolute integrity, taking full responsibility for everything happening around him. You could always trust him with everything. Uri with his profound sensitivity to all suffering, to every injustice. With his compassion. Whenever that word came to mind, I thought of Uri.

He was a man of values. In recent years, that word has faded. It has even been ridiculed. Because in our disjointed, cruel, cynical world, it's not cool to have values. Or to be a humanist. Or to be really sensitive to the distress of others, even if the other is your enemy on the battlefield.

But I learned from Uri that it's possible and necessary. That we need to defend ourselves, but in two senses: to defend our bodies, and not to surrender our souls. Not to surrender to the temptations of force and simplistic thinking, to the corruption of cynicism. Not to surrender to boorishness and contempt for others, which are the really great curses of the person who lives his entire life in a disaster area like ours.

(Via What is Liberalism)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Dogs on a Bed

Paging Samuel L. Jackson.