December 2009


Sometimes a pundit manages to prove the opposite of his intended point.  E.g. Shmuel Rosner’s piece in Slate which insinuates that world leaders are disinclined to do anything for Obama because he’s too “nice and conciliatory”.  “If he can’t fight, he isn’t scary,” Rosner snarks.  (We’re in two wars; how many do we have to wage before we’re fighting?)

Only by Rosner’s own admission, George Bush, who was not nice and not conciliatory and very willing to fight, did even worse.  He cites Time‘s judgement that “the Bush administration is neither loved nor feared in growing sectors of the international community — increasingly, it is simply being ignored.”

But you know, if US arrogance and US civility have the same effect, then perhaps the explanation doesn’t lie on the US side.  Certainly you can’t suggest that Obama is too nice when you’ve also just shown that not being nice has even less effect.

By his own evidence the likeliest explanation is that the world just isn’t seeing the benefit of aligning with US policy.  That’s exactly, in fact, what Fareed Zakaria has been saying.

However, I do think Rosner is exaggerating how bad things are, with a barely concealed smirk.  It’s hardly fair to expect Obama’s first year to create a turnaround on Cuba, or even Israel.  (In calmer moments Rosner has even explained why no one in the Mideast is interested in peace for now.)

The most important international issue Obama’s addressed is global warming; the agreement at Copenhagen is at least a step back to sanity and working together, which at least is better than Bush’s eight years of noncooperation and denial.  But this isn’t an issue that’s going to be solved at international conferences anyway.  To put it bluntly, the world will start to take it seriously when the US does… and it hasn’t yet.  Don’t blame the Chinese for not doing what we’re also not doing.

I just finished Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us).  As a book, it’s a bit clumsy, like its title.  But he’s got a fascinating subject.  Traffic– or driving, really– turns out to have a lot of paradoxes.

  • The average driver is lousy but thinks he’s great.  This is largely due to the reversed feedback: bad driving is actually positively reinforced by the long stretches where it doesn’t cause an accident.  Normally we’re not even aware of the near-misses that our bad habits produce.
  • Slower is faster.  Past a certain level of congestion, you get more cars getting through by people driving steadily, not as fast as they can.  E.g. in an experiment, police limited the number of cars that could enter the Holland Tunnel in NYC to 22 per minute.  The result: throughput rose from 1176 to 1320 vehicles per hour.
  • Safer is more dangerous.  Remove obvious obstacles, give plenty of space, and make a road look like a highway, and people drive like it’s a highway… and if it’s not, if it’s a city street, this causes accidents.  A slight level of confusion is good for us: we slow down, stay alert, notice the pedestrians and bicyclists (and because slower is faster, gridlock is avoided).
  • Adding more roads creates more traffic; adding more parking adds more congestion. 

There’s also a neat example of what we might call the paradox of liberalism: solve a problem, and people forget what the problem was and begin to resent the solution.  In Minneapolis, a state senator (Republican, naturally) got a moratorium on ramp metering (restricting the number of cars that could enter at a given ramp).  After all, the traffic on the highway is moving, why can’t we join it?  Results: speeds dropped and travel time went up; in certain areas highway throughput halved.  The meters were reinstated.  The traffic was moving because you couldn’t just rush into it.

It’s hard to finish the book without thinking that designing our lifestyle around the automobile was probably kind of a bad move (and that’s without getting into global warming or running out of oil).  Also that flying cars would probably be exponentially more complicated…

Here’s a great article by Jonathan Chait at The New Republic on why anyone to the left of John McCain should be pleased with the health care bill just passed by the Senate:

http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/just-noise?page=0,0

He summarizes the bill, shows that Republican talking points are based on nonsense, and criticizes progressives who are prepared to derail the plan because they didn’t get more.

The most promising aspects of the bill (besides just extending coverage) is a series of experiments on reducing health care costs.  Chait slightly covers this, but here’s a more thorough New Yorker article by Atul Gawande.  In short, there’s no single, proven magic bullet to lower costs; we have to try a bunch of ideas and see what works.  And that’s exactly what the Senate bill does.

Also worth reading: Andrew Sullivan on Obama’s first year.  His summary of the whole year also applies to health reform in particular:

Change of this magnitude is extremely hard. That it is also frustrating, inadequate, compromised, flawed, and beset with bribes and trade-offs does not, in my mind, undermine it. Obama told us it would be like this – and it is. And those who backed him last year would do better, to my mind, if they appreciated the difficulty of this task and the diligence and civility that Obama has displayed in executing it.

The messiness of letting Congress create the reform bill has unnerved supporters all year.  But by doing it this way, rather than at the White House as under Bill Clinton, Obama achieved what Clinton couldn’t: passage by both houses of Congress.  There’s just one more hurdle, the reconciliation process; but earlier hurdles were higher.

There was a note on some medicine we recently picked up:

Dispense with Medication Guide

This has two readings, quite contradictory: the Medication Guide must be either required or thrown out.  You’d think giving instructions to pharmacists ought to be quite clear…

There’s two types of bestsellers: fashionable tripe that’ll be forgotten in a couple of years, and good stuff that remains highly readable, though it makes the literati shake their heads.  The only way to tell the difference is to wait.  2400 years should do it, as in the case of Herodotus’s History.

Herodotus invented our sense of the word ‘history’– ἱστορίαι in the first line of his text meant ‘investigations’.  He seems to have travelled extensively in the Mediterranean, asking pretty much everybody he met about their cultures and how they got caught up in the Persian War.

He has an interesting approach to organizing his work: he follows the rise of Persia, and as the Persians reach each section of the world he talks about its culture and history.  As a result he doesn’t get to the Persian invasion of Greece till Book Six (of nine).

What struck me most about Herodotus is that all his stories are personal.  There’s not a shred of geopolitics and economics, besides a generalized lust for conquest.  Wars are all because X offended the son of Y or stole Z’s sister or whatnot.  There’s some talk about subjects of the Great King being “slaves” and the shamefulness of Greeks choosing the Persian side (there’s a concise verb for this, “medizing”), but it’s really orthogonal to the Greek-Persian conflict.  The objection to Persian rule isn’t that it’s absolute but that it’s foreign; also of course that once feelings intensified, Athens and Sparta faced destruction if they lost.

The other striking thing is the brutality.  Many of the stories Herodotus tells include rape, murder, prostitution of one’s family, bodily mutilation, and cannibalism.  Of course, to some extent that’s the point: the frisson of horror made a good story then as it does today.  Still, it comes up so often that it’s clear that one of the accepted perks of being an absolute ruler was to commit horrors.  (Though not always with impunity; such indulgences might provoke betrayal or revolt.)

Herodotus talks about all sorts of indecencies, but he’s reticent about one thing– the details of religious rituals, evidently too holy to talk about.  Even talking about the gods seems to make him uncomfortable.  At the same time, he has a curious certainty that everyone’s gods are the same as those of the Greeks, though under different names.  (He also likes to supply everyone with an eponymous Greek ancestor– e.g. the Persians derive from Perseus.)

Often he tells us he doesn’t believe some story he’s heard– e.g., he surmises that a story that the air of the far north is full of feathers just refers to snow.  On the other hand he can be by our standards quite credulous.  (E.g. he reports that lionesses bear only one cub; one might wonder why the lion population doesn’t halve with each generation.)  He, like the rulers he describes, is very deferential to oracles, especially that of Delphi– though he approvingly tells of the story of 0ne ruler who tested a number of oracles about a matter known only to him and henceforth consulted only Delphi, which answered correctly.

Some tidbits:

  • Every culture seems to need an opposite.  Herodotus finds his in Egypt, where sex roles are all backwards: the women run the shops and the men weave; women piss upright and men squatting.
  • The handsomest men in the world are the Ethiopians.
  • For being so martial, the Spartans twice fail to send armies on time because they’re busy celebrating festivals.
  • Almost every bit of martial history I read contains a stray female warrior or two.  Herodotus mentions two: Tomyris, a Scythian queen who defeated and killed Cyrus, and Artemisia, one of Xerxes’s commanders, said to be one of his favored advisors.
  • It’s notable how many of the Greeks “medized”, willingly or not.  At the end the resistance came down to the Peloponnesos plus Athens, and even Peloponnesene cities like Argos refused to help.

Granted that Herodotus wrote in part for an Athenian audience, the impression I get is that the main factor in the success of the Greeks was Athens’s decision (due to Themistocles) to devote all its resources to shipbuilding.  Thermopylae was just a speed bump to Xerxes; the sea battle at Salamis was what made him return home with most of his army.  (Athens and Sparta share honors for the final battle at Plataea.)

 I finished Assault on Dark Athena, only to hear that Escape from Butcher Bay is supposedly the really good Riddick game.  Fine, Butcher Bay it is.

Riddick nods to the competition

It works pretty much the same way, only it feels bigger… there are more characters and more interactions.  You’re thrown in prison, and in order to escape you have to do standard prison-movie things, like beat other inmates to death. 

It’s generally challenging, because unlike say Half-Life 2, you don’t have fancy body armor– just Vin’s muscle shirt– so a second of gunfire will down you.  So you have to sneak as much as you can and use cover and die a lot.  (Hopefully the game will improve my aim… getting in the first shot makes a big difference.)

I had crashes in both games till I updated my ATI Radeon drivers.  A nasty side effect of this seems to be that Mirror’s Edge is now degraded… some levels are nearly unplayable.  Major argh.

On the plus side, over in Left 4 Dead 2, I got a beautiful charge tonight– sent two survivors off the side of the hotel in Dead Center.  There was much rejoicing among the infected.

Great video from Sugimoto Kousuke.  The first third is an amusing concept.  And then it gets insane

I love stuff like this that repays multiple viewings to follow all the threads.  Here’s an older example by Zbigniew Rybczynski:

http://vimeo.com/6846641

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