After what seemed like forever, the Amazon page for Against Peace and Freedom is up.  So the print version is available!  Neurimplant version will be available soon though only on the Vee. 

Oops, got to run to the car repair place.  Buy the book so I can afford it!

A great article by Yegor Gaidar, once acting prime minister of Russia, on why the Soviet Union fell apart:


Gaidar is writing largely to combat popular folklore in Russia right now, that reformers somehow sabotaged a system that was working fine.  But it’s equally a rebuke to the folklore in America that Ronald Reagan somehow did it.  The collapse had nothing to do with the reformers or Reagan.

Very briefly, the Soviet system was doomed with the collectivization of agriculture back in the 1930s, at Stalin’s insistence.  Collectivization greatly reduced grain production and destroyed any capacity for increased productivity.  Yet the cities kept growing, increasing the need for grain.  In the ’50s a program of utilizing marginal land was begun, but this only solved the problem temporarily. 

In the ’70s the system got another reprieve, via the discovery of oil.  But the price of a resource-based economy is instability and backwardness.  When oil prices collapsed in the mid -1980s, the USSR suddenly faced a $20 billion per year shortfall in revenues.  Several difficult solutions were available, but the leadership decided instead to just borrow the money from foreign banks. 

And this in turn tied the Soviets’ hands when the satellites and the Baltics started rebelling.  In 1991 the Soviets were negotiating a desperatedly needed $100 billion loan; it was understood that the money would not be available if (say) the USSR repressed the Baltics by force.

The coup in August 1991 failed largely because it was soon realized that the plotters, though able to push Gorbachev out, had no plan of their own.  They could not produce grain for the cities, or reestablish military control over the satellites, or secure that loan.  Stalinism couldn’t be reimposed by a wish.

On August 22, 1991, the story of the Soviet Union came to an end. A state that does not control its borders or military forces and has no revenue simply cannot exist. The document which effectively concluded the history of the Soviet Union was a letter from the Vneshekonombank in November 1991 to the Soviet leadership, informing them that the Soviet state had not a cent in its coffers.

Oil prices are up again, which is providing a boost for the Medvedev/Putin regime, which is smart enough to save some of the revenues… but only enough to provide a few years’ buffer in case of emergency.

Perhaps the greatest irony here is that the greatest avowedly Marxist state was undone by pure economics– as Gaidar points out, by the same factors that ground down Spain from the most powerful country in Europe to one of the weakest.

Wow, I got about ten offers to go over the PCK in 24 hours.  Thank you!  I’ll get back to people individually.  I have to go over the text myself once before it goes out.  That should be enough people though.  (Well, unless you have a particular expertise in climatology or military history.)

Still addictive enough that the awesome TF2 Halloween update takes second place.  As the screenshot shows, I learned a) how to make screenshots, and b) how to play in third person mode.

borderlands scooter

Scooter, one of the few characters you don't kill.

Playing a mixture of single-player and co-op games is weird… you end up playing the same area several times, the first time in a fog of confusion as you help someone else with quests you haven’t got yet.  You can have a fair mixture of levels, but once it gets too wide it’s less fun– I was in a game with someone 10 levels higher and it wasn’t that fun– he just swept up all the enemies.  I created a second character when a friend was just starting out.

There’s an appealing punk feel to the game… no appeals to your better nature, no saving the galaxy– it’s a rough and ugly planet and you’re in it for the money.  And if you have several players and are fighting a horde of enemies, it can be really intense, chaotic fun. 

The loot system is compelling, as it was designed to be, but I’m not sure it marries well to co-op.  I don’t know why you’re limited so much in inventory (you start with just 12 slots)– it forces you to make decisions constantlyon what weapons to keep, and in co-op you don’t want to hold everybody up while you ponder.  Doubling the slots or more would only improve the game.  You want to try out all these weapons, or be able to save one or two for a friend.  It’s annoying to pass over drops because you have no slots or can’t easily evaluate if they’re better than what you have.

An excellent article which not only details the frightening insanity the Republicans have fallen into, but starts to address what to do about it:


A lot of the ruckus is political theater, but the Republicans have been stirring up the crazies for years, and some of them are going to get violent– just as they did in the ’90s.

While we’re at it, here’s what the craziness looks like to a British observer.  Both links via Agto.

I’ve been playing Mirror’s Edge lately.  It always looked intriguing, and there’s something hypnotic about the picture of Faith on the cover— perhaps that fact that her mouth is too small— but I was scared away by Yahtzee’s review

Fortunately, Yahtzee was wrong; it’s really a lot of fun, though of that peculiar sort of fun that involves enormous amounts of swearing and pointing at the screen with a gun hand making shooting noises.  A lot of the moves require very precise timing, and there aren’t enough savepoints, so if there’s a particular spot you’ve missed you have to keep trying not only that bit but the half-minute leading up to it, giving you a chance to re-blow previous moves you already accomplished.  You can’t save the game at all on your own.  On the plus side, this means you tend to actually learn the moves rather than bungle through, and it’s a real thrill to get a sequence right and fly across the rooftops.

For me, whose last experience with what the kids are calling “platformers” was Lode Runner, it’s a neat, novel form of gameplay.  A million games let you be a swordsman or shooter; it’s more interesting to be a parkour specialist.

The visual design is spectacular; rather than the usual dystopian muddle, the designers have gone for a bright white palette with accents in bright colors.  It’s really a beautiful game.  Key objects are highlighted in bright red (e.g. the bar below), though if you’re an insane person you can turn this off and figure your own way around. 

A relatively dark and forbidding image, by Mirror's Edge standards

A relatively dark and forbidding image, by Mirror's Edge standards

I’m only partway through so I can’t say if the plot elements turn out to be interesting or not.  I’d venture to say it’s going to require a certain suspension of belief: every element so far turns out to require a long trek over the rooftops.  Doesn’t Faith ever just take a taxi?

I’m guessing that some of the criticisms derive from the original price and short gameplay.  It’s just $20 on Steam now, though, which seems like a bargain.

One complaint: there’s no manual, so when I’d forgotten how to do a particular maneuver I had to replay the tutorial.  It was left-shift, by the way.  It’d also be nice to have integrated third person… I see that there’s a way to hack this in, but the results look clunky– unlike (say) Fallout 3, the designers obviously spent most of their time on first-person mode.

Re: Ads that take over the window or otherwise hide the page I’m reading.

Doesn’t work.  Dudes, it’s 2009.  I already have an attention span measured in seconds.  The moment I see one of those things, I click on another window, or hit the close box if any.  Did you follow that?  I don’t watch the ad.

Alert reader Alon Levy responded to my question about industries where the US is still on top:

Right now, I’d say the number one answer is semiconductors. The semiconductor/hi-tech industry is powering the Bay Area and Dallas. In addition, several Midwestern cities – Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis – are trying to develop strong health care and biotech industries.

Usually, the objection to these industries is that they’re highly specialized, and require much more education than most Americans have— at least, that’s the main objection I’ve encountered. The answer is that as late as the 1940s, the same could be said about the auto industry: it produced a very specialized item, and required its workers to have completed high schools, which at the time most Americans hadn’t. In fact, today’s auto populism has a lot of parallels with the farm populism of William Jennings Bryan.

I think it makes sense in general that our continuing advantage will be in high-tech and other things that require good education; and the nice thing about this analysis is that it comes with a policy prescription: focus on education.  We already have a formidable university system… the problem is in primary and secondary education, where we lag most industrial countries and many non-industrial ones. 

That Malcolm Gladwell has a New Yorker article pointing out the huge difference between good and bad teachers: one finding is that a good teacher can advance students 1.5 years in a class year; bad teachers, just 0.5 years.  So, we should hire good teachers instead of bad ones.  But, as he points out, almost nothing predicts teaching excellence— especially not the teacher’s own education level.

My worry about tossing the American auto industry is that transportation technology seems like it’s an industry that Americans should be leading in. It’s hard to imagine Detroit doing the leading, to be sure.  But transplanted Japanese and German factories aren’t going to do it either.

From Andrew Sullivan: county and state level cartograms for the presidential election.

It’s a good example of the effect of the Electoral College, which amplifies a comfortable-but-close popular vote total into a 365-173 Electoral College landslide.

Interesting how completely the third parties were a sideshow this year.  CNN didn’t even bother to include them in its charts.  Nader, Barr, and two others all together got 1.1% of the vote.  It’d be interesting to know if this was mostly in states where it didn’t matter– if people avoided the fringe parties in battleground states.

What’s your take on the point that’s come up in blogs and on TV about the Democrats potentially “kicking Sen. Joe Liberman (I-CT) out”of their congressional caucus?

 My initial reaction is posted here (http://vroomsplat.livejournal.com/91167.html), so if you’d like to respond to that I’d be grateful— but this is about asking you, not asking me, so most of all I’d like to know what you think the Democrats should do.

I’d better reply before events take over…  There’s some justifiable anger at Lieberman’s consorting with McCain and running as an independent; but I think it’d be foolish to kick him out.  It’s not merely prudent to have one extra vote; it’s a certainty that it’ll be needed one day and probably many days.
There’s a profile in this week’s New Yorker of Chuck Hagel, a Republican who’s been increasingly critical of his party, especially on Iraq.  (He accompanied Obama to Iraq this summer.)  Frustrating as they are to ideologues, we need this sort of people—the rather small group of politicians who inhabit the middle ground between the two parties.

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