Driving the wrong way on oil

Thomas Friedman has a good column today.  But first, I have to get this out of the way.

that's the inimitable Howard Cruse drawing the doll


Anyway.  Friedman addresses the mind-boggling idea currently being pushed by McCain and (good Lord) Hillary about getting rid of the 18.4¢ gas tax.  Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, nearly worthless in the face of $4 gas, and shameless pandering, but it’s precisely the wrong way to go on oil.

Markets are great ways of pricing and allocating goods… except when there are significant externalities involved.  If manufacturers get something for free, or cause harm without paying for it, then their prices just don’t reflect these things, and the market operates on false information.

The price of gas doesn’t reflect the fact that it’s running out, or the pollution and carbon emissions it causes, or the cost of the foreign policy we pursue to secure it.  The single simplest way to address this is with a gas tax.  It’s one of the few taxes that actually affects economic incentives in the right way. 

No one likes a nag; but living in denial for another eight years is not an acceptable alternative.  It’s not just that we should kinda maybe face these issues.  We will face them.  We will soon live in a world where cheap gas is a thing of the past, and people will rethink those SUVs and sprawling suburbs.  The choice isn’t between cheap energy and annoying liberal contraints.  It’s between starting to deal with the problem now, while we have time to adjust and research alternatives, or dealing with catastrophic failure in a few decades.

One of Friedman’s most telling bits:

In 1997, said Resch, America was the leader in solar energy technology, with 40 percent of global solar production. “Last year, we were less than 8 percent, and even most of that was manufacturing for overseas markets.”

What’s kept the US on top for a century and given us bigger incomes (and energy footprints) isn’t our moral values; it’s our technology.  We did things earlier and better than other nations.  If we lose that edge, we can’t ultimately keep our lead in wealth either.  We need to be applying ingenuity to energy production, rather than to creating ever more tenuous types of mortgages.

Ex-D&D strip

Probably the Order of the Stick will always be considered a D&D comic.  But it hasn’t been, for quite a while.  By by rough count, the last ten strips contain about five D&D references, total.  It’s basically a fantasy comic that occasionally uses D&D jokes.  (He’s actually using anachronisms and pop culture references more than D&D.)

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  On the other hand I’m looking forward to Chainmail Bikini starting up again.

Seeing the Shi`a

Wow. Occasionally I find a book that unwinds my mind and rethreads my head. This is one: The Shia Revival, by Vali Nasr.

By now people often know about the Sunni/Shi`i distinction and even know where each is concentrated.  And you can hardly get your pundit license without knowing that the conflict derives from a 1300-year-old succession dispute: the Shi`ites believe that only descendents of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali can rightfully rule.

But Nasr makes this come alive.  He starts with the celebration of Ashura in Karbala in 2003, which Americans took as Iraqis celebrating some kind of religious festival Saddam had prohibited, thus a victory for “freedom”.  In fact Ashura is an emotional ritual commemorating the martyrdom of Ali’s son Husayn, and this gathering of two million Shi`i marked the transformation of the Middle East not according to Bush’s neocons, but in the direction of Shi`a revival.

Bush– like many of the leaders Nasr describes, ancient and modern– didn’t know what he was stirring up.  More confusion has reigned in Bush’s support for the Iraqi premier’s attacks on Moqtada al-Sadr in Basra, which has been depicted as a struggle against Iran… although in that fight Iran supported the government.  Similarly McCain’s confusion of al-Qaeda with Iran isn’t just a minor point; it’s a failure to understand what’s going on in the region.

Unwittingly, the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan empowered the Shi`ites, who were oppressed by Saddamn and the Taliban, and has greatly strengthened Iran, which saw two neighboring enemies disappear.  It had no need to meddle to secure influence in Iraq; shared Shi`ite values and relationships gave it that on a platter.  At the same time Iraq created a new Shi`ite hero in Ali al-Sistani, who is more moderate and conservative than the Iranian leadership. 

As Nasr shows, it’s useless to talk about Islamic fundamentalism… we have to ask instead which Islamic fundamentalism: Sunni or Shi`i.  In recent years the most dangerous variety is the Sunni, which is responsible for 9/11, the insurgency in Iraq (directed as much or more against the Shi`i taking power as against the US), and violence against Shi`i in Pakistan.  Some Sunni clerics have declared that Shi`i are not Muslims and can be attacked with impunity; it’s common to consider them a fifth column supporting either US or Iranian influence, depending on which enemy is more despised at the time.

 At times Nasr seems to hold out the tantalizing possibility of a US-Shi`a alliance.  The interests of the Shi`i are close to ours, in that they benefit from democracy and oppose Sunni terrorism.  This would have to mean some kind of rapprochement with Iran.  Isolating and demonizing its leaders is a losing proposition, and Iraq is likely to fall into chaos without Iran’s help.  On the other hand, being too pro-Shi`a would only intensify the Sunni extremist backlash against both us and the Shi`ites.

On the whole Nasr isn’t very hopeful; he considers that the alliance of convenience with Sunni leaders, for instance, was a mistake, convincing many Iraqi Shi`ites that the US would not protect their interests.  What’s certain, however, is that a whole lot of events in the next few years, from Lebanon to the Gulf states to Saudi Arabia to Iraq to Pakistan, will be determined by the Sunni/Shi`a divide.


The hair test

There are various tests for winning US presidential elections: the economy; likeability; double letters.  But a key factor seems to be having an unnaturally full head of hair.  Americans just don’t like bald presidents, if they have a choice.

Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton all had spectacular manes.  Nixon looked better than Humphrey.  Johnson/Goldwater and Eisenhower/Stevenson were tossups.

In recent years the Democrats obviously overestimated the hair factor.  Dukakis’ and Kerry’s big hair did them little good.  Just to be safe, though, Obama had better ease off on the razor, just enough to overshadow McCain’s combover.

Campaigning vs. governing

A very sensible article by Jeff Greenfield on how the skills required to campaign don’t correlate with those needed to govern:


Prime examples: Bill Clinton, whose 1992 campaign was exemplary and whose first two years as President were a mess, and George Bush, whose 2004 campaign was focussed, defy-the-odds victory leading to a disastrous presidency.

This is a good reminder because judging the quality of a campaign sounds much more reasonable than most of the drivel that gets posted. 

(Say, I just noticed that the Categories list in WordPress is sorted by how often you’ve used each one.  So the one you want is likely to be at the top.  Clever!)

O que é o fado?

My friend muckefuck urged me to rant about the film I saw last night–Carlos Saura’s Fados… so I will, though it will mostly show that I have no idea how to talk about music, or dance.

Fado is a distinctively Portuguese musical form, prototypically featuring a mandolin-like instrument properly called the Portuguese guitar; an acoustic guitar; and a soulful soloist.  About all I knew about it before was the key word saudade, roughly meaning ‘longing’ or ‘nostalgia’.

You get plenty of that in Saura’s film, but it’s also exploded by a wide range of variations: different instruments, a wider range of emotions, old and new schools, and above all a welcome splash of energy from Africa.  Most of the songs are accompanied by dance; my wife thought this added little, but I thought it worked.

The best thing about Saura’s direction is what he doesn’t do.  He doesn’t have a fit in the editing room in an attempt to jazz up the music.  He doesn’t force the eye with extreme close-ups, or show just snippets of songs.  There’s no talk.  It’s all music (and dance), allowing you to focus on the performances.  I dislike overviews that cut the work in question into little pieces, a practice which insults the very work the editor is trying to showcase.  And though talk can be good for getting some context, it’s not the best use of a movie’s time… I can always look up the verbiage later.

Ask Zompist: A possible source of racism

Mark, in addition to my earlier question about racist Europeans, let me ask you a question in bad taste:

Are our problems with rampant anti-Muslim hysteria due to the fact that Muslim girls are, uh, restrictedly available to non-Muslim men? I think most of racism comes from young men lacking access to vaginas, and consequently, if a certain immigrant group includes lots of eligible girls available to the native young men, shouldn’t it reduce racism and interracial tension? Does pussy cure racism?


Wow, that certainly is a question.  I can think of one bit of evidence in its favor: East Asians, in this country, often marry whites, and are not subject to much racism.  I’d agree (from experience) that intermarriage is the best way to understand another culture.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that the correlation holds up.  Despite miscegenation laws, there’s been a lot of black-white mixing in the US (this becomes obvious comparing American blacks with Africans), but I don’t see that this mitigated racism much.  Hindu Americans work hard to marry only other Indians, but I’ve never heard that this causes any resentment or racism.

Personally, I think racism is just part of the general primate (not just human) dislike of outsiders.  In some ways the remarkable thing isn’t that racism still exists, but how far our boundaries have expanded.  In ancient times someone from the next settlement over was highly suspect; modern urban populations can be tolerant of almost anyone.  (Even a Muslim can theoretically marry any of half a billion people.)

Culpa Innata

I just finished a PC game called Culpa Innata.  I liked it, but it’s rather bizarre, and it isn’t exactly the adventure game it’s billed as.  It’s a police procedural, and though the mystery gets solved it’s really an excuse to build up and then deconstruct a utopian society.

You play Phoenix Wallis, police officer and loyal citizen of the World Union, who has a murder to solve in the year 2047 and only your mouse to do it with.

Phoenix on yet another intervew

Essentially you have to talk to people, gradually uncovering clues that lead to new people or locations to visit; there’s also a fair number of (generally not very difficult) puzzles to solve.  Most of the game, in fact, consists of interviews.  This starts out slow as (e.g.) you ask sales clerks about what kind of boss Mr. Bogdanov was, but eventually it picks up, as you get some solid clues.  The characters are varied but few really stand out (one that does is Bogdanov’s stylist). 

Movement is rather clunky… it’s a 3-D environment, yet mostly presented from static camera angles that snap you from one scene to another.  Memo to designers: never do that again

An odd little recurring activity is near-daily gossip sessions with Phoenix’s best friend Sandra.  As these recap events you just went through, they don’t add much except insight into Phoenix’s somewhat prissy personality.  Sandra is more lively than most of the characters, however, and I ended up following all the conversational paths. 

I like the fact that the game seems to take a feminine approach… there’s no violence; it’s highly story-oriented; Phoenix is usually kind to the interviewees and always shares her emotional reactions to things.  She also has a makeup kit whose pieces are used to solve several puzzles. 

My main complaint is that the non-linear structure wears thin, especially towards the end, when one event after another simply forces Phoenix into particular encounters.  There are a few side activities (including a large side quest designed to show up the failures of the World Union) but the game could have used more diversions and dead ends.  Phoenix can watch holovision, for instance, but after the first night (when an important clue is presented), it’s always the same show.  You never get to ask Sandra about her life, or shoot down your obnoxious junior colleage Julio.  At one point you go clothes shopping (your dowdy duds won’t get you into a fancy nightclub); but you don’t get to choose your outfit (and the outfit you get is hideous).

For a long time I was puzzled at the game’s politics.  The World Union isn’t exactly an Orwellian nightmare; it’s capitalist, peaceful, and obviously comfortable, though stiff and self-righteous.  The underlying philosophy seems to be Rand-libertarian (greed, selfishness, and ambition are praised; Phoenix’s police organization is a private company; there’s no taxation); but children are raised by teachers, sex is highly liberated, and there’s a lot of talk of NGOs which are a parody of various leftist causes.

The clue lies in the credits– most of the names are Turkish, and the game is a loose adaptation of a novel by a Turkish writer, Alev Alatlı.  Now it makes sense: the World Union is an outsider’s parody of the entire West: general prosperity and a careless dismissal of the rest of the world, American individualism and laissez-faire economics, European hostility to religion and violence.  Right-wing economics and left-wing do-gooders are thrown together because both have disproportionate influence outside the West.  In the game there’s a glimpse of Alatlı’s preoccupation with quantum physics and chaos theory; apparently in the novel she links these with an eccentric form of Turkish nationalism. 

Ask Zompist: If I had godlike redrawing powers

Alert reader Eric McGill has an interesting question:

I’ve been thinking about your blog entry on nationalism, and reading other people’s suggestions for the Middle East, all of which seem to want to give independent ethnic groups their own countries, and I’m left wondering how you would redraw the Middle East. Or, for that matter, Eastern Europe or the Balkans.

 It’s dangerous to ask someone like me to draw maps. 🙂 Drawing maps, especially interesting alternative maps, is all too addictive…

So I think I’ll rephrase your question in two ways.

1. How should the great powers have redrawn the map when they had the chance?

In much larger units.  Africa and the Middle East have suffered greatly because of arbitrary lines (which divide ethnic groups and thus cause endless trouble) and too-small nations (which have few resources and become geopolitical debits, unable either to form large internal markets or to adequately protect themselves).

There are a few exceptions, of course– mostly small East Asian nations that could easily function as nation-states.  Thailand is a natural nation; Iraq or the Sudan is not. 

Large nations can be problems too– Russia took a lot longer to recover from the fall of communism than smaller, nimbler states like Poland or the Czech Republic.  But the problem isn’t size per se.  Once India and China found ways of unleashing their entrepreneurial spirit, their size became an advantage.  

2. What should small independent states do now, if nationalism isn’t such a great idea?

Pension off their nationalist leaders, then form European-style unions.  The first step is likely to be the hard part.  Unions have been tried before, notably Egypt and Syria.  They don’t work because of the big-fish-in-a-small-pond phenomenon: two or more generalissimos would rather lord it over a small country than unite to form a richer, more powerful nation where at most one of them can be big kahuna. 

It’s hard to imagine even this working in the Middle East.  But hey, in 1946 it was hard to imagine it working in Europe.