Ask Zompist: Obama and Israel

As a Canadian, and therefore as a subject of the American Empire, I’ve
been following the U.S. election season pretty closely. I agree with
you, in general, about Obama; he seems like the best hope we in the
rest of the world have for an America that might largely leave us
alone. However, I was quite worried by his behaviour with AIPAC. He
seems to have set himself to genuflect to them further than any
previous American politician. His remark that Jerusalem can never be
divided was particularly troubling. If it was a ploy to neutralize
AIPAC’s opposition, and he has no intention of following up on his
words, it’s a pretty big whopper even by the standards of campaign
promises. If it’s what he truly believes and intends to act on, it
amounts to renouncing any commitment to peace in the region. Either
way, it strikes me that he’s probably thrown away what credibility
America had left with the Arab world. What is your take on this?

–Nicholas Welch

I don’t think that line is anything to get excited about. It’s not that he’s insincere; but a political speech to the pro-Israel lobby shouldn’t be taken as the terms of a treaty. As his supporter Robert Wexler put it, he considers the final status of Jerusalem something for Israel and the Palestinians to decide. So if Israel accepted a division of Jerusalem, he would certainly accept it. (And he didn’t go farther than other US presidents; this “undivided” stuff has been a staple of US policy for decades, though the Clinton administration is I think an exception.)

I’d be more criticial of his optimism. I’m not sure that there’s a peace process to revive at this point. Realistically, as president, he’d have his hands full dealing with Iraq for a couple of years. Perhaps he could try a peace conference… but who’s he going to talk to? Hamas doesn’t want to negotiate peace and Fatah can hardly do it on its own.

On the other hand, if he’s elected we might get a grace period of good will, and it would probably be foolish not to act on that, and at least try to press negotiations. Presidencies have to hit the ground running, because they tend to get major things done only in their first few years.

Divided we advance

I’ve been reading about the history of technology, and noticed some confirmations of a point made by Jared Diamond.  He was trying to explain why Europe rather than China took over the world, despite the early technological lead held by the Chinese; one of his ideas was that since China was normally unified, if an idea got stopped, it was stopped for good.  E.g. when a faction at court put an end to Zheng He’s impressive expeditions, the Chinese exploration of the world simply ended.

By contrast, when Columbus didn’t get support from his native Genoa, he turned to Anjou, then Portugal, then to the duke of Medina-Celi, and finally to the Spanish, who agreed to support him.  Similarly, when Tycho Brahe lost the funding of the Danish king for his observations (key to establishing heliocentrism), he moved to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor.  When the Catholic Church shut down Galileo and the possibility of discussing heliocentrism in Italy, discussion moved to freer areas in the Protestant north. 

Another example: the mill revolution in Europe in the Middle Ages.  There was an explosion of mill building– there were areas that went from having 4 mills to 200 in a couple of centuries.  The largest estates were the slowest to adopt the new techniques.  Their income was already good, and their peasants weren’t going to walk miles to find a mill outside the estate.  It was the smaller estates and the towns that built the most mills; these felt competition very strongly and needed all the income and technological advances they could get.

Of course, division is a mixed bag: Chinese unity probably allowed it to largely resist being colonized, and of course European disunity culminated in the World Wars that ended Europe’s control of the world. 

I think everybody knows that new ideas are sometimes blocked by opponents.  But I think it’d be more accurate to say that they are almost always blocked.   But ideally there are other institutions or countries where the idea can be pursued.  A unipolar world will eventually stagnate.

Disarming the evangelicals

Sometimes politics can be seen as a high-stakes game of chess, a matter of moves and counter-moves, and one that Democrats have lately been weak on.  You couldn’t fault (say) Lyndon B. Johnson for not knowing the moves, but candidates like Dukakis and Kerry seemed to be running for president of the Wonk Club.  As for Hillary, she seemed to figure that when your opponents are mean and clever, you need to be at least mean. 

An article by Jeff Greenfield over at Slate suggest that Obama is playing on a higher level:

In brief: Obama took on a slate of religious leaders, and (by Greenfield’s analysis) sought not so much to win them over, as to tone them down.  And it worked for at least some of them.  As Steve Strang commented,  “He came across as thoughtful and much more of a ‘centrist’ than what I would have expected. He did not appear to be the crazy leftist that is being supported by George Soros and his radical leftist friends.” 

That’s exactly what a Democratic nominee wants the religious right to be thinking.  That’s respectful opposition… which means that those leaders won’t be furiously mobilizing against him.  Others will, of course.  But if he can’t get their vote, it’s just as good to encourage them to stay home and not vote for McCain.

As frustrating as it must be for progressives, this is still a very religious country, and a successful presidential candidate has to at least appear to be a strong Christian.  Kerry appeared to be uncomfortable discussing religion (despite his nominal Catholicism); Obama is not.

Spore toy

I picked up the Spore Creature Creator today.  It’s nice that it works on the Mac… though it doesn’t work on my Mac, argh.

The Triplacid

It’s fun and immensely clever and I can’t see playing it for very long.  (As evidence, you’ll notice that I’m not playing it right now, pretty unusual for a newly purchased game.)    It’s fun watching a creature run through all its animations; but there aren’t all that many of them.  And as a Second Life builder I’m used to being able to have a lot more control over my creations than this.

Undoubtedly this was released as a promo for Spore itself, and in that regard, mission accomplished.  It sounds fascinating and I can’t wait to play it.  (And once there’s a game to put them in, I’m sure my interest in making creatures will be revived.)

Another argh: it looks like I can’t even upgrade my PC to play some of the games I’m interested in, like Mass Effect and Age of Conan.  It needs a whole new bus type.  Oh well, I’ll just have to work on convincing myself to get a new computer…

Ask Zompist: M’man Obama

Since you used to live in Illinois, I wonder when you first heard of Obama, since when you paid attention to him, and what your impressions of him were until the 2004 election.

I wish I had an exciting answer to this, such as hanging around the ‘jects with my homie, talking about conquering conlangs and Congress.  But I don’t think I heard about him much before his 2004 Senate election.  I’ve always been interested in him; it’s rare that we have a politician that’s both intelligent and charismatic.  Of course we love our Obama in Illinois… he won his Senate seat with 70% of the vote, and won the Democratic primary this year with 65%.

On the addiction front

Interesting article on substance abuse in the NYT by one Charles Blow.  (Pause for snickers.)  Also a fascinating graphic, with an almost Tuftean quantity of information and ease of reading.

Blow focusses on a rise in treatment for substance abuse by older women.  But he seems to have forgotten how to read a cohort-oriented graph.  The two times compared are about 10 years apart.  Look at the graph for alcohol treatment for whites: in 1996, the peak was 35-year-olds.  Ten years later, it was 45-year-olds.  In other words, the same generation  is having trouble; they’re just older.

Throughout the charts, this cohort– 40 to 50 year olds, late Boomers– is trouble.  They now account for most of the treatment for alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. 

Interestingly, the cohort after them (current 30 to 40 year olds) seems to have seriously cooled down their alcohol abuse.  If they abuse anything, it’s stimulants. 

And the next cohort, 20 to 30 year olds, is busy abusing alchohol, heroin (whites only), and marijuana. 

(As a caveat, the charts only consider admissions to treatment centers, so they may or may not reflect addictions in general.  Who goes to treatment centers probably correlates with income, for instance.)



Want to succeed as a political pundit?  Just master this simple rule: take the last six months, and analyze it using the events of the last week.

I conclude this after reading a few analyses of why Hillary failed.  The problem is, they’re all based on hindsight: they look at her mistakes, real or alleged, and decide that that’s why she failed.  What’s wrong with that?  Because if she’d won, the pundits would have looked at the exact same events and used them to explain her success. 

Hillary definitely made some missteps.  She was overconfident in the beginning; she had trouble raising money later on; Bill was sometimes unruly; at the last minute she tried to change the rules (rules she’d agreed to before it mattered).  It’s not that these things didn’t matter; presumably they all helped explain why she got 1640 pledged delegates to Obama’s 1763.  But if she’d won a few more states and/or a lot more superdelegates, people would be carefullly explaining that the voters weren’t swayed by these obstacles, but appreciated her fighting spirit, her and Bill’s experience, her pioneering female candidacy, while Obama was sunk by his associates, his inexperience, yadda yadda.

The point is, it’s easy to do that kind of analysis; it just has to sound plausible, not be right.  There’s no insight in it.  To be impressive, you need to produce an article you wrote in January or earlier, correctly predicting how the race would go.

(I certainly don’t have that kind of insight myself.  I think the November election is still wide open.)

40% of Prince Caspian

We saw Prince Caspian tonight.  Where the first film was passable, this one is seriously annoying.  Let C.S. Lewis himself explain the problem:

I was once taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. …  At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not ‘cinematic’ and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined.

That’s pretty much my reaction to Prince Caspian.  Throughout the middle of the movie I was thinking over and over, “What the hell?”  Why are they introducing a foolish failed raid on Miraz’s castle?  Why did they introduce this theme of complaint and abandonment?  Why did they set Caspian and Peter at each other’s throats?  Why did they put everything out of order?  Why did they make Peter, frankly, an asshole?

My wife thought it was horribly violent.  And it is, much much more so than the book.  The book has battles and a very good swordfight, of course.  But the main battle lasts about two pages.  To echo Lewis, if the original isn’t thrilling enough to be a movie, why are you even trying to make it into one?

I just re-read the book, and the difference in tone is remarkable.  The filmmakers have entirely lost Lewis’s charm, his sensibleness, even his earthiness.  The first section of the book is enchanting, not least because of all the little details– how the children virtually live on apples for a few days, how sick they get of apples, why it’s inconvenient to cut ropes with swords, how you find fresh water when lost in the woods.  And you’d hardly get the idea from the movie that a good section of the book deals with Aslan holding a huge party in the woods, catered by Bacchus the wine god.

 I’d worried that Evangelical writers would make Aslan too gooey, too pious.  In fact the problem is that he’s barely present.  There’s a brief version of the long strange scene where Lucy and no one else sees Aslan; but in the book this is resolved fairly quickly, and Aslan meets all the children (and Trumpkin)– the main battle isn’t engaged in defiance of him.  In the movie he just shows up in the last fifteen minutes or so, as pure deus ex machina.  You’ll have to read the books to get any sense of why this lion might be an appealing figure.

Someone at a story session must have been undergoing a crisis of faith or something… the movie characters are constantly worrying that Aslan has abandoned them.  There are skeptical characters in the book, such as Trumpkin, but they’re not exactly anguished– they go along with the more religious types, because there’s always something to do.  In general this is a deep theological question… but in terms of the story, it’s a problem invented by the writers: in the book there’s no great question why Aslan isn’t acting, because he is.  And there idea that Lucy has to keep going back to the point in the woods where she saw Aslan seems like a half-wit parody of faith.  There was nothing special about that point, except that Aslan was in it.  He wanted the children to follow him, not simply as a test of faith, but because he knew the way better than they did. 

The writers even messed up small points… e.g. the kids’ use of “DLF” for Trumpkin… a little callous, but in the book it’s Trumpkin, not the children, who uses the term first.

It’s not a total loss.  Reepicheep is too great a character to harm.  The centaurs are suitably dignified; Lucy is still a winning character, and I liked Susan too… mmm, female archers.  I did wonder how King Leonidas ended up ruling Narnia…


Mmm. That’s good Land Shrimp!

Why you should eat bugs, and which ones.

Yes, there are pictures.

I’ve had several conversations with farmers in Montana and Nebraska.  Though there aren’t any locust plagues in the U.S. anymore, large grasshopper “swarms” are not so uncommon in the Western states.  I’ve been told that in some areas, grasshopper harvests of 100 pounds per hour are possible.  We are currently seeking capital and other resources that would allow us to best to make use of a huge amount of grasshoppers.

“Land shrimp”, that’s great.  Another good term is “minilivestock”.    I would make up more but I think they got the good ones already.