June 2008

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.

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.

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.

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…

This about says it all:


Of course, I still liked the movie.  I kind of wonder if people who are outraged at the movie saw the originals when they were 13-years-olds and didn’t realize that “cheesy” was registering as “awesome”. 

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%.

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.)


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