Archive for January, 2010

Repeating the Past: Various thoughts on Obama’s SotU Address

Posted in Politics and Society, Reviews on January, 2010 by melendwyr

We already have a rail system – a government-managed one, which is slow, inefficient, prone to breakdowns, and vastly unpopular. For obvious reasons. But we’re already talking about charging ahead with a high-speed rail network, one for which there is no obvious market, which does not offer sufficient profit potential to have attracted investors, and which will in all likelihood be managed just as well as our existing system.

Insanity, it is said, is repeating the same ineffective actions over and over again and expecting a different result.

Advocates of government-run anything insist that the government intervention we have – Medicare, veterans’ services, all and sundry of various federal and state programs – work fantastically. Whether that’s actually the case is less certain.

Yet no one but fiscal conservatives ever seems to mention Amtrak. And no real attention is being given to “Fannie Mae” and “Fannie Mac”, the nominally-independent corporations which answer to Congress and which were key players in the housing bubble which encouraged financial institutions to gamble so irresponsibly with their money. The artificial demand resulting from the policy of encouraging everyone to
attempt to own homes – regardless of whether they could actually afford to do so, it would seem – caused property values to steadily increase. And that constant, artificial increase lured countless people into considering the purchase of a home as a high-return investment. Borrowing now so that you could buy a house beyond your means wasn’t unwise, it was a fantastic investment, since prices were guaranteed to go up.

I’m not even going to touch the rest of the content. Too depressing.

Carrot and Stick; Stupid Arguments

Posted in Doom, Politics and Society on January, 2010 by melendwyr

Two stories caught my attention this afternoon.

First, Israel has been facing a dearth of donated organs for transplants for some time now; there is a very great lack of people willing to fill out donation cards, despite a strong tendency for intrasocietal cooperation and cohesiveness. Various excuses are given for this, but the explanation seems to be that the old Jewish custom of not opening up corpses (not “desecrating” them) and having rapid funerals is at least partly to blame.

So they’re considering a new policy: when considering how organs will be allocated, people who are registered organ donators will be given precedence over those who haven’t agreed to make their organs available. As reasonable as this policy would seem, some people are claiming it’s religiously discriminatory, saying that their interpretations of Jewish religious law consider organ harvesting (which is ideally done when a person has become brain dead yet their heart is still functioning) to be killing a living person, and so they cannot offer their organs. Yet it seems they have no problem accepting organs – and it’s doubtful that they would turn down a proffered organ even if it had come from a living donor.


In a related story, people are objecting to Iran’s offering of money to people who offer their organs (I believe the emphasis was on kidneys) for transplant, calling it ‘exploitative’ and ‘coercive’.

That sort of talk makes Mr. Language Person a very sad panda. Coercion is the use of force or the threat of force to compel action or deprive people of resources. Offering people money – even desperately poor people – for a good or a service is not coercion. Iran’s using the carrot, not the stick. Military drafts – or the grim spectre of organ-donation drafts – are coercive. Also exploitative, especially given the practical reality that rich and influential people can buy their way out of such things despite the system’s supposed equal treatment of all.

Mr. Language Person suspects this is just another example of the War on Language, in which politically-minded people attempt to make analysis and reason impossible by destroying the meaning of words.

The Sparrow

Posted in Reviews, Science Fiction with tags on January, 2010 by melendwyr

The Sparrow is a thoughtful and well-written piece of fiction that strives to convey the realities of an alien culture to its readers. Unfortunately, that culture is Jesuitical Catholicism.

Let me not be misunderstood. Science fiction, more than any other genre of writing, concerns itself with subjects that are not what they immediately appear to be. Metaphor and allegory are grist for the mill. So it would be odd in the extreme to disregard a work of SF because it’s not really about what it presents itself as being about.

But The Sparrow spends a great deal of time familiarizing the reader with the psychology and philosophical positions and realities of being a Catholic priest – and specifically, a Jesuit. It’s ostensibly about first contact with an alien species, but that constitutes only a small portion of the text. What little we learn about the species doesn’t come through narrative experience to any great degree. Most of what we know, we’re told as part of a verbal report from the protagonist. The trauma he endured, and his spiritual response to it, are the real subject of the book. And I simply don’t find that interesting.

Possibly the most obnoxious facet of the work is that its ultimate conflict is a Consequentialist one. The main character is faced with a dilemma: he can consider himself to be a clever ape that took some old folktales too seriously, or he can continue in his faith that his entire life was arranged by God to facilitate his journey to the alien world and thus his trauma must also be an intended consequence – a miracle, if you will. Though a horrifying one. At least, I think it’s supposed to be horrifying; I was left indifferent and blasé, being far more interested in the poorly-described world and its inhabitants.

I don’t regret having read the book, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. The reality that the people I’ve heard speak most highly of it were themselves Catholics – and to my mind fairly foolish ones – speaks volumes about the nature of its appeal.

Desperate Crimes, Desperate Measures

Posted in Politics and Society with tags , on January, 2010 by melendwyr

So – Rodrigo Rosenberg, the lawyer from Guatemala whose recorded message blamed President Alvaro Colom for his assassination, is now thought to have arranged to have himself killed. He apparently asked his cousins to hire hitmen for an unspecified target, gave them a description of himself, then sat about waiting for them to show.

I do remember wondering how the guy could have been so certain, ahead of time, that his prospective death would have been the President’s fault. He didn’t say that the President was probably to blame and should be investigated, or state what cause the President had to have him killed, he outright said that if he died the President would be responsible.

It seems that this man was convinced that the government – and Colom specifically – had several people killed because they were politically inconvenient in various ways. But there was no proof, and his suspicions weren’t actionable. He was depressed, not least because his wife was leaving him, and he decided to not only put himself out of his misery but to try to make trouble for the person he was convinced had evaded justice. Not a very good idea, since the staged accusation was easily discovered and if anything will make it harder to pin anything against Colom in the future.

My first thought was that I totally wasn’t surprised about this whole mess. My second thought was that somewhere, some idiot is going to see the name ‘Rosenberg’ and claim this is another case of Jews staging crimes against themselves to gain sympathy. Not only did this guy not manage to pull off his fatal hoax, he’s given Holocaust deniers more ammunition in the process.

So, Rodrigo Rosenberg, you wasted not only your life but your death. Good riddance to you.

Economic Frustrations

Posted in Politics and Society with tags , , , on January, 2010 by melendwyr

The more I listen to NPR’s “Marketplace”, the more I think it’s meant only to reassure people that SWPLness really is compatible with economics.

Recently, they had a story about how the recent economic troubles are causing people to abandon the Chicago school of thought, in which market manipulations (governmental or otherwise) are considered to be inherently damaging. It seems that a few economists formerly affiliated with that school of thought are now publicly suggesting that government intervention is a necessary good, because bubbles and the like will form if there isn’t someone exercising good judgment.

The problem with this is that it misses two critical points of the Chicagoans. Economies work best when they’re composed of feedback systems composed of smaller feedback systems. Poor judgment cannot be eliminated – how do you deal with poor judgment on the part of the people dedicated to weeding out poor judgment? – it can only be caught at low levels of feedback. Government can’t protect against itself, and because it influences economies from the top down, its harmful effects can’t be screened out.

The second point is that people don’t seem to understand what ‘self-regulating’ means. The famous rabbit-lynx feedback system is self-regulating, but it’s not pleasant for anyone involved. The best way to avoid boom-and-bust cycles such as that one is to have a rich and complex web of interactions, so that weak links in one part don’t cause the entire thing to topple.


Posted in Uncategorized on January, 2010 by melendwyr

I’ve made a bunch of resolutions this year, some of which I have managed to keep… and others of which I am in the process of keeping.

One of them is the update this blog more often. We’ll see how that goes.