September 30, 2004

Debatable   {Comments: 0}

Well, the concerns I posted below about the format turned out to be largely unfounded -- the candidates were allowed to make several exchanges, Lehrer ignored the guidelines about follow up questions, and the networks happily left the candidates on screen even while they weren't talking. Good for them. I agree with the conventional wisdom that, contrary to expectations, this was a very substantive debate.

As far as who won, I think it's debatable. There were so many moments when I cringed in frustration at Kerry's failure to respond to Bush in a clear and direct way. I do think he probably looked like a credible alternative to Bush, something he really hadn't been able to do before -- so I wouldn't be surprised if he got a significant bump in the polls. I also think his performance was more impressive than a lot of the Bush campaign's attacks might have suggested, which may help. On the other hand, as everyone seems to be reporting, the contrast in approaches is clear, and I still won't be surprised if Americans side with Bush.

UPDATE: Insightful commentary abounds: Andrew Sullivan, Josh Marshall, Daniel Drezner, a thoughtful response from Mithras at Fables of the Reconstruction. And I can't not link to this commentary from a blogger who was in my high school debate class. It's starting to look like a slight Kerry win is pretty much a consensus, with only a few outliers... it'll be interesting to see whether that effect snowballs over the next few days.

Also, Mithras mentions some camera shots of a huffy Bush while Kerry was talking and thinks they might have been a little unfair to Bush. But, according to this article, FOX News was in charge of the camera pool for this debate. I don't have much to say about the fairness of the camera choices, but I'm fascinated by the way the media seems to have flat out rejected a lot of the terms of the debate. I think it's an impressive statement on the media's part, and I hope this contemptuous attitude toward the candidates' prissy microsurgical approach continues.

Oh, and one more question: Bush's indignant response to Kerry overlooking Poland -- was that a deliberate allusion to Gerald Ford's Poland error in 1976, or just a cute coincidence?

Made to be broken   {Comments: 0}

I have such a sense of foreboding about the debate tonight. It should be the greatest moment of possibility for the Kerry campaign, since the topic is the same one Kerry's been hammering for two weeks and represents at once the centerpiece of the Bush presidency and his greatest point of weakness with the American voter. Unfortunately, the rules of the debate are such that it may be impossible to engage the president at all, and Bush's inconsistencies, confusions, and outright lies about Iraq will go unchallenged. I can't see how the Kerry handlers allowed this to happen -- surely they recognized that this debate is the most important, both for the campaign and the democratic process! Now, instead of the discussion about American foreign policy that Americans so critically need, we're likely to hear 90 minutes of rehashed stump speeches.

If Kerry has a winning strategy, it's to find a sympathetic way to break the rules outright (and possibly often). This might just allow some real debate, could have the added benefit of infuriating Bush on stage, and would show the world that Kerry has some cojones...

September 28, 2004

Speak, memory?   {Comments: 0}

In an all too rare break from his new legal heaven/haven, Will Baude writes about senses and their relationship with memory.

[M]y own submission is that touch is an underrated and visceral sense, but mostly I find the insistence that there is one single sense most closely tied to all people's memories sort of bafflingly confident.
I agree that touch is underrated as a sense. But why couldn't there be some biological reason one sense is favored over another in memory? It turns out a friend of mine is a neuroscientist (at Yale, Will) who researches this very question, and her take seems to be that different senses arose at different evolutionary times, and are therefore connected more closely with functions that may have emerged concurrently. Touch was probably the first sense, followed by taste, smell, hearing, and finally vision; these are associated with successively higher order functions in the brain. So, looking at it from the other side, the fact that smell is so often strongly connected with memory and emotion may speak to questions of when memory and emotion arose, how they work, etc. Or, it might provide a basis for thinking of different kinds of memory, from an evolutionary neurological standpoint.

I don't think this has any particular bearing on the anecdotal and literary evidence Will cites, and I certainly don't think it precludes other senses from carrying memories. My own experience is the music brings with it by far the most present memories, and I'm moved by music more often (by at least an order of magnitude) than any other artform. But I know this isn't the case for everyone.

Yellow journalism   {Comments: 0}

Half the blogging web seems to have fixated on this story about Alan Keyes's daughter, who might be the person writing this blog and therefore might be a lesbian. I guess bloggers are hyped to engage in this kind of "investigative" reporting after the CBS memo flap, but while an auditing function might have been helpful in that context, it's little more than technology-assisted gossip here. This is a story no respectable journalist would pick up, and for good reason. Set aside for a moment the ethical questions about whether delving into this woman's personal life or turning sexuality into a political issue are appropriate; Alan Keyes is losing the Illinois US Senate race by over 50 points! What possible purpose, political or otherwise, could this serve?

Unprint thyself   {Comments: 0}

1. A group of American publishers is trying to get Treasury Department restrictions on editing works from Cuba, Ira, etc overturned. I was disappointed to see that Shanna Compton wasn't party to the suit, but I guess her Rebel Edit has been quiet on this for a while.

2. The FCC is having a hard time censoring Spanish language media because there aren't enough Spanish speaking censors. Might this be an avenue of employment for some unscrupulous readers (ie those who don't mind having censor on their resumes)? This weekend I was talking with someone had just finished reading For Whom the Bell Tolls and we laughed about Hemingway's use of the worst profanity in untranslated Spanish while in English he'd overlaid such gems as "Go unprint thyself."

September 27, 2004

Limited punditry   {Comments: 0}

One reader wrote last week to gently chide me for not having written more about the election. Why have I been avoiding the subject? For one thing, it's very hard to find space to write -- almost any analysis or opinion I've thought about posting here can be found elsewhere, and more succinctly or eloquently put. Meanwhile, there's been almost no positioning by the candidates on policy issues -- instead, the campaign has focused on broad stroke "themes" and character questions. These are important -- they'll probably decide the election -- and I talk about them frequently in private conversation, but it's not something I usually want to spend my spare time writing about. Still, I'll probably write about the campaign more in the coming weeks (it seems unavoidable), and in case you want to now what I've been thinking about the campaign for the past few weeks, I'll tell you now.

Up through the afterglow of the Democratic convention, I felt strongly that we'd see a Kerry victory, and a blowout. Polls I've seen over the last year or so have convinced me that Americans are ambivalent about Bush, and the fact that people still hadn't fallen in line for him in late spring seemed to bode well for Kerry's chances.

But I've sobered up since then in the face of a truly masterful Bush campaign and apparent incompetence on the part of Kerry's handlers. Kerry's failure to respond immediately to the attacks against him was an incredible blunder, and part of a patten of failures to seize the initiative. Focusing on his Vietnam service at the convention may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it allowed the Bush campaign to focus its attention on that service instead of Bush's record.

Shouldn't this have been apparent to professional political strategists? Polls at the time showed widespread dissatisfaction with Bush's handling of the economy and domestic issues as well as the war in Iraq -- and things in Iraq have only gotten worse since then. But the campaign has been about Kerry -- his service, his flip-flopping -- and yet people are still saying they don't know him. What a disaster.

Kerry can still win, though. Bringing in some faces from the Clinton administration (expert in weathering GOP attacks) was the right move, and the message has become more appropriate for a challenger in a midterm election. They've inverted their strategy -- before, Kerry was treating his foreign policy credentials as an established fact and centering his rhetoric on domestic conerns. Now, he's talking about Iraq instead, drawing attention to the president's failures with the knowledge that as a Democrat, he's got the upper hand on domestic issues. (Provocatively, this is exactly the strategy Dean employed to such great effect.)

The debates can't do much for Bush except solidify his position, but they can help Kerry by providing a foil for all the attacks we've heard up to now. Because he'll have such a big audience, if he can come across in a way that refutes all those nasty accusations, they'll fall away and he'll suddenly have a double digit lead. Frankly, I doubt this will happen; it's hard to imagine the Kerry I've watched all year suddenly becoming dynamic or engaging (take a look at Stanley Fish's editorial in Friday's Times). But, anything's possible... and the door is always open for Bush to make some kind of fatal error.

A real difference   {Comments: 0}

Irving B. Harris passed away yesterday at the age of 94. Among other things, he was an early supporter of Head Start and the founding donor for the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago (from which I just graduated).

September 23, 2004

Thrown out of court   {Comments: 0}

Last week I was excoriating the mayor over his nefarious plans for omnipresent government. But this week I'm ready to sing His praises after he endorsed a Chicago Police sergent's proposal to more or less decriminalize posession of marijuana. Here's Daley talking around and about the issue:

“If 99 percent of the cases are all thrown out, and you have a police officer going -- why?” Daley said. “Why do we arrest the individual, seize the marijuana, [go] to court and they're all thrown out? ... It costs you a lot of money for that. It costs you a lot of money for police officers to go to court.

“Why is that happening? They say, ‘Well, we didn’t like the search. We didn’t like the arrest.’ It’s the same person we’re arresting every week. He has marijuana on him. And if you want to test him, he has marijuana in his system ... If 99 percent of the cases are thrown out, when is [there] a credible arrest for marijuana? What does the court want us to do with these individuals?

“It’s decriminalized now. They throw all the cases out. It doesn’t mean anything. You just show up to court. Another case goes out. That’s all it is. There’s nothing there. They don’t even show up -- the offenders. It doesn’t mean anything.

“Sometimes, a fine is worse than being thrown out of court. Thrown out of court means nothing. Maybe they don’t even have to show up. Many times, the offenders don’t even show up anyways. That’s what we have to look at.”

It's not perfect, but in some ways this is a big step forward. It solves enforcement problems with the tacit admission that enforcement is impossible, but it reserves the power to fine offenders as sly form of regulation. The penalties are clear, which means users can make informed choices instead of trying their luck with the courts. And of course it's good for the city's books -- the fines will bring in some revenue and the city can put its limited police resources somewhere else.

To be sure, there are a couple of problems with it. For one thing, I'm concerned that they can't get the charges to stick now. Does this mean they're taking some kind of inappropriate police action in arresting these individuals? And if so, won't giving cops the power to ticket people mean the courts have less oversight? Or, will offenders simply learn to contest their tickets? I guess I'm most worried that this will give police more power to harass certain groups. There are police cameras up in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city -- will these be used to hand out tickets?

I do think the initiative has a lot of promise though, and I like that Chicago is a city that's ready to try a new approach on this issue. I think what seemed to me at first to be a huge ideological difference between this policy and the cameras from last week actually has more to do with seeking ways to innovate. This can be a good thing.

(By the way, the Chicago Police sergent? It's a feel good story about innovation from the ranks of the CPD... and a well concealed Daley trial balloon. These are professionals!)

September 21, 2004

Physics envy   {Comments: 0}

1. According to statistical analysis of traffic patterns in Israel, there is an increase in traffic fatalities after terrorist attacks -- but only on the third day following an attack. The article discusses a parallel phenomenon following well-publicized suicides, but doesn't supply any compelling explanation.

2. Modern forensic evidence suggests that Rasputin was actually killed by Oswald Rayner, a British spy -- although he probably contributed only the deathblow, after other conspirators had incapacitated the infamous Russian mystic.

3. Meanwhile, Sean Carroll (after Umberto Eco) dicusses the scientific approach as a series of open minded guesses designed "to sift through the interesting alternatives and decide which works the best."

4. And Lenka Reznicek has posted a tasty looking (and vegetarian!) recipe for imam bayildi. Can anyone recommend a good Turkish place in Chicago that doesn't focus on roasted meats?

September 20, 2004

The Russian project   {Comments: 0}

Putin's terror-induced power grab has weighed heavily on me for the past few days, especially so since the coverage has been kind of numb, slow, and uncritical. Isn't this the biggest world event since the US invasion of Iraq, with geopolitical consequences that could be as farreaching as the US presidential elections in November? God knows, this isn't the first step back towards authoriarian government we've seen in Russia, but it's by far the biggest and most alarming.

Part of the problem is that Putin's move was justified by terror. I wrote before about Russia post-Osetia as a mirror for US terror policy, and while it's certainly been that, the policies are so exaggerated that it feels like Putin is covering new ground. He's interpreted terror through the same Manichean framework as Bush, but the Chechans aren't al Qaeda -- their cause has some legitimacy, even if their methods don't. And Putin's response, essentially dismantling Russian democracy over a crisis that has more to do with crumbling empire, is either a monumental overreaction or a total non-sequitur. Here's his own explanation:

Democracy, Mr. Putin suggested in remarks after the school siege, does not result in stability, but rather instability. It does not unify, but rather divides. The principal threat posed by democracy in Russia today, he made clear on separate occasions in the last two weeks, lies in simmering ethnic and religious tensions along the rim of Russia where ethnically non-Russian people live. That division, he suggested, can only be controlled with an iron hand from above.
This rationale sounds very Russian, but make no mistake: it's the direct result of Bush's policies in the war on terror, which have legitimized the subordination of political rights to security and blurred the distinction between particular ideologies or causes and the methods used to fight those causes (ie terrorism or conventional war-waging). This is fearmongering, Bush-style, but in a context where fear is an even more potent catalyst for political change.
I am very fond of a poet   {Comments: 0}

Sean Carroll has posted an adorable little poem by Wendy Cope, The Uncertainty of the Poet.

September 18, 2004

The eternal return   {Comments: 0}

It's hard to care too much about Macaulay Culkin getting busted (don't the OK City cops have anything better to do?), but I just love the juxtaposition (with the ad) in this screenshot from the WaPo:


September 17, 2004

Catastrophic DNS problems   {Comments: 0}

In case you haven't noticed, has been experiencing some technical difficulties, ie it's been out of commission for about four days. It's a long story, but basically I recently changed hosting services and got some bad advice from Jace Herring, the proprietor of Bloghosts (my new host) about when it would be OK to cancel my old service. Meanwhile Jace (who's the only one handling their support, evidently) fell down some stairs and impaled his head on a pushpin, so it took a little longer than usual to get the mess straightened out. On the bright side, I now know more than I ever expected to about DNS, and the site is back up much sooner than I thought, given the scope of the problem. Too bad for you, idle reader!

September 13, 2004

Lagging behind   {Comments: 0}

1. A couple of interesting articles about art and politics: one laments the "sorry state" of activist art in New York during the GOP convention; another reviews a show of political art at the ASU Art Museum, touching on Goya and the political cartoon. Neither gives a very satisfactory explanation for the disquieting (or rather, quieting) phenomenon, nor do they really examine the arts more broadly. My sense is that there's a similar state of affairs in literature right now, although outside of a few poet-bloggers I read, I can't claim to be plugged into what's really current. But it does seem like art generally is lagging behind popular sentiment, which isn't the usual arrangement! Is this because art (along with critical thought) spent most of the 80s and 90s divesting its interest in the political? Or is it something else?

2. In re the post below, there's a group called the New York Surveillance Camera Players that may need to open a Chicago chapter.

Fear itself   {Comments: 0}

Why is the city of Chicago obsessed with the videocamera? First, traffic cameras were placed at intersections around the city to catch red light violators (including, just a couple weeks ago, yours truly). Then police cameras with flashing blue lights designed for surveillance and crime deterrence were placed in high crime areas around the city (so that it's now very easy to tell when you've wandered into a bad neighborhood -- just look for the cameras). And now, the mayor has announced his plan to put 2000 cameras in public spaces all around the city to help improve emergency services and prevent terrorism.

This is all in keeping with the Chicago model, which concentrates authority in the mayor's office and doesn't fuss too much about process or constitutent rights. Obviously I haven't seen the cost-benefit on the camera installation and the projected improvement in emergency response, etc -- but I have no doubt this is the right choice from a safety standpoint, both in terms of lives and dollars. My guess is the privacy rights issues probably were taken into consideration as strictly a political input, and that the mayor's office (rightly) concluded people wouldn't mind much. This necessary political calculation was the reason behind the stepping stones (first the traffic cameras, then the police cameras); by introducing the more palatable cameras first, the mayor's office was able on the one hand to gauge public response, and on the other to help introduce constituents to the idea. The whole rollout was carefully planned and flawlessly executed...

You can probably tell I don't like the idea of being surveilled, but what bothers me even more is the anti-terror justification. Is terror really so great a threat in Chicago that we need 2000 cameras keeping track of everyone? There has never, to my knowledge, been a terrorist attack here, and there has been only one attack in the whole country in the past five years (an attack which btw probably wouldn't have been prevented by a bunch of networked videocamearas). London, mentioned in the article as having a less extensive system than the one on the table here, has been subject to numerous terrorist attacks over the past couple decades, which may make their concession to Big Brotherhood appropriate. But to all appearances, Chicago isn't London, and this amounts to calculated fearmongering, simply the seizure of privacy in Chicago by the mayor. As to his ultimate motivations, I can only guess.

September 9, 2004

No such thing as a free sample   {Comments: 0}

I guess it's to be expected in a post-pomo world, but the paranoia over intellectual property rights is really getting out of hand. According to the latest federal appeals court ruling, uncredited musical sampling is illegal, even when the source of a sample is unrecognizable. Lifting snippets of music from older recordings for new music -- a note here, a chord there -- is now legally cognizable appropriation. The effects are obvious for rap and hip-hop artists, who often rhyme over samples of music taken from older recordings, but there are implications for all purveyors of creative content.

The ruling is pretty dubious from a policy standpoint. Assigning property rights might be strictly a legal question, but mapping out so much territory for those who already own the songs as a whole will have reverberations through the industry, stifling creativity in a significant way. And since a recording artist who acknowledges sampling may be liable even when the source of a sample is unrecognizable, the ruling creates incentives simply to stop acknowledging sampled pieces (especially when they're minor, unrecognizable snippets of music).

I can't speak to whether the ruling will stand or not, but I'm really surprised this kind of sampling isn't already considered fair use. After all, pastiche and parody are taken to be legitimate -- aren't these kinds of transformations along the same theoretical lines? Samples provide the basic vocabluary for hip-hop and related forms, and implicit in the relationship between sampler and samplee is an aesthetic and political statement. There's a long tradition here: early jazz players coopted and transfigured showtunes of the day, and when the lawyers came after them, they kept the charts and changed the melodies.

By the way, the choice of the word vocabulary above (among others) was deliberate. Language, like music, squeezes meaning out of successively larger structural chunks -- phonemes, morphemes/words, sentence, paragraphs, oeuvres. Depending on the level of discourse, different chunks become more or less relevant to meaning -- so, phonetic relationships are essential to the poet, largely ignored by the journalist. But the law doesn't distinguish between poetry and journalism on these questions -- just like it doesn't recognize that samples may be the phonemes of one music and the paragraphs of another.

September 8, 2004

Accept no substitutes   {Comments: 0}

Am I the only person who's considering buying an AK-47 on Monday? The assault weapons ban is about to go out of effect, and the arguments for letting it expire seem to consist entirely of claims that the ban is ineffective. But doesn't this argument signal an abdication of government responsibility for citizen safety? That's precisely the point heavy artillery activists are making: that we need to be able to defend ourselves. And they're right: the government's failure to protect us from these weapons is the surest sign that we need them for protection. It's hard not to see that logic!

And then there's this bit:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Meanwhile, as part of my job I've been spending my afternoons at a Chicago preschool. Today, two children used some interlocking plastic wheels to build guns, with which they were running around the room shooting each other. The teacher told them to stop: "No matamos a nadie." Something, perhaps, for everyone to keep in mind.
Civic duty   {Comments: 0}

Here's a site where residents of most states can register to vote. Please go register now if you haven't already -- it only takes a moment, although you may have to print and mail the application, depending on the laws in your state.

September 2, 2004

Mistaking a stand   {Comments: 0}

Eric Bakovic takes a quick look at usage for take a stand vs make a stand. It turns out both are common, although the former seems to be the dominant form, with significantly more hits on Google. Could make a stand be a conflation of take a stand and make a last stand? And where does the expression take a stand come from anyway? It's not clear to me what kind of stand is being referred to.

Soyuz nerushimiy   {Comments: 0}

This hostage situation in Russia is really troubling, especially coming on the heels of the downing of two Tupolevs and a suicide bombing outside the Moscow Metro last week. It's exactly the kind of nightmare we expected in the US country three years ago: Chechan terrorists seem to be more competent and organized than their al Qaeda counterparts, and of course their "infiltration" of Russia is aided by geography. I'm worried though that this will push Russia further in the direction of police state -- and how the world will respond to that. It's significant that we have yet to hear about this from Bush or Kerry.

Because: the Chechan terrorist situation is an important mirror (touchstone?) for US policy. Obviously the parameters of the Russian response will be guided in part by US action over the past few years. But at the same time, our ability to protest in the face of a changing Russian civil rights picture (which we'll surely see -- just what's happened here, except in caricature) is somewhat degraded by our own behavior, eg Abu Ghraib and the show trials of Guantanamo.

Also, there is the question of whether or not the Chechans are freedom fighters. To some at least, their cause is worthy, while their methods are suspect. This distinction between the cause itself and the manner of resistance isn't acknowledged at all by current American policy -- neither with regard to terror generally or to the resistance in Iraq. So, these Chechans are most certainly a "terrorist organization of global reach." Can they be a conquered people, fighting to regain their homeland, at the same time? And does the current American answer to that question (ie no) make us in the very strictest sense imperialists?

September 1, 2004

Zugswang   {Comments: 4672}

In re the post below, Will reminds me that while chess may never be solved, it may still be theoretically possible to solve it. Of course he's right about the distinction between solvable and solved, but I'm still not convinced it's even possible to solve chess. Will suggests that because there is a finite number of possible chess games, there must be a solution (and this position is elaborated in a comment below).

But what would that solution look like? To me, a solution means a series of axioms that define best play, and while the list could be long and complex, I'm not comfortable with calling the exhaustive elaboration of all possible games a solution. Isn't a solution supposed to simplify matters? The solution to tic-tac-toe can be explained without actually showing every possible outcome.

I have a feeling "solution" isn't even a meaningful term for experts on systems as complex as chess; they're probably more concerned with completeness or some other technical measure of freedom. After all, moves in chess aren't usually forcing, which means there vast periods during which a player can direct her own strategy and take the game in radically different directions depending on what that strategy is. Can you imagine someone just sitting down for a game of chess, proclaiming, "Mate in 39!" without making a single move? This will never happen, because the players in chess have too many degrees of freedom.

EN PASSANT: This is only marginally related, but I forgot to mention this interactive knight's tour link that was on MonkeyFilter the other day. And here are some solutions.