Saturday, June 02, 2012

Agree With the First Part, But Not Really the Second

Matt Yglesias writes in a post called "Long Commutes Make You Fat, Give You High Blood Pressure":
I really firmly believe that the existence of persistent regular traffic jams is just about the most underrated problem in American public policy, especially because it's a problem we could almost certainly solve relatively easily with a mix of congestion pricing, demand-responsive pricing of street parking, and more bus service.
You had me at "persistent regular traffic jams" but congestion pricing?  More bus service?  Please.....

I just don't get Yglesias's fascination with congestion pricing.  I think he read a paper on it once, but never really gave it much thought to how it would work or improve the current situation.  To me, it's a real clever way to move the rocks from one side of the yard to the other, but clearing the yard of rocks?  Yeah, not gonna happen.

First, "congestion pricing" already exists in the form of wasted gasoline, and I would submit that people are already very sensitive to gas prices.  Add another layer of cost onto the whole thing and sure, maybe they'll be extra very duper sensitive....but I doubt it.  It'll probably just piss them off.  If the light bulb has not already gone's not going to.

Also it's useful to understand that congestion pricing doesn't improve traffic flow, or make it easier for everyone to get around.  Nope, it works by deliberately pricing people out of the activity in question.  It reduces traffic congestion by reducing traffic.   It's a trick.  A gimmick, and what's worse, it's a gimmick that makes our transportation system less useful, not more.

More bus service?  In almost any case, traveling in a car will be faster and more convenient.  You can make bus service more attractive by making car travel more inconvenient but again, it's just a gimmick of lowered utility.

What I'd like to see is actual innovation, innovation that makes the transportation system more useful.  You see it every now and then in various areas, almost always in limited circumstances, but for the most part, navigability seems to be sacrificed for management and safety reasons, which is stupid.

Indeed, I think this is why the highway clumps up during rush hour:  it's the only unimpeded roadway in sight, and while there may be slowing and the occasional coming to a complete stop, these things are guaranteed to occur on the side streets.

The sad thing is that we're so used to this as the status quo that we don't think that's a problem.   We're such uncreative thinkers and habitual drivers that we can't conceive of better road design and when we do, we don't like it because it's strange.  "Roundabouts?  They're so confusing."  "Yeah, but you can make a left turn without sitting at a light."  "Yeah, but it's weird!"

We've been lulled into accepting intentional delay and random interruption as how it is and how it always will be.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  We just need better ideas, and while Yglesias's congestion pricing fixation is an idea, it's a bad one.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Libertarians are Mostly Useless....Again

Reason Magazine, the Libertarian movement's Pravda, published a book review about the United Fruit Company.  The only reason I read it is because the description included this:
It usefully reminds us of some of the wonderful things about capitalism, and some of the dangers, too.
That instantly piqued my interest because you will hear very little about "the dangers of Capitalism" from your average Libertarian. Most of the time, they embrace capitalism uncritically with an almost religious fervor. "There is no God but free markets." That kind of thing.

So I was curious to hear how they would interpret "the dangers of Capitalism" through the lens of the United Fruit Company, a notorious outfit that not only killed people but gave us the term Banana Republic. But do you think the review even mentions any of that? (I'm sure the book being reviewed does...) Nope.

We get a list of all the "pros," in order: Upward mobility, efficiency, bias-free marketing creativity, egalitarianism (defined as making products cheap, which, um, is not "egalitarianism"), technological innovation, decentralization, and philanthropy.

No joke, the "bias-free marketing creativity" refers to how the United Fruit Company handed out free bananas to immigrants at Ellis Island.

Oh, the creativity!

The cons merit a single paragraph that doesn't mention the worker abuse or the union-busting massacres. Nope, it harps on the old Libertarian "government bad" grunt.
And the United Fruit story also reminds us of some of the hazards when capitalism becomes cronyism. The book recounts all the Washington insiders hired by Zemurray as lobbyists, including Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran. A business that lives by Washington is finally at its mercy, as United Fruit learned when the antitrust cops came after it.
Yes, it's true, United Fruit corrupted (or attempted to anyway) every government they came into contact with, but don't chalk that up to their greed, their virtuous selfishness. Nope, it's the government's fault.

The truth is the United Fruit Company and how it operated is a perfect example of the "unfettered capitalism" Libertarians hold as the ideal economic system. This is why they talk about free bananas for immigrants, but don't mention that time the army machine-gunned workers protesting their exploitation. Libertarians believe, although they won't admit it so explicitly, that workers benefit from their exploitation, so I can see how this isn't their concern. But drop a Libertarian into a banana plantation in Columbia, he might change his mind.

Or maybe he'd stick with his principles with that machine gun in his face, say something like, "Oh, you're giving out free bananas in New York? Why didn't you say so? Here I thought I was living like a slave so you can live like Charles Foster Kane, but free bananas? Makes it all worth it."

What a joke.

The Power of the Big Book Compels You

I've been a disgruntled reader for a while now (Damn you, Ellroy!) and it kind of bothers me.  Reading is one of the great joys of life, I believe, one of the things that separates us from the beasts.  We have this amazing thing called language, and can communicate ideas and images almost magically with just a few black scratches on a white page.

And yet, I find myself reading old books published decades ago by writers who are no longer alive.  The new stuff?  Some of it is good, but a lot of it isn't.  Bookstores are filled with novels that have too much irrelevant detail, are too long, too concerned with filling the page with ink but not good, economical writing.

I suppose we could blame the printing press and the easy availability of paper.  It's hard to imagine Benedictine monks hand-copying, say, all 1088 pages of Stephen King's Under the Dome (which Amazon says weighs 3 pounds in paperback).  Maybe they would, but they better have a team of monks working on it and carve out a whole season for the effort.

This piece is mostly about non-fiction, but I think this paragraph applies to any book:
Why do so many writers feel compelled to write big books?
In part, it seems that big now equates with importance and value. That substitutes form for function, and frequently evidences a writer's ego—or perhaps an editor’s laziness—and indifference to a reader's limited time and attention. Life is a busy place, but don't tell that to those who write big books.
 Yep, sounds about right.  I'm no so sure about what the piece is saying about how ebooks and ease of online research contributes to the problem.  I think "Big=Important," Author ego, editorial laziness, and indifference to readers is sufficient explanation.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hear We Go Again

A tropical storm is bearing down on the gulf coast, which means that the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore is standing out in the wind, right on the beach.

Can't report on a tropical storm unless you're standing out in it....

Oh, wait, Stephanie Abrams is doing it from the studio?  Man, her reporting would be so much better if she was squinting into the camera, shouting into the mic, clothes flapping in the wind.

Making it Official

It's taken me some time and reflection, but I am no longer a fan, or reader, of one Dan Simmons, visionary SF author and right-wing crank.

Oh sure, I still think the Hyperion Cantos is a good set of books, and I do still like the Olympos books, and I did enjoy The Terror.  But I have no use for their creator, and no, it's not the right-wing politics, per se.  I continue to believe that right wing politics has a legitimate place in our culture, and as long as it's intelligent, coherent, and of good intention, I generally have no problem with it.  (Unfortunately, I think the right wing circa 2012 is neither intelligent, coherent, or of good intention, but that's another post for another day.)

The problem with Dan Simmons the Political Commentator (and probably the reason he makes his living as a novelist) is that he's as dogmatic as he is incoherent.

Example from his forum (no link, sorry):

The first three Great Awakenings in American culture, since 1800, tended to be religious ones (although the third one was centered on abolition of slavery) -- the Fourth Great Awakening was in the 1950's and '60's with the REAL Civil Rights movement at its core (i.e. the guarantee of actual equal civil rights for people of all races and for women.) Since then, we've had a hundred ginned-up faux "civil rights movements" -- including the current gay marriage effort, since portraying one's opponents as bigots is a sure-fire way to gain at least verbal public ("I don't want to be called a bigot") support -- but each of these fake-rights efforts has opened the wound in the "coming apart" rift in our culture even wider.

Murray feels that a "Great Awakening" aimed toward re-creating the health of the family -- the real family, a man and a woman as parents both dedicated to raising and educating children properly (as opposed to the scores of faux-family "alternatives")-- could be the salvation of a culture that has been torn apart and made largely dependent upon government give-aways by half a century's misstaken idea of what actually constitutes both "rights" and "family".

Murray isn't deeply hopeful that such a fifth "Great Awakening" will occur -- given our ever-increasing factiousness and selfishness and glass-teat-enhanced solitude in our current culture -- but he is certain that only such a culture-wide awakening and change (or, in truth, return) to an attitude and obligation to both reality and responsibility in our society can put it back on solid tracks to social sanity.
Man, this is just bad writing.'s a throwaway on a forum, not meant to be a "publishable" piece of polished writing, but Jesus Christ, that's bad. And it would be even if Charles Murray's ideas had any merit.

Listen to him talk about the Great Awakenings as if they were actual historical occurrences as opposed to academic classifications of various historical trends.

Listen to him separate the Civil Rights movement into the "Real" and "Faux" camps without offering a single clue as to where he draws the distinction.  (And hey, the distinction may not actually be as arbitrary as I think it is, but how am I to know?)

Listen to him talk about the "rift in our culture," as if preferring Fox News over CNN means you participate in a totally different culture.

Listen to him talk about how "Murray feels," giving the reader the impression he's summarizing Murray's "feelings" rather than describing his own.

Listen to him offer a definition of "family" (sorry, the REAL family) that is so conveniently specific that it doesn't describe family life as it's actually lived by millions of people.  (Seriously.  "A man and a woman as parents both dedicated to raising and educating children properly," that's a "real" family?  No, Dan, that's a nuclear family, distinguished as such because that's only one type among many.)

And that last paragraph really rankles.  It's poorly worded, almost a parody of what a "smart" person is supposed to sound like, but what does it say?

A)  Our culture sucks.  (It's factious, selfish, and that glass teat?  That's a TV, the most culturally homogenizing invention ever.)  

B)  Only a Great Awakening will save it.  And I stress...ONLY.  Yes, there may be more than one way to skin a cat, but there's only ONE way to save the culture.....return (I'd like to stress that word as much as Simmons did) to the the good old days of "social sanity," whatever that means.

In a later post in the thread, Simmons has the gall to write:
The logic of the government creating all these new categories to divide and reify (and get rid of) the simple, 10,000-yr.-old idea of "marriage" between a man and a woman is irrefutable.
Now it must be understood that he's being sarcastic here.  As a commentator, Simmons is afflicted with a stubborn refusal to say what he means.  It must be sussed out and interpreted, and I suspect the reason is that he's scared.  He wants to be seen as a reasonable fellow, and yet he's not...not he couches it in clever language meant to obscure rather than illuminate.  (Writers who do this drive me bugfuck insane.  But then again, I'm an unusually blunt and upfront person, which is no virtue...lemme tell ya.)

What is Simmons trying to tell us in this sentence?  The "10,000 years" provides the biggest clue.  It's a rough and inexact shorthand for "the Dawn of Man," or to be scientific about it, the neolithic revolution.  Simmons seems to be arguing that his preferred concept of "marriage" (using his quotes) goes all the way back.  It predates agriculture, animal domestication, organized religion, hierarchical societies, all of that, and not only is it old, but it's universal and unchanging.

And yet anyone who knows anything about history knows that's complete and utter bullshit.  If one appeals to history, it's important --no, necessary-- to get the history right. If not, it's garbage in, garbage out.

Which would explain this garbage.

So if you want your intelligence to be insulted by a cowardly, arrogant Dan Simmons.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


For some reason, I thought of my Uncle Jim when I saw this picture.

Two Things I've Learned From Steve Lekson's Book

1)  Karl Marx and Freiderich Engels were inspired by naive interpretations of ancient societies in the southwest in forming their ideas. They saw the monumental ruins and read the ethnographers and concluded the Anasazi were classless, egalitarian, and cooperative.  It's one of those things that would be awesome if it were true...but it's not true.  Classes formed, elites were elevated, and cooperation was often coerced by the end of a club.  Pueblo Bonito, long thought to be Indian apartments, was a bourgeois mansion for a ruling dynasty. 

2)  Phoenix, Arizona was built on the remains of Hohokam villages.  The Hohokam, who had been farming the area for two thousand years, built a massive canal system to take advantage of the Salt and Gila Rivers for irrigation.  European settlers re-used the canals and started farming the area again.  The city founders settled on Phoenix as the name because, as Wikipedia says, " it described a city born from the ruins of a former civilization."

I'm hoping as I make my way through the book, I'll get this list up to "10 Things I've Learned From Steve Lekson's Book."

God is...Hate?

On Mother's Day, a pastor in North Carolina gave a sermon in which he said this:
"I figured a way out, a way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers but I couldn't get it pass the Congress: build a great big large fence, 50 or 100 mile long. Put all the lesbians in there, fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing with the queers and the homosexuals. And have that fence electrified so they can't get out. And you know what? In a few years they will die out. You know why? They can't reproduce."
What can be said about this man's ignorance?  One could point out that the Nazis already tried that.  One could point to the Constitution and its promises of due process and such.

But I'll just point out that I'm living proof that gay people can indeed reproduce, and do.