Friday, October 26, 2007

I'm a Libertarian Now!

It was probably inevitable that I would become a libertarian. When I was in graduate school, I was a Gramscian Marxist and a Freudian, as was only proper. Now I write software. Now I'm linking to George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution blog. Nice that the guy also writes about art: Markets and Cultural Voices: Liberty vs. Power in the Lives of Mexican Amate Painters. To be honest, most of the libertarians I knew before I got back into software were angry middle-aged engineers, and it was hard not to interpret their convictions as of a piece with their middle-aged guy anger.

Now that I'm rockin' the GMU CS department, maybe I'll meet Cowan.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Greeted as Liberators

Rory Stewart, who served as governor of Maysan province under the CPA, reviews several biographies of one of his forebears, Gertrude Bell: "The Queen of the Quagmire". Both the review and his book The Prince of the Marshes show a kind of modesty that might be impossible for any American writing about our occupation of Iraq. For Americans, it seems to be all about us. This flaw doesn't invalidate the writing of George Packer, for example, whose essay on our contemptible neglect of Iraqis who've chosen to help the occupiers by serving as translators I highly recommend. Yet Packer was a liberal hawk only a few years ago, and it's very difficult for him, writing now, not to attribute the obvious failure of our occupation (and of his arguments at the time) to the people carrying it out, rather than to a more fundamental cause. In other words, if the CPA had not put the obtuse Paul Bremer in charge, it might have worked.

Gertrude Bell is one of the architects of modern Iraq, if that's something she'd really want to claim credit for at this point. In contrast to the liberal hawk's regret that we didn't put the smartest people in charge, not to mention Edward Said's imputation of a fundamental bad faith, Stewart credits Bell and her colleagues with quite impressive knowledge of Arabic, of tribal power structures, of how to ride a camel, etc.: "Some suggest that the US failure in Iraq is due simply to lack of planning...They should consider Bell and her colleagues, such as Colonel Leachman or Bertram Thomas, a political officer on the Euphrates. All three were fluent and highly experienced Arabists, won medals from the Royal Geographical Society for their Arabian journeys, and were greatly admired for their political work. Thomas was driven from his office in Shatra by a tribal mob. Colonel Leachman, who was famed for being able to kill a tribesman dead in his own tent without a hand lifted against him, was shot in the back in Fallujah." Bell herself has to take the blame for agreeing to tack the Kurdish areas onto this new entity, at subsequent great cost to the Kurds.

It's too easy to hate the smirking fatuity of Donald Rumsfeld. But it's entirely beside the point. There is no objective measure of the depth of our understanding of Iraq. Who's to say that their self-understanding is any better than our understanding of them? The obstacle to building a new Iraq for the Iraqis is not that we don't understand them. The obstacle is that they're just not that into us. That's what it's like to be an occupier.

Friday, October 12, 2007

There's this music called flamenco...

...and on a whim I recently purchased a 12-volume set called The History of Flamenco. I had just read Fernanda Eberstadt's Little Money Street, and I felt I had to hear some. Or a lot. I've always loved the blues, and flamenco is like it in some ways: it's the music of a marginal group, much of its history is mysterious, purity of tone means little while emotional force means everything (in a wonderful phrase, a great flamenco singer is said to have "the voice that wounds"), and there's a violence in it that doesn't always seem metaphorical. On the other hand, flamenco has a much larger range of forms, and however much I may love Charlie Patton, I can't think of a blues guitar virtuoso who comes close to Sabicas. Anyway, I was just surfing for some information on La Paquera, one of whose tracks is included in the above anthology, and stumbled across this video clip of the same woman, now perhaps an abuela, attacking "Dolor de madre mia" with even more force than she had when she was young. I have no idea if this song is actually sad, although the title would suggest that. I was at work, but the hair on my arm stood up on hearing this, not just because of the emotion, which I can't identify, but because of the indomitable force of the music that bursts out of these old folks. Hunt around for some more clips from Carlos Saura's flamenco films. YouTube also has a lot of odd clips from old movies, in which some cantante in a suit strolls onto the set and lets loose (it doesn't hurt to have a young Paco de Lucia on guitar). For me it's like seeing Howlin' Wolf walk into a Doris Day movie and sing "Commit a Crime."

When I saw the first clip, I thought, "I could listen to this all day." Since then, a month ago, I have been. Here, I've done some of the work for you: Paco de Lucia with El Camaron de la Isla, Juanito Valderrama wandering into some weird dance routine, some younger singers and the great Tomatito tearing it up (also from Saura's film), and finally these two old men singing the slowest form, the martinete. Their intonation isn't perfect. Listen, Maria Callas's intonation wasn't perfect.

Ancient Technology

I'm usually skeptical when I watch some History Channel cheapie about ancient trans-Atlantic journeys or whatever, but the evidence in this case is incontrovertible: the ancient Greeks knew how to build clocks, with gears and all. Only two examples exist, but they're too sophisticated to have been the only ones of their kind. How could this knowledge have been lost? John Seabrook suggests a number of reasons: not many people would have possessed such knowledge, and if social upheavals separated them from the opportunity to use the knowledge, the clocks would have ended up as scrap, and melted down; both Greek and Roman culture respected individual bravery too much to commit itself to technologizing warfare; technology may have provided delight rather than profit. Moreover, the knowledge almost surely ended up with the Arabs, whence it returned to Europe in the 14th century, when clocks with gears suddenly (re)appear. It's easy to suspect that the West refuses to admit just how advanced Muslim civilization was, but something more peculiar is going on here: even classicists showed little interest in the Antikythera Mechanism until recently. It's as though we think that only we are capable of technology per se. The Greeks had some impressive mechanisms, but didn't put them to uses we respect.

Country music is actually pretty good!

Merle Haggard, at "Look at the past 25 years -- we went downhill, and if people don't realize it, they don't have their fucking eyes on," says Haggard. "In 1960, when I came out of prison as an ex-convict, I had more freedom under parolee supervision than there's available to an average citizen in America right now. I mean, there was nobody going to throw you down on the side of the road spread-eagled, and look up your butt for a fucking marijuana cigarette. God almighty, what have we done to each other?"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I give up!

I started this blog about a year ago because I thought it was necessary to my self-promotion. In addition to going to work every day, and doing a good job, and attending conferences, and reading books about CS generally, whatever language I'm using (XSLT, F#, whatever), whatever platform I'm on (.NET for most of the last 4 years), etc., I need to blog about the cool thing I'm doing, and get some C# MVP finally to add me to his blogroll. Real life got in the way, though, as it will, esp. in the form of a new baby. I've had just enough time to do what needed to be done, and none left over to describe to the recruiters at Google who, one imagines, are reading all these blogs, to explain how well I did it. So I'm going to start using this blog the way most people do, i.e. to quote big chunks of stuff I read elsewhere, give shout-outs to my friends, post cute toddler photos, etc.

Anyway, the big chunk that I want to regurgitate undigested is from The New Yorker, May 14, 2007. James Surowiecki, whose The Wisdom of Crowds might have appealed to the same folks I see reading Radicals for Capitalism on the bus, argues that it might be better for the whole if a certain part, namely companies who own patents, makes less money. I suppose that's an instance of the radicalism of capitalism; emergent capitalist economies might require a certain amount of theft, just as ours did. I'm not an ideologue of open-source software; I actually don't care about Linux one way or another, just as I don't care about Microsoft. Anyway, "History suggests that after a certain point tougher intellectual property rules yield diminishing returns. Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School, looked at a hundred and fifty years of patenting, and found that strengthening patent laws had little effect on the number of innovations within a country. And, in the US, stronger patent protections for things like software have had little or no effect on the amount of innovation in the field. The benefits of stronger IP protection are even less convincing when it comes to copyright law: there's little evidence that writers and artists are made more productive or creative by the prospect of earning profits for seventy years after they die, and the historical record suggests only a tenuous connection between stronger IP laws and creative output."

One would expect that at some point China will have to have strong laws to prevent Chinese entrepreneurs from stealing from each other. You're certainly not going to read some ponderous clash-of-civilizations crap on my blog. Maybe China is culturally incapable of respecting the rule of law, in the way that's bred into the Anglo-Saxon bone. Maybe not. "The great irony is that the US economy in its early years was built in large part on a lax attitude toward intellectual property rights and enforcement [ditto for the Dutch and English economies in the two centuries before that]. As the historian Doron Ben-Atar shows in his book Trade Secrets, the Founders believed that a strict attitude toward patents and copyright would limit domestic innovation and make it harder for the US to expand its industrial base. American law did not protect the rights of foreign investors or writers, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in his famous Report on the Manufactures, of 1791, actively advocated the theft of technology and the luring of skilled workers from foreign countries. Among the beneficiaries...was the American textile industry,which flourished thanks to pirated technology."