May 2009

2009 05 25

Posted by in: U.S. politics

The Krugster:

To be blunt: recent events suggest that the Republican Party has been driven mad by lack of power. The few remaining moderates have been defeated, have fled, or are being driven out. What’s left is a party whose national committee has just passed a resolution solemnly declaring that Democrats are “dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals,” and released a video comparing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Pussy Galore.

And that party still has 40 senators.

The plight of the Republican party has me as worried as anything else about the future of the country. The worst part about it is that the rot that has sunk all the way into the core of the Republican party is impossible to contain there. The more confident the Democrats are that they’re entitled to the vote of every non-insane person in the country, the less they’ll do to deserve that vote, the more corrupt, self-satisfied and unprincipled they’ll become.

So long as the country alternates power between the two parties, the US needs a functioning, non-insane Republican party almost as much as it needs a principled Democratic party. Here’s hoping it gets one sooner rather than later.

Howls of outrage (2)

2009 05 22
Ahmad Jamal tribute

Posted by in: Jazz, Music

I mentioned earlier that Yoon is recording a live CD this Friday and Saturday at IBeam. Everybody’s welcome! Yoon goes on at 9:30pm sharp both nights for the second set.

In the first set of tomorrow night’s show (at 8:30pm) Jacob Sacks, Vinnie Sperrazza and Thomas Morgan will be doing a tribute to Ahmad Jamal’s But Not for Me: Live at Pershing Lounge 1958. It’s a funny project for these musicians, since I’ve never heard them play the same song in remotely the same way. But tomorrow night they’ll be lovingly recreating the album. They’re rehearsing it in my living room as I type this, and it sounds pretty fucking great.

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2009 05 22
Recently read: The Code Book

Posted by in: Books, Cryptography

Simon Singh. The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Quantum Cryptography

When I was seven or eight I read a kid’s book in which the protagonist is challenged by a professor/substitute-father-figure type to come up with a cipher that the professor-type can’t crack. The protagonist whips up an enciphered message and then watches in dismay as the professor-type cracks it quickly before his eyes using frequency analysis, a simple technique that uses the relative frequencies in letters in the relevant language to make educated guesses about the cipher used to encipher the original message.* (If you know what book this was, please let me know. I can’t remember.) When I was seven or eight this blew my mind and I spent many hours in the following years daydreaming about stronger methods of encryption. Indeed, even though my talents obviously don’t lie anywhere in the vicinity of this sort of problem, I still sometimes find myself idly thinking about it and related problems on the subway or while I’m walking down the street.

Thanks to Simon Singh’s entertaining The Code Book, I was recently able to relive some of my childhood enthusiasm for cyphers and cryptography. Singh reviews the history of cyphers and secret writing, from the cipher that Mary Queen of Scots trusted (unwisely) to keep the secret of her involvement in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth to the enigma machine to quantum cryptography. Over eight unhurried chapters, he charts the history of the problems that cryptographers faced and the characters involved in each chapter of this history.

Singh’s willingness to digress a bit from his main theme also leads him to include a chapter not on cryptography at all, but rather on the related problem of discovering the meaning of lost languages. This was just as well, since the two episodes that Singh reviews—the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of Linear B (Mycenaean Greek)—are fun and interesting.

Readers looking for a technical, advanced discussion of cryptography might be underwhelmed by parts of Singh’s exposition, but I thought he did a great job of providing an accessible and non-technical explanation of some reasonably sophisticated ideas. There’s nothing here that would really stump a bright high school kid, and a lot that would she would find stimulating. Recommended.

* The letter ‘e,’ for example, occurs more than any other in the English language. If you’re trying to crack a monoalphabetic substitution cipher (a very simple type of cipher in which each letter in your message is swapped for a different one in the enciphered text), and you see a ton of z’s, for example, you can guess that ‘z’ encrypts ‘e’ in the cipher. If you find a letter standing alone in your enciphered text, you’re likely to be dealing with either an ‘I’ or an ‘a,’ since these occur alone in English all the time. And so on.

Howls of outrage (7)

2009 05 16
“A hard line on terrorism”

I figure writing the Today’s Papers feature for Slate must be a tough gig. You’ve got to get up well before the sun, read a ton, and summarize it all very quickly. So I don’t want to pick on this too much:

In another disappointment for left-leaning Washington watchers, Obama’s expected announcement that he would continue to try terrorism suspects through the military commissions—which exclude certain types of evidence from consideration by the defense—drew cries of outrage from civil rights groups. Of course, there’s also a considerable political upside for the president as well from conservatives who would rather see him take a hard line on terrorism.

But just notice how loaded that last sentence is. The suggestion is not that conservatives would rather see him take what they regard as a hard line on terrorism. Rather, as stated, the point is that there is a hard line on terrorism (and, by contrast, a soft line), and support for military commissions is part of a hard line position on terrorism (and, by contrast, opposition to them indicates a certain softness on the issue of terrorism).

I really don’t think that support for military commissions implies a hard line on terrorism. It probably has more to do with your attitude to the justice system, and your comfort with a system that is more likely to produce bogus convictions (the inevitable result of the loosening of defendants’ rights, which seems to be the point of military commissions, though it isn’t clear yet exactly how loose Obama wants to be). If anything, trying suspects in the military commissions favoured by most Republicans (and many Democratics) seems to me to indicate a real lack of seriousness about terrorism.

Another problem with the offending sentence above is that it takes the often stated Republican motivation for military commissions at face value. I’m sure that many Republicans sincerely support military commissions on what they see as the merits of the policy, and would have supported them even if a Democratic president had instituted them as part of a response to 9/11. But Republicans are humans, and there are surely other considerations at work here as well: They’re publicly committed to the commissions. Vindication of the policy is vindication of their policy, and will make a difference to the way the legacy of the Bush years will be understood. And of course, Obama’s decision upsets many Democrats, and therefore can be expected to be treasured by Republicans for that very reason. Lydia DePillis, the author of today’s Today’s Papers, isn’t in a position to know the extent to which different considerations are really driving the Republican position, so it’s a shame she chooses the official (flattering) one and presents it in a way that implies that understanding the motivation in this way is natural and uncontroversial.

Howls of outrage (2)

2009 05 12
On carrying it around in your head

Posted by in: Poetry

Inspired by this piece in the NYT, a bit more than two weeks ago Yoon and I started memorizing a line of poetry a day. I set up an email alert in my calendar to remind me each morning to add a new line, which I do by typing out the entire poem so far plus the day’s line in an email to Yoon. We decided to start with Frost’s “Birches.”

It’s been a lot of fun so far. Although the poem has been familiar to me for years, Yoon’s never seen it, and has insisted on not reading ahead. So every day she gets one more line of it; she’s really enjoyed watching it unfurl a bit at a time, day after day.

The last time I memorized poetry I was twenty. I stuck Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in my head and then walked around all summer savouring it to myself while I was waiting for subways or walking down the street. It was wonderful, and I’m not sure why I fell out of the habit. Anyway, I’ve fallen back into it now, and highly recommend it.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 05 12
Some geniuses

Posted by in: Odds and ends

The first question of a Mensa Quiz I found in a recently published in-flight magazine:

Jerry was buying some candy. He paid 23 cents per caramel, 28 cents per lollipop, and 33 cents per spice drop. Based on this logic, how much will a chocolate bar cost?

My first response was that these so-called geniuses clearly flunked Logic 101. I assumed they wanted an answer of 38 cents, with each item increasing in cost by 5 cents. But obviously no way of thinking classifiable as “logic” would entail this answer.

Turns out they are not asking a question of logic at all, but rather giving something more like a crossword puzzle clue.  (Answer here.) Turns out you need to be a member of the club in order to even understand the question. I wonder, then, how the club got started.

Howls of outrage (4)

2009 05 09
Recently read: Lords of Finance

Posted by in: Books, Economics, History

Liaquat Ahamed. Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World

Who knew that 500 pages about central banking in the interwar years could fly by so quickly? I’ll leave it to economists and historians to assess the accuracy of the story Ahamed tells. What I can say is that the story is well told, moving briskly and with good humour over a complicated series of events. Ahamed structures his account around the lives of four central bankers, for the United States, Britain, France and Germany respectively. A fifth character, John Maynard Keynes, also makes a number of appearances, usually in the role of a gadfly. And there is a sixth item, of such importance to the story that it might as well be a character in its own right: gold.

Going into World War I, the major currencies of the world were on the gold standard. The central bank for a country—that is, the bank with a “monopoly on the issuance of currency”—would issue currency with the promise that it was convertible at a certain fixed rate with gold. Gold had to be held in reserves at a fairly conservative proportion to the total amount of currency in circulation. For a long time, this arrangement had the effect of limiting inflation, and providing a predictable, stable rate of exchange between currencies, which were pegged to the same standard.

The system meant that the supply of credit in an economy—indeed, in the global economy—was tightly correlated with the quantity of gold held in reserve. For a long time, the supply of new gold flowing into the global economy as a result of mining roughly matched the slow expansion of the economy. But this only masked the fact that it made little sense to tie the availability of a precious mineral to the business cycle, with its changing requirements for the availability of credit. As Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian newspaper man based in Britain and one of the few prominent critics of the gold standard at the time, complained, “[i]t is an absurd and silly notion that international credit must be limited to the quantity of gold dug up out of the ground. Was there ever such mumbo-jumbo among sensible and reasonable men?”

World War I changed things, as it changed so much else. The nations of Europe had plunged into the conflict expecting a brief, successful encounter which would pay for itself in reparations, and emerged bloodied, shaken, and seriously in debt four long years later. The United States, which has a habit of entering world wars a bit on the late side, came out looking very well, and with an absolutely massive imbalance of the world’s gold in its reserves which it had acquired as a lender to many of the other belligerents. For the United States to have remained strictly on the gold standard would have supplied the economy with far more credit than would have been healthy. Meanwhile, Britain had so exhausted its resources that it was for a time after the war unable to honour its obligation to convert its currency into gold, effectively abandoning the gold standard for this period.

As Britain, France and Germany all struggled to put themselves back on a sound economic footing after the war, they dealt in different ways with the return to the gold standard. Britain, against the advice of Keynes, went back on gold as soon as possible, but at an unsustainably high rate of conversion. It was an attempt to regain the global preeminence in banking which Britain had enjoyed prior to the war, but the result was a deeply uncompetitive export market and steep consequent unemployment in Britain. France, by contrast, did rather well by pegging its currency at a fairly low rate. Germany, reeling from the war and unable to cope with the ruinous payments expected of it by the victors, took its economy on an absolutely wild inflationary ride.

Since the inflationary policies of Germany had been made possible in part by its abandonment of the gold standard, the economic chaos of Germany was interpreted by many as a warning of the perils of leaving gold. Without the discipline of gold, it was thought, governments, especially democratically elected ones, would fall into the same inflationary policies. Thus, behind the debate over the gold standard was a debate about government discretion over the management of the economy.

Ahamed traces the twisting course these economies took through the twenties, as central bankers struggled to learn the rudiments of modern central banking. His account aims to explain how crucial mistakes by some of the main players created the credit policies that underlay the speculative boom preceding the Great Depression. He then shows us how central bankers struggled to cope with the economic fallout of the depression, learning, often too late to prevent economically disastrous consequences, many of the tools that are now a standard part of the central banker’s tool kit.

There were a few points in Lords of Finance at which I wanted Ahamed to explain the workings of the economy more slowly. Like a lot of potential readers of this book, I have a pretty weak grasp of basic economics. But on the whole, this is a clear, readable, and entertaining book. As can be expected with any first printing, I noticed that Lords of Finance was not completely free of typos and errors. Just a few of the ones that caught my eye: If I’m reading it correctly, a sentence on page 249 seems to imply that Benedict Arnold was executed. The temperatures on page 329 should be specified in Celsius or Fahrenheit. That Montagu Norman walked about with a feather jauntily poking out of his hat is a nice detail, but it’s unnecessary to tell us this twice. And the statistician and economist Roger Babson’s anti-gravity pamphlet was titled Gravity—Our Enemy Number One, not, as Ahamed has it, Gravity—Our Number One Enemy.

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2009 05 08
A month at Ibeam

Posted by in: Music

Yoon’s E-String Band begins a month’s residency at IBeam this Saturday. The band is composed of jazz musicians, but the music isn’t really jazz. I’m not sure how to describe it: odd improvised pop, maybe? Anyway, it’s fun stuff. Here’s the listing for all the shows. (The opening acts look really fun too.)

Update: Oh, and the band will be recording a live album on the May 22nd and the 23rd performances. Come out and add your clapping to the album.

Saturday, May 9th

8:30PM: Justin Keller’s “Land of Leland”
9:30PM: Yoon Sun Choi and The E-String Band

Friday, May 15th

8:30PM: Lady Clown
9:30PM: Yoon Sun Choi and The E-String Band

Friday, May 22nd

8:30PM: Jacob Sacks/Orlando Hernandez
9:30PM: Yoon Sun Choi and The E-String Band

Saturday, May 23nd

8:00PM: Jacob Sacks/Thomas Morgan/Vinnie Sperrazza
8:30PM: Yoon Sun Choi and the E-String Band

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2009 05 07
Recently read: Hella Nation

Posted by in: Books

Evan Wright. Hella Nation: Looking for Happy Meals in Kandahar, Rocking the Side Pipe, Wingnut’s War Against the Gap, and Other Adventures with the Totally Lost Tribes of America

Hella Nation is a collection of profiles originally published in different form in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Hustler, and a few other places. Wright, recovering from his own struggles with drug use and alcohol, and with most of his previous professional experience in the porn industry, has an outsider’s sympathy for, or at least understanding of, the troubled outsiders, misfits, and criminals he profiles in these pieces. These include anarchists, white supremacists, soldiers in Iraq, pornographers, con-men, and Hollywood agents. Wright doesn’t bother to hide his own reactions to his subjects, but like a good journalist, he also seems willing to let the reader make up her own mind, often just by letting his subjects speak. Set aside some time for the book if you plan to read it: once you’ve started, it’s hard to stop.

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2009 05 04
Recently read: Spoiled

Posted by in: Books

Caitlin Macy. Spoiled: Stories

Spoiled is a collection of short stories, all of them featuring women or girls, most of them wealthy Manhattanites, usually newly wealthy. The stories are about the problems and preoccupations of this class: difficult maids and nannies, rivalries over status and wealth, struggles with envy and schadenfreude. I only come into occasional glancing contact with the types depicted in these stories—just often enough to see that Macy has a pretty good eye for social observation. But what a cold eye: there isn’t a genuinely sympathetic character in the book; nor is there a single moment of intimacy or warmth between two human beings. I expect a lot of people would find the privileged characters in this book too obnoxious to justify the trouble of reading an entire book about them, but I actually found my interest more or less sustained throughout. The writing is uneven: weak in places, pretty good in others.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2009 05 03
Recently read: A Continent for the Taking

Howard W. French. A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

This is an angry book. On practically every page French has something withering to say about a Western diplomat, or an African leader, or a thug at a checkpoint trying to extort money. They have all contributed in their own way to the lost opportunities and staggering suffering of a continent with extraordinary potential. French, an African American born in Washington, D.C., spent more than two decades in Africa, first as a translator and then as a journalist. He has stories to tell, and a few scores to settle, and in A Continent for the Taking he does both in a compelling way. His book does not range across the whole of Africa, as the title might suggest. Rather, French focuses on a few countries where he has significant experiences to relate, among them Nigeria, Liberia, Mali, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).

Perhaps the most gripping and interesting part of the book is French’s account of the fall of Mobutu and the rise of Kabila in the DRC in 1997. French won awards for his reporting on this incident for the New York Times, and he offers more than simply a gripping story about the dissolution and chaos of the end of one regime and the rise of another. He argues that the United States, attempting to make up for turning a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide three years earlier, again turned a blind eye to Ugandan and Rwandan efforts to use Kabila as a proxy to dominate their much larger neighbour. French claims that in this they were heavily influenced by the strongly pro-Kagame slant of Philip Gourevitch’s We Regret to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. (I have occasionally wondered whether subsequent events led Gourevitch to revise his opinion of Kagame; I don’t think I’ve seen anything else on the subject by Gourevitch since I read Regret to Inform). Unfortunately, backing Kabila at the crucial moment meant backing away from the most credible democratic figure in the DRC. Once again, the US’s involvement in the region was cynical and counterproductive. The Rwandan and Ugandan invasion-by-proxy of the DRC marked the beginning of an absolutely catastrophic war that claimed the lives of millions.

This book has a lot to recommend it: close observations of people from all walks of life, reflections on the depiction of African issues in the Western media, trenchant critiques of the foreign policies of outside actors in African affairs. But perhaps the book’s greatest virtue is simply that it made me very curious to learn more about the entire continent: about the ancient culture of Mali; the history of Belgium in the Congo; the Ashante and their struggle with the British, and so much more.

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2009 05 02
Recently read: The Will to Whatevs

Posted by in: Books

Eugene Mirman. The Will to Whatevs: A Guide to Modern Life

The Will to Whatevs is an extended spoof of a self-help book by NYC-based comic Eugene Mirman. Mirman offers advice on how to handle everything from childhood to your career to the afterlife. Here’s Mirman on whether you need to get a master’s degree if you want to be a writer:

Probably not. Some people go to grad school for writing, but you don’t have to. Because, like, you have so much inside you that needs to come out. Plus, nows-a-day there are edit people with fixy buttons to make everything read right. On the other hand, the opposite point.

Here is Mirman helping us to understand politics:

Politics is simply how groups of people in various countries run their governments. Some countries (that are assholes—China, Uzbekistan, Utah—LOL!) run their countries like a prison, while others run their countries like a pretend not-prison—i.e., citizens believe they are free and they don’t want leave [sic], but also, they can’t. (Keep in mind that I am only trying to make an Almost Point.) The best examples of this are Russia and Star Trek‘s various idealized-worlds-with-a-dark-secret, but I bet there are other places.

Originally, I was going to say that if you like this, you’ll probably like The Will to Whatevs. But the question is really whether you would like two hundred pages of this. In the first Preface (in this first printing of the book, there are two prefaces and three introductions), Mirman tells us to get ready for “a long hot shower of wisdom.” But this book is probably best taken in small doses.

Howls of outrage (3)