Odds and ends

2014 01 12

Posted by in: Odds and ends

I thought I would try posting over here for a change.

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2011 03 19

Posted by in: Odds and ends

It’s been agonizing to see the tide turn against resisters of the Gaddafi regime in Libya over the last few weeks. After protests swept unpopular governments from power in Tunisia and Egypt, it really seemed as if a mostly peaceful movement in Libya could accomplish something similar. Instead Gaddafi and his circle have rallied, and the result has been very bloody.

Because it’s agonizing to watch this unfolding, the urge to stop it from continuing to unfold is entirely understandable. But there is, as always, a very strong burden on anyone who wants to argue in favour of war. In this case, the suggestion all along has been to insert a heterogeneous and variously motivated coalition of nations into the middle of what has quickly become a civil war—or rather, to insert it above a civil war, since everyone involved seems to think that we can keep it at bombing from the sky. I doubt that this is the right decision, but I don’t want to argue against the war now. Instead, I just want to make a few quick notes about the burden falling on a supporter of it.

First, a supporter of this war should be able to rattle off his top five favourite books on Libyan history and/or contemporary Libyan politics, and to explain the contribution each of these books has made to his or her understanding of the likely outcome of intervention into the civil war. The point is: If you don’t know a lot about Libyan culture and history, I just don’t think you can advocate a war there. A similar burden does not fall on a critic of the war in my opinion. This is because the default position on killing other human beings is to not do it. If you want to move away from the default position, your first responsibility is to know what the fuck you’re talking about.

All right, then. Too onerous? Gaddafi’s victims are dying and you don’t have time for a trip to the library? Fine. Without peeking at a map, a supporter of the war should be able to name Libya’s six neighbours, and explain how the war is likely to affect each of them—and, how each of them is likely to affect the war, and its aftermath. Again, the first burden on someone who wants to advocate a war is to know shit. This is one of the lessons that Iraq ought to have drilled into everyone’s heads.

Finally, a point about hypocrisy, double standards and the coalition attacking Libya. Let me try to make the stale dialectic a bit fresher and then connect it back to the burden on a supporter of the war. It goes like this:

Con: “But Bahrain (just to take one example), a US ally, is right now brutally cracking down on protesters. How can the US attack Libya for doing the same thing while providing diplomatic cover for Bahrain! Bahrain is even part of the coalition against Gaddafi!”

Pro: “Yes, it’s hypocritical, but so what? The fact that we can’t, or don’t, address every wrong, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t address any wrong.”

Of course it would be awful if the US and a few allies were going to war against Libya without the backing of the Arab League. But in order to hold its anti-Libyan coalition together, the US, Britain and France will have to make compromises, and this includes going more easily on Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on protesters than they would otherwise need to. It was tricky enough for the US, with a military base in Bahrain, to criticize the ruling clique there. It only gets harder to apply peaceful pressure to that situation when the ruling clique’s continuing support for the war against Libya is needed.

Notice that choosing war in the one case makes it harder to apply peaceful pressure in the second. War is funny that way. A supporter of the war needs to think not just about whether the coalition position is hypocritical, but also about whether the war will aggravate the hypocrisy.

Update: And see Fallows.

Howls of outrage (3)

2011 01 22
Posting frequency

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Wow, no posts since November! You all know intuitively that the we post a lot less frequently these days. What you’ve hitherto lacked, however, is a chart setting it out for you:

Yeah, it’s not the world’s greatest looking chart, but you get the idea. (I’ve never used matplotlib before. I’m guessing a log scale on the y axis might have helped.) By the way, that little spike in early 2004 is misleading. Somehow a bunch of posts from that period went missing, and I haven’t tracked down yet where they got to.

To make the chart, I just exported our published posts since April 2004 from WordPress and then ran this script on the xml. You need to install matplotlib first.

from xml.etree import ElementTree as ET
import datetime
import sys

from matplotlib import pyplot as plt
import pylab

def get_dates(filepath):
    dates = []    
    with open(filepath) as f:
        doc = ET.parse(f)
        root = doc.getroot()
        for pubDate in root.findall('channel/item/pubDate'):
            date_string = pubDate.text.replace(" +0000", "")
            date = datetime.datetime.strptime(date_string, "%a, %d %b %Y %H:%M:%S")
    return dates

def get_intervals(dates):
    intervals = []
    for i, date in enumerate(dates):
        if i == 0:
        delta = date - dates[i-1]
        intervals.append((date, delta.days))
    return intervals

def plot_intervals(intervals):
    dates = [date for date, value in intervals]
    values = [value for date, value in intervals]
    plt.plot_date(pylab.date2num(dates), values, linestyle='-')
    plt.title("Time Away From You Over Time")
    plt.ylabel("Days Between Posts")
    plt.grid = True

def main():
    dates = get_dates(sys.argv[1])
    intervals = get_intervals(dates)

if __name__ == '__main__':

Howls of outrage (4)

2010 11 28

Posted by in: Odds and ends

This is a great read. Someone get this person a book deal.

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2010 08 05

Posted by in: Odds and ends

I will be away from the blog until late August/early September. Apologies for the inconvenience.

(Seriously though: I’m teaching a course this semester on ethical issues in the recent health care reform debate. I expect, therefore, to be posting a lot of posts soon that should have 2009 in their date, but don’t.)

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2010 03 03

Posted by in: Odds and ends

My son Oliver wasn’t due until April 5th, but the little rascal managed to sneak himself into the world ahead of schedule on Sunday in an early morning c-section. Both mother and child are recovering well.

Chris and Oliver

Howls of outrage (12)

2009 10 24
Ear buds puzzle

Posted by in: Odds and ends

How in heaven’s name do people get those little ear bud headphones to stay in their ears? They fall out of mine pretty easily. Are their ears shaped differently from mine? Do they have stickier ear wax? What gives? Truly, this is a mystery to me.

Howls of outrage (9)

2009 08 07
How long is a severed head conscious for?

Posted by in: Odds and ends

I have always wondered about that.

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2009 06 26
Dark sky, sun, rainbow

Posted by in: Odds and ends

So purdy . . .

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2009 06 14
Busy, busy

Posted by in: Odds and ends

But still alive, in case you were wondering.

I’m also in the middle of Proust’s (almost) 1.5 million word novel series, which is another reason the book reviews have sort of tapered off recently.

I’ll be back!

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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 04 28
On shooting yourself in the head

Posted by in: Books, Odds and ends

Tom Bissell had a appreciation in the NYT recently of the book length version of a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace that I was complaining about in the comments earlier in the month. Jacob Silverman riffs on the piece here at the Virginia Quarterly. Both spend some time mulling over the apparent removal of an allusion to suicide in the published version of the speech:

It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

Bissell writes of the excision:

It is not difficult to understand why. Any mention of self-annihilation in Wallace’s work (and there are many: the patriarch of “Infinite Jest” is a suicide; Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon” is narrated by a suicide) now has a blast radius that obscures everything around it. These are craters that cannot be filled. The glory of the work and the tragedy of the life are relations but not friends, informants but not intimates. Exult in one; weep for the other.

Silverman argues that excising such passages is a mistake.

[Update: As Bissell points out in the comments, he’s left a comment at the Virginia Quarterly site clarifying things: The line in question wasn’t in the original written version of the speech, on which the book is based.]

[Second Update: Oh, check out the correction to Bissell’s piece in the NYT.]

Setting aside the personal tragedy it reminds us of for a moment, I think it’s worth pointing out that the text is better off without the passage because the point it makes is so transparently idiotic. People shoot themselves in the head because (provided you don’t miss, as some people do, unfortunately), it’s the quickest and most painless way to kill yourself with a gun. Where the fuck else are you going to shoot yourself, if you’re going to shoot yourself? Your liver?

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 01 02
Best vocal release/Best tribute album

Posted by in: Odds and ends

I forgot to mention that All About Jazz (New York edition) chose Yoon’s album Imagination as one of the top five vocal releases of 2008 and one of the top five tribute albums of 2008.

If you haven’t bought a copy yet, I suppose it was probably because you couldn’t stop wondering, “Am I really worthy? Do I deserve something this good in my life?” But those aren’t really the right questions. The question is whether you can buy it, and the answer to this question is probably: yes. The physical CD can be purchased here, but the impatient can buy a (DRM-free) digital download of the entire album right here.

(UPDATE: Oh, forgot: Jazz.com listed Imagination as one of the top 50 jazz albums of 2008.)

Oh, and if you’re into solo ukulele (and really, who isn’t?), Yeah Yeah Records is offering free downloads of a great solo uke EP for a limited time.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 11 20
The Health Care Industry’s Insufficient Offer

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Ezra Klein is right, the news this morning out of the insurance industry’s bunker is a big deal. They have offered a deal. They will agree to offer insurance to everyone, in exchange for a mandate forcing all to obtain coverage. Ezra explains the logic of current arrangements:

The individual health insurance market, fundamentally, is incoherent: Insurers try to deny coverage to those who want it and to sell to those who don’t. That’s because the most profitable customer for an insurer is one that never gets sick, and the least profitable is one who falls very ill. But that’s not how you want your health insurance market to work. We want sick people to get care. That’s the point.

But perhaps they see the writing on the wall, and know that at some point, they will face legislation enjoining them to adopt “guarantee issue.” Hell, even the vast majority of Republicans voted for a recent bill prohibiting insurance companies from “discriminating” against customers whose genetic tests indicate future health problems. But in order to cover the costs of insuring those who have been traditionally denied coverage precisely because covering them would be expensive, the insurers say they’ll need healthy people to buy insurance. That way when the risky get sick, the premiums of the healthy can be used to pay for their treatment. As Donald G. Hamm Jr., president of Assurant Health, puts it,

In the individual market, people can choose whether or not to apply for coverage,” Mr. Hamm said in an interview. “If they know they can obtain coverage at any time, many will wait until they get sick to apply for it. That increases the price for everyone.

But Ezra is on to Mr. Hamm:

The question is not whether they’ll offer to sell coverage at all, but at what price? Selling insurance products that no one can afford may mean you’re not technically denying people access to insurance, but it doesn’t guarantee accessibility, which is a necessary precondition for a universal system. For that, you need “community rating,” which would force insurers to offer coverage at the same price to everyone, spreading risk equally and ensuring that coverage is no less affordable for the sick than the well.

Actually, even community rating is insufficient. Community rated plans are designed to lower the insurance costs faced by high risk individuals by requiring that any particular health plan’s premium be priced to reflect the population’s average anticipated individual health care costs. While such regulations are well-meaning— high risk individuals will not be charged more than low risk individuals for the same level of coverageadverse selection can remain a problem. Unless there are also government restrictions on the levels of coverage in the available plans, especially on whether there is a robust minimum that every plan must provide, low-risk individuals may choose bare bones plans that would benefit medium- and high-risk persons little. When this happens, plans providing a robust level of health care will attract only those individuals with higher risks, and this will drive up premiums and drive away healthier buyers interested in cheaper plans. So even if everyone is charged the same price for a community rated plan, the plans providing robust coverage will be avoided by the healthy, thus making them more expensive for those who will actually want them. This leads to premiums that still significantly reflect health status even when community rating regulations are in effect. Here’s one recent NBER working paper on the issue.

So what we need is a mandate, community rating, and legislation establishing a robust minimum that each health care plan must satisfy. Only then will low-risk individuals actually subsidize the care that high-risk individuals need.

Unfortunately, the problem is not solved even then, since general health costs are growing unsustainably. But that is a problem we can discuss another day.

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2008 11 19
The Collaring

Posted by in: Odds and ends

A friend is getting married next year in New Zealand. While she already has a celebrant in mind, she thought she’d check out the country’s list of official celebrants, in part to see if anyone she knows is one. She then noticed that only one of them seemed to have a website, so she thought she’d take a look. And there, amidst a sea of quite normal sample vows that Geoffrey Vine has used in the past, is this:


Celebrant: This is a special day with a twofold purpose. In addition to exchanging vows and rings, AAA is going to place his collar on XXX as a symbol of their bond as Master and submissive.

CCC presents the studded leather collar to celebrant

Celebrant: A collar is not a thing to be taken lightly.  It is an outward symbol of a way of life, the ownership and guidance of one person by another.  In this, the Master undertakes to protect, guide and nurture the submissive, who in turn pledges herself to Him with all her being.  This is a bond of love, trust and honour.  As submission is the greatest gift, Dominance is the greatest responsibility, for without one, the other cannot be.

XXX kneels

Celebrant: XXX, do you of your own free will take AAA’s collar? Will you fulfill His needs, serve His pleasures and meet His wishes, acceding in all things to Him?

XXX responds

Celebrant: AAA, do you accept XXX as your submissive? Will you treasure her gift, tempering power with duty, keeping her wellbeing first in your heart?

AAA responds

Celebrant hands the collar to AAA

AAA places the collar on XXX. AAA then helps XXX stand and they kiss.

XXX will then pour mead into the chalice.

Celebrant: Let this cup of mead be a symbol of the cup of life. As you share this one cup, may life be that much sweeter because you share it; may the past you have put behind you seem less bitter because of it.

XXX kneels and offers the cup to AAA, who drinks and then offers the cup to XXX, who drinks. XXX hands the cup back to celebrant and AAA helps XXX to her feet.

Celebrant: AAA and XXX, you have made the important step of making public, in front of these people, your full commitment to one another for the rest of your days.

Above you are the stars, below you are the stones. As time passes, remember only this: like a star should your love be constant. Like a stone should your love be firm. Be close, yet not too close. Possess one another, yet be understanding. Have patience each with the other, for storms will come but they will go just as quickly. Be free in giving affection and warmth. Make love often, and be sensuous to one another. Have no fear, and let not the ways or words of the unenlightened give you unease.

Go from this place in joy and in peace and may the spirit of all life travel with you throughout your days together.

CLOSING MUSIC (Nothing Else Matters – Metallica)

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