Sunday, December 31, 2006

Secular Lent

I'm not really one for New Year's as a holiday, or for New Year's resolutions. But I do engage in a Lent-like bit of sacrifice of my own for six weeks at the beginning of each year just to keep my life in order.

So starting Tuesday I'll be "vegetarian" for 6 weeks. I put this in shock quotes because I allow myself fish (but try to keep it to once a week), so it's not real "vegetarianism." In addition this year I'll be giving up alcohol and refined sugar. All this lasts through February 12. 

A Grand Accident?

One of the common threads in all the eulogizing about President Ford has been how he was the right man to succeed Nixon and put the nation back together - in short how fortunate we supposedly were to have him hanging around in the wings when Agnew resigned. Here is a typical such paragraph:

It is always difficult to look back and say that a certain president was a failure in the strict sense of being a step backward. Ford was probably the right man for the right place in time. The contours of American history have a wonderful almost magical way of somehow weaving together, coming into focus and making sense only in retrospect. Gerald Ford's brief, unelected tenure has its own place in the mosaic.

I would just like to say that I don't think there's anything the least bit "magical" about the way the "contours of American history somehow weaved together" in this case. Quite the contrary - Ford's appearance on the scene at the right time is evidence of a functional system functioning. It would have happened at any point in recent American history.

Recall that Ford replaced Spiro Agnew as VP in 1973 after Agnew resigned over bribery allegations (which were true - he paid back all the money he was known to have accpeted in 1983 and was disbarred). Agnew believes that Nixon himself leaked a lot of the information about the bribery as a way of diverting attention from the budding Watergate scandal, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. We all know that Nixon was that kind of person, and anyway the tactic worked for a time.

Now further recall that Barry Goldwater's nomination as Republican for President in 1964 is widely seen as the first shot in the conservative revolution that would eventually bring Reagan to office in 1980. Nixon, who ran for president and lost in 1960 after having served two terms as Eisenhower's VP, was very much an establishment Republican. He was America's Teddy Heath - a "red tory" who was more about "good government" (read: patriotic government) than "small government." Spiro Agnew was a darling of the conservative insurgency and seen as a promising candidate for president in 1976 for that reason. But Nixon was coming under heavy fire from the Democrats as facts about Watergate emerged. He primarily needed someone who would appease them - someone to soften his image - and more importantly someone who would easily get congressional approval (and Congress was heavily Democrat). Ford it was. It couldn't really have been anyone else. Ford had made a career out of keeping his head low and smoothing over partisan disputes. He certainly had the experience - 13 times elected Representative from his home district and now Minority Leader in the House. And of course he got where he was in the first place by being acceptable to the Democrats (who had enjoyed recurring majorities in both houses in most of the postwar era) and simultaneously offending neither camp of Republicans - neither the new Conservatives nor the old Establishment.

Anyone else Nixon could have chosen would have offended someone. Ford got the job because he was "the right man for the right place in time." He was a screened candidate, and what qualified him were all the qualities that the pundits are now saying we were "lucky" to have in the president who succeeded Nixon: sincerity, willingness to compromise, humility, graciousness, ability to mollify the opposition, and generally not being one to rock the boat.

If Democracy has any virtues over and above being the least bad system of government, surely they are in precisely the kind of decentralization of power that made the Ford Administration possible. Any system that encourages open competition for power will tend to find "the right man for the right place in time" hovering about somewhere when it needs him - rather the way that companies that look beyond nepotism for employment strategies tend to do. 

Nifong Charged

Anyone following the Duke Rape case will no doubt know by now that Mike Nifong has been charged with ethics violations by the North Carolina State Bar. A copy of the complaint is available on Smoking Gun.

There are a number of editorials in major newspapers applauding the decision and condemning Nifong's general behavior and handling of the case. It's pretty clear by now that the boys will be found innocent and Nifong will be disciplined in some way - possibly disbarred. It would be nice if someone would prosecute Crystal Gail Magnum as well, but I can understand the reasons for not wanting to do so (it would possibly have a chilling effect on real victims coming forward and also on other liars thinking of recanting their stories).

I don't have anything to add here except to say that this is an excellent blog with firstrate coverage of the case.


Friday, December 22, 2006

Headed South

 Home to North Carolina for a week or so tomorrow.  I'll probably have occasion to post some, but not till after Christmas, and probably not every day.   Back in Bloomington and back to work on the 31st or thereabouts.

Happy Chistmas!

Now that I've Seen Season One...

Yesterday I finished Lost Season 1.

I think I'll stick with my revised B+ rating. It has a lot going for it, but ultimately there's no basis for calling it "great."

First the good things. The production values are firstrate. The acting (given the characters they have to go on) is good, the directing is very good, and the pacing is nothing short of amazing in places. For a show that relies on central mysteries for interest, this is important. Though they slip now and then, for the most part I never feel like story continuity is sacrificed in the service of a cheap cliffhanger. Episodes tend to end at what seem like natural breaks in the narrative; they never really have to go back and revise something that happened in the previous episode to keep things going. Probably best of all, they do a really good job handling subtleties. For example, the safety deposit box that Kate needs opened is number "815," which also happens to be the number of the flight and, as we later learn, two in the string of numbers that Hurley believes are cursing him. It is to the writers' credit that no one ever calls attention to this in conversation. And there are tons of things like that - little bits that you notice on your own that the writers didn't hold your hand and point out to you. Usually, this kind of faith in a viewr's perception and intelligence is the hallmark of a truly good show. But...

There are a lot of problems with Lost too. Most importantly for me, the characters just aren't very interesting. With the possible exception of John Locke, I've seen all of these characters before in other shows. Now, it's OK to recycle successful "types," but you have to do something to flesh them out and make them seem human, and there's just none of that here. No one has so much as a single detail in their background that sets them apart in any way from the thousands of copies of these people I've seen elsewhere. Worse still, they all finish season one off pretty much where they started. Stranded on a desert island, struggling for survival, and yet this experience changes none of them? Implausible. And the two possible exceptions here - Kate and Jin - are both flawed in some way. Now I admit, when the subject of a fugitive on board came up I didn't immediately think of Kate. But once you know it's her (which you do almost immediately after the subject gets raised), there's no reason whatever to change your opinion of her. This only gets confirmed as the show goes on. She never does anything to give the impression that she's really shady. Cerainly nothing to back up the skymarshall's claim that he "needs" four guns to keep her in tow! What few sneaky things she does are not much more than we'd really expect from any independent-minded tom-boyish woman in this situation. And of course the flashbacks make abundantly clear that she has a heart, which just ruins the whole effect. It's the one of the biggest - and worst - cliches on American TV: the beatiful damsel who seems shady but is really good deep inside. Yeah, got it, guys! Worst of all, her status as fugitive plays exactly zero role in the story aside from giving her a "connection" with Sawyer and giving Jack an excuse to keep their budding relationship at the eyeballing level. It's not clear that we actually needed a criminal background for either of these things. As for Jin, the writers cheated. The man we were shown at the outset of the series simply isn't the same guy who helps Michael build the raft, and there's no event or series of events that explains the transformation. Jin's flahsbacks are wholly inconsistent with the guy we saw in the first 6 episodes or so. The writers picked him up and replaced him with someone else as the story demanded. Not a very convincing character portrayal. And so it is, more or less, with everyone. Charlie's religious bent is not very convincing, and he seems awfully focused on his fame for someone who is supposedly only in Driveshaft (HA! I admit that's a great name! It's so believable it's almost not satire - a sad comment on the state of Britpop) because he loves the music. But see, this is a story we've all heard before. The hack who thinks he's an artist but is really only in it to paper over his insecurities? Sayid is the foreigner with a troubled past. Jack the doctor who can't let go. Blah blah blah blah BLAH.

The point is that I don't care what happens to these people. I REALLY didn't care in the first episode, and the writers didn't do much to improve that situation over the course of the following 23. Locke is the only remotely interesting character. I like the concept of a geek who can do the things he brags about, and I think they're doing a good job keeping the balance here. That is, on the one hand, Locke is very capapble, no denying it. On the other hand, despite some experiences in his past (and I admit that his flashbacks about his father are pretty cool), he's still extremely naive. What he calls "faith" is actually just wishful thinking, and it's interesting that his "wish" involves not having to deal with people in the "real" world - because he knows he can't. He seems strong, but really he's just latched on to the first thing that came his way - "the island" (and the weird religion he makes out of it). An especially nice touch is that he's not really fooling anyone. The only person he got to, really, was Boone, and that made sense given Boone's own problems. There's an anger in Locke that's always just beneath the surface, and the actor does a good job of portraying the fake serenity. I'll be interested to see what happens with Locke in the second season (which I have already ordered from Netflix) - but he's honestly the only character I can say that about.

The reason why characters are important to a series like this is...well, there isn't a reason to watch it twice otherwise. Twin Peaks and The X-Files were similarly plot-driven "arc" shows that suffered from poor planning, but they both stay interesting over several viewings because the characters are believable and compelling. Lost just doesn't have this at all. Strip away the interesting character story and all you have is a plot. And once you've seen the plot once, there's no need to go back and ever see it again.

Unfortunately, the plot is another problem here. The premise for this show is REALLY interesting. The actual events, though, seem hokey at times. In particular, the stuff with the numbers is kind of dumb. It's not that I don't think recurring numbers are cool, because I do. And it's not that I mind the implied mysticism. Quite the contrary - I like shows and novels that don't feel the need to explain everything rationally. (I've written quite a bit about this with regard to Star Trek.) But if something is transparently a device then it loses its meaning, and "the numbers" are simply a device. They're too easy to be impressive in any way. All a writer really has to do to cash out "interest" is put them somewhere - like, oh, say on the jerseys of a girls soccer team standing in an airport. They function in essentially the same way as the "central item" in every fantasy novel ever written. You know, some mysterious stranger appears before the hero and tells him to search out and find the sword of [insert appropriate-sounding name here] and take it to [insert appropriate name] castle(/cave/wishingwell/whatever), and all his troubles will vanish. Of course, if he fails, some Truly Terrible Fate will befall mankind - but that never happens, so generally we're safe. Well, the numbers are slightly more interesting than that - but the point is that they're still a story-independent device. I can very easily pick these up and take them out and put them in any story without having to substantively change what's going on. They're there to be cashed in for "plot" the same way you cash in accumulated chips for money at a poker game. You can leave the game whenever you please, and with devices like this the plot picks up an moves whenever the writers are good and ready. It's "story engineering" more than "story telling." They've made the process "efficient," which is sort of the last thing we really want. Claire's experience with the psychic is a bit better on this count. They've left totally ambiguous whether his powers are genuine - and there's an interesting story to tell about credulity in the face of coincidence involving people like Claire. Not that they're really telling it exactly, but they're at least sniffing at it. Hurley's "cursed numbers" are sort of the poor cousin of this. I'm as much a sucker for them as anyone (I did say they were cool) - but the point is I shouldn't have to feel like I'm a "sucker" for one of the central plot devices! A good plot "device" isn't a device at all - because it's a place the story leads you naturally. No need for literary "call/cc."

Finally, there's just nothing going on thematically. This premise has nearly endless possibility for philosophical exploration. Throw a bunch of deeply flawed people on an island and give them a chance to start over and ... well, in this case, NOTHING HAPPENS. No one grows, no one learns anything, we don't feel any closer to the mysteries of life than when we started. There is exactly nothing profound about this show. Now in some cases this is a blessing. For example, I'm REALLY glad they spared us the potential "man vs. nature" theme, which I don't think would have been appropriate here. There is plenty of food on and free shelter on the island - so we don't have to go through the drudgery of watching a Scout video presented as fiction. Thank God. But there are plenty of other themes that would have been interesting to work in ... and they just didn't. In particular, something about "starting over" seem to be in order but just isn't here. And there are interesting things to say about the civilization vs. "the wild" thing too. Not in the cheesy way that Sawyer means it when he brings it up early on, mind you. No replays of "Lord of the Flies," thanks! But it still seems strange to throw a bunch of random passengers together away from civilization and say essentially nothing whatever about how they organize themselves. The closest they really come is Jack's "every man for himself doesn't work" speech - and they really could and should have spared us that. Not just because it's not very realistic (in actual disaster situations, people are a lot less selfish than you think), but also because Jack's authority to say these things at the time hadn't been properly established by the story. That everyone stands around and listens like the faceless extras they are only reinforces this impression.

So I give it a B+. It's a true pleasure to watch, but there's nothing lasting here. Having seen it once, I'll never wanna see it again, and I won't spend much time thinking about it when it's not on the screen in front of me. It has superior production values and a damn intriguing premise, but the actual literary execution is generic. And I mean "generic" as in "nothing over and above the genre specifications." Granted, I guess there isn't really a "crash on a mysterious island" genre - but if there were the prototype would be exactly this show. There's nothing here in the way of a story that depends on people and themes. It's really just a skeleton plot (which may not have even been properly planned - the show will be pretty pathetic if there aren't some substantive answers by the end of season two) with made-to-order playing pieces standing in for characters. And nothing of substance anywhere to be found. Mostly it's a trail of "sparklies". True that it's a superior "trail of sparklies," but that's not enough to garner it an A. The truly discriminating viewer will want to stay well away. People looking for a nice weekly escapist relaxer, however, will get exactly what they're looking for in spades. 

Tell Us What to Think

 Here's a case of the academic namby-pambies if I've ever seen one: a professor in Nova Scotia has cancelled a debate on diversity because his opponent's views are "too offensive to be voiced on campus."

"It's all about providing a public stage for views which are considered by many Canadians as deeply, deeply offensive," said Devine.

Love the sly suggestion that the opponent's (who happens to be one Jared Taylor) views are somehow more offensive to Canadians than to anyone else. Mr. Taylor, as it turns out, is not a white supremacist. He's a white separatist, which isn't the same thing at all. White supremacy is indeed an "offensive" view - but I don't see why white separatism should be. It's a view I find foolish, personally, but that's a long cry from being "offensive." Certainly there's nothing "offensive" enough about it to warrant this kind of censorship. And indeed, isn't one of the points of academic institutions supposed to be to wall off a place where views that don't get as much airtime in the so-called "real" world can be expounded on and explored?

More to the point: if the debate is about the relative merits of "diversity," then I can't really think of a more appropriate opponent for Mr. Devine than Mr. Taylor. The very antithesis of "diversity," as Mr. Devine uses the term, is racial separatism, no? It really begs the question of what Mr. Devine was actually expecting in an opponent. If he didn't know Mr. Taylor was a white separatist when he invited him to speak, then what, exactly, did he think Taylor stood for? What search method did he use, if not, oh, say, reading some material from the person he invited? I guess what he was expecting was someone who doesn't think diveristy is an intrinsic good, but doesn't otherwise mind it. That's roughly my view - I don't mind meeting and befriending people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, but ultimately I think people are just people, we have more in common than we have things that separate us, and in any case ethnic background is an inappropriate criterion for admission to university, which should be based solely on academic promise. If that's what he was expecting, then he shouldn't have had any trouble finding someone to fit the bill. This opinion is common, as far as I know, and there are plenty of writers who espouse it. It's somewhat harder to find people like Mr. Taylor, who actually believe ethnic diversity is a negative. Indeed, one wonders what Mr. Devine has to lose in debating him. Taylor's viewpoint is so out of fashion these days (to the point of being virtually taboo) that I have trouble imagining a crowd at a university that would support him. Now granted, the article says the talk got mention on Stormfront, which is a discussion site for white nationalists. Maybe Mr. Devine was worried that hooligans would show up. It's a legitimate fear, and in my opinon also a legitimate reason to cancel the talk. But that isn't the reason Devine gave. What he said instead was that Taylor's views are "too offensive to be voiced on campus."

There is no such thing as a view "too offensive to be voiced" in what's supposed to be a free speech zone. Individual attendees can decide for themselves when they've heard enough, can't they? It's sort of the way I avoid the Jesus freaks when they preach behind Woodburn. They have nothing to say to me, and I have better things to do than listen, so I move on rather than stop. I find the suggestion that I should dedicate my life to something I've never seen nor felt a bit offensive, in fact. But nothing in what I just said in any way implies I want them banned from campus! Please! Ditto socialists. I find lots of left-wing viewpoints deeply offensive. The idea that I should give up wealth that I create to support layabouts at the government's discretion or else be carted off to prison, for example, strikes me as the root of all immorality. But again, you don't see me pressing to censor this view, backward and tribal though I think it is.

Academia is in a pretty sad state if people like Taylor are denied public forums. More importantly, if a champion of "diversity" can't handle a racial separatist, his natural opponent, then I really start to wonder what the intellectual basis for the "diversity" movement actually is? Does it even have one?

Here's the best part:

But Devine says academic debate has its limits.

Instead of a debate on Jan. 15, Devine will give a lecture on diversity including a summary of Taylor's views.

Wonderful! Because why hear a case from the source when you can hear a straw man version from one of its opponents instead?

I don't know what this is, but it's nothing like what academia is supposed to be. Let a thousand flowers bloom indeed.

Just Like That

Well whaddya know? Charges of rape in the Duke rape case have been dropped now that the accuser is no longer sure she was penetrated during the "attack." Well, duh! You can't get penetrated by your imagination, sweetie!

Alright - I half apologize for that last comment. The case hasn't gone to trial yet, and until it does we technically don't know who's telling the truth. Maybe it is as she says, and maybe the explanation for her constantly-shifting memory is that she was afraid the police wouldn't take her seriously or something - or else it has to do with the trauma of the attack. Fine - it's possible.

It's just that it's getting harder and harder to believe. For one thing, the prosecution has had since March to get its story straight. Even accounting for trauma, it's hard to imagine that they could still be waffling about matters so crucial as what the charges are. Then there's all the accumulated baggage up to this point. The "other" stripper has also changed her story more than once, there's plenty of circumstantial evidence that says the boys charged weren't at the party at the time of the attack, we know that the prosecutor used an improper screening method when asking her to photo-ID her attackers, the prosecutor himself has a lot of political motivation to pursue this case regardless of its merits, and DNA tests have failed to turn up any of the accused boys' DNA even though they now clearly show that she had sex with someone that night.

The fact that they're dropping this particular charge is especially telling. Recall that originally Nifong gave a fairly unconvincing argument that DNA evidence was less important than testimony and other physical evidence. It went something like this: there is no DNA evidence in 70-80% of sexual assault cases, and yet convictions are obtained. True enough - but what he's leaving out is that in most cases the victim doesn't report the attack until days or even weeks later, by which point most of the DNA evidence has been cleaned off. In this woman's case, a rape kit test was administered the same night the attack supposedly took place, so however "normal" it may be to prosecute a case without DNA evidence, it's highly irregular in this particular kind of case. Nifong originally said that the DNA tests would provide "conclusive evidence" that a rape had occurred. In this case, lack of same should be equally conclusive evidence of innocence, as Nifong well knows. And yet he chose to press ahead with the rape charge anyway, saying that the victim's testimony was enough. Well, now he doesn't even have that. He's tried his best to make this charge stick and hasn't been able. Isn't it time to maybe start rethinking some of the other charges too?

One really does start to wonder where Nifong's "certainty" is coming from if not from political expediency. His single testimonial is clearly unreliable. True, a medical test shows injuries "consistent with rape," but the prosecutor of all people should know that those injuries could just as easily have come from any man. There is nothing about them that links the people specifically accused to the crime. Put bluntly, Nifong's case seems to rest on the idea that a woman wouldn't lie about the details of a sexual attack - but women lie about these things all the time. There is independent reason to believe that this particular woman would do so.

It has been suggested that the injuries came from her boyfriend and she's lying to protect him. That's a pretty standard reason for making up a rape story, and I see no reason why Nifong shouldn't independently pursue that angle. That's why its so infuriating to read things like this:

But Wendy Murphy, a former prosecutor who now teaches at the New England School of Law, said the decision could actually help Nifong by keeping any discussion about the results of the DNA testing away from the jury.

"It may be that this is a strategic move to insulate the trial itself from a sideshow that certainly would have overwhelmed all the other evidence," Murphy said. "A sideshow about her sex life."

With all due respect (which doesn't seem to be much), her sex life is not "a sideshow" at this point. It's a crucial fact of the case. It would be a "sideshow" if Nifong had direct evidence linking those injuries to the players, but he doesn't. Absent such evidence, it bleeding well DOES matter who else she might be having sex with and how often.

How, even in cases of trauma, can a story go from "I was shoved in a bathroom and vaginally and anally raped" to "I was in the bathroom and they touched me wrong?" It doesn't seem possible. And so I find it really hard to believe that there's a case here at all anymore. I'm guessing this rape just didn't happen, the chick's making it up, and I guess Nifong probably knows that by now too. Maybe he calculates that it's worse to just back out - and he's probably right. It'll go to trial and he'll lose, and hopefully the voters will quietly send him packing at the next available opportunity. I can't say I'm a big fan of getting Gonzales involved, as has been (formally) suggested. But I wouldn't mind the state legislature taking up the issue. Since the legislature and Governor Easley don't get along, and since Nifong is (originally) an Easley appointee, it's not an unrealistic hope.

Now THERE'S a thought!

 With the Republican Primary in 2008 looking increasingly likely to be a head-to-head between John "First Amendment?" McCain and Rudi "Due Process?" Giuliani, I was starting to wonder if there'd be anything to keep me interested. I mean, if Newsweek's latest cover is to be believed, then the Dems face an even worse pair of choices: Sen. Barack Obama who, in addition to being a certifiable socialist, has approximately 20min. of total national political experience, and Hillary Clinton nee Rodham, who is possibly the sleaziest pol to run for the office since Johnson. (There's also a rumor that Boy Wonder may try again. *Yaaawwwnnn*) So whoever wins the Republican nomination is pretty much guaranteed to be the better choice for the job.

Which isn't to say he's going to be anything like a good choice. And indeed, if it's down to McCain and Giuliani, I think I may take up (very) heavy drinking till it's over.

Not that I'm voting Republican anyway. I'll stick to my voting algorithm - which means I vote Libertarian in every running where there's a candidate and Republican when there's not. I admit I got a little excited when I heard Gingrich might be running, but while I still think he's worlds better than McCain or Giuliani, he's been saying some pretty dopey stuff recently. So after calm reflection I think I won't break my perfect Libertarian voting record if he manages to get nominated.

Today I heard one other interesting suggestion, though, that gave me a couple seconds' pause: South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Yup, Mr. Pig Shit himself.

C'mon - the "only in South Carolina" political stunts aside (it isn't just the pigs - Sanford has also been serving free grits to state guests, driving himself around in an SUV rather than the traditional chauffeured limo, and sleeping on a cot in his office rather than in the Governor's Mansion. Of course, this DIY approach means he sometimes forgets important things.) - you gotta love a guy who started off his term by vetoing all 106 spending bills proposed. Sanford took the reigns during the first period since 1955 that the state took in less in tax revenues than the year before, and despite a weak veto mechanism (it's typically easy to overried a governor's veto in Southern states) managed to keep South Carolina solvent anyway.

I don't know that much about Sanford, and he's not likely to win the primary anyway, so I don't know that it matters. But if the linked article is right, people may be putting pressure on him to run for President. And he may have a better chance than you think if the Republican base really is fed up with Bush's single-minded ambition to be the biggest deficit spender since Johnson.

Here's hoping.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

It's Japanimation, Damnit!

 Via Noah - behold, the Geek Hierarchy!

Ok, not the most imaginative use of anyone's photoshop skills, but good for a chuckle or two. (I especially like Heinlein fans outranking Piers Anthony fans. Right on! Speaking of which - I have Starship Troopers on tape for the ride home. In fact, I made it to this ripe old age without ever having read the book or seen the movie. I also have Santuary as an insurance policy if it craps out, though.)

But I wouldn't be posting about it if I didn't have something to complain about, so here goes. They have "Anime fans who insist on subtitles" outranking "Anime fans who use the term 'Japanimation.'" Hello? Isn't that the other way around? That is, isn't the only reason we call anime "anime" because the supergeek fans (the ones who have stopped being able to see natural colors) insisted on using the Japanese word (which is really just a nipponization and shortening of the English word "animation") because they were offended that "Japanimation" can be as easily parsed as "Jap-animation" as "Japan-imation?"

I like anime/japanimation, and when I first got into it (I mean, modulo watching Voltron as a kid - which I didn't know was Japanese at the time) in 1990 or so, "japanimation" was the only available term. It was annoying to hear people insist on "anime," which if I remember correctly they started doing around 1994. And yes, it was generally the people who were trying to show that they knew more about it than you did at first. Eventually I switched to "anime" too - but reluctantly, only becuse it somehow managed to become the more popular term to the point where "japanimation" started sounding stilted.

It's sort of like "The Ukraine" vs. "Ukraine." I'm doing my best to hold out with "The Ukraine," which is what I grew up with. But I have to admit it's been almost a year since I saw it written like that in print. The media has wholeheartedly adopted "Ukraine," as have most of the people around me, which means it's probably only a matter of time before "Ukraine" starts sounding more natural to me and I end up reluctantly using it too. Right now, both versions are roughly equal in gut-level acceptability, which just goes to show that the process is underway.

In any case, I don't think people who call anime "japanimation" are the geekier of the two, are they? As far as I know, there aren't really such things as people who say "japanimation" anymore. The bad guys won.

Dion's Dog

Another reason that Stephane Dion shouldn't be Canada's next prime minister: he has a dog. And see - Stephen Harper is a cat lover, so...

OK, I'm not really taking that angle. It has more to do with what Dion named his dog. Yup: "Kyoto." After the Protocol. (As if I could make this up!)

It is important that Kyoto fail. Climate change may be real, but that doesn't say anything whatever about whether Kyoto is the appropriate way to fight it. And in fact, it's about the least appropriate way I can imagine.

You've all heard the drill. Kyoto transfers wealth artificially to underdeveloped economies because these are not covered by the treaty. More emportantly, it transfers wealth to India and China - which will acquire it on their own eventually with or without our "help." Most importantly, China and India are huge polluters, so without their compliance the treaty is pretty much ineffective anyway. And even with their compliance, the year chosen (1990) just so happens to be politically expedient for a number of players. Germany, for example, had just reunified in 1990, so they get to count all the communist carbon production from industries that hadn't been shut down yet in their general package. They basically meet the goal for free. The UK, likewise, gets to benefit from a transition from coal-based electricity production to oil-based production that really got underway about 1990. So they get compliance for free as well. Russia suffered major industrial collapse in the 1990s, so they're actually a net beneficiary of the treaty as written (though they have decided to pull out anyway - presumably because they expect their industry to start recovering soon and know that it will look a lot like third world industry in the early stages of the recovery). France has but to continue its nuclearization program. So yes, the treaty pretty much is designed to punish the US for being...well, for being the US. Canada and Australia get caught in the crossfire - but Australia, at least, had the good sense to know a sucker's bet when it saw one and got out when we did.

The real tragedy of Kyoto, though, is that environmentaism has taken over for religion in a lot of people's psyches. All evidence indicates that the world is, in fact, warming. What we don't know is how much of this really has to do with human activity, or what the real economic tradeoffs are for dealing with the portion that does have something to do with us, or even what the consequences of doing nothing about it are likely to be. And we're not going to know so long as vast swathes of the human population simply take it on faith that industry is bad and Mother Nature loves us.

One thing in particular that seems to be off the table for discussion is technology-based solutions. For example: the US could easily cut its emissions seriously by switching over to mostly nuclear electricity production - but the environmentalists won't hear it. True, the oil and coal industries aren't happy about it either - but at least for them I can see a motive in trying to protect jobs and profits. The environmentalists don't like nuclear power because they don't like technological advancement in general. It's more or less the same reason that all the focus in the climate change debate is on carbon emissions, despite the fact that methane is just as implicated. But methane, you see, comes from rice paddies and cows - so it can't be neatly blamed on Detroit.

What we need on climate change is a healthy and open debate. Which is to say we need a lot less "religion." And by that I mean a lot less anti-Americanism, and a lot less nature-worship.

Kyoto is the worst government policy since the War on Drugs. You have to be seriously mentally deficient to think it's a good idea. As it stands, it buys you absolutely no progress in combatting climate change at a HUGE price. It doesn't even come close to passing a cost-benefit analysis - so why are we even still talking about it? I cannot seriously believe that most people who support it do so in good faith. True, some argue that Kyoto is merely a way of putting the regulatory aparatus in place that will eventually Save Us All, and I suppose this is something like a good faith argument in favor. But notice where this argument leads. It essentially admits that the Treaty is a trojan horse to ever more painful emissions caps. And it does so without bothering to present convincing math that this "pain" is worth it.

It's difficult to believe that we'll always be as dependent on fossil fuels as we are now. Fossil fuels have a limited supply, and industry presumably wants to keep profits rolling long after they've run out. If there are ways to produce energy as or nearly as cheaply with alternative sources as we're currently doing with oil and coal, rest assured they will be found. If the government absolutely must play a role in stopping climate change, then research on developing such sources seems like a better place to put our money than in building an international regulatory apparatus that will only get more painful as time goes by - sapping, in the process, the capital base vital to doing the research into alternative fuels that needs to be done.

But Stephane Dion didn't name his dog "Nuclear Power." Or "Alternative Energy." He didn't even name it "Hybrid Car" or "Green Investment Strategy." Nope. Out of all the millions of names on the table, he settled on "Kyoto," and even jokes that its nickname is "Protocol." I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that the climate change debate if he gets elected isn't going to be very...oh, what's the The good news is that Canada's vote on Kyoto (they've signed it, but Stephen Harper has been staying up late nights trying to work out a way out of it, bless him!) matters to no one, so Dion and his dog aren't adding even a milisecond to its lifespan even if they do make it to Sussex. So I guess the only thing to say about this, really, is that if Canadians make him their 23rd Prime Minister in the spring (or whenever the hell the election happens), they'll have the government they deserve and no one but themselves to blame. It ain't like they won't have seen it coming!

Another Major Drug War "Win"

Check out the following line from an AP article about the drug war in Mexico:

Vicente Fox, started out with enthusiastic U.S. applause for his own fight against drug trafficking. U.S. officials called the arrest of drug bosses early in his six-year term unprecedented, while Fox boasted that his administration had destroyed 43,900 acres of marijuana and poppy plantations in its first six months and more than tripled drug seizures.

Yet drug violence has spiked across the country in recent years, with gangs fighting over control of routes following the arrest of drug lords, authorities say.

"Yet drug violence has spiked across the country in recent years..." YET...

Who woulda thought? You destroy almost 50,000 acres of someone's cash crop, disrupt the supply chain, and make the stream of $100-million/yr jobs which require no high school diploma scarce, "YET" it causes violence? I mean, do major newspapers raid the moron factory for recruits or what?

OF COURSE IT CAUSES VIOLENCE!!! We're talking about people who work in the black market. They don't head to Unemployment to stand in line when they lose their jobs! And we're talking farming that brings in hundreds of millions a year in profit. Think you can earn that growing corn?

Now read the whole article. It's about a hybrid marijuana plant that essentially can't be killed. The superweed. Spray pesticide on it and it just grows back. Oh yeah, and you can harvest it all year 'round. Because gee, since when have hundreds of millions in proits ever provided incentive for innovation before?

The War on Drugs is collossally stupid, not to mention immoral. JUST. LEGALIZE. IT. ALREADY. Stop wasting hundreds of millions a year in our tax money for something that neither can nor should be fought.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Techno U

I notice on the Registrar's site that grades have to be submitted electronically at IU. Yet another example of just how technohip IU is, right?

Well, yeah, but then check out this stunning counterexample I encountered today. I went to the Math and Computer Science library to pick up a book on Databases along with another - a classic - on the lambda calculus only to find that IUCAT is down. Nothing so odd about that; systems have to be maintained, and no better time to go offline for maintenance than during the holidays, right? Well, right, except that the university provided no if you're wondering how the helpful librarians accomplished these checkouts, they did indeed do it by hand. Yup - the university couldn't even give them a temporary backup. I mean - as in, not even a program that scans the barcodes and remembers them until tomorrow (when the system goes back up) and then performs all the transactions then. How hard, I ask you, is it REALLY to code such a thing? I mean REALLY. We're talking, what, two hours of someone's time? All the bleedin' thing has to do is scan the books in the normal way, save the acquired data in a textfile somewhere, and then remember to do the update sometime tomorrow when the system comes back online. Whatever 'professional' staff the university has working on this housekeeping that has IUCAT down for two days isn't working hard enough, that's for sure!

And what of browsing? See - we can't even browse the catalogue while IUCAT is down. That's something else they should have though of ahead of time. Again - I can understand the master database going down for cleaning - but surely they could have made a backup database that shows you some minimal information like whether or not a given title is in the system? I mean, fine, it doesn't have to tell you whether it's available or how many copies are floating around or where - but shouldn't it be fairly basic to set up a temporary site that keeps the rudimentary 'card' catalogue functions functioning?

For a university that prides itself on being tech savvy, this is embarrassingly lazy.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Another Lost Sighting

Another Lost "sighting." The woman who tortures Sayeed is Mira Furlan, who played Delenn in Babylon 5.

TOWM Political Quote of the Day

TOWM's political quote of the day comes from Stephane Dion who, announcing that former leadership rival Michael Ignatieff will be deputy leader of the Liberal Party, says:

We will have a dream team to put in front of a Canadians, and it's my dream to have Michael Ignatieff as close as possible to me.

Your wish is his command, Frenchie!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Maximal Assumptions, Minimal Output

One of the books I need to read eventually is Noam Chomsky's The Minimalist Program. I dipped into it a bit today, and it started annoying me already in the introduction.

Here're the lines in question:

This work is motivated by two related questions: (1) what are the general conditions that the human language faculty should be expected to satisfy? and (2) to what extent is the language faculty determined by these conditions, without special structure that lies beyond them?

And later:

To the extent that the answer to question (2) is positive, language is something like a "perfect system," meeting external constraints as well as can be done, in one of the reasonable ways. The Minimalist Program for linguistic theory seeks to explore these possibilities.

I actually have a lot of sympathy for this view, to the extent that I understand it. The idea seems to be this: language serves a function, and if it does no more than satisfy that function, and if all of its specifications are more or less in the service of that function and can therefore be explained by the function being served (communication, one presumes), then it's "perfect." The Minimalist Program is a kind of "guess." We will try to explain all of language as far as possible within the framework of how it works to fulfill its prime function. We therefore make the assumption that language is "perfect." But we do not necessarily expect to see this assumption borne out. The point is just that the Minimalist Program is a kind of discipline (in the monastic sense) in research. We know the conclusion we want to reach, and we try to reach it. We may not, but the discipline will have paid off by giving us the minimal theory necessary to account for the data.

In a sly way, Chomsky seems to be responding to some of the baroque excesses of GB. It isn't science just to capture the data. You've got to capture it in the most general possible way - without sacrificing accuracy. Accuracy is easy to get on the cheap - but you don't learn much by just describing things as they are.

What I guess annoys me about this is that, although Chomsky's wording here is actually quite precise, it's also easy to misinterpret. And so a lot of syntacticians have simply taken on faith that language is "perfect," and they do not realize that this was just a disciplinary assumption rather than a proven theorem. I'm also not completely sure that this is a good device to build into your research methods. It's one thing to say "all other things being equal, we'll go with the simplest explanation." All sciences have taken that as a general principle for centuries! It's quite another to say, "for lack of a better explanation, I'll just assume that things work out in the predicted way." And it's the second that I think a lot of syntacticians are guilty of. Syntax is missing a vital step, in other words. In Physics, it goes something more like this: "Here's how we want it to be, and we have independent evidence that it probably is that way, so for lack of a better explanation we'll assume it is until someone shows otherwise. And on that assumption I conclude about phenomena x and y that z." What's in itallics is often left out in Syntax. I'm convinced in most cases that there's no evidence against a lot of Minimalist assumptions, but generally speaking, science needs a bit more than that to go on. We have to have at least prima facie evidence that what we're assuming is, in fact, the case in most sciences to proceed. In Syntax, that would be done by checking how your conclusions about the specific phenomenon you're studying would affect previously-drawn conclusions about other phenomena. But most syntacticians omit this step - they don't bother to check that adding device y to the system doesn't mess up something about device x (which was proposed to explain another phenomenon). I think Computational Linguistics has a definite role to play here. We can make parsers for corpora that allow researchers to "test" their conclusions (namely, add a device to the grammar and reparse a previously parsed corpus and see if you "lost" anything that you were previously able to account for). But few researchers are currently using these techniques. Minimalism is in particular difficult to code parsers for - which may explain a lot of the laziness.

In any case, this is oily Chomsky at his best. Nothing he says here is objectionable - but neither is it optimally clear. Lots of people have gotten the wrong impression here, and while that's obviously not Chomsky's fault (he worded it correctly, after all) directly, I sometimes wonder if he really minds the misinterpretation.

What American TV Needs

Noah posts some interesting comments in the entry on Lost. Basically, the idea is that word on the nets is that I shouldn't waste my time with Lost because it, like most "plot-arc" series on American TV, ends up suffering from what I like to call X-Files syndrome. What I mean by that: X-Files was a brilliant show for the first 2-3 seasons when the major storyline was still in the background and you could believe they were going somewhere with it. Once they brough it to the fore, though, it became instantly obvious that the writers just didn't know what they were doing. Which isn't to say there weren't good episodes in seasons 4, 5, 6 and 7 - just that they tended to be the ones that didn't involve "the plot."

I've recently watched Ron Moore's reimagined Battlestar Galactica suffer the same fate. What a brilliant show it was when it started! Easily the best thing on TV in years. But then it went on hiatus halfway through season two - and when it came back it was crap. There were some bright spots here and there where it looked like it would pull through, but eventually it was no longer worth the time investment, and I stopped watching. The problem, like with so many other shows these days, is that it relied on a larger plot arc for interest, but the writers never bothered to plan it. It eventually dawns on you that they're stalling - and killing the continuity in the meantime.

When I stop to think about it, the only real exceptions to this "lifespan" rule I know are Bablyon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Babylon 5, of course, was meticulously planned before it was ever filmed (which leaves mysterious why the first 5 episodes were so awful, and the pilot the worst I've ever seen, but I digress...). The only "gotcha" here is that season 5 was unexpected, so it was sort of improv'd - and it definitely showed. Seasons 1-4, though, were flawless as far as plot was concerned. (What Straczynski has in plot he makes up for by sucking at dialogue, though, so there's a tradeoff for sure where Bab5 is concerned.) As for Buffy - I guess what saved it was that there wasn't a cross-seasonal arc so much. There are hints throughout (esp. in season 6) that something else entirely is going on - but they're never more than hints (unless you take this episode at face value, I mean. For the record : I do.) - and certainly never very explicit, so you don't know if they mean it. The only story coherence between seasons, really, is that the characters develop and events are not forgotten. Within individual seasons, there's an "arc," but they wisely leave it mostly alone until about halfway through the season. It dominates the second half, but not the first.

Which brings me to my main point: 13 episodes seems to be about the natural limit for explicit plot arcs. You can fudge a bit the way Buffy does - by keeping the arc mainly in the second half of the season and comingling non-arc episodes with it in the first. Or else you can just plan the whole damn thing years in advance like Straczynski did with Babylon 5. But otherwise, 13 episodes seems to be about right for carrying the weight of a coherent story. Any shorter than that and you'll be rushed. Too much longer and things will get incoherent - or else you'll start contradicting yourself.

In Japan, pretty much ALL shows have plot arcs, and they rarely last longer than 13 episodes. There are two seasons per year, and "dorama" shows are not expected to outlast the season. (There are some exceptions, but it's rare.) I think this is a format that US TV should consider adopting. Maybe not for sitcoms, but for dramas and scifi for sure. The one real obstacle, I guess, is that Americans tend to watch shows more for the characters than the show itself. We don't get attached to the story so much as the characters in the story - so even when the story has run its course we want to know what's happening to the people who were involved. So it's not so easy to just cancel a show on Americans like you can in Japan or Britain or whereever else. So that's a bit of an obstacle to changing format, I admit - but I think, as I said before, that Buffy found a good workaround. Whatever your main "story" is, it shouldn't be the actual basis for the whole show, and it shouldn't last longer than a season, and it probably shouldn't even dominate that season entirely, at least not until a third to half of the way through. Just hint at it for the first 5-6 episodes and really get in to it later.

On the whole, I prefer shows with arcs to the "reset button" kinds of series that were popular for most of TV history in this country. So I applaud TV's drift in this direction. But audiences here are still getting used to them, and so our "arc" shows have a tendency to ramble and get caught in contradiction. We've shot bullseye a couple of times, but for the most part, American arc shows still have a tendency to overstay their welcome. If Noah's links are right, then Lost is no exception, and maybe I shouldn't waste time with it.

Whatever will come of it, I don't know - but for now it's interesting and highly entertaining. I'm really enjoying it, even though I can tell it's not "great" (like Twin Peaks, Buffy or Battlestar). I was pleased to see Nick Tate (Alan Carter on Space: 1999) in a bit role as the Australian farmer who turns Kate in to pay his mortgage. Also, Evangeline Lilly, who plays Kate herself, is smokin' hot, which helps a lot! And the character "Locke" is getting a bit interesting. He's kind of annoying in a lot of ways - but I like the idea of the geek who's a giant in his imagination actually being able to do the things he brags about. There was a similar theme with Colonel Tigh back in (the reimagined) Battlestar's good days. Tigh's presented as a failure looking for a break, and when disaster strikes he gets the chance to start over (though he flubs it, which Locke, thankfully, has not so far). So I'm not inclined to give up on it just yet - even though I can't say I have high expectations for its future. Tweedy says it will stay good most of the way through the second season. I can live with that.

Caveat Emptor Continues to Rock

One of the cool things about Bloomington is that it has the prototype used bookstore. Anyone who lives here will not need to be told I'm talking about Caveat Emptor.

Could there be a bookstore anywhere that fits more stereotypes? Caveat Emptor is on the square in one of those high-ceiling old shops. You know, the kind where the owners used to live upstairs. It consists of towers of mismatched shelves literally overflowing with books - which spill out into the boxes on the floor. The "sections," such as they are, are labeled with yellowed slips of paper written in magic marker oh, a good 15-20 years ago. And while the sections mostly do a good job keeping track of what's where - they do blend and mix a lot. There's an old man with huge glasses who sits buried in books behind the "counter" in the front. Though the store takes credit cards, it doesn't have a computer or even a proper cash register. Store credit for trades is still written on index cards which are stuffed into what looks like a recipe box in semi-alphabetical order. As he was recording my credit today, the old man mentioned that they were thinking of getting a computer, but that he was opposed to it because messy recipe boxes with shreds of paper sticking out every which way don't crash. I explained to him that you can back up data, and he responded "only if you think about it." Logical. Best part about it - the store only has semi-regular hours. There's a sign on the door that saying something like "this store sometimes opened late at owner's discretion, but never earlier than 10am." Or is it 11?

My favorite part about that place, though, is the one stereotype it DOESN'T fit: the old man behind the counter isn't a left-winger. Every time I go in there he says something to someone I agree with. (Since he chats up all the customers - mostly to show off how much reading he's done - there's a lot of sample data.) Today it was to me - while I was handing over my big box of books for sale. He pulled out one on Margaret Thatcher and commented "Wonderful lady!" There was another by Noam Chomsky (that I got free as a TA's textbook copy this semester) for which his comment was "I don't like this guy at all - but he sells, so I'll buy it." HA!

Highly recommended, Caveat Emptor. They gave me a decent sum in store credit - and I spent half of it - mostly on books about Chess and Bridge, but also on a scifi paperback.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


I guess I should have known better. A couple of days ago I posted some thoughts to the effect that the professional Pinochet-hating crowd had lost a lot of momentum. But then I stumbled across this AP article by Bill Cormier, and now I know that there are still some of them lurking in the press. Cormier starts off so:

Latin America is finally owning up to its "dirty wars" - the nightmarish campaigns of state-sponsored violence in which hundreds of thousands died or "disappeared." But the death of Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet shows the continent's leftist leaders of today must act fast to expose the truth while the masterminds of this savagery are still alive.

OK, let's just start with the blindingly obvious. It can't be "the continent's leftist leaders" exclusively who need to fight this problem considering that the last time I checked Castro was a leftist and is clearly the greatest surviving example of a 20th century Latin American tyrant who needs a bullet in the head. Further, Pinochet is not a "mastermind of savagery." There was some limited savagery in 1973-4 that followed on the heels of a coup made bloody by the fact that Salvador Allende (a "leftist leader" if there ever was one, by the way) had been stirring up trouble for three years already and was finally ordered to shape up or resign by Congress, an order he ignored. It isn't as though Pinochet stayed up nights in 1972 thinking "great, now I'm a general. How can I best abuse my power to cause savagery? Because that's what I really want out of life is savagery."

Momentum is growing behind new human rights investigations in Chile and other countries where dictators ruled with impunity.

Well, right, except in Cuba, where human rights investigations are illegal unless undertaken against the US. But I forgot - Castro is a "leftist" and therefore belongs to the category of Latin American leaders who "must act fast to expose the truth." You know, come to think of it, maybe Cormier could just tell them "the truth," since he seems to already know it? Save them some trouble Bill? How 'bout it, buddy?

Inspired by the Cuban revolution and communist principles, small bands of armed leftists emerged in the 1960s and '70s across Latin America to orchestrate kidnappings, bombings and insurgencies. The response - state-sanctioned terror and authoritarian governments secretly supported by U.S. intelligence - cast a wide net.

Many nonviolent sympathizers were swept up along with suspected guerrillas, and U.S. intelligence agencies supported the dictators through Operation Condor, a scheme developed by Pinochet's secret police to deny dissidents safe havens.

And this is just ignorant. If Pinochet and Galtieri were such great pals - an impression the reader is clearly supposed to get here - then why did Pinochet supply intelligence to the British during the Falklands War - a war Galtieri needed to win to stay in power? (Indeed, the junta in Argentina was overthrown largely on the basis of having lost that little distraction.) Gee, you might almost think Pinochet was pulling the plug on a regime that had gone sour...

Mexico's police and army summarily executed more than 700 people from the 1960s to 1980s, according to a report quietly released last month that signals the Mexican government's first acceptance of responsibility for its dirty war.

The Mexican government was leftist, you moron! The PRI is in the Socialist International!!! In particular, the president named was not a right-winger:

Pinochet lived to 91. Paraguay's dictator Alfredo Stroessner died this year at 93 without being held to account. Because of his age - 84 - former Mexican President Luis Echeverria will likely avoid trial for what the government report described as a campaign of "massacres, forced disappearances, systematic torture and genocide."

Echeverria redistributed land, imposed foreign investment quotas, devalued the currency, allowed the PLO to open an office in Mexico City, nationalized key industries (notably US and European oil holdings) and gave material support to Salvador Allende. You can well argue that Echeverria wasn't a "leftist" in the Allende/Castro sense, but what you can't do is call him a right-winger!!!

"I believe in the truth and I aspire for justice," Bachelet said after Pinochet's death. "Chile cannot forget, as this is the only way we can look in a constructive way to our future, guaranteeing respect for the fundamental rights of all Chileans."

Right, this from someone who chose East Germany, of all places, for her exile. Wonder what they taught her about justice there? They didn't teach her much about free speech, that's for sure. She ordered Pinochet's grandson discharged from the army for accusing the judges seeking to try him of pursuing fame rather than justice (source).

I could go on, but it should be obvious by now that this article is a hatchet job, and as such should infuriate any free-thinking reader. We expect reporters to give us the facts as they are, not convenient fantasy categories in which all the bad guys vote Republican. The categories "left" and "right" are pretty crude to begin with; I'm automatically suspicious of anyone who uses them as absolutes. In this article, they're downright lies.

George Reisman has a much more forceful article making the same case for Pinochet that I did. Reading it, and now reading this bit of Cormier's imagination, I wish I had worded mine as strongly. I got sucker-punched. These people are bad news, and Reisman is right to stand up to them as he did. Pinochet is dead and in the ground. The campaign to spread lies about him in the cause of international socialism lives on. We should focus our attention on the living dragon, not the dead horse.

Don't Let the Door Hitcha...

This morning I opened Camino rather than the usual Opera browser (because I wanted to check my grades, and Opera doesn't work with all the features on Onestart). When I went to check my blog for comments, I typed in about as far as theonlywinningmove and hit enter, because that's all I need do in my normal browser; it's a "frequent" address. Well, instead this one sent me to "" - which apparently redirects (DAMN! I wanted to buy that name for my own site...) to Of course, that's part of the same quote:

JOSHUA Greetings, Professor Falken.
PROF. FALKEN (typing) Hello, Joshua.
JOSHUA A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

Annoyingly, the freak who stole my idea (proactively, I mean - his site seems to have been here for two years) puts quotes from Tibet's Deposed Theocrat on his page, along with pictures of coffins with American flags on them. And he writes essays on the hyperreality of dreams. Ugh. It's a well-designed site, but I don't like sharing intellectual space with a fartknocker. This town ain't big enough for both of us, buddy!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Back in Action

Knuth's Masterwork is now officially revived - with more realistic goals this time. Obviously I didn't meet any of the goals I set myself when I started it a month and a half ago, so I'm giving it a second shot. Nothing of substance posted yet - and probably nothing will be posted tomorrow, either. But things begin in earnest on Monday for sure.

Jupiter Jones for President!

I did an unusual thing today and checked out a book I haven't read since childhood. Actually, I'm not even sure I read it as a child, to tell the truth. I checked it out thinking that I hadn't, but now that I'm halfway through it, parts of it seem really familiar.

In the 3rd and 4th grades I was a really big fan of The Three Investigators - a series of "Hardy Boys"-style books about three friends who solve mysteries. These were way cooler than the Hardy Boys for a number of reasons. First, the characters weren't rich, so they didn't just conveniently happen to have everything they needed always. Second and more importantly, one of them was actually intelligent. As I recall, in Hardy Boys stories the solution always just kinda hit them on the head. I mean that literally - they would snoop around a bit, and one or the other or both of the brothers would get kidnapped by the badguys, who invariably had a "base" of some kind. And of course getting kidnapped meant that they would escape inside of this base, and there you have it! Problem solved. They weren't exactly "mystery" stories, in other words. The Three Investigators stories were legitimate mystery stories and - as I'm finding out now - pretty well-written for children's books.

So what got me thinking about this? It's hard to say, now. Sometime last semester I stumbled across a mention on the internet that they were thinking of making a movie series. I would say that's LONG overdue. And to tell the truth, I'm really hoping they don't, in a way, because I liked reading as a child, and I think it would ruin some associations to actually see this filmed. (Not that I wouldn't go to see it; I would - but with a reservation or two.) But reading about it brought back memories, and so I started using "Jupiter Jones" as a handle on some internet sites (it's also part of my Yahoo! mail address). I guess it's been floating around in my head for a year or so, and so killing time today (I'm still taking a much-deserved end-of-semester break!) I looked it up again. I ran across an interesting review of the first book in the series by a gradeschool teacher who's been reading them at story time, and she had some interesting things to say about it, so I wanted to read it. Two things in particular. First - she muses that the books may be too slow-paced for the modern generation. I somehow doubted that (after all, Harry Potter is VERY slow-paced, and the kids LOVE those books!), but can now confirm that there's no way these books are too slow-paced. In fact, I'm kind of in awe at how perfectly-paced for that agegroup it seems. I remember thinking so as a kid too. Not explicitly, of course, but in the sense of being aware that the books always held my attention without ever being cheesy. I would read them slowly on purpose to avoid finishing the series (ironically, I outgrew them before that happened, so it was never a danger to begin the time, though, I worried I would "run out" of them!). So she's wrong on the first count. The second count is the interesting one, though. She maintains that one of the mysteries in the book isn't actually solved by the end. That is, they explain MOST of what's going on - but there's one thing that doesn't get explained, and more pointedly Jupiter, the main character and the "brains" of the group, doesn't ask about it. This is what really got me wanting to read this one (again?). I LOVE that technique in horror/mystery! It's rare (or maybe not? How would we really know? Heh!), but you do occasionally run across mystery and horror novels where a certain not-so-noticeable loose end isn't tied up at all, and you have the impression (if you notice it at all, I mean) that it's deliberate, not an oversight. I have that feeling a lot about Shirley Jackson stories. It all seems to add up superficially, but if you really think about the events of the story it doesn't quite - and then you realize that you were told a story that's quite different from the one you thought you were told, and I LOVE that! In particular, I feel this way about her most famous story - The Lottery. When I worked in Korea, that story was a favorite choice for in-class reading both because it was easy enough English for the students to follow and also because it contained a message that we wanted to get across: that "it's tradition" or "it's our way" are no kind of justification for anything. Of course, all cultures do this, but the Koreans seems a lot worse about it than most. "It's Korean tradition" is a justifcation for the most horrible things! Anyway, because it was so frequently used, it came up a lot in discussion in the teachers' room. After I'd read it and discussed it maybe five times it occurred to me that it actually IS a horror story - not just a social commentary. That is, it styles itself as a social commentary, but I think underneath it, if you really read closely, it turns out that the supernatural presence is real. The surface reading suggests it's not - the lottery is just a mindless tradition that people keep doing for no good reason that they can remember. But I'm not convinced that's the real story. The critics are simply wrong about this one. First of all - Tessie doesn't "assent to the lottery (before she's picked)" as you often read in the criticism. She's secretly kind of opposed to it; the critics are simply missing that point. More importantly, she is chosen as the victim for that reason. Physically it's a random drawing, but there's a higher power at work...

So I got interested in (re?-)reading The Secret of Terror Castle when it was suggested that this is also that kind of book. What seems like a simple mystery with a rational explanation turns out to be an actual ghost story, only the author didn't ensure that the reader would notice that to be the case by making the detail that gives it away seem insignificant? How cool is that!

Of course, I'm not reading this expecting it to be great literature! But I got curious (and nostalgic) reading this review and I wanted to check to see whether the reviewer's speculation on that point was true. 60 pages to go, so I'll know by tomorrow. It's good to have free time again!

Lost at Last

Alright, well today I finally got around to watching Lost, which I said I would do some time ago (in September, to be exact).

My impression after the first two episodes is that it's interesting, definitely worth watching, but nothing truly special. It doesn't get the same kind of awed "wow!" from me that it did from Jon Tweedy. But then, I'm only two episodes in, and lots of shows I really like took much longer than that to get off the ground.

I note with some interest that Kim Yoon Jin plays the Korean wife who can secretly speak English alongside Daniel Dae Kim, who supposedly prefers Korean. They speak real Korean in the series, and it's obvious that in reality the shoe is on the other foot - Daniel Dae Kim doesn't actually speak Korean very well, but for Yoon Jin it's obviously the dominant language. I looked Kim Yoon Jin up online after the first episode because I was sure she was the double agent from Shiri - which really brings back memories. I saw Shiri in Japan soon after it was released (it had been out for a couple of months in Korea already). This was Korea's first real "Hollywood-style" movie. Ironically - and in typical Korean fashion - they're very proud of the fact that it's supposedly substantively different from Hollywood movies - but of course the reason it sold so well is because it pretty much just is a normal Hollywood movie with a Korean-themed plot. I really enjoyed it when I saw it and ended up going back three times. But in retrospect this was just because I was gearing myself up to go to Korea and enjoyed hearing the Korean spoken in the movie. I had to watch it in Korean (which I didn't understand a word of at the time) with Japanese subtitles, so it was kind of hard to follow, and I missed a lot of the gaping plotholes (one of them is particularly bad: a North Korean spy is riding on the bus with the South Korean national soccer team and no one notices that this strange man with a funny accent they've never seen before is on the bus with them? Yeah. fucking. right.). In retrospect, it's not a very good movie at all, but at the time it was a lot of fun, and the special effects are surprisingly good for "Korea's first blockbuster action film." I have a lot of sentimental attachment to it.

Overall, the characters are pretty flat, and the dialogue is stock. I wasn't really convinced, in the first couple of scenes, that I was seeing people dazed after a near brush with death in a plane crash. In particular, what seems unrealistic is how walled-off everyone is. In my experience, when disasters happen, people really come together. That doesn't mean they like each other or get along, but there's a chemcial social instinct that just kind of kicks in. Some of my best memories, ironically, are from the two weeks we spent cleaning up after Hurricane Hugo, just because everyone was so friendly. Now, I understand from reading on the internet and hints dropped here and there in the first two episodes that not everyone is what they seem. That's the main plot engine of the series, actually - so perhaps there is a good explanation coming for why no one is "bonding," really. But for now, it just feels kinda like lazy writing.

The other thing that bugs me about it a bit is that there aren't any characters that I really like. Everyone seems more or less normal. They're all "types." Twin Peaks it ain't!

Finally, I note that the Hollywood cigarette rule is in full effect. Again, this is something that may work itself out as the plot progresses, but there's only one smoker, and of course he's an unsympathetic white redneck who more or less keeps to himself except to say misogynistic or racist things. In particular, he doesn't like the character Sayeed - who turns out to have fought in the Gulf War...for the Iraqis. However, I'm going to hold judgment on this one for now because I get the feeling that there's a turnaround coming with this character. That is, they've gone to so much trouble to make the audience dislike him that it can only mean they're building up to a "shocker" where he turns out to be a nice guy.

So you see what I mean - the show is kind of canned. There's nothing really new or groundbreaking here, so it gets a solid B for an interesting general plot (castaways on an island after a planewreck, many of whom are harboring secrets, and the island they're stranded on is very very far from normal and has secrets of its own) and good production values, but is kept from the A-list by relying too much on the formula for interest. Truly good shows catch your attention on the strength of the characters, the writing, and the development of philosophically interesting themes, and this show has none of the above so far. I should also add that, generally speaking, good television appeals to some kind of wish-fulfillment, and that's obviously missing here. Nobody has a secret desire to be in a plane crash!

But as I said, two episodes isn't very much of the whole. It's passed the only test that really matters at this point by being interesting enough to keep me watching. I may well have occasion to revise my opinion as the story develops.

Friday, December 15, 2006

And He's not even Canadian!

Well, well, well. This Liberal leadership election just keeps getting better and better. Not only is Stephane Dion the party's sloppy seconds, but it turns out he's also a French citizen. Well, dual-citizen, that is, but the point is it's already causing controversy, which will only make his already-shaky case for election even worse. By the way, Dion has hinted that elections could come in the spring. I guess that's not exactly his first choice, but the Bloc will almost certainly lead a drive to vote down the next Conservative budget, which might (and probably should) trigger an election given Harper's none-too-solid "mandate." The Bloc stands to gain big, after all, and Harper can't win if they do (he's got to make up 10 seats in Quebec he will certainly lose to an active Bloc - whether to the Bloc itself or to a "federalist" vote for the Liberals to stop them - and a lot more on top of that if he ever wants anything like a majority government).

Fortunately for Harper, it seems Dion can't win either. This blessing isn't even in disguise. And Dion just keeps digging his grave deeper and deeper. Asked why he won't renounce his French citizenship, he responds with this tripe:

Identity is something that you add, not what you extract. There is nothing wrong with multiple identities. The hearts of people are big enough to accept different identities. Canadian citizenship will give me my rights. Identity is the way I feel about the country.

"Identity is something you add." That's just lovely, that is. And "there is nothing wrong with multiple identities." I tell you what, that just speaks for itself - I won't even bother.

What kills me is that having heard it's an issue, Dion still hangs on to it! The smart political move would have been to have immediately renounced it upon hearing that people have problems with it. And why wouldn't people have problems with it? I can't say I'd be thrilled about a President or even a Congressman with dual citizenship of any kind. In any case, the Ezra Levant column linked above cuts to the chase here: if you think French citizenship is controversial, imagine American citizenship!!! Which just illustrates the point - if there are questions about divided loyalty for some nationalities, there are questions for all. Or, if there are fewer questions for some citizenships than others, then Dion's counter that John Turner also held dual citizenship and no one complained doesn't exactly work - since Turner's "other" citizenship was UK. It goes without saying that as Canada only gained full independence from the UK in 1982 (though had been mostly independent for just over 100 years, I admit) - i.e. the year before Turner took office - being a dual UK citizen isn't as much of an eyebrow-raiser. It also sort of misses the point that no one elected Turner, and they voted him out of office when given the chance, so...

But whatever - I'm lovin' this. If Dion is so politically inept that he can't understand why English-speaking Canadians might have a problem with his "other" citizenship (which nevertheless allows him to be "100% loyal to Canada." Clearly, he doesn't speak English well enough to know what "100%" means...), then Harper should have a cakewalk in the spring. Bring it on!


Well, the semester is finally over, and while I won't say that my my project is finished, exactly, it's at least most of the way there.

I will get an A in Friedman's class - and I would just like to say again that being in Friedman's class was a pleasure. The man's an amazing teacher, in his way. Certainly ace at getting you interested in the subject! Unfortunately, there wasn't enough interest to start up a B621 class (the advanced version of B521); maybe next year. So I'm doing the next-best thing and taking Programming Language Implementation instead.

So what do I mean when I say I never finished my project? Basically, it has to do with anyo, which we were required to implement. One of the main points of MiniKanren is that it can get potentially infinite numbers of return values, and anyo is one of the engines by which it does that. When implementing MiniKanren in Scheme this is no problem - because not only does Scheme have macors, but it collapses tail recursion. So if you want a function that turns into a stream - that is, has potentially infinite numbers of values, it's trivial in Scheme. You just define a base case where it returns but define the other cases with further function calls. So if you don't get the base case (that is, n is not equal to 0, or whatever), then the function just returns a call to the same function, which in turn returns a call to the same function, and so on potentially forever.

The problem with this in languages like Ruby is that if you don't collapse these calls, then the computer runs out of memory. You know, because it has to store the whole list of function calls it's waiting to execute, and no computer has infinite storate space! So the trick depends on NOT evaluating the returned function call unless you have to - so-called lazy evaluation - or else you have to make it iterative (so it erases calls after it's executed them - or more accurately just never generates them at all to the same extent).

Unfortunately for me, Ruby doesn't have this, at least not directly. I chose Ruby because I thought it could double as a fully functional language. It turns out it doesn't exactly. (In fact, one other student used Ruby and did his code in the normal functional way - that is, using lambdas and passing functions to functions and all that - and he reports that lambda in Ruby is excruciatingly slow - causing his code to take as many as 30sec. to evaluate factorial of 5!!! So there's that problem with it too.) So I got scared and decided instead to write an interpreter. Which means that my implementation isn't really very Ruby-dependent at all. It could easily be translated to any language (which is good for me, since I have an official promise to myself to implement - or at least try to implement - MiniKanren in Fortran77...). What it does is read strings into lists, and each of these lists represents a function call. The interpreter reads through the list and knows what to do. I thought this would make infinite behavior trivial - because if you get a "call" to a "function" like anyo, all it has to do is just write out the relevant list and pass it back to itself for interpretation - at which point it writes out the same list again, and so on forever, right?

Well, wrong, for some reason I still don't quite understand. So I won't be posting my code until it's completely working. It gets the expansions right, but then for some reason stops evaluating them and just jumps to the final step. So I've implemented something completely wrong.

The TA was very nice about it, and assured me I would be getting a good grade on the project - mostly because I was the only one who bothered to try to write an interpreter (which apparently is what they really wanted, since that keeps it close to the real Scheme implementation - which depends on macro expansions). Everyone else took advantage of the builtin functional shortcuts in their languages. All the other students found it amusing that there is a "Ruby" implementation which makes no use of lambda - but the TA liked it. However, I'm not personally satisfied with it, obviously - so I'm in the superodd position of having completely finished my semester work without the normal rush of freedom you get. Probably a good thing, since I have a tendency to get distracted with things not related to my dissertation at that point. This break it will be easier to stay focused. (Speaking of which, Knuth's Masterwork comes back online tomorrow.) And I REALLY need to stay focused this break, since I will be taking not only my P-level in CSCI next semester (the aforementioned Programming Languages Implementation class) and will have to know some Assembler for that (which I don't), but also a course in Datamining that I hear is pretty intensive - so I'll need a thorough brushup on statistics, and enough knowledge about databases (which I currently don't have - can't even write a Hello, World! in PHP!!!) to pretend like I've done some of this before. In spite of everything, I'll also be taking Advanced Algorithms, which won't be easy, but won't be the worst of the lot either. And then a course in Syntax, which in itself isn't that much, but four classes has always proved to be one too many when teaching - so it wouldn't hurt to get started on my final paper in that over the break so it won't throw off my balance come crunch time Spring 2007! I.e., I don't really get a break, so it's nice in a way that I didn't get a clean finish this semester. What happened instead was that me and two other students spend five hours in the Computer Science bldg. yesterday (during which time I forgot I had driven to school, walked home, found my car not there, briefly panicked, remembered, and took the bus back into town to find a $-40 present for me from the parking nazis) slaving away at getting anyo to work - which I gather none of us did.

So - expect posted code soon. It will also be nice to have the chance to clean it up!

Overall I'm pleased with the project, though. My implementation has the virtue of allowing you to type code directly in MiniKanren, so I can actually write programs in the normal way (athough I've tricked out the syntax to make it easier to parse). Everyone else essentially has to write Ruby (or Python, or Perl, or Java) programs that generate the behavior in MiniKanren they want - which is obviously much clumsier.

As for Ruby - I've discovered that it's a deeply weird language, but I like it anyway. I'll be doing more programming in it over the next couple of weeks, so I'm sure I'll have an opportunity to expand on that thought. Friedman called it a junk language. Well - not Ruby specifically. He's on record saying that Ruby's yield operatior is possibly more complicated than call/cc (he hasn't decided yet). But he did say that he was displeased when he saw the list of languages we were using. "The junk languages of the world," he said. "Ruby, Python, Java - nobody did SML or Haskell, where you would have been done in 10min." Well, yes, right, I did consider SML - and the reason I chose Ruby is because I DIDN'T want to be done in 10min. It's no demonstration of my ability in this class if I just translate Scheme code into Scheme-friendly SML, now, is it? Although I admit that I chose Ruby over something like Java as a way of fudging a bit - keeping things from getting TOO hard! The real doozy will be the Fortran77 version, which I guess is possible, but only just. We'll see.

So, the sad conclusion is that the project is only mostly finished. Stay tuned.

(Sidenote - a synonym for "junk languages" in Friedman-speak is "p-languages," meaning Python and Perl. I think the (functional) programming community should adopt this as slang - maybe for "not sufficiently functional" - or for "cute, trivial.")

Beyond Platitudes

Augusto Pinochet, who co-directed a military coup in 1973 (on 9/11, actually) and ended up dictator of Chile for 16 years, died Sunday at age 91 and in poor health. Reaction from the usual suspects has been surprisingly muted - which is a testament, really, to the fact that the truth and common sense win out over propaganda, eventually.

Pinochet is a favorite leftist punching bag for all the reasons you'd suspect. First, he replaced a democratically elected marxist, and as such has the virtue of being one of the few actual cases in reality that dedicated leftists can point to of the "will of the people" being "crushed" when it was on their side. Second, he was a dedicated anti-Communist, so they get to trot out all their usual straw mans and pretend that politics is really about jackboots and pinkos. Finally, let's not forget, there is evidence that the US was involved in the coup. (Kissinger says no - and I believe him as far as the actual coup is concerned - but the US definitely was involved in trying to sabotage Allende's government even before it was officially elected.) You know, the same good ol' "American Imperialism" that has patently failed to produce a real empire, but never mind.

I really expected a lot more fanfare when the old man croaked. But I guess this dead horse has been beaten long enough - even for THEM. The most we got from the chattering classes were a couple of half-heated mentions of the prison camps with some caption about how free markets aren't worth due process. Really, it could've been a lot worse.

Despite being a Pinochet sympathizer, I wasn't going to post anything on his death (admittedly, partly due to a crushing end-of-semester workload - the old man picked the worst possible time to die!) - and because it is a dead horse. I believe "we" have pretty much won this battle in the court of public opinion - some pockets of entrenched lefty resistance (and irritating celebrities) notwithstanding. Most people, asked about Pinochet, would (if they even knew the name at all) probably say that the dictatorship was regretable, but that it's complicated and Chile is on the whole better for it. And I think that's basically right.

But then I read Noah's entry on it - which I will come right out and say I did not like - and I remembered why it's still important to talk about this.

Noah's angle is probably pretty typical these days. The Washington Post (!!!) published a mildly favorable editorial - which aroused the dutiful ire of some bloggers who are, of course, all opposed to dictatorship across the board. You know, because it's bad and stuff. Having heard somewhere that Pinochet was advised by Milton Friedman, Noah muses in the comments section that the dictatorship might have been worth it for the free-market reforms it left behind. And then he was, predictably, roundly trounced, after which he beats a hasty retreat, admits he doesn't know much about it (which leads one to wonder why he was posting about it in the first place - just bored, one assumes), and reaffirms his belief that repressive dictatorship and free-market capitalism do not and cannot got hand-in-hand - conclusion: he will adopt the standard line about Pinochet.

Well, duh! Free market capitalism and repressive dictatorship are antithetical, yes. But reading comments like this:

It should have been obvious to me on Tuesday that imprisoning, torturing, and murdering political opponents is 100% antithetical to these values. It is as clear as day (today anyway) that Pinochet's political oppression of Chileans represents an utter lack of respect for private property, a crucial underpinning of any truly free market. After all, if a person's self is not owned by that person, then what is?

I am reminded of the first rule of history: context is everything.

Nothing in this opinion is wrong. It's right on its face, of course. Torture and imprisonment are violations of personal integrity - and bodily integrity is the foundation of any free society. Ergo - Pinochet is a bad guy.

So far so good. Pinochet was a bad guy. He's not evil exactly ... by which I mean, he probably knew he was a criminal (he did, after all, lift some $26million from government coffers to pad his retirement), but on the whole he believed he was doing the right thing - much like his hero Francisco Franco before him. Still, "the right thing" can never involve the wrongful imprisonment of thousands, so it's worth a few words to this effect, sure.

I don't think it's worth losing sight of the bigger picture, though. Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them - and the Chilean coup and aftermath are one of the more interesting historical studies from a philosophical perspective that the 20th century has to offer. Leftists wouldn't get so hot and bothered about it if the situation were really so simple as saying "wrongful imprisonment is bad." We already know that, thanks. The question is whether there was any sense to it - and if so how we avoid it in the future.

Let's consider the context of Chile in 1973. We can begin by destroying the myth that Salvador Allende was a democrat. Certainly he won a legal election - but then, so did Hitler. In fact, Allende polled lower in the 1970 election, which he won, than he had in 1964 (and 1958 and 1952), when he lost. The critical factor was a split in the Christian Democratic vote. In any case, the 1970 election was so close that it was decided by the Chamber of Deputies, which was in the habit of awarding the presidency to the person with the largest number of popular votes regardless of who he happened to be. It did not break tradition and went with Allende - but forced him to sign a list of promises that he would not violate the constitution. Of course, once elected, Allende turned around and did just that. Some claim that he ordered as many as 7,000 direct violations of laws and Supreme Court rulings. Probably that is an exaggeration, but in any case his rule suffered from nothing like a healthy respect for the law. He was finally served with papers demanding that he either resign, renew his pledge to uphold the constitution - or else that the military should intervene. That's right folks, Pinochet's little "coup" was, in fact, every bit as legal as Allende's presidency. And that's just the official version. Unofficially, Allende was very much active behind the scenes in organizing bands of thugs to go around enforcing the "popular will." Whatever he might have said on TV about how unfortunate that it was that the rule of law was breaking down, the man was hoping for a revolution. What of the economy? See, if it were just a matter of Pinochet having made property rights somewhat more sacrosanct, then 3000 or so dead in the coup might be a high price to pay. But we're not talking about comfort levels. We're talking about a country that suffered from an average of 120% inflation under Allende - with inflation running at about 500% on the day of the coup. Any guesses as to what might have caused this? If you said "price controls," you got it in one! Yes, it wasn't those nasty Arabs and their oil embargo as the leftists like to say (please! Chile is a resource economy - it isn't affected by fuel prices in the same way as the US. And even in the US we never had anything close to 120% inflation in the 70s! We cried when it was at 10% or so!). GDP dropped by an average of 5.6% a year from 1970-73 in Chile. In other words, they were losing almost twice as much money as we were making. Not Allende's fault? Give me a goddamn break. This is the president who spent millions on installing the world's first national computer economy-monitoring network so that he could track factory progress and regulate the economy in real time. You would have to be a blathering moron to believe that Allende's government bears anything less than the lion's share of the blame for Chile's economic collapse. But it doesn't stop there. When the bastard finally died, it was because he'd shot himself with a present (a gold-plated machinegun) from his dear friend Fidel Castro rather than allow himself to be arrested. Yes - dear friend Fidel Castro - who spent a month in Chile early in Allende's reign not just visiting, but organizing prottests and publicly (as in, on TV) giving Allende policy advice. Please be honest with yourself about this. If Fidel Castro had come to the US in 1977, organized some trade union rallies, and then gone on TV telling Jimmy Carter how to run the government, do you really think that would be the kind of thing you're likely to just brush aside?

Now, Pinochet has claimed for years that Allende was plotting a coup of his own (called "Plan Z") after it became apparent that he wasn't going to be able to hold on to power for the full term. This has never been verified, and the CIA has its doubts. Nonetheless, please put yourself in the shoes of the average Chilean in 1973. You have the devil you know and the one you don't. That Allende was a bastard should not be in dispute. The only reason it is is because marxists like to pretend they give a fig about the will of the people, and Allende is one of the few marxists in history to have ever won an election. They can't just let this one go. Reality, though, is that in 1973, any free-thinking person would have supported the coup. That's what you do when the government is running your economy into the ground and trampling roughshod all over the rule of law - you overthrow it. The American Revolution happened for much, much less.

Yes, but was it worth it? Originally the coup was supposed to be an oligarchy, not a dictatorship - and it was only supposed to stay in power for 4 years or so, after which a new Constitution would be drafted and civilian rule restored. So Pinochet was no better, right? And anyway, Allende didn't order 3,000 executions!

All this is true, of course - so let me just repeat now in case this wasn't clear before: Pinochet was a bad guy. I'm not trying to defend him, just to put him in context. The junta degenerated into a dictatorship, right. The Constitution was replaced, and the public was allowed to vote on it (in 1980 - supposedly the election was rigged, but I have never seen any documentation to this effect, just heard assertions) - but they weren't really allowed any input on drafting it. Pinochet's first "term" was for 8 years - four longer than originally promised. After that he allowed himself a second "term," also for 8 years - at which time he promised to actually stand for election. To his credit, he did, was voted down, and he peacefully stepped aside and allowed a general election.

Most readers will see what I am getting at. There is a certain other Latin American dictator, also on his death bed, who fits this description - all except for the part about actually standing for election or helping the economy in any way. Now generally when you bring up Castro in the context of Pinochet you're met with eye-rolling and exasperated sighs of "Oh please, Cuba isn't Chile!" Well, sorry folks, but this stuff just so happens to be relevant here given Allende's admiration for Castro and acceptance of Soviet aid. If your choices are Castro, Pinochet, and Thomas Jefferson, then of course you choose Jefferson. But what if he's not on the ballot? In that case, clearly, you choose the guy who actually did stand for and obey the results of a fair public election. You go with the guy who killed 3,000 during the first year of the revolution and almost no one afterward - not the guy who's been doing it with immunity for 50 years. You go with the guy who took control of one of the worst economies in an economically troubled region and made it one of the best - not the guy who took the unambiguously best economy in the region and systematically destroyed it.

The truth is, Salvador Allende was indeed Fidel Castro waiting to happen. You can well say that Pinochet was bad, and I can't disagree with you. But you can't pretend to care about what happens to Chile and neglect to mention, as the Glenn Greenwald blogpost that Noah links does, that the crisis in Chile in 1973 was real. We're not talking about economic indicators in the US sense where percentage points here and there make it more or less likely that you can retire at 65!!! And we're not talking about "protests" in the sense of just making annoying movies.

Talking about Pinochet without mentioning Allende is like talking about US Cold War policy without mentioning the Soviet Union. Self defense is a right, both legal and moral. If you can get away without killing the nice drug addict who breaks into your house in the middle of the night with a gun, bully for you. If you can't, though, are you really a bad person? People do what they have to do, and Pinochet did what he thought was right. It's true that wrongful imprisonment for political belief isn't exactly a sterling defense of property rights, but do let's remember that we're talking about a country where the rule of law was breaking down anyway. Pinochet might not have been the best choice for the job, and a junta might not have been the best method, but I'm not hearing a whole lot of useful suggestions from all the people who want a pat on the head for being brave enough to hate dictatorship while the old man's still-warm corpse settles into its grave.

Earlier in the post I repeated the aphorism that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Well - have a look at Bolivia and tell me I'm wrong. Have a look at Nicaragua and tell me I'm wrong. Have a look at Venezuela and tell me I'm wrong. Kissenger put it nicely - characteristically more blunt than most people will be comforatble with, but here goes:

I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.