If only there weren't anyone like Baruch Goldstein by mattsteinglass
May 30, 2010, 9:26 pm
Filed under: Israel, Judaism, Uncategorized

Leon Wieseltier writes that a group of ultra-orthodox settlers who had just taken over a Palestinian house in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah sang a version of “ayn kamocha” as a hymn to Baruch Goldstein, the Jew who massacred 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. It seems to me that in addition to being disgusting, singing “ayn kamocha” (“there is none like unto Thee”) as an ode to Baruch Goldstein rather than God is blasphemous.

The gold standard is not in any way like the war in Afghanistan by mattsteinglass
May 30, 2010, 5:46 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, Economics, Libertarianism, Uncategorized

Andrew Sullivan writes that we shouldn’t dismiss libertarians as cranks just because they back the gold standard: “The insanity we take for granted every day – the Afghanistan war, for example – is a lot crazier than the gold standard.” Like Andrew Sullivan, I think the US should extricate itself from Afghanistan, but this is, to put it mildly, not a good illustration of the point he’s trying to make. Supporting the introduction of the gold standard in today’s global fiat-money economy is simply much crazier than supporting the continuation of a counterinsurgency and nation-building war against the Taliban that the US originally got into for very honorable reasons and with apparently good chances of success. Supporting the abrupt and unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003, I would grant, might have been compared in its craziness to supporting the introduction of a gold standard in a world economy that has long outgrown such metaphysical superstitions.

There are other reasons why, as Conor Friedersdorf says, we shouldn’t dismiss libertarians as cranks and nut jobs. But one of those reasons is that a lot of libertarians are much too smart to believe in snake-oil stuff like the gold standard.

Wonder-working power by mattsteinglass
May 29, 2010, 4:12 am
Filed under: Liberalism, Politics, Uncategorized

Proposed: The discussion of Elena Kagan’s undergraduate thesis on the history of socialism in New York City from 1900-33 is dog-whistle politics for the progressive left.


Cartoon proves existence of God to be stupid question by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2010, 1:54 pm
Filed under: Philosophy

American Elf shows you the power of pragmatism.

Vietnamese breakdancing troupe wins SE Asian championships by mattsteinglass
May 19, 2010, 1:14 am
Filed under: Culture, Vietnam

Big Toe, the greatest breakdancing outfit in Vietnam, won the Southeast Asian regional hip-hop dancing championships in Malaysia on May 15 and will compete in the world championships in South Korea this summer. Here they are making a bunch of Dutch guys look clumsy and slow. But this doesn’t really capture what’s great about Big Toe, which is their social commentary. They do routines that are essentially hip-hop-based enactments of vernacular street culture scenes: in one they become motorbikes and riders jostling in traffic while a frantically popping and locking policeman tries to control them; in another they become spikey-haired gangsta teens trying to pick up a girl in a coffee shop, while avoiding (or perhaps welcoming?) the attentions of a gay waiter. It’s incredibly sharp stuff that might get axed by a Vietnamese government censor, but fortunately with dance there are no words and nothing for a censor to axe. Very, very sharp.

Anyway, here you can appreciate their raw skills if not their auteurship. Also, I have a personal stake here: my daughter had the honor of taking two lessons in hip-hop dancing from Big Toe’s founder and leader, the amazing 36-year-old Viet Thanh, a few years ago before he got too busy with the troupe to teach.

[youtubevid id="ZPvreKGW0tE"]

Tout majuscule by mattsteinglass
May 18, 2010, 9:10 pm
Filed under: Language, Uncategorized

Apparently two kinds of people are fond of writing in all caps: ranting fringe commenters on political blogs, and French hotel managers.

Vietnam, where Vietnamese coins are no good by mattsteinglass
May 17, 2010, 12:34 pm
Filed under: Economics, Vietnam

My colleague Erica Grieder at The Economist has a nice post up relating Joachim Kalka’s essay on coins in the New Left Review to the possibility that increasing use of debit cards will lead to a more cash-free economy. Strangely, it seems to me that electronic innovations have actually led to more cross-country differences in modes of payment over the past 40 years, rather than less. In the Netherlands, for instance, credit cards are rare; tighter regulation meant they never had the explosion in credit card offerings that hit the US in the ’80s. On the other hand, they were using debit cards much earlier and more ubiquitously than the US.

Meanwhile here in Vietnam, the economy is exceptionally cash-based, considerably more so than in, say, Africa. Here, in fact, they have no checks. Never have. Hence, they’ve never sent bills through the mail: there’s no way to pay them. They send actual human bill collectors around to collect your phone bill, water bill, electric bill, etc. in cash at your door. This is only now beginning to change, with options for electronic bill payment at ATMs or via mobile phone. But while it’s an exceptionally cash-based economy, it’s not coin-based. In fact, for decades, there were no coins at all. It was all paper money. There are still a bunch of antique Chinese coins floating around, with square holes in the middle; they’re used for jewelry and decor. A few years ago, though, the government decided to start issuing coins, because they last longer and are in the long run cheaper to circulate. The result is this:

This is a roll of Vietnamese 5000-dong coins (about $0.25). Here’s the thing: nobody will accept them. I mean, official shops will, and probably chain supermarkets and so forth. But taxi drivers won’t, people in the market won’t, and basically most individual owner-proprietor businesses won’t. Why not? Because they’re afraid they won’t be able to spend them, because nobody will accept them. It’s a completely irrational collective-action problem. The things are issued by the Vietnamese government; they’re clearly unfakeable at any reasonable cost, who would want to fake a $0.25 coin anyway, and if they did, who would care? You could just let it circulate, it wouldn’t do any harm. But for some reason your average Vietnamese person will simply not accept their own government’s coinage as legal tender. They only trust the banknotes. Craziest thing.

Elena Kagan's undergraduate thesis by mattsteinglass
May 17, 2010, 6:32 am
Filed under: Law, Liberalism, Russia

This (courtesy Brad DeLong) is really interesting. The conclusion:

American radicals cannot afford to become their own worst enemies. In unity lies their only hope.

Tea Partiers take note!

Of course people write all kinds of things when they’re undergraduates that are not reliable guides to what they think when they, you know, grow up. I wrote 100-something pages on Russian religious apocalypticism. As I recall I found it all very vulgar. My thesis advisor could never understand what I meant by that word. Come to think of it, I still find it pretty vulgar, so maybe some undergraduate theses are reliable guides to what you think later on.

The attraction of cynicism by mattsteinglass
May 15, 2010, 10:13 pm
Filed under: Media

Andrew Sullivan thinks I was being “too cynical” when I wrote that

For bloggers, on the other hand, the way to make sure nobody pigeonholes you or dismisses you as somebody’s lackey is to be relentlessly cynical and negative. As long as you’re constantly bemoaning the hypocrisy and stupidity of all political actors (yourself included), you’re golden; you’re nobody’s lickspittle.

Sullivan writes:

It is also possible for a blogger and (to a lesser extent) a politician to have a complicated view of the world and be honest about it. Not to be popular, not to be golden, not to prove you’re “nobody’s lickspittle” – but because it’s what you honestly think and believe.

Of course this is exactly right, and I think it was clear from the tone of my post that I wasn’t advocating that bloggers be flip and sarcastic. I was trying to point out a structural problem of incentives. Bloggers have an incentive to condemn and satirize in all political directions so as to maintain their claim to ideological independence, and what I was trying to say in the post was that this incentive can lead one to be too dismissive towards the behavior of politicians who are often actually doing a pretty good job within the limits established by the political landscape. This isn’t really an issue unique to blogs; it’s a general journalistic problem.

But I think one of the best examples of the risk one avoids through the easy out of constant cynical is the problem Sullivan has in his treatment of Barack Obama. I’m actually with Sullivan on this: Barack Obama is an enormously talented politician and a deeply ethical guy, with a complex and sophisticated view of how politics works and of how to be responsible in trying to strengthen the polity and improve people’s lives through the messy medium of politics. I give him an enormous benefit of the doubt in almost any situation, both in terms of his intentions and in terms of whether his take on an issue is better than mine. This is true of Sullivan as well. But the risk Sullivan has run in his very admiring writing on Obama is that many readers will come to see him as a cheerleader. I don’t think this is fair, and I think that even if it’s true, that’s a problem those readers have, not a problem Sullivan has. But still, this is a risk that exists in the journalistic world. The same thing happened to Hendrik Hertzberg during the administration of another extremely talented and admirable president, Bill Clinton. It would be easy for Sullivan to avoid this risk by simply adopting a world-weary skeptical attitude towards Obama, and it’s to his credit that he’s not doing so.

iPhone 4G allegedly discovered in Ho Chi Minh City by mattsteinglass
May 14, 2010, 12:51 am
Filed under: China, Technology, Vietnam | Tags: , , ,

I somehow missed this story for almost an entire day: a mobile phone accessory salesman in Ho Chi Minh City says he’s seen a prototype Apple iPhone 4G. He posted a blog entry, including video and pics, on the Vietnamese gadget geek site Tinh Te. He says the device was recognized as an Apple iPhone when he plugged it into his MacBook, and has screenshots to prove it.

It’s basically impossible to keep anything secret in Vietnam. It’s basically impossible to keep anything secret in China. It’s entirely unsurprising that Apple’s industrial operations there are leaking like a sieve. The main difficulty in determining whether or not this 4G iPhone is real or not lies in the fact that Vietnam is currently completely flooded with cheap fake Chinese iPhone knockoffs. My assistant has one. It says it was manufactured in “Clifornia”. So take this all with a grain of salt. But the video on the Tinh Te site looks very convincing.

Here’s a picture of a real and a fake iPhone 3G.

My real iPhone 3G and my assistant's fake Chinese one


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