Things that are against the rules in a cab in Bangkok by mattsteinglass
October 16, 2010, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Asia, Culture

It’s a little hard to see in this blown-up detail of an iPhone shot, but these icons show you what’s off-limits in a Bangkok airport taxi.


Bangkok cab no-nos

Bangkok cab no-nos


For reference, that’s:

  • smoking
  • durian (world’s smelliest fruit)
  • drinking alcohol
  • pets
  • having sex
  • firearms
  • livestock

On the “cultural similarities” index, the “having sex” icon represents the missionary position. On the other hand, I think the differentiation between “pets” and “livestock” would probably be unnecessary in an American cab.


Friends like these by mattsteinglass
September 2, 2010, 10:04 pm
Filed under: Iraq, Liberalism

George Packer is a brilliant writer, an admirable human being, and a man who invested immense time and effort in truly understanding one of the most important events of our generation, the war in Iraq. To use a word out of a different era: the guy’s a humanitarian.

But his response to Obama’s speech on the withdrawal makes it seem like he doesn’t understand what a president is.

To be, or not to be by mattsteinglass
September 2, 2010, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Libertarianism, Philosophy

Bryan Caplan wonders why economists don’t value non-existent people’s lives.

If someone gives another person $100, almost all economists agree that the recipient is better off…If someone gives another person the gift of life, however, I’ve noticed that many economists suddenly become agnostic.  $100?  Definitely an improvement. Being alive? Meh. It’s hard to see the logic. Why would a minor gift of cash be a clear-cut gain, but a massive gift of human capital be a question mark?

Interesting. And, to take it one step further: what if I give someone $100, but don’t give them the gift of life? Is that person better off than someone who didn’t get the gift of life, and also didn’t get the $100? Conversely, if I don’t give someone the gift of life, and also steal $100 from them, are they worse off? What if I don’t give someone the gift of life, and also slander them, seduce their girlfriend, and poke them in the eye with a sharp stick?

Here’s a thought experiment for Bryan Caplan: I didn’t give the gift of life to a fellow named Milton J. Fishbein who owns the house Bryan Caplan currently lives in. You can look it up: I didn’t give the gift of life to any such person. The thing is, Bryan Caplan didn’t give the gift of life to Milton J. Fishbein either. But on top of not giving Milton J. Fishbein the gift of life, Bryan Caplan has the gall to actually live in the poor guy’s house. Who among us is doing more harm, here? On the other hand, neither Bryan Caplan nor I gave the gift of life to any lady named Dahlia Rostropovich Chatterjee who owns the house I live in, but at least Bryan Caplan has the decency not to go and live in her house. So I guess we’re even on that count.

I think these thought experiments may illuminate certain flaws in the initial proposition.

Bury my heart at the Battle of Yarmouk by mattsteinglass
August 31, 2010, 2:14 pm
Filed under: Conservatism

It’s unbelievable, the stuff you can read in the National Review. Dennis Prager:

Even if we do compare the Crusades with contemporary Islamic jihadism, there is little moral equivalence. The Crusades were waged in order to recapture lands that had been Christian for centuries until Muslim armies attacked them. (Some Crusaders also massacred whole Jewish communities in Germany on the way to the Holy Land, and that was a grotesque evil — which Church officials condemned at the time.) As the dean of Western Islamic scholars, Princeton professor Bernard Lewis, has written, “The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual response to the jihad — a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.”

The Byzantine provinces of Palaestina I and II fell to the armies of Islam in a series of battles and sieges between 636 and 642 C.E. The First Crusade was launched in 1095 C.E. It’s an interval of 453 years.

Some military campaigns Dennis Prager would apparently consider legitimate efforts to “recapture lands” that had been seized by the enemy:

1. All Native American military campaigns to retake territory from the United States government, anywhere in the United States.

2. A Mexican invasion of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

3. An Irish blitzkrieg to recapture Northern Ireland.

4. A Jordanian assault on Israel aimed at recapturing the West Bank and Jerusalem.

5. The Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

A case could be made for a joint Spanish-Belgian expedition against the Netherlands to retake Rotterdam for the Catholic Church. And we could go on, but really, what’s the point?

Glenn Beck, greatest scholar of progressive humanity by mattsteinglass
August 29, 2010, 12:13 pm
Filed under: Conservatism

Via Kevin Drum, we learn that Dick Armey praises Glenn Beck’s “serious, scholarly work“.

One of the things that we see as we look at Glenn Beck’s work that’s been fascinating to me, is we see a more true and accurate history of the United States, and we see it documented at levels of rigor that, in fact, one would expect out of Ph.D. dissertations — it is serious, scholarly work….[Liberal critics] don’t have to argue with Glenn Beck. They have to argue with his documentation and they can’t match that level of rigor.

I see what Armey is trying to say here, but I don’t think he’s really getting the tone right. I think he should take a look over here for some tips on how to do this properly; it ought to read more like this:

Long live Glenn Beck! The great coryphaeus of science, resolving more profoundly than anyone else the complicated problems of our time; the greatest humanist of our time, understanding better and more clearly than anyone else the interests of the millions of ordinary people of the world; the original giant of conservative thought and action; the ingenious thinker and scholar, forging all-powerful and unconquerable spiritual armor for the American people! Let us praise the irresistible strength of his logic, crushing or capturing the opponent; but most of all, his unshakeable faith in the masses and reliance on their experience.

I think that should do it. I think there are also huge volumes of testimony to Mao Tse-Tung’s genius as an economist; Kim Il-Sung, the world’s greatest nuclear scientist; and so forth, but I had a harder time looking those up, so the achievements attributed to Uncle Joe will have to serve as the model for now.

Liberaltarianism unbound by mattsteinglass
August 25, 2010, 1:49 pm
Filed under: Libertarianism

Back in 2003, when I’d just moved to Vietnam, one of the first stories I worked on was a piece for the Boston Globe on shrimp and catfish farming. US catfish farmers and shrimp fishermen were pushing to get anti-dumping tariffs enacted on imports of Vietnamese farmed shrimp and tra catfish, which had become a huge engine of prosperity for Vietnamese farmers over the previous few years. (Exports to the US went from about $50 million in 2000 to about $500 million in 2003, if I recall correctly.) The US Department of Commerce favored the anti-dumping tariffs because to calculate dumping, it employed a process called “zeroing”, which I won’t get into but is basically mathematical sleight-of-hand to make it look like imports are being sold below market price. And the independent expert who’d written the best explanation of why zeroing was screwy and unfair, and how it harmed the interests of poor third-world producers like the Vietnamese catfish and shrimp farmers I was writing about, was a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute named Brink Lindsey. I called Lindsey up and he talked me through how zeroing worked, and that strongly informed the article I wound up writing. (In the years since, the Commerce Department has been forced to partially abandon zeroing in investigating dumping claims, due to international criticism.)

Years later, I came across the writing of another Cato Institute chap, Will Wilkinson, on his blog. As I recall I got into some argument with him in a comment thread at some point about his writing on happiness research and whether it meant you shouldn’t have kids. But I found his work consistently very interesting, he was clearly writing from a standpoint of genuine political and intellectual curiosity and independence, and he has an unforcedly erudite writing style that was quite different from most of what was being written in the blogosphere at the time.

I have a tendency to get into arguments with libertarians. To be more specific: I’ll get into arguments with conservatives, but I’m capable of becoming obsessed by arguments with libertarians. I also think conversations with some libertarians have forced me to think harder than perhaps any other conversations I’ve had in the past decade or so.

Anyway, Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson are both leaving the Cato Institute. That’s too bad for the Cato Institute, and great for me, since now Will Wilkinson is blogging at The Economist. But honestly, for all the differences I have with libertarians, I think it’d be too bad if that particular shade of libertarianism lost its connection to major libertarian institutions. This is a bit hard to articulate, but I think that if all the free-thinking unorthodox libertarians drift away to other kinds of centrist or even liberal-leaning institutions, they’ll continue to be interesting and influential writers but libertarianism may cease to be an interesting or influential philosophical current. I’m not sure why I think that would be a bad thing, since I’m not a libertarian and I think the philosophy gets much about the world quite wrong. But for some reason I think it would be a bad thing.

My plan to solve the housing demand crisis by mattsteinglass
August 24, 2010, 11:21 pm
Filed under: Economics

Here’s an example of a post I can’t write for the Economist, because it’s crazy and stupid. So here goes: my plan to solve the housing demand crisis.

1. Use high demand for US Treasury bonds to build up collateral to issue free government insurance on US housing stock, including natural disasters, war, etc.

2. Use the United States Air Force to destroy the excess supply of existing homes. Select homes to be bombed at random. With supply at just over 12 months and sales of 4 million per month, bombing 25 million homes should be sufficient to bring supply down to a historical average of 5 or 6 months.

3. Pay out insurance to homeowners, and watch the housing industry (and home values) recover as they use the cash to buy homes.

For many reasons, this plan doesn’t actually make any sense, but at some level I still find it amazing that the key statistic showing that our economy is in serious trouble is that we just have too many great big suburban American houses. Most people in rural Vietnam would still have trouble figuring out how a surplus of great big suburban American houses is a problem.

Why I am less often an asshole than previously by mattsteinglass
August 24, 2010, 10:51 pm
Filed under: Internet

Doo dee doo, nothin’ to do on a Tuesday night, wife’s away visiting heroin junkies in ethnic-minority villages on the Chinese border. She has all the fun. Guess I’ll just google myself then. Well now lookee here! DougJ at Balloon Juice said something about me on August 6.

Krugman is the only major pundit I enjoy reading—because he enjoys being a rude asshole when rude assholery is called for, as it so often is. This brings me to another question I have for Erik: why are the vast majority of writers for official publications (such as True/Slant) so excessively polite to one another? Why is everything “I have great respect for Jeff Golberg” and “Megan makes a great point here” and “Matt Steinglass makes a good point about Noah Millman’s rejoinder to Jim Manzi”? Why isn’t there more of “so-and-so said something really stupid, here’s why it’s stupid, and sadly this kind of stupidity is all too typical of this writer”?

Hm. Actually I’m pretty sure people often say “Matt Steinglass said something really stupid, here’s why it’s stupid, and sadly this kind of stupidity is all too typical of Matt Steinglass.” I encounter this pretty often when googling myself, anyway.

But speaking for myself: I blog in two places, and in theory True/Slant was actually supposed to be the blog where I was free to call people assholes. (Now that’s this blog here, since True/Slant no longer exists, and DougJ won’t have to worry about people being polite to each other there.) What I’ve found, though, is that when I meet people with whom I radically disagree, I tend to get along reasonably well with them. This isn’t surprising; I live in a country full of Communists who don’t believe in multi-party democracy, and yet I manage to get through most days without telling them they’re all evil morons.

I’ve also found that, when you write a whole lot, you’re going to make some mistakes. This is extremely embarrassing, because the mistakes you make are then engraved in pixels eternally for all the universe to see. If you expect any forbearance from other people who write a whole lot and with whom you disagree, it behooves you to have disagreed politely with them, rather than to have told them how to do themselves six ways till Sunday on multiple occasions.

Then there’s the question of money, as some of the commenters on DougJ’s post suggest. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t an influential factor. In my case, it’s not so much a question of possibly needing a job someday from someone you’ve insulted as it is the possibility that some of the editors at a publication you work for may take an uncongenial view of the kinds of spats you’re getting yourself into on your other blog. That’s actually never happened to me. I’m not kidding, it never has. But I’ve worried about the possibility. I mean, I could see being turned off myself by some of the more intemperate things I’ve said, in a reflective moment. So I wouldn’t be surprised if another editor felt that way.

But what this gets into is a complicated issue: the problem of coherence in your self-presentation on the internet. This has all been discussed to death by brighter minds than me, but basically, in private conversation, there’s space available to slag off one of your acquaintances in private to your other friends. In blogging, this can’t be done. All of your blogs are simultaneously in view of each other, and they’re all in view of the blogs you’re slagging off. Add that to the fact that in all likelihood, if you met that guy you’re slagging off in person, you’d probably get along with them, and you start to think twice about how you’re slagging people off. It’s as much a matter of your sense of self, your responsibility to cohere with yourself, as it is a matter of social fear. Though to be sure, the two are related, just as they are with in-person public self-presentation.

Anyway, I’ve wound up being more polite than I used to be. I think a lot of people are moving towards a less dismissive and confrontational stance in blogging, and that may actually end up opening up space for more substantive dialogue than once took place in the blogosphere. There are, however, variants of this politesse that tick me off. In particular, consistently writing “that’s an…interesting observation” when what you mean is “that’s completely wrong” doesn’t work. It comes across as evasive, supercilious and squirrelly, and I find it actually makes me much angrier than stating a position head-on would.

That said, I’m glad there are still blogs like Balloon Juice around, as that’s a blog aesthetic that needs to be out there too.

Misheard-dialogue jokes in movies by mattsteinglass
August 22, 2010, 10:03 pm
Filed under: Film

To celebrate my son’s birthday, we took him and a bunch of his friends to see “Despicable Me”, which I found uproariously funny despite the fact that it contains a bunch of misheard-dialogue jokes, which aren’t usually my cup of tea. (“What are these?” “Boogie robots!” “Nefario, I said cookie robots!“…”Nefario, I said I wanted a dart gun.” “Ah. Yes. Because I was wondering under what circumstances this might be…er…I’ll get right on it.” Etc.) The thing is, the movie is rendered with such fantasmagorically creative art direction that the fart-gun joke is actually hilarious. We used to occasionally toss these kind of jokes in as a last resort when I was writing kids’ cartoons, but they’re so obvious that they don’t really work unless you have ace animation to pull them off. We had good design artists, but the cartoons were rendered pretty cheaply, so they’d usually fall flat.

Anyway, after the movie, we get home, and I find a bag full of Kit-Kats in the kitchen. I ask my wife, “Why is there a bag of Kit-Kats in the kitchen?” She says “I don’t know,” with an embarrassed look. I say, “Is it because I suggested that you buy some Tic-Tacs to hand out as prizes when the kids win one of the party games?” “Yes.”

Ha ha! See, it’s not funny without really good animation.

“Chariots of Fire” and Thatcherism by mattsteinglass
August 20, 2010, 1:03 pm
Filed under: Film, Politics

The great Doug Pascover posted a hilarious takeoff of Blake’s “And did those feet, in ancient times…” after a post I did over at the Economist, which got me humming the tune of the hymn in the shower, which got me thinking about the opening sequence of “Chariots of Fire” in which that hymn is being sung over an aerial shot of green English fields (as I recall) that zooms in on an Oxford college, which got me reflecting on what an amazing movie “Chariots of Fire” was. The conflict is between the effortless upper-class British guy who trains with an amateur coach, as one does, and the striving Jewish guy who almost gets himself disqualified because (scandalously, for the 1920s or whenever) he hires a pro coach. Apparently he got confused and thought the point was to win. Anyway, the theme is traditional aristocratic amateurism versus upwardly-mobile immigrant commercial professionalism.

What I’d never thought about before was how well-suited that theme was to early-1980s Thatcherite Britain. Labour cast itself as the party of the working class, but if I understand it right, a lot of the energy of Thatcher’s Tories came from upwardly mobile uncouth plebes, many from immigrant backgrounds, who saw the rules and social-services structures that had been put in place by Labourite socialism as a straitjacket rather than a support net. Similarly, the upper-class runner in “Chariots of Fire” thinks of his amateur course as the less moneyed one, but of course in the real world only wealthy upper-class people have the time and connections to compete at the upper levels of sport as amateurs. When the aristocrats complain about the tawdry commercialism of this Jew who’s paying his trainer, they’re obviously also complaining about the threat this poses of upsetting and opening up their social structure. This seems to me to be suffused with themes that were circulating in Thatcher-era politics: which is really more egalitarian, a society of rules for the rich and subsidies for the poor that maintains clear class divisions, or a free-for-all society in which money can buy anything, peerages included, and everyone is constantly sinking or swimming?

The film also teases at a weird duality in Blake’s poem, which is the mixture of Hellenic and Hebraic themes. The “bow of burning gold” and “chariot of fire” Blake wants somebody to bring him seem pretty Hellenic and Apollonian. But the pretext of the poem is an apocryphal/hypothetical visit of the “holy lamb of God” to England and, ultimately, an intent to build Jerusalem there. There’s something very nice about the way this duality recurs in the conflict between the English aristocracy with its Hellenic sporting ideals (resurrecting the Olympics etc.) and the entrance of this Jewish aspirant who upsets the value structure. Historically, the interaction between the Greco-Roman and Hebraic worlds was pretty adversarial (Maccabees, Herod, etc.), but in the long run the fusion of their value systems in a thing called Christianity turned out to be of some significance.