Russia: Shock therapy's architect dies of stress by mattsteinglass
December 16, 2009, 4:15 am
Filed under: Russia

It’s hard to imagine a more terrible encapsulation of what’s happened to Russia over the past 18 years than the sad news today of Yegor Gaidar’s death. Gaidar was among the architects of the shock-therapy transition to a free-market economy that brought capitalism to Russia at the price of immense hardship for average people. He was an honest man who genuinely believed the structural reforms he was engaged in would bring a better, freer, more prosperous Russia. Today, Russia has a more or less normal-ish micro economy and responsible macrofinance institutions, and lots of rich people and entrepreneurs. On the other hand, the large corporate world is distorted by corruption and government intervention, crime is rampant, the state is bloated and dysfunctional, and Russian men now have a life expectancy of 59 due largely to alcoholism and stress-related cardiac illnesses. Gaidar, like so many men in the Russia he helped create, died of a blood clot in his heart. He was 53.


Conservative hates sci-fi flick by mattsteinglass
December 16, 2009, 1:40 am
Filed under: Entertainment

Jim Nolte on Andrew Breitbart’s site for oppressed Hollywood conservatives rails against this big-budget sci-fi blockbuster everyone thinks may flop because, he says, it’s “a simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy” that’s secretly about hating America. In the film, an elite human warrior ends up on a backward world that’s being exploited by imperial powers for its resources, but he ends up falling in love with a native princess, joining up with her tribe, becoming the tribe’s greatest warrior, and finally leading them in a successful revolt against the technologically superior foreign oppressors.

Who knew conservatives interpreted “Dune” as an anti-American allegory? Whatever. Or was it “Pathfinder”?

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Amnesty International demands five impossible health care reforms before breakfast by mattsteinglass

Amnesty International is a great organization. But I sometimes wonder whether its senior officers believe that politics is the art of taking ludicrously unrealistic moral stands, failing to accomplish anything, and preening. This evening I received an email from the director of Amnesty’s Demand Dignity Campaign, Sameer Dossani:

Our policy experts have been watching this legislation develop and the proposed outcome does not look good. Right now, the Senate is hotly debating its version of the bill, but they’re way off track. The Congressional Budget Office projects that around 24 million people will still be uninsured in 2019!1 That is unacceptable.

Because this month is a crucial window for media attention on the health care system, we’ve got to push the debate further to include human rights as a key focus. It’s up to human rights advocates to point out how the proposed reform falls short of true universality, equity and accountability.

I beg to differ: it’s up to human rights advocates to point out that if the Senate bill does not pass, the number of uninsured in America will likely rise past 50 million in the next few years, and tens of thousands of Americans per year will continue to die because they lack adequate insurance. The only thing this sort of holier-than-thou nonsense accomplishes is to help the for-profit insurance industry defeat health insurance reform. If it doesn’t get done now, it’s certainly not going to get done next year after Democrats have lost their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, nor will it get done after Barack Obama is defeated in 2012 due to his failure to deliver on major legislative goals.

It’s crucial to have some relatively absolutist human-rights advocacy organizations that continue to push for first-best solutions on moral grounds and to oppose compromises. But it’s not crucial for them to intervene after it’s too late to make changes, when they can only contribute to cynical efforts to defeat reformist legislation. In fact, it’s crucial, at such moments, for them to keep quiet and store their powder for the next moment when they can actually make a positive difference. I mean, seriously. How pure is the ivory in Amnesty International’s tower?

ACORN Punkers dubbed over the videos by mattsteinglass
December 9, 2009, 12:15 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Media

TPM says a report by former Massachussetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger notes:

The videos that have been released appear to have been edited, in some cases substantially, including the insertion of a substitute voiceover for significant portions of Mr. O’Keefe’s and Ms. Giles’s comments, which makes it difficult to determine the questions to which ACORN employees are responding. A comparison of the publicly available transcripts to the released videos confirms that large portions of the original video have been omitted from the released versions.

This is unethical, fraudulent journalistic behavior. I’m curious as to whether it actually constitutes slander or libel.

I’m sure the ACORN employees did display extremely unethical behavior in much of the video. But dubbing over your end of the soundtrack is completely out-of-bounds behavior that would get you drummed out of journalism. If your voice track is unclear, you insert subtitles. You don’t dub it over, and you certainly don’t dub it over and alter what you said. And the reason you don’t dub it over is that after you’ve dubbed it over, there’s no way for anyone to determine what you were originally saying.

Buddhism and Charles Stross and Julian Sanchez on persistent identity by mattsteinglass

I became aware via Andrew Sullivan that Julian Sanchez is having an argument with someone about immortality, or more specifically whether the idea that one’s identity doesn’t persist after death is a problem or not. In the course of his argument Sanchez notes a Douglas Adams passage about the Japanese conviction that a pagoda is still the “original” pagoda even if it’s been torn down and reconstructed many times. This brings me to two reference points in my current field of view: the Charles Stross book I’m reading, “Glasshouse”; and the Kim Lien Pagoda, a few blocks away on the far side of my village of Nghi Tam.


Kim Lien Pagoda dates from 1631, though extensive renovations were carried out in 1792. When we moved to the neighborhood in 2005 the interior of the pagoda felt heavy, medieval, antique and absolutely authentic. Last year the city tore it down, carefully, piece by piece. They’re going to improve it, rebuild it with a perfect copy in order to make it nice and clean for the 2010 celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. I expect all the bricks will be new, and that most of the timbers (particularly the carved ones) will be saved, though I fear those great old, imperfectly hewn columns may be replaced by more “perfect” ones with some kind of tacky finish.

Sanchez brings up the issue of the replaceability of “original” buildings in Buddhist traditions in the course of explaining why he feels no particular discomfort at the notion that his consciousness, embedded in his identity, is an artifact of the continuity of certain physical processes, and that once those processes are halted or dissipate, the identity will dissipate with it. The idea that identity must persist is, he thinks, partly a semantic confusion:

I think this is one of many cases where it’s hard to disentangle our raw intuitions about the internal reality we directly apprehend from the mental habits overlaid by language.  Not any quirks of English, of course, but rather the perfectly natural way we talk about a world where strange split-brain disorders are extraordinarily rare, and Star Trek teleporters nowhere to be found.   There is every practical reason to speak of “the person” as a unique and perduring entity who remains the same over the course of a life, just as there is every reason to individuate objects instead of talking about clusters of molecules or parts. We also, quite naturally, have a hardwired concern with the survival of our brains and bodies—having evolved under circumstances where that was, after all, the only way genes were going to get to the next generation.  So it makes sense that we’d end up treating the verbal convention as though it represented a deeper fact of the first importance.

So what if we did live in a world where split-brain disorders were common and Star Trek teleporters were literally on every street corner? That’s part of the premise of Charles Stross’s “Glasshouse”. We’re many centuries into the future, and two technologies that have existed since about the 22nd century are key: T-gates and A-gates. T-gates are teleportation wormholes, and they’re all over the place, such that neighborhoods can be non-contiguous in physical space from one room to the next, and you can pull a gun you’ve stored in another solar system out of a little T-gate in your pocket. More important, A-gates (or “assemblers”) can rapidly synthesize anything down to the subatomic level, including an exact copy of you, or an exact copy of you but with blue skin and four arms, or an exact copy of you but with the painful memory of your last marriage carefully excised. And widespread acceptance of the principle that an exact molecular copy is the same as the original means that people no longer die; if they’re killed, they’re quickly resurrected via their most recent “backup”; and they can go through profound transformations in their physical existence, including switching gender, or turning into an interstellar battle tank for a few decades. And memory surgery from one body to the next means you’re not necessarily exactly the same self you were before. All that’s necessary is that you voluntarily give full consent to whatever memory surgery you want to undergo, before you have yourself scanned, broken down and reassembled. The main task of society becomes the guarantee of identity, protection against identity theft, and firewalling against worms, which corrupt people’s identity from one copy to the next by infecting A-gates and inserting their code into the copies.

But is your fifty-third instantiation in the last hundred years, now a large “ortho” male rather than your previous delicate blue female with four arms, really you? Is that consciousness really the same consciousness? This question doesn’t even occur to the people living in this society; it’s an outmoded moral problem belonging to a different universe, like whether slaves have souls. There were, at one point, humans who resisted having themselves copied or reconstructed in A-gates, for philosophical or religious reasons, but those human societies died out long ago, because they were less powerful and attractive. All the humans now alive are the product of A-gates, they consider themselves to really be themselves, and they view the prospect of walking into an A-gate, having themselves annihilated and then reconstructed, with perfect equanimity, just as we view the prospect of falling asleep and waking up again.

This makes the experience of reading the novel rather intriguing, because you have to ask yourself, when the narrator goes into an A-gate and comes out again — sometimes as a person of the opposite sex, sometimes with his/her character altered, and so on — whether it’s still really the same narrator. But then you have to ask yourself what it is, when you’re reading any novel, that gives you the confidence from one chapter to the next that this is still a unitary person you’re listening to, or watching, apart from a narrative convention. That tension is brilliantly explored in William Gaddis’s first novel, “The Recognitions”, about an ultra-talented forger of oil paintings. Part of the tension for much of the novel comes from the hanging question of whether a particular painting is “real”, or the work of our protagonist; and then, cleverly, we find ourselves watching our protagonist himself only through other people’s eyes, until in the last few chapters a figure resembling him passes through the narrative, but there’s no reason to believe it’s actually him except that why else would we be hearing about this guy in this novel? So the question of a character’s integral identity is reduced to a narrative convention and to the will of the reader to believe that the character is an integral individual.

I would like to think that these kinds of questions really are integral to the philosophy and practice of Buddhism. But in fact whenever I’ve gone to a Buddhist sitting the issues raised have been vastly less interesting, and the music has mainly been intolerably bad. In any case, I do find the idea that our consciousnesses are not continuous or coherent somewhat disturbing, and I think it’d be nice to have a religion that treated the issue seriously; I don’t think it comes up much in Judaism anyway.

Why, yes, I guess you are by mattsteinglass
December 7, 2009, 7:12 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Health

But not for the reasons you think.

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Add: The ad was produced by a guy named Ray Griggs (here’s his LinkedIn page and a review of his apparently awful superhero spoof). The spoof apparently had a significant budget and major-name cast like Tom Sizemore, which isn’t bad for a guy whose only previous credit was an apparently equally awful CG-heavy short called “Lucifer“. (Yeah, the angel.) So the question is who’s bankrolling him, and why haven’t they explained who they are in the political ad he’s produced, and does that violate any laws.

Grigg was also in the Fox News last month for producing an iPhone app which featured offensive caricatures of various lawmakers, along with their phone numbers. Apple initially rejected, then accepted the app.

Add 2: Via Andrew Sullivan. Gawker has an appropriate review.

My weird corner of the economy by mattsteinglass
December 6, 2009, 10:43 pm
Filed under: Economics

I’m used to the fact that my particular occupation, journalist/writer, is such an insignificant portion of the labor force that it generally doesn’t show up on drop-down “Occupation” lists when I sign up for things. For that matter, in a lot of those drop-down lists the entire “Media” sector doesn’t appear. But I was struck by the drop-down list that appeared when I signed up for the Financial Times today:


Only capitalist parasites need apply

Welcome to the service economy

With the exception of “Research/development” and “Technology”, none of these occupations describe people who make anything. Certainly the old Marxist critique that managers and middlemen are parasitical on the “real” economy was a false and destructive way of looking at the world, but aren’t we taking things a bit far here?