Friday, December 13, 2002

The movie industry is demanding protection for its valuable content before releasing it in digital form --- to the extent of floating proposed laws which would require all digital technology in any form, software and hardware, to be loaded with copy protection gizmos, and trying to get something similar through the FCC when they couldn't sneak it through Congress. If consumers are physically able to copy movies without restriction, so the argument goes, they will, the movie studios won't get paid, the industry will collapse, and without works of great social significance like "The Hot Chick" to sustain our culture, civilization will crumble. So the argument goes, and so it went twenty years ago when they were trying to ban the VCR:

I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.

But there is an even closer parallel from about the same time. As the VCR was coming into American life, so was the consumer software industry. And when that industry was starting out, in the early '80s, many, many programs, particularly games, were released with copy protection gimmickry. The rationale was the same: the software publishers were afraid of unrestricted copying by consumers, so they wound up setting up barriers keeping consumers from copying their precious code. If you think about how many of their customers were teenage boys, the result was inevitable --- the copy protection was routinely cracked. (It didn't help that cracking the copy protection frequently offered more challenge and entertainment than playing the game).

The response of the publishers was to admit defeat and move on. Copying of software, including games, is now routinely possible. (Some game consoles still have token copy-protection gimmickry, but equipment to defeat it is widely available). Has the consumer software industry been crippled? Starting from near zero when Jack Valenti gave his "Boston strangler" testimony quoted above, they now have gross receipts which exceed Hollywood's total box office take by nearly $1 billion...

Yet more news from Boston: to my surprise, Cardinal Law has persuaded the Pope to accept his resignation as archbishop of Boston, issuing a statement effusively thanking the Pope for letting him quit and apologizing to everyone who suffered from his "shortcomings". (A petition pleading for Law to resign from his own priests apparently made a considerable impression on the Vatican brass, more so than anything which came out of the laity). It can't yet be clear how much of a difference this will make, but we can only hope. He returns now to a pending subpoena for a grand jury which is looking into his role in the crisis. He's probably safe from criminal charges himself --- due to weak laws here, mere personal negligence, no matter how shocking, is not a crime. But corporations can be indicted for negligence in supervising their employees, so the DA, under heavy public pressure to prosecute something, is trying to build a criminal case against the archdiocese itself.

Things are rough all over here on this Friday the 13th, but fortunately, the troubles of some of our other local institutions are less consequential, and a whole lot more fun for the peanut gallery.

Consider, for instance, Boston University, dominated now as it has been for years, by the contentious and redoubtable John Silber. Silber is aging, and knows he needs a successor --- but his last handpicked successor, Jon Westling, was bounced out by the trustees for his lack of independence and institutional vision. (Which may have been the same thing that got him the job; when he replaced Silber, local wagging tongues wondered if he was just a stand-in, particularly since he had relatively weak credentials, and was known as a protege of Silber, who maintained a strong presence in the newly created post of Chancellor. That story didn't get seem less likely after Westling's departure, when Silber slipped back into his old chair as if he had never left). All of this history isn't entirely a selling point to the candidates that the institution wants, strong leaders who can carry the institution forward, and will not want to have to answer to micromanagement from the trustees ... or from Silber.

Another thing candidates don't want to see is legal entanglements, like a messy lawsuit. And they don't come much messier than the current fracas between B.U. and local philanthropist David Mugar. Eight years ago, Silber personally wheedled a $3 million donation from Mugar for renovations to a library that bears his father's name, threatening, the prospect of a replacement library which would bear the name of a new donor if he didn't pony up. (This is the first donation to B.U. from the junior Mugar, who had no prior personal connection to the university). And then... the renovations never happened, and the donation, according to BU's own official explanation, got "lost".

So, the $3 million library renovation was such a minor matter that funds for it could literally get "lost", even though Silber was personally shaking down donors. Where might it have gone? Well, perhaps to another building project dear to Silber's heart, the new University administration suite affectionately known on campus as the Taj Mahal, which cost more than $30 million to outfit (in two floors of an already-completed building), and includes a 1000-square foot mahogany-paneled office for Silber in addition to the suite for the President-to-be.

BU is now trying to placate Mugar with the offer of a newly named dorm (perhaps one of the dozens of townhouses the University owns on Bay State Road), but Mugar is no longer interested. He just wants the money either returned, or forwarded to other charities. With interest.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

A few brief remarks on the lessons of history. Which refers, of course, to Gene Callahan's much-touted essay on the lessons of history, as portrayed by avuncular and wildly inaccurate Victor Davis Hanson, preaching the glories of war from the orchards of Fresno. (Yes, clueless right-wing intellectual week continues!).

Callahan's thesis is, roughly this:

In the current debate of what direction US foreign policy should take in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, much reference has been made of the "lessons of history." "History teaches us," we are told, "that we must act with overwhelming force against a terrorist threat." Or, perhaps, "History teaches us that we must stop dictators while they are still weak and unprepared for full-scale war."

However, the very idea that history contains such "lessons" is false, and rests upon a misunderstanding of what history is and what it can achieve. History is the historian's effort to construct a coherent world of the past based on the evidence available to him in the present. (This contention, that the historian constructs history, should not be taken to mean that history is merely a reflection of his whims, political opinions, or social class. If he is faithful to his task as a historian, he constructs the past that the evidence compels him to believe is true.) ...

Because history is a world of detailed, specific events, the idea of 'general laws' of history is self-contradictory.

Which, I think, goes too far, at least implicitly, in at least seeming to claim that the study of history is irrelevant to present conditions, because the present does not, and cannot, replicate the past. But before getting to the reasons why, let's note that he certainly has a legitimate beef with Hanson, who is starting to make a habit of howlers like this:

... hesitation, self-doubt, and bottled piety have derailed even the most successful military operations before their positive results reached full fruition.

We have been at such a cross-roads before --- and sometimes have failed through our moral arrogance and over-sophistication: allowing a weary, bloodied, but ultimately undefeated German war machine to surrender in France and Belgium in 1918 rather than marching into Berlin to humiliate it...

This escapes being outright falsehood by a hair; there were, in fact, no French troops marching through Berlin in 1918. But no one doubted that there could have been, and the Versailles treaty that ended World War I made that point by, among other things:

  • Stripping Germany of all its colonial possessions, and even territory it had controlled in Europe, particularly Alsace and Lorraine.
  • Imposing reparations payments which crippled the German economy.
  • Demanding that the "German war machine" turn over, among other things, just about the entire naval fleet to the allies, dismantle fortifications anywhere near the German border.
  • Requiring Germany to shut down arms factories, and reduce its army and navy to skeleton forces "devoted exclusively to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of the frontiers".

Humiliation was the point of the exercise --- a matter of no small significance, as the humiliation of this treaty, for both Germany in general and the military in particular, was one of Hitler's main rallying points (and his attribution of the humiliating defeat of the "German war machine" to "betrayal" by the Jews was an early and significant rallying point against them).

The result of all this, of course, was World War II. And after that, we could have tried to humiliate Germany even more (American treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau actually proposed destroying German civilian industry, and reducing the country to a nation of peasants); instead the West poured money into at least the sections of Germany under its own control (via the Marshall plan), and actually assisted the Germans in the creation of a military which was at least suitable for territorial defense against an external military force. With, generally, much happier results.

The outlines of this story, if not the details, are familiar to most high school students, if not to Hanson and his editors at the National Review. And it's not as if Callahan, or I, have taken the remark out of a context that might legitimate it; the passage quoted above continues directly with a looking-glass look at Vietnam, where we might have ended the conflict at a stroke by choosing not to "permit" Northern forces to return to the South, but apparently lacked the iron will. So much for the lessons of recent history.

(If you're wondering whether this is perhaps unfair to Hanson, who is generally so focused on important goings-on in the hamlets of ancient Greece that he may be a bit fuzzy on relatively trivial current events like, say, the rise of Hitler, read Callahan, who catches him claiming the speech of one Cleon, described by Thucydides as "the most violent man at Athens", as the wisdom of Thucydides himself. Are you surprised to hear that Cleon was out for blood?)

Clearly, Callahan has a legitimate beef with Hanson. But is it really that he's trying too hard to draw lessons from history, or is it a more basic failure to exercise his responsibility, as a historian, to "construct the past that the evidence compels him to believe is true"?

Callahan does his best to argue the point, posing a counterfactual in which the Western powers decline to engage Hitler in combat, accept all his refugees (avoiding the Holocaust), and let him and Stalin beat each others' brains out, to the general betterment of all. Which has its improbable points (particularly the part where the Western powers accept large numbers of Jewish refugees), but let's leave that aside, and assume that a true oracle has told us that Callahan's scenario works, and that Neville Chamberlain's real goof wasn't cutting a deal at Munich, but declaring war not too many months later. What does that prove?

It would remain the case that Germany posed a danger to England and France (as is established by the actual course of events beyond any doubt!) and that the humiliating provisions of the Versailles treaty played a key role in creating that danger. Whatever the leadership of what were to become the allies decided to do about the danger, it would remain, at least, likely that the danger could have been avoided with less vengeful conduct at the end of World War I. And it would remain plausible to draw the lesson that a humiliated, economically bankrupt, former great power (like, say, contemporary Russia) isn't always a fun thing to have around, particularly if they have reasons to hate your guts (like, say, our continuing failure to even acknowledge, let alone do something about, the damage from American-inspired "shock reform" in the '90s). Or that leaders (like, say Musharraf in Pakistan) who have an established record of fanning ethnic hatred at home while presenting themselves as "people who we can do business with" abroad, can't always be relied on to keep their deals. That is, after all, pretty much what Chamberlain thought about Hitler, right up to the invasion of Poland.

Above all, in the current environment, we might draw the lesson that if humiliating people has caused problems (as is often argued to be the case in the muslim world, believably so --- not so much because the Hansons and den Bestes of the world make the case, as because Osama bin Laden does it himself on his recruiting tapes), then humiliating them more won't necessarily make things any better.

And Callahan might agree with all of that --- but if he does, then he is in fact willing to draw lessons from history, of a slightly weaker sort; it can't provide prophecies, or dictate policy, but it can certainly call out a warning.

Further thoughts: In email, a reader points out that while the German military knew perfectly well that they could not continue fighting, they managed to blow enough smoke that some ordinary Germans might have been legitimately confused. But that's not why the country turned to Hitler --- it turned to Hitler for a variety of reasons (offering hope, though a sick hope, to a desperate electorate, relief from disorder to the business community, etc.), most of which can be traced to the effects of the Versailles treaty, which deliberately didn't leave them with a decent country to live in, humbled and humiliated. And while the military action may not have overtly humiliated the German war machine, the treaty left it not just humiliated, but effectively wiped out; defeat in battle could not possibly have left it any more thoroughly trashed.

Which brings me back to the question of whether the rise of Hitler could have been avoided by sacrificing another few hundred thousand young men in an otherwise pointless march on Berlin. It seems doubtful to me. The Nazis might have needed to modulate their lies a little differently, but the inventors of the Big Lie would surely have been up to the challenge. After all, hundreds of years of unambiguous European military victory over the Arabs, leaving the Europeans in uncontested control of Arab lands, rearranging their governments for sport, weren't enough to convince Osama bin Laden to give up on pipe dreams of military conquest, and stick to the family construction business...

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Some of us on the left may have written off the Republican party as nothing more than drones in service of big business. So, let us take due note of this stirring statement of principle from the California Republican State Party chair:

Saying big business should be punished for turning its back on the California Republican Party, state GOP Chairman Shawn Steel on Monday called for an end to corporate tax breaks and said he may push a 2004 ballot initiative to raise corporate property taxes.

"Any special tax breaks for these large corporations, I'm not interested in that -- that's over," Steel told a luncheon audience of the Sacramento Press Club. ...

In a 45-minute speech billed as a post-election analysis, the outgoing party chairman blamed two forces for Republicans' shutout in their bid for statewide office this year: investor Gerald Parsky, who has used his influence as President Bush's point man in California to whittle away at Steel's power, and what Steel called the "betrayal of big business." ...

Steel said corporate executives, from developers to bankers to high-tech manufacturers, put tens of millions of dollars behind Gov. Gray Davis and the Democratic-controlled Legislature, under the assumption that Republicans will represent their interests regardless of their political support.

For those of us accustomed to thinking of Republicans as mere corporate shills, this naked display of personal powerlust is a most refreshing change of pace...

(via Max Sawicky)

Writing the following feels a little bit like writing one of those "authentic time travelers only: sell me your space modulator!" spams, but what the heck:

My readers in New York who will be free next Monday night might want to check out the Dresden Dolls, who will be at the Bowery Poetry Club, at 8:30 according to their mailing list. Which would make it a relatively brief set if you go by the club's own schedule, but still, they put on a heck of a show...

More news from, or at least about, Boston:

Cardinal Law seems to be taking a good long while consulting with his superiors in the Vatican. An audience with the Pope is expected no earlier than tomorrow, while he explains the tricky nature of the church's problems here, and his own situation, with all due care.

The Vatican's conventional wisdom seems to be that the American media's obsessive focus on such relatively trival matters as children being raped, or a priest seducing nuns in training by claiming to be a manifestation of god, reflect some peculiar American obsession with sex, so that sort of thing must be old hat over there; likewise Law's cordial and solicitous personal letters to the priests who committed those acts as he installed them in new assignments as shepherds of new flocks of, errrmmm... sheep.

But other aspects of the situation perhaps need to explained with some delicacy and care --- like the unappetizing choice the archdiocese faces between continued discovery in civil suits, which keeps dragging that advice to wayward shepherds out into the open, and Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which would force limits on the civil suits, but would force the archdiocese to expose its financial records, including payments to Rome and its property holdings, reportedly in excess of $1 billion, all of which could be diverted or sold for the victims at the direction of the court.

Moreover, given the vatican's general unfamiliarity with American culture, it may also take a certain delicacy to explain that one of the their highest ranked officials in the United States, in a city where the church has long played a dominant role in civic affairs, is being referred to on top-rated drive-time talk radio as "Bernie the Pimp".

Meanwhile, outraged calls for Law's resignation are so routine that they seem to have become what local newspaper columnists write up when they've had a slow week. Some of them may have it on keyboard macros by now. Likewise from parishoners. But a call for Law's resignation from his fellow priests is something new.

Don't stay up waiting. Law reportedly offered his resignation last Spring, only to find that the Pope, who angrily rejects suggestions that he himself should retire, was in no mood to accept.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Yesterday, I put up a brief study of a little sloppy thinking on the right. Today, more of the same.

In Forbes, George Gilder pleads to be understood:

Why do I trust Gary Winnick and Jeffrey Skilling--nefarious former chief executives of notoriously bankrupt companies--more than I trust Senator John McCain of vaunted valor in prison camps or David Broder of Pulitzer fame or Senator Joseph Lieberman of famously flinty integrity? Why do I trust Kenneth Lay of Enron and Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom more than I trust Justices William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, the stalwart intellectual leaders of a nominally conservative Supreme Court, or even George W. Bush, that most trusted of Presidents?

Is it because Bush and Rehnquist haven't always been inclined themselves to let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Why do I trust General Electric chief emeritus Jack Welch or AT&T Chief Michael Armstrong more than I trust the entire scientific and environmental coverage in the New York Times and all the venerable editors of the increasingly political Scientific American? Why do I trust Martha Stewart and ImClone's Sam Waksal far more than I trust the crusading journalist James B. Stewart or New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, trustbuster deluxe, as they righteously seek to banish moneylenders, marketmakers and conflicts of interest from the temples of Wall Street?

Is it because you've been a suckup to fraudulent businessmen for years, and you just can't stop?


The reason I trust disgraced executives more than politicians, judges and journalists is the same reason that I trust physicists more than I trust sociologists. The answer comes from the eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper: falsifiability. In science, falsifiability means that a hypothesis is presented with sufficient rigor to be proven wrong, that is, falsified. It is the condition of trust. By contrast, the sociologist deals in broad propositions--such as "ethnic diversity improves educational outcomes" or "patriarchy causes war"--that, by sinking into a mush of definitions, defy disproof.

Except when conducting trials of identifiable crimes such as murder or assault, judges are no more truthful than politicians or journalists. They all adhere to the "ring-true" standard of sociology rather than the falsifiable standard of physics. Most of the time, as physicist Wolfgang Pauli put it in another context, they are not even wrong. Their statements lack the rigor to rate as lies and swim in the ontological soup of the verb "to be." From such a soup, no enduring truths can evolve.

But the test of falsifiability only works if you apply it. The hypothesis that particularly Winnick, Skilling, Ebbers, and Waksal are trustworthy individuals has been utterly refuted by events. (That's why Gilder's "disgraced former executives" are, in fact, disgraced). The proper Popperian would discard the hypothesis and move on. And the application of this "Popperian" criterion is doubly ironic when applied to Waksal, who went into business after getting bounced out of hard science for lying to his colleagues and fraudulent work.

Gilder explicates further:

Like a physical experiment, every entrepreneurial venture embodies and tests a hypothesis about products or markets. Intel is currently preparing to test the hypothesis that computer companies will choose a microprocessor that runs at 3 gigahertz, or 3 billion cycles a second, and will buy it in sufficient volumes that Intel can profitably manufacture it in a plant that costs $2 billion to build and equip. Samsung is testing whether people will buy a cell phone that takes digital photographs. Ebay (nasdaq: EBAY - news - people ) is testing whether it can move beyond Web auctions of used wine openers to Web auctions of $20,000 antique cars, and to TV programs.

Which has absolutely nothing to do with the worthiness of the executives involved in any of these endeavors.

Besides, it's not as if hypotheses about politicians can't be tested against the evidence. If you want to test the hypothesis that, say, Democrats can be expected to spend more than Republicans, all that's required is to look at the records and do the math. It's false.

So, Andrew Sullivan has been knocking the New York Times for insufficient attention to Trent Lott's apparent endorsement of Strom Thurmond's 1948 Presidential campaign, on a platform of support for segregation, and opposition to anti-lynching laws.

So, I trust, we will see praise in due course for the Times op-ed columnist who has done the job right, not only giving the full historical context for Lott's remarks, but dealing as well with his long-term dalliance with the racist Council of Conservative Citizens --- Paul Krugman.

Monday, December 09, 2002

Two brief stories about Jews, exiles, and keys.

Point: On Newbury Street in Boston, near Dartmouth Street, there is the Pucker gallery, which regularly shows new work by the painter Samuel Bak. Bak is a Holocaust survivor, who has taken the experience as his theme; his pictures are surreal images of what might remain of a community when the people have vanished. An alley from his youth is filled with discarded books. Buildings melt into trees and hillsides. Fenceposts, gates, and papers meld together into shadow images of people who are gone.

Through this all, there are several repeated motifs --- the image of one of his childhood friends, now dead; plants, trees, rocks, and cracks in walls forming themselves into Hebrew words; and the images, over and over, of broken locks, keys and keyholes. This last, it was explained to me, refers to an incident in his childhood, when the Nazis had decided to do the final roundup of Jews in his neighborhood, and dozens of them were crammed in a room. A woman was crying. Despite the desperate attempts of everyone else to keep silent, she kept on, inconsolable. She had forgotten the key to her apartment --- a key she could never use again.

Counterpoint: In 1492, under the influence of the Spanish Inquisition, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain outlawed the practice of Judaism. Much of the Jewish community fled. The exiles, called Sephardim, hung on to what they could, which was mostly tradition. Yesterday evening, I was at a concert of their songs, one of which asks, in Spanish, the musical question, "Where is the key to my house in Spain?"

A few years ago, almost exactly five hundred years after the exile, the same group performed this song in Philadelphia, and a woman in the audience was suddenly reminded of a memento, nearly forgotten at the back of a drawer, which she received from her grandfather, who also told her that they were from the Spanish city of Toledo, and before that, from the tribe of Zebulon. She brought it backstage at another concert, and so it wound up on a video which was played for the audience yesterday evening. It is a large iron key, about six inches long; upon it is inscribed, in Hebrew letters, the family name.

Sometimes a critic reveals more about himself than about the guy he's trhing to crtique. Take Daniel Drezner, for instance, who wants economists who criticize the Bush administration, in which he served for a bit, to stick to their knitting

The economist who has been most subject lately to Drezner's sort of critique ("sound on economics, shrill on politics") is Paul Krugman --- and despite a personal connection, Drezner doesn't stint. One recent post has been touted by Mickey "No Permalinks" Kaus as a "sophisticated exegesis" of Krugman's New York Times columns, perhaps because it uses words like "exegesis", at least in proclaiming itself to be one. As it happens, it's using the word wrong. An "exegesis" is a detailed examination of a text. But Drezner's soi-disant "exegesis" doesn't specifically cite the text of even one Krugman column. It dances around them, talking for instance about how Krugman's "production process" could lead to repetition and error, without deigning to mention any particular thing that Krugman has repeated too much, or citing any actual error. (You see, Krugman has to write often, and not always on the subject of his academic research, so quality must necessarily suffer. Strange complaint from somebody writing a blog).

The closest Drezner comes to actually engaging Krugman's text is to claim that

Krugman, along with many economists, has some serious blind spots in his political analyses. He's consistently shocked when politicians engage in strategic or opportunistic behavior. He's always stunned when leaders take actions that maximize their own power rather than benefiting the greater good. ...

Economists that focus on politics eventually begin to acknowledge these sorts of motivations. Krugman, however, seems perpetually befuddled when politicians act politically. Since his readers trend in the politically savvy direction, this failure to learn has become an ever-increasing handicap.

No evidence is offered, perhaps because the evidence, if examined, would cut the other way. Among Krugman's earliest popular writing was an entire book ("Peddling Prosperity") whose main thesis was precisely that politicians and their pseudo-academic suckups (collectively "policy entrepreneurs") advocate bogus policy nostrums for strategic and opportunistic reasons, generally to maximize their own power --- with examples from the Clinton administration, in power at the time, which had no cause to see him as a friend. Krugman may be disgusted by the way the process has worked itself out in the current administration, but he is certainly not surprised.

If Krugman sees anything shocking in the current administration, as opposed to the one which preceded it, it's not the presence of opportunism, but the total absence of principle. It's not as if Bill Clinton could ever be accused of paying too little attention to shifting political winds. But at least, when he was putting forward a serious policy proposal, he tried to make sure that the numbers would add up. That has never troubled the current regime; when Al Gore pointed out in the "fuzzy math" Presidential debate that Dubya's social security proposal only works if we pay the same trillion dollars to both current and future recipients, Dubya didn't seem to even understand the argument. It is this sort of chicanery that sees Krugman at his most savage, denouncing proponents of the Social Security plan as refugees from a Monty Python skit who can't handle grade-school arithmetic, or describing one particularly laughable gimmick in the Bush tax cut legislation as the "Throw Momma from the Train Act of 2001"

And Clinton did occasionally go against his political base when he thought the needs of the country truly demanded it. He defied his own union base by liberalizing trade policy, and in his first two years, more or less discarded the tax cut and stimulus package which he had campaigned on, because the Fed had convinced him that sound fiscal policy was more important. (Vicious Republican criticism of these moves, particularly the tax non-cut, was key to their gaining control of the House of Representatives). Compare that, as Krugman has more than once, to the current administration, whose trade policy is a collage of tariff benefits for its benefactors, and which has sold the surplus for a mess of pottage for plutocrats.

Drezner faults Krugman for repeating things, an apparent reference to Krugman's continual harping on these simple points. I say apparent, though, because he doesn't say which Krugman repetitions he finds so objectionable. His "exegesis" would be more worthy of the name if he would actually cite the repetitions that bother him. It would be better yet if he would say why he feels that consistent talking points in political commentary are a bad thing --- after all, repetition worked just swell for Newt Gingrich. (Drezner's Strunk and White reference would be on point if he were complaining about repetitive writing within a single column, but he's not). It would be a lot more interesting if he could make a decent case that Krugman's oft-repeated arguments aren't basically right.

In sum, Drezner's critique doesn't teach us much about Krugman. What have we learned about Drezner? He doesn't confront Krugman's arguments head-on; instead, he claims ex cathedra that they are unsound, and speculates on how they might have come to be that way, without having done anything at all to demonstrate that they actually are. He hasn't provided a real answer to Krugman, but if all you want is an excuse to ignore him, it'll serve.

Even that, though, apparently counts as serious work for Drezner. "Sociological exegeses", he imperiously declaims, "are exhausting". If it will be a little while before he can manage more of the same, I think the world can afford to wait.