Saturday, January 01, 2005

Boston's First Night arts festival this New Year's eve was smaller than it's been. There wasn't much art on the Common this year beyond the by-now traditional ice sculptures (and Irish flavored rock and roll from Flynn on the Parkman bandstand if you waited long enough). But those were still worth seeing.

On my way walking over, I ran into someone I hadn't seen in a while -- a married woman working the cookies and cocoa table outside Arlington Street Church, to raise money for their Friday night meals for those in need. It didn't matter much to anyone that she's married to another woman. Call it an object lesson in Blue State moral values.

Also worth seeing: Israeli folk singer Guy Mendilow. Some of what he does is what anyone would call folk music. But he spices that up with a kind of throat-singing that sounds more like a Moog or a Theremin than the human vocal tract. One of his originals is a beat-heavy experiment in throat-singing and percussion -- fairly good electronica without the electronics.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Looking over 2004, about all you can say is, well, that could have gone better. As to what's coming up... we have a massive rescue and recovery effort in the Indian Ocean disaster zone (see here for a list of charities taking donations), and an upcoming election in Iraq, fraught with peril, where the Shiite coalition which will surely have a majority if there are enough votes to count is promising voters that they will immediately move to kick us out. (Which isn't the worse thing that could happen, if we have the sense to leave where we're not wanted). But you don't need me to tell you any of that.

So, here are two brief news stories reflecting on other likely future events. First, a bit of whimsy: having just sold off its cell phone division to Cingular, AT&T is already announcing plans to get back into the cell phone business, by reselling services from Sprint. Come on, folks. Do you want to be in the business or out of it? Make up your minds!

Second, China. Earlier this week, I noted that Communist China is the new homeof echt-feudalism. Chinese nouveaux riches are moving into the Chateau Zhang Laffitte, a replica of an old French nobleman's palace, to which the developers have added more gardens and a moat. To complete the feudal theme, it is actually built on land expropriated from peasants.

Well, here's a look at the class resentments this sort of thing is stirring up. On the street in Wanzhou, two people got into a scuffle. One was a porter, scraping by carrying heavy items on his back, and sweeping the floors of hair salons so the hair can be collected into wigs. The other was a big shot -- who may or may not be a public official. The porter accidentally got a little mud on the big shot's girlfriend's dress. The big shot said something sneering to the porter. The porter replied, "I sell my body, just like a prostitute". The girlfriend took that unkindly. As to what happened next, reports vary, but the story that spread all over Wanzhou through cell phones, pagers, and the old-fashioned grapevine telegraph was that he said he could pay $2500 or so, and have the porter killed. That story, in turn, triggered a riot in which tens of thousands of people wrecked city cars and burned City Hall.

The central government has reacted with alarm. Provincial officials were reprimanded. The porter was put through a forced and thoroughly scripted Rodney King moment on local TV, which convinced no one, and has left him subject to sneering attacks now from the local poor, for letting himself be used as a propaganda tool. But this isn't the only incident of its kind -- on another occasion, 10,000 farmers stopped work on a dam project, and the army had to be called out to restore order.

The Chinese government is obviously worried about this, and part of what they're doing is stronger police measures. But police measures can't be the whole strategy, at least not if it's going to work. So we can assume the Chinese leadership is working on other tactics for distracting the plebs from their personal problems. Maybe bread and circuses. Maybe war.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

In the wake of the election, Democratic Party leaders are working on the party's appeal to swing voters. They might want to take a backward glance at how the other guys won:

One fundamental calculation was that 93 percent of the voting-age public was already committed or predisposed toward the Democratic or Republican candidate, leaving 7 percent undecided.

Another calculation was that throughout the Bush presidency, "most voters looked at Bush in very black-and-white terms. They either loved and respected him, or they didn't like him," [Republican pollster Matthew] Dowd said. Those voters were unlikely to change their views before Election Day 2004.

That prompted Republicans to jettison their practice of investing 75 to 90 percent of campaign money on undecided voters. Instead, half the money went into motivating and mobilizing people already inclined to vote for Bush, but who were either unregistered or who often failed to vote -- "soft" Republicans.

The Republicans won, in short, by mobilizing their base. In response, the Democrats try out "compromise" positions on abortion and social security which sell their own base out. Smooth move.

That comes from a much longer WaPo survey article on the campaign, which goes on to discuss some of the ways the Republicans motivated their base:

"You used to get a tape-recorded voice of Ronald Reagan telling you how important it was to vote. That was our get-out-the-vote effort," said Alex Gage, of [data mining consultants] TargetPoint. Now, he said, calls can be targeted to specific constituencies so that, for example, a "right to life voter" could get a call warning that "if you don't come out and vote, the number of abortions next year is going to go up. "

This is an article about tactics in elections, so it doesn't say a word about whether the message in that phone call is honest. But districts where anyone was actually campaigning to loosen restrictions on abortion -- let alone where they had a chance of getting such a bill passed -- were surely few and far between. For look at what that's like on the ground, and at the Republican use of churches (a tactic on which the WaPo is studiously silent), through the eyes of one Republican voter who was stunned to discover that the chances of actually passing a federal constitutional amendment on gay marriage are nil, look here.

Thus the Republicans. Meanwhile, the Democrats are quoted complaining that the 527 groups couldn't coordinate with Kerry's campaign effectively. But what's their key example? The Swift Boat Ads:

The Democratic media 527s "didn't do what we wanted done," Kerry media adviser Tad Devine said. "We would have run ads about Kerry, we would have had answers to the attacks in kind, saying they were false, disproved by newspapers."

Harold Ickes, who ran the Media Fund, a 527 organization that raised about $59 million in support of Kerry, said the federal election law prohibiting communication with the Kerry campaign created insurmountable obstacles in crafting effective, accurate responses to anti-Kerry ads. Ickes said he regretted not responding to the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks, but at the time he thought they seemed "a matter so personal to Senator Kerry, so much within his knowledge. Who knew what the facts were?"

And Ickes is right. In monetary terms, the Swift Boat ad buy was tiny -- about $540,000 of a billion dollar campaign effort. The impact was from coverage of the "story" by news outlets. And that was one-sided for weeks not because of a lack of ad purchases on the other side, but because there was no effective response from the candidate himself.

So, how did Kerry's campaign strategists exploit the rise of the 527s? So far, it's given them a place to try to pass the buck.

One last note from the Republican side: they were doing the targeted phone banking because they concluded early on that traditional phone banks blasting generic messages at largely Republican precincts were just ineffective. The Democrats wound up spending a lot of volunteer hours on exactly that; it's sobering to wonder how some of them might have been better spent.

More:Republican political operative Patrick Ruffini, on his own blog, isn't buying the "coordination" excuse for the ineffectiveness of the 527s either. But he sees another thing wrong with it: their ads just stunk. via Interesting Times.

WaPo articl via Josh Marshall, who thinks rather more of the gripes about 527s than I do. Ground-level report via Suburban Guerrilla.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

I keep hearing that the Democrats need to overcome their traditional weakness on defense. So, how old is this tradition?

It certainly wasn't around in the early '60s, when Kennedy was campaigning as the hawk (on the fictional "missile gap", to his lasting discredit) -- and went on to taunt the Communists from the top of the Berlin Wall, nearly go to nuclear war with them in the Cuban Missile crisis, and significantly escalate the goings-on in Vietnam. Before that, Truman and Korea; before that, Roosevelt winning World War II. In that instance, right up to Pearl Harbor, the Republicans were the party of isolation.

Now, it's not like the Republicans' only martial triumph of recent decades is Gulf War I. There's Reagan's splendid victory over Grenada. He even won the Cold War, by being the guy in the White House when the USSR collapsed of its own weight. (Pay no attention to yesterday's announcement of the first ever joint Russian-Chinese military exercises in the corner. It is of no signficance). But over the past hundred years or so, the Democratic record of "strong defense" is at least equal to the Republicans. The party is only as weak on this issue as it chooses to let the Republicans make it. Which, as for other issues, seems to be pretty damn weak...

Monday, December 27, 2004

Here's your one-stop shop for Asian tidal wave disaster relief efforts. Via Unqualified Offerings and DeLong.

More: Here's another, via BoingBoing.

A little more for folks watching the ins and outs of the Rise of China:

Hernando de Soto is famous for suggesting that the most important thing third-world governments can do to try to improve the lives of their peasantry (having enough people to matter be honest-to-G-d, near-subsistence farming peasants is pretty much what makes you a third world country these days) is to give them property. De Soto justifies this strictly on economic grounds, but there are political aspects as well -- it makes even the poor feel that they are part of the same society as the rich, and not peons in a class structure that offers them no real power, and treats them as a nuisance.

So it's somewhat of interest that the Chinese instead are doing things like kicking some of their peasants off their land, so that real estate developers can install Chinese nouveaux riches in the Chateau Zhang Laffitte, a replica of a 1650s French noble's house, enhanced with gardens that dwarf the originals -- and a moat.

In short, one of the big new things in Communist China is overt echt-feudalism. Needless to say, this raises the prospect of class resentment, if not class warfare. The New York Times article notes that the government there is worried about this, but says nothing about what they're planning to do about it. But I imagine they are planning. I have no idea what those plans might be, though. For there are at least two classic strategies that autocratic governments with an imperial tinge have used to distract the plebs. One is bread and circuses. Another is war.

But as counterpoint: China is big. Spectacularly big. Big enough that it has entire large cities specialized enough that the major industry is, say, socks. And some of the socks millionaires now were working out of their houses for spare change a decade or two ago. It may make a difference that the nouveaux riches are genuinely nouveau...

About a week ago, John Quiggin asked on Crooked Timber exactly what Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle -- by Stephenson's own count, eight novels published in three volumes -- was about. (He'd just finished Quicksilver, the first book of three, but it obviously needs to be considered in the light of the other two). Having just finished the entire Cycle, I've got my own thoughts on the subject. I'll try to avoid giving away any plot points, but I'll be talking about parts of the System of Stephenson's World that don't become plain to the reader until very late in the books -- so if you're particularly chary of spoilers, tread lightly.

So what are these books about? The most common answer to this question, found in innumerable reviews, is that they're about some great change in society; the destruction of an old system of the world for a newer one. In some accounts, it's the demise of the feudal system, run by nobility, in which everyone knows their place -- replaced by a new system of money and markets. In others, it's the destruction of the intellectually bankrupt scholarly system of alchemy for a kind of science that works. And, indeed, there's a lot in the books about both transitions.

But all of that misses a point that Stephenson is at pains to make in the third volume, The System of the World -- that in transitions like this, the old system doesn't really go away. It's still there, moving beneath the surface, not perceived, but still present for those who know how to exploit it. Like the paved-over moat that once surrounded the Fleet Prison. Or the buried, ruined temples of more than one kind that serve the Waterhouse family for storage. Or the river Walbrook, vanished off the maps centuries before the action, but still flowing underground, which still serves at one point as a useful medium for transport. And if that's not enough, Stephenson makes the metaphor explicit, by putting it in Daniel's mouth. I actually think this is thematically one of the more important passages in the Cycle:

It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any old Systems. But things I have seen recently, in the subterranean places beneath the Bank, have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microsope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive. When we have stronger microscopes I should not be surprised to discover yet smaller and simpler organisms within those animalcules. And so I say that Alchemy shall not vanish, as I always hoped. Rather, it shall be encapsulated within the new System of the World, and become a familar and even comforting presence there, though its name may change and its practitioners speak no more about the Philospher's Stone. It shall be gone from view but it shall continue to run along beneath, as the lost river Walbrook streams beneath the Bank of England.

Though skeptics will be sure to note that this argument is advanced to mollify a skeptic of alchemy, and it isn't wholly clear that either he or Daniel entirely buys it.

To add to that (and to get to the minor spoilers mentioned above), Stephenson makes it absolutely clear that in his world, alchemy works. It's not just that the Solomonic Gold manages somehow to be demonstrably heavier than ordinary gold (which, yes, in our world has only one stable isotope). Its transformative properties are clearly real, and this is critical to the action in more than one way at the climax of the plot. And yet the characters presented as advocates of science (including one historical character of note) are engaged, at the end, in suppressing this remarkably useful, if inconvenient, fact, and driving all evidence of it figuratively, if not literally, underground -- which isn't exactly my idea of good science.

But anyway, thus the plot. Now what are we to make of this? Why has Stephenson tossed these particular strange ingredients into his potboiler? They might be there just to spice things up. Except that they don't, or at least not much. Were alchemy transformed into the superstitious nonsense that modern readers (and many of Stephenson's own characters) take it for, and the ruses used by certain long-lived characters transformed into fact, the tale could proceed for most of its epic length very little altered. Indeed, it's to the point that the startling transformations near the very end feel to me at least, as I remarked on the Crooked Timber thread, like they're not quite playing fair with the reader.

So here's another idea. In a story that's absolutely shot through with cryptograms, hidden messages, and secret identities of multiple kinds, I don't think it's going too far to suggest that the treatment of alchemy in the narrative may be deliberately intended as a metaphor for something else. Which brings me back to the other grand social transformation in the Cycle -- from a society regulated by the nobility and the church (represented, to my way of thinking, not so much by Louis XIV, important as he is to the plot, as the fictional and far more reactionary de Gex), to one regulated by currency and markets. In which case, it could all be taken as an indirect and roundabout way of hinting to the reader that this other old System of the World -- based on personal ties among titled elites -- has been encapsulated within the new, market-driven System of the World, and become a familar and even comforting presence there, though its name may have changed and its practitioners speak no more about noble titles; that it is gone from view but continues to run along beneath, as the lost river... well, you get the idea. In which context, the deliberate hiding of the old System makes a little more sense; the new System just functions better with the old one out of view.

What makes this an interesting notion is that, whether Stephenson intended to hit the reader over the head with it or not, it's demonstrably true. Even in America, as Kevin Philips is at pains to demonstrate in the first section of Wealth and Democracy, there actually is a self-perpetuating elite, with dozens of families at least (Mellons, Rockefellers et al.) who made their money first in the nineteenth or even eighteenth century, and still have it. And for every such family whose name is at least commonly recognizable, there are quite a few more who are happier to stay in the shadows. They have their clubs, their social groups (the Bilderbergers, the Bohemian Grove) quietly still running along. Which isn't to say that it's all that's going on. The new System of the World isn't simply the old, presented through shadow-play; it has vitality of its own. Rather, it's to say that the old System is still operating, and you can't completely understand the operation of the new System without it. But there are others on the net who might, perhaps, be inclined to take this line of argument further than I would.

So all this stuff aside, what about the books?

A common reaction to the Cycle is that Stephenson needed a stronger-willed editor. The books are maddeningly discursive -- a vast, unruly stew, full of short-story- and even novella-length pieces that are tangential at best to the overall plot. (It feels at points like this is a story for which the best medium might have truly been hypertext -- for more detail on how a certain minor character was killed off at the Battle of the Boyne, click here). There really are a few unfortunates dragged into the books for no better reason at all than to let Stephenson say that they weren't expecting the Spanish Inquisition. And particularly early on, there's a surfeit of jockeying for social position among English aristocrats, which (speaking from experience here) has a strong deterrent effect on readers who aren't constitutionally inclined to care very much about that sort of thing. But many of the winks, nods, and references do hit home -- like a wicked riposte to the arguments against machine intelligence advanced by philosphers like Lucas and Searle, seamlessly woven into the story. And there's something here for everyone's taste.

So my advice -- pick a spot you like and dig in. The storylines featuring Eliza (the one-time harem girl who collects paramours and destroys bankers all over Europe), and Jack Shaftoe (her lost love, thief, adventurer, and King of the Vagabonds) rarely disappoint. Skip the boring parts if you have to (whatever you decide those happen to be; it's a matter of taste), and come back to them later if you must. Stephenson's left quite a few gaps in the narrative himself -- John Clute to the contrary, it's one of his best tricks, and always has been (as when he got a couple of characters on the road in Snow Crash, and then abruptly cut off with the bravura flourish, "after that it's just a chase scene.") Because whatever your taste, there's something in there you will like. If you wind up skimming or skipping the rest on a first reading, in the privacy of your own home -- well, the worst that happens is that you have to go back and read what happened in those chapters, except this time with a reason to care. It's safe. Jack Shaftoe has left the building.