Monthly Archives: January 2011

Whenever I stay at nice hotels for work

I feel guilty about being having my every whim met by the serving staff. Until about day 3, when I begin to feel entitled to it.

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Newspapers Should Recruit Non-Journalists

The New Yorker article about concussions in football has an interesting model of journalism:

Credit for the public’s increased awareness of these issues must go to the Times, and to its reporter Alan Schwarz […]

Schwarz was a career baseball writer, with a heavy interest in statistics, when, in December of 2006, he got a call from a friend of a friend named Chris Nowinski, a Harvard football player turned pro wrestler turned concussion activist. […]

The result, “Expert Ties Ex-Player’s Suicide to Brain Damage from Football,” wound up on the front page, on January 18, 2007. It described [a deceased football player’s] forty-four-year-old brain tissue as resembling that of an eighty-five-year-old man with Alzheimer’s. […]

Schwarz’s phone kept ringing. Several of the callers were the mothers and wives of football’s damaged men. They represented a readership far less likely to have come across, say, the annual men’s-magazine features about mangled knees, wayward fingers, and back braces, which had hardened almost into a sportswriting trope. In March, Schwarz published another front-pager: “Wives United by Husbands’ Post-N.F.L. Trauma.” Glenn Kramon, an assistant managing editor at the Times who oversees long-term, Pulitzer-worthy projects, read this piece and decided to intervene. Schwarz was given a full-time position, with no responsibilities other than to broaden his new beat’s focus beyond the N.F.L. to the more than four million amateur athletes who play organized football.

Schwarz was already a journalist, but he was given a fulltime position due to his contacts and enthusiasm for a subject outside of his typical realm of expertise.  You could easily extend this model to other fields and issues. It would be great if the Times seconded, say, a doctor to travel around the country and report on the implementation of the healthcare reform. Or convince an economist to take a sabbatical and report on the crisis in the euro.

One of the great things the internet has done is broaden our definition of journalism from something you are to something you do. Newspapers have a great opportunity to scoop up writers not based on their journalistic credentials, but on their talent, enthusiasm and ability to present complex topics to a broad readership.

The last 10 years have shown the weaknesses of the ‘he said, she said’ model of objective reporting. The press increasingly accepts that its mission is finding out the truth, rather than simply repeating what various interest groups say it is. As newspapers begin to compete on this, I wonder if they’ll find that the most reliable journalists are the accidental ones.


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‘The moral drive of fiction is faithfully to get it right through the contrivance of making it up’

I finished reading Matterhorn this weekend, and totally loved it. Like all war literature it’s written crisply and masculinely:

The wounded lay exposed along the east side of Matterhorn. The mortar shells walked with fiery feet among them, occasionally stumbling on one, leaving a meat-red footprint. Some of the wounded tried to crawl for cover. Others, unable to move, watched the sky in numb terror or simply shut their eyes, praying for a friend to reach them and drag them to safety. Their friends came.

Apparently it took the writer 30 years to distill his experience as a Marine in Vietnam into a written piece of work. According to this Guardian piece, he first tried telling his story as first-person nonfiction, and it came out unreadably bitter. He tried again as fiction and ended up with a 1,600 page manuscript. Matterhorn was first published by a small California nonprofit at 800 pages, then edited down to 600 by a mass-market publisher. That’s when it got noticed by James Fallows and came to my attention.

I think it’s really interesting that the author found it easier to tell his own story through fiction. The review notes:

The moral drive of fiction is faithfully to “get it right” through the contrivance of making it up. Ideally, the novelist must be Everyman to convey the essence of a situation in a universal language. This is a tall order when it comes to a subject that is both intrinsically unsharable (not everyone can be a GI) and innately unimaginable (few ex-soldiers want to talk or write about what they have seen and done).

This, I think, is the core of what the book achieves. To someone born a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, I don’t have a clear narrative of how the war started, was fought and finished. I know the pictures that won the Pulitzers, the movies that won the Oscars and the books I should have read in high school, but I’ve never really been able to work out what our dudes were really doing out in the jungle.

As it turns out, neither did a lot of those dudes. Matterhorn’s a great novel because it demonstrates that life as a member of a Vietnam combat unit is utterly futile, but that knowing so doesn’t free you to act any differently.

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The Freedom to Own a Gun vs The Freedom to Live in A Country Where No One is Armed

Democracy in America makes a good point about gun ownership and freedom:

Most Americans on the right believe that a crucial reason why individuals should own guns is to protect themselves from government tyranny, and that widespread individual possession of guns is one of the main reasons why American citizens enjoy freedom of conscience, religion, and the rest of our civil liberties.

[…]  And yet, while the United States has the most guns per person in the world, the number two country appears to be Yemen, not usually considered a bastion of democracy or civil rights. Individual ownership of firearms is much higher in Saudi Arabia and Russia than in Britain; it is much higher in Pakistan than in India. The idea that individuals could use their private firearms to mount a serious challenge to government hegemony is only plausible in very weak states. When individuals, militia or criminal gangs foolishly attempt to directly challenge police or the National Guard in the United States, they are quickly overpowered, killed or arrested.

[…] Americans and Britons have freedom of conscience and secure property rights because of the strength of American and British democratic civil culture and legal and governing institutions, not as a function of whether or not they are allowed to own private guns.

This reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech opening:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

We take things like physical security, rule of law, democratic institutions, a literate population and an engaged civil society so thoroughly for granted we forget that many of our political opinions depend on them entirely.  The majority of our arguments, including the proper role of government, are so entwined with the particulars of our present institutions that they can’t even really be called principles.

We argue so much about the kind of fish we want to be, we sometimes forget how we got underwater in the first place.

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Denmark Implements Foreigner Tax

Denmark is just going for it and charging people to be from other countries.

Starting Jan 1, applying for a student, work or residency permit costs, in technical terms, a shitload. A family reunification visa (i.e. you’re Danish, you marry someone who isn’t and you want the whole family to live in Denmark) costs nearly 6,000 DKK, more than $1,000. A permanent residence application, which I was planning on making this year, costs $620. This is over and above the $300 that it costs to take the language test.

There’s no way around it: These fees aim, in the most primitive way possible, to discourage foreigners from coming to Denmark. Setting the fees so high sends a signal that the state believes it does not benefit from immigration in any way, and it is up to immigrants to recoup their own ‘costs’ at every stage of the process.

As someone who pays more than $2,000 every month in income taxes to the state, plus all the sales taxes on the goods and services I purchase, I find the sheer counterproductiveness of this to be the most offensive. It discourages precisely the ‘right’ kinds of immigrants–the ones that are economically empowered to pick between various countries to work in–while imposing a nearly unpayable fee on the people who don’t have as free a choice.

This comes on the back of a number of other troubling developments. The laws regarding spouse visas, for example, were recently tightened to require everyone to speak Danish and pass the citizenship test. So if you’re Danish, you fall in love with a Brazilian, she can’t move here until she (somehow) learns to speak Danish and can pass an utterly arbitrary multiple choice exam.

There’s also been discussion of how foreigners should ‘earn’ the rights to healthcare and education granted to Danes by birth. This week the government is considering proposals to deny student grants to foreigners.

This stuff is all, of course, totally illegal under Denmark’s commitments under EU and international law, not to mention its own constitution. But there’s a huge constituency that wants to make foreigners justify every kroner spent on basic government services that benefit them, while ignoring the massive entitlements Danes enjoy without any obligations.

So fuck it, i’m no longer planning on applying for permanent residency. I could afford it if I wanted to, but I’m not going to continue to support a country that ignores my economic contributions while forcing me to justify my enjoyment of basic services. Congratulations, Denmark: One less immigrant.


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The Steam Engine is Just As Frivolous As An iPad

A Sullivan reader writes:

In the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. made goods that were essential to life.  In the second half, we made machines and software that made it easier and more efficient to produce those essential goods.  In both cases, the utility of the what we produced stretched far beyond the end-user.  However, over the past 20 years, much of our technology has been focused on facilitating our personal mirth via iPods, Facebook, widescreens, etc.  It may not be an accident that this shift in technology focus coincided with economic decline, because I do not believe these personal technologies bring as many positive externalities as do steam engines, cotton gins and inventory control systems.

Or put more succinctly, what comes after “Here we are now, entertain us”?

I have an ongoing joke with a friend that there is no item so mundane that there cannot be a branded version of it. For his birthday this week, I bought him a designer doorstop. As a symbol of an item that delivers utterly nothing in the way of ‘positive externalities’, you couldn’t do much better.

Frivolous household bullshit, though, is actually a pretty good indicator of development. At a very low level of income, people in the need of a doorstop will probably requisition something they already have, like an old can they can fill with rocks. At a slightly higher level of income, people will buy an object that’s built for purpose. They’ll go to the dollar store and buy a yellow wedge of plastic. It won’t be branded, but it will be labeled as a doorstop.

At a higher level of income, people buy a doorstop that reflects their personality in some way. They’re willing to payextra for a doorstop with a smiley face, in a color that matches their couch or, in my friend’s case, in the shape of a naked smurf. At the Saddam Hussein end of the scale, their doorstop would be made of solid gold, or wrapped in virgin hair or whatever.

The thing is, a solid gold doorstop is better for the economy than a can of rocks. Classes of professionals such as designers, marketers and salesmen have been paid with the markup for your personal doorstopping expression. Economic growth doesn’t distinguish between things you buy because you need them and things you buy because you want them.

There’s this idea that our age is uniquely frivolous, as if the steam engine and the power loom were used solely to pull the smooty classes out of poverty.

But ready-to-wear clothing was, at the time, basically frivolous household bullshit. Every advance in transportation technology was used for people to get where they wanted to go. Markups for convenience or personal expression led to massive expansions in employment in creative arts, tourism and so on. In 1850, purchasing a shirt in your favorite color would have seemed as frivolous as a designer doorstop.

So now we have the iPad, which is undeniably frivolous household bullshit. We also have highly developed sectors in IT development, logistics and e-commerce.

Economic growth doesn’t distinguish between things we need and things we want. The widespread prosperity delivered by the Industrial Revolution was driven by frivolous desires for cheap travel and clothes. Our continuing prosperity may be driven by on our desire for sexting, photo-tagging and FarmVille.

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The Tea Party in One Word

This is an instructive way of conducting a poll:

Asked to describe the Tea Party in a single word, respondents offer a range of descriptors. The most frequently used words are good, radical, crazy, OK and ridiculous. In April of last year, the top five words used were great, interesting, patriotic, good and ridiculous.

I like this! A wordcloud gives a much better picture of how the public feels about an issue or group than an ‘approve/disapprove’ pie.

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My Favorite One is ‘Cosmarchy’

The majority of these, incidentally, would make great band names.


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The Dangers of Politicization

In the wake of the Arizona shooting, Stephen Budiansky makes the analogy between guns and cars:

We have made a reasonable social decision, I think, that the benefits of the automobile outweigh its harm; yet that has not prevented us from honestly acknowledging its harm and the perfectly plain fact that how roads and cars are designed and regulated have an enormous impact on death and injury, completely apart from human volition. (Per capita auto-related fatalities are today half what they were in 1950; deaths per vehicle-mile have dropped sixfold, almost entirely through technological modifications.)

Yet only when it comes to guns do people attempt, usually furiously, to deny that anything but individual responsibilitymatters, as I mentioned the other day. If we are ever to have a real discussion on this topic, we need to begin with the simple admission that guns — like drugs, medicines, cars, power tools, ski helmets, and every other piece of technology in the universe — can be built and employed in ways that are inherently safer or ways that are less safe.

The real difference between gun control and auto safety, it seems to me, is that one is politicized and one is not. You can discuss auto safety in detail because you don’t have to spend your time debating the broader principles of how far the ‘freedom to drive’ extends.   Changes in policy are not seen as an assault on fundamental values or a slippery slope toward governmental tyranny (if you’re a gun-nut) or indiscriminate violence (if you’re a pacifism-nut).

If gun control wasn’t politicized to the degree that it is, it could be discussed and regulated at the detail rather than the principle level, with the full participation of gun owners, gun manufacturers and gun opponents. If you accept good faith on all sides, of course no one wants guns to be unnecessarily abundant or unsafe. If the NRA wasn’t a de facto political organization, I’m sure they would have great insight into the factors that increase and exacerbate gun violence, and how to rally gun owners behind preventing them.

A number of other issues suffer from the same politicization-imposed mass blindness, immigration being the most prominent. The details of immigration policies, including their actual economic and social impacts, can’t be discussed honestly or in detail because they’ve become signifiers for a larger debate. You want to relax immigration rules because you don’t care about falling domestic wages! You want to tighten immigration rules because you’re a racist!

But once you get into the details, of course no one is advocating for open borders. And of course there are impacts of immigration that need to be prevented and mitigated. But we’re so busy debating the principles we don’t share that we forget the details we do.

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‘After All These Years, All We Are Sure of is the Insufficiency of Explanation’

That’s a line from The Virgin Suicides. I can’t remember if it’s from the book or the movie or both, but I always think of it whenever a tragedy like last week’s in Arizona strikes in the United States.

The media and politicians have spent the week since the shooting of a Congresswoman and 19 others in Tuscon doing what they do best: Engaging in unfounded speculation disguised as informed debate.

Little beyond rumor is known about the shooter. Trolling his various internet profiles and interviewing his acquaintances hasn’t yielded many concrete conclusions beyond ‘wow, what a disturbed young man’. And we already pretty much knew that from his actions.

Much of the speculation has centered on the role of ‘the political climate’ in his act. It’s no secret that political polarization and overheated rhetoric are at a perceived apogee in the US, and people like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party have been blamed for encouraging the kind of ‘give me my country back!’ rhetoric that could inspire someone to take up arms.

The problem is, there’s no evidence linking the shooter with any of this rhetoric. It doesn’t appear he listened to talk radio, attended Tea Party rallies or engaged at all with radical political rhetoric of either stripe.

It’s probably true that political figures need to tone down their rhetoric. But this particular shooting doesn’t appear to be evidence for that.

Incidents like this highlight what is maybe the greatest weaknesses of the American media: There’s just too much space to fill. A tragedy of this kind has a lot of unknowns, and little new information comes out on a daily basis. Nonetheless, the TV stations have to fill up 24 hours of airtime, and the newspapers have to fill a chunk of their front page every day until public interest wanes. The only way to do this is to present nonstop speculation and rumor, which, like all gossip, impersonates fact the more it is repeated.

The days and months after the Columbine school shootings, for example, were papered with ‘debates’ on violent video games, neo-Nazis, goth culture, Marilyn Manson, and the ‘trenchcoat mafia’, all of which were blamed for the rampage.

Months and years later, though, none of these things appear to have exerted anysignificant influence on the shooters. The closest thing to an explanation we have is that the shooters were a psychopath and a manic-depressive, respectively.

Whenever a sudden tragedy strikes, I wish the media could simply release a statement saying ‘Understanding this week’s events requires a great deal of factual detail and analytical expertise. Until we can gather the information required to separate fact from fiction, we will not be publishing any information on the killer’s background, motives or influences. We will publish conclusions when they are warranted by the amount of available information.’

The media marketplace being what it is, however, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. The least we can do for now, though, is accept that information is likely to be incomplete for a long time to come. And explanation will always be insufficient.


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‘Cuz it’s hot inside. Isn’t that enough?’

For my money, this is the best song I heard all year:


Don’t worry about it, I wasn’t wild about it when I first heard it either.

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The Khmer Rouge and the Consequences of Ineptarian Regimes

Tolstoy said ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ I’m starting to think it’s the same with countries.

I read Elizabeth Becker’s ‘When The War Was Over’ when I was in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap last week.

Everyone knows the Khmer Rouge was one of the shittiest regimes of the 20th century. But it wasn’t just shitty like it was murderous and cruel. It was also shitty at *being a dictatorship*.

I mean, if you were designing an authoritarian regime from scratch, you would do everything differently from what they did.

First of all, the Khmer Rouge never released any propaganda. It was two years after they came to power than Pol Pot even announced his existence. The world, and the Cambodian population, didn’t even know it was a communist regime until the year before it crumbled in on itself.

Second, from its inception until its end, the regime prioritized political purity over all other considerations.

Its ostensible goal was kick-starting Cambodia into an industrial revolution in just a few years. Yet it assassinated all the engineers, economists and intellectuals that could have helped it achieve that goal.

It was more important to them that you were a ‘true’ peasant and revolutionary than that you knew what you were doing.

So they assigned untrained farmers to do things like build dams and construct large-scale irrigation systems. All of which, duh, failed as soon as it rained.

Third, they believed their own insane accusations.

In the face of this hurtling disaster, the regime blamed deliberate sabotage, not its own ill-advised policies. So they tortured their generals until they ‘confessed’ to being paid by the CIA or the Vietnamese to destroy rice crops.

The regime couldn’t shine a light on itself, since it would reveal all the cracks.

Overall, the Khmer Rouge is maybe the purest 20th century example of what happens when you rule through fear and violence alone.

Hitler, Mao and Stalin, when their regimes began, had significant public support. The Khmer Rouge, on the other hand, wasn’t even known to the population, much less supported.

In 1975, as their troops marched into Phnom Penh, the party consisted of only 100,000 people, aiming to control a population of 7 million.

It failed not because of popular resistance but because its leadership was petrified of its fragility being revealed.

It took the regime four years to wipe out a century of development and almost a quarter of the population. Thirty years later, it turns out annihilation is the only thing it was ever any good at.

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The Tourist Dilemma

The only universal trait of the travellers you meet in Southeast Asia is that they talk shit on all the other travellers.

‘Don’t go to Phuket, it’s full of tourists,’ a vacationing Italian street performer told me in a guesthouse lounge yesterday, as he smoked a self-rolled cigarette with one hand and refreshed Facebook with the other. ‘All the beaches in Thailand are ruined by all the resorts.’

He went on to recommend a dive course he took on Koh Samui, and proceeded to complain that there’s nothing to do in Cambodia, and that his 400 kilometer bus ride from Bangkok took 12 hours.

I’ve noticed that most conversations with travellers go like this. First you lament the abundance of tourists, then you lament the lack of tourist-centered amenities. I hate Place X because it has too many people like me. I hate Place Y because they don’t have enough services and infrastructure for people like me.

Western culture has decided that the only ‘right’ way to be a tourist is to engage with the local culture. Eat only local food, sleep at a guesthouse or homestay, make an effort to learn the language, take the local form of transportation.

These efforts may be rewarding on their own merits, but if you’re only in a country for a short period of time, they are utterly cosmetic. I can learn how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Thai and Khmer, but in a week I’m not going to be able to say much more than that. Ultimately, I have to rely on the locals to speak English.

Learning the history and culture of a place is valuable in itself, but I’m not convinced that travelling there is the best, or even a particularly good, way to do this. Aside from the language barrier, people have remarkably incomplete and biased knowledge about their own countries. If you’re starting from zero, you’ll get a better primer of a country’s history and culture from Wikipedia than from simply going there and hoping for osmosis.

And that’s beside the problem that there are a lot of countries in the world. You’re not able to have even basic knowledge of more than a handful of them.

I think it’s perfectly legitimate to visit, say, the pyramids without having a deep interest in or knowledge of contemporary Egyptian society. If people want to climb Mount Fuji without speaking a word of Japanese, so be it. Both the traveller and the host country take something away from it regardless.

What bugs me about backpacker culture is that seems somewhat disingenuous about this. Backpackers participate just as meagrely in the local culture as the resort-goers. Sitting in a wifi cafe in Bangkok is just as un-assimilating as sitting in a five-star resort on Phuket.

And that’s totally fine. People who like wifi cafes should travel in places that have them, just like people who like beaches and jet-skiing should seek those out when they travel. It’s enjoyable for you, it feeds the local economy, everybody’s happy.

I don’t mean to pick on the Italian dude I met yesterday. I just think the ease, speed and low cost of modern travel require an update to the way we think about and talk about tourism.

We should accept that deep engagement with a culture in which one spends a short amount of time is not possible. All we can do when we travel is have fun, be respectful and let everyone else travel however they want.


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Some Countries Are More Fascinating Than Others

I’d hereby like to nominate Thailand as the Least Interesting Country On Earth.

Maybe it’s only because I went there right after Taiwan, which is so dense with interestingness that it exhibits a gravitational pull, but I seriously cannot find one period or event in Thai history to give a shit about.

I spent last week in Chiang Mai visiting some friends who have been living there for a year. I figured once we started talking about the country’s history and culture, I’d find a thread to pull.

No fucking luck.

Thailand’s history so standard it reads like the script to a CBS pilot. People arrive, set up communities, gradually develop to modernity. It never had an empiric capital, a la Rome or Angkor Wat, or any starbursting cultural talents like Eratosthenes or Shakespeare.

Thailand was never colonized, so there’s no interesting anecdotes about subjugation, resistance and revolution. They’ve never had a decent dictator, a Mao or a Tito or a Pinochet to illuminate some of the sweaty crannies of human depravity. Thailand wasn’t a significant actor in any of the major wars of the 20th century.

Even now, it’s not all that interesting. It’s one of the richer countries in the region, but it’s not developing especially quickly or pioneering its own growth model. Its government is corrupt, but not severely enough to be memorable. The red-shirt/yellow-shirt stuff should be interesting, but appears to have yielded precisely two good anecdotes, nothing at the philosophical or structural level.

It’s not that I’m anti-Thailand. It’s beautiful and friendly, the food is great and I have never had a more relaxing time. This week was a reminder that most of the things we find interesting are great and terrible. Thais are lucky they’ve had less of that to live through than many of their neighbors.

Usually when I leave a country where I’ve spent a week, my head is full of inspirations, books and Wikipedia articles to follow up on. This time, as the plane rose into the sky, the only thing I thought of was ‘I wonder what they put in red curry paste.’


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Taiwan II: The Scenery


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