Friday, May 29, 2009

Which Island Would You Chose?

Novaseeker discusses the "haves" and "have-nots":

Christos noted, in the quote I made in my earlier post today, that the current system of dating and mating feels like untrammeled capitalism, whereby a large-ish class of “have nots” (sexually deprived men) are justifiably angry at the class of “haves” (women and the men who are in high sexual demand). He further states the following, which I think is quite telling as to the source of this anger:

It is natural to be angry with this, as much as it is natural to be angry when rich people exploit poor people. It is the same. Love and marriage is a big biological and sentimental need for most, like food. Why expect someone to be angry when he is hungry, but not when he is unloved and ignored? When someone tells you, "you are just an angry losser who can't get laid", it is the same like saying to a poor man in Africa who accuses capitalism "you are just an angry poor man who doesn't have to eat".

The cognitive dissonance between the Left's simultaneous embrace of a collectivist economic order on the one hand and an anarchical sexual order on the other has been much remarked on, especially be me. But I wanted to reflect on two different movie treatments of the role female companionship plays in a man's hierarchy of needs.

Consider Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Here is a man stranded on a deserted island, scratching out survival for five years. Hanks risks his life to escape this island, and indeed nearly does.

In contrast, consider Chris Atkins in Blue Lagoon. Again, a young man scratches out survival on a tropical island. Yet in contrast to Hanks, island life for Atkins isn't merely survival, but happiness. So much so that, seeing the possibility of rescue, Atkins turns his back on it.

What makes the difference between mere survival and happiness?

Which man among you would choose differently? Why would any man even consider turning his back on the life Atkins had to participate in our dreary consumerist society of cutthroat sexual competition?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Demographic Redux

Rod Dreher speaks favorably of David Goldman's article on America's demographic decline. While Goldman calls the problem exactly right, I am somewhat less sanguine about either the efficacy or the political feasibility of his one innovative idea.

Shift part of the burden of social insurance to the childless. For most taxpayers, social-insurance deductions are almost as great a burden as income tax. Families that bring up children contribute to the future tax base; families that do not get a free ride. The base rate for social security and Medicare deductions should rise, with a significant exemption for families with children, so that a disproportionate share of the burden falls on the childless.

The obvious problem is that this impedes family formation. People don't get married to get rich. They get married because they are rich. Yes, this is an artifact of female economic emancipation. But since feminism isn't going away, we have to understand that heavy taxes on single men mean that they will have the harder time reaching a financial status where they become viable marriage partners.

Dreher favorably quotes Phillip Longman in this vein:

Other sectors of society have effectively appropriated for themselves much of the value in human capital created by families, contributing to the strain on parents and a decline in overall fertility rates. Public policy and current law stacks the odds against those who choose to raise children. We need to make major adjustments to the social contract in order to allow parents to retain more of the return that comes to society through their investment in children. Because having and raising children is a public good, the next social contact should focus on supporting parents and children as early in life as possible.

Having and raising productive children is a public good. And productive children tend to be born to productive parents. The only method politically available for providing support to productive parents is a tax deduction: it only works for those earning enough money to pay taxes, and with progressive income taxes, the more you earn, the more the deduction is worth to you.

But we are already doing this. Otherwise, it's well nigh fanciful to imagine that our low-human-capital population breeding dysgencially can be much deterred from their behavior with politically available means. Even if I did favor cutting the social safety net, this is unlikely to be successful politically, and unlikely to work: plenty of starving countries make lots of babies. And, say, paying welfare recipients to accept sterilization is the kind of thing that only gets traction at Half Sigma.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I saw the movie Taken on DVD. It's an reasonably good though highly derivative film with uneven execution.

First the good. Thematically, the film is embarrassingly perfect. If Dick Cheney, Steve Sailer and Roissy were to team up to make a movie, this would be the movie they would make.

  • Liam Neeson plays Bryan, a retired CIA operative in the James Bond mold. He's living in LA to be close to his seventeen-year-old daughter, Kim. Kim is living with his ex-wife Lenore, who bitches at him for the first 15 minutes of the movie. Lenore had left him for a wealthy businessman who can afford to do things like buy her a horse for her birthday.

  • Kim wants to travel to Paris with her friend Amanda. Lenore encourages them while Bryan objects: the world is a dangerous place for 17-year-olds to go running around unaccompanied. Bitchiness ensues. Bryan relents on the condition that he receive a complete itinerary, addresses, phone numbers, and regular phone calls. He doesn't: seeing them off at the airport, Bryan learns for the first time that Kim's and Amanda's plans are to follow U2 on a European tour. "All the kids are doing it," says Lenore.

  • In Paris, the girls share a taxi from the airport with a charming young man who makes plans to meet them later. Amanda tells Kim that she plans on sleeping with him. (In this context, we learn that Kim is still a virgin.) Amanda has poor taste: the young man turns out to be a scout for Albanian mafiosi, who kidnaps foreign women traveling alone and forces them into prostitution.

  • Kim is on the phone with her father when the Albanians arrive; he thus obtains a description of the kidnappers. Bryan promptly flies to Paris to track down his daughter. Mayhem and violence ensue. (The French police turn out to be on the take.) Bryan captures an Albanian gangster who tells him, after being properly "motivated", that Kim, as a virgin, will be auctioned off to a rich Arab sheik. Amanda, in contrast, is drugged and raped to death.

Let's review. Bitchy, faithless ex-wife: check. Teen slut receives her comeuppance: check. Immigrant scum: check. Torture: check. Feckless Frenchmen: check. Like I said, this is embarrassingly perfect. Even I would have thrown liberals a bone somewhere.

Now the bad. I very nearly abandoned the movie during the early scenes. The frenetic pacing was inappropriate for Bryan's supposedly peaceful retirement. The dialog the screenwriters use to communicate the backstory is implausible. Bryan works a security detail for a pop diva, but this doesn't seem authentic even by the standards of The Bodyguard, let alone In the Line of Fire.

The movie improves dramatically after the kidnapping, but even here there are problems. As several critics have remarked, the film owes much of its pacing and action scene style to the Bourne films. This wouldn't be a bad thing, necessarily. The problem is that at 57, Neeson has visible difficulty carrying this off. Age matters (trust me on this), and what Matt Daemon can do in his 30s is not appropriate for a man in his 50s. Neeson would have been better served by the style of, say, Man on Fire, in which Denzel Washington plays a gravely injured ex-CIA agent who uses careful planning instead of raw physical prowess to rescue the girl. (The movies are also thematically similar, which would have invited unfavorable comparisons.)

Seventeen-year-old Kim is played by 26-year-old Maggie Grace. Grace overcompensates for this miscasting by aping the awkwardness of a young teen that hasn't quite grown into her own body; unfortunately, the effect makes her come across as developmentally disabled. This was disappointing. If the filmmakers wanted to highlight Kim's youth and innocence, they would have been better served by an actress that was actually young and innocent.

But these are small quibbles. I would still recommend the movie, but be prepared to be annoyed for the first 15 minutes or so.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Megan writes about Edmund Andrews' financial difficulties:

Middle class people in Washington DC do not expect to support a wife, several children, and the visits of several more, on $3500 a month--which they didn't get, because her ex-husband repeatedly failed to pay up. That is not money that lets you live at any income level at all in an acceptable school district. The tiny, run down two bedroom in Silver Spring that my sister and I shared when I first moved to DC was $1500 a month. I don't think you could cram four or five people of varying ages and sexes into that living space--not and maintain what the middle class anywhere in the country thinks of as a decent minimum.

My first job out of college, in the middle of the 1991 recession, paid about $20K per year. After taxes, this came to $1500 per month. After the rent on a one-bedroom apartment, the monthly payment on a sports car, and insurance on said sports car, I had $585 left. Food, clothing, utilities, and entertainment all came out of that $585 per month. This was a just-breaking-even budget . . . until I took up flying. By the time I earned a pilot's license, I had $4K in credit card debt.

Fortunately, I didn't lose my job. My income increased, and I eventually put away the flying until my cash flow could support it.

In hindsight, though, it is pretty obvious that I could not have afforded to get married at age 25 as I had planned, even had the opportunity presented itself. My hypothetical wife would have certainly had to work, which would have undermined my whole claim to beta-providerhood. (I certainly could not have indulged the spending habits of the woman I actually married.) Our situation would have left no margin for error -- and no margin for children, either. In hindsight, I would have to admit that I got married at the earliest (age 29) I could actually afford something close to a middle class family life.

But hindsight does little to soothe the lingering sting from having my marriage ambitions frustrated. At the time, I was doing relatively well compared to most of my friends. I was professionally employed, after all, which in the early '90s was saying something. And, in fact, some of my peers scored wives anyway; obviously, it wasn't just, or even, about money.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

I saw Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist on DVD last weekend. Frankly, it will be hard to tease anything meaninful out of so transparently frivolous a movie, but I'll give it a go.

  • I'll never, ever, chew gum again.

  • Kat Dennings' "Norah" is annoying and unpleasant. Sufficiently so, in fact, to actually be a high school girl. As such, she is the only thing remotely plausible about the entire movie.

  • Michael Cera is to the 'noughties what Anthony Michael Hall was to the eighties: the nerd who makes good. But the nature of the archetype requires these actors to spend their movies, as in Superbad and Juno in Cera's case, or Sixteen Candles in Hall's, exerting themselves in heroic effort to impress the girl. What neither of them is, however, is a plausible leading man in the traditional sense. Nick & Norah asks us to believe a backstory in which Cera's "Nick" holds down Alexis Dziena's "Tris" as a girlfriend for six months prior to the movie's beginnings. It further asks us to believe that Norah and Tris would spend the entire movie competing with each other to be with him. Neither Cera's performance nor the storyline itself gives us any reason why this should be so.

  • Tris, by the way, is more of movieland's traditional fantasy of what high school girls are like. Which is to say, more like what Hollywood screenwriters wish girls had been like when they were in high school.

  • The movie asks us to believe that Norah has already fallen in love with Nick, not because of his actual music (Nick plays bass in a band, which would explain his outsized SMV were the band not so loserish), but because of his -- wait for it -- mixes. Now, I've done mixes myself, but it never crossed my mind that I was engaging in a form of original art. And considering that Norah's father is supposed to be a prominent recording studio honcho, I would think that Norah would not be particularly impressed by his ability to copy other people's music.

  • The movie asks us to believe that high school students (all the central characters appear to be graduating seniors) can easily get served in NYC bars. Now, Mrs. Φ got served in NYC bars as a college student in the eighties. But she was extremely skeptical that they would treat their liquor licenses quite so cavalierly.

  • Um . . . where are the parents? I mean, I know these kids are 18-ish, but do the white moms and dads of northern New Jersey (where all these kids are from, apparently) really not worry when their pride-and-joys go tearing around Manhattan on an all-night drunken orgy? Are high school girls -- not just average girls, but upper middle class prep school girls -- really the unapologetic sluts that this movie makes them out to be? Yet in this movie, the parents are magically airbrushed away. I'm so glad we homeschool. The longer I can shield my daughters from this world, the better off they'll be.

  • The movie asks us to believe that Nick owns and drives a Yugo, that Serbian econo-deathtrap from the early 1980s. I was immediately skeptical: I was once a passenger in a Yugo some 15 years ago, and the experience was truly frightening even then. But today? To get a measure of a Yugo's likely road worthiness, I did a search them on Want to guess how many are presently for sale nationwide?

  • The movie asks us to believe that Nick can get curbside parking in front of the hottest nightspots in Manhattan. ("Hottest" as in, they've got people queueing outside the velvet rope.) Personally, I can't get curbside parking at my suburban mall out here in flyover country.

  • One more thing. Norah and Tal, her boyfriend de jure, are not only Jewish, but stereotypically New York Jewish. The movie shows this in a negative light. Which surprised me, not because New York Jews aren't not-very-nice (I have no idea whether or not this is true), but that a mainstream movie would say this out loud. It means either one of two things: either Jews are losing control of the media, or Jews are sufficiently confident of their social power that they no longer feel a need to clean up for the larger public. The screenplay was written by an Italian, but the underlying novel was written by Jews. So I have no idea what to think.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Clive James on Feminism and Democracy

For BBC News:

Democracy is the best chance for women. Or if that sounds too naive, too pro-western perhaps, then let's put it this way. The absence of democracy is seldom good news for women. Or, to get down to bedrock, if women can't vote for women, then they haven't got many weapons to fight with when they seek justice.

My own view, which I'm ready to hear contested, is that this is the main reason why some feminists in the west have been so slow to get behind those women in the world's all too numerous tyrannies who have to risk their lives to say anything.

It's just too clear a proof that men have a natural advantage when it comes to the application of violence. When you say that women have little chance against men if it comes to a physical battle, you are conceding that there really might be an intractable difference between the genders after all.

Ideological feminists in the West were for a long time reluctant to concede this, because they preferred to believe that there was no real difference, and that all female handicaps were imposed by social stereotyping that could be reversed by argument. But this belief was really possible only in a society where the powers of argument had a preponderance over the powers of violence.

And since many western feminists are still convinced that the social stereotyping of the West is the product of fundamental flaws within liberal democracy itself, they have a tendency to believe that undemocratic societies are somehow valuable in the opposition they offer to the free countries which the feminists are so keen to characterise as not free enough.

I have to pick my words carefully here, because this is the touchiest theme I have ever tackled in these broadcasts, but I do think it's high time to say that if feminist ideologists find liberal democracy unfriendly, they might consider that the absence of liberal democracy is a lot less friendly still.

But isn't this the story of the Left generally? At its moment of triumph, Western Liberalism embraced an ideology of suicide: multiculturalism. Its victory over America hadn't come soon enough, it reasoned, so we lost the moral authority not only to speak against evil abroad -- indeed, only America itself is truly evil -- but even to defend ourselves against enemies far more socially "backward" than we ourselves had ever been.

Feminism, for its own tactical reasons, chose to join this coalition-of-the-damned. I predict that path will end badly for them.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bleg: Find Φ's Calculator

I lost my calculator. It's an HP-15C, a gift from my father back in 1984. It has my last name and social security number engraved on the front in the upper right corner.

You bit heads will know what a big deal this is. The HP-15C is long out of production. It cost my father around $150 25 years ago, but it now sells on ebay for over twice that amount.

Owning an HP-15C was a big deal in high school, helping me to solidify my position as King of the Geeks. I lost count of the number of times I had the following conversation:

Φ Friend: "Can I borrow your calculator?"

Φ: "Sure."


Φ Friend: "Where's the $%*! equal sign?"

Sometimes the frustrated borrower would sit through an explanation of RPN notation, but usually, they would go find someone with a TI.

In college, an HP-15C wasn't quite the big deal. The HP-41, with its detachable modules, and the HP-48 graphing caluclators were not uncommon. But I stuck with the HP-15C. The calculator took me through my entire undergraduate engineering curriculum. It proved most useful in circuits, where we were expected to solve 8x8 complex matrices in the course of an hour's exam. Complex matrices weren't native to the HP-15C, but the Advanced Functions Handbook gave the programming instructions that would find the solution.

(Question: Has anybody else noticed that mathematicians use TIs while engineers prefer HPs? Why is that?)

Once out of undergrad, most of my mathematics work involved the use of MATLAB. So the HP-15C found itself underemployed. But I used it enough that it found it's way to my desk at work, then back home, then back to work again. Usually, this wasn't especially deliberate. It just got tossed in the laptop case with the other stuff.

So it took me a while to notice it was missing. Something minor would come up, and I would look around for it at home. "It must be at work," I'd think. Sometime later, I would look around for it at work and think, "it must be at home." Or I wouldn't have my laptop case with me and assume that it was there.

But finally its absence became sufficiently noticeable that I made a comprehensive search. No luck. Where had it gone?

If it had fallen out of my case during my normal routine, I'd likely come across it again. If someone found it in the parking lot, he would turn it in to the school. I suppose someone could have taken it off my desk -- I'm in a cube farm, and my desk isn't locked -- but my fellow students are trustworthy, and the custodial service people would be unlikely to know its value.

Could it have been lost on my trip to Orlando? I called the rental car agency and hotel; they didn't have it. I called the airports, but they give stuff away after 30 days, and I didn't realize how lost it was until it was too late. I called the airline; also no luck.

In a fit of remorse, I bought another calculator last week. It's an HP-35S. I bought it from a 3rd party Amazon vendor; Amazon gave me a $30 dollar rebate for signing up for one of their credit cards, so my out-of-pocket cost was only $22. I chose the HP-35S because it appears to be the most powerful calculator permitted for use on the FE exam, which I have the ambition to take some day. It does almost everything the 15C does, like statistics, numerical integration, and equation solving. It's complex number functionality is actually superior: it displays a number's real and imaginary parts simultaneously, whereas the 15C would only show one at a time. It also allows operations in polar format; while the 15C would do a polar conversion, all operations had to be in rectangular format. The calculator also does vector operations, but this feature doesn't seem very powerful.

It's biggest shortcoming is: no matrix operations. But it will solve 3x3 linear equations; I'm not sure yet if these equations can have complex coefficients.

But I still miss my HP-15C. The new calculator has that plasticy made-in-China feel to it. And I really liked the wide keyboard layout rather than the long layout, because I can reach all the keys with my thumbs without moving my hands. I'm not sure why HP would abandon that format, except that it's slightly less compatible with a two-line display.

Bottom line: please keep an eye out. If anybody finds an HP-15C that matches my description, please post a comment.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mental Deletions

Morality aside, this post by Dusk in Autumn sounds spot on.

Which brought to mind the following story: in my previous incarnation as an engineering instructor, I would occasionally encounter my former students just walking around campus. Usually we would exchange a brief greeting; occasionally we would share a few sentences about mundane topics. But one student in particular stood out. She was a varsity cheerleader (and all that this implies) with whom I was above-average close by sole virtue of her having sought out special assistance on the course material during my office hours. I ran into her a number of times afterwards walking around campus. She was always a pleasure to talk to, for reasons of her bubbly personality (cheerleader, remember) and that she was, or acted, genuinely happy to have a conversation with me.

I hated that. I hated that I might be enjoying our interaction for inappropriate reasons. I hated the gnawing fear that I might make an idiot of myself for appearing to enjoy the interaction for inappropriate reasons. And I especially feared situations like the one I am about to relate.

I had run into her on the stairwell early in the semester, right after the Christmas holiday. Brief pleasantries, how was your vacation, where did you go, etc., etc. I'm in the middle of describing our trip to Florida when she asked:

Did you take your wife?

I froze for a second before stammering, "Um . . . yes, yes I did." My mind raced. I had taken my wife. Of course I would take my family on Christmas vacation. Wouldn't that be obvious? But what had I said to make her think the question necessary? I tried in vain to remember which person I had spoken in. Did I say "I went to Florida" instead of "we went to Florida? Had I unconsciously deleted my family while talking to a young woman a little over half my age? How pathetic is that!

But I was also pissed at the possibility that this girl had called me out on that deletion. What had I done to deserve that? I hadn't crowded or "stalked" her. I hadn't even initiated this particular encounter. "If you don't want to talk to me," I thought, "don't frickin' make conversation with me! Did you think I was flirting with you? Well, screw you: I don't need this!"

At this point in my life, I wonder if it's better if young women just remain aloof like they always have.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Toby Young on Marriage

From How to Lose Friends and Alienate People:

Up until this point I'd been a confirmed bachelor. I'd briefly considered asking Syrie to marry me but had decided against it on the grounds that I'd be sacrificing far too much. I'd asked myself the following question: Am I ready to give up the possibility of having hot, monkey sex with a string of drop dead killer bimbos in order to settle down and get married? Obviously, the answer was no.

Needless to say, it's only men with girlfriends who have this rose-tinted view of single life. For some reason, we all imagine that if only we weren't shackled to the old ball and chain we'd be living the life of Hugh Hefner. Because Hef managed to pull it off, every sad sack with a dressing gown thinks that living in a mansion in Beverly Hills with a harem of topless lovelies is, at some level, an option. Consequently, when we're weighing up the pros and cons of getting married we never think of the alternative as a solitary, miserable existence punctuated by Stouffer's Chicken A La King and Jenna Jameson videos. Rather, it's always an Austin Powers fantasy in which we're a finger-clicking lothario surrounded by a bevy of min-skirted blondes.

After a tour of duty in Manhattan, all my illusions about the joys of being single had gone. There's something immature and a little sad about wanting to sleep with a different woman every night, particularly if you've only had about five one night stands in your life. In your mid-thirties, chasing sixteen-year-old Swedish schoolgirls is undignified, not to mention illegal in the United States.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Toby Young on Meritocracy

From How to Lose Friends and Alienate People:

I remember one occasion, not long after I arrived [at Vanity Fair] when [coworker] Aimee Bell showed me a "hilarious" spoof that purported to be the diary of a grubbing freelance hack named "Josh Freelantzovitz." Did I think it would make a good column in the "Vanities" section? I read it through and told her I didn't think it would. It was unseemly, I argued, to poke fun at people who were struggling to obtain the professional status that Vanity Fair's contributors had achieved. Satire was supposed to be a weapon with which the disenfranchised attacked the Establishment, not the other way round. The author of this piece, I said, holding up the offending article, is a snob, wanting to kick away the ladder that he himself has climbed so no one else can follow.

After I'd delivered this little sermon, Aimee patiently explained that Josh Freelantzovitz was in fact her husband, David Kamp, a staff writer on GQ. Needless to say, "The Diary of Josh Freelantzovitz" soon became a regular column in "Vanities".

. . . .

The various setbacks I suffered at the end of 1997 brought home to me the extent to which New Yorkers judge you according to how well or badly you're doing. When I'd first arrived and people had asked me what I did at parties, a noticeable change would come over them when I said I worked at Vanity Fair. They'd stop looking over my shoulder for a second and give me the once over. Occasionally, they'd even talk to me. Evidently, I was someone worth knowing. However, after I was taken off the masthead I vanished from the radar screen. Being neither rich, successful, good looking, nor well connected, I wasn't worth bothering with. No sooner had the words "I'm just a freelance hack" come out of my mouth than the person I was talking to was hastily backing away, wondering how they could politely ask for their business card back. It was a sobering experience. I'd assumed that people liked me for who I was, not what I did, but in Manhattan you are what you do.

Why do New Yorkers attach such importance to the state of your career? To a certain extent, they define each other according to the usual demographic categories -- gender, ethnic origin, religious background, etc. -- but these things pale into insignificance beside the jobs they do. It's as if there are no alternative sources of identity. In particular, they don't define people according to what class they belong to. New Yorkers are more interested in where you're going that where you're from. They make no bones about this. If you're in a position to help them, they're more than happy to help you, inviting you to parties, introducing you to their friends, plugging you into their networks. But if you have nothing to offer in exchange you might as well not exist.

For Tocqueville, the absence of class distinctions was one of the chief differences between Britain and America and while he generally approved of this he worried that it could lead to excessive significance being attached to things like professional status:

In democracies, where citizens never differ much from one another and naturally find themselves so close that at each instant all can come to be intermingled in a common mass, a multitude of artificial and arbitrary classifications are created, with the aid of which each seeks to set himself apart, out of fear of being carried away into the crowd despite himself.

Of course, in the eyes of most New Yorkers this is a small price to pay for living in a classless society. In contemporary America, according to the journalist and author Nicholas Lemann, meritocracy occupies the status of a "sacred first principle" and Manhattan is frequently held up as a shining example of it. Indeed, this accounts for why New Yorkers judge people according to how well or badly they're doing. Unlike in Britain, where the class system impedes social mobility, there's nothing to prevent the hardworking from rising to the top or the indolent from falling to the bottom. This belief is particularly strongly held by Manhattan's most successful residents since it implies that they've got where they are purely on their own merits. They even refer to themselves as meritocrats." In their eyes, just as those who are doing well deserve to be praised, those who are doing badly only have themselves to blame.

I've always been rather ambivalent about meritocracy -- and not just because I'm a beneficiary of England's class system. During my spell in New York I enjoyed shocking people by telling them that the word "meritocracy" had originally been coined for the purposes of damnation rather than praise. They would always dispute this until I played my trump card: my father, Michael Young, invented it.

He coined it to describe a nightmarish society of the future in his 1958 bestseller The Rise of the Meritocracy. In my father's view, equality of opportunity is a snare and a delusion since it makes it less likely that equality of outcome, the"hard" form of equality he believed in, will ever come about. If everyone starts out on a level playing field then the resulting distribution of wealth, however unequal, will be regarded as legitimate. According to him, a meritocratic society is no better than an aristocratic one since it is just as hierarchical. Indeed, it is considerably worse since the richest segment of the population don't suffer from any feelings of guilt. Unlike those who have inherited their wealth, they think their good fortune is thoroughly deserved. In my father's book, a work of fiction that purports to be a Ph.D. thesis written by a sociology student in 2030, the absence of noblesse oblige in the meritocratic society of the future eventually results in a bloody revolution in which the workers overthrow their new masters.

In contemporary America, those who've reached the top are every bit as pleased with themselves as the doomed ruling class in The Rise of the Meritocracy. Their self-satisfaction is exhibited in all sorts of ways. For instance, the residents of New York, Washington and Los Angeles refer to the rest of the country as "the fly-over states" and describe themselves as belonging to John Adams's "natural aristocracy." They believe they've made it because they've been blessed with an abundance of talent and think of those poor creatures who live outside the trifecta as belonging to an inferior species. At Vanity Fair, my colleagues frequently made fun of those who live in the fly-over states, claiming that they age faster, become balder sooner and are more likely to succumb to cancer.

One sure sign that America's plutocrats don't suffer from any feelings of guilt about their wealth is that they're completely shameless about flaunting it. You only have to visit the Hamptons to witness bourgeois triumphalism at is most naked. As you watch a succession of millionaires glide past in their Porche 911 convertibles, each chariot containing a more beautiful blonde than the last, you get the impression that it's only a matter of time before these Masters of the Universe tattoo their net worths on their foreheads. According to Tom Wolfe, the Hamptons exists primarily to provide New Yorkers with an opportunity for this kind of display. "The first great advantage of summering in the Hamptons," he confided to a journalist from The Sunday Telegraph, "is simply to tell everyone else in the office that you will be there and not here."

Before moving to Manhattan I'd always been rather suspicious of the tendency of Britain's top dogs to play down their privileged status. Why should modesty and understatement by synonymous with good taste? My view -- not particularly original -- was that this utilitarian style had originally been developed by the British aristocracy as a way of minimizing the resentment caused by their prosperity. At a time when power was restricted to members of the lucky sperm club, the aristocracy had prudently adopted a set of manners that prohibited the flaunting of their good fortune. It was one of several cunning ploys they came up with to avoid the fate that had met their cousins across the Channel. Of course, the British aristocracy's power has long since dwindled, but their social code has proved remarkably resilient, influencing the behavior of their bourgeois successors.

However, now that I'd seen the alternative -- a ruling class that regarded its wealth as completely legitimate -- I began to think again. Whatever its historical origins, wasn't self-effacement more attractive that self-advertisement? It certainly seemed that way to me at the end of 1997.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Et tu, Homer?

You knew this post was coming.

The Simpsons took on immigration in Sunday's episode. When the barley fields of nearby Ogdenville become contaminated, the town's Swedish Lutherans, newly impoverished, flee to Springfield to "do the jobs Springfielders won't."

Let's shoot some fish in a barrel:

  • The personal service jobs performed by the Ogdenvillians were ones for which there had been zero market before their arrival. So it follows that their presence creates no unemployment. How the Springfielders suddenly become rich enough to afford to pay these Ogdenvillians grocery money, let alone a living wage, is not explained.

  • The Ogdenvillians generate no negative externalities. Being Swedish Lutherans, they commit no crimes, which make them completely irrelevant to our actual minority population.

  • Magically, Springfield Elementary manages to double its student body without overcrowding.

  • Magically, the population of Springfield manages to double without causing a spike in housing prices, a subprime fueled construction bubble, and a collapse of the banking system. Actually, the show doesn't even address where the newcomers are expected to live.

  • The hospital ER does overcrowd, but that's okay: Marge knows how to reset Bart's dislocated shoulder at home. Somehow, the Ogdenvillians pay for their medical care, since the hospital doesn't go bankrupt providing it for free.

  • When the town decides to "close the border" with Ogdenville, Chief Wiggum proves as effective at policing it as he is at policing everything else. So the Springfielders form a volunteer border patrol that goes on an alcohol-fueled shooting spree. The show explicitly compares this group to -- you guessed it -- Klansmen and Nazis.

As you can see, the episode completely takes a dive on the economics of immigration. It invents some lamely contrived social friction for which the Ogdenvillians are portrayed as completely innocent. And the Springfielders are complete boobs for resisting (eventually) the newcomers.

But let's ignore this long list of lies about immigration into the U.S. and consider the view of citizenship taken by the Simpsons' creators. They would have us believe that third world immigration is no different than "immigration" from the neighboring town. But it is different. The Ogdenvillians and Springfielders are all citizens of the United States. They are bound by a common language, culture, ethnicity, and vision of what our common space should look like. They are, in short, one nation, mutually bound by that unity to support one another, even when that means the kind of disruption that would really result from the kind of circumstances that this episode creates.

But immigrants from the third world are not fellow citizens. They are peoples with their own cultures and their own governments, rightly charged with executing their own racial and cultural destiny. I wish them well, but I see no need to share my country with them.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The End of Sunshine

From the Washington Times:

Pyongyang on Friday unilaterally nullified all agreements that it has signed with Seoul over the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Zone in North Korea, a move that was immediately rejected by the South.

In a statement released by state-run media, North Korea said it was redrawing all bilateral contracts related to wages, tax and land use. If they do not accept the new conditions, South Korean firms "are free to leave Kaesong," the statement said

. . . .

The dispute threatens the operation and existence of the last material achievement of the decade-long "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea, as well as South Korea's long-term blueprint to upgrade its neighbor's basket-case economy by gradual expansion of the complex.

I know very little about the provisions of South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" other than the name . . . but hey, why should that stop me from shooting off an ill-informed opinion? So here it goes:

As a business decision, building capital plant in the PRK is so colossally stupid that it serves as evidence for something I've long suspected. I don't think that South Korea is afraid of the Stalinist dictatorship to its north. I rather think they need that dictatorship to hold back the millions of refugees that would come flooding south were that dictatorship to collapse. Kim's captives have become so wretched that integrating them into South Korea, in the manner of East Germany's integration into West Germany, would be so catastrophically ruinous to South Korea that they are quite happy doing whatever they can to keep its dictatorship going.

I can't really admire that way of thinking. But I can't say I blame them for it either.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Toby Young on Humiliation

From How to Lose Friends and Alienate People:

I first set eyes on Syrie in 1989 in the dining hall of Trinity College, Cambridge. After Harvard, I'd gone on to Cambridge and was attempting to get a Ph.D. in Philosophy. It was the first day of the new academic year and, in keeping with College tradition, me and several other "mature" students were checking out the latest batch of "freshettes." Not that we had any hope of getting into their knickers; in the Cambridge student hierarchy, post-grads are on a par with "natscis" (natural scientists). Lusting after first years -- and knowing that it would never be reciprocated -- was just another exercise in self-flagellation, a favorite post-grad pastime.

As [Syrie] passed the post-grad table, she didn't so much as glance in our direction even though it was perfectly obvious we were all gawping at her. Everything about her radiated contempt, which suited our masochistic mood to a T. This arrogant, full-lipped beauty embodied all that was forbidden to sad losers like us. My misery was compounded when she chose a seat directly opposite mine in the College library, making it impossible for me to concentrate on my philosophy books. For the remainder of that academic year, until I abandoned my Ph.D. altogether, I tortured myself by imagining what her nubile, eighteen-year-old body would look like in the nude. I was 100% certain I'd never find out.

Syrie resurfaced in my life in 1994 when, as a twenty-three-year-old researcher for an independent television production company, she called me out of the blue and invited me to lunch. Aha, I thought. This could be interesting. Instead of an impoverished student living in a hall of residence I was now a fully-fledged media brat and a member of The Groucho Club, London's premier watering hole. I assumed that she remembered me from Cambridge and wanted some career advice -- maybe even a job! Perhaps I would get to see her naked after all.

My hopes were soon dashed. She confessed that she'd been ordered to take me out to lunch by her boss so that she could "steal" any ideas I might have for television programs. I'd been expecting a wide-eyed ingenue who'd hang on my every word and instead found myself sitting opposite an intelligent, confident young woman. After graduating from Cambridge with a major in English she had worked in publishing for a while and, the previous year, had helped organize the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. That was where she'd met her current boyfriend, the novelist Will Self. Had I heard of him? I had, as a matter of fact. He was only the most famous young novelist in the country!

The low point came when I told her I'd been to Cambridge.

Syrie: Oh really? When were you there?

Me: 1988-90

Syrie: But that's when I was there! What college were you at?

Me: Trinity.

Syrie: No! But I was at Trinity.


Me: Yes, I know.

I had sat opposite her almost every day for a year and failed to make any impression. I think I would have preferred it if she'd remembered me as a creepy, starry-eyed post-grad -- anything would have been better than not making any impact at all. I had been completely invisible to her. What could be more humiliating? All the lust I'd felt five years earlier came flooding back, but this time I was determined to do something about it.

. . .

Having sex with Syrie was like being granted a wish by a fairy godmother. It was an opportunity to turn back the clock and do what I'd longed to do at the time but hadn't had the balls for. In a sense she stood for all the unattainable girls I'd lusted after throughout my life. This well of unrequited desire had left a deep psychic would and here, at last, was my chance to heal it. By the time I moved to New York I'd been sleeping with her for about nine months but the damage was by no means completely repaired. Of course, the humiliation caused by sexual rejection can never be fully expunged, but that wasn't going to stop me from trying -- again and again and again. I had no intention of abandoning my "therapy" in mid-stream.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the screen adaptation of the F. Scott Fitsgerald novel of the same name. A few thoughts:

  • The first word I would use to describe the film would be: beautiful. It isn't just that the film is well-crafted entertainment or a compelling story, although it is certainly both of these. It isn't even the loving period recreations of New Orleans, New York, Paris, and Mansk. It is that the post-WW I world the movie depicts is at peace with itself. It is incongruous that one could say this about a movie covering most of the 20th Century, and indeed this could be seen as a failing. The Great Depression is depicted with little in the way of immiseration. The scenes set in Mansk show no signs of Stalinism. Even the combat scenes of WW II give grace and dignity to the men who die in them. In some respects, we are invited to share the vision of Benjamin himself. In his early years, he is something of a Forest Gump like character: not that he's stupid, but despite his appearance as an old man, he has the innocence of a boy.

  • Nowhere is the peacefulness of the world more noticeable than in the film's depiction of race relations in New Orleans. Indeed, the film's handling of race could almost be regarded as an alternative history of America, one in which segregation, the Civil Rights movement, and our whole nasty experience of racial acrimony simply disappears. I'm not an historian, and perhaps New Orleans really did have an outsized level of racial and social integration as the movie implies. If so, it is a New Orleans nowhere in evidence by the images Hurricane Katrina brought to our television screens.

  • A word about religion. Queenie, Benjamin's adoptive mother, says of the monstrously deformed child, "You're ugly, but you're still a child of God." It would be difficult to imagine the contemporary liberal, last seen howling for the blood of Trig Palin, extending such compassion to baby Benjamin without this moral insight: that our worth as human beings is not a function of our ability and willingness to vote for liberal politicians, or to vote at all, but rather by being created in God's image.

  • A word on sex. The movie implies that Benjamin is given a religious upbringing, but it is a pity that this didn't include any instruction on the 7th Commandment. It isn't just that Benjamin loses his virginity in a Bourbon Street brothel. It's that he has sex with two different married women in the course of the movie. If these scenes are failful to the source material, then so be it, but I hope this doesn't mean that movies will feel free to give sympathetic portrayals of adultery going forward.

  • A word on old age. This particular aspect of the film was especially poignant to me personally. The "young" Benjamin suffers the infirmaties of old age, yet he grows stronger instead of weaker. While this is inspiring, in real life, one of the great dangers of old age is that we hurt ourselves much more easily. I contemplated this in light of my own encroaching mortality. As I announced last September, I am now 40 years old, and frankly I'm beginning to feel it. This year has been especially hard. I started to develop rotator-cuff problems, which has forced me to cut back significantly on my swimming and given me a steady diet of anti-inflamatory medication. I've had a mysterious cough for several months that stubbornly refuses to completely abate. Whereas only a year ago I would leap out of bed in the morning to knock out calesthenics and not even count them as a "workout" but just a way of starting the day, now my calesthenics are much rarer, and I realize that I haven't worked out even five times in a week in longer than I can remember. I'm getting the impression that old age really sucks when we're getting older instead of younger.

  • One more thing. The movie is "Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking." Smoking? Don't get me wrong: I don't smoke, and I would never permit my minor children to smoke. But let me get a show of hands: how many parents really want to protect their children from movies that show people smoking?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Toby Young on Jane Austen

From How to Lose Friends and Alienate People:

In terms of relations between the sexes, Manhattan is like a throwback to the nineteenth century. At the "hot boites" of the moment the men slouch at tables in chinos and button-down shirts while the women parade past them like peacocks, fanning out their tail feathers for all the world to see. Sitting in the audience at the premiere of Sense and Sensibility on December 13, 1995, it suddenly struck me that the reason for the glut of Jane Austen adaptations -- Clueless and Persuasion had been released earlier that year and Emma would soon follow -- was because of the overwhelming similarity between early-nineteenth-century rural England and late twentieth-century urban America.

Contrary to popular belief, the reason Austen adaptations struck such a chord with American audiences wasn't due to the usual nostalgic yearning for a kinder, gentler era in which everyone wore top hats and lived in stately homes. It was because they recognized their own society up there on the big screen. Austen's novels may appear to be light, pastoral comedies about romantic love, but whisk the tea cozy aside and the cruel mechanics of nineteenth-century English society are laid bare.

Take the case of Ron Perelman, the richest man in the city. In 1995 he was married to Patricia Duff, a gorgeous blonde trophy wife, having divorced Claudia Cohen, a middle-aged glamorpuss, a year earlier. After Perelman separated from Duff in 1996 he was linked with a string of beauties, including the acress Ellen Barkin. Given Perelmen's physical appearance, it seems unlikely that he would have gotten all these women if he'd been, say, a plumber.

Kurt Andersen made this point in an email exchange with Nora Ephron in Slate on September 13, 1999: "Regarding Ron Perelman (and the Ron Perelmans of the world): At what level of consciousness do you suppose he knows or cares that if he weren't rich he wouldn't get to sleep with women like Patricia Duff and Ellen Barkin? And, even more coarsely, how tightly do you think the Patricia Duffs and Ellen Barkins of the world have to close their eyes and think of $$$ as they're being ravished by unattractive billionaires?"

The world Austen depicts -- a world in which ambitious young women compete with each other to attract the attention of rich, eligible men -- is uncannily like contemporary Manhattan. Both societies are rigidly hierarchical, with power concentrated in the hands of a plutocratic elite, and the swiftest route to the top is through marriage. The cavernous waterfront mansions in the Hamptons that New York's ruling class retreat to every summer are the equivalent of Pemberly, Darcy's estate in Derbyshire.

The willingness of New York women to enter what is essentially a nineteenth-century marriage market is surprising. After all, the cause of women's emancipation is more advanced in Manhattan than in any other city in the world. They might not describe themselves as "feminists," but if these women experience any form of discrimination they're straight on the phone to their attorneys. They're more ambitious, better educated and less oppressed than any previous generation of women and yet they're prepared to go to any lengths, however demeaning, to secure a husband. Why?

The short answer is in order to impress other women. As anyone who's read Edith Wharton will know, it's long been a fact of life in Manhattan, particularly among the social elite of the Upper East Side, that women judge each other according to who they can ensnare. Status is valued more highly than any other commodity in New York and marrying well is still the fastest way to get it. At Vanity Fair legend has it that when one female Contributing Editor finally landed her trophy husband the first person she called was not her mother but the gossip columnist Liz Smith. Only after Liz had promised to announce the engagement in her column did the contributor deign to tell her family.

But why is a prominent husband still considered such a desirable asset? One hundred years ago women's status was largely dependent on who their husbands were but today they're perfectly capable of acquiring it in their own right. So why don't they? The answer is they do, but on the whole they prefer to do it with a ring on their finger. Part of the reason is that New York is such a Darwinian place. In this fundamentally hostile environment, full of ruthless predators who'll stop at nothing to get to the top, people are constantly forming alliances for their own protection and a husband is the most dependable ally a woman can have. Yet it's also because, in terms of sheer status wattage, women shine more brightly if they're married to a powerful man, particularly successful women. The ideal is to become the female half of a power couple. In Manhattan, the highest tier of society is occupied by these all-conquering husband-and-wife teams: Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols, Gail Sheehy and Clay Felker, Binky Urban and Ken Auletta, Tina Brown and Harold Evans -- the list is endless. For the city's most ambitious women, this is the ultimate goal.

Douthat Disappointing

Three columns in, and I'm beginning to regret that Ross Douthat, late of The Atlantic, has moved to the New York Times. It's not that I don't agree with what he's written. It's rather that his columns are thus far merely dumbed-down versions of what's he's already written. At The Atlantic, Ross posted almost every day, almost all of his posts were longer than his NYT columns, and a hefty percentage of these postively crackled with insight. On a typical day, I stood a decent chance of coming away from his blog smarter than I was when I arrived.

The NYT columns, in contrast, are short, only once weekly, and appear to be written at a high school sophmore level (no doubt an NYT policy). Thus, they say less, and say it less compellingly. Honestly, if I were a liberal, I doubt I would find him especially persuasive, and if I weren't already a fan, I would probably not cross the internet to read him.

Nonetheless, I wish him well. I hope the NYT makes him obscenely rich so he can retire to The Atlantic in comfort.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Glaivester on Same Sex Marriage

Glaivester makes an interesting observation about "same sex marriage" proponents:

[T]hey scoff at the idea that same-sex marriage will weaken marriage: "how," they ask, "will letting more people get married weaken marriage?" The answer, of course, is that it will weaken marriage by removing the particulars that make marriage marriage.

If I were to insist that Rush Limbaugh's (or Randall Terry's) ideas were to be labelled "feminist" or that Jesse Helms be placed in the camp of the "anti-racists," the leftists would have a field day. Obviously in that case they can see why increasing their nominal number weakens, and not strengthens, them. But in the end they do not care about marriage, or see it as a mere legal contract no different than, say a business partnership, so the idea that the same principle applies is completely foreign to them.

Mmmm . . .

In many respects, political labels like "feminist" or "conservative" serve as expressions of tribal loyalty, and we adopt these labels to align ourselves with a specific group of people. I say, "I'm a conservative" because I want the status of having people associate me with the great conservatives like Ronald Reagan and William Buckley, and not associate me with all those whiny liberals like Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush. The status of "married guy" functions in a parallel way. For one thing, "married guy" status is a huge step up from "unmarried loser" for almost any man over 30. It buys us a level of social and professional credibility that was hitherto withheld. It grants us entrance into the "married guy" club doing "married guy" things with other married guys. We are therefore properly concerned that the value of our membership will be diluted by the presence of homosexual males; first, such presence would corrupt "like things" with "unlike things"; second, and more specifically, the status of "homosexual male" is one to which no heterosexual aspires to outside of the precincts of New York's fashion community.

But of course, political labels often mean much more. No doubt, most of the people adopting the label "feminist" do so out of adherence to a specific policy program, one that Rush Limbaugh doesn't share. And since our discussion of political issues trades in shorthand that allows us to discuss these programs with labels like "feminist" rather than describing the program anew at every blog post, liberals would rightly object that the value of the shorthand becomes diluted if their opinions are mixed with those of Rush Limbaugh.

What, then, is the analogue to marriage? Are "married guys" devoted to a policy program? To the extent children are involved, we might be able to make some generalizations; however, these generalizations would be weak, certainly compared to other generalizations like "Christian," for instance, describes a certain child-rearing philosophical program, and a set of priorities about what our common social space should look like. But since almost everybody get married eventually, the "married" club is too diverse to agree on what a policy program should look like.

Street Justice, Internet Style

It's not often that an insufferable troll receives his comeuppance with quite this fury. Have courage, Megan!

Novaseeker on Alpha-Beta Theory

Novaseeker writes of the danger taking the alpha-beta paradigm a bridge too far:

Some of the young men who have been exposed to PUA ideas seem to have convinced themselves that no women are capable of loving anyone but an extreme “alpha” male, and that therefore any system which pairs “beta” males together with women is worthless – because they're convinced that no women will ever love, want, or be happy with any beta male, and that the sex and love would be fake, false and worthless. It follows from this perspective that any “beta” male who does not have “Game” is far better off with porn and masturbation than he is with women, whom, it is assumed, are simply naturally incapable of loving a man like him. This is an unfortunate example of what happens when certain general trends are absolutized and calcified into an unrealistically hardened model.

While there is a grain of truth that in a more “open” system, such as the one we have today, women tend to “drift up” towards the top men, in no way is this absolute, fixed, or inevitable. Not all women are slutting their way through their 20s hopping from one alpha bed to the next – but the ones who are doing that are certainly overrepresented in the bar and club scene. Outside that scene, there are plenty of women who only sleep with men in relationships, and plenty who have serial relationships with “beta” men, and end up happily married to one. Women are not monolithic, once you get outside certain settings where they tend to be more similar to each other. Yes, women tend to prefer men who are masculine rather than men who are passive doormats, but this in no way means that all women are entering short term relationships with “alpha” men.

It deeply concerns me that the worldview, and in particular the view of women in general, of some of these young men is being formed based on a set of rules and assumptions that apply to the kind of young women who hang out in bars and clubs, and the priorities and assumptions of these women. PUA's assumptions are as good as it goes for that setting, where the goal is simply getting laid. They are effective in that kind of effort. They are not very good for projecting out to society as a whole in a general, hardened way.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Toby Young on Sexual Harassment

I'm finally getting around to reading How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, British journalist Toby Young's memoir of having spent 1995 working at the Conde Nast publication Vanity Fair in New York. I can already tell the book will yield a trove of quotables, among which the following:

Needless to say, any attempt to chat up the goddesses at Conde Nast is completely taboo. I discovered this shortly after I arrived when I made the mistake of cracking a faintly risque joke during a tour of Conde Nast's headquarters by a woman from "human resources." I was thrown in with a bunch of other new recruits and, at the conclusion of the tour, I asked her what we should do if we ever got lost.

"You could always consult the model in the lobby," she suggested.

"Which one?" I quipped.

Nobody laughed.

The following morning I found a memo on my desk headed "Policy on Harassment." . . . It went on to list various forms of conduct that would "result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal." They were:

  • Sexual remarks, advances, propositions

  • Touching or other physical contact

  • Repeated requests for dates or other social engagements

  • Comments about an individual's body

I was flabbergasted. I pointed out to [coworker] Chris Lawrence that if Romeo had stuck to these rules he never would have ended up with Juliet. . . . How were we supposed to get dates with the women at [the Conde Nast building] if not by flirting with them and asking them out?

"It's all bullshit," Chris explained. "They just don't wanna be hit on by dweebs like us."

It's true. With the $3,000 handbags and mink collars, the fashion plates at Conde Nast can hardly be descibed as politically correct. The company's policy on sexual harassment isn't a concession to the feminist sensibilities of its female employees; it's designed to protect them from men who earn less that $500,000 a year. They don't spend all those hours getting their bikini lines waxed by Brazilian beauticians just so they can go out with journalists. They want to date movie producers, club owners and investment bankers.

Sudden Jihad Syndrome?
UPDATE: Nope, a Section Eight

Tragic news from Iraq:

A U.S. soldier opened fire on coalition forces attending a stress clinic at a military base outside of Baghdad International Airport Monday, and at least five were killed, the Pentagon and U.S. Command said. It was unclear how many U.S. soldiers were killed in the shooting at Camp Liberty, but a defense official said the shooter is alive and in custody. Three were wounded, but it was not immediately clear if the shooter was one of them.

Pentagon officials first indicated that an Army soldier shot the others and then turned the gun on himself.

Do you have a name? A photograph?

They spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive and details unclear.

Uh huh. Okay, this might turn out to be a "Section 8" off his meds. But I'll offer a wager to any commenter willing to accept it that he turns out to be either a Muslim or a racial minority or both.

Rules: comment must be postmarked before the Pentagon "clarifies" the story. Stakes: loser must post a photograph of himself.

UPDATE: Well, according to the AP photo and story, he's a stressed out white guy. I guess it's a good thing nobody took my bet!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Who killed the Dinosaurs?

If you said, "The asteroids dun it," you just revealed yourself to be so 2008:

The dinosaurs were wiped out by volcanoes that erupted in India about sixty five million years ago, according to new research.

For the last thirty years scientists have believed a giant meteorite that struck Chicxulub in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula was responsible for the mass extinction of species, including T Rex and its cousins.

But now Professor Gerta Keller says fossilized traces of plants and animals dug out of low lying hills at El Penon in northeastern Mexico show this event happened 300,000 years after the dinosaurs disappeared.

Here is the abstract of her paper. Or at least I think so; I can't make head or tail of it.

I don't have a scientific axe to grind on this question one way or the other. But VoxDay calls it exactly right:

The relevant point is that what scientists were previously telling us that we were stupid and ignorant to doubt was, in fact, false.

. . .

[W]hether one has doubts about a particular theory or not, there's simply no cause or excuse for the attempted intellectual bullying to which so many scientists and science fetishists are prone, and such behavior does nothing but increase the rational observer's doubts about the theories they are advocating.

Quite so. I would put it this way: science, broadly speaking, is contingent. Scientists look at the data and say one thing today. Tomorrow they get more data and say something else. All this is entirely appropriate. But we should recognize that very little science is appropriate for the catechistic way in which its findings are often presented. And most particularly, the demands made by "science fetishists" that we discard long-standing theological and moral truths in the face of today's pronouncement strike me a poor guide to living our lives.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Will the Real President please stand up!

I'm having trouble reconciling this story:

On the thorniest of political issues, President Obama has embraced the enforcement-first position on immigration that he criticized during last year's presidential campaign, and he now says he can't move forward with the type of comprehensive bill he wants until voters are convinced that the borders can be enforced.

Having already backed off his pledge to have an immigration bill this year, Mr. Obama boosted his commitment to enforcement in the budget released Thursday. The spending blueprint calls for extra money to build an employee-verification system and to pay for more personnel and equipment to patrol the border.

With this one:

The abortion language is one of a host of tough policy decisions Mr. Obama had to face as he released details of his $3.5 trillion budget for fiscal 2010. Among other issues, he proposes to cut funding for abstinence-only education programs, to change plans for how the U.S. will handle nuclear waste, and to include no money for further construction on the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

As a first approximation, I would guess that whatever feints he makes toward border enforcement will be undone once he gets his 10 million new Hispanic voters. Stepped up patrols and employment verification will be easy to reverse. An actual border fence, not so much.


Media Blackout

Here's the story as reported by local news:

Bailey said he thought it was the end of his life and the lives of the 10 people inside his apartment for a birthday party after two masked men with guns burst in through a patio door.

“They just came in and separated the men from the women and said, ‘Give me your wallets and cell phones,’” said George Williams of the College Park Police Department.

Bailey said the gunmen started counting bullets. “The other guy asked how many (bullets) he had. He said he had enough,” said Bailey.

That’s when one student grabbed a gun out of a backpack and shot at the invader who was watching the men. The gunman ran out of the apartment.The student then ran to the room where the second gunman, identified by police as 23-year-old Calvin Lavant, was holding the women.

“Apparently the guy was getting ready to rape his girlfriend. So he told the girls to get down and he started shooting. The guy jumped out of the window,” said Bailey.

A neighbor heard the shots and heard someone running nearby. “And I heard someone say, ‘Someone help me. Call the police. Somebody call the police,’” said a neighbor.

The neighbor said she believes it was Lavant, who was found dead near his apartment, only one building away.

Bailey said he is just thankful one student risked his life to keep others alive.“I think all of us are really cognizant of the fact that we could have all been killed,” said Bailey.

Here is a list of all the national media outlets that are rushing to cover the story:

[Crickets chirping. chirp . . . chirp . . . chirp . . .]

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Thoughts on Ricci

My heart, and I am sure the hearts of my readers, are with the plaintiffs in Ricci vs. DeStefano. But there are several aspects about this case that bother me.

  • New Haven claims that because no firemen were promoted, no discrimination occurred, regardless of their reason for discarding the promotion test results. On the one hand, New Haven's actions are transparently in bad faith, and New Haven itself makes no secret of its desire to find a promotion method that will allow them to discriminate in favor of blacks. But on the other hand, I am uncomfortable with rules that rely for their enforcement on a determination of someone's motives for doing what they do. Making promotion decisions, for whatever reason, is entirely within New Haven's competence as the community's elected government.

  • New Haven argues, alternatively, that the U. S. Department of Justice regulations require that minorities in an applicant pool are represented proportionately among the selectees to a four-fifth's level. In other words, if five of ten applicants are black (let's say), then at least four of ten selectees must be black as well. While this regulation requires exactly the outcome that New Haven wanted anyway, New Haven's wishes are not important: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was, in fact, highly likely sue New Haven on behalf of the minority fire fighters who flunked the test. Once upon a time, we could blame the four-fifth's rule on the Supreme Court itself, but as of the 1991 Civil Rights Act, proportional representation is federal law.

  • John Rosenberg at Discriminations offers excellent coverage of these issues, but he often speaks loosely of the 14th Amendment requiring "colorblind" law. This is, no doubt, good policy, but it almost certainly was not the intention of the writers of the 14th Amendment, nor has any Supreme Court decision ever held that it was. Race blind law is required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act; unfortunately, for the last 30 years, the Supreme Court treats this Act as a dead letter, and issues its rulings entirely in the context of the 14th Amendment.

  • In which context, every firm in America is caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, there is ample case law prohibiting employment discrimination against any race. On the other hand, facially non-discriminatory policies invariably yield disparate outcomes, which are politically poisonous at best and violate federal law at worst. This is the dilemma that the Supreme Court must resolve.

  • The best outcome of this case is also the least likely: an overturn of the Justice Department's four-fifths rule, and implicitly the disparate impact test of the 1991 Civil Rights Act. Unfortunately, the DOJ is not a party to the case, and the conservative temperament being what it is, any judicial reference to it would be to point out that the rule is "an issue not before the court." So even if, in the best of all worlds, a five justice majority issued a ringing endorsement of non-discrimination, the 80% rule will stand until a firm challenges its enforcement in court.

The long run effect of this case will almost certainly be bad. All public agencies face the same dilemma that New Haven claims to face: they can't create a single standard that doesn't yield disparate results, and they can't impose quotas because these are discriminatory. Their only escape is to make employment decisions in the same way that UC Berkeley makes admissions decisions: throw out all objective standards and adopt a subjective process so inscrutable that results can be manipulated to their politically correct outcomes completely beyond anyone's ability to prove that discrimination occurred. This will be wasteful and dangerous, but until racial quotas are challenged and overcome politically instead of legally, the result is inevitable.

Cultural Question

While thinking about the difficulties that Carrie Prejean is having with the Miss USA Pageant, I had a question:

Who watches this stuff?

My emotional relationship with beauty pageants is complex, but the truth is that I can’t usually be bothered to notice them. They bore me. (But then, I wouldn’t have given American Idol any more chance of success than Star Search, and look how that prediction turned out.)

In fact, the only time I pay attention to beauty pageants is when some incidental controversy puts them in the news. Off the top of my head, I can name exactly three beauty pageant contestants: Carrie Prejean, Sarah Palin, and Vanessa Williams.

I assume that beauty pageants aren’t for me, but what is the target demographic? I’m mainly interested in generalities of sex (i.e. “gender”), class, and politics.

In an effort to assure maximum response, I am now allowing anonymous comments.

UPDATE: Vanishing American has an outstanding post on Carrie Prejean.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Inductivist on Gay Marriage

In the course of point about gay marriage, Ron Guhname over at Inductivist makes a good point:

Much of the country has rejected [traditional sexual morality], and the division has been dismantling and discrediting the old system. Even if a kid is raised the old way, he can always say, but my buddies' parents don't believe that. What once was authoritative is now just one viewpoint, one lifestyle.

The reigning morality has become, choose for yourself the moral way. All too often, that means choose the selfish, short-sighted way. In my view, the result has been: more out-of-wedlock births; more divorce; more mother-only famlies; more men not civilized by marriage and fatherhood; more disappearing fathers; less child support; more welfare dependency; more poor kids; more crime; more STDs; more abortion; more girls who are pumped and dumped a hundred different times.

Well said. The sex drive is very strong. Thus, it's fetters must be equally strong if it is to be channeled in a constructive direction. Ron is correct that the apotheosis of "choice" has so far been unequal to the task.

I've been meaning to write an omnibus post on the issue of gay marriage, tying together some of my comments over at Hit Coffee. But not today.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

We have learned . . . nothing!

Via Dissecting Leftism, a WSJ article about how the Federal Housing Administration is taking over the GSE's role in pushing worthless mortgages:

Last year banks issued $180 billion of new mortgages insured by the FHA, which means they carry a 100% taxpayer guarantee. Many of these have the same characteristics as subprime loans: low downpayment requirements, high-risk borrowers, and in many cases shady mortgage originators. FHA now insures nearly one of every three new mortgages, up from 2% in 2006.

. . . .

[B]eginning in 2007, the Bush FHA, Congress, the homebuilders and Realtors teamed up to expand the agency's role.

The bill that passed last summer more than doubled the maximum loan amount that FHA can insure -- to $719,000 from $362,500 in high-priced markets. Congress evidently believes that a moderate-income buyer can afford a $700,000 house. This increase in the loan amount was supposed to boost the housing market as subprime crashed and demand for homes plummeted. But FHA's expansion has hardly arrested the housing market decline. The higher FHA loan ceiling was also supposed to be temporary, but this year Congress made it permanent.

Even more foolish has been the campaign to lower FHA downpayment requirements. When FHA opened in the 1930s, the downpayment minimum was 20%; it fell to 10% in the 1960s, and then 3% in 1978. Last year the Senate wisely insisted on raising the downpayment to 3.5%, but that is still far too low to reduce delinquencies in a falling market.

Because FHA also allows borrowers to finance closing costs and other fees as part of the mortgage, the purchaser's equity can be very close to zero. With even a small drop in prices, many homeowners soon have mortgages larger than their home's value -- which is one reason FHA's defaults are rising.

My guess is that, with 100% guarantees, this new collection of bad loans will not cause credit markets to freeze and balance sheets to crater. But it is yet another way in which government is shoveling the (future) taxpayer's money into the black hole of the housing market with little in the way of oversight, let alone actual appropriation.

Although . . . in the context of Obama's budgets, even if the whole $180B per year defaults, it doesn't look like as much as it did a year ago.

But it hurts to see us making the exact same mistakes that lead to the housing bubble in the first place. What a terrible thing our government has become, growing in power in greed in direct proption to its invincible ignorance.

Monday, May 04, 2009


I watched the movie Changeling last night on DVD. A few thoughs:

  • First, this was an excellent movie. Director Clint Eastwood went to great lengths to recreate the world of 1920s Los Angeles. He took the artistically risky step of hewing closely to the timeline of the real events on which the movie is based; thus the movie runs over two hours and covers a period of seven years, with little in the way of a climax. Happily, although many elements in the film can be construed as raising "women's rights" issues, my impression is that Eastwood deploys these for the purpose of period setting rather than liberal preachiness. His most glaring historical departure was making the police captain J. J. Jones into more of a "bad guy" than he really was, although even this was more restrained than we have any reason to expect from Hollywood.

  • The film credibly raises the issue of the way large bureaucracies ultimately grow to serve themselves rather than accomplish their stated mission. In this case, we see the LAPD mainly interested in "solving" the Walter Collins case (i.e. putting it in the department's win column) rather than finding the real Walter Collins. It also shows the abuse of Psychiatry in the 1920s, particularly the way the state mental hospitals had been subverted in the service of police corruption. The movie also shows the double-edged nature of public scrutiny: it was especially in its efforts to avoid criticism that the department rushed the case to a premature conclusion and then tried to cover up its mistake.

  • Again, Eastwood went to draw the audience into the film's time and place. One of the features the movie's verisimilitude was the racial composition of 1920s Los Angeles. LA didn't have much of a black (or, evidently, Hispanic) population until World War II; hence, the film contains no black characters, and I only caught one fleeting glimpse of a black face at all. In the "making-of" bonus feature, Angelina Jolie speaks tellingly of how beautiful Los Angeles was back then, and the set director speaks of the challenge of finding a neighborhood in LA that didn't have fences. "LA in the 1920s didn't have fences," he said. "We've become such a fenced-in society since then."

    Gee, I wonder why that is.

    The society as portrayed in the movie has a "high trust" vibe to it. People expected to enjoy the community of their neighbors, and the architecture reflects that expectation. The houses of that era, like my house, were built outward, creating a shared space. More modern suburbs are built inward, replacing porches with decks, and never placing windows on the sides of the house where you might be reminded that you have next-door neighbors at all.

    The movie also shows Christine Collins having only momentary misgivings about leaving her nine-year-old son alone all day when she is called into work at the last minute. Few parents would do that today, partly because of our intensive parenting styles, but also because we worry about all the bad guys in the world.

    The events of the movie, of course, show how easy it is for a bad guy to abuse a high-trust society, freeloading, so to speak, on that trust for the purposes of kidnapping and murder.

  • I'm not an expert on the socio-economics of the 1920s, but the Collins neighborhood appeared to my eyes implausibly upscale for a single mom working as a telephone switchboard manager. (The Collins' actual neighborhood has since been paved over by a freeway.) I would estimate the present value of the house used in the movie to be in excess of $1M, well outside the reach of all but the rich, especially considering the home financing options available in the 1920s.

More Geoffrey Miller

Steve has more quotes from Miller's Spent. A sample:

Alumni of [elite universities] work very hard to maintain the social norm that, in casual conversation, it is acceptable to mention where one went to college, but not to mention one’s SAT or IQ scores. If I say on a second date that “the sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term,” I am basically saying “my SAT scores were sufficiently high (roughly 720 out of 800) that I could get admitted, so my IQ is above 135, and I had sufficient conscientiousness, emotional stability, and intellectual openness to pass my classes. Plus, I can recognize a tree.” The information content is the same, but while the former sounds poetic, the latter sounds boorish.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Jack Kemp, R.I.P.

Jack Kemp faded from public view after the 1996 election, leaving us with a mental image of boundless energy and eternal youth. So Saturday's news came as a shock: Kemp died? But he was so young!

I supported Kemp's primary run in 1988, and was enthusiastic about his 1996 effort to save the Dole campaign. Kemp, like Ronald Reagan, radiated optimism, humanity, and progress: indeed, he exactly embodied my aspirations for conservatism. Kemp was a conservative version of Barak Obama: free markets had solved the economic problem; all that remained to us was to spread the blessings of enterprise to larger swathes of the globe, where inside every African, Arab, and Mexican was an American struggling to get out.

This vision had great appeal to me personally, although the 1991 recession reminded me how fragile our prosperity really was. But it was 9/11 that spelled the end for Kemp's optimistic view of the world. The world, it turned out, was much darker and dangerous than we had expected. We were not, it turned out, the nation everyone wanted to love, and our civilization was not the envy of the world.

And most significantly, we discovered that inside every African, Arab, and Mexican is not an American struggling to get out. These people have their own racial destinies to follow, destinies that are no more compatible with our way of life than we have the ability to direct them.

UPDATE: (Not the Onion.) Arlen Specter (D-Penn) blames Kemp's death on the GOP.

New Links from FreedomWorks, NRA

New links to the left:

Geoffrey Miller on Sex Selection

Steve quotes at length from Geoffrey Miller's book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior:

The accuracy of person perception tends to improve with age, as we learn, gradually and painfully, which behavioral cues are the most reliable indicators of personality, intelligence, and moral virtues. We learn which situations reveal the most diagnostic information about someone’s true character. We learn how to see through first impressions.

This explains why the dating choices made by teenagers have always seemed appallingly stupid to their parents. Teenagers are overly influenced by the traits that are easiest to assess (physical attractiveness and status among peers). By contrast, parents have decades more experience in assessing the harder-to-discern traits, such as conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, and intelligence, and in appreciating the longer-term benefits that these traits convey in any human relationship. This ability to judge character was considered a major part of wisdom, and a cardinal virtue, before consumerist capitalism made concepts like character, wisdom, and virtue sound unfashionable. [Emphasis added.]

Read the whole thing. Miller also wrote The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature.

Friday, May 01, 2009


I read a few of Megan's recommendations this week. A few thoughts: Regarding Ross Douthat's debut NYT column, in context with the sweep of his work, I would agree with his point that Cheney's version of conservatism (as Ross describes it) isn't going to be politically useful going forward; indeed, it wasn't particularly useful when he was vice-president. It would be a bit much to expect him to have stopped the war -- that was a mistake that almost the entire political class made -- but lowering credit standards for home mortgages was exactly the kind of thing that having the "grownup" Cheney around was supposed to prevent.

But that said, I have two criticisms. On Ross's charge that Cheney is doing something unseemly by pushing back on the interrogation issue, I have to point out that Obama picked this fight, not Cheney. Cheney has every right to defend his administrations record, especially when it is, in fact, defensible. Obama continues to act like he's still campaigning instead of actually running the country, blaming his Republican predecessors for the deficits he himself is creating.

And second, as Ace points out, there is something a little . . . unseemly about Ross using his first column in the NYT to attack other conservatives. No doubt Ross believes he is buying himself credibility with likely NYT readers this way, but it only pays out when he subsequently persuades them to embrace a conservative policy. We'll see how it works. Regarding Charlotte Hays' WSJ review of Jennifer Scanlon's biography on Helen Gurley Brown, I offer this quote without comment:

One of Helen's disappointments was that she was unable to get [her book "Sex and the Single Girl"] officially banned by any prominent priest or preacher. "Letty dear," she wrote to Letty Cottin Pogrebin, her publicist, who would go on to become a prominent feminist, "I don't know how to get a public denunciation -- a nice, strong, snarly, vocal one -- from some religious leader, but it is a possibility." She tried unsuccessfully to provoke the Daughters of the American Revolution. Unaided by banning, the book nonetheless became a world-wide best seller.

Regarding the NYT report on the Hobbit remains found on the island of Flores: I assume that paleontologists know what they're doing, but as anyone considered the possibility these might be the remains of plain ole' children? Just askin'.