Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I almost linked to this cartoon yesterday, because I approved of the over-the-top tone:

Israeli tank, with a menorah replacing the main gun, and the legend 'Happy Hanukkah From Israel'.

Anyway, I guess Harper's is now doing a sort of letters to the editor feature for their web-only content, and the third comment in this "Replies" post calls the cartoon anti-Semitic. I don't see it, but I did have trouble figuring out exactly what Mr. Fish was trying to say, so who knows.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Why Conservatives Don't Still Advocate Monarchy, Mostly

Matt Yglesias jokes about how Bill O'Reilly's 17th century analogue would have fought against the War on Christmas by "shouting monarchist slogans." It's just a joke, but there is an interesting element there that I've been thinking about recently, which is that "conservatism" is a pretty old idea that you can observe through history, despite the fact that what conservatives of any given era have taken their conservatism to stand for has varied considerably.

Basically (and I don't think this is a novel observation), there has always been an identifiably conservative faction in society, but it has never been tied to any specific ideology. Conservatism, in any era, has argued that society's hierarchical structures should always resemble those of the current day, or possibly of one generation (but no more) previous. In the 17th century that might have meant supporting the divine right of kings, while by the 19th century it was enough to defend the institution of slavery.

It follows that there is no common principle uniting the conservative mindset of one era to another: one can recognize the constancy of the conservative attitude over time, the goal of preserving contemporary hierarchies; but an apology for landed aristocracy as a matter of principle would be as valid today as it ever was. Which doesn't mean there's no valid argument to be made in support of conservatism at all, just that it will be a practical rather than a principled one.

My best formulation of such an argument in defense of existing hierarchies starts from the counterfactual conditional that, if all the "stuff" in the world (money, food, natural resources, talent...anything and everything that contributes to a better quality of life) were to be divided evenly among the entire world population, then the amount of said stuff accruing to each individual would be insufficient to lift that individual out of abject poverty and its associated misery. That is, a purely democratic allocation of the world's wealth would leave everyone in miserable destitution.

Wouldn't a situation wherein a minority of the world population lives in relative comfort, at the expense of everyone else, be preferable? The majority are miserable, sure, but they would be miserable under the egalitarian alternative anyway: at least this way, somebody gets to be happy. The implication, then, is not that divine monarchy or primogeniture or limited suffrage are, in each of themselves, the linchpin holding this state of inequality together; but that any capitulation to democracy might trigger the collapse into the general democratic allocation of stuff that has already been judged unacceptable.

A leftist response to such reasoning would not so much dispute this argument as dismiss it as unjust: if indeed comfort for any can only be achieved on the backs of some others, then achieving comfort (even broad comfort) cannot be the animating goal of a just society. And I think this leads to a corollary regarding the conservative attitude, which is that justice is not a component of the conservative vision for society. (Or to put it another way, the conservative notion of justice relies on context: that which supports existing social hierarchies is just. So at one time it is just that the monarch own everything, while at another time it is just that each individual's private ownership of property is sacrosanct.)

One final note is that despite the long time spans used to illustrate the historical incoherency of supposed conservative principles, this is not a semantic quibble that can be sidestepped with anything along the lines of "well I wouldn't have been a conservative back then." A large number of today's mainstream conservative leaders, after all, are on the record having supported South Africa's apartheid government in the 80's, though none today endorse apartheid as a reasonable solution to ethnic conflict (e.g., none of the considerably heated opposition to Jimmy Carter's Palestine Peace Not Apartheid proposed anything along the lines of "peace by way of apartheid").

I think this is the cause of much disconnect between conservatives and non-conservatives. It's compounded by conservative rhetoric, which does make nominal appeals to principle; but in practice, conservative principles are fluid, adapting to fit the present circumstances in service of the real conservative project, the resistance of democratization.

Metal Birds Near My House

I have always enjoyed these metal silhouettes in a bricked-over window a block away from my house on Franklin:

Metal silhouettes in bricked-over window

(There is also a newer Swoon piece on the other end of the same block:

Franklin Ave Swoon piece
Not related, just thought it was cool.)

On Monday I noticed some more birds and a cat in the bricked-up windows of the building down my street in the other direction, between Bedford and Rogers:

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I couldn't find it on Flickr, but it looks like it's from the same patterns as these birds and cat in Brooklyn Heights (embed disabled), and these golden birds in Dumbo:

Golden bird silhouettes in Dumbo

They're pretty cool can see the eyes on the golden ones, but the silvery ones have eyes as well, and it's a neat effect. And I like how they're always put in old windows. I tried asking Jeeves about who makes these, but didn't come up with anything. I did find a blog post about how the building on Franklin was sold and might be developed, but who knows if that's still on.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I am the Alan Rickman of chicken dickings.

The dickings are well-hung by the chimney with care.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Check, Please...CARD CHECK, THAT IS

I love the open admission that IT workers are mistreated. This is analogous to the "it would be a boon for trial lawyers" argument against the Lily Ledbetter fair pay act: the opposition grants that people would be helped by the proposed legislation; they just don't want them helped and prefer the status quo.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Winning the Non-Vote

Daniel Millstone thinks Democrats "need to connect to the non-voters more," if only to secure greater margins of victory in races already being won by turning out, you know, voters. I don't know where this thinking comes from...they don't vote! That's what makes them non-voters!

It may be true, in some abstract, academic sense, that non-voters are "Democratic in tendencies," but who cares: they are also non-voting in tendencies, which means they are of zero importance electorally. It might well be the case that 9 out of 10 anorexic people prefer Skippy peanut butter to Jif...Skippy would still be insane to base their marketing strategy on appealing to anorexics, because anorexics don't eat.

By all means, "connect" away to whomever you wish. But please let it stop at the point where one thin dime or volunteer hour, which could be otherwise spent persuading voters or turning out supporters, is dedicated instead to trying to appeal to people who by definition have no impact on elections.

Monday, December 15, 2008


I agree with what Atrios says, the real estate bubble and a lot of the stock market in general have always sort of been pyramid schemes. This dude seems to have gotten in trouble for giving the game away as much as anything else.

I mean, there was a period of several years during which people were quite publicly encouraged to buy more real estate than they could pay for, not just despite their prices being very high by historical standards, but because of it: the logic being that the continuation of recent pricing trends would mean they could sell in a couple years at even astronomic-er prices and recoup their investment and then some. And because everyone knows that home ownership is a great way to build wealth, and because brokers make money as long as stuff changes hands, it's win-win-win.

In the basic model of how stock investments are supposed to work, as I understand it, the shareholders buy their stocks from a company to help give the company a bunch of money to work with; the company uses that money to run their business and turn a profit; and the profit is then distributed to the shareholders as dividends. But then some stocks don't work that way at all, and actually the entire value of purchasing a share derives not from any predicted dividend, but from the expectation that at some point in the future someone else will pay you more for it than you did (because of their expectation that at some point further someone else will pay them even more...).

And it seems to me that when you're in a position where actually quite a lot of stocks are traded based on those kinds of predictions, and when a lot of real estate is trading hands due to the widespread possession of a similar set of expectations (rather than because a given area is getting more or less popular as people move around and figure out where they want to live their lives), then it's a situation that is inherently unsustainable in basically exactly the same way a Ponzi scheme is: you need a greater number of people to pay into the system for each successive generation of investors to come out ahead, and at the end of the day there are only so many people and it collapses.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fuzzy Logic on Facebook

I just clicked yet another "Maybe" button in response to a Facebook event invitation:

RSVP box with 'Maybe Attending' selected

The event shows 60 definite yeses and 57 maybes. For someone planning an event, that's a pretty big amount of uncertainty to take into account. You don't know how many of those maybes are "it's a weeknight, so probably not, but you never know" versus "I'll totally be there but can't commit in case someone offers me Elton John tickets at the last second."

The interface should have a slider input representing the user's best guess as to the probability of attendance. It would still show up as "Maybe Attending" to the event creator and any fellow invitees, but the actual likelihood of your attendance would be stored. Then that could be used to predict the number of attendees with a little more accuracy (three people 40% likely to attend plus one person 80% likely to attend equals two expected guests).

In addition, the software could recognize events that overlap. So if you give a definite "Attending" to one event and it sees that you've already said "Maybe" to another event at the same time, then it could prompt you to change the "Maybe" to a definite "Not Attending" (and if you demurred, the software could quietly downgrade your probability of attendance, so you could be on the record as "Maybe Attending," with all the social courtesy that implies, without distorting the expected guest count).

Actually, what would really be the most helpful would be to randomly send out surveys to people who create or are invited to events. Netflix does a similar thing when it asks you when a certain movie arrived, or when a return was mailed back. So every now and then you would get an email, "you said you would Maybe Attend event x; did you end up going?" or, "we predicted 73 attendees; was that too high, too low, or about right?" And then they could revise their attendance predictions, even taking into account things like whether an event is on a weekend or is really late, and how many conflicting events each invitee has.

Of course, maybe empirically people who are "Maybe Attending" just show up 40% of the time or something, and you can just use a heuristic and get just as accurate a result. But in principle, you know.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Religious Conservatives stand over the corpse of Gay Marriage, while the Press alters the crime scene to redirect the blame to African-Americans.

And the revisionist history continues, as Pam Spaulding reports.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Block of Castles

When I hit up the Key Food's over on Nostrand, I usually end up on the South side of St Marks by the time I get to the block between Rogers and Nostrand. So I usually check out some of these crazy houses across the street:

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The detached home in the middle is unique in the neighborhood, as far as I can tell...there are lots of big mansions, but they're all regular brownstones. That two-family home on the right is half boarded-up and half under renovation. So they're basically the castles of the neighborhood and I check them out when I go to grab groceries.

For some reason, on the way to Key Food's last night, I wasn't able to cross over from the North side of the street by the time I was on that block. And so I noticed this awesome apartment building on the South side of it:

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I love the six stories and then the teensy pitched roof all the way on one side. So crazy.

Anyway, the whole block is cool. There are some neat weird homes with storefronts as you get to Nostrand. Also, this blog post was inspired by just popping out to the grocery store, but I have to say that I'm loving the hi-res Jeeves maps. The future is now, APDTO (all praise due to Obama).

On the topic of people remodeling old castles of Crown Heights, in February This American Life did an episode that touches on gentrification. It's about the Plan to repopulate black neighborhoods across the US with white people, and it starts around 32:00.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Each of the last two times I've gone to the gym, I've lost something on my way back.

The first time, by the time I'd gotten to the bodega I was buying tortillas at, I realized that I'd lost a glove out of my pocket (I was warm enough coming out of the gym that I didn't need gloves right away and put them in my pocket).

The second time, I unlocked my bike, but had lost the key for the lock by the time I got to the wine store just up the street. I was close enough to the gym to circle back and look for the key, but I didn't see it anywhere. At least that one is replaceable for free, whereas the gloves I don't think are even sold anymore (they were my lobster claw style water-resistant shells).

Anyway, I think I'm subconsciously sabotaging my gym trips. I either need to put idiot strings on every single item I have with me or get my ass hypnotisted.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Detroit Possessive S

My brothers and I thought we were so hilarious when we talked about shopping at "Target's" and whatnot. It's a thing people say in Detroit, apparently. I wonder if we picked it up from our mom.

Monday, December 1, 2008


The Dallas on military-themed kids' toys. His addendum links to a story about Chinese workers rioting at a Nerf factory. You could do a pretty bleak satirical piece about a toy plant manager mystified by how surrounding employees with tens of thousands of toy weapons failed to produce a light-hearted work environment. Close with an allusion to similar problems at a Malaysian bean bag chair fabricator and boom, I just wrote an Onion story from 1999.