J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Aging Gracelessly (washingtonpost.com)

Sunday, October 31st, 2004

I was never forced to read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sear) in high school, but, curious, I finally read it, maybe six months ago. In J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Aging Gracelessly, Jonathan Yardley sums up the experience:

‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is now, you’ll be told just about anywhere you ask, an ‘American classic,’ right up there with the book that was published the following year, Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ They are two of the most durable and beloved books in American literature and, by any reasonable critical standard, two of the worst. Rereading ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ after all those years was almost literally a painful experience: The combination of Salinger’s execrable prose and Caulfield’s jejune narcissism produced effects comparable to mainlining castor oil.

The Asian aesthetic

Friday, October 29th, 2004

The Asian aesthetic examines the (re)emergence of Asian cinema — and includes a few historical tidbits:

In the west, the arrival of talkies gave birth to a new genre — the musical — but in India, every one of the 5,000 films made between 1931 and the mid-1950s had musical interludes. The effects of this were far-reaching. Movie performers had to be able to dance. There were two parallel star systems — that of actors and that of playback singers.

I didn’t know this about Japanese cinema:

In Japan, the film industry had long ceased to rival India’s in size but was distinctive in two ways. Until the 1930s, commentators called benshis attended every screening, standing in front of the audience, clarifying the action and describing characters. Directors did not need to show every aspect of their tale, and tended to produce tableau-like visuals. Even more unusually, its industry was director-led. Whereas in Hollywood, the producer was the central figure — he chose the stories and hired the director and actors — in Tokyo, the director chose the stories and hired the producer and actors. The model was that of an artist and his studio of apprentices.

Guardian Unlimited Books | Review | Is this Leonardo?

Friday, October 29th, 2004

Is this Leonardo? asks, What did Leonardo da Vinci really look like?:

He was a handsome man. An eyewitness in Florence describes him thus: ‘He was very attractive, well-proportioned, graceful and good-looking. He wore a short, rose-pink tunic, knee-length at a time when most people wore long gowns. He had beautiful curling hair, carefully styled, which came down to the middle of his chest.’ There are nuances of fashion and sociology in this that are hard to catch, but the essential image is of someone very elegantly turned out, a bit of a dandy.

Indeed, I’ve heard that Leonardo was a bit of a…dandy.

Island of the Little People

Friday, October 29th, 2004

By now you’ve probably heard of the tiny homo floriensis fossils found in Indonesia — just three feet tall, found with stone tools, and just 13,000 to 18,000 years old. Island of the Little People paints an amusing (moving) picture:

Archaeologists believe floresiensis, whose cohabitation on the island with Komodo dragons and pygmy stegodons must have resembled a Ray Harryhausen movie, were wiped out by a volcanic eruption.

They’ve been dubbed “hobbits”:

The floresiensis skeletons were half-jokingly dubbed “hobbits” by some of the archaeologists who found them, a bon mot that has seized the imagination of headline writers across the mediasphere. “Lilliputians” would have been more appropriate. After all, according to the well-traveled mariner Lemuel Gulliver, the island of Lilliput was also located in Indonesia.

John Kerry’s 19 Year Attack on Investors

Friday, October 29th, 2004

John Kerry’s 19 Year Attack on Investors presents some intriguing facts:

Despite claiming that he has voted to reduce the capital gains tax, the ASA analysis could not find one example of Kerry voting to reduce the capital gains tax. He voted to increase the capital gains tax by 40 percent in 1986 and voted against capital gains tax reduction at least 15 times since 1989. These votes were important to shareholders: the largest drag on shareholder returns is from the capital gains tax and the tax itself reduces the after tax return on equities.

What impact do capital gains taxes have?

An individual at 29 years of age with $40,000 of income making a $3,000 contribution per year to a Roth IRA will retire with more than $772,000 of income. Under a taxable account, however, the return is dramatically reduced to less than $343,000, and thus, the hypothetical investor lost 56 percent of his/her investment compared to the Roth IRA.

Ouch.

Wall of Exclusion?

Friday, October 29th, 2004

Just how hard is it to get an H1B visa these days? From Wall of Exclusion?:

Just a few days after the start of the 2005 fiscal year, it became clear that the cap for H1B visas had already been reached. This means if a U.S. business finds a qualified professional who is not a U.S. citizen, it cannot hire that individual before October 2005. So, the qualified professional goes elsewhere and the U.S. business loses and becomes less competitive.

Mathematical "truth serum" promotes honesty

Friday, October 29th, 2004

From Mathematical “truth serum” promotes honesty:

Now, Drazen Prelec, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, US, has devised a scoring system, or ?Bayesian truth serum? to encourage people to divulge their honest opinions.

First you ask a straightforward question — “Will you vote in the next presidential election?” or “Have you had more than 20 sexual partners in the last year?” Then you ask the respondent to estimate of how many other respondents would answer the same way.

Prelec says if people truly hold a particular opinion, they tend to give higher estimates that other people share it. So if someone did have more than 20 recent sexual partners — but lied about it — that person would probably assume a higher rate of such behaviour in general than someone who had not had so many partners.

[...]

For example, he describes a situation where two paintings are viewed by a group of 10 people who are then asked, privately, to pick their favourite. Seven people say they prefer painting A, while three vote for painting B. If, on the second question, all 10 people said they thought everyone else would prefer painting A, then those three people expressing a personal preference for painting B might be thought of as a safer bet for having told the truth. That is because, argues Prelec, despite what they thought was more popular, those individuals still chose the other painting.

(Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.)

Serious Games, Serious Questions

Friday, October 29th, 2004

James Pinkerton’s Serious Games, Serious Questions stemmed from his recent visit to the Serious Games Summit:

By preparing for war, do we make war less likely, by deterring enemies, or more likely, by making war seem fun? These thoughts followed me as I attended the Serious Games Summit at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel, in the shadow of the Federal Triangle in Washington DC. It’s appropriate that the Summit was held here in Powertown, because the goal of the conclave was to push Serious Gaming into Uncle Sam’s consciousness — and wallet.

From the Serious Games Summit site:

The number of non-entertainment games under development is rapidly increasing and demand for the ideas, skills and techniques used in commercial entertainment games is at an all time high. As a result, an entirely new market has emerged.

Serious Games are applications of interactive technology that extend far beyond the traditional videogame market, including: training, policy exploration, analytics, visualization, simulation, education and health and therapy.

The Serious Games Summit gives professionals from the public and private sectors, policymakers, contractors, military personnel, government administrators, educators and experts in the game development arena an opportunity to meet and learn from successful serious games applications, as well as forge links between the traditional videogame industry and program managers for homeland security, state and local governments, military agencies, and educational institutions.

Turkey and the Problem of History

Friday, October 29th, 2004

Turkey and the Problem of History examines European and American views on diplomacy and military force — and why the Euros are worried about Turkey:

Robert Kagan’s groundbreaking book Of Paradise and Power brilliantly contrasts the different views of power held by Europeans and Americans. The United States and Europe, he says, have sharply diverging ideas about the role of diplomacy and the use of military force due to the stark differences in historical experience accumulated over the past century.

Europe has never had it so good. After the meat-grinding horror of World War I and the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II, the United States provided a protective security umbrella over Western Europe, under NATO auspices, permitting Europeans to build multilateralist institutions and lavish welfare states. And now, with the collapse of the Soviet Empire on the West’s eastern border, Europeans feel they have entered a settled post-historic era where nations can settle differences through diplomacy and the merger of formerly separate bureaucracies. War is seen as an anachronism from Europe’s monarchical, imperial, and machtpolitik past.

We Americans, on the other hand, have never felt more threatened. The attack on September 11, 2001, was the worst ever on our own soil. History is far from over for us. Neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union ever struck such a blow against us at home. And because we are militarily powerful we are far more willing to use force than Europeans. Kagan quotes one European critic of America’s policy who says ‘When you have a hammer, all problems start to look like nails.’ This is certainly true. Kagan’s response: ‘When you don’t have a hammer, you don’t want anything to look like a nail.’

From Europe’s perspective, that’s the problem with Turkey. It’s a nail.

Slashdot | Neal Stephenson Responds With Wit and Humor

Friday, October 29th, 2004

In his recent Slashdot interview, Neal Stephenson divides writers into two camps: Beowulf writers, who write for “drunken Frisians” (the public), and Dante writers, who write for paying patrons (universities). Critics from the second camp don’t understand writers from the first camp:

The relationship between that critical apparatus and Beowulf writers is famously awkward and leads to all sorts of peculiar misunderstandings. Occasionally I’ll take a hit from a critic for being somehow arrogant or egomaniacal, which is difficult to understand from my point of view sitting here and just trying to write about whatever I find interesting. To begin with, it’s not clear why they think I’m any more arrogant than anyone else who writes a book and actually expects that someone’s going to read it. Secondly, I don’t understand why they think that this is relevant enough to rate mention in a review. After all, if I’m going to eat at a restaurant, I don’t care about the chef’s personality flaws — I just want to eat good food. I was slagged for entitling my latest book ‘The System of the World’ by one critic who found that title arrogant. That criticism is simply wrong; the critic has completely misunderstood why I chose that title. Why on earth would anyone think it was arrogant? Well, on the Dante side of the bifurcation it’s implicit that authority comes from the top down, and you need to get in the habit of deferring to people who are older and grander than you. In that world, apparently one must never select a grand-sounding title for one’s book until one has reached Nobel Prize status. But on my side, if I’m trying to write a book about a bunch of historical figures who were consciously trying to understand and invent the System of the World, then this is an obvious choice for the title of the book. The same argument, I believe, explains why the accusation of having a big ego is considered relevant for inclusion in a book review. Considering the economic function of these reviews (explained above) it is worth pointing out which writers are and are not suited for participating in the somewhat hierarchical and political community of Dante writers. Egomaniacs would only create trouble.

Although I loathed his Snow Crash, he’s a fascinating guy. Read the whole interview. (If you’re a geek, you’ll really enjoy his answer to In a fight between you and William Gibson, who would win?)

Two Nations in One

Friday, October 29th, 2004

Two Nations in One cites Annie Sweeney of the Chicago Sun-Times on the “second” Iraq, the one we don’t see on CNN:

On a Saturday afternoon in Iraq, between Baghdad and Camp Anaconda, the countryside looks a little like Wisconsin. There are farmers tilling fields and women walking on roads. Freight trains and major highways.

This wasn’t exactly what I expected when I left for the war-ravaged country the first week of September. And initially, it made me feel lousy.
[...]
When I came back after three weeks, all everybody wanted to know was how scared I was.

Iraq was hot and smelly. It was dirty and dusty. Mortars sometimes boomed in the distance.

But I can’t describe it as scary. I didn’t see the hard-core stuff, and a lot of soldiers who live and work there don’t, either.

Too Many Books?

Friday, October 29th, 2004

I love the intro to Steve Landsburg’s Too Many Books?:

This year’s Man Booker Prize, Nobel Prize for Literature, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction have now all been awarded for works I will never read, and next month’s National Book Award is certain to follow suit. Which causes me to wonder whether the world’s got enough books already. I own hundreds of novels that I will never have the time to read. If these were the only copies on earth and a fire destroyed half of them, my life would not be signifcantly impoverished.

Of course, it’s only amusing because he actually does love reading. Here’s his real point:

The vast rewards that go to successful novelists can grossly overstate the social value of their work. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has sold over 6 million copies and almost surely earned its author over $20 million. But if The Da Vinci Code hadn’t been written, some other now-unnoticed book might have taken its place as the blockbuster of the year, and readers would have been almost as happy.

Writing a book is not like growing an orange. If you grow the best orange in the world, the second best orange still gets eaten. But if you write the best book in the world, the second best book loses a lot of readers. So the market price of an orange is an excellent reflection of its true social value, whereas the bulk of Dan Brown’s $20 million is only an excellent reflection of what he was able to divert from some other author to himself.

Wise words on energy independence

Friday, October 29th, 2004

Wise words on energy independence cites this ironic passage from Gideonsblog:

[I]f we increased fuel economy in modest ways, we could stop buying oil from the Persian Gulf. But we wouldn’t stop buying oil from the Persian Gulf. We might even buy a greater percentage from there if we were more efficient — because if we consumed less oil, then the law of supply and demand should drive oil prices down, which in turn would mean a greater market share for the lowest-cost producer, which is Saudi Arabia. This is exactly what happened from the mid-1980s through the early 2000s: a collapse in oil prices led to greater demand on Persian Gulf oil specifically as more costly sources of supply stopped producing.

Status, Stress and Sex Ratios

Friday, October 29th, 2004

Status, Stress and Sex Ratios opens with a few factoids:

The presidents of the United States have had, collectively, almost half again as many sons as daughters (148 to 102 if I’ve counted correctly). Far more strikingly — because the sample size is so much larger — the people listed in Who’s Who have, collectively, about 15% more sons than daughters.

Humans have been polygynous through most of their (pre)history. Almost all women have children, and there’s relatively little variation in the number of children they have. On the other hand, many men father no children (low-status men often have no access to women), while other men father dozens (high-status men can have access to dozens or even hundreds of women). Apparently, high-status women unconciously produce more sons to take advantage of this:

One suggestion from the biologists — and one that makes very good sense to an economist — is that a pregnant woman’s body, in deciding how much to invest in nourishing the embryo, takes account of the parents’ status and the embryos’ sex. High status mothers give more nourishment to male embryos; low status mothers give more nourishment to female embryos; better nourished embryos are more likely to be born alive.

How can a process as involuntary as nourishing an embryo respond to conscious information like the status of the father? Well, how can a process as involuntary as sweating with fear respond to conscious information like the approach of a tiger? Clearly this kind of thing happens all the time. More fundamentally, decisions like how much to nourish your embryo are among the most important economic problems the body ever faces. Is it really plausible that the body would simply throw away highly relevant information when it’s making a decision like that?

Four Myths About Social Security

Wednesday, October 27th, 2004

Arnold Kling discusses Four Myths About Social Security. The first myth is that Social Security is a pension system. It’s not, of course; there’s no reserve accumulating interest in your name. That leads us to transition costs — and the Transition Cost Myth:

If Social Security were a pension, then the transition to private accounts would be simple. One day, at the stroke of a pen, the government would transfer the funds that had accumulated in your Social Security account into a personal private account, and the transition would be complete.

However, everyone who really understands Social Security knows that there are no funds accumulated in your Social Security account, or in anyone else’s. Since Social Security cannot stop paying benefits, particularly for people already retired, there is a “gap.” That is, if we reduce Social Security taxes on a young worker by $1000 in order to allow her to invest the money in her own account, then the government has to find another source for that $1000 in order to pay current retirees. Multiply this by hundreds of millions of taxpayers for a couple of decades.

In practice, the government would have to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars in order to fill this “gap.” Opponents of private accounts call this the “transition cost” and flaunt this cost as a barrier to privatization. Senator Kerry used the term “catastrophe” to describe the transition cost.

The transition cost is a myth. In economic terms, the transition cost is zero.

From an economic perspective, the transition exchanges an off-balance sheet obligation of the government for an equal-value on-balance sheet obligation. It makes government accounting more honest, without changing the underlying debt structure.

When your Social Security taxes are reduced by $1000, the government will reduce its obligations to pay you Social Security by an equivalent amount. That is what partial privatization means — you have to take that $1000 and invest it yourself, because the government is reducing its future payments to you.

The crux of the problem is that government accountants ignore future Social Security payments; they don’t count them as debt:

One way to eliminate the “transition cost” to partial privatization would be to first undertake a transition to better accounting. If the government were to put future Social Security obligations on its balance sheet as debt, then the accounting would be accurate. To borrow a locution from Warren Buffet, if promises to make Social Security payments are not a financial obligation of the government, then what are they? And if a financial obligation of the government is not debt, than what is it?

If unfunded liabilities to make future Social Security payments were counted as debt, then partial privatization would be nothing but a debt swap. The government would increase ordinary debt and reduce unfunded-liability debt by an equal amount. The transition cost would be zero.