August 19, 2010

Moving to Tumblr

I've decided to migrate the blog to Tumblr, for a variety of reasons. My domain name,, should automatically redirect to the new site, as well as my Feedburner link; if not, go to, where I've imported the content from this blog (thanks to this handy tool). See you there.

August 17, 2010


I was very sad to hear that Tony Judt, the historian, died recently. He was well-known, of course, for his book, Postwar, his critical statements about Israel, and, most movingly, his struggle with ALS, which ultimately killed him. What I particularly liked about him was his ability, as a good historian should, to draw a line between historical events and ideologies and their relevance to the contemporary scene. This was much in display in his last book, Ill Fares the Land, and in one of his last published pieces, a blog post in the New York Review of Books about Czeslaw Milosz' famous essay, The Captive Mind. He noted that the problem it grapples with -- namely, the temptation among left-wing intellectuals to explain away the evils of Soviet communism -- has become largely alien to younger generations:
Milosz takes for granted his readers' intuitive grasp of the believer's state of mind: the man or woman who has identified with History and enthusiastically aligned themselves with a system that denies them freedom of expression. In 1951 he could reasonably assume that this phenomenon -- whether associated with communism, fascism, or indeed any other form of political repression -- would be familiar.


Thirty years on, my young audience is simply mystified: why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one? By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach. When I started out my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism; today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.
Judt went on to argue that the Captive Mind that Milosz describes is not a dead concept, however, and compared the rationalizations of Marxist intellectuals to the elite cheerleading in the West for the Iraq War, even among nominal liberals, as well as the continued devotion in elite circles to laissez-faire ideology despite its manifest failures.

For me, though, what stands out about this passage is a perhaps defining feature of our era: the absence of the spirit of revolution, which inhabited the West, and much of the rest of the world too, for over 200 years. There are certainly many people, left and right, who adopt the pose of revolution -- the Tea Partiers, to take one high-profile example -- but it's difficult for me to regard hard-right conservatism, as destructive as it is to the national discourse, as an alternate modernity, as fascism and communism once were to liberal capitalism -- "liberal" being used here in the technical sense of the word. Certainly, the American right is premised on the semi-utopian belief in returning to a small government Eden unblemished by the welfare state, despite the fact that it runs aground any time it conflicts with keeping taxes on the wealthy as low as possible or with preserving entitlements for senior citizens. Still, it's recognizably liberal, in the sense used above -- notwithstanding the fact that the modern conservative movement contains much that is illiberal (again, the Tea Party is a prominent example).

Another way of putting the matter is that Francis Fukuyama had a point with his End of History argument: After the tumult and bloodshed of competing ideologies over the past two centuries, liberal capitalist democracy really has no serious competitors in terms of producing stable, prosperous societies. Dictatorships exist, obviously, but they do not pose existential challenges to liberal capitalism the way that fascism and communism once did. China may be a rising power, but you don't see many countries copying its model for governance.1 Islamism might be considered a competing system, but my read is that political Islam means different things to different Muslims -- from quasi-totalitarian systems like Iran's to religious nationalist democratic parties like the AKP in Turkey. In any case, outside of majority Muslim countries, it's not a political movement that has much traction, despite the fever dreams of the American and European right.

To return to my original point, I do think we in the developed world are in a post-revolutionary age: A rising sense of individualism has dampened enthusiasm for signing on to mass movements that privilege concepts like the volk or the proletariat over one's own sense of identity, as Judt describes above. Not that mass participation in the political process isn't possible, of course, but it's something we do as an expression of our individuality, rather than the reverse. In some respects, this is a good thing, and a natural outcome of liberal governance; but it also makes good and necessary ideas, like solidarity, harder to realize.

1 You could point to China's partnerships with, say, Sudan, but those strike me as more alliances of convenience than some kind of ideological front, in the way that NATO or the Warsaw Pact once were. China needs oil, and it'll cut deals, abet any atrocities, &c., with any country that provides it. There's about as much ideology there as when the US looks the other way at human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

July 1, 2010

Climate Change and the Ethic of Responsibility

Quote of the day, or perhaps the century?
"We believe we have compromised significantly, and we're prepared to compromise further," [Sen. John] Kerry said.
It's a statement that can be read as either an indictment of the way in which Democrats have pursued their policy agenda in the Obama era, or as a fundamental truth about the way change is made in a democracy. Here would be a good time to invoke Weber's famous lecture, "Politics as a Vocation," which turns on distinguishing between "the ethic of responsibility" and "the ethic of ultimate ends." The latter is familiar among political activists who want their preferred agenda, and only theirs, to prevail, and will not settle for less. Following the former, however, means acting with an awareness of what the likely consequences of one's actions will be, even at the expense of sacrificing one's own agenda. As Weber puts it:
[A] man who believes in an ethic of responsibility takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people; as Fichte has correctly said, he does not even have the right to presuppose their goodness and perfection. He does not feel in a position to burden others with the results of his own actions so far as he was able to foresee them; he will say: these results are ascribed to my action.
It seems strange to say, given how often liberals groan at Democratic efforts to find "bipartisan" solutions, but I think you have to view how Kerry, Obama, et al have been going about getting a climate and energy bill in this light. Clearly, an energy-only bill, or a utility-only climate bill that's now being considered, is inadequate -- both in terms of reducing our own carbon emissions and in terms of persuading developing countries to take steps to reduce theirs. It's also clear, though perhaps not to the Democratic leadership, that the moderate Democrats and Republicans that are critical to getting a bill past a filibuster haven't been solid and upstanding negotiating partners.1 In spite of all that, I doubt that making some valiant, but unsuccessful, stand on a tough climate bill would necessarily translate into electoral victories for Democrats this year, or a better chance at a climate bill of any sort next year. Even a marginal improvement over the status quo has to be preferred to spinning our wheels on this issue over and over again.

Activists, however, aren't wrong in wanting the President and Congress to go further, or in blasting the equivocations and cowardice of those opposed to any sort of carbon pricing. The ethic of ultimate ends, after all, is just as necessary to a well-functioning democracy as the ethic of responsibility. But the future of this planet will be better served by actual, if imperfect, legislation than perfectly good intentions.

1 Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Lindsey Graham's reversal on the climate bill -- which I feared would happen when he first got involved -- was how predictable it was. Was there anyone who was actually shocked that he bolted from the negotiations at the first sign of conflict?

June 28, 2010

The Gap Between IT and ET

For professional reasons1, I've refrained from commenting on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to say nothing of the political or policy consequences. I did, however, want to highlight this post by Gail the Actuary over at The Oil Drum in relation to the spill:
Many individuals and groups, from Scientific American magazine, to school systems, to Energy Secretary Chu would seem to be telling us that technology can solve all of our problems.

And we have seen an endless array of new fancy gadgets over the years, starting with calculators, then computers, electric copying machines, the Internet, portable phones, and all kinds of devices to play music and send messages. These all seem to suggest that technology can do marvelous things.

Now, we are confronted with what should be not too difficult a problem--cutting off the oil flow from a well--and we find it is difficult to do. Perhaps the Deepwater Horizon blowout is an event that should get us to rethink our assumptions a bit.
The important thing to note here is that all of the technological advances that Gail mentions come in the field of information technology, which has indeed seen a flurry of innovation in the last few decades, the likes of which humanity has seldom, if ever, witnessed. Now, many of the same people involved in the IT revolution are moving into the energy business in the hope of accomplishing the same thing there. Hence, for example, the astonishing level of enthusiasm a few months ago over the introduction of the Bloom Box, which is, essentially, a very fancy battery. Innovation in energy, however, is a rather different animal from innovation in manipulating data. IT may be ruled by Moore's Law, but ET (energy technology) is ruled by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is a much tougher nut to crack. IT also benefits from the fact that, as a relatively young field, there wasn't very much in the way of regulatory hurdles or path dependence to get in the way of its development -- and to the extent that there were regulatory issues, they were mostly favorable during the critical early years. (See, for example, this review (PDF) of the impact of the FCC's Computer inquiries on the Internet's development.) Energy, however, has not been a wide open field for a long time, with its recent history characterized more by regulated utilities and oil cartels than by bottom-up innovation.

The point of mentioning all this is that our mental model for how innovation works has been shaped by our recent experience with innovation in computers and the Internet, a model that may not serve us well when figuring out to how develop more sustainable sources of energy. It's great to have new-fangled approaches to producing and storing energy, of course, but there's much more to be said for getting the policy right, so that the right solutions, old or new, can arise without difficulty.

1 Email me if you want to know the details.

May 13, 2010

On the American Power Act

First, let me say, it's got a nice title: It's pithy, has a strong nationalistic tone, but with a wink and a nod to greens that it's really about saving the planet -- much like the bill itself. If the Senate can get this bill done this year, then the APA -- along with the ACA (Affordable Care Act) -- will be two of the pillars of President Obama's legacy.

But of course, that's a big if. There's about 50 different ways that progress on the bill could go awry (and has gone awry already), and only about one way it can go right: If you can get both the staunchly anti-offshore drilling Senators like Bill Nelson and the staunchly pro-drilling Senators like Mary Landrieu on the same page; and you can convince enough coal-state and farm-state Democrats not to bail; and you can convince liberals, not only in the Senate, but in the House, that this is a bill worth passing; and you can bring back Lindsey Graham and a few other Republicans to the table; then maybe you can get it out of the Senate. Then you have to merge that bill with the House bill, pass that in both chambers again, and get the President's signature -- all before the midterm elections in which Democrats are expected to get obliterated. If the Senate didn't have FinReg, immigration, and confirming Elena Kagan to the bench on its plate, getting this done wouldn't be so formidable; but it does, so it is.

May 11, 2010

The Facebook Revolt

Everyone, it seems, now has a problem with Facebook, Laura McGann's kiss-off to the site being the latest example. Besides being a sieve when it comes to personal information (and a G-rated porn site to boot), Facebook's ubiquity has, ironically, taken the luster off its value as a social network. A while back, Matt Frost wrote that he gave up on Facebook because seeing the daily online activity of people he knew long ago ruined his appreciation for them. No one is a hero to his valet, and, it seems, no one is a fondly remembered long-lost pal to his Facebook friends.

I'm not ready to give up on Facebook just yet -- although my inability to fully delete information from my profile made me almost delete it out of frustration. (Fortunately, Facebook's strategic use of emotional blackmail kept me around.) I have some friends I keep up with on Facebook that aren't on Twitter -- which with Gmail is where I spend most of my online life -- and having even a placeholder Facebook account is something of a necessity for managing your online reputation. Perhaps just as important is the fact that Facebook is quickly becoming the de facto universal login key: Unlike OpenID, which was supposed to have fulfilled this function, a Facebook ID already has value to the user, and so it's easy to move from that to using it to log in to other websites. Of course, Twitter can also serve that function, but not nearly as many websites offer login through Twitter as they do through Facebook; hopefully, that will change.

April 29, 2010

Video Games as Art

Like pretty much everyone under the age of 40, I found myself disagreeing with Roger Ebert's rather misguided polemic against the idea that video games can be art. Clearly there are a wealth of games out there now that not only include artistic accoutrements but also, like Braid or Passage, tweak the conventions of video games for artistic ends.

I think it's worth focusing on that latter aspect: To the extent that we can talk about video games as art, as opposed to mere entertainment, it's because art games typically do something that is common in modern art in particular, which is to comment on the norms that have accumulated around video games over the past 20-30 years. Braid, for example, calls into question the assumptions embedded in save-the-princess adventure games going back to Mario and Zelda. Similarly, games like Shadow of the Colossus take a common video game goal -- kill the bad guys -- and subvert it: The protagonist is told by this disembodied voice to slay these beautiful, majestic creatures, and of course we, as the player, comply -- only to find out, too late, the true harm we have caused.

It may be helpful to think of video games as being more akin to the plastic arts, like painting, sculpture, or mixed media, than to narrative art forms like film or literature. Expecting video games to have the same sort of narrative density that a book or a movie have may be setting the bar too high, making it easy to dismiss video games as an art form. I like to think of a game like Passage as being like one of those interactive art installations you might find at MoMA or the Hirshhorn: It provides a singular moment of epiphany, rather than the presentation of a whole world. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I think the comparison to modern art is apt: Compared to, say, the Lascaux cave paintings or works from the Renaissance, modern art frequently is accused of not living up to traditional standards. ("My kid could paint that!" "My kid could play that and rack up a high score!") But, of course, modern art is supposed to challenge our assumptions about art and about the world, and it seems to me that those video games that aspire to that belong in the same category.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons