21 August 2010

Number One for 21-22 August 2010

Thought we were so grown up:

  • Why pick on nerds? [Overcoming Bias]
  • Why nerds are unpopular [Paul Graham]
  • Obama and gay marriage: A case study in ambition [The New Republic]
  • What's more valuable: a college or a stereo? [The New Republic]
  • When did the infovore evolve? [Mother Jones]
  • Eric Schmidt, creeper [Daring Fireball]
  • How to become an expert [Dan Drezner]
Kate Nash, "Merry Happy"

20 August 2010

Don't mention the war

WHO WINS WARS? There is the hippie answer--"No one, man." There is the Machtpolitik answer--"The strongest." And there is the thoughtful answer, which is contextual.

Consider the Second World War. Everyone knows the Allies won. But judging from the representation of the war in British memory you would find at least as many instances in which it is not altogether obvious that London was among the victors. 1984, famously, projected the material deprivations of London 1948 into the future; it was as much a work of observation as of speculation. And the weird nature of the postwar settlement made it hard for ordinary Britons to gloat about their role in winning the "good war":

By "winning" we can mean two things. The first is a question of contributions: Without X strategy or Y materiel, would the war had been won? The counterfactual then takes the form of "Had the U.S.S.R. not entered the war, would the U.K. and the U.S.A. not won?" or "Had the Western Allies made a separate peace in 1940, would the U.S.S.R. have defeated Nazi Germany?" These questions are impossible to answer for certain, but we can make a plausible case. In this instance, it becomes more plausible to argue for a solo Soviet victory, and even more for a solo Soviet near-loss, than for a joint Anglo-American victory or for a solo Anglo victory or near-loss. In this sense, then, it is meaningful to talk of the Soviet Union "winning" the war.

The more important sense is that of outcomes. Who in the international system benefited the most from the international environment at the war's end compared to their position at the war's beginning? This focus on relative power accords with most theorizing about the international system. A player who goes from having 10 percent of the distribution of power to 50 percent is strictly better off, regardless if the size of the pie has shrunk.

An alternative definition of winning, of course, would simply assert that the top-ranked player at the end of the period won. That is inadequate. It implies that a hegemon could engage in a costly, pointless battle, lose every engagement and waste scads of money, and yet still "win" simply because they didn't lose enough to become the second-ranked player.

As a corollary, I should note that it is much easier to identify the losers of a war: anyone who moves down the relative or ordinal league tables. The greatest loser, however, need not be the player who fell the farthest; here, losing the top spot and falling to second place may be much worse than falling from 25th place to 100th, given a flat distribution of powers (the familiar "long tail" effect).

There are three ways to measure changes in relative power. The first is strictly relative: Who arithmetically gained the most? A player that increases from 20 percent to 40 percent has probably gained more than anyone else in the system. This leads to the second definition: the moment at which changes in relative power lead to qualitative changes in the organization of the international system. The United States entered the Second World War as the largest power in a multipolar world; it exited the conflict the hegemon in a uni- or bipolar system. A system shift is a major consequence, and a system shift in your favor surely counts as a different category of "win."

I argue there is a third kind of victory: the relative proportion of relative gains. That is to say, in the universe where player A goes from a 20 to a 40 percent share as a consequence of war, he has doubled his share of power in the system; but if player B goes from a 2 percent share to a 10 percent share, they have quintupled theirs. Assuming that the structure of the system has not changed (that is, that A is not a unipole), I contend that player B is also a winner, and in some ways even more of a winner than A, since they have produced gains more efficiently.

Consider the Korean War. Arguably, the United States won; definitely, the North Koreans lost a lot and the South Koreans lost a little bit (in the short run). But I contend the real winner was the Mao regime, who was left with a firmer position at home and abroad.

Here are some other Startling Propositions which, as Dean Acheson would say, are clearer than the truth:
  1. Japan was the real winner of World War I. It managed to eliminate its major security threat (the USSR), marginalize its principal offshore competitor (the UK), and make major gains in China at low cost to itself.
  2. Southern poor whites were the real losers of World War II. The real winners? Northern industrialists.
  3. The real winner of the Seven Years' War was the United States of America. The real loser was Britain.
  4. Actually, the United States really did win the Spanish-American War.
  5. The winners of the Mexican War were Southern plantation owners. This was recognized at the time but bears repeating.
So many wars, so many revisionist papers. Who really won the Napoleonic Wars? Who really lost the War of the Spanish Succession? And so on. But one thing is clear provocative: The Communist Chinese regime also won the Cold War.

Number One for 20 August 2010

I don't have a single thing planned for today:
Pizzicato Five, "Such a beautiful girl like you"

18 August 2010

Number One for 18 August 2010

I'm not a fashionista or a consumerist:

Simona Molinari, "Egocentrica":

17 August 2010

Life is an application

Even William of Orange had to apply for jobs.
For years, one of the most important file folders on my computer has been called "Application Hell." Every resume, cover letter, portfolio, and list of recommenders I have sent to grad schools and employers for most of the past decade is in there (as well as some college application essays, just for the hell of it).

Applying for things is hateful. Nearly everyone hates being a salesman, and even practiced salesmen hate selling themselves. Yet the nature of modern life is that salesmanship is an essential skill. At the moment, I am collecting emails from people interested in taking a room in the house I share, and it is clear that they are treating the process for what it really is: an application-and-interview process no less irritating or important than a job search.

Why do we hate talking about ourselves? Even my most successful friends loathe writing cover letters or resumes. More to the point, even my friends who enjoy talking about themselves in any other context will postpone writing applications until the last possible moment, and when they do produce one it will be listless and ashamed.

There are three strategies to cope with applications. The first is to be a narcissistic sociopath:

But that path has some drawbacks.

The second is to have someone else write your application. (I know at least one professor who took this route; it worked not least because the spouse who wrote the tenure packet was an academic as well.) When this works, it works great, but it requires the other person to know you well and also to know how to handle applications--which is a rare combination.

The third is to grit your teeth and do it. Grit your teeth, not gnash them, because there is no use raging, raging against the writing of the C.V. It is trivially easy to spend more time complaining about the unfairness of a universe that requires such a noisy filter for matching people with jobs, roommates, and Match.com hookups than actually writing an application.

The good news is that it gets easier to write these applications with time, if for no other reason than that you have a well-stocked "Application Hell" folder of your own. The bad news is that it never feels any easier.

Number One for 17 August 2010

In a round of decades three stages stand out in a loop
  • Sorry to miss posting yesterday. Playing with the puppy took up a bit more free time than I'd expected.
  • There are many ways to waste time if you use Gmail. [Lifehacker, Simple Productivity, AlphaGeek, Best of the Web]
  • The grad school version mentions coping with neuroses [EHow]
  • Charlie Stross asks: What's the next bubble? My answer: AI. [Charles Stross]
  • Drezner says enough about Cordoba House as a threat to America; enough about saying critics of Cordoba House are threats to America [Dan Drezner]
  • Kevin Drum says not so fast [Calpundit]

14 August 2010

Number One for 14-15 August 2010

Your lies have spoiled two confessions:

Inara George, "Genius." This blog's Official Theme Song. (Or, given the theme of this blog, I should say this blog's anthem.)

13 August 2010

Number One for 13 August 2010

I walk the line like Johnny Cash:

Plushgun, "Just Impolite"

The Excitement of the Boring

CC image by Cliff1066
AMONG THE MAJOR MUSEUMS, none has less inherent interest than the Smithsonian's Postal Museum. It is a museum about ... the Postal Service.

A friend's Facebook update reminded me about its existence. I visited once, last year, and it is fair to say that I was just shy of enthralled. First, of course, I wanted to see what they made of the topic. For those of us who have been in the museum business, no matter how slightly, there is always some professional interest in seeing how a well-funded museum spends its funds. (I once spent ten minutes at the Georgia O'Keeffe museum examining how the curators had lit their galleries. For a few minutes, at least, that was more illuminating than the paintings themselves.)

In this case, what I really wanted to know was how you could bring to life the story of something that is inherently undramatic. The answer, it turns out, was lots of props--and a few good computer simulations. As a way of conveying history, this has the advantage of being tactile with the disadvantage of being a little misleading. Okay, so the Postal Service used to sort mail on trains, and so you have a caboose. But what does this tell us about how Rural Free Delivery reshaped rural life? And what do we learn about how the Postal Department was a major source of political patronage, helping to develop the American party system on a national basis?

This leads neatly to the second reason I wanted to visit, and that is that I genuinely find the history of the Postal Service interesting. And this isn't the only boring institution I care about--far from it. Of course, I'm using "boring" to refer to how most people, most of the time, see such institutions. And me, too. I'm no anorak or trainspotter. I'm not interested in learning the details of rate cards or the breed of pony used in the Pony Express.

WHAT INTERESTS ME INSTEAD is how transformations in such institutions shape everyday life. The existence of international postal reply coupons was the cause of the Ponzi scheme; the existence of the Sears Catalog made the Midwest habitable. And at the core of all such institutions is politics. True, economic and technical considerations matter, but their resolution is often guided by considerations of sheer power.

The Postal Service, like all other boring institutions, is in its way a product of the fundamental arrangements of power in society. And that makes it something worth paying attention to, at least a little bit, in a way that pop culture and high culture--which are more intrinsically more interesting--can't compete with.

12 August 2010

Number One for 12 August 2010

I'll ace any trivia quiz you bring on:
  • Kirk or Picard? Kirk. But Sir Patrick Stewart is obviously a better actor.
  • Favorite science fiction TV show? Tough to say...but it is probably Firefly.
  • Favorite comic book series? Avengers
  • Favorite comic book issue? Fantastic Four 262, "The Trial of Reed Richards"
  • Favorite DC character? Batman.
  • Favorite Marvel character? Victor Von Doom.
  • Desired superpower? Phoenix's.
  • Favorite Cylon? Eight.
  • Favorite sf novel? The Man in the High Castle. Very, very close second: A Canticle for Leibowitz.
  • Favorite sf short story? Actually, "The Rocket Man" (Ray Bradbury, R is for Rocket). At least five of my top 10 would be Bradbury. And three of them would be from Martian Chronicles?.
  • Favorite SF movie (non-series)? Blade Runner
  • Favorite SF movie (series)? Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
  • Luke or Han? Han.

Resurrecting "Poseur"

Probably not exactly fair use.
WHEN I WAS in middle school, the worst insult anyone could hurl at you was "poseur." Did you claim to like rap but not own any Snoop Dogg CDs? Did you say that you were a Cardinals fan but never watch the games? Then, clearly, you were a poseur.

I think that this is an insult whose day has come again.

The concept of the poseur is superficially related to the concept of authenticity, but without any of the troublesome ideological overtones. "Authenticity," after all, is a purely artificial concept. (As Ernest Gellner's readers know, the "authentic" Ruritanian is the Megalomanian who behaves the way actual Ruritanians would act if only they were enlightened.) But a poseur, by contrast, is a fake. He knows just enough to skate by in casual conversation or the everyday presentation of self, but he really doesn't have any claim to the status he claims for himself. Accordingly, anyone can be a poseur in any dimension. You can pose as a comic book fan, and even pass as ones to most people, but five minutes of conversation with someone who knows what they're talking about will reveal you as a poser.

The greatest asset of resurrecting the "poseur" tag will not be in adding a new insult to our quiver, but in deterring behavior that smacks of poseurdom. All of us feel the temptation from time to time to pose. But if we're more afraid of being caught out than we are tempted of putting on a false front, then we may be able to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect.

So let's all start acting like middle schoolers again. Sometimes, kids can be just cruel enough.