Friday, October 15, 2010

Freedom of the Press in China

If I may speak on a serious note for a moment, I would like to draw the attention of all readers to the letter found at the link below.

If there is a political position to which I lend my unqualified support, it is that of Chinese reformers as exemplified in these demands, sent to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on October 1, 2010, the 61st anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, and just days after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo.

Let no one be under the illusion that a rising GDP means a freer country. There is all the difference in the world between a country where you really have to watch what you say and one where you don't. Having spent three years of my life in China, I have learned that a diminution of my neighbour's freedom likewise diminishes my own. Let us raise a glass to the brave and principled men and women who have signed their names to this letter that is at once a critique of the Communist Party and an appeal to the constitution in the name of the Chinese people. They ask nothing than to be governed by law, rather than caprice.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Correspondence

Aside from spending money like water, my first wife did not engage in the sort of behaviour depicted in the correspondence below. Yet my own introduction to her former in-laws, the Warringtons, was something of an inspiration. And come to think of it, the woman described below could be imagined giving her daughter a roughish time, as my wife did to our daughter Flavia. And expensive glassware was often broken in our home. But sad to say, the only relative I can imagine driving a Mercedes through the scullery is my dear granddaughter, Pamela. In her name, I propose a toast to the ice princesses and impossible, hysterical women of the world.

A Correspondence

Dear Nathan,

It was so pleasant to enjoy your company last weekend here at Oak Hill. To relax with old friends in such a setting is truly a pleasure.

I hope your memories of this weekend won’t be marred by the unpleasantness of our last afternoon. I trust Jill’s injuries weren’t serious.



Dear Charles,

Thank you for the gracious hospitality you showed Jill and I this weekend. You two certainly have a lovely home. I particularly enjoyed the amber Nicaraguan rum. You have spoiled my usual fare. One must, of course, imbibe cautiously. Indeed, I wonder if, had you heeded my advice and tried to prevent your wife from emptying the last third of the bottle in one impressive, vile gesture, this incident might have been avoided. Jill and I spent the night in hospital. She has suffered a concussion and a tooth seems to be missing. I’m not certain what effect this will have on the commercial.



Monday, October 4, 2010

Boffles on Immigration

Having lived in several countries and being of cosmopolitan tastes, having once been married to a French tennis star, and having always thought interracial coupling was rather a good idea, I am inclined to a liberal stance on immigration. I was thus pleased to hear economist Bryan Caplan's spirited defense of an open immigration policy. His podcast with Russ Roberts is available here:

Rather than recapitulate Caplan's argument entire, I'll limit myself to a couple of his more interesting observations. Against the common argument that immigrants are a drain on social welfare programs, Caplan notes that we must first distinguish between government provisions that amount to public goods and those whose price tag increases with the number of beneficiaries. National defense is the quintessential public good. The US need not pay for additional nuclear weapons in order to defend an increased population. Indeed, a higher population merely broadens the tax base through which such programs are funded. The same logic applies to the per-person burden imposed by US government debt. Even when we turn to social welfare provisions like welfare, medicaid, medicare and social security, the proportion of these expenditures directed to the poor, as compared with the elderly, is small. Moreover, as immigrants tend to come in their prime working years, their taxes contribute to the care of the elderly while other governments have paid for their schooling. The benefits of this education are reaped by the recipient nation.

(As an aside, readers who bemoan American debt levels may be interested in this data:

These figures do not include consumer debt).

If you are among those disturbed by the anti-immigration outcries of your more provincially-minded brethren, give them your pity and don't be overly troubled. It's correlated with generations. I doubt whether individuals change their views too often. But societies do, as some perspectives die with their proponents.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Social Media and Political Mobilization

Writing in the New Yorker recently, Malcom Gladwell questioned the fashionable belief that the proliferation of online social media has profound implications for social movements that should concern authoritarian governments. He notes that historically, hierarchical organizations characterized by strong interpersonal ties among members have been most effective at mobilizing in the face of potential violence. That is, when the risks associated with action are high, the willingness of a small number of deeply committed individuals to bear high costs is more significant than the willingness of large numbers of loosely connected individuals to bear low costs.

If the spread of social media are so politically inconsequential , how are we to explain the mis-allocation of resources on the part of authoritarian regimes that seek to limit access to these media? Are the regimes stupid? Is the cost of this monitoring so low that it is undertaken as a hedge against the (perhaps) small risk that social media might lead to ant-regime social movements? I would not characterize these expenses as low, owing to both the required manpower (60,000 web monitors in China) and the international reputation costs of engaging in censorship. Nor do I think they perceive the risks as so inconsequential. The thousands of protests that occur in China each year are localized, and no doubt the ringleaders of these protests share personal connections. Despite the proliferation of these protests, they are characterized by local concerns and share no uniting vocabulary of critique. Government control of social media is designed to keep it that way. Groups with high levels of solidarity and grievances abound, but modern social media provide low-cost means of aggregating these groups into an organization of geographic breadth.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who is Boffles?

I have been described as having "elaborately good manners". I have a shrapnel wound which bothers me in thundery weather.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Universe. What is it?

One view of the relation between knowledge and objective reality is represented by the above figure. The truth (say, the nature of the Universe)is represented by the X-Y axis, and our understanding of this reality by the curve. Note that while we can only approach reality, it is presumed that this reality exists and is not merely a construction that emerges from our knowledge-seeking activity.

This approach would seem humble enough. We might describe this relationship between the scientist and objective reality as similar to that between the questioner in a game of 20 Questions and the object of his search. In the traditional form of this game, the truth is determined and the questioner seeks it through what amounts to hypothesis generation.

Imagine, however, another way of playing 20 Questions. Rather than the group selecting an answer before questioning begins, in this version the questioning begins and respondents answer yes or no randomly. The only order imposed is the requirement that each response not contradict earlier responses. This poses a bit of a challenge, but a patient and clever group can handle it. Might not this process characterize the way knowledge is produced? Might what we take to be the objective reality of the universe be nothing but a set of internally consistent answers to the questions we see fit to ask of it?

Mike and Dave write a Japanese lesbian love story.

D: So they’re sitting at the library, right?
M: Yes, on the uppermost floor. For privacy’s sake.
D: Books are strewn about.
M: In a most haphazard fashion.
D: What are they studying, then?
M: Oh, I don’t know. Does that matter?
D: Sure, gives a bit of atmosphere.
M: Hmm, that’s true. We need to create atmosphere.
D: Atmosphere’s important. Have to get it just right.
M: Well, what do Japanese schoolgirls study, then?
D: Let’s make them math books.
M: Any particular reason?
D: Well, Mike, we want them to be clever girls, don’t we?
M: Yes.
D: They’re not just a couple of bimbos.
M: No.
D: They’re modern girls, postmodern even, with complex characters.
M: Who study math.
D: Well, I was thinking that graphs and equations would look good on film. We’re cultivating a studious air.
M: A studious atmosphere.
D: Exactly. This is the story of a girl being drawn away from her studies, forgetting the sacrifices her poor parents have made for her, forsaking the many opportunities that lay before her, all for the sake of teenage lesbian love.
M: The one girl must be as studious as the other is hot.
D: Yes. They’re a mutually constitutive dramatic dyad.

M: Well, let’s focus on what the hot girl should look like.