Making Our Own Reality

Today the LA Times ran four letters about President Obama's Middle East speech. Here's how three of them started:

Howard Karlitz: In his speech explicitly stating America's friendship with Israel and our commitment to its security, President Obama urged the Israelis to return to their 1967 borders as a means of securing peace....

Kenneth L. Zimmerman: Setting the borders for a Palestinian state the way they were before the 1967 war is the only reasonable solution....

Mike Sacks: Given the logic of Obama's proposal that Israel return to the pre-1967 borders, the following should also occur....

Obama, of course, didn't propose that Israel return to its 1967 borders. I would like to repeat that for posterity while there's still a chance that someone might believe me:

In his speech on Thursday, President Obama didn't propose that Israel return to its 1967 borders.

How is it that this has seemingly become conventional wisdom in just a few short days? Obama's formulation, after all was crystal clear and only 19 words long: "We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating on those exact terms for decades.

I don't really know what's happened here. Is it the power of Fox News? The power of AIPAC? Just the age-old power of people to hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe? I dunno. But it's really pretty stunning to see this kind of historical revisionism become so widespread so fast.

The State of Play in Israel

Matt Yglesias on the aftermath of Bibi Netanyahu's hamhanded public lecturing of the current president of the United States last week, which largely produced bipartisan attacks on the president:

Despite Obama’s lack of desire to shift US policy, he’s subject to opportunistic political attacks from members of the opposition party, attacks which are echoed rather than rebutted by members of his own political coalition. Meanwhile, despite an overhyped trend toward younger Jewish American adopting more sympathetic views toward Palestinians, the fact of the matter is that the Palestinian cause is deeply and increasingly unpopular in the United States.

....It turns out that it’s not true that Israel needs to be willing to make tactical concessions to the Palestinians or even be polite to the White House in order to retain American support. Israel has a basically free hand to behave as it wishes, taking the pieces of the West Bank it wants....If liberal American Jews think this strategy is morally wrong (I do!) or that it’s a strategic mistake for the United States to go along with it (me too!), that it involves denying sufficient weight to the objective humanity of Palestinians, then we ought to say that. Simply assuming that it can’t work is, I think, a slightly naive read of the situation.

This is roughly correct. I happen to think Netanyahu's approach is probably disastrous for Israel in the long term, but that's certainly debatable. For better or worse, Netanyahu and his allies have very clearly decided that they can live without peace pretty much forever, occupying the land they currently occupy and keeping a stifling military presence in the rest of the West Bank. And they've also decided that their support in the United States is strong enough that they don't even have to be civil to a sitting U.S. president, let alone make actual concessions to him.

And maybe they're right. I don't see how this state of affairs can last forever, but it can probably last longer than I think. The Israeli and American right has correctly concluded that no one can stop them, after all.

A Marketing Geek Look at the GOP Primary

Michael Grunwald, after observing that the Republican Party is increasingly untethered from reality, notes that there are now two kinds of GOP presidential candidates left, reality-based and wingnuts, and two possible outcomes for them, either beating Obama or losing to him. He then analyzes each possibility, which I've taken the liberty of converting into a sort of bastardized BCG matrix:

If Huntsman or Romney wins the nomination, and then Obama wins the election, the GOP will quickly shift from “loosely tethered to reality” to “out of its freaking mind.” Remember, after its crushing defeat in 2008, the party faithful concluded that John McCain lost the election because he wasn’t conservative enough—and that George W. Bush lost his popularity because of his big spending....A Huntsman or Romney defeat would just prove to the party that electoral salvation lies in ideological purity and rigid obstructionism, the kind of conclusion that already appeals to Tea Party activists who consider Obama some kind of tyrannical socialist usurper.

....On the other hand, if Huntsman or Romney wins the nomination and then beats Obama, the Republican Party might rediscover big-tent reality-based policies. (It’s also possible that Huntsman or especially Romney would cut reality loose.) Similarly, if a Tea Party true believer like Sarah Palin or even former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum wins the nomination, and then Obama wins the election, the Republican Party might have a Goldwater moment where it starts to reconsider its small-tent extremism. (It’s also possible—maybe likely—that it would devise some excuse why Palin or Santorum had sold out conservatism.) And if a reality-denying extremist actually beats Obama, well, then we’re in trouble, because reality-denial isn’t going to fix the double-dip recession we must have had to make a reality-denier electable.

I endorse this pretty much completely. It's not a sure thing, by any means, but these four scenarios do seem the most likely to me. If you rank the probability of each one happening and then multiply by the badness of the outcome, you can also make an informed decision about whether you hope Republicans nominate someone at least modestly reality-based.

I continue to hope that they nominate Michele Bachmann. From this, can you deduce the probabilities and badnesses I assign to each square?

Connie Willis, the Nebulas, and Me

I see that the Nebula Awards are out, and Connie Willis won in the novel category for her two-part story1 Blackout/All Clear. I think this might officially mark my final estrangement from the science fiction community. I'm a big fan of Willis, and a few months ago I bought both books and dived into them pretty eagerly. And they were terrible. Over the course of a thousand pages, Willis seemed to have almost no interest in building any kind of engaging narrative at all; the characters behaved throughout like scared high school students (in the end, the exception turns out to be the only character who is a high school student); arbitrary coincidences and artificial secrecy were jammed in repeatedly to keep the plot from falling apart completely; and the resolution of the main time travel story was almost nonexistent. I repeatedly felt like throwing the book at the wall in frustration and giving up entirely on it.

In other words, it was a mess. Willis's real goal seemed less to tell a story than to exhibit her encyclopedic knowledge of British life during the Blitz. This would have been fine if her storytelling had genuinely conveyed a sense of what it was like to live during that period, but it never really did. So even that fell through.

There was, however, one rewarding aspect of making it to the end. My most common complaint with modern novels is that they're usually extremely well crafted — often elegantly so — but the authors simply can't create an ending to match the buildup. I don't know why. But Blackout/All Clear was exactly the opposite, and I can't remember the last time that happened to me. I was continuously annoyed with the novel from about page 300 on, but that annoyance stopped during the final hundred pages or so. The ending of Blackout/All Clear was terrific. It was, in the end, a story about the power of family and upbringing, and that story was both affecting and powerful.

Did that make the previous 900 pages worth it? No. But it erased some of the sting.

As for the rest of the Nebula nominees, I haven't read any of them, and four of the authors I've never read anything by. I just hardly read any science fiction these days, and I'm not sure why. I don't think there's anything wrong with sf itself, since lots of people still like the current output, but I'm disappointed almost every time I pick something up. Last year the only sf I read was a couple of books by China Miéville, both highly recommended, but neither one did anything for me. I actively disliked Perdido Street Station and was only mildly interested in The City and the City. I've morphed into an almost pure nonfiction reader these days. I don't like this much, but I'm not sure what to do about it.

1Speaking of this, what do you call a two-part novel? A diptych? A duology? There's no equivalent to trilogy or tetralogy, is there? So what's the accepted term of art?

Publicizing the Rapture

I haven't paid too much attention to rapture-mania, but I have vaguely wondered why Harold Camping is getting so much attention. Slow news week? Hollywood tie-in? What? Today the LA Times provides the answer:

The former engineer has long predicted the apocalypse, most famously in 1994, but his new date — May 21, 2011 — has received unprecedented publicity. That is thanks to a worldwide $100-million campaign of caravans and billboards, financed by the sale and swap of TV and radio stations....[Camping's longtime producer, Matt Tuter] thinks $100 million is a conservative figure for the money Camping has spent publicizing May 21.

OK then. Now I know. More details here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 May 2011

Today is catnip day. On Sunday I mentioned that my research forays into quantum mechanics were halted when Inkblot got distracted by some Cosmic Catnip. That's because we keep the Cosmic Catnip on a shelf right above the stove, where he was watching our water boil. So here he is, being distracted. On the right, Domino is being distracted by one of our catnip plants. Actually, I think she pretty much uprooted the poor thing. But that's OK. Catnip plants are cheap. We can put in another one pretty easily and she'll never be the wiser.

Bibi and Barack at the White House

Bibi Netanyahu and Fox News have now made it crystal clear — over and over and over — that Israel will never return to its 1967 borders. The dissimulation here is really pretty staggering. They're just hellbent on giving everyone listening to them the impression that this is what President Obama has proposed.

He hasn't, of course. No American president ever has. Full stop. It's really pretty loathsome listening to these guys doing their best to pretend otherwise.

Still, maybe it's all for the best. If Obama's utterance of the word 1967 is really so revolutionary, maybe it ought to be out on the table. Likewise, I'm fine with Netanyahu saying categorically that the right of return is a dead letter. It is, after all, and there's not a lot of point in pretending otherwise.

Still, I noticed during the press conference that we aren't entirely free of euphemisms yet. Netanyahu stammered a bit when he talked about Israel's borders and then very carefully referred to "demographic changes on the ground over the past 44 years" that made its 1967 borders unacceptable. Needless to say, there's nothing demographic at all about those changes. Israel won a war started by the other side, it occupied some of their territory, and then it decided to take some of that territory forever. We can argue endlessly about whether any of this was justified, but "demographic changes" is definitely not the usual way of referring to territory seized in a war.

Playing Musical Chairs With LinkedIn

Ryan Chittum highlights an odd warning from LinkedIn management in a recent SEC filing:

It also warned investors, in its recent filing, that it expected its revenue growth to slow as costs increased. It said it did not expect to be profitable in 2011.

Huh? When costs increase your profitability might suffer, but there's no reason that rising costs should affect your sales figures. This really makes no sense. But perhaps it explains why the same folks who blew up the housing bubble are madly blowing up a LinkedIn bubble right now. They know it's all rubbish, but they're just hoping to get out before the music stops, leaving suckers like you and me holding the bag. It worked pretty well before, after all.

Chart of the Day: Where the Debt Comes From

What accounts for the growing U.S. debt load? You already know the answer, but CBPP has a new chart that lays it out yet again. What we're interested in is public debt — that is, debt that the government actually owes to other people. It's this debt that can cause problems if it gets out of hand. So here's where our projected debt in 2019 comes from:

[This chart] shows that the Bush-era tax cuts and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — including their associated interest costs — account for almost half of the projected public debt in 2019 (measured as a share of the economy) if we continue current policies.

Altogether, the economic downturn, the measures enacted to combat it (including the 2009 Recovery Act), and the financial rescue legislation play a smaller role in the projected debt increase over the next decade. Public debt due to all other factors fell from over 30 percent of GDP in 2001 to 20 percent of GDP in 2019.

Put this one up on your refrigerator along with the last one. Then, if a friend comes over after watching Glenn Beck and insists that we're doomed, just point to the chart. If you want to save America from a crushing future debt burden, you need to repeal the Bush tax cuts, get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and stop pursuing austerity policies that will slow down economic recovery.

Once we've done that, then it's time to talk about Medicare. But the other stuff comes first.

Free Parking

Yesterday the LA Times ran a story about a special parking ticket service for local VIPs that it called "Gold Card" service. I didn't actually read the story and assumed that was just a catchy name the Times was using. But no. It turns out there is, literally, a Gold Card:

The service, which few outside of city government appear to know about, partly involves a plastic parking bureau "Gold Card" that is distributed to city offices. It includes a special phone number to call and on the back side notes that the holder may have an "urgent need to resolve any parking citation matter which requires special attention." It promises "you will be immediately connected to our Gold Card Specialist."

....[City controller Wendy] Greuel's audit said the Gold Card referral service is provided exclusively to the mayor's office and council district offices.

....Sarah Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Villaraigosa, said the mayor's office had periodically used the program as one of many ways to help constituents. Callers who thought they didn't deserve certain citations are referred to the Gold Card Desk, she said, adding that the program is open to anyone, not just VIPs or insiders.

"Any resident of the city who feels they received a citation in error, or who needs a sidewalk repaired or graffiti removed can call the mayor's office for assistance," Hamilton said. The Gold Card Desk is a comparable "resource for constituents."

I just love that line. As the Times story makes clear, however, virtually no one who's a non-insider even knows this program exists, let alone uses it.1 And the most common reason for tossing out tickets? Inability to pay — "a complaint Greuel's investigation portrayed as a dubious reason for dismissal." Indeed. Isn't life wonderful for the rich and famous?

1Take Danny Legans, for example. "I wish they did let us know about it," he told a Times reporter as he was paying an $88 ticket. Legans then asked officials inside about the program but was told it did not exist. "They said there is no such thing. You can't appeal. They told me: You have 30 days to pay this ticket or it will be doubled."