Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Naked and the Dead

Another memorial book, since the author passed away just recently. Not up to even attempting a full review just now, so...

A few reactions to and comments about The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

Starting with the spoiler alert and capsule review. I really can't say much of anything about this book without giving things away. However, it is a good book, and it's worth reading for its various merits, and if you're at all inclined to do so, for now you might as well take my word for it and you should go ahead and read it, and you can read my meanderings later on. I think you'll even be surprised by the way the book transitions, but I definitely think there's plenty of interesting material there. Now you've been warned, and I'm about to start giving things away. Are you sure you don't want to go read it first?

The book is mostly a character study, and even though the characters are fictitious, they feel amazingly true to life. He really does capture the spirit of real people and places all over America. Part of this is done in the shifting viewpoints of the main story of the battle for the imaginary island, but there are also 'time machine' snippets of mini-biographies of various characters.

The reason this is qualifies as a book Dubya wouldn't read is because of the profoundly anti-war message. At first it seems like it is glorifying the heroism of the soldiers, but in the end the whole thing just seems pointless. The leading character, the platoon sergeant, has to be dismissed as a vicious killer, and his brave men as a bunch of cowards who are just most afraid of him. One of the nicest characters in the book is the lieutenant who is set up and effectively murdered by the sadistic sergeant, though the Japanese do the actual shooting. The character that Mailer probably most closely identified himself with is killed by falling off a cliff for no particular reason in a pointless 'mission' that is ultimately aborted by a wasp's nest. Turned out that the outcome of the campaign had already been determined some months ago, but the American intelligence was so poor that they just didn't know it yet. If they had interrogated a few of the prisoners they were so eager to exercute, they would have known that, and the main result of the delay before they find out is to make the slaughter go more quickly in the end. Probably the most heroic effort in the entire book was the futile attempt to rescue the wounded soldier, but all that accomplishes is to cause a lot of extra suffering before he dies--and then they lose the body, too. The general's main concern is to rewrite the official history so he can claim credit for a flanking invasion that didn't matter, either.

There was an interesting part starting from page 247 about the big lie and the prediction that America would have a big Red scare and then slide into fascism. Considering when it was written (around 1946), that part of it looks pretty prescient, even amazing.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Guns, Germs and Steel

This one has an unusual context in that it was recommended by a very senior and well known programmer who must also be a very shrewd judge of character on the basis of a couple of email exchanges...

Shallow Review of the Deep Book Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years by Jared Diamond

How to justify this one for this blog? Usually the reviewed books are current and have overtly political themes, but this one is pretty straight history and was published in 1997. However, it definitely isn't the sort of book that Dubya seems likely to read or understand, so I guess that's the main justification. There was a chapter about kleptocracy, which was a notion I'd never heard of but which I've already encountered elsewhere, but nothing overtly directed towards the coming neo-GOP government. Kleptocrat certainly applies to some of the current crop of neo-GOP leaders... Under extreme time pressure (with the book due back at the library tomorrow) and being a bit tired, this one is mostly just going to be notes and reactions.

The overall perspective is very high level. The author notes that he's covering an average of 150 years per page per continent, which is certainly booking. (Pun intended.) The thematic question was posed by a fellow in New Guinea, who asked why the people outside New Guinea had so much 'cargo', as they refer to most of our worldly possessions. To answer the question Diamond mostly focuses on the history of food production and how it influenced migration. The guns and steel of the title represent the technology made possible by accumulated food surpluses, and the germs are awkward side effects mostly acquired from domesticated animals, but devastating to the unprepared hunter-gatherers. The basic idea is that Eurasia had better natural resources, especially for plants that could be domesticated, and a big head start, and that's why they won. This is a very wide web of a book. He draws evidence from linguistics and anthropology and carbon dating and historical records and archeology and genetics and various other areas, and weaves it into a very cohesive presentation.

It's kind of a funny thing, because I regard myself as very broad and shallow, and he is clearly a very deep scholar in a number of areas, but... In one of the few areas where I do have a bit of depth, it turns out that he's wrong. That was his discussion of the Japanese language, which has a totally incorrect presentation of the Japanese writing system. I actually see how some aspects of the Japanese reality could be incorporated into his presentation to actually strengthen it, but this sort of mistake does make you wonder about other details of the book. As a result of that, I found myself more skeptical about some of his other examples where he appealed to Japanese examples for such topics as guns restrictions in Japan. Japanese-related topics actually appeared many times in the book, though the final one was a place where he skipped over Japan's probable involvement. He mentioned that China gave up navies, but he didn't mention that before that several Chinese fleets had perished in typhoons when they were attempting to attack Japan.

Another omission was The Mismeasure of Man. Actually, quite a bit of Gould's work seemed relevant to his topics, but there certainly wasn't any mention in the text, and I didn't spot anything in the appendix about additional reading, though he closed the general section with a famous book that was basically an attack on Gould's book. I'm pretty sure that Gould's revised edition, which included a response to that book, was published several years before this one--but still no mention of it.

To quickly mention the topic of kleptocracy, I kept expecting him to start ranting about "property is theft", but he kept it on more reasoned basis. He wasn't very consistent there, seeming to agree that there were some large scale projects and good works that were sometimes done by governments, but that the idea was basically theft. I'd prefer to regard it as a greedocracy... Anyway, I felt that his political theorizing was a relatively weak part of the book.

Near the end he's talking about the study of history as a science... He includes various aphorisms about history, but he left out the one I regard as the quasi-official joke of my own history department at Rice: "The only lesson you learn from history is that no one learns any lessons from history." He never heard of it? Or it cuts too hard against the grain of his thesis that history is worth studying?

Interesting read, and lots of food for thought--but not sure if I should recommend it to a general audience. Well, Dubya should read it, but mostly to keep him out of mischief for a few months. Can't expect him to learn anything by it.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sicko (the movie)

Usually these blog entries are about books that Dubya obviously hasn't read and won't read, but this time it's about a movie he's unlikely to see. I suppose it's possible, but he wouldn't like it and it would probably bruise his bubble, since he appears a couple of times in predictably unfavorable lights. (However, none of those appearances actually made enough of an impression to make it into my review of the movie...)

Review of Sicko by Michael Moore

Not at all sure where to start with this one. There are so many perspectives I could write from. It's a movie that I'd been hearing quite a bit about for some months and I was even looking forward to seeing it. I've decided to start with particulars and move to the more general conclusions.

The first particulars regard the circumstances of seeing the movie. It arrived in Tokyo yesterday, quite a while after its release in America. Compared to the debut of Fahrenheit 9/11 several years ago, I felt the response was tepid. There was a long line to see Fahrenheit 9/11 when it arrived here, and my recollection is that many of the showings were sold out. However, Sicko is apparently not being widely promoted, and several of the theaters where I asked about it have no plans to show it. The theater where I saw it has about 140 seats, but I'd estimate that only about 100 seats were filled in my showing, the second showing on its first day in Japan. I don't think that's because of the effective blacklisting of Michael Moore in the States, but probably reflects a basic irrelevance of the theme to Japanese people. What's to discuss from the Japanese perspective? Japan has universal health coverage via mandated health insurance, and there just isn't much relevance here. Then again, perhaps the blacklisting is effective in keeping non-Japanese out of the theater? I spoke to two foreigners about Sicko later in the day, and the American immediately dismissed it, while the Canadian said he wasn't planning to see it any time soon. Serendipitously, a Japanese physician overheard one of those conversations, and did ask about it, but only briefly. It did make me curious how Japan deals with uninsured people such as transient foreigners, but basically it seems like a very minor problem here. The health care system in Japan works, and works well. Why should the Japanese be interested about those American problems?

As I turn to the actual topic, I feel like I need to back up a bit... Since this is such a personal issue, I feel like I should intrude with some of the particulars of my own medical experiences, because they have to color my perception of the issues here. I suppose it's an interesting point that every reviewer of the movie does have relevant personal experiences, one way or the other. Do they just ignore them? Anyway, in my own youth in the States I was mostly happy-go-lucky about it, and didn't worry about medical insurance. I do remember some fairly major medical incidents, but I managed to get by. Upon reflection, I think I may have been slid under the table a couple of times. For example, I had a fairly serious eye procedure that I now suspect was partly subsidized as research. When I was in boot camp, they wanted to pull my wisdom teeth, but I wanted a second opinion and my recollection is that I later wound up paying $165 for a civilian dentist to do that work. No insurance, but I'm surprised to see (via a bit of Web searching) that the price apparently hasn't changed that much. My last major medical incident in the States involved a motorcycle accident, and I remember that one of the first things they did when I arrived at the hospital was introduce me to a woman who was some sort of payment counselor. Her job was apparently to help make sure I would be able to pay for it all, and it turned out to be quite expensive, too. Fortunately, the other driver was clearly and obviously at fault, so I was sure he was going to pay for it. His insurance company almost immediately offered his coverage limit as a settlement, and since I thought that would cover my medical costs, I accepted. It turned out that it was enough money, but not by much, and it really didn't cover my losses if you considered things like lost income. (I was a contract programmer in those days, and I lost a lot of working time.) At the time, I knew I could have sued him and probably received a judgment for about double the settlement, but I didn't want to. After I saw all the bills and after they ate up the settlement, I wasn't so happy-go-lucky about medical costs, but a few years after that I came to Japan, and the problem went away. I've been sick a few times in Japan, but it just isn't an issue here. Trivial particular directly related to Sicko involves the woman whose insurance company bailed on covering her ambulance ride. I remember that as costing about $700 when I needed it in the States, but in Japan it's just a free service. For this part I can say that I've lived with and received medical care under both systems, and I prefer the Japanese approach. Enough prelude:

The movie started with a couple of stories about uninsured people. The footage of a fellow sewing up his own injury was rather shocking, actually, but he was very matter of fact about it. The other story was the widely publicized piece about the fellow who cut off two fingers and could only afford to reattach the cheaper one. Michael Moore noted that about 18,000 people die each year because of their lack of medical insurance, but said he wasn't going to say more about them. However, the film always skirted around the edge of the uninsured issue, because many of the cases included in the film involved various kinds of losses of medical insurance or fear of losing medical coverage. Also, the section about the charity cases being dumped on Skid Row was obviously about uninsured people...

Most of the first half was just sob stories, though Michael Moore didn't really try to jerk tears there. My feeling was that he was deliberately trying to keep it light, though there were still places where I felt close to tears. It seemed to me that he deliberately decided against the tearful approach, both in the stories he selected and in the way he handled them. He tried to focus on the upbeat and humorous side of people who wanted to keep fighting for their own better health. There was some fairly aggressive coverage of claims denials and policy rejections, but it still seemed like a relatively light touch. For example, I felt he could have gone much farther with specifics when he was interviewing the fellow who had worked as a investigator for the insurance companies.

The transition point away from problems in the American system involved a young woman whose insurance was canceled when she developed an age-inappropriate medical problem. (This was also where Michael Moore became more visible in the movie rather than just being a disembodied voice.) Her long-term solution was to commit fraud against the Canadian government by exploiting their free health care system. She did seem basically troubled by this unethical solution, but maybe she took the ethical way out and actually married her Canadian friend and accomplice. Michael Moore actually suggested as much, and the closing credits included a jovial plug to marry Canadians for their health coverage, along with a link to, a real website which currently includes a link back to Michael Moore's website.

Hereabouts Michael Moore inserted some footage of American criticisms of the Canadian health system, focusing on such things as quality problems and long waiting times, so he used that as an excuse to investigate the Canadian system. This was especially a place where I felt a more conventional and systematic approach would have been good, but Michael Moore just treated it very informally. He just walked around and talked to people. Okay, it's a valid sampling approach, but I felt like I wanted statistics more than essentially random samples. However, I'm not sure how he could have done it while maintaining the light tone. Perhaps a news ticker at the bottom of the screen with statistics in synchronization with the people he was interviewing? For example, the ticker could show average waiting times while he interviews someone who reports an actual waiting time.

I've already forgotten the transition rationale, but he had some excuse for continuing with the British system. Again there were lots of fairly random interviews with people who seemed basically satisfied not to worry about paying for their health. This section included a fairly long interview with a British doctor who seemed to be doing quite well even though he was involved in socialized medicine. Actually, the topic of 'socialized medicine' was an area where Michael Moore played a kind of interesting game. In several places he deliberately used propagandistic and polemical footage, but as a kind of humorous contrast, treating the demonization of universal health coverage as a kind of sick joke, which he then contrasted with the successful realities.

I felt the transition to France was actually rather abrupt and loose, but by now it was quite clear that Michael Moore did not want the movie to feel tightly structured (which also made the time feel like it was flying). This part of the movie actually had a number of complicated focuses that were jumped over rather quickly. Of course the primary focus was the French medical system, with a lot of the reporting coming from Americans living in France. That included an interesting segment where he rode around with a doctor who was making house calls. A lot of minor ailments are evidently handled at great convenience to the patients. A secondary focus was on the cost in terms of taxes paid, and Michael Moore's primary response there was just interviewing a middle class couple to show that they seemed to have a very nice lifestyle, taxes notwithstanding. The generous vacation laws in France got more coverage here. The final focus was on French democracy in action, with Michael Moore's theory being that the French government is much more afraid of the French voters than the American government vis a vis the American voters. That's a topic you could easily make an entire documentary on, but it was basically just a passing item here, though it was clear Michael Moore admired the vigor of French democracy.

Again there was a loose transition, this time back to America to consider some women who were dumped by hospitals. The impression I had here was that it was just a sad story that he felt was too powerful to cut. Or maybe he was moved by the coincidence of the second woman who was dumped just before he arrived to film the story about the first one. He did use this topic as the basis of one of the most structured transitions in the film. He considered the question of fair treatment for the least among us, taking these poor and elderly women as examples, before asking about fair treatment for the greatest among us, taking the heroes of 9/11 as his new examples.

In this part of the movie he focused on three of the 9/11 rescue workers who had gotten sick as a result of their 9/11-related work and who were now in need of medical treatment that they couldn't afford. I'm not sure where he got the idea of linking Guantanamo Bay into it. Something about the mixture of inhuman incarceration with frequent accusations of torture mixed with glowing descriptions of the medical treatment the prisoners received? Anyway, I don't feel like he even tried to establish a basis for expecting they could get any medical treatment there, but the real point all along was to make an excuse for comparing America's medical system to Cuba's. In a more classic documentary, I think the director would have made much more of the differences in national priorities and the results. Cuba is a very poor nation under intense pressure for many years, but because they give a very high priority to health care, they are able to provide care that on average is quite close to what America provides with a very low priority. He did mention how Cubans have longer life expectancies than Americans, but mostly this section felt like he was just trying to make America feel ashamed. I felt like he did a pretty good job of it, actually, though I suppose the cold-blooded documentary approach would have been to focus more heavily on the cost-effectiveness aspects, which he only touched in passing.

After that, the movie ended rather abruptly. Lightly structured to the end. However, there were a couple of interesting items in the credits. I already mentioned the Canadian website. However, the big item was a sharp dig at one of his critics, and this incident struck me fairly powerfully, which is enough justification for Michael Moore to have included it in the film. It was handled in a rather ironic way, but he got me curious enough to investigate the details and they were easily found. Turns out his critic had some financial problems related to the lack of universal medical coverage in America. Now this is not just some guy who dislikes Michael Moore, but (based on viewing his website) an angry lunatic who has dedicated a large part of his life to attacking him. It's not just an amusing hobby for this guy, but a major expense, and when his wife got sick he was reduced to begging for money to keep his anti-Michael-Moore website up. This already seems absurd to me, but maybe that's because I have this weird thing against begging. Me, I'd just say sorry, but I need the money for something more important. However, this guy made a public announcement about needing money so he could continue attacking Michael Moore for advocating a social policy that would eliminate his need for the money he was begging for. (I already said the guy struck me as a lunatic.) Anyway, Michael Moore slipped him the money anonymously, the guy accepted it, and now he's angry about it. (I already said he was angry, too.) So if that's how he feels, why doesn't he return the money? Oh yeah, he doesn't want to shut down his website that attacks the idea of eliminating his real need for the money. I visited the website in question, and he has a prominent blurb with links that are apparently supposed to explain why Michael Moore is still a terrible person, but he didn't manage to make anything very clear. Angry lunatics are like that, eh? Next I thought about looking for his substantive policy statements on universal health coverage, since that's supposed to be the issue at hand and he hadn't mentioned it anywhere I could find. Maybe in light of his own experiences he had reconsidered the issue? After all, that would be another ethical solution, and he could still continue to insist that Michael Moore is a terrible person. Unfortunately, his search engine just returns an error, which seems kind of a shame if he's spending all that money on the site... Perhaps he's a bit of a technical fool, as well?

I guess that's enough for the particulars, and now it's time to try and tackle the movie from a higher level perspective. I've decided to take a kind of backwards approach by focusing on the criticisms I've heard, though bear in mind that I mostly didn't read the reviews because I wanted to see it and make up my own mind.

I remember running across one review that liked the movie, but described it as a polemic rather than a documentary. Perhaps I've been spoiled by perfection, but when I think of a polemic, I think of one of Lenin's works. Now there's a polemicist! The point of a polemic is to be negative and to attack, and Lenin was a real polemicist. When you finish a polemic, there should be no doubt about who you hate and why. However, by that standard, the movie comes up quite short of being a "polemic". A polemic is supposed to be focused on the villains, and it's pretty clear that Kaiser Permanente is one of them, but overall they are barely mentioned. Where's the spotlight on the evil villains? My assessment would be that there were basically only three sections that had enough negative focus and energy to be regarded as polemical, and all of them were brief. One was the scene with the names of insurance companies featured, second was the taped discussion with Nixon about HMOs, and third was the list of pharmaceutical companies. Yes, there was lot of negative stuff in the film, but it was mostly leavened with positive stuff and humor, so I'm having trouble making the label stick.

The other dismissive label is of course "propaganda", but that's a word of such breadth that it's almost impossible to assign a substantive meaning to it. If you go by the common dictionary definitions, then anything that has any point of view would qualify as propaganda. What would you exclude? However, it's pretty clear that the critics who use that label intend to associate it with the most negative uses of the term, when it was applied to things like racist Nazi propaganda or the old South African propaganda in defense of apartheid. Well, I've studied quite a bit of that sort of thing, and again Michael Moore's work falls quite short.

The label that the critics of Michael Moore's works uniformly reject is "documentary". Not just the critics, but even many of the people who like and recommend Michael Moore's movies describe them with other labels, such as the "polemic" example mentioned earlier. I quickly pulled a list of 14 definitions, and there was only one entry (of a three-clause definition) that would seem to allow excluding Michael Moore's works on the grounds of bias. Many of the other definitions explicitly acknowledge viewpoints, and one of them even mentioned Triumph of the Will as an example of documentary as propaganda, with Why We Fight as the "propaganda counter-attack" (sic)... I would certainly agree that there are many styles of documentaries, but I would not agree that any of the many that I've seen are truly impartial and unbiased, though they often try to sound like they are coming from godlike perspectives. Actually, the most effective propaganda documentary is the one that does the best job of pretending to be unbiased. Michael Moore is certainly not making any secret of his beliefs, but... To me the biggest difference between his documentaries and others is that I come away from a Michael Moore movie with a fresh bunch of questions about the topic, feeling rather like I've been teased, whereas many other documentaries try to leave you with the sensation that you've become an authority on the topic.

Overall conclusion? I actually feel like this movie is about a relatively more important topic than any of his previous subjects, but that the movie is relatively less forceful than the others, and in particular has less impact than Fahrenheit 9/11. To date, it certainly seems to be eliciting less reaction, though I think some of that is due to a new kind of blacklisting targeted at Michael Moore. They can't stop him from making movies, but his critics can certainly repeat over and over again that his movies are not worth watching, regardless of the importance of the issues involved.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Study in Scarlet

In the strangest places... Not even sure what pricked me into reading it, but I just finished the very first Sherlock Holmes book, A Study in Scarlet. It was probably first published in 1887, but it bears shockingly hard on the American political insanity of 2008, and for that reason I encourage you to read it. It's actually an excellent story in its own right, but...

One of the leading (=least implausible) neo-GOP presidential candidates is Mitt Romney. So far he's been doing a pretty good job of distancing himself from his Mormon background, and this book helps explain why. More concretely, it led me to understand one of Romney's more mystifying comments. Do you remember when Romney said that polygamy was the most evil thing? Why not unnecessary war or genocide or slavery or mass murder? What is it about polygamy that bugs him so much? Well, evil is in the eye of the beholder, and polygamy is the specific evil that could hurt Mitt, so no wonder he regards it as the #1 evil. This old classic from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reveals why Mitt thinks polygamy is the #1 evil: Because the Mormon history surrounding that practice could prevent him from becoming president. Ultimate horror!

I actually thought I was someone who knew a fair bit about the Mormons. I even knew a few of them when I was young. They have this thing about mingling with the infidels, befriending them, and converting--but certainly *NEVER* marrying a gentile. Actually, such unholy marriage is a violation of old Rule 13 of their original holy code as written by Joseph Smith (and now repudiated--at least in public). That's just one of the interesting tidbits in the book, along with my first introduction to the Danite Band AKA the Avenging Angels. Now that I know where to look, I was able to find out quite a bit of ugly information--but mostly I was impressed by how skillfully the Mormons are suppressing that part of their still recent history. Yeah, everything's on the Web, but some data is much harder to find than other data...

In conclusion, I encourage you to read this book and to pass the word around (even though his landscape is rather hyperbolic at the start of Part 2). I had certain reservations about Romney before, but they are greatly increased. We do *NOT* need another religious lunatic anywhere near the White House. If Romney isn't a religious lunatic, then he's a coward who's too afraid of the Mormons to get the heck out of that pseudo-church. <joke type="nuts versus loonies">After all, the Catholics assure us they have a monopoly on all this religious stuff.</joke>

Next strange topic for discussion: Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Ever heard of her? I'm in the middle of her old Gift from the Sea, and it seems to be a very impressive piece of philosophy... Light reading, and maybe it drowns in the philosophic shallows a bit farther on, but so far I'm finding it quite interesting and somewhat thought provoking.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Immigration: Opposing Viewpoints

Context of this rather rushed review is that I noticed this library book as I was browsing for something else, but I want to write a quite review before returning it. The topic has been much in the news of late, and for the usual set of bad reasons.

Review of Immigration: Opposing Viewpoints edited by Teresa O'Neill

This is a book of historical background information, obviously intended for a college history course on the topic. It's actually part of a series of topical books, and for each topic, they apparently collect excerpts from various prominent spokesmen. In this book, the most prominent contributors are probably Senators such as Henry Cabot Lodge and George F. Hoar. Or perhaps pride of place should go to Israel Zangwill, the London-born Jewish immigrant who coined the famous expression "the melting pot" to describe the immigrant experience in America? There are also spokesmen from prominent pro- and anti-immigration organizations, leaders from organized labor, religious leaders, professors such as John Bodnar, and various others. Most of the pieces are a only a few pages long, but there are some shorter snippets inserted into longer ones. The editor has added a bit of contextual information to introduce each of the authors. The time of the selections spans well over a hundred years. Even though there's some perspective here because of the long time since many of these pieces were written, the editor doesn't offer any conclusions, but is apparently making a sincere effort to just stay out of the battles. There is a chronology of historical events included in the end matter, but basically it's just food for thought.

The main thing that struck me as a read the book was the historical consistency. Basically the same issues are rehashed over and over again, right up to the present day. The big changes are the labels of what sort of immigrants have become undesirable. Usually they are racial labels like Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Russians, Poles, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and most recently Mexicans. I'm sure I've left out some of the nationalities that were targeted at various times... Amusingly enough, or perhaps it's simple hypocrisy, but quite often the loudest critics are descended from 'races' that were previously on the list of 'bad' immigrants. Other times the undesirable immigrants are characterized more on the basis of their beliefs, skills (or lack thereof) or other non-racial traits, starting most prominently with Catholics, but including lots of other groups such as laborers, mental defectives or others who might become a burden on the state, illiterates, morally deficient people (but especially women of loose morals), communists or anarchists, transient farm laborers, and most recently Moslems. Again, I'm sure I've missed some of the target groups, but the details don't seem to matter much.

At this point it seems I need to clarify my own biases, because I ultimately conclude that they limit my ability to fully understand the anti-immigration perspectives. The most important bias is just that I think freedom is a good thing, including the freedom to live where you want to. The only 'restriction' I'd put on it is that there should be sufficient accurate information available so that the person who wants to move to a new country can make a reasoned decision. Yes, there'd be a certain amount of disruption, but things would balance out in the end--and it even seems rather inevitable to me as the costs of migration continue to decline. To me, the significant issue is not really addressed in this book: Is it a zero-sum game, or can things get better for every one. If you believe it's a zero-sum game, then letting a immigrant have some of your pie is a loss for you and it makes sense to be greedy as long as you have sufficient force to protect your pie. However, if you think the pie is getting bigger and better all the time, then the best thing to do is make that happen as quickly as possible. To me, looking at the big historical perspective, that seems to be very clearly what has been happening for thousands of years, and it's going to continue. It's the growth of science and technology and modern economies, including immigration. Fighting against the tide is always a losing proposition. Putting it in concrete terms, I think it would be better to let Chinese workers migrate to America to sustain the strength of America's industry rather than to allow the strength of America's industries to continue migrating to China. Actually, now it seems quite possible to me that the real strength of America was tightly linked to the freedom to migrate within such a large region, and that may be the real reason for the increasing strength of the EU. (Another point of personal bias, since I've invested in Euros? Which reminds me to note that I'm an immigrant to Japan and the grandchild of immigrants to America.)

Where does that lead me as regards the book I'm supposed to be reviewing here? Well, mostly the anti-immigration perspectives don't seem very substantive to me. In some cases they seem intellectually dishonest or obviously mistaken. I suppose the most clear example is the table on page 216, which was supposed to demonstrate how the literacy test would work to exclude "Undesirables". The table listed the illiteracy of various nationalities of immigrants--and then averages the averages to draw conclusions. Excuse me, but that is incorrect math. If each of the immigrant groups was exactly the same size, then it would make sense. Or if each component of a grouping had the same exact illiteracy then it would also make sense. However, neither condition holds here, so it's simply bad math that proves nothing. (There's another point of what might be personal bias here, in that Hebrew is reported as having around 30% illiteracy (in a group with an average over 40%) whereas they are generally regarded as being more educated and literate than average.) This is an especially clear example, but most of the anti-immigration positions seem to be on similarly shaky ground. They keep focusing on imminent economic disasters that never happened. Some of them also worry about racial purity, again without any evidence, then or in hindsight. To really make their case, they would need to consider how America has changed over the decades, they would need to establish that some of those changes were bad, and finally they would need to prove that some immigrants were linked to those bad changes. I read the book closely, and didn't find any of that here.

TImes up, so I'm going to wrap by just saying it's an interesting read, but mostly an example of "The less things change the more they stay the same." The immigration issue has basically been going in circles for a long time.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Hocus Pocus

Of course this book review is dedicated to the the author's memory, and I was motivated to read one of his books because he passed away recently. His last book was actually an inspired diatribe against Dubya, but neither the bookstore nor the library had it, so I settled on this one, which turned out to be another book Dubya obviously must have missed...

Review of Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

This 1990 book is basically a science fiction story where the slightly future background (already in the past) is a downward projection from the Reagan years, and though that trend was somewhat disrupted by the Clinton presidency, it still seems to have a lot of rather good predictions considering when it was written. A lot of the detailed predictions should be updated, but by and large his main message stands up: Unconstrained and mindlessly selfish greed is a bad thing. The basic thesis is that the wealthy elite is betraying America by being stupid and by short-sightedly selling the nation's infrastructure to foreigners. His projection was for Japanese to remain as the #1 buyers, but now the #1 buyers have become the Chinese--though the Chinese are being rather sharper in their investments, doubtless based on their observations of the many impressive but non-productive investments made by the Japanese before them. At the close of Vonnegut's book the Japanese are basically writing off their American investments as worthless.

Another prominent projection is the explosion of prison populations, and that one looks to be sadly accurate. He also included a lot about problems created by privatization.

There's also a powerful anti-war message throughout the book, though he focuses mainly on the Vietnam War. He draws relatively little upon his own combat experience in WW II, but he still has an authentic grunt's-eye-view of Vietnam. However, I feel he is simply focused on the viciousness of war and the emotional costs of losing, but he doesn't consider the larger economic problems created by war in the same way as the other parts of the story deal with economic issues. That may be natural, since his personal experience of war was mostly the loser's perspective, even in WW II, where he spent much of his time in Europe as a POW.

The book reminds me of the main difference between fiction and real life. There are a lot of parts of the book that don't make sense as we normally describe 'sensible', thus putting the lie to the claim that fiction has to make sense. I think the more essential difference demonstrated by this book is that books are dense. Everything the author writes should contribute to a controlled description of his mental model, and the words should contribute to the goal of transmitting that model to the reader, and the efficiency with which an author does so could be taken as an important metric of the author's skill. Vonnegut scores high on that metric, even though part of his mental model is that lots of things don't make sense. The extra level of talent that qualified him as a great writer is how he wraps his message in sardonic tongue-in-cheek humor. The more important contrast between fiction and real life is that real life has lots of noise in the signals, and there are lots of things that should just be ignored. The author can skip forward (and backwards) to ignore the noise, but in real life, you just have to go through the less meaningful parts at exactly the same speed...

There isn't really any big moral or lesson to be drawn from this book, but it's still the kind of thing that might have given Dubya pause before making the colossal blunder of invading and occupying Iraq. Vonnegut's contrast between the soldiers' experiences at the end of the two wars (WW II when they were welcomed as winners and Vietnam where they were dismissed as losers) is rather haunting, and a sad omen for the fate of the soldiers currently in Iraq. If you can't afford to lose, you shouldn't play the game, and this book makes it more clear how and why we lost and why America can't afford that loss.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran

First a production note about these reviews. The main reason for switching to this blog-based approach is that the large single file was becoming too awkward to work with. Close to 300 KB now. Some secondary reasons are that the blogging approach is basically mechanically easy and that these reviews are essentially chronological, reflecting my mental model of that book at a certain moment.

Review of Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran by Barry Rubin

This is not a new book, but it certainly should have been on Dubya's required reading list before he started his little war against Saddam. It basically gives a lot of the background that led so many of the regional experts to oppose the little adventure. Though it was published in 1981 and therefore stops at that point, it still manages to lead toward a number of obvious lines of analysis that lead to unpleasant conclusions--which are now being proven valid. Sure, Dubya has found some new mistakes to make, but why did he have to repeat all of these old ones, too? As a result of reading this book, I feel like my thinking has developed along three major lines of analysis:
  1. Before reading the book, I thought the three-way partition of Iraq was basically inevitable as the natural least-effort solution that would come closest to satisfying the largest number of the most directly affected people. However, that was also based upon my belief that the Shia majority would think rationally about the costs of an extended civil war to impose their will on the old Sunni rulers and the Kurds. My main concern was the desire for revenge factor, but I thought that the Shia might be reasonable and let it go in exchange for the oil. This book led me to feel that the main religious leader in Iraq is quite probably trying to play the same game as Khomeini played so successfully in Iran, and that game included brutal and ultimately successful suppression of secessionist movements. From that perspective, the Shia leaders are only toying with the US, and using Dubya's incompetence for their own purposes--and there's quite a bit of evidence in favor of that theory.
  2. In many ways, there are strong similarities between Khomeini's religious-based philosophy and Dubya's proto-philosophic rantings. Unfortunately, where they differ, it seems that the ignorant and poorly educated Khomeini had the better grasp of reality.
  3. I wound up with a weird image of Saddam and the Shah of the Iran as the evil stepfathers of Iraq and Iran, respectively, with the US playing the role of some kind of wicked wizard. I guess that leaves the innocent people of those countries in the role of Cinderella or Snow White?

Not sure how to review the book in more detail... It is basically a historical account, and the early parts of the book seem very solid as background information. From the perspective of how things developed after 1980, I was looking very closely for mentions of Iraq. However, in the context of the times, Iraq is mentioned as a threat, but not a major one. The Soviet Union was taken much more seriously, and the author spends a lot of time trying to consider why the religious fundamentalists were basically ignored. I feel he does a pretty good job of covering the older history, and it's natural that he can't get the same degree of clear perspective on the more recent events. The book basically ends during the hostage crisis, though the final time line extends to the release of the hostages, so I think that was tucked in just as the book went to press. There are also some problems in the time line that may have been related to other last-minute additions.

Especially since the author has a name that sounds Jewish, I was looking carefully for pro-Israeli bias, but I didn't feel like there was much of that. It seemed like a very even-handed treatment, though I felt like the Israeli contributions to the broader regional mess might have been a bit understated. However, that does not seem unreasonable since the focus here is Iran, which hadn't had much involvement with Israel. (More recently, the Iranians have found it politically expedient to start beating on that drum, too... It would have been nice if the book had given some insight on the degree of their sincerity in attacking Israel, but I was left with the impression that they'll attack anyone if it suits their purposes, but their purposes are mostly focused internally towards maintaining their own power.)

The author does show some pro-American bias, however, basically assuming that America's motives are pure. That part looks rather naive from the current perspective. His presentation is that Carter was sincere in not wanting to interfere with Iran's internal affairs, and that the Iranian fears were falsely exaggerated to build up their domestic support. However, the Iranians are not going to interpret things that way in light of the war with Iraq that followed. Seems downright reasonable for them to feel that America was attempting to use Iraq to punish them, and America would have been glad if Saddam's efforts (while he was still America's friend and puppet) had resulted in the collapse and defeat of Khomeini's Islamic revolution. I suppose the Iranian's were especially angry that the Americans were providing weapons to both sides of that conflict and helping them to kill each other--and now there are reports the Iranians are supporting at least two of the sides in Iraq and helping them to kill each other--with the Americans in the middle of the mess.

The book had a lot of interesting background information on Ruhollah al-Musawi ibn Mustafa ibn Mustafa ibn Ahmad al-Musawi al-Khomeini, which is apparently Ayatollah Khomeini's complete name. It could have been deeper, but it did give a good overview of his religious philosophy and political strategies, both leading to the extremely confrontational approach he took against the Shah and against America. I was especially struck by this passage on page 275, which reminded me of some of Dubya's most extreme supporters: "Those who criticize or try to block this single voice, therefore, cannot be true Muslims: dissent equals treason." Later, on page 303, there is this sentence that reminds me of how many critics describe the Bush administration: "The concept of ideology first (in Maoist terminology, "politics in command") pervaded their thoughts and actions." However, this "their" was Khomeini and his followers, no matter how suitable it seems for Rove and Cheney.

I feel like I should include a brief overview of the history in terms of the blame for he mess, based on the impressions the book left me. That basically translates into how the relevant presidents steered American foreign policy vis a vis Iraq. My conclusion there is that there were basically two major sins of commission, one by Eisenhower and the other by Nixon, and a major sin of omission by Carter. The other presidents basically had a kind of skeptical attitude about the entire country and didn't want much to do with it. I think Truman probably gets credit for the only episode that really seems successful, which was getting the Russians out after WW II while not really increasing America's involvement. However, that minimalist approach could be linked to Eisenhower's mistake, which was also a kind of minimalist idea. Eisenhower wanted to leverage dissatisfaction with the Iranian nationalists and allowed the CIA to intervene at the critical juncture to overthrow that government in favor of the Shah--thus allowing the later Iranians to blame America for the Shah's incompetence and abuses. At the time, it looked like a bargain, with minimal American involvement for what seemed to be a preferable outcome. Nixon's mistake was to unleash the Shah, basically declaring him our best friend in that region and allowing him to buy any weapons he wanted (except for nuclear weapons). The Shah had always had militaristic leanings, and without the leash holding back his military spending, he managed to bankrupt the country in spite of all of the oil revenue. The book left me feeling like Carter must have made a sin of omission, but I also have to say that I'm not clear what it was. I guess my feeling is that if Carter had quickly realized that the Iran's problems were internal, then he could have applied more pressure for reforms that might have prevented Khomeini from taking over... However, the book actually provides quite a bit of defense for Carter, emphasizing how the intelligence community failed to assess the realities of the time, and it even suggests that America's external leverage was much more limited than many people, including many Iranians, believed it to be.

Not really sure what to offer as an overall conclusion. The book does have a lot of important background information, but it ends just when things are getting interesting, so to speak. Basically it leaves me wondering about how things turned out, and even though I know a few of the outcomes from the perspective of the quarter century since the book was written, I'd like to see a sequel or two. However, one thing seems absolutely clear: Dubya (and his handlers) never read it.