The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

By Jove, I think he's got it!

Normally, I view Steve Landsburg of Slate as a fool, prone to the worst sorts of Econ 101 Just So stories. Even as I clicked on his latest, I kicked myself for the waste of time I was surely embarking on. When he informed us that, "By way of full disclosure, I am uniquely unqualified to address this question [about the relative merits of vine-on and vineless tomatoes], having never (to my knowledge) tasted a tomato. No, it's not that I'm allergic (how would I know?); I just don't like them. I happen to have been born with this knowledge, so there's never been any need to put it to the test," my eyes began little warm-up exercises, preparing to roll vigorously.

The subsequent, telling, revelation, that he and his colleagues have a 20 year track record of falsely predicting the failure of local businesses was good for a couple revolutions. But then I got to the conclusion, and, lo and behold, I realized that he was answering a question that I was pondering as I walked the dog this very morning. What were the odds that Landsburg, of all people, would satisfy my intellectual curiosity?

To wit: I bought some prosciutto this weekend - 6 paper-thin slices. Can't have weighed anything, and even at $20/lb, I doubt it cost more than a buck or two. Yet I hadn't even used a quarter of it to wrap melons for four of us - that's how flavorful it is, how far a little bit can go. So I was pondering this, wondering whether the price reflected the only way to make money on something that people buy in such small quantities, whether it is simply a luxury good, and the price reflects what people will pay for a luxury, or whether it was regular old production costs, and it simply works out that it's affordable at high unit cost, because you don't need much. And here's Landsburg's answer:
There are only two ways a single good can sell for two different prices. Either a monopolist is manipulating the market (unlikely in the case of tomatoes), or the price difference reflects a real difference in costs.[For the purposes of this discussion, I'm thinking of prosciutto as, basically, a "single good" with lesser hams]

Some might argue that prosciutto is not comparable to mere ham, or that prosciutto di parma is, in fact, a monopoly product, but that misses the point, which is that, if it were possible to make prosciutto as cheaply as Isaly's chipped-chopped ham, someone, somewhere would, and people would eat more of it. But they can't, so they don't. QED.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


I suppose it's worth something that rank-n-file Republicans are as pissed about this as they are, but I woke up this morning feeling like I did on November 3. What, if anything, will Democrats stand up for?

PS - Yes, I know, Social Security, and thank god for small favors, but is there anything else? If Americans see us back down in the face of Frist and Santorum, why should we expect them to believe we'll stand up to Bin Laden?

Friday, May 20, 2005

Senate Rules Change: Republicans Revoke Godwin's Law!

Needless to say, the press is too pusillanimous to air outrageous statements like that of our very own Ricky Santorum:

Via Josh Marshall, Atrios, and others.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Dems doing it...And not.

Of course, one of the reasons that we have trouble getting the message through is that, on the local level, where people used to see the difference between Dems and Republicans clearly, people like this keep getting elected.

For those of you from out of town, Bob O'Connor is a Democrat like Zell Miller is. Well, perhaps not that bad, but John Breaux, anyway (my wife thinks that there should be an independent committee that determines political affiliation, so pro-business conservatives can't run in the Democratic primaries). Dumb as a box of rocks, and entirely beholden to business interests. He's got that hail-fellow-well-met thing going, and he looks like a jovial Irish, Machine politician, but he's a stooge. He confirms every suburban Republican prejudice about city Dems without offering a lick of progressivism, populism, or can-do governance.

Granted, the mayoralty of Pittsburgh is no longer on the national map, but O'Connor is hardly the only one. Every time a "Democrat" runs, it dilutes the brand. I'm not looking to purge the party - I'm no New Republican - but I think there needs to be an understanding of what it means to be a Democrat. There needs to be a minimal dedication to using government to help the governed (as opposed to the corporations) in order to attract Party support. If the DNC were sufficiently loud + proud about this concept, faux-Dems would have a lot more trouble running. People would start to understand what they should be expecting from Dems, and start demanding it. Fifty years ago, no Dem in the country could run without promising to stick up for the little guy. Now, Dems proudly run on platforms of helping the little helping the big guy first.

Naming Names

I generally like Matthew Yglesias' work, but he's not always the savviest of commentators - sort of an "of the commentariat, for the commentariat" guy. But in this TAPPED piece he simply nails it. This is what Democrats need Americans to understand:
If Democrats want to talk about building a fairer, more efficient health-care system (and, in my experience, they really do!), then they're going to need to win an election first. And they're not going to do that unless the voting public realizes that there is a group of specific individuals who are responsible for the failure of the political system to address important subjects.

Those individuals have names. George W. Bush is one. Dick Cheney another. Bill Frist, Tom DeLay, and Dennis Hastert are some more. Bill Thomas and Chuck Grassley are more substantive people than are the GOP leaders, but they've decided to happily go along with the White House's insistence that we should ignore health-care policy in favor of addressing remote, mild, hypothetical Social Security budget problems. Andy Card is doing a bad job running the White House. John Snow is a terrible Treasury Secretary [...]. Karl Rove has been put in charge of policy in the West Wing. "Washington" has nothing to do with it.

One of the most important effects of Republicans running against Washington all these years is that they've lowered expectations of government so far that most people genuinely don't expect anything useful to come out of Washington. And in the Matt Miller piece referenced, a (centrist, pain-coalition-fluffing) Democrat echoes and amplifies these low expectations.

Look, it's very simple: 70 years of post-Hoover governance has proven that an activist government is not only compatible with economic growth and (for better or worse) hegemony, but actually necessary to it. Dems need to cry this from the hilltops.

Elect us, and we'll make your lives better.

Simple as that.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

This is Important

One of the reasons that Josh Marshall is so important to Blogovia (the left-leaning portion of the Blogosphere, per Max) is his professionalism. In a sense, he is no less an amateur blogger than the rest of us - his training is in Colonial history - but he has journalist experience, and hews to some of the highest ideals of that profession.

He occasionally gets shrill, but when he's really mad about something, it's not shrill, it's...this. Very serious. Like, don't fuck around serious.

I don't know what people will do about this situation. NPR is covering the story more or less the way the White House would prefer, so I can only imagine the mouth-breathers over at Fox. If the free press won't stand up for itself, I don't see anyone else doing it.

And another few inches of the Bill of Rights get fed into the shredder....

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Parking and Cities

I had a thought the other day, driving down the main street of one of our former steel towns around here (8th Ave, Homestead). I was pondering the distinction between "traditional," pedestrian-friendly cities and "modern," auto-centric ones. The thing is, most American cities, except the very oldest, are actually pretty car-friendly - room for parallel parking, possibility of decent speed even around town, etc. It struck me as remarkable that places built up almost entirely before the automotive age should work at all, much less well, with heavy traffic.

Anyway, this somehow led to the thought that the real difference between pedestrian and automotive cities was how one feels about parking in them. When you drive to a great walking city, such as NYC or Haarlem, the goal is not to drive to your destination; it's to get to a place where you can park and leave your car. In most American cities, you're looking to park at your destination. Do you see the distinction? In New York, anywhere within a dozen blocks is fine, because you're just going to walk from place to place anyway. But in most parts of most US cities, it's a parking lot mentality - how close can I get to the front door?

I don't think we can glean any specific design lessons from this, but I do think it serves as a good metric of whether the place you're going is better for cars or people - would you rather go down the street on your feet or in your vehicle?


An Architecture of Ideas

David Sucher addresses the (to him) dubious notion that ideas can or should drive architecture.
Maybe I am just too dense -- maybe too SSB [Sensible Shoes Bourgeois - jr] -- but this "architecture and ideas" business seems contrived and forced and does not ring true for me. Buildings create effects, impacts, etc. But they don't express ideas.

After some vigorous discussion, he acknowledges the value of "organizing principles," but in the process I suggested that ideas are part of architecture on a couple levels, neither necessarily bringing in archibabble.

First, I think that many buildings have an organizing principle that could be considered, loosely, an "idea." To wit, a visitors' center that (mentally and physically) reorients the visitor away from quotidian life and towards whatever is the subject at hand. This reorientation may be expressed formally through spatial compression/expansion, axial relationships, vistas, and other architectural tools (including materials, light, sound, etc.). Now you might dismiss this as mere programming, but I think that at that point it's just denying the question itself. Such a building clearly has an idea at its heart in a way that, say, a generic urban mixed use building does not. Furthermore, you could drop in a Quonset hut and fill it with display cases, and you'd have a functional visitors' center, but without the "idea," it would be a less worthwhile building.

Second, I think that the architect may have an idea that guides his design choices, but that is not necessarily the point of the building as such. Architects often use metaphors - building as ship - that may lead to specific decisions, but walking in, you don't think, "This building's a ship!" But the theory is twofold - a better, more harmonious and consistent design will result from a single, powerful metaphor, and an appropriately-chosen metaphor should lead to a building that impresses users/visitors with the appropriate metaphorical emotion ("Boy, this building is clean, uncluttered, and cozy.").

A third aspect, a bit more elevated (or precious), is an underlying philosophical idea. Wright and LeCorbusier are the obvious exemplars here, Wright with his specific notions of home, hearth, and landscape, and Corb with his machines for living in. These end up being more grandiose in conception, if not in execution, than either of the first two. Certainly the SSB type would say, "Whatever Frank, just make sure the roof don't leak," but I would argue that, if the architect's philosophy and vision accord with your own, the end result should be optimal.


Tommy Franks Got It Right

OK, like all good liberals, I've long relished Franks' line about Rumsfeld's errandboy, Doug Feith: "Every day I've got to work with the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth." And I'd never really heard anything to make me question that assessment. But Jeffrey Goldberg's New Yorker piece [not, apparently, online] on him really closes the argument.

What's most staggering is the guy's lack of self-awareness. He's still waving an October '01 MoDo piece about poor performance in Afghanistan as a defense against the idea that things have gone poorly in Iraq. He actually says that Iraqis were too scared of the Ba'ath to throw flowers to US soldiers, "but they had flowers in their minds." Is he serious?

In one passage, Feith sounds like the most desperate of warblogger deadenders, insisting that, knowing what he knows now, he would still have recommended invasion:
The main rationale was not based on intelligence. It was known to anyone who read papers and knew history. Saddam had used nerve gas, he had invaded his neighbors more than once, he had attacked other neighbors, he was hostile to us, he supported numerous terrorist groups. It's true that he didn't have a link that we know of to 9/11.... But he did give safe haven to terrorists.

Not based on intelligence, indeed. None of those factors approach the level of demanding invasion, but he doesn't understand that, or doesn't care. He is quite dismissive of the 1,500 US soldier deaths (deaths of the liberated don't merit mention, of course), because he thinks that his little experiment will "prevent the next, as it were, 9/11 [...] that could kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Americans."

Or facilitate, as it were. Whichever.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Friday Top Ten

For whose benefit? Who knows?

Bungle in the Jungle - Jethro Tull, Warchild
O Pato (The Duck) - Coleman Hawkins, Next Stop Wonderland
Water - The Who, Who's Next
Voodoo Chile - Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland
Barren Egg - Jill Sobue, Happy Town
My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) - Neil Young, Live Rust
Baby's in Black - The Beatles, Beatles For Sale
Sweet Home Chicago - Robert Johnson, The Complete Rob't Johnson
The Loner - Neil Young, Live Rust
House Burning Down - Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland
Glow Worm - Johnny Mercer, Capitol Collectors'

I swear, my whole collection isn't like that.

Well, maybe a bit.

Some Thoughts on Wright

This is all well-put, and it puts me in mind of previous discussions at City Comforts on the merits of Wright. Sucher's objection has focused on the use of the nondescriptive term genius, and rightly so. What made me think of those discussions is his reference to "where the door is:" door location is one of the things that sets Wright apart, and that I love about his work.

Typical late Victorian houses - even picturesque ones - put the door front-and-center, visually if not literally. Wright's suburban houses almost never do this, instead turning a corner, passing through a screen, etc. The effect is twofold: it creates a sense of procession and travel for the homeowner and guest, increasing the psychic distance between the street and the home; it also creates a barrier between the home and visitors/intruders - not a security barrier, but again a psychic one. Standing on a stranger's front porch rarely feels intrusive; ringing the doorbell on a Wright house often does (such an effect isn't for everyone, but neither is the open plan; people who like this sort of thing will find it the sort of thing they like).