Republican Twitter Account Goofs Anniversary Of Lincoln’s Death

The post and discussion of it are here.

Honestly, it reads like a Freudian slip, because while Lincoln was the first Republican President, the Republican and Democratic parties have completely reversed their ideological roles in the meantime, and Lincoln wouldn’t even make it to the top ten in a Republican straw poll today.

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

Imitation The Sincerest Form Of Flattery?

No, I was not crazy in thinking that Robert DeLong’s new hit, “Long Way Down” would be a dead ringer for a theme song for the upcoming 24th James Bond movie.

Other people thought the same thing.  One ambitious fan even superimposed it on the Skyfall movie opening sequence (without any timing adjustment) to show just how perfect a fit it is to the model.

Clearly, in this case, the imitation is conscious and not merely accidental.  And, unsurprisingly, this well proven formula executed well by Robert DeLong has worked well to produce a hit.  It probably doesn’t quite cross the line into being a copyright or trademark violation, but it coasts close to that line.

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Boing Boing meanwhile describes how two sets of video game designers came up with almost identical new games designed for play on an iPhone.  The story is a helpful analysis of why seeming coincidences, even when they flow from uncoordinated events can be less miraculous than they seem due to hidden structure in what one might call “idea space”.

* * *

The same notion, that randomness can be an unjustified assumption was key to the solution of the German ENIGMA code in World War II, as portrayed in the movie “The Imitation Game”, where the key to breaking the code turned out to be the insight that the encoded messages were much less random than the protocol used to solve them had assumed.

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

Yemen and Beyond

A very large share of the Islamic world is in turmoil at the moment.  It is all very Game of Thrones.  There are many contenders for supremacy, each with their own very tribal base of control. It is hard to know who to back.  Everything is in flux, and the end game isn’t clear.  Basic assumptions about the ability of secure nation-state regimes to rule their territory, human rights, and the sovereign sanctity of nation-state boundaries, seem to have fallen apart entirely in the last five years.

My intuition is that mass failure of the Western style state model is almost inevitable when superimposed on a broad Islamic culture that comes to questions of political economy with fundamentally different values and assumptions and ways of doing things.  These nations need homegrown institutions that are better suited to their needs and outlook, dramatic cultural change, or both, and the Islamic world will remain unstable until this is accomplished.

The urge to intervene to prevent atrocity and to help the rare clear good guys in these conflicts is great.  But, the end game of intervention of any kind is increasingly hard to discern.  Good intentions seem to inevitably produce blow back.  On the up side, despite all of this, oil is still cheap.

The civil war in Yemen is pretty ugly.  Some useful background from a lecture on the topic is available in pdf form via Geocurrents.  Shorter version: The merger of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990 was, in retrospect, a horrible idea which has produced a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  It is really hard to know who the good guys are in this fight, and it is not at all obvious that we should be providing logistical assistance to Saudi Arabia in this as opposed to staying out all together.  The Sunni President (since 2012) was utterly ineffectual and unable to secure the loyalty of his military or the large Shi’ite areas of the populous former North Yemen’s highlands where Houthi rebels have taken control with popular backing.  But, given that “death to America, death to Israel, kill the Jews” is one of their main slogans, it is hard to fell warm and fuzzy about them either.

Looking more deeply at the background, the fact that 26 million Saudi Arabians are awash in oil money, while 26 million Yemenis live at less than a tenth of the average income of a Saudi living the life that the Saudis would be living, but for their oil wealth, seems profoundly unfair.  Yemenis do get most of Arabia’s rain as a consolation prize, but honestly, the best thing that could happen to them would be for them to be conquered by Saudi Arabia, so that they could share in its national wealth.

Vox, meanwhile, has a quality presentation on ISIS.  Highlights: ISIS is tactically wise, the Assad regime in Syria is its frenemy, the U.S. can’t win this fight militarily, and ISIS won’t collapse of its own accord.  But, the situation is not entirely hopeless.  Neither Syria, nor Iraq are in any position to reclaim their territory from ISIS and nobody has a plan about what to do with it.

Also, don’t forget that ISIS linked Islamic terrorists went on a rampage against a magazine that was accused of disrespecting Muhammed and Jews, in the Je Suis Charlie affair.  France is one of many European nations with substantial Muslim minorities (mostly Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, and Pakistanis in the U.K., and various populations in Scandinavia), so incidents like these can inject acid into interfaith interactions in daily life and can fuel neo-Nazi anti-immigrant movements.

Meanwhile, Kenya recently experienced a massacre of non-Muslims at a university near the Somalian border orchestrated by al-Sahbab with the son of a major regional governmental leader among the perpetrators.  Somalia itself still hasn’t really left a state of anarchy, with al-Sahbab reigning as a first among equals of the many warlords and unrecognized dyfunctional regional states there.

And, let us not forget Boko Haram and its campaign to establish strict Islamic law (which the legitimate state governments of several Northern Nigerian states have done), and to genocidally drive out Christians and animists and all Western influences (and education generally, for that matter, at least for girls).  It is a year now since they kidnapped and realistically then killed and/or sold into slavery, hundreds of girls from a boarding school.  This conflict spans the Sahel from Chad to Mali.

Also, while we haven’t been paying attention, the Sudanese military has been up to its usual raping and pillaging in Darfur.  And, while splitting South Sudan from Sudan solved one problem, the South Sudanese don’t have their shit together and are in an uneasy state where interfaction violence is still common.

Egypt’s latest regime following a sequence of dramatic revolutions rivaling that of the Russian or French Revolutions, is currently in the hands of an authoritarian regime that is consolidating power with mass executions and extreme group imposition of long prison sentences.

Groups in Libya and Tunisa have carried out isolated attacks, slaughtering Coptic Christians and killing large numbers of people at a popular museum that shares space with parliament in Tunisia.  They have sworn themselves to ISIS.

The civil war in Pakistan’s tribal areas is ongoing and leads to assassinations and terror attacks in more civilized parts of that nation of more than 100 milllion people.  This civil war is partially related to the ongoing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, where, at least, they are no longer the most miserable white people in the world, because Yemen has stepped up to the plate and given them (and the Palestinians in Gaza) a break from bearing that title.

Things seem to have calmed down for a while in Israel-Palestine.  Israel is not happy about Iran having any legitimate nuclear program, non-military or otherwise, which is understandable, since “death to America, death to Israel” is a pretty popular slogan there as well.  But, an ugly recent military campaign of Israel in Gaza to reassert control there, partially in response to Gazan rocket attacks on Israel and tunnel systems that were developing, seems to be mostly over for now.

They are seeking out and assassinating atheists in Bangladesh.

Iran looks positively civilized in all of this mayhem.  They’ve worked to help Iraq fight ISIS.  They are on the verge on negotiating a treaty with the US and others that would allow it access to nuclear power while limiting its nuclear weapons ambitions.  They recently held moderately meaningful elections.  And, the worst of their most recent human rights violations seems to be incarcerating of foreign journalist for “economic espionage” which basically means business journalism.

Thailand’s Muslim areas are also in insurgent mode.

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

Best Game Of Thrones Analysis So Far

Vox has a new post on Game of Thrones Season 5 which began on Sunday.

It is the best take yet on George R.R. Martin’s epic, incomplete hard fantasy series based loosely on England’s thirty-two year long War of the Roses fought in the 1400s between competing claimants to the throne that culminated in the rise of the House of Tudor under Queen Elizabeth; and, on the parallel HBO television series.

I’ve read most of the first of the five books in print, and watched a fairly random half dozen or so episode of the first four seasons of the television show, mostly the earlier seasons.

Blogger Razib Khan blogs about the series in relation to the nature of human prehistory at his blog Gene Expression (which has had been part of two different blog collections during the time I’ve been reading it) with some regularity.

My wife is a hard core fan.  She was an English major in college, and takes detailed notes as she reads it and has currently made it to the fourth print volume.  The notes aren’t absolute necessary if you read the books quickly, but Martin’s books have as many characters as the most sprawling creations of literature from Dickens to Cervantes, so her efforts aren’t entirely overkill.  She’s also seen all, or nearly all of the TV episodes and closely tracks the similarities and differences between the print and TV versions, differences which she respects are necessary given the differences in media.

Some video adaptations of books take a short work, like the Hobbit, or Cinderella, or a few chapters of the Book of Genesis, and embellish them endlessly to make a much longer screen product.

In a testament to just how much material is crammed into the Game of Thrones books, however, the Game of Thrones TV episodes are incredibly dense, to the point where it is difficult for the average view to grasp more than a fraction of what is going on without having read the books or seen an explanatory pod-cast (a cottage industry on the Internet these days) explaining it.

I called the series “hard fantasy” at the beginning of this post, and that deserves a bit of an explanation.  Yes, like any other medieval fantasy novel series, Game of Thrones has magic, supernatural creatures, wonders, and a world that differs in essential respects from medieval Earth.

Martin’s world, for example, has very long seasons that span decades, rather than months, but rather irregularly, hence the motto of the Stark Family, “Winter is Coming.”  The “seven kingdoms” correspond rather closely in geography to Great Britain, but the land across the channel from it bears more similarity to the Near East and North Africa, than it does to Continental Europe.

What makes it “hard” fantasy, however, is that the magical and supernatural elements of the story are used sparingly.  The novels and early TV episodes have plenty of folk tales and legends and even visible relics of an era when magic and the supernatural were more abundant, but we see only glimpse of these parts of the world face to face at first, and they don’t have a lot of impact on the dynamics of the series, at first.

The first Dire Wolves we encounter are mere puppies, and the first Dragons we see are little more than cute pet lizards, until well into the story.  Creatures resembling zombies and giants exist only in the frigid north beyond a wall where Hadrian’s Wall should be, but at a scale that would put the Great Wall of China to shame.  People who can use magic are few and far between, and many of them have powers that they can’t fully control, or that have limited utility.  You can count the number of truly powerful users of magical powers on your fingers.

Anyway, back to the Vox story.  I like it, because it appreciates Game of Thrones for the deeper cultural conjectures and thought experiments that drive all good speculative fiction, but is often absent from other kinds of literature, and because it aptly recognizes and explores how the TV medium and print medium differ from each other (even gently chiding Martin when his own work is weaker in some respects than the TV show), without firmly taking sides between the two presentations, revealing spoilers, or getting lost in the incredible detail of the series.

The bottom line summary of those themes in this piece bears retelling here, for it really makes sense of why the series is so captivating:

[W]hat shines through most clearly here is something that remains deeply true to Martin’s books. This is still a story about how we gain and lose power, about how humans organize themselves into societies, and about how we form governments that we can believe in. It’s a story about a decaying social order being replaced by a new one — both through the natural passage of time and through bloody revolution. . . .

The implication is clear. Sometimes the system is no good, and sometimes it needs to be replaced, even if not completely. On a macro level, Martin’s series has always been about the problems of feudalism and monarchies and the ways democracy improved upon them, while not solving all of humanity’s problems. The TV series has taken this to new places, turning seemingly every character on the show but the king (who is a teenage boy) into someone who would prove a better ruler. 

Whether that ruler is eventually Dany or Tyrion or Cersei or Jon or even wayward teenager Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), one thing will unite them: they’re not someone who could have been ruler before. Systems crumble. New worlds are built out of the rubble. And the only thing certain is that decay will set in eventually. Until then, though, better to hold out hope.

This really captures the Zeitgeist of our age at the dawn of the twenty-first century.  People who are reading these books and watching these episodes, like the characters in the story itself, are living in an age when governments and social orders are fluid and in flux.  Problems with existing systems of government are being illuminated and we see a future where different systems are in place through a glass darkly.

We are witnessing the same kinds of ugly, messy, violent and carnal transitions periods in the news every day and in our daily lives, and have to hold out hope for what the future will bring, without any reassurances that it will be good, for us, or in general, since Martin, like the real world, pulls no punches and has no mercy for his darlings.

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

Manufacturing Bubbles In East Asia

China and South Korea are both in extreme manufacturing company bubbles.  If I were invested in either, I would get out, or short the stocks, immediately.

More troubling is the question of what will happen when an economic mega-power like China sees its bubble pop.

In general, a massive economic collapse usually favors political extremism, massive political change, and often militarism.  Intense suffering for the billions involved is also likely, and nothing that big can happen in a globally interconnected economy without have intense impacts on much of the rest of the world.

Will we live to see a day where our current bout of violence in the Islamic world and occasional spillover terrorism will seem like the “good old days”?

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

New Shakespeare Play: “Double Falsehood” Authenticated

CNN reports that language researchers have confirmed through textual analysis that Shakespeare was the primary author of a play published in 1728 by Lewis Theobald, who played almost no role in writing it.  It was based on the “Cardenio” section of the Spanish epic, “Don Quixote.”

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

A Proposal For A Chess Variant

Since 1850, chess games have had significantly more moves and have gone to a situation where about 10% of games draw to one where about a third of games draw.  (The relative white v. black advantage has stayed constant).

Former World Chess Champion José Raúl Capablanca, concerned that the game of chess would die at the elite level due to “draw death” in which, like tic-tac-toe, any sufficiently good player can force a draw of the game, while world champion, proposed a variant of chess in the 1920s while he was world champion.

In his variant, played on a 10×8 board, the knight was replaced by two other pieces on each side of the king, a chancellor with the power of a rook and a knight, and an archbishop with the power of a bishop and a knight.  Needless to say, it never caught on.

This proposal aims to propose the most minimalist change to the game that would achieve ends similar to those suggested by Capablanca.

But, I can imagine and would propose a similar variant that can be played with standard chess pieces on a standard chess board.  I call it “Knight Rider Chess” (excuse the B television series pun).  I have thought of it myself and have not located anyone who has proposed this variant, but have not determined if I am the first to do so.  It is similar to absorption chess, cubic chess, and way of the knight.  But, it is simpler and fits a heuristic more naturally than any of those variants.

The concept is similar to the idea of a pawn being promoted to a queen, and also is inspired by Capablanca chess.  In this version, a knight that captures the other player’s piece could choose to make that piece a “rider” and have the powers of both the knight and the captured player.  Basically, the knight is converted into a fairy chess piece, without having any in the starting layout.

Thus, a knight that captured a bishop could gain the powers of the archbishop in Capablanca chess (also called a princess), a knight that captured a rook could gain the powers of a chancellor in Capablanca chess (also called an empress), and a knight that captures a queen could gain the powers of a queen and a knight (a “royal rider”).  A knight could not capture another knight, as this would add nothing to its powers.  A knight could not capture a king, as that would end the game.

A knight would also be allowed to capture a pawn and gain the powers of a pawn.  The initial option of a pawn to move forward by two spaces rather than one, and the power to be promoted to a queen would not be acquired by a knight.  The power to move forward by one in the direction of the capturing knight’s side of the board might be acquired, however, alone with the power to capture on either diagonal of one space in that direction, would be acquired.

A knight could acquire only one “rider” at a time, with the captured rider sharing the knight’s square on the board.  One could experiment with the question of whether a knight could have the option of changing “riders” with a further capture, would be required to change “riders” with a further capture, or would be converted once and for all after having gained a “rider.”  The last of three options would be the “orthodox” variant, mirroring the notion of a promoted pawn.

At any rate, the fact that only a simple “home rule” change that does not alter the pieces on the board any more than the queen promotion rule does, could shake up the game, is attractive.  Ideally, it would make draws less likely, by adding to the power of the pieces on the board late in the game.

Hat Tip to Marginal Revolution.

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

Privilege in America

[T]here are two Americas, and that many people who reside firmly in the more privileged version don’t even realize it.  

“Don’t console yourself that you are the 99 percent,” [Anand Giridharadas] says. “If you live near a Whole Foods; if no one in your family serves in the military; if you are paid by the year, not the hour; if most people you know finished college; if no one you know uses meth; if you married once and remain married; if you’re not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record — if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on, and you may be part of the problem.”

Via Vox.

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

Mental Illness and Criminal Justice

Half of people in prison and about two-thirds of people in jail are mentally ill.  But, our criminal justice system barely acknowledges this fact and thus fails in an opportunity to be just, human, and make the public safer.

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News