1. Science fiction can, and should, be about reimagining social possibilities, not just blowing shit up in space; however, if you can reimagine social possibilities while blowing shit up in space, I am all for that.


    Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

  2. I honestly think most libertarians who hate Lincoln do so because he actually showed that the force of government can be used to do good. It undermines the fundamentals of their philosophy.

    — J. Cal Davenport

  3. There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
    There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

    — Donald Rumsfeld

  4. Proactive Policy and the War in Syria

    It is a poverty that over a thousand people had to convulse, vomit, and die in pools of their own excrement for the West to finally pay attention to Syria, but here we are. We now watch one of the most detestable atrocities in a decade from thousands of miles away, talking about cruise missiles when we should be talking about invasion. It didn’t have to be like this.

    To say that the situation in Syria is a disaster would grossly understate the magnitude of the problem. Bashar al-Assad is either willing to use weapons of mass destruction with impunity, which is bad, or has lost control of his military, which would be much, much worse. Al-Nusra Front, a local affiliate of Al-Qaeda, roams from village to village bombing Alawites. Imported Hizbullah death squads are given free license to stalk the southern cities looking for dissidents. Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon buckle under the massive influx of refugees and frequent border incursions. Worst of all is the staggering human toll, with at least one hundred and twenty thousand people dead, and five million living in tents. Factions on both sides have committed brutal war crimes and there is no end in sight as the various groups dig into their positions and prepare for a war of attrition.

    The case for removing Bashar al-Assad makes itself. Besides the usual offenses that go along with being a longtime autocrat and predate the state of open warfare with his countrymen, Assad has been a remarkably damaging force in a region with fragile social and political foundations. The assistance he has provided to Hizbullah, the temerity with which he promotes the interests of Iran, and the antagonism towards his neighbors are all reasons which by themselves would justify regime change. Taken together, and in the context of the conflict, they demand it. Sadly, we cannot rely on locals to manage the situation Assad’s absence, as wars have a way of making score-settling a priority when they end. As I said before, it didn’t have to be like this, but here we are.

    Intervention is long overdue, and pivotal moments have been ignored in the face of political pressure in other areas. The point at which the United States could have stepped in to define the Syrian Civil War was in mid-2011 when the Free Syrian Army crystallized as the flagship organization of the opposition. Largely secular and formed with a clear purpose, they stood out as the best option to rapidly perform regime change while deleveraging Iran’s influence in the region, both of which would have significantly improved America’s strategic position in the Levant and broader Middle East. Lending clear and unambiguous support in the form of training, weapons, equipment, advisors, and airstrikes would have allowed the Syrian opposition to dominate the situation with rapidity such that the disempowered Assad would be readily replaced by a functional secular government. It would have returned large stability dividends without major expenditure on the part of the United States. Instead, we allowed the situation to get so far out of hand that the need for a large and probably permanent peacekeeping force has arisen.

    There is a consistent and regrettable pattern of half-measures and knee-jerking in American foreign policy that hamstrings our ability to influence the course of world events. Instead of taking the uncomfortable but necessary steps to prevent emergent crises early and often, we wait until a situation has reached critical mass, then wring our hands when awful things happen. Gulf War II would not have been necessary if we had pushed through to Baghdad and finished the job during Gulf War I. Just because we occasionally fouled up low-level intervention during the Cold War doesn’t mean that we should entirely abandon the practice. For every Bay of Pigs, we killed ten Che Guevaras, and Latin America is better off for it. Precisely that kind of proactive policy is key to enabling secular liberals to gain a foothold in governments around the world, and precisely that kind of proactive policy is needed in the Middle East. Radio Free fill-in-the-blank, some well-placed drone strikes, and a couple boxes of rifles to the right people go a long way towards keeping us out of costly invasions and endless peacekeeping operations down the road. Most importantly, fewer people die.

    If we don’t get involved now, the situation will escalate. The cat (or sarin, in this case) is out of the bag and it is in Bashar al-Assad’s best interests to end the war quickly and violently before a drone strike ends his run as dictator. Until we do get involved, and with boots on the ground, more chemical weapons will be deployed or stolen by terrorists, more innocent people will be massacred, and more instability will push an already fragile region to the breaking point.

    The administration should exercise rapid dominance, occupy with a coalition of Arab League and NATO allies, secure any free-range munitions, install an interim technocrat, and end this bloody mess.

  5. A Love Letter to The Dirty Bird

    If you know me well, we’ve probably shared a glass (or five) of the “dirty bird.” The stuff is riot fuel, the kind of drink that in and of itself is a limit pusher to consume, and therefore a drink that inspires further limit pushing. Wild Turkey 101 was the common denominator in most of my crazier nights, and like a jilted lover, I come back for more abuse again and again.

    Whisky Magazine once described Wild Turkey 101 as the “Clint Eastwood” of bourbons, a characterization with which I agree wholeheartedly. The similarity begins with the bottling, which I take as highly artful, mostly because it doesn’t try to be foppish. The bottle looks and feels how a fifth of bourbon should; the weight is balanced, the circumference is perfect for the average man’s grip, the label looks classic and inviting, and the top is an actual cork. The bottle evinces memories of William Munny’s devil juice in Unforgiven. As one pours (or pulls) from the bottle, one can’t help but feel kinship with men of the open range. In fact, you may end up in the middle of a corn field with no recollection as to how you arrived there.

    Like the venerable Mr. Eastwood, Wild Turkey 101 hides a rougish complexity under its unvarnished appearance. When you drink it neat, the first sips have a strong, vital flavor, with hints of the barrel coming through. This soon gives way to a warm, almost sugary aftertaste. Any 101-proof liquor will taste very strong, but Wild Turkey 101 avoids the worst traits of this, while keeping the sharp kick that one expects (and probably appreciates) from a liquor of its category.

    That said, the drink certainly lacks the staple reliability of Maker’s Mark or the subtlety of a Basil Hayden’s, and is decidedly violent to the unprepared palate. The uninitiated would be well advised to try Wild Turkey 101 with ginger ale and ice to acclimate the throat, then transition to neat when it becomes comfortable. The Dirty Bird makes a fairly decent bourbon Manhattan, a concoction that I’ve come to call a “Washington Heights,” given the liquor’s above-average potency.

    Few people like to teeter on the verge of losing control, and Wild Turkey 101 will push the most inveterate drinkers to that brink. Staying on the edge is admirable, but going over can teach somebody a lot about who he is and why he does what he does. That kind of introspection frightens the postmodern individual. Authentic edginess is underappreciated virtue in this day and age, and on that count, Wild Turkey 101 delivers.

  6. Elsewhere in Elysium

    Elysium is what you get when you wed the aesthetic genius of Neil Blomkamp to the troglodytic politics of Matt Damon: a beautifully crafted and brutally visceral film with an infuriatingly dull story and a ham-handed political message.

    Seen in the context of its participants’ wider career arcs, the film makes sense. Blomkamp’s work is notable in its use of science fiction to critique the values of the present, though lacking in subtlety relative to Clarke’s invective against atomic weapons (2001, 2010, etc.) or Heinlein’s commentary on the upsides of societal militarism in response to existential crisis (Starship Troopers, his most underrated work), to name a few. District 9, with its hauntingly anthropomorphic aliens and sharp applicability to a true injustice, namely Apartheid, did this very well. The logical step for Blomkamp was to make a film that dealt with social issues other than those endemic to South Africa, namely class, illegal immigration, and healthcare rights. Elysium was to be his step into tangible international relevance, particularly American relevance. Needless to say, it fell short. Damon, fresh off such artistic triumphs as We Bought a Zoo and Gasland (financed in large part by Middle Eastern oil sheikhs with a vested interest in preventing the expansion of America’s domestic petrochemical industry), desperately needed a good old actioner to boost his credibility as an A-lister, not a hawker of feel-good fluff pieces and polemical snake oil (pun totally intended). He didn’t get what he needed either.

    Blomkamp is an excellent director. Damon is an excellent actor. Together they had the potential to make an excellent movie. Bad writing and worldbuilding dictated otherwise.

    The world in which Elysium is set stretches the imagination in ways that science fiction usually avoids for good reason. The notion that rich people would relocate off-world to avoid interacting with the unwashed masses is entirely plausible. That they would hoard “magic medicine” rather than selling it for a profit earthside is significantly less so. “Magic medicine” never, ever stays in one place, particularly when even the most complacent Western powers are fiendishly committed to stopping maladies like polio. Healthier, stronger, longer-lived consumers are better than the alternative, and lacking any context as to why there is such an enormous class divide in the provision of medical care the film comes off as a fairly silly plug for universal medicine.

    Even less plausible is the degree of poverty in which said unwashed masses live relative to the absurd amounts of energy they are able to conjure, seemingly at will.  I’m referring primarily to the junker craft that are Low Earth Orbit capable but serve no other purpose than to offer a means of transportation for impoverished medical tourists, though other offending parties such as shoulder-fired satellite killer missiles pop up regularly throughout the film. With access to energy that abundant and accessible, you’d think that most of the world’s problems would have been solved without the need for Dickensian social stratification.

    Then there’s the notion of law in this cartoonish dystopia. About half-way through the film, the justice system changes from arbitrary and draconian to programmatic and reasonable. This shift gives the impression that Blomkamp is more interested in moving from ham-handed metaphor to ham-handed metaphor than actually giving his work any internal consistency. What makes it most disappointing is that it’s a lazy move you would expect from an established hack, not a promising up-and-comer.

    The core message of Elysium is that all it takes to solve the world’s many ills is an offhand measure of goodwill from rich white men, a profoundly immature notion predicated on the most malignant form of champagne-leftist narcissism, and particularly pathetic coming from a white South African. In the end, the empathic arthropods of District 9 were far more believable than Elysium's setting and plot. Hopefully this is only a minor step back for the talented Mr. Blomkamp. 

    All things told, it’s an enjoyable, if crucially flawed film. I would recommend it to anybody looking for Blomkamp’s gritty-yet-spectacular aesthetic or Damon’s violent style of action, but if you’re put off by goofy metaphors or have difficulty suspending disbelief with regards to crucial plot points, wait for the retail release.

  7. On the radar for Friday, 26 July

    Leading today’s links is this gem in today’s WSJ, “Huma and Hillary in correspondence.” Huma Abedin and Hillary Rodham-Clinton are remarkably similar characters, and neither are particularly sympathetic. People came to appreciate HRC when she proved herself to be an adequately competent SoS. Voters respect the “suffering housewife” image less and less by the year, and if Huma plans to be big in Democratic politics, she’d be wise to discard the persona soon. 

    Why Alaska would be a fun place to live, oil subsidies aside. Buzzfeed listicles, pandering as they sometimes can be, really do a great job in condensing the positive in a situation. Very popular media, in the broad sense of the word.

    JK Rowling and economists in Marginal Revolution. Interesting given the fact that the entire Harry Potter universe is economically unlikely given the lack of a substantial black market circumventing the Ministry of Magic’s legal prohibition on Muggle interaction. XKCD808 is relevant to this discussion.

    The Wikipedia article on Elon Musk’s HYPErloop. I’d love to see the final idea, but I’m concerned that it will be underwhelming relative to the level of expectations set for the system’s performance. Musk does a great job of taking ideas that sound corny on paper and making them work, e.g. the fully electric sports car or the off-the-shelf rocket, but the bear in me thinks this might be an over-extension. I really hope it isn’t.

    Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF Twitter feed continues to descend into self-parody. Perhaps they’re making fun of the informational and cultural isolation endemic to modern leftist autocrats. Or perhaps they’re just a mouthpiece for a modern leftist autocrat. If documentaries are your thing, take an hour or two to watch Mugabe and the White African, a microcosmic look at the legitimized brutality of the Mugabe regime.

    That’s all for now, have a great weekend!

  8. The Hawthorne Dog Shooting and Weak Policing

    Policing should be aggressive, decisive, and deliberate. This is none of the above.

    <iframe width=”560” height=”315” src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/WDBZr4ie2AE” frameborder=”0” allowfullscreen></iframe>

    After letting an individual loiter at a crime scene for 8 minutes, these goons finally decide that they feel like moving him along and actually establishing a perimeter. 

    Instead of doing the reasonable thing by waving the guy off and actually securing their damn vehicles, they arrest him, jack him around, and provoke his dog. Then, instead of deescalating the situation like any sensible person would do, one of these idiots pulls a pistol and starts trying to grab the rottweiler. And since that’s apparently not bad enough, he actually discharges his sidearm into the dog without an appropriate backstop in the middle of the street.

    The purpose of any police force is to maintain law and order so that people can go about their lives unmolested. When you have weak, wimpy, reactive policing, things get broken and people get hurt. 

    The City of Hawthorne should take swift action and fire the three officers involved for this absurd display of unprofessionalism. 

  9. Benghazi Is The Symptom, Not The Problem.

    This whole Benghazi kerfluffle only underscores what we already knew about this administration’s foreign policy capabilities: decent on the day to day stuff, absolutely awful in emerging scenarios. 

    I’ve been beating this drum since the Honduras debacle wherein Manuel Zelaya Chavez was deposed by a native coalition (including the Honduran supreme court and most of his own party) to prevent him from wiping his ass with that country’s constitution and we supported the left-wing autocrat, reversing decades of sound policy in the region and emboldening the rest of the Chavez circle.

    The point is that the administration isn’t doing anything illegal or intentionally irresponsible. They’re just gun shy and lack a coherent vision of how to shape the world.

    For every step forward the administration makes with trade partners or established powers, they lose more ground mishandling the unpredictable and chaotic events of daily life outside of the developed world. What the administration needs is a set of triggers and plans that go into action as soon as certain conditions are met. To build such a set of scenarios, they also need a strategic vision. Without these, blunders will continue to happen.

  10. How I Think This All Went Down (Boston Bombings Edition)

    Here’s some educated speculation on the events of the last week:

    Sometime in 2011 or 2012, Tamerlan gets radicalized online, hatches and implements groundwork for plot. Has influence over dumb nineteen-year-old brother Dzhokhar, gets him to come along for the ride because he needs backup. Both execute a fairly well planned attack on Boston Marathon, but their bombs don’t have intended effect of clearing the whole street. They go to ground until the news media puts their pictures out on the wire. 

    At this point they panic and go on a poorly planned spree, with Tamerlan looking for a “glorious martyrdom” and Dzhokhar presumably looking to get the hell out. Tamerlan gets his wish, though he probably takes fewer cops with him than he would have liked, and Dzhokhar goes to ground again, probably in somebody’s garage. He’s found in the next day or two because nineteen-year-olds aren’t great at being all covert, and after initial interrogation we have a better picture of their motives. I’m guessing motive consists of some poorly cobbled together mosaic of “the infidels are impure and must be cleansed” and “the American’s didn’t intervene when the Russians were flattening Grozny, and this is payback”.

    In any case, I doubt these guys are logistically connected to a wider Salafi terror network, though they may have been inspired by Salafi propaganda. If you’re trying to expand the Ummah and beat back the supposed tide of American imperialism, you make a bigger splash than these guys did. I’m guessing that in the coming days, one or more of the international AQ affiliates will claim responsibility, but that’s only because they just learned that these guys were Muslims when everybody else did on cable news. Chances are they were as much in the dark as we were for the last couple days.

    Where do we go from here? For starters, recognize what we did right. The immediate aftermath of bombing was handled beautifully by Boston’s emergency services. The ratio of deaths to injuries proves this. The authorities also did a great job of drumming media attention to identify and track down these guys. This week will be remembered as one of the most participatory investigations in law enforcement history, and possibly the start of a new era of civilian surveillance.

    We screwed up in a couple important areas, primarily relating to news coverage. At this point it should be obvious that if you’re looking for current and relevant news, you’re doing it on Twitter and Reddit, not on CNN or FoxNews. The astounding failure of traditional news organizations to keep up with the wave of information coming at them and their even more shocking failure to factcheck key stories before they go to air or print were underscored brutally this week.

    At this point our best option is to keep calm and carry on. Soft-target attacks by the militant and the angry are simply a cost of doing business in a global marketplace. We need to minimize the cost while realizing that one can never have perfect security without hampering productive activity. The law of large numbers dictates that something will always slip through. How we deal with it is the real test.

  11. Public radio can be badass.

    (Source: wnycradiolab)

  12. Profile Pictures, Slacktivism, and Ego - John Lohrstorfer’s Take

    My good friend John Lohrstorfer agreed to let me republish this gem of his, an eloquent and humorous critique of the profile picture idiocy that goes on every damn time there’s a controversial issue on the mind of the American body politic. Enjoy:

    An Open Letter:

    Dear Facebook Allstars and Mega Twitterati,
    So you Solved a world wide moral crises, whats next?

    Anyone remember Kony 2012? How like tons of people making pithy statuses and posting pictures totally solved genocide and brought peace to Africa. Good work Peeps, taught that guy a lesson He’ll never forget!

    Now we get to slowly watch Equality pictures (or protests) coming down, replaced by “super cute” sepia Instagrams of you and your BFFLs slowly grinding out the memory of that minute of Social Activist Stardom you got SUCH A HUGE RUSH out of just the other day. 

    You remember, when you like, took such a valiant social stand with your self congratulatory display of Compassion, Righteous Piety, Moral Outrage (for or Against), and the wispy undertone of it all pleading “PAY ATTENTION TO ME”

    That is the reality of where we are today. The process of determining if two Human Beings (hold for the Irony) “get” to be considered Human beings of equal merit before the Law is going to be slow, boring, and full of political ho humming, and ultimately not give one second of thought to all of your wit and web 2.0 charm.

    So where does that leave anyone actually impacted by any decision made? Well thankfully they have all of the likes on your pictures! Which made you feel “super involved with social justice” or like “totally strong in my faith, bro”. 

    I’m sure those likes will be such a comfort to all of the families facing decades of conflict and division because they can’t just get a divorce with custody settlements like 50% of everyone else in America who’s succeeded so well in marriage, or jointly file taxes, or maybe even *gasp* share a dental plan! Its really kind of hard to worked up when you realize how boring and, well “un-gay” the stuff most Gay people do is. How are you supposed to break 1,500 “likes” with that?

    But don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, in no time flat there will certainly be a new cause to get worked up about… Maybe radioactive baby formula, or banning unattractive greeters in stores, or someone famous tweeting a pic of their junk, and you will be right back in the fray!

    So fire up Facebook, spell check the mini bio on the blog you work 10 hours a day at fellating your own ego on, maybe add something fresh to your twitter handle, and relax knowing you really made a difference today, and more importantly; everyone was watching.


  13. The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

    — Abraham Lincoln

  14. A Constitutional Morass

    I’ve felt this way for years, but I finally feel comfortable saying it: The Constitution of the United States has been over-litigated and over-legislated to the point of complete uselessness. I don’t blame the Supreme Court for what it did today, because their predecessors laid that groundwork from the mid-1930’s. They just let the decision stand as did so many courts before them. The US Constitution and sound neoliberal economic policy are at this point incompatible. Legislation like this leads us closer and closer to the morass that India found itself in during the 1960’s: overregulated, underproductive, and unequipped for human flourishing. In the end it doesn’t really matter whether this law was Constitutional or not. What matters is that our political and legal framework allowed for a remarkably illiberal policy to go from conception to implementation. The era of limited government is over.