Saturday, June 11, 2011

Oh, Hi: Part II

Again, blogging a bit sparer than normal, and again, what I think is a decent excuse.

As of today, I am an officially minted J.D., with high honors and Order of the Coif, from the University of Chicago Law School. Sticky Slopes also pulled its weight, winning the Casper Platt Award for Most Outstanding Paper by a law student.

It was a lovely day and a lovely ceremony -- my parents, brother, and Jill all came out, and I got to introduce them to a bunch of my friends and professors (whom I have to start getting used to calling by their first names). All in all, it was just a great capstone to a great three years. And thanks to all of y'all for riding along with me.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Famous Ray's Original Defense of Syria

This is an extremely disappointing post by Ray Hanania, a Christian Arab writer whom I've written favorably about due to his important work combating Arab extremism and working towards Israeli and Palestinian peace.

In this piece, though, Hanania takes on criticism faced by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) for canceling a performance by a Syrian singer which was seen as referencing the ongoing protests by Syrians against President Bashar al-Assad. Hanania is on the board of the ADC, and some of the ADC's top leadership are known to be very close with Assad's inner circle. But many in the American Arab committee are furious that the ADC seems to be taking the side of Syria's tyrannical regime rather than that of the protesters fighting their own rendition of the broader "Arab Spring".

Hanania's contribution is so garbled as to be almost incoherent -- it reads as a sort of mutated mad libs combining his own general stock in trade (attacking Arab extremists) and the classic "Israel is at the root of it all" conspiracy theories that are typically more characteristic of those very extremists. He strongly insinuates that the protesters are working against Assad at the behest of Israel, and accuses the protesters of acting only "tearing things down" -- despite the fact that across the Arab world their actions have given many states their first true glimpse of a democratic future in decades. Take a taste:
I’m conflicted over the controversy involving Syria. On the one hand, the government of Bashar al-Assad has been brutal towards the protestors. On the other hand, I don’t know who these protestors really are. Most American Arabs feel the way I do about Syria. They are conflicted. Why fan the flames of one side over the other, just to make Israel and the rightwing U.S. Congress happy?
Whether Jandali does or doesn’t perform at the ADC conference means nothing to me and probably the majority of American Arabs who are silenced in fear by the activism of a small group of fanatics who brow beat and threaten anyone who challenges their extremist agenda.

But it does raise an issue about the disturbing trend in the American Arab community where it is easier to bash other Arabs than it is to standup to Israel. Maybe that’s what happens to victims, because Arabs and especially Palestinians are victims of more than a century of oppression. Victims find it is easier to beat up on themselves rather than to stand up to the real oppressors.

So if I had to chose between destroying Syria to make the Israelis happy, or bringing Democracy to Syria, I have to ask, having lived in the corrupted form of Democracy practiced in the United States, why would we want American-controlled Democracy to takeover Syria?

This is just riddled with crazy. I'm dubious to the extreme that the American Arab community is all that ambivalent about whether or not Syria should remain under the thumb of Assad, whose brutality has hardly restricted itself merely to the current batch of protesters. And I know of many of the people who have been at the forefront in pressing for democratic reform -- Hanania disgraces himself to label them as "fanatics" and "extremists". They are liberals with unimpeachable credentials and, unlike the actual extremists Hanania normally opposes, they know better than to make the sine qua non of their political life "standing up to Israel". As bizarre as it is to suggest that the Arab world's problem is that it is insufficiently attentive to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, one of the things that most impresses me about the figures I have in mind who have been pressing for democracy in Syria (and Egypt and Tunisia and Yemen), people like Hussein Ibish and Rebecca Abou-Chedid, is that their commitment to liberalism and justice is not so provisional, neither providing a blank check to Israel (or Palestine), nor cynically deploying them as a distraction from internal conflicts elsewhere in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the dark insinuation of an Israeli or American conspiracy at the root of this controversy is utterly unfounded and perhaps the signature move of the true extremists in the Arab community that Hanania is so obviously echoing. Congress has been mostly silent about Syria (possibly due to fatigue over Libya). The Israeli government is certainly no friend of Syria, and has publicly voiced support for democratic reform their (as they did in Egypt). But Israel's foreign policy also tends to prefer the devil it knows to the devil it doesn't -- the last thing it desires out of its neighbors is rampant instability and strife. That gets you Lebanon. So they've mostly stayed out of the revolt as well, except for when Assad starts sending off protesters to storm the Israeli border and draw media attention away. Which, of course, is what Hanania is doing in media form: Folks drawing attention to an Arab regime's oppression? Look, Israel! American imperialism! If you don't jump to the tune, you're just another lap-dog of the oppressor. Yeah, that's not reminiscent of extremist movements at all.

I mean, read that last sentence: "So if I had to chose between destroying Syria to make the Israelis happy, or bringing Democracy to Syria, I have to ask, having lived in the corrupted form of Democracy practiced in the United States, why would we want American-controlled Democracy to takeover Syria?" That sentence is just a classic example of someone whose mind has been ripped apart by conspiracy. First, I hardly think those are the two options on the table. Second, doesn't it imply heavily that Hanania prefers "destroying Syria to make the Israelis happy"? The alternative is "bringing Democracy to Syria", but apparently Hanania isn't wild about democracy in the first place. So door #1 it is! I can't imagine that's actually what Hanania means, given the bulk of the column as a wild-eyed rant against Israeli depravity and the benefits Assad provides to Syrian Christians -- but this is what happens when you just let the id take over.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

God of War III Review

Sure, it was released over a year ago. But I played it this week, and I want to talk about it now. Nobody ever said blogging needed to be timely. And besides -- anything to take my mind off bar review.

God of War III is an okay game. I mean that -- it was okay. It wasn't bad, but I certainly don't think it lives up to the massive critical acclaim and accolades it seemed to near-universally receive.

One of the better qualities of the game was the opportunity to really immerse yourself inside (and then summarily dismember) the Greek mythological corpus. You face a bunch of enemies, from generic skeleton warriors to Minotaurs, Medusas, and Sirens, to a variety of Gods and Titans. The death toll ends up including some of Greece's greatest hits: Poseidon, Hades, Helios, Hermes, Cronos, Gaia, and Zeus, among others. More or less, if you meet someone, eventually you'll kill them.

Yet the most lethal enemy of the game was not any of these deities. It was, instead, the double-jump button. I'd say at least half of my deaths were caused because I apparently did not hit the "x" button at the precisely right moment, turning what should have been a magnificent glide to the next platform into Kratos gingerly hopping off a cliff. The second most fatal element of the game? Confusing camera angles, which made it unclear what direction to jump or where to go. And number three -- still not in the realm of sentient beings -- is the inability to distinguish between background rendering and potential areas to jump to. There were several times where I thought I was jumping onto an arch, but instead merrily glided against a wall until I fell to my death. Oh, you mean it's that protruding ledge which is part of the game, and this one was mere artistry? I'm sorry -- I've been spoiled by Assassin's Creed and just assume a natural relationship between things I can touch and things I can interact with.

This last flaw showed up again and again, to infinite frustration. Even where it wasn't deadly, it could be maddeningly as you tried to pick a path forward and got stuck in a room because you couldn't figure out where the game's invisible wall ended. And boss battles often required you to hit a particular, exact spot on the creature's body, without much of a hint as where that might be. I don't mind having to piece things out on my own, but it feels ridiculous to whack my blades against a fiend's body over and over again only to find that only this six-cubic inch area does any real damage. That being said, battles are often extremely immersive, and the Kronos fight in particular is massive in scope and beautifully rendered.

The games graphics are good but not eye-popping, and focus primarily on lovingly detailing each geyser of blood that comes out as you pull out a Centaur's entrails through its midsection. I don't have a problem with the over-the-top gore per se, but anyone who praises the game's verisimilitude is kidding themselves. This game has a shtick, and it focuses most of its processing power on providing the goriest entertainment available on Playstation. Shock value is the name of the game, here. That's true with the sex mini-game, which is almost deliberately gratuitous (though I enjoy getting to bang Aphrodite as much as any other dude). And it's also true with the relationship between Kratos and the various innocents whom he encounters and, mostly, butchers. I wasn't sure what I was even supposed to think about the civilian "servants of Olympus" -- was I supposed to kill them? Try to avoid killing them? Did they think I was an enemy or on their side? Occasionally I was forced to kill them because they were in my way, but mostly their presence seemed fuzzy. And that doesn't even get into what you do to the Poseidon Princess.

None of the characters seemed to have all that much depth to them. Their actions weren't dictated by logical reasoning, but rather by whatever will give an opportunity to fit in another bloody battle. Which reminds me -- Pro tip: Do not tell your erstwhile ally that he was "only a pawn", even if you think he's about to fall to his death so it won't matter anyway. Even if it's true, why not just keep up the charade? This all goes double if the ally in question has a knack for cheating death and whose entire life is centers around extracting bloody vengeance against all who have wronged him.

These are a lot of complaints, which I lay out only because the line on this game is "one of the best ever", and I think that's just clearly false. It's got fun, button mashing action, and it's set in a very cool mythological universe that's fun to explode. But it lacks in variety, and many of its key elements have been done better by other games. Hell, even the concluding "free humankind from divine direction" was already given to us by Final Fantasy XII (whose boss music instinctively started playing in my mind whenever a boss battle begun). It's a fun game, but to my mind, only above-average.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Personal Debt Ceiling

A conservative blog dedicated to tossing California Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) has some harsh words regarding her proposal that we raise the American debt ceiling:
Here is what Americans know. Americans know that when they go into debt, they don’t have the luxury of endlessly raising their own debt ceiling. Only the federal government does that.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I think this clearly, factually wrong. A debt ceiling is a self-imposed limit on the amount of debt one is willing to take on. But one always has the option of taking on more debt, if -- and this is the critical part -- there is a willing lender (charging interest rates you're willing to pay). That's the point behind it being "self-imposed".

Suppose I take out a loan for $10,000. A year later, I haven't finished paying off that $10,000, but I decide I want another $10,000 loan. Can I do that? Yes, of course I can -- if I can find a lender who is willing to make the loan and I'm willing and able to make interest payments.

The United States is in the same boat -- like the average family, we can take on debt so long as we have willing lenders and can make interest payments. Which there are, and we can -- indeed, interest rates on American debt are very low because the market seems to think we're good for it.

In a market-based economy, the real "debt ceiling" is a function of market forces -- you hit your limit when you can't form a transaction where the debtor can pay interest that the lender is willing to accept in exchange for the loan. The statutory debt ceiling is a governmental regulation that substitutes a centralized legislative command for basic market forces.

Saban Speaks Out

The main point of evidence for the largely spurious Republican claim that Jewish donors are abandoning Barack Obama is alleged non-support by entertainment mogul Haim Saban. It was a weak claim to begin with, as Saban didn't support Obama in 2008 either -- there's no evidence that former Obama backers are now turning on him due to his positions on Israel.

But it turns out that even Saban himself is pushing back on the idea that Obama is hostile to Israel, and is arguing that Obama's words are being distorted by Republicans with a partisan agenda (an agenda which Saban does not seem optimistic will be successful). He also noted that he had no substantive problem with Obama's speech (though he had some concerns with respect to form), and that he would be pleased to donate the maximum allowable amount to the Obama campaign if asked in 2012.

We can only hope all Jews are this "anti-Obama" in 2012.

Errand Boy

Yesterday was a productive day. I ran some errands in Hyde Park, including picking up my cap and gown for graduation. I had lunch at the Original Pancake House which, with the closure of Calypso, becomes one of the few worthwhile aspects of that neighborhood.

I started playing God of War III, which is okay, but not fabulous. I don't find the controls very responsive (particularly after playing Assassin's Creed, where movement normally felt very natural). But I do enjoy eviscerating a host mythological creatures in a variety of graphic and gruesome manners.

Finally, I got some graduation gifts yesterday, including a Kindle, which I'm still trying to figure out how to use. But the highlight was a gift from Jill -- a water bottle sporting the smiling face of Professor Farnsworth and the tagline of this blog! It was fantastic -- creative, funny, and something I would have never thought of on my own but am now thrilled to own.

Thanks honey. I love you.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Bibi Refuses To Meet With American Representatives

A group of five American Representatives travelling to Israel sought but were unable to attain a meeting with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, or, it seems, any members of his cabinet (it is still possible they'll meet with Likud's Miki Eitan, Minister of Improvement of Government Services). The snub appears to be prompted by the quintet's association with J Street, which is sponsoring the trip. The five Representatives are Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Betty McCollum (D-MN), John Yarmuth (D-KY), Sam Farr (D-CA), and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). Cohen and Yarmuth are Jewish.

In lieu of Netanyahu and his cohorts, the five will meet with various opposition members, including MK Tzipi Livni of Kadima. To me, this just demonstrates the fundamental truth that the "split" between Republican speakers on Israel, and those more aligned with J Street, is not one of "pro-Israel" or "anti-Israel", but simply identifying with Likud (Bibi's party) or Kadima (Livni's party). Since that represents the major faultline in mainstream Israeli politics, it makes sense that it'd be the major faultline in American politics about Israel.

Notably, I don't place AIPAC or groups like the ADL on this graph, for the simple reason that such groups tend to focus less on identifying with this or that Israeli political movement, and more about maintaining a general positive relationship between the US and Israel. That's why J Street, accurately in my view, cast its formation not as something in opposition to AIPAC, but doing something different than AIPAC -- forwarding a particular normative and policy agenda with respect to Israel. Both are valuable goals, and I think both have a role to play in American politics. By contrast, the Republican attempt to fracture the liberal pro-Israel consensus has done so on the basis of its own particular normative goals (e.g., opposition to a two-state solution on basis of '67 lines), and so it makes sense to locate them alongside their Israeli political analogues (the more conservative Likud factions and parties right-ward) -- and J Street is accurately cast against groups such as these.

While some assert that true "pro-Israel" advocates cannot have independent beliefs regarding proper Israeli policy and should only trumpet the policy choices of the current government (a demand whose sincerity is questionable, given how it disintegrates when the criticism comes from the right), I personally find this outlook perplexing, if not bizarre. If I told you I care about America, and you asked "well, who do you prefer to win the presidency in 2012", and I responded "oh, it doesn't matter to me -- I'll support the policies of whoever wins" -- I think you'd rightfully wonder how much I really do care about America and its flourishing. Caring about something means having opinions about it! I care about Israel, which means I have opinions about what actions it should take, and support political movements (in my case, Kadima) which are in line with those appraisals. This is normal behavior.

To the extent J Street is acting as, more or less, an adjunct of Kadima in the U.S., I have no real objection -- I'm an avowed Kadima supporter, after all. But this is yet another example of Bibi placing his private political interests above those of the country he leads. As a matter of short-term politics (Likud vs. Kadima), obviously, Bibi wants to isolate Kadima supporters and bolster Likudniks. But as leader of Israel, he can ill-afford to alienate allies in the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, sacrificing the national interest for short-term political expediency is sort of Netanyahu's signature move at this point, so I can hardly act surprised. But it is yet more reinforcement that Livni and Kadima are the only serious political actors that can provide effective leadership in these unsettling times.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

In Cautious Defense of Legacy Preferences

At their eponymous blog, Richard Posner and Gary Becker offer up a partial defense of legacy preferences in college (particularly elite college) admissions.

Posner's argument is basically that, while legacy preferences are distasteful, their actual harm on society is minuscule -- boiling down to the non-legacy student who is "bumped" going to Michigan instead of Yale. Not only is this simply not a huge problem on its own terms, but whatever marginal harm the student faces by being a Wolverine is counterbalanced by the benefit that other Michigan students get by their association with top-quality students.

Becker is willing to make a more positive case for legacy preferences, observing that college's prefer legacies because they are more likely to accept admission offers, increasing the college's yield rate (he calls it their "harvest", which I think is a far creepier term for the concept) and their rates of alumni giving.

As for me, while I do think it is an inversion of justice that legacy preferences are permissible and racial ones are not, I'm actually more-or-less neutral on the justifiability of legacy preferences on their own terms. And basically, it's my time at Carleton -- a school that, at least in my impression, has a strong legacy presence -- that shifted me from opposition to neutrality.

Legacy admission hasn't directly been a part of my own life -- I attended public school K-12, and to my knowledge I have absolutely zero family connection either to Carleton or the University of Chicago. But, one of the things I really liked about Carleton was the school's sense of institutional memory, and to me, that was intricately bound up in the number of students who had parents, siblings, or other relatives who had attended as well. It created a positive school dynamic and sense of community that really was integral to the school's charm. And I think the alumni body's fierce loyalty to its alma mater is a crucial part of our school's appeal. Carleton has one of the highest giving rates amongst its alumni of any school in the country, and on many occasion, when I've told someone I went to Carleton, they've noted how they've never met a Carleton graduate who didn't gush about their time there.

One of the things I think admissions officers are doing, and should be doing, is trying to construct classes that will together form a vibrant, engaged community. That's one of the reasons I support diversity programs like racial affirmative action -- academic and social communities are simply more robust when they incorporate a broad range of different backgrounds and perspectives. To the extent that legacies help create this sense of vibrancy and community -- and in my experience at Carleton, they did -- that's a valid attribute for admissions officials to consider.

Of course, this does not answer just how much weight legacy status should carry in admissions decisions. Nor does it answer the counter-arguments about "rich-getting-richer" and entrenching inequality. I also think that the normative justifiability of legacy preferences is hinged upon the general permissibility of allowing college's discretion to create diversified academic communities -- it can't be that college's can only look to those non-metric-based personal characteristics when they benefit the already privileged. But, in a world where this sort of holistic admissions process is allowed and is the norm, I think legacy status has a place alongside other personal characteristics as a valid consideration in building the best incoming class possible.

Red State, Part II

Reacting to border clashes with Syria stoked by Palestinian activists attempting to cross over into Israel, Bibi Netanyahu claimed the events as proof that Palestinians are not interested in a state based on 1967 borders. Which, if my understanding of the past few weeks' events is correct, puts them in the same camp as the U.S. Republican Party. Moral incoherence makes for strange bedfellows, indeed.

Of course, the substance of Bibi's claim is, at best, woefully underproven. At most, the clashes on the Syrian border demonstrate that some Palestinians (to wit, those involved in the clashes) don't want a state based on 1967 borders. Their intentions, however, cannot be transmuted onto all Palestinians. For example, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has indicated his willingness to work off of the French peace proposal I wrote about Friday, one which calls for two states for two peoples on basis of '67 borders. Bibi, by contrast, has made no definitive moves with respect to the proposal.

The fact of the matter is that both sides have elements which don't support a '67-based, two-state solution to the conflict. Simply cherry-picking extremists and holding them out as the epitome of the Israeli or Palestinian position is not good-faith dealing. Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more evident that Netanyahu has no interest in a good-faith pursuit of a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Earlier in his tenure, it was the PA which was jerking Israel around; now it seems like the situation is reversed.

What's sad is that the second I read about the French proposal, I figured that it was simply a race to see who could agree to it first -- at which point the other side would be obliged to find some reason to reject it. It seems both sides are just incapable of having sane leadership committed to resolving the conflict at the same time. If one side starts to behave reasonably, the other side becomes beholden to its extremist irredentist wings.

American Territories

Can anyone explain to me why America is still in the business of possessing territories that do not have full voting rights? These would include (of places with permanent populations) Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Northern Marinas Islands, Guam, and the District of Columbia. Politically speaking, of course, there are loads of reasons why these territories exist in a state of effective colonization -- they're too small, they're too likely to vote Democratic, they may desire independence (in Puerto Rico's case, there may be a virtual standoff between independence and statehood forces).

But it seems to me that there is no normative justification whatsoever for this state of affairs. Places should either be independent nations, or should have full voting rights in the country that maintains sovereignty over them -- it's that simple. Even size isn't really a barrier: D.C. is already bigger than Wyoming in terms of population. A unified "Pacifica" state of American Samoa, Northern Marinas Islands, and Guam would be the smallest U.S. state, but not by an unreasonable margin (it'd have roughly 322,000 people, against Wyoming's 563,000). Puerto Rico on its own would already have multiple Representatives in Congress (and would likely be combined with the U.S. Virgin Islands for statehood purposes).

And while I agree that these territories (absent D.C.) should be given an option of independence if they desire (akin to the Marshall Islands, for example), I also think their long-standing governance by the United States has given them a valid claim to statehood, if they want it, that we have an obligation to respect. In fact, I think democratic representation is so important that I don't think it should really be optional -- statehood or independence should be a mandatory choice.

It is frankly embarrassing that this country, which serves as a model for democracy the world over, has large swaths of people under its banner who don't have representation in Congress. It's wrong, and what's more, I can't think of any remotely plausible valid reason for allowing it other than bare inertia.