Impopular Culture

Impopular Culture

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Coming at the world from an unexpected angle, far too fast to stop.

11,500 reasons

NewsPosted by Pelotard 2012-12-23 00:56:01

Dear American friends,

In 2011, in the US, 12,174 people were killed by firearms. Not including suicides – preliminary figures put these at 19,766.

Also in 2011, in Sweden, 17 people were killed by firearms. For reasons having to do with police reporting procedures, these probably include a suicide or two.

Adjusting for population, had you had our rate of firearm deaths, you’d be looking at 595 victims.

So, you have that famous Second Amendment, which you are in broad agreement gives US citizens the right to carry weapons just about anywhere at just about any time. Personally, I don’t really think that this was what the Founding Fathers had in mind, but it’s not my Constitution, so that’s sort of beside the point. (For the record, I’d agree, broadly, with the minority in the District of Columbia v. Heller case – which was settled 5 to 4, so it’s obviously not a clear-cut case even when the purportedly sharpest US legal minds are thrown at it. And at any rate, technical developments have rendered the whole thing nearly meaningless. The Founding Fathers were thinking of an invading army arriving by sail boat, equipped with muskets; they envisioned a militia equipped with slightly inferior muskets. They certainly did not consider the possibility of bombers, aircraft carriers, tanks, and machineguns that can be dismantled and assembled again in less time than it takes to re-load a musket.)

What my point here is, is this: any ordinary, sane, law-abiding Swedish citizen can also buy a gun. Our constitution doesn’t have much to say on the subject, it’s just a fact that you can. To get a license, you do have to demonstrate some sort of sensible use for it – in practice, you have to join a shooting club or take a hunting license. (And you’ll have to take special training, but if you don’t think that makes sense, you’ve got your bearings from comics and are hereby disqualified from entering this discussion.) And they do check for criminal record, history of insanity, et cetera. It might take months, but then again, if you absolutely want to use your gun that same afternoon, there’s usually good reason not to hand it to you.

Automatic weapons are not included in this. Face it, the only practical use for a Kalashnikov or a Uzi is if you want to kill lots of people and are in a hurry. (And if this is in your job description, I really, really hope you’re a soldier.) If you absolutely want to own a machinegun, you’ll have to join the National Guard. They’ll issue you with one, and – depending on your exact role – also with a bazooka and a grenade launcher. Provided you pass muster, which includes screening by military intelligence and the social services; they don’t tell anyone what for, exactly, but presumably it’s to do with receiving large amounts of money from foreign embassies, known alcohol problems and the like.

So what are the fabled draconian European socialist anti-gun regulations that people keep talking about?

Mainly this: the weapon can under no circumstances be stored in a ready-to-shoot state in your home.

And they’re serious about this. Your home will be inspected to make sure it’s burglar-proof. You will need to purchase two separate gun safes, and keep the bolt in one and the body of the gun in the other. You assemble it at the shooting range, or when you go hunting, or, in the case of the National Guard, when the radar screens show enemy aircraft approaching. As mentioned above, you can assemble a modern firearm in less time than it takes you to re-load a musket, and most of this time will be spent figuring out where you put the bloody keys to the gun safe.

People like the NRA will usually point to aforementioned Second Amendment, and say that they need to have guns at the ready so they can repel an invasion and resist an oppressive government. This assumes, of course, that the invaders are polite enough to not use their aircraft, and the dictator considerate enough not to use his tanks. Other countries use their army for the purpose of fending off invaders, knowing that a militia armed with guns will deter a determined foreign army for about three seconds, and elected European governments are not noted for their oppressiveness, so it’s pretty obvious that the same ends can be achieved without having loaded guns in the bedroom. Besides, invasions, civil unrest and general dictatorship isn’t something that materialises at 30 seconds’ notice, so you do have time to assemble the weapon in case you really think it’s needed, and argue about the finer legal details later.

Ah, but what about defending your home?

Well... fact is, Swedish burglars aren’t armed. Because “defending yourself” works both ways. If you plan to burgle a house, and can reasonably expect that you’ll be met with bullets, your best bet is to make sure you fire first. If you can reasonably expect to be met with a pointed stick, shouts, curses and a phone call to the police, your best bet is to leg it, and dragging around a lot of extra weight is counter-productive. Burglars are bad, they’re not suicidally irrational.

From the home-owner’s perspective, it’s more a case of betting your life so as not to lose a silver candlestick. If you have a confrontation between two people with firearms, there’s a high likelihood that at most one of them will survive. Even if you are very confident of your weapon skills, and equally confident of the other guy’s lack thereof, you’re still saying that it’s OK with maybe 1-in-4 that you’ll end up 6 feet under. On the other hand, if you have a confrontation between one person wielding a crowbar recently used to open your front door, and another armed with, say, a baseball bat, there’s a high likelihood that both of them will survive. The baseball bat wielder possibly minus some of his belongings, and plus a rather nasty bump on the head.

None of this is actually my argument.

My argument is this:

In the US, there are roughly 11,500 deaths annually that could quite likely be avoided by implementing laws similar to ours. (You can argue that the number should be lower; feel free to say that it would be only 10% effective: that’s still 1,150 dead people.) Look at these corpses on the ground. Not small white crosses, not flag-draped coffins. Look at the dead people bleeding onto the soil. And while many of them will be young men with a criminal record, many of them will also be children who just happened to go to a school where some madman decided to march in and mow them down. This is, more or less exactly, the population of Elk City, Oklahoma. Imagine that Al-Qaeda had managed to dive-bomb that town and take out the entire population, and that the Government just shrugged; this is the sort of carnage we are talking about, and the lack of action. And this happens year after year. Next year, you’ll get 11,500 new corpses to look at.

Now, you look me in the eye, and say, loud and clear: “Yes, it is worth this so that I can keep my gun ready to use at home.”

If you do this, fine. This is a particular freedom that US citizens have; freedom always comes at a price, and I’m not going to tell you that the price is too high. I, personally, certainly think it is, and I will argue this until the cows come home, and keep at it until they go out again in the morning, but there is no objective way to say that I’m right and you’re wrong. Cars kill about 45,000 Americans every year, and I haven’t heard anyone argue that they need to be banned, me included.

Words like “freedom” and “self-defense” are one thing; it’s easy to support non-specific, abstract concepts. Given the numbers, and looking at the bodies, I’m willing to bet that very nearly nobody will say it’s worth it.

Feel free to prove me wrong.

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Disney bought Lucasarts...

NewsPosted by Pelotard 2012-11-02 13:01:35

...and you realise that things might have been very, very different.

(Pictures used for parody, in accordance with "fair use" and "independent work based on another work" as defined in the laws of Sweden.)

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Mitt and the Mad Science - Redux

NewsPosted by Pelotard 2012-11-01 17:36:14

Those of you who didn't fall asleep last time might still wonder about that hint I dropped about the health insurance. Aren’t people just sometimes too uninformed and too comfortable to know their own best, and shouldn’t we just stop pampering them and try to get them to take responsibility for their own lives?

Again, science has proven that it’s not all that simple.

When people find themselves in Big Trouble, they will focus on the here and now. An extreme example is torture. What torture tries to do is to make people tell the truth to make the torturer stop. What happens is that when the body believes it will die in a few moments, it will do literally anything to make it stop. This includes not only confessing to the most surprising things, like the Swedish soldiers who “confessed” to being 95 years of age, and that was only during a drill; it also includes confessing to espionage in times of war, or other stuff that is completely lethal; the point is that the torture will stop now, and we will live for another hour, which might be enough time to get out of the predicament. Or not, but this isn’t really relevant. What the body has done, quite irrespective of what we wanted it to do, is to let us survive the immediate danger.

This is known as applying a steep discount to the future. That is, when sacrificing long-term benefits for short-term benefits, the long-term benefits will get less weight. We all do the same calculation when we put money in the bank: we forfeit a benefit now (ice cream binge tonight) for a higher reward later (we get the money back with some interest—OK, that last bit is a generalisation; these days it seems we pay for the benefit of having the banks taking care of our money, but the principle is still valid). I have a day time job, so I can live with, say, a 3% interest (inflation and then a little bit). But someone who is convinced that their future is very bleak will put a very high value on today’s drinking binge, and a very low one on tomorrow’s empty wallet. There’s a subconscious calculation involved: we might all be dead tomorrow, so why worry about that? If my chances for long-term survival and success lie somewhere between “questionable” and “doubtful”, why should I care about the long term at all?

This is why young, unemployed men hold up convenience stores, often acting very confused when they emerge on the street holding a wad of money in one hand and a gun in the other, because that was pretty much their planning horizon. Fast cash now outweighs a possible prison sentence. (Or a very likely one, if the plans really ended just outside the door.)

Is there a reason for this?

Some people believe it’s down to genes, and in a way, it is. But the thing is that we all carry the same genes. If our brains calculate that our chances of long-term success in the rat race are so slim they can be ignored, this means that we should ignore them. We’re probably better off doing some high-risk, high-payoff activity like robbing a bank. It’s actually perfectly rational; it maximizes our chances of reproductive success, improving them from “zip” to “slim”.

This also applies to medical insurance. It’s for the fairly distant future, and a future that might not ever arrive, at that. If you’re low on cash, it’s completely irrational to spend what little you have on insurance, or so our subconscious success calculator tells us. It probably worked well in the above-mentioned hunter-gatherer societies, and this is why evolution has produced this end result (or, if you prefer, why God made us this way; again, it doesn’t really affect the argument since it’s based on what we observe human beings doing, not on the underlying reasons for the design).

The point is that we’d all act like this, if our chances of long-term success were nil. Investing in the far future is strictly a first-world problem; for many people today, and for most people throughout history, the immediate problem is survival tomorrow.

Does this mean the poorest in our societies will never take out medical insurance?

Look, I haven’t tried to push any conclusions down your throats, right? But I’ll volunteer a few observations.

Firstly, to me, it seems reasonable to build our societies based on what we see people doing and how we’ve established that we function. Designing our society the way we think it should operate, and then trying to make people fit society, has never actually worked. (If you don’t believe me, ask those who have tried to breed the Socialist Superman or the Aryan Übermensch.)

For the tax system, as discussed in the previous post, this means that although you can arrange it in many different ways, they can produce different end results even though the actual money collected stays the same. What you want is a system where everyone agrees to play along, which means that you can do pretty much anything that takes your fancy as long as people feel they get something out of the system. For the poorest, this might mean getting more out of the system than they put in, when seen over an entire lifetime; for the richest, the payoff might rather be a lack of starving hordes trying to get in through the front door.

Most European countries have gone down the road of making medical services a public good. That is, we consider it so important that, e.g., a clinic doesn’t go bankrupt on me halfway through my chemotherapy that we do a lot of it through taxation, mandatory national health insurance, and overall, a very high lowest level of service. It seems to work; people don’t take it for granted, nor do they run to the doctor for every sore toe, nor do they die in droves on street corners; we’re aware that it costs money and that this is where a fair amount of tax money ends up, and so forth. It’s OK to be opposed to this for various reasons, but “it doesn’t work” is not one of them. (You’re allowed your own opinion, but not your own facts.) But whatever system you design: either there has to be a certain amount of “mandatory” built in, or there will have to be widespread acceptance of the fact that young, innocent, blameless people will die even though it could have been prevented. Your choice.

Also, the observant reader will have noticed that a lot of the destructive behaviour outlined above depends crucially on the people involved having a very bleak view of the future. We’re talking here about people who leave school at 18, go to the employment agency, and are told that they will never get a job for as long as they live. (Yes, this actually happens. Every day.) So a lot of the damage—maybe even all of it— can be undone simply by giving everyone a good reason to believe that they can improve their lot. Traditionally, the U.S. has excelled at this: need I say more than The American Dream? And in my experience, this is also a characteristic of many U.S. Conservatives—they truly want to build a society where dedication and hard work will always allow you to be better off, and where there are no limits to your possibilities. Many European Conservatives, to the contrary, are completely indifferent to this aspect, if not outright hostile to it.

The other solution, generally preferred by a group vaguely referred to as “the left”, is to re-distribute resources so that nobody is ever completely without; the idea is not to simply remove the lowest rungs of the ladder (there would still be one labelled “lowest”), but to get them so close to the ones above them that the step is not insurmountable, and to provide handholds for those in danger of slipping.

Again, the preferred solutions are up to you. You’re still allowed your own opinions.

But never, ever, your own facts.

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Mitt and the Mad Science

NewsPosted by Pelotard 2012-10-26 14:49:33

No, this isn’t going to be an effort to explain air pressure to Mitt Romney. Nor is it going to be an investigation of his scientific agenda. Nor, I’m sorry to say, will it be about magic underwear; it’s an interesting notion but I understand it’s a religious practice and so outside the remit of what science really does. (Although it might be more fun if it did.)

But I bet you didn’t know that science can tell you whether Romney’s income tax costs him votes and why poor people don’t take out health insurance.

Economy and politics have tried to answer questions like this for us, and the results have been, at best, of limited value. I recently watched two people on Facebook descend into a shouting match over what tax levels were “fair”, and this is, of course, an issue that science can never resolve. But what science can do is to tease human behaviour apart, in controlled experiments, and tell us what humans, by and large, on average, think is fair. And it can even take a stab at why.

Consider the Ultimatum Game. It’s not a game, really; it’s a psychological and anthropological experiment. Works like this:

I’m given £100. I must now offer you a portion of this. If you accept, we get to keep the money. If you decline, neither of us gets anything.

Logically, you should accept an offer of £1. You’re better off than before, anything you get is free money. Right?


It turns out that almost nobody will accept less than £10. The exact cut-off depends partly on what culture you were brought up in, but mostly on personal preference. Some studies report averages as high as 35%, while most reports that I’ve found seem to mention values in the region of 20% or a bit above. As for the offers, if they’re done freely, most people from industrialised societies will offer around 1/3, but many people from pre-industrialised societies will offer £50.

But hey, isn’t this completely irrational?

Yes and no. There’s one thing that makes humans very different from other animals, and it’s not the pointed stick, the wheel or the aircraft carrier. It’s something much more fundamental.

Humans cooperate.

In the hunter-gatherer society, which can serve as a sort of approximation of “humans in the wild,” we go out, collect food, and bring it home to the tribe to share. The people who do it best command great respect, usually get the first pick, and in all likelihood ate the honey on the way home and piled all the tubers they found on the heap, but brain scans confirm that humans get happy by sharing. Completely unique, and counter-intuitive, but also completely unmistakable. This is how humans behave, and blimey, it works: there used to be only a handful of us, and we’re now the second most numerous land vertebrate on the planet.

Evolutionary scientists are struggling to explain exactly how this developed, and Mitt Romney is probably more comfortable with a statement that this is how God created us. But the beauty of science is that this does not matter: the observable consequences are that we’re wired to share our riches, and likewise punish people who try to get away with too much, even to the point of punishing ourselves just to get back at them.

You might think that this is a sorry state of affairs, but it helped us to get through e.g. the Black Death, so obviously there’s some merit to it. And you might agree with a quote ascribed to Marlene Dietrich: “Natural? Pah! So’s measles.” Still, this is how real people behave in real situations. It’s not irrational, except in the very short term; it’s rational for us to be constructed that way. Ayn Rand might complain, but egoism—to the extent that we grab as much as we can hold on to, and kick everyone else in the teeth to keep it—is not how human nature works, it’s not how we build the trust and co-operation that’s necessary for a reasonably complex society, and it’s not how to construct a society when your building blocks are all human beings.

What’s this got to do with Romney, then?

He’s shared his income declarations, that’s what. And it turns out he pays about 14% tax on his income.

I’m sure this is perfectly in agreement with what he’s required by law to pay, and I’ve even heard reports that he could have paid less, had he used all available deductions. He also pays sales tax on everything he buys, although I’ll be blessed if I can figure out how anyone is physically able to spend as money as he makes while still having enough hours in the day to do any work. But given the results of the Ultimatum Game, for many people, this is not enough. Lots of people will think that a “fair share” is around 30%, and paying less than 20% is extremely risky for anyone who is actively trying to get people to like him.

But hey, didn’t he pay something like 1.9 million USD? Surely, that’s more than reasonable? After all, it’s enough to support some 50 people on a reasonable standard of living, besides himself on an unreasonable one.

It’s a valid objection that research projects usually aren’t allowed to hand out life-changing amounts of money. It’s hard to get any budget approved; you usually have to point to stuff like large gadgets and hope the approval board like big toys. (Frankly, it’s anybody’s guess how they managed to get permission to just hand out research money to people. Possibly the approval board were the first to have a go.) Fortunately, there’s a simpler way: you can get the research budget to cover airplane tickets to a place where wages are considerably lower, and do the same experiment there. In at least one study, they went to Indonesia and gave away the local equivalent of a month’s salary–not “life-changing”, exactly, but enough to make a significant contribution to the household budget.

Results? Pretty much the same. People would offer around 1/3, which was probably shat they guessed was acceptable to the recipient with a decent safety margin; when offers were artificially restricted, acceptance dropped off significantly when the offers went below 25%.

So, the results have held up as far as anyone’s been able to study them, and frankly, this is science, so if you want to disprove a result, you'll have to come up with hard data. If anyone has the budget to study really life-changing amounts, I volunteer as a study subject.

As for the health insurance, I think we'll save that for later.

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Come Gather Round People

NewsPosted by Pelotard 2012-10-25 23:53:00

Lately, I’ve been drawn into discussions with Americans–most of them Republicans–about various issues. It’s been an interesting experience; most of them differ wildly from both European conservatives–usually for the better–and from common European stereotypes of Republicans–again, usually for the better. (Some, sadly, don’t. I suppose even stereotypes have to start somewhere.) (If you’re a Republican, and unaware of the stereotypes, maybe you’re better off that way. No, seriously.)

And now I can’t help myself: there’s going to be a blog series on U.S. politics.

This being me, it isn’t going to be a re-hash of any positions I’ve found elsewhere. It’s going to be more of meta-analysis and digging through backgrounds. I’m sure that it will be apparent that I, like most Europeans, have a bias for the Democratic party (when polled, Europeans seem to be divided like 75%/25%), but it’s not like I’m a paying member or anything; it’s a different country and even a label that I would have assumed to be straight-forward, like “liberal”, has a weirdly different meaning over there.

Today, I have an Observation.

At the latest convention of the UN General Assembly, Obama showed up and held a speech, but didn’t meet any other heads of state. This seemed to incense Republicans; then again, many of them get incensed whatever Obama does. Or doesn’t. No big surprise there: like Parkinson said, “[it doesn’t] make the slightest difference whether he learned his politics at Harrow or in following the fortunes of Aston Villa. In either school he will have learned when to cheer and when to groan.” But what struck me as odd was the specific importance they attached to the meetings. I think this attitude is more common among Republicans, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also wide-spread among Democrats: it was as if meeting the U.S. president was a grand prize, which should be awarded to foreign heads of state like some kind of boon:

Pope Benedict XVI

A bit like this. You’re allowed to bask in his presence for a while, maybe a bit of the sheer awesomeness of the President will rub off, and then you can go back and maybe one day you’ll be just as awesomely American.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t exactly how most people see it. Most people will actually only want to see the U.S. President because they want to get something out of him.

If you’re head of the average sub-Saharan African state, the occasion will feel more like this:

The “Please, Sir, can I have some more?” scene from Oliver Twist

Chances are you’ll get a ding around the ear, but that’s only marginally worse than you were off before, and maybe you’ll catch him on a good day, you never know your luck.

European heads of state might also see this as an opportunity to get something, but it will feel a lot more like you’re visiting a “lender of last resort,” and not the wishy-washy banking type of lender.

“My uncle is Very Concerned”: don Corleone demonstrates one of his two identical facial expressions

You don’t want to attract the attention of this guy unless you really, really need that favour. You’ll count yourself lucky to get out with all the bits still attached (for don Corleone, that’s all your limbs; for a country, that’s all your provinces).

Dictators also want to get stuff, but of a different class altogether.

The Gov... sorry, Terminator: 'Phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range?' Gun Shop Owner: 'It's only what you see, pal.'

After all, the U.S. has, for reasons of Realpolitik, funded various people who it might, in hindsight, have been better to keep unarmed. Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are two examples which I first tried to call “blatantly obvious”, but honestly, I’m not sure there are words in the English language to accurately describe that situation.

Much of the flak for Obama was due to the fact that he didn’t want to meet Netanyahu. Israel has a special relationship to the U.S., and in all likelihood, Netanyahu would have viewed the meeting something like this.

Ho Ho Ho.

Then again, what Netanyahu wishes for Christmas is probably that something be delivered to someone else. Address label reading something like “Tehran”.

Of course, I can’t deny that there are people who would see the event something like this.

Hint: it’s not a bird, nor an airplane.

I even played in an orchestra with one of those people. He was, frankly, rather tiresome in his lack of conversation topics that did not, at some point, revolve around baseball or something else the origin of which could not reasonably be misidentified. The thing is, though, that very few of them ever reach a position where they would be likely to come near the U.S. president in a UN setting, as most of them would emigrate to the U.S. at the earliest opportunity. Many of them will then spend much of their spare time commenting online news stories back in the Old Country, seemingly completely livid at their abandoned home for a) generally failing to be the U.S., b) specifically having numerous shortcomings not found in contemporary U.S., such as lack of colour TVs, CD players or iPhones, depending on during which decade they happened to emigrate.

But the thing is, many Americans seem to unquestioningly assume that an audience with their president should be a coveted event.

Frankly, most of us would never have noticed had he failed to show up at the UN altogether. Because odd as it might seem—to an American—mostly, we don’t think a whole lot about you.

And when we do, you really shouldn’t be too certain it’s in a good way.

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Murder Must Advertise

NewsPosted by Pelotard 2012-04-10 23:42:48

Priceless publisher Lynn Price, of Behler Publications and the inestimable Behler Blog, recently drew my attention to an interesting bit of trade news: the six biggest U.S. publishers are neglecting to renew their contracts with Amazon.

On the face of it, it sounds like madness. Amazon, the single biggest bookseller in the world? The online bookstore that has forced enough actual bookstores off the market to make Greece look like an interesting investment opportunity? They actually don’t want to sell their books through Amazon? Why?

The simple explanation is money. Amazon upped the prices. That is, not the prices to consumers (which have instead been slashed, in order precisely to force the above-mentioned physical stores off the market, which is exactly how a market economy operates), but the money that the publishers will have to pay Amazon to have their books promoted. (As opposed to published. The publishers do that by themselves. But Amazon charges money to show book covers on the front page, to place them high in search results, whatever. That’s the promotion.)

But one level deeper down, it’s about an illness that’s spreading all over modern capitalism. It’s known as monopsony, a situation where one actor has been allowed—through regular free market mechanisms—to gain a monopoly on buying, so that it’s very strictly a buyer’s market. (There’s a similar situation in the publishing industry as regards publishers and authors. Although there, the imbalance is more driven by the extreme amount of producers, many of them of suboptimal quality.) Classical examples of monopsonies are public healthcare, schools and defense industries, all for what is generally perceived to be good reasons: in order to maintain a very high minimum level of service, we’re allowing governments to have a market share big enough to seriously imbalance the markets. (If you’re reading this in the U.S., healthcare is exempt from that list. And lo and behold: the U.S. healthcare lacks precisely that high minimum level that I mentioned, with an estimated 20% of the population having no coverage for conditions which are not immediately life-threatening. And one of the imbalances that are created is that the monopsony can keep buying costs artificially low, which goes a long way towards explaining why the U.S. citizens pay twice as much as citizens of other countries for comparable health care.)

The mistake that Amazon made was to neglect that, as opposed to Departments of Health, Education or Defense, they are not the ultimate consumers. There are actual book readers out there. Ordinary people who buy books. Amazon are, in fact, in the same situation as a food store chain that manages to obtain a monopoly and then slashes the prices they pay to the actual farmers. If the farmers refuse to sell at that price, the food shops will be empty. People will become hungry, and eventually (at some time between the first missed meal and the complete breakdown of civilisation, which is normally estimated to be no more than two missed meals later), they will go straight to the producers. (Who will have to hire extra hands to handle the actual transactions, which is unlikely to happen in an ordered fashion between the missed lunch and the missed dinner, whereas there is no reason to believe there would be a breakdown of public order if the next Dan Brown book misses to hit the shelves by six hours, but I never said the analogy would not break down at some point.)

There’s a psychological level to this, too. I have myself witnessed, at more or less close range, several companies which have become overrun by sales people. Many of these believe, contrary to all evidence, that they are the ones who determine the success of a company; if not for them, nothing that the company produces would ever be sold. Intriguingly, many of the producing people also come to believe this, especially once the sales people come to dominate upper management. In extreme cases, companies which experience a downturn in sales will start making the producers and product designers redundant, and hire hordes of sales people, in an effort to turn the tide. This has never been known to work.

Actually, the companies I’ve encountered which have done best, no matter how this is defined, have been the ones with no dedicated sales staff at all. They’ve spent all their energy on perfecting their products and services instead. They got so good at it that their customers would recommend their products and services, which is all the sales effort anyone needs.

I’m not saying that sales people don’t fill a function, of course. Often, they add value for both the producer and the buyer, by successfully matching the buyer’s needs and desires to a certain product or service. But this is the key: in order to have any reason for their continued employment, they will have to be of benefit to both the buyer and the producer.

In a monopsony, this fails to happen.

And I can imagine how the discussion went as Amazon talked to the publishers...

Amazon: We’ve decided to raise the promotional fees.

Publisher: Again? By how much?

Amazon: By a factor of 30.

Publisher: Wait a moment. You mean that if it cost us one dollar last year, it will cost us thirty this year?

Amazon: Precisely.

Publisher: Look, this is unreasonable. Yes good promotion is vital, but you’re making money by the wheelbarrow and publishers are going out of business daily.

Amazon (snarling): Yeah, and where would you be without us to sell your books?

Publisher: Well, the thought did occur to us that we would, in that event, be able to sell our books at a lower price than you can, since we don’t have to support all your staff.

Amazon: Er...

Publisher: Who are quite unable to write books, edit them, design covers, or, in fact, do anything that goes into the finished product.

Amazon: Er...

This is, really, the level where capitalism is unhealthy. It is increasingly run by people who honestly believe that selling is more important than producing. People who believe that the producers would be utterly lost without salespeople to promote their goods on the market.

They never seem to stop to consider where they would be without any goods to promote.

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Weirder than truth

NewsPosted by Pelotard 2012-01-09 16:22:59

The non-president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – commonly known as North Korea, except for in the translation I did a quality assurance on where it was known as South Korea, which could have led to war, a fact proves that translation quality is important – has died.

Hang on. ”Non-president”?

Well, their president is still Kim Il-Sung. He died in 1994, but that didn’t deter them; he was declared Eternal President, and both his son – now deceased – and his grandson’s formal title is only ”General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea”. (I’m not sure whether Kim Jong-Il is also still General Secretary. Being dead appears to be only a minor inconvenience in this family.)

This is all due to the particular ideology which prevails in North Korea. It’s actually not Communism, nor, as one particularly uninformed writer in The Independent would have it, Socialism. (If you’re in doubt, consider that North Korea is the only country in the world where you don’t pay taxes. Any taxes. At all.) It’s called Juche, which is something altogether much weirder and more akin to a religion than anything we would recognise as a political ideology.

Or so we believe.

Fact is, we don’t actually have too many facts about North Korea. While the enterprising traveller can nowadays even go on a charter vacation there, the tours tend to be carefully choreographed and any actual feral natives shooed out of the tourists’ way with a large pointed stick. Other reports have it that there are several hundred thousand people in detention camps, but it’s not as if the North Korean government published statistics on this on their Web page, so it’s anybody’s guess whether the figures are inflated tenfold, fairly accurate, or an underestimate by a factor of ten.

But there are some curious titbits that filter through the curtain. One such was the Swedish journalist who, during some interval during an official visit, chatted with a North Korean about the Moon landings. After getting some confused replies, the journalist realised that this man had absolutely no clue that humans had ever walked on the Moon – and this wasn’t due to some conspiracy theory; he had simply never heard about this in his entire life. As it didn’t happen in North Korea, the powers that be had declared it inconsequential for the citizens. And it’s odd to think that he returned to North Korea, telling stories about the mad Westerners who believed people had sent rockets to the Moon.

Another weird experience was a documentary I watched this summer, about music in North Korea. (I’m unable to find any mention of it online, but then again, it was French and I have forgotten the name, so…) They interviewed several subjects, mostly musicians who were “successful”, for some value of the word, and after a while, a strange image was drawn: these people were completely brainwashed. (Or at least, they would appear so to any Western observer; more on that later.) But they were brainwashed into believing they were perfectly happy.

So… let’s set aside the detention camps for the moment. Let’s ignore how they came to be brainwashed, and let’s ignore those where it didn’t take, and the curious fact that the leaders of the country find the money to construct nuclear weapons – expensive things, last I looked – while being quite unable to feed the population. Let’s only consider these people. Ordinary North Koreans, more or less, who live by the rules, very much like the members of a sect – be it the Jonestownites, the Hare Krishna, the Scientologists or the Amish; people who actually believe with all their heart that they are living in a perfect society.

Now, do we have the moral right to cure them?

Would it be right and proper if we informed them that they live in a dump, that someone else do their thinking for them (which they might whole-heartedly approve of, for all we know; after all, this was the key defence of many in the Nuremberg trials), that they are starving because their leaders use all the money they can lay their hands on to buy guns, and that their country isn’t exactly the envy of the entire world, but rather the opposite? This would not change their situation in any material, measurable way; the only possible result would be to make them less happy. Do we have a right to make them unhappy about a situation they are powerless to change?

Before you answer this, there are things to remember.

One is that our cherished individualism is, by and large, an invention of the Enlightenment; in effect, it is a social construct into which we are indoctrinated from birth. Our ancestors were indoctrinated into a different context, which emphasized tribes, clans, or villages. To a Viking, the family and tribe were everything: their only security was that afforded by the close-up society which they could relate to in a personal way, and the laws were enforced by personal loyalties; the worst punishment in Viking society, reserved for the foulest of deeds, was to be declared an “outlaw” – literally, no longer protected by the law, left to fend for himself like a wild animal.

Another is that the way to cure a victim of brainwashing is to brainwash them right back: you subject them to very much the same mind-control techniques that were used to brainwash them in the first place, only you convert them back to the values of the majority society instead. Which in its turn raises the uncomfortable question of whether maybe we’re brainwashed, too; there’s certainly a whole bunch of people on my TV who insists not so much that I am currently very very happy, but rather that I will be, shortly, as soon as I purchase this product they’re displaying.

And such an unemotional, apolitical document as the DSM-IV will specify for shared psychotic disorder that “a person cannot be diagnosed as being delusional if the belief in question is one ‘ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture,’” which is a fancy way of saying that if enough people are crazy, then they’re not.

And when do we stop?

Contemporary right-wing populist parties operate from a mind-set that believes that all Moslem refugees are part of a world-wide conspiracy to eradicate the local culture and replace it with Islam, that every political decision in the entire Western world is taken with this aim in mind, and that all media are part of the conspiracy, except for a few, selected Web pages, and that everyone in the whole world think of nothing much but immigration policies and cultural backgrounds all day; in all, a thought structure which, if you replaced the word “Moslem” with “alien”, would have us all reach for our tin foil hats. This way of thinking has all the hallmarks of a sect; is deprogramming a better solution than debate?

For North Korea, the answer is trivial. The camps, regardless of how many there are, is reason enough to take action of some kind (and this is not the place to mention other camps, since a crime is still a crime even of someone else did the same thing). But some day, I’ll write a story where the solution isn’t so clear-cut. And since I’ll be wanting to tweak the parameters to have it balance on a knife-edge, it’ll probably be something in a science fiction setting.

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It Nearly Happened Here

NewsPosted by Pelotard 2010-12-20 01:10:10

We've been in the news. In case you missed it, it seems my home town was the scene of the only local Islamic terrorist activity with actual casualties; the previous hopeful martyrs tried to set fire to the home of an artist noted for lack of artistic talent, but abundance of marketing talent, provided you work on the premise that all publicity is good publicity, but only managed to set fire to themselves. They also left a jacket with their ID at the scene, which shortlists them for Dimmest Assassins Ever. In much the same vein, the casualty in this case was the terrorist himself.

As Swedish thriller writer Jan Guillou pointed out, this is a very disappointing total if your livelihood is in one way or other dependent on terrorists being a real threat; as if they'd been only waiting for him to tell them so, security analysts started yelling that we ain't seen nothing yet, while the official reaction of right-wing populists Sverigedemokraterna was "Finally!", which gives them the dubious disctinction of being the only ones who approved of terrorism, apart from some Islamic extremists groups who perfunctorily praised the deed on their web sites; they seemed less than clear on who the bloke was, but then again, they'd claim responsibility for global warming if they could only figure out how to.

Does this, readers of this blog might ask at this point, have any bearing on writing whatsoever?

Well, partly it's only that I used to work just around the corner from where this bloke blew himself up. Actually, when I went out on the street to smoke, I'd nip around that corner if there was a cold wind from the north, so I've been standing in more or less that exact spot enjoying a cigarette a handful of times fifteen years ago. Not much to brag about, all thing considered.

But there's a story here revolving around a word. A word whikch we've heard a lot, but which few people seem to understand properly.


The meaning of this word isn't exactly "holy war", as we've been led to believe for the past few decades. It's better translated as "spiritual struggle". One of the meanings, certainly, is "holy war", and this is how Mr. al-Abdaly certainly used the term. But according to most modern Moslem scholars, the "holy war" can only be fought when the right to practice Islam is under threat. In Afghanistan it might be possible to argue the case, but to be invited to Swedish Christmas celebrations, as Mr. al-Abdaly lamented against, doesn't seem to fit the bill. (OK: said celebrations feature alcohol and pork. Lots of pork. Traditionally, an entire pig, not one gram of which was wasted. But that's hardly the same as refusing him the right to be a practising Moslem.)

Also, even provided that a Jihad in the war-like sense is going on, a soldier must, in order to be considered a Mujahid, follow a rather strict code of behaviour. First and foremost among the rules is the unconditional prohibition against killing women, children, or non-combatants.


This isn't esoteric footnotes, like the neverending arguments on the purity or lack thereof of various varieties of running water in the Talmud. This is basic stuff, right there in the Quran, undeniable by the faithful. Even providing for the fact that it was written in a day when war meant hand-to-hand combat, there is no way that a bomb can be aimed at anything but a military target.

Terrorism is fundamentally incompatible with Islam.

It's a powerful statement, and one which certain nutjob politicians might find too difficult to comprehend (see above). But it's true. Swedish imams even issued a fatwa to that effect.

And while I'm at it, racism is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. There can be no such thing as a Christian racist, in the same way as there can not be a Christian atheist. Or, indeed, a Christian sexist.

Don't believe me?

Galatians 3:28.

Thank you, and goodnight.

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