Archive for February, 2008


Are economic sanctions a good idea? Sanctions were applied to Iraq between the two Gulf wars. They had no obvious effect on the leadership. They inflicted significant harm on ordinary citizens of Iraq. We are currently applying sanctions to North Korea. Again, it is not obvious that the leadership is affected, and, again, the ordinary people are clearly suffering.

The goal of sanctions is to get countries to change their behaviour. However, their main effect on autocratic dictatorial leaders is to prevent them from leaving the country. It doesn’t change their lifestyle: they still have the power to get what they want for their personal life. Sanctions clearly hurt the citizens of the country. That may cause them to wish that they had a different leader, but it doesn’t give them the power to overthrow that leader.

This doesn’t mean that sanctions have no purpose. Sanctions were used to good effect on South Africa in the ’80s. South Africa was not led by a dictator who was able to ignore the will of the people; sanctions had a strong enough effect on the minority voting population to make it possible for the regime to change. For a country whose leadership is not elected, however, sanctions do not seem to be very effective.

I think we need to seriously consider the alternative: trade freely. This is likely to give the citizens of the country more power and more knowledge that they may be able to use to change the leader’s behaviour. This isn’t to say that we should subsidize the country, and it isn’t to say that we should sell them weapons or advanced surveillance technology which will be used to oppress people. But we should sell them food and medical supplies and consumer goods. We should tell them about the world outside. Just sending radios into North Korea would probably do more in the long run to change the country’s behaviour than any set of economic sanctions.

It might seem that selling food will just prop up the dictators. But the fact is that the dictators will stay in power anyhow. Selling food will help the people. Isn’t that the ultimate goal?

I don’t know if there is a good way to change the behaviour of a dictator. But I’m fairly sure that sanctions isn’t it, and I think we’ve had enough of preemptive invasions. We need to find some new approaches.

I will be on vacation next week, and may or may not update the blog.

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One way to read the progress of computer usage is as an alternation between centralization and decentralization. Once there were no permanent documents: you ran your job, got the results, and took them away; centralized. Timesharing was introduced, and you had your own access to the single shared computer; less centralized Minicomputers let different groups have their own computers and their own document storage; still less centralized. Diskless workstations gave you your own computer, but document storage was back on the main computer; more centralized. PCs and desktops gave you personal computing and personal storage; less centralized.

These days we are moving back toward the diskless workstation model: you have your own computer, but your document storage is in the web. More centralized. The advantages of this approach are clear: you don’t have to do your own backups, it’s very easy to share data with other people. The disadvantages are also clear: you have to truth the high priests of the centralized system to look after your data. For most people today, centralization is the right approach.

History predicts that eventually we will decentralize again. What will that look like? I suspect it will look like the Internet appliance model, only better. You will buy a box which will give you personal document storage, accessible from any computer, with easy sharing. The box will automatically handle backups. It will normally be close to you, so you will get better response time. Nobody else will have access to it, so it will be secure. I’m probably wrong about this; decentralization will probably happen in some completely different way. But it will probably happen.


Kid Theater

My six-year old daughter doesn’t like to go to movies in theaters. She does like watching them at home when we let her. Since I like going to movies, this seems strange to me. What seems even stranger is her reason: she says that at home she can pause the movie whenever she wants to take a break or just go to the bathroom. In the theater she can’t do that.

I don’t know whether she’ll change her mind as she gets older. If she doesn’t, though, it’s an interesting snapshot of a changing relationship to media. She has always had a lot of control, and she isn’t interested in media where she doesn’t have that control.

Along the same lines, we never watch television or cable programming at home–we just use our television to watch DVDs. My daughter still doesn’t quite grasp the basics of ordinary television when we are at a hotel or a friend’s house–that you have to watch the show when it comes on, and if you want to see the whole show you have to watch it until it ends. You can’t start it or stop it. She sort of understands this when we explain it to her, but she never remembers it.

I don’t care what happens to television, but I do like the movie theater experience, and I hope it doesn’t go away. I guess we’ll have to see.

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Jumper, by Steven Gould, is among my favorite SF books. It’s a simple story based on a simple premise: a teenager discovers that he has the power to teleport. The book is both a bildungsroman and a revenge story, as he uses his power to strike back at his enemies (thanks to the one outrageous coincidence permitted to every story, he has some nasty enemies). He reacts plausibly to his power, the characters around him react plausibly, the government gets involved. The book doesn’t hit any false notes, and it’s not too long.

Gould’s second book, Wildside, was also good, though not as good. It was also based on a single simple premise, in this case a doorway to another world, an Earth without humans.

His subsequent books were by-and-large completely forgettable, alas. He did write a sequel to Jumper, Reflex, which was OK. It lost a lot of the charm by introducing another fantastic element, an evil conspiracy which was not really spelled out and led to an ending to the book which I found quite implausible.

Jumper is now being turned into a movie, being released this weekend. It’s always fun but scary to see a favorite book turned into a movie. Unfortunately, based on the previews I’ve seen, this one is going to be a lot more scary than fun. In the movie Davy is not the only person who can teleport. There are fight scenes between teleporters. There seems some to be some kind of organization which works against teleporters. This might all be good fun, if it weren’t for the fact that none of this is in the book, and that it ruins the basic idea which made the book good. The book as written would be filmable; it has good characters and plenty of action and conflict both between and within characters. I guess it just wouldn’t be a spectacular special effects event movie, though.

Who knows? Maybe the movie will be good after all. And presumably Gould will get a small pile of money out of it, not to mention more book sales.


She’s So Popular

There is some interesting research by Duncan Watts which seems to show that popular songs are popular because they are popular. He ran some experiments which showed that when people rank songs, the dominant effect is other people’s rankings. Thus even a small recommendation for a song by a couple of people can translate into massive popularity, as more and more people copy and spread the recommendation. When he ran several experiments with the same songs, in some runs one song would be the most popular, in others it would be near the bottom.

I think this is plausible for short-term effects like the current top 40 charts, or a book bestseller list. I would like to think that for longer term effects, like a song which is still played twenty years later, there must be some basic quality there. Although there is really no reason to believe that there weren’t other twenty-year old songs of equivalent quality which are no longer played.

People still read Alexandre Dumas, but if he wrote today his books would probably be bestsellers which were forgotten five years later. Do we still read Dumas for historical interest, because he was perhaps the first author of popular bestsellers? Or is there some deep quality there which is hard for me to see? Or did he just catch on randomly long ago, and has held on ever since?


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