The Long View 2007-10-31: Halloween Pandering; Sidney Reilly; Rational Choice; Dark Star Scandal

Even if you get the headshot, you might be missing the point

Even if you get the headshot, you might be missing the point

When I read this post the first time, I didn’t really see what John was getting at:

The increasing incidence of zombies is not a good sign, I think. Vampires are evil (or penitent) and werewolves have pathos, but zombies are just meatpuppets. They do not imply a moral universe.

I was more of a zombie fan at the time, but as zombies have taken over entertainment as they take over the world within their stories, I have come to appreciate his point of view that this is a brand of horror that misses the point.

Halloween Pandering; Sidney Reilly; Rational Choice; Dark Star Scandal

Yes, pandering to your audience works, or so we may judge by the reaction to the Halloween-specific top-page I put up for the website. (It will be gone by noon on November 1 despite the fact Halloween technically ends at sundown.) The number of hits has about tripled. The increase is not from people visiting to see the disturbing graphic (those are Jacob sheep, not goats, by the way) but because the top-page now features links to items on the site that would otherwise be posted only on the internal menus.

Here's a discovery: World War Z is apparently a very popular book, to judge by the number of hits it attracts. The movie is coming out next year. The increasing incidence of zombies is not a good sign, I think. Vampires are evil (or penitent) and werewolves have pathos, but zombies are just meatpuppets. They do not imply a moral universe.

* * *

I had always thought that the only connection between me and Sidney Reilly was the name (which he borrowed), but now I discover that he may not just have visited my hometown, but been up to no good:

Spence, Richard B. "Sidney Reilly in America, 1914-1917." Intelligence and National Security 10, no. 1 (Jan. 1995): 92-121.

This is a highly speculative -- as much about Reilly remains -- article that links Reilly with a mixed bag of skulduggery, including the explosions at Black Tom Island, NJ, and Kingsland, NJ. The author suggests that these acts of sabotage may have even been encouraged by more official British agents, to help push the United States into the war. I am sure Spence enjoyed putting this piece together, and it certainly seems to add to the already considerable reputation of Reilly. Nevertheless, it is so highly circumstantial that it must be read with extreme caution.

My grandfather was about Sidney Reilly's age, but he has a well-documented history. Documents can be faked, of course...But no, that way madness lies.

* * *

Speaking of misapprehensions, Rudolph Giuliani did not quite say Illegals Are a Federal Problem, as some of the headlines had it, but what he did say was bad enough:

Responsibility for stopping illegal immigration belongs to the federal government and not to cities, states or businesses, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani said Tuesday.

Giuliani told small-business owners he would not punish them for unwittingly hiring illegal immigrants..."The simple fact is, nobody but the federal government can stop people from coming into this country illegally, and the federal government does a very bad job of that," Giuliani said.

Immigration is a national issue that can be addressed only by the cooperative enforcement of federal, state, and local government. The assertion that it can be dealt with merely at the borders isn't just a mistake, it's a hoax.

* * *

Hari Seldon has nothing to do with it, which is why I am willing to entertain this sort of political science (hat-tip to The Belmont Club:

If you listen to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita [chairman of New York University’s Department of Politics,] he’ll claim that mathematics can tell you the future. In fact, the professor says that a computer model he built and has perfected over the last 25 years can predict the outcome of virtually any international conflict, provided the basic input is accurate. What’s more, his predictions are alarmingly specific. His fans include at least one current presidential hopeful, a gaggle of Fortune 500 companies, the CIA, and the Department of Defense...

What we are dealing with here is a version of "rational choice" game theory.

Back in March 2004, when al-Qaeda bombed a Madrid train station, influencing the course of Spain’s general election three days later, a lot of U.S. security folks were nervous. Worried that al-Qaeda might try something similar here in the run-up to the November, 2004, presidential elections, the Pentagon hired Bueno de Mesquita to run some data through his forecasting model to tell them what to expect. The results were unequivocal. “I said there would be no homeland attack. I also indicated that bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would resurface around Thanksgiving, 2004,” he says. Just after the elections in November that year, Zawahiri released a new videotape.

To reach these results, the system configures the actors motives into equations.

You determine whether the predictive theory holds true by plugging in data, which are numbers derived from scales of preferences that you ascribe to each actor based on the various choices they face.

Mesquita is in the business of designing settlements. As a consultant, his firm tells lawyers what the other side can live with; he does the same for diplomats, it seems. The forecasting element is just the inference that people will do what they can settle for.

It does not seem to me that this enterprise is quite as ahistorical or acultural as this article suggests. You have to know something about an actor's culture before you can surmise his motives. In any case, I would be interested in whether this technique has ever been used by historians. If we know what the actors did, can we ascertain their motives?

Although Mesquita assures us that he is selling his technique, not his own wisdom, he does offer this interesting observation

“If you liberate people from the constraint of having to satisfy other people in order to advance themselves, people don’t do good things.”

Which is the argument for democracy: keeping the rabble happy is at least some restraint on even the most uppity demagogue. As I said, pandering works.

* * *

The new precision of political science is also reflected in this report from The Onion:

Political scientists at the Cato Institute announced Monday that they have inadvertently synthesized a previously theoretical form of government known as megalocracy...[The discoverer] explained that megalocracy is extremely unstable and can only exist in idealistic conditions for a few minutes before collapsing into anarchy.

Yes, you can make this stuff up.

* * *

Finally, some eldritch political analysis from The Kausfiles

Rosenbaum's Political Physics: Do you ever sense there is some large mass of dark matter, an unseen Scandal Star, the gravitational pull of which is warping the coverage of what seems, on the surface, a pretty dull presidential race? I do. So does Ron Rosenbaum. I thought the Dark Star was the Edwards affair allegation. But Rosenbaum says "everyone in the elite Mainstream media" knows about another juicy scandal that the LAT is supposedly sitting on.

Yes, but if it's a Los Angeles Times story, how important could it be?

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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