When engineers rule

In the current issue of my alma mater's magazine, Technology Review, there's a fascinating article asking why engineers are so underrepresented in American government: Engineers and Political Power.
According to a Congressional Quarterly survey of the 109th Congress, there are just four engineers in the House and one in the Senate. When the engineering specialties in the 2004–2005 Statistical Abstract of the United States are combined, there are 2.12 million engineers in the U.S. versus 952,000 lawyers and 819,000 doctors; yet 10 physicians now sit in the House and two in the Senate, and CQ lists 160 representatives and 58 senators with legal backgrounds.

Some reasonable suggestions are offered, but the unintentionally (?) disturbing and hilarious part comes next, when the author notes that elsewhere it's quite the opposite:
But in many other cultures, especially in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, engineers have been in the thick of power. They’ve been prominent in Marxist movements, such as the brief Hungarian Communist revolution of 1919. They became influential enough in the early Soviet Union that Stalin directed one of his first purges against them. Later, scientists and engineers were put to work in the gulags’ special research prisons, the sharashkas. After Stalin’s death, engineering degrees became desirable credentials for the politically ambitious. As the historian Kendall Bailes wrote in 1974, "What lawyers and businessmen are in the American political system—the major professional groups from which most politicians and policymakers are recruited—men with engineering backgrounds have become to a large extent in the Soviet Union."

In 2004, almost all two dozen members of China’s ruling Politburo had engineering degrees, including all nine members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee. In the Middle East, prominent engineers fill the political spectrum, from former president Süleyman Demirel of Turkey to the members of the Society of Muslim Engineers, pillars of the ayatollahs’ Iran, to the late secular nationalist Yasser Arafat. In many countries, engineering appeals to the civic minded. On the other hand, disaffected young men recruited in European engineering schools were prominent among the September 11 hijackers. As R. Scott Appleby and Martin E. Marty observe in Foreign Affairs, "fundamentalists tend to read scriptures [as] engineers read blueprints—as a prosaic set of instructions and specifications." Civil engineer Osama bin Laden surely did.

Surely he did.

What a bizarre "on the other hand", by the way, as if the author doesn't realize that the prominence of engineers on the staff of the butchers, thugs and thieves of the world isn't of itself a totally negative thing. If there's a bigger argument against having engineers in positions of power, or maybe against being an engineer at all, I'd like to see it.

Now, being one myself, I don't mean to slander all engineers; after all to a certain extent this makes sense, since in a command economy the chief role of government isn't compromise and debate but rather issuing out orders, and who better to do that than those who are, shall we say process-oriented. It doesn't mean that engineers are all budding autocrats. But it does make me feel better about 90% of the computer programmers I've ever worked with being hardcore liberals. Actually, it makes me feel really, really good about it.


A few things

I had the sudden urge to upload some songs I've been listening to recently. I'll probably leave these up for a week or two. If you want to listen to these, remember to just stream these and not save them to disk, because that would be illegal.

Amerie - One Thing - this song is so hot, it's nuts. It sounds like the hip-hop people have finally discovered the Fatboy Slim "big beat" thing. I hope more stuff comes out like this.

Stereolab - The Noise Of Carpet - from "Emperor Tomato Ketchup". That Amerie song reminded me of this one a little.

Shai 360 and BooSkills - Tinanai - two other rappers from Subliminal's TACT crew, on a track from last year. Contains the quintessential Israeli battle rap, "you're like parking in Tel Aviv, I don't see you".

UPDATE: I removed these now.


I watch Veggie Tales

The only thing I did for Purim was watch the Veggie Tales: Esther - The Girl Who Became Queen DVD, which some people might say is worse than nothing at all, but I'm not one of those people. For those unaware of "Veggie Tales", it's some sort of massively successful Christian children's video phenomenon, showing morality tales for kids as acted out by animated computer-generated vegetables. Someone brought it over as kind of a joke, but we all agreed afterwards it was educational and there were some genuine laughs in there.

This one was billed as "a story of courage", which sounds fair. The Jewish angle gets shut out entirely - instead of Jews being in danger, it's "Mordechai's family", after the grape refuses to bow down to the potato (you know what kind of trouble that can lead to). On the other hand, the story gets a welcome infusion of spirituality when Esther (who's - some kind of snow pea? Not clear) sings a song about praying for guidance; the original text doesn't even mention the Almighty. So we'll call it a wash.

Next Purim I hope to do something a little more, y'know, Jewish. If I get the chance.


Remote lounge

Writing from Park Slope's famous Union Street Tea Lounge, with free wi-fi connection. Since getting my new laptop, I've been able to do a lot of work remotely. I might be ruining my eyes, though - I notice they get tired after about an hour of staring at the screen.

They were playing David Bowie before, and now they're playing Belle and Sebastian's "Dear Catastrophe Waitress", which is strongly tied in in my mind with last winter. "With chance of overtime/ say my place at 9?"


Tulip Revolution

Protesters in Kyrgyzstan yesterday managed to drive out President Askar Akaev, who's ruled the country through fraudulent elections since the fall of the Soviet Union; which means they have a good shot at getting true democracy in their country for the first time ever. Registan has a good summary, with photos: "The Unexpectedly Short and Easy Revolution" (via Instapundit).

I know many people supported the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars because they would plant the concept of democracy in the Middle East, but I don't think even Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and the gang were thinking seriously that it would also spread so quickly to their neighbors to the north and east in Central Asia. Then again, I could be wrong, those are smart guys.

Okay, fine, since it's what on everyone's mind anyway: Kyrgyzstan protester babe. You people are so predictable!


To do

Lots of events in New York this weekend: on Thursday night, you can see Esther perform at a Purim comedy show at 8:15 on the Upper West Side (and really, Purim and Esther are pretty much an ideal combination), or Peter and Mike's Listening Party at 9 on the Lower East Side. Tough choices!

Also, there's the NYC Blogger Party on Saturday, where the Purim and indie contingents can meet and drink together.

Book notes

So Jessica of New Vintage hit me with this book-themed "meme" that's going around (actually not a meme at all - a meme is an idea that spreads, and this is just a questionnaire, no?) It's what people send in 2005 in place of a chain letter, I guess. She got it from Todd, who got it from Ginger, who got it from... Actually, it reads like a case of 10th-grade mono. But then again, who wants to admit they never got the 10th-grade mono? That's the problem with these spreadable question things: the only thing more annoying than receiving one is not receiving one.

Okay, here's mine:

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Well, it would have to be something short, so I can memorize it easily, and yet worth my time to memorize... I'll say Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha" on this one.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Oh, sure. Let me go with "Y.T." from Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" here. Amazon reviews I looked up reveal that she's only 15 years old - really? Hm. She certainly acts older.

The last book you bought is:

Some cookbook, I think, actually. Okay, I looked it up, it's "The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen".

The last book you read:

"Motherless Brooklyn", Jonathan Lethem.

What are you currently reading?

"The System of the World", Neal Stephenson. I'm about halfway through.

Five books you would take to a deserted island.

The Bible (first half only, probably), "War and Peace", "Ulysses", the Bhagavad Gita, some Spanish-language-instruction book. I get back eventually, right?

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

No sending, but feel free to answer for yourself.


And the mustache is a nice touch

Here's a great site created by supporters of John Bolton, President Bush's nominee for United Nations ambassador. A video on the front page shows Bolton making some of his incendiary statements on the UN, like this one: "There is no 'United Nations'. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that's the United States - when it suits our interest and when we can get others to go along." It's great that we'll have a UN ambassador who recognizes that the UN is mostly immoral, and in any case has no legitimacy to be making decisions on its own. I encourage everyone to check out the video to see that America's future relations with the UN are in good hands.

Wait, the site is called "StopBolton.org" - is it actually meant to convince people not to support Bolton? Oh, okay, if you say so.

(Via Little Green Footballs, which by the way uses the word "moonbats", which is derogatory language that I don't support, but anyway that's that)


They wish they could have Wolfie's girl

I've been getting lots of search queries for "photos of Shaha Ali Riza", which I'm guessing is due to the fact that Paul Wolfowitz looks to be the new head of the World Bank (fantastic choice, in my opinion, by the way). I had a post on her a while back, after the Daily Telegraph broke the story that Wolfowitz is now dating Ms. Riza, a Saudi intellectual who's already a World Bank official. To satisfy anyone's curiosity, here's the lucky lady again:

Planting the seeds of freedom, indeed!

Among his many other interesting characteristics, Wolfowitz regularly reads and cites blogs and was instrumental in getting the Iraq the Model guys invited to the White House.


Social Security thoughts

Alan Greenspan, in a move sure to surprise no one, has come out in favor of partially privatizing Social Security.

I don't really want to write more about politics here, especially not domestic politics, but I wanted to get my 2 cents in about Social Security, while everyone's still talking about it. Anyone who reads this site could guess my that, as a libertarian I'm against it on principle, involvement in personal finance outside the natural scope of government, blah blah blah. But let's say instead that, yes, it is a responsibility of government to make sure that people are taken care of when they hit old age; that's not a huge stretch since probably 98% of the American people would agree. So here's my question: why do we need Social Security even in that case? We already have a welfare system in place if anyone can no longer provide for themselves; why not simply have old people who need the extra assistance go on welfare?

Social Security is structured not as a welfare program but as an enforced investment program, or, as some people like to describe it, an "insurance program" (with the calamity being insured against being simply hitting the age of 65, not a financial calamity at all for many people). Because of this structuring there are a few weaknesses in the system:

Now, you could argue that we should take away the income cap, and start means-testing, which would remove the first two objections; and in fact some people do argue for those two. But at that point you've given up on the idea that this is meant to be some sort of personal investment program, and have just transformed it into... a welfare program. In which case, why not just merge it with our existing welfare program? You know, eliminate redundancy and all that.

So there's my view on Social Security. Flame away if you think there's a flaw. Or feel free to let me know how much you agree. :)


Subliminal w. Shadow @ B. B. King's

I got back earlier tonight from seeing Subliminal, the Israeli rapper, and it was such an awesome show.

First of all, a big thanks to Scott of SlantPoint (whom I just met last week) for noting the thing on his blog. I had heard of Subliminal and had already downloaded a bunch of his tracks, but I had no idea he was playing here. Blogs are really starting to set my social schedule these days.

The show, the last stop on their North American tour, was sold out by the time I went to get tickets, which I should have expected; Subliminal (AKA Kobi Shimony) is the biggest Israeli rapper, and from what I understand possibly the biggest thing in Israeli music right now,. I couldn't convince anyone to go with me, so I went by myself, and I hoped someone would have an extra ticket; as it turned out, they were still selling tickets at the box office; if there's one thing I've learned about music shows in New York, it's that "sold out" rarely actually means sold out. Sometimes you have to be a little more persistent, but there's usually a way to get in.

I got there about half an hour after the start time, figuring that it would be like any other hip-hop show and would start at least an hour late. But no, it seemed like I had already missed half an hour. What? I guess they haven't learned about that rule in Israel; good for them.

The show went on for another two hours, so I didn't really miss out. So awesome - they kept topping themselves. Subliminal was there with his whole crew, called T.A.C.T. (it stands for Tel Aviv something something), and it consisted of rapper Shadow ("Ha-Tzel"), rapper/singer Shai 360, and three other singers, one female, one who was doing Middle Eastern-style singing, and one who was more on the R&B tip. This third one was black, and by his appearance and the fact that he was singing in both fluent English and Hebrew I assume he's one of the "Black Hebrews", a fascinating subgroup in Israel descended from a group of Chicago blacks who emigrated in the 60's (long story, but they're probably best known for having Whitney Houston visit them two years ago).

The songs were mostly in Hebrew, with some English, plus some French (kind of strange - must be that one or more of the posse are Lebanese) and Arabic. The lyrics include the usual topics of boasting and battle rhymes, in addition to covering the political situation in Israel, from a perspective that's staunchly pro-Israel but not militant. Their big current single (so they said), which they performed, is called "Peace in the Middle East". The lyrics, I'm pretty sure, refer strictly to the situation in Israel and not the one in Iraq (I hope so, anyway). Subliminal gets in some good lines: "those people think they're fighting for God and Allah/ Those two want to fight? Let them fight themselves" (rough translation here). He has a reputation as being militantly pro-IDF, but the truth is that he mirrors the view of almost all Israelis in that he wants to see an end to the struggle first and foremost. In any case the crowd was into it every step of the way, chanting "Am Yisrael Chai" ("the nation of Israel lives") between songs, waving some Israeli flags, and a good many people (especially the girls) seemed to know all the song lyrics.

The crowd itself, maybe 1,000 people, seemed to be about 60% Israelis, 40% American Jews, although probably a lot were like me, somewhere in between. I'd guess the median age was around 18, what with all the 10-15-year-olds (!) running around. Hey, I guess Subliminal is "for the children". It's nice being at an all-ages show, it definitely feels like more of a community gathering.

Halfway through they brought out a true superstar, Israeli-American violinist Miri Ben-Ari, AKA "the hip-hop violinist". She's kind of everywhere in (American) hip-hop these days, having played with Kanye West, Jay-Z, and many others (she's probably best known for the instrumental hook on Fat Joe's "Lean Back"). That was really quite unexpected that she showed up. She played a song with the group, then played a little virtuoso piece with just a backing track. Awesome, and the crowd showed their support.

Though I didn't think it could get better, during the four-song encore out came Remedy, a Jewish rapper who's a sometimes-member of Wu-Tang Clan, plus Killah Priest (!), another side Wu-Tang member. It really turned into sort of an all-star show.

Musically and lyrically, I thought it was a solid hip-hop show by any standard, not just as Israeli. It was also refreshing to see an Israeli musician address the political situation directly, and not from some knee-jerk toothless left-wing position at that (not surprising that it would be a hip-hop artist, since hip-hop has long been the medium for addressing these kinds of political and group-identity issues). Also big ups to B.B. King's; I've never been there and I guess I ignored it because it's in Times Square, but it's a really nice venue; the layout (wide as opposed to long) means you get a good view of the stage from pretty much anywhere. I'd definitely recommend it if you get the chance.

UPDATE: Jewlicious has a report from the Montreal concert. With photos! Also, "T.A.C.T." stands for "Tel Aviv City Team". So now you know.


A candy bar, a falling star, or a reading of Dr. Seuss

More from Beirut

The lesson this week is that Lebanese protester babes are the new purple fingers. Now even the Iraq the Model guys are getting in on the action; the post is worth reading for the words too, because Omar considers that the most recent demonstration, which appeared to show that 500,000 Lebanese are eager for Syria to stay in their country, had the look and feel of the staged pro-government demonstrations in Saddam's Iraq, down to protesters being bused in from elsewhere (in this case, mostly from the countryside, some from Syria itself).

It's a good PR showing by Syria and the Hezbollah terrorists, but not enough, in my opinion, to throw off the the inevitable withdrawal: as Mark Steyn might say, there's only so many times you can bus people in before the rest of the world realizes you're taking them for a ride.


When democracies attack

Have two democratic countries ever gone to war with one another? I've seen this issue come up more than once recently, what with the recent focus on democracy as a sort of basic cure-all for troubled countries (a theory I firmly support, by the way, don't get me wrong). Through the magic of the internet, I found this site: War Between Democracies: it was written by an armchair historian and presents just about everything you'd want to know about the somewhat-controversial issue. I definitely recommend reading the page if you're curious; but in brief, there are about 20 instances in history that are sometimes cited as examples of armed conflict between two democracies. Most of them, though, don't pass the smell test because one or both sides wasn't a full, stable democracy, either because there was a democratic parliament but an unelected leader (like Germany in World War I), or the leader had been elected but was in power through undemocratic means (like Peru's Alberto Fujimori, who had dissolved congress and ended elections before a brief war with Ecuador in 1995), or democracy had only been around for a year or so at that point (the Yugoslavian Civil War of '92).

So what's left? There are a few historical cases where it appears that two democracies indeed did the unthinkable. In historical order: Athens and Syracuse (the world's first democracies) in the 5th Century B.C.; Rome and Carthage during the Punic Wars; Spain and America during the Spanish-American war; Great Britain and what's now South Africa in the Anglo-Boer War; and Great Britain and Finland during World II (though Finland ended up on the side of the Nazis only because they were fending off attacks from the Soviet Union).

It's a small number, though the site also points out that there hasn't been that much time for the theory to test itself out, what with most of the world's true democracies having only become that way within the last 60 years or so, many only in the last 20.

Consider it food for thought... I hope I don't get my neo-con credentials revoked for this.


Day at the galleries

The Basquiat exhibit was great, by the way. It focused on his "verbal" art, which is mostly words on canvas; there's a focus on rhythm and repetition that seems clearly inspired by hiphop and jazz (a few of the "paintings" are just track listings from jazz albums, scrawled in block letters). I don't know if I'm conveying information that's new to anyone, but if you want to see good contemporary art in New York I really recommend seeing the Chelsea gallery scene. I don't know how I've missed it before, since I've been to Chelsea Piers a few times, but around 23rd to 25th streets, on the far west side (10th to 11th avenues), the place is packed with galleries, each with interesting exhibits, and they're all free. The MOMA has some good contemporary art, but I think Chelsea has more, and you can't beat the price.


There's no one like Basquiat

I'm going to see this Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at a Chelsea gallery on Saturday. I'm really excited! Basquiat is one of my absolute favorites. His paintings have an energy and muscularity to them that are really quite amazing. It's life in a big city, with all its contradictions and unresolved details, on canvas.


Bush's newest fans

As if we need any more proof that the world is changing, Ace of Spades rounds up evidence that the "usual suspects" - the New York Times, Washington Post, Jon Stewart, BBC, NPR, etc., are all signing on to President Bush's vision on the Middle East. The earlier talk of quagmire doesn't reconcile with the images of successful elections in Iraq, demonstrations in Lebanon and planned elections in Egypt - it's a "quagmire" that, in less than two years, looks like it might democratize at least half the Arab world. We could have benefitted from this kind of quagmire a long time ago.

As Ace noted elsewhere, the new line from the skeptics might be that this is an unforeseen consequence by the war's planners, or at least one that's been kept secret from the rest of us. Here's Jon Stewart from The Daily Show two days ago:
Do you think they're the guys to--do they understand what they've unleashed? Because at a certain point, I almost feel like, if they had just come out at the very beginning and said, "Here's my plan: I'm going to invade Iraq. We'll get rid of a bad guy because that will drain the swamp"--if they hadn't done the whole "nuclear cloud," you know, if they hadn't scared the pants off of everybody, and just said straight up, honestly, what was going on, I think I'd almost--I'd have no cognitive dissonance, no mixed feelings.

But of course, this reasoning, including the very phrase "drain the swamp", has been used by the administration and pro-war commentators, starting with Donald Rumsfeld himself on Sept. 19, 2001.

I agree that this idea should have gotten more prominence from the administration, but I can understand why they chose to focus on more concrete reasons like the U.N. resolutions and the threat of WMD's; it's hard to mobilize an international coalition on the abstract notion of spreading democracy. Still, there's no denying it's been part of the equation since the beginning.


Cedar Revolution

The look of the "Arab street", circa 2005 Beirut: (Via Tim Blair)

Though, from what I understand, for the most part Lebanese don't consider themselves Arabs and prefer to think of themselves as "Phoenicians", Maronites, Kurds, etc.

This head used to be connected to a statue of Hafez Assad in Lebanon:

Really thought it would be at least another year or two (after Iraq's elections) before we saw pictures like this:

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