URLs du Jour


  • General Motors, apparently baffled on the whole concept of making cars that people want to buy, is going to Plan B: get Your Federal Government to divert some more taxpayer money their way. Just $50 Billion or so. This is in addition to the $25 Billion "loan program" already approved. Because, gee Dad, that was so last month.

    Megan McArdle has a couple good posts on that, one yesterday, one today. From the latter:

    Bailing out the auto industry offers no net gain to society. It is a straight transfer of resources from one sector to another: we tax money, or borrow it from a finite pool of capital available to the nation, and spend it on auto workers. The people who pay the taxes, or the people who would have borrowed that investment capital, now have less to spend. Whatever they would have bought goes unbought; whoever would have made it goes unemployed. To coin a phrase, what is made on the swings is lost on the roundabouts We have the illusion of a gain only because that other group of people is invisible. Even if we don't bail out GM, they will not be visible--we will never know who didn't lose a job or a business because we declined to spend one squillion dollars saving the Chevy Cobalt.

    Simple enough, right? At the WSJ, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. also makes a lot of sense on one piece of GM's woes.

    You have in GM's Volt a perfect car of the Age of Obama -- or at least the Honeymoon of Obama, before the reality principle kicks in.

    Even as GM teeters toward bankruptcy and wheedles for billions in public aid, its forthcoming plug-in hybrid continues to absorb a big chunk of the company's product development budget. This is a car that, by GM's own admission, won't make money. It's a car that can't possibly provide a buyer with value commensurate with the resources and labor needed to build it. It's a car that will be unsalable without multiple handouts from government.

    "Handouts from government" is an unfortunate euphemism for the WSJ; what Holman means is "coerced funding from taxpayers."

  • In case you maintained some small illusions of the usefulness of the Federal Election Commission and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance "reform" legislation, let Dafydd disabuse you, as he reacts to the news:

    The Federal Election Commission is unlikely to conduct a potentially embarrassing audit of how Barack Obama raised and spent his presidential campaign’s record-shattering windfall, despite allegations of questionable donations and accounting that had the McCain campaign crying foul.

    Adding insult to injury for Republicans: The FEC is obligated to complete a rigorous audit of McCain’s campaign coffers, which will take months, if not years, and cost McCain millions of dollars to defend.

    Well, OK, that last part is a bit schadenfreudian.

  • Pete Townshend channels H. L. Mencken in a pre-election concert:

    We hope you get what you want tomorrow. And we’re here to share in your misery.

    (Via sharp-eyed Sean Higgins at jeremylott.net.)

Last Modified 2012-10-09 1:36 PM EST


[Amazon Link]

I'm reminded of a book title of a few years back: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Except heartbreaking isn't the right word for Anathem; it's more like breathtaking or awe-inspiring. Also very heavy. It's over 900 pages, including glossary and supplementary material, with a lot of funny language and unfamiliar settings and situations. It's kind of a project, and there's a lot of Stephensonian red meat for the geeky. (You don't have to know what a directed acyclic graph is to enjoy the book, but if you do…) It's also very funny in spots. I found it worthwhile, and did something I rarely do: put it back in the pile to be read again someday.

Anathem is set on a planet named Arbre. Society is divided between the sæcular world—normal, everyday folk—and the mathic world, made up of monastery-like "concents" where the "avout"—groups of philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists—devote their lives to theory. Interaction between the two worlds is minimal and tightly controlled to maintain social stability. There's also structure within the concent: it's divided into maths: unarian, decanarian, centenarian, and millenarian; with rare exceptions, the inhabitants are only allowed exit during their "Apert" which happens (respectively) every year, ten years, hundred years, and thousand years.

That's a very simplified description; it's much more complicated than that. Stephenson builds this world in amazing detail, not only its present, but going back thousands of years, imagining how social structures, science, and philosophy developed.

Our protagonist/narrator, Erasmas, is a decenarian who became avout ten years previous. So he still has memories of and connections to the sæcular. He's curious, brilliant, and brave. Without spoiling things, Erasmas slowly becomes aware of facts that threaten to shake Arbre to its very foundations. He gets caught up in events, sending him on a truly grand adventure.

Part of the fun is making the language connections. Arbre's "Adrakhonic Theorem" is what we call the Pythagorean theorem; Occam's Razor is "Gardan's Steelyard". Oddly, "rafters" are rafters, "t-shirts" are t-shirts, and—hmmm—despite the fact that Arbre is an alien world and an odd society, it's not that odd: the inhabitants seem very human. What's up with that? Is this some kind of Star Trek deal, where a limited production budget means that the aliens have to be kind of human? Or is it just the author's limited imagination?

Nope. Read it and see.

Last Modified 2012-10-09 1:37 PM EST