February 8, 2013

This week in Guild Wars 2

Filed under: Gaming — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:34

My weekly Guild Wars 2 community round-up at GuildMag is now online. The February patch has been announced and there’s lots of discussion about what is (and isn’t) going to be in it. All that plus the usual assortment of blog posts, videos, podcasts, and fan fiction from around the GW2 community.

Pinpointing the exact moment that the principled anti-war movement packed up its tents and decamped

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:34

Nick Gillespie helps us find that mystical moment when honourable, principled dissent became treason again:

Remember back in what was it — 2006 or thereabouts — when left-leaning critics of President Bush couldn’t stop talking about how nothing was more red, white, and blue than good old-fashioned American dissent? Why, our very country was founded by an act of dissent, didn’t you know! So back when Vice President Dick Cheney — routinely likened to Darth Vader and Voldemort — was running things, the very air was filled with cries of “not in our name” and all that, because it was so damned important that the United States not contravene its basic principles even in the name of self defense!

Those were good times, friends, and they stopped pretty much the minute that liberals and Democrats took control of the federal government. The antiwar movement disappeared once it became clear that Barack Obama wasn’t going to shut down Gitmo or stop bombing places or give a rat’s ass about that constitutional stuff he used to teach in law school.

But cheer up, because things can always get worse, as the last few days have demonstrated.

[. . .]

It’s sad, though never unexpected, when leaders such as Obama flip flop like a fish on the sand once they ascend power. Cromwell did it, the French revolutionaries did it, Castro did it, the Sandanistas did it, and on and on. It’s one of the oldest plots in history and infinitely adaptable to new conditions. How else to explain, as Jacob Sullum notes, that candidate Obama rejected the Bush administration’s position that it could detain U.S. citizens as enemy combatants without pressing charges while President Obama claims the right to kill U.S. citizens without laying charges? The guy may not be able to pass a budget but christ, give him credit for ingenuity and brass balls.

But Obama is a politician — what do you expect? Politicians are not just the bottom of the barrel — they’re what’s under the bottom of the barrel, right?

PM’s long awaited (ghostwritten) book on hockey to be published in the US due to Canadian publishing regulations

Filed under: Books, Cancon, Media, Sports — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:47

A double-whammy from the Globe and Mail‘s John Barber: due to protectionist media rules brought in during the Mulroney years, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s book on hockey — ghostwritten by G&M columnist Roy MacGregor — will have to be published outside the country. Inline Update: The G&M has retracted the claim that the book was ghostwritten. Thanks to commenter Dwayne for the update.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s upcoming book on the history of professional hockey will be published in the United States rather than Canada because of prohibitions embedded in the government’s own cultural policy.

Simon & Schuster, the U.S.-based company chosen to publish the English-language edition of the Prime Minister’s book, is banned from publishing books in Canada under the Investment Canada Act. But the act does permit foreign-owned companies to distribute titles they have published in their home territories.

A single edition edited and printed in the U.S. will likely appear simultaneously in both markets, so Canadians will not have to wait to buy a copy.

“It’s ironic that he is publishing with a company that is forbidden by his government to have a Canadian publishing program,” Toronto literary agent Denise Bukowksi said. “But if North American rights are contracted in the U.S.A., they can get away with it.”

Three years ago, the Harper government announced a review of the policy, which the government of Brian Mulroney adopted to promote the growth of Canadian publishers at the expense of the multinational companies that then dominated the domestic market. The government has yet to announce changes.

Update: Hmmm. The story gets a bit more confused, as Roy MacGregor is quoted in this story denying any involvement:

Roy MacGregor, who has written 40 books, including the popular Screech Owl series, has talked with the prime minister about the book and describes him as “fanatically” knowledgeable.

MacGregor, who has worked as a ghost writer, says Harper hasn’t employed one.

“I can guarantee you there’s no ghost,” he said. “I’m sure it would come up. The reason it would come up is I know of his stated determination that no matter how long it took, he wanted to be the one that did it. He had research help but it was going to be him plucking away at the computer keys.”

H/T to Colby Cosh for that URL.

Charles Stross: that invasion from Mars really did happen

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:31

Charles does a good job of explaining why our representative democracies in the west seem to have all become bland, indistinguishable minor variants of one another:

For a while I’ve had the unwelcome feeling that we’re living under occupation by Martian invaders. (Not just here in the UK, but everyone, everywhere on the planet.) Something has gone wrong with our political processes, on a global scale. But what? It’s obviously subtle — we haven’t been on the receiving end of a bunch of jack-booted fascists or their communist equivalents organizing putsches. But we’ve somehow slid into a developed-world global-scale quasi-police state, with drone strikes and extraordinary rendition and unquestioned but insane austerity policies being rammed down our throats, government services being outsourced, peaceful protesters being pepper-sprayed, tased, or even killed, police spying on political dissidents becoming normal, and so on. What’s happening?

Here’s a hypothesis: Representative democracy is what’s happening. Unfortunately, democracy is broken. There’s a hidden failure mode, we’ve landed in it, and we probably won’t be able to vote ourselves out of it.

[. . .] Parties are bureaucratic institutions with the usual power dynamic of self-preservation, as per Michels’s iron law of oligarchy: the purpose of the organization is to (a) continue to exist, and (b) to gain and hold power. We can see this in Scotland with the SNP (Scottish National Party) — originally founded with the goal of obtaining independence for Scotland and then disbanding, the disbanding bit is now nowhere to be seen in their constitution.

Per Michels, political parties have an unspoken survival drive. And they act as filters on the pool of available candidates. You can’t easily run for election — especially at national level — unless you get a party’s support, with the activists and election agents and assistance and funding that goes with it. (Or you can, but you then have to build your own machinery.) Existing incumbent representatives have an incentive to weed out potential candidates who are loose cannons and might jeopardize their ability to win re-election and maintain a career. Parties therefore tend to be self-stabilizing.

[. . .]

So, here’s my hypothesis:

  • Institutional survival pressure within organizations — namely political parties — causes them to systematically ignore or repel candidates for political office who are disinclined to support the status quo or who don’t conform to the dominant paradigm in the practice of politics.
  • The status quo has emerged by consensus between politicians of opposite parties, who have converged on a set of policies that they deem least likely to lose them an election — whether by generating media hostility, corporate/business sector hostility, or by provoking public hostility. In other words, the status quo isn’t an explicit ideology, it’s the combined set of policies that were historically least likely to rock the boat (for such boat-rocking is evaluated in Bayesian terms — “did this policy get some poor bastard kicked in the nuts at the last election? If so, it’s off the table”).
  • The news cycle is dominated by large media organizations and the interests of the corporate sector. While moral panics serve a useful function in alienating or enraging the public against a representative or party who have become inconveniently uncooperative, for the most part a climate of apathetic disengagement is preferred — why get involved when trustworthy, reassuringly beige nobodies can do a safe job of looking after us?
  • The range of choices available at the democratic buffet table have therefore narrowed until they’re indistinguishable. (“You can have Chicken Kiev, Chicken Chasseur, or Chicken Korma.” “But I’m vegan!”) Indeed, we have about as much choice as citizens in any one-party state used to have.
  • Protests against the range of choices available have become conflated with protests against the constitutional framework, i.e. dissent has been perceived as subversion/treason.
  • Occasionally cultural shifts take place: over decades, they sometimes reach a level of popular consensus that, when not opposed by corporate stakeholders, leads to actual change. Marriage equality is a fundamentally socially conservative issue, but reflects the long-term reduction in prejudice against non-heteronormative groups. Nobody (except moral entrepreneurs attempting to build a platform among various reactionary religious institutions) stands to lose money or status by permitting it, so it gets the nod. Decriminalization of drug use, on the other hand, would be catastrophic for the budget of policing organizations and the prison-industrial complex: it might be popular in some circles, but the people who count the money won’t let it pass without a fight.

Overall, the nature of the problem seems to be that our representative democratic institutions have been captured by meta-institutions that implement the iron law of oligarchy by systematically reducing the risk of change.

It’s not just your imagination that the last presidential election hinged far more on trivia than on actual policy differences — because Mitt Romney was offering only a slight variation of policy choices than what Barack Obama had been doing (heated rhetoric and animated posturing aside). “Conservatives” and “Liberals” in Canada became almost interchangeable (except on foreign policy and military matters). “Conservatives” and “Liberal Democrats” have been able to form and hold a coalition government together in the UK relatively amicably (once again, aside from the meaningless noise and fury at the margins).

Party politics requires parties that want to achieve power to more closely resemble the party that already holds power (look at Canada’s NDP for evidence of that: the more similar to the Liberal party they became, the more popular they became, to the point they completely eclipsed the Liberals in the last federal election).

Telegraph runs “Shock, horror!” story about UK government’s wine budget

Filed under: Britain, Government, Media, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:12

I’m a minarchist: I’m in favour of much smaller, less intrusive government. Even saying that, I can’t find it in my heart to get upset about this “shocking” revelation:

Ministers fail to balance books at £3million wine cellar
Ministers and guests have got through 5,000 bottles of alcohol worth more than £55,000 in the last year, report into the Government’s wine cellar has revealed.

[. . .]

The latest annual report into the Government’s wine cellar has revealed that ministers, officials and their guests got through nearly 5,000 bottles of alcohol worth more than £55,000 in the last year.

In total, the cellar holds 38,000 bottles costing £857,000 when bought, but are now valued on the open market at £2,953,000.

Some of the taxpayer-funded bottles are sold in shops for more than £1,000 each.

Guests at Government events drank 23 bottles of the 1982 Chateau Margaux Bordeaux, which sells for up to £1,100 a bottle.

Five thousand bottles? That’s all? David Cameron’s cabinet consists of 22 senior ministers. I assume there are junior ministers or parliamentary assistants for most of those ministers, so let’s call it 50 men and women who are entertaining on government business and would be drawing from the official wine cellar. Even if each of them only entertains one other person at each event, that’s roughly two bottles of wine per minister per week.

The Queen drinks more than that by herself!

And the eye-popping number of £857,000? That works out to less than £23 per bottle. And we’re told that some of the bottles could sell on the open market for £1,100 a bottle. But based on the figures, there can’t be very many of those ultra-expensive bottles, can there?

I fail to see a scandal here…

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