Periscope Depth

for a moment this good time would never end; you and me, you and me

“Free Tibet” flags made in China (BBC)

Police in southern China have discovered a factory manufacturing Free Tibet flags, media reports say.

The factory in Guangdong had been completing overseas orders for the flag of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Workers said they thought they were just making colourful flags and did not realise their meaning.

But then some of them saw TV images of protesters holding the emblem and they alerted the authorities, according to Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper.

I never limit myself to one meaning when I can encompass two or more, so take away the following from this story:

  1. Globalization commands a lot of power;
  2. You can find irony anywhere if you know where to look, and;
  3. Propaganda permeates the civilized mind in ways outsiders can’t comprehend. The police didn’t uproot this factory in an undercover sting – workers voluntarily turned themselves and their employer in. Tibet never did anything to harm these guys, but they so thoroughly believe the Chinese government’s gospel of Tibet As Guerilla Radical that they went out of their way to make the State’s job easier. Fortunately, in the free and enlightened West we don’t have that problem.

Speaking of, how goes the campaign to nuke Iran, Senator Clinton?
Got it – thanks!

Meanwhile, black males took a bump down to Junior-Level Citizenship in New York on Monday, when three NYPD detectives were acquitted of killing an unarmed black man whom they “feared” might be threatening them. Fifty shots it took, which places the 18- to 35-year-old Black Male somewhere between a charging African Rhino and Wolverine of the X-Men in the Scared White Guy Hierarchy of Indestructability. Remember, black people: you don’t have an inherent right to life as such while in the city of New York. You exist on the sufferance of every paranoid cop.

Kai Wright talks a little more about the Sean Bell shooting here, and also sheds some light on the mystery of New York’s falling crime rate over the last decade. If you believe that Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory of Better Living through Petty Harassment reeks of bullshit – as I always have – then the drop in crime looks like a mystery. But Wright points out the following:

[B]lacks accounted for 66 percent of those killed by New York City police between 2000 and 2007 (New York is a perennial leader in police fatalities, averaging 12 a year over those years). And while the violent crime rate plunged to historically low levels in that time period, the number of people killed by police has not budged—indeed, the number of cop bullets fired has skyrocketed. And it’s happened with impunity. Out of 88 fatal shootings, including at least 12 in which victims were unarmed, in only one instance was an officer convicted of criminal wrongdoing.

So Giuliani didn’t reduce violence so much as outsource it to the NYPD. Juking the numbers, if you will.

In other news, rice continues to get more expensive – and more scarce, which really means the same thing – all around the world. Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution offers his take on why in the New York Times:

The damage that trade restrictions cause is probably most evident in the case of rice. Although rice is the major foodstuff for about half of the world, it is highly protected and regulated. Only about 5 to 7 percent of the world’s rice production is traded across borders; that’s unusually low for an agricultural commodity.

So when the price goes up — indeed, many varieties of rice have roughly doubled in price since 2007 — this highly segmented market means that the trade in rice doesn’t flow to the places of highest demand.

Poor rice yields are not the major problem. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global rice production increased by 1 percent last year and says that it is expected to increase 1.8 percent this year. That’s not impressive, but it shouldn’t cause starvation.

The more telling figure is that over the next year, international trade in rice is expected to decline more than 3 percent, when it should be expanding. The decline is attributable mainly to recent restrictions on rice exports in rice-producing countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Egypt.

Tariffs and export restrictions choke off valuable goods and services. You can’t call arguments for free trade a trivial academic debate anymore, like whether a country profits more from cheaper cars or more domestic jobs. Open trade across borders will save the Third World from starvation. Fortunately, in the free and enlightened West we don’t have that problem.

Speaking of, how goes the effort to dismantle NAFTA, Senator Obama?
Got it – thanks!

As continuing proof of the ancient assertion that no one has ever drafted a law so noble that it can’t be misused, local British councils have started using surveillance cameras to nab litterers and dogs shitting in public. And a student who photographed some cops ticketing other civilians earned himself a $628 ticket for “sitting on a park ledge.”

Finally, on a somewhat upbeat note, Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody) talks about the growing wealth of a globalizing economy, the surplus of free time that results, and how we spend that time:

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus–”How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the while–from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

I have always measured wealth in units of Time I Can Spend Doing What Makes Me Happy. It pleases me to see that that calculation works on a social level as well.