16 April 2014

Western Washington University: "diversity = anti-white"?

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Western Washington University got launched into the right-wing (and racist! and Glenn Beck!) blogosphere yesterday, when the conservative advocacy site Campus Reform published an article titled "University calls the amount of white people on campus a ‘failure,’ asks for ideas on how to have fewer". Yikes! But let's dig deeper.

Brendan Eich’s resignation was nobody’s “victory,” but it wasn’t unfair.

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At this point the furor has mostly died down so I think I should frame this as a reply to Katrina’s earlier blog post on the topic. In a nutshell, Brendan Eich, former CTO and now former CEO of Mozilla Corp. (the for-profit arm of the Mozilla Foundation which produced the Firefox browser among other things), stepped down after it became known that he donated $1000 to California’s Proposition 8.

This sent many people, particularly libertarians, into a tizzy of self-reflection, especially coming so hot off the heels of the absolutely ridiculous #CancelColbert campaign. On the one hand, a lot of people are fed up with the knee-jerk, bile-and-brimstone mob mentality of some extreme “social justice warriors”—I’m familiar with the type. On the other hand, this seems to be a case of the system working: consumers and employees in the company voiced their displeasure with the company’s choice of CEO, and he stepped down rather than drag the company through the mud.

Bowling alone, camping together,

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My post on collectivism was a response to my friend Katrina's post, which in turn was inspired by this video about "the innovation of loneliness." My other friend Jon Bash had this to say about it:
I'm calling BS on a good portion of this video. Technological fearmongering, extrovert-bias, and attempting to speak for everyone's experiences. Personally: I don't make up stuff to share on the internet, and I'm just fine being alone and socializing with people on the internet (to an extent), thank you.
I've heard the video's critique before, but I watched it anyway. The visuals are quite slick, but the content is anything but incisive. The narrator, Shimi Cohen, mentions the "maximum group size" of 150 persons—also known as Dunbar's number—but this is a mean of a value for individuals, that might be as low as 100 or as high as 230, even upwards of 290! The video sort of slides (or slouches) downhill from there, with the usual litany of woe-is-us scares about what technology will do to our humanity.

15 April 2014

On the word “fringe”

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Disambiguation: I’m not talking about the T.V. show called “Fringe.” That show is awesome and I love it to death, but wholly unrelated to this post.

As my previous blog posts may suggest, I’m a (at times, masochistic) fan of politics and the way people think. As such I tend to eagerly participate in online discussions, in an attempt to encounter beliefs not the same as my own. One exchange got me thinking about the way I use words—specifically, the word ‘fringe.’ What do we mean when we talk about “fringe theories” or “fringe ideas”? Fundamentally, I think, ‘fringe’ is a political term.

I’ve often heard ‘fringe’ used in the context of the so-called “demarcation problem” in science: how can we tell whether something is science, or pseudoscience? “Fringe” therefore takes on the connotation of pseudoscience, but I think they’re describing two very distinct things.

10 September 2013

The human rights of economics

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In a previous post I outlined an economic definition of human rights and used that to briefly analyze the current struggle between social conservatives and the LGBT community. Now I want to flip the script and examine the moral choices around society's bottom rungs.

29 August 2013

Counterculture conservatism?

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Via David Brin's lively contrarian rant about this sort of thing, a thoughtful article on reclaiming American conservatism from Andrew Bacevich. Let's skip to the meaty bits: what does he think a proper conservative movement should champion?

24 August 2013

Stop hitting yourself

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Delightfully apropos to Katrina's newest post about who's hurting the liberty movement, user Obdicut at Little Green Footballs uncovers a surprising convergence between Glenn Greenwald and Rand Paul's "Southern Avenger."
I do not understand how any man with any shred of integrity as a ‘civil rights’ speaker can share the stage with someone named the Southern Avenger. Even the Southern Defender, I could slightly imagine. But vengeance implies someone who thinks a wrong has been done to the South, that there is some reckoning against the enemies of the South that has to come. And that is the really fucking scary kind of racism.
Too right. The Lost-Cause neoconfederate nostalgia among some in the liberty movement is, or should be, cause for concern. To be really blunt about it, you can dislike Abraham Lincoln's policy's, but...

21 August 2013

Collectivism vs. liberty?

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Katrina Haffner, president of WWU's libertarian club and a fellow fan of liberty, declares herself a "collectivist" in this post:
 I have been called a "collectivist" by some libertarians, as if it was a derogatory word. I will admit: I am a collectivist.

So many times have I seen libertarians bashing collectivism and embracing individualism - identifying with being a part of a group is "bad" (hmmm, how about libertarianism?). Why is that? How is being a part of a group a bad thing? And why do libertarians place an emphasis on the individual?
That's sure to rankle most libertarians, who may have a different definition of the word than she does.

19 July 2013

Repairing the foundations

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It might be damning with faint praise, but Elizabeth Warren could be the most lucid legislator in D.C. Even if a new Glass-Steagal doesn't end up being a panacea, I think it could have an effect akin to (but not identical to) the Civil Rights Act. That bill didn't end racism, but it did fundamentally change the cultural conversation. Now it's just not okay to be (openly) racist. Glass-Steagal makes it not okay to mash up speculative investments with routine banking.

I think it's an important but underlooked principle that while a market may be wild and free to allocate resources as it will, the foundations and fundamentals supporting that market need to be robust. Otherwise there's a greater risk that the whole thing will just go off the rails and collapse.

06 July 2013

No secret revealed

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Sort of grimly foreboding if you substitute "War on Terror" for "Cold War":
We are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence--on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day. It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.

Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed. It conducts the Cold War, in short, with a war-time discipline no democracy would ever hope or wish to match.
-- John F. Kennedy, speech to the American Publishers Association (27 April 1961)

The "conspiracy" JFK was referring to was, of course, Soviet communism, and what we have now is not a conspiracy but still something "no democracy would ever hope or wish to match." Definitely a case of best intentions going awry, and a reminder that a free and open society is always balanced on a knife-edge.

I don't think we're there enough to make it a perfect analogy. But it's worth noting that oppressive systems arise from, basically, oppressive emotions, particularly fear. That's one crucial lesson of the 20th century, in my opinion. Refuse to be terrorized, and demand a look-see into the halls of power.

... and all that said, I still think that Edward Snowden is a dangerously self-righteous idiot.

07 June 2013

A thought experiment

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Consider the following scenario:
Someone who identifies as a member of Group A winds up in the "wrong part of town." Before they can get to friendlier territory, a band of members of Group B surround the person, calling them A-slurs and brandishing weapons. When the person tries to escape, the Bs chase them down and beat them to within an inch of their life. As the person lies bleeding in the street, the Bs walk off, laughing, only to yell back, "That's what happens when we catch a fucking A in our neighborhood!"
Now run over possible real-world identities to fit into A and B. Maybe A is white and the Bs are black. Maybe it's the other way around. Maybe A is a woman and the Bs are men. Maybe A is LGBT and the Bs are gay- or trans-bashing religious hardliners. Maybe A is Jewish and the Bs are skinheads. Maybe there are other, more implausible possibilities (women beating up a man, e.g.).

The point, though, is this: If you consider any choice of A and B to be less severe than others, you're part of the problem.

04 June 2013

Good intentions

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or, A waltz down the primrose path of I-don't-even-know-what

I've been meaning to finish the companion piece to this blog post (forming the third in a trilogy of social justice musings) but then Facebook happened. Okay, I might have poked a hornet's nest with this one, but I really want to understand a certain mindset. There's a certain kind of person who holds social justice as a very high goal (not bad; in fact, commendable) but who takes up the arms and armor of highly charged political language. I don't know what to call these people other than "social justice crusaders." They're activists-plus. They confuse the hell out of me.

Just to get some things out of the way: I think I share their goals. I want social justice for everyone—a society where everyone is treated equitably, without undue irrational privilege or prejudice. Not judged by the color of their skin (or their religion, or their choice of whom to love or...) but by the content of their character, and so on. A society where all human voices (and hopefully other-than-human!) can be heard and welcomed into a boisterous, cantankerous, but ultimately progressive conversation.

But quibble with them even slightly on their methods or language, and I get labeled a white supremacist.


So here's a play-by-play of the Facebook thread. Somebody give some commentary, because I'm at a loss. (I won't bother with names.)

30 May 2013

"Hey baby, how much?"

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Matt Yglesias at Slate reports that there's a new dating site on the block, where "generous" guys can bid on first dates with "attractive" women. From the site itself:
WhatsYourPrice.com is the only online dating website where money can buy you love or at least a first date.
Based on our patent-pending dating system, WhatsYourPrice.com provides the platform for generous members to bid on a first date with attractive members. By offering a little incentive, attractive members are more inclined to take a risk on someone who isn’t their usual type, and if the date goes sour, at least they won’t be going home empty handed.
Once you get past the socially squicky concept of bidding for love, I'm a bit confused as to the gender-norm setup here. On the one hand, the site's graphics make it pretty obvious that men are the "generous" ones and women are the "attractive" ones, but in that "About" blurb they try for a little more gender-neutral (or equal) language.

Yglesias notes that money-for-love schemes are socially squicky for a reason, and that maybe a more traditional date-auction-for-charity scheme would be more okay:
Imagine if the offer was to make a donation to GiveDirectly. In that case, the size of the offer would still serve as a signal of wealth and genuine interest as well as functioning as a screening device. But accepting the offer would signal a blend of reciprocal interest charitable impulses rather than a blend of reciprocal interest and greed.
I'm inclined to agree. As it stands, WhatsYourPrice is like a date with Ludwig von Mises—entirely focused on rational self-interest.

21 May 2013

The Deep Roots of Scientific Skepticism

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I'm only a few pages into Daniel Loxton's Why Is There a Skeptical Movement? (available in PDF here) and it's already fascinating. I think I had heard a bit about how Harry Houdini leveraged his experience as a stage magician to combat the "spirit mediums" so common (and so fraudulent) in his day. What blew me away, though, was how far back these skeptical roots went.
  • P. T. Barnum offered cash prizes to any psychic who could "pertinently" answer questions he had sealed in envelopes and stored somewhere else. Okay, you know your game's crooked when P. T. Barnum thinks your "humbug" has gone too far!
  • Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier, and M. Guillotin served on a special commission to the French monarchy to investigate "animal magnetism" healing touch quackery. Sort of like an 18th c. Justice League, but for science! and mostly French.
  • This stuff goes back yet another century, to the Pseudodoxia Epidemica of Sir Thomas Browne (1672) and A Candle in the Dark by Thomas Ady (1655). It seems that almost immediately after the scientific method was invented, people started putting every sort of paranormal and pseudo-scholarly scam to the question. One gets the impression that people (maybe lots of people) always doubted, but couldn't think of a way to get hold of the spurious claims.
  • Apparently Michel de Montaigne's Essays (1580... but we're not even close) contains some skeptical passages, especially some keen observations of human psychology. I actually have this text (thank you Honors first-year sequence!), so it's jumped up a few places on my to-read list.
  • These debunking accounts, Loxton writes, go clear past the Roman Empire and straight into Biblical times, with the deuterocanonical 14th chapter of the Book of Daniel. There's also the pseudo-empirical test of divinity in the Book of Kings.
The big take-away here is that some of these claims, especially prognostication and extraordinary remedy, are very, very old, and yet not only have the claims not really changed, but they were challenged and skewered even at their inception! There's something remarkable there, that people have gotten wise to the game of charlatans just as long as people have been duped. I'm not sure whether that's a net optimistic or cynical sign, but in the spirit of contrarianism (since it's too darn fashionable to be a cynic these days) I'll say things are looking up.

24 April 2013

A bit of spring cleaning.

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This is a technical note: I've done some housekeeping and largely excised most of my old (like, winter 2010 and before) posts. Not that I think Parasites was a bad sequence, per se, but it doesn't really mesh with the current direction of the blog.

Also I don't want to be confused with an English major or anything.