Saturday, December 24, 2011

Michael Eisen on censoring dangerous knowledge

Michael Eisen has some interesting comments on the validity of (self-) censoring scientific publications. He argues that this increase in the transmisability of the flu (among ferrets) is not particularly important, and therefore this should be seen as being purely a test case for whether the scientific establishment will self-censor, and what do we define as "dangerous knowledge". As many pundits have pointed out, suppressing the details of the experiments is unlikely to make anyone any safer -- either because the details will be leaked easily enough, or  because it would be straightforward for anyone with the relevant skill-set to replicate the experiments, with or without the details.

Philosophical Diquisitions on Enhancement Technology

John Danaher has another excellent Disquisition, revisiting the topic of artificial enhancement of human abilities and whether it should generally be seen as a type of cheating.

Friday, December 23, 2011

What Republicans don't get about racism

The racist "Ron Paul" newsletters are in the news again (just heard about it on NPR). If you know the story, basically Ron Paul and his supports claim that the racist comments were written by a staff member and slipped by Paul's lax editorial oversight; Paul disagrees with all of it, and there's nothing more to say. Unfortunately for Paul, there is more to say, and I doubt that he will say it because -- like most Republicans -- he doesn't understand the totalitarian danger that lurks in racism.

Most Republicans recognize that "racism is wrong", but it is the wrong sort of "wrong". They think of it as an intellectual error. Or a type of meanness. Either way, they think of it as a failure of the individual who is  racist. They ignore any  social aspects of racism more profound than self-segregation. They ignore that racism is fundamentally a political ideology, justifying the oppression of some people by others. They ignore that its continued prevalence is a social failure, not just a personal failure.

Most Republicans have internalized the conclusion that racism is "very wrong", but they way they apply this conclusion illustrates that they still don't get it. They still focus on the individual expressions of racism, while ignoring the social structure behind it. If one black racist acts threatening towards a white guy, they throw a fit and then get all self-righteous when the traditional anti-racist coalitions don't see it as anything more important than regular street crime. Republicans do this because they don't see the political nature of racism, and they can't distinguish between racism that is politically impotent (i.e. black racism) and racism that could lead to tyranny (i.e. white racism).

This is the stuff that Ron Paul doesn't get about racism, and why he too often tolerates the company of racists (e.g. the people who wrote his newsletters and his 2008 anti-Latino advertisements) -- he doesn't get how these individual acts fit into a larger system of oppression.

For more thoughts on related issues, see Gary Chartier's summary of the relationship between "left-wing market anarchism and Ron Paul"

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When knowledge is dangerous

Well, it's finally happened: in the course of researching a disease, someone has created a virus that could decimate the human population, and states are moving towards censoring the findings:
For the first time ever, a government advisory board is asking scientific journals not to publish details of certain biomedical experiments, for fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create deadly viruses and touch off epidemics. 
In the experiments, conducted in the United States and the Netherlands, scientists created a highly transmissible form of a deadly flu virus that does not normally spread from person to person. It was an ominous step, because easy transmission can lead the virus to spread all over the world. The work was done in ferrets, which are considered a good model for predicting what flu viruses will do in people.  
The intent of the "authorities" (both scientific and legal) seems to be that the details of these experiments be restricted, so that only "legitimate scientists" have access to the information needed to replicate the experiments. I'm torn on this issue: clearly we don't want to hand a weapon of mass destruction to a homicidal maniac, but this restriction on scientific communication could usher in its own problems.

I don't have a clear thesis to argue for, so I just want to list a number of points that need to be considered while debating this decision:
  • The scientific establishment (epitomized by the journals Nature and Science) wants to maintain its independence from political institutions and will resist any formal censorship. That is all well and good, but we still need to be concerned about self-censorship. The openness of science is integral both to its progress (addressed below) and to its authority among the public. This notion of "legitimate scientists" risks encouraging the notion that professional scientists are elitist snobs who want to rule over the ignorant masses, in part by keeping them ignorant. This type of move is very dangerous both for science and for democracy.
  • Censorship can at best delay the independent development of this technology (10-20 years, I'd say). It also is likely to retard the progress of mainstream research into infectious diseases, with the extent dependent upon how well implement the system of access is. Regardless of the calculus here, the point is that we cannot stop technologies from spreading to our enemies, and the best strategy for protecting ourselves may paradoxically be to allow technologies to spread freely, while dedicating our resources on maximizing our own capabilities to respond to infectious diseases -- whether natural or engineered.
  • The release of a pathogen like this new flu virus will probably be either ineffective or suicidal. Either the virus won't spread well and the outbreak will not expand, or it will expand rapidly and affect the entire globe. Anyone seeking to use it as a tool for "Clash of Civilizations" terrorism would be extremely foolish. While the terrorist may be able to inoculate himself and his close associates, the only societies that could engage in widespread inoculation are Western and Japan. So there would be some terrorists who may be able to use this weapon effectively, but they aren't our typical Islamist boogeymen (think: Unabomber, or White Supremacists)
I'm sure that they'll be a lot of debate on this topic in the future.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The international post-humanist movement

I'm getting sick of these "all American" fascists trying to shut up anyone who offers a cultural vision that threatens to supplant their own religo-national ideal. I'm used to them attacking liberals and progressives (by which, I do not mean Democrats), but their recent anti-Islamic crusades are really starting to bug me. First, the fashion police attack Dunkin Donuts because of a scarf worn by Rachel Ray; now the WWJD-shirts are trying to drive advertisers away from the show "All-American Muslim". Oh, and then there's the whole "Ground Zero Mosque" BS.

I'm not gonna let them ostracize every group that disagrees with their bizarre belief system.

I'm getting sick of these skirmishes. I want to confront them directly, because I know that these stone-throwers can be defeated -- just like al Quaeda and its sympathizers can be. These movements are primitive, and are heading to the dustbin of history. I figure that the best way to neutralize them (and minimize the damage that they do) is to have them focus their hatred on a social movement that they have no hope of defeating. For that role, I propose:

The International Transhumanist Movement

Basically, the point here is to tell these barbarians that everything they hold sacred is a load of crap, and that we fully intend to leave them in the dust. We will tell them that all of their differences -- be them religious or nationalist -- are nothing compared to the difference between the post-humanist goal and everything that has come before. We embrace science and technology. We seek artificial intelligence, and we will happily become cyborgs. We will put all of their superstitions behind us, and realize a wonderful world of technophilic hedonism. We intend to become so powerful that they will be little more than ants to us, and their culture will only continue to exist due to our grace.

The problem is, we have only been drifting in this general direction, not seeking it whole-heartedly. There are a few organizations seeking to address the issues of our post-human future, but they do not engage in the culture war. Perhaps there is good reason -- maybe the idea of post-humanity is repulsive to most people. I just read Ian Bank's "Use of Weapons" (part of the Culture series), and I'm kinda jazzed about the possibility to live a pleasant life while simultaneously undermining these authoritarian movements.

I don't know what is the best strategy, but I expect that the conservatives will start attacking the transhumanist movement within my lifetime, as an ideal target for their politicized nostalgia. For now, I can rest knowing that technophilic hedonism is well established in our culture...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

All intellectuals should learn how to program a computer

Mattan Griffen at General Assembly argues that all entrepreneurs need to learn how to write computer programs. He basically argues that if you have an idea about how to make the world a better place, you need to be able to implement it at least at a rudimentary level. He sums it up in this pithy assertion:
Very quickly, society is becoming divided into two groups: those that understand how to code and therefore manipulate the very structure of the world around them, and those that don't – those whose lives are being designed and directed by those that do know how to code
I'll extend this, and assert that all intellectuals need to learn how to write programs. The gist of my argument is that we now have ready access to incredibly powerful tools for manipulating information. If you cannot use these tools, then you cannot manipulate information at the same level as your peers, and therefore you cannot participate in the modern intellectual community.

Personally, I have encountered many situations where a "philosophical" issue would benefit greatly from the sorts of calculations that computers can perform easily. Most notable is the demand for mathematical modelling or simulation: it often is not possible to fully explore the implications of your assumptions without explicit modelling. This applies to political philosophy and social theory just as it applies to biology. I have even seen students of the history of science who could have benefited from computer simulations -- for instance, some classic scientific texts (e.g. Galleleo's) describe experimental results that are inconsistent with modern scientific knowledge; historians may try to examine this issue by recreating the experimental conditions of the historical scientist, but this requires immense work and ends up being a guessing game. Computer simulations can examine the effect of possible confounds much more efficiently.

An added bonus of formal modelling is that it forces the thinker to be explicit about their assumptions, so it is a great aid to communication. Too often, philosophers (both amateur and professional) are just talking past each other.

So, my advice to all the young thinkers is this: if you want to learn how to think, learn how to program.

Update: I suppose that I should provide some tips on how to learn programming. Personally, I took a college level class, and then taught myself in the context of some projects I was working on, and I just picked up bits and pieces from different sources (another self-taught programmer, some books, and some websites). It probably was not the most efficient approach, but it worked well enough.

Right now, I can recommend two sources:
good luck.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

All nations are invented

A big fuss is being made over Gingrich's comment that the Palestinians are an 'invented' people. I don't really understand what Gingrich was trying to get at -- this assertion is often used as a premise to deny the legitimacy of Palestinian demands for self-governance. Maybe this is what Gingrich was getting at, but he does say that he supports the idea of Palestinian statehood (as long as they don't fight for it, I guess)... so it's hard to say. Either way, his "invention" comment seems to be a non-sequiter in the context of where he spoke it, so I can only assume that he's using some sort of dog-whistle to get votes from the supremacist wing of the (Christian) Zionist movement.

Anyway, the discussion of whether any particular nation was "invented" is kinda pointless, since nationality is intrinsically a myth. All nations are invented.

The "University challenge" -- decreasing costs; increasing access

At the Economist magazine, the "Schumpeter" columnist discusses some changes in the structure of higher education, and offers some suggestions for decreasing costs and thereby increasing access to education:

Schumpeter: University challenge | The Economist

I don't have any particular comment on this, but one of the commenters at The Economist website brought up the "University of the People" which seems to be an establishment-backed effort to develop a model for low-cost online education.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Physics simulations: ideal gas

I'm thinking of shifting my focus more towards educational issues, with a focus on how education shapes power relationships in our society. I figure that part of the "libertarian agenda" in education consists of empowering people to control their own education, so that they aren't forced to participate in any hierarchical/oppressive institutions.

As such, building awareness of new educational tools is key. In that spirit, I recommend PhET, which produces simulations to help instill an intuitive understanding of scientific concepts. The most recent simulation is pretty good... a simulation of transitions between states of matter, and also seems to demonstrate some aspects of the ideal gas law (i.e. PV=nRT). The only problem I noticed is that when the user increases the volume, thereby decompressing the substance, the temperature does not drop... or maybe it's been too long since I studied thermodynamics.

Anyway, check it out:

States of Matter: Basics
Click to Run

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Vegimite > Marmite

It's so hard to get my hands on Vegimite and Marmite here in the USA. If stores do carry these yeast extracts, the portions are small and the price is high. For a long time, I couldn't find Vegimite at all, even though it was it was what originally turned me on to yeast extract as a food (I've always loved YE it as a microbiological growth medium...which I actually did eat once). Fortunately, today I encountered a store clearance at a grocery store and was happy to find the awesome Australian ale dregs, so I was finally able to compare the two side-by-side.

This confirmed my suspicions, Vegimite is better than Marmite, which explains why the Marmite never lived up to the high expectations that had been established by Vegimite. By smell, the Vegimite is more hoppy. I'll be evaluting the taste again in the near future... I'm so happy.

For you serious people, I am NOT turning this into a food blog.

In fact, I'm thinking that I'm going to focus much more on educational (and scientific) issues, as opposed to broader issues about power relations. I've got a bunch of topics that I want to address, but I'm slowed down by my long-windedness. If you've got any topic you want discussed, advice for how to approach this topic, or good blogs for me to check out, please leave a comment.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Market Communism

NPR's "All Things Considered" aired an inspiring story about and Indian medical charity and how they manage to fund eye surgery for patients without the means to pay (India Eye Care Center Finds Middle Way To Capitalism : NPR). Basically, they charge the market rate to the rich, which in turn subsidies the poor:

That high quality allows Aravind to attract patients who are willing to pay market rates. Then it takes the large profit made on those surgeries to fund free and subsidized surgeries for poor people — like K. Karuthagangachi....

it's only possible to provide free surgeries on the scale that Aravind does by running an operating surplus, like a profit-making company. That's what Aravind manages to do, even though it's legally a charitable trust.
On one hand, this is not all that surprising--American hospitals (and often lawyers) operate on a similar principle. My fear is that, like their American counterparts, these organizations may eventually turn into "profit-making" enterprises for their highly paid managers, while using their supposed "non-profit" status as a way of winning special privileges from the local community.

Anyway, this story shows the stereotypical Indian twist -- finding a way to radically reduce the cost of a service:

Fifteen years after it was founded, Aravind's ability to provide free and subsidized surgeries was being limited by the high cost and availability of the intraocular lenses needed for cataract surgery. That's not a problem most charitable organizations could overcome...

But Aravind attacked the problem with the help of an American social entrepreneur named David Green. Green had been helping Aravind collect donated lenses to be implanted in their cataract patients. But donations were averaging only about 25,000 a year. That wasn't nearly enough to meet Aravind's needs, and the lenses cost several hundred dollars to buy. So Green helped Aravind set up its own lens manufacturer on-site, a subsidiary named Aurolab.

"Now today Aurolab sells, I think this year it will be 1.8 million lenses," he says. "So you can see that when you have a business model, an economic model, it enables something to scale because it's not dependent upon charity, which is fickle."

And even more remarkable: By squeezing out profits made by middlemen in the production and distribution chain, Aurolab is now providing some lenses at the astoundingly low price of just $2.

This is a refreshing story showing how a "communist-minded" person can leverage "capitalist" processes to transform the lives of many who have been left out of the system. This isn't traditional philanthropy -- since the market service and the charitable service are intimately connected. We could even say that the charitable impulse came first, and the marketing impulse followed in its wake. The desire to help the poor inspired a business model that may not have occurred to a person who was only looking for profit. In contrast to the doctrinaire bickering that I always read on the web (touting the primacy of profit-driven capitalism or charity-driven communism), it is nice to see that in some situations, charity can drive advances in productivity and market savvy can help those who are incapable of helping themselves. Maybe there is hope for humanity.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Don't hollow out the military; shrink it

The military establishment is claiming that across-the-board budget cuts would "hollow out" the military. They are probably right -- the USA probably cannot maintain a global military presence with a smaller military budget.

The solution is clear: pull back on the military's forward deployment and aggressive posturing. For instance, don't establish a new base in Darwin, Australia.

Let's see if that becomes part of the debate. I bet only Ron Paul would make this point.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"See the violence inherent in the system"

Previously, I described how some of the Occupy tactics were inherently radical and were an open challenge to the authority of the established system of power (i.e. law enforcement). In such a situation, the protesters should expect a forceful response. However, that does not mean that I believe that they deserved what they got. A humane (and self-confident) system should not resort to such violence in order to enforce its laws on non-violent resisters.

One of the main distinctions that I made was between breaking the law and obstructing law-enforcement. Law breaking is not radical, especially if the law-breakers passively accept being arrested; obstructing law-enforcement is radical. While I think that the Nov 9 protests at UC Berkeley fall into the later category, the Nov 18 protests at UC Davis seem to be a simple act of law-breaking, yet it was met with a similar level of violence (update below). Here's the video:

Given the brutal responses to these Occupy Cal protests, and other Occupy protests around the country, the public mood is starting to change (at least, mine is). William Lind provides an interesting comment on the tactical achievements of these protests. James Fallows offers some well-worded comments from the mainstream liberal perspective.
this is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population... And by the way, when did we accept the idea that local police forces would always dress up in riot gear that used to be associated with storm troopers and dystopian sci-fi movies?
Now brutal police tactics are becoming the issue. Public outrage over police behavior can move in two directions -- reform or revolution. Of course, reform is what mainstream liberals (and probably most of the student protestors) are hoping for; they want a system that is basically like today's, but a little more sensitive to people's rights and needs. The alternative is a radical restructuring of our social relations, which is probably the desired outcome for some of the protesters. The non-violent protests of Nov 9 were bound to provoke some sort of forceful response -- yet they were still not violent. They force observers to ask themselves whether "the system" is worth this sort of violence. My preferred outcome is a little of each -- that we strongly question the law enforcement mandates (such as drug prohibition) that have enlarged our police forces and created constant conflict between law enforcement and much of the public (a hope echoed by E.D. Kain)

It all brings to mind a scene the comic/satirical classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- when some peasants refuse to recognize the authority King Aurthur and are subsequently manhandled into submission:

Come, see the violence inherent in the system.

Update: I found another video of the UC Davis event that shows a broader perspective, and it looks like the line of students were blocking the cops who were trying to leave with a protestor who they had arrested. So these students were obstructing law-enforcement.

Update 2: This 3-part video shows the whole confrontation. In part 2, around 6 minutes, you can see the crowd encircling the cops yelling "set them free" after which a "mic check" is held and someone announces that they cops will be allowed to leave only if they release the people who they had arrested (for setting up camps, or something).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy America

Shit. I'm starting to get the feeling that America is under occupation...

New Video of Police Brutality at Occupy Oakland - Hit & Run : Reason Magazine

What is the economic value of a college degree?

I've been pondering whether tuition-free university education for everyone is a worthwhile ideal (I doubt it). However, some people claim that such opportunities are essential to prevent the economic division of our society into "haves and have-nots". One of the favorite statistics offered by this crowd is the income difference between people with degrees and those without. Any educated person should recognize that such statistics are just the starting point for deciding what the value of a degree is (i.e. correlation is not causation). The obvious considerations is that people who complete college tend to have been born with more opportunities in their life (colleges select for motivated people from higher SES groups), and that these are surely contributing to the income differences, independent of actually attending college. There is also the feature of "indentured servitude" resulting from college debt -- the graduates HAVE to work hard to cover their expenses.

Anyway, I found one good discussion of what the value may be (though it isn't a proper analysis of the factors involved). For the most part it provides recommendations for books and reports looking at the issue.

Something more for me to read.

Occupy Cal: what can you learn at university?

Part I: Occupy Cal, and the function of the university
Part II: Occupy Cal: The exclusive university

The Occupy Cal protestors have accused the university of functioning to divide the "haves" from the "have nots". Everyone recognizes that attending a university can provide economic advantages, and that many people are not able to attend a university (especially not their top-choice), so it's easy to see the logic behind that assertion of divisiveness. I argued that the exclusivity of universities contributes to their economic efficiency and educational effectiveness, so increasing enrollment and decreasing tuition is not an option. How can a university provide its services without excluding a large portion of our society from economic, intellectual, social, and political opportunities?

To address this issue, I intend to examine the benefits that the university provides to its students, and whether the university structure is the only way (or even the best way) for most people to gain those benefits. If there are alternative ways to acquire those benefits that do not require selectivity in admissions, then the university can either reform to adopt those more inclusive practices, or alternative institutions can provide these services to the people who were excluded from the university.

Since the professed ideal of the university is to advance learning, I'll start with that topic (a separate post will address the issue of getting "one's foot in the door" by way of professional networking and credentials). As described below, I do not believe that an institution like the University of California is the appropriate context for most people to study.

To begin, it is worth noting that many people -- both those who hold degrees and those who don't -- dismiss the effectiveness of formal education, especially higher education (see yesterday's comment). Many people are fond of the expression "The only time my education was interrupted was when I was in school.", or dismiss degrees as "Bull Shit, More Shit, Piled Higher and Deeper". I can attest that many people have developed strong critical thinking and writing skills without formal "higher education". There are also many examples of successful entrepreneurs who did not attend a university. A degree clearly is not a perfect predictor of economic or intellectual potential. Likewise, I have seen many students (in both high school and universities) who clearly had no motivation for book learning, and were therefore wasting their time by enrolling in classes; they would have learned more at almost any job.

With that being said, I do believe that many people (including myself) benefit greatly from the education offered at a university. I can think of no better way to quickly absorb a field of knowledge than to have a series of experts tell you what to study and how to verify that you have learned it. During that four-year grind through one abstraction after the next, it can be helpful to have a carrot dangled in front of you (in the form of a degree and the opportunities it offers) to make sure you stay focused and learn the full breadth of knowledge within the field.

What may be apparent for the above regimen is that there is no reason that it should cost $15,000 a year (UC budget pdf). Many universities have placed their curricula online specifically to facilitate independent study, and professors regularly post their syllabi online for their students. If a student studies 10 subjects in a year, then books should cost about $1000 if they are being purchased from the university book store, and work is being done to lower this price. If this is all a university offers (as some people suggest that it is), then a motivated student should be able to teach themselves the standard subjects without the expense or bother of the university.

The problem with the above setup is that it does not provide the student with either the peer group or the expert feedback that can address the student's confusions and assure that he does not walk away with a false understanding of the topic. If simply finding a few study partners were sufficient, then a university would not be needed-- meeting at the local library should be possible. However, it may not be easy to find good study partners from the general population; the academic exclusivity of the university (applied even at the level of individual courses) identifies groups of students with similar capabilities, and the administrative structure of the class pressures students to study the material at the same pace. If we could develop a system to allow independent students to find appropriate study partners -- those who are able to study the topic at the specified pace-- then this benefit of the university would be diminished. One troubling possibility is that by attracting competent students to their community, the university depletes their availability in the outside community, and essentially gains leverage via a network effect and a sort of "vendor lock-in" applying to the higher-education industry as a whole.

But leaving aside the availability of study partners, we still have to consider the traditional explanation for why the university is a good learning environment -- expert guidance. Peers often cannot identify each other's mistakes or explain concepts effectively. Only experts can reliably correct students or answer their questions. This part of teaching is very labor intensive, and since the labor comes from experts, it can be very expensive. To top it off, upper-level classes (in sciences, at least) often cover current research topics and rely on the extensive expertise of the instructor. Sometimes the course material is so new that it has not been synthesized into any standard text, and a detailed syllabus cannot be provided prior to the beginning of the semester. At this level, the content of the course can sometimes be dominated by the contribution of the students themselves, and relies on an extensive shared body of knowledge that can be hard to create outside of a formal program with several years of instruction.

The expense of this type of education forces us to ask "exactly what kind of higher education can be provided to the entire population?". Higher education is typically divided into three categories, and California supports all three as public institutions: the research university, the teaching university, and the community college. The first category is the most expensive to maintain, in part because it demands the highest level of expertise from the faculty (expertise arising from ongoing cutting-edge research). This is what I'm normally thinking of when I discuss the university, and the exclusiveness arises directly from the fact that there simply are not enough experts at this level to teach every student in this style. Furthermore, most students probably would not benefit from the type of instruction offered by these experts; only students who have mastered the broad knowledge of a field of study are at a level to understand what these professors are trying to teach. To top it off, these professors are not necessarily the best teachers, and they stereotypically have a hard time explaining concepts to people who do not already have extensive knowledge of the field.

The alternative is to learn from those experts who decided to focus on teaching, with research being a minor part of their activities (all people who hold a Ph.D. in sciences have successfully conducted research at some point). These professors are often better teachers than the professors who focus on research -- having more experience at teaching, and paying more attention to the theory of teaching. These professors would probably be the main workforce of "universal higher education". At the large research universities they often teach the lower-level classes, and they dominate at the smaller colleges that don't maintain active research programs. The third group of experts are those who have mastered their field of study, but have not conducted research of their own. We commonly see this among high-school teachers and the teaching-assistants at universities, but there is no reason that this level of expertise wouldn't be sufficient for most adult learning. My impression is that many instructors at the community college level have this sort of expertise.

The point of all of this is that when we talk about "universal higher education", we shouldn't be thinking of institutions like the University of California -- we should be thinking of the California Community Colleges. Rather than focusing on the institutions that educate the students with the greatest academic achievement, we should be focusing on the institutions that help the people who have had the most trouble. Even if the coursework offered by these institutions is no more advanced than that offered by many high-schools, there is still value in making these services available to the general public because many people were unable to learn these topics in high school, for a variety of reasons.

Focusing on community colleges rather than 4-year bachelor-degree programs is not only much more cost effective (~1/3 of the cost for instruction, as I understand it), but it also is more compatible with the ideal of a widely-educated population. Community colleges are spread throughout the community (as their name implies), enabling students to take classes without structuring their entire lives around study. This saves a lot of money that would have to be spent on room and board, and also allows a student to attend classes while holding down a regular job or raising children. While universities are attempting to be more accommodating to "non-traditional" (i.e. older) students, the basic structure of the 4-year program is optimized for young adults with no family commitments, and it would be foolish to try to extend that to the entire population.

Finally, we need to consider the elitist attitudes that prevent us from allocating our intellectual resources in a way that includes everyone. This "elitism" does not arise from the pragmatic exclusivity of the institutions of higher learning, but instead comes from our tendency to focus on the pinnacles of intellectual achievement rather than focus on enabling intellectual engagement among the broad base of society. This elitism is expressed in part by the attempts to increase the accessibility to the elite University of California, which necessarily draws resources away from the community college system. This largely reflects the selfish ambition of people with moderate opportunities who want to have the best opportunities, regardless of the poor opportunities that others have.

The other elitism comes from the fact that public science funding is often allocated to pure research in a way that provides no broad educational benefit. The decision to hire full-time researchers at national laboratories necessarily depletes the pool of experts who could be participating in broader (i.e. undergraduate) educational activities. Even professors at academic institutions often acquire so many grants that it eats into the time that they allocate to teaching. Our public scientific funding agencies has decided to pursue scientific advancement that is disconnected from broad education. This may be an appropriate decision, especially if we like our new technologies-- but if we care about public education, we need to consider how these decisions affect the allocation of intellectual resources. Scientific progress will continue at a rapid pace even if all public research funding is linked to broader educational activities, and the academic establishment needs to take a hard look at how it uses the resources that it has before it complains that outside forces are preventing it from achieving its educational mission.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What do university administrators do?

One of the main targets of the Occupy Cal movement is administrator salaries, connecting the increase of these salaries with the increase in tuition. The administrators shoot back by pointing out that their salaries make up a tiny portion of university expenditures, and that the real problem is that the legislature (the EVIL Republicans!) has cut university subsidies.

I don't know what the salaries are at Cal itself, but I've noticed extravagant salaries at other institutions (up to $1 million /year for top administrators), which doesn't always match the salaries of football coaches, but is substantially more than the salaries of even the most prominent professors.

With salaries like this, I'd expect the administrative activities of the university to be seamless-- professors would be able to quickly hire technicians, and graduate students would not have a two-month gap in their health insurance coverage following the annual renewal of coverage. But that's just a fantasy land.

I'd like to know how school administrators command such high salaries, and what they are spending their time on if not actually making sure that the administration runs smoothly. Maybe they are just glorified lobbyists, trying to eek more money out of the state. Maybe they are well-dressed sycophants, drawing money from the pockets of wealthy alumni, or perhaps they are slick PR men running immense propaganda campaigns. Maybe they are exceptionally competent administrators, but their fiefdom is so immense that it is impossible to run it efficiently.

Well, I'll hopefully find an answer as I finish reading Benjamin Ginsberg's essay at The Washington Monthgly -- Administrators Ate My Tuition. Being a PoliSci professor and JHU, he may have some insight (or he may just be venting faculty frustrations).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Cal: The exclusive university

Part I: Occupy Cal, and the function of the university.

Tuesday's protest at the University of California Berkeley campus included a declaration of an "Open University", which apparently is meant to provide a free education to anyone who wants to participate. This action is clearly motivated by the perception that university is unnecessarily exclusive, and consequently divides our society into "haves" and "have nots".

While economic success is clearly obtainable without a university degree, formal higher education is still widely perceived as the most reliable course to personal prosperity. Such education is intended to provide students with useful (i.e. marketable) skills early in their adult lives, but also enables them to build social relationships that will be advantageous throughout life. While most people recognize the value of these opportunities, it is easy to resent the fact that some people have these opportunities while others are excluded. This resentment is especially pronounced if those opportunities improve a person's ability to compete for economic and social goods without increasing the total amount of such goods in our society. I intend to address the social implications of these opportunities in a future post, but for now I want to focus on a factor of university organization that impacts both of them -- the exclusivity of the university.

Plenty of people are unable to attend the university of their choice (or any university at all) -- either they are explicitly rejected during the application process, or they decide that they do not have the financial resources to pay for tuition while also covering food, shelter, and healthcare for themselves and any dependents. Exclusion for financial reasons seems particularly unfair, since it depends more of the economic success of a student's parents than on their own virtues. Furthermore, to the extent that a university education increases a person's future earnings, economic exclusion from the university contributes to a multi-generational stratification of society based on wealth.

The origin of this economic exclusion is obvious -- the university needs money to operate (e.g. maintain buildings and pay salaries), and it therefore needs some way to motivate people to contribute money. The most straight-forward way to raise revenues is to change fees to the people who benefit most directly from the services provided, and exclude those people if they do not pay. Alternatives exist; for example, money can be raised from philanthropists or can be allocated politically. Our current university system relies on a combination of these revenue sources, with complicated mechanisms designed to maintain both accessibility and adequate instructional resources (e.g. scholarships, loans, subsidies, work-study).

The current debate over the role of the university is driven primarily by concerns over increasing tuition and the consequent student debt. The question is how to reduce the burden on the students themselves? One option is to reduce university expenditures, perhaps by increasing administrative efficiency or reducing salaries of the top administrators. The "Open University" model suggests one path to reducing administrative costs -- abandoning the evaluation and credentialing activities of the university. But more attention is given to the loss of political funding for higher education, and protestors seem most concerned with maintaining the status quo for the California educational system.

The other form of exclusivity is based on academic potential. There are pedagogic reasons for this exclusivity -- uniformity of student capabilities makes it easier to teach students simultaneously, and it increases the chance that students will be able to help each other understand the course material. This is the same reason that many courses have prerequisites. Many educational reformers have tried to integrate classrooms with students of different academic ability, but my understanding is that this normally ends up slowing the progress of the most capable students. While it may sound "elitist" to the students who are excluded, I believe it is totally appropriate to seek the company of people who will advance one's own goals while avoiding those who would inhibit them. If this exclusion is institutionalized at the level of the university, so be it.

California has maintained a three-tier system of public higher education, which traditionally allows for some exclusivity on the basis of academic potential while minimizing exclusion based on economic resources. The UC system has traditionally relied greatly on academic exclusivity, since it only had a limited number of openings for students, but everyone wanted to attend due to the extremely low tuition. This structure is changing as the UC system expands enrollment and raises tuition; UC is perhaps becoming more like other universities around the country.

Overall, I think that academic exclusivity is a good thing (in the absence of a good teaching model where all students benefit from a mixed-ability academic community), and while economic exclusivity is unfortunate, it is pretty much unavoidable at the scale of the general population. Economic exclusivity is pretty much unavoidable for anything that has a cost--as a university education does-- and the failure to pass those costs onto the final consumer results in the squandering of resources (I've seen it first-hand). Even with these costs, access can be provided to the most promising and motivated students by way of scholarships. I'd be hesitant to provide such funding to the mass of young adults who drift towards university education with giving much thought to it. These students often have plenty of time but little money, and have yet to realize the value of their time. By placing a dollar amount on the educational services that they are requesting, we can encourage them to think about what they expect to gain from attending university, and perhaps prevent a few of them from squandering a couple years of their lives engaged in activities that are not appropriate for them.

There is always room for improvement in our institutions, and perhaps we will find ways to deliver higher-educational services with less expense, or in a way that does not segregate students based on academic ability yet still enables the most capable students to excel. Until then, the exclusivity of the university is something that we have to work with, and reflects the simple truth that a university education is not right for everyone.

Occupy Cal: Whose univeristy?

The Occupy Cal crowd has decided to set up camp on the campus of UC Berkeley, despite the UC administration's vows to disassemble it. No doubt the protestors will feign surprise/outrage when the police try to evict them.

As indicated by the chants of the protestors, the issue comes down to this: whose university is it? The protestors claim some sort of democratic authority (on behalf of both the university community and the broader public for whom the university was nominally founded), yet for all their democratic/consensual formalities, they are incapable of representing those groups. They are only capable of representing those people who are willing to spend their time participating in those primitive "General Assemblies" and who are willing to lend legitimacy to the Occupy movement by participating. In the end, the Occupiers have no democratic legitimacy.

Still, the Occupiers are attempting to declare themselves as the legitimate government/owner of the university, or whatever other location they decide to occupy. This is bound to draw a forceful response from the other institutions that claim ownership/sovereignty over those sites. In some situations, that conflict may be intentional and necessary, yet I don't see how the demands of these protestors justify such conflict. Their main message is that they want the state to provide additional funding to the university -- but their tactics delegitimize those very institutions that they are seeking to expand. WTF?

In the end, these skirmishes have come down to establishing "the right to occupy" as part of the first amendment right to assemble and petition the government. I don't see the point in picking this fight. I don't want to live in a society where any mob of political activists can just set up camp in any public space -- thereby excluding everyone else from using that space.

I'm not even sure why tents matter -- except that some of the more theatrical activists like the symbolism (even as they ignore the substance). There may be some issue with people traveling great distances to participate in the protest, and not being able to afford proper housing in the area. However well this logic applies to Washington D.C. or Sacramento, I don't see how it could be relevant to these local protests (unless homelessness were some major part of the agenda). My suspicion is that these protestors are simply seeking to emulate the occupation of Tahrir Square without acknowledging the conditions that prompted Egyptians to use occupation as a tactic -- both their vulnerability to kidnapping if they dispersed, and eventually their demand for the overthrow of the government.

In the end, the university does not belong to a bunch of protestors (especially when most are the recipients of services), and declaring an "Open University" does not in any way make the benefits of the university available to the general public.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Cal, and the function of the university

The "Occupy Cal" crowd is pissed about how the University and the police treated them last Wednesday, and are calling for a "general strike" at the University of California Berkeley campus for this coming Tuesday (Nov 15). This is modeled on the "strike" at the Oakland port at the beginning of the month.

I've put the word "strike" in quotes because it does not fit the definition of "strike" as I understand it -- being the refusal of workers to continue doing their regular jobs. In both of the above "strikes", the organizers are seeking to disrupt regular economic activity by bringing in large numbers of protestors who normally do not directly participate in those economic activities.

In this case, someone supporting this action has explained why UC Berkeley is being targeted in this way:
“In calling for a strike, activists realize that the university’s function in society is to create a division between haves and have-nots. Therefore, this is meant as a special kind of strike, one where all those who have been excluded from the UC system converge on the campus and help occupy it. At the same time as we shut the university down, we open it up to all who have been excluded from it,”
This statement brings up some important issues; however, if I were to take it literally, I would say that it presents a view of our society that is both terribly naive and borderline paranoid. Instead, I will be charitable to the authors and assume that they presented this narrow view of things for the sake of rhetorical impact, and for the same reason selected as "the function" of the university one incidental effect of its activity. I assume that they intended to start a conversation among the stakeholders in the University system (UC, and academia as a whole), so let's get started.

What is the function of the university (and UC in particular)? I interpret "the function of an institution" to mean the goal being sought by the people who support and participate in that insititution. With that interpretation, the function of the university (and especially UC) is clearly not to divide our society. Still, divisiveness may be an unfortunate consequence of how the institution operates. An undeniable truth is that the people who participate in the university are often seeking their own prosperity; they are the getters, and are likely to become the "haves". This in itself is not particularly profound -- people regularly participate in activities that advance their own prosperity (from maintaining one's own home, to providing commercial services, to learning skill sets, and even seeking collaborators for projects). This is all normal and appropriate, and it is likewise appropriate that we form exclusive institutions to coordinate activities among people who are capable of advancing each other's productivity.

So how does the university produce social division by providing educational services? Stay tuned for more ideas on how that occurs (to the extent that it does), and what might be done to reduce those divisions.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Do they understand what they are doing?

This past Wednesday, riot police tried to disperse a large group from the campus of UC Berkeley. As pointed out by the Chancellor, the protestors engaged in activities that were outside of what he understands to be the tradition of "peaceful" resistance. I wonder if the protestors understood that they had crossed that threshold, and what it implies about their attitudes towards established legal authority.

For those unfamiliar with the events, this is how I understand the course of events: there was a big rally, then some people set up tents, cops amassed and told the protesters to take their tents and leave, protesters refused. A negotiator said that the protestors could occupy the plaza constantly for a week, as long as no camping equipment was set up and people didn't sleep there. When the protesters rejected this offer, the cops tried to dismantle the campsite, but were blocked by a crowd. The cops then beat their way through the crowd and took the tents.

Here's the video of part:

Here is the core of the Chancellor's letter:

It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully; they were told to leave their tents, informed that they would be arrested if they did not, and indicated their intention to be arrested. They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers’ efforts to remove the tent. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them.


We call on the protesters to observe campus policy or, if they choose to defy the policy, to engage in truly non-violent civil disobedience and to accept the consequences of their decisions.

Basically, the distinction that he is making is between those who use the legal system as a stage on which to protest-- using their arrest for theatrical purpose-- and those who stand outside of the legal system and try to gain sympathy when the legal system imposes itself on them.

This later activity is fundamentally radical, since it rejects the legitimacy of the legal system itself. The only alternative to the use of force is the abdication of authority by either the University administration or the police. We've seen this tactic used repeatedly in the Occupy protests, but it is also paired with rhetoric that suggests that the protestors don't comprehend how these actions are an immediate and radical threat to the establishment (e.g. "stop beating students"). On the other hand, the rhetoric of "occupation" is inherently radical, but it doesn't seem to be a turn-off to the non-radical left. People apparently treat it as nothing more than a brand. But we've also seen this contradiction in the Tea Party movement, where they simultaneously spouted radical rhetoric (including the name) even as they demanded respect from the establishment.

In the end, I'm not sure exactly what these people wish to achieve, or how they expect their actions to achieve these goals. It seems that the protests have become focused on the tactics of protest themselves -- the perpetual occupation of public space for the sake of protest, and camping as a form of protest. Right now, I don't find these to be particularly compelling reasons to get involved.

However, there are some good fights to be picked over this issue. There are plenty of cities with overly restrictive requirements for permits to gather. It may be interesting to see these rules presented as a form of class-warfare, which weaken the ability of regular people to engage in political propaganda, even as the wealthy have the alternative outlet of mass-media.

Why "99%" is not about income

In a previous post, a comment suggested that I am trying to tell the Occupy movement (i.e. the 99%ers) what they care about. The 99% slogan is clearly about income/wealth inequality, yet I insist that the "real issue" is special privileges.

I'll briefly state why I don't think that I'm projecting my own values onto their action:

1) 99% is just a slogan. It cannot encompass the subtleties of the issue.
2) Many of them have explicitly stated that their main concern is that the 1% "give back" to the community that enabled their success. There is apparent tolerance for a large income disparity, as long as there is a social safety net and opportunity for upward mobility (e.g. education subsidies).
3) Many of them have distinguished between the worthy rich (e.g. Steve Jobs) and the unworthy rich (e.g. bailed-out bankers)
4) I'd bet that if you surveyed the group, almost everyone would say that there is a problem with special privilege and subtle corruption of public institutions. A lot of them (maybe a majority) may say that income disparity itself is a problem, but I'd bet that almost all of them would also say that privilege/corruption is a problem. So I think I'm safe if I treat "privilege/corruption" as a concern that I share with the Occupy crowd, and put income inequality (per se) on the back burner.
5) If you follow the campaign finance reform movement (which I think is a big part of the Occupy movement), the concern with wealth inequality is derived from a concern with unequal political influence.

At the end of the day, I also believe that much of the wealth inequality in our country arises from special privileges and corruption of public institutions. Maybe the Occupiers don't agree, but I don't think I'm projecting my opinions on them when I focus on the solution as I see it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The 99% are to blame

This past week saw two "riots" on college campuses. There was a bit of a scuffle with cops as the Occupy Cal group (i.e. the "99%-ers) tried to establish a campsite on campus. Across the country at Penn State, a spontaneous riot broke out following the announcement of Joe Paterno's dismissal for his failure to adequately respond to news that one of his assistant coaches was raping 10-year olds in the team showers.

Each of these confrontations is worthy of much discussion, but what I find most interesting at the moment is how the events at Penn State undermine the narrative being presented by the Occupy crowd.

Joe Parterno is the 1%. Even by the standards of University faculty, sports coaches have extremely high pay. Paterno was bringing in around a million dollars a year, while several other head-coaches bring in multimillion dollars salaries. University payscales are a perfect microcosm of the more widespread inequalities that the Occupy movement decries.

My view is that "gods are not allowed to make mistakes"-- when someone of Paterno's stature and power is this neglectful of his duties, he deserves to be thrown out on his ass. However, consider the reaction of the great masses in the Penn State community -- they defended Paterno, with massive public protest. They embraced the idea that a person like Paterno is above the law; he is so great that he can do no wrong. Even more telling, there was no Karl Rove manipulating public opinion behind the scenes. This was totally spontaneous.

I have read innumerable essays by concerned leftists pondering why the lower classes repeatedly vote against their own interests. These overly partisan egalitarians find the obvious answer -- it's the other party! (i.e. the Republicans). If they would open their eyes, this riot (which is just part of a long-standing phenomenon) would put their partisan theories to lie. There is no need for sophisticated propaganda to create massive inequality. A college education does not cause people to open up their eyes to what really matters. The truth is that most people are morons. Most people are willing slaves who fantasize about having a king. They dream of a benevelent lord who will provide them with bread and circus, absolving them of any responsibility for their own lives.

A half-century of middle class unionism and public universities has done nothing to lessen this peasant mentality among the masses. It's time to consider the possibility that democracy has failed. Democracy is impossible because when power is given to the masses, they give it right back. Those of us who want freedom will have to find it ourselves. If we want a society of equals, we will have to find it separately from the servile masses. We obviously can't physically separate ourselves from them, but we can weaken the institutions that they use to force themselves on us.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Stopping others from working is not a "general strike"

Occupy Oakland has jumped the shark with today's "general strike". From a population of over 7 million (in the San Francisco Bay Area), they managed to assemble maybe 7000 people. Based on this support from 0.1%, they felt that they had the prerogative to shut down the Oakland Port and disrupt the lives of the people who work there. I haven't heard from the organizers, but I can't imagine any reason that the port would be viewed as particularly evil -- it seems that they were just looking for a choke point in the local and national economy.

Protests shut Oakland port, tensions flare in streets | Reuters

If you're pissed at the government, then block government buildings. Leave the port alone.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Absolute Sexual Equality

Over at Philosophical Disquisitions, John Danaher is discussing the "Polygamy, Incest, Bestiality" (PIB) slippery slope objection to homosexuality. He reviews several attempts to counter this argument by describing how homosexual activity is different from PIB, and (paraphrasing John Corvino) rightly points out that there is logically no need to make such arguments because the people who equate homosexuality to PIB do not provide any argument supporting that position (the only similarity being that they are all "forbidden" or "gross").

Along those lines, the PIB argument really isn't an argument in itself; it seems to be a reductio ad absurdum for some unspecified justification for acceptance of homosexuality. The logic seems to be:

1) You say that we should accept homosexuality because of principle X.
2) Principle X would cause us to accept PIB (or pedophilia) .
3) Therefore, principle X is invalid.

Of course, the force of this argument relies entirely on what "principle X" actually is; if principle X does not apply to PIB, then the PIB-argument is pointless.

So this brings us to my favorite "principle X" : absolute sexual equality.

My principle is that I should not treat a person differently due solely to their biological sex (aside from my own sexual relationships). I realized that this principle applies to homosexuality when I read that some opponents of the sexual Equal Rights Amendment had predicted that the ERA would forbid discrimination against homosexual relationships. Many proponents of the ERA reject this interpretation. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't say anything about that -- but I do agree that the principle of sexual non-discrimination implies acceptance of homosexuality.

Attempts to distinguish homophobia from sexism often rest on the idea of reciprocal equality: that discrimination against homosexuality will limit a man's options just as much as it would limit a woman's options-- both men and women would be limited to sexual relationships with the opposite sex (let's ignore the intersex in this argument).

Superficially, this argument seems reasonable, but for any American it should quickly raise a red-flag, since it is reminiscent of the principle of "separate but equal". Based on history, we know that an arrangement that is superficially egalitarian can act as a cover for severe oppression. Based on logic, we know that when we treat people differently, it is very difficult to perfectly balance the moral worth of those differences; this is especially true in a world where people have different opinions regarding the moral worth of different conditions. In essence, requiring that men marry women and women marry men is the same as requiring that men work outside of the home and women work inside the home. We may believe that we can put aside our personal preferences and assert than marrying a man is objectively just as good as marrying a woman. However, as with a belief that working inside the home is just as good as working outside the home, this is actually a personal preference and not an objective description of reality. Furthermore, we cannot give the benefit of the doubt to these assertions of equal value, because such arrangements are quite easy to manipulate in favor of one group or the other (as we have seen in history).

For the sake of illustration, consider these two ways in which this "reciprocal equality" could lead to clearly non-equal outcomes. These may seem silly on their own, but they are sufficient to demonstrate the inequality implicit in considering sex when judging relationships.

The first inequality arises from the physical and emotional differences between men and women. For instance, men (as a group) are stronger than women (as a group); if we were to forbid a person from choosing a partner from either group, then we clearly would be influencing the likely characteristics of the partner that they eventually find.

The second aspect of inequality is apparent when the population is divided into two "reciprocal" groups that vary drastically in size. Consider splitting the human population into two groups, each of which is forbidden from marrying within its own group. Now imagine that one group constitutes 90% of the population, and the other is 10%; the 10% is clearly the elite group here, having their choice of partners from the other group, whereas most of the members of the larger group will be effectively forbidden from marrying at all (unless the members of the smaller group can take multiple spouses). Normally, the population of males and females is nearly equal, so this isn't a big deal, but this thought experiment does emphasize the fact that men and women are selecting their partners from different groups, competing for attention with a different group of people, and that these group dynamics will influence the likely outcome of their quests to find partners. To bring this back to the real world, some societies have experienced substantial imbalances between the male and female population -- a deficit of males following major wars, and a deficit of females is societies that practice prenatal sex selection.

Now that I've stated my position, let's consider how it compares to the position of others. Many people consider themselves "anti-sexist", yet would balk at taking this position of non-discrimination between homosexual and heterosexual couples. Looking at the marriage issue and their behavior in general, they apparently think that discrimination is quite appropriate; they actually are sexist, they only object to the idea that one sex is superior to the other. They will treat men and women differently in everyday encounters and believe that it is totally just for the law to recognize these categories for issues such as marriage. My objection to such categorization is both moral and empirical. Morally, individuals should be free to structure their lives as they see fit, and pigeonholing a person into a gender role places a fairly arbitrary restriction on their freedom. Empirically, many people lack the stereotypical traits of their gender on which theories of sexual discrimination are based (e.g. many men have less strength than the median strength among women). Trying to force a person into a role based on their genitalia is a simplistic approach that ignores the many ways in which each person deviates from any sexual ideal.

On the other side, there may be people who consider my view of sexual equality to be limited, in that I do consider there to be difference between men and women. These differences are apparent both in how I relate to them sexually (which only applies to my wife now) and that the male and female populations differ in many socially important respects. I won't deny that our sexual preferences and relationships have myriad ramifications in other aspects of society (thereby undermining the idea of sexual non-discrimination); however, by recognizing that the male and female populations are in fact different, I do not automatically assume that any difference in social/economic standing is due to discrimination. There is simply no getting around the fact that people are different from each other, and the details of how these differences arise (e.g. genetic, chemical, social) are not really important. We cannot and should not treat each individual identically, all we can do is make sure that our discrimination is not based on unsound ideology and prejudice.

So to bring this back to the issue of social acceptance of homosexuality and the "PIB objection", I think that it is immediately clear that this principle of equality does not compel us to accept polygamy, pedophilia, or bestiality. A variant of this principle (non-discrimination on the basis of parentage) could be used to argue that incest should not be discouraged. Of course, this would in no way affect the situations where incest could be viewed as rape (whether statutory or forcible). I'm not too concerned by this use of the argument to destigmatize incest,partly because I don't think that cousin marriage needs to be stigmatized, and so this issue is limited to sibling marriage. More importantly, most of these arguments for sexual equality do not apply strongly to incest -- primarily because the the prohibition of incestuous sexual activity does not place a substantial restriction on a person's choice of mates.

The advancement of sexual equality is one of the major struggles of our age, and no attempt to equate it with sexual perversion should distract us from eliminating sexual discrimination from our institutions.

Cousin marriage: science, prejudice, and lifestyle mandates

Reposted from Freedom Democrats, 2009.

A perspective from PLoS Biology by Diane Paul and Hamish Spencer argues that there is no scientific basis for social stigma and laws against marriages of first cousins. The basic argument is that the risk of birth defects from first-cousin mating is negligible, and fear of such defects is the only basis for these attitudes and laws. This issue is interesting to libertarians as an illustration of how lawmakers often pretend that they are implementing the scientific management of society, when in fact their acts are based on nothing more than ignorant prejudice.

This issue is also interesting in how it connects with the evolution of our views towards government:

The laws must also be viewed in the context of a new, post–Civil War acceptance of the need for state oversight of education, commerce, and health and safety, including marriage and the family. Beginning in the 1860s, many states passed anti-miscegenation laws, increased the statutory age of marriage, and adopted or expanded medical and mental-capacity restrictions in marriage law. Thus, laws prohibiting cousin marriage were but one aspect of a more general trend to broaden state authority in areas previously considered private. And unlike the situation in Britain and much of Europe, cousin marriage in the US was associated not with the aristocracy and upper middle class but with much easier targets: immigrants and the rural poor.

One flaw in the argument from Paul and Spencer is that they emphasize the low costs of mating among cousins, but they ignore the low costs of prohibiting cousins from marrying--laws against cousin incest produce a negligible reduction in the pool of prospective spouses (as opposed to laws against same-sex marriage or inter-racial marriage, for example). I'm sure that this issue is terribly important for those few people who are romantically in love with their cousins, but it will never get onto the radar screen of anyone who is considering the total welfare of humanity, or the overall injustice in the world.

Paul and Spencer also largely ignore the social issues around cousin marriages. From modern American perspective, cousin marriages may disrupt the stability of the extended family. Conversely, in some societies, cousin-marriages seem to increase family stability and support--providing the child with benefits that may outweigh the risks of genetic problems (I'll link to the report if I can find it). We could also speculate that frequent cousin marriages may result in a more fragmented society with insular families: at its most extreme, it may facilitate the formation of cult-like social structures. Ultimately, I suspect that day-to-day social concerns play a much more direct role in policy formation than expert-mediated scientific knowledge.

A Google search reveals a fair amount of commentary on this issue. At, William Salaten notes that we will soon be able to genotype everyone to look for couples who carry identical alleles: if we embrace the logic of the prohibition on marriage of cousins, does that mean that genetic testing (a la GATTACA) should be a mandatory part of a marriage application, and the application be rejected if both individuals carry a potentially harmful recessive allele? Of course, as GATTACA illustrates, genetic selection on in vitro embryos is a solution to that problem.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pirate parties and the new economic power

A few posts back, I ruminated on a potential shift in the nature of economic power and how that could play out in the political realm. The rise of the Pirate parties seems to fit into the process that I was pondering:
the success of the Pirate Party cannot simply be explained away by saying it’s a symptom of social exclusion or ignorance. The supporters of the new party are anything but on the margins – they are highly educated and media savvy. And above all, they are young and in a position to attract like-minded individuals in cities all over the country. To a certain extent, they represent the future elite of Germany. For mainstream-party strategists, realising that they are unable to connect with this section of society must come as a kick in the teeth.
From How Germany’s Pirates might sink the mainstream parties | Matthias Heitmann | spiked

Anyway, this suggests that the "new power" may be centered on the ability to generate large ad-hoc communities around current issues, and motivate these communities to act. So the new power is based on social networking assets (including both old-fashioned "people skills", familiarity with those newfangled devices, and a reputation that encourages others to pay attention), as opposed to the old powers built on land ownership, industrial ownership, and institutional control. The funny thing is that the assets of this new power are pretty much identical to the assets of the financial industry-- the main difference being that these assets are now widely distributed, and the "clients" are not just millionaires and large institutions.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Frankly, they don't deserve our protection

I know that most "realists" will say that the assassination of a diplomat on our soil is a clear casus belli, but I think we have to ask whether we really want to make any sacrifices to protect members of the Saudi government. They are scum. That doesn't meant that we can't talk with them and try to work with them under some circumstances, but it does mean that I have no interest in making any sacrifices to protect them, regardless of the circumstances.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The judicial system: The feeblest branch | The Economist

This is crazy:

A typical lawsuit now goes to trial within a couple of years, says Ms Feinstein, but that could soon stretch to five years. The backlog of traffic infractions is already so daunting that it compromises enforcement (and the deterrence of bad driving). And so on. The Californian constitution guarantees criminal defendants a right to speedy trial, but it does not technically require courts to administer civil law at all, Ms Feinstein says. So, in theory, civil adjudication could stop altogether, as it already has on one judicial circuit in Georgia. That, she says would bring about the “unravelling of society”.
The judicial system: The feeblest branch | The Economist

While pondering whether a smooth transition to anarchy is possible, I had thought of the government dismantling itself by folding up the executive branch-- leaving a court to adjudicate disputes between people, and a (possibly reformed) legislative branch to set the rules for such adjudication. Here we seem to have the opposite: the state continuing to micro-manage the lives of the people, but refusing to settle disputes. It's as if the people in charge are trying really hard to leave behind the minarchist ideal of the "night-watchman state".

Following the invasion of Iraq, I had a nagging feeling that Bush and Co. were trying to liquidate the welfare state -- Bush created large deficits by cutting taxes (retroactively!) on the rich, and then guaranteed a long term drain of the budget by invading Iraq even as we were facing a major nation-building challenge in Afghanistan. Before long, we'd have a debt crisis requiring the gutting of state economic support (ranging from Social Security to education funding), but we'd still have to pay taxes (directly or indirectly) to avoid default and to maintain the armed-forces of the state (both domestic and deployed). Our only interaction with the state would be the police-man's baton.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The new economic power

Even when I'm trying to focus on my job, I get drawn into thinking about social activism. My most recent distraction comes from two articles by Pieter Hintjens. The main essay is called "A User's Guide to the Digital Revolution", the introduction to a book called Software and Silicon. Hintjens presents recent economic developments as a "digital revolution" on par with the "industrial revolution" of the early 19th century, and predicts similarly radical changes in social organization and political power. In a slapdash theory of class struggle, he makes analogies between then and now:
The new social concentrations of 19th century cities allowed an entrepreneurial middle class to emerge, and quite rapidly their economic power turned into political power, and in 1848 there was political revolution across Europe and the establishment of parliamentary democracy in many countries. Political change follows economic change, which follows social change.
Hintjens posits that the "old money" ruling class attempts to constrain the rising power of the "new money" entrepreneurial class with laws such as the Corn Laws of 19th century Britain, or the Intellectual Property laws of today's global system.

This narrative is all well and good (though it seems simplistic relative to the theories described in my current nightstand-book: a biography of Friedrich Engles), but it got me thinking about how the economic power of the "new money" differs from the "old money" in such a way that it demands radical change to the political system. Today, it seems that new money merges seamlessly into the old money; software entrepreneurs sell their start-ups or they draw salaries and dividends, which they then deposit in banks or stock-market investment funds -- just like everyone else with money. This is not anything like the difference between the landed aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie in the 19th century.

For there to be a true conflict between a rising economic class and the establishment, the new power has to be fundamentally different and incompatible with the old power. The aristocratic and bourgeoisie power structures were ideologically incompatible, and functionally non-convertible (though some industrialists were granted titles of nobility). I have to look hard -- and squint -- to see that sort of conflict in existing classes.

Hintjens provides a hint of this new form of power in another essay, called Testing Considered Evil. While this is superficially a technical essay about software design methodology, it is actually part of a manifesto about economic organization and how to motivate workers. Here is where we begin to see a radical form of economic power; Hintjens is focusing on how to get programmers involved (and obsessed) with Open Source Software development. This is economic activity that falls outside of the established channels -- it doesn't generate cash revenues, or any sort of property that can be owned by a corporation. The only economic asset gained by the entrepreneur is organizational: a network of motivated programmers, and a reputation that enables the entrepreneur to call on their services.

When this form of economic organization is viewed alongside the efforts of people such as the "Occupy Wall Street" crowd, I can imagine that something big is happening, and that tomorrow's power will not look like yesterday's.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Please stay tuned...

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Diaspora* means a brighter future for all of us"

Diaspora is an interesting project, and seems to be finally bearing some fruit. It is essentially a user-owned social networking system (e.g. Facebook)

According to a recent press release from the group (Diaspora* means a brighter future for all of us):

Diaspora’s distributed design is a huge part of it. Like the Internet itself, Diaspora* isn’t housed in any one place, and it’s not controlled by any one entity (including us). We’ve created software that lets you set up and run your own social network on your own “pod” (or server) and connect your network to the larger Diaspora* ecosystem...

This means you can do what you want. You can express yourself candidly, and be your authentic self. You can go by whatever name you like on Diaspora*. Pseudonyms are fine, and this both protects you (if you want to say something your boss or your parents disagree with) and opens the door to real connection.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Mass Transit Police State

Normally, I'd think that this is just pathetic partisan fearmongering without any basis in reality:
the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.
However, when a heavily subsidized commuter train system (BART) attacks the First Amendment...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

My favorite sci-fi fantasy books

Something fun... my thoughts on the "Top 100 Sci-Fi Fantasy books": audience picks from NPR's.

Following Russel Arben Fox, I've noted which ones I've read... and I've added some notes. I have one comment in preface: it's hard to believe that all these stories get lumped together in one category; the tone and style varies so much! It's also a shame that they separated these from stories of supernatural horror.

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I read it once in middle school, and once when I was thirty. I appreciated it much more upon my second reading (especially the romance). I then got sucked in and read "The Children of Hurin" (powerful, though the quality of the writing might be expected given that Tolkien left it unfinished). Then read the Silmarillion(below).

2. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Load's of fun... though I may like the Dirk Gently stories better.

3. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

Clever story... and the series develops in an interesting direction.

6. 1984, by George Orwell

I read it more than once... then saw the movie.

7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

I heard it first on audiotape, then I read it.

8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov

I've read much of Asimov's work, and my favorite story is not on this list ("The Gods Themselves")
9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Brilliant. Both in concept and execution. I've read it two or three times.

13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell

14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

28. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

Read this, and think about the riots in London.

31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein

Really? Decent book, excellent movie, awesome drinking game.

32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Didn't think this was Sci-Fi... but a good book. I read it twice; both as child and adult.

33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey

35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller

Brilliant vision. Excellent writing... if you like dark humor. I read it two or three times.

44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven

I don't recall if I read this. I know I read a story that took place on the ringworld though. I've read so many of Niven's stories, it's hard to keep them straight. He's a great storyteller and explores a lot of interesting (speculative) social issues, but I don't find any of his stories particularly profound. The only one I read twice was "Protector".

46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

An ambitious attempt to create a new genre of modern literature. Brilliant.

53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Neat idea, and amusing writing... but should have been half as long.
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks

Started off strong... but quickly turned to drivel. I don't think I actually finished it, even though I had selected it as "light" beach reading.

76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

I read this or another book about Rama.

80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

Fun series, good stories. I get a kick out of imagining how to resist a totalitarian regime.
84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart

This is one of the first "adult" books that I read...I didn't realize it had such a following. Maybe I should read it again.
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov

So, that comes to 26 / 100. I'll add three more books/series to the list:

  • The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. This book was engrossing (though he spent too much time explaining his mythology), and got me into Lovecraft. Unfortunately, none of his other stories were as good as this one.
  • Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. This is a great work of supernatural horror (Lovecraftian)-- but it's presented as a space-exploration story.
  • The Berserker series by Fred Sabrahagen. I haven't read these since I was a kid, so they may be juvenile... but they sure made an impression on me.
I seen the movie version of many of those books, and had never even realized that there had been a book!

Phillip Dick has been on my reading list since I've seen three or four movies based on his books, and since I saw that Neuromancer won the "Phillip Dick award".

Ian Banks has also been on my reading list; the culture series sounds awesome. I looked for it at my local library, but found "Song of Stone" instead, which is itself an excellent story (though hardly Sci-Fi/Fantasy).

Update: I saw Flatland at the local bookstore in the SciFi/Fantasy section. If it belongs in that category (rather than, say, philosophy), then it belongs on this list.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The value of radical political thought

the conservative presumption
conceptual limit: ideals
conceptual limit: the ambiguity of tradition
contextual limit: the existence of problems
contextual limit: the sustainability of the status quo

Gary Chartier recently tried to outline how the state harms the most vulnerable members of society ("Should Bleeding Hearts Be Anarchists?"). The post was basically a "hit-and-run", lacking any substantial explanation or examples, and the comment thread was largely a muddle of semantic ambiguity and unsupported assertions about moral values. However, one of the arguments against anarchism stood out as being worth a considered response:

Damien S. wrote:
The anarchist bears the burden because the anarchist is arguing for change, radical change even. I can look around the world and see dozens of states that are pleasant though not perfect places to live in. The anarchist brings no such evidence to the table.
This is essentially the conservative case against any radicalism. Or rather, it is the conservative presumption against radicalism. It is a rule of thumb that helps to generate good strategies, as long as circumstances don't clearly demand alternative strategies. On its own, it is quite reasonable, but it also has very limited applicability, which I wish to explore here. I hope to provide an explanation for why it is worthwhile to give serious consideration to radical ideas, even if this conservative presumption is itself taken seriously.

As a preliminary note, the conservative presumption is not the only good presumption out there. In particular, I consider it to be equal to the libertarian presumption. Here's how I phrase the two:
  • Conservative: If there is no problem, don't change anything.
  • Libertarian: If a person is causing no harm, don't interfere with his actions.
Clearly, in a somewhat authoritarian/communitarian society like ours, these two principles are often at odds. For instance, the libertarian presumption would weigh in favor of decriminalizing drugs, whereas the conservative presumption would favor continuation of the existing policy (assuming that the drug war has no substantial problems). However, this tension is not insurmountable, and can be resolved with compromises such as incremental decriminalization resulting in a heavily taxed and regulated drug market. The two presumptions can even reinforce each other; in America, this is most prominently seen in the arguments over gun-control.

With that being said, I'd like to consider the limits of the conservative presumption on its own merits, and how this affects our interaction with radical political ideas such as anarchism.

The first limitation is that the presumption only applies to actions and institutions, not to thoughts and ideas. The fact that the state exists does not mean that we have to accept every argument put forth extolling its benefits, even if those arguments have seeped into mainstream political culture. A person is perfectly capable of holding the opinion that the state is a worthless if not dangerous institution, while still going to work and paying taxes; the conservative presumption encourages us to continue acting like a "responsible citizen" regardless of these theoretical conclusions. A convinced anarchist does not have to seek constitutional reforms that would undermine state power (as if an anarchist would consider this line of activism worthwhile to begin with), nor does the anarchist need to assassinate state agents or instigate riots.1

The second limit on the conservative presumption is that it does not always indicate that one course of action is preferred over another. This is most obvious when we are seeking a solution for a problem that has never been seen before: if both solutions are novel, then we will have to evaluate them on the basis of other criteria, such as which one most favors one's ideals. More subtly, this limit arises when it is impossible to truly maintain traditional arrangements, and we are forced to chose between two aspects of the status quo. An example of this is the American Civil War, where the southerners were faced with either the abolition of slavery or rebellion against the USA. This sort of limit is also encountered when we consider the diversity of traditional behaviors; for instance, America has always been a "government of law", yet many Americans have openly or covertly resisted laws that they deemed unjust or misguided. Examples include the fugitive slave laws, alcohol prohibition, the military draft, Jim Crow laws, and laws against homosexuality. Once these scofflaws are recognized as part of the American tradition (indeed, they are heroes of American history), it becomes less than clear that an anarchist is encouraging radical behavior when he asserts that we have no obligation to obey bad laws.

In addition to these conceptual limits to the conservative presumption, there are also contextual limits. As I described it above, the conservative presumption assumes that there are no problems; once we encounter serious problems in our lives, the presumption against change is discarded. When the status quo is bad enough, a change may be worthwhile even if the final outcome is uncertain. Especially when a person's hardship can clearly be attributed to a particular institution, their best strategy may be to undermine that institution, even if they suspect that the elimination of their target will have sweeping and unpredictable consequences.

Many Americans may live in conditions that provide rational incentive to attack fundamental social institutions. For instance, many Americans are impoverished or in jail. Indeed, poverty and police supervision (such as incarceration) tend to be focused in particular cities and neighborhoods, creating an environment that justifies radicalism even among those who are not personally impoverished or in jail. Those who manage to avoid outright poverty and incarceration may still feel that the dominant institutions of our society have failed them. Living in fear of thugs and gangs, hemmed-in by a transportation system designed for the benefit of others, or condemned to malnutrition by geographical and financial inaccessibility of nutritious food-- many people have good reason to doubt that existing social institutions will allow them or their loved-ones to live fulfilling lives.

Historically, the promise of progress and the myth of democratic authority have persuaded many dissatisfied Americans to go along with the powers-that-be and relinquish control over their own lives. But over the past few decades, it has become unclear whether "progress" sill includes Americans with lower socio-economic status. Likewise, the traditional vehicles of working-class political power have withered, thereby undermining confidence that the political system is truly democratic. If people in this situation abandon faith in the authorities and take responsibility for their lives, the conservative presumption will hold little sway over them (and to address the original question -- bleeding-heart elites may want to support them).

It's worth noting that the above paragraphs refer to other people; I have lived my life comfortably in the upper half of the socio-economic scale. I feel no pressing need to change our fundamental social institutions, even if several of them limit the flourishing of myself and my peers. Presumably, most of the readers and writers at blogs like "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" have similar security. But even for the comfortable middle-class (and elite), there is good reason to seriously consider -- and even promote-- radical political ideas.

Those of us who are served well by existing institutions still need to consider the conditions under which these institutions might collapse, what sort of institutions we would build following a collapse, and how we could minimize the hardships associated with the transition from failed institutions to new ones. We need to consider these scenarios because collapse is inevitable-- all systems collapse; political/economic systems are prone to crisis every few generations, and they only survive their crises if they are substantially reformed.

Our current institutions could last for several generations more, or they could collapse in the next decade. The fact that America is "the strongest nation" should not be taken as evidence for the stability of the American system, since even powerful political systems can collapse in the space of a few years (for instance, the USSR). Furthermore, our institutions are showing signs of strain from several chronic problems, and similar troubles are faced by other liberal capitalist nations: unbalanced financial systems, natural resource depletion, high unemployment and economic stagnation, political paralysis, and frequent military interventions that fail to produce a clear victory...but could easily instigate a exhausting arms-race or devastating war.

Radical political thought prepares the American middle class for the eventual crisis that we will encounter. It helps us to avoid getting excited over false crises (such as high levels of immigration), and recognize the decisions that are likely to provoke a true crisis (such as military adventurism). It will help us to recognize when our institutions have outlived their usefulness, and prevent us from desperately clinging to them as they collapse. Overall, radical political thought will help us to prepare ourselves -- economically, socially, and emotionally-- for the inevitable transition to new social institutions that are better adapted to our current conditions and desires.

When the time comes to replace our current institutions with new ones, we will either undertake the project guided by a set of principles that will ensure the greatest opportunities for our children and grand-children, or we will cling to past glories and desperately grasp for solutions to unanticipated hardships. If America does not prepare itself with radical political theory, then it will devolve into an emotionalist mob that is easily manipulated by the empty promises and scapegoating of demagogues.

1: Of course, there are many reasons for a person to refrain from violence, regardless of ideological opinions or a unwillingness to upset the existing system. Two that come to mind immediately are first, a pacifist presumption, and second, a rational limit on how much one is willing to personally sacrifice to promote a political agenda.