Friday, August 08, 2014

Hindsight is the playground of propaganda

I have previously been critical of manned space exploration as being nothing more than extremely expensive political propaganda. A new history book recounts what Americans thought of the Apollo program and shows how it has taken decades for the propaganda to really saturate our culture, to the point that every American knows the name of the first man on the moon, and politicians speak of space exploration as though it were the obvious measure of a society's greatness. Thank Ford for state-run schools!

Many people see space exploration as part of a culture war. According to a review in the Economist, NASA's chief saw it as the flag-bearer for "Squareland", in its contest with "Potland". According to an editorial in Space Review, the contest was between rationalism and neo-romanticism. Unfortunately, space exploration never represented true rationality, but instead of the religion of rationalism, where the achievements of science are used to induce a mystical awe among the rabble and legitimize power relationships both within and between nations, as illustrated by both the USSR and post-war USA.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Of course the cops want the citizenry disarmed

The nanny-statists (i.e. progressives) love to crow about cops who support more restrictive gun laws. They see this as a fatal blow to the position of the law-and-order statists (i.e. conservatives) who try to pass themselves off as rugged individualists. Of course, the true individualists respond by saying "well duh, what did you expect". The question is whether the gun nuts will recognize that being a white male no longer makes them an authority, and that authoritarian statism is no longer in their own interests (if selling their souls was ever in their interests).

While the police and City Hall continue to blame lax state and federal gun laws, criminal justice advocates say that the problems in Chicago are more fundamental: The proliferation of poverty and lack of jobs.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Rage against the machine...

Are they talking about us, dear reader?

Clicking Their Way to Outrage (NYT)

A 2013 study, from Beihang University in Beijing, of Weibo, a Twitter-like site, found that anger is the emotion that spreads the most easily over social media. Joy came in a distant second. The main difference, said Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, who studies anger, is that although we tend to share the happiness only of people we are close to, we are willing to join in the rage of strangers. As the study suggests, outrage is lavishly rewarded on social media, whether through supportive comments, retweets or Facebook likes. People prone to Internet outrage are looking for validation, Professor Martin said. “They want to hear that others share it,” he said, “because they feel they’re vindicated and a little less lonely and isolated in their belief.”

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Death of a Scientist: Sasha Shulgin

We have lost a great scientist --Alexander Shulgin. I call him "great" not because of any groundbreaking insight he had, but because of his determination to explore and report on a part of the world that others would willfully ignore. In the mold of scientific legends, he pressed on with his investigations despite ostracism and harassment.

He has left us with many writings, but as far as I know, the capstones are PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story, and it's follow-up TIHKAL: The Continuation.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A reasonable way to air grievances?

The recent hub-bub over protests against commencement speakers (Haverford, Rutgers, Smith, Harvard...) has got me thinking about what is a reasonable way for people to air their grievances. To start, let me start by saying that I find the protests at Haverford to be reasonable (this is the only one I've looked into). Given that this all started with the "Occupy Cal", I should also say that I didn't consider that protests strategy to be reasonable.

So, what makes a protest reasonable? Basically, it comes down to how disruptive the protest is and how severe the grievance is.

For the Haverford protest, I consider it reasonable because the disruption was minimal and the grievance was meaningful. The Haverford protest consisted of nothing more than a letter. After the school administration invited Birgeneau to speak, about 30 students and 3 faculty (at a school of 1200 students) sent him an open letter saying that they'd prefer that he not come. At worst, this was mildly rude, but the protesters had a meaningful greviance against him -- his support of the police who violently broke up the Occupy Cal encampment (shown above). Since Birgeneau bowed out, we can't know whether they would have been more disruptive if he came, and as it stands, their protest was well within reason.

The widespread criticism against these protesters (from the academic and media elite) seems to rest of a few silly misrepresentations of the situation. First, they act as though any politicization of commencement is disruptive to the event. However, the reality is that the act of inviting a commencement speaker is just part of the influence game that university administrators play, and issuing invitations to these influential speakers is in fact a political act. If administrators don't want a political commencement, they should not invite people who fashion themselves as leaders; invite more humble people. There's no surprise when this elite network closes ranks to protect one of their own against criticism.

The second misrepresentation is that this is somehow about "academic freedom". Nothing could be further from the truth -- these are about accountability for how certain people wielded power. Anyway, it is impossible for a person holding such a privileged podium as a commencement speaker to simply be regarded as  another person expressing his views. In this unique role with a captive audience, the speaker is representing the institution.

So now I'm thinking about how to scale grievances in order to evaluate what a reasonable response is. Birgeneau does not match the "liar, thief, murderer" description that I apply to many politicians (though Rice arguably does), which is expected given his distance from the levers of coercion. However, he did still have some power and can be judged for how he used it.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Social structure and group identity: cliques, hierarchies, and open networks

A little spat over group identity (and stereotypes and prejudice) in my family inspired a semi-formalization of some ideas that I have about how we organize our society.

My impression is that people commonly think in terms of three organizational ideals: cliques, hierarchies, and open networks.

Clique: This is probably most common among traditionalists -- our social position is defined by membership in a few closely knit groups: family, religious congregation, fraternal organizations, neighborhood, school, etc. To the "cliqueists" These groups are the basic organization of society, and the higher levels of organization could themselves be cliques (e.g. religious communions, cities), but not necessarily.

The cliquists often criticize other forms of organization as "atomistic"

Hierarchies: Our role is defined by dominance/subordinate relationships (e.g. employer/employee). All other relationships are secondary and readily broken in response to changes in that primary relationship (e.g. when we move to new cities due to job assignments). I think that this is the primary target of the "atomistic" criticism.

Open network: Our role is defined by a large number of one-to-one relationships, which are typically in flux. The realities of life introduce some structure onto this network (e.g. neighborhoods, families), but we tend not to think of the relationships in terms of these structures. This is closer to being the cosmopolitian/individualistic ideal. The risk is that this structure may not be stable and devolve into hierarchy if a single relationship (e.g. the job) develops excessive importance and other relationships ore not organized in a way to provide alternatives to that dominant relationship.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

blaming the victim

Joe Biden said:
"No one ever asks the person who got robbed at gunpoint in the street — why were you there, what were you doing, what were you wearing? What did you say? Did you offend someone? "

I'm baffled at why people feel the need to exaggerate the situation like this. When I read something like this, my immediate thought is "you are wrong; we do 'victim blame' for other crimes", and my opinion of the speaker immediately drops, and I consequently am more skeptical of their claim. This obsession with combating victim blaming also inhibits having a conversation about how our society allocates responsibility to protect people from crimes.

Back to the first point -- we do expect people to take responsibility for their own safety, and there is always a bit of resentment from others who feel that they are having that responsibility shoved completely onto them. For instance, whenever items are stolen, cops regularly ask whether they had been secured. I remember being taught to be discreet if I'm carrying more than a few bucks in cash, and to always lock up anything valuable. More explicitly, I remember a high school teacher talking about a student who had been mugged, and saying that he (a middle class suburban kid) had no business being in "that neighborhood". Same goes for getting mugged while staggering home drunk. I can also recall situations where a victims' suffering was dismissed due to the perception that he had offended his attacker (though racism may have played a part in that).

Given the reality of victim blaming outside of sexual assault, we should be more careful to indicate how victim blaming is more excessive and less reasonable for sexual assault than for other crimes.

We also need to distinguish between victim blaming as a way to excuse the criminal (which is always vile) and 'victim blaming' as part of a discussion of who has responsibility to prevent crime. The latter is  a legitimate discussion, though it needs to be handled in a tactful way with the understanding that the victim is probably already obsessing over what they could have done to avoid the crime (especially if it was an assault). Reflexively hiding behind the 'victim blaming' accusation can have some perverse effects, such as when neo-conservatives used it to shut down any consideration of whether the actions of the US government could have contributed to the 9/11 attacks. As with how 'victim blaming' is used in the sexual assault debates, the neo-cons conflated the victim-criminal relationship with the victim-protector relationship, and acted as though blaming someone for failing to prevent the crime is equivalent to excusing the criminal.