Archive for April, 2011

27
Apr
11

Banality in the NYT

I don’t know this guy, Joe Nocera, who wrote this piece on education. He probably has a lot of good things to say about education, but unfortunately (and apologetically) I want to use his piece to illustrate the point that you will likely come across really unhelpful and garbagey things in the news.

Read that article. It talks a big game. Nocera writes about how this story of a young boy, Saquan, keeps him up at night. And then he writes, in dramatic fashion, that merely improving teachers and institutions won’t work because “it takes a lot more than that [reforming schools]. Which is where Saquan comes in. His part of the story represents difficult truths that the reform movement has yet to face squarely — and needs to.”

Ok so I’m getting primed to hear something pretty new and interesting. But what is his point? That when a child is so deeply screwed by circumstances outside the school, the schooling itself will not be sufficient to create an educated person. NO SHIT.

There are hundreds of necessary conditions for someone to become educated: they must have a pulse, they must be able to use at least some of their perceptual faculties, they must be able to get to school, they must be able to understand English. The sun must not explode the morning they get up for school.

What help does it, in a policy debate context, to note that sometimes our society at large can be so shitty, that even the best schooling cannot help someone? What we’re interested in, I would have thought, in a piece on education reform, is how likely certain reforms can succeed, GIVEN that some reasonable set of necessary conditions is in place.

It’s just kind of laughable to think that this example shows that “school reform” isn’t enough. The case is so extreme that I think it shows that “societal reform” or “comprehensive everything reform” will never quite be enough, because bad things happen to people. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to help these people: of course not. We to open ourselves to the importance of acting WITHOUT institutions, but a point about the cruelty of life hardly helps us understand how to deal with school reform issues.

To be fair, Nocera’s point is that we need to address poverty before we can address school, but again that’s wrong. Why can’t we make strides in the classroom alone? We could do better, undoubtedly, if our society was fundamentally just, but that’s a long term, big picture goal. I mean, at root, almost all problems crop up because society is broken, but in THAT sense, society has always been broken — we have never lived in a utopia.

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25
Apr
11

Don’t read foreign policy news unless you’re going to really read it

As some of you know, I’m the editor for PolicyMic and as such I help find stories for writers to work on.

As a side effect, I’m reading a LOT of the daily news. The shame is that I don’t really have time to digest most of it, so I’m not learning that much. But what I am learning is where to go if I wanted to learn stuff, especially areas I know nothing about, like Syria.

So, I might post some more links in the coming days of some weird but really good sites that I’ve found.

To start, I will say that these two Syria sites are pretty serious. Here and here.

I’m also realizing that most foreign policy commentary is HOPELESS, and the reason this is, I think, is that there aren’t a lot of statistics to back up FOPO claims (randomized experiments are hard to keep in place when wars start). However, there are some really good nuggets out there, but they’re hard to find. When you find a really data-driven article though, you take notice, because it just feels so different than reading endless crap about who is going to do what based on superficial regional and historical parallels combined with cliche sound comments about how regimes “think” and “feel.”

Get some data and learn something. Try this post to see what I mean about data (holy shit what a post). This guys knows shit, and if you want to know shit too, you should read his ideas. Simple as that.

(Funny to see my anger creeping in here. Perhaps I’m just expressing my bitterness that no one will probably ever read my philosophical work, even though I believe it deserves to be taken seriously. Grrrr).

24
Apr
11

Aliens and Abyss

James Cameron directed both of these movies, and they both start with “a,” but beyond that, it’s interesting to think of these movies as opposites.

You see, I just watched the Abyss all the way through (I had seen parts before) and they’re both exploring basically the same things from opposite sides of things.

Take Aliens. In this, movie, humanity sends marines, the most brute force method of offering social commentary on excessive militarism. Anyway, the tough guys show up with Ridley and they look around the colony where the aliens are running around. Of course, the military is “in the right” (whatever that means in a movie like this) and it would be good if they could destroy the aliens, which are a primal force. They are nature’s urge to destroy and procreate (see my post on Aliens here) brought into physical form and THEIR allegorical role is pretty clear too.

So you have militarism against nature’s darkest incarnation, but of course there is betrayal. The corporate executive wants to risk humanity’s livelihood for PROFIT. He wants to bring the aliens back to civilization and represents humanity’s potential to sabotage itself.

Then take Abyss. In abyss, the aliens are peaceful and live in harmony with nature. They live on earth rather than among the stars. They are intelligent rather than bestial. There are other opposites no doubt.

And the humans (at least most of them) don’t want to destroy the aliens but only to talk with them and learn from them. Here humanity is represented well. But does humanity have the potential to sabotage itself? Yes of course, and in this movie, it is the military that represents humanity’s flawed nature. It’s tendency to see enemies where there are none.

In Aliens the military is performing its righteous role as protector, and they are done in by someone who refuses to see the real risk that the aliens pose to civilization. In Abyss, the military sees the aliens as a threat when they are not. The urge to protect runs amok and creates danger and destruction where there is no need for violence.

There were a bunch of other similarities too, like the harsh environments, the use of thermonuclear bombs and strong women. I forgot a lot of the other stuff I noticed, but the lesson I got was basically that humanity is does itself in or tries to. The very institutions that it creates, capitalism for exchange the military for protection can just as easily be its undoing. And what is the nuclear bomb other than the ultimate expression of how our own technology can threaten us. And what is global warming other than a dramatization of how humans can ecologically suicide, and sometimes I think of racism or war as humanity socially self imploding; gobbling itself up.

And so, one thing I’ve been toying with lately is to think of humans as the self defeating animal. Aristotle thought we were the political animals, Kant and others thought we were the rational animal, some biologists think were are the tool using animals (wrong, monkeys use tools) or the language using animal (wrong again, prairie dogs have a sophisticated compositional language),and Marxists think we are the creating, laboring animal. All sorts of things are supposed to characterize our uniqueness in the natural order. If you follow this blog, you know I think its kind of useless to try and capture humanity’s essence in this way. Better to just leave the matter unsettled and let humankind always impress us with what it wants to be today. Despite my skepticism about “human nature” I’m finding it productive to understand human beings as the type of animal that can defeat itself by pursuing its goals.

Think of someone who tries really hard to be happy by thinking what will make them happy (I use this example all the time). Such a person defeats their chance at happiness necessarily by their intention to get it in everything they do. No other animal can defeat themselves in that way. Sure a lobster might trap himself further by struggling in a trap, but this is accidental. A lobster can never defeat its own flourishing by acting, and this is because it only one layer of consciousness, its immediate impulses to respond to stimuli. It cannot ruin one layer of consciousness by the intrusion of another. But since humans the ability to react immediately and seamlessly in tune with the environment, but also contrary to it through reflection, we can come into contact with ourselves. We can be weak willed and we can be self-defeating.

And most human problems I think arise from that very fact; the ability for us to conflict with ourselves, with our brothers and sisters and with our fellow humans. There’s something kind of Buddhist about this whole thing too — we can only live in harmony with each other when we learn to live in harmony with ourselves. But there’s nothing deep about that last part, every ideology since the beginning of human time has imagined that reconciliation with our nature.

*Also Abyss is SO much like Sphere or Armageddon (hostile environments, big stakes, futuristic means of transportation). Doesn’t leave one too impressed with Hollywood really.

22
Apr
11

Types of Democratic Barriers

Quick Note: my facebook publishing feature has been broken for some reason, so if you read my articles fairly regularly, you may have missed some of my recent past stuff. Also you should go to policymic.com/beta and type in my name in the search bar if you like this post, because I’ve done some stuff on democracy there too.

Some people put great weight on stalling and slowing down democracy. Such people are usually fairly conservative (but don’t have to be. Y’all know how I feel about stereotypes), and they see the supreme court (in our system) as a bastion of freedom. These people are very interested in the constitution as a writ of personal freedom that democracy cannot encroach on. Tocqueville was worried about this same problem; he worried about the “tyranny of the majority.”

The modern trend is very much against this thinking. After Lochner v. New York, many people lost faith in the judiciary to regulate democracies decision on the basis of some SUBSTANTIVE theory of morality, such as one including strong protections of property rights.

Many modern day constitutional lawyers argue that democracy should rule and that the supreme court should only step in to curb the legislature when it ITSELF, takes action that endangers democracy.

Free speech is a good example. Some believe we should preserve free speech because people JUST HAVE THAT RIGHT (like we have rights to property — so these people think). The constitutional democrats will claim that we have to enforce free speech because doing so SUSTAINS DEMOCRACY.

So there is a debate about whether we should put barriers in place of the majority’s will, whether those barriers be the supreme court or supermajority requirements or whatever. I think the whole democracy-versus-rights things is very complicated and so I don’t have a firm opinion on it yet, I do think there are more subtle and farsighted ways to get the majority to NOT get its way in some situations.

For example, some countries give the minority party in the legislature the power of investigation. This is smart because it doesn’t give the minority to hold up laws or legislation that the majority judges to be important. They cannot hold things hostage with their minority status as the filibuster allows minorities in the senate to do. However, the power of investigation means that the minority has a way to make its voiced heard. It need not get railroaded by the superior numbers of a majority party. Such a minority can MONITOR the ruling party’s activities and initiate investigations to reduce its credibility. In other words, it can hold the majority party to stricter account as governance goes on.

One might call this a deliberative rather than a supermajority or veto point check on legislative activity.

But really the whole point of this post was to introduce something I recently found out about, which is that Indian politics (the subcontinent that is) makes fairly regular use of fasting as a way to push for political action. Think about that for a second. This is what I would think is a CULTURALLY SPECIFIC type of deliberative (is it deliberative or just something close by?) democratic action.

Take a situation. The majority party wants to pass something bad. The minority does not have any legal or legislative options to stall this option. In what way they can employ pressure to get the majority to reconsider? How can they get the majority to RETHINK its preference rather than simply THWARTING IT? Fasting seems like an answer, and in an article that will be coming out on the site I edit in the next day or two (policymic.com/beta), one of the writers I work with talks about how the vice president has even used fasting (fasting for only 30 minutes at one point!) to try and stir political change. This is a courageous cultural feature of Indian democracy and I hope they preserve it even as they gain the institutional trappings of a modern democracy.

The bigger lesson is that culture can matter for politics in a very serious way.

21
Apr
11

Vending Machines and Nuclear Deterrence

I was at a vending machine today getting some cookies and the thing cost 95 cents (yea, I know). So I got 5 cents back as change since I used a dollar, and then I thought, what would I do if the machine just DIDN’T give me the correct change?

The answer is I probably wouldn’t care. People don’t care about change. That much is pretty obvious, and I don’t even think this is me the relatively privileged person talking. Lots of people throw coins into the change cup at convenience stores and whatnot and I just don’t think many people would go out of there way for an extra five cents.

So if I’m running a 7/11 or something, why don’t I just say to various customers “I’m just going to take an extra 5 cents from you” and then take an extra five cents from them. The main reason, I think, why no one does that, is probably just the general decency of most people. The second reason might have something to do with the fact that you will piss a lot of people off in a hurry just flatly saying you are going to steal from them, no matter how small the amount is. People might attack the cashier, or protest the store, or just hang around, or call the cops, or whatever. All of this is facilitated by the fact that there is an actual person involved.

Think of nuclear deterrence. Its a way better deterrent for a country to program its nuclear weapons to launch when launched on. This makes deterrence assured. As long as policymakers control the weapons, there is reason to threaten, lie, second guess, and all the rest. If an algorithm controls the weapons, there is no one to bargain with.

So, automatic nuclear strikes in this case is a little like vending machines. What I mean is that what if the vending machine just DIDN’T give me my change. Would I complain, would there be anyone to go to, would there be any fuss to make or hell to raise? No, it would just be 5 cents I lost.

You’re likely thinking “yea, but you’ll be pissed at the vending machine owners and this will make you a less likely repeat customer.” Really? I highly doubt it. No one knows how to contact the owners of vending machines, and no one would go to the trouble over 5 cents. Also, its not like your anger would really hurt the business you gave out, since there is no way to know that the next vending machine you’re out is affiliated with the one that scammed you out of your money. After all, on the outside, the damn things are just BOXES with stuff in them. You wouldn’t know where to direct your anger.

And so, the conclusion of this argument is that absent the basic decency of people, it seems to be pretty smart for vending machines to be run like nuclear war computers and to just have them SCAM-BY-ALGORITHM. Once price would be displayed, but another slightly higher price would be charged. It would really never be worth it to try and recoup the individual loss, and the vending machine would make extra money on every purchase. You could even have the machine only do it every fifth time so individual repeat customers wouldn’t even necessarily adapt to the new price, thinking that it was fluke. This is another benefit of machines. One can rationally believe that not getting change back was just a mistake, whereas you could just ask the cashier for the right change if one tried it on you.

Vending machines could make at least like, 30 extra dollars a month just based on fraudulent accounting. 30!

I guess I don’t need grad school after all…

20
Apr
11

The Atlantic

It’s really hard to put together good news these days, because to keep things open to everyone, you have to run really crappy stories that get readership. The NYT wants to try the opposite, to keep journalistic standards high (well maybe not, I do think the NYT is so liberally biased, and again, I AM LIBERAL. Still, it’s nothing compared to Huffington Gar-bahj) and to ask people to pay for it.

I do pay for the NYT and I think’s worth it. In fact, I think it’s more worth it now that I pay for it, which is weird, but for some reason I really appreciate all the stuff they have to offer on that site and its organization.

But read theatlantic.com. Damn this site is so good. There are a lot of high quality articles and the garbage is nicely hidden so that I guess they can afford to keep things free (for now). I would happily pay money for thealtantic though, ’cause its just so damn good.

Congress should pass a law just taxing the shit out of the budgets of all the major news organizations like ABC, NBC, FOX, and CNN and just give it all to the atlantic.

17
Apr
11

Reason

Kant said many famous things, but here is something I think is unbelievably powerful and totally underappreciated by philosophers and non-specialists alike.

He writes

In actual fact too we find that the more cultivated reason concerns itself with the aim of enjoying life and happiness, the farther does man get away from true contentment. This is why there arises in many, and that too in those who have made most trial of this use of rason, if they are only candid enough to admit it, to a certain degree of misology — that is, a hatred of reason; for when they balance all the advantage they draw, I will not say from thinkin out all the arts of ordinary indulgence, but even from science (which in the last resort seems to them to be also an indulgence of the mind), they discover that they have in fact only brought more trouble on their heads than they have gained in the way of happiness. On this account they come to envy, rather than to despise, the more common run of men, who are closer to the guidance of mere natural instinct, and who do not allow their reason to have much influence on their conduct.

This is totally right, and I am now right there with Kant. Reason is like a voice inside one’s head that will not shut off, that will not stop interrogating, probing, connecting and wondering. Are people with a philosophical bent a type of psyhcopath or schizophrenic, and did people like Nietzsche elevate this into a complete philosophy. Did people like Wittgenstein live under the unending torture of a voice and an instinct that covered the lie in everything we do.

Nietzsche railed against Plato for being the reasoned voice of western society, picking apart its jurors, statesmen, religious figures, and just revelers and making them feel paralyzed, impotent, and did Nietzsche not call it when he said that the belief that “REASON is everything” was just a secret angry. An inflamed and infuriated inability to deal with anything ordinary or happy. In a word, to be incapable of happiness.

Plato speaks about the totalitarian rulership of reason and how noble life can be when our intellect rules our base passions. Wrong. A thousand times wrong. We are put under a despot that cares nothing for our needs and wants, and even to think about the most basic thing in a careful way is to touch sadness, is to creep into the realization that human life is a life and a sham. I try to avoid bitter, angry posts, but this is not a time for avoiding the issue.

You hear this all the time “I wish he would just THINK what he’s doing.” I’ve heard hundreds of people say, in complete contempt, how much better the world would be if people stopped being stupid; if politicians would just listen to reason, if their boss would just THINK for a moment. But no one has a fucking clue what this asks of people, what you’re really saying when you tell someone to go down that road and to question everything and to really be INTELLECTUALLY SINCERE.

I’ll tell you the answer, which is that having intellect living inside is like having a monster sitting over your actions, asking their justification, interrogating their motives and passing judgment on every decision and every whimsical thought. It means having an imagination that makes connections between one’s every flaw and one’s every decision. It means having a belief system that is never satisfied until it makes you eat your unhappiness and your flaws.

But set aside the judgments and go further. Imagine a screen between you and the world that gets in the way of your every desire and every instinct that takes everything natural and sacred and wonders why it should be done, interrupting the flow and ruining the moment, ruining one’s confidence and ruining the ability to connect with other people in a variety of ways because one simply “cannot understand them.”

And think of the opposite; the person of instinct who follows whim and wish. It’s true this person is also a disgusting creature, hurting, harming, and plowing through the world with no regard for consistency, reason, or a moment for self-reflection and autonomy. But this person can love, she can seize on an object and become consumed with it. Such a being can be confident; can forget past failures, ignore the truth, and barrel on with a plan and an animating hope.

If you take anything from this post, you should understand that asking someone to “be rational” or to think a little bit, is not a trivial demand. It is not a lament that can unfortunately never be completely fulfilled because humans are limited or fallible or selfish or whatever your pet part of human nature is. Rather, you should know that when you are asking someone to be rational, you are asking an enormous sacrifice from this person. You are asking them to touch sadness, and interrupt the smooth flow of life that they have so carefully constructed.  You are asking them to smash the signs and symbols that guide a full and verdant life. In a word, you are telling them that they must, at least a little bit be unhappy, and the more decisions you ask them to make, the more you ask them to see beyond their immediate experience and to make connections, the more you ask them to surrender their chance at love and at confidence and at instinctive, simply joy.

To ask someone to be rational is to place a demand on them, as if to ask for a kidney or insist that they repay a debt. You ask them to break with reality and the comfort it affords. It is not, as some philosophers have though, a life of happiness and emancipation to “see reason” as if one could see god.

Again, Nietzsche of all people saw the danger of reason and said that it took years of pain and struggle just to allow humans to see the need to keep promises, to reason that far ahead of their buzzing world of satisfactions and dissatisfactions. He saw this split more than anyone in human history and noticed that we must reason, otherwise we are nothing but animals, but that we must not reason, otherwise we are scared, lonely, and lacking any power at all.

This is the origin of his philosophy of forgetting. To give up and abandon experience and to NOT learn from it and rather to let it drift off into the darkness of our brains so that we can attack a new day, rather than replaying our failures and weaknesses infinitely in the theater of our mind, so that we can be traumatized by them again and again and so that we can be awestruck by their inescapability.

The worst is that for someone who thinks too much, who overanalyzes, who is gripped by the “paralysis of analysis,” there is nowhere to run. Almost no one can sympathize and indeed it seems trifling to call this pain what it is. Even that, one’s reason will assuredly uncover, is a type of weakness, and then one cannot help but think about that, and the cycle of thought and judgment begins again. This is the meaning of “intellectual honesty” or ruthless searching for the truth.