01 October 2014

Buffy

Jenny Trout is conducting a Big Damn Buffy Rewatch. She has some provocative observations:

  1. Sex is the real villain of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer universe.
  2. Giles is totally in love with Buffy.
  3. Joyce is a fucking terrible parent.
  4. Willow’s magic is utterly useless (this one won’t be an issue until season 2, when she gets a chance to become a witch)
  5. Xander is a textbook Nice Guy.
  6. The show isn’t as feminist as people claim.
  7. All the monsters look like wieners.
  8. If ambivalence to possible danger were an Olympic sport, Team Sunnydale would take the gold.
  9. Angel is a dick.
  10. Harmony is the strongest female character on the show.
  11. Team sports are portrayed in an extremely negative light.
  12. Some of this shit is racist as fuck.
  13. Science and technology are not to be trusted.
  14. Mental illness is stigmatized.
  15. Only Willow can use a computer.
  16. Buffy’s strength is flexible at the plot’s convenience.
  17. Cheap laughs and desperate grabs at plot plausibility are made through Xenophobia.
  18. Oz is the Anti-Xander

I don't entirely agree or disagree, but it's very sharply observed.

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan is a lively writer, and occasionally people pass along him saying things I agree with and saying them well. I'm not above enjoying them.

But I've also followed his blogging and journalism career for too long to praise him. He's a bad journalist and a bad judge of policy and a cheerleader for some truly odious ideas. When friends pass along links to his articles, I grumble.

Finally, Mark Ames has assembled the full brief against him: If Andrew Sullivan Is The Future of Journalism Then Journalism Is Fucked. Even worse than even I knew. Of course.

26 September 2014

Ello improvements

Chris Reimer asks:

What needs to functionally improve here at Ello to make it a player?

I reply:

  1. Long text posts should be more legible. That means can the cool monospaced font, and display shorter text line widths. So much of the visual design of this site is crisp and nice, but this one aspect is fussy, twee, and a genuine usability hurdle. Why write something here when I can have it legible on my blog?
  2. Replies to posts are confusing. How do I know when there's a reply to something I've said? Right now I've opened posts of my own and discovered to my surprise that there were comments I hadn't seen! I presume that this is a result of bugginess of the feature as designed.
  3. Threads of discussions/replies are confusing. They seem to be in reverse-chronological order. Usually. So clarify that. I suspect this is also a bug, rather than design.
  4. Some kind of solution for an equivalent to re-sharing / re-tweeting. Maybe. On the one hand, I itch to re-share cool images I see here, and to make other folks' posts here available on the feed of people who follow me. On the other hand, re-sharing encourages meme bullshit. So this is a consequential decision about what this tool is actually meant to do.
  5. Linked feeds. I'd sure like a way to have either my Tweets show up here or the ability to easily tweet the presence of Ello posts. It's probably a good idea to do one but not the other. Which to do and which not to is a strategic decision about what this thing is going to be. :^)
  6. A big one for adoption: some kind of network import. The best would be to import FB contacts. G+ or Twitter contacts would also be good.
  7. Another for adoption, particularly important now while the network is growing: suggested Friends, based on simple "three of your Friends are also Friends with this person" logic.
  8. More feed lists. The Friends/Noise list pair is, to my mind, the coolest part of Ello — of course you want a different format for your short list and your long list! -- but if your network is complex enough, you need more lists than that. (Including, if you have a few lists, an automatically managed "All".)
  9. Strong Block tools. This has been much discussed.
  10. A crystal clear plan for privacy. Now the current Everything Is Public protocol is actually not too bad: it has a huge advantage in simplicity and clarity, but it obviously radically fails a lot of people. But it is probably better to introduce a system for privacy, and less important than exactly what the privacy rules are (though I have ideas, of course) is that they are absolutely crystal f%$#ing clear. The Lesson Of Facebook is that it's bad if users are unclear about what is visible to whom. Make it impossible to get confused.
  11. Provide permalinks for comments.

25 September 2014

Tech industry technocrats

Wise words from Nathan Jurgenson about some social software entrepreneurs.

The people who have decided they should mediate our social interactions and write a political manifesto have no special expertise in the social or political.

It could be about Facebook or Twitter or any number of other people in current tech. There's more, and it's interesting, but that bit really jumped out at me.

24 September 2014

Pop songs about urban planning

Urban planning is a sufficiently dry and obscure topic that you wouldn't think that it would be the subject of pop music. But you'd be wrong.

My favorite is the Pretenders' “Back to Ohio”.




Joni Mitchell's “Big Yellow Taxi” informs us that they've paved paradise and put up a parking lot.




The Talking Heads' “(Nothing But) Flowers”, which Kevin Smith used to introduce the world of New Jersey in Clerks II.




I'm writing this because I've now encountered yet another example: Arcade Fire's “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” from their album The Suburbs. The video features some landscapes of appropriately horrifying bleakness. (And one can see the ’burbs used as a dystopian setting in Spike Jonze's 30 minute film Scenes From The Suburbs inspired by the album.)




David Rovics' song “Parking Lots And Strip Malls” is in the club.

And Planetizen, incredibly, has a list of even more examples.

20 September 2014

Epistemic closure

David Roberts at Grist points to how movement conservative attacks on “elites” are an attack on the fundamental institutions of liberal democracy.

The core idea is most clearly expressed by Rush Limbaugh:

We really live, folks, in two worlds. There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap. …

The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.

The right’s project over the last 30 years has been to dismantle the post-war liberal consensus by undermining trust in society’s leading institutions. Experts are made elites; their presumption of expertise becomes self-damning. They think they’re better than you. They talk down to you. They don’t respect people like us, real Americans.

This posts' title comes from Julian Sanchez, who is worth reading on the subject of conservative truthiness.

08 September 2014

Economics of slavery

There's a canard I've seen come up disconcertingly often from a certain kind of conservative who will mount a defense of the antebellum South, claiming that American chattel slavery was not as bad as people imagine. Of course slavery is wrong, they say, but severe mistreatment of slaves was actually very rare if for no other reason than that it doesn't make sense that slaveowners would mistreat slaves who were valuable assets.

I've long been puzzled by why people seem to feel compelled to offer this unpersuasive defense of one of the least defensible practices in history. But now it has been made clear to me.

Recently The Economist magazine reviewed Edward Baptist's book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The review contained this memorable turn of phrase:

Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.

#NotAllSlaveOwners were bad! This is ripe for the obvious reasons, and produced a well-deserved outcry.

Baptist himself responded, explaining not just what The Economist was wrong about, but making a persuasive explanation of why it is important.

Had the Economist actually engaged the book’s arguments, the reviewer would have had to confront the scary fact that the unrestrained domination of market forces can sometimes amplify existing forms of oppression into something more horrific. No wonder the Economist abandoned its long-standing intellectual commitments in favor of sloppy old paternalism on Sept. 4, because if it hadn’t, Mr./Ms. Anonymous might have had to admit that market fundamentalism doesn’t always provide the best solution for every economic or social problem.

Oho.


If you're interested in the details, Billmon expands on Baptist's economic logic, Matthew Yglesias at Vox discusses how the industrial revolution depended on slavery in the South, and Baptist comments on the pervasiveness of White doubt about the horrors of slavery.

And while we are here, this is a good time to mention that emerging scholarship shows that slavery was integral to the origins of core techniques of market capitalism like accounting and management, as well as to the economic development of the free North, with discomforting echoes in contemporary economics.

29 August 2014

The Patriarchy

This keeps coming up. So a quick word about The Patriarchy.

This feminist term of art conjures an image of a vast conspiracy, with room full of patriarchs smoking cigars and inventing sexism all day, sending orders to an army of agents who work quietly and tirelessly to ensure that men are always in charge of everything. Anti-feminists take the absurdity of this image as a demonstration that feminism is bunk because there is no such conspiracy.

But that's not what “The Patriarchy” means.

Feminists know that men aren't always in charge, though we will point out that men are disproportionately in charge. Feminists know that there's no smoke-filled room and no deliberate conspiracy, though it sure does feel that way, sometimes.

But though a big, singular conspiracy does not exist, a vast array of mechanisms — personal, institutional, cultural, structural, systemic, and so forth — work to create and perpetuate sexist injustices against women.

It's important to underline that while sexist bigotry against women plays an important part in animating all this, it's not the only factor. Consider, for example, what folks in the tech industry call “the pipeline problem”: women are scarce in leadership positions because women with the relevant industry experience are rare because women don't study the relevant subjects in college because women in college think there are no careers for them in tech because women to serve as role models are scarce in tech leadership positions, and round and round it goes. Apologists for the tech industry use the pipeline problem as a dodge, to evade talking about men's sexist attitudes. It's a bullshit move, because anyone paying attention knows that men's attitudes are a major driver of sexist inequities in the tech industry. But that doesn't make the pipeline problem just bullshit: it is real and would continue to generate inequities even if we could magically erase everyone's sexist bigotry, making it an example of a self-perpetuating system of inequity which needs systemic-level action.

Feminists need a succinct name that invokes the whole ball of wax, from individuals' sexist bigotry to impersonal sexist systems and everything in between, all the stuff that creates sexist injustices. So The Patriarchy is a necessary and useful feminist term of art.

21 August 2014

Motivational quotes

A while back I found out about a school of sharp satire: pairing “motivational” quotes — often about “fitness” — with images to suggest that they are about alcoholism.

This is several kinds of good, especially as a critique of how sick and hateful a lot of those “inspirational” mottos really are.

On Facebook, Rhett Aultman proposed that this implies a useful critical tool, which I'm dubbing “Rhett's Law”:

If it makes a funny “drunksperation” meme image, it's questionable motivational advice.

He unpacks why this is a useful test.


Update: Over at Weirdly Shaped And Well Photographed, some witty responses to “fitspiration” images.

Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels? Really?

Have you tried ...
  • Nutella!
  • Cupcakes!
  • Ice Cream!
  • Framboise!
  • Lamb chops!

Update: Via Aultman, an actual real life advertisement which fills the bill:

19 August 2014

Libertarianism

Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg of the National Review is a notorious numbskull, but he has a blind squirrel tendency to occasionally make a clarifying comment by mistake. Case in point from the article America's Selective Libertarianism.

I wish it were otherwise, but people tend to be libertarian only after it’s demonstrated to them that the government can’t deliver the results they want.

He wishes people hated government even when it benefits citizens.

Why? Because freedom, of course.

Sexist superhero art

“That art makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Classic.

18 August 2014

It's not about smaller government

Mike the Mad Biologist is shocked, shocked by the betrayal of conservative and “libertarian” principles in his proposed anti-poverty program.

Essentially, what Paul Ryan wants to do is create a government bureaucracy to monitor these ‘contracts’ (or, maybe monitor the Social Contract?). Conservatives have spent the last forty years railing against this very thing. Of course, people will disagree about whether they hit these ‘benchmarks’, so we’ll need to hire people to adjudicate that process. More ‘big government.’ It also opens people up to the predations and whims of ‘petty government bureaucrats.’

Of course, Mike is not really surprised at all. He knows what conservatism is really about.

Information resources for utopia

I keep meaning to index this stuff, so here's a start:


Appropedia

Appropedia is for collaborative solutions in sustainability, appropriate technology and poverty reduction. You are welcome to add to and edit Appropedia - your site to find, co-create and improve the solutions we need.

07 August 2014

The secret to Success

There is a thing in American society which we call Success. I use the capital S here deliberately: I don't mean success in achieving one's goals, I mean Success in the primate-status-game sense of being recognized as Successful ... and given power and opportunities.

Apropos of this I've been meaning for some time to write about Amanda Palmer's TED Talk and have not done it because I have too much to say about it. As someone who has followed her for some time it was interesting to see her appearance in the TED venue make the rounds a while back.

There's a moment I noticed in the talk when, after several minutes of attention to the amazing story she tells, she finally gets a big round of applause ... by saying how much money her Kickstarter raised. Because yeah, the TED audience — of Successful people who paid big bucks to be there — is keeping score that way.

This helped me recognize something else about Success in her TED talk, about how one becomes a Success.

Being White and male and straight help, natch, though there are plenty of straight White guys who get nowhere near Success and Ms Palmer is only one of these things.

Palmer also lacks another important factor that Americans talk about less. I read an interview with a person who had done biographies of a bunch of Silicon Valley moguls, folks like Bill Gates and Michael Dell and Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs, and the interviewer asked them what they had in common. Surprisingly little, said the biographer, but I did notice that all but one of them has a trust fund from their parents. It turns out that to make it that kind of big, you have to bet the company, and do it repeatedly, and it really helps to do that if you don't need your job to pay the rent. So, family money. But plenty of folks with trust funds don't go on to Success.

So what about personal attributes? In my observation, there are three personal attributes that tend to support Success, and Palmer has all of them. Talent really does make difference: being smart or specially capable really does open a door to Success, even if it is far from a guarantee. Ambition is powerful: some people stumble into Success but wanting it badly helps a lot. And last, narcissism is powerful. And here I mean not garden-variety narcissism, but the real deal pathological narcissism of believing beyond the ability to conceive otherwise that one is just plain better and more interesting and more deserving than everybody else. I'm not joking about that last one, it's the one we actively propagandize for in American society: you just have to believe in yourself.

Each of those three tilts people toward Success. The combination of the three is unstoppable, a near sure-fire cocktail.


Amanda Palmer.

Bill Clinton.

Steve Jobs.

Oprah Winfrey.


I think a great deal about how this has a lesson for us about the American “meritocracy” we have built.

06 August 2014

Tragedy of the commons

Over at Slate Star Codex the recent long, rambling, fascinating post Meditations on Moloch offers us this:

The fish farming story from my Non-Libertarian FAQ 2.0:

As a thought experiment, let’s consider aquaculture (fish farming) in a lake. Imagine a lake with a thousand identical fish farms owned by a thousand competing companies. Each fish farm earns a profit of $1000/month. For a while, all is well. But each fish farm produces waste, which fouls the water in the lake. Let’s say each fish farm produces enough pollution to lower productivity in the lake by $1/month.

A thousand fish farms produce enough waste to lower productivity by $1000/month, meaning none of the fish farms are making any money. Capitalism to the rescue: someone invents a complex filtering system that removes waste products. It costs $300/month to operate. All fish farms voluntarily install it, the pollution ends, and the fish farms are now making a profit of $700/month — still a respectable sum.

But one farmer (let’s call him Steve) gets tired of spending the money to operate his filter. Now one fish farm worth of waste is polluting the lake, lowering productivity by $1. Steve earns $999 profit, and everyone else earns $699 profit.

Everyone else sees Steve is much more profitable than they are, because he’s not spending the maintenance costs on his filter. They disconnect their filters too.

Once four hundred people disconnect their filters, Steve is earning $600/month — less than he would be if he and everyone else had kept their filters on! And the poor virtuous filter users are only making $300. Steve goes around to everyone, saying “Wait! We all need to make a voluntary pact to use filters! Otherwise, everyone’s productivity goes down.”

Everyone agrees with him, and they all sign the Filter Pact, except one person who is sort of a jerk. Let’s call him Mike. Now everyone is back using filters again, except Mike. Mike earns $999/month, and everyone else earns $699/month. Slowly, people start thinking they too should be getting big bucks like Mike, and disconnect their filter for $300 extra profit…

A self-interested person never has any incentive to use a filter. A self-interested person has some incentive to sign a pact to make everyone use a filter, but in many cases has a stronger incentive to wait for everyone else to sign such a pact but opt out himself. This can lead to an undesirable equilibrium in which no one will sign such a pact.

The more I think about it, the more I feel like this is the core of my objection to libertarianism, and that Non-Libertarian FAQ 3.0 will just be this one example copy-pasted two hundred times. From a god’s-eye-view, we can say that polluting the lake leads to bad consequences. From within the system, no individual can prevent the lake from being polluted, and buying a filter might not be such a good idea.

Both the Non-Libertarian FAQ and Meditations on Moloch are worth your time. But seemed extra-special and handy to keep handy.