30 January 2012

Ayn Rand be my God

I created this image for use elsewhere, but I thought it might be a good idea to have handy here.

Just to be clear: that's Ayn Rand's fans speaking in the caption, not me. I think Ms. Rand is a terrifying psychopath. The image is in the spirit of Infamous Brad's comment in Christians in the Hands of an Angry God:

There's always a catch. In this case, the catch must have been this. The traditional Republican party is the party of Satan himself, and thereby unpalatable to nearly all of the 90% or more of the US public that self-identified as Christian. I am not exaggerating here, not one tiny little bit. (Nor am I alone in this. Remember, I've met and done volunteer work alongside Dr. Michael Aquino, the founder of the largest Satanic church in the world, and you have never met a more staunch Republican in your life. Nor did he make any bones about why: he is a Republican Party loyalist because the Republican Party stands in total opposition to the Christian scriptures.) Throughout the gospels, take everything that Jesus said. Now reverse each and every statement. Each and every one of those reversals is a traditional plank of the Republican party platform.



Update: I just found this striking little video about Ms Rand by Johann Hari, linking her philosophy to her extraordinary biography.




And it turns out that my meme image found life elsewhere!

24 January 2012

Geeky parenting

I'm fond of telling folks about the very modest contribution I have made to my nephew's moral development; less because I feel that my contribution is all that important than because I take a lot of pleasure in seeing him working things out for himself.

My nephew knows me as having a puzzling un-adult enthusiasm for talking about superheroes, and we were having a lively discussion about Batman while he was playing a video game in which he guided Batman in bringing the Joker to justice.

“Why are they fighting?” I asked.

“Because Batman's a good guy and the Joker is a bad guy.”

“How do you know? Batman looks pretty scary. Maybe he's the bad guy.”

No he's not!

“How do you know?”

“Because he fights the Joker, who is a bad guy.”

“How do you know that the Joker is a bad guy?”

“Because he fights Batman, who is a good guy!”

“So they fight each other,” I said. “But how do you know which one is good and which one is bad?”

“Yeah. It can't be the fighting.” The light had clearly gone on about the circularity of his original reasoning. He paused a long time to think, then said, triumphant, “Joker steals things and Batman gives them back.”

Some time after that, he was video gaming the Hulk, fighting monsters and smashing things up. I asked him whether the Hulk is a good guy or a bad guy.

“The Hulk is always breaking things, but I don't think he's a bad guy.”

“Why? Breaking things is bad.”

“Yeah, but he fights these monsters that are trying to eat people. Protecting people is good.”

“What about those Army guys he was fighting? They're not monsters.”

“Oh yeah. That's bad.”

“Did he just attack those Army guys? Why did he do that?”

“No, they attacked him first.”

“Aha! What's that about?”

“They want to stop him from breaking things. But when they attack him, it just makes him angry. So he gets stronger.”

“They're afraid of him,” I suggested. “After all, he is the Hulk. He's pretty scary. What does the Hulk want?”

“He wants to be left alone. But he's always getting into fights.”

“So is he good or bad?”

“He's kind of both.”

I couldn't resist making a suggestion. “The Hulk is like a force of nature. Maybe he's not really good or bad.”

My nephew liked that idea. “Yeah. He's not good or bad. He's just the Hulk.”

At Christmas I gave him a big collection of the initial run of the Fantastic Four. I can't wait to talk to him about the Mole Man and Galactus.

I say all of this as an introduction to a couple of surprisingly moving items I found on the internets.

First: Adam Rodgers' little essay What Batman Taught Me About Being A Good Dad.

Second: Moviebob points us to Drew “Moriarty” McWeeny's series about watching the Star Wars movies with his kids for the first time.

  1. A New Hope
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. The Phantom Menace
  4. Attack of the Clones
  5. Revenge of the Sith
  6. Return of the Jedi

Yes, I got the order right there. Or rather, McWeeny did. Read the series and see why.

(Update: You may also want to try watching the series in “machete order”, which has a lot to recommend it.)

23 January 2012

The universe is weird

A user on Reddit asks folks to tell their stories about experiencing “a glitch in the Matrix”. The stories are amazing.

20 January 2012

What's wrong with the world

Here's a first draft for a short list of the central challenges for building a good society. It's why I'm skeptical of anarchists, for example.

  • Critical thinking skills are difficult to teach and cognitively expensive to exercise
  • Solutions don't scale, but our intuition expects them to
  • Expertise means learning where common sense is wrong
  • The Dunning-Kruger effect
  • Most people are emotionally adolescent
  • Most people are dumb
  • A few people have severe psychological pathologies — psychopathy, narcissism, borderline personality disorder — which are highly destructive to the people and social order which encounter them

18 January 2012

Save the internet

I changed my site for the day so that every page said this instead:


Today, Wednesday 18 January 2012, countless websites have “blacked out” to raise awareness about the serious problems with proposed Federal legislation in the United States that threatens the free exchange of ideas: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Online Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

I regard the threat of this legislation with utmost seriousness, and have joined the protest.

To learn more:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation works to secure rights and freedoms for individuals and information on the Internet and in other electronic media. They have a brief discussion of the problems, a set of links to more resources, and a a one-page PDF you can print out about the legal threat.

Google has blacked out their logo and has links and references explaining why. Reddit proposed the blackout, and other big-name websites including Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia are protesting as well.

Technology book publisher Tim O’Reilly explains why these laws are a bad idea and points to a very detailed exploration of the problems.

If corporations, nonprofits, publishers, and civil libertarians aren’t enough to convince you, even the conservative Heritage Foundation opposes these laws because they threaten “a host of unintended and dangerous consequences”.

To take action, EFF has a toolkit for activism and a tool for contacting your government representatives. On Tuesday 24th January 2012, the US Senate will vote.

17 January 2012

Gold standard

I really need to get around to writing a post about (or rather, stitching together some good links about) why fretting about fiat money is a canard and abolishing the Federal Reserve Bank and switching to a gold standard are incredibly bad ideas. But in the meantime, I have a fun info graphic about the gold supply which should make clear many of the reasons why a gold standard is silly, Paul Krugman's old essay The Gold Bug Variations, and Brad DeLong's Why Not the Gold Standard? and On the “Austrian” Hatred of Fractional Reserve Banking, Paper Money, etc.

15 January 2012

14 January 2012

Red Tails

Dig the trailer for this movie, coming out next week:





I'm excited about catching this opening weekend.

There's politics involved, but let's start with how the story of the Tuskegee Airmen is as awesome a subject for a movie as you could hope for. You've got ærial dogfights, just about the most cinegenic subject ever. You've got heroic underdogs whom nobody believes in, but who will win the respect of the people who doubted them. You've got a battle with the forces of evil. It's a heartwarming true story. You couldn't ask for a more perfect example of what Hollywood does well. It would take a rare talent to make a bad movie from the material, and the advanced word on the movie is that it's good.

Plus the politics are important. Hollywood believes that you cannot sell a Black cast to a White audience. They believe that you definitely cannot sell “Black history” (which is to say, ahem, American history) to a White audience. In 1997, John Singleton tried to prove that wrong with Rosewood, and staked a great deal on delivering an epic true story with an all-Black cast, but despite being a very good film it did poorly at the box office. That's certainly a reflection of racism in America, though I suspect that the movie being a downer was also a major contributing factor. Hollywood took the wrong lesson, and decided that they weren't making any more big movies that Black again. Red Tails only happened because George Lucas reached into his deep pockets and bankrolled the movie's production and distribution; the rest of the film industry wouldn't touch it. Opening weekend box office numbers are going to send a message, and I want to vote with my dollars.

I also want to vote with my face. I spent most of New Years' Day on a protest march commemorating the death of Oscar Grant, and not only because I care about the Oscar Grant incident in itself (though I do) but because it's important for there not only be Black faces in the crowd when there are people gathered around “Black issues.” There are times when White people need to represent. This is one of them. If it helps a little bit for a theater owner to see White people showing up to see Red Tails, if it helps for a Black moviegoer to see White people showing up, then I want to show up.

Plus I have to confess that I get a selfish extra benefit from that. There are some movies for which the quiet politeness of a White audience is not what I want. One of the best moviegoing experiences of my life was seeing Blade with a Black audience. Look at that trailer again and check out those ærial dogfights. This is a movie I want to see on a big screen with an audience that will raise the roof.

12 January 2012

Dear New York Times

I just sent this letter.

After twenty-five years as a reader of the New York Times, this is my first missive to the paper.

I read with interest and incredulity your article Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante? I had to double-check whether I was reading The Onion.

Yes, I would like the New York Times to do its best to inform me about what the truth is. I am, in fact, mortified that you even think this is an open question. What else do you think your job might be?

I recognize that this will result in accusations of “partisanship”. Most of those accusers have already demonstrated that they will claim “partisanship” whatever policy the paper takes, so I do not see how you can regard them as relevant.

I recognize that this opens questions about what constitutes relevant truth. Yes, opinions do differ on the shape of the Earth. But you are journalists. You can figure it out.

Bonus: A nice burn from the editors at Vanity Fair.

Update: Public editor Arthur Brisbane thinks that people like me didn't understand his question.

I disagree. I think he didn't understand his question.

He asks whether the Times should rebut false claims by “newsmakers” in the article in which those people are quoted. Let me clarify the implications of that question. By “newsmakers” he means People In Power. So he is asking whether the heart of the story is the fact of what People In Power have said, or the facts of the subject that People In Power are talking about. If the former, it is incumbent on the paper to not distract from the core story by interjecting a rebuttal of a Person In Power. If the latter, it is incumbent on the paper to support the core story by rebutting People In Power when they deceive.

I am very clear on which I need and expect from a newspaper. Why isn't he?

Confederacy

A friend reminds me of John Scalzi telling us that the Confederacy was evil and the Confederate Battle Flag symbolizes evil.

His key point is the debunking of the canard that “the Confederacy was about States' rights, not slavery.” He has a long quote from a speech on the subject by CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens. Here's a juicy bit:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

This is not Stephens' idea alone. Seceding states published descriptions of their causes and they are very clear. I have a few samples ready, for your convenience.

Mississippi:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery

Texas:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color— a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.

South Carolina:

an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.
....
all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

That last calls for a rebuttal. I have Abraham Lincoln right here.

Judging by all they say and do, and by the subject and nature of their controversy with us, let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them.

Will they be satisfied if the Territories be unconditionally surrendered to them? We know they will not. In all their present complaints against us, the Territories are scarcely mentioned. Invasions and insurrections are the rage now. Will it satisfy them, if, in the future, we have nothing to do with invasions and insurrections? We know it will not. We so know, because we know we never had anything to do with invasions and insurrections; and yet this total abstaining does not exempt us from the charge and the denunciation.

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly — done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated — we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

I am quite aware they do not state their case precisely in this way. Most of them would probably say to us, “Let us alone, do nothing to us, and say what you please about slavery.” But we do let them alone — have never disturbed them — so that, after all, it is what we say, which dissatisfies them.

I first learned about Lincoln's Cooper Union address through Digby, who rightly notes that it remains very relevant to the political culture of our time.


Update: Sociologist James W. Loewen, of Lies My Teacher Told Me fame, offers a quick debunking of Five Myths About Why The South Seceded at the Washington Post, and Tracy Thompson at Salon explores the history of efforts to lie about the history of the Confederacy.

J. J. McCullough takes a close look at the Confederate constitution.

I also have an article from Fengi that I posted some time ago, which points to the Confederacy's imperial, expansionist plans.

09 January 2012

Andersen Consulting

A decade ago, I used to make this witticism about companies that were crawling with employees who weren't employees, but rather consultants from Andersen:

It's like an evil alien parasite in a science fiction story that enters your body and gives you weird superpowers. Like now that you have the slug from the planet Zax living in your small intestines you now only need to sleep two hours a night and can see into the deep infrared. But music only sounds like noise to you now. And you have started blinking your eyes disconcertingly often. And then you have started to develop troubling cravings. So you go to the doctor, and you're like, whoa, get me off of this train. But he runs a bunch of tests and tells you that if you remove the slug, it will kill the host.

Whoops.

This metaphor turns out to have multiple applications.

Sounds like a whisper

A recent dKos diary post by Nicholas Carroll reflecting on Occupy Wall Street in the context of revolutionary movements around the world has me thinking about a number of things.

Foremost for me is a telling distinction between revolutionary movements and rebellions, with OWS in the former category.

Mainstream media has made an effort to portray OWS protestors as lacking specific demands. This is laughable when a protestor is carrying a sign reading “Restore the Glass-Steagall Act.” I have never seen a more specific demand at a protest. And “How about a Maximum wage?” might seem frivolous, but it's advocating legal caps on executive pay.

The protesters know quite well what they want. It just happens to be a long list, with the solutions not always immediately apparent.

....

This puts them in sharp contrast to rebellions, which are inherently conservative. Rebellions shout “quit pushing us!” and demand a return to previous benefits and rights. Their demands are inevitably more specific than those of revolutionaries, since rebels want the exact things they used to have, whether it is a freedom from daily floggings or a return to lower gas prices.

This points to something I've noticed about conversations I've had about Occupy in the last few months. Early on, I talked to some people who shared the mainstream media's problem in getting what Occupy was really about. And I notice that problem has mostly gone away.

Occupy's rejection of many of the tropes of traditional protest politics, including the refusal to issue a succinct set of specific limited demands, reflects a revolutionary critique. The problem Occupy addresses is so broad and systemic and invisible that first we need to wake and acknowledge it before we can have a discussion of what to do. Though I should now say not “the problem is” but “the problem was.” We now have a national conversation about “the 99% and the 1%” in a way that seemed inconceivable last summer. The battles in the streets have quieted, but the Spirit of Occupy now has claimed a firm enough place on stage that it will be difficult to dislodge. That's a victory.

Carroll explores how the revolutionary moment feels, talking about experiences in countries around the world.

When I no longer had access to classified diplomatic warnings, I got my news from four sources:
  1. Foreign newspapers
  2. Protest demands spray-painted on the walls
  3. The expressions on locals' faces
  4. The attitudes of the middle class

One might take the tone of the comments on the post to be a sign of revolution in the air. The comments are worth checking out: reading folks lining up behind the Occupy critique, you'd never know how contentious the discussion on dKos ordinarily gets.

Still, dKos is a hotbed of lefties, so it isn't exactly barometer of the national mood. But I'm not sure what would be. Which has me thinking of another of my obsessions, the relationship between politics and suburbanization. Because the erosion of public space created by suburbanization makes it hard to use Carroll's measures #2 & 3 to scent revolution in the air. I think, with all seriousness, that suburbanization has been a powerful force in American politics which has been corrosive to both democracy and our sense of shared social and political destiny. Not for nothing has Occupy claimed the importance of public space.

Still, it does seem like something is brewing, which is thrilling but also frightening. In the wake of revolution, the new order is shaped by the best-organized ....

03 January 2012

Infamous Brad

Brad Hicks is a blogger who writes only very occasionally, but at length, on a range of subjects, always insightfully. I am reminded of this by his review of Amy Schalet's book Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex.

I am, for the second time in two years, convinced that I live in a country full of superstitious, primitive, blood-thirsty savages.

Good stuff. And a good excuse for a set of links to my personal list of The Best Of Infamous Brad.

Christians In The Hands Of An Angry God is his best-known essay, and for good reason.

How did so many seminaries and so many preachers and so many authors get converted to this false gospel? What deal did they make with Satan himself, and why? What did they think that they were doing? These aren't rhetorical questions. I've met one of the people who “signed” that deal and helped enforce it. He was quite proud of his achievement, and years later told many of us about the meeting where that decision was made. It is only recently that I came to understand just who the other side in that deal really was, as opposed to who the fundamentalists in that room thought they were dealing with.

Fascinating, and very relevant to the relationship between politics and religion today. It's a five-part series; click through the next entry links at the top of each page.

Yes We Can Put Americans Back To Work. We Probably Won't, Though. A look at the history of the Work Projects Administration emphasizing a point that I'm baffled isn't more apparent to people, that the WPA built the backbone of American infrastructure that we depend upon every day.

In that four months, CWA [precursor to the WPA] workers had already built 1,000 rural airports, built 40,000 school buildings, built or resurfaced a quarter-million miles of roads, and laid twelve million miles of sanitary sewer lines, some of the first sewer lines laid in most counties. In four months. Right-wing Democrats and anti-tax pro-corporate Republicans screamed bloody murder about all the money that the CWA was “wasting,” but (and this is a point I'll come back to again) we're still using almost all of that stuff today. 75 years later, those “worthless” “make-work” projects are turning out to be some of the most valuable stuff the government had done in its first 150 years of existence.

He makes the case that we need to do that again, and he's right.

Atlas Shrugged 2: Shrug Harder is a meditation on the works of Ayn Rand.

I don't know how many of you realize that Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's science fiction classic, is actually only book 1 of a trilogy? Hardly anybody knows this, because she never got around to writing the missing middle volume. She wrote book 1 in the series. She wrote book 3 in the series, but didn't explicitly label it a sequel to Atlas Shrugged, she and her agent marketed it as a stand-alone volume. She never got around to writing the middle volume that bridges the two.

Nobody Will Ever Believe How We Got Here #OWS is about the weirdness of the origins of Occupy Wall Street.

Millions of Americans have been told by the corporate media, ever since the 1980s, that nobody but a handful of dirty hippies, and evil Satanic commies, and lazy welfare bums, and illegal immigrants, and of course more recently al Qaeda, but other than those people, nobody else but you has a problem with winner-take-all laissez faire oligopoly capitalism.

Not That the Actual Forbidden Knowledge is as Interesting as That There Is Forbidden Knowledge explores a chilling fact about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Don't say I didn't warn you that you may not want to know. But if you're reading me, maybe you do.


Update: Brad has moved off the LiveJournal platform to take advantage of Medium as a place to kick out the jams.