30 June 2014

Paradoxes of social justice activism

Freddie at L'Hôte has a rant — bullshit social climber faux-antiracism — about a paradox in contemporary social justice activism.

Nothing could be more indicative of the state of American social liberalism than the divide between the graduate classes I take and the undergraduate classes I teach. The students in the graduate classes are endlessly careful to check their privilege. That's good. Privilege is real, it's better to think about it than not to. But the obsessive focus on privilege checking is the epitome of how people misunderstand social change. People of the world, I implore you: what is privilege checking doing for anyone? Is anyone in the world going to materially benefit from someone in some grad seminar checking their privilege? Has all the privilege checking in every cultural studies class in the history of creation ever put clothes on someone's back or food in their belly? Ever stopped a single cop from beating a black man senseless? Don't mistake your purification rituals for progress, please.

Meanwhile, my undergrads are mostly good kids. But they are absolutely repulsed by what they take organized social liberalism to be. I talk about politics with them and they seem generally to be on the side of the angels. But you mention the word feminism, and they recoil. It's visceral. And the young women are even worse than the men. They aren't racist, mostly. But in large majorities, they are skeptical to outright hostile towards organized antiracism. Why? In part, because of ignorance and privilege and apathy. But in part, because they have grown into a world where social liberals are more interested in demonstrating their superiority over them than in educating them. Because they perceive, correctly, that white antiracism is dominated by people who are more interested in being right than in doing right.


The fundamental conditions on the ground are a social liberalism that speaks to and for a smaller and smaller group of self-selected people, utterly unable to create material change, but endlessly self-congratulatory and aggressive, in a way that expels precisely the people who need to be educated.

We are in a moment in which social justice culture is doing worthy things that may be strategically counterproductive, and there's neither a clear vision of a different course nor a way to make it happen if we had one.

I have no idea what to do about this.

28 June 2014


Warren Ellis' Stormwatch is a story about a superhero team which is a meditation on the whole idea of superhero teams. My favorite thing in it is this Amazon, a wonder who doesn't stick around long, I suspect because this panel is enough to make the necessary point.

Rite comes from a place where magic is a female thing, as is war.

Women have a higher pain tolerance than men, and greater stamina, and so Rite is a soldier.

Women’s dialogue with the inner and outer worlds of the human race is a more intuitive, emotionally truer thing, and so Rite is a priestess.

Her presence in the greater world is a ritual thing, her people’s magical act of salvation for the world.

She is sent out as ambassador and messiah, it its strictest literal and political definition; one anointed as liberator.

27 June 2014

Design from the outside in

I don't agree with Khoi Vinh's argument in Wearables, Fashion, and iWatch that a successful wearable device needs to somehow accommodate consumers' desire for endless variety in styling. I submit that wearables will be less a matter of fashion, which calls for variety and novelty, than they will prove to be a matter of style, which converges on classics. Recall that people were predicting not so long ago that you'd eventually have half a dozen differently-styled cellphones for different occasions.

But this little observation about the locus of design — the “inside” or the “outside” — is quite good.

When technology companies look at goods that are built from the outside in, they generally see irrationality and inefficiency, a broken market just waiting to be corrected and “disrupted.” They believe that they can engineer so much value into these items that people will be swayed to buy goods built from the inside out, that the promise that drives hardware and software—“adopt this and benefit from its utility”—will convince people to upend their sartorial habits. This is how you get products like Google Glass, which assumes that consumers prize utility so much that they’re willing to look like they have no interest whatsoever in having intimate relations with another human being.

Via John Gruber at Daring Fireball.

24 June 2014


This film of people kissing for the first time made the rounds a while back:

There was some criticism that the film was disingenuous.

A response film, with a similar premise:

A response film, with a different premise:

Director Max Landis comments, as does Tabitha Davis at Geekexchange. (And he has a wickedly silly follow-up video.

Update: The filmmakers of the first video are back with a spicier version:

This inspired me to take another look at Landis' film, which comes packaged with a “making of” video and some other clips. The description on the YouTube page for the “making of” video rambles on at length, including a telling comment which I think informs both the first kiss video and its undressing sequel.

The Kiss video is beautiful, but it doesn't ask a big question. The “question” of the video seems to be “Do you want to kiss a sexy person who conforms to your preestablished sexual interests?” The answer, I would assume for most everyone, is “yes, I would like that very much, that sounds like it would get me all horned up.”

So what's the more interesting question? There've been a lot of imitators with variations on the original; I admit I haven't watched most of them. The majority were either fake for “internet comedy” or asked an even less interesting question, like “What if it were a REAL (meaning widely considered ugly) person?” “Will these straight people hug these gay people?” Stuff like that, usually loaded with false, contrived sincerity, something I find repellent.

20 June 2014

Bicycle intersections

Even if you don't care about urban design, you may want to check out this gorgeously presented solution for intersections which support both cars and bicycles.

Protected Intersections For Bicyclists from Nick Falbo on Vimeo.

Though now it has me wondering about car/bicycle roundabouts, as I am a fan of roundabouts as an alternative to intersections with lights or stop signs. (Update: An experiment in the UK.)

And I want systems of cunning bollards and low barriers to help partition the space, as in Rio de Janeiro.

More at ProtectedIntersection.com.

Update: This video got picked up in a collection of sexy bicycle-oriented urban design ideas at io9.

16 June 2014


.... I draw attention to one very widespread controversial habit — disregard of an opponent’s motives. The key-word here is ‘objectively’.

We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are ‘objectively’ aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once. The same argument is applied to Trotskyism. Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by Communists, with being active and conscious agents of Hitler; but when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely to be true, the ‘objectively’ line of talk is brought forward again. To criticize the Soviet Union helps Hitler: therefore ‘Trotskyism is Fascism’. And when this has been established, the accusation of conscious treachery is usually repeated.

This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it. If you disregard people’s motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions.

George Orwell, As I Please

15 June 2014

Frank Underwood

I'm amused that Kevin Spacey has decided that Frank Underwood should have a life beyond House of Cards.

At the White House Correspondents' Dinner:

At the Emmys:

In the dystopian future:

09 June 2014

Timothy Geithner, American Brahmin

Timothy Geithner's book Stress Test reveals some striking things about him, if Matthew Stoller's review in Vice, The Con Artist Wing Of The Democratic Party, is to be believed.

And then there’s the mystery of how he managed to climb up the career ladder so quickly. He never really explains how this happens. He wasn’t a good student. He notes, as a grad student, that he mostly played pool. “During my orals, when one professor asked which economics journals I read, I replied that I had never read any. Seriously? Yes, seriously. But not long after we returned from our honeymoon in France, Henry Kissinger’s international consulting firm hired me as an Asia analyst; my dean at SAIS had recommended me to Brent Scowcroft, one of Kissinger’s partners.”

I’m sorry, but what? How does this just happen? And it goes on ....

I found that quote through Mike The Mad Biologist, who has more choice quotes and concludes:

I don’t think there’s some ‘Smoking Man’ level conspiracy here–I disagree with Stoller. It’s much more mundane (and tawdry): Geithner rose on political skills, connections (lots of connections), hewing to the ‘company line’, and dumb luck.

It turns out that Stoller has more quotes from the book on his blog, like this one:

I never planned to follow in my father’s footsteps, and he never put any pressure on any of us to take any particular path. But Sarah and David also went to Dartmouth, and Jonathan also went to SAIS. Sarah also followed our father into a career in global development, and is now a World Bank consultant, while Jon is a military analyst at a Washington think tank.

Just running the world. The way you do.

This story reminds me of a few classic favorites about the workings of American power which I have linked before.

Digby's classic explanation of the left blogosphere expression “The Village”:

It's shorthand for the permanent DC ruling class who have managed to convince themselves that they are simple, puritanical, bourgeois burghers and farmers, even though they are actually celebrity millionaires influencing the most powerful government on earth.

A spooky little story from A Tiny Revolution:

How interesting that the DC press corps feels it's their place to make decisions for the rest of America .... How interesting that Cohen felt it was appropriate to tell all this to a small group of fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty Yale youths, but not to the outside world. And how interesting that we were being socialized into thinking this was normal.

The Good Shepherd, Robert DeNiro's film about a fictional Yale graduate who becomes a spook in the early CIA.

We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

08 June 2014


Bruce Sterling has a great little meditation on Bohemianism.

Professor Seigel's book [Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life 1830-1930] is especially useful for its thumbnail summary of what might be called the Ten Warning Signs of Bohemianism. According to Seigel, these are:
  1. Odd dress.
  2. Long hair.
  3. Living for the moment.
  4. Sexual freedom.
  5. Having no stable residence.
  6. Radical political enthusiasms.
  7. Drink.
  8. Drugs.
  9. Irregular work patterns.
  10. Addiction to nightlife.

As Seigel eloquently demonstrates, these are old qualities. They often seem to be novel and faddish, and are often denounced as horrid, unprecedented and aberrant, but that's because, for some bizarre and poorly explored reason, conventional people are simply unable to pay serious and sustained attention to this kind of behavior. Through some unacknowledged but obviously potent mechanism, industrial society has silently agreed that vast demographic segments of its population will be allowed to live in just this way, blatantly manifesting these highly objectionable attitudes. And yet this activity will never be officially recognized — it simply isn't “serious.” There exists a societal denial- mechanism here, a kind of schism or filter or screen that, to my eye at least, is one of the most intriguing qualities that our society possesses.

In reality, these Ten Warning Signs are every bit as old as industrial society. Slackers, punks, hippies, beatniks, hepcats, Dead End kids, flappers, jazz babies, fin-de-siècle aesthetes, pre-Raphaelites, Bohemians — this stuff is old. People were living a vividly countercultural life in Bohemian Paris when the house in which I'm writing these words was a stomping ground for enormous herds of bison.

01 June 2014

Terrorism (n.)

This keeps coming up. So a quick word about terrorism.

The word “terrorism” is notoriously difficult to define. How is it different from crime, and war? How can we use it to mean something other than “things we think are very bad”?

Any useful definition of terrorism should reference terror. And the -ism suggests that it must be a system, with a philosophy.

So I submit that a useful definition of terrorism is:

  • An act of violence ...
  • ... with a political purpose ...
  • ... which pursues its aim through its psychological rather than material effects.

Thus, as an example, the 9/11 attacks are terrorism in a way that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not. Pearl Harbor was an attempt to affect geopolitics by destroying American ships that could be used to disrupt Japanese military ambitions in Asia. 9/11, spectacular as it was, did not meaningfully affect American capacity for action — it was intended to change American thinking and motivations.

This makes terrorism a distinctively modern phenomenon, because it depends upon news media repeating the story of terrorist acts for them to be effective.