29 August 2014

The Patriarchy (n.)

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:

And the fact that it is easy to build a machine learning inspirational quote generator is instructive.

19 August 2014


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.”


And: I would totally read that Batman comic.

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 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 that one is just plain better and more interesting and more deserving than everybody else, believing it such that one cannot even conceive otherwise. 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, the closest thing there is to a sure-fire formula for Success.

Amanda Palmer.

Bill Clinton.

Steve Jobs.

Oprah Winfrey.

Kanye West.


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

Chris Dillow at Stumbling And Mumbling has a post Narcissism, Hubris, and Success which reflects on the feedback loop of narcissism and Success.

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 this little bit seems particularly handy to keep handy.

Update: Adding another example, Richard Mayhew's Vaccines and Free Riders at Balloon Juice.

... it looks like anti-vaccination will be yet another litmus test used to determine who today is a True Conservative™ and who is a squish. Why? I think it might have something to do with how vaccines solve collective action problems and how the right does not like to recognize that these problems exist as a class.


We have seen that the conservatives in America have two reactions to the concept of collective action problems. The first is that responsibility is for suckers. There is an embracing of free riding and running down the collective commons as that is the individually rational thing to do, and St. Rand in her Commentaries preached that only individual interest matters. Fuck society.

The second is a bit more sophisticated argument that if we as a society value a positive externality, then there has to be some set of welfare raising side payments and agreements that can be made between people who want high vaccination rates and effective herd immunity and those who want to opt-out. It is coercive and therefore unjust to mandate vaccination without a really good reason (where hurt fee fees are not a good reason). Fuck Coase.