ICANN Public Forum Bingo

by Maria on March 27, 2014

Here in Singapore at the ICANN Public Forum, we’re at the end of a brutally busy week talking about how to run the Internet naming and numbering systems. It’s an event comprised almost entirely of ritual, and to understand what’s going on you need to be able to translate some of the long-loved incantations. Here are a few:

When someone says: I’m going to simplify things.
They mean: Be confused. Be very, very confused.

When someone says: I’m going to back up here.
They mean: I’m going to make up some history, now.

When someone says:I’m going to name the elephant in the room.
They mean: My next observation will be startlingly banal.

When someone says: Speaking on my own behalf. As the VP of Blah for Blah Blah Corporation, ….
They mean: I don’t want you to think about who’s paying me to be here, but you better listen because we have a lot of money, customers and power / votes, ministries and battleships.

When someone says: We need to show leadership.
They mean: I should be in charge.

When someone says: There needs to be a bottom-up process.
They mean: Nobody asked me about this.

When someone says: I want to talk about process.
They mean: Hold up. I need to consult my boss.

When someone says: I realise I’m what’s standing between you and lunch / dinner / drinks
They mean: I know you won’t like what I’m going to say. Please don’t throw anything.

When someone says: We are fixing the plane while it’s in flight.
They mean: I don’t understand what’s going on, but I know I don’t like it.

When someone says: The perfect is the enemy of the good.
They mean: Ignore everyone else’s ideas and just use mine.

When someone says: Any other comments on this?
They mean: Will everyone please, for the love of all that is holy, STFU?

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Silver vs Krugman

by Kieran Healy on March 26, 2014

Nate Silver’s relaunched FiveThirtyEight has been getting some flak from critics—including many former fans—for failing to live up to expectations. Specifically, critics have argued that instead of foxily modeling data and working the numbers, Silver and his co-contributors are looking more like regular old opinion columnists with rather better chart software. Paul Krugman has been a prominent critic, arguing that “For all the big talk about data-driven analysis, what [the site] actually delivers is sloppy and casual opining with a bit of data used, as the old saying goes, the way a drunkard uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination.” Silver has put is tongue at least part way into his cheek and pushed back a little with an article titled, in true Times fashion, “For Columnist, a Change of Tone“.

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In a sharp take on the left, Freddie deBoer asks, “Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?” Drawing on this report about an incident at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Freddie answers his own question thus:

It’s a question I’ve played around with before. Generally, the response [from the left] is something like “of course not, stop slandering us,” or whatever. But more and more often, I find that the answer from lefties I know in academia or online writing are answering “yes.” And that is, frankly, terrifying and a total betrayal of the fundamental principles we associate with human progress.


Freddie goes on to offer a rousing defense of free speech. I don’t want to enter that debate. I have a different question: Is Freddie’s sense of a change on the left—”more and more often”—accurate?

To be clear, I know exactly the phenomenon Freddie is talking about, so he’s not wrong to point it out. But from my admittedly impressionistic vantage as a middle-aged American academic, it seems far less common than it used to be. [click to continue…]

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All the things I knew I didn’t know …

by Henry on March 25, 2014

This apology by former NSA head Michael Hayden to Angela Merkel is pretty interesting as apologies go.

Although I’m not prepared to apologize for conducting intelligence against another nation, I am prepared to apologize for embarrassing a good friend. I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn’t keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us. That’s our fault.

Hayden is very explicitly not apologizing to Merkel for the US tapping her cellphone. He considers this part of the ordinary business of relations between nations; even “good friends.” He’s apologizing because the US was caught doing it, hence putting Merkel in “a very difficult position.” I was in a radio debate with Die Zeit editor Josef Joffe a few months ago, where he drew an analogy between this scandal and the kind of everyday stuff that you know, happens in marriages, when husbands hire private detectives to spy on their wives and makes sure that they’re not cheating and vice versa. Hayden’s apology actually goes one step further in the weirdness stakes – the cheating spouse apologizes not for having cheated, but for not having hid the affair (which he/she still resolutely refuses to confirm or deny) well enough, hence making for social awkwardness. [click to continue…]

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Paying for the Party

by Harry on March 23, 2014

I’m currently running a reading group with a group of 7 seniors, all women, whom I’ve known, and have known each other, since the beginning of their freshman year. They have diverse majors (only one is a philosophy major—others include elementary education, human development and family studies, psychology…) and pretty diverse experiences, and my idea was to read a bunch of books about undergraduate life on the pretty much entirely selfish grounds that they might be able to interpret the books better than I can alone (I went to a college in London, never lived in a dorm, and had, generally, a very different experience). We’ve read Michael Moffatt’s classic Coming of Age in New Jersey, and Rebekkah Nathan’s My Freshman Year so far, and are now on to Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, recommended to me by a sociologist who is, I think, friends with the authors. Paying for the Party is just fantastic.

The authors lived for a year in a “party” dorm in a large midwestern flagship public university (not mine) and kept up with the women in the dorm till after they had graduated college. The thesis of the book is that the university essentially facilitates (seemingly knowingly, and in some aspects strategically) a party pathway through college, which works reasonably well for students who come from very privileged backgrounds. The facilitatory methods include: reasonably scrupulous enforcement of alcohol bans in the dorms (thus enhancing the capacity of the fraternities to monopolize control of illegal drinking and, incidentally, forcing women to drink in environments where they are more vulnerable to sexual assault); providing easy majors which affluent students can take which won’t interfere with their partying, and which will lead to jobs for them, because they have connections in the media or the leisure industries that will enable them to get jobs without good credentials; and assigning students to dorms based on choice (my students confirm that dorms have reputations as party, or nerdy, or whatever, dorms that ensure that they retain their character over time, despite 100% turnover in residents every year).

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Salon has a couple of interesting articles about millennials. Tim Donovan focuses on the plight of young people without college education who are suffering the combined effects of long-term growth in inequality and the scarring that comes from entering the worst labor market in at least a generation[^1]. Elias Isquith has a piece debunking Rand Paul’s prospects of pulling the millennial vote (I’ve seen a few of these lately, which may or may not mean anything), which includes the following observation

Despite the fact that a whopping 51 percent of millennials believe they’ll receive no Social Security benefits by the time they’re eligible, and despite the fact that 53 percent of millennials think government should focus spending on helping the young rather than the old, a remarkable 61 percent of young voters oppose cutting Social Security benefits in any way, full stop.

The idea that “Social security won’t be around long enough for me to collect it” is a hardy perennial, and thinking about it led me to the following observation:

It’s now possible for someone to have spent their entire working life believing that Social Security would not last long enough for them to receive it, and now to have retired and started collecting benefits. This belief has been prevalent at least since the early years of the Reagan Administration when it was pushed hard by David Stockman, and I’m going to date it to the first big “reform” of the system in 1977. Someone born in 1952, who entered the workforce in 1977 at the age of 25, would now be turning 62 and eligible to collect Social Security. [click to continue...]

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This peculiar preoration by Geoffrey Gray in The New Republic (h/t Aaron Bady) about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—

I’ve found myself asking a different question: Do we really want to find this missing plane at all? The families of the victims deserve answers, of course, but as the days go on and more nautical miles are searched for missing debris, there’s an undeniable urge for investigators to keep on looking, not find anything, and let the mystery endure.


The New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo argues that the “terror” isn’t only that we can’t find the plane, but being off the grid itself, untethered to our friends and family. I disagree. Our “hyperconnectivity,” as he calls it, is the very reason we need this mystery right now. In a moment dominated by the radical adoption of new technology, with reports of the NSA’s massive snooping, talk of Amazon drones making deliveries like toilet paper door to your doorstep, or checking the status of a flight through a pair of Google glasses, we need to feel that there is at least something out there that the grand orchestra of satellites and supercomputers can’t find or figure out.


It’s more than a tad ironic, but apropos, that it took a missing airplane—one of man’s greatest technological innovations—to remind us that there’s still some mystery left to humanity.


—reminds me of something Hannah Arendt said about T.E. Lawrence in The Origins of Totalitarianism: [click to continue…]

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One of the areas in which not much work is done within the CA is in a further unpacking and development of the key notions of functionings and capabilities. Let us take a first look at ways to make the notions ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ more sophisticated (We will have more posts on the question of the precise nature of ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ over the next months).
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Fine, So Fine

by Belle Waring on March 18, 2014

Today something wonderful happened to me. I was thinking yesterday, “Bruno Mars has got an incredible voice. There are so many pop stars that can’t sing for shit, and their voice isn’t just using Auto-Tune as a crutch, nnn hnnn no it is not, their voice isn’t even the sort of thing that has legs at all, most likely, and their manager probably just set it in an Auto-Tune wheelchair and got panicked and pushed throw pillows up all around. And then? Then it sings “Roar,” and may the Good Lord keep us [do not click on that link. I was morally obligated to provide it in the interests of completeness]. Bruno Mars can legit sing. And he’s a talented guitarist. And he’s pretty as hell—where are all the so, so many Bruno Mars songs that I love?” Now, “Locked Out of Heaven” is a really good song. It references the early 80s turn towards well-Policed reggae in a way I really like. Many pop bands did a reggae thing during that period that [here Belle draws shape of ‘square’ in air with forefinger of each hand] was often too rightthere on all ‘eff oh you are’ beats, ironically lacked any freedom to move, and was one of many musical equations asymptotically approaching the x-axis of the Sisters of Mercy. The drum machine in the Sisters of Mercy was named Doktor Avalanche, and he was an actually important person in the band.
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A journalist friend just emailed me some questions about Friday’s announcement by the US Dept. of Commerce NTIA that it will work towards internationalising the oversight of some of what ICANN does. The IANA function has long been a source of international grumbling, particularly amongst middle income countries that don’t feel they have any influence over a service the global Internet depends on. Some of this grumbling is purely opportunistic, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, but the bulk of it is of long standing. Ahead of an international meeting convened by Brazil next month to work on principles for Internet governance, the NTIA has made its play to get back in control of the process and the story. It’s asked ICANN to bring people together to come up with a transition plan to internationalise IANA.

If this hadn’t been a weekend when Russia annexed a province of a neighbouring country, the premise of the TV series ‘Lost’ became a serious contender for explaining current events in, or perhaps far away from, the Indian Ocean, and my husband’s best man made headlines saying he is ashamed of toeing the Ministry of Defence’s line that UK military kit in Afghanistan was a-ok, I expect the news that the United States is to renounce its exclusive hold on part of the Internet would have been front page news.

But it hasn’t been all that much in the news, and I am too jammed to blog anything comprehensive about the topic, so here are some hastily typed responses to the questions I was asked:
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Tony Benn is Dead

by Harry on March 14, 2014

Guardian obit here. I once had a whole obituary comment worked out in my head, but right now I don’t feel like saying anything at all, beyond just wanting us to mark his death.

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I have a piece up at Al Jazeera America, “The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals,” which follows up on my post about the whole Nick Kristof/public intellectuals kerfuffle. Just an extension of some of the arguments I made there. Here are the highlights:

In the 1990s the philosopher and Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton ran an annual Bad Writing contest in order to highlight turgid academic prose. If the contest were still around, this passage from The American Political Science Review might be a winner:


For a body of n members, in which there exists a group large enough and willing to pass a motion, let the members vote randomly and declare the motion passed when the mth member has voted for it, where m “yes” votes are required for passage. Define as the pivot the member in the mth position and note that there are n! (read “n factorial,” that is 1 · 2 · … · n) such random orderings of n voters (that is, the permutations of a, b, · · · , n). Then define the power, p, of a member, i, thus: pi = ti/n!, where ti is the number of times i is pivot.


As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out, this is the kind of writing that has estranged the reading public from academia. A generation ago, political scientists were public intellectuals. We wrote lucid prose. We spoke to the issues of the day. We advised President John F. Kennedy. But now all we care about is math, jargon and one another.


There’s just one problem with what I’ve just said. That passage from The American Political Science Review appeared in 1962, the second year of the Kennedy administration. [click to continue…]

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David Brooks: Better in the original German

by Corey Robin on March 11, 2014

Isaac Chotiner thinks David Brooks is not making sense. That’s because Chotiner’s reading Brooks in translation. He needs to read Brooks in the original German.

Here’s Brooks in translation: [click to continue…]

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Wonders of the Invisible World

by Henry on March 10, 2014

[Warning: Over-long ruminations and significant True Detective spoilers below the fold]

Nic Pizzolato, the executive producer and writer of True Detective says in interview that the show owes a lot to weird fiction writers like Thomas Ligotti and Laird Barron. I’ve no doubt that’s true. However, the show’s organizing tensions aren’t those of Ligotti, Barron and their crowd; they more closely resemble those of another and much better writer of the supernatural; Robert Aickman. [click to continue…]

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I’m very grateful to Ingrid for setting up this discussion of capabilities. I enjoy the general discussions of social and political issues we have here at CT, but this is one of many venues for such discussion (among the best, I think, but I would say that). What’s truly unique for me is the opportunity to discuss the issues raised by my own academic work in an environment that is totally different from those offered by the economics profession.

As has already been mentioned, most of the discussion of capabilities has concerned poor/developing countries. Moreover, most of it has been qualitative rather than quantitative. One consequence is that, although the idea of capabilities has been around for a while now, its impact on the policy process in developed countries has been modest at best.

My own work on capabilities, represented by an article[1] published last year in the Journal of Health Economics has also had a modest impact, but for very different reasons. While not strictly quantitative, it’s mathematical, more so than the average reader of JHE tends to be comfortable with, and its direct relevance to policy is limited by the fact that we are, at least to start with, not addressing distributional issues.

The main objective is to explore the idea that capabilities can provide a basis for allocating health care resources based on the QALY (Quality-Adjusted Life Year) measure. in previous work, we looked at the “welfarist” idea that policy should be based on maximizing lifetime expected utility. It turns out that, considered purely as a technical problem, this can’t be done, except in very special cases. The appeal of capabilities is that they provide a non-welfarist (or at least ‘extra-welfarist’ in that it is more than a simple expected utility maximization) rationale for policies involving scarce resources like health care.

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